I accidentally (though I'm not willing to discount the power of the subconscious) started Michael Pollan's wonderful Second Nature: A Gardener's EducaI accidentally (though I'm not willing to discount the power of the subconscious) started Michael Pollan's wonderful Second Nature: A Gardener's Education while in the midst of buying my first house. This had two results: it took me dreadfully long to finish a book I loved, and it gave me an appreciation of the ownership of land that I surely wound't have come by otherwise.
The book is a lot of things, but the parts I connected with the most were the things I've loved about Pollan for as long as I've known his work: his enviable knowledge of history and horticulture, and his gift for drawing in well-considered philosophical musings on what might otherwise be a dry subject. But the smattering of negative reviews on Goodreads notwithstanding, I didn't find this to be boring or overlong at all. I'd happily follow Pollan on any number of intellectual meanderings, and indeed Second Nature is full of them. It doesn't hurt that his prose, even in this very early work, is lively and sardonic.
This is the first gardening book I've ever read (I fear he's set the bar impossibly high), and it had the predictable effect of making me want to get outside with my hands in the soil as soon as possible. There are still a million projects to work on at the house, but I'll be tackling the outside ones with more intelligence and consideration than I would have without Pollan's superb guidance...more
I'm now at the point in my Michael Pollan fandom that I can't conceive why anyone wouldn't absolutely love him. That makes me a lousy candidate for anI'm now at the point in my Michael Pollan fandom that I can't conceive why anyone wouldn't absolutely love him. That makes me a lousy candidate for an objective review of The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, but I maintain that it's an excellent book, filled with seemingly effortless sentences containing enough insight that whole articles of exploration might be made of them.
The sentences, of course, aren't effortless: either labored over by the author or the product of a thoroughgoing editing process or, most likely, both. But his voice never feels stiff or bloodless or self-consciously anything. It retains that naturally down-to-earth-but-still-intellectually-curious tone that he perfected in The Omnivore's Dilemma, making him the perfect guide to those spaces where civilization intersects with nature (and quick to point out that such an anthropogenic distinction is foolish at best).
I think Botany is a bit more even than Omnivore's, which I remembered as having one section (his exploration of fungi) towering over the others in complexity and philosophy. While I did think that his thoughts on intoxication's necessity to civilization were better than the other sections here, it was only marginally so. Read this, read this. Everyone: read this....more
Neil deGrasse Tyson's Death by Black Hold: And Other Cosmic Quandaries is kind of like Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey but with more dad jokes.
I mean thatNeil deGrasse Tyson's Death by Black Hold: And Other Cosmic Quandaries is kind of like Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey but with more dad jokes.
I mean that in a good way, of course. I came to this book hoping for a more thorough explanation of what Tyson covers in that altogether excellent miniseries, and I wasn't disappointed. To be sure, a lot of the information repeats across both, but the reiteration is useful if only for the reinforcement of concepts that are (to my not-at-all-scientifically-educated mind) sometimes difficult to grasp. But Tyson's biggest strength is easily his ability to communicate scientific material to dunces like me, and that strength is evident in this work. The humor, a little ham-fisted at times, or self-consciously pocket-protector nerdy, sweetens the deal.
What I found myself wanting, though, is the sense of wonder that Cosmos so routinely engenders, an aspect that I had assumed would be even more pronounced in his written work. And perhaps it is, just not in Death by Black Hole. But there's something awe-inducing ("awesome" doesn't quite capture it) about the way he presents the universe in that program---something, if you can permit the word, nearly spiritual---and I was hungry for a deeper exploration of that. Not that the book needs to be paeans to the breathtaking beauty of nebulae (but, hey, I would've read that), but he seemed a little reluctant to put his heart on the page here. It's certainly not the last Tyson book I'm planning to read, though, and I'm looking forward to seeing what else he has to offer....more
Author with literary fiction chops tackles Stephen King material? Excellent sentence-level writer dickering around witAll right, well: I don't get it.
Author with literary fiction chops tackles Stephen King material? Excellent sentence-level writer dickering around with horror/fantasy, which we feel guilty saying, so we're calling it "magical realism" because that's somehow more acceptable? Enormous talent breaking down borders between literary and genre fiction?
