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2003: My Year in Reading (Pt. 4)


Back to finish things up:Bangkok 8 by John Burdett: As I was reading this murder mystery set in Thailand, I was also following the travels of my friend Cem, who happened to be in the same part of the world at the time. Cem’s back now and I keep meaning to ask him about the element of the book that I found most fascinating: a Thai brand of Buddhism that allows the main character of this book to be both resourceful and calm despite his madcap surroundings. I’ve never managed to fully engage myself in learning about Eastern religions, I think because there is a certain lifestyle associated with them in the West, but the fully modern and worldly Thai police officer who is at the center of this murder mystery cuts an interesting path through life. I left the book satisfied, though not enthralled, and wanting to know more about Thai Buddhism.Train by Pete Dexter: This book was thrown in, unasked for, with a couple of books that a contact at a publishing company gave to me. I’m really glad she did that because I’m always looking for writers whose catalog I want to read all the way through. I’ve already done this with a few and am on the cusp with a couple of others, so adding a new writer to this category is exciting. Dexter’s book really blew me away. Train is both spare and violent and there is a lot going on beneath the surface, like Hemingway but darker and with more at stake somehow. I saw Dexter read, and knowing his personality, part guffawing storyteller, part literary outlaw, lends even more depth to my experience with the book. (note: I’ll be reading Dexter’s National Book Award winner Paris Trout, next.)Wheat That Springeth Green by J. F. Powers: This book was highly recommended by a coworker as well as by Edwin Frank of the NYRB Press, and so, when I came across a hardcover copy of it on a bookfinding expedition, I snatched it up. I read it in the early fall, a perfect time of year for me to read this sort of book, as it reminded me of my early years as a student at a Catholic elementary school in the suburbs. The book follows the life of a Catholic priest named Joe Hackett who struggles with faith and politics and more than anything else the shattering mundanity of his suburban life. Tree-lined streets, shopping malls, station wagons, vinyl siding, and wall to wall carpeting are Hackett’s foils in a book that manages to be charming, melancholy, and very funny at the same time. Reading the book turned out to be a great way to spend a few September weeks. If anyone out there happened to enjoy The Sportswriter and Independence Day by Richard Ford, then you will enjoy this book as well.The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell: I read this book little by little on lunch breaks over the course of couple of months. The Tipping Point is one of those books that is so popular that it has generated its own vocabulary, and it is now not uncommon to hear people talk about tipping points when discussing trends and fads. Most books like this have a sort of hucksterish salesman’s pitch quality to them, but this one is different. Gladwell approaches the topic of how things become popular and universal scientifically, and in the process you learn a lot more about the world you live in.Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota by Chuck Klosterman: Ah, Klosterman… Like him or not, I’m afraid Chuck Klosterman is here to stay. Here’s what I had to say about this book after I read it: “The book started strong, and I found myself laughing out loud once every couple of pages; however, by the end, Klosterman’s personality, which is as much on display as the subjects about which he writes and which is an odd mix of self-effacement and shameless arrogance, began to grate on me. To make things worse, right after I finished the book, I read a couple of horrendous reviews of his new book which brought into even clearer focus what had bugged me so much about Klosterman. Nonetheless, the ranks of readers devoted to Klosterman’s absurd and witty social commentary seems to be growing, because his new book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto seems to be selling at an ever quickening clip.”Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: After several readers of The Millions came together to help me select which book by the great Russians should be my first, I settled on and then into Crime and Punishment, and it carried me through the fall. I was deep into this one for many weeks, fully immersed really, and when I finally came up for air again, it felt as though I had been gone a long time. It had been a long time since I had read such a challenging and rewarding book. Here were my initial thoughts.Jamesland by Michelle Huneven: And then came Jamesland, another great book to add to a year of great reading. If you’ve been reading The Millions regularly you probably remember my comments well enough, so I’ll just link to them for anyone who wants a refresher.The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski: And so, with the clock striking midnight, I finished another book and the year was done. Well, not quite, but it was a great year in reading. Kapuscinski provided bookends more or less to the healthy doses of everything else that I read in between. Shadow of the Sun, I should say, was yet another amazing effort by Kapuscinski. The book covers his time in Africa over the last 40 years, and he is as illuminating as ever on the subject. As I read, it seemed to me that he had perhaps slept on a dirt floor in a hut in every village on the continent. This book is ideal for anyone who has that urge to wander around the most exotic locales. My favorite part: Kapuscinski arrives in Monrovia, Liberia, where his vaccination records, passport, and return ticket are promptly snatched from his hands the moment he steps off the plane. Though he knows no one there, Kapuscinski is soon taken under the wings of some Lebanese business men who live there and who explain to him that the “transaction” at the airport is simply a part of how business is done in the war torn country. Kapuscinski eventually leaves the country, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how.So, that was my a year in reading, and a good year it was. My goals for 2004? Well, I don’t want to put a number on it, but 50 books would be nice.

