75 Books, Books #55-60

[NOTE: I did live up to the 75 Book Challenge. The current count for the year is apparently 131, with a few more volumes to be finished before the stroke of midnight. And I’m not even halfway through my writeups. (Again, this list is wildly out of order.) But I’m going to do my best to see if I can get these volumes logged. The problem arises from too much rumination on my end. When I try to write a few sentences, I end up with a paragraph. And so forth. So I’ll see what I can do on this front! But if I don’t get to the end, my profuse apologies. You’ll just have to trust me.]

Book #55 was a reread of Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. I had read this book at the turn of the century, which seemed fitting given this novel’s preoccupation with the 20th, and marveled then at how Whitehead’s use of language served as a skeleton key that sometimes opened doors containing keen observations about racism and sexism. Now that I’m dwelling upon my reread at year’s end, I’m thinking that if Tom LeClair can categorize the early work of Richard Powers, William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace as “prodigious fiction,” perhaps Colson Whitehead might be part of a second wave of “prodigious fiction” — a list that might also include Scarlett Thomas. Certainly, taxonomy is as much of a concern in The Intuitionist as it is to this hypothetical “first wave,” particularly the propriety (or lack thereof) we see with the two warring schools of elevator inspectors: the Intuitionists and the Empiricists. But I believe Whitehead is more concerned with how this arranged information affects existence, as opposed to how it is contained within existence, of which more anon. (Podcast interview.)

Book #56 was Colson Whithead’s John Henry Days. This was the first time I had read John Henry Days. I’d been sitting on this book for a while, deliberately holding off on reading it until a special moment arose. When the opportunity to interview Colson Whitehead arose, I knew that the time had come. This book, I’m pleased to report, was more compelling than I expected. Like The Intuitionist, Whitehead’s set up a niche-based coterie — in this case, a group of freelance journalists whose conduct ascribes to a similar set of rules as the elevator inspectors — with which to launch ruminative riffs on the history of John Henry, Meredith Hunter’s death at Altamont (interestingly, Franzen could not bring himself to name Hunter when he reviewed the book), and Paul Robeson, among many others. And I’d argue that these historical tidbits, combined with eccentric moments which challenge our traditional perspective, exist as a way to process arranged information and track its effect upon culture and racism. Ergo, if a second wave of prodigious fiction can be sanctioned, John Henry Days is quite possibly its greatest exemplar. (Podcast interview.)

Book #57 was Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt. So this was it: the third novel by Mr. Whitehead, the novel that certain pals of mine didn’t care for. I didn’t hate this book. I appreciated its frequent inventiveness. But I didn’t find it nearly as enthralling as Whitehead’s other two books. I think this book misfired because Whitehead didn’t surround his unnamed protagonist with advertising figures who challenged his livelihood. Instead, the protagonist is a free agent who operates on his own terms, with a particularly melodramatic figure as one of the foils (a millionaire by the preposterous name of Lucky Aberdeen). The book, as a result, is an enjoyable if pale shadow if the two previous novels. (Podcast interview.)

Book #58 was Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I can understand the antagonistic reactions to Foer’s second book. I don’t quibble so much over the book’s child genius protagonist or even its associations with September 11, but I think Updike was right to suggest that Foer could use “a little more silence, a few fewer messages.” This book often contains playfulness for playfulness’s sake. Gilbert Sorrentino, this is not. Because of the large volume of “playful” experiments, I was unable to penetrate the novel’s heart. Nevertheless, know that I read and save every Foer book, with the hope of one day being able to treat JSF with the proper adulthood he deserves. Until that day, Extremely Loud is clearly the work of a kid still playing around. (Podcast interview.)

Book #59 was Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. I was probably the last person on earth who hadn’t read this book. This novel was daring for its time. But I found myself more fascinated by Isadora Wing’s neurotic narration, an introspective juggernaut of questions which suggests that gender relations haven’t changed nearly as much as we believe they have, than Wing’s sexual affairs. Thirty years later, the adultery here is no more daring than Peyton Place. But at some point, I hope to investigate the book’s three sequels. (Podcast interview.)

Book #60 was The May Queen, edited by Nicole Richesin. Some of my thoughts on this light but entertaining anthology are contained within my mammoth report from April. (Podcast interview with May Queen contributors.)

75 Books, Books #49-55

Book #49 was Tom Tomorrow’s Hell in a Handbasket. This was an entertaining volume of Tomorrow’s This Modern World strip, particularly since these strips were written and illustrated during the Dubya Administration. Of course, with Tomorrow, you’re not really going to laugh at this if you’re not a lefty. Even so, Tomorrow’s trusty four-panel setup, with snarky text often spilling across the top end of the squares and its adept use of repeating imagery from panel to panel, has been a dependable strip for years. Tomorrow’s strip serves as an antidote to the comatose offerings of Marmaduke and The Family Circus. (Podcast interview.)

fugaziryan.jpgBook #50 was Jay Ryan’s 100 Posters, 134 Squirrels. I was turned onto Jay Ryan by Mr. Pete Anderson, who insisted that I interview the man when he came into town. Since Pete is a guy who can (mostly) be trusted, I fulfilled my pledge, having only a foggy notion of Ryan’s work. What I didn’t realize was that I had actually known Ryan’s work without realizing it. Over the last ten years, Ryan has used a silkscreen process to create garish posters, mainly for indie and emo bands, that are quite distinct with their splashy yellows, reds and greens. They often feature animals and contain little stories of their own (consider the Shellac poster contained on this page, featuring astronauts fighting off a legion of squirrels). This Punk Planet volume collects 100 of Ryan’s posters. The “137 Squirrels” of the title refers to little squirrels that Ryan is fond of including within his work, often sneaking them into secret places within his tapestries. There are some 137 of them within this book. (Podcast interview.)

