Monthly Archives: January 2011

Thinking of E-Readers

Teresa’s post on the subject of e-readers caught my attention because something similar to her experience has happened to me too. I wasn’t interested in e-readers at all, until all the sudden it turned out that I was. I’ve said for a while now that I have nothing against e-readers per se and that if I ever felt the need for one, I would get it. But I hadn’t felt the need for one. I love paper books and hate the idea of not being able to do some of the things you can do with regular books: flip through them quickly, share them, admire their beautiful, unique covers, smell them, fill bookcases with them.

I think I will always feel this way. But  some of the things you can do with e-readers do appeal to me, one of which is downloading free classics. I spent some time exploring various sites that offer free books (Eva’s post contains links to a number of great sites) and was amazed by what is on offer. I also learned in the last week or so that it’s possible to get review copies of books electronically; Stefanie introduced me to NetGalley, a site where readers can request digital galleys of forthcoming books. I’m also intrigued by the idea of reading magazines on an e-reader.

The truth is, though, that I already own an e-reader: my iPhone. I just haven’t thought of it much as an e-reader; I downloaded book apps a long time ago, but I never took seriously the idea of reading anything that way. The screen seemed too small. However, I was curious enough about NetGalleys to request one of their books to see what reading on an iPhone would be like. and I’m now in the middle of Joyce Carol Oates’s forthcoming memoir A Widow’s Story, all of which I’ve read on the phone. I can also read the book on my computer, of course, but I’ve found I like reading on the phone better; the screen is small, yes, but I can curl up with it much more comfortably on the couch. And the truth is, the small screen doesn’t bother me much. If I were a faster reader, I would get frustrated at having to flip to a new page so often, but at my reading pace, it’s not so bad, and the pages “turn,” or whatever verb is appropriate, very quickly. I can adjust font size, margin size, and screen brightness, and I can bookmark and annotate passages.

But still, having a larger screen would be nice, and hence a new e-reader. (Also, while I can read ePub files on my iPhone, I can’t read PDFs; the font on those documents is much too small and not easily adjusted, as least as far as I know.) I like the way the Kindle looks, but I don’t like Amazon and don’t want to deal with their finickiness about file types. So I’m thinking about either the Nook or the Kobo. I like the idea of doing what a number of people I know do, which is to use the e-reader only for free books. The number of free classics will only increase, and I have a feeling electronic review copies will become more and more popular, so it seems like there will be plenty of free things to read. It’s funny how quickly I can go from not wanting something to thinking it would be a great idea to have it!

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Currently reading and a giveaway

I have two books on my shelves that I don’t need and would like to give away to anyone who is interested:

  1. Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. It turns out I have two copies of this book and only need one.
  2. Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America. A copy of this book randomly showed up at my house last summer, and I’ve been thinking about whether I want to read it since then, and it turns out I don’t. But someone else might.

If you are interested in either of these books, just leave a comment telling me which one. If there is more than one person interested, I’ll do a drawing. Deadline is Tuesday of next week, midnight. I’m happy to send the books anywhere, so overseas people are welcome to participate.

As for what I’m currently reading, How to Live is one of the books. I’ve read a chapter so far, and it’s good — a little on Montaigne’s life and the purpose of the essays, and a vignette about how Montaigne almost died as a young man and how this changed his thinking about life and death. It’s a biography, but, it seems, not the sort that tells the subject’s story from beginning to end, and I like that.

Also, Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story. I read an excerpt of this in The New Yorker and thought it was very good, so now I’m reading the whole thing. It continues to be good, but harrowing, as you might expect.

I’m also slowly reading “Religio Medici” by Sir Thomas Browne as part of my long-term essay project. Browne isn’t an essayist, exactly, but he appears on John D’Agata’s The Lost Origins of the Essay, and writes in a very interesting personal voice, so it’s appropriate. I’m not particularly interested in learning about the religious conflicts Browne writes about, but his overall attitude and tone are enjoyable. “Hydriotaphia” will be next.

Also Marge Piercy’s poems from The Moon is Always Female, which is good so far, and I hope to start Tove Jannson’s The Summer Book for the Slaves of Golconda soon.

I hope you have an enjoyable bookish weekend!

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PopCo

I think Scarlett Thomas’s novel PopCo is deeply flawed, but I enjoyed it greatly nonetheless. I think it’s perfectly possible for that to be the case; while I occasionally shook my head at the book’s awkwardness, I stayed interested and engaged the whole time and found the ideas it takes up fascinating. Hobgoblin has told me many times how much he liked Thomas’s most recent novel Our Tragic Universe, and I’m looking forward to reading that one too.

