Through the Knowledge of Those Who Observe Us

don pointFull disclosure: I often start writing these reviews while I’m still reading the book.  I am, as I’ve detailed elsewhere, unforgivably lazy about writing.  I enjoy the process on some level, and it’s kinda fun when I experience one of those rare moments where I return to something I’ve written and think, “Hey, that’s not entirely horrible.” But the truth of it is that there are always other things I’d rather be doing, and none of them require as much effort as sitting down to crank out (optimistically, when it comes to these reviews) 1,000 words or so.  I’ve found the only significant way I can generate some momentum and enthusiasm for the act of writing these recent posts is to begin composing them before I sit down to type.  This gives me direction and purpose, and it prevents the paralysis I occasionally feel when faced with blank screen and blinking cursor.  So there are times when I know by the midpoint of a book what angle I’m going to take, or, in the case of something like Andy Weir’s The Martian, I can tell the book is irredeemably stupid and I’m not at risk of having my negative review ruined by an abnormally high-quality closing chapter.  In those cases I might have already written the opening paragraph or two before I actually finish the last page of the book.

But there are also, I have to admit, times when I begin mentally composing the review before I’ve even started reading the book.  Such was the case with Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, which I knew was next in line following Elmore Leonard’s Gold Coast.  These things I also knew:

  • I’m a huge fan of Leonard, and it seemed unlikely I’d be writing him a negative review.
  • I used to love DeLillo, but his recent works have left me cold, especially The Body Artist, which I read a mere three months ago but about whose plot I remember absolutely nothing.
  • I’ve never written a combo review before.  Wouldn’t it be swell if I wrote a single review linking these two books, specifically focusing on the degree to which Leonard’s early genre fiction was superior to DeLillo’s recent highbrow fiction?

I worked my way through Gold Coast with this framework in mind, already picturing the way I was going to assert my populist preference.  And then the following two things happened:

1) Gold Coast wasn’t very good.

2) Point Omega was fantastic.

So back to the drawing board and a single review of Point Omega, a short book of palpable melancholy that somehow manages to simultaneously be about three specific people and everyone in the world.

It’s a book where summary is almost beside the point.  I’ll try anyway.  Elster, one of the architects of the second Iraq War, is in a cabin in the middle of the Arizona desert with Finley, a documentarian who’s trying to convince Elster to allow him to make a Fog of War-style movie with Elster as the focal point, telling his story against a blank wall, no questions, no stock footage, just one man talking and telling his side of the run-up to the war.  Elster’s daughter Jessie shows up, then she disappears.  The men look for her.  They go home.  This is bookended by two short scenes that take place at the Museum of Modern Art in an exhibition where Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has been slowed down to last 24 hours.  And that’s it.

Taken at face value, its another of DeLillo’s exercises in minimalism (see also Falling Man and Cosmopolis, neither of which I enjoyed as much as his early works like White Noise and Libra), but as I mentioned earlier there’s a deep core of melancholy at Point Omega’s center, not just in the stark desert setting or Elster’s near-catatonia when Jessie disappears.  It suffuses everything, and to that end it’s a book that needs to be experienced more than explained.

“Oh ha ha, Rob,” you’re saying.  “Experienced more than explained.  What the hell does that mean?”  Well, if I can get even more pretentious for a second, the action in Point Omega isn’t in the action.  Hikes in the desert, Jessie’s arrival, the search after she’s gone – these are almost irrelevant.  The action is in the spaces between this movement, in passages of relative inaction, when we get dialogue like this, from Elster, reflecting on his approach toward the Iraq War:

‘Haiku means nothing beyond what it is.  A pond in summer, a leaf in the wind.  It’s human consciousness located in nature.  It’s the answer to everything in a set number of lines, a prescribed syllable count.  I wanted a haiku war,’ he said. ‘I wanted a war in three lines.  This was not a matter of force levels or logistics.  What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things.  This is the soul of haiku.  Bare everything to plain sight.  See what’s there.  Things in war are transient.  See what’s there and then be prepared to watch it disappear.’