Maybe I'm just too firmly entrenched in the latter, but this was a total slog for me. I kept waiting to get past the experimental/genre stuff and luxuriate over her character development and sentences, and resenting the whole damn endeavor. Too often the genre exercises (and these do feel like exercises) read like they were masking an uncertainty on the author's part---a reluctance to end the stories satisfactorily, maybe, or the worry that the plot couldn't live up to the excellent descriptions/interiority. I'll promise a gold star to anyone who can explain to me why a publication as good as Granta would publish a story like "The Barn at the End of Our Term," in which randomly selected former U.S. presidents have been reincarnated as horses. Was this funny, and that was the point? Am I the only one not laughing? What the fuck?
Double gold stars if you're able to explain why "Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating" is worth reading past the first, say, paragraph....more
Once I stopped fussing over whether or not Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad was metafiction ("What, the omniscient narrator is now so out oOnce I stopped fussing over whether or not Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad was metafiction ("What, the omniscient narrator is now so out of fashion that we mistake it for metafiction?"), I was able to let myself sink in to what is easily one of the most engaging, original, and heartbreaking books I've read in years. That Pulitzer tag on the cover: oh so well deserved.
I know I'm coming to this party kind of late, but I was just smitten with Goon Squad, and astounded that she was able to pull it off as masterfully as she does. So few books do I feel I've honest-to-God learned something from, but here I can say, without hesitation, that I did. Not facts, of course, but a glimpse at what it's like to not-so-gracefully age, and to feel yourself being helplessly pulled toward "old" age, with "old" merely being older than whatever age you currently are. And at thirty years old, that message seems terribly important to me, and feels as if it must be the book's lively beating heart. We see these characters decades apart, and they're the same people, but not, really. How dumb it is to sum it up like that--how trite it sounds by itself--but it's extraordinarily powerful in Egan's masterful hands, and I was unprepared for how taken aback by it as I was.
Oh, and: I still don't think it's metafictive. Or I don't really give a shit anymore, and am unsure about where I heard it was in the first place. That's irrelevant. The book's perfect, whatever its label....more
My guess is that how much you like Cormac McCarthy's The Orchard Keeper is directly proportional to how much patience you have for a line like the folMy guess is that how much you like Cormac McCarthy's The Orchard Keeper is directly proportional to how much patience you have for a line like the following:
They go on---steps soft now in the rank humus earth, or where carapaced with lichens the texture of old green velvet, or wet and spongy earth tenoned with roots, the lecherous ganglia of things growing---coming down, pursuing the shadowline into the smoking river valley.
I'm of two minds about it, I guess. On one hand, hardly anyone is paying attention to the sentence-level the way McCarthy is here. (Keep in mind, though, that this was published in 1965.) On the other, this reads like self-indulgent nonsense when I'm feeling less generous.
Granted, he's an enormously gifted writer, and this is an astonishing first novel. I probably would have published it too, just to get him on my roster. But this reads more like a historical document to me (look at how overwritten and unconfident McCarthy was at the beginning!) than a novel still viable or instructive for a modern reader. Or, as another reviewer so memorably put it, "This novel was meant to be admired, not explained." I keep thinking I'm going to love a McCarthy book (I remember being pretty underwhelmed with the lauded Blood Meridian), but I just haven't found the damn thing yet....more
Since reading it, I've maintained that Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States ought to be required reading for every American. AfterSince reading it, I've maintained that Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States ought to be required reading for every American. After finishing Barbara Ehrenreich's marvelous Nickel and Dimed, I'm inclined to include her book as Zinn's necessary follow-up. Income inequality has only become more pressing in the decade-plus since the book's publication, and the discoveries that she makes---discoveries that all of us know, if we're being honest with ourselves---warrant widespread attention.
It's distressing, then, to see here the hordes of the Goodreads half-informed (oh how many of you there are!) chastising Ehrenreich for what they perceive to be a well-off, privileged woman on a poverty vacation. In fact, it's her honesty about her situation and relative privilege that make the book so compelling. She's not pretending to be someone she isn't, and it's not like she's coming from extreme wealth, anyway. She owns up to pretty much everything---that she gets to leave this life of poverty behind, that any real danger is always at arms' length---and people attack her for it. What might she have done to make this resonate even more? Abandon all worldly possessions? Commit to another year of poverty? Another ten? It's all bellyaching, anyway. The points she raises, and the eloquence and humor and candor she shows in raising those points, trump any ad hominem you throw at her.