Book #51 was Harvey Pekar’s Our Cancer Year. Yes, I realize there’s a lot of Pekar on this list. But if I was going to talk with the man himself, I wanted to be expertly prepared. As it so happens, I hadn’t read Pekar’s Harvey Award-winning graphic novel and was touched by Pekar’s honesty in describing his testicular cancer, the hospital treatment that pulverized his physical form, and the despondent person he turned into as he wondered whether he would continue to live. Our Cancer Year was a major turning point for Pekar as an author (and I should note that this was cowritten by his wife, Joyce Brabner), demonstrating that Pekar’s concentration on the quotidian was even more poignant when juxtaposed against a mortal illness. For those who feel that the American Splendor movie sufficiently captured Pekar’s battle with cancer, I urge you to go directly to this volume and get the real story. (Podcast with Pekar and Haspiel.)

Book #52 was Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar. If you’re looking for an entry volume on Pekar, Life and Times is your bet. It collects many of the stories that later found their way into the 2003 film of the same name (specifically, two previously issued and now out-of-print Splendor bound volumes). Plus, you get the PB&J-like comic combo of R. Crumb drawing Pekar, among other talented artists such as Sue Cavey and Gary Dumm. What makes the American Splendor stories so mesmerizing, in fact, is Pekar’s great ability to match up the right artist with the right story, causing some of the narrative tropes to take on a new context. (For example, Harvey’s co-worker, Mr. Boats, is depicted entirely differently by each artist.) This is an essential volume for anyone who gives a damn about personal comics. (Podcast with Pekar and Haspiel.)

Book #53 was Harvey Pekar’s The New American Splendor Anthology. A continuation of the previous Pekar volume, this book contains several entertaining stories, such as Pekar depicting his zeal for record collecting and Toby’s infamous Revenge of the Nerds partisanship. It also contains art by Chester Brown. While not as consistent as the main volume, in large part because poor Pekar is resolutely determined to get everything of his in print so he can make a few bucks, this volume still lives up the promise of the cover, offering truth “from off the streets of Cleveland.” (Podcast with Pekar and Haspiel.)

Book #54 was Gina Frangello’s My Sister’s Continent. I had mixed feelings about this book. I like Frangello’s voice, her fondness for playing with taboos, and the novel’s wry commentary on Freudian precepts. I found the father to be an almost Moliere-like figure, satirically saddled with AIDS and many other problems. But I didn’t buy the twin sisters’ character transitions and I felt the book’s resolution was forced. Still, Frangello is definitely an author to watch. She has a delightfully insouciant attitude about deviance. (Podcast interview.)

sarah_waters.jpgBook #55 was Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch. Contrary to other reports, this isn’t a total departure from Waters’ other romps, but this fascinating novel is an inevitable evolution — the absolutely right step for Waters to take as an author. I’ve come to the conclusion that, for a literary author, the fourth or fifth novel is often the make-or-break point for stylistic evolution. Consider David Mitchell’s successful transcendence from baroque plots into the deceptively simple Black Swan Green. Or Martin Amis’s Money. Or Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. Or Richard Powers’ defiant swing into dystopia with Operation Wandering Soul, followed by the metafictional Galatea 2.2. These were all moves that nobody could see coming. And I would argue that The Night Watch can also be added to the long list of transition novels which demonstrate that an author is more than we expect her to be.

Waters shifts to a completely different timeframe (in this case, World War II and just a few years after) and a very intriguing structure, splitting the book into three sections, the events unfolding in reverse order (1947, 1944, 1941). It’s interesting to see Waters paint herself into a corner like this, particularly since this book comes after the can’t-put-down Fingersmith. Waters has always been a meticulous plotter, but this reverse structure forces her to get inside the heads of her characters. But the structure also restricts her, because she can’t lay all of her cards on the table. Secrets must be kept silent, only to be revealed later. And this liability both mars the book (or at least it made me a bit antsy), yet allows Waters to demonstrate that she can be a very adept psychologist. The book’s structure causes her to focus on how these characters shift over the years and are influenced by each other, particularly when their desires are so closeted.

It helps that she gets wartime London so very, very right and that the novel contains Greene-like imagery (many colons linking sentences, as well as such cinematic description as a bright light illuminating the very threads of clothing). For fans of the romp, there are still plenty of juicy moments (and, in particular, many thighs). (Podcast interview.)

75 Books, Books #43-48

Book #43 was Harvey Pekar’s The Quitter. As Pekar keeps a great prolificity in his post-retirement years, it’s been fascinating to see him investigating millieus other than the immediately contemporary and the immediately personal. In The Quitter, a book chronicling Pekar’s boyhood, there is no madeliene tea per se, but there are certainly specific incidents, presented without adornment, which explain a good deal about Pekar’s rage and misanthropy. The book’s unflinching attitude towards 1950s racism and Pekar’s efforts to fit in are puncutated by Dean Haspiel’s sharp lines and the book’s careful attention to period detail. Pekar’s no hero, nor should he be, but he’s certainly an interesting and misunderstood figure, a flawed everyman who remains as important a fixture in comic books as superheroes. (Podcast with Pekar and Haspiel.)

