Our Evolving Reading Lives

SCOTT: Let’s begin with a little scene-setting. Lunch yesterday.

You: “You’ve been reading more poetry lately.”

Me: “Don’t say that so loud!”

Point being, I suppose, that my reading habits sometimes evolve faster than my ability to settle into them. Poetry is a new(ish) thing for me. My education didn’t include much — certainly not in high school, and college English was mostly a six-year slalom around dull-sounding classes and into semesters of “The American Novel of Cosmic Absurdity” and “Ecofiction.” Poetry sounded too … flouncy for a non-drinking, drug-free, but generally gonzo-hearted Hunter Thompson disciple like me. It seemed too dedicated to not saying what it meant, at a time when I needed everything spelled out.

That time has apparently passed, because my poetry uptake has spiked, beginning with Michael Robbins’ Alien vs Predator, and hop-lurching randomly across the poetry scene from there. I’ve been guided by enthusiasm for voices rather than an enlarged understanding of what poetry is about — I wouldn’t know a quatrain if it bit me in the sestina. Still, I’m considerably more comfortable these days with the allusive, elusive, sideways style of meaning that poetry entails. Back when the hot velocity of New Journalism was my jam, I couldn’t imagine relishing the quietude that poetry often requires … the slowness of meaning-ingestion, the stillness and focused attention with which poetry is best taken in.

Interestingly, this development parallels another significant change in my reading life: the vanishing of time for stillness and focused attention. There’s something so wall-to-wall about my life these days. (Example: I’m about to spend the weekend traveling for my granddaughter’s dance recital; so much prime reading time lost!) Some days, all the intentionality in the world just can’t compete with the clamor of a job, kids, grandkids, dogs, a cat and the general shrieking vortex of life. What’s the urgent verse of Erin Belieu when my grandson is crawling out the doggy door?

GEOFF: While you’re experiencing a marked reduction in time for focused attention, I’ve seen the opposite, at least when I’m not at work. My wife and I are on our own these days, with our two adult kids in college out of state. Our two cats aren’t all that demanding on my time. They are more attached to my wife. This has left substantial time for intense reading. I haven’t used this newfound time as effectively as I should — damn you, quality television! — at least not yet. But I’ve had the opportunity to dig into some BIG books that in the past I might have bypassed in the hope of having time for them at some future stage of life. That time, it seems, is now.

When I say BIG books, I don’t necessarily mean LONG books, but that’s often the case. One example is The Silmarillion, which is essentially J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. If one is an admirer of LOTR, one recognizes that at some point one needs to tackle The Silmarillion, but it’s understandable to want to put off that task as long as possible. The Silmarillion is a tough slog in places. It’s written in a loftier and more stilted style than Tolkien wisely adopted for The Hobbit and LOTR. It’s also not really a cohesive narrative but a collection of stories that make up the Middle-earth mythology. I’m really happy that I read it, and I enjoyed it in places, but it definitely requires that “focused attention” that you described.

A second example I would mention is not a LONG book. It’s not a book that would normally fall into my areas of interest. I guess I would characterize it as intimidating. It turned out it wasn’t intimidating at all. Based on an unimpeachable recommendation, I read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. This award-winning book is an astonishing work of immersion journalism. Boo delivers a detailed, nuanced and moving portrait of the poorest of the many, many poor people in India, one of the most alarming cases of economic inequality on the planet. The commitment of time and determination Boo made in order to produce this book is almost impossible to fathom. It’s an important book that I would recommend to everybody.

One more example: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. Published in 1960, it’s a science fiction novel without much science in it, at least not of the advanced sort. The story is a product of its time: Earth after the nuclear holocaust, a popular Cold War subject. But not a few days or even a few years after the holocaust. Hundreds of years afterward, so that, one presumes, the radioactive cloud is no longer airborne, its immediate destructive effects a distant memory. Earth is a primitive place at this point, with most of the technological advances of the 20th century long lost, and the discovery of relics from before the holocaust being of interest primarily to a small group of monks living somewhere in Utah. If this doesn’t keep your interest, I don’t know what would! It’s a very interesting novel, far more thought-provoking than most post-apocalyptic fare.

SCOTT: “How did it get so late so soon?” Dr. Seuss once wondered, as do I every time I pick up a book only to realize the day is almost over. A busy life — it’s karma’s way of saying, Tempis fugit, motherfucker! But there are ways to deal with that. Early last year, in a piece on New Year’s resolutions I wrote for a newspaper insert, I publicly declared that I would read 32 books in 2015. It seemed possibly doable, an uptick from the dismal 15-20 books I’d finished the year before. And I figured the gentle pressure of a public declaration — albeit to complete strangers who’d never know if I followed through — might arrest the time-drift and brain-flit that always seem to bog down my reading momentum.

It nearly worked, too. I read 30 books. Some good stuff, too: Ben Lerner’s 10:04, William Gibson’s The Peripheral, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. But also two David Baldacci potboilers and Lee Child’s latest Reacher, and more about those things later. The main thing is, by giving myself a little structure and the barest nudge of accountability, I gave myself permission to cadge reading time at moments I might’ve otherwise devoted to other activities. (I certainly watched less TV, though I don’t typically watch much.) Totally changed my reading habits. This year, without the forward prod of some declared intent, or even a list of books I plan to get to, I’ve shamefully backslid into the drowsier reading mojo of 2014. Sad. Ah, well, as Coco Chanel reminds us, there’s no sense pounding your fists on the wall hoping to make a door.

Before I leave 2015, I want to say a few words about one of my favorite books from that fertile period: The World Is on Fire by Joni Tevis. There’s been a lot of quacking the last few years about the resurgence of the essay — every decent book festival has a panel devoted to the subject anymore — beginning in some sense with the release of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead in 2011. Some collections have been rightly celebrated as part of this trend, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, for example, but far too many get only a fraction of the attention they deserve. Tevis’ book is one of them. Her pieces really stretch the capacity of the essay to create meaning. Her method is juxtapositional — she’ll layer several utterly different narrative streams side by side to see what they say to each other. So the title piece has her considering the heyday and legacy of the Nevada Test Site as well as the circumstances of Buddy Holly’s death. Others throw together her naked anxieties about pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood with explorations of industrial ruins or sites from her childhood. There’s not a glib sentence in the entire book, and she brings a lot of raw honesty and fierce writing to bear. It’s one of the best books I’ve read recently.

GEOFF: The larger culture probably would consider me to be a fairly prodigious reader, but I constantly feel I’m barely scratching the surface of the good books available to me. Further, I feel like I’m constantly cracking open the wrong books — not that they aren’t good books but that there are so many other good ones I’m passing over, often for unclear reasons.

The harsh reality is that in my remaining years on the planet, with eyes and brain still functioning sufficiently to absorb words on paper, there’s no way I’m going to read all the books I want to read. In fact, recently I’ve been pruning the books in my house on the premise that the ones going into the boxes in the trunk of the car are highly unlikely to ever rise to the level of “next up” on the reading list. This is a fairly healthy process, I think, but there’s undoubtedly going to be a situation where I’ve gotten rid of a book that at some point down the line I will have new reason to want to read.

At different times over the years, I’ve wanted to spend more of my reading time on literary classics, but right or wrong these enthusiasms have dimmed again and again. I have, in fact, read some great classic novels all the way through, and I’m happy about it. Moby Dick, for example, and Anna Karenina, and Madame Bovary. But I’ve started many more that still have the bookmarks sticking out of them about a third or halfway through. Two recent examples are Bleak House and Middlemarch. I’ve enjoyed the reading of them that I have completed, but I’ve set each of them aside in favor of some other pressing passion. I may come back to Bleak House — at least that’s what I’m telling myself right now — but, honestly, I might not. As for Middlemarch, the party’s over.

One thing I’ve clearly learned about myself as a reader is that I crave narrative. This hardly makes me unusual. Most readers crave narrative. It’s taken me a while to recognize this about myself, in part, I suspect, because of some vague belief that this craving is more middlebrow than I would like to think of myself as being. But I don’t see it that way anymore. This narrative craving, by the way, is not strictly for fiction. In fact, I prefer it to my nonfiction as well: history, journalism, biography, memoir. It can be highly literary in tone, deeply historical, whatever — but tell me a story that has a beginning, middle and end. Or tell me a bunch of different stories. It doesn’t matter, as long as there’s some form of narrative propulsion.

