1. Dry Spell
I’m going through a period where I’m not reading very many novels. I really hate this. To me, every period of reading stagnation is the beginning of the slippery slope, which will lead you to one day parrot the refrain your bookish, childhood self heard from all the adults in view: “I miss reading,” and “I used to read a lot, too.”
Telling a young bookworm that reading is something people might stop doing is like telling people who just fell in love that a day will come when they won’t want to have sex all the time. No one is trying to hear this.
Many of the books I have read are indexed by place and time. Usually there is nothing particularly meaningful about the occasion, and the memory is populated by mundane details–this book goes with a bus in that city; that one under the hostess stand at that restaurant; the other belongs in a purse I used to have, and wish I had still.
But there is a flash point where the book you are reading is exactly the book you should and want to be reading at that moment, and the combination renders the occasion of your reading so intensely pleasurable that you remember it for years as a halcyon day in your life.
In a dry spell, I find myself fantasizing about these greatest hits of my reading past, fetishizing afternoons on couches lost to time.
These are not the kind of memories with a facile cinematic chronology–it’s impossible to create a montage of a girl supine for eight hours with Of Human Bondage. And while you can think long about a particular book–its plot or its meaning–there is no narrative to an epic reading of a book as there is with other life moments (He said x, and then he kissed me; the phone rang, they rescued Timmy from the well.)
Reading memories are intensely boring to describe to someone else in any detail. Reading memories are cat memories–a sunbeam, a warm spot, a heaven-sent breeze, distant voices.
Often, there are snacks.
I was moved by Leah Carroll’s poignant essay about the foods in which she takes comfort. I am a creature of habit, and I form periods of intense attachment to foods, just as I do with books. For me, many comfort foods are profoundly connected to my reading memories; books, like food, provide rich and varied nourishment, often greater than the sum of their ingredients. Taken in conjunction, books and food are a potent, comprehensive, and very private source of happiness. Proust’s madeleine would feel more real to me had Proust, upon discovering the power of the cookie, obtained a huge box and eaten them while reading all seven Chronicles of Narnia.
On a summer Saturday, probably 2004, I mixed tuna fish in my mother’s style–with plain yogurt, a touch of mayonnaise, green onion, black pepper, and lemon–and spread it on melba toast crackers. I poured a coca-cola over ice. I took the plate to the couch, lay down, and read Lolita all the way through. And verily it was one of the most pleasant days of my life.
I remember a tuna fish sandwich and The Blind Assassin, sprawled on the same couch, on the same kind of summer afternoon. Tuna fish is writ large in my reading life, but only prepared in this precise way (with yogurt; the bread can be different, and sometimes I put mustard). When I need to manufacture happiness, I make tuna fish.
The fall I read 2666 coincided with my rediscovery of a very plain spaghetti I remembered eating every day one summer in my childhood–a spaghetti with butter, salt, and a mild cheese. Unsurprisingly, given its flavor profile and ingredients, I was crazy for this dish with a kind of fevered passion, which is just how I felt about 2666. The day I cranked through most of volume 2 was a day I did two things that are almost impossible: I read with a blinding hangover and I read while eating spaghetti. I think I made the spaghetti twice that day, so abandoned was I to hangover and booklust.
Like 2666, part of the appeal of the spaghetti was how delicious it was, and its impossibility as a permanent and frequent fixture in my snack rotation. I was wild for the book, and the spaghetti, but you cannot read 2666 every day, and butter spaghetti must be used infrequently, lest it lose its great effect, and you develop a pallor.
It was not my first spaghetti madness. One lonely high school summer spent in a new country, I plundered my parents’ pantry of commissary-bought cans and dry goods. I invented a version of canned clam sauce, heavy on white wine, and ate it every afternoon while reading the assembled works of A.S. Byatt. Possession tastes like canned clams and coca cola with a splash of wine; it sounds like the beetle that tapped faintly from behind the living room wall.
In 2005 I read The Sea, The Sea, and my encounter with Charles Arrowby’s homely yet intensely provocative food interests coincided with (or influenced, possibly) a period during which I ate cabbage and carrot salad every single day for several months. (Fear not, gentle readers, I ate other things too.)
