7.31.2018

what i'm reading: collected (and amazing) nonfiction by saul bellow

When the author Saul Bellow died in 2005 at the age of 90, I was saddened and disappointed by the scant attention paid to his passing. Bellow was one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. His novels are still relevant, in a way that many of past generations are not. And his writing... his writing is simply astounding.

With this in mind, and my love of nonfiction, I looked forward to reading There Is Simply Too Much To Think About, a collection of Bellow's nonfiction. I assumed that Bellow's intelligence, insight, compassion, and precise command of language would make for some fascinating reading. I was right.

The essays, speeches, and literary criticism collected in this volume display a towering intellect, but not a cold one. Bellow's view of the world is always humane and compassionate. He observes keenly, he understands deeply, but he also feels deeply. His gift is the ability to convey that feeling in a way that feels completely novel, bringing the reader new insights into the human condition.

There Is Simply Too Much To Think About recalls, for me, my favourite nonfiction collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. Both Bellow and Wallace are willing to play out a train of thought as far as it will take them, both broadly and deeply. Both were gifted observers who possessed an astounding command of language. But beyond all that (which is a lot), both observed with compassion, and with love.

At the time Wallace was writing the essays collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing, novels, film, and visual arts were stuck in the ironic mode. Everyone was jaded; everything was viewed with rolled eyes. Wallace wrote about the overuse of irony, and in his own work, he eschewed that orientation for something more meaningful, and more compassionate. (If you're not familiar with this, this piece in Salon may be useful, and if you want more, Wallace's "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction".)

Bellow, of course, didn't grow up in a world of ironic observation, but he similarly comments on an orientation from his own eras -- the academy, and the theoretical approach to literature. In many of the essays in There Is Simply Too Much, Bellow discourses on his own methods as being free from theory. He digresses to tell us, in essence, that he writes from his heart and his mind -- and he hopes you will read with yours. Bellow wants us to stand in front of a work of art and gasp at its beauty, and be awed by the emotions that beauty stirs in us -- not read about that art in a guidebook, or worse, be told what it symbolizes.

The writing collected in There Is Simply Too Much, selected by Benjamin Taylor, is organized chronologically, but there's no reason to read it that way. For me this is a book to dip into, to read in bits and pieces, perhaps in between novels. The writing is extremely clear and precise, lively and not dense, but it's heady stuff, requiring time and thought. Reading it from start to finish could be a test of endurance, and there's no point turning such good writing into a drudgery.

These essays contain a huge number of references to people that readers may not be familiar with, both because their fame may not have made it to our era, and because Bellow must have been the most well-read man in the world. Some of the references I knew, others I was able to understand through context, and for a few, I employed Google. In the endnotes, editor Benjamin Taylor explains:
Bellow's references are typically to well-known persons and phenomena and I have preferred not to impose on the reader with unnecessary footnotes. If certain of his allusions are less familiar, details about Viscount Bryce, Elbert Hubbard, Freud's Rat Man, Boob McNutt, Colonel Bertie McCormick, Billie Sol Estes and Oh! Calcutta! are nowadays at one's fingertips.
Given how many footnotes would have been needed -- how often the flow of Bellow's writing would have been interrupted -- I applaud Taylor's choice.

The book jacket blurb calls this book "a guided tour of the twentieth century...conducted by one of modern life's most inspiring minds". I'll go with Taylor's words, as he thanks Janis Freedman Bellow, Bellow's wife and partner: it is "a book of wonders".

7.22.2018

what i'm re-reading: the ax by donald westlake and other literary thrillers

I've just re-read* one of my all-time favourites: The Ax by Donald Westlake. I'm agog with how much I love this book. But first, the requisite blather.

* * * *

One of my favourite kind of books -- although I don't read them frequently -- is a mystery, detective story, crime thriller, or spy thriller that transcends its genre and is also a literary novel.

The definition of literary is always a bit squirrely -- and of course always somewhat subjective --  but in general, a genre novel is generally plot-driven, and follows a formula that readers of that genre recognize. The writing itself is not particularly important, and may be mediocre, passable, or worse.

