Category Archives: reading

Into Thin Air

This was a million months ago. Jon Krakauer wrote this book, which is somewhat about the drive to climb really tall mountains and somewhat about the effect of commercial guiding operations on high-altitude mountain climbing, and then mostly and specifically about being on an Everest-climbing expedition in which people died. If you’re curious but don’t want to read the book–the book’s better–you can read Krakauer’s article about it here. (The article’s account of Andy Harris’s death has since been disproved and corrected.)

Reading this was all about the dread of knowing that it does not go well. It’s like watching a horror movie–“Don’t leave your cell phone behind! Don’t run upstairs! Don’t you know you’re in a horror movie?”–except the analogous yelling would be “Don’t you know you’re on Mr. Everest?” and that’s not a question.* The climbers’ mistakes seem small and unfairly portentous, but I couldn’t empathize the way I might with the serial-killer-stalkee, because, however unlikely it is that I’ll be targeted by a strange murderer, it’s even less likely that I’ll be beamed to Everest in a transporter. At that altitude, it’s apparently difficult to eat, sleep, or think. Krakauer’s cough separated some ribs. And in addition to pushing personal limits over which one arguably has some control, there’s the risk of spontaneously bleeding into the brain or lungs. Two of the names after “in memory of” on the dedication page belong to people who died in two separate avalanches after the climbing season Krakauer chronicles.

Krakauer is scrupulous in reporting the facts he witnessed and investigated–detailed, nuanced, careful. And I don’t mean, by saying that I didn’t empathize with the climbers, that the story lacked drama. The stakes, combined with the knowledge that this really happened, made for plenty, if distant, pathos. I don’t know what to make of my voyeurism in reading disaster books like this, or tendency to wax metaphorical when thinking about the leader of the team stranded on the highest point on the planet overnight in a storm, trying to help his client-friend. Krakauer’s own meaning-making is omnivorous. He talks about the history of attempts on Everest, the effect of Everest-climbing on Nepal’s economy, the climbing skills and practices of those on the mountain, the prestige and backgrounds of various guides. And he includes quotations: Joan Didion, from The White Album (which I still want very much to read),

We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

and to introduce the book as a whole, José Ortega y Gasset: “Men play at tragedy because they do not believe in the reality of the tragedy which is actually being staged in the civilized world.”

(Another Jon Krakauer I want to read is Under the Banner of Heaven. It combines two topics sure to keep me reading Wikipedia and sundry blogs until dawn: religious fundamentalists and strange murderers.)

*Despite how I will continue to torture this analogy, I don’t watch horror movies. The empathy makes them scary.



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The Invention of Everything Else

It has romance with pigeons, Nikola Tesla, time travel, and historic New York, so it can’t not be charming. And it’s playful. But it’s leaving me with the sense that it’s anemic, contrary to all expectations, which I think is because I was never able to get a fix on its tone.

head statue up front thinks in text.

The narration felt like reading a comic book or movie storyboards, especially early on. Partially this could be because there’s a talking statue of Goethe’s head in the first chapter, and a giant talking head sculpture in Jonathan Lethem’s Omega: The Unknown (which I read all the way through with a similar joy in the parts that never coalesced into an understanding of the whole). But also, the present tense makes the setting seem very framed: as people approach and recede or pay attention to a particular object, I could almost see the panels on the page. There are a couple chapters that pull that cinematic move of introducing you to some people you’ve never heard of who then are affected by or affect our heroes/villains. The poor lady is calling for her cat, which never appears because THOMAS EDISON IS ELECTROCUTING IT, that kind of thing. And there’re a gleeful number of “SQUISH”es and “AHHHGGGHG!”s in a transcript of a radio play–an imitation of radio, obviously, but you don’t see radio.

I loved that about it, but ultimately found it uneven. We start out with a talking Goethe head, an embodied question that sits on park benches, and a two-page-long list of words beginning with S, but when later Walter (our protagonist’s father) is said to have “stared down through sewer gratings looking for his friend, thinking, perhaps, that he might have slipped,” I’m still left wondering “really?” (63). This is literally what he did months after his friend’s disappearance? Or does it indicate how colorfully and completely he missed him? Or fit in with Walter’s understanding of the world as an improbable place? Here and at other points, I don’t know. Once you believe in time travel, is all logic up for grabs?

