2011

15 books
  • A Death in the Family

    James Agee

    I was around the corner from my usual library branch when I finished The Stranger’s Child and felt that I should get another book in my hands promptly. Since reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men last year, I’d never officially added this to my reading list, but it was on the right shelf at the right time.

    Agee died of a heart attack while writing this book, so Agee’s protégé David McDowell edited together pieces of manuscript into a novel and published the novel posthumously. About three years ago English scholar Michael A. Lofaro published a new version aiming to more accurately represent Agee’s intentions — largely by making the story chronological. This seems kind of funny since...more

  • The Stranger’s Child

    Alan Hollinghurst

    I haven’t read any of Hollinghurst previous novels, but I’ve been told they involve contemporary gay men having lots of sex, and therefore you may not feel comfortable reading them on the subway. At his Bookcourt reading forThe Stranger’s Child, he used the phrase “uncharacteristically restrained” in response to a question about the lack of detailed action on the pages of this book. But there is plenty going on between the chapters and sections and after a while that becomes the point.

    The story begins just before the outbreak of WWI and focuses on two families who initially come together when two Cambridge students meet and start a secret affair. Cecil Valance is a rather mediocre poet who...more

  • Good Mail Day

    Jennie Hinchcliff & Carolee Gilligan Wheeler

    The news about the USPS a few weeks ago was dire, so I bought some new stamps (I recommend a couple panes of the Pioneers of American Industrial Design — they’re good forever!) and picked up this book for a little inspiration. I met the Pod Post girls Carolee and Jennie years ago at a Portland Zine Symposium, where they worked their table, as they do, dressed like mail art Girl Scouts, complete with merit badges.

    While this is mostly a practical guide to create art-by-mail — from what should be in your kit to etiquette — there’s a bit of history as well. I actually would have liked even more history and stories, but then I have already spent many...more

  • You Think That’s Bad

    Jim Shepard

    The most frequent comment I see about Jim Shepard’s writing is that he attacks such a wide variety of worlds, in terms of places and places in time. It seems to go against the “write what you know” commandment passed down to aspiring writers, except each story feels convincingly accurate; he is apparently able to research well and therefore know more than the average person. In this collection among the offerings the characters include is a “black world” operative at Los Alamos, a soldier on Papua New Guinea during WWII, the creator of Godzilla, the French child serial killer Gilles de Rais, and a group of Polish climbers attempting a winter expedition in the Himalayas.

    My favorite in...more

  • Consider the Lobster

    David Foster Wallace

    After reading Infinite Jest two years ago, I didn’t become a DFW fanatic, settling instead for a measured respect for a writer who manages to be incredibly brilliant and hilarious at the same time. I’ve been meaning to get to this collection of essays, especially since I’m not sure when I’ll embark on another epic novel, namely his posthumously published Pale King.

    My favorite here by far is “Authority and American Usage” (originally published in Harper’s as “Tense present: Democracy, English, and the wars over usage”), which is ostensibly a review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, but turns into a sort of treatise on language usage comparing other texts and...more

  • Invisible

    Paul Auster

    By writing about myself in the first person, I had smothered myself and made myself invisible, had made it impossible for me to find the thing I was looking for. I needed to separate myself from myself…

    Paul Auster is one of those writers with one extremely well-known book — most likely you’ve read The New York Trilogy, if you’ve read anything, and nothing quite compares to that. This one is pretty good, centered around a poet who is a student at Columbia in the late 1960s who gets involved with a questionable fellow from France who wants to fund him to start a magazine. There’s a section set in Paris, several different narrators working in different modes (first, second, and...more

  • Austerlitz

    W.G. Sebald

    A bit too elegiac of a novel for the early summer, Austerlitz is still worth any potential struggles in making it through the endless paragraphs — at times as much as twenty-five pages long. The character, and really the voice of the book, Jacques Austerlitz meets the nameless narrator as they are both appreciating the architecture of the Antwerp train station, starting a decades-long friendship that seems to consist of them running into each other unexpectedly and then Austerlitz talking this guy’s ear off about his life for hours on end. But his story is fascinating.

    After immigrating to England when he was 4, his adoptive parents never told him where he was from and, though he learned his real name as...more

  • Let the Great World Spin

    Colum McCann

    I was drawn to this book based on its setting in 1970s New York City, specifically set around the day Philippe Petit made his World Trade Center tightrope walk; curiously the tightrope interludes in the book felt mostly unnecessary and distracting. The shorter sections that only have the tightrope connection to tie them with the rest of the book hence feel entirely disconnected.

    Despite that, there remain several entwined stories that build well together through the book, even when voiced through less than sympathetic characters. McCann captured a range of experiences convincingly. It was a bit of a tough book as the first section felt the most compelling and ended quite dramatically. It made it feel like the climax...more

  • A Visit from the Goon Squad

    Jennifer Egan

    There is some semantic debate whether this is a collection of stories involving the same characters or a multilinear novel, but either way you decide to categorize it, the book involves one network of characters over a long period of time. The beginning skips back and forth in the past until a certain point where it charges into the future — i. e., into the 2020s. Egan makes enough casual references to major events during the different time periods to allow her to paint the future in the same cursory way, suggesting the ways the world has evolved without going into big details in order not to distract what has happened with the characters. The stories/chapters are also tied together through similar...more

  • The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

    Lydia Davis

    I picked up All the King’s Horses as a break from this and found that a longer narrative really hit the spot. Afterward I decided to finish up the stories in the section I was reading here and come back to the rest of the collection later, only to discover somewhat disappointingly that there were just a handful until that next break. But I’m sticking to the plan.

    Davis most notably writes a lot of short fiction, sometimes just a paragraph or even a sentence in length. Often her characters aren’t given names; sometimes the story will be from the perspective of a couple and the whole thing is written as “we” and “us,” and it’s not annoying. She...more

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