An Arrowby meal, for the uninitiated:
. . . spaghetti with a little butter and dried basil . . . Then spring cabbage cooked slowly with dill. Boiled onions served with bran, herbs, soya oil, and tomatoes, with one egg beaten in. With these a slice or two of cold tinned corned beef.
In my beloved salad, the red or green cabbage is thinly sliced, the carrots grated. I add tiny slivers of garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and a lot of salt. At the end, I drag my bread across the bowl and it is stained orange with the remaining oil and the life blood of carrots. I know this as a Greek winter salad, but my beloved roommate of the period made cabbage and carrot in her home Tatarstan. Cabbage and carrot is home food across great distances.
I remember eating a bowl of this and a loaf of the airy bread procured from my corner shop, lying on the bed with Iris Murdoch’s best novel, and smoking cigarettes. This memory is especially riddled with nostalgia–now there are no more cigarettes, there is no more bread eaten in number 5 Happy Street (actual address) in a distant Istanbul suburb. I still make cabbage and carrot salads, but they are simulacra.
Some foods are not my own creation. Another summer I spent every one of my lunch breaks eating xoriatiki salata from the same cafe while reading the majority of Stephen King’s novels. Greek salad and The Stand are intimations of heaven on earth. During some weeks I was left to my own devices I contrived to eat the platonic ideal of chicken and rice at Philippou, the most wonderful restaurant in all of Greece, every day that I had the money to acquire it. That’s where I read Under the Volcano. I went back years later and took my beloved, but I cannot recapture the feeling of those hot days in a cool room, the whir of fans and the silverware clinking on the plates of the regulars, the ruination of Geoffrey Firmin.
Probably my nostalgia is less for the these books and these tuna fish crackers, but for lost places, lost summers, lost time (Oh hallo, Marcel–do pass the madeleines). Every passing year makes an afternoon spent on the couch less an inalienable right and more of a louche extravagance. Every year I see more clearly the first-world silliness of a spoilt youth eating dozens of baked chicken portions in a classy Athenian restaurant. I wouldn’t talk sense into her now, though. These memories are too precious.
All is not lost and melancholic. The dry spell will end, god willing. There are still books to read in snatched half-hours; there is passionate reading in our future. There is still tuna fish and cabbage salad.
(Image: Dijon-Cilantro Tuna Salad on Whole Grain Bread from galant’s photostream)
I have seriously mixed feelings about this book. First off, it is part of the group of post-war novels by/about American men who are peeved because getting old is boring and their wives aren’t very sexy. Please forgive my bawdy language, but let’s call them the My Dick novels, with major sub-genres My Dick is Great and I Feel Bad About my Dick. I used to read these without discrimination, but one day the veil fell from my eyes and I realized that these books could bring about a serious crisis of self-esteem for me, a lady who loves a man. One doesn’t need constant reminders that one’s significant other will stare in horror at one’s posterior fifteen years from now, and try to do it with the underaged person responsible for looking after the children for whom, theoretically, one will have compromised one’s parts in order to expel. Nor does one need to be told that, even if you should have the marvelous good fortune to keep your libido and your teeth and your satin skin and sense of humor, it won’t make a whit of difference, as the man in your life will be pulled inexorably toward sex with teens. I don’t care if these accounts are based on life’s hard facts, and are therefore imbued with a verisimilitude that some say makes art great. Some things are just tedious after the hundredth time.
I’m told that women get increasingly humorless as well as physically repulsive as the years go by, but I like these novels if they are really funny. The Water-Method Man, for example, is one my favorite novels, although John Irving is an important figure in the My Dick movement.
Deliverance by James Dickey, though, is the opposite of funny. The leather vest that Burt Reynolds is wearing on the cover of my copy is funny, but that is the only thing. Most people are familiar with the storyline, immortalized as it was by Reynolds and said vest. For those of you who haven’t heard the twang of dueling banjos, here’s what happens: the narrator has three friends, one of whom is very muscular (he’s the narrator’s favorite). The narrator also wants to fondle the girl who is a model at his ad agency and has a golden eye or something. The narrator and his three friends decide to go canoeing on a river without a map or a clue; they pack some beers and bows and arrows (naturally) and hit the road. It’s all very sinister from the get-go.