The best-selling titles in the genres I've mentioned are all about plot, pacing, and recognizable character types. But I just can't get past the writing. I can't stand reading mediocre writing, no matter how good the rest of the package.

So for me, a crime, hard-boiled mystery, or spy novel, with an intricate, surprising plot, interesting, fully realized characters, and truly excellent writing -- that is a great find. From my own limited reading, the pinnacle has been Graham Greene. But whenever I read a book review that sounds like a literary thriller, I put it on my list.

In the past, I didn't read in this category very often. Years would go by when I completely forgot about it! But these days I'm looking for these books more frequently. I like to intersperse fiction and nonfiction, and while there's an overwhelming supply of great nonfiction out there, I find myself bored or unsatisfied with so much fiction. So more and more, I find myself looking for quality mysteries, detective stories, and thrillers. (I don't read a series straight through, all in a row. I read other books in between and return to the series.)

Right now I'm slowly working my way through Henning Mankell's Wallander series, Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce novels, and all the Donald Westlake -- under any name -- that I can get my hands on. (Westlake's Parker series, written under his Richard Stark pseudonym, are genre novels. But damn, they are addictive. They are potato chips!) Olen Steinhauer, Ted Mooney, and Martin Clark are others I've enjoyed. I've also loved reading classics by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (which I wrote about here). I haven't had much luck with the noir classics by James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and James Ellroy, but I'm still trying.

* * * *

So, The Ax. Why do I love this book?

It is built on a fascinating premise, and a plot line that is a both a shocking roller-coaster and eminently believable.

It has a very strong anti-capitalist point of view, a thread that runs through the entire book, without any soapboxing or author intrusion (something I have zero patience for).

It is a psychological study of a man losing his moral compass, and how humans rationalize and accommodate evil.

It's a philosophical study of social mores and ethics -- and how what's permissible on one scale is criminal on another.

The main character changes gradually and credibly, so that the reader is aware of the changes before the character's self-awareness -- and self-deception -- catches up.

It's a meditation on violence, not only physical violence, but the psychic violence of capitalism, and how they are linked.

And all this is wrapped up in a brilliant plot and a bone-chilling crime novel.

* * * *

From the New York Times 1997 review:
Donald E. Westlake has caught and logged our unspoken fiscal dread in a novel of excruciating brilliance. His protagonist, Burke Devore, is Homo reductus, Downsized man: out of work in the processed paper industry for month after stupefying month, about to lose the wife (Marjorie) and children (Betsy and Billy) he can no longer support, bitter, desperate, made furious by an economic system in which stock prices go up when (and even because) people get axed. . . .

With trenchant and subtle special pleading, Devore will convince himself -- and almost convince his agonized readers as well -- that it is justifiable homicide to kill.... That, in fact, such an act constitutes not murder at all, but an act of self-defense. "If the alternative is despair and defeat and grinding misery and growing horror for Marjorie and Betsy and Billy and me, why shouldn't I kill him, the son of a bitch? How could I not kill him, given what's at stake here?"

. . . .

As novels go, "The Ax" is pretty much flawless, with a surprise ending that will unplug your expectations. Burke Devore is American Man at the millennium -- as emblematic of his time as George F. Babbitt and Holden Caulfield and Capt. John Yossarian were of theirs. Westlake has written a remarkable book. If you can't relate to it, be thankful.
* I rarely re-read anything, with these notable exceptions: 1984, The Grapes of Wrath, Winter's Tale (Mark Helprin), Wuthering Heights, and selected Charles Dickens.

7.15.2018

things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #29

It's TIHATL, Summer Reading Club edition!

Summer Reading Club is in full swing in Canadian libraries. In more than 2,100 libraries around Canada, kids are earning prizes and recognition for reading. Thanks to Toronto Public Library and a certain sponsoring bank, we all have lots of free stuff to give away.

The most popular kids' series ever,
still going strong after almost 15 years.
Our motives are simple: kids who read during the summer do better in school in September. SRC also helps remind parents of pre-readers to read with their little ones daily.

Our children's library is very busy. The first day of SRC, we signed up 180 kids! After two weeks, we're well over 600 participants. When kids register, or when they come in to "report" and collect prizes, it's a great time for some one-on-one conversations with our young customers. Some won't say one word without their parents' prompting, but others are so forthright and articulate! It's really a pleasure chatting with them. What have I heard?

