Month: April 2015

Reading Log: John Muir’s ‘My First Summer in the Sierra,’ In Which Very Many Plants are Described

I have recently come into a more nuanced appreciation of the out-of-doors, simultaneously for mature and more childlike than that which had previously characterized my experience in the wilderness, which might be summed up as putting up with the out-of-doors in order to do cool things like bouldering. While I can’t seem to shake my drive to do in favor of a more meditative approach, I’ve been spending more time on old Forest service roads and on little-maintained trails in the Sequoia and Southern Sierras, with no other goal than making a particular pass or peak before running out of daylight. In short, I’m long overdue a dose of John Muir.

Muir is a beloved figure here in California. My home states boasts a huge swath of the Pacific Crest Trail -most notably, the John Muir trail, 250 miles of some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, stretching from Mt. Whitney to Yosemite National Park. Muir is also a bit of a legend, an intellectual who found God in the ancient paths of glaciers and who would set off on any indeterminate journey into the wilderness with nothing more than a bag of bread and a long coat. Well, that and his notebooks.

The writings are journalistic, displaying that compacted dropping of superfluous articles (“Dog is not in camp,” and “Morning finds camp empty”) so characteristic of narrative journal entries. While his meticulous recording of flora and cloud cover might find me reading faster, his excitement is so genuine it’s often contagious. Earnestness and excitement carry the reader on, and his more reflective passages pair well with his chronological day-keeping.

Recommendation: Go for it. Unless you hate the outside, or people being excited about it. Unrelated recommendation -take a hike.


Reading Log: Herta Müller’s ‘Nadirs’ and the Value of Juxtaposition in Bleakness

This is a very well-written book. In a series of short stories that bookend a much longer novella, the author presents her oppressive life as a young girl in a German-speaking Polish town.  Müller evokes an undeniable sense of place ( and it’s not a nice place). The bleakness throughout -but especially in the title piece, Nadirs- gets overwhelming very quickly. I’m all for some powerful darkness, (witness my readings over the last year or so) but Müller’s work hear dips dangerously into the territory of misery-porn.

This kind of self-aggrandizing wallowing would be utterly damning if the prose itself weren’t redeeming -which it is. It’s not a book to read straight through, in spite of it’s short length. The misery, although powerfully denoted, is weakened to a great extent by its lack of juxtaposition. Everything is dying animals and rolls of sallow skin over fat. Without anything interesting to set them off, major sections of this book are set in a lifeless gray-scale, painfully flat.

Not that Müller never breaks out of the monochromatic- there are passages in here that are absolutely hilarious (I don’t really buy the idea that German humor is underdeveloped -if anything, it’s more understated). There are glimmers of light, but the reader does well to remember the title of the work. Niederungen can be translated most literally as “lowlands”, but the use of plural form of the superlative “nadir” communicates a much more deliberate intensity. Translation is not something that someone of my limited linguistic skills can even really comprehend, but -near as I can figure- that’s a damn good title.

Recommendation: While I won’t recommend it unreservedly, it’s still a very good read. It’s failings might keep it from transcendence, but the arrangement of words on the page is still an excellent arrangement of words on the page. Push through the titular story.

by Herta Muller

Reading Log: Murakami’s ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’ and Me Bitching About Nice Things Because They are Too “On the Nose”

Murakami writes great characters. His prose is solid, and the excerpt I read from ‘Kafka on the Shore’ in The Paris Review was great -both funny and unsettling. Neither of those qualities were present in this book.

It’s still a good book. It’s thoughtful and nuanced, presented in a deliberate composition… I was just never surprised by anything. There is a complete lack of any deeper level, any emotional resonance beyond (or below) the superficial story. Again, it’s a very good story. If you enjoy books on a level of well-written direct narrative, there’s nothing missing here; I had just hoped for a bit more. I was reminded (painfully) of the overly-direct style of young adult novels, a convention that I totally understand and respect within its context, but a convention that produces books that aren’t for me.

Recommendation: Give it a go if you want a good story about an interesting person in an interesting time. Take a pass if you want your books to cut a bit deeper.

Reading Log: ‘Alan Turing: The Enigma’, and Books that Could be Really Good

Image via Wikimedia

Biographies aren’t a regular part of my reading rotation, but I’ve read a few. Andrew Hodges first published his exhaustive biography of “British, gay, atheist, mathematician” Alan Turing over thirty years ago, but with the recent release of the film ‘The Imitation Game’ (which was loosely based on the book and which I have not seen) there has been a lot of buzz about the work. More importantly, a very good audiobook was recorded.

I have some serious qualms with this project. It’s a very good story and it brings up some vital points, illuminating some dark corners of our recent history that are far too easy to forget. Turing was a complicated man whose eccentricities lent themselves to caricature, and many of his ideas (worked to from first principles rather than existing paradigms) are badly misunderstood by most people outside of their direct effect. Hodges has done an awe-inspiring amount of research and created as near as a complete picture -of the man, his work, and his life- as humanly possible. The author -a mathematician himself- brings a higher-framework perspective to his explanation of Alan’s work. Hodges is a both a student and a very good teacher of the discoveries in pure math and in physics that took place in the first half of the 20th century, as well as their effect on the wider world (I was pleasantly surprised to find comprehensive and insightful commentary into Wittgenstein in the second act). I don’t think anyone but a mathematician could have written this book.

