Books Read in 2011, Part I

I read 21 books in 2011. Here are #11-21, ranked from most insight/pleasure/ideas/inspiration derived from to least enjoyed…

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11. Inferno (a poet’s novel) (OR Books, 2010) – Eileen Myles

Sexy, funny, tough. The first third is stunning, about her education, “becoming a poet”, leaving Boston, New York in the 70s, New York poets in the 70s. The middle third (about Poetry Project politics, her forgotten plays, her residency at a rich person’s house, getting her dog) is a bit flabby, you could feel her thinking – “I gotta work on this novel”, maybe she even writes that at one point. I loved the passage about women’s pussies, the different ones she had seen & their infinite range, the importance about loving the physicality of your own.  A good counterpoint to Patti Smith’s memoir (Just Kids) that came out about the same time, which is about the same time period. 

12. Bossypants (Reagan Arthur Books, 2011) – Tina Fey

Tina Fey is a very funny person you also would like to be friends with. Highlights: thoughts on doing a photo shoot for a big magazine; drama camp as a teenager; & her tips for life gleaned from improv comedy.


13. Lolita (Vintage, 1989, original published 1955) – Nabokov

I know several people who would consider it blasphemy to have read 21 books and rank Lolita all the way down at No. 13. There were entire paragraphs I wanted to cut out & marvel at for a while, & sometimes it’s very morbidly funny, but overall, the book is dark, dark & what does it do in the world? A man destroys a childhood (but “Reader, she seduced me”), tells it as a love story. There is an uncomfortable sexiness to it until he actually has her, then the whole narrative shifts. Nabokov successfully paints the American landscape of the time – New England to California & cheap motels in between – which is a great feat. Humbert ultimately justifies his actions with the idea of love but I felt that other thoughts he let slip undermine this justification through “true love”… the idea of the nymphet, for example. He says that a nymphet is very rare, it’s not just a pre-pubescent girl, but then he’s slavering at every little girl that crosses his path. I also hate this book as a cultural signifier for sexiness – l think it used to be even more so in the 60s-70s, but even still look at Japan (not that this is Vladimir’s fault)… There’s a coldness to Nabokov’s novels that keeps me from drawing them too close. There has to be more than perfection in execution. Also, that Poe poem is not that great.

14. The Bell Jar (1971, originally published in England, 1963) – Sylvia Plath

I know Plath the Poet best & I was wowed by her ability to carry off a novel so neatly. It’s well structured & well paced. Esther Greenwood is not afraid to reveal her meanness, pettiness, cruelty, the grotesque visions everyone turns into when she is depressed. The New York part is the strongest, there seem to be omissions from the section on recovery (introspection as to whence the breakdown). Her description of a baby being born was truly viscerally terrifying. Interesting that Esther considers her visit to get a fitting for a diaphragm (before she ever has sex) a most significant step in her recovery: freedom. 

[FUCK: my browser hiccuped and I lost everything I wrote about the books below & more on the book above. Maybe I will try to re-write at some point, but not now. Oh god not now. I hate repeating myself. But I want to publish this before 2011 is over. For the record. UPDATE: I re-wrote, but much more condensed versions.]

15. The Marriage Plot (2011) – Jeffrey Eugenides

I was totally engrossed with the novel & impressed with his portrayal of Madeleine, his female protagonist & college life at Brown in the 80s. But it wraps up too quickly; she becomes a disappointment.

16. Oryx and Crake (2003) – Margaret Atwood

Atwood takes our current disturbing tendencies (cultural obsessions with sex & violence, genetic engineering, consumerism to the point of destruction) to their logical conclusion & beyond. A convincing alternate world. The love story, however, was merely a plot device, not fully rendered.

17. Blue Label/Etiqueta Azul (2010) – Eduardo J. Sánchez

This won a prize for portraying the youth perspective on Venezuela in its current state of economic-political crisis. It does capture a lot of Venezuelan culture, but the fact that it’s a woman looking back at her life made it hard for me to swallow. Why would she care about a lot of this minutiae that happened 20 years ago? The relationships, situations were also overblown. Made me wonder why a young male author would write from a young female point of view.

18. Absurdistan (2006) – Gary Shteyngart

A recurring theme for me seems to be ‘loved the beginning, was slogging through the end’. Most true for this book. Hilarious, incisive portrayal of post-Soviet Russia, New York City in parallel, but then (once in Absurdistan), the satire gets too clever for its own good. Something about his portrayals of sex & women made me not want to read any of his other books. Also hated that he included a version of himself in it (the writer the love interest runs off with, ugh).