You and I share a passion for essays. But I will admit that I prefer essays that revolve around or meander through the unfolding of a story. I want the essayist to share observations, to raise questions, to make assertions within the context of some kind of story. It doesn’t have to be anything momentous. The writer could be going to the store and coming back home. But in the telling of this story, however mundane, there remains the possibility that something is going to happen, however trivial, that will keep my interest.

SCOTT: Right now, still gestating in a Google doc somewhere, I have a short essay about my tricky relationship to fiction. I began it when I had a realization: It’s amazing, in a completely shameful way, all the great books I’ve started and abandoned, so many classics among them. From Amis to Zola, you could compile a great syllabus from the books I’ve bailed on.

And some of that, I think, has very much to do with narrative. In the sense that, in a certain (and appallingly frequent) frame of mind, narrative is all I want. Propulsion. A whooshing transit from point A to point B and beyond. That is, the books of, say, Dan Brown and David Baldacci. What I seem not to want when I’m in those moods, what I resist at some kind of deep psychological level, is the process of identifying with a fictional person — the setting aside of my immediate consciousness in order to inhabit the one created by the writer. My mind truckles at that sense of … well, surrender is what it feels like. It probably means that I’m a raging narcissist or something.

Of course, the novels that people think of as airport fiction or cheap thrillers require zero identification; whether you climb inside the hero’s head or are continually aware of him/her as a one-dimensional linguistic effect, the rewards of reading these books are exactly the same. So it is that I can (a) realize that Dan Brown and David Baldacci are mediocre writers, and (b) read everything they’ve written. They trot me through a decent obstacle course of plot contrivances while — because I’m still reading, after all, an effortful act — being at least slightly better for me than TV.

GEOFF: I’m fully capable of reading what you’ve aptly called “airport fiction.” I’ve read deeply into Stephen King’s prodigious list, and I’ve read a ton of John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, as well as, in my earlier years, some seriously questionable knockoff heroic fantasy. But I do think compelling narrative can be found among more literary-minded writers. My favorites in this area include Richard Russo, Richard Ford, Jim Harrison, Charles Portis, Nelson Algren, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. For me, it’s okay for the narrative to meander a bit, to take some off-ramps here and there to explore the countryside. But in the end it works best when there’s some of that “propulsion” you described, the idea that things are happening that lead to other developments and so on.

The death this week of Jim Harrison bummed me out. He was old and tired and sick, I know, so I’m sure he was past due, but over the past 10 years, especially, I ate up everything he wrote. I know I was one of the first people in the world to pick up his latest book and devour it in just a few days. This devotion is not easy to explain, except to say that Harrison possessed a literary voice that was as distinctive as that of any iconic actor or singer. It was — still is, really — comforting and exhilarating to experience that voice from time to time. It’s interesting that Harrison’s fiction was most beloved in France. I’m not sure what that says about the French, but I agree with their admiration for him. I wish Harrison had written more nonfiction. He wrote some, and it was good, but I really would have loved to see him produce more journalism and essays.

My wife is a big fan of Lee Child and Harlan Coben. I understand these guys to be at the high end of the airport fiction realm, probably around the same level as your Baldacci and Brown. I don’t see myself going there, so we’re different in that way. Modern-day high-concept mysteries and international thrillers aren’t what I’m after, I guess. But I’m sure I’m missing something. My wife is always citing “Reacher wisdom” as we go about our daily lives. I rarely am able to retort with practical wisdom offered by one of my favorite writers!

SCOTT: Correction: Lee Child is a much better writer — at the sentence and paragraph level — than Brown or Baldacci. He is, I’ll grant you, no Jim Harrison. I’m a huge fan of Harrison’s nonfiction, in particular his writing about food, which is so often really about appetite and the natural world and being human. Definite loss to us all, his death. I’m waaaayyyy behind you in reading of his fiction. I hope some day to find the time to catch up. Indeed, my real, honest-to-goodness hope in this life is that books are the one exception to the rule that you can’t take it with you. As Warren Zevon might sing, “I’ll read when I’m dead!”

Scott Dickensheets is deputy editor of Nevada Public Radio’s monthly magazine, Desert Companion. Geoff Schumacher is director of content for the Mob Museum.

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Some Stuff (Too Little) I Read This (Stinking Chamberpot of a) Year

Ugh, 2014 — who needed dystopian literature when you had Google news alerts? It seemed every day bagged and hashtagged more evidence of our decline, from Bundy Ranch and broiling Ferguson to the Ray Rice elevator videos and a smug Dick Cheney cheerleading for torture. (Surely the Germans have a word meaning “face that needs to be rectally fed.”) Mass shootings. Killer cops and, in briefly grieving Vegas and in conflicted New York, cop-killers. A vapor-locked Congress. A gasping planet. Journalism meltdown. Sharknado 2. An excess of Kardashians. In the same week in November, my cat died and the Republicans won, and with a very unpleasing sneezing and wheezing the calliope crashed to the ground. I mean, who needs North Korea when we’re our own worst malware? “How,” Charles Bowden asked, in the most urgent, penetrating sentence I read all year (from Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing), “can a person live a moral life in a culture of death?” He didn’t mean it as a rhetorical question, but there’s no answer I can think of. I’ll bet Dick Cheney knows.

How’s a guy supposed to read with all that racket? For me, at least, 2014 was often about keeping it all at bay, at least temporarily, which how I found myself happily buried alive in Thomas Pynchon’s delirious techno fable, Bleeding Edge. What a balm those whiz-bang sentences were! Marvels of tensile construction, their performative bounce a source of pure aesthetic joy. The narrative was a typically overstuffed Pynchon checklist: curious seeker, mysterious characters, murky conspiracies, blooming paranoias, hinted-at secret worlds, red herrings, silly names. Its hyperlinked plotlines were in keeping with the book’s setting and motif, Internet culture circa (wink, wink) early September 2001. Pynchon’s conspiracies and ambient anxieties managed to harmonize with, not exacerbate, my own bummer vibes; immersed in his book, I experienced the headlines as a distant clatter, like hail on the roof. I can’t swear it’s a great book, but it was great when I wanted it to be.

Bits of Chris Abani’s novel The Secret History of Las Vegas stick with me like splinters. I didn’t enjoy the book very much — I found the writing largely affectless in its attempt to achieve a literary lyricism (cue an eye roll at the un-quote-marked dialogue); the characters never quite rounded out for me; and its riffs on the meanings of Las Vegas aren’t particularly deep if you’re a lifer. But Abani threaded his narrative (which conjoined apartheid South Africa with Southern Nevada) through some disturbing themes — moral disfigurement; torture; trust and betrayal; the deadly weight of history; the deadly banality of bureaucracy — in ways that enlarged on Bowden’s question. I found myself thinking it about long after I was done reading. Does that make it a good book after all?

I also snacked on Lee Child’s latest Reacher novel, one of Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone numbers, and, I think, two David Baldaccis; as with counting carbs, I’m not particularly exact because it doesn’t particularly matter.