Then they’re on the river, and terrifying rednecks (who have done more toward furthering redneck discrimination than any other rednecks in art), rape one of them. The rednecks are about to assault the narrator, but the muscled one, Lewis, shoots one of them through the chest with an arrow. The other redneck gets away and hides, kills one of the friends, Lewis breaks his leg, and then it’s up to the narrator to stop being such a soft-living, house-having nancy all the time and find that bastard and kill him with his primal man essence. Which he does, after some feats of strength and things that sound like they hurt a lot.
All of this is told in a self-consciously poetic way, as if the author wrote it while sitting behind a duck blind with a camouflaged typewriter, looking at a picture of Walt Whitman and listening to Wagner. Sometimes I was (very marginally) enjoying it and sometimes I was thinking that if I must read about scary, disgusting things I’d rather get my copy of The Stand out from under the bed and at least have a good time. Then I wouldn’t have to read sentences like this one: “The standing there was so good, so fresh and various and continuous, so vital and uncaring around my genitals, that I hated to leave it.” Good grief.
Why is this book one of the best books of the century? Why, Modern Library? Really, the more I think about it the more I think it’s less “mixed feelings” I have about it than “fierce loathing.”
My main complaint is this: Bobby has been raped, Lewis the muscled one has killed the redneck, and they’re all four standing around talking about what to do, and the narrator goes ahead and says:
I moved away from Bobby’s red face. None of this was his fault, but he felt tainted to me. I remembered how he had looked over the log, how willing to let anything be done to him, and how high his voice was when he screamed.
What a super attitude to have about your friend who was sexually assaulted at gunpoint! Ecce homo! Basically the narrator is feeling pretty smug about not being the one to get “cornholed” (his charming term), and about the fact that dreamy Lewis was put out of commission and it was up to him to save the day! I’m not one of those literal-minded turds who thinks Lolita or, I don’t know, The Collector, are offensive, because I understand that you can write about things and not do them or think them yourself. It is not the novelist’s job to provide an edifying story or a lovable narrator. However, not only was I pretty lukewarm about the alleged Everyman of Deliverance, the writing style did not, for me, elevate things in any meaningful way.
It felt like a missed opportunity, in a sense. A novelist could use a moment like this to provide a neat example of how rape culture and victim-shaming hurt everyone, men and women alike. I mean, the narrator’s basic position on the issues is that sexual assault victims are embarrassing and gross, and the best thing to do is to a) shun them and b) kill everyone. There’s a lot of pithy stuff there.
I’m likely missing something. I think there is something zeitgeisty happening in the novel, something to which I’m not privy. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it’s a Vietnam thing. Obviously, it’s a dick(ey) thing.
On that note, Happy Thanksgiving.
Stephen King’s latest, Under the Dome, is out today. It’s 1,100 pages and is being compared to The Stand. Meanwhile, Generation A by Douglas Coupland is also hitting shelves. It’s a sequel to Coupland’s famous, influential debut, Generation X. Also out last week was Jonathan Safran Foer’s treatise on vegetarianism, Eating Animals, which picked up a mixed review in the New Yorker.
I know it’s inauspicious to say this at the advent of our new site design, but I’m on a losing streak. Sometimes I’m on a winning streak, and everything I read is delightful and I stay up late to finish one novel after another, and at the end of the month I feel sublime and like I am infinitesimally closer to my goal of reading everything. But sometimes I read a novel that drags, and then another that drags, and then another, and before long I have spurned books in favor of internet television, Calvin and Hobbes, and puerile blogs. It’s not that the novels are bad, necessarily; a bad novel is easy to shake. It’s that they aren’t enjoyable. They don’t make me feel happy, or pleasantly sad, or smarter. Perhaps I ask too much. And perhaps it’s unfair to blame the novels for what is in fact the ebb and flow of human enthusiasm and serotonin levels, but outside of the reading problem I feel quite chipper (or rather, no more curmudgeonly than usual).
