A peculiar thing happens when one lends a book. Are you already nodding? Do you already know what I mean?
Here’s what I mean. The borrower, with the book now in his possession, begins to believe the book belongs to him! Not right away. But the act of seeing the book on his desk, then on a nearby table, then maybe on a shelf, tossed there loosely but later tucked vertically between other volumes, creates a blur of ownership. With each passing week, the book takes on squatting rights.
The reason I know this so well is that I’ve been both lender and borrower. I still have a handful of books I’ve never returned, mainly because I lost contact with the owner. But between borrowing the book and losing contact, there grew a period when I had the opportunity to return what did not belong to me. But I didn’t. Mainly because I envisioned a day when I’d sit in the backyard and leisurely pore through this book that had been so generously recommended and lent. (I’ve read somewhere that when we buy books, we’re really buying the time that we will devote to reading it.)
For this reason, I’ve always been reluctant to lend out books. I’m in touch with some of the people who still have my books, but I never say anything. Maybe because I know how they feel. If I asked them to return my book, which now feels as if it belongs to them, they’d become resentful. And I wouldn’t blame them.
I have gotten better about lending books. Now, when I do, I try to imagine that I’ve given the borrower not the book but the gift of time. In fact, I don’t expect to ever see the book again. When it is returned, as sometimes miraculously happens, I’m always a little surprised. In most cases, I’ve forgotten the book was gone. Gazing upon a forgotten friend like this is a little exhilarating.
Lately what I’ve been doing is shedding, giving away books, something I could not have imagined years ago. It’s liberating. I’m freeing up not only my shelves but also my time. But the process of choosing which books to loosen from my clutches hasn’t been easy. I started with books owned for many years but never read, the ones I grudgingly admit I probably never will read. I’ve now moved to books read but with only moderate interest. Just because I wasn’t crazy about these select “duds” doesn’t mean others won’t devour them. I’m also giving away paperbacks that I liked but are not worth saving. I have hundreds and hundreds more that fall into the category of personally meaningful, and I can’t imagine parting with these quite yet—or ever. I think the key will be to find a dear friend or family member who will treasure the books as much as I do. I have to know that they’ll find a good home, that someone will be as stingy with them as I have been.
I can’t stop reading Nicholson Baker’s novels, though I hesitate to call them novels. They read like mini-essays that include quiet observations that you might find in a poem. Precise and vivid and peaceful. You feel like you’re sitting on a couch next to the author listening to him spin little yarns of wisdom. In this last one I read, A Box of Matches, the entries are made up entirely of his thoughts each morning as he rises early and approaches the fireplace. No plot. No forward thrust. But always engaging. If you’ve been meaning to read more poetry but can’t force yourself to slow down to do so (because reading poetry is more demanding?), try reading Baker.
Speaking of poetry, here’s another novel full of some of the richest sentences you’ll read anywhere: Alice McDermott’s newest book, Someone. There’s plenty of plot here, but McDermott offers it up in flashbacks and flash-forwards, all handled masterfully. The plot centers around a woman and her family, but the satisfaction in reading this book comes not from finding out what happens next but in sharing this character’s intimate glimpses into what it’s like to live a life. Some of the scenes are joyous and sweet, others are torturous in their specificity, especially one birthing scene that you won’t soon forget. This is easily one of the best books I’ve read in a while.
About a week ago I posted a couple of reluctant recommendations. I have another. Nicholson Baker’s Traveling Sprinkler. The reason for my reluctance: the book reads more like a series of meandering blog entries than a novel. Not much happens, other than the smoking of cigars, the eating of mixed nuts, the sprinkling of lawns, and other mundane activities, all of which unfold loosely and as if on a whim. When plot does appear, the book becomes endearing and sweet.
So why am I recommending the book? The narrator, Paul Chowder, is a poet who, without a hint of pretention, observes his world with such precision that you feel as if you’re on a calm expedition with the most able tour guide. As an aspiring songwriter, the narrator offers especially intriguing observations about the composing and appreciation of music, returning often to Debussy—and then he ties such observations to other astute observations about politics. Did you know that the poet Archibald MacLeish helped establish the C.I.A.?