And those points are troubling and, as she states in the book's conclusion, deeply shameful. The chasm between the rich and poor in America grows more each year, and I'm not just talking about numbers here---I sense an ideological and cultural shift as well, where someone making six figures has little in common with someone making six an hour. Worse yet, the pernicious idiocy of the "conservative" classes, who blame the poor for their plight, makes this chasm all the more worrisome. But the fact is that the deck is stacked impossibly against them. Fuck, there isn't even a deck anymore; the illusion that someone might pull themselves out of their situation simply through hard work is the type of argument deployed only by the loathsome radio pundit or his league of ready believers. And that's what makes Nickel and Dimed so profound, so necessary. She shows, firsthand, how enormously difficult it is to make it out of that world, and the various ways in which those in power maintain it. Often it's the wormy middle-management types, who keep the working classes terrified of losing what little bit they have. But those wormy nobodies wouldn't exist without the privileged, super-rich, ruling classes who've created and reinforced the structures that keep the majority of the population down.
What would I change with Nickel and Dimed? Not much, though it could've been twice as long and still engrossing, and I do think it might've been helpful to offer some suggestions on how the well-to-do who read it can help. (Don't fucking shop at Wal-Mart! Tip your servers! Stop acting like the people who bag your groceries and clean your toilets aren't other living, breathing human beings!) Still, though, this book is eye-opening and galvanizing, and very highly recommended....more
Dark without being entirely cheerless, Marcel Theroux's Far North ranks among the best post-apocalyptic books I've read, full of beautiful turns of phDark without being entirely cheerless, Marcel Theroux's Far North ranks among the best post-apocalyptic books I've read, full of beautiful turns of phrase and the narrator/protagonist's hard-won and clear-eyed philosophies on the nature of man. To be sure, it's a grim perspective on how things might turn out, should we end up irrevocably fucking up the environment and turning against each other.
What works especially well here is Theroux's attention not only to what we've retained in this post-apocalypse, but the things we've forgotten. Makepeace seems as curious (and ill informed) about the past that precedes her as the average layperson now might be about, say, the Romans. Information is handed down to Makepeace in a fraught and fractured way, and while she's adept at hunting and survival, she's marveled by something as (relatively, to us anyway) simple as an airplane. It's not something I've seen before in this setting, and Theroux uses it to good effect---there's an ironic distance between ourselves and Makepeace, even though we inevitably root for her. She so often appears to be the last remnant of what many of us would consider to be humanity: decency, kindness, empathy.
And she's all of these things in a world that has little use for them, and equally assertive that she retain those qualities despite the continued effort of pretty much everyone to strip them from her. As might be expected, violence and strength from the hands of an almost entirely male population are what govern society. Parties are kept at bay through force and through the controlled access to information---everyone wants to know what else might be happening the next town or country over. Without giving too much away, Makepeace encounters a variety of shrewd, awful people who hold power simply because they know more than the others. This results in the inevitable I'm-going-to-tell-you-all-my-master-plan type ending, which is really the only cliché in a wildly original and inventive book. ...more
I'm likely in the minority for having read Peter Heller's The Dog Stars before reading Cormac McCarthy's more famous and already-adapted-to-film The RI'm likely in the minority for having read Peter Heller's The Dog Stars before reading Cormac McCarthy's more famous and already-adapted-to-film The Road, but I'm not sure my admiration for this book would've dissipated at all if I felt like he were treading on already-trod ground. I mean, let's face it: we've been interested in the what-if-I-were-among-the-last-living-people scenario for about as long as we've been self-aware, and Heller's take on this downright primordial fear is as fresh and engaging as any I've seen.
My favorite passage, worth quoting at length and following what is perhaps the saddest point in the book (no spoilers!):
There is a pain you can't think your way out of. You can't talk it away. If there were someone to talk to. You can walk. One foot the other foot. Breathe in breathe out. Drink from the stream. Piss. Eat the venison strips. Leave his venison in the trail for the coyotes the jays. And. You can't metabolize the loss. It is in the cells of your face, your chest, behind the eyes, in the twists of your gut. Muscle sinew bone. It is all of you.