This was the year Dave Hickey took to Facebook, and for a while his posts were the best reading in my newsfeed, shortish but pointed (if irritatingly typo-ridden) thesis pieces about art and life that treated social media as a worthy sparring partner. But social media wasn’t up to it, and eventually it was mostly Dave goading his readers about their shortcomings (“This wall is a dog whistle for Asberger’s syndrome. Time out, take your meds”). Meanwhile, James Wolcott’s column in Vanity Fair continued its long arc of diminishing returns, at least in my eyes, the prose as sparkling as ever but stretched across emptier spaces, summaries and descriptions too often replacing the bracing thought. Then, for The New Republic, he uncorked a terrific sorta-takedown of Lena Dunham’s essay collection, Not That Kind of a Girl. Regaining his championship form, Wolcott matched his acerbic, jazz-hands style to a forensic critical assessment of a book everyone was talking about. I don’t have an opinion about Dunham myself, but what I enjoyed was seeing a sharp mind unafraid to make strong judgments in unapologetically vigorous prose. What made it better was that he backed it up with a nuanced, sympathetic take on Dunham herself and her career; turned out this was not a simple hatchet job. Maggie Nelson took the opposite approach in her review of Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 in the Los Angeles Review of Books: She raved, adroitly and with piercing intelligence — a model of critical appreciation I’d give a lot to be able to pull off myself. Also at LARB, Joseph Giovannini’s architecture criticism set high standards of reasoning, clarity and passion, whether he was attacking an LA museum or celebrating Frank Gehry. Because I’m not above the lowbrow — see Baldacci, etc. — I read some celebrity profiles in 2014. Andrew Corsello’s zingy, interpretive take on Louis C.K. for GQ was my favorite, though it had its detractors, including Wolcott (in his Kindle single King Louie). Also worth a read: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc on comedian Doug Stanhope in Harper’s. Best unpublished essay about poop I read all year: Joe Langdon‘s. (Thanks for letting me read it, Joe.) But my hands-down favorite periodical reading all year came under James Parker’s byline in The Atlantic. He’s got the jumpin’ prose I love, applied to a smart generalist’s curiosities: “stuff”-based reality TV, William Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix. Always, Parker looks for the long tail, the rich context, the surprise connection. When he calls Naked Lunch “the truest successor to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land,” you sit back and think, Well, there’s a pathway I didn’t imagine existed.

I wish he’d come out with a collection. 2014 was a great year for essay collections. No book this year took my head off more cleanly than The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. It came out in April and Bowden died in August, so I suppose it’s possible he encountered the book before departure, and perhaps saw in it some stirrings of an answer to his question: that is, an understanding of the uses and abuses of empathy; an openness to the world; a precise and unflinching attention to the traffic between her inner life of memory and emotion and the exterior world she reports on and researches. To me, a necessary book.

Other essay collections that were nearly as vital, if for different reasons: Loitering, by Charles D’Ambrosio, More Curious, by Sean Wilsey, The Fame Lunches, by Daphne Merkin. The first two, especially, showed the flexibility of the essay form, its ability to dwell on the small details, the meandering thought — when D’Ambrosio shows up to cover a hostage situation in Seattle, what you learn from the piece has little to do with the crime and more to do with the modern existential condition. More conventional in form, Merkin’s book was just enjoyable to spend time with, even the confessional stuff I don’t normally tumble for.

I wanted to finish Lynn Tillman’s essay collection What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, and I still might. I wanted to finish Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04, and I still might; I wanted to finish James McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird, and I still might; I wanted to finish Hilton Als’ essay collection White Girls, and I still might. I wanted to finish Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project, but let’s be real — my appetite for fin de siecle Viennese literary politics is more limited than I assumed.

The small amount of poetry I read this year was still, for me, an unprecedented amount of poetry. Why the uptick? Wish I knew. At times my brain is like a truffle-sniffing pig, rooting out strange delights it’s only caught a scent of, and there I am, leashed behind and dragged helplessly along. Erin Bilieu’s collection Slant Six was a favorite. “The Rapture came / and went without incident, / but I put off folding my laundry, / just in case.” Necessary whimsy, that. So too parts of Michael Robbins’ The Second Sex: “The womb’s a fine and private place / or am I thinking of a doughnut?” But, Robbins being Robbins, shit can get suddenly real. “The United States of Fuck You Too / is what you’re about to receive. / You can shoot all the kids you like, / but you can never leave.”

That’s poetry, I guess, sending you right back to real life without due process, the way Tony Hoagland did for me in Donkey Gospel: “We gaze into the night / as if remembering the bright unbroken planet / we once came from / to which we will never / be permitted to return. / We are amazed how hurt we are.” He doesn’t mention Dick Cheney, but that’s okay — I auto-fill.


Ball’s in your court, 2015.

Scott Dickensheets is deputy editor of Desert Companion magazine, a frequent contributor to Vegas magazine and has edited four volumes of the annual Las Vegas Writes anthology series, most recently Lost and Found in Las Vegas (2014). He hopes one day to become an obscure essayist.

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My Best Reading Experiences of 2014

By Geoff Schumacher

My 2014 reading veered off in some unusual directions. In part, this was because of my new job at the Mob Museum, which requires me to dedicate a portion of my reading to organized crime history. I also made a decision to cut back substantially on modern fiction.

I’ve abandoned the practice of reading a newly released novel based on a positive review or two. More often than not, the book ends up being disappointing or at least not as worthy of my time as the hundreds of classic novels I could have read instead. I’ve made exceptions to this rule for a few authors whose work I already know I like.

Here are some of my best reading experiences of 2014:

Brown Dog: Novellas

Jim Harrison, 2014

Jim Harrison is probably my favorite living fiction writer. This book collects Harrison’s novellas about a character named Brown Dog, perhaps his greatest creation in a long and productive writing career. Brown Dog is difficult to explain. He’s a man without much formal education who does odd jobs, mostly in Upper Michigan, to make just enough money to survive. He enjoys good food, lusty women, fishing and being outdoors generally, and because of his fundamental naiveté and trusting nature, he gets himself into some strange, difficult and often hilarious situations. He is very slow to anger, and sometimes slow to comprehend what people around him are really up to. He’s not street smart, but that’s not to say he isn’t wise. He was raised by and around Native Americans in the U.P., but it’s never clear whether he is, in fact, an Indian himself. Maybe half. The novellas are a joy to read, and sprinkled with just enough Truth to make them nourishing as well as a lot of fun.

One Summer: America, 1927

Bill Bryson, 2013

This is a fine work of popular history, capturing a fascinating summer with just the right style. Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, Sacco and Vanzetti, Gutzon Borglum (Mount Rushmore), Philo Farnsworth (TV inventor), Herbert Hoover, Al Jolson, Jack Dempsey and many lesser-known characters and stories are detailed as Bryson relives what has to be one of the most interesting years in American history.

Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker

Doug J. Swanson, 2014

This is the book of the year as far as historical work dealing with Las Vegas. Swanson, a Dallas journalist and novelist, has written the most definitive Binion biography to date, and it’s loaded with warts-and-all detail. Swanson does a masterful job of capturing Binion’s persona, both through in-depth research and a novelist’s eye for the telling detail.

The Green Felt Jungle

Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris, 1963

Over the years, I had dipped into this classic book many times, picking out facts and details for use in my own research. But I finally read it cover to cover, and I enjoyed the experience. Somewhat like the Bill Bryson book described above, this offers a snapshot of a gleaming era in Las Vegas, when the mob ran the casino industry and law enforcement was still trying to figure out how to go to battle. As with many of the muckraking books of that time, The Green Felt Jungle has a charmingly naive moral streak that not only abhors the mob’s skimming of the casinos but asks whether gambling should be legal in the first place.

Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life and Cars

Neil Young, 2014

I’m a longtime fan of Neil Young’s music, but he’s a very good writer as well. His first memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, was a good read, though wildly disorganized and repetitive. It badly needed the aid of a good editor. Special Deluxe is more organized and better edited, but it retains Young’s shaggy dog personality as he tells stories inspired by various cars in his extensive collection of clunkers.


Kurt Vonnegut, 2014

The great novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote some interesting letters. They tended to be fairly short and to the point, but they could be very effective and funny.

Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers

Janet Malcolm, 2013

Janet Malcolm is one of the all-time greats in the long-form journalism/essay world, and this collection certifies that standing. She is a tremendous observer and interviewer. If I could offer one word to describe her writing, it would be precise.

Loitering: New & Collected Essays

Charles D’Ambrosio, 2014

This was the second-hottest essay collection of the year behind Leslie Jamison’s wonderful The Empathy Exams. D’Ambrosio is a fine writer and observer of modern life. I most highly recommend his introduction and his piece on the Mary Kay Letourneau sexual assault case, which speaks volumes about the anti-intellectual, reactionary nature of political and social commentary that passes for expert analysis on TV.