"My favourite books are the ones where things happen, and you know, you don't know what's going to happen, and you think things won't happen, and then they do happen!"

"I love reading about space, and planets, and the universe. I'm going to be an astronaut and go to Mars -- when I'm six!" This boy was amazing. At not yet six years old, he knew so much about astronomy! And he wasn't just regurgitating facts without engaging, as you sometimes see with kids who are on the autism spectrum. This boy was relaxed and social, and had clearly synthesized what he had read. We had a great conversation about his impending Mars visit. His mom and I looked at each other in amazement.

Two sisters wanted to read about... it sounded like churchills.

"Miss, can we bring our churchills to the library?"

"Your ... what?"

"Our churchills!"

"I'm not getting it. Can you say that again?"

"Our CHURCHILLS! Can we bring our CHURCHILLS to the library?!!"

Finally I am forced to admit, "I don't know what that is."

"They are little animals, they have a shell, and their little arms and legs and head sticks out of the shell, and when they're afraid, they can go inside it. We have two baby churchills and we want to bring them to the library!"

I try not to laugh. They are hearing the word from their parents, who are new English speakers.

"Do you mean turtles?"

"Yes, yes, tur-tills!" Without missing a beat, they now begin to pronounce the world tur-till with great enunciation.

"I don't think your turtles would be very happy at the library."

"We would help them! We would show them all the books!"

"But you know what, all the kids would want to see the turtles and pet them, there would be a huge crowd, and I think the turtles might be afraid."

They nod with great seriousness.

I ask, "Would you like to read some books about turtles?"

"Yes yes yes yes yes!!!"

"Do you want to read stories with characters who are turtles, like Franklin, or information about turtles?"

"Information! Information about tur-tills! Tur-till information!"

The book on having a turtle as a pet is nowhere to be found, but we find lots of books about turtles in the wild. I try to shield them from books about endangered sea turtles, but they are too fast for me. Fortunately, they are only looking at the pictures, so they're not bothered by the sad stuff.

"Tur-tills! Tur-tills! Mommy Mommy we have books about tur-tills!!"

Currently the hottest ticket, by the
creator of Captain Underpants
* * * * *

[What should we set for your first reading goal? How many books will you read before you come in for your first prize?]

"100! No, 500! No, one thousand! No, three. Three books."

[What kind of books do you like to read?]

The most common answers are Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries (Wimpy Kid for girls), Harry Potter (still and apparently forever), Percy Jackson (hero of the Rick Riordan series), Narnia, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. For the younger readers, the most popular answers include Disney Princesses, Ninjago, Pokemon, LEGO, Barbie, various superheroes, and Transformers. (Notice anything?)

For graphic fiction (which kids call comic books), girls are still looking for anything by Raina Telgemeier, especially her new adaptation of The Baby-Sitters Club. Everyone is still reading Amulet. This year's kids have not heard of Bone, but I can talk them into trying it. This is especially great because, being slightly out of fashion, Bone is easy to find.

The graphic hybrids are hugely popular: Geronimo Stilton and related spinoffs, Big Nate, Captain Underpants, Dog Man (this year's runaway hit), and the seemingly eternal Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I often steer girls to Marissa Moss' Amelia's Notebook series, which predates Dork Diaries and is way better.

If you phrase the question, "Do you like funny books, scary books, adventures, mysteries...?" the number one answer, by a huge margin, is funny. Scholastic has the results of a survey about what kids and parents look for in books.

The best answer I heard in a long time was: "I like books with words and pictures! I'm very particular about what I read."

7.08.2018

in which we do something i thought i'd never do: say goodbye to our vinyl

Through all our years together, and all the different places we have lived, Allan and I have hung on to our large collection of vinyl LPs.

Most people I know who are old enough to have lived in the vinyl era stopped listening to LPs with the advent of CDs, and got rid of their LPs some time after that. We never understood this. We couldn't possibly re-buy all these albums on CD, so why wouldn't we keep them?

We must have weeded some duplicates when we first moved in together -- although we still have at least four copies of "Exile on Main Street" (one is autographed by Keith). The core of my own collection was inherited from older siblings, so dates back to the early '70s.