Book #44 was Harvey Pekar’s Ego & Hubris. If Michael Malice did not exist, it would be necessary for Pekar to invent him. And yet he does exist, portrayed by Pekar as an opinionated, platitude-spouting loudmouth who, nevertheless, lives an independent existence not unlike Pekar, playing by his own rules in a manner that, however off-putting, is defiantly nonconformist — even if Malice is a Republican. Or possibly a centrist. Or perhaps none of these things at all. Malice’s unrepentant dialogue grows wearisome after a while, but Pekar is nothing if not a faithful reporter and Malice’s ironies and contradictions make up for Ego & Hubris‘s occasionally flagging narrative. (Podcast with Pekar and Haspiel.)

Book #45 was Hal Niedzviecki’s Hello, I’m Special. Niedzviecki believes that the act of being “special” is a conformist sham. He suggests that whole cottage industries have sprung up overnight to maintain this ideology and lobs several arrows at America and Canada, often in direct contradiction with his previous volume, We Want Some Too. Niedzviecki is often an interesting cultural critic, citing such interesting examples as voyeuristic online wrestling matches (a prescient example of the “amateur as star” in light of the rise of YouTube), but I’m not sure I buy his overall argument, which is laden with a dichotomy (special vs. conformist) that doesn’t account for gray areas. His assumptions assume that humans are guided almost exclusively by solipsism or exhibitionism and, while these are certainly values that are ineluctably associated with pop culture, I found Niedzviecki a tad too cynical for my tastes. It is, of course, quite possible to escape some cultural trappings if you apply a baseball bat to your television (or, if you aren’t so violent, perhaps just keeping it turned off). Or perhaps one can look more to books and everyday obervation as sources of inspiration. But I still found Niedzviecki an interesting guy to talk with. (Podcast interview.)

Book #46 was Yannick Murphy’s Here They Come. This McSweeney’s “rectangular,” along with Salvador Plascencia’s People of Paper, has helped to restore my faith in McSweeney’s as one of the most vibrant independent publishing houses today. Murphy’s imagery, which is blunt, beautiful and often heartbreaking, fuels the story of a girl living in impoverished 1970s New York, who allows a hot dog vendor to fondle her developing breast, contends with a mentally troubled brother, a home laden with refuse, and a crazy mother who shouts “Merde!” at almost every troubled moment. The book is often episodic and its ending is anticlimactic, but it effectively puts the real into the hyperreal. (Podcast interview.)

Book #47 was Ron Hogan’s The Stewardess is Flying the Plane!. I’ve long been a fan of Mr. Hogan’s online work and, as a caveat, he is a pal of mine. And with Stewardess, he’s created an unusual coffee table book that explores a period of cinema that serves as an enjoyable photographic counterpart to John Waters’ books on trash cinema, perhaps scratching the hairy underbelly of Peter Biskind. I would have liked to see Ron offer lengthier text expressing his clear affinity for 1970s cinema (in particular, The Muppet Movie). But perhaps he might be persuaded to do this at a later point in time. (Podcast interview.)

Book #48 was Harvey Pekar’s Our Movie Year. I realize there are a lot of Pekar volumes here, but I did want to do a thorough interview with the man. Our Movie Year is, alas, more of a Pekar grab bag. This is both good and bad. We get many uncollected Pekar stories here, including his infamous spats with David Letterman and what happened to Pekar after the American Splendor movie. But many of the sections involving cultural figures are more tailored for word-only essays (and indeed many of these were expanded from Pekar’s criticism) and carry the distinct whiff of padding. Still, Pekar is Pekar. And even a mixed volume of Pekar carries more honesty than most graphic novel memoirists seem capable of. (Podcast with Pekar and Haspiel.)

75 Books, Books #33-42

Okay, a version of this post (going through Book #90) has been languishing in my drafts folder for many months. But since I did lay down the gauntlet early this year, it seems only fair to serve up my part of the bargain. I’m going to try and update the 75 Books series as time permits.

Unfortunately, due to accidentally knocking over my bookpiles, I have no idea what order I read Books #33-90 in (I have yet to log the books this year after Book #90; I only hope these “I have read” bookpiles will hold!). In addition, the “mystery” books for future Segundo podcasts remain very much a mystery to me, since my laptop (with the full books list) is currently packed away. But here goes:

Book #33 was A.M. Homes’ This Book Will Save Your Life. Where others found Homes’ unexpectedly positive tone to be something of a letdown, I enjoyed this book far more than I expected. The book often zeroes in on easy targets (yuppies, Hollywood), but in a contemporary literature environment that thumbs its nose at sincerity, I found Homes’ moody gamble a pleasant, if not perfect read. Of course, Homes didn’t abandon her hyperreal iconoclasm completely. The sinkhole that uproots Richard Novak’s home relays the hollow panacea of the doughnuts, as well as a certain anatomical reality that befalls middle-aged men. And I don’t entirely buy the resolution. But even so-so Homes is worth your time.

Book #34 was Sheila Heti’s Ticknor. With all due respect to Mr. Sarvas, I found this book to be a plodding introspective bore, a tome to be avoided at all costs. And rather than feed any ill will towards a pal of mine who did steer me well towards Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mrs. Y, I’ll simply shut up and hope that all is forgiven. The less said about Ticknor, the better. We agree to disagree.