I usually need a little more plot, but this quirky book kept me turning pages and always thinking.
If you like coming of age stories, if you’re fond of fast paced memoirs, if you’re a movie buff, if you’ve ever had issues with your parents or your children, if you enjoy reading about the turbulence that is family, then you will love this book: David Gilmour’s The Film Club.
Gilmour’s 15-year-old son, Jesse, struggles with school, which is fairly typical, right? But Gilmour’s response is anything but ordinary. He allows his son to drop out of school, provided that Jesse agrees to a different sort of education. He has to sit down with his old man on a fairly regular basis to watch movies. An education gleaned from movies! From discussions on The Godfather and The Bicycle Thief and On the Waterfront and many more. I can think of worse ways to learn about the world.
What movies to choose? In what order? How much do you explain and how much “education” do you allow the boy to pick up on his own? Do you assess? Gilmour asks all these questions and works through his “lesson plans” in his own plodding way—because to implement them in a systematic manner threatened to shut down any learning.
The book makes you wonder about the regimentation that has reigned in schools for the last 100-plus years. I’m not sure we’re ready for an all-cinema alternative, and I’m not sure how this particular story would have ended if Jesse had been forced to stick with school, but the questions Gilmour asks are worth our consideration.
My only disappointment while reading. Every time I searched on Netflix to find a movie mentioned, I came up empty—I’m referring to the instant access feature. Does anyone know a better subscription option?
When I started reading D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, I was struck by the plain style, relative to DFW’s, that is. I figured I’d flip pages and take in what I could in a few hours and leave it at that. But I found myself drawn in with each chapter and ended up devouring this sad, inspiring story. Sad because of DFW’s struggles and tragic end, inspiring because of his dedication to his art and his endless quest to live honestly and fully in the face of countless falls and relapses.
The guy had issues early on, having to leave college because of anxiety and depression. Drug use followed, much of it prescribed, and his life became a tale of finding the right mix that would keep him stabilized, which sometimes required treatments of electroconvulsive therapy, which led to memory loss, devastating to anyone but particularly for a writer. All of this was complicated by his insecurities, his intellect, his yearning/fear of success. It wasn’t enough for him to tell a good story; it had to mean something. Max explains: “To rely too much on plot risked seducing the reader; it was like selling Tide.” Reminds me a little of Holden Caulfield. Wallace never quite knew how to fit in. And fame didn’t make fitting in any easier.
He was happiest when the work was going well. When it wasn’t: ‘Work is like shitting sharp stones,’ he wrote in a letter to Jonathan Franzen.
I had doubts early on regarding whether this book would appeal to those who haven’t read DFW, but those doubts by the end were completely dispelled. In fact, I didn’t want to finish, partly because I knew how the story would end. I knew some details, though I didn’t want to know too much. But the details Max provides are just enough. In fact, this insightful book will have you searching for Wallace’s work. A good place to start would be with his essays, which may drive you a little batty with his footnotes, but you’ll find yourself in awe as you glimpse his thoughts.
I need to do some catch-up on reviews of books I’ve read over the past few months. In no particular order.
The Danger of Proximal Alphabets
This novel centers around a tumultuous first love, with an emphasis on first. These two know each other since birth. The book is not long, but you’ll find yourself flipping pages slowly because the writing is so precise and moving. It’s one of those books I’m keeping in sight, like a shiny new gem, so I will go back to reread it. A heartbreaking and lovely book.
I’d never read any Wolitzer before. Her newest, The Interestings, is getting a lot of attention, but I couldn’t find it at the book store, so I bought this book instead, one of her older novels. It’s about a high school drama teacher who puts on a play that slowly puts a spell on the women in the town, which makes them turn cold toward the men in their lives. The middle becomes predictable because the same thing happens again and again, but the payoff is satisfying and well worth the read. Though this spell business might seem magical and mystical, the action is grounded in this world and will make you examine your own relationships. This is a smart and moving book.
