The bookish highlight of the last few weeks is undoubtedly getting to hear Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon read at the 92nd St. Y in Manhattan this past Thursday. The only disappointment is that Hobgoblin and I couldn’t stay late enough to say hi to the authors and get books signed, but the reading itself was great. Chabon went first and read Part 3 of Telegraph Avenue in its entirety, which consisted of one sentence and took about 40 minutes to read. I don’t know much about the novel and don’t know how the section fit into the book as a whole, but it was an entertaining piece, and Chabon is a very good reader. He was funny and managed to capture the one-sentence feel of the excerpt without sounding manic or breathless. Zadie Smith read two sections from NW, both of which were good set pieces. She also was a great reader; I especially admired the way she caught the different accents of her characters. She, too, was funny. They did a brief question and answer session afterward, but the questions were mostly stupid ones, the first one about which actors they would cast to play their characters and another one about the presidential debate the night before. They did a good job answering the questions in spite of the questions’ lameness, although it seemed pretty clear that Chabon felt way more comfortable up there than Smith did. I’ve heard her describe herself as shy, and that seemed to be true, although she was still charming.
So, I finished NW a couple weeks ago, I guess it is, and I liked it a lot. I’ve read a number of mixed reviews of the novel, and the reviewers’ criticisms might have had some validity to them, but they picked things out for criticism that I didn’t think mattered all that much. The book had an energy that I liked, it had characters I was drawn to, it did interesting things with language, and it explored its themes in a satisfactory way. It may have a structure that’s kind of a mess, but that didn’t detract from the good things. It’s told in four parts, the first three following a different character, and a short fourth section wrapping things up. The first and third sections follow two women who grew up as friends and stayed friends into adulthood, although their friendship goes through some difficult times and their feelings toward each other are complex. These sections were my favorites, both for the interesting writing in them, and for the themes they explore: class differences, career and marriage tensions, having or not having children, growing up and changing but staying roughly in the same neighborhood. The second section was also good, but more conventionally told. I think this is a novel that takes a while to absorb and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the critical consensus change over time.
I also read The Long Goodbye for my mystery book group, which I enjoyed, although I felt that it was a little too long and the quality of the writing began to slacken as I neared the end. But Raymond Chandler is still great – he has such a way with images. The book is ultimately about friendship, I think, which is an interesting topic for a mystery novel. Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s protagonist, is entertainingly stubborn, illogical, and a smart-ass. I also read Nicholson Baker’s novel A Box of Matches, which I liked, although it’s in the same vein as The Mezzanine, but not as good and suffers from the comparison. The premise is that the protagonist has decided to get up at 4:00 each morning, light a fire, and write out his thoughts, and these writings are the novel itself. They are about mundane things, as Baker’s novels often are, but described with lavish and loving detail. The best chapters gesture toward deeper ideas and feelings, and I liked the way more profound thoughts are hinted at through the juxtaposition of stories – stories about death, say, or about animals and what we can know about their minds. Not all chapters are that successful, but when they work, they have lightness and depth both.
And just now I finished the new biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, by D.T. Max. I’m still gathering my thoughts about it, but I think it was a very good biography. It’s only 300 pages and therefore not bogged down with detail, but it captures his life well, and every time Max discussed one of Wallace’s books, I immediately wanted to read or reread it. I think Max’s book is very good; what I’m still gathering my thoughts about is what I think about Wallace himself. He is one of my favorite writers, and I’ll return to his books again and again, but he’s a complicated person, unlikeable in a number of ways, but at the same time a charismatic and compelling figure, and also a sad one, a person who battled crushing depression his whole life.
As for what I’m currently reading, that includes the Hermione Lee biography of Woolf (still! I may finish in the next week or two) and also her diaries, although I’ve slowed down with those in an attempt to finish other things. I began listening to The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger on audio the other day, and I also picked up More Baths, Less Talking by Nick Hornby. I need to find a new novel (one to read and not listen to), but I can’t decide which one to pick up next, so I’ve focused on finishing my nonfiction books instead.
