I wandered through the library pulling books off the shelves with no design, no intent, just letting the universe guide my first round of winter breakI wandered through the library pulling books off the shelves with no design, no intent, just letting the universe guide my first round of winter break reading. We have a small, outdated public library; usually I have to request books in advance or go in with a battle plan to find what I want to read, so this was complete surrender to the contingent. I grabbed this compilation because I missed it last year, and when I got home I found out that Christopher Hitchens had just died.
I didn't know how I felt about Hitchens, so I read a few interviews with him online. I still don't know exactly how I feel about Hitchens the polemic*, but Hitchens the editor wrote a love letter to the essay in the introduction that charmed me:
"When I was very young I lived in a remote village on the edge of an English moorland. Every week, a mobile library would stop near my house, and I would step up through the back door of a large ban to find its carpeted interior lined with bookshelves... (If I live to see retirement, I would quite like to be the driver of such a vehicle, bringing books to eager young readers like a Librarian in the Rye.) One day I took a chance on a collection of science fiction stories. One of these concerned a weary teacher who picked up the scrawled "compositions" of his class after the children had piled them on his desk, and found at the bottom a letter from the future. Bound in luminous green plastic, it was headed in oddly shaped characters: "An Essy. By Jon Grom." I was struck by this simple contrivance and also found myself noticing, as if for the first time, that an essay is really a try, an attempt, even an adventure. It also holds its meaning as a test, as in its cognate "assay"--wish is useful, since the assayer's job is to tell base metals from true gold--and as a trial, or a putting to the proof... the jaunty original French word essai still connotes a challenge, a good try, an effort, even a first draft.
We are not likely to reach a time when the need of such things as curiosity, irony, debunking, disputation, and elegy will become satisfied. For the present, we must resolve to essay, essay, and essay again."
The collection is clearly curated by Hitchens: natural wonder at art ("Gyromancy") and writing ("Lunching on Olympus") and science ("My Genome, My Self") and human history ("The Gettysburg Regress") is its unifying force.
I've definitely read better essays, but as a collection this held together. Favorites: "The Murder of Leo Tolstoy," "Irreconcilable Dissonance," "When Writers Speak," "Speaking in Tongues."
'"And what would you go there to see, exactly?" asked one culture-minded friend. She has a point. Lagos has few museums, not too many antiquities, onl'"And what would you go there to see, exactly?" asked one culture-minded friend. She has a point. Lagos has few museums, not too many antiquities, only a handful of public spaces of buildings of note, and stunningly little natural beauty. It does, however, have a reputation for crime, and lots and lots of people. But people are interesting. So is crime.' p268
Those last two lines made me laugh in recognition; pretty much every journalism student I know here (myself included!) feels the same way. Why are you a journalist? Because people are interesting! So is crime. It's especially strong in Conover. Curious, willing, unpretentious and matter-of-fact, those lines also sum up his writing. Stylistically, he's not my favorite literary journalist, but I doubt he'd call himself a writer of creative nonfiction, so we're probably okay. He's a hard reporter writing long-form investigative pieces, following a question in trucks and down rivers until it's answered, generating more questions that, one by one, they quietly join the migration patterns of current debates on globalization. He's clever about turning the story of an individual into a national issue like that. He can also convey character in a few gestures, populating his roads with citizens bright and real. I love Conover's sharp detail and resonate with his sense of narrative in all things. His writing is clunky sometimes, especially in the section on road metaphors. There are some short and reflective vignettes interspersed between chapters, and although they seem out of place they do temper the pace of the book and, in some instances, lighten and personalize the tone. ...more
There's a passage in The White Tiger where the main character, Balram, flees seamlessly from a red-light district in New Dehli to a black market in liThere's a passage in The White Tiger where the main character, Balram, flees seamlessly from a red-light district in New Dehli to a black market in literature. Looking for an entirely different sort of pleasure, he accidentally invades what is to him one of the wonders of the world: "tens of thousands of dirty, rotting, blackened books on every subject" (215). Balram wanders, ecstatic.
