Saturday, April 30, 2011

April Reading

Not cool, April.  Not cool at all.

April was rough this year.  First there was a string of terrible storms that smashed homes on my street and damaged my own house, then three days with no power, and now Memphis is facing the spectre of some very serious flooding as the rivers Wolf and Mississippi keep rising.  

It seems that I spent this April either hauling busted tree limbs to the curb or sitting in the hallways with my students while tornado sirens blared outside.  The football field at my old highschool is currently underwater, and my wife's office has been readied for the event of water damage if the river crosses Humphreys Boulevard.  And we're getting more rain this weekend!

But let's forget about all that and get to the books!

1. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad is unlike any other that I have ever read.  First of all, I'm not certain that it is a novel at all, and not a collection of linked short stories, each written in a distinct style and concerning characters that may or may not emerge in the other stories in the collection.  As the book progresses, plot lines surface, then disappear, then sometimes resurface a hundred or more pages later.  What I assumed to be the main character vanished for large chunks of the narrative, as the setting moved from New York City to San Francisco in the 1980s to an African safari to the near future and then back again.

The book concerns a group of people involved in a music scene that begins in underground punk clubs and then moves its way to the glittering office buildings in Manhattan.  As I read it, I felt I was being led deeper and deeper into a labyrinth, and it became more and more clear that there was no real way out.  But by the end, which culminated with a 75-page long story told in Powerpoint (not kidding!), I realized that whatever foolish expectations I had had for the book had long been abandoned.  The last chapter, "Pure Language," is a mind-boggling performance that examines the disintegration of language, memory, and social interactions.  And Facebook.  

My friend Kelly gave me this book for my birthday last month, and I really must thank him.   Not only did I enjoy the novel (I had to suppress the urge to re-read it as soon as I got to the last line), but this is the first time I have read a Pulitzer Prize winning book before it won the prize.  It made me feel right smart.  Thanks, Kelly.

Finally, this book goes in the category of BEST BOOKS WITH TERRIBLE COVERS, which I will someday do on this blog.  The copy I have has an absolutely dreadful cover.  It looks like a reject from the photoshoot for Kick by INXS.

And that's a pity, really, because the original cover was perfectly lovely.  It even has the guitar strings shooting off like the tangental story lines that never quite connect.

Why make the change?  These things matter, you know.

2. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

I'm afraid that I only have a schoolboy's acquaintance with George Orwell.  I've never ventured past the required-reading list from high school: 1984, Animal Farm, "Shooting and Elephant," and "A Hanging."   So I ordered Down and Out in Paris and London, not realizing that it was a novel.  I thought it was a collection of essays from his days slumming in the streets and "spikes" of England and France. 

Though ostensibly fiction, the book reads more like reportage (a word I always pronounce with the emphasis on the last syllable and a French accent, because it makes me feel cosmopolitan) about what the destitute go through in order to avoid starvation every day.  The main character works in the filthy kitchens of the poshest hotel restaurants in Paris, sleeps in dehumanizing flophouses in London, and meets characters both depraved and honorable.  

This may seem a depressing read, but Orwell handles it with a light touch.  There's plenty of adventure and humor here, and the pages turn without too much effort.  The details of the filth and misery in the kitchens of fancy restaurants particularly rang true, as they reminded me of the unhappiness of my five years waiting tables.

3. Talk Show by Dick Cavett

Talk Show is a collection of blogs that Cavett wrote for the New York Times between February of 2007 and April of 2010 (and not a kick-ass album by the Go-Go's).  In it, Cavett discusses his childhood in Nebraska, his days as host of The Dick Cavett Show, his pet peeves and complaints about the state of current discourse, and his hatred for the Bush administration and Iraq War.  

Since the entries in this book originated as blogs, they had predetermined limits on length, and none is longer than three or four pages.  Throughout, Cavett keeps up his erudite, snappish wit that made him famous on television.  It wears thin as the book moves on (does everything in this life require a quote from Shakespeare to amplify it?), but the book is so breezy that it is over before you know it.

There are some fantastic stories in here, and this is a great book to read if you are very busy with, say, a two-year old son or intermittent tornado sirens that compel you to mark your place in a hurry and get on to more important things.  You'll find, when you get back to the book, that you can pick right up with the next chapter.  No sweat.

4.  "Destroying Detroit (In Order to Save It)" by Howie Kahn

I also read this devastating article in GQ this month.  I would include a link to it, but it is not featured in the website.  Nevertheless, it was a great read, and if you see the GQ with Galafanakis on it, you should steal it from whatever Walgreens/waiting room/brothel you happen to be in and read it at your leisure.

Take it easy, sportsfans!


  1. Okay, maybe I'll give The Goon Squad a chance. I almost bought a copy yesterday but a 75 page Power Point presentation, really. I never let my own students go beyond 6 slides.

    And, may I recommend Homage to Catalonia by Mr. Orwell. I think his non-fiction is his best stuff. If you haven't read his essay Shooting and Elephant read it right now.

  2. James--

    I give you a no-suck guarantee on The Goon Squad. And you'll love the powerpoint; it really is fantastic.

    I'll put Homage to Catalonia on the ol' list. My colleague says that "Shooting an Elephant" is the greatest essay ever written, but I couldn't tell you exactly why. I will re-read it soon.

    Take it easy,


  3. I love The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Best book this month for me.

    Amy L.

  4. Then I will check it out. Your last recommendation (Little Bee) was right on.

  5. You had a look of agony on your face for most of the time you read The Goon Squad and then 3/4 of the way through, it became awesome. I'm a little scared of this one.