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I'm an editor and paid typist living in the Las Vegas Valley.

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.

Whew.

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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Saturday Morning Bookshelfie

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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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Summer reading recommendations No. 2

By Scott Dickensheets

Here’s what we’re gonna do. Instead of suggesting books you should read this summer, because how would I know?, I’ll tell you what I plan to read — hope to read — foolishly believe I’ll actually read — in the next few months. (It’s hard, people; the heat messes with my brain.) Since I haven’t read any of ’em yet, I can’t recommend them on any basis except that something about each has goosed it toward the top of my to-read pile.

FICTION

Okay, I’m mildly contradicting myself first thing, because I have read 10 or 15 pages of Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, which I was relieved to discover is not, in fact, about a pregnant widow. It is about sex, but that’s not why I want to read it; it’s also about rich, textured language, which is why. (Also, it’s about sex.) Newly out in paperback, its story involves randy young Brits experiencing a hot, wet Italian summer back in the 60s, when sex was still incredible and filled with meaning. If that’s not enough British fiction for me, I have a copy of Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot idling at the ready, although I fear it might actually be about Flaubert’s parrot.

Flaubert was French, which I mention solely because it transitions smoothy into Disaster Was My God, Bruce Duffy’s forthcoming (July 19) novel about that other great French literary prospect, Season in Hell poet Arthur Rimbaud. Duffy is an acclaimed and brainy writer — he previously novelized upon the life of Wittgenstein — and Rimbaud is a notorious figure (transformed poetry by age 20, then quit literature for African gun-running), who inspired such great performers as Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Patti Smith and Eddie and the Cruisers. So it should be heavy duty.

When I want some light duty, though — and I surely will, summer being the season of escapist reading — I’ll turn to Death Likes It Hot, one of the mystery novels Gore Vidal wrote under the name Edgar Box back in the 1950s. It stars a dashing PR man, which is how you know it’s fiction.

NONFICTION

No one noticed this book when it came out late last year: The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story From Buchenwald to New Orleans. In it, journalist Mark Jacobson tries to learn the origin of a lamp with a shade made of human skin. It screams Nazi, of course, and Jacobson runs down that angle, but he also uses the occasion to investigate death, hatred and evil. Jacobson’s a good reporter and a great stylist, so I expect the book to be filled with terrific place descriptions and nicely drawn characters. I’ll probably augment that by reading Rescuing Evil: What We Lose, Ron Rosenbaum’s 22-page essay, available as a Kindle Single, about the pitfalls of trying to ameliorate the concept of evil.

My pal Steve Friedman’s memoir of life and bad behavior in the trenches of romance and the Manhattan media world, Lost on Treasure Island, comes out any minute and will show you a good time: breezily self-lacerating one moment, bleakly revelatory the next, and funny throughout.

A trio of books coming out in late August or the first of September will let me end the season in a blurt of — I trust — quality reading. Christopher Hitchens’ Arguably collects a batch of his essays on politics, which I don’t always agree with, and literature, which I don’t always understand. But I almost always enjoy watching his mind work. Tom Piazza’s Devil Sent the Rain is a collection of essays about about America, music and, if I’m reading the title correctly, New Orleans, about which he’s written before.

And the book I’m most curious about: Colby Buzzell’s Lost in America: A Dead-End Journey. Expanding on a transcontinental ramble he took for Esquire magazine, Buzzell’s book should be a ground-level look at our country, through the haunted eyes of a former soldier wracked by his service in Iraq and wondering what America is all about. Some quality about Buzzell’s prose, something I can’t pin down and analyze, has stuck with me since his Esquire days. Can’t wait.

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Mood Lighting in the Vegas Cube: William Gibson’s ‘Zero History’

By Scott Dickensheets
The cool-hunting PR mogul who’s not merely in the background of William Gibson’s Zero History, but who is the background, maintains a series of what he calls “Vegas cubes.” Secret rooms stripped down to their pristine essentials: “It looked to Milgrim like a very small art gallery between shows.” This allows utter control over the space. Someone explains: “He” — the mogul, Hubertus Bigend — “loves Las Vegas casinos. The sort of thought that goes into them. How they enforce a temporal isolation. No clocks, no windows, artificial light. He likes to think in environments like that.” 

Gibson likes his stories to unfold in environments like that, too — hermetic spaces, every element deeply conceived, exactingly controlled. Consider the quiet virtuosity of a passing detail like this, the stairs in a London boutique hotel: “marbled in shades of aged honey, petroleum jelly and nicotine.” Not on any color wheel you’ll find in the Lowe’s paint department, yet eerily perfect.

Zero History, the third novel in a trilogy* about the hidden structures of contemporary culture, follows roughly the same narrative arc as the other two, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country: Bigend, his seismos tuned to obscure flutters in the pop-culture marketplace, hires an unlikely surrogate to dig into some sub-underground phenomenon. In Pattern Recognition, it was snippets of enigmatic Internet film; in Spook Country, it was “locative art,” holograms you could only see at certain GPS coordinates and with the right equipment; this time, Hollis Henry (returning from Spook Country) reluctantly agrees to investigate a line of secretive clothing, Gabriel Hounds, so deeply recessed into anti-marketing philosophy that it doesn’t have a store, a catalog, a website — any kind of commercial presence. In each case, of course, something larger, more global and vastly more higher-stakes is going on.

For a thriller, there’s remarkably little action in Zero History. As with the others, there’s a little travel, some searching, a minor scrape or two, plenty of clipped conversations — Gibson’s characters speak with the condensed clarity, if not the comic zest, of the actors in His Gal Friday — in which the book’s ideas are nudged forward … and then, finally, a burst of violent action toward the end.

And yet, because of its squeaky-tight, Vegas-cube construction, Zero History maintains suspense. In such a rigorously controlled space, just fiddling with the mood lighting creates a rising sense of drama.

By chance, not long after I finished Zero History I belatedly read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and while there’s a limited value in playing a couple of random books off of each other, it still made for an interesting comparison. While Stieg Larsson infilled his story with plenty of context — extensive family backgrounds, historical summaries, lots of presumably character revealing actions unrelated to the plot (there’s a lot of eating and random smoking) — Zero History finally offers the more fully realized, lived-in world. Larsson smothers you in detail, and the problem isn’t so much that it all doesn’t advance the story — the color of the stairs doesn’t push Gibson’s story forward, either — it’s that a lot of these details don’t really do anything. They seem to be there out of a misguided sense of completeness, an unnecessary fully-roundedness. They’re there for the same reason a historian would put them in a nonfiction work. Inert, they’re just baggage. (And Larsson  doesn’t give you passages like this one from Zero History, describing a woman “whose intelligence protruded through her beauty, Milgrim felt, like the outline of unforgiving machinery pressing against a taut silk scarf.” It’s a startling simile and one that feels intuitively right: I’ve met women like that.) But Gibson’s stair colors, and hundreds of similar offbeat details, force you not only into a cohesive fictional world that’s both familiar and slightly off-kilter, but (allow me to go meta for a sec) a reading headspace in which the familiar is continually being overlaid with new, slightly exoticized detail. There’s an alertness to the prose that spills into the reading experience. It’s a crackling, electric place to be, despite the hard-to-buy plot twist at the end — spoiler alert: Bigend + Iceland + voodoo math — and even if you don’t care about fashion.

(*You needn’t have read the first two to get Zero History, but there is one scene — which still makes perfect sense — that will be deepened a bit if you’ve read Pattern Recognition.)

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