Some Readings

Course of Mirrors (Ashen Venema); Beer in the Snooker Club (Waguih Ghali); Southeaster (Haroldo Conti); Envoy and Ward’s Fool (Caleb Crain)

I was cured a couple of years ago of making unsolicited reading recommendations. Having pushed a couple of suggestions into the hands of a suspecting neighbor, who initially faked appreciation but later made me realize he despised being told what to read, I decided to relax into my own reading and leave well enough alone when it came to the reading or non-reading of others.

I remind myself there are books I once loved and re-loved I’ve since dropped into the free library share box on the corner, always full of suggestions of what we might read. Likewise, there are books I once started reading but could not “get into,” as the old reading saying goes, but on a later look did fall incomprehensibly in love with, which is to say reading is not always placed before, but sometimes after. Before or after what? Something draws us to a text – what? why?

In any case, I’ve decided to talk a bit of some recent readings. A book review, mind you, is not the same as a book recommendation, nor is it the same as a kind of what “I’vebeenreadinglately.” Nick Hornby used to write a monthly column for the Believer magazine called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” At the top of each column he listed “books read,” followed by “books bought” [during the month], discussion following that may or may not cover all the books read in any kind of traditional review. It was a personal reading column. I enjoyed it, and always went to it first, to see what was there, even if I but rarely followed up with reading the books myself. The lists may or may not have matched, usually did not match exactly. Also in the Believer, Greil Marcus contributed a monthly column called “Real Life Rock Top Ten,” a personal Billboard of his monthly music experience, a perfect column, a ten paragraph countdown full of Greil’s unique style where Edmund Wilson takes over “At the Movies,” talking about popular music not as sub-culture but as the culture, which means it can be read into, in to, too. I don’t know if Hornby and Marcus are still writing for the Believer, my subscription of a few years having been let lapse. It now appears the old Believer, out of San Francisco, is giving way to a new life at Black Mountain Institute at UNLV.

My reading experience with Ashen Venema’s “Course of Mirrors,” a book of contemporary mythical fantasy, a coming of age story, a memoir disguised in allegory, was enjoyable. Sometimes, a reader must let go and simply read what’s there and stop underlining and marking up the text with marginal notes as if he too were going to write something brilliant in the Believer. That is called reading for enjoyment. I remember reading somewhere Harold Bloom saying he never underlined or marked up a book, he remembered everything, he “internalized” the text as he read it. I have to read up and down, back and forth, settle in and settle up, spend time in the dictionary, if not in the loo.

Maybe readers enjoy books most they discover on their own. Lists, which can be useful, lead to argument. Rely on the list in that link, for example, and you’ll miss Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac. There are lists and anti-lists, counter canons, counter intuitive lists. Good reading is often subversive to one’s own assumptions and preconceptions.

Youssef Rakha recently mentioned (in a tweet or at The Sultan’s Seal – I can’t find the reference now) “Beer in the Snooker Club,” which I bought and read. It’s a coming of age story of a mid-century Egyptian who is impoverished by the privilege he’s born into. It’s about identity, alienation, love, and the economic and intellectual frustration of compromise amid what Thoreau called in a different time and place the “quiet desperation” of the lives most men lead. It’s both heavy and light. The setting is Egypt and England around the time of the Suez Crisis. The first person narration is witty and sharp, literary and sarcastic, self-aware and penetrating. The characters are real, the events depicted clearly and with a detached empathy that brings world events close to home and headlines into one’s mailbox. The narration employs styles that mimic without becoming parody – the Hemingway set piece, for example. You see it coming, realize you’re there, but in case you missed it, are given his name. It’s a great book. I’m glad to have read it, and I’m going to turn around and read it again.

“Southeaster” I first heard about at the Boston Review, where Jessica Sequeira gave a thorough discussion of the book, its setting, author, and times, and with a focus on the translator, Jon Lindsay Miles, including an interview. I might be one of the North American readers Jessica refers to, though I read “Southeaster” not as exotic literature, although I did think of “The Old Man and the Sea” in more than one place, but also I thought of Steinbeck, but I read “Southeaster” as an old surfer might, aficionado of water flow, enjoying the very similar way of being on the water, though not, given the crowds these days, as solitary an experience as Haroldo Conti’s river. This book sat in a stack for over a year before I finally gave it a proper reading.

The summer issue of “The Paris Review’ arrived, with a story by Caleb Crain, “Envoy,” just a few pages, but an extraordinary narration by a first person who lies twice about his age and almost misses the epiphany of a flattery. The appearance of “Envoy” reminded me I had yet to properly finish Caleb’s story, “Ward’s Fool,” in the Winter 2017, n+1. “Ward’s Fool,” set in some non-specific future, appears to be a kind of phrase writer’s bureaucratese, until another epiphany slowly dawns across another river.