Some of the awkwardness of PopCo is the kind of awkwardness that appeals to me: it spends too much time explaining too many things, it’s obsessed with ideas and technical details at the expense of narrative momentum, and it takes its sweet time getting the plot going. It lurches back and forth between background information and mini-lectures on the one hand and present action on the other.

But, fortunately for me, I found the background information and the mini-lectures interesting. They are about a lot of things, but chiefly about math, codes, and code-breaking. The main character is a youngish woman, Alice, who works for the company PopCo, which makes games and toys for children and teenagers. Alice’s job is to make kits for children on spying, detective work, and code-breaking. She has learned all about codes from her cryptanalyst grandfather, and she has a good grasp of math, gained from her mathematician grandmother. Codes aren’t purely cerebral puzzles for Alice, though; her grandfather gave her a necklace when she was young that contains a code her grandparents expect that will she one day crack.

The novel takes place during a company retreat, one of those team-building affairs intended to energize and inspire workers, although surely they more often do the opposite. Alice enjoys her job, but she doesn’t enjoy the intensity of being in such close contact with her colleagues; she has work friends and makes new ones during the course of the novel, but she’s always been a bit of an outsider. This outsider stance comes partly from her uncertainty about the purpose and value of the company; their marketing practices, in particular, seem suspicious to her. She wonders whether they are doing anything that has any value, and whether she is using her knowledge and creativity for a positive purpose. It’s not just her company she’s uncertain about; she wonders about a society that seems to care only for making money at the expense of honesty and integrity. She’s particularly disturbed by PopCo’s practice of making toys that they sell under a fake brand name, not connected with PopCo at all, to appeal to people wanting to be a little different and to buy from small companies, instead of supporting the big corporations all the time. People have no way of knowing the small company they think they are supporting is really just PopCo under another name.

The book takes us through the work retreat; things happen, but they happen slowly, and the narrative frequently jumps back in time to describe Alice’s childhood. It also stops to explain in depth about mathematical concepts, particularly prime numbers, and to describe various types of codes and how to crack them. I found all this interesting, being a bit of a math person myself, but if you’re not, this might be slow going. It’s the kind of book where characters explain things to each other in long stretches of completely unrealistic dialogue; as far as I know, people don’t really talk to each other that way. I have to say I found the ending pretty unrealistic and awkward as well.

But, I’m still fond of the book. Alice is a great character, and I liked the fact that she knows tons of cool stuff, not just about math and codes, but about a whole range of other things. She’s confident in her knowledge in a way that’s appealing. The book’s discussion of consumerism, marketing, and also the pervasiveness of technology, is interesting as well. At 500 pages, the book is too long for the story it has to tell, but still, they were a fun 500 pages.

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New books for the new year

Fellow cyclists, readers, and bloggers Suitcase of Courage and She Knits by the Seashore joined Hobgoblin and me on a now time-honored tradition of taking a trip somewhere interesting and buying lots of books. This time we went to Whitlock’s Book Barn, in Bethany, Connecticut, 20 minutes or so north of New Haven. I love used book shops in barns, and this one had two of them, one of them, as the woman working there explained, for books $5 and up, and the other for books under $5. They had a very interesting selection in both barns, with unusually large sections of literary criticism. I found lots of good books, of which I brought home the following:

  • Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace of Desire. I read and enjoyed the first book in the Cairo trilogy, Palace Walk, but hadn’t yet gotten inspired to acquire the second one. I taught a Mahfouz short story last semester, “Zaabalawi,” and that has put me in the mood for more.
  • Lilian Nattel’s The River Midnight. I’ve been enjoying Lilian’s blog for a while now, so it’s high time I read one of her books.
  • Marion Meade’s Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties. The book focuses on Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edna Ferber and everything they were up to in the 1920s. I’ve collected a couple group biographies now, and I’m looking forward to all of them.
  • William Hazlitt’s The Spirit of the Age. This is a collection of essays on various figures of Hazlett’s time, including Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Scott, and lots of others. Knowing Hazlitt, I’m expecting it to be mean-spirited and fun.
  • Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I’ve read about this book on someone’s blog recently, but I can’t remember where. It’s a slim book of nonfiction and is about loss, love, and the color blue.
  • Douglas Atkins’s Reading Essays: An Invitation. I’ve never read any Atkins, but I’ve seen his name around the essay world. This book contains his close readings of 25 different essays, and an exploration of the artistic elements of the genre. The idea is to study the art of the essay in the same way we do for poetry, drama, and the novel.

