Month: June 2015

Women’s World Cup (of Literature)

via Three Percent

Three Percent is a pretty solid podcast that focuses on the world of literature in translation (only 3% of books purchased in the US are works in translation). They are currently having a bit of fun with the Women’s World cup, as seen above and below.

We would all do well to read a bit more widely, and the numbers show that most of us aren’t reading women in translation. There are a lot of reasons for that, but things like this are a good way of subverting some of the institutional weight behind our patterns of book-buying.


On Reading and Taking Breaks

cartoon me

I’m currently reading David Foster Wallace’s comically weighty novel “Infinite Jest’. Since the only thing more sanctimonious than a 25-year-old white guy reading Infinite Jest is a 25-year-old white guy writing/blogging about reading Infinite Jest, I’m going to divert this into an examination of my process of reading, post-haste (which only seems to be anything other than a narcissistic and intellectually navel-gazing activity by virtue of the other alternative, I think).

I take breaks when reading books. Often. Especially when it’s a challenging read. I put down Kundera’s massive essay ‘Testaments Betrayed’ for nearly three years (when that happens, one will absolutely be doing some re-reading -not necessarily recommended, but hey, it has worked for me, so…) Perhaps a more productive example would be my reading of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Crossing’. McCarthy has a very singular voice, and he employs dense, lyrical prose that reads very slowly. At just under 500 pages, my reading of The Crossing was well-served by my short detour into some shorter and easier-to-digest reads, like Marc Maron’s funny and quick ‘Attempting Normal’. It allowed me to come back to McCarthy a week or so later with new energy and a fresh hunger.

This may be a result of my nascent and moldable brain watching too many YouTube videos in 2008, or it may be my moderate dyslexia setting some hard limits on how much of a certain kind of input is capable of being processed at full capacity. I don’t know. I do know that I have the best retention and the most original thoughts about a piece of work when I’ve reading 4-8 different things all at once, juggling fiction with nonfiction, highbrow and low culture, with some lit mags and a bit of genre thrown in. This seems reasonable to me.

Father’s’ Day Special: Three Tomes of Questionably Excessive Masculinity That You (And/Or Your Dad) Should Absolutely Read

(Caution: White Male Overload in the next few paragraphs.)

#1: Thom Jones’s ‘The Pugilist at Rest’

Thom Jones is my Literary Jesus ( and by curious and completely beside-the-point and Thom-heavy happenstance, Thom Yorke is my musical Jesus). The Pugilist at Rest is my favorite short story collection of all time, bar none. It’s excessively masculine, at least in most of the stories. Jones gets a lot of mileage out of stories dealing with boxing, Vietnam, Schopenhauer, and frontal-lobe epilepsy (usually acquired via -you guessed it- boxing or Vietnam). His characters are often reoccurring, although often not in such a way as one would notice without careful attention. Be careful, at least one of these stories is likely to pry some manly tears out of even the stoniest of eyes.

#2: Norman Maclean’s ‘A River Runs Through It’

Masculinity, paternity, and fraternity. Also fishing and fighting. Interestingly enough, one of the least aggressive books I’ve ever read. Maclean is a gentle touch, soft-spoken and deliberate. Definately a wise/old grandpa figure. This novella is beautifully paced and makes me feel more strongly the impact of the natural world than any nature writing ever has (or likely will)

#3: Paul Harding’s ‘Tinkers’

Yep, I’m gonna keep adding the understated examinations of the nature of family. That shit’s manly, right? Even if you disagree, Harding’s look at a beloved patriarch on his deathbed and the man’s memories of his own father are a powerful look into the ontology of paternal masculinity. Harding’s prose manages to be both sprawling and densely packed. It may be a short novel, but it’s a longer read.

by Paul Harding

Honorable Mention: Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises’ or ‘The Old Man and the Sea’

The Old Man and the Sea
by Ernest Hemingway

You fucking know why.

Dave Eggers’s “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and another incarnation of my cynical misanthropy

I didn’t like this book. I found it irritating, twee, and everything wrong with the post-Wallace obsession over authenticity. I became irritated multiple times while reading it. This does not mean it is not a good book.

For the longest time I was innately distrustful of the whole “it’s fine, it’s just not for me” , critical response. If something is shitty, I thought, we should not hesitate to call it shitty. Not that we should dedicate our time and effort to prostilitizing its shittyness, but if somebody brings up, say, the band Pavement, I would be dishonest if I were to say anything other than “Pavement is not a very good band”. This now seems to be an overly binary paradigm. There’s all kinds of shit that I’m not going to care for that is objectively good, but isn’t accessible to me because of my cultural experiences, or because the context in which a particular piece of art functions is a context I am somehow removed from, or any other number of reasons. Sometimes something is good in an objective way that I can objectively see, but I still don’t care for it, or even dislike it intensely. Like this book.