I enjoyed a beer yesterday late afternoon with a few colleagues from my past. Not fiction readers by vocation or avocation, they were nevertheless aware of my “Penina’s Letters,” and had even read the Amazon reviews, and had perhaps glanced through the “look inside” Amazon feature. I was not offended, but happy they had showed any kind of interest, shared any kind of mention. I thought of audience and occasion and the discipline of respecting both. Marketing can at times rival literature for its subversive practices. The marketing of literature might be doubly subversive.

The Art, Woe, Slop, and Toe of the Book Review

In an era of sinking readership, closing bookstores, the disappearance of newspapers, and Google making us stupid, who cares about book reviews? The book review is the grownup version of the book report, the nefarious writing assignment where students first learn to plagiarize. Publishing is in a hard market, as they say in the insurance trade (rates up, coverage down), but book reviews have softened, a bummer for the pros, happily for the amateurs. We tried our hand at a book review the other day, having read the book with a review in mind, The Last Storyteller, by Frank Delaney.

Reading with writing in mind changes the act of reading, for we are no longer Salinger’s coveted general interest reader, who reads and runs sans comment. We loiter in the margins, jotting down questions we’d like to ask the author. We’re going to have to say something about what we read, or say something about how we felt while we were reading, but putting into words how we feel about a book is like putting on a tie, and we drift away from the text, ignoring the general book review rubric, if there is one.

The book review is as good a place as any to begin to think about purposeful writing. Writing with a purpose implies an audience, and if one is to stand before an audience, particularly a hostile (or perhaps worse, an indifferent) group, with any hope of persuading, some strategic plan might prove useful. To some, writing with a purpose might take all the fun out of the sails.

Ah, but what’s the purpose of the average book review – to wrestle the writer to the ground? A book reviewer might think like a reporter, an investigative reporter, even a detective of sorts, trying to solve, not a crime, but a puzzle, perhaps. Some readers don’t like puzzles. Puzzles can make one feel stupid, and, as Rene Char said, “No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions.” But how much worse for the bird when what the reviewer wants to do is shoot her from the tree with a slingshot?

A brief summary of one aspect of contemporary book reviewing may be found in an SF Gate article by Heidi Benson (untitled, on-line version, July, 2003). I’m familiar with The Believer book reviewing philosophy she describes, having been a Believer subscriber since almost its inception, but I’d not heard of Dale Peck, quoted by Heidi as an example of a snarking, negative reviewer, so I read Peck’s review (referenced by Heidi) of Rick Moody (Moody I’ve read only in The Believer – I’ve not read his novels), which begins, “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation,” and continues, later, “I mean to say only that he [Rick Moody] is a bad writer. But bad writing has consequences.”

But, in part, it’s those consequences that Peck’s review is about, not Moody. Though Peck does a professional job of explicating samples of Moody’s prose, what he really wants to argue is that the modern novel as developed by the later James Joyce and company is responsible for what Peck sees as today’s literary mess (exemplified by Moody). In short, I assumed, Peck values realism, maybe naturalism, and for a good reason: he thinks literature could be more instrumental in solving contemporary problems if it were more purposeful and accessible, if, in short, it were more meaningful, if it were about something other than itself. Peck concludes with a vengeful rant against the modern novel, as follows:

“All I’m suggesting is that these writers (and their editors) see themselves as the heirs to a bankrupt tradition. A tradition that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov; and then burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis, and the reductive cardboard constructions of Barthelme, and the word-by-word wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon’s; and finally broke apart like a cracked sidewalk beneath the weight of the stupid—just plain stupid—tomes of DeLillo.”

Fine, but I’d never heard of Dale Peck, so I looked up one of his books on Amazon, but I was so appalled, nay, horrified, by the excerpt from the Publishers Weekly review showing on Amazon that I had to shut down my computer and go for a walk. I’m back now, from the walk, but I still can’t believe that the Peck who wrote Body Surfing is the same guy that wrote the New Republic review. And, of course, since I am an actual, real, natural, old-time body surfer, boogie boarder, and surfboarder, I’m more than horrified at Peck’s book, I’m annoyed and disappointed, for he has, literally, defiled the surfing term with his title over that book. (And there’s my review of Peck’s book, which I’ve not read and will not read.)

Still, though, there’s a lesson there too, for the reader and the book reviewer in me (if he’s still there, after all this), for wouldn’t we agree that Stephen King is a terrible romance comedy writer? Of course not, because King doesn’t try to write romantic comedies. But one’s preference for romance comedy doesn’t make Stephen King a bad writer. Nor does my being appalled by the Amazon review make Peck’s book a bad one. We shouldn’t criticize something for not being what it was not intended to be. But if that’s true, then we shouldn’t fault Peck for criticizing Moody’s intentions. But this is where things get hard, for we don’t have time to read everything, so what should we be reading? Some criticism can be helpful. Criticism should help us understand the author’s intentions. And, once that’s done, help us understand how effectively those intentions were carried out. Good writing then becomes that which achieves its objectives, even if we don’t happen to like those objectives. n+1 wrote something up on Peck in April of 2004 which would seem to have put the matter to rest. Once again, of course, I’m way late to the party, and I’m not sure if I’m catching up or falling farther behind.