And so the One-Man Book Club reconvenes one last time* (more on that down below) for its summer vacation extra-reading credit. Books came along on a lot journeys since early spring: Out to Kansas and back, out to Albuquerque and back, on a train to Staunton, Va., and back, and — for 11 days in late June/early July — a 2,100-mile road trip through New England with the One-Man Book Club’s favorite traveling companion, the One-Man Photo Archive. Then the One-Man Book Club took a 16-day business trip out to Los Angeles to ingest the upcoming fall TV season, with books offering the only salve from long days of press conferences and network spin about bad pilot episodes. Then a quick trip to Jersey for a wedding in the family.
Carrying books around is starting to become more of a drag on these old bones, mostly because I notice how many people aren’t doing that anymore. (The tote-bag industry is doomed by the cloud.) Even the One-Man Book Club’s household has an iPad in it now, and one eyes it warily if curiously, from the other side of the bed. My concerns are all ephemeral at this point, sounding like nonsense to engineers and techno-consumers alike: What about the feeling of having a book with you? The object itself, not just the characters that make up the words that make up the sentences that make up the chapters. The pleasure of a book wasn’t only about words, was it? (Or was it?) What about the glee of buying a book on vacation? What about typography, cover art, the smell of a new book? What about sand and Coppertone and potato chip grease — all proof that you and this book had something going on together, a brief fling?
Ecch, the club has been over this and over this. Eventually, the tablet may win anyhow, just for being light.
Too much preamble. One-Man Book Club, report!
I share the sentiments of many a Bossypants reader, including this review in The Washington Post by Nicole Arthur. Basically it goes like this: There are laughs a-plenty from the brilliant Tina Fey here, but with no fixed destination. Here you have one of the great funny minds of Generation X, nicely situated between her youth and her old-ladyhood, at a career pinnacle, and she has nothing of much value to tell us. She “reveals” moments of self-loathing and anecdotal hilarity in order to not reveal much of herself at all. She transacts in one sort of market-friendly honesty in lieu of another that would have been more true. She has sold squillions of books by now, so, as the highly-paid pro-basketball players say: it’s all good. I read this book so long ago — early May — that I can’t even remember what I liked about it. Here’s all I recollect: When you are on an airplane from Kansas City to Washington Reagan National Airport, this is the book you’d want. I started it at lunch, resumed once the flight was airborne, laughed out loud, and hit the last sentence as we taxied in. Perfect and forgettable.
* * *
On a trip to Albuquerque, I picked up a copy of Caleb’s Crossing, the new novel by the incomparable Geraldine Brooks, which turns the true story of a 17th-century Harvard student (historically among the first American Indians to attend a colonial college) into a beautifully anguished fiction of early America’s perceptions of gender, race and culture.
Brooks’s other novels — March and Year of Sorrows — remain two of my favorites; but People of the Book, not as much. Caleb’s Crossing is somewhere in between, and it did achieve something her first two novels did so well: It made me want to leave work and come home and get on the couch and keep reading it. The Club highly recommends it, even though the pace and story falter slightly in the latter third. I was intrigued by something one of the reviews brought up, about how Caleb’s Crossing indulges in a bit of wishful feminist fantasy (the narrator is a young woman who conceals her intelligence from the men who control her life, managing to pick up Latin and Hebrew while toiling in the kitchen adjacent to the classroom), but you know what? FINE. Exactly how much wishful feminist idealism are we being exposed to these days? On Real Housewives of New Jersey? In teenage vampire novels? In Bossypants?
* * *
Iphigenia in Forest Hills is Janet Malcolm’s latest little book that is, as always, actually about something deeper, bigger and more elusively arcane than the thing it’s about — this time reported from a murder trial in New York’s outer boroughs. I liked it and recommend it.
And no sooner had I finished it than a weird spat broke out on Gangrey, in which people who’ve never really read Janet Malcolm took umbrage at Janet Malcolm’s first sentence in The Journalist and the Murderer — about 20 years too late. It was bizarre. You can read the exchange for yourself, which clearly brought out some of the hissy in me. This episode cured me of having any more online discussions about journalism for a good long while. If little ol’ mid-list intellectual Janet Malcolm can, well into her 70s, still produce work of this caliber and cause such a fit among a couple of puffed-chest male feature writers, then what better validation of one’s work is there?