Can I say with any authority what Point Omega is about?  Not really.  But as many problems as I have with latter-day DeLillo, there’s one thing about his most recent books that I like quite a bit: their sparseness makes them literary Rorschach tests, open to a range of interpretations.  Here’s how I made sense of it.  During one conversation, Elster describes the omega point as the time at which we “leap out of our biology” and into something else. With that in mind, Point Omega seems to be about the power of loss to jolt us out of one reality and into another.  Those times when we are most present, most alive, because we’ve had to watch the things we love fade away.

*****

Current listening:

Courtney sometimes

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015)

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View from a Shaky Ladder

BookshelfSix months ago I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In early September I realized I had accumulated 150+ books on my “to read” shelves.  A lot of them were fairly recent acquisitions, but some of them had been sitting there for years, following me from Santa Barbara to Atlanta six years ago and not getting any closer to being read.  The larger problem was that I was still buying books so frequently that the situation would only ever get worse, even if I increased my reading pace.  So, in the tradition of the desperate addict, I decided to go cold turkey.  No more buying books until I completely cleared the shelves, and, in the process, this blog was transformed from solipsistic musings on pop culture and politics to solipsistic book reviews.

Six months later, I’ve read 48 books and made a decent amount of headway, especially if you compare the picture here with the photos at the link at the top.  I wish I could report that my attitude toward book consumption has undergone a sea change, that I’ve realized I don’t need to buy books as frequently to satisfy my literary jones, but I’d be lying if I claimed my eye wasn’t so firmly on the prize because I’m so keenly aware of how much good stuff I’m missing out on.  You have no idea, for instance, how much it pains me to know that this project has prevented me from reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.  But I’m fully committed to seeing it through to its conclusion.

And it is fun.  Of course it is.  I’m reacquainting myself with a few authors I hadn’t read in a while and introducing myself to some new voices, and my extended chronological exposure to both Elmore Leonard and Ian Rankin has been one of the project’s true pleasures.  So, 48 books in, what’s made an impression?  Here’s the scorecard for the first six months.

Favorite Book(s): I’ve read a lot of good stuff, but nothing has made quite as much of an impact as the very first book I read back in September.  J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. is sort of ingenious, an experiment in multiple voices told in the form of marginalia recorded between two readers in a library book.  David Peace’s bleak and brilliant 1980 is another high point, and both Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89 and Ian Rankin’s The Hanging Garden stand as my favorite of the several books of theirs I’ve read so far.

Least Favorite Book(s): It’ll take a lot to top Andy Weir’s The Martian, which I found tedious in a variety of ways: the artificially chipper voice of its narrator, the superfluous scientific tangents, the rice-paper-thin supporting characters, the Crisis-of-the-Day contortions of its plot.  Jonathan Maberry, whose Joe Ledger series I adore, struck out with Dead Man’s Song, the second book in his Pine Deep Trilogy.  Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions is a failed experiment that never rewards the effort it takes to read it.  But at least I remember all three of these, which is more than I can say for Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist.  Goodreads tells me I read it, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a thing about it.

Biggest Surprise, Positive: I’ve never been a science-fiction guy, so Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is the most unexpectedly pleasurable thing I read.  Shades of Philip K. Dick and James Ellroy in a story about an android seeking her freedom.

Biggest Surprise, Negative: David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice is an uncharacteristically  mean-spirited collection of sketches.  The author’s typically affectionate tone is missing, replaced with misanthropy and cruelty.  I don’t mind a little misanthropy and cruelty, but it suits Sedaris like a sweater that’s too tight through the shoulders.

A Book Everyone Loves That I Had Problems With: I took a break from writing reviews for a while, and I wish I’d written one about John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  I completely understand why this book is a juggernaut in the world of spy fiction.  It’s a labyrinthine tale of Cold War intrigue, full of well-drawn characters working at cross-purposes with a variety of motivations.  It’s a classic.  Totally.  But after a while it got to be too much work – a case (for me, at least) of diminishing returns as I just waited around patiently for le Carré to tie up all the loose ends.