Of course, the fact versus fiction of the time traveling enterprise is a big part of the book. The excursions to/in the machine always matter, but their literalness doesn’t need to. This is sketched in miniature when Walter and Louisa (our protagonist) go up onto the roof to await the arrival of visitors from Mars, as foretold by a radio show. The Martians fail to appear, and then:

To Louisa’s surprise the following morning, Walter was not disappointed after learning that the invasion was a fiction. It had been an adventure. It didn’t matter to Walter if it wasn’t true right then, because someday, he told Louisa, it would be true, maybe even someday very soon. (21)

There’s still a lot I’ve left out. Tesla has a sort-of romance with this couple that’s maybe the most moving and sad thing in the book. And the book overall had me seeing New York as a magical kingdom (which, it doesn’t take that hard of a push for me to see any place that way, but it’s always welcome). But for a relatively story-driven book in which so much happens, it’s hard to latch on to. It’s a string of awesome scenes; it doesn’t feel smooth. This may be Hunt’s intention, but in the end I felt like I was missing something.

Next up is, emphatically, Into Thin Air.

There’s still time to enter the pennies contest until some to-be-determined time later this week.


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peasants/I am death

Usually when I talk about books I’m all “here’s a bit that was cool,” “this thing was going on that I reacted to,” etc., but it’s in my mission statement not to tell you that Darth Vader’s Luke’s father or anything similar. That’s also true here, but in “Peasants” you discover things about previous scenes as you’re reading, and conceivably my commentary could interfere with that. Be forewarned.

If I’d known “Peasants” took place in an office, I’d have gotten on to it sooner. I have an unreasoning love for office space stories. This one is peculiar in that it doesn’t heighten reality as markedly as others: Then We Came to the End, Office Space, and The Office have hijinks; Swimming with Sharks, The Business of Strangers, and In the Company of Men have extreme levels of darkness; Then We Came to the End and The Office have arguably attention-grabbing stylistic conceits. It’s as if working in an office is so boring that there can’t be a story about it without some fantasy. Fantasy can be awesome, but “Peasants” has none of these and is still fantastic.

I’m mixing movies and tv and books because I don’t know many office stories of any kind. Maybe, again, because offices are boring? I was waiting to receive the latest “One Story” (Grant Munroe’s “Corporate Park”–a “Corporate Folktale”) to see if it substantiated or contradicted my claims, but I’ve stopped waiting and instead assume I’ll never receive mail again.

Anyway, what spooked me out as I was getting into this is the two-men-interact-with-each-other-based-on-their-interactions-with-a-woman idea. Because it occurred to me that, comedies (or largely comedic ventures) aside, all of these stories are male buddy stories with a woman as the third point of the triangle, the object making the plot work–or in one case, vice versa. I mean, In the Company of Men and The Business of Strangers are so similar I wonder if it was intentional. (White collar men are abusive assholes to a woman for vengeance against women generally in a movie whose title alludes to the workplace setting versus white collar women are abusive assholes to a man for vengeance against men generally in a movie whose title alludes to the workplace setting.) Which I noted after I saw them, but thought nothing of until reading this, which also does the triangulation thing, and remembered that Swimming with Sharks does, too. And yeah, a lot of stories do. But I can’t think of a dramatic office story that doesn’t. (Glengarry Glen Ross, but that’s more of a sales thing. The office is an office like a police station’s an office.) If you have one, educate me in the comments. Because the next thing I was wondering about is whether there was something about offices that makes male-female relations and bonding based thereon a particularly likely subject. Hypothesis: Offices are about people chafing against the culture of what’s permitted such that they act out in these straight sexual transgressions, drawing someone in as their co-conspirator to define, within this “transgressiveness” what is and isn’t okay.

But to talk more directly about the novella… It probably shares more with And Then We Came to the End than the others, tonally, in that its office is a community instead of just a backdrop. Gossip and the paranoia it breeds get a lot of play.

I liked the arguments, of which there were many, which nailed the gravity that small actions take on when people lose their shit and the weird childlikeness that can ensue. Here Rasmussen’s friend/boss just threw a pen at him:

It sailed past Rasmussen’s head and clattered against the window. Had it struck him, the whole sorry mess would have been over, but it did not. Rasmussen asked Boatman after a very long moment of silence if he’d thrown something at him. Boatman said no, no, he hadn’t thrown it at him, man. Rasmussen said he was quite sure that Boatman had done exactly that. No, pled Boatman. Come on, man.