Iphigenia in Forest Hills still puzzles over some of the same eternal qualms of the journalistic process. I identified strongly with this passage:
“Journalists request interviews the way beggars ask for alms, reflexively and nervously. Like beggars, journalists must always be prepared for a rebuff, and cannot afford to let pride prevent them from making the pitch. But it isn’t pleasant for a grown man or woman to put himself or herself in the way of refusal. In my many years of doing journalism, I have never come to terms with this part of the work. I hate to ask. I hate it when they say no. And I love it when they say yes. …”
I imagine that this might strike some of the outraged commenters on the Gangrey thread as further evidence of Malcolm’s weakness — journalism takes balls, lady!, etc. — but I would be willing to bet that more writers of nonfiction can relate to this than not. I always compared the task of asking complete strangers to cooperate with my reporting to having an entire trunk of band candy and only a day to sell it to complete strangers, and then discovering that everyone has put up NO SOLICITING signs.
* * *
The One-Man Book Club went off on a surprisingly difficult though ultimately successful ebay quest for a copy of the 1975 memoir Pat Loud: A Woman’s Story (by Pat Loud with Nora Johnson) after becoming immersed this spring in all 12 episodes of the original An American Family docu-series that aired on PBS in January 1973. I was reviewing Cinema Verite, HBO’s tragically mediocre dramatization of the Loud family’s experiences during the making and aftermath of An American Family. It’s my good luck that I was sent a complete set of the original series from WNET — they aren’t available on DVD and probably never will be, for a variety of legal reasons. I wrote a long piece about both the HBO show and the original, which ran in April.
Anyhow, having watched it all, Michael and I wanted to know much, much more. Pat Loud’s book is an interesting study in a lot of things: What a media circus looked like in the mid-’70s, for one. What a quickie memoir was in the publishing realm in the mid-’70s. It’s completely written in her meandering, Stanford-smart-but-SoCal-dopey voice. As an artifact, Pat Loud’s memoir is really about arriving at one’s middle-age in the freshly liberated but utterly depressing 1970s. She was on the verge of something, which she thought had to do with feminism, perhaps, or post-divorce self-awareness and self-satisfaction. (Fun fact: Pat and Bill Loud reunited years ago. They’re now 90 and 85.)
Now we all know what it was that she was really processing when she wrote this book: tragic, instant celebrity in the earliest era of reality TV.
* * *
Back in April, this blog gave away free copies of my friend Louis Bayard’s new novel, The School of Night — which I finally got around to reading and enjoyed very much. It’s about a lonely man named Henry — a divorced, failed academic who specialized in the Elizabethan era, who lives on Capitol Hill. A friend and mentor of Henry’s with a sizable Shakespearean-related archive has mysteriously died and Henry is hired by another collector to help track down a special document missing from the deceased’s collection, and soon enough, Henry is embroiled in a deadly race. The novel bounces back and forth between the now and the then, then being England in 1603, where we learn about Thomas Harriot (“England’s Galileo”) and Sir Walter Raleigh’s legendary “school of night,” a clandestine group of thinkers on the verge of dangerous ideas. And guess what? Harriot’s housemaid has been eavesdropping all her life, learned to read on the fly, and is now gleaning much about physics and – HOLY MOLY, IT’S MORE WISHFUL FEMINIST FANTASY! Just like Geraldine Brooks. We are so onto a theme here today.
Lou says at lunch, back in March: Don’t read my book. Don’t. No really, don’t.
Hank says: Oh, I’m gonna, Lou. I’m gonna.
Without putting words in his mouth, I think Lou perhaps feels that he caved too much to commercial pressures while writing the book (do you have any idea how many historical novelists get the Da Vinci lecture about marketability and sales from their publishers? It sounds like the sort of thing that would give me an ulcer), but I really got into The School of Night, even though it is not my usual genre. I read it on vacation — on a deck chair, in Bar Harbor, Me. — and briefly understood what so many other readers (i.e., customers) look for in a summer beach read. He makes it seem smarter than it has to be.
As I said, I gave away free copies of The School of Night back when it was released. I have since rescued another one from a life of freebie pile doom in the Post mailroom — would YOU like to have it? E-mail me and I’ll send it to you, free.