Book #35 was Jean-Phillippe Toussaint’s Television. I enjoyed the book’s tone, which is a bit like what would happen if Jacques Tati had turned his hands to books instead of film. The book features a distinct and quite funny approach to exposing the humdrum aspects of life, pointing out that even life with a purpose (or apparent purpose, such as penning a monograph) can be marred by seductive banalities.

Books #36, #37 and #38 pertain to a future Segundo interview.

Book #39 pertains to a future Segundo interview.

Book #40 was a reread of Alex Robinson’s Box Office Poison to prepare for my APE panel. Since I was interviewing the man in person, I did my best to play close attention to his paneling, in an effort to ask questions he hadn’t heard before. I even asked Mr. Robinson about two minor characters who he killed off with an uncanny glee. You’ll find the answer to this in Show #33 of The Bat Segundo Show. But if you haven’t read Robinson, I’d start with Box Office Poison so you can fully appreciate how his close behavioral observations blossomed into the ambitious Tricked.

Book #41 was a new read of Alex Robinson’s BOP! More Box Office Poison to prepare for my APE panel. This one’s for hard-core Robinson fans only, a collection of extras that can probably be skipped over. But as a missing link between Box Office Poison and Tricked, it’s fascinating to see how Robinson is contemplating his next bold move. It’s almost as if these particular strips

Book #42 was a reread of Dave King’s The Ha-Ha to prepare for a podcast interview. There are several reasons why I named this book as one of my favorite books of 2005. This time around, I paid close attention to King’s specific style, noting how the book’s minimalist observations often revealed larger truths about human beings: their selfishness, their compassion, and their love. This works exceedingly well when you also consider that King pulled this off while also making us believe in a character who suffers from a quite unusual affliction: a Vietnam veteran who cannot speak or write.

75 Books: Mini-Reviews Coming


Folks, if I’ve been remiss on the 75 Books reviews, the following photo demonstrates why. These are all books I’ve finished or referred to (mostly the former) in the past two to three months. I’ve been hoping to get to reviews of these, but alas, the pile is the telltale sign. But let it be known that I’m a man of my word. At the very least, I’ll fess up titles!

75 Books: Books #12-32

Okay, I have a tremendous backlog on write-ups. Pardon me if my thoughts are ocassionally rushed here, but the only way to get this out of the way and kill the backlog is to type like mad.

Book #12 was Eliott Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. What we have here is a mammoth social novel in the Corrections/Bonfire of the Vanities/An American Tragedy tradition: a book that dares to make broad and often dead wrong generalizations in an effort to better understand human behavior.

The novel follows a troubled (well, let’s face the facts, batshit crazy) and unemployed teacher named Simon, who can’t seem to get over Anna, the girl who dumped him back in his college days. Simon thinks he’s some kind of misunderstood genius and somehow manages to coax a prostitute named Angelique, a psychiatrist and many other unexpected figures into his life. He kidnaps Anna’s son. And we hear this tale from his and many other points of view. What’s amazing is how the supporting characters are all taken in by Simon’s efforts to bring them down.

Now I know that I’m making this sound as if I hated the book. In fact, describing it makes the story sound implausible. But this isn’t exactly the case. It takes brass balls to pursue seven disparate narratives, particularly a few that I don’t think Perlman doesn’t entirely ken (that would be most of the female characters).

Somehow though, despite Perlman’s inconsistencies, you have to give him points on earnestness, a literary commodity that isn’t really valued in these hard realist times. This is a novel that starts with a bang, and it is, particularly with its business dealings, quite effective at gripping the reader, particularly during its corporate retreat chapter, which reads almost like an Elkinesque satire. There’s also something quite absurdist in making all the characters so miserable and out-of-touch with their surroundings. And I suspect that the book would have succeeded more with me had Perlman not been quite so intense about it. Perlman can’t quite decide whether he wants to fling them into their miserable fates. He likes these characters too much, but he also wants to write a Serious Novel here, which works against what I think he’s going for. Part of the fun was trying to figure out if I could really trust the perspectives, but also seeing if Perlman had the guts to pursue his own ambiguous feelings about greed, deceit, and betrayal. To some extent, he does. To some extent, he doesn’t.

At times, however, the book’s present tense voice is its own worst enemy, resulting in such preposterous passages as this:

“I’m going to fucking kill you!” I scream at him. I am punching his face repeatedly, left then right again and again against the smooth stone paving and I am going to kill him. He is squeezing tighter. I am killing him. I am trying to kill him as Anna is pulling me off. (80)

And there are other moments that might have allowed Perlman to be longlisted for the Bad Sex Award:

He slid my skirt down to my ankles and made me sing as if I’d never sung before and I kept on singing, amazing myself.

But (and this is the key thing) if you can forgive a mammoth book for this kind of sloppy exposition (complete with forced alliteration, the absurd one-two punch and the “kill him”/”killing him,” which seems pulled from a dimebag crime novel gone horribly awry) and you can proceed onward, and if you’re the kind of person who is willing to give this kind of social novel a chance, then I think you’ll be able to boogie with Perlman as much as I did.

