Thoughts on Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff


Wolff’s book has been criticized for not being a solid piece of journalism. Indeed, in the introduction, he gives a blanket explanation on his sources and how he doesn’t attribute quotes and assertions. I also heard this book critiqued as tabloid fodder, but I think it’s much better than that. Michael Wolff can write. He doesn’t come in with razor-sharp political analysis a la David Remnick, true, but he’s incredibly insightful in terms of situating Trump within the insider-y media landscape, both as subject and active participant. On a purely human level, too, he provides deft, vivid sketches of all of the players. They are visual and precise in terms of situating each of the “characters” in their particular political, media or show business context.

Wolff doesn’t turn away in disgust. He dives in. Steve Bannon is the anti-hero of the book, while Trump is the mythological beast, the oracle, monster and idiot savant of its universe. What sticks with me is the default deference he’s given by those around him, no matter how irrational, mean or stupid he gets (particularly in the beginning), for having pulled off that feat, pulling the sword from the stone: winning the presidency. It must mean something about him, they think, that he knows something or senses something or has a plan.

I was particularly taken with Wolff’s description of Trump’s hair. It’s indicative of his particular skills as a writer:

An absolutely clean pate – a contained island after scalp reduction surgery – surrounded by a furry circle of hair around the sides and front, from which all ends are drawn up to meet in the center then swept back and secured by a stiffening spray.

In a recent “By the Book” New York Times mini-interview, Joyce Carol Oates described this book as comforting. That’s exactly how I felt about it, though I’m still figuring out why. Maybe it’s the simple fact of having a direct and up-close record of a chaotic, upsetting and incredible time we’re all still trying to fathom, the confirmation of someone else having lived through it, confirmation that it was indeed unbelievable, kind of stupid at the same time, that the people at the top have no experience and are fumbling along.

So much has happened already since the book was published. I wanted it to keep going and going up until the present moment, to help keep making sense of reality.

Thoughts on Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon (NYRB edition)


It’s bold to assert there was something lost in the translation of this memoir without having access to the source text and only basic knowledge of Italian. However, having translated since I could read, basically, and working as a professional translator I know enough to sympathize with the hard translation problems faced by Jenny McPhee, that translator, which don’t have satisfactory solutions. Ginzburg sets up the songs, expressions, and rhymes that characterized her parents and siblings as the framework for her story of growing up in Turin in the 1920s. Schoolyard chants, lyrics from old songs, jokes: texts that have a richness and particularity that are inextricable from the language they’re composed in. McPhee makes a valiant effort, but the results, rather than being charming, or funny or familiar, as is intended, are alienating to an English-speaking reader. They didn’t bring me closer, as a reader, to the people being affectionately, though honestly, recalled. There are also many mentions of Italian political and cultural figures that are obscure to non-Italian readers – for example, intellectuals involved in the anti-Fascist movement who are close friends of the Ginzburg’s parents.

The second half of the memoir, while much more serious and upsetting, is a better read. The kids are all grown up and facing the rise of fascism, anti-Semitism and World Word Two. Ginzburg’s father is arrested, and a brother has to flee the country. Her husband dies in prison, while their brilliant friend, the poet Cesare Pavese, commits suicide. Ginzburg and her young children are exiled to the countryside. The writing becomes more fluid, more direct and more analytical. While Ginzburg’s intention was primarily to draw a family portrait and obscure herself, I found the times she reveals her own thoughts, attitudes and experiences the most compelling.

Regarding the problems inherent in translating texts that rhyme, texts with cultural and historical associations, etc., an imperfect solution is to provide the source text in the end notes. More context concerning the family’s anti-Fascist friends, their place in Italian political history would have also been welcome as end notes, too, as Ginzburg does not reveal any of this background information, only their names and relationship to her family.

On the whole, I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from picking up this book, and I would definitely read other work by Ginzburg. The spare, unflinching descriptions of Turin during the war are powerful, and her portrait of Pavese is haunting. There is also a warm and a full understanding of her mother, an expansive depiction of a positive, kind woman facing hardship and choosing to remain kind.

