What I Read in December

December 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Still haven’t finished the Brody book. December, as usual, has been busy with other things.

Santa Monica Review, Fall 2011. I like the modest design of this journal, with its black and white cover and single centered illustration. It publishes only fiction and essays, which lends the volume a certain heft. Animals turn up a lot in this issue, as in Michael Cadnum’s “Slaughter,” a fictional piece that finds authenticity in its detail about a man working at a slaughterhouse. The rather gruesome descriptions of the slaughtering process can only come from a writer who has worked in a slaughterhouse or done the legwork to learn what it is like. Perhaps it is intended to be a document of awareness in the vein of Upton Sinclair, but without that writer’s capital letter-muckraking.

A number of the contributors are described in their bios as “longtime supporters” of SMR, which creates the impression that it has its cache of favored regulars. Glen David Gold (Carter Beats the Devil) ends with an address, titled “Despair,” that was delivered at the Squaw Valley Summer Writing Conference in 2010. The address includes a fascinating anecdote, one heretofore unknown to me: Aldous Huxley, desperate for money late in his career, was hired by UPA Studios to write a feature adaptation of Don Quixote starring Mr. Magoo. (The project was rescinded once UPA realized that Huxley a.) had no idea who Mr. Magoo was; and b.) could see a movie screen about as well as Magoo could.)

Short Lean Cuts, Alex M. Pruteanu. A novella with attitude about a burned-out ex-academic now working as house cleaner, narrated in the first person with clipped, biting sentences informed by Heideggerian nihilism.

We learn a lot about Heidegger, as well as house cleaning:

What I really do best is remove stains from carpets.

Damp cloth. Always use a damp cloth.

Blot it. Don’t rub the stain.

If you’ve ever cleaned a stain and had it reappear a day or two later, your carpet is suffering from wicking. This means the liquid has pooled at the bottom of the carpet. Even though you may have blotted up the initial stain, you only cleaned the surface. Eventually, the liquid works its way back up the fibers to the top of the carpet, causing it to look like the stain has reappeared. To prevent wicking, cover the area with a thick cloth and weigh down with books. Leave overnight and remove the stain by blotting.

Blot. Don’t rub. Did you get that?

For stubborn protein-based stains, like semen, try rinsing with cold salt water first. Then go about tidying up the usual way.

There is not a deep plot, but the story moves along nicely, particularly by way of exchanges with the protagonist’s case worker. Dark and bright at the same time, in the manner of Henry Miller or Chunk Palahniuk (with more than a couple nods to Fight Club).

The Normal School, Fall 2012. A film-and-music-themed issue celebrating the eclectic journal’s fifth anniversary, and an unexpected find in our local bookstore. The opening essay, by Ned Stuckey-French, adheres well to the argument in the introduction to this year’s Best American Essays, that the best essays do not place their weight on introspection; they do the work of laying out researched fact and developing insight from that fact in the aim to persuade and teach us something about the human condition. Stuckey-French’s essay, a defense of Elvis Presley as an innovator of twentieth-century rock ‘n roll, rather than as a purveyor of kitsch, is placed with deserving prominence at the front of the issue.

Stuckey-French counts off seven of the most common claims that critics use to dismiss Elvis from the conversation:

Elvis was dumb

Elvis was racist, or at least a tool of racists

Elvis was pathetic, not tragic

Elvis sold out

Elvis is not Sinatra, Dylan, or the Beatles (or alternately, he’s not Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, James Brown, or Little Richard)

Elvis is for girls (or its corollary: Elvis was sexist).

Elvis is not God.

As someone who admittedly does not treat Elvis as seriously as Dylan, Cash, or the Beatles (I do love that JXL remix of “A Little Less Conversation,” which Elvis purists probably find scandalous), and who happens to be acquainted with a female Elvis impersonator, I fall squarely into Stuckey-French’s intended audience. Arguments like this one leave me willing to be persuaded:

What concerned me more, however, was why my friends felt—why in part I still feel—the need to choose Elvis over the Beatles or Sinatra or Dylan. The choice is a false one. It is also unfair—unfair because it is based, often at least, on the assumption that there is but one Elvis—sequined jumpsuit Elvis—but many versions of the others. We parse those artists—preferring Rubber Soul to Revolver, rhapsodizing about the Capitol sessions, continuing to argue about the electrification at Newport in 1965.

The reason for this, I think, has to do once again with the belief that Elvis was passive and without irony—or, less kindly, that he was stupid or, at best, naïve. The others, we say, were not. … Elvis was a polite Christian boy, an only child from Tupelo; smark aleck wasn’t really what he did.

I hope this essay gets noticed when it is time to put together next year’s anthologies.

And so the final tally for 2012: 30 books read, not including literary journals & magazines (since I tend to skip around with those). Truman Capote (3 titles) was the only repeat author, and six books were by people I knew either in real life or virtually. For Best Book I Read This Year, I’m going to go with Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (discussed here), with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit to the Goon Squad and Teju Cole’s Open City receiving the silver and bronze medals, respectively.

Happy New Year, everyone.


What I Read in July

July 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach. The best book I have read since Franzen’s Freedom and Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Harbach gets the modern game of baseball right, but what dynamizes the book is the honest interactions among the four male characters each intent on their obsessions and the one female who is trying to find her place in and around them. Allusions to classic literature, particularly Melville but also the mythic baseball novels of W. P. Kinsella, are not forced. It feels as complete as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay did.

The Same Terrible Storm, Sheldon Lee Compton. Compton’s stories are about heartache and physical ache and people with ropy muscles and demons and an underlying bitterness at the unforgiving landscape that makes escape from those demons impossible. He immerses you so deep in a place you can hear the porches creak and smell the truck exhaust and feel the wind blow dust in your ear.

[PANK] # 5. I bought this back issue along with a [PANK] t-shirt because a number of the contributors (including the aforementioned Compton) were familiar to me. My favorite pieces were two short stories about ambivalent young protagonists: Neal Peters’ “Sulfur” and Gabriel Welsch’s “The Burdens of Being Progressive,” which opens with the can’t-miss line: “One Tuesday, Kathy decides to write CUNT with a red magic marker in the bottom of Happy Meal boxes.”

The Groucho Letters, Groucho Marx. I found this used hardcover in the Strand for 20 dollars. The years spanned by this collection start when Groucho and his brothers are well past the twilight of their film careers. (Zeppo doesn’t even get a mention.) There is a lengthy exchange with the television writer and humorist Goodman Ace, who I hadn’t heard of before, but it’s clear throughout the back-and-forth that Groucho retains the edge in wit. More interesting is Groucho’s correspondence with people outside the industry whom he admires, including T. S. Eliot and Joseph N. Welch (most notable for lambasting McCarthy with the line, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” as Special Counsel for the Army during the McCarthy hearings).

Masscult and Midcult, Dwight Macdonald. A collection of curmudgeonly essays by the Cold War-era critic, produced in a new edition by NYRB Classics. Picked it up mainly because a modern critic whom I admire, Louis Menand, penned the introduction. Covers such subjects as the Book-of-the-Month Club, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (a subject obviously near and dear to my heart), and what he calls Tom Wolfe’s “parajournalism” (coined apparently before “New Journalism” took hold. Informative though dated, and not as enlightening to read today as, say, Trilling or Sontag.

The Common #3. Where the beautifully produced journal of Amherst College shines most is in its essays, specifically Bret Anthony Johnston’s “A Skimpy Primer on Skateboard Wheels” and Rolf Potts’ “Tourist Snapshots,” a discourse on photography with nods to Sontag and Roland Barthes, told through images captured by the author in his travels.

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