“BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever” is a Kindle Single written by Tony Horwitz, detailing his investigative reporting of as many aspects of the contemporary domestic oil situation as he can fit into 117 pages and 4000 miles (Canada tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries and all the pipeline drama in between). This project was written before the Dakota Access Pipeline drama, which was unfolding as I read it -a confluence that I’d love to recommend, were it possible.
As might be expected, “BOOM” reads like good old-fashioned investigative journalism -while Horwitz himself is inserted into the narrative, this is more Gonzo-Lite than some of the more contemporary forms of creative nonfiction, the kind of pieces that perform more as a personal essay viewed in an external framework. Neither of these forms is necessarily superior, but Horwitz has certainly chosen the correct one for his purpose, with mainly concerns exposition. You will learn shit about how Northern America does fossil fuels here. You will come into contact with good people who participate directly in potentially damaging practices, and you will have some sympathy for them. This is something that Horowitz does really well.
All in all, I think that E-readers and E-reading apps offer, if not a better media form, then an additional and valuable one. I can’t think of many magazine publications of 100+ word narrative nonfiction/reporting -the closest thing that comes to mind are the essays of David Foster Wallace, but that seems to be the exception that proves the rule. I don’t want to read a weighty-ass tome on this shit -as much as I perhaps ought to- and a fifteen-page distillation is going to leave a lot of worthwhile shit on the cutting room floor. I was reminded of the value of Jon Ronson’s The Elephant in the Room. These kinds of things are time-sensitive and valuable, and digital publication of much longer longform work that simply isn’t book material is something I intend to keep paying close attention to.
I’m a white guy, and prone to getting unfortunately navel-gazey and introspective. I heard about this piece from Jezebel on the 3% Podcast (books in translation, check it out) and spent some time thinking about how it applied to me and my project of reading 50 books by female authors this year.
Jia Tolentino seems to be calling out the self-aggrandizing kind of “look at how progressive I am for not reading straight white dudes” posts and proclamation, posts and proclamations that tend to shift the focus onto the readers of women, marginalizing them women themselves. I certainly hope I’m not coming across that way -this reading project was born out of the unpleasant realization that my own reading habits had been skewing excessively toward male authors, and the realization that institutional pressures had been pushing me that way. An active choice seemed necessary to rectify that. But this isn’t an example of Hetero-CIS-white-male-me championing The Other. I felt fucking embarrassed by the lack of diversity in my 2015 reading, and I set some concrete guidelines for myself. This isn’t a “year of reading women” or anything like that -it’s part of a transition into a more balanced reading life, one that includes more poetry, more works in translation, and more nonfiction, as well as less gender bias.
I want to read things outside of my own personal experience. This is one of the pleasures of reading. But I don’t want to come across as a self-righteous ass about my reading choices. The reason I’m being public about my reading is that, in the process of keeping a public reading log, I became aware of the rather insidious preponderance of 20th century straight white American male authors whose books I selected when left to my own devices. I honestly didn’t realize how bad it was, and would have self-reported my reading habits to have been far more diverse than they actually were. My goal in sharing this realization was not self-aggrandizement, but an admission of failure, and a call for self-examination. It’s too damn easy to lie to yourself about this shit.
In total, I read 130 novel-length volumes this year, including some heavies like “Infinite Jest” and an 800-page biography of Alan Turing. On account of the rather time-consuming nature of some of my reads, I count shorter works -like “Of Mice and Men”- as “novel length volumes”. I think it all shakes out rather fairly.
Here are the stats:
Books by White American/English males: 51
Books by women: 12
Books in translation: 13
Books in translation make up 3% of the total number of books sold in America, so I’m not mortified by my 10%, but damn, the number of books by women I read this year is abysmal. I really need to read more female authors. Damn…
This one wasn’t for me. Hesse’s popularity as a countercultural icon in America seemed to have led to this book becoming the subject of Zeitgeist-fixation, but in spite of very moderate expectations, I was completely underwhelmed. The narrative of the searcher is fine, but nothing of any particular interest, and the titular character’s linear progression toward The Meaning of Life left no room for any interesting subtlety. Hesse’s prose was equally unremarkable.
I can see how this kind of book might be a powerful experience for an intelligent and emotionally sensitive young teen. More power to them. It’d be a hell of a lot better than reading Divergent or John Green books. At them same time, unless some rather compelling reasons make themselves known, I’ll wander past Hesse’s other offerings.
I’m becoming a big Vonnegut fan, although I came to him a bit later in life than most. This is the fourth one of his novels I’ve read -it’s been my experience (which has been corroborated by the opinions of others) that his short stories aren’t really worth the time. It will not be my last. I’ve been thinking about how few authors I have read the entire body of works of, and which authors I’d like to put on that list. Kundera is one, as are Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson. The novels of Kurt Vonnegut are under consideration.
“Breakfast of Champions” is one of his best. It’s witty and often upsetting, with the kind of genuinely comic darkness that tends to bleed out of Vonnegut on his best days. Like another personal hero, George Carlin, Vonnegut seems to be looking at the world at a 90 degree angle while we’re all stuck looking at it head-on. His “guidebook-for-alien-observers” narration in this book only brings this out more.
It’s not a remotely challenging read, and “Breakfast of Champions” isn’t breaking through any new ice in 2015, but the challenges and problems of Midland City as it emerges from the 60s haven’t gotten anywhere close to being solved. Vonnegut’s book is still valuable – and not merely as a historical artifact, but as a very relevant and relatable piece of work. Which doesn’t say a lot of good about our progress over the last few years.
Recommendation: Read it! And maybe get his illustration of an asshole tattooed somewhere on your body.
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.
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.