The 2014 Book List, Part II

In 2014, I read 20 fiction & non-fiction books. Here are numbers 9-15 ranked in order of my own most subjective preference. Not necessarily in order of literary greatness, but in terms of my enjoyment of the book, whether it dazzled me with language, or made me think new thoughts, or made me want to make things, or stayed with me long after I read it, or made me feel something, or all of the above.

9. The Flamethrowers (2013) – Rachel Kushner



The first half of this novel is a great ride: sexy, compelling and exquisitely, carefully written. Big and bold, and most fantastically from the point of view of a young female artist navigating the 70s art world in New York, a strong outsider. It is dazzling and blinds you to some of the structural problems with the novel, or maybe the experience allows you to forgive some of the contrived turns and slow-fizzle ending.

10. My Struggle (Book 2) (2013 in US) – Karl Ove Knausgaard, trans. Don Bartlett


I was resistant to the whole idea of this project. (From the New York Times review : “Why would you read a six-volume, 3,600-page Norwegian novel about a man writing a six-­volume, 3,600-page Norwegian novel? The short answer is that it is breathtakingly good, and so you cannot stop yourself, and would not want to.”) I generally admire and seek out brevity in novels and plays written in the 20th century and after. So much can be done in 200 pages (see Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, for example.) A big demand on the reader/viewer’s time must be justified. I also felt strongly that a woman with a similar project would never receive the sort of attention Knausgaard has gotten. (Katie Roiphe wrote a piece about this in Slate. (I’m surprised to be linking to a piece by her.)) But I realized these were not good reasons not to read it. My curiosity was piqued every time I flipped through it at the bookstore, and I was interested in its experimental approach to plot and genre – so much of what I’ve enjoyed in recent years doesn’t fit in a clear category (The Diary of Anais Nin, How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti, Speedboat by Renata Adler, Violette Leduc’s memoirs, etc.)

 I didn’t find the second volume (which is embarrassingly subtitled “A Man in Love” for U.S. audiences) as powerful as the first (ranked higher up on my list), and it didn’t make me want to read any more of the series. It explores his sudden move to Sweden and start of new life. Falling in love, having children, feeling trapped, as a writer, and feeling love and a new sort of fulfillment at the same time. The daily frustrations and tedium of child-rearing, the inherent conflicts with a dedicated intellectual life. In a way, this was like reading something from the future because it’s set in Sweden and house-husbands are commonplace, which was entertaining. One of my favorite scenes is his enraged and humiliated attendance at a baby rhythm class taught by a hot young instructor.

He breaks the essential rules meted out to beginning writers: don’t include scenes that don’t propel the action; ensure that every word is necessary. I read many reviews seeking to justify the tediousness – the boredom is part of the point, or the excruciating detail is what makes you feel like you’re living there with him. I sort of understand this, but I can’t say it wouldn’t be good if you cut that daily-life stuff out. I enjoyed it best when he dug deep, the philosophical digressions on the contemporary consciousness vs. the Baroque sensibility, on what it means to write, on the mysterious way you are either open or closed to a poem, etc. 

11. The Berlin Stories (1945) – Christopher Isherwood


A collection of two novellas, The Last of Mr. Norris (a single narrative) and Goodbye to Berlin (a series of sketches, all with the same narrator, which inspired the musical Cabaret). I almost wish I had encountered the two works separately because I wanted the second half to be like The Last of Mr. Norris and was a bit disappointed when it wasn’t. Mr. Norris was so funny – witty, absurd and dry in only the way the British can be. Great characters in both halves, extremely vivid, like the stiff aristocrat who wears a monocle, is into body-building and enjoys English adventure stories of shipwrecked boys in a pervy way. Goodbye to Berlin has a bigger emotional range and made me think of the continuity of certain aspects of city life across the ages (dive bars, class divisions).

12. Ghost World (1997) – Daniel Clowes


Brings back in full force the extreme smart-ass, sometimes super-funny, sometimes really mean spirit of the late stages of high school. I got the feeling this started as a weekly and the plan for a graphic novel came later, as not much happens for a while in the beginning, although it’s fun (the girls hanging out, going to the weird diner), and all of the action comes quickly and heavily at the end. Visually very funny, too.