A Book I Loved that I Don’t Think Everyone Else Will Love but I Think Is Worth Reading Anyway: I was sort of blown away by Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.  A mystery without resolution, a curdled romance, and a rumination on the effects of war, it’s a book that invites argument.  The fact that O’Brien tells it in stark, spare prose makes it all the more haunting.  It isn’t for everyone – especially for readers who need a satisfying, definitive conclusion – but anyone who appreciates ambiguity as much as I do will find a lot to love.  And, even though I still have a hundred pages to go, I can say with some certainty that Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin is a powerhouse of a book that dares you to love it.  That review will be coming along in a day or two.

So: six months and 48 books down.  I should have cleared all my shelves in a little over a year and a half from the start date.  Call it June 2016.  Place your bets now.

*****

Current listening:

Fall this

The Fall – This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)

Waiting Around for Grace

sleepy-guy-300x199261What can I say?  I got lazy.  Again.  The thought of cranking out 1,000 words every few days got to be too much for my TV- and video game-loving ass to handle,  and that’s the only excuse I have for the gap in posts between mid-December and mid-February.  I wish I could say I was doing something important – writing a book, traveling the world, solving crimes with a plucky sidekick – but I was probably watching movies and playing Far Cry 4.

And reading.  Loyal followers of this blog will notice I’ve started posting full book reviews again.  As usual, the primary motivator for this was guilt.  I’m asking my students to write and post reviews of what they’re reading this semester, so it seems just a wee bit hypocritical for me not to do the same.  Walking the walk, etc.  And even though I haven’t been posting formal reviews, the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project is still in full swing.  So, in keeping with precedent, here’s a bunch of one-sentence reviews of all the books I read in the lost months of early 2015.

Sherman Alexie – The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. A gritty and unforgiving short story collection set in the one corner of the United States we rarely see: a Native American Indian reservation.

Ian Rankin – The Black Book. Rankin’s Inspector Rebus digs into Edinburgh’s history of organized crime to solve a murder in the fifth compelling book in the long-running series.

Russell Banks – Trailerpark. Banks is one of my favorite authors, but this loosely-connected collection of short stories set in the titular mobile home park is an entertaining but ultimately minor work.

Michael Chabon – The Final Solution. Simultaneously clever and slight, it’s unabashed genre fiction (starring a never-explicitly-identified Sherlock Holmes) from one of America’s greatest writers.

Elmore Leonard – 52 Pick Up. One of Elmore Leonard’s first crime novels is also his best – hard-boiled tough-guy deliciousness.

Don DeLillo – The Body Artist. DeLillo wrote one of my favorite books (White Noise), but two months after reading The Body Artist, I don’t remember a single, solitary thing about it, which probably tells you all you need to know.

Jennifer Egan – The Invisible Circus. Egan’s first novel is a stunning, melancholy tour de force about the perils of delving too deeply into family history.

Ian Rankin – Mortal Causes. Rankin broadens his scope in this sixth Inspector Rebus book to take in the connection between Scotland and the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Joshua Ferris – Then We Came to the End. A laugh-out-loud condemnation of modern office life, Ferris’ book is Grade-A satire.

Alex Grecian – The Yard. Depicting the birth of Scotland Yard, Grecian’s first book in this series is  a brutal murder mystery that promises great things to come.

Elmore Leonard – Mr. Majestyk. More modern noir from the master of the crime novel, it’s a testament to the badass who refuses to take shit from anyone.

Matt Haig – The Humans. An outer-space alien takes over a professor’s body to protect an intergalactic secret and in the process learns schmaltzy lessons about What it Means to be Human. ™

John Irving – A Widow for One Year.  I love Irving but struggled with this one, an epic-length treatise about family, obsession, and the writing life that takes a long time to go nowhere special.

Ian Rankin – Let it Bleed. After taking on the Troubles, Rankin investigates the corridors of power in the twisty-turny  seventh Inspector Rebus book.

Stephen King – Blaze. An early Stephen King novel (writing as Richard Bachman) that really should have stayed lost.

John Le Carré – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s a brilliant spy novel – totally, unequivocally, unquestionably – but holy cow was I bored.

Elmore Leonard – Swag. The funniest of Leonard’s early-career crime novels, it sets the template for all of his subsequent novels that revolve around dim-witted tough guys.

*****

Current listening:

Cure kiss

The Cure – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)