One Last Thing Before I Go
I’ve read three or four books by Tropper, and they’re all funny and wise. I’m not sure this is his best book, but his losers are endearing. He’s one of the few writers who gets me laughing aloud while reading. He reminds me of Richard Russo, and I wish he would decide to be as ambitious as Russo and write a big, sprawling book like Nobody’s Fool or Risk Pool, two of Russo’s finest.
The only nonfiction book this time. I haven’t read much about the battle, so I don’t know if this is the book to read on the subject, but I thoroughly enjoyed how Philbrick breaks down the battle into its most personal elements. Some families had relatives who fought on opposing sides. You needed seven men to fire a cannon. Doctor Joseph Warren should be as well known as George Washington, and if he hadn’t died young might have been. The colonial armies were a ragtag bunch of undisciplined but ferocious fighters. If those are the kinds of details that excite you, you will love this book.
For decades I’ve been hearing about Ball Four, a raunchy, unflinching firsthand look at the 1969 baseball season through the eyes of knuckleball pitcher Jim Bouton, who played that year for the expansion Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros.
Though I didn’t find the book nearly as raunchy as I expected. Or hoped? Sure, the players partake in unsavory activity, and their language is coarse, but the outrage over the publication of the book was more a reflection of 1969 than anything revealed in the book. Baseball back then had a reputation to uphold. But that reputation is so shattered today that the escapades described in the book seem quaint.
Particularly outdated are the many references to salary, which was paltry. Players had little leverage, they were treated unfairly, but the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction, with obscene multimillion dollar salaries, that the old system comes off as refreshing. For instance, Bouton describes how he had to fight the Seattle Pilots for $88 they charged him for banging up a door.
Bouton doesn’t offer any deep insights, but this is a book well worth reading because (a) it’s hilarious; (b) it offers a realistic behind-the-curtain glimpse at what it’s like to have to perform in the national spotlight; and (c) it’s brutally honest, about egos and flaws and aspirations. I can understand how some players and managers might have gotten upset over what Bouton had written.
As I plowed through the 467 pages of Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin, I wondered if readers who are not fans of the Boss would enjoy this book as much as I did. I’m still not sure, but I think so. The writing is excellent, the insights are deep and earned, and the balance is even. Carlin had access to Springsteen but was free to write what he wanted. The result is a compelling story of a driven neighborhood guy with talent up the wazoo and his own unique set of issues.
Sometimes when the unattractive underbelly of a person is revealed, the warts taint the reader’s admiration, which happened when I read bios of Kurt Vonnegut and Frank Sinatra. By the end, I’d had enough of those guys. But with Bruce, the flaws, thorny as they are at times, only serve to highlight Springsteen’s unwavering commitment to his music. It’s downright inspiring.
Here’s what I mean. Usually when I read biographies, I’m intrigued by turning points. If Paul had never met John, that’s that. No Beatles. No pandemonium. They may have enjoyed moderate success as musicians in clubs or wherever. But with Springsteen, you get the overwhelming impression that key turning points didn’t matter. If this producer had not given him some break, then some other one would. I’m not talking about fate or karma or anything of that nature. I’m referring to drive and talent and an original voice, meaning lyrical too, that must be heard. Someone could argue that he still needed certain conditions in order to thrive. For instance, his mother took out a loan to buy Springsteen his first guitar. She took out a loan! But I would counter that his insistence was more critical. He wore her down. And if she hadn’t relented, he would have gotten the guitar through other means.
A couple of examples of his single-mindedness. About a year after the success of his seminal album Born to Run, he’s standing outside a bar, unable to scrounge from his pocket the $3 cover charge. He’s so immersed in composing and performing that mundane concerns over money barely faze him. Typically, when he finishes a show, he’d rather move on to the next city than to lounge around. Lounging around means he’s one step removed from the music.
Reading the two pages about his speech at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, is worth the price of the book. The speech reminds me of the kind of graduation speech we never hear but should.
