A roundup of things consumed by our contributors.
I’ve been all over New England for the last week. My wife and I took what we’re dubbing as a “mini-moon,” and stayed up in Cambridge, Mass. for a few nights. We ventured into Boston where I picked up a beautiful copy of Edith Wharton: Critical Essays, edited by Irving Howe, and free of anything by Jonathan Franzen since it was published in the early 60s when J. Franz was probably just entering the precocious kindergartener phase of his literary career. We did catch a birthday celebration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at the cemetery he’s buried in, and also ate clam chowder at John F. Kennedy’s favorite haunt in Boston. The cemetery was great, that chowder gave me food poisoning.
As I write this, I’m sitting around at the top of Avon Mountain in Connecticut, looking out at the snow, drinking coffee, listening to Stars Of The Lid, and generally feeling good about life. I’m watching many of my friends tweet from AWP in my hometown of Chicago, and not getting incredibly homesick about it. I’ve long believed that New England is where I’ll end up if and when I ever decide to pack up my lot and move it out of New York, but for the time being, I just enjoy the weekend getaways I make.
Something I thought of as I took the Metro North up towards New Haven, is that I don’t take time to read books of the region while I’m here, and have failed to do the same in other cities and countries. I could have read The Bostonians while in Boston, Thoreau would have been suitable for a nice for a winters day in Massachusetts, or maybe even A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as I made my way into Twain’s adopted city of Hartford. I’ve never read Ask The Dust in Los Angeles, no Etgar Keret stories in Tel Aviv, and skipped out on a celebration of Joyce’s work while visiting Dublin. So I guess my question is: is there any added pleasure one gets from reading work in the place that work is based in, or where it was written?
I’ve been reading George R. Stewart’s Names On The Land (NYRB Classics), and also got back into the P.G. Wodehouse groove by starting on Carry on, Jeeves. Also planning to start on Amelia Gray’s latest sometime in the next few days.
Read William Finnegan’s New Yorker piece on the attempt to recall Wisconsin’s scumbag governor, and then followed it up with Max Fraser’s “Down and Out in the New Middletowns” in the latest issue of Dissent. There’s obviously some Rust Belt-Middle West connection that runs between the two articles. And as much as I love hearing Clint Eastwood tell us how everything is getting back on track, and how all roads lead back to the Midwest (specifically Detroit), I’m still skeptical.
I only read two novels this week, but they were big ones — and two that I can now cross off my “I really should read that” list: Madame Bovary and Middlemarch. I have very little that I can say about them that hasn’t already been said. They are good. They are worth reading. And hearing Michael Cunningham and Lauren Cerand discuss the former at McNally Jackson earlier this week was pretty fantastic.
Next up in the “to read for a book group” camp is Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet. (Which, for the record, I almost mistyped as The Glam Alphabet.) I might delve into James Renner’s The Man From Primrose Lane first, however, as one blurb from Jonathan Carroll (no relation) cites Dennis Lehane and Haruki Murakami, which is an “x meets y” that I can’t really resist. Also of note: Margarita Shalina’s long essay in the latest issue of Yeti on late-80s NYHC.
After the Renner, I’ll be heading back into the book-group-reading fray with Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A House and Its Head. Still to come: a swerve into comic novels — specifically, Vile Bodies and Winner of the National Book Award. Unless, of course, I get carried off with Tournament of Books fever…
Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence is proving a recurring tome that can suck me into its vortex at any moment. It’s dense heft makes it less than ideal for trains, and instead something better suited to be one of those old-timey dictionaries or encyclopedias tied to a pedestal in old libraries. M is for Mailer, U for Updike – arguably his two influences in collecting this previously published material as a means of hyperextended memoir. Like his previous drive toward such introspection, The Disappointment Artist, these are elegantly simple appreciations: tales designed to thrizzle, as it were.
While some of this is well-worn territory for Lethem (esp. odes to Dylan, Philip K. Dick, and Jack Kirby), some of the pieces that on paper should work least well end up having strong medicine.
Lethem chastising James Wood for a bad review of The Fortress of Solitude should be a disaster – two weak chins trembling – and instead proves a real lover’s discourse of criticism and heavy truths on the desire to be understood. The best pieces in the collection revert into Disappointment‘s method of autobiography, in which chance encounters with art allow Lethem to zoom in and out of haunted houses: the used bookstore part time jobs of his post-grad years, the train to Hoyt St, and in one particularly ballsy turn, September 11th, 2001, in which Lethem writes with the confident embarrassment of his hero Cassavetes about spending that fateful morning groggy in bed, sleeping off a hangover procured the night before with Bret Easton Ellis. At his best, Lethem dodges the nerd’s compulsion to put deep cuts and obscurities on mix tapes and makes his influence something intoxicating and familiar in its scent: we hold these truths to be self-resonant.
I haven’t been reading any full books lately (shameful!) because I have been really, stupidly busy, but I did buy up a few of the novels that the New York Review of Books had on sale the other day. I got Georges Bernanos’ Mouchette (all you need to tell me about an author is that Flannery O’Connor, the love of my life, thought he/she was a genius), Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter (great title), and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (same as above with proclamations of genius, only sub out Flannery for Joan Didion). Can’t wait to start them.
As someone who loves London, science fiction, and talking about politics with her family, I anxiously thrust the China Mieville NYT magazine piece about dystopic real-world London upon my loved ones. Journalism written by fiction writers: always suspicious. I don’t trust those fiction writers, not one bit. The piece is dramatic, sensational, funny (though perhaps unintentionally), and overly concerned with foxes. The essay does tug at my heart strings by featuring a Biggie Smalls lyric and some brazen architecture criticism, but Mieville doesn’t get off that easily. This piece is a launching pad for argument, not agreement.
Better was the Katherine Boo piece in the New York Review of Books, only emphasizing further how much I have to read her new book. The first sentence of this NYRB piece alone is amazing: “Midnight was closing in, the one-legged woman was grievously burned, and the Mumbai police were coming for Abdul and his father.” Another fiction writer’s associative touch, but for whatever reason, I’m more forgiving of this brand of Orwellian echo.