The problems all lie in presentation. This book is 768 pages long; the audiobook clocks in at over thirty hours. There is no sense of pacing or movement, and there are entire sections that seem like they might be better summarized in a handful of sentences. Literary elements (like his use of ‘Through the Looking Glass’ as an extended metaphor for the political situation throughout Turing’s life) are employed to no effect -it’s as if Hodges had read books that employed these kind of figurative techniques, but missed the fact that they must communicate deeper meaning. The references are dense and obfuscatious, without any redeeming revelation. The prose is steady, but unremarkable.

Recommendation: I really don’t know. I can’t recommend the book unreservedly. If you have a long commute the audiobook might be worth your time.  I can’t even tell you to try the first 100 pages, because the entire first section of the book is awful. But damn, it has it’s redeeming qualities…

Reading Log: Joan Didion’s ‘Play it as it Lays’

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Damn. This isn’t a very long book, but it really deserves you taking your time with it.

On the face of it, this seems like I book I would absolutely hate. My two least favorite places in the world are LA and Vegas, both of which compose the majority of the setting. This book concerns the problems of beautiful, connected, and wealthy white people. These should all be strikes against it, but Didion manages to make the book a powerful work, not despite them, but because of them. She also manages to do so without preachy condemnation (or even condemnation of any stripe).

Didion’s prose is minimal and full of unseen kinetic energy, clearly both a descendent and a refinement of Hemingway’s terse sentences pregnant with meaning. There are no good people in this book. If you’re one of those people obsessed with a main character being “relatable” then this may not be the book for you. The main character, Maria, is a seriously flawed human being, but any further description is painting with too broad a brush. Didion etches her out in fine cuts. While the characters inhabit a world I find distasteful and offensive, they are full of compelling interplay and drive relentlessly toward personally powerful conflict.

I can’t help but wonder where a novel like ‘Play it as it Lays’ fits into John Gardner’s ideas about “moral fiction”. While some might complain that these kind of novels glamorize the hedonism of the 1%, I don’t find any credibility in that argument. But neither is it a condemnation of that hedonism -not even an indirect one. It’s simply speaking very truthfully and very well about people who do bad things to the people around them.

Recommendation: Buy it and read it carefully. Go back and re-read the framing chapters at the beginning after you finish (the unnumbered chapters from the other points of view).

Play It As It Lays
by Joan Didion

Reading Log: ‘Maus I & II’

Art Spiegelman’s two-part graphic novel blends humor and pathos in such a natural way that the reader doesn’t even notice the transitions. Although I’ve read excerpts, I’d somehow managed to miss this one for a long time. I’m very glad I finally rectified that situation.

For those not familiar with the conceit, Spiegelman portrays the conversations and interactions he has with his father, an immigrant Polish Jew and a survivor of Auschwitz. The art depicts each ethnic group as a different animal -the Jews are mice, the Germans cats, the Poles pigs (Americans are -of course- Golden Labs). This (along with the heavily accented syntax and word choice of our narrator, Vladek) gives the whole affair a dreamlike quality that sharpens the horror and depravity. It’s a brutally honest portrayal, and not only of the Holocaust. Vladek, a survivor of one of the most heinous culminations of hatred, is a blatant racist. His son (the author) is somewhat embarrassed by him confessing that,  “In some ways he’s just like the racist caricature of the miserly old Jew”. He is even more disturbed by his suspicion that this is one of the reasons his father may have been able to survive.

Maus confronts and attempts to illuminate complicated and interconnected ideas about family, trauma, and cultural identity, among much more. Both big ideas and big events are addressed in novel and powerful ways -everything that has followed these two books is touched by their powerful effect. While traditional narratives like Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’ are certainly powerful, the straightest path is rarely the one that provides the most encompassing view.

Recommendation: Buy them both. Even if you don’t think you like ‘comic books’. Get over yourself and buy the goddamn books.

Reading Log: ‘Thrice Fiction No. 9’, Free Literature, and the Pleasures and Irritations of Finding the Cutting Edge



Thrice Fiction is a free lit mag. They publish some damn good stories, most of which can be defined as short-shorts (…not those kind of short-shorts) or longer flash fiction. Since Thrice is a normal-sized journal and the entirety of it is taken up by these short stories, there are a hell of a lot of authors in here. This is no complaint -the likelihood of finding someone really good or personally resonant goes up when you have six or seven times as many fiction authors as The Paris Review between the covers. Of course, there are always going to be a handful of writers who either irritate me or do nothing for me, but, hey, these stories are pretty short. No skin off my back.

Thrice is pretty aggressive. They give out the work for free (so you really have no excuse for not checking them out) and they even offer the journal neatly formatted as a PDF, or in EPUB or MOBI for your digital readers/e-readers (I read No. 9 on my old Kindle). They get authors out there and the stories they select tend to fit in with the experimental and cutting edge aesthetic of the mag itself. Like most emerging stuff, this means an interesting blend of being out there and seeing what comes next before the culture at large -or even the cultural gatekeepers- but it also means you’ll slog through some forgettable failed experiments. I was pleased to find thatThrice keeps that ratio firmly on the side of emerging quality.

Recommendation: Download either this or the latest issue of Thrice right now. For fuck’s sake, man. It’s free. Just download it. It’s really damn good -at least read it on your phone the next time you’re stuck on the john.