Then they tear up and I laugh in identification with the friend/boss//dude fight.

I was less onboard with this character who delivers big, insane, irritating chunks of dialogue that I know someone might actually say but still seem incredible. Mostly they fall just on the right side of working, maybe because he appears during a professional conference that’s surreal to start with. “I Am Death” (of the much better title) also has one of these people. I don’t know what that’s about. Nor do I know what “I Am Death” is about in general, which I mean in the most literal, non-snotty way possible. It had a few cool moments in it. It left me befuddled.

The Invention of Everything Else is up next. I’ve gotten as far as taking it out of the library, but don’t anticipate actually reading it for a bit. (Which sounds so dickish! There are lots of copies.)

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long-term relationship with Tristram Shandy

This book was such a personality. I spent the first hundred pages or so wishing it would just stop being so much itself, because it was entertaining but it would’ve been more so if it would let me engage with it instead of jerking me around and showing off. It’s a party personality sort of book.

Then I decided the controlling qualities were the point, and more or less for my own good. The book’s (often-commented-on, when the book’s being commented on) digressions frustrated my expectations of what might be coming on the next page and my memory of what was written so far to the extent that I slipped into a “huh. guess I’m reading about this now” state of mind. Which was not entirely pleasant, but unusual and thus interesting. (Here’s an example, if you want to decide whether you blame me for being a lazy reader: on page 71 [Dover edition], it promises that soon “’twill be time to return back to the parlour fire-side, where we left my uncle Toby in the middle of his sentence.” The sentence in question was on page 48, and the beginning of it was, “I think.” We were more immediately in the middle of the story of Toby’s recovery from his groin injury and encyclopedic interest in the fortifications and cartography of the city he was wounded at. This as the story of how Toby got his hobby; this as a means of sketching his character, without which we can apparently not “enter rightly into [his] sentiments upon this matter” [of what he thinks in the suspended sentence]. We also get a summary of Toby’s arguments with his brother [more character-sketching], a defense of hobbies as the best insight into character, a defense of digressions as totally awesome, and sundry observations. The end of Toby’s statement, which required this backstory to be properly understood, is “it would not be amiss, brother, if we rung the bell” [page 78].)

My inability to have a whole picture of what was going on wore off by the end, though, when the themes (stuff-I-may-or-may-not-write-about-next-chapter, talking about cock without saying “cock” in a non-chicken context) became clear. Which was kind of nicer. All attempts to frustrate story aside, the book ends up telling one about Toby and his brother and his brother’s wife and his servant Trim hanging out and arguing and telling stories, and Toby and Trim being a little bit in love with each other and attempting to get Toby laid. Tristram hovers half out of the book, being all coy and trying to seduce everybody.

I wasn’t much in love with this book, which makes it hard to say what it is, but it’s not about “the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy.” That’s one of the jokes. It’s clearly supposed to be funny, but I think you have to be British or 300 years old. It’s also not, as the back cover claims, “a novel about writing a novel.” Its wordiness has substance and makes an impression, which is a thing to like. Also likable: the ritual of the widow Wadman’s maid folding and pinning up the bottom of her nightgown before bed–Wadman kicks a pin aside and that means she’s in love, Tristram dancing in a field in the countryside apropos of nothing, the sheet music for the song Toby whistles, Toby and Trim’s competitive agreement with each other, a whole story about Yorick the parson culminating emphatically in a Shakespeare quotation.

I Am Death won the poll eons ago. Onward!


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then you and some other people came to the end

Then We Came to the End was touching, and fairly accurate to my working-in-offices experience. Particularly this, towards the beginning:

We thanked each other. It was customary after every exchange. Our thanks were never disingenuous or ironic. We said thanks for getting this done so quickly, thanks for putting in so much effort. We had a meeting and when a meeting was over, we said thank you to the meeting makers for having made the meeting. Very rarely did we say anything negative or derogatory about meetings. We all knew there was a good deal of pointlessness to nearly all the meetings and in fact one meeting out of every three or four was nearly perfectly without gain or purpose but many meetings revealed the one thing that was necessary and so we attended them and afterward we thanked each other.