19. El prestigio de la belleza (2010) – Piedad Bonnett

The jacket copy said that it was a book about growing up as an “ugly” girl in a society that values beauty in women above all. That’s the book I wanted to read, not a sort-of memoir about a rebellious young girl, in which nothing much happens (she gets sent to a strict Catholic school away from home). She touches on how she manifested a lot of her discomfort in the culture via her body (gastric illnesses), but there is no introspection, reflection on it, it just happens.

20. Chronic City – Jonathan Lethem

 I followed the convoluted plot, saved the clues, tried to understand the characters & care about the portrayal of the Upper East Side & this almost-version of New York. I put in this work as a reader, but it did not pay off. And soooo loooong tooooo, uuuugh.

21. The Imperfectionists – Tom Rachman

I had trouble getting all the way through this, to the point of being actively annoyed, but it was the only thing I had to read on a long plane ride, so I was stuck. Formulaic, often cliched writing. Its seams were showing, really felt like a first “novel”: a series of short stories about staff at an international, English-language newspaper based in Rome. All of the stories could be broken down into the formula “one-dimensional character finds him/herself in an extreme situation” (i.e., the super-shy copy editor gets cuckolded by his beautiful wife; the unambitious proofreader who is devoted to his son & nothing else loses the son; etc.) I can see why this was published – it appeals to the New Yorker-loving crowd who wants something light but that still feels literary. Rome is an exciting location, it gives an insider view of the newspaper life, etc. But I had a bad time reading it. New York Times bestseller? Really?

(Strange aside: I googled “gets cuckolded” to ensure this was correct usage (don’t think I have ever written out “cuckolded” before) & stumbled across many websites on tips for getting your wife to cuckold you! I didn’t know this was such a popular fetish… If you can dream it, it’s on the internet.)

Bought a Few Books Today

Purchased:

The Diary of Anais Nin, Volume I (1931-1934) (1966) & Volume II (1934-1939) (1967)

I read Volume I a couple of years ago & thought it was much better written than her fiction (I’ve read A Spy in the House of Love and Winter of Artifice). I’d like to read all of them. I like to think of the diary as the form she innovated. She didn’t just hand over a bunch of notebooks to her publisher, these are edited. I’ve read that some women were angry at what she left out – that they took her for a feminist model & thought it dishonest that she left out the fact that she was supported by her rich husband, etc… But I say: it’s a work of literature, the diary tells the truth in the way literature does, not in the way “true stories” do. I remember at one point she calls the diary her drug, her opiate – she lived through writing it. It’s interesting to think of it as a form, a formless form (non-narrative, or loosely narrative form), anarchic.

Take It by Joshua Beckman & Ventrakl by Christian Hawkey

As part of my freshly minted commitment to approach contemporary poetry with an open mind & open heart (rather than a jealous heart & negative mind). I heard Beckman read from Take It at KGB Bar & really enjoyed the reading. Everyone was buzzing about the Hawkey book last year, which is a hybrid with translation (??). Thought: maybe my difficulty with poetry (keeping up with everything being published, reading it in large quantities), is that I need so much space around it. Today I felt as if I had some breathing space in the reading room in my mind, like it could handle some poetry. This is rare, I don’t buy poetry books very often when browsing books.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I read this in college & have been feeling like I need to read it again. I listened to it as an audio book while temping in an office in downtown Denver. I was working in the HR department of a tech company, the HR ladies didn’t really know what the company did. I was stuffing envelopes, sorting benefits materials, etc. with headphones on, usually dressed in black, I think. I felt very bad ass listening to Plath while they discussed the day of the week (“Ugh, it’s only Wednesday.” “At least tomorrow’s Friday.” “It’s Friday!”).

El examen por Julio Cortázar

I hadn’t even heard of this novel. He had his wife publish it posthumously (1986). He wrote it in the 50s. What finally convinced me to buy it was the references to his sense of humour in the jacket copy.

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol by Andy Warhol

This crossed my path at Spoonbill & Sugartown, it just looks like fun.

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I got these 7 books, these riches, for $54! (Everything used except the Warhol book, I also traded in 3 used books, got $8 credit.)

Authors I noticed, to look into at some point: Geoff Dyer, Arthur Nesesian (never heard of him, but suddenly he was everywhere. Manhattan Loverboy was deemed “Best Book for the Beach, 2000” by Jane magazine, its jacket copy declared – what could this mean?).

