Exhibit 1.8.24

The Lazarus Project


The Lazarus Project Hemon

I bought this in Powell’s looking for something to read on the flight, mostly on the long ago recommendation of my friend Colin. Colin’s a smart guy, I thought, and I’m pretty sure I’ve really enjoyed the stories of Hemon’s that I’ve read. Also it’s right here in front of me and this store–though awesome blah blah–is huge and why not.

It was a nice call by the verystoppable duo of Colin and my giveupatude. Hemon’s a dazzlingly sharp writer, and here he pulls off that layering of modern malaise and historical poignancy that so many writers of the 9/11-era seem to drawn to. I’m sure someone has written about how the greatest horrors of the 20th century keep showing up in the “big” books of the 21st, and so often authors seem to want to highlight those incalculable sums by contrasting them with contemporary cuteness. Hemon, however, does it better than most by keeping the focus not on those massive death tolls but on the death of one man.

And what makes the book great is that the story of Lazarus Averbuch–a real-life immigrant killed by the chief of police in Chicago–is the secondary story here behind the journey our mostly inept Bosnian-American narrator takes to investigate him in Eastern Europe where we confront not only the Balkan Civil War but an entire century’s worth of violence that has not stopped (or become magical or precious). It’s then, when we get full access to Hemon’s humor and melancholy, that the book becomes bigger and more relevant than so many of the works this might sound like in summary. The failure of memory. The depth of displacement in immigration. The limitations of American aloofness. The self-destruction in European imaginations. The power of marriage. The impotence of marriage. It’s a big book with big ideas hung around some very small, self-deprecating shoulders.

Similar in some ways to O’Neill’s Netherland in its portrait of a fracturing identity after immigration and marriage, like that book, Hemon’s is one very firmly taking place in our century where Lazaruses still abound, always dying, coming back, dying again, making a pretty compelling metaphor for a man searching for himself in a country searching for itself in a world entirely indifferent to searches.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Fiction, Lazaruses

Exhibit 1.8.23

Most of the Reviews Agreed


One Dog Show


that Brett’s one-dog show went awry by misreading the basic tenor of “What Does the Fox Say.”

Comment / Posted in 2013, Brett, Foxes

Exhibit 1.8.22

The Cloud Corporation




So I’d read most of this book in various sittings before, but I’m reading it again while working on a new project. It’s the best. If you don’t believe me, go read the first poem on The Poetry Foundation’s website right here.

The thing I’m writing now sort of comes out of this last stanza:

I won’t be dying after all, not now, but will go on living dizzily
hereafter in reality, half-deaf to reality, in the room
perfumed by the fire that our inextinguishable will begins.

You’re damn right it’s a Kansas City Royals season preview.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Clouds, Poetry

Exhibit 1.8.17

Collateral Light




Julia Cohen’s poetry flows so naturally from a personal language and logic that it’s difficult–for me at least–to talk about without falling back on what are I imagine some pretty cliche terms in poetry. It’s raw? Tortured? Full of the hurt and allure of fractured moments not meant to be puzzled together? There are poets like this who I feel ill-equipped to talk about. Those are typically the best poets.

My favorites here are the longer poems, mostly toward the end of the book, where I feel like I’ve been given  access to a world to fascinate and trouble. There’s little comfort here, subtle violences and betrayals, none more than in the language itself which refuses to coalesce into the illusion of explanation. It’d be too tempting for a lesser poet to insert easy meaning here, but Cohen resists and instead has given us a book of precise uncertainty. If that’s a thing. It feels like a thing here, the only thing we’ve got.

Why not go read a couple of sample poems at Notnostrums here then pick it up from Brooklyn Arts Press here.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Lights, Poetry

Exhibit 1.8.16

One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses


One Hundred Apocalypses Corin


I’m reviewing this book for somewhere so I’ll just say two things:

1. It’s great.

2. My review no longer uses the word eschew.


Comment / Posted in 2013, Apocalypses, Fiction

Exhibit 1.8.15

The Verificationist




I remember reading Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers on a plane some years ago and almost immediately deciding two things 1) Antrim is a genius and 2) I  shouldn’t read more Antrim lest I hurt myself reenacting his stunts. Well, the first has been recently confirmed by the MacArthur people and the second I knew was a promise I couldn’t keep.

There was just something so captivatingly effortless about that hilarious, impossible novel. I think a lot of authors probably have ideas for these sorts of novels but only Antrim can actually pull it off. And thank god. He did it again in The Verificationist, setting himself an even higher bar–not only one night in one room again but with substantially fewer characters. O, also the narrator spends most of the night at the pancake house held in a bear hug.

“Don’t let go of us,” I pleaded to the man holding me. By then I think I realized he had no intention of releasing me, that there was, for Richard as well as for me, something significant–something movingly, vividly pornographic–taking place.

“I love you, Tom,” he whispered…

Yeah, it’s pretty great.

I guess if you had to sum the book up in a rhyming cliche–and you don’t–you’d say it’s about paralysis through analysis, the struggle to comprehend something as volatile as one’s self let alone a wife, a colleague, a past and how more effort leads to fewer results. But it’s silly to reduce the bear hug to such a clear metaphor for our narrator being stuck. That move isn’t about him, it’s about Antrim and what art can do and what it can’t do, which is to say what a mind can do and what a mind can’t do. In the bear hug is life at its deepest and shallowest–striving futilely, comically for something you can imagine but can’t create.

Sooner or later you’ll be set back down in the world and then where will you be?