An Evening with Michelle Huneven


This month the book club that I help run read and discussed Jamesland by Michelle Huneven. We had our usual raucous and meandering discussion for the first hour, but for the second hour we had a real treat: a visit from Huneven herself. Over the past couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of authors, and I’ve also become well-versed in the sort of dynamic that occurs at a typical book reading and signing between author and reader. This was different and refreshing. She sat down with the 12 or 15 of us who were there and let us poke and prod her book and very much participated in the action. It almost reminded me of the various creative writing workshops that I took in college, except our writer was not a beshawled or behatted fellow student recounting the fictionalized tale of their high school relationships, this is a writer who is published by a highly reputable publishing house, the author of a book recently dubbed notable by the New York Times. Nonetheless, she graciously allowed us our comments and criticisms and had quite a bit to share about the book and herself. First: for those who read the book and wondered why, after Alice’s first dream-like experience with the deer in her house, when she was trying to figure out if it had been real or not, she didn’t look in her washing machine to see if the towels she used to clean up after it were there in the morning, that scene was in the original manuscript. She and her editor went back and forth trying to decide if she should leave it in or not, and then, months later, when the book came out, she had forgotten that they had removed the scene and was surprised to see it gone. Other tidbits: Huneven found that writing the character Pete came most easily, and the rest were a struggle. Jonathan Gold, author of the best LA restaurant guide there is, Counter Intelligence, was a big fan of the Helen character. Huneven is on page nine of her next book, which will include a character who is a scrapbooker. As a writer, it was heartening to meet a fellow writer who, though she is published and successful, still sees her work as a challenge and even a struggle, a fact that some writers might not admit in that situation. And, by the way, the book is a great read, and I encourage anyone out there who is looking for a good novel to pick it up.An Intriguing List or TwoMy good and old friend Hot Face has taken a cue from the New York Times and… People Magazine to compile his list of most intriguing books of the year. Since he asks for additions, I put forward Bangkok 8 by John Burdett and Gilligan’s Wake by Tom Carson, but he’s pretty much got everything else I could think of there already. Meanwhile, my buddy Andy emailed me a link to this, a new take on the year end book list.

My review of Jamesland by Michelle Huneven


Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.

Another Good List


Ms. Millions and myself are expecting a number of house guests for Thanksgiving, so there probably won’t be much posting on the old blog for a few days. Luckily for you guys, though, I’ve brewed up a post chock-full of fascinating info for all of you. First off, Time Magazine columnist, Andrew Arnold put together a list of 25 best graphic novels of all time as part 2 of a series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the birth of the graphic novel, which, according to him (and many others), was the publication of Will Eisner’s A Contract With God: And Other Testament Stories. I haven’t read it but it’s supposed to be incredible. At any rate, Arnold has put together a great list that includes a couple of my favorite books of all time. Here are the ones from the list that I have read.From Hell by Alan Moore was lent to me, forced on me really, by a friend of mine who is really into comic books. I was skeptical, but this one turned out to be pretty riveting. The art, especially, is magnificent: noirish fields of black create an ominous mood that permeates the story.Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware: This is one that really transcends the genre. When I read this, it made me wonder why people aren’t making graphic novels out of everything all the time. There are so many stories out there that can be made fascinating by the artists’ pen. Everyone should read this book.Maus Vols. 1 & 2 by Art Spiegelman: It’s hard to put into words how incredible these books are. If anyone requires proof that the graphic novel medium, when wielded expertly, can bring more to the table than the plain old written word, then these books provide it. Reading Maus is an emotional experience, and I think a lot of that emotion comes from reading a tragic story rendered in a format that seems so innocent. Everyone should read these two books, too.Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud: I’ve talked about this book before. There is something about comics, about the format of comics, that makes them enchanting and that makes them peculiarly well-suited for telling stories. I had always just accepted this as fact, but McCloud decided to find out why, and the result is a phenomenal book — itself a comic — that is both illuminating and entertaining. I should also thank Scott for pointing me in the direction of this list via his blog.More Mutis ManiaThis is good. This is really good. I open my email today to find this email from friend and fellow Alvaro Mutis & Maqroll the Gaviero obssesive, Brian:Man, oh, man, do I have some info for you! I was just casually glancing through a copy of Video Store magazine, when you wouldn’t believe what movie I came across…. “Ilona Arrives with the Rain.” Yep, apparently, it’s a Columbian film from 1996 that’s billed as “A dangerous romance full of international intrigue…. Based on the novel by award-winning Columbian author Alvaro Mutis.” Not sure if its really any good, but am still very curious to see it. A DVD is being released by Facets, and Amazon has a release date of December 16. Here’s the link: Ilona Arrives With the RainI’ll definitely be checking that one out.MoreMy friend Edan, who loves cookbooks, wants everyone to know that Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition Around the World is a great new book by globe-trotting husband and wife team Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. And since we’re talking about cooking, here’s a quote from the book I’m reading right now: “‘Restaurants make lousy hobbies. You have to be obsessed and driven and completely out of your mind to own one.”But you had–”Two, yes. But Alice,’ Pete said almost tenderly, ‘I’ve been totally nuts my entire fucking life.'”