Also, I got everything but Warhol & Beckman at Book Thug Nation, a used bookstore with a terrible name, but an amazing selection of literary fiction, particularly in view of its tiny space. Bookstores like this have been disappearing, places that you can tell are owned by people who love literature, serious literature.

A New-Old Thought on Writing Fiction

I remembered this after reading an article, I think in Poets & Writers, about how fiction is all about characters, creating believable, memorable characters & that didn’t seem right to me. That doesn’t locate what I seek or what I find in fiction.

One of the things I have to keep reminding myself of is that there are many models for fiction. Writing fiction seems daunting when I think of it in the journalistic sense – telling a story “straight”. Or when I think of writing historical fiction, with its copious research and endless opportunities for making a mistake. Or character-based fiction, that requires a consistent psychology. The reasons I don’t like reading Henry James (blasphemy), or the kinds of books we pick for my book club, once in a while (novels like The Girl Who Fell from the Sky).

But then I remember that I’ve always preferred alternative models, not through any willful posturing on the side of the experimental, but rather because of how those books struck me at a gut level. It’s about what the writing does rather than any personal attachment to the characters. For example, Kundera – it was the author’s insertion of himself into the story, the philosophical perspective he took that struck me, the gesture of standing back and moving the characters around while asking questions (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Cortázar – the collage aspect of Rayuela, the play with words, play with form he enacts through the course of a single novel (and his sense of humour of course). Virginia Woolf – the intensely internal feeling of her narrative, the shifts in perspective (Mrs. Dalloway). And then alternative models like Violette Leduc & Marguerite Duras, something between memoir, journal & fiction, an unflinching voice that comes through. Anais Nin’s diaries, Julian Barnes… The writing stays, makes its mark, more than a straight-shooting noel.

(There are some exceptions. James Baldwin’s Another Country I love, J.D. Salinger’s characters are like people to me. Lorrie Moore’s stories.)

I have to keep this in mind when forging forward with writing prose, so it feels like a place I’m welcome in & like it’s something I want to do.

Related reading: more Lydia Davis!

Piano Solo

Since a man’s life is nothing more than action in the distance,
A bit of foam sparkling inside a glass,
Since trees are nothing but trembling furniture:
Nothing but chairs and tables in perpetual motion
Since we, ourselves, are nothing more than beings
(Just as the god himself is nothing but the god)
Since we don’t speak in order to be heard
but rather so that others will speak
And the echo precedes the voice that produces it,
Since we don’t even have the consolation of
chaos in the garden that yawns and fills with air,
A puzzle that must be solved before dying
In order to calmly resuscitate
When a woman has been used in excess
Since there is also a heaven in hell,
Let me do some things, too:

I want to make a noise with my feet
And I want my soul to find its body.

–Nicanor Parra (quick translation by echoseeker, alternate translation by W.C. Williams here

Slow, bitter animal

Slow, bitter animal
that I am, that I have been
bitter from the knot of dust and water and wind
which, in the first generation of man, would plead with God
Bitter like those bitter minerals
which in the nights of precise solitude
—damned and ruined solitude
without one’s self—
scale up the throat
and, scabs of silence,
suffocate, kill, resuscitate.
Bitter like that bitter voice
prenatal, presubstantial, which spoke
our word, which walked down our path,
which died our death,
and which we discover at every moment.
Bitter from inside,
from what I am not
—my skin like my tongue—
from the first living thing,
annunciation and prophecy
Slow since centuries ago,
remote—there is nothing behind—
distant, far, unknown.
Slow, bitter animal
that I am, that I have been.
–Jaime Sabines
translation by echoseeker

The To Read List:

My own indulgences:

The Bell Jar (again)

Lydia Davis short stories

The Mammal’s Notebook – Satie

Cesar Aira

Essays on Madame Bovary

Cortazar’s letters

Anais Nin’s diaries

James Wood – essays

The Mirror – Russell Edson

Grace Paley

Alice Munro

Eat-your-vegetable reading:

Dostoevsky – The Idiot & Notes from Underground

On my shelf to read:

Djuna Barnes, Christopher Isherwood, Nabokov (The Gift), Guns, Germs & Steel

To check out, seen around a lot:

Leaving the Atocha Station – Ben Lerner

Mavis Gallant

Poets: Ungaretti, Pavese, Mina Loy

Ya que también existe un cielo en el infierno,
Dejad que yo también haga algunas cosas:

Yo quiero hacer un ruido con los pies
Y quiero que mi alma encuentre su cuerpo.

del poema “Solo de Piano”, Nicanor Parra, Poemas y antipoemas