Category Archives: Reading

Some New Things

Issue 2 of my terrible online magazine (with amazing contributors) is finally live. If you missed issue 1, worry not…simply keep on scrolling sideways.

CRONY DEUX

And I wrote a little something about my surfing life for a collaboration between Trop and Underwater New York.

Sand in My Joints

I’ve tried to write surf stories many times before, and it’s never felt right. This one finally started to feel right.

The title comes from this Wire song.

The Pleasures of Nicholson Baker

A little piece I wrote for NPR.org just went live, on Nicholson Baker’s wonderful short novel The Mezzanine.

You might remember my praise here for Baker’s hilarious and pornographic House of Holes.

But those aren’t the only Baker books I’m hot on. Human Smoke, a collection of bits and pieces from newspapers and journals published in the lead-up to WWII, blew me away.* The Fermata, which riffs on the adolescent fantasy of being able to stop time and is 33% plainly pornographic, is one of the few books I wish I’d written myself. U and I, Baker’s examination of his relationship with John Updike’s work, might have a longer shelf life than John Updike’s actual work. The list goes on.

I don’t know what it is about Baker that makes me feel he’s writing just for me, but I do know that I’m not the only one who experiences this feeling. He’s one of those artists whose work creates new spaces (or clears the cobwebs from old ones) so that others might work there, too.

* Yeah, I know.

Book (Buying) Tour

My book tour is officially over.

(Or at least the part that involves me going to bookstores. I’m doing Literary Death Match next month in L.A. (Nov. 7) and I’ll be attending the Miami Book Fair as well.)

This time around, I had the pleasure of reading and Q&Aing at an amazing group of thriving independent bookstores. Each bookstore provided a glimpse into a lively community of readers and writers, whether they’d been around for 20+ years (Diesel in Oakland) or had only just moved to a new location (A Room of One’s Own in Madison). As soon as I walked in the door of any of these stores, my first thought was: Yeah, I could live in this neighborhood. Then: These are my people.

I want to say thank you to each of these stores. For hosting wonderful events. For hosting me. For their commitment to good books. And, finally, for the books I picked up in each of their stores, books that will be forever intertwined in my memory with my experience of the stores themselves.

(The best thing about physical books is not the smell of the paper, the look of the type, even the heft of the book itself, but the associations they carry. That stained page, that receipt or metro card tucked between pages, that torn dust jacket–they take you back to a moment, a place, people, meals…)

Without further ado…THANK YOU:

McNally-Jackson, New York. (WOLF HALL, by Hilary Mantel)

Green Apple Books, San Francisco. (SATANTANGO, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai)

Diesel, a Bookstore, Oakland. (see Diesel, L.A. Extra thanks to John Peck for the Saint Pauli N.A.)

Diesel, a Bookstore, L.A. (I buy two books a week here. This is my home away from home.)

Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City. (THE WAVES, by Virginia Woolf)

A Room of One’s Own, Madison. (BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, by Ben Fountain)

BookPeople, Austin. (THE ILIAD, by Homer)

Book Soup, West Hollywood. (ZOO TIME, by Howard Jacobson)

Skylight Books, Los Angeles. (CONSIDER THE LOBSTER, by David Foster Wallace)

If you’re in any of these cities, and you’re thinking of picking up a book, old or new, famous or obscure, resist the urge to one-click that shit to your house or your device. Head on down. TALK TO A BOOKSELLER. They don’t bite.

DFW on Fiction & Nonfiction

This seems wise & articulates something I’ve been thinking for a long time now, so I thought I’d share it.

Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.

That’s David Foster Wallace, from his introduction to one of the Best American Essay series.

I’d rather contend with the abyss of silence.

Two Advance Reviews for PANORAMA CITY

PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY gives PANORAMA CITY a STARRED, BOXED review in this week’s issue:

Wilson’s second novel (after Interloper) is fresh and flawlessly crafted as well as charmingly genuine. Oppen Porter is almost 30, a guileless man who lives in a small central California town with his reclusive father in a house overtaken by nature. Untouched by cynicism, Oppen’s interpretation of the world around him evokes both the sublime and the ridiculous. His daily routine consists of riding into town on his bicycle to find odd jobs, feeling sublime happiness at “the softest burring sound” his tires make on the asphalt, and playing a long-running game of chicken with Hector and Mike Alvarez. But the death of Oppen’s father changes Oppen’s life, sending him to live with his Aunt Liz in Panorama City, in the San Fernando Valley, where he pursues two goals: to become a man of the world (he wants this) and to never again be the village idiot (his Aunt Liz wants this). On his way to his new life, Oppen meets a wise man who threatens to derail Aunt Liz’s plans and bring Oppen’s lofty goal into question. Oppen experiments with various roles—dedicated worker, student of religion, thinker—eventually finding his place in the world, framing a classic coming-of-age story in an unexpected way.