* * *
There’s really nothing left for me to say about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad that a gazillion online reviews haven’t said already. Huzzah for its Pulitzer! I’m a year late in reading it!
Except to say: How nice, in this era of hammered-flat, super-linear novels (not yours, Lou!) to encounter a true crazy-quilt sewn from meticulous scraps, an assemblage of parts meant to evoke a whole, a novel about everything and nothing except the ways a set of lives can glance against one another over time. Though I’d be hard pressed to recall (or envy) a single sentence, I am in love with the structure.
For those who don’t know, it’s about a bunch of people who had something to do with a punk rock band in the Bay Area — directly or peripherally — and it just gently but darkly ripples outward from there, back and forth through time, from the 1980s well into the 21st century. It ends up in much the same place Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story wound up — foreseeing a future generation’s rational response to the chaos of the techno-renaissance, a calming down on the other end of a cultural revolution, in which future generations break through the traditional formats of narrative and reject this generation’s tattoos, coarse language and emotional vacuity.
Nice thought, but, you know, probably not how it really ends.
* * *
While in the Maine woods for a few days, I picked up a copy of The Maine Woods by someone named Henry Thoreau. You know, because. (The loons, Norman — you old poop! The loons.)
“In the middle of the night, as indeed each time that we lay on the shore of a lake, we heard the voice of the loon, loud and distinct, from far over the lake. It is a very wild sound, quite in keeping with the place and the circumstances of the traveller, and very unlike the voice of a bird. I could lie awakefor hours listening to it, it is so thrilling. …Like the hallooing of a man on a very high key, having thrown his voice into his head. …”
After the first 100 pages or so, I found it more helpful to skip around and look things up by index (mosquitoes; blueberries; Penobscot; loons). This is a remarkable travelogue, reported in 1846, 1853 and 1857 and (before-ish Walden, the first excursion began when Thoreau was 29; the last was when he was 40). This was back when pushing deep into the Maine woods really meant exploring the boonies.
I myself read it while thoroughly spritzed in Deep Woods Off!, enjoying my pre-dinner cocktail on the porch at The Birches lodge at Moosehead Lake, which Thoreau visited. The boonies, I guess, are in the eye of the beholder. An excerpt:
“The moose is singularly grotesque and awkward to look at. Why should it stand so high at the shoulders? Why have so long a head? Why have no tail to speak of? for in my examination I overlooked it entirely. Naturalists say it is an inch and a half long. It reminded me at once of the camelopard, high before and low behind, — and no wonder, for, like it, it is fitted to browse on trees. The upper lip projected two inches beyond the lower for this purpose. … The moose will perhaps oneday become extinct; but how naturally then, when it exists only as a fossil relic, and unseen as that, may the poet or sculptor invent a fabulous animal with similar branching and leafy horns, — a sort of fucus or lichen in bone — to be the inhabitant of such a forest as this!
“Here, just at the head of the murmuring rapids, Joe now proceeded to skin the moose with a pocket-knife, while I looked on; and a tragical business it was, — to see that still warm and palpitating body pierced with a knife, to see the warm milk stream from the rent udder, and the ghastly naked red carcass appearing from within its seemly robe, which was made to hide it. The ball had passed through the shoulder-blade diagonally and lodged under the skin on the opposite side, and was partially flattened. … At length Joe had stripped off the hide and dragged it trailing to the shore, declaring that it weighed a hundred pounds, though probably fifty would have been nearer the truth. He cut off a large mass of the meat to carry along, and another, together with the tongue and nose, he put with the hide on the shore to lie there all night, or till we returned. I was surprised that he thought of leaving this meat thus exposed by the side of the carcass, as the simplest course, not fearing that any creature would touch it; but nothing did. …”
Speaking of, we had wonderful food in Maine.
* * *
Like its Melvillian namesake, Donovan Hohn’s nonfiction book Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them takes far too much effort to get through. I lugged this thing around all summer. It’s based on the author’s original Harper’s article, which reported the already-reported (and widely misreported) tale of a shipping container full of rubber duckies that toppled off a freighter in the stormy Pacific in 1992 and loosed a squillion packages of bath toys.