13. The Jaguar Smile (1987) – Salman Rushdie 


Rushdie’s non-fiction account of being a visiting writer in the hopeful, Sandinista-led Nicaragua, recovering from civil war (pre-Satanic Verses and next-level fame). He’s a charming and sympathetic narrator and gives a vivid account of politicians, poets, midwives, children, in various regions of the country. I read this while visiting Nicaragua and it was a good way to learn a bit of history; it was also interesting to see all of the changes that have taken place since Rushdie was there. I liked that his frame of reference is another part of the “developing world” (India/Pakistan), and many aspects of Latin American life are familiar, while issues like hunger and poverty are more acute in some ways where he’s coming from, a refreshing departure from the usual Western-person-abroad travel literature. 

14. The Voyeurs (2012) – Gabrielle Bell 


Second time I read this collection of confessional, very Brooklyn comics, including an account of her relationship with Michel Gondry. I enjoyed this more the second time around as I knew what to expect and lingered in the artistry a bit more. (The first time I was surprised by how emotionally raw some of them are, examining depression and anxiety in a way that brings you close.) I often think of one particular comic about the meaning of compulsive e-mail checking, what it is you’re wanting from a new message.

15. Run River (1963) – Joan Didion


This was my year of Didion, I couldn’t get enough. This is her first novel, before her lean and rhythmic style had fully developed, which was interesting to see. What remains most clearly with me is her protagonist, Lily, so clearly drawn – passive, distracted, frail, but at the same time calculating somehow, driven by sex. In a Paris Review “Art of Fiction” interview, Didion said someone had described her novels as romances; this pleased her and she agreed to some degree, which is funny, but I think there’s also something there. The plot is a secondary concern and problematic in some ways, especially the ending, but it is a first novel, after all.

Books read in 2012, Part III

Before 2013 marches on any further, the stirring conclusion to my book list… In 2012, I read 27 books. Here are numbers 1-10 in the order of most to least inspiration, pleasure, ideas and word-love derived.

(1) and 2)

I worked my way through Volumes 1-6 of the Diary of Anais Nin this year, which I found to be lyrical, compelling, idea-inspiring. 

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 2, 1934-1939 (1967)

Volume 2 was my favourite. Expansiveness as a writer, thoughts on the woman artist. Begins in jazzy New York City, taking on Otto Rank’s patients as an apprentice analyst. Then her return to Paris, her “romantic life” in the houseboat, friendship with Durrell & Henry Miller and the mooching Gonzalo. Reality intruding via the Spanish Civil War and the first stirrings of WWII. Favorite quote from Volume 2 here.

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 1, 1931-1934 (1966)

The beginning of it all: Louveciennes, meeting Henry Miller, café life, reconciliation with her father, initiates psychoanalysis, miscarriage… A choice quote here.

(3) Fun Home (2006) – Alison Bechdel

A book that couldn’t exist in any form but the graphic novel. The interplay between image and text is layered, each panel precise and necessary. I was amazed at how she was able to transmit the confusion and complexity of being a child and adolescent: how the historical time, family history and your personal development (body & mind) all mixes together, while figuring out questions of sexuality, gender and selfhood. The specificity of a time and the great looming role your parents play in it. Literature weaving through it as it did through her relationship with her father. Absorbing, moving, funny.

(4) This Is How You Lose Her (2012) – Junot Díaz

I found this collection to be a bit uneven compared with Drown. The very last story, for example, just sounds like Díaz sitting down & telling you about how he fucked up his love life over a couple of beers, which is entertaining enough, but lacks his magic touch. This book is near the top of my list because of the story “Invierno”, which was so gripping, vivid, & true. It got inside me unlike any other short story I’ve read recently.

(5) The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975)

Andy Warhol on beauty, art, sex, aging, celebrity. Very funny, very charming. More thoughts here. Favorite Andy quotes here.

(6) Cathedral (1983) – Raymond Carver 

This was a re-read for me “Cathedral” and “Feathers” are two of my Carver stories. More complete thoughts here.

(7) and (8)

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 3, 1939-1944 (1969)

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 4, 1944-1947 (1971)

These volumes cover her displacement from Paris during World War II; frustration at the United States, its attitudes towards literature and selfhood. Quote from Volume 4 here. Volume 3 quote here.