I think it’s the books. Here are the culprits, feel free to judge:
A Bend in the River: Technically this should get its own Modern Library Revue, but I’m not sure that I have enough to say. After A House for Mr. Biswas, a picaresque delight which I read in my previous web-carnation as Widmerpool, I was unprepared for the more subtle charms of A Bend in the River. It made me feel like I had taken a painkiller, laid down for a malarial nap in an unpleasant climate, and watched a revolution on TV. Maybe I am just an unsubtle person, better suited to the theatrics of Mr. Biswas, because this novel seemed a touch slow to me. It did impart a dull sense of dread, but dull only; the implications of what Naipaul was saying, the realities of the situation he described, did not feel real to me. Maybe that was Naipaul’s intention. More probably, I have a very limited frame of reference. I did really like the last page. So much, in fact, that it made me reconsider my feelings about all of the preceding pages. Maybe I’ll read it again, when I’m feeling more charitable.
London Fields: As I have said before on this site, I really like the books by Martin Amis that I have read. Nonetheless, I felt like he could have done with the aforementioned painkiller and nap, instead of whatever it was that he did when he was writing this novel. (Uppers, maybe.) To be fair (unfair?), I haven’t finished the book, but part of the reason that I haven’t finished it is that it’s kind of a chore. It’s like going on an elaborate and fast-paced scavenger hunt arranged by someone whom you suspect dislikes you. You don’t know what’s at the end, but you can’t be sure that it will be something nice, and it’s an awful lot of effort in the meantime. When I wrote about The Rachel Papers, I mentioned Grass and Nabokov. I feel them rattling around this novel too, except here they seem to have had a lovechild with Don Delillo’s Americana (another book I didn’t care for). It’s exhausting, and I just want it to be over.
The Golden Notebook: When I saw this in the book shop, I flung myself upon it, feeling like I had identified a massive, hitherto nameless gap in my education, a gap shaped like Doris Lessing. I thought I was going to be enthralled and entertained. Instead, I was depressed for rather a lot of days. The experience is not one I would describe as entertaining in the way that lying down in a basket of kittens or reading The Stand is entertaining. I found it powerful, but unpleasant.
I really admired what Lessing did in this novel. Among other things, she did an uncanny job of creating a malaise that was actually infectious. It oozed right off the page and into my own spirit. I started dragging around, inventing emotional maladies, worrying about my life, and contemplating my uterus. When I finished the novel the malaise lifted, and I felt I had been through a mild illness. That’s impressive, but it wasn’t fun. What is fun is to think that Doris Lessing, by writing this novel that I found tedious and sad-making, about a lady who I found tedious and sad-making, is actually one of many reasons that I am able to feel happy, as a lady! How about that?
Additionally, The Golden Notebook did serve as a nice, I guess, illustration of something I have been mulling over lately. Last month I noticed that there were a lot of articles about marriage on various news and “culture” websites. First there were articles and books and annoying blog posts saying that marriage is boring and against nature, which lead to even more annoying personal pieces about allegedly successful marriages and how superb they are for everyone (either that, or Our Problems and How We Solved Them). When I read things like this, I think, probably unkindly, “Hmm, love to hear from your spouse about all this” and “Shut up.” But my point, other than that people should stop talking about their significant others on the internet, is that advocates of “romance” and drama (cf Christina Nehring, A Vindication of Love) should read The Golden Notebook, and get back to me on the advantages of hot passion. As a matter of fact, advocates of marriage (their own marriages, mostly, and specifically I mean that smug fellow on Salon), could give it a read too. Nowhere have hot passion and marriage alike (human relationships in general, actually, and the Communist Party) seemed so utterly defeating and sad as they do in The Golden Notebook.
The Skating Rink: Sigh. I was so looking forward to this. I even pre-ordered, and I never pre-order. But it was lacklustre. It lacked lustre, and heart, like a last-minute writing exercise from a promising MFA student. Compared to the shocking experience of The Savage Detectives and 2666, this was very flat. If I had read it in a magazine I would have liked it more, I think. Being bound in boards makes everything so weighty. So does pre-ordering.