Book #13 was David Kipen’s The Schreiber Therory. I’m happy to report that Mr. Kipen is just as exuberant on page as he is in person. Kipen makes the case for screenwriters, pointing out that “American film history may currently be entering its third act” and that the time has come to recognize these scribes for their contributions. For some of the writers Kipen proffers, I don’t entirely buy Kipen’s argument (Robert Towne’s Personal Best, anyone?), but Kipen is irresistably perfervid and quite right to puncture holes into the auteur theory, which has, among other things, been one of the reasons why incompetents such as Uwe Boll, Stephen Sommers and Michael Bay have inexplicably remained gainfully employed. (I also got a chance to talk with Kipen on the fly at last year’s BEA. You can hear the podcast here.)

Book #14 was Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot. I’m going to confess something to you readers. I hadn’t read a single word of Barnes before this book. Barnes was one of those authors I had intended to read, but I never got around to perusing. What pushed me over the edge was the possibility of interviewing him. So there was, alas, some solipsism involved, I’m ashamed to confess. The opportunity never arose. But I’m very glad I read Flaubert’s Parrot and I’ll certainly be reading more of him in the near future.

I’m tempted to make an all-too-easy comparison between Barnes and Martin Amis. For like Amis, Barnes has a rather droll style steeped in erudition and a dry English sense of humor. But where Amis sometimes asphyxiates the reader with the troubling sense that he has some autodidacticism to prove (see London Fields), Barnes comes across as a far more playful and subversive novelist.

Flaubert’s Parrot is fantastic in the way it flip-flops between exegeses and the neuorses of one Geoffrey Braithwaite, a doctor and amateur scholar obsessed with Flaubert. One of the standout chapters is “Emma Bovary’s Eyes,” in which the good doctor rails against critics and academics who get details wrong, and whether such details matter. Barnes does a very crafty thing here in exposing that gray area between amateur and professional. Yes, even professionals can make mistakes. But like any trusted novelist, Barnes suggests that the mistakes reveal truths about the human character in a manner that recalls a more ambiguous take on Pale Fire. And is the good doctor making a mistake by devoting so much of his spare time with his primary obsession?

Book #15 was Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I’m a huge fan of The Sandman and I did enjoy Neverwhere, my only other trip into Gaiman prose territory. And I had obtained a copy of American Gods upon its paperback release. But I didn’t really want to read it because of all the hype that had surrounded the title. It seemed that everybody and his mother was gushing about how good this book was. And when that happens, if I haven’t read the book before the manic plaudits, I generally set the book aside and wait for the hoopla to die down so I can judge a book on its own merits. It may be overly paranoid on my part, but it’s the only way I can keep honest.

I’m sorry to say that I was a bit disappointed in American Gods. Yes, there is a good deal of invention. Gaiman is, as anyone knows, an idea man — one of the best in the biz. But I felt, in this case, that Gaiman’s conceptualizing got in the way of heart. Sure, it was a good yarn. Stephen King was obviously a huge influence here, both with the plain prose laden with references (in Gaiman’s case, more mythological, a la Barth’s Chimera, rather than pop cultural) and the idea of a man seeking redemption through a mammoth quest tale. But I felt that his States-centric dialogue was too British to my ears: frequently stiff, gerund-happy in the wrong ways and littered with cornball humor that seemed to exist to placate a readership rather than take chances. The novel seems to percolate every time Wednesday shows up, but something of Shadow’s pain gets lost along the way. But I will be checking out Anansi Boys.

Book #16 was Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation. I’ve had a few complaints about Vowell’s recent work, only some of which apply here. This book was enjoyable, but a bit too mainstream for my tastes. I get the sense that there’s a more abrasive voice behind the Vowell persona, more so than she’s willing to impart to the page. And I’m curious if she’ll ever reveal this.

Book #17 was Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelation. I greatly enjoyed Divided Kingdom when I read it last year as part of the Litblog Co-Op. And I also enjoyed the conversation I had with Thomson. So I figured I’d give another book of his a shot. To my considerable astonishment, The Book of Revelation is an almost perfect novel — a tale of pain, remorse, guilt and individualism that I can recommend to you in the strongest possible terms. Why Rupert Thomson is not more of a household name remains a mystery. I’ll say this much. The Book of Revelation catapaulted Thomson into the list of Authors to Buy New Book on Sight. And I will be checking out his complete backist.

The tale, like Divided Kingdom, sounds just as outlandish, but it is Thomson’s great skill as a novelist that he gets you to believe in it. A dancer, out to buy his girlfriend a pack of smokes, is kidnapped by a group of three women. He is humiliated and forced to perform all sorts of horrible sexual favors. And I’ll say no more. Thomson writes straight from the gut and he pulls no punches. His imagery is stark and brutal, but also warm and humane in very unexpected ways.

Book #18 was Jonathan Ames’ My Less Than Secret Life, which I reread just before talking with Jonathan for his second appearance on The Bat Segundo Show.

Book #19 was Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. I decided to reread this because I kept running into references to this book in various books and articles I was reading. And when that happens, it’s a sign to pull out the tattered paperback. I first read Heart when I was 19. This time around, I felt much more sympathy for Scobie and took greater delight in Greene’s use of colons. I’d say something substantial, but it’s now approaching bedtime and I have to get to Book #32 before I hit the hay.

Books #20 and 21 were books pertaining to a future Segundo guest.