The book's dark, of course, but he manages to avoid maudlin. It's scary and its plot is propulsive, too, but it remains firmly in the literary realm. It's really just a marvel of balancing, and likely to delight a vast array of readers. As you likely gathered from the passage quoted above, his work on the sentence-level is interestingly disjointed, but profound. Hig, the narrator, is a former poet, and his facility with language comes through again and again. It's a nice contrast to the (albeit halting and regretting) killing that's a necessary part of living in the post-apocalyptic world that Hig inhabits.
Remarkable to see how well-developed Rimbaud's voice is at an astonishingly young eighteen, and exciting, too, to see how influential this must've beeRemarkable to see how well-developed Rimbaud's voice is at an astonishingly young eighteen, and exciting, too, to see how influential this must've been for poets I've admired in the past. Ginsberg, especially, seems indebted to A Season in Hell, and any number of rock musicians who've aped his youthful abandon and anger and worked to turn those into something meaningful. Everything here is pretty damn bleak---bleak in the exaggerated way only an eighteen-year-old might be, but I liked it for that reason....more
Does anyone remember A Field Guide to the Urban Hipster? David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise reads like a more thorough, more damning, more important versDoes anyone remember A Field Guide to the Urban Hipster? David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise reads like a more thorough, more damning, more important version of that fairly disposable lark: an entertaining and pretty spot-on description of people who are now making the bulk of the decisions (and money) in American society today.
What was most interesting here was how the book remains relevant even a decade past its date of publication, no small feat for a sociological romp such as this. These people, as Brooks describes them, remain as insufferable and damaging as ever, and only in the final chapter describing their politics does the book feel dated and in need of a sequel. The ascent of technology, and our unflagging belief in its efficacy, would make for a great inclusion here---Brooks hints at this, of course, but the ascent of King Google seems the culmination of all the Bobo feel-good-ed-ness that he describes so bitingly. It would've been wonderful to see him take it on here, though I'm sure he's done it elsewhere, and to see how he might place the Bush and Obama administrations in the context of Bobos.
It was more than a little saddening to see him retreat near the book's conclusion, where he acquiesces and claims that the Bobos' lifestyle (now there's a Bobo word) is in many ways superior to the previous ruling classes, and that their intentions are pure-ish, even if their execution leaves something to be desired.
But that feels like a very real retreat. After so accurately and memorably portraying their rampant consumerism and the disagreeable way they've managed to justify their greed to themselves (a $300 pair of shoes isn't wasteful if 1% of my purchase helps kids in the Amazon!), a braver writer, or a more moral one, might've taken them to task, and asked for a more honest approach to living. Instead, he does exactly what he's shown the Bobos to do: he compromises. He allows that they've done a lot of good, these Bobos, and that they have the potential to do even more good. It's all so feel-good and saccharine one's stomach can be forgiven for turning. Maybe he does it to offset any alienation his readership might've experienced (god forbid they actually look at themselves in the mirror), but it's infuriating to read. There was a chance here to actually criticize, but his own affiliation with the group seems to handicap that. Instead of a condemnation, it reads as a soft, look-at-how-silly-we-all-are retreat, so that those readers who do indeed fit Brooks' Bobo mold can safely distance themselves from the very real critique he offers earlier in the book, and lie comfortably in their very expensive, very environmentally sustainable beds....more
Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is widely considered to be the first English novel, and I guess it's unrealistic to expect the first one to be any goodDaniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is widely considered to be the first English novel, and I guess it's unrealistic to expect the first one to be any good. I'm willing to set aside the racism and preposterous religiosity that so many other reviewers have commented upon (it is, after all, written by an Englishman in the early eighteenth century, and such oversights are too easily criticized from our relatively more enlightened vantage), but the book's other problems are so many that it's hard to have much love for it.
I'd been interested in the book for some time. I recalled my boyhood love for Gary Paulsen's wonderful Hatchet, and had hoped that Robinson Crusoe might provide the adult version of that excitement: a human being, adrift and alone, using his ingenuity to not only survive but thrive. That's there, I suppose, but the pacing is dismal and Crusoe an altogether uninteresting protagonist, short on reflection of much weight. After reading so much of his writing, I still feel like he's a stranger to me, and not in a way that's interesting or instructive. I'd hoped for something mythic here (like Conrad's Heart of Darkness), but it never quite reached anything close to that. Part of it, of course, is the antiquated writing---the printing I read maintained his curious old spellings and bizarre italicization---but that's only part of it. Plenty of books resonate with modern readers across vast stretches of time, but I found little of value in Defoe's writing.
