Last Couple Months of Books11/28/2017
My summer reading was consumed by David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. For better or worse. Two times was enough; I probably won’t read it again. This fall I’ve been reading less crushing tomes.
(I’m hoping that periodically writing my thoughts about the stuff I read will help me more fully absorb its content. Anything I post on this blog is usually much more for me than being of interest to a wider audience; this will probably be no different.)
In order of consumption:
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
I loved this. I’d previously read Eugenides’ Middlesex—for which he won a Pulitzer Prize—and for some reason it didn’t resonate. This was easy reading (nothing wrong with that, really) but still a compelling story of a recent-college-grads love triangle. The two male characters seemed pretty clearly to be Eugenides and DFW—an opinion of mine that was shared in more than one review. I found the characters to be believable and the prose to ring true, the latter being pretty much what I look for in any work of fiction. It needs to feel real. I will definitely read his next book.
Saga: Vol 1-4 by Brian Vaughan
This, a graphic epic, is pretty out of character for me. As I chided Clare Gallagher—who vigorously recommended it—“I’m a fucking adult, I don’t read comic books.” I was only partly joking. Though I haven’t finished the series (I think this is about half-way?), I have to admit that it has exceeded my (albeit low) expectations. The storyline is a Romeo and Juliet-ish romance between characters on the opposite sides of an intergalactic war. Vaughan does a commendable and entertaining job of working in many weighty, human themes of social justice, war, race, parenting, marriage, etc, etc. I hope to finish the series—because I like to grant things their due—but I don’t see myself becoming a full convert of the genre. The space that these volumes consumed in my life—random snippets of time here and there, or maybe while falling asleep—I would honestly probably rather fill with, say, working my way through the latest issue of Alpinist.
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
The first half of this was fucking fantastic. Like, way above average. I haven’t enjoyed a book as much as this one in quite a while. Probably since I was reading Tom Wolfe’s novels or Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, all late last year. The whole book is about the paradox of being completely present and available for the multiple important relationships in one’s life—to your spouse, to your parents, to your children. Most of the book is about how the central couple gradually devolves into divorce as a result of not being completely truthful and open with each other. Foer’s writing is wrenching and moving, probably because he has been divorced himself. It’s super sad shit. The long segments of dialogue in the book are virtuosic. Take, for instance, this page-long exchange between the central character, Jacob, and his ten-year old son, Max:
I absolutely love shit like that. Witty, snappy, current, maybe a little too sophisticated for a ten-year-old but still fun as shit. The second half of the book fell off for me. Some random, major war in the Middle East occurs and has only a tenuous and semi-vague relation to the main characters, but it actually consumes a good part of the book. I forgive the uneven-ness, though, due to the brilliant first half. I highly recommend this book. Unless you’re in an unhappy marriage. Then, ouch, might hit a little too close.
The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen
Ugh, this was a bit tedious. More than a bit. Seemed to fit Franzen’s personality (or, at least, what is surely my uninformed, unfair perception of his personality) to a T. Franzen presents a few essays by Karl Kraus in the original German on the lefthand pages, then translates it into English on the righthand pages along with annotating it via (sometimes very extensive) footnotes. At some point, I decided I would read anything written by Franzen. This is probably a mistake and a notion I should abandon. The footnotes range from professional marginalia (blargh) to memoir-ish anecdotes (better) to anti-technology rants (eh, depends on my mood).
The predominant vibe is that Franzen is one bitter dude about the fate of the publishing industry and modern society in general, and he seems to look to early 20th-century cultural critic Kraus for justification for his curmudgeonliness. In my opinion, Franzen peaked with The Corrections. Freedom in 2010 was still pretty good, probably easier to read at least. His latest–Purity, in 2015—was a disappointment in my view. Basically, he was beaten to the technology-fear-mongering punch by Eggers’ The Circle in 2013. I seem to like Franzen’s essays/memoirs more; I recommend The Discomfort Zone, especially.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
I read this collection of short stories for a book club, and I’m afraid I didn’t absorb it well enough to even be able to really talk about it. I struggle with short stories, not sure why. This won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. I get why it won. I don’t know, just didn’t do it for me. I hate when that happens; makes me feel like I didn’t even read it or something.
Climb! History of Rock Climbing in Colorado by Jeff Achey, Dudley Chelton & Bob Godfrey
My non-fiction reading mostly consists of climbing memoirs and histories. This is the mandatory text on the history of rock climbing in Colorado; it’s great. I love learning the history of climbing and running. Fantastic pictures. Accounts of routes are always so much more relatable if you’ve climbed the route, of course. If you live in Colorado (or even don’t), and like climbing, ya gotta get your hands on a copy.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Ugh. This was a trudge. I only read it after enjoying Here I Am so much. It was disappointing. I just couldn’t relate to the story—a nine year old boy searches for the matching lock to a key he finds after his father dies in the 9/11 attacks—and I found the sophistication of the narrator character to be unbelievable. Bro is nine, not 29! I know I’m probably in the minority here.
Drawdown by Paul Hawken
Most of my academic life was spent in the sciences—I majored in Physics and Geology (and Philosophy) and minored in Math as an undergrad, and then studied and researched in the environmental sciences as a Geography grad student (alpine hydrology and biogeochemistry, snow physics, acid mine drainage mitigation). As such, the past six years out of that world has actually been a big departure for me. I’m not sure why I disengaged so thoroughly, other than that I was highly disillusioned with academia. Running and climbing and the mountains in general as my personal playground and arena of solace took precedence. When I was in school, the issue of climate change was already all the rage (and had been for quite some time). Of course, that issue has only become exponentially more pressing and relevant in the intervening time. Reading this book was a bit of a wake-up call. As a species, we can still save the world from ourselves. I had forgotten how empowering it can be to immerse oneself in clear-eyed, meticulously researched facts. This is basically a textbook, but well worth reading.
Zero K by Don DeLillo
Some DeLillo is fire. Lots of it actually. White Noise, Underworld, Mao II, and Libra are all among some of my favorite writing anywhere. But then there is plenty of, erm, less brilliant? more abstract? more confounding? work from the man, too. This one falls into that latter category for me. Of course, plenty of existential questions are raised by the issue of preemptively cryogenically freezing one’s body for future thawing and ostensible immortality, but I thought that DeLillo treated these questions somewhat obtusely. Maybe I just haven’t been around his style recently enough. Reading this made me feel like a philistine. Like I wasn’t smart or hip enough to appreciate it.
What’s next? I’d be open to some legit nonfiction. Sapiens, perhaps? Barbarian Days, The Virgin Suicides, and David Sedaris’ Theft By Finding are all on the short list.