Book #22 was Keith Johnstone’s Impro, a reread, but mandatory for an improv class I finished up a few weeks ago. The text was just as turgid the first time I read this, but there were, like the last time, some good associative ideas that helped me get rid of the troubling logician in me that often manifests itself in improv performance. This time around, with some of Johnstone’s ideas coated in my lobes, I was better able to trust my instincts every time I went up to do some improv. And for this, I have to thank Mr. Johnstone.

Book #23 was Eric Larsen’s A Nation Gone Blind: American in an Age of Simplification and Deceit. And I don’t think I’ll read a more bitter and generalization-happy writer this year. Why I finished this book is a mystery. I suspect I was fascinated by how miserable and humorless Larsen is, a state of mind outside my m.o. that I really can’t fathom. He believes that America has shifted into an “Age of Simplification,” in effect since 1947. He regularly complains about his miserable life as a teacher and the miserable students. At least when Jean-Paul Sarte bitched and moaned like this, he had something to say, not scores to settle.

Book #24 was an LBC nominee that I cannot reveal.

Book #25 was Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document — a wonderful book, which I raved about here.

Book #26 was Dana Spiotta’s Lightning Field. Also very good.

Book #27 was a book relating to an upcoming Segundo guest.

Book #28 was William T. Vollmann’s Expelled from Eden. I’ll write about this later and tie it into my long delayed Europe Central post.

Book #29 was William T. Vollmann’s Uncentering the Earth. I’ll write about this later and tie it into my long delayed Europe Central post. But you can find some of my thoughts about this book in my lengthy Vollmann account.

Books #30 & #31 were LBC nominees that I cannot reveal.

Book #32 was a book relating to an upcoming Segundo guest.

And I think that wraps it up. Time to collapse.

75 Books: Eat the Document

I’m still woefully behind on logging my 75 Books Challenge. I hope to get to the ten or so books I’ve read in recent weeks as soon as I can. But in the meantime, to offer some positive thoughts to combat the sad news over the weekend, I must report an astonishing development! I think I may have read the best book of 2006 (so far).

Book #? was Dana Spiotta‘s Eat the Document. It’s a stunning novel: taut, deeply perceptive, mysterious, mildly satirical, and wistful. I read it in one sitting. I could not stop. Imagine if Don DeLillo actually wrote from the gut again and rediscovered that sense of playfulness he lost after Underworld and you have perhaps one fifth of what makes Spiotta such a fine novelist. Eat the Document tells the tale of a radical who committed some unknown crime in 1972 and contrasts her disappearance against a group of activists and bohemians in the late 1990s. There are fantastic parallels and even the playful hint of a nuanced allegory between the two ages, as we encounter a mysterious man named Nash who works in a bookstore and lives off the grid, while organizing meetings for extremely eccentric and, in some cases, outright nutball political movements (complete with crazed acronyms), the 1972 activist’s son, who has a great affinity for the Beach Boys, and a number of young ragtag activists who may or may not be true to their ideals.

Without coming across as didactic, Spiotta has important and often provocative things to say about the nature of political protest. At what personal cost does one rage against the machine? Surely, dissent is needed. But is a hard-fought battle for a tiny advancement truly worth it?

One of this novel’s delights is how Spiotta keeps you guessing about how she’s going to tie everything together. Sure enough, it all lines up as neatly as a Buckminster Fuller dome at the end, but Spiotta is good enough to leave lingering questions that will likely keep you up late and perhaps typing in theories on Internet discussion forums.


  • Podbop: Enter your city and listen to MP3 snippets of bands touring in your town this week. (via Irregardless)
  • C. Max Magee, having now shifted to a more RSS-friendly home, offers a thoughtful take on the future of the book and gets a surprise response from George Saunders.
  • Robert “Prolfiic Is My Temperament, Prolific Is My Interviewing” Birnbaum talks with Andrew Delbanco.
  • Well, I guess Jessa Crispin hates such “desperate” works as James Joyce’s Ulysses, e.e. cummings’ No Thanks, Lord Byron’s early poems, Willa Cather’s One of Ours, Waltman’s Leaves of Grass, Thoreau’s Walden, Virginia Woolf’s early novels, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (which was initially self-published).
  • Haven’t forgotten about the Black Swan Green discussion with Megan. It’s coming. The ball’s in my court. But there are many things currently going on. Hopefully, we’ll get up the copious correspondence next week.
  • I have a little under ten books to log for the 75 Book Challenge, including my long and long-delayed thoughts on Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. Again, spare moments, hopefully soon.
  • Segundo: Three podcasts to finalize, some very special authors (including one HUGE surprise!) coming in the upcoming weeks, including Jonathan Ames, who also got a chance to talk with Pinky’s Paperhaus when rolling through Los Angeles.
  • Nor have I forgotten about the Naughty Reading Photo Contest. I apologize to all the entrants for the delay.
  • Do you have any more coffee?

75 Books, Books #8-11

Books #8 & #9 were books relating to a future Segundo podcast.

Book #10 was a book relating to a future Segundo podcast.

Book #11 was Kevin Starr’s California: A History, part of the Modern Library Chronicles series. Starr is best known for his mammoth work Americans and the California Dream, an invaluable series of books that are quite meticulous in their pursuit of California history from 1850 onwards. What makes Starr’s books so enjoyable is that, beyond their gushing and spirited quality, Starr takes great care to concentrate on labor history and minorities in addition to the heavy-hitters. I’m sure that I’m not alone in hoping that he manages to complete this series before his death. (The years 1951-1989 remain to be filled in.)