After finishing at Whitlock’s, we headed down to New Haven where we ate lots of excellent food and checked out more shops. We went to one of my favorite new bookstores, Labyrinth Books, which has a truly great selection of really smart books, the kind of serious, intellectual tomes you aren’t likely to find in the chain stores. It also has a fabulous fiction section with tons of lesser-known works and books in translation. From here, I bought Truth in Nonfiction, a collection of essays edited by David Lazar. The essays are about the complicated nature of truth as captured, or not captured, in nonfiction. It contains pieces by writers such as Phyllis Rose, Vivian Gornick, Oliver Sacks, John D’Agata, and others. It looks fabulous.

We also checked out Book Trader Cafe, where I bought a copy of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Intuitionist. I bought this book solely because I find Whitehead’s tweets so amusing and I want to see what the fiction is like.

We also went to Atticus bookstore and cafe, where I had the most amazing and amazingly large slice of chocolate chip cookie pie ever. Doesn’t that sound great? It was the perfect way to finish a wonderfully decadent day.

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A Visit from the Goon Squad

I listened to Jennifer Egan’s novel The Keep a couple years ago, and didn’t like it much; I didn’t believe in the characters or the plot, and therefore the whole thing got irritating. I’m glad I gave Jennifer Egan another chance, though, because I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad. This time, I believed in both the characters and plot, and I loved the book’s structure and its narrative energy. It’s one of those books that both tells a good story and leaves you feeling like you understand the world just a bit better.

The story is fairly complicated, not because it has a complex plot, but because it tells the stories of a lot of different people. We start with one of the main characters, Sasha, in a therapy session where she discusses her habit of stealing things, and then the next chapter introduces us to Bennie, a music industry executive who is visiting a band to see if his company should still represent them. Sasha is Bennie’s assistant and has been for many years. At one point, Bennie makes a pass at Sasha, but she wisely turns him down, and their relationship stays close in the way you can be close to someone you work with without really knowing much about that person at all.

From there, the chapters skip around in time and shift focus on to the people important in Sasha’s and Bennie’s lives. The two main characters never disappear, but they are sometimes on the sidelines as we learn about, say, the people Bennie went to high school with, Bennie’s wife and her life story, the story of the woman Bennie’s wife worked for, the story of the man Bennie’s high school friend ran away with, the story of a man Sasha had a brief fling with, and others. The point of view shifts from chapter to chapter, sometimes in third person, sometimes in first, and once in second. One chapter consists of a article draft written by one of the characters, and one long chapter consists of a journal created by one of the characters using PowerPoint.

If you had asked me before reading this book what I thought about the fictional possibilities of PowerPoint, I would have laughed in your face (politely, of course!). But Egan pulls it off, and this is one of the book’s most moving sections. There’s something about the small number of words on each page and the way those words are strategically arranged that makes some of the pages feel poetic and causes the emotions expressed to come through powerfully.

What it all adds up to is a picture of interlocking worlds, that of the music business in New York City, teenage life in California, suburban enclaves in Westchester, a safari in Africa, teenage prostitutes in Naples, Italy, all connected by people who know each other or have affected each other’s lives in some way. There is a lot going on in the book, but Egan keeps control of the material, partly through the connections amongst all the characters, but also through the energy and insight of the book as a whole. The moods of the different sections vary — there is humor, absurdity, darkness, hope, sadness — but there is a compassion for the characters and an excitement about life that runs through the whole. Egan manages to strike the right notes right up until the end.

I’m not sure what I think about the book’s title, though. We find out in the book that “the goon squad” refers to time, as in “time’s a goon,” which makes sense and fits the book exactly right. But I didn’t know what “goon squad” meant until I read the book, and up until that point I thought it was pretty silly. I hope the title doesn’t push anybody away from reading what really is a great book.

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Gryphon, by Charles Baxter

A while ago I read and enjoyed a collection of essays on fiction by Charles Baxter, Burning Down the House, so when the publisher offered me a copy of his latest collection of short stories, Gryphon, I was happy to say yes. I don’t remember a whole lot about the essay collection, except that Baxter argued against the kind of short story that ends in an epiphany where the main character learns a lesson or changes dramatically. He wanted stories that were more true to life and to the way things actually happen to real people. The stories in Gryphon are good examples of what Baxter was calling for; they are quiet stories about people you or I might know who are in familiar situations and go through recognizable experiences. The characters experience change, and perhaps they learn something, if only because something new has happened to them, but the changes are small. The stories capture a quiet kind of reality, which is matched by Baxter’s calmly straightforward, carefully detailed writing.