My Struggle, Book 1

Karl Ove Knausgaard

English translation, 2012

I can’t explain why I read this book. After all, why should I care about the inner thoughts and mundane life of a Norwegian writer? But this autobiographical novel (more nonfiction than fiction, if there’s any of the latter at all) is nothing less than mesmerizing. Knausgaard is a fine writer, and a very insightful student and critic of himself and people close to him. I’ve already purchased Book 2, with the intention of reading all six books once they are all translated and published.

Bleak House

Charles Dickens, 1853

I’ve read 366 of the 881 pages of this classic Dickens novel. I’m enjoying it, but over the course of the year I got distracted by other books and put it down several times. I likely will finish it in 2015, and without complaint. I can’t really add anything to what so many others have said about Dickens, but let’s just say that his work holds up while so many of his contemporaries do not.

This Living Hand and Other Essays

Edmund Morris, 2012

Edmund Morris is highly regarded for his three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and not so highly regarded for his biography of Ronald Reagan, which includes re-imagined scenes and conversations. I don’t recommend everything in this eclectic collection of articles, lectures and essays, but there are some very eloquent and effective pieces, including a recounting of Morris’ passionate campaign to save a tree in Washington, D.C. Morris also writes well about classical music.

“The Secret File on Virginia Hill,” True Crime magazine article

Ray Brennan, 1951

Reading old magazines is often entertaining and informative, and this is a great example. Ray Brennan was, according to his bio in the magazine, a “Chicago newspaper crime specialist who spent a full year with the Kefauver Crime Committee.”

And, delightfully, Brennan was a good writer. When you think about True Crime magazine, you probably expect sloppy writing and wild, unsubstantiated stories. That’s not the case with this piece.

Virginia Hill, you’ll recall, was Bugsy Siegel’s girlfriend before he was killed in 1947. Over the years, she was the girlfriend of some other mob guys as well. Brennan’s descriptions of her are worth quoting:

  • “Correct usage of grammar always was a mystery to her, although she was smart enough in arithmetic. She learned quickly to count money accurately and figure her percentages in later life. She had a gift for accumulating cash, too, although she couldn’t hold on to it.”
  • “New York was Virginia’s omelet, and she enjoyed every morsel of it. There were bigger chumps in Gotham than Chicago, she discovered, and more of them. The dress shops offered better selections and the pawn shops gave better prices for jewelry that came to her as gifts but wasn’t select enough for her collection.”

The scene Brennan describes at Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas is memorable:

“Bugsy wasn’t happy. Virginia had joined him at the Flamingo and she was raising hob, day and night. She was allergic to cactus and suffered from hay fever. Siegel fretted constantly about money, and she couldn’t see the stuff was that important. One night in the casino she shouted to him so loudly that the customers heard: ‘Hey, Ben, let’s get the hell out of this dump and go to L.A.’ Another evening, she had an argument with a lady guest in the lobby and knocked her cold with a right to the jaw. Siegel told her she’d have to stop drinking, and she scratched his face.”

Introduction, Best American Essays 2014

John Jeremiah Sullivan, 2014

Some people skip introductions, but I’m a fan of them. They are typically where a writer comments on his or someone else’s writing, and for me that’s good reading. There’s a fine introduction in this year’s Best American Essays. Sullivan takes an investigative, scholarly approach to the history of the essay, and in the process advances the narrow but persistent dialogue about what exactly an essay is and what it is trying to accomplish. Oh, and there are some really great essays in the book, too.

Introduction, American Sketches

Walter Isaacson, 2009

Here’s a great example of an introduction in which the writer surveys his career and makes an interesting case for this collection of his writing. Isaacson was the managing editor of Time magazine and CEO of CNN, but he’s best known for his more recent work as a biographer of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. He has a lot of great anecdotes to share and lessons learned to reveal.

More Curious

Sean Wilsey, 2014

Wilsey’s essay collection is full of intriguing narratives, with perhaps the best stuff about Marfa, Texas, a remote small town turned artist colony where Wilsey now lives some of the time. Perhaps not surprisingly, in his excellent introduction, Wilsey talks about his favorite introductions by other writers (Thomas Pynchon and Joseph Mitchell).

Honorable mentions: The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, Thomas Dyja; The Free, Willy Vlautin; The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison; Doctor Sleep, Stephen King; Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 RPM Records, Amanda Petrusich: A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, Gideon Lewis-Kraus; Let Me Be Frank with You, Richard Ford; Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb, Nick Schou.

Geoff Schumacher is the director of content for the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. He is the author of Sun, Sin & Suburbia: The History of Modern Las Vegas and Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue, and editor of Nevada: 150 Years in the Silver State.

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Saturday Morning Bookshelfie


A random selection of volumes from my shelf. Some I’ve read, some I eventually will — here’s looking at you, Hazlitt — and others I probably never will.


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Best reads of 2012

Here are two takes on the question, “What was the best thing you read in 2012?”

Up for Grabs

By Scott Dickensheets

The best book I read last year was a book of poetry. I have no idea how that happened. I mean, for 50 years I barely touch the stuff, and then almost always in school; otherwise, I don’t know many people who read or even give a damn about it. Of the little I do read, I’m never in danger of understanding it. Not its occluded meanings or opaque symbolism — wtf with the white chickens and red wheelbarrow, William Carlos Williams? — and, while we’re at it, why am I irritated by the twee poesy of the name “William Carlos Williams”? — not its aura of silkworm delicacy, and certainly not the idea that it’s some kind of purer, more piercing mode of expression. I suppose my mind is too A —> B —> C for that.

But I said almost always in school. An exception: A few years ago, suckered by the title “Alien vs. Predator” atop a stack of lines in The New Yorker, I read, loved and understood not a word of my first poem by Michael Robbins. Sample line: “Where’s the whale on stilts that we were promised?” And, “I translate the Bible into velociraptor.”

Since I didn’t get it, I can’t say my mind was blown; that implies a cataclysm of clarity. But it was tickled. I’ll take a whale on stilts over a chicken with a wheelbarrow every time — if they’re both unintelligible, I know which sounds more fun. The poem is full of lines like that. Say them yourself:

“That elk is such a dick.”

“Hell, if you slit monkeys for a living, you’d pray to me too.”

“I’d eat your bra — point being — in a heartbeat.”

They fizz in your mouth like Pop Rocks, don’t they? Sure, I could probably translate those lines into velociraptor before I could tell you what they mean. I can’t even grasp how they could mean: “He’s a space tree making a ski and a little foam chiropractor”? Where do you insert the key to unlock that? And yet I could sense the deep lurk of something new and possibly important — to me, at least — under those zippy lines. I reread the poem often. (Besotted, I actually wrote a poem in the Robbins mode. Unheard of!) I followed a blog Robbins contributed to, in case he dropped any clues to his sensibility. He didn’t.

This May, half past Treyvon and a quarter to Aurora, with the election getting ugly and Newtown still far beyond our imagination — I don’t need to tell you what a genuinely horrifying year 2012 was, and more about that in a minute — Robbins finally released Alien vs. Predator, the whole collection. Dozens of poems like the title piece. Each dizzied with its wily non sequiturs, repurposed song lyrics, pop culture references and headlong, zeitgeisty energy.

I read it three times.

I can’t stress this enough: I still don’t get it. Despite a polar bear plunge into poetry — post-Robbins I read Terrance Hayes, Bob Hikok, Karen Finneyfrock, Philip Levine and others — I’m no less the hopeless newb, forever confounded by poetry’s reluctance to just say what the fuck it means. What a virtue that would be in these foul times! (Of course, some poets are more translucent than others, Levine, for example.) Yes, sure, I found little internal rhyme schemes in Robbins’ poems, and there’s meaning of some kind, or perhaps just a stance toward the world, to be divined in the cadences, in the mad spazz of the phrasing — but after three readings, that elk is still such a dick and I still can’t tell you what’s up with that. Clearly I ain’t about to blow your mind, either.

So I’m not sure why this thing lit up the ganglions; I mean, the workings of my mind are as inscrutable as anyone’s, even — maybe especially — to me. That’s probably some of what I like about the book: I sense there’s some there there, but I don’t know where. I do love a tease.