The packaging eventually dissolved and the toys floated free, en masse. Not just rubber duckies (that’s the legend taking over) but also other varieties of bath toys, made in China, on their way to America. This rather apocryphal scattering of plastic took on a narrative meaning all its own, as the toys turned up all over the globe and are believed by some to still be a-swim out there, metaphorically representing mankind’s trashing of the planet — and just about anything else you want them to stand for: lark, economy, waste, happiness, loss, civilization, geopolitics, global warming, etc.
This is that rare, super-ambitious work of nonfiction that in almost any other writer’s hands would become tedious. I admired it, but Moby-Duck certainly didn’t win me over the way it won over most of the book reviewers, whose praise convinced me to climb aboard. It’s a pretty nifty book — elegantly reported; sincere and glib on the same page — but it is almost certainly too long, even if the writer is attempting to match Melville’s breadth, verbosity and his reach for universal themes. As a way of turning a single magazine article into a doorstopper-weight book, it’s a smashing success, but it’s also a slog — and like Moby-Dick, at some point the goal is just to endure it and finish it off. I like how Hohn manages to be Ishmael, Ahab and Starbuck all at once –which, in that order, means naive, delusional, and homesick for his wife and kid. The futility of the hunt becomes clear in the first 30 pages; it’s up to you if you decide to press on.
Be prepared — like the ducks in the book — for seemingly endless drift.
* * *
My reward for finishing Moby-Duck was picking up a copy of Wayne Koestenbaum’s wee little Humiliation on the day it came out. I’m such a fan of his insights and his words — last summer, after reading Hotel Theory, I declared in the One-Man Book Club that anyone who could read Hotel Theory and talk excitedly with me about it would be considered a lifelong friend.
Here, Koestenbaum tackles an abstract but important concept in a way that only he can. The book is a series of ruminations, research and conclusions about the feeling and essential power of humiliation in the human character. He looks at it from every possible angle, in 183 tight pages — everything from Abu Grhaib photos to Google searches to throwing up in front of classmates in the third grade. Humiliation, like humiliation, is best taken in small doses, so it humiliates me to say I read it in one feeding frenzy, while sprawled on the big white bed in my room at the Beverly Hilton (my own Hotel Theory), deliberately forgoing a network’s big red-carpet party for its fall television shows, all of which (the stars of which) are certain to be humiliated once the shows air.
Koestenbaum — I want his brain. Here’s a taste:
“The newspaper, too, is humiliating — a viper’s den, a circle of hell, alive with lamentations. The victim, a prominent socialite, a chemistry student, a working mother, a drug addict, an accountant, a morbidly obese boy with severe mental disabilities, a jogger, an underpaid au pair, a chauffeur, a hotelier, a diet doctor. Photo of a suspect, with hoodie, with Down’s syndrome features, with a face like the young Sean Connery’s, with a scar above the lip, with a face like the young Jennifer Jones, with a beard, with surgically augmented lips, with a shaved head and radical fringe tattoos on the skull, with a yarmulke, with a charity-gala coif. The accused killer’s shocked family, congregating outside the house. Embarrassed or depleted eyes of the murderer’s mother, in the courtroom, after the verdict.”
* * *
I think weddings can often be humiliating — if not for the key players, then for someone. Popularly, it’s the bridesmaid who is in for some level of emotional debasement, though I’d also nominate certain guests. There’s also the standard-bundled humiliation formats of weddings: the “insulting” toasts, the groom’s ritual smearing of the cake on the bride’s face (and/or vice-versa), the desperate grab by maiden hands for the tossed bouquet. The cost of some weddings is certainly humiliating; the process of staging one must feel that way too. Sometimes, I mean.
So, a little comic book. Adrian Tomine, usually so great, humiliates himself here in the autobiographical Scenes from an Impending Marriage, in which he reveals that even he, with all his hipster cred and ability to sniff bullshit from far away, is no more immune to the bridal-industrial complex than anyone else. I quickly grew bored with his and his betrothed’s first-world, well-trod dilemmas encountered while planning their “simple” wedding. Ultimately the book winds up endorsing that which it purports, half-heartedly, to oppose. But as always, the art and mood of his work pulls us through.
* * *
Okay, it’s cruelty time! These are the books that failed THE FIFTY-PAGE TEST, which means that at some point near or past the 50-page mark, they fell off my Chinese shipping freighter (perhaps tossed?) and scattered to sea. They’re humiliated! But keep in mind, often as not, it’s the One-Man Book Club’s fault for choosing something the club did not, it turns out, want to read.
Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland. Well, this should have been a slam dunk. A writer I’ve liked a lot in the past, lasering in on a subject I want to know more about, in a very cool-looking (and once again tiny!) book. But right from the start the writing seemed murky, padded. I quit the book early in, after noticing that Coupland had two different birthdates (a day apart) for McLuhan, within a couple of pages of one another. If that’s not a typo and instead an inside joke or some other expression of irony — McLuhan was so ahead of his time that he was literally born ahead of his time! – then I just didn’t get it.
This Life is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone, by Melissa Coleman. It’s sad to give up on a memoir early in, because it basically says to the writer: “your life story is boring me.” This is another book I picked up in Maine on a Maine bookshelf display, being as it’s the story of how Melissa Coleman’s parents moved off the grid in the late ’60s and took up residence down the road from Helen and Scott Nearing, who’d became sort of culturally famous for articulating and exemplifying the “back to the land” movement that attracted (and still attracts) so many idealists seeking to live deliberately (a la Thoreau) way out in the sticks. Though the writing is lovely enough in spots, I have an issue with basic structure here, in that — through a collusion of jacket copy and intentional foreshadowing — we learn the book’s big reveal too soon. (The little sister drowns.)
Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skullduggery by Jennie Erin Smith. This got some good reviews for its quality of reportage and level of writing. Twenty or so pages into the book it hit me: I don’t give one shit about people stealing reptiles for some larger underground commercial gain. Coldblooded, but there it is.
Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff. Also highly praised, and a boffo bestseller. I was eager to read, despite Judy’s warnings that Schiff assumes too much of the casual reader who has no firm grasp on ancient North African civilizations. Twenty or so pages in it hit me: I don’t give one shit about Cleopatra. (Well, maybe a little tiny singular shit about Cleopatra? So it sat on the desk forever and a day. I tried once more and now I give up.)
Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Our Own Past, by Simon Reynolds. Brand new summary of a decades-old plaint. I started nodding in assent as soon as I read the title of the book, bought it, and kept nodding in assent for 30-40 pages or so. Yes, yes, yes, yes. Then I just nodded off. After you’ve made the case, why go on for another 2oo or 300 — yow! 400! — pages?
* * *
Finally, a motion to adjourn. (So seconded.)
I’m going to retire the One-Man Book Club, right now. It was fun while it lasted (two years!), and a small group of loyal readers seemed to really enjoy it. And I did too, but here’s the thing. A few things, actually:
– I’m a TV critic for a living, writing a crap-ton of reviews and essays. As such, books are a refuge for what’s left of my Kardashian-addled mind. I need to go back to reading books without the self-added burden of writing about them. I started these book reviews as a way to keep a conversation alive on this blog (and in my head) about my own frustration as a book writer and reader and my eagerness to belong to a bookish world. The initial fun of One-Man Book Club has come to feel like an obligation to a nearly non-existent audience. (Imaginary friends are so demanding.)
– I seem unable to make these entries into a quick and riffy experience that I can just dash off and post. Look at how grotesquely long this entry is. Look at how much time I wasted, first putting it off, then finishing it. The One-Man Book Club is something I would love to hone and post more frequently if I was, say, unemployed. Maybe one day I will be. Until then, I am quite intellectually occupied with writing the criticism I’m being paid to write.
– I’ve recently become more fond of Goodreads, the book-review social network. That’s where I’ll be filing any thoughts on what I’m currently reading and what I read long ago — pithy, just a sentence or two, starred reviews, which will be attributed to me by full name. I also have an Author Page at Goodreads now, synced to this blog. The One-Man Book Club, in other words, is joining a club of thousands. (Millions?) I’ll occasionally link to my Goodreads reviews here and I’ll still do book giveaways when friends publish new books.
– I’ve got other writerly stuff to do with my spare time — some of it pressing. Specifically, I am working on an overdue essay for a friend’s photo book. I’ve also started reporting and writing a long contribution to a very intriguing group project in L.A. that may one day become a book. Both of these need to get done by year’s end.
– And without getting into it, I will tell you (and only you! You’re the only one here!) that I’m in the pre-conception stage on two new book ideas of my own. One might be a novel and one is nonfiction. It’s time to see if either has any pull.
Now … who wants more wine?