Thursday, January 24, 2013

STL#105: When the Sacred Ginmill Closes

This will be a brief note on Lawrence Block's When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. I mentioned last week the difficulty in writing about books I read some time ago. In this case I remember the book and my enchantment with it fairly well, but I am having trouble articulating what I found so compelling. It's hard to say if this book is a crime novel with an alcoholic protagonist, or an alcoholic novel with incidental crime. We can list the attributes of the hardboiled detective novel, what about the attributes of an alcoholic novel? The milieu would of course be a feature, and Block has a sensitive ear to barroom talk and a sharp eye for barroom ritual. The protagonist, Matthew Scudder, lives by inclination in a routinized and limited geography spanning a few blocks in Manhattan, marked mostly by bars that are gone. While the detective is an agent that cuts across boundaries and engages variety, a drinker seeks the solace of repetition and the familiar embrace of liquor. Of course, Scudder isn't really a PI, but he looks into things for friends from time to time. He lives already in a fallen state, though the novel is a curiously fond retrospective to the surviving narrator's drinking days. Though not a licensed PI, his investigative technique isn't that different from any detective in the American tradition: he walks about, going from place to relevant place, hoping for a picture to develop. The problem is that many of these journeys are to bars, and a few of them coincide with blackouts. I am fond of quoting E.M. Forester's dictum, "A mystery is a pocket in time." Even as Scudder seeks out these pockets, new ones spring up around him. His investigation then is a connection of clues and gaps.

This novel is technically part of a fairly lengthy series. Wikipedia says there are sixteen other books, but I have never looked into any others, even though I admire Block's style and sensibility. When the Sacred Ginmill Closes is such a satisfying book that I am reluctant to seek out the others, though the virtues are (as I have praised here) estimable.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

STL #104: Come back to us, Michael Lewis

In this upcoming series of posts on my last year of reading, I'm going to attempt something that makes me a little uncomfortable. That is, I'm going to be talking about books that I haven't read for quite a while. According to my records, I read Michael Lewis's Money Ball last May; I read his Blind Side last January; and The Big Short some time before that. I don't own any of these books (ah, the library--even the poor ones in this crumbling city) and in interest of actually writing this year I am not going to do any research or rereading for these next several posts. I'll be going off my memory, which is my weakest quality as a writer (even in the midst of reading a novel, I'm often uncertain of a character or event.)

I'll begin then with what I remember about Lewis's work that led me to read three of his books in about six months. Foremost is, as with any journalist, the subject matter. I have been very interested in the subject of economics since the Meltdown (a term that I think has taken the journey from a generic description to the solidity of an historical event akin to "the Depression"). I wrote several years ago about my appreciation of "The Giant Pool of Money'" the Planet Money podcast. I actually find those audio sources more useful to understanding the big picture than Lewis's book, though his focus on individuals gives some more context and understanding of the human dimension. I don't think The Big Short is as good at explaining the dynamics of what happened on a large scale as those two NPR productions.  So economics of general interest of me, but the other two books are about sports, which I watch sometime and occasionally read about.

What's really fascinating about this trio of books is the bigger topic they all share, which is the question of economic value. That's fairly obvious in The Big Short, but in fact in that book it is maybe a less salient feature than in the sports books. The Big Short is comprised of the stories of the "players"--the creators of the fraudulent instruments and those who first recognized their worthlessness. In The Blind Side, Lewis begins by pointing out the value of the left tackle, the right-handed quarterback's personal bodyguard. This value of this position was recognized within the institution of football (and rewarded by the second highest average salary) before it was more generally known. That is just the starting point to what is a largely the personal story of Michael Ohrer--a prodigious physical talent--and those who recognized, cultivated, and I would say exploited his value. Of course this narrative begs the question of economic vs. true value. Ohrer was basically a lost boy, without the protection of a stable family. Where would he be today if he was of typical, unremarkable physical stature?

While pro football did recognize and reward the talent of an unheralded position, the institution of baseball did not until recently recognize what a really valuable player is. Contrary to the intuitions of scouts and other baseball lifers, statistical analysis shows that all you really want is players who walk and hit for power--footspeed and glove work be damned. Money Ball's human story is the story of the men who recognized that value, and transformed the underfunded Oakland A's from also-rans to contenders. I liked Money Ball most of these three, probably because the focus was more on the system than the individuals. While Lewis is an effective story-teller, I did not come to these books looking for what fiction amply provides. Instead I was looking for analysis of how institutions, working as a system, define and transform the question value. As a group, these books provide some inroads into this concept, but Money Ball probably does this most pointedly.