More important, though, in nearly every way that mattered, 2012 seriously sucked. Not always, or even often, for me personally: I lost no one in Newtown, Aurora or the other rampage sites — as one smug dick assured me on Facebook, “There’s nothing to process; it didn’t happen to you.” But it did happen to my country, in my time, and there’s such a thing as a psychological blast radius. So there was something to process. From the shootings to the vile slither of corporate money through our already ruined politics, to the income gap, to the daily assaults on the stability of truth and meaning, to, finally, the staggering fault lines between so many of us that were exposed by these deep shifts. I have an uncle who commanded me never to speak to him again because I pushed back against his paranoid anti-Obama ranting. (Dude, my pleasure.) It left me with an unease I couldn’t shake. These days, what doesn’t seem up for grabs?

So maybe, for me, Alien vs. Predator was the right book for these very wrong times, aggregations of atomized meaning — tantalizingly close to saying something new and illuminating, frustratingly refusing to give it up — for this disintegrating moment. And somehow, unless I’m totally full of shit on this, and I could be, a sense of reversed polarity: As the centrifugal forces of 2012 spun us farther away from real understanding, these poems seemed like one small bit-torrent rush toward meaning, scraps and fragments pulled in from everywhere in an attempt to piece together a new energy, a pastiche worldview — and some good, loopy fun, and I suspect that’s what finally sealed it for me.

I’m not saying Robbins is the only poet who does these things; I’m not saying that of those who do, he’s the best. As should be clear, I sure as hell wouldn’t know. But he’s the best I read last year.

A novel idea

By Geoff Schumacher

I read 45 books in 2012, and a bunch of them were really good. But if I had to pick one as my “best read,” it would be John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists, a book so big and heavy that calling it a “doorstop” would be an insult.

Sutherland, a Brit who has spent a lot of time in the States, embarked on a ridiculously audacious task: to write a history of the novel by profiling its best and best-selling practitioners through time. But, being just one mortal human, he knew he had to set some parameters, and so he limited his scope to novelists writing in English. This, certainly, leaves out a lot of novelistic history — a few French, Spanish and Russian scribes, for starters — but Sutherland nonetheless had to read more novels than most individuals have done . . . ever.

In the end, Sutherland’s achievement is encapsulated in the subtitle: “A History of Fiction in 294 Lives.” Of course, your first question is, why 294? Why not go ahead and profile an even 300 scriveners? Sutherland answers this question, sort of, in his brief preface: “Isn’t this book big enough?”

A fair point: Even six novelists short of 300, it’s 797 pages not including the index.

Sutherland acknowledges his “story of fiction” is “almost as idiosyncratic as the subject itself.” With so many novels published over the past 400 years, especially over the past century, it would be impossible for Sutherland to read them all, let alone ponder their historical significance. “A single book and one person’s reading career (however obsessive) cannot contain or cover this richest of literary fields,” he writes.

And yet Sutherland manages to cover a great deal in this book. He hits all the major genres, and he doesn’t discriminate: The good, bad and ugly of the novel are all represented with equal vigor. Sutherland notes often that the literary classics still in print today are not necessarily the books that the masses were reading in their day.

But the reason this book is such an engrossing read — why it should not be regarded as a musty encyclopedia — is Sutherland’s obsession with the childhood traumas, destructive vices and aberrant sex lives of the novelists he profiles. If one of his subjects was a drunk, you’re going to hear all the gritty details. Even more attention is devoted to each writer’s sexual preference, prowess (or lack thereof) and dangerous liaisons. Sutherland is a relentless gossip, a predilection to which he tries to give legitimacy by his genuine belief that “literary life and work are inseparable and mutually illuminating.” Regardless of what the novelists themselves would say, Sutherland sees deep connections between novelists’ personal lives and the fiction they write. At times, this feels like a bit of a stretch, but Sutherland pursues these connections with such relish and confidence that you can’t help but to be entertained and, often, persuaded.

Sutherland starts with John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress in the seventeenth century, and ends with Rana Dasgupta, best known for Tokyo Cancelled, published in 2005. In between, he gives roughly one and a half to three pages to the 292 others.

He hits most of the big British and American names of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including Henry Fielding, Walter Scott, Jane Austen, James Fenimore Cooper, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Mark Twain, Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson. He does a particularly thorough job covering nineteenth century female novelists, who sold a ton of books during the Victorian era while guys like Herman Melville struggled to find an audience.

The twentieth century is covered admirably, although there’s a handful of big names who are curiously omitted. For one example, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, is mentioned several times in profiles of other authors, but he doesn’t merit one of his own. If I had to guess, it’s because Tolkien’s personal life was rather boring — no brain-mushing vices, no sexual misadventures that we know of. Rest assured, if Tolkien had had a thing for little people with hairy feet, he’d have been in the book.

Neither does Sutherland dwell long on Ernest Hemingway. Although Hemingway technically is among the 294 lives, he is written about only in the context of his relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Although Hemingway had plenty of adventures, I suspect Sutherland passed on a full profile because he felt more than enough already has been written about the big fella.

As Sutherland gets closer to the present, his omissions become a little more difficult to understand. He writes about Alice Sebold but has nothing on David Foster Wallace? He profiles Bret Easton Ellis but not Michael Chabon? Fantasy writer Robert Jordan but not Games of Thrones guru George R.R. Martin? And how do you ignore one of novel writing’s all-time mystery men, Thomas Pynchon? At various times while reading the book, I pondered what six novelists he could have added to fill the gaps and hit the magic 300.

Throughout the book, I jotted down a handful of novels I learned about and now want to read. One that I picked up recently is Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, which was turned into an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Two others: sci-fi writer Frederik Pohl’s The Space Merchants and Lost Generation expat Louis Bromfield’s The Farm.

Having read Lives of the Novelists, I now possess a great store of knowledge about the careers and sex lives of writers over the past three centuries. I don’t know if this will ever be useful to me, but the same could be said of just about anything we read except an instruction manual. But I do know this: If Sutherland’s approach to literature were applied to high school English classes, they would be a lot more interesting, and we’d have a more literate populace as a result.

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Top Fives

In which Scott Dickensheets and Geoff Schumacher discuss books they have liked and loved at different times and for different reasons.


Most cherished or influential in youth

As a preteen, my primary interest was sports: professional football, basketball and baseball. On family outings to the bookstore, I invariably would pick out a book such as Great Quarterbacks of the NFL. I relished the saintly portraits of Bart Starr, Fran Tarkenton and Norm Van Brocklin.

While sports remained an interest, upon entering teenhood my reading took a turn into heroic fantasy. Heading the list was Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné, Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. I devoured every story of swords and sorcery by those authors, and the ones by a host of subpar copycats as well.

I probably was around 16 when I began to venture into more challenging literary territory. We’re not talking the Russian or French giants — still too much of a small-town hick for that — but certainly books a step or three above pulp adventure stories.

1. The Lords of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

During a summer break in high school, I remember being so entranced by The Two Towers that I stayed up all night reading it. I don’t remember nodding off, or even wanting to nod off. I was IN Middle Earth, man, on the journey, and I wanted to see the story through to the end. This was a major turning point in my reading life — the attacking and conquering of a big book.

2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

This probably was the first major work of literature that I read, and I think I selected a proper one to start with. Steinbeck’s masterwork surely triggered my interest in human affairs beyond sports and magical lands. It also played a major role in steering me in a political direction opposite of my parents.

3. Walden by Henry David Thoreau

This book helped to expand my awareness of the larger world, and the philosophical questions that accompany its contemplation. I am far from alone in this, but there many lines from Walden that still regularly echo in my brain. I’m not much of a rereader, but I do like to occasionally dip into this book for a taste of its grace, wisdom and humor.

4. The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway

Reading heavily in the fantasy and horror genres naturally spawned efforts on my part to write fantasy and horror stories. This did not go well. I actually submitted some very poorly conceived and executed stories to small magazines, and received a number of polite rejections. (Honestly, I was just thrilled that somebody had taken the time to send a rejection slip.) But reading Hemingway’s spare style in this collection of his earliest stories, I recognized that this was more the kind of thing I might be able to do. Not that I could equal Hemingway, but I could document life as I actually saw it rather than conjuring fantastical lands and plots of high drama.