Some classic English novels are worth revisiting. This ain't one of 'em....more
I found Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals to be at its best when it's in conversation with Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: a kind of vegeI found Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals to be at its best when it's in conversation with Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: a kind of vegetarian rebuttal to Pollan's deservedly well-known book. I'm more inclined to agree more with Foer's perspective than Pollan's (indeed, he makes a convincing argument that a "conscientious omnivore," as Pollan would have it, is something of a delusion), but here's the rub: Pollan's just a better writer than Foer, at least for nonfiction, and Omnivore's Dilemma is a better book than Eating Animals.
Perhaps it's unfair to compare the two, even though Foer himself seems to implicitly acknowledge that most people reading his book have probably already read Pollan's. And perhaps it's unfair, too, that I read Omnivore's well in advance of Eating Animals, when I was much less educated about the subject and my eating habits were much more malleable. But while agreed with what Foer was arguing (I'm a vegetarian, though I resist applying that title), there wasn't much on the page that didn't simply reaffirm what I already knew or felt or suspected. In other words, having loved his previous two books, I was hoping Foer might bring something to this discussion that I hadn't seen before, much like Pollan's thoroughgoing book had done for me years ago. Eating Animals was perfectly competent, but there were no big surprises here for me, no ruminations I haven't found elsewhere, no decidedly Foeresque passages that made me fall in love with his writing in the first place. He begins to discuss the implications of not only making the decision to avoid meat but the onus being on the vegetarian to convince others to make the same decision (something that I have extremely mixed feelings about), but we never really get that discussion, one I'd sincerely hoped he'd explore.
That's partially on me, I guess: I avoided this book for a while because I think it's dangerous to read things that you know are likely to reinforce values and beliefs that you already have. But I picked it up anyway. And while it was a fast, enjoyable read, I don't know that I'd recommend it to anyone who's already eating a vegetarian or vegan diet.
All you omnivores, however, might be well-served to read what Foer has to offer. As he says, a severely fucked-up meat industry is something that most people suspect but don't really explore, and Eating Animals would make a fine first step into that exploration. If anything, this book seems to be aimed at those people who have their suspicions but aren't doing much about them---like most vegetarians and vegans I know, Foer is extremely careful to be respectful of others' decisions to eat meat, especially since he's eaten so much of it himself. That's a valuable function, of course, but this one might be skippable if you're already on the team....more
I used to think that Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road was the best domestic drama I'd ever read; now I'll have to add Fitzgerald's astonishing TheI used to think that Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road was the best domestic drama I'd ever read; now I'll have to add Fitzgerald's astonishing The Beautiful and the Damned as, perhaps, its equal.
To be sure, there seems to be no match for Fitzgerald's prose---it's elegant and honest and unsparing, and consistently so---and, after being slightly underwhelmed by This Side of Paradise, I was surprised by how thoroughly this early novel demonstrates his mastery. Anthony and Gloria are deeply flawed and therefore deeply human characters; those reviewers who find their interest in the book flagging given how detestable the protagonists are seem to miss the point entirely. What's remarkable to me is not how memorably Fitzgerald depicts their inevitable decline, but how he's able to do that after so beautifully constructing their love for one another and, to a lesser extent, their love for themselves. It's pessimistic, sure, but it's far from being one-note. Its pessimism is the philosophy that undergirds every exchange, every experience. Like all youths, the characters envision themselves special, somehow separate from the world, immune to its horrors, because everything in their lives to that point has affirmed such conceit. When they're surprised to find that none of that is really true, only the most callous reader can take pleasure in their plight. They're pitiful, and pitiable.