The two most omnipresent office culture things at a job of mine (very limitedly creative and marketing related, like in the book) are the group acknowledgment of pointlessness and the thanking each other after every seconds-long work-related exchange. The two things are part of each other, I guess: “This thing we’re doing is stupid, so I appreciate the pain your attention to it may cause you.” I’m not sure that’s quite it, but there’s some sort of relationship. That’s a kind meeting-usefulness ratio, though.

Alain de Botton recently claimed that people don’t write about their work. (Apropos of his book about work, naturally.) Ferris’ narrative “we,” on the other hand, says: “we had discovered that every agency has its frustrated copywriter whose real life was being a failed novelist working on a small, angry book about work.” Are either of these things really phenomena?

The book as a whole was great in that about a third of the way through it, the office-antics-without-reason were starting to wear–impressive to replicate, but I didn’t want to experience all the eye-gouging desires and mild amusement of office life for 400 pages–and I began to wonder if it would do something else, and then, it did. Shifted to add just enough outside-world context and plottiness to be interesting. (Although the fact that that “something else” was talking about the boss and her breast cancer and her missing her ex-boyfriend, and the way that’s called attention to as an appropriated story at the end, made me uncomfortable. It was empathetic, it problematized itself, but still.)

Never read an entire novel in first person plural before, so I don’t know if this is specific to the book or the perspective, but I imagined an unnamed character speaking on behalf of all the named ones throughout, being the “we”. Which didn’t make much literal sense, in terms of the things this person knew and their being unreferenced by the others, but the perspective pretty much defies literal sensicalness. Which Ferris addresses directly at the very end and coming up to it, in a way that would irritate if it weren’t so deft.

Next up’s Tristram Shandy, which won over The Master and Margarita and Iris Murdoch. I’m very excited. New poll to follow.

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sprawling post: Jamestown, bigotry toward psychiatrists, post-Jamestown, considering the blog


I finished Jamestown what seems like an eon ago. I enjoyed it, especially towards the beginning when I was in a state of near constant incredulity. The first part is told from Pocahontas and Johnny Rolfe’s perspectives, and here’s a sampling of Mr. Rolfe:

There is a window at the front of the supply trailer behind the bus, made, I think, for folks like us who like to see their stuff while hauling it from place to place, and a window at the bus’s back, so people on the bus who wanted to could keep an eye on the air that touched the window that touched the air that touched the window that touched the air that touched the redoubtable body of Jack Smith, shackled to a chair, and his liquor, trapped in glass.

Really, Johnny? “The air that touched the window that touched the air”? This is his diary, supposedly, not disembodied first person. Which, no one writes in their diary like this, but he and everyone else are constantly writing and speaking like this, and in a number of other styles of diction. And at one point, a woman knocks her husband off a ladder as he’s cleaning the gutters as foreplay, which he welcomes without much injury. Everybody’s articulate in their superheroism or patsydom. This is in addition to the appropriate weirdnesses of adapting the 1607 story to the new setting, where Manhattan is England and Brooklyn is Spain and Virginia is Virginia. (I had to look the “Spain” part up, and I still may have it wrong. They had history in Europe? Some family named Hapsburg? I was busy taking American history twice.) This gives us assassins coming over the Brooklyn Bridge and climbing up that tall thing in Fort Greene Park, which amused me. Also means the four main characters from the “settlers” crew are named John, John, Johnny, and Jack. It sounds as though it could be gimmicky or academic, but it was funny and its characters were people, albeit better defined in their awesomeness and patheticness.

I’m not sure what to make of Pocahontas’ secret name (her real name that kills her, you’re probably not following me here, either) business. The last part felt flat in general to me: we keep finding things out about the world, and it’s exciting, and then the point-of-view gets expanded to include everybody in the second part, and that’s exciting, but the last part was not exciting. Which I could accept, but I expected to care about Pocahontas’ death, and I did not. The last chapter was good, though.

Random kudos to Sharpe, also, though, for this line from the psychiatrist interviewing select guys from the bus: “I shrug again. To be seen through and yet maintain a nearly expressionless psychiatric neutrality is so delicious I’m getting a bit of a junior erection that I hope the subject can’t detect from where he sits.” This kind of delight in smug dickery is what I suspect every variety of therapist feels on an at least daily basis. The shrink in question is about to start inadvertently tripping, so his judgment may be slightly altered, but still. You know that Deanna freaking Troi could lead a mutiny on the Enterprise and the shit would be actively going down and deception would be a moot point and she’d still be all, “I’m sensing some very intense anger from you, Captain.” (Minus the part where Troi could successfully lead a mutiny on the Enterprise and the part where “you know” anything about it, depending on who you are.)