This comparatively slim volume finds Starr attempting a one volume history from the Bear Flag Revolt on. And the result sometimes feels a bit rushed, if only because there’s a lot of information here to cram into 350 pages. Figures and incidents are introduced with very little fanfare. (Thank goodness there’s an index to keep track of the frequent entrances and exeunts.) One reads this finding Starr just dying to break out of the confined form and riff on political figures, reluctantly placing himself in the position of precis-wrangler. While I was familiar with many of the colorful characters from other volumes, the book’s truncated form precludes Starr from offering his fiery commentary (and even his obsession with age takes a back seat). Or to put it another way: There are some writers who are intended to write lengthy books and some who are not. Starr definitely fits into the former category. I read this book hoping for morsels from the missing years and was a bit disappointed to see Governors Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan largely unremarked upon, although Starr does demonstrate the historical arcs of California’s obsession with technology.

Which is not to suggest that California is without merit. As Starr gets closer to the present day, his depictions of California as a land of health and a land of promise begin to kick in. And for anyone requiring a refresher course on California history or who wants a taste of Starr before delving into the California Dream series, the book is certainly worth a look.

75 Books, Books #5-7

Last week was a busy week, but if there was any advantage to MUNI’s stunning inefficiencies of late (thank you, Nathaniel Ford!), it’s the extra 45 minutes per day of reading time.

Book #5 was Gilbert Sorrentino’s Little Casino. When I initially started reading this, it seemed to me that this was not so much a “novel,” but more of a collection of throwaway pieces. The book is constructed in short chapters, each chapter split up into two sections. The first is a memory fragment of some unknown human, some random incident of a fey and often funny nature, the second is a sort of intellectual response to it that often clarifies details through a voice that may or may not be the “author’s.” Of course, this being the world of Sorrentino, each fragment involves either a grisly death, sex or a fixation on cigarettes. Even when a chapter isn’t successful (and there are plenty that aren’t, some of them read like as if they’ve been pulled out of an MFA student’s journal, but this approach may in fact be the point), the book can be enjoyed as a collection of vignettes or possibly an effort to track various characters (some of them specific names, some of them merely “hes” and “shes”) who may or may not match up.

Strangely, I found myself preferring Sorrentino’s stylistic exercises to many of the calls and responses. There is, for example, a “lengthy” deposition transcript that points out the hypocrisies of political correctness and frivolous litigation which is quite hilarious, but it could have been thrown into just about any Sorrentino novel. And while I always enjoy Sorrentino getting goofy with self-imposed prose limitations (one chapter, for example, has every sentence begin with “Had X not Y”), I wondered how much of the book was genuinely “experimental” and how much was filler. I didn’t so much mind the lack of unity, but, unlike Mulligan Stew, I really felt that much of this work was written to pad it out to 200 pages and didn’t always find myself relishing the work. So this book is probably for Sorrentino completists only. For everyone else interested in dipping their toes into Sorrentino, still one of today’s most underrated novelists, I highly recommend Mulligan Stew and Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things.

For more on Sorrentino, check out this lengthy Gerald Howard profile.

Book #6 was Jonathan AmesI Love You More Than You Can Know, a nonfiction collection that Ames had suggested to me was a collection of throwaway pieces — essentiallly, the remaining nonfiction that he hadn’t yet assembled in book form. I should have known that he was being typically self-effacing. This is not his answer to The Salmon of Doubt — in large part, because this isn’t a posthumous collection. Because many of these essays are as funny as anything Ames has ever written, particularly the leftover New York Press pieces. What’s particularly interesting is that Ames saved a good deal of essays involving his penis for this book. This time around, however, Ames seems even more introspective (if it can be believed) and a tad gloomier than his two previous books of nonfiction. Or perhaps I was a tad cheerier. Whatever the case, his more recent pieces from the past three years read as if they’ve been written under duress. But if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading Ames’ essays, it’s definitely worth it for the laughs.

Incidentally, the Young, Roving Correspondent will be talking with Ames again when he strolls through San Francisco. I’m honored to announce that Jonathan Ames will be the first guest to appear twice on the Bat Segundo Show. And while I’m unlikely to reveal any future Segundo-related books after the podcasts have been posted, in Ames’ case, I wanted to make a special exception, as I must honor the tacit agreement of constant Ames promotion.

[1/23/06 UPDATE: And as fate would have it, Jonathan Ames has a new essay about cleaning his fridge up over at The Morning News.]

Book #7 was Tim O’Brien‘s Lake in the Woods, which was my first O’Brien novel and it certainly won’t be my last. The book tells the story of John Wade, a veteran of My Lai and one-time teenage magician who morphs into a politician. One day, shortly after catastrophically losing a U.S. Senate race just after a personal scandal that isn’t entirely spelled out, his wife disappears. The reasons for her disappearance and the circumstances of Wade’s life are unclear, but are gradually revealed to the reader. What makes the book work so well is that way O’Brien plays with context and keeps many fascinating details from the reader. O’Brien is daring enough not to answer all of the questions and is deft at balancing style (chapters containing excerpts from “interviews” and books on war and politics provide context, as do other chapters offering hypotheses on what may have happened) with a reader’s expectations. Unfortunately, once O’Brien’s revealed his hand, the book starts to flag near the end. But as a study of concealment, both personal and historical, O’Brien’s book is gripping, written in an effectively austere manner.

