I loved reading long before I started working at a book store, but until I started working there I was only familiar with a relatively small universe of writers whose oeuvres I would methodically work through. Back then I didn’t always have a huge “to read” list, and so I would roam used bookstores looking for something that piqued my interest. At some point I started spending a lot of time in the anthology aisles of these book stores. For an undirected reader looking for a fiction fix, you can’t really beat the anthology. A good one will provide dozens of pleasurable experiences and introduce you to new writers or reacquaint you with writers you’ve forgotten. Perhaps the best thing about them is that you can put an anthology down after a few stories and then pick it up whenever you’re in the mood for a story. If you have a few anthologies around, you always have a short story close at hand. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, if the bulging anthology section at my bookstore was any indication, the anthology is not a dying breed. Here’s a sampling of anthologies to get you started:
Advance readers copies, the paperbacks sent out early to book reviewers, often contain special notes from authors or editors that impart a little back story or extol the virtues of the book at hand, but I've never seen an author's note quite like the one that Pete Dexter penned for the advance readers copies of his forthcoming novel Spooner: As far as I know, sometime in November of last year, the book you have in your hands was three years late. There are many reasons it was three years late, probably the most conspicuous being that it was once 250 pages or so longer than the version you hold, and it takes maybe half a year to write an extra 250 pages, and at least twice that to subtract them back out. I realize this leaves another year and a half unaccounted for, and all I can say about that, readers, is get in line. Whole decades are missing from my life and I am pretty sure I wouldn't have it any other way.At any rate; it turns out that bringing a book home three years past deadline presents problems for the publisher. Publications have to be set (again), covers drawn, generous comments collected - god knows how many of my greatest admirers have died while I've been diddling around with this thing - and so you can understand, perhaps, that in the end someone had to put his/her foot down and say enough, and in the end somebody did. Be assured it wasn't me. I could have kept this up for another five years. Oh, and a title. They thought a title might be nice.All to say that what you have here, while not exactly a first draft, is further away from the finished product than most advanced readers' editions are, and when you come across sentences you particularly don't like, keep in mind that I probably didn't like them either. On the odd chance that the bad sentences are still there when the book comes out, then you should keep in mind that you're reading somebody who is still missing 18 months of the last 36, and has no idea about 2006 at all.This isn't the first time that Dexter has prefaced a book with an introduction that threatens to divide his readers into those who get his sense of humor and those who don't. The introduction to Paper Trails (this time in the actual published edition), which collects Dexter's columns and articles from his legendary newspaper career, lets us know that he had little interest in collecting his columns in the first place. He tells us that the 82 columns and articles we are about to read will lack dates and any indication as to where they first appeared because, basically, he and his editor Rob Fleder didn't want to dig them up. He also calls the venerable Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley a "worn-out old whore."What's interesting to me about Dexter is that, while his fiction is quite good, his wry, impolitic sense of humor doesn't always shine through in his noirish, almost hard-boiled novels. Instead, you need to read his (essential) Paper Trails or keep an eye out for things like the remarkable author's note quoted above.
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My recent post about the Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions has generated an interesting thread at The Comics Journal Message Board. Included is word of upcoming additions to the Penguin series as well as a great round of pairing famous comics artists with classic novels to come up with such combinations as R. Crumb doing a cover for Lolita and Tony Millionaire doing the cover for Gulliver's Travels.
In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you'll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the "lit-blog.") And, as I'm still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers' review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke.It's often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson - at Rake's Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed's place - illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride - "B.R. Myers is Satan"; "Who's the Wanker?" - but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies - the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson's prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. "Prose of amazing power and stylishness," Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis' piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper's, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I'm embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson's wide margin of error. "Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper's pencil," I wrote, "I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson's] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson's sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as "bric-a-brac?" Can "someone standing in [...] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?" In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers' Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel's first - "Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed." - is bad.Critiques of Myers' motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won't rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn't been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect "had," strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else...something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers - a myopic literalist - seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence "Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed" is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn't make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character's point of view can also be seen in the following passage... Alan's comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, "Yes. Yes!" Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we've been thrown, without comment, deep into a character's point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven't read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn't read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I've been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I'm troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers' remarks in print.