So after that I read AM/PM, which was lovely and also free with subscription to paperegg books, which I’m excited about. They’ll send me two books in the mail from Chicago at some point. I don’t know anything about them. It was a good excuse to break my rule about buying new books. And it’s a happy replacement for my New Yorker subscription, which finally ends with the April 6th issue! It’s the end of an era of me stacking magazines on my desk and skimming through them three times a year at best.

Which I started doing after AM/PM in an effort to reclaim the space. I liked the fiction issue, which was surprising, since I often find their fiction boring. (The most not-boring-to-me was this one, not from that issue, though.)

Also in the New Yorker was a pretty amazing profile on David Foster Wallace. I read that, and then I read all the DFW stuff I’d skipped past on my RSS reader, which was a lot, in a couple sittings. I’m not linking to any of it, because I recommend that you not read it, because it was really sad. Or maybe the article just made me sad, so everything I read about him afterwards seemed sad. Regardless.


But partially why I’ve been reading these things is because the poll has reached new lows with its single vote for Frank O’Hara. Which I don’t find overly surprising, as I think the rules of blogging are that I’m supposed to attempt to entertain you rather than demanding you satisfy my plan. (And notify more than eight people of the blog’s existence, and post more frequently than biweekly, and comment on other blogs… Nothing in these parentheses is very likely to happen.)

I’ve enjoyed the polls though, so thank you all. There’s something about having an assignment, however voluntary, that makes me pay a little bit more attention. Not that that’s a moral triumph, but it keeps the book from just being swallowed by my brain never to be heard from again.

My feeling is that the blog is dead. I think I’ll read Meditations in an Emergency because of the principal of the thing, and then I’m thinking The Blindfold. Puro Border arrived, so I’ll have to read that so I can pass it on. Maybe I’ll have things to say about them, or maybe I’ll revive this after a hiatus. Happy spring, people.


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two months later…

I finished The Case of Wagner. It’s written much more prettily than The Birth of Tragedy, which was appreciated. There are two postscripts and an epilogue, which are clearer on the subject of Nietzsche’s objection than the rest of the text–which he realized, apparently; he says as much in a letter to a friend he asked to proof it.

My favorite part, from the second postscript, is when Nietzsche clarifies that he hates all contemporary music:

When in this essay I declare war upon Wagner–and incidentally upon German “taste”–when I use harsh words against the cretinism of Bayreuth, the last thing I want to do is start a celebration for any other musicians. Other musicians don’t count compared to Wagner. Things are bad generally. Decay is universal. The sickness goes deep. If Wagner nevertheless gives his name to the ruin of music, as Bernini did to the ruin of sculpture, he is certainly not its cause. He merely accelerated its tempo–to be sure, in such a manner that one stands horrified before this almost sudden downward motion, abyss-ward. He had the nïaveté of decadence: this was his superiority. He believed in it, he did not stop before any of the logical implications of decadence. The others hesitate–that is what differentiates them. Nothing else.

This comes immediately after his declaration that he has “given the Germans the most profound books they have–reason enough for the Germans not to understand a single word” and before a rant on the badness of Brahms. (I tried to write “evils” rather than “badness” there, but Wagner is the only one deemed worthy of evils. Everyone else just sucks.) Conclusion: Nietzsche is a hilarious misanthrope. I’d pay to see him in a Grumpy Old Men sequel.

Next up: The Conversations of Cow, which wins with 3 votes. Gob’s Grief gets 2, Just Another Soldier 1, and The Lathe of Heaven and Humboldt’s Gift are rejected.


P.S.: I also mostly dislike Wagner, since I don’t like opera. I may or may not have fallen asleep during the second act of The Flying Dutchman, resting my forehead on the balcony railing, and been nudged awake to find scary little children still singing.

2nd P.S.: I wonder whether the lovers in Sondheim’s Passion, which is what I listened to when I couldn’t unearth my music-class copy of Wagner’s Tristan and Iseult, have a “cruel nature” sort of love (the good sort, like in Georges Bizet’s Carmen) or a sentimental, redeeming love (like in Wagner, boo!). Run out, watch a musical and a couple operas, read The Case of Wagner, and let me know what you think.

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