In August, Emre mentioned In Me Own Words: The Autobiography of Bigfoot by Graham Roumieu, a very funny book – written in Bigfoot’s own voice and filled with illustrations that somehow straddle grotesque and amusing. Now Roumieu has brought Bigfoot back for another book, Me Write Book: It Bigfoot Memoir, so Bigfoot fans can get their long-awaited Bigfoot books. These are certainly my most favorite Sasquatch-themed books. For more, visit Roumieu’s Web site.
I’d noticed that over the last few months, John McPhee’s articles in the New Yorker have been somewhat thematically linked, and it occurred to me that his next book would probably be about that theme, transportation. Based on the contributor’s notes from last weeks issue, it appears as though this is indeed the case: “This piece” – about coal trains – “is part of a series about freight transportation that will be published as a book, Uncommon Carriers, in May.” None of those articles are available online, but off-hand I recall ones about river barges, UPS’s gargantuan shipping operation and riding along in a tanker truck. In an interview at the New Yorker site, McPhee talks a little bit more about the book, which he says grew out of his work on Looking for a Ship – which Emre and I both read recently. He also discusses the enormity of his twenty year undertaking, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about American geology, Annals of the Former World.
First, fiction. It almost goes without saying that people are still reading The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, but last week I noticed some other new fiction making inroads among the reading public. Mailman the fourth novel by J. Robert Lennon takes its title from the occupation of the main character, Albert Lippencott, “a loner who reads the mail before delivering it.” Ever since I read Thomas Pynchon’s paranoiac masterpiece, The Crying of Lot 49, I’ve thought that there is a wealth of material that might be mined from the machinations of the Postal Service. When you look at it in a certain way, mail is a pretty crazy thing; billions of pieces of paper crisscrossing one another invisibly from one end of the world to the other and so many stories in those letters. Also proving popular, due at least in part to impeccable reviews, is The Known World by Edward P. Jones. And lastly, lots of people are looking to read Charles Baxter’s latest, Saul and Patsy. Like his previous novels, Baxter’s latest is thoughtful, reflective and “quietly triumphant.” Several of my trusted fellow readers have singled out Saul and Patsy as a book they are dying to read.
As anyone who has worked as a bookseller before can attest, book stores seem to attract a disproportionate number of crazies, people with odd obsessions, questionable hygiene, and/or highly developed eccentricities. Some might decry the modern online book store because it does not allow for this unique slice of life, but, as it turns out, even Amazon has its own resident crazies. Check out the reviews by the Amazon.com JFK obsessive. For a quick taste, here’s his take on Seven Deadly Wonders, a thriller by Matthew Reilly.7 Deadly Wonders has America as the Bad Guys and England not even seriously in the race for the Capstone of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. When I read the plot outline I thought the old Gizar is plateauing. On a happier note I had a dream about 4 Year Old Caroline Kennedy describing a crayon drawing to President Jack Kennedy saying “I hope you like me Daddy” The next thing you know I’ll be tapped four the Skulls. Well I have always been a Kennedy family loyalist. Thanks to JFK and his clever and beautiful First Lady La Loi Exige. Following your Taft outline of going to Texas Florida Arizona and then back to Texas I am guessing that you are in Texas at a secure bunker Mister Shadow President. As your second in command I would like to join you with my Daughter Julia at that bunker as soon as possible Sir. Thanks to Amazon for allowing freedom of speech like the kind President George W Bush supports.(via)
I won’t be posting again until Monday because I’m leaving for Las Vegas tomorrow. I’ve got plenty of books to read right now (and anyway, I’m not sure if I’ll do much reading), but I was wondering what I might pick up if I wanted to do some Vegas-themed reading. The obvious choice is Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a book that I read years ago and loved, though I prefer some of HST’s other books. But, no, that’s far to cliched. Or I could read John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas, the devastating novel of alcoholism that was turned into an Oscar-winning triumph for Nicolas Cage, but that would be far, far too depressing. A little research reveals that Larry McMurtry wrote a book set in Vegas called The Desert Rose. I’ve never read McMurtry, so this might be a reason to start. But, as usual, I have a hankering for some non-fiction as well. There happens to be a good, recent book about Vegas called The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America by Roger Morris and Sally Denton, which might help explain why we are drawn to this desert fantasyland like so many moths to the flame.
Erik Larson has followed up his blockbuster book The Devil in the White City with Thunderstruck, another narrative history that ties together a pair of men one “good” and one “bad.” This time he focuses on “the Nobel Prize-winning inventor of wireless technology (Guglielmo Marconi) and the most notorious British murderer since Jack the Ripper (Hawley Crippen), who dispatched his overbearing wife in ways most foul,” according to a profile of Larson in the Seattle PI. In the PI profile Larson says that he didn’t want to do another history with a parallel structure, but in the end he couldn’t help himself.I found Devil to be an engaging read, but didn’t love it, writing: Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read.It sounds like Thunderstruck will be a book with similar strengths and weaknesses, but undoubtedly an engaging read.
A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on?
My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail.
I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book.
Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor.
I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler?
These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus.
Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces.
But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best?
Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.”
If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description.
Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel.
It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom?
The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.
There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery.
In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on.
(Image: fading contrail from dnorman’s photostream)