The last book review I wrote while residing in Oregon appears in the Sunday, June 12, 2011, edition of The Oregonian. Appropriately, the novel considered, Once upon a River, is set in Michigan, where I’ll be living for the foreseeable future. Author Bonnie Jo Campbell resides in Kalamazoo, where I attended college, but that’s not where I’ll be. I’m going back to where it all began for me: where I grew up, where I went to school (except for those undergraduate years), where I met my wife, where my parents and sister live. I’ll continue to remark on writing and related subjects here, but I’ve also started a separate site – Detroit48221 – to document my return to Detroit.
Posts Tagged ‘The Oregonian’
Posted in Uncategorized, tagged David Foster Wallace, Emily Cooke, IRS, Judith Shulevitz, Kingsley Amis, Los Angeles Times, Lucky Jim, Martin Amis, Michael Pietsch, Money, Richard Rayner, Slate, The Millions, The Oregonian, The Pale King on April 16, 2011 | Leave a Comment »
Even before I’d read the book, I anticipated critical praise for David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published fragmentary novel The Pale King. His previous books won him ardent admirers, and rumors about The Pale King suggested it would be exactly the kind of thing that would please his fans. I was not wrong in anticipating excitement over Wallace doing again what he’d done before.
Some reviewers did find much to like in the book and its accountant characters and invoke its unfinished status to explain away any weaknesses. Here’s how Richard Rayner concludes his review for The Los Angeles Times: “Much of the The Pale King is … hard work, but it’s welcome rather than the reverse, a shadow of the now lost ‘something long’ that Wallace might or might not have completed but still brilliant, a Spruce Goose of a book that barely achieves takeoff but glimmers and sparkles with sufficient suggestions of the grandeur that might have been.”
The job of a reviewer is to assess actually existing books, not books that might have been. (My review for The Oregonian appears in section O, p. 10, of the April 17, print edition.) If Wallace had lived to finish The Pale King, then it might have been very different. Perhaps it would have been better. Perhaps it would have been worse. I can’t say. Nor can anyone else. If, years in the future, an alternate version appears, with chapters rearranged and additional material added, I would not be surprised. However, as of April 2011, what there is to evaluate is what editor Michael Pietsch assembled.
And that book, in my opinion, is aggravating and tiresome. In a prefatory note, Pietsch recalls thinking that if anyone could make the IRS interesting, Wallace could. But I don’t think Wallace actually tried to be interesting in The Pale King, and, in any case, his isn’t. He repeatedly draws attention to the boringness of the text, as if doing that were clever. Some readers apparently think it is. Judith Shulevitz, for instance, insists that it’s “almost never boring” in an overwhelmingly effusive Slate review. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys listening to people go on and on and on about their drug use in college, then you might dig The Pale King. (Rayner at least notices that there’s plenty of “dead ink” in addition to what he considers “great writing.”)
I suspect Wallace enthusiasts congratulate themselves on their own perceived cleverness for “getting” what he’s up to in his highly self-conscious, digressive, long-winded, inconclusive, footnote-laden fiction. (Unlike Emily Cooke, of The Millions, I never grew to “love” Wallace’s footnotes.) In The Pale King characters praise the fortitude necessary to endure boredom, and a certain brand of reader inevitably stepped forward to announce his heroism for braving Wallace’s wearisome book.
The Pale King has no clothes. Reading it made me remember the anecdote about Kingsley Amis throwing Martin Amis’s Money across the room when he saw that his son put a character named Martin Amis in the novel. Wallace having a David Wallace character alone doesn’t bother me. (And I actually like Money.) But The Pale King reads like an elaborate but painfully unfunny joke. Deliberately tangled prose about boring subjects doesn’t stop being boring because of self-referential commentary about boringness. I imagine the author of Lucky Jim would be annoyed, as I was.
Posted in Uncategorized, tagged All the Time in the World, Anthologies, At the Fights, Book reviews, Boxing, E.L. Doctorow, Editing, George Kimball, John Schulian, Los Angeles Times, Short stories, The American Interest, The Oregonian on April 11, 2011 | Leave a Comment »
Putting together a well-made collection of short writings takes special skills. One must have an eye for meaningful groupings and provocative juxtapositions. Literary collagists must find the happy balance between too much and not enough. They must also make plain the justification for gathering already published pieces.
When I saw that half of the stories in E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World had previously appeared in some of his earlier volumes, including one that came out not that long before, I was skeptical about the need for the collection. However, the book succeeds because of the way the pieces fit with and play off of each other, as I argue in my review in The Oregonian (section O, p. 10 in the April 10, 2011, edition of the paper).
Particular challenges confront editors of anthologies of works by different authors, especially if they have a very specific organizing subject. They run the risks of, on the one hand, achieving comprehensiveness at the cost of wearying repetitiveness, and, on the other, of leaving out something essential. Compliers of such books unavoidably leave themselves open to criticism for faulty choices. A Los Angeles Times reviewer, for instance, spies an East Coast bias in George Kimball and John Schulian’s selections for At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing. While I might question some of the choices, on the whole I think they do an admirable job of constructing a cohesive story, albeit a rather dispiriting one, as I discuss in an essay for May/June 2011 issue of The American Interest.