We did replace well-worn favourites with discs over the years, but even then we kept the LPs. Of course we have much of our music digitally now, but still. No vinyl left behind.

And now, suddenly, I'm OK with it. With an impending move to the other side of the continent, I'd like to lighten our load  -- both for moving, and for how much space we need to live. Allan would rather cull the collection down to essentials. But I don't want a small LP collection. I want our collection or none.

Before we make any drastic moves, we're cataloging all the titles, so I can see what we already have on CD, what we need to download, and what's not worth keeping in any form. Do I really need "Frampton Comes Alive" and "Rumours"? When was the last time I listened to Yes? Good lord.

Amazingly, I also suddenly feel ready to really downsize, which means the unthinkable -- getting rid of large quantities of books. I love books as much as I ever have, but I no longer feel the need to own them. This is not a battle I would ever win, so I'm not taking up the cause. For his part, Allan is scanning mountains of paper, as hard drives take up a lot less space.

kevin baker in harper's: "the death of a once great city -- the fall of new york and the urban crisis of affluence"

Everyone who cares about cities, about privatization, and frankly, about humans and our ability to live on our planet, should make time to read the July cover story in Harper's magazine. New York writer Kevin Baker unpacks "The Death of a Once Great City -- The fall of New York and the urban crisis of affluence".
As New York enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is in imminent danger of becoming something it has never been before: unremarkable. It is approaching a state where it is no longer a significant cultural entity but the world’s largest gated community, with a few cupcake shops here and there. For the first time in its history, New York is, well, boring.

This is not some new phenomenon but a cancer that’s been metastasizing on the city for decades now. And what’s happening to New York now—what’s already happened to most of Manhattan, its core—is happening in every affluent American city. San Francisco is overrun by tech conjurers who are rapidly annihilating its remarkable diversity; they swarm in and out of the metropolis in specially chartered buses to work in Silicon Valley, using the city itself as a gigantic bed-and-breakfast. Boston, which used to be a city of a thousand nooks and crannies, back-alley restaurants and shops, dive bars and ice cream parlors hidden under its elevated, is now one long, monotonous wall of modern skyscraper. In Washington, an army of cranes has transformed the city in recent years, smoothing out all that was real and organic into a town of mausoleums for the Trump crowd to revel in.

By trying to improve our cities, we have only succeeded in making them empty simulacra of what was. To bring this about we have signed on to political scams and mindless development schemes that are so exclusive they are more destructive than all they were supposed to improve. The urban crisis of affluence exemplifies our wider crisis: we now live in an America where we believe that we no longer have any ability to control the systems we live under.
The article unpacks the trend I was lamenting in the 1990s, worsening each passing year, until it finally drove us out in 2005 -- the City paying diminishing returns on the "why live in NYC" equation, finally allowing me to defect from the whole mess of the United States. Since then, of course, it's only gotten worse. But no longer seeing the City on a day-to-day, boots-on-the-ground level, I had no idea how much worse.

This is not nostalgia. And it's not an inevitable act of nature. It's the result of deliberate choices by the ruling class. And it's happening all over North America.

I'm still reading the story. With every paragraph, my heart breaks a little more. It's a long, depressing, essential read.

If you can't access it through the Harper's website, try using your library card to get it through rbgdigital or hoopla.

7.01.2018

happy canada day: a wish for a pledge

One unfortunate result of the current ascendancy of white supremacy in the US is the increase in Canadians' nationalism and self-love -- the strengthening of Canadians' conviction that our society is peaceful and democratic, our institutions benevolent, our kindness manifest in law.

We pat ourselves on the back while Trudeau spends our money trampling Indigenous rights, poisoning our water, and hastening climate catastrophe. We say "We're the greatest country in the world," while our most populous province has elected a false-majority, white supremacist government of our own.

So often, if Canadians can believe that it's better here than in the US, they are happy enough to stop there.

We can do better.

We must do better.

This Canada Day, let's pledge to push our governments -- and to educate our friends, family, co-workers, and ourselves -- so that Canada can live up to its reputation, a little more every day.

magazine covers presented without comment, because what is there to say