(A note on the title: It is a (pointless) allusion to John Prine's song that has the chorus"Come back to us, Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard." I kept this title for the final post because a.)I couldn't think of anything better and b.) the post turned out to be a mental summoning of what I found interesting about these half-remembered books, bringing them back to me.)

Monday, January 7, 2013

STL #103: The Year in Reading, 2012

The only post I completed (though forgot to publish) in 2012 ended with the following paragraph*:

So what's next? Right now I'm about a third of the way through the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, want to start Michael Lewis's Blind Side (for my football season that starts with the play offs), a hard boiled novel with the wonderful title When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, a handful of graphic novels ( a curious number written for teen girls it seems), the rest of GRRM's short fiction, Sorrentino's Blue Pastoral, Tufte's Envisioning Information, the odd ball art book  Mingering Mike, Greenblatt's Shakepeare biography I broke off reading a year ago-- this list goes on.

A number of those titles you'll see on the following list, a number turned out to be unremarkable, and a few I never got around to reading. This paragraph, combined with the long break from writing, suggested to me a new approach for this year. This week you get the top 10 list (again, I've clearly abused the idea of "10"), a few words on the first entry, and perhaps some further topical ramblings; and for the next 9 weeks (I swear it!) you will get a post on each of the other list items. That will get the list done and should (will! I swear it!) break me out of the writing doldrums. I will try to replicate the rough order of reading in the following list, which is not a ranking.

  1. Emily Dickinson, Complete Poems
  2. Michael Lewis, The Blind Side and Money Ball
  3. Lawrence Block, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes 
  4. The Short Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, with a note on other early horror (weird) fiction including The King in Yellow and The Great God Pan 
  5. Burnt Offerings, with a note on The Green Man 
  6. Heart-Shaped Box, with a note on It 
  7. Supergods, with a note on 1234 
  8. Pulphead 
  9.  The Art of Fielding, with a note on The Original of Laura 
  10. The Boys, representing a whole mess of other comics, such as the Thomas/Adams X-Men and The Seduction of the Innocents.

Emily Dickinson once said something along the lines of "if I feel like the top of my head is one fire, then I know I am in the presence of poetry." One of my dirty secrets is that I don't feel like that when I'm reading Dickinson. This makes me feel inadequate, since so many poets and readers love her and it seems I should too. I like her poem, "My Life has stood--A loaded gun," but I don't see nearly as much in it as Susan Howe, the great poet and scholar who wrote an entire book on that book, entitled My Emily Dickinson. (Howe's book, at times, does make my head feel as if on fire.)  I read Dickinson therefore out of sense of obligation, because I felt I should have grappled with her work more thoroughly than in the anthology piece everyone knows. The thick volume of her life's work sits on my shelf, and I look at it with little emotion, really little memory of the poems I dutifully worked through less than a year ago. So why does this book rank atop my year's reading list? The answer is, that's part of my reading experience. Sometimes my head is on fire, sometimes I'm just working through. My Emily Dickinson, at the moment then, is my commitment to reading.

I begin every year reading some "big book" that I feel I should have read but haven't. There have been some exceptions to this basic rule--in the case of poets and dramatists, I have read some of their work but commit to reading all or a significant portion of it, and I have at times reread books either after a long break, or as part of a larger undertaking, or for some other compelling reason.Since I haven't updated the list in quite a while, here it is, including my current reading for 2013:

1995 Ulysses
1996 Swann's Way
1997 Poetry of William Carlos Williams
1998 In Search of Lost Time
1999 Don Quixote
2000 The Divine Comedy
2001 The Cantos
2002 Middlemarch
2003 Bleak House
2004 Paradise Lost
2005 The Recognitions
2006 The Odyssey
2007 "A"
2008 Anna Karenina
2009 Shakespeare's Comedies and Romances
2010 Shakespeare's Histories and Tragedies
2011 Tom Jones
2012 Emily Dickinson, Complete Poetry
2013 Complete Fiction and Selected Non-Fiction, Jorge Luis Borges

You'll noticed I've added this year's entry, Borges. Borges is my anti-Dickinson: I do feel that my head is on fire when I'm reading him. But I'll save that for later. The reading list breaks down like this: nine novels, five long poems, two lyric poets, one sui generis short fiction/essays, and one significant body of drama. Eight works are from the twentieth century, four are from the nineteenth, four from the sixteenth/seventeenth, one from the middle ages, and one from ancient times. 2014 will mark the 20th year of this project. I have only stuck with one other thing for 20 years.