There are too many perfect, single lines to pull from that might demonstrate how wonderfully Fitzgerald gets emotion and experience on the page---nearly every sentence here dazzles. The boredom of youth, the ghastly allure of drink, the transience of beauty and intelligence: it's all there. I dare say, even though I know it's note really true, that they don't write 'em like this any more....more
Not quite the unmitigated brilliance of The Corrections, Franzen's Strong Motion is an agreeable counterpart to his later work, an achievement in itNot quite the unmitigated brilliance of The Corrections, Franzen's Strong Motion is an agreeable counterpart to his later work, an achievement in its own right, a crystal-clear indicator of his accomplishments-to-be.
What surprised me the most here is that it actually gets better in its latter sections, and not just because I cared more about the characters as it moved along; I think the closing chapters are simply better-written than the early ones. How Franzen makes dilatory digressions as interesting as he does---his long sections of moralizing, or stating "the way things are" for Americans or the wealthy or women or whatever subject it is that he's going on about---is a feat worthy of admiration. And he seems to allow himself more of these digressions as the plot moves along, perhaps because there's more happening in the story, too. They're the two sides to the same coin, and a worthy lesson to anyone writing fiction: if you want to get away with that type of writing, you need to buoy it with some swift plotting as well. Franzen, of course, makes it look effortless. (T. C. Boyle could take a fucking hint.)
It's imperfect, of course, but I like its imperfections. He probably should've let an editor pare this down a bit, and this one's unlikely to convince those readers who are predisposed to dislike his brand of fiction. But for those of us already on the bandwagon, the pleasures of Strong Motion are many....more
Maybe this is idiotic, but O Pioneers!, Willa Cather's almost universally agreed-upon masterpiece, didn't do nearly as much for me as My Antonia or, mMaybe this is idiotic, but O Pioneers!, Willa Cather's almost universally agreed-upon masterpiece, didn't do nearly as much for me as My Antonia or, more to the point, her criminally underrated short fiction. Which isn't to say that O Pioneers! is a bad novel---to claim that would be insane, of course---but there was something a little too polite here for my tastes, a little too timid in terms of mining the depths of its characters.
It's surely a personal preference and not some downfall of Cather or Pioneers. I just kept waiting for something more dramatic to happen (the murder near the end of the book notwithstanding), or for Cather's writing to elevate itself above B-level Hemingway. In short, I'm not sure that O Pioneers! is the best entry point for Cather's work that so many tastemakers have claimed it to be.
I'm focusing too much on the negative, though. There is an awful lot to enjoy here, particularly when Cather is writing in her pithy, quotable phrases about life on the homestead or life itself. But had I not known that this was widely considered to be her best, I would've guessed that O Pioneers! was a relatively minor entry in her admirable oeuvre. ...more
Although an imperfect novel, This Side of Paradise seems proof positive that there are few better sentence-level authors than F. Scott Fitzgerald. PubAlthough an imperfect novel, This Side of Paradise seems proof positive that there are few better sentence-level authors than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Published when Fitzgerald was only in his mid-20s, it's a blueprint for the themes that he'd explore throughout much of his career: wealth, status, class, and the inevitable disappointment that comes when you pursue such ghosts.
There's no shortage of drawbacks here: Amory Blaine, the protagonist, is an insufferable little shit, and the things he concerns himself with few readers will want to relate to. But it's Fitzgerald's unflinching honesty in reporting these---who, in their teens and twenties, hasn't been at least somewhat as self-obsessed as Amory?---that elevates the novel above so many similar coming-of-age ones. Moreover, the language here is pitch-perfect: "Scurrying back to Minneapolis," Fitzgerald writes, "to see a girl he had known as a child seemed the interesting thing to do, so without compunction he wired his mother not to expect him... sat in the train, and thought about himself for thirty-six hours." It's vanity, sure, but it's the type of vanity that seems perfectly normal and reasonable when you're young, and the type that Fitzgerald captures with surgical precision, again and again.
Of course, all of that work of painting Amory as an egotistical snob is to set up the book's final third, in which he enters his "disillusioned" phase. And it's in this final third where the book topples under its own weight. It's not that it isn't entirely plausible that Amory will fall into such a depression; it's that he does it too quickly, and Fitzgerald relies too heavily on unrequited love to explain the sudden change in character. I've little doubt that Rosalind rebuffing his affection wouldn't begin his spiral toward anger and quasi-class-consciousness, but there needs to be more external factors (his experience in the war, in particular) that get some more real estate on the page to make sense of Amory becoming who he becomes.