Finally, here’s my latest pregnancy picture, at 23 weeks:
I’m still feeling remarkably well and can only hope I feel this way as long as possible. I’m even still riding, although only now and then, and only on my hybrid bike with an adjustable stem that raises up the handlebars (you can see it in the background) and wearing one of Hobgoblin’s much roomier jerseys. But it’s great to be able to ride, and when I’m not riding, I’m often out walking in the woods, which is lovely.
Have a great weekend everyone!
10 responses to “Updates: Smith, Chabon, Baker, Wallace, and me, 23 weeks pregnant”
I finished reading NW yesterday and really liked it – the stylistic playfulness was hugely appealing to me, and I think the dialogue and depiction of a corner of the city and people who live there was great. I definitely sighed when I found out (two days late!) about the Chabon & Smith reading at the 92nd St Y when I was reading the New Yorker on the train today – boo! I also found out today that Smith is reading at one of my absolute favorite bookstores (192 Books, in Chelsea) next month, but I’m going to be in England. Ah well.
Heather — I’m so glad you liked NW! I agree that the playfulness was appealing. Thank you SO much for mentioning 192 Books, as I’d never heard of it before! I love to visit Manhattan bookstores, so I can’t believe I wasn’t aware of that one. I’ll definitely visit there the next time I get a chance.
There has been a lot of discussion about both the Smith and the Chabon on the UK airwaves but I haven’t managed to get hold of copies of either as yet, which of course means I haven’t really tried as hard as I should have done:). Your comment about the questions asked made me smile. I was at a readers’ day yesterday with a group of authors and they were asked which questions they dreaded. They were unanimous in saying that it is the question that turns out not to be a question but a statement of opinion which leaves them with nothing to say.
By the way, The Bears were asking if I had your address. I don’t know what they have in mind, but if you’re willing to take the risk that they might think you need to move onto a diet of marmalade sandwiches and are contemplating organising a transatlantic supply, they can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Alex — I was very lucky to be able to get the Smith quickly from the library. I’m not sure if I’m a Chabon fan or not — I’ve only read one, Wonder Boys, which was okay but not stellar. I should give him another try. I agree that questions that aren’t really questions are thoroughly obnoxious! And thanks for the message from The Bears! I will most certainly contact them.
Glad to hear you liked NW. I haven’t read it yet and one review says its great and the next says it’s not so great. I am looking forward to seeing Smith in a couple weeks. You are looking great!
I so loved the picture! Books and bicycle and baby!
I own the Baker book, and am thinking of reading it in the winter. It feels somehow like a winter book to me. Was so surprised to read about it. I’ve never read his name on any blog. I love how your reading is so broad. Just this post shows that.
Ooh you’re in that lovely patch, where you feel great and look great and pregnancy is fun. To be honest, I pretty much felt that way (plus additional sleepiness) up until almost the very end, when you need a bit of discomfort or you’d never feel obliged to get that baby out! So glad you had a wonderful time at the Chabon/Smith gig, which sounds fantastic. I really like Zadie Smith so I will definitely read NW at some point. And I so want to read The Newlyweds! I read Nell Freudenberger’s first novel and loved it, so will be very keen to hear how you get on with this one.
When the baby comes you’ll have a nice bit of alliteration going–of books bicycles and babies! And the baby is already sort of riding–I can imagine s/he’ll be zipping around three wheels almost as soon as s/he can walk! I have yet to read Zadie Smith–not sure why it’s taken me so long–I really must give her a go–I do like Michael Chabon, though his newest didn’t really appeal to me at first–a 40 minute read–that was quite a nice event! Cool you got to see them even if you couldn’t get any books signed. So glad to hear you are feeling good–you look well and very happy! 🙂
While books are precious, your expression is priceless. I’ve enjoyed looking at your ‘pregnancy progress’. You can start reading out loud instead of doing silent reading, because your baby can hear your voice while still in the womb. I’d read about that.
I am incredibly anxious to read the Wallace biography and hope to have it soon. I am incredibly impressed with the depth of your reading while pregnant – I turned to mysteries and television around the 20th week (gravitating, I suppose, to what I naturally most wanted to do). And keep up the exercise – exercising until close to my delivery (when I broke a bone in my foot, blarg) was credited by my doctor as assisting in a short and worry -free (for him) delivery!