The stories cover a lot of emotional territory, describing, for example, a woman visiting her husband in a nursing home on their fifty-second anniversary, a man driving drunk through a snow storm to rescue his estranged fiancée when her car breaks down, a Swedish man visiting Detroit and learning the hard way what to expect from dangerous American cities. Other stories tell about a substitute teacher surprising her class with her very strange lesson plans (the title story), a man finding a drawing of a building with the caption “The next building I plan to bomb,” and a boy who follows his brother and his brother’s girlfriend out onto a frozen lake to see the car in the water under the clear ice.

The characters, situations, and experiences are varied, but in each case, Baxter captures the thoughts and feelings of the characters perfectly. His portraits of his characters are so accurate and convincing that he creates the sense of a world much larger than the one contained in the story. It’s like he describes one small slice of his fictional world so well that we can strongly sense the presence of the rest. The narrative voice is consistently understanding and compassionate throughout; there is no sense of anyone judging the characters who are frequently, although not always, troubled, uncertain, and confused. Baxter seems to want to help us understand these characters in order to understand humanity a little better.

These are “new and selected stories,” which means they date from the publication of Baxter’s first story collection in 1984 up to the present. Remarkably, the narrative voice remains much the same over that span of time, and that is the book’s major weakness: the collection contains 23 stories, and by the time I finished all of them, I was longing for something a little different. I would have welcomed a little more drama or a punchier narrative voice. The final story starts to head into different territory; here, a man travels to the wilds of northern Minnesota to interview a wealthy businessman and, feeling alienated and angry in the vast mansion, acts out in interesting ways. But this story comes a little too late to vary the mood of the book much.

Still, the stories need not be read all at once, and, taken in isolation, each one is a pleasure to read.

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Favorite books, 2010

It’s time to make my list of favorite books from 2010 before we get too far into 2011. This time I will use categories rather than simply a top ten list, since my favorite books are all so different.

  • Book I enjoyed most of any genre: David Foster Wallace’s  A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I love his essayistic style.Love it.
  • Favorite fiction: Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist. Yes, this book was on my favorites list from last year, but I liked the book so much I read it again, and the second time was in 2010. Yay! Also, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, Rosamund Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, May Sarton’s A Small Room, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad.
  • Favorite mystery/crime novels: Patricia Highsmith’sThe Talented Mr. Ripley. That book is still freaking me out. Also, Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, not for the plot (at all!) but for the writing. Best funny mystery novels: Sarah Caudwell’s Thus was Adonis Murdered and David Markson’s Epitaph for a Tramp and Epitaph for a Dead Beat.
  • Biggest surprises in fiction: I didn’t expect to love Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as much as I did, but I really did love it. And Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars was good in a thoughtful way I didn’t expect.
  • Favorite classics: My reread of Emma was awesome, of course, and I really enjoyed The Perpetual Curate by Margaret Oliphant. It was great to finally read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as well.
  • Best nonfiction: For biography, Richard Holmes’s Coleridge: Darker Reflections. I missed Coleridge when I finished reading. For essays, finishing Montaigne was great, of course, and Lawrence Weschler’s Vermeer in Bosnia was wonderful. I enjoyed Emily Fox Gordon’s Book of Days: Personal Essays greatly as well. Also in nonfiction, Jenny Diski’s book The Sixties was really good.
  • Poetry: I read only two volumes of poetry this year, but they were both memorable: Faber’s 80th anniversary edition of Ted Hughes, and the poems of T’ao Ch’ien.
  • Other books I liked: Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy, I Too Am Here: Selections from the Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and John Williams’s Stoner.
  • Biggest challenge: Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. A challenge indeed.
  • Biggest disappointments: I didn’t enjoy Balzac’s novel Cousin Bette at all, and I thought I would. Also, Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s Death Rites was a disappointment. I didn’t dislike it as much as my book group did, but still, I hoped to like it better.

I like doing my favorites this way, because I can name lots more books!

Now for a word about my year in cycling. I rode a grand total of 6,597 miles during 2010 and a total of 409 hours (more than an hour a day!). All those miles were outdoors. My mileage in 2009, which was a record at that time, was 5,097. The funny thing about this year is that I didn’t set out to ride a lot of miles. I would have been perfectly happy riding fewer than I did in 2009. I wanted to ride exactly what I felt like riding. That’s just what I did, but apparently what I wanted to do was to ride an awful, awful lot. It was training with my Ironman friend that made the difference; she needed to go on 3,4,5,6-hour rides, and I was happy to go along. She’s not training for an Ironman in the upcoming year, so I may ride less, although I do have two other friends who will be training for an Ironman, so maybe I need to do some rides with them!

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