Like I did last summer, Henry Miller traveled across the country beginning in 1939. Unlike me, he fucking hated it. This is not why I didn't like his...moreLike I did last summer, Henry Miller traveled across the country beginning in 1939. Unlike me, he fucking hated it. This is not why I didn't like his book - some of the best travel writing is born of hatred and disgust. It was the structure and the tone of the hatred that really irked me.
First, the tone. Much of this book consists of the whiny laments of a starving artist against The Man. Maybe this was groundbreaking in 1945 when the book was published. But in 2013 it just sounded kind of, well, whiny. It was along the lines of: artists are the only authentic people and commercialism is ruining everything and one day the people will rise up and dispose of the tyrants and live in artistic harmony, amen. At the same time, Miller openly describes his frustrating efforts to try and secure a book deal prior to his trip. I guess he wants to have his cake, as well as eat it his cake, or however the saying goes. His generalizations were also obnoxious: all Southern people are distinguished and unique, all Northern people are soul-sucking urban dwellers, all Native Americans are at one with nature and should re-claim America, etc. There were few shades of gray in his depictions of the people of this country.
Second, the structure. The best parts of the book were when Miller took us on his journey, as a typical travelogue does. But most of the book is not like that. It is comprised of essays, and the worst are the ones entirely removed from the narrative of the trip that seem to function as filler, and that filler is mostly of the whiny starving artist kind. There were a few wonderful moments - the description of his time in a small town in the Southwest, the troubles with his car - but these were few and far between. (less)
I like sports, I like writing, so I figured I'd like The Sportswriter, written by acclaimed author and Pulitzer winner Richard Ford. After about 25 pa...moreI like sports, I like writing, so I figured I'd like The Sportswriter, written by acclaimed author and Pulitzer winner Richard Ford. After about 25 pages I realized that I disliked this book, and I hate-read the rest of the thing because I have a weird inability to give up on a book.
Ford comes from the Richard Russo school of writing, in that he seems to think that inundating the reader with detail will somehow make the book more real, or authentic (I call it that because Russo's Empire Falls was the first book I read that I felt that way about). Case in point: all 375 pages of the novel take place over the course of one weekend. I knew I was in trouble when the opening scene, taking place over the course of maybe twenty minutes, lasted 25 pages. We get backstories and multiple-paragraph descriptions about people and places that never crop up again! Which makes me wonder why the hell I'm reading about them. I suspect Ford was going for some sort of point about the intimacy of suburbia or something, but I was just bored out of my mind. It makes me appreciate all the more writers that only include the essential and trim the fat that serves only to show off the vocabulary of the author.
The second reason I disliked this book was that the main character, Frank Bascombe, suffers from the Thomas Mcguane/Julian Barnes Lack of Sack issue (more specifically, this issue should be attributed to the narrators of Driving on the Rim and Sense of an Ending, respectively). Bascombe, like those characters, is a complete and utter pushover. He wrote a successful short story collection, then moved to the suburbs and became a sportswriter. Fine, that isn't the issue. The issue is the endless descriptions of how dreamy and content Bascombe is with the suburbs. God he loves Jersey, and Michigan, and safety, and wants to kiss and marry everyone, and be polite, and go to church sometimes, and he wants you to know how okay he is with everything. It seemed like no matter what happened, he'd think, golly gee I just need a little pick me up and everything will be a-okay. Part of the reason he quit writing fiction was that he felt that fictional character's issues were unrealistic in their intensity and simplicity, and that real life is much more complex and occurs in shades of gray. And I think Ford was trying to prove that a character, or a fictional world, could also exist in those shades of gray, and still be compelling. Which I agree with in principle, but not when said character is so dreamy and vanilla all the time.
It's not a good sign when your narrator keeps describing all the women he's bedded and you think, "Who would sleep with this chump?" The final nail in the coffin occurred when, in the same day that he (spoiler alert) gets punched in the face by his girlfriend for repeatedly proposing at awkward times, and attempts to make love to his ex-wife on the bed of a friend who JUST COMMITTED SUICIDE, he then seduces a 19 year old intern at his magazine (bear in mind he is a 38 year old divorced father of three). I'm supposed to root for this guy!? (less)
Since I was heading to Nola for Mardi Gras I wanted to read something topical about the city. New Orleans, Mon Amour, was written by fellow Romanian a...moreSince I was heading to Nola for Mardi Gras I wanted to read something topical about the city. New Orleans, Mon Amour, was written by fellow Romanian and poet Andrei Codrescu, and is a compilation of all the writing he has done over the years about his adopted home. The longer essays were excellent. Through entertaining anecdotes and poetic prose Codrescu provides a surrealist picture of a surreal city. The stories seem too wild to be true, but after being there, I realized that nothing is too wild to be true in New Orleans.
The problem with the book was that the majority of it was one or two page non-sequiters that are loosely about the city. Taken individually each of these is highly readable and poignant, but as part of a compilation they tended to drag and repeat.(less)
In Breaks of the Game, David Halberstam explores the 1979-80 Blazers. Explores might be a strange word choice, but I'm not sure what else to call what...moreIn Breaks of the Game, David Halberstam explores the 1979-80 Blazers. Explores might be a strange word choice, but I'm not sure what else to call what he does. In telling the story of their season, he provides backstory on everyone from the President on down to the janitor. He gets to know the players, their wives, their agents, their 4th grade teachers. It is amazingly comprehensive, and gives what might be a rather blasé season (a first round playoff exit) an epic lens, since we know what is at stake for everyone involved.