And the following rave review will appear in BOOKLIST’s August 1st issue:

Oppen Porter is 28, six-and-a-half feet tall, surprisingly philosophical, and a self-described “slow absorber.” While lying in a hospital bed, certain that he won’t survive the night after being hit by a truck, he dictates the circumstances leading up to the collision to a tape recorder that will be passed on to his pregnant wife and unborn son. Although Oppen focuses on the relatively short time that he lived in Panorama City after his father passed away, he tries to pepper his story with meaningful life lessons and universal truths for his son’s betterment. Wilson’s Panorama City is a candid and perceptive exploration of how families connect and how society’s most popular methods of advancement may not always be the most beneficial. Oppen is an excellent judge of character, and Wilson’s ability to sketch out such an ideal narrator should be commended. Readers who enjoy Mark Haddon and Greg Olear will appreciate Wilson’s authorial voice, which blends Oppen’s good-natured naïveté and humorous asides with incisive cynicism. A funny, heartfelt, and genuine novel.

I am sooooo stoked to see PC getting a nice reception out there in the world of publishing. And a starred review?! I’m over the moon.

Not that I read my reviews.

“It’s a kind of totemistic thing, you know.”

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A long time ago, when I was just a tadpole, I read a book called V. by Thomas Pynchon, and it helped me decide–along with The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster and Another Country by James Baldwin–to set aside my premed studies and pursue writing exclusively.

And so way back then, when I saw a first edition of V. at Brentwood’s (now gone) Vagabond Books, with a torn and faded dust jacket, I saved up the $100 to buy it.

I couldn’t really afford it, and I doubted it would grow much in value, considering the condition, but it’s a purchase I have never regretted.

2011 Books Roundup

Tis the season for lists, folks, so here we go.

Favorite Books from 2011 by guys named Ben:

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
Stories for Nighttime and Some for Day by Ben Loory

Other Favorites read in 2011:

Dancing Lessons for People Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal
The Sweet Relief of Missing Children by Sarah Braunstein
My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid
On Proust by Jacques Revel
Tinkers by Paul Harding
Sylvia by Leonard Michaels
Backwards & Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays by Michael Langham

Two Favorites possibly read in Late 2010 or Early 2011:

Whatever Happened to Modernism by Gabriel Josipovici
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Favorite Graphic Novel:

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

Big book I’m still in the middle of (and loving):

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Big book that just sits there next to my bed, wrapped in plastic:

2666 by Roberto Bolano

Books I carry around and dip into when I’m stuck somewhere:

Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
Collected Poems by Tomas Transtromer

Book I wanted to like more than I did:

I am the New Black by Tracy Morgan

OK, I’m done procrastinating. Now can someone tell me what my next novel’s about?!?

A Few Words about House of Holes

We all have writers who we feel, at certain moments, are writing to us, for us, and at us. For me, one of these writers has always been Nicholson Baker.

The Mezzanine. The Size of Thoughts. U & I (even though Updike has always left me cold). Human Smoke. VOX, Checkpoint.

And, of course, that finely wrought adolescent fantasy writ large, The Fermata, one of the only books I can think of that I wish I’d written.

VOX is a sexy book—famously gifted from Monica to Bill Clinton back in the day—but it’s not particularly graphic or gratuitous. The Fermata, on the other hand, has fairly chunky portions of straight-up well-written porn, which the main character has written and carefully placed for women to discover (he can stop time).

For a long time, I liked to say that The Fermata was the most pornographic book I’ve ever read. Now, though, I’ll never say it again, because Baker’s latest, House of Holes: A Book of Raunch, blows it (and sucks it and fucks it) out of the water.

As Tom Bissell puts it: “[Vox and Fermata] would have to share a well-lubed double-dong dildo to equal the sheer amount of sex in House of Holes.”

Essentially the book is about a sex-tourism alternate universe that people enter by being sucked into any number of circular shapes, from a laundromat’s dryer to the period at the end of this sentence.

