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)

We Are All Accelerated Readers

S. abrams

The story you walk into, he has learned, is always more complex than it first appears (352).

Having finished J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S.I’m not sure there’s a clearer way of summarizing the experience than with a line from the book itself.  In my previous post I alluded to the complexity of this endeavor: the complementary narratives; the way the comments in the margins exist simultaneously in the past, present, and future; the supplementary material (some of which can be seen in the above image) that deepens the lives of Jen and Eric, the student readers.  But I unfairly dismissed the main narrative – The Ship of Theseus, by fictitious author V.M. Straka, the book through which Jen and Eric are  communicating – as Pynchon Lite.  In the first sixty pages, which is all I had read at the time of my last post, I didn’t realize that what Dorst (and make no mistake: S. might have been Abrams’ idea, but it’s Dorst’s book) has done is write a book that could very easily and satisfyingly stand on its own.  And this means, of course, that the entire experience is richer and more impressive than I realized a week ago.

As I plowed through S., I couldn’t help but think of Richard Linklater’s masterful film Boyhood.

In that movie, which is every bit as audacious as S., writer/director Linklater charts the growth of a boy into a man, capturing him and his family in bits and pieces over the course of twelve years.  We watch the boy – Mason – grow up, but we do so selectively.  We see, at most, one or two representative days from each year (which Linklater actually shot with the same cast), and we’re made to fill in the blanks that we don’t see.  Some of this is accomplished through the characters’ dialogue when they allude to other events (a divorce, a date with a girl), but there are, unavoidably, many things we don’t see.  Even so, we get a strong sense of who Mason is through these narrative fragments: what he values, how he relates to and interacts with his family, what he wants to do with his life.  We know some of this through simple intuition and inference, but most of it comes from those well-chosen glimpses of Mason’s life we see in annual intervals.  Linklater gives us just enough to know the story.

There’s something similar going on in S. in the way Jen and Eric’s relationship develops, but it works to different and – for my taste – even greater effect.  The book begins, as I mentioned last time, with Eric, a disgraced grad student, and Jen, a senior about to graduate, attempting to unravel the mystery of Straka’s true identity, which they do partially by attempting to decipher a code they believe is buried in the text of The Ship of Theseus.  This is all conducted through comments in the book’s margins, and for much of the beginning of S. their remarks to one another are purely – or mostly, at least – academic, innocuous, random observations on Straka’s style and life.  As the book progresses, however, it becomes clear that the plot of Theseus is an extended metaphor for Straka’s real-life acts of sedition, and Jen and Eric quickly find that their search for his identity – whether he’s a specific individual or a composite of the members of a secret literary society – is embroiling them in a conspiracy larger and more dangerous than they bargained for.

StrakaBut of course there’s no point where Eric says to Jen, “Holy cow, new friend whom I’ve never met, this is one dilly of a pickle we’ve gotten ourselves into!”  Instead, it’s all done through their obliquely paranoid references. Jen mentions that someone seems to be following her. Eric warns her to be careful covering her tracks when she removes things from the library archives. As they get closer to the heart of the mystery, someone burns down the hotel Jen is staying in.  Like Boyhood, we learn all of this in small shards of narrative, those brief comments left in the margin.  And in that way it makes their story even more suspenseful.  Eric warns Jen not to break into the office of his former faculty advisor, and then Jen doesn’t write any comments for several pages. How do we read that silence?  It actually made me nervous, which is sort of ridiculous but also sort of awesome.

Dorst has written a standalone novel imbued with an increasingly claustrophobic sense of menace.  But the truly remarkable thing, and the reason it all hangs together so well, is that he’s created two distinct (and distinctly believable) characters in Jen and Eric.  I was able to easily buy into their early friendship, their halting flirtation, their immersion in the mystery of the book, because their individual voices are so strong.  It’s a rare feat to create a world as vivid as this through a device as minimal as a series of largely disconnected statements made in response to a completely unrelated text.

I’ve purposefully left out most of the nuts and bolts of the plot – both in The Ship of Theseus and in what becomes of Jen and Eric’s amateur sleuthing.  The reason, I hope, is evident.  One of the very real pleasures of the book is having no idea what’s coming next.  It’s rare (for me, at least) to feel like I’m experiencing something brand new when I flip the pages of a book.  S. gave me that in spades.  It’s something special, in the very best sense of the word.

On to Book #2 in the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project: Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl.