5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

This book, more than any other, fueled my decision to pursue a career in journalism. It’s a common story among journalists my age, I know, but it’s absolutely true. Thompson gave the profession a wild, romantic edge that sticks with me to this day, even as I fail miserably to live up to it.

Older or classic novels

1. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

I can’t imagine an aspiring writer who could do anything but fall under the spell of this story of American writers in Paris in the ’20s. Even if it turns out Hemingway was full of shit about some things in this memoir, it paints a picture of an undeniably beautiful era in creative history. Hemingway makes poverty sound like a worthwhile sacrifice for art. A classic excerpt:

“It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story.”

Along with Thoreau, this is really the only book that I reread from time to time.

2. Ask the Dust by John Fante

Fante’s masterpiece is short, odd and utterly entrancing. Consider the first unforgettable opening paragraph:

“One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.”

I’ve never read a better first paragraph.

3. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Is Richard Yates bleak? Hell yes, he’s bleak. Most people are losers and fools, and they know it. Life is wretched and then you die. Terrible things happen, and there’s not much you can do about it. No, we’re not talking beach reads here. But Yates is a truth-teller about the human condition, about the hard, cold fact that there really are very few heroes walking the earth. Revolutionary Road is his best and best-known novel. His other novels have great pieces in them, but few are fully realized from beginning to end.

4. The Man With the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren

Algren was another dark writer — grittier than Yates, more class conscious and street savvy. This novel about a drug addict was his best novel, so effective in depicting a time and place (Chicago during the Depression). Algren had a distinctive but odd writing style, perhaps jarring to some readers expecting the crisp syntax of a Hemingway or Steinbeck. Not to be emulated, perhaps, but it worked for him.

5. Norwood and Dog of the South by Charles Portis

Portis is an oddball out of the ’60s and ’70s, but I love him. He’s best known for writing True Grit, but these two novels are my favorites. Both are hilarious. Norwood is about as simple as a novel gets, following a Southern hick named Norwood Pratt who has some mild adventures on a road trip from Texas to New York to collect a $70 debt. He secures a fiancée along the way, and also has a dozen fascinatingly bizarre conversations with people. Here’s part of one:

“This stuff is cheap but it’s very nutritious.” He picked up the can and read from it. “Listen to this: ‘beef tripe, beef hearts, beef, pork, salt, vinegar, flavoring, sugar and sodium nitrate.’ Do you know what tripe is?”

“It’s the gut part.”

“That’s what I thought. I suspected it was something like that.”

“It’s all meat. Meat is meat. Have you ever eat any squirrel brains?”

“No, how are they?”

“About like calf brains. They’re not bad if you don’t think about it. The bad part is cracking the little skulls open. One thing I won’t eat is hog’s head cheese. My sister Vernell, you can turn her loose with a spoon and she’ll eat a pound of it before she gets up.”

Recently read fiction

1. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

The best and most entertaining novel I’ve read this year. The section featuring Richard Burton — yes, the actor — is genius.

2. These Dreams of You by Steve Erickson

Why isn’t Steve Erickson better known to the general reading public? This is a really fine novel, deftly written and thoughtfully conceived.

3. Under the Dome by Stephen King

After his 1999 accident, King announced that he would be slowing down, not writing so much, perhaps retiring. He probably was sincere at the time. But he obviously couldn’t help himself, and has been practically as prolific after his near-death experience as he was before. But he’s been more consistent, better overall than his largely uninspired production during the ’90s. Under the Dome is a terrific read, pondering what might happen if a giant dome suddenly covered a town. How would the people act? How would the environment inside the dome change? What would people outside the dome do?

4. The Great Leader by Jim Harrison

I like every novel by Jim Harrison, but some of them don’t hold together so well. You read them more for the language and philosophy than for the story. But this 2011 novel, about a detective’s cross-country quest to track down a cult leader, holds together just fine.

5. Zone One by Colson Whitehead

A literary zombie novel? You know it was coming. Somehow, Whitehead pulls it off.

Recently read nonfiction

1. How to Live: A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell

This is how a person today should write about a writer-philosopher who lives during the 1500s. Bakewell does a wonderful job of making Montaigne interesting and relevant for a modern reader.

2. Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation by Tom Bissell

Essays and articles by one of the top literary journalists working today. The article on Jim Harrison (mentioned above) is outstanding.

3. The Way the World Works by Nicholson Baker

Frankly, I like Baker’s nonfiction better than his fiction. These essays just reflect a really smart take on the world.

4. Reading for My Life by John Leonard

This posthumous collection of Leonard’s best works does justice to his genius as a critic of popular culture.

5. Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan

This collection of articles and essays is a fine companion to Bissell’s (above). If you’re a magazine editor and you want to hire a writer to capture the essence of a particular cultural subject, Sullivan is your man.

* * *


Most Cherished or Influential in Youth

Rocket boy Tom Swift was my first real childhood jam, but it wasn’t until the Encyclopedia Brown books that I started having conversations like this: Mom: “Scott, your friends are here.” Me: “Tell ’em I can’t play.” These books about a youthful Sherlock established an enduring love of cleverness and stories involving flagrant displays of brainpower.

So it was no surprise that I graduated to the Hardy Boys mysteries. A neighbor gave us a long shelf of these books, and I read every one of them — sometimes two a day (“Still can’t play, ma!”) — plus every new one. Periodically I begged Mom to drive me down to the Boulevard Mall, this being back when the B. Dalton there was the only decent bookstore in town, to buy whatever new Frank and Joe mystery was available. It’s like Franklin W. Dixon, whoever they were — it was the pseudonym for several hired pens — could see right into this reader’s head.

The Mudhen is so obscure it doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry. Hell, it was forgotten when I read it back in the early ’70s, and it would be so anachronistically out of step with today’s YA fiction that I’m not surprised this book and its two sequels have fallen entirely out of print. Mudhen Crane is a brilliant but lazy student at a private boy’s boarding school. He bends his intelligence toward two ends: avoiding work, and helping his fraternity (the Eagles) beat its rival (the Bears). The books reflect their era: the sort of hopelessly innocent time in which guys unself-consciously go by nicknames like Mudhen, Froggy, Noodle, Cheese and Skunk, and all rivalries are genial; also, and this escaped me at the time, it was an era of retrograde gender and racial politics. What I cared about was that, in the Mudhen, I had an early premonition of myself: if not brilliant, at least decently brainy, an indifferent student who’d rather use his brainwaves for fun and work-avoidance.

Lest I come off like some undescended testicle of a kid, let me hastily note that I also read all the Conan the Barbarian books, in sequence, and then again, in no particular order. Swords. Picts. Snake gods. Wenches. I mean, you tell me. Conan turned out to be a gateway barbarian, ushering me into a blur of sword and sorcery nonsense, including the Fahfrd and Gray Mouser series by Fritz Lieber, and the Elric of Melniboné books by Michael Moorcock — but not, oddly, any Tolkien. I tried The Hobbit. Meh.

Old or Classic Novels

Melville, yes; Moby-Dick, no. (So far.) For an English class, I did read Herman’s Pierre; or The Ambiguities. It is magnificent and infuriating, and 500 adjectives in between. Despite the antique language, it feels in many ways rather modern — in its mix of humor and tragedy; in the way it changes tone, perspective and style at will, sometimes parodying the form (romance, picaresque, philosophical novel) it had, a few pages earlier, been an earnest example of.

Same class — shout out to UNLV prof Darlene Unrue! — also required Charles Brockden Brown’s Weiland, or the Transformation. Brown was one of America’s first novelists (this book came out in 1798) and, again, the prose is too florid for modern taste. The narrative is an okay gothic tale of disembodied voices, psychological terror and murder. So what about it appealed to me? The way it was pulpy with the anxieties of life on this new, young continent, so much of which was dark and mysterious, unknown, uncivilized, not at all like Europe. It was one of the first purely American novels.