(9) Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards of) Artmaking (1993) – David Bayles and Ted Orland

Primarily addressed to visual artists, but for anyone trying to keep up their creative life. Draws attention to process as the primary purpose & function of art-making, in a timeless way. A brilliantly concise history of the various cultural definitions of art & the conundrum artists face today. (Art being defined as a vehicle of individual expression and art about art being the highest intellectual ideal…. Much in the way that writing about writing will get you the most points in academic circles.) 

(10) Will You Please Be Quiet Please? (1976) – Raymond Carver 

Carver’s very first book of short stories. Comforting to see that a couple of them are duds (“Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes”), but of course the majority are knock-outs. I especially love “What’s in Alaska?”, “Fat” and “Jerry and Molly and Sam”. 

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975)

For all his masks, truth-as-quips, posturing, disingenuousness, I feel some of Andy Warhol the person comes through in this book. It’s also really funny. He outs himself as a serious sugar fiend (being rich means having money to buy candy), often refers to his burning desire to have his own TV show called “Nothing Special” (why didn’t they give that man a TV show?!). He confesses a preference for “Talkers” over “Beauties” (Talkers do, Beauties are), for bad performances over good performances (it’s impossible for bad performances to be phony), an obsession with perfumes, trapping memories through scent.. I do think his love of all things American is genuine. (Wikipedia informs: “The Philosophy was ghostwritten by Warhol’s secretary Pat Hackett and Interview magazine editor Bob Colacello. Much of the material is drawn from conversations Warhol had taped between himself and Colacello and Brigid Berlin.”)

My favorite parts: a chapter on art, describing an heiress trying to live out her “art fantasy” with him by describing him as having taken serious risks with his art. He replies that anyone who cuts salami (for example) is taking a risk (of cutting themselves) and that she’s insulting stuntmen, babysitters, the men who landed on D-Day (etc.), because they really know what it means to take a risk, not artists. The last chapter, which describes him dragging one of his snobby young Factory employees with him to buy underwear at Macy’s is wonderful, too.

Sometimes he speaks in the poetic, and by that I mean he describes an idea centered on an image rather than on a rational, explanatory system. For example, on space:

“My ideal city would be one long Main Street with no cross streets or side streets to jam up traffic. Just one long one-way street. With one tall vertical building where everybody lived with:

  One elevator

  One doorman

  One mailbox

  One washing machine

  One garbage can

  One tree out front

  One movie theater next door

"Main street would be very, very wide, and all you’d have to say to someone to make them feel good is, ‘I saw you on Main Street today.’

"And you’d fill you car up with gas and drive across the street.”

Etc. This isn’t meant literally. People wanted to take him literally which is why he made them angry.

There is a cold-blooded edge to parts of it, the posture is that sex and emotions are a waste of energy, which is also him being self-deprecating in a way, funny. He describes himself as having hurried along his development (dying his hair gray at age 24) so that he could have old problems instead of young problems (which involve more sex and emotions). He puts it in terms of movies vs. television. Movies are intense real emotions; TV is always on, you are always doing something else when watching TV, it’s a drone. He prefers TV. He refers to his tape-recorder as his wife. He’s prescient about describing emotions in terms of chemicals. He never addresses his sexuality.

He has a chapter on Love, which is subtitled “The Fall and Rise of My Favorite Sixties Girl”. It’s a thinly veiled portrait of Edie Sedgwick (he refers to her as “Taxi”), and it’s really mean. He essentially paints himself as always having been simply been fascinated with her in a traffic accident sort of way & describes her as manipulative, selfish and dirty (literally). He puts down any sort of fashion acumen she may have had by attributing her style simply to her being cheap (hence the miniskirts) & attempting to shock her parents. His whole attitude is detached. But by preceding the chapter with the following, in a way, he’s owning his own lack of compassion:

“During the 60s, I think, people forgot what emotions were supposed to be. And I don’t think they’ve ever remembered. I think that once you see emotions from a  certain angle you can never think of them as real again. That’s what more or less happened to me.

"I don’t really know if I was ever capable of love, but after the 60s I never thought in terms of ‘love’ again

"However, I became what you might call fascinated by certain people. One person in the 60s fascinated me more than anybody I had ever known. And the fascination I experienced was probably very close to a certain kind of love.”

(Edie & Andy image I got here.)