If you’ve never been to a Springsteen concert—first of all, what’s wrong with you?—you may wonder if this biographer’s praise of his performances is overblown. I’d suggest you find out for yourself. Go to a concert. Become a convert. Then you’ll want to read this book. If you are a fan, you’ve probably already read this book. If not, what’s wrong with you?
Each year, the Society of Midland Authors recognizes the best books published in the Midwest. And they’ve been doing this for nearly 60 years. This year, I was honored to be one of the judges in the fiction category. There were numerous worthy entries, and other judges may have selected different titles, but there’s no question that these four winners are among the best books published this year.
The World of a Few Minutes Ago
Why have I never heard of Jack Driscoll before now? This is a remarkable collection of short stories full of characters struggling to navigate the world. The characters remind me of the ones you might find in a Raymond Carver story, but Driscoll imbues them with more nuance. And his endings are more satisfying than Carver’s—which is great praise because I love those Carver stories. Probably a more apt comparison might be with Ethan Canin, another guy who knows a little about writing. It came as no surprise when I discovered that Driscoll also writes poetry. The language in these stories is rich and precise and always moving.
When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man
This book might be the most ambitious of the four. The novel spans only a few years in the life of the narrator, who becomes an unwitting custodian of an imprisoned man. But the scope seems much grander, as haunting as some Shakespearian drama. I think this is Dybek’s first novel, so you can expect to hear much more from him.
The Lighthouse Road
This is another ambitious book, the action shifting from one generation to another. I hesitate to call this a historical novel because it’s driven mainly by character, but this feels historical because the details are so precise, and the language seems to emerge from some deep place, as if the author immersed himself so completely with the past that the very language he uses evokes the rhythm of how people actually spoke in Minnesota in the 1890s and the 1920s. I love this book, which turns out to be a book about the indelible ties that bind families. The ending is earned and poignant and wholly satisfying.
Are You Happy Now?
This is a Chicago book through and through, written by a Chicago guy who knows the city well. The characters are endearing, the setting is gritty and evocative, the plot is engaging—a real page-turner. Of all the books, this one, for me, evoked the most emotion by the end. I was really rooting for this down-on-his-luck publisher searching for his big break, only to find that maybe other outcomes might be more important. Oh, and it’s mainly a love story!
Click here for a list of winners in other categories.
I just finished The Universe Within by Neil Shubin and I’m about halfway through The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean.
These are excellent companion books. Dip into one for a while, then dive into the other. They’re both well written in a conversational tone and often read like good mysteries. Unveiled in these books are the big who-dun-its: the mysteries of life. From how the universe likely began and how it will end to who discovered DNA. In school, I was never drawn in much by my science classes. I’m fairly certain this was due mainly to my inadequacies and flighty attention, but I do wonder: had I been handed books such as these then, would I have been a more engaged student? Probably not. More likely, I was a mope who needed a lifetime to become this curious.
I still struggle to picture how DNA protein G combines with C, and T with A, but Kean does a nice job of creating wonder about how scientists discovered this. For example, Gregor Mendel had nervous breakdowns during tests in school, yet he persevered at matters that were more important to him: understanding the expression of dominant and recessive traits. Another giant in the field, Sturtevant, blew off homework altogether. Darwin hated math. Fruit fly scientists apparently have a great sense of humor, naming their flies after their attributes: “Male coitus interruptus mutants spend just ten minutes having sex (the norm is twenty).” And Sister Miriam Michael Stimson, a nun who invented Preparation H, was discouraged from pursuing science at all, but her research methods helped inspire other DNA researchers.
In Shubin’s book, you’ll learn why today is longer than yesterday. Why the size of Jupiter and its distance from Earth helped to create life here. Why and how changes in the universe affected the evolution of our bodies. This is a mind-dazzling book that I can’t recommend highly enough. I need to read it again. And again. When people casually maintain that we’re all connected, they don’t quite understand the extent of their claim. Shubin lays this all out, puzzle piece by puzzle piece. My mind is still reeling.