Hey…You know what you can do in a blog post that you can’t do in a “real” book review? Quote cut-and-pasted publisher’s copy:

“Shandee finds a friendly arm at a granite quarry. Ned drops down a hole in a golf course. Luna meets a man made of light bulbs at a tanning parlor…Visitors, pulled in via their drinking straws or the dryers in laundromats, can undergo crotchal transfers . . . make love to trees . . . visit the Groanrooms and the twelve-screen Porndecahedron . . . or pussy-surf the White Lake. It’s very expensive, of course, but there are work-study programs.”

It’s Boschian in its variety, and (Bissell points this out) sorta Seussian, too. (cf. “A person’s a person no matter how small,” from Checkpoint.)

At times, it seems to operate by dream-logic, penetrating the unconscious quickly, like some of Haruki Murakami’s later novels. Only once it’s gotten to the bottom of the well, rather than contemplating the mysteries of man’s place in the universe, it jerks off, leaving behind pearls not of wisdom but of a different sort.

The language whiplashes between the plainspoken and bursts of neologistic whimsy. Ejaculate is a “lasso of manstarch,” and a man’s penis is called, at one point, “his Malcolm Gladwell.” The character names are great, too, like something out of Ween’s Twelve Country Greats: Shandee, Ruzty, Cardell.

Which brings me to the main thing I have to say about this book.

It is bracingly weird to experience the Nabokovian neck-tingle at the same time one is experiencing, erm, a flow of blood in the other direction. Not only weird, but somewhat uncomfortable, like these two pleasures aren’t supposed to be happening at the same time.

Or like, for some people maybe, laughing during sex?

But what this book does, in addition to what it does, is enact a sort of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup moment.

Against a chorus of people yelling “Hey!” in protest of certain boundaries being crossed, House of Holes demonstrates, successfully, and for the benefit of all parties, that you can mix the chocolate of aesthetic pleasure with the peanut butter of hardcore porn.

The result, I’m pleased to report, is delicious.

Why I Love Your Book Group

One of the pleasures of publishing a book is getting to hold a reading at your local bookshop. Family and friends show up, along with a few fans, former students, and, if it’s been promoted well, a handful of curious strangers.

You sell books, which is nice. And no matter how modest your advance, or how small your pin on the publishing map, a good bookstore reading can make you feel, for one night, like your writing habit has resulted in something other than narrowing career options, crushing debt, and a dwindling social life.

But, to be frank, it’s only a blip.

The thing you’ve labored over for years, and are now trying to sell to as many people as possible, has become a ten or fifteen minute excerpt, a brief Q & A, a cover, and a title page held open for signing.

The real experience, the real purpose behind all of it only starts when someone gets home and opens the book and starts reading, alone.

Just like you wrote it, alone.

It could happen that night, or in two years, or a hundred, or never.

The book party, the reading, the signing–it’s the flashy liftoff moment. Everyone gathers to watch the thing take off. Then what? It’s in space, doing its thing.

Sometimes you hear back; usually you don’t.

I was recently invited to participate in a book group hosted by Diane Leslie, at Diesel, a Bookstore in Brentwood, for my novel The Interloper.

It had been a while since I’d done an Interloper event, so I brushed up on the book, tried to remember what I’d had to say about this book four years before.

I even went so far as listening to an old recording of the Q & A from my Prairie Lights Bookstore reading. It didn’t really end up helping, preparation-wise. Rather, it only highlighted how the book group wasn’t like a reading at all.

There were no vague questions about premise and background, no need for the usual meta-narrative about how the novel came to be, or the elevator pitch, or awkward introductions of fragments to be read. No fragments to be read.

Everyone had already done the reading, and everyone had something to say about it–about the content of the book, the characters, the language, the plotting. The real stuff. They had tough questions, too, only some of which I could answer. Half of them even disagreed with me on a fundamental “what-if” scenario. (What if CJ’s brother had never been killed? Would Owen have been able to lead a semblance of a normal life?)

This wasn’t selling, this was engaging with readers.

And it was awesome.

In the Way of Experience…

Yet five minutes after…I realized I had not actually seen the three plants in the little colony we had found. Despite all the identifying, measuring, photographing. I had managed to set the experience in a kind of present past, a having-looked, even as I was temporally and physically still looking. If I had the courage, I would have asked her to turn and drive back, because I knew I had fallen, in the stupidest possible way, into an ancient trap. It is not necessarily too little knowledge that causes ignorance; possessing too much, or wanting to gain too much, can produce the same result.

[John Fowles, The Tree]