Finally Finished


After more than a month of intense reading I’ve finally finished Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. As some of you may remember from a post a while back, this was my first serious excursion into the golden era of 19th century Russian fiction. After seeking the advice of several trusted fellow readers (aside: see how well it works! Make sure to Ask a Book Question if you ever find yourself in a similar predicament. We’re here to help!) We collectively decided that C & P was the best place to start. I reacted to the book in a couple of different ways. My first reaction, from almost the very beginning, was that the book felt like a Dickens novel to me. I saw similarities in both the gothic overwrought characters and the lurking shady characters who alternately seemed for or against young Raskolnikov. The friendship between Raskolnikov and Razumikhin, in particular, reminded me of the friendship between Pip and Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations. Other similarities, I think, are structural. Both books were written serially, and as with Dickens, I looked forward to the cliffhanger at the end of each chapter which would ensure that readers would look forward to the next installment. When I read a book like this, it always occurs to me that it’s too bad books aren’t written that way any more. It seems like it would be a really fun way to read a book. (Now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure that Stephen King has experimented with this in recent years). My other reaction was how psychological and modern the book seemed. I never read this or any other Russian novels in school (not sure how that happened) so I had neither expectations nor preconceptions when I began. The book was, in its own verbose way, a very profound discussion of morality and power. More specifically, I was interested in the relationship between the power of murder and the power of wealth and social class. These themes were buried beneath layers of prose. The book seemed to be divided almost equally between action and Raskolnikov’s internal monologue. It was very readable, but occasionally overwhelming. A final observation: the book is filled with events and real people drawn from real life in 1860s St. Petersburg. In the present day, as an established classic, it gives the book a historical context, but I couldn’t help but think about how it must have appeared at the time of its publication. In this day and age, writers are often derided for relying too much on current events and pop culture. Critics claim the these books will lose their cultural significance as they become quickly dated. Yet, in C&P, Dostoyevsky’s practice of referring to specific scandals and amusements that were the hot topics of conversation at the time serves to cement the book very specifically in a time and place and it manages to make the story feel real and complete. I should also mention that I really enjoyed the particular edition that I read. A multitude of informative notes augment the text, and the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky felt inventive and engaging. But now I am done, and I am looking forward to a change of pace. I’ve already embarked upon Jamesland by LA author Michele Huneven. The book club that I help run is reading it, and Huneven herself is planning to make an appearance at the end of our meeting so that she can answer our questions. Should be lots of fun.

Random Roundup of Recent Books


Sorry about the infrequency of updates. I saw the Walkmen play two nights this weekend. The new songs are great. The new album will be called Bows and Arrows and it’ll be out some time next February.If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that I am a fan of food writing (Jeffrey Steingarten, Calvin Trillin, and Jonathan Gold are my favorites), and all too often I find myself allured by a brand new restaurant that I can’t possibly afford. Food writing, more than any other type of journalism, tends to dwell upon the personality of the writer, and so as I devote untold hours to living vicariously, I get to know my food writers pretty well. For quite awhile now I have enjoyed weekly imaginary meals with LA Weekly food writer Michelle Huneven. She’s eloquent and friendly and thorough; not as adventurous as her predecessor Jonathan Gold, but sometimes a peaceful and upscale imaginary lunch is exactly what I’m in the mood for. So, naturally, the other day when I saw that she had a new novel out, I was intrigued. It’s called Jamesland, and it was put out by Knopf (a good sign). Then I noticed that the LA Weekly published an excerpt, which I promptly read. It was surprisingly good, compelling enough to make me want to read the book. You can find the excerpt here.You may have heard of “the original club kid,” James St. James. He arrived in New York City towards the end of the Warhol heyday, and with his cadre of maniacs, built a new “scene” from the ground up. It was Studio 54 for the next generation: drugs, sex and a taste for the macabre and bizarre. Fast forward a few years: a murder has shattered the fantasy they created for themselves, and James is spiraling into drug addiction. At this point he decided to write a book: it is half memoir, half true crime account of the “clubland murder.” It came out a few years ago under the title, Disco Bloodbath. Then this year it was made into a (profoundly forgettable) movie called Party Monster. Though the movie is bad, the book is not, and now it has finally been released as a paperback (and retitled Party Monster: A Fabulous But True Tale of Murder in Clubland). It’s hard to find a book more fun than this one.A new issue of my favorite magazine came out. The latest installment of Colors is devoted to slums. In classic Colors fashion, their eye is unblinking, yet they do not dwell upon misery or pass judgment, instead they focus on how these hand made cities are an example of human ingenuity and a will to survive and live a life of dignity. Where there is beauty and humor to be found in these places, Colors finds it. These people are everyone, the magazine seems to say.

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