For some reason I've always been wary of audio books. For one thing, they are expensive and for another the whole idea of listening to a book seems antithetical to the author's original task of putting words to paper. Recent events, however, have alleviated this wariness. A friend of mine has suddenly gained access to free audio books, and when she offered me some titles to choose from, I couldn't help myself. I am in a constant struggle to read as many books as possible, and, working at the book store, my list of must-read books increases at a far greater rate than I am able to manage. With my newfound acceptance of audiobooks, though, I have mbeen able to greatly increase my reading productivity. In fact, I finished listening to a terrific book on the way to work today, Positively Fifth Street by James McManus, and I must say I was sad to have it end. McManus' book did wonders for my terrible Los Angeles commute (I know, it's such a cliche, but LA traffic is no joke). This book has been very popular since it came out a few weeks ago, and many had been eagerly anticipating it ever since the Harper's magazine article that was the book's progenitor. McManus was sent to Vegas to cover the both the trial of the murderers of Ted Binion and the World Series of Poker that Binion's father had created and that the family he left behind continued to run every year. Upon his arrival, McManus makes the fateful decision to use his advance money for the Harper's article to enter the tournament, and, though he has never played professionaly, he makes it all the way to the final table. He paints both the trial and his no limit poker travails with vivid prose, and he really makes you root for him. The Vegas setting combined with the participatory journalist angle reminded me a lot of Fear and Loathing, and though the books are very different, Fifth Street is easily as invigorating as the original tale of a lost weekend in the desert.Books I'd love to read (but will I ever get around to it?)As I mentioned above my list of books to read is monsterous and ever-increasing. In fact, my list is so long that there are quite a few books on my shelf that I fully intend to read -- that I would love to read -- but are constantly being bumped farther down my list by books that I deem to be of a higher priority. Long gone are the days when I would casually finish up a book and then blithely wander around the local bookstore hoping to come across something that piqued my interest. My backed up piles now stare up at me plaintively, wondering if I will ever get around to reading them. Since, I'm not sure when I will ever get around to reading some of these, I will do what I have determined arbitrarily to be the next best thing: mention them here. A casual glance at the book shelf behind me reveals several books that are waiting out their purgatory: The Hole in the Flag is Andrei Codrescu's account of the fall of the oppressive regime in his native country. I want to read this because I love Codrescu's commentary on NPR and because I visited Romania almost ten years ago and have been fascinated by the country ever since. I hope to read Mr. Jefferson's University by Garry Wills for similar reasons. Wills is a masterful historian and biographer, and I attended the college that is the subject of the book. Plus, the National Geographic Directions series of travel writing, of which this book is a part, has proven, in my experience, to be very much worth reading. Down to Earth by Ted Steinberg is about nature's role in American history. I read about this book when it came out last fall and it reminded me of Guns, Germs, and Steel the Pulitzer Prize winner by Jared Diamond. I loved that book so figured I'd be into this one as well. I snagged an advance copy of An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson when it appeared in the book store last summer. I had just finished John Keegan's masterful history of The Second World War, and so I couldn't pass on a free book about the Allies liberation of North Africa. The book has since won the Pulitzer and I haven't even cracked the spine. I'm sure I'll get around to it at some point. Well, there are many more to name, so I think I'll stop there before this gets too depressing. So many books to read.Leonard Michaels RIPIn my rant about that 70's O. Henry book yesterday, I neglected to mention the collection's first story "Robinson Crusoe Liebowitz" by Leonard Michaels. The story centers around a man hiding in his lover's bedroom. He is persecuted by twin tormentors: his fear of being discovered by his lover's fiance and his burning need to urinate. It is a dark and clever story. It stuck in my mind, and when a customer mentioned today at the store that Michaels had recently passed away, I remembered poor Liebowitz and his straining bladder. I don't know much about Michaels, though I would like to read his novel The Men's Club if I can manage to track it down, so I'll let his obit tell the rest of the story.