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. Because who among us hasn’t been stranded up that crazy river, baffled and terrified about what happens to our souls when the illusion of civilization is stripped away? Or is that just me?

I’m name-checking The Old Man and the Sea because it’s the point at which, for me, Hemingway, ahem, jumped the shark. Maybe you knew it by Across the River and Into the Trees or whenever, but this is when I, at any rate, first grokked that his formal strategies of minimalism, stoicism and simplicity seemed more the product of a fetish than of a useful aesthetic. So I moved on and never looked back.

Is Thomas Pynchon’s V. old enough to be considered a classic? I dunno. Since I read it 30-odd years ago, I’m going with Yes. It contains a scene that’s stuck with me all that time, too, in which a character recalls something he witnessed on Malta: a gang of feral children disassembling a mysterious priest, who, as they pitilessly strip away the priest’s many prostheses, is revealed to be a woman. Sad, haunting.

Recently Read Nonfiction

I’ve had this book on a slow-drip feed for a couple months now, little bits of it when I can: Glimmer, by Warren Berger, a book about design thinking that’s far less wonky than that description suggests. Because design, the pleasing and useful arrangement of [graphic elements, objects, functions within an organization, anything else], is fundamental to civilization, the questions it addresses go well beyond How does this look?

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful is a terrific read. An account of three long walking pilgrimages undertaken by this nonbelieving writer, it’s funny, thinky, self-lacerating and personable.

Descanso for My Father, by a writer I’d never heard of before taking a chance on this book — Harrison Candelaria Fletcher — is a quiet, thoughtful book of essays by a writer coming to terms with what the loss of his father meant to his family. A descanso is the point at which a funeral procession rests; a cross is placed to mark the spot where the coffin was set down. That perfectly describes this book.

I know this is probably hastening the demise of the printed volumes I love so much, but I’m thrilled by the advent of the Kindle Single. I just finished James Wolcott’s nifty farewell to Gore Vidal (which bequeathed me a false nostalgia for the glamorous era of writers as cultural figures); I’m reading Michelle Herman’s Dream Life, an excursion into family memory; and I’ll eventually reread The Codex, by Oliver Broudy — a long, unconventional and absorbing essay about investigating the meaning of beauty by tracking down a fabled book of vagina drawings used by a cosmetic surgeon in Prague, it’s the sort of thing magazines don’t publish. If not for the Kindle Single format, stuff like this might never see print.

Wild Card: Weird or Random Stuff I’ve Read

P.S. 1 Symposium: A Practical Avant Garde, a pamphlet put out by the people who publish the rarified n + 1 literary magazine. It’s the cleaned-up transcript of some talks given during a panel discussion on the state of the avant garde — in art, literature, whatever — and the conditions necessary for it to thrive. Ridiculously specific and not exactly useful in a daily way, I know. But sometimes my brain likes to drill down deep into an unfamiliar topic like this.

In the last year or two, I’ve taken what for me is a major interest in poetry, spurred largely by the work of Michael Robbins. His poem “Alien vs Predator” received crazy attention when it appeared in the New Yorker a few years ago. I read it, loved it and utterly failed to understand it, but it got me curious about a form I’ve always ignored. Robbins’ first collection, Alien vs Predator, is out now, and it’s stunning, even though I still utterly fail to understand it.

In the process of trying to puzzle out why I was so taken with Robbins’ work, I came across two other books of poetry that I’ve also found myself returning to: Insomnia Diary, by Bob Hikok, and Ceremony for the Choking Ghost, by Karen Finnyfrock, whose “What Lot’s Wife Would Have Said (If She Wasn’t a Pillar of Salt)” should be force-read to every busybody on the right who wants to regulate people’s private lives because they think God wants them to:

“Because any man weak enough to hide his eyes

while his neighbors

are punished for the way they love deserves a

vengeful god.”

Partial List of People to Bleach is . . . well, it looks like a 60-page, handmade chapbook, although I ordered it from Amazon. It’s a handful of bizarre tales by Gary Lutz, who I gather is a cultish writer of short fiction. They’re bleakly comic, slightly surreal (“I owned no furniture; I was afraid of heights”), enigmatic fiction riffs filled with people who act bizarrely and think nothing of it. “Home, School, Office” ends with a guy dragging Scotch tape around his office, trying to pick up a stray public hair left by the officemate he dislikes. He quickly gives up “because I did not know up to what point, to what extent, I was supposed to keep going along with my life.”

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Guilty reading pleasures

In the May 28 issue of The New Yorker, the excellent essayist Arthur Krystal (see his recent collection, Except When I Write) offers a pre-summer discussion of guilty reading pleasures, which he roughly summarizes as genre fiction in contrast to literary fiction. Back in the day, he notes, literary fiction was considered “good for you,” while genre fiction “simply tasted good.”

“Basically, a guilty pleasure is a fix in the form of a story, a narrative cocktail that helps us temporarily forget the narratives of our own humdrum lives,” Krystal writes.

But the fact that a book qualifies as a guilty pleasure need not mean that it lacks literary value. Krystal charts the gradual crumbling of the barriers erected by stuffy book snobs of the past, noting that sometimes even intellectuals “yearned for a good story.” Raymond Chandler was perhaps the first crime/detective fiction writer to gain the respect of lit crits, paving the way for the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, P.D. James, John le Carre, Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane and Lee Child. In other genres, writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle, Philip K. Dick and Stephen King have in recent years elicited newfound admiration from more than their diehard fans. “Writers we once  thought of as guilty pleasures are being granted literary status,” Krystal writes.

But Krystal warns that writers of detective and other genre novels should beware of too much praise, and respond by trying to turn their page-turners into something deeper and more meaningful, a k a literary. “Skilled genre writers know that a certain level of artificiality must prevail, lest the reasons we turn to their books evaporate,” he writes. “It’s plot we want and plenty of it.”

George Orwell admired good genre novels, which he called “good bad books.” But while Orwell maintained a distinction between guilty pleasures and literature, thriller writer Lee Child recently sought to turn the whole discussion on its head: “The thriller concept is why humans invented storytelling, thousands of years ago. It’s the only real genre, and all the other stuff has grown on the side of it like barnacles.”

Child’s characterization of biblio-history seems a tad simplistic, leaving out a few undeniable literary triumphs that could hardly be called “barnacles.” What’s more, he hardly needs to worry about his place in the literary pecking order, considering he’s sold more books than five thousand confirmed literary novelists.

(Krystal’s New Yorker piece prompted Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman to issue a response that is equally appealing on this subject. Find it here.)

Any discussion of guilty reading pleasures prompts one to ponder what his or hers happen to be. (This assumes, of course, that you’re someone who reads widely, including, primarily, literary works.) Here are the guilty pleasures of two avid readers.

Fast and Furious

By Scott Dickensheets

The form of these things usually requires participants to feel defiantly not guilty about their guilty pleasures. It may not be quote-unquote “literature,” but humankind needs stories! Well, I’ll admit it: I’ve chugged a lot of genre crap in my time.  A lot of flimsy characters, spun through mechanical plots, typed by largely interchangeable authors — Vince Someone, Steve Someone, Eric Van Somebody Else. My colleague in this endeavor dismisses most of it as “airport fiction,” the kind of thrillers you grab from a gift-shop spinner rack when you’re facing a long layover and your phone doesn’t stream Netflix. I can usually tell from the first two or three pages that it’s going to be a piece of hackwork.

And yet I’ve read every thriller David Baldacci has written.