It’s also interesting that shortly after writing this novel, O’Brien published a painfully personal essay about surviving My Lai and what his life was like years later. He revealed thoughts of suicide, sleeping pills and memories of a girlfriend who left him. He also reveals that the name of his real-life girlfriend is Kate (also the name of John Wade’s wife).

75 Books, Book #4

You may be shocked to hear this, but I didn’t do a lot of reading over the three-day weekend.  Book #4 was David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green.  I’ll withhold my opinion until I get a chance to take this up with Megan.  Needless to say, my reaction is extremely complicated and requires a good deal of thought.  I read this book very slowly for a reason.  I’ll only say that I think this novel was definitely the right step forward for Mitchell.  But it’s an ambitious attempt that’s definitely going to split readers.  I think we’re going to see the same heated and divisive reactions that we saw with Ian McEwan’s Saturday.  More to follow.

75 Books, Books #2-3

I apologize for setting all of my ducks in a row. But if I hope to get 75 books under my belt, then this essentially means 6-7 books/month. As regular readers know, I’m a big fan of thickass and “difficult” books. But I’m also a fan of living. And if I hope to have any semblance of a life, then that means getting the hard tally out of the way as early as possible. Either that or giving up this blog and holing up in motel rooms with whores.

On the thickass book front, I’ve just started Elliott Perlman’s Seven Types of Amiguity (not to be confused with Empson’s) in an effort to see what all the fuss was about in Australia. But since we’re talking seven perspectives and a plot wound tigher than Alberto Gonzalez’s ass, I’m thinking this might take a good chunk of January. I’m also still reading David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green and Megan and I have something special lined up for that. More details to come.

Here are the books I knocked off over the weekend:

Book #2 was Linda Greenlaw‘s The Lobster Chronicles. The book had been sitting for a while in my TBR pile. I had picked this book up because I am especially galvanized by self-sufficient women who know more about such esoteric topics as catching lobsters and living off the land than I do. After reading the David Foster Wallace collection, Consider the Lobster, part of me (that shameful carnivorous facet, I suppose) wanted to hear the other side of the story. And it was as good a time as any to pick up the Greenlaw book.

The verdict: Greenlaw is a good, if highly digressive storyteller, the kind of dependable person who will tell you a no-bullshit tale in a bar. I particularly enjoyed her depictions of the crazed inhabitants of the very small island she lived on and Greenlaw’s efforts (with her somewhat clueless dad in tow) to figure out lobster traps, attempting to turn a long-term offshore fishing career into a lobster-catching career, with the question of whether she should snag a man not unignored. As an urban dweller, it never hurts to be reminded that there are people out there who are busting their asses to catch the delicious seafood that we take for granted. Greenlaw doesn’t romanticize the industry in explicit terms, but she does give you a sense of what it’s like to be there. There were a few dry spots in which my urban-centric mind attempted to wrap itself around the nautical jargon. But I eventually caught the gist and, once I had, the book was over.

The consensus here is that I’m likely to check out Greenlaw’s other books, as well as anything else out there which might get me a sense of the sea. (I should note also that a few friends seem to think that I was a fisherman in a previous life. I have no idea why seafaring tales appeal to me so much, other than the fact that I am naturally drawn to the salty air, hard-working folks who don’t bullshit you, and what seems to me the miracle of staying alive, financially speaking, doing what you love in an industry in which you could easily go broke tomorrow.)

Book #3 was Phil Campbell‘s Zioncheck for President. Now before I offer my thoughts, allow me to declare any conflicts of interests right off the bat. I should point out that Mr. Campbell himself approached me at last year’s LBC Slipper Room party and asked me to read his book. Now I’m not about to say no to anyone with that kind of initiative (particularly because he was nice). But I’m not necessarily going to instantly love something that is written by someone who I know, even vaguely.

So it was something of a pleasant surprise that I enjoyed Campbell’s memoir. The book chronicles the failed campaign of one Grant Cogswell, running for City Council in Seattle just after the WTO riots. Campbell himself is involved as Cogswell’s campaign manager (along with attempting to manage an apartment building, which quickly falls by the wayside while the Cogswell campaign hits full gear as a crazed tenant named Doug takes over). Further, Campbell contrasts Cogswell’s campaign with one Marion Anthony Zioncheck, a 1930s idealist who served in Congress and eventually went insane. The Zioncheck-Cogswell comparisons didn’t hold all that much water for me, but Campbell’s sincere voice certainly did. How many political memoirs have you read where it’s all about some insider’s unquestioning endorsement, even after the fact? Well, in this case, Campbell’s just trying to get through the day. And it’s this approach that not only allows us an interesting glimpse of what Seattle’s local politics are about, but the unflinching problematics of championing an idealist.

75 Book Challenge

I’ll see your 50 books and raise you twenty-five. Seventy-five books, folks. I’ll be reading 75. Who’s with me?

[UPDATE: Tayari Jones has some very good guidelines about what to read, although I would add the following ideals: a mystery book, a science fiction book, a “chick lit” book, a book written for popular audiences (We don’t have to be literary snobs all the time, do we? Besides it helps to know what everyday people are reading from time to time.), a book that is at least 800 pages, a book that is less than 100 pages, a children’s book, a substantial percentage of books written by women and minorities, a memoir written by or about a truly whacked out individual, a lengthy nonfiction book about a subject I know absolutely nothing about, a microhistory, et al.]