*I do realize that there are (or will be) readers for whom this paragraph is the last they have read. You may skip it, as it is exactly the same.

STL#102: The Year in Reading, 2011

Note: This is the one post I actually composed in 2012, and it sat in draft form for the entire year. I was waiting to supplement it with some notes in a notebook I couldn't find, and then forgot about it, and apparently forgot about my blog altogether. I found it today as I logged in to start my Year in Reading, 2012. 

I'll skip the usual grousing about not posting regularly and jump into it.

1.) A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. I mentioned my enthusiasm for the first book, how I pumped my fist in the air as I was reading its multifold finale. There was a moment in the third book where that entire world was crashing down and I couldn't do anything about it but sit silently on an airplane, not letting my wife (a book behind me at the time) in on it. That was hard. The fourth book and latest book were somewhat less satisfying-- they are threads of a single massive volume split apart for the contingencies of material publishing. But at the end of the fifth volume I was emotionally drained, and just shoved the big brick aside and pulled the covers up over my head. To fill the gap as I wait for the next book I picked up Martin's big two volume short story retrospective. The stories are enjoyable, but the introductory essays make a lucid autobiography of a working genre writer.

2.) Tom Jones. The big book for the first of the year. How I love these early novels stuffed with plot like chesnuts in a goose. I sketched out an ambitious novel-reading program at the start of the year, going from Fielding to James but it fell by the wayside. I did get as far as Tristram Shandy, which I did not enjoy as much as I should (a failing on my part, I feel.)

3.)Nox. Anne Carson's book--or cabinet--of wonders. New Directions continues to be one of the few publisher's imprints which signifies quality, the last giant of modernism.

4.) A Visit From the Goon Squad. The punk rock milieu is not completely convincing--by Egan's admission it is a more or less researched (not directly experienced) context. I enjoyed puzzling out the chronology that I wrote in a notebook that I think is at the office. Makes an interesting pair with Tom Rachman's more predictable The Imperfectionists, another recent story collection marketed as a novel. (Genre writers often shoe horn related stories into what's called a 'fix up' novel, but these literary types wouldn't do that (would they).) While for years it's been the conventional wisdom that novels sell while collections don't, I wonder if there might be a switch. The episodic progress of a suite of linked stories seems a better match for the on and off attention of today's culture.

5.) The Nick Hornby reviews from The Believer.  I can't explain why I enjoy these snapshots of Hornby's reading life so much. He's a clear and reasonably clever writer, but not compelling stylist or a particularly insightful critic. Yet the frank, sometimes plodding nature of his ongoing reading, subject to real contingencies, whim, prejudice, strikes me as real reading, more than the acting of either conventional literary journalism (reviews) or criticism.

6.) The New Yorker. Over the course of time, I built up a backlog of these magazines. From time to time, I would take a stab at killing the backlog, and over Xmas break I finally did. Although I had a selection of unread magazine going back to the 2010 summer fiction issue, as of right now I have no unread New Yorkers  in the house. This magazine is my idea of fine style. Some highlights include a number of stories by Alice Munro, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl on a notorious forger, a review essay on Simenon, and the list goes on. 

7.)Fun Home. The rest of the list in comics, which means it was a pretty good year for comics even as I felt I've been drifted away. The allusiveness of this book by Alison Bechdel is perhaps a bit overdone, but an admirable work nevertheless.

8.) All Star Superman. I finally finished a series I was reading as it was coming out. The first page is a textbook example of visual myth-making that I would recommend to anyone unfamiliar with the character, if such an individual should actually exist.

9.) The Spirit The first several months of the Sunday color supplement series, reprinted in some mid 90's pamphlets published by Kitchen Sink Press. These stories exude the energy of a young man experimenting with and discovering his art.

10.)X-Men #149-201. Not quite that entire run, but the library sale did let me fill out much of that chunk. I read and reread the run, and was quite struck by how indelibly the characters are drawn in my mind, give the relatively little time they are given individually. (Kind of a lot for comics, but comics is not a particularly dense medium.)

So what's next? Right now I'm about a third of the way through the Complete Poems of Emily Dickison, want to start Michael Lewis's Blind Side (for my football season that starts with the play offs), a hard boiled novel with the wonderful title When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, a handful of graphic novels ( a curious number written for teen girls it seems), the rest of GRRM's short fiction, Sorrentino's Blue Pastoral, Tufte's Envisioning Information, the odd ball art book  Mingering Mike, Greenblatt's Shakepeare biography I broke off reading a year ago-- this list goes on.