Posted in Uncategorized, tagged Alfred A. Knopf, Arthur Koestler, Best Books, Carson McCullers, Charles Goodrich, Christopher Hitchens, Darkness at Noon, Don DeLillo, Everything, Fiction, George Kimball, Going to Seed, Ian McEwan, Joe Louis, John Schulian, Kevin Canty, Martin Amis, Michael Waters, Milan Kundera, Miles Davis, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, Nonfiction, Norman Mailer, Perfect in Their Art, Poetry, Point Omega, Randy Roberts, Richard Williams, Robert Hedin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Scribner, Silverfish Review Press, The American Interest, The Blue Moment, The Fighter Still Remains, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Naked and the Dead, The Oregonian, The Pregnant Widow, Treasure Island, Yale University Press on December 24, 2010 | Leave a Comment »
In order to write about them for The Oregonian, The American Interest and other publications, I read a fair number of brand new books in 2010. Nevertheless, I can’t make an honest top-ten list. Here are six that truly stood as exceptional:
- Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow (Alfred A. Knopf)
- Kevin Canty’s Everything (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)
- Don DeLillo’s Point Omega (Scribner)
- Charles Goodrich’s Going to Seed: Dispatches from the Garden (Silverfish Review Press)
- Randy Robert’s Joe Louis: Hard Times Man (Yale University Press)
- Richard Williams’s The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music (W.W. Norton & Company)
The short list reflects my tendency to read roughly proportional amounts of fiction and nonfiction. I probably read more poetry in 2010 than in most years, and Goodrich’s small volume was my favorite of several contenders.
The year 2010 saw new books by authors I once thought of as reliably remarkable – Christopher Hitchens, Ian McEwan, Milan Kundera – that I found disappointingly inferior to their earlier efforts. I could name several very good but not quite excellent books. Here’s one: George Kimball and John Schulian assembled a fine collection of boxing-related poems in The Fighter Still Remains. A few years earlier, however, Robert Hedin and Michael Waters edited Perfect in Their Art, an anthology containing much of the same material – and a great deal more.
This leads to the Achilles heel of year-end lists: the absence of the great older stuff. While I read many books published during 2010, I also read many from other years, which are automatically disqualified from “best of” contention but deserve mention all the same. I reread some classics, like Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. (I also read several books about Mailer, but these weren’t so good.) I also finally got around to some wonderful books I should have read much sooner, such as Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. If I were to list the ten books I most enjoyed during 2010 regardless of publication date, the four named in this paragraph could be added to the six above.
The publication after authors’ deaths of their letters and previously unpublished, sometimes unfinished work is common practice, but some small part of me objects to it.
If writers didn’t write such things for readers (or readers other than specific addressees) or couldn’t verify their work’s completion, do readers have legitimate claims to it? Then again, established authors know that their letters and journals may one day end up printed and bound and may write accordingly, with a larger audience in mind. Still, as someone who doubts the usefulness or necessity of knowledge about writers’ lives for the appreciation and understanding of their work, I wonder about the real literary (as opposed to commercial) value of such documents.
Such reservations haven’t hardened into a principle that keeps me from reading books such as Saul Bellow’s Letters, which I reviewed for The Oregonian.
Posted in Events, Fighters & Writers, tagged Attic, Bo Caldwell, Charles Goodrich, City of Tranquil Light, David Biespiel, Dead End Gene Pool, Fighters & Writers, Gimme Refuge, Kevin Sampsell, Larry Colton, Matt Love, Multnomah County Library, Nestucca Spit Press, No Ordinary Joes, Oregon Convention Center, Oregon Poet Laureate, Paulann Petersen, Suzanne Burns, The Distant Land of My Father, The Oregonian, The Widow, Wendy Burden, Wordstock on October 10, 2010 | Leave a Comment »
The best thing about events like Wordstock, from my perspective anyway, is the opportunity to meet fellow writers. At the Nonfiction Reading Showcase at the Multnomah County Central Library on Wednesday, October 6, I met Wendy Burden, author of Dead End Gene Pool, and Kevin Sampsell, author of A Common Pornography. (Larry Colton also read from No Ordinary Joes that evening, but I didn’t have a chance to speak with him.) I ran into Wendy again at the authors’ reception two days later, where I also chatted with David Biespiel, founder/director of Attic: A Haven for Writers and author of Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces, Bo Caldwell, author of the novels City of Tranquil Light and The Distant Land of My Father, and poet and fiction writer Suzanne Burns.
The downside of such shows is that it’s impossible to take in everything that entices. In different rooms at the Convention Center on Saturday, Suzanne read from The Widow and Wendy read from her memoir at the same time that I was on stage beside Netsucca Spit Press founder Matt Love, who read from Gimme Refuge before I presented portions of the title essay from Fighters & Writers.
In an instance of unusually fortuitous timing amid such schedule conflicts, The Oregonian ran a brief review of my book the same weekend as Portland’s big gathering of scribblers.
Some books seem engineered to sell big and feel written with the sale of movie rights in the author’s mind. These bids for bestsellerdom take a dramatic event and treat it as if it occurred at the nexus of major forces – history, politics, the environment, the economy, etc. – but without dwelling to much on the boring bits included to make the bloody story seem important.
The Oregonian has posted my review of John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. See the Sunday, September, 19, 2010, edition of the paper if you prefer print.
Vaillant is scheduled to read from The Tiger at Powell’s City of Books on October 1.