A minor quibble, I suppose, for such a stellar first effort. Like everything Fitzgerald's done, it's worth your attention....more
While not quite as narratively engaging as other micro-histories I've read (David Laskin's The Children's Blizzard seems the high-water mark for thiWhile not quite as narratively engaging as other micro-histories I've read (David Laskin's The Children's Blizzard seems the high-water mark for this type of writing to me), Daniel Okrent's Last Call is an awfully good read, saturated with facts but giving due space to the personalities that shaped this fascinating, beguiling period in American history.
What's remarkable about Last Call is what it's not: while it would've been awful easy to dedicate dozens of pages to the likes of Lucky Luciano and Al Capone, Okrent instead favors the (now largely forgotten) moral crusaders, politicians, single-issue-voters, and well-to-do social improvers who had the most influence on the 18th Amendment and its eventual removal. And while there are places here where the level of detail behind the political movements gets a bit, ahem, dry, it's important to remember that there's an easily digestible Ken Burns documentary for you if you're not interested in this much minutiae. Okrent's thoroughgoing work is likely going to alienate some readers, but this is, after all, a history: it's well-researched and assiduously end-noted, and Okrent still manages to get an admirable amount of his personality on the page. Most interesting were the sections where he focuses on the monumental shift in gender and sexual relations resulting from the federal government's attempt at regulating drink, a subject fascinating enough to bear its own book.
Relatively short on the shootouts and speakeasies that make things like Boardwalk Empire so addictive, but it's not meant to be that, anyway....more
This sounds like a backhanded compliment, but I don't mean it to be: it was surprising to me how easily A Land More Kind Than Home could've gone wrongThis sounds like a backhanded compliment, but I don't mean it to be: it was surprising to me how easily A Land More Kind Than Home could've gone wrong, and how it never, ever did. By which I mean that I've read no shortage of "hicksploitation" narratives---stories and novels that use rural folks as their protagonists without fully understanding those characters---that have tried, and failed, to accomplish what Cash seems to do so effortlessly.
One of the things that works so well is Cash's decision to use multiple POV characters to tell this story, especially because the story is a complicated one: there are (multiple!) deaths, infidelity, backwoods snake-handling, the works. The book jacket likens Cash's writing to Cormac McCarthy, though I'm not quite sure that's it---Cash isn't nearly as sparse or non-emotive as McCarthy, and there are plenty of occasions where the heartstrings are pulled masterfully here. O'Connor seems a closer comparison, though that doesn't quite capture it either. I'll contentedly describe Cash's voice as wholly his own.
I've read books for plenty of dubious reasons, but this one might be the most: my brother sat next to the author on an airplane, and then told me to pick up his book. I'm glad he did. There's plenty to recommend here, a page-turner that asks the reader to luxuriate over the lines....more
I've been told that each book, if it knows what it's doing, informs you how it should be read; few demonstrate that better than Daniel Wallace's Big FI've been told that each book, if it knows what it's doing, informs you how it should be read; few demonstrate that better than Daniel Wallace's Big Fish, an arguably "unconventional" novel that traffics in allegory as much as it does traditional literary fiction. But this thing is a fucking triumph, by nearly every measure.
Much has been made already of the chapter in which Edward leaves home, and I'll second anyone who refers to that chapter as the book's crowning achievement. Just one passage that I can't get past, it's so damn good:
"Everything here seems sort of... damp," my father said. Willie cut him a glance. "You get used to it," he said. "That's what this place is all about, Edward. Getting used to things." "It's not what I want," he said. "That, too," he said. "You get used to that, too."
That's only one example, of course, in the midst of dozens of other arresting, beautiful, impossible-to-boil-down ones. That Wallace manages to achieve so very much in so slim a book is a testament not only to his economy, but to his sense of purpose here. The goal of the book seems simple: to explore the complicated relationship between a father and a son. But of course it does so much more (how could it not?); Wallace makes the wise move to not have Edward be unassailably great, especially in his son's eyes. He's an adulterer, he's ultimately a very timid and maybe even greedy man. But none of those labels are ever applied in the book, merely implied. This all could have very easily veered into the maudlin, or the sentimental, or the didactic, but it never does. Wallace is too good for that.
I've never read another book like this. I don't know that there is one....more