Those are my companions in the rut, friends. I had a couple things lined up for the rest of the month, but given the length of this losing streak, I’m not sure they are suitable. First, The Black Book. I like Pamuk, but I’m not sure he is the one to end a losing streak. The man is married to melancholy. Then a William Vollmann novel (my first), Europe Central. But it looks heavy (like, heavy). I’m going to the beach next week. Will my location be incompatible with my reading material? I’m sort of considering acquiring (preferably through theft) a copy of Twilight. I read the first few chapters at a party, and it raised some thrilling questions. What of the crude nationalistic symbolism of Bella’s pick-up truck? Why is Edward, like, so mad at Bella when he doesn’t even know her? Will my own accursed pallor be trendy this season, thanks to these sexy underaged people from Forks, Washington? How much will I hate myself if I spend money on this book?
I’ll do anything to get out of this goddamned rut.
An old friend sent in this report from the inaugural Brooklyn Book FestivalLeaving to the New York Times, for the moment, the question of whether Brooklyn circa 2006 can fairly be compared to Paris circa 1930, it would have been apparent to anyone attending Saturday’s 1st Annual Brooklyn Book Festival that the borough has become at the very least a vital center in the republic of letters – a worthy rival to its sister across the river.After a week of rain, the weather was perfect. For our delectation, Borough President Marty Markowitz – almost single-handedly, if the font size on the flyer was any indication – had filled Borough Hall plaza in downtown Brooklyn with five reading stages and over sixty vendor tents from bookstores, literary nonprofits, and small presses. We’re all accustomed, of course, to our beloved BP’s inimitable brand of self-promotion… and this was not the only echt-Brooklyn aspect of the festival. Both the crowd and the participants were almost as laudably diverse as the borough, and that wonderful Brooklyn admixture of charm, originality, and public-mindedness tempered by self-satisfaction were palpable all around.The indoor readings and panels, featuring the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Lethem, were so packed that I couldn’t get in – which is good, I think. The Book Festival, if it is to take off as a viable successor to New York is Book Country, needs to generate this kind of excitement. For me, though (slathering, slobbering, fetishizing book-hound that I am), the vendor’s booths were where the action was. Literary magazines were well-represented. Out-of-towners like Jubilat and Gulf Coast mingled with New York’s own one-story and Open City. A Public Space proved particularly popular – the scintillating first issue of this Paris Review offshoot is now sold-out, and issue two was flying off the tables. I like that A Public Space is trying to bridge the divide between the traditional literary magazine – which these days appeals to a small, self-selecting audience – and that endangered species, the general interest magazine.Small presses, meanwhile, were showcasing their fall catalogues. Seven Stories, Soft Skull, and Akashic are bringing out a number of titles with mainstream appeal, and it’s hard to compete with Joe Wenderoth’s Letters To Wendy’s (Verse Press). But for my money the most interesting house in Brooklyn is Archipelago. These guys, like Dalkey and NYRB are putting out translations of serious works of fiction from around the world, in beautiful editions. Elias Khoury’s magisterial Gates of the Sun, a surprise success, has introduced readers across the country to Palestinian literature; this fall’s offerings include works in Russian and Korean.And what would a Brooklyn Book Festival be without the McSweeney’s table? Many of the authors represented in the festival – Jonathan Ames, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan – are less than a degree of separation away from Dave Eggers’ merry band, aesthetically and/or professionally. Members of said band had flown in from San Francisco for the event, and were chatting with visitors about upcoming projects. Writers and readers have sometimes seemed divided on the question of a McSweeney’s style – that kind of playful, knowing, “in-joke” humor and deep interest in childhood and adolescence. And we on the web love a backlash, don’t we. But it is indisputable that McSweeney’s has contributed greatly to the literary renaissance underway here. The 826 NYC learning center is a noble effort to extend the bounty of the literary boom to kids often ill-served by rapid gentrification. And the publishing operation is growing. Eggers’ novel about Sudanese war refugees – due out in October, I think – sounds like a work of great reach and ambition. But if you’re into that sort of thing, there’s no need to wait – McSweeney’s has also just put out Chris Adrian’s monumental (600+ pages) novel, The Children’s Hospital. This book strikes me as a bid to compete seriously with the big literary houses, albeit under a different financial model. At the book fair, the editors seemed to be waiting to see whether a book with a modest promotional budget and independent distribution can succeed in the way White Teeth and Motherless Brooklyn and Middlesex have. But if it is a just world, they don’t need to worry. I started reading the book last week, and am pleased to report that it’s everything I look for in a novel – richly imagined, wonderfully written, ample in scope, formally daring. In a word, serious. On the log-line alone – The Stand meets Cuckoo’s Nest meets the Book of Revelations – it should take off.Or anyway, I’m hoping. Because if there’s a flaw in the Brooklyn literary model, as opposed to the Parisian one, it may be that we’re too damn comfortable here. Walking around on a gorgeous fall day, eating a burrito, reading about Wendy’s, seeing kids listen to Dr. Seuss, it was hard to want anything more. And this, too, is so very Brooklyn (nouveau Brooklyn, that is), this feeling of, we’ve got it so good here, this is so great. Look at us, us smart and engaged and right-minded people! Look at how many wonderful writers live and work among us! It can be hard to stay hungry. But hunger, yearning, desire, insane and ravenous need, are the fuel for great and life-changing books. And with luck, the thing that’s happening here, in Brooklyn, will produce (or continue to produce) those books. God knows we need them.