I only give this 4 stars because at times the backstories could overtake the present intrigue. We spend more time learning about what makes coach Jack Ramsay tick then actually watching the ticking occur. But what also elevates this story to 4 stars is the fact that it is the most thorough examination of the circus of modern sports that I have read. Halberstam is at his best when he goes a little Vonnegut on basketball, looking at it from the perspective of the ultimate outsider, and marveling that this professional sphere even exists. I caused me to marvel as well, and reflect on the joy, frustration, and weirdness that is sport.(less)
Charles P. Pierce has called The Friends of Eddie Coyle "the greatest novel ever written about Boston". He called the first line "the greatest opening...moreCharles P. Pierce has called The Friends of Eddie Coyle "the greatest novel ever written about Boston". He called the first line "the greatest opening sentence of any American novel not written by Herman Melville." Charles P. Pierce is a fantastic writer, and so, living in the Boston area (Cambridge), I was highly anticipating this book.
It was fun to read about the dark criminal past of the city, with gun deals going down in places familiar to me - the Fresh Pond Mall, Central Square, the Boston Common. The story was very fast paced, with dialogue between hoods providing most of the action. But for the most part, it felt like fairly standard noir - cops and robbers. The characters were cool, the dialogue witty, but the book didn't feel like it was about the city so much as taking place within the city. It was good. It wasn't great.(less)
Reading a classic reminds me of visiting a city. You hear the name so many times, say Rome, or New Orleans, and then you go and experience it and find...moreReading a classic reminds me of visiting a city. You hear the name so many times, say Rome, or New Orleans, and then you go and experience it and find that your preconceived notions don't quite match. Slaughterhouse Five shattered my concept of what it, or literature for that matter, could be. Ball Four was a rare case of my preconceived notions almost matching up. I didn't realize it was written in journal form, and I greatly enjoyed that aspect of it, but otherwise it hit every beat I was hoping it would. Jim Bouton provides an immensely entertaining glimpse into professional baseball in 1969. My favorite moments were the descriptions of banter, and the goofy antics the players got into. It reminded me of Bill Lee's descriptions of Major League life. Baseball, with all its downtime and idiosyncrasies as a sport, seems to bring out the weird in people. The afterword and after-afterword were a bit boring, as they were just about what happened to Bouton since Ball Four was written, but the meat of the book was awesomely entertaining. (less)
Undaunted Courage is amazingly informative, and fantastically boring. This is an excellent historical work, and oh so dry. I read it because, after my...moreUndaunted Courage is amazingly informative, and fantastically boring. This is an excellent historical work, and oh so dry. I read it because, after my own cross-country trip last summer, I wanted to know more about the original cross-country trip. I found out that I knew shockingly little. To paraphrase Ratatouille, they could fill a whole book with what I didn't know about Lewis and Clark...and they have.
It is almost necessarily dry. This is because, in describing the journey, Ambrose has to rely on their journals. Though we do get a fair amount of detail, any insight beyond how many miles they made that day and how many buffalo were shot is pretty much conjecture. (There are well-described moments of excitement and drama, but they are the exception to the rule). At times, Ambrose is a bit flighty in his conjecture - he clearly is aware of the need to present his subjects dramatically, and will spend a paragraph explaining how Lewis must have been amazing at walking; his long strides, his ability to take in the natural world around him, both far and near, so as not to trip over objects directly in front of him, his mind constantly curious and marveling, etc. Maybe this is entirely accurate. Or maybe Lewis tripped over shit constantly.
At other times, Ambrose's conjecture, in fairness to all possible scenarios, lasts pages and presents every possible scenario. He has a historian's obsessive need to include a whole lot of background. Most of it was informative, but some of it seemed like overkill.
A few tidbits I learned:
- People were hilariously awful at spelling back in the day. Like, really bad. Like, first grade inventive spelling bad.
- White people were awful to all non-white people.
- Lewis gets shot in the ass during the expedition, probably due to friendly fire.
- Only a few years after the expedition, an in-debt, alcoholic, drug-crazed Lewis killed himself.
- People already knew the boundaries of the United States (Captain Cook had been to the mouth of the Columbia), and many fur traders had been as far as the Dakotas. But no white people had ever passed over the Rockies. So the expedition basically filled in the blanks (I had previously thought that no one knew what lay out West). Furthermore, much of this territory was claimed by the French, Spanish, or British. The US is kind of lucky to have ended up with so much of it.
All in all, Undaunted Courage was an informative slog. I'm glad I read it. I'm glad I'm done reading it.(less)
There were some inspired moments of Ghost Rider. Peart's story is incredibly heartbreaking - losing his daughter and wife within a year, he took to th...moreThere were some inspired moments of Ghost Rider. Peart's story is incredibly heartbreaking - losing his daughter and wife within a year, he took to the road on his motorcycle and it became an experience that helped him heal. What was frustrating about the book was how much of it was quoting his own journal or copy/pasting letters he wrote to friends while on the road. Granted these provide honest insight into his mindset, but I felt like he relied on it too much. He often repeated sentiments in these letters and I just didn't get why he wouldn't edit those out. Solid at times, frustrating at others. (less)
This was so boring. I wanted to like it. I even read the 40 page, dry, academic intro. And there were parts in the intro that got me excited for what...moreThis was so boring. I wanted to like it. I even read the 40 page, dry, academic intro. And there were parts in the intro that got me excited for what I was about to read: the travel sketches of a Zen master and haiku poet. The translator clearly has great reverence for these works, and sees in them a depth that was just not apparent to me. Travel writing in the 17th century wasn't what it is today, and most of the writing was pretty matter-of-fact: "After lingering in Sakata for several days, I left on a long walk of one hundred and thirty miles to the capital of the province of Kaga." There was a lot of this; names of provinces and mountains and barrier-gates that didn't mean much to me. It is fascinating, from a distance, that these records still exist, and the haikus were decent, but it was slow, painful reading.(less)