Now, I’ve never been a major-league consumer of fiction. Mostly I’ve read nonfiction of the kind I wanted to write, but when I did, I usually tried to read the good stuff. I mean, hell, I lugged Gravity’s Rainbow like a brick into the Sav-On breakroom when I worked there in my early twenties, my mind alternately blown and baffled by that thing. Three-quarters of it was half-understandable, but every so often I’d flash on an insight so crystalline — Pynchon’s somehow created a voice that can communicate everything, from philosophy to gutter humor! — it was almost like being on drugs. Sure, I’d done the genre thing as a kid, sci-fi and fantasy, every word of every Conan book, but none of it ever lit me up like that. I liked the way it felt. So, other than the odd Chandler novel, I mostly shunned genre books, even the stuff that was reputed to be hot shit, like Elmore Leonard or Walter Mosely, until …

(Fast forward a lot of years)

… until one day, and I mean one day, I tore through The Da Vinci Code. (Hey, I was curious about the hot fuss.) It didn’t actually take a day, just seven hours of not leaving the couch except to pee. (I took the book and sat down.) Imagine my surprise, nailed to the couch by genre fiction. I knew from the first two or three pages that it wasn’t a great book. Or even a particularly good one, for every reason you’ve heard. Unconvincing characterization, clunky writing, cheesy theology. But the pace! The story pushed relentlessly forward, and I learned something about myself: I have an innate craving for fast, cheap narrative. Also, that it takes me seven freakin’ hours to read a Dan Brown novel. Damn, that’s slow.

After that, I read a lot of mostly forgettable stuff: books by Steve Berry, the Jason Bourne novels by Eric Van Lustbader, Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp novels, still more Dan Brown, that long row of Baldaccis (tip: even if you’re a fan, his latest, The Innocent, isn’t worth it). I couldn’t tell you a single thing about almost any of those novels.

To be sure, I encountered something close to what I would call real literature in these genre pathways. Lee Child’s series of Jack Reacher thrillers, for example. Not just because the characters are sturdier, or the insights into human nature considerably less trite (even if the action is sometimes unbelievably over the top). But also because the writing, the basic carpentry, is better. His sentences aren’t purpose-built merely to deliver plot. They’re organic to both the character and the narrative.

His protagonist, Reacher, is a huge, tough, ex-Army cop who wanders America with no possessions, no fixed address, no phone, just a bank card, a passport, a toothbrush and a keen understanding of violence. Basically, he’s a high-functioning homeless man who lucks into trouble everywhere he goes. Terrorists, drug dealers, corrupt officials with hired muscle on speed dial. People invariably die, property gets damaged.

Reacher’s rootlessness is part of Child’s genius: A totally competent man with a weightless life, under no one’s control but his own — no ties equals total freedom — Reacher taps into a deep strain of American yearning.

I should also mention crime writer James Crumley. The Last Good Kiss, featuring a broken-down alcoholic investigator named C.W. Sughrue, is a marvel. The writing has a durable, creased, worn-leather quality — inhabited is the word I’m looking for, and the plot, a missing-persons tale, has enough twists to seem plausible but not O. Henry-ish.

But, finally, the point has never really been to ferret out literature, or even quality. (Did I mention I’ve read twentysomething Baldacci novels?) Indeed, Child and Crumley notwithstanding, I think — and I’ve only recently started puzzling this out, so bear with me — that what I want is the flimsy characters, mechanical plots and largely interchangeable authors. Sometimes, I don’t want the benefits of literature, to sink into a different reality, to deeply identify with a fictional character. Look, I’m a husband, father, grandfather and am employed in the newspaper business. There are enough things already demanding a willing suspension of my disbelief. Very often, all I need is something hot, fast and shallow. So I guess I’m defiantly non-guilty after all.

Thrills and Chills

By Geoff Schumacher

One of my main guilty pleasures is the crime novelist John D. MacDonald, who published in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. MacDonald started in the pulps, and cranked out several paperback novels per year, each one about 160 tightly plotted pages. A few of these stand-alone stories were particularly noteworthy, among them 1957’s The Executioners (which became the twice-made movie Cape Fear) and 1960’s The End of the Night, which Stephen King recently called one of the “greatest American novels of the twentieth century.” I don’t know about that, but it is a very good read.

But while MacDonald’s dozens of novels are worth a look, his crowning achievement is a series of twenty-one novels, published from 1964-85, featuring Travis McGee, one of the more compelling protagonists in the history of crime fiction. McGee lives on a houseboat docked in a Fort Lauderdale marina. McGee tries hard not to work for a living, preferring the sun and surf — and the companionship of good friends and beautiful women — to any sort of nine-to-five obligation. He’s able to pull off this lifestyle by collecting an occasional fee serving as a “salvage consultant.” He’s gained a reputation as someone who can lend a hand when a person has gotten screwed out of some money or a precious object. If McGee is able to retrieve what has been lost, he gets half for his trouble.

McGee is a clever, athletic and durable hero. In the first few books, he’s a bit too smart and invincible. The series improves as McGee’s blind spots and vulnerabilities come into clearer focus. He’s no longer Superman. Things don’t always turn out perfectly when he takes a case.

The McGee books occasionally veer from the storyline as MacDonald shifts temporarily into essay mode. It’s not uncommon for McGee and his sidekick, the fellow boat-dwelling economist Meyer, to go on for several pages discussing the social and political issues of the day. For some readers, these diversions probably are annoying, especially when the subject matter is decades old. But even now, I find most of them interesting and relevant. It’s clear that MacDonald was a thoughtful man, with social and political views he could not resist incorporating into his fiction. I might not be so amused if MacDonald were an ideologue, but he was a moderate pragmatist, exploring the issues of the day as objectively as possible.

I read about one Travis McGee novel per year. I’m savoring them, I guess. I’ve now read 17 of the 21, so I’m getting toward the end. McGee is getting older now. When he’s injured, it takes longer to heal. He’s thinking more about settling down with a good woman, though each time he gets serious, the woman seems to end up in the line of fire. Where I once admired McGee’s freewheeling lifestyle, now I kind of feel sorry for him. I really enjoy that McGee is more than a never-changing cardboard figure.

(One of the better pieces about MacDonald was written by longtime Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley in 2003. It can be found here. Another good piece was written by Roger Ebert in 1976. Check it out here.)

When I was a teenager, I launched into books through the fantasy and horror genres. In the horror field, Stephen King occupied a lot of my time (partly because he wrote so many thick books). He was very good during the ’70s and ’80s, then not too great for a while, and more recently very good once again (Under the Dome, 11/22/63). But reading King did not necessarily lead me to lesser contemporaries such as Dean Koontz and John Saul. Though they have their admirers, I can’t really say whether they are any good.

King led me instead to the genre’s old guard: Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood — nineteenth and twentieth century masters of the “weird tale.”

Occasionally, I enjoying dipping back into these writings. It’s similar to reading Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, but with more supernatural twists.

I just finished a Penguin Classics collection of Blackwood’s stories, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I particularly liked “The Willows,” “The Wendigo” and “The Man the Trees Loved.” While Blackwood certainly wanted to give his readers a good scare, he had higher ambitions as well. Many of his stories are founded on philosophical premises about the relationship between man and nature. His protagonists often discover an acute sensitivity to or awareness of natural forces beyond the recognition of other people. For example, in “The Man the Trees Loved,” a man develops a strong affinity for the trees in the forest behind his house. He spends more and more of each day in the forest, rather than at home with his wife. He comes to believe that trees have consciousness of a sort, and he has tapped into it: They love him, and they jealously see his wife as an impediment to his total immersion in their world. No violence ensues, as you would expect in a Hollywood production, but the story is suspenseful and eerie nonetheless.

Another of Blackwood’s stories, “Ancient Sorceries,” published in 1908, inspired the movie Cat People, released in 1942 and remade in 1982. In this story, a man on a train disembarks in a small French town, only to find that the residents turn into cats at night. It turns out he has some past-life connection to these feline folks, and they want him to rejoin them.

Blackwood’s prose is easy to read, but he definitely takes his time unfolding a story. This might be frustrating for some modern readers seeking immediate gratification, but the leisurely pace is something I enjoy about his work. He forces the reader to fully engage, to set aside all distractions and plunge into the narrative. And Blackwood’s horrors are rarely bloody. His carnage tends to be psychological and menacing rather than physical. He outlines frightening ideas, but they don’t lead to some sort of chaotic chase scene or killing spree.

(A great website to get a taste of Algernon Blackwood’s work is located here.)

Now that I’ve had my fill of Blackwood for a while — he wrote quite a lot, so there’s room for another incursion when the mood strikes down the road — I think I’ll delve into Machen’s stories, which offer another perspective on the mystical storytelling of a bygone age.

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