Last night the winners of this year’s National Book Awards were announced:Fiction: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (I’ve got this book lying around somewhere, and I’ve been somewhat interested in reading it… and I’m still somewhat interested in reading it.)Non-Fiction: Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire (I was hoping that Gulag by Anne Applebaum would win. Of course, in these situations, I always want the book that I’ve read to win. It’s more fun that way.)Poetry: The Singing by C.K. Williams (This is exciting. C.K. Williams has been one of my favorite poets for a very long time. Here’s an anti-war poem of his called “The Hearth.”)Young People’s Literature: The Canning Season by Polly Horvath (I’m no expert on kid’s books, but I’m actually pretty familiar with Horvath. A few years back I worked at an agency that repped the film and TV rights for a huge catalog of books. Polly Horvath’s books were among them, and they were favorites around the office.)Additional info: Past National Book Award WinnersDexter SpeaksI found this great mini-profile of author Pete Dexter yesterday. It helps illuminate the qualities of his character that I was unable to quite describe in a post a while back about seeing him read. He is a very old-fashioned hard-nosed guy, a newspaper man. He’s got a great sense of humor too. They sort of gloss over it in the article, but I think it’s pretty remarkable that he’s driving himself around the country for this book tour. He clearly enjoys doing that sort of thing. I do, however, happen to disagree with the remarks he makes about Stephen King and the American reading public. King himself admits that he has written several clunkers along the way, but he has also written some astoundingly good books that, given a little perspective years from now, will be thought of as some of the best books of our era. I know it’s a bold statement, but think about how good The Stand, It, and The Shining are (just to pick a few of the many good books he’s written). Just because he sells as many or more books than Tom Clancy or John Grisham doesn’t mean he writes at their level. I also disagree with this: “The winner of a National Book Award argued that the reason John Grisham and James Patterson novels are so popular ‘has something to do with our lack of attention span.'” Dexter mentioned this at the reading I attended with unironic and grave concern. It’s true that millions of people read books by those authors, but I don’t think that it’s due to a lack of attention span. My theory is that people read the same types of formulaic books over and over again because it is comfortable. The vast majority of the people out there lead busy, stressful lives and they read for fun and for an escape. They don’t have time to browse endlessly at bookstores seeking out a hidden gem. They don’t want to risk buying a book that is unknown to them and that might not serve their needs, when there is a shelf full of books that they know with certainty will give them what they need. A lot of these same people would gladly be more adventurous readers if their lives permitted it, they just don’t have the time or the money to support it. This is why all those polemical right-wing and left-wing books do so well even though they bring no new discussions to the table. This is why Jerry Bruckheimer movies do so well. It is an unfortunate fact that our modern lives do not typically leave room for the adventurous consumption of creativity, and to say that people consume all this stuff that is “bad” because they are deficient in some way misses the point entirely. (I know I made essentially the same point in a post last week, but I’ve had this idea on my mind a lot lately).