Current listening:

Sufjan illinois

Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (2005)



Asking Strangers for Directions

Look Inside

Okay, okay – don’t get excited.  Posts will be, as ever, sporadic, and I hope consecutive daily posts like these aren’t implied as a promise I likely won’t keep.  But it probably does make some sense to check in while I’m still in the early stages of a new book, if for no other reason than to offer up some first impressions and capture the process of immersing myself in a new story.

And I’m a sucker for immersion, especially when it comes via unconventional means.  I scoff – scoff, I say – at books that get too self-consciously arty, but I love it when an author can pull off a genuinely immersive experience in a way that pushes the boundaries of what a novel can be.  Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is brilliant in the way it plays with shifts in genre, font, and the placement of words on page to create one of the creepiest reading experiences I’ve ever had.  On the other hand, I found David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and its plethora of footnotes to be annoying and cumbersome.  I could easily put up with rotating Danielewski’s book upside-down to read certain pages – and flipping back and forth to read boxes of text that appear as mirror images from page to page – but Infinite Jest just made me grumpy.  So it’s a fine line (and one which Danielewski’s second book, Only Revolutions, will test when I get around to the “D”s.  More on that when I get there).

As much as I liked the idea of J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. – the first “A” book on my top shelf – I admit that it made me apprehensive.  The photo at the top gives you just a hint of what the reader is in for.  At first glance it looks like a library book, complete with interlibrary loan stamp and due dates printed on the inside back cover.  Open it carelessly and various documents flutter from its pages – memos, newspaper clippings, postcards, an old decoder wheel.  And a cursory flip through the opening chapter lets you know that you’re in for a reading experience unlike any you’ve ever had – and one that will likely be more than a little labor-intensive.

Theseus 1But that’s where the immersion comes in, see?  Because S. plunges you into at least two (and arguably three) levels of story, which you can start to see from the provided images.  The primary text is a bogus novel called Ship of Theseus that’s ostensibly written by a (bogus) guy named V.M. Straka.  I’m only sixty pages in, but so far it appears to be a sort of quasi-Pynchon mystery that centers on a guy with amnesia trying to figure out who he is, how he lost his memory, and why everything feels like a conspiracy.  It’s passably entertaining, but the more fascinating narrative – and I suppose we could argue that this is actually the primary text – is the one that happens in the margins between Jen, an undergraduate lit. major on the cusp of graduation, and Eric, a scandal-plagued grad student.

So, on the one hand you’re reading Straka’s Ship of Theseus, but the heart of the story is the complementary mystery raging in the margins between Jen’s blue cursive and Eric’s black printing.  Because Straka, as it turns out, is a Salinger-esque figure whose identity has perpetually been in doubt.  Eric’s dissertation was going to be on unraveling the Straka mystery until he fell afoul of his apparently duplicitous and underhanded faculty advisor who pulled his funding and got him booted from the university.  So now Jen and Eric (who have never met, at least not as far as I’ve read) compare notes, decipher codes, and try to solve the mystery, all through the marginalia they leave for each other in a library copy of Ship of Theseus.

It is, so far, delicious.  The ongoing conversation between Jen and Eric is sort of brilliant in the way it balances amateur sleuthing, university intrigue, conspiracy theories, mild coming-of-age angst, and flirtatious banter – all in comments made in reaction to another text.  So Ship of Theseus has to work as A) a standalone narrative, B) a vehicle for the central mystery, and C) a way for Jen and Eric to develop as characters.

Theseus 2And then there’s this.  In the image to the right you’ll see that there’s some red and green notes that stand out in stark contrast to the customary blue and black.  These notes appear sporadically, and it took me a few of them to figure this out, but the red and green comments were apparently written by Jen and Eric at some point in the future, reflecting back on the process by which they initially worked their way through the mystery.  This adds an extra layer of complexity to the novel –the third level of story I mentioned earlier – as Jen and Eric’s commentary simultaneously exists in the present (the blue and black ink comments that attempt to puzzle out Straka’s identity at the same time as the reader), the future (the green and red comments that allude to events that haven’t happened at the time the blue and black notes were written), and the past (the green and red notes that comment on blue and black notes that have already happened). There’s also some periodic notes in another pen entirely – which I guess we can call faded ballpoint – that represent Eric’s grad student observations of the text (symbolism, allusions, etc.).  Make that story level 3a.

And, as I mentioned at the top, there’s also the various other documents crammed in Ship of Theseus‘ pages, like this newspaper spread that alludes to one of the reasons why Eric was expelled from the university.

Theseus 3

On second thought, I shouldn’t have been so hesitant in my language earlier: it is brilliant.  Sixty pages in, and I’m officially hooked.


Current listening:

Shearwater animal

Shearwater – Animal Joy (2012)