When I was (more of) a kid in suburban New Jersey, my parents used to bum around town with us in the evenings. But a night out on the town in Freehold doesn't make it past seven, and we would inevitably end up in the local bookstore. Here, impossibly curled into some corner, I would read snatches of Brian Jacques' Redwall series. The first time I finished a book, the usual feeling of wholeness was marred by a jarring thought: had I stolen it? I was buying books, but not this particular one. Yet I'd read it, right under the nose of the matronly children's bookseller. It was the perfect crime, the invisible heist of a pocket-sized universe: now mine. When we passed the wooden doors with our green plastic bag I thrilled with the guilt and pleasure of knowledge; our bag was one book short, and not even the most science-fiction of security alarms could probe where it was hidden.
The under-the-café-table book dealings of ten year-old American me is a shadow of Balram's primal lust for language. He wanders the stalls, stroking books diseased with silverfish, "never paying anyone a single rupee, flipping through books for free, looting bookseller after bookseller all evening long". His excitement is physical. Balram badgers a Muslim bookseller into translating a poem for him. He adopts the couplet "you were looking for the key for years/But the door was always open" as his mantra, later asking the bookseller if "a man could make himself vanish with poetry". Black magic, frets the bookseller, and their fragile link shatters. Balram chants this couplet as he beats his way out of the "Darkness" of the slums with a broken liquor bottle. He emerges in the "Light" of India's burgeoning Bangladesh with a burden, a business, books and a laptop that he (The White Tiger: murderer, philosopher, entrepreneur) uses to send the Premier of China his story, the story we've just finished....more
I feel like I'm especially critical this year. There was a lot of hype about this book, but I don't think I had unduly high expectations. After all, II feel like I'm especially critical this year. There was a lot of hype about this book, but I don't think I had unduly high expectations. After all, I'd only heard about it a week before I picked it up from the library. Maybe it was an accident of ordering-- this book paled after the emotional ferocity of Mary Yukari Waters' The Favorites, which is my favorite book of the summer.
Solid, predictable. The plot devices showed through the prose and lazy characters. Not as atmospheric as I'd like in a historical novel-- I really did not feel as if I were in Old Hollywood. ...more
I don't know why I liked this book so much. The sly disconnect? It felt like one of those dissonant French new wave movies with characters who compulsI don't know why I liked this book so much. The sly disconnect? It felt like one of those dissonant French new wave movies with characters who compulsively state feelings belied by their actions-- except in Brooklyn and Taiwan and on drugs. No deep truths about modern life, but some cutting one-liners (which may be its own truth).
It also felt like being trapped in a decent McSweeny's article, which I can accept. ...more
Oh, Walden. Such a pretty, problematic book. He grumbles and preaches and is hypocritical and prejudiced, then he has these flashes of brilliance in tOh, Walden. Such a pretty, problematic book. He grumbles and preaches and is hypocritical and prejudiced, then he has these flashes of brilliance in the middle of a ten-page digression on beans. My favorite parts are the more melancholy and subdued vignettes, the parts where he is the least self-aware and most searching. So much of Walden reads like a riddle.
"I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travelers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who have heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves." ...more
I bought this collection at a $1 bookstore because I mistook the author for Myla Goldberg, who is on my to-read list. I am happy to report that this bI bought this collection at a $1 bookstore because I mistook the author for Myla Goldberg, who is on my to-read list. I am happy to report that this book was fine. ...more
George Saunders is diluted in nothing but George Saunders. These stories should be read in the wild as they are written or parceled out at bedtime, deGeorge Saunders is diluted in nothing but George Saunders. These stories should be read in the wild as they are written or parceled out at bedtime, definitely not in a row on a Sunday afternoon. Sorry, George. If I were recommending this book to myself, I might shoo past the more dystopian ones. Saunders' impish, askew voice pairs better with the simple and wistful. ...more
Four stars up until part three - it really should have ended before the writing teacher's segment, which took a lot of the mystery away and didn't endFour stars up until part three - it really should have ended before the writing teacher's segment, which took a lot of the mystery away and didn't end as strongly as part two did. ...more