Eggers is a very good writer. I think that’s the only thing that kept me reading -the conceit of the book is completely uninteresting to me, and its affects are legitimately off-putting, but the voice (although occasionally irritating) is redemptive. The rather varied nature of the work is a strong asset here as well; the different sections kept things moving along and prevented any of his stylistic elements from going stale. It’s a damn impressive bit of work, and I’m sure the diverse passages will pull in different people in different ways.

Recommendation: Try it. Give it at least 50 or 60 pages from the actual start of the narrative. If it doesn’t do anything, at least give it a skim and see if any fishhooks stick into your brain

“Naked Lunch”: In Defense of the Irredeemably Obscene and the Blatantly Pornographic

My friend told me that he read this book when he was 20, on the recommendation of a buddy who described it as his favorite book of all time.

“I read it, and I liked it, but I don’t understand how it could be anybodies favorite book of all time,” he told me.

I completely agree with this. It’s a weird book (obviously). It took the accumulated effects of a lot of processed poppy seeds to build up the inspiration for “Naked Lunch”. It’s damn close to plotless, rather incoherent at times, and delightful to read. I wouldn’t even say it’s 100% novel -there’s something decidedly in the oral tradition here. There are voices that aren’t completely of the written page.

This book has garnered intense notoriety for its obscene depictions of perversion and violent sex. There is a consistent strain of pederasty and other assorted perversities, and orgasim is often more than just a “little death” -there’s also a consistent thread connecting climax to violent mortality. I’m a a rather strong-stomached reader, but I was still shaking my head a bit at some sections, trying to visual the logistics of some particularly extravagant and high-risk copulation (and smirking a bit -this book definitely causes smirking).

Things like the character whose prolapsed sphincter inches it’s way out the window and down to the bar like an earthworm for anonymous sex… it’s weird and it’s gross, but it doesn’t have that kind of teenaged excess that makes a reader roll her eyes. It’s not torture porn and it’s not there just to try to provoke a reaction. It’s all in service of creating this horrible dream-state, this kind of suspended opiate reality in which the prose unfolds. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s a damn fun ride.

Recommendation: If my description hasn’t already put you off, give it a read. Damn fun little book.


Naked Lunch: The Restored Text
by William S Burroughs

“Rabbit Redux”, Or, John Updike is The Man (and you are free to interpret my use of the phrase “The Man” however you like)

John Updike gets a lot of shit. Some of that is very deserved. His preoccupation with white male middle-class identity rubs many people the wrong way. The perspective in much of his fiction is inescapably male, and with an inescapable male view of women. This has led to a bit of a backlash against the man in feminist circles. Updike is also an incredibly conventional straight, white, Anglo-Saxon protestant. It’s not very hip to be that square.

But the guy can write. While it’s certainly possible to make some well-substantiated claims of anti-feminism against the guy, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that most of the hate is rather blind. There’s no lack of compelling and nuanced female characters in this book, (the second one in his “Rabbit” quadrilogy) and any complaints about Updike’s women being flawed and unlikable seems to gloss over the point that everyone in these books is pretty flawed and unlikable. Rabbit himself is sexually repressed, vulgar, and uneducated. He’s a racist and a misogynist who isn’t really any good at anything, and he’s a chronic user of people. Updike’s book is -if anything- a brutal critique of American masculinity. The unfavorable perspectives on femininity are (unfortunate) collateral damage.

And despite whatever criticism you may have of the subject matter… the guy can write. All four novels are in the present tense, full of powerful and immediate prose. I can’t imagine being interested in reading a suburban drama about the lives of small-town white people in 1969 America, but Updike makes these unlikable and unremarkable people so incredibly compelling and full of importance. The emotional resonance and the compelling nature of the reading experience are all borne out of his prose itself, not the events taking place within it.

Recommendation: Read it. This shit is literary canon and literary gold. One of the best books of 2015 for me.

Rabbit Redux
by John Updike

Milan Kundera’s “Identity”: Sure, Maybe Not As Good As “Unbearable Lightness”, But Much Shorter!

Kundera’s seminal novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” was my favorite book out of last year’s readings and is easily in my top 10 books of all time. “Identity” is a great read -and I highly recommend it- but it’s not the same caliber as his magnum opus.

Kundera’s writing is a blatant rejection of the irritating “show, don’t tell” mantra often pelting writers in workshops and MFA programs -his prose is so magnificently constructed that at no point does the reader ever forget they are reading a Novel in the strictest sense (and, yes, he is going to break the fourth wall at some point). There are always questions being asked in his writing -often questions too sprawling and interdependent to be asked in any other way than his latticework novelization.

“Identity” is a short treatment of an intriguing set of questions. What is the nature of our perception of the identities of those people whom we love? Is their identity -in relation to us- defined by our perception? Is it ontological or external, subject to change, capable of disappearing under the blinking of our eyes? Kundera’s wonderful novella-treatment of these ideas is rewarding and magnetic, even if it falls short of his very best.

Recommendation: Read it. Or read “Unbearable Lightness” first. Give yourself time to chew on the questions raised -in either case.

by Milan Kundera