The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, December 15, 2008

more reading

As you might be able to tell, my leisure reading is accelerating as the sabbatical approaches.

After finishing the very pleasant THE HERE AND NOW and the insufferable AGE OF WIRE AND STRING, I found on my father-in-law's bookshelf the Bill Bryson Appalachian Trail memoir A WALK IN THE WOODS. I've always thought of Bryson as a kind of "dad lit"--like John Adams biographies or Dave Barry. A WALK IN THE WOODS, though, had all of the positives of that kind of book and very few of the negatives. It's engaging and mildly funny in a self-deprecating way, with a middle-class white guy's perspective on things, but unlike Dave Barry (or SEINFELD, but that's another, much longer post) it isn't fundamentally smug and conservative: it's open to the new without being wide-eyed and goofily liberal about it. It made me want to go hike the trail. Not "through-hike," mind you; my first introduction to the concept of "through-hiking" came through my friend Eric Lupfer's great MISSOURI REVIEW essay "Thru-Hiking" from about ten years ago, and even then I had no desire to do the whole thing (which is uncharacteristic of me, because I am attracted to long, difficult, and fundamentally pointless endeavors like marathons and Thomas Pynchon novels). But the family and I hiked a small piece of the Trail while in the Great Smokies this summer and it was beautiful--and, according to Bryson, one of the worst parts of the Trail. I'd love to hike in the Blue Ridge area, in Western Massachusetts and in Maine (but not with the mosquitoes). But I'm not sure my wife is going to let me go off and do that anytime soon.

Last night I finally also finished the book that's been sitting by the bed for over a year now, the collected edition of T. Coraghessan Boyle's STORIES from 1995. I've read a bunch of Boyle's novels and taught a couple of his short stories in various classes, and for me most of the stories and novels are pretty much the same: someone, usually a middle-class guy, gets some idea in his head, often put there by some tempting third party, and ends up embroiling his family and friends in something that gets WAY over their heads, usually in a bad way. When I first started this blog I was reading DROP CITY, which is about hippies who try to start a commune in Alaska, and it was refreshing, as we were staying at an apartment in the East Village in NYC during a heat wave and the place had A/C in only one room. Was nice to think about Alaska then.

Reading George Saunders' CIVILWARLAND IN BAD DECLINE right now, which my writer friend assures me is the ur-text of the American experimental/magical realist movement that has now, tragically, ended up with Ben Marcus. Enjoying it. Next up: Bolaños' SAVAGE DETECTIVES.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

thanksgiving reading: 2

After THE AGE OF WIRE AND WHATEVER I read Robert Cohen's THE HERE AND NOW. The blurbers compare Cohen to Roth and Bellow; I suppose they have the "urban Jewish novelist, slightly humorous" box to fill and Cohen certainly fits into that one. It's a slight story: a secular Jew meets an orthodox couple on his way to a wedding in Houston; the gregarious and friendly orthodox man invites the protagonist over for dinner and attempts to be accelerating what isn't even yet a friendship; we end up finding out (SPOILER ALERT) that the man is infertile (and thus, as a childless man in the orthodox community, inferior) and is trying to create a situation in which the protagonist will impregnate his wife. It's a light read, but pleasant.

While I was reading the other books I was listening to Junot Diaz's BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, which I really liked. Diaz is one of the hot young fiction writers--he was in a GRANTA "40 Under 40" issue at some point and is now quite well-known. Most of the talk about this novel has centered on the fact that although Diaz is kind of a hipster urban writer, WAO is about a nerd, a fanboy D&D geek. But it's also in what a recent reviewer of another novel (I think I read this review in the NYTBR, but I can't remember) called the "historical present": mostly in the present time, but with a significant component of the past narrated in the present. In this case, we hear about Oscar's mother's and grandfather's time in the Dominican Republic, both of which end tragically and violently. Clearly, what Diaz is doing is illustrating the ongoing presence of the viciousness that Trujillo brought to (or brought out of) the Dominican Republic. But I liked the shifting narrators and the "code-shifting" between hipster New Jersey English and español dominicano.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

thanksgiving reading: 1

vacation. Nice time to catch up on the reading. Even better when a bunch of cousins happily play with the boys--and seem to really like it!

Because of a game set of cousins, the boys had playmates almost constantly, which allowed me a bit of time to read. First up was Ben Marcus' THE AGE OF WIRE AND STRING, a novel foisted upon me by a writer friend when I was dismissing "realist writers" and complaining that not enough people were trying experimental stuff. Remind me not to do that again. THE AGE OF WIRE AND STRING is indescribable. It's written in a kind of nineteenth-century natural-history language, as if it were a series of small vignettes and lexicons of a strange world. It's not a novel, nor a short-story collection. Probably the best way to think of it would be as a Borges novel, or a Coover/Barthelme hybrid drained of all humor and life, but even that doesn't really describe the thing. It is strange and decentering, I will grant that. But it's also almost entirely antiseptic and alienating--not in the Borges way of making us think "hey, I'm watching a play!" but in a "wow, this thing is strange and unappealing and won't end." Well, that's not really true: it's short and a quick read, which is definitely a virtue in a book as humorless and lifeless as this. Interestingly, I think Marcus is quite talented, and his influences that are in evidence here (Borges, Coover, Barthelme, but also Beckett and Robbe-Grillet and even the Objectivist poets like George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky) are all people whom I admire. I'm interested in seeing what Marcus might do next, because this feels like an experiment or a tryout of a new technique.