Comment / Posted in 2013, Donalds, Fiction

Exhibit 1.8.14

We Are Anonymous




This is the first book-length investigative journalism I’ve read in years, and it surprised me. What was I expecting? I’m not sure though I suspect I was looking for the continued bleed over of creative nonfiction into something more openly author-driven. It was there on some level–imagined scenes, real scenes arranged by the author–but for the most part Olson is content to line up her facts to walk the reader painstakingly through an organization without any organization just as she would a tech startup. Of course, there there might be structure (or at least the illusion of it). Here we have a particularly postmodern “collective” and Olson’s exploration is almost charming in how it struggles to force order on the confusion. Names change, get reused, are fought over, hide the truth. Maybe. Olson simply charts along, holding back information to make the unmasking drive the book’s momentum though, of course, it matters little. It’s the group, not the names.

Nothing might be more indicative of this struggle to slap identity onto a decentralized and shifting collection of screen names than that this is a book about LulzSec. LulzSec isn’t Anonymous. But it’s Anonymous as much as anything is Anonymous. Which is to say only sort of. Unlike WikiLeaks which has a leader, Anonymous has only Olson to hold it together for as long as she can. Undoubtedly whatever was true when she started was less true by the end. Who knows what Anonymous is now. Despite the bow she has to put on the story of her sources, the group remains as nebulous as ever (there are at least two major twitter feeds who represent the group. Maybe). Those who claim to speak for it openly seem certain to be those who know the least about it.

Which means we might need a critical theorist or a cultural critic more than a journalist.

Still, Olson does admirably–it’s a smart, thorough book and I don’t envy anyone having to write so many lengthy descriptions of bouncing around IRC rooms–and it’s great for understanding how little there is to be understood about certain cultural movements the internet allows. It’s also often surprisingly tense for mostly taking place in chat rooms, never more so than in the opening unraveling of a man’s online life who dared to claim that he could unmask the group’s leaders. But the fact that he was attacked not because he was a threat–there aren’t leaders–but because a bunch of kids were bored is the important part of the story. One imagines Olson didn’t fear reprisal because she knows this is history long written over by new names for new reasons.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Investigations, Nonfiction

Exhibit 1.8.13

Dan Chelotti’s x


Dan Chelotti X


Clever, funny, and sweetly earnest, Dan Chelotti’s first book of poems found the perfect publisher in McSweeney’s who, whether they like it or not, will probably continue to hold copyright on those terms in the literary world. That they’ve been branching out into poetry is exciting and, in Chelotti, they too have found something like a perfect partner. The poems here are adroit, moving fast from highbrow references to urban angst, from the non sequitur to the earned sentiment, and it’s in these transitions that the book really impresses. To read these poems is to be in the back of a station wagon driven by your favorite uncle. You don’t know where you’re going. You know it’ll be fun. You suspect one of you is stoned.

Or maybe I should just show you. Here’s the end of his poem “The Man in Me”:

                    The little Pavarotti
smoking anisette cigars in my soul
gestures and says, Don’t worry, kiddo.
No one really gives a shit
anyway. And because
for a moment there
is nothing more truthful at hand,
I do not enjoy reading
about baseball on the internet.


That’s a bit more of a punchline than most of these poems end on, but it’s a good one. It’s a good book. Pick it up from McSweeney’s here.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Poetry, Xs

Exhibit 1.8.12

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe


How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe


So I’ve obviously given up on writing about books I’ve been reading, but I’ll make an exception solely to push my nonsensical drawings further down the page. Also, it would be nice to start again even if just a paragraph or two.

So, this book by Charles Yu which I picked up last week at The Strand–as excellent a bookstore as its reputation promises–and read on the plane home. It should be difficult to be objective about something so in my teenage wheelhouse–and from an author whose stories I enjoy as much as Yu’s–but there’s something really fascinating about certain aspects here that I’ve been thinking about them almost as much as the book as a whole (even if as a whole it’s smart, funny, and often touching). But as a book divided along certain axis–to get all Yu–it’s sort of interestingly, even if mostly harmlessly at odds with itself.

Yep, there’s more than a little Douglas Adams here in the world building (sadsack people! sadsack computers!), a little Vonnegut in the casual metafiction (Yu is our author and our protagonist), and something Philip K. Dick-y about the whole thing serving as one big allegory (time travel as memory and the reclaiming of a father-son relationship). It is, as Colson Whitehead says in his blurb, “Cool as hell.”

And that’s maybe the most interesting thing to talk about. The parts that are “cool” in the sense of 13-year-old-me’s wheelhouse are mostly front-loaded in the description of this science fictional universe which, ultimately, become irrelevant halfway through when the “time loop” starts and the metaphor takes over. Up until the narrator shoots his future self–it’s in the first sentence, don’t worry–we basically are getting the Douglas Adams novel–complete with nerdy references and jolly satire–then after the Philip K. Dick novel (there’s probably a better way to describe a metaphor-heavy scifi made personal but he’s the best reference I’ve got). The metafictional stuff doesn’t really matter except, like meeting Luke Skywalker’s kid, it gives us a wink. It is, like much here, totally cool.

And I like the cool stuff, but the rest of the story isn’t cool. It’s better than that–personal and heartfelt and very much of our world. So it’s an interesting book, one without cohesion but still with purpose (or maybe a sense of the short story writer’s “Am I doing enough?” panic) that drives it toward these beats it doesn’t seem to need to hit just long enough to get us to the real story which still gets told in this interesting scientific and mathematic language for human emotions that is where the work really stands out on its own terms. That, more than the sci-fi world building, is where the cohesion is here but the book doesn’t seem to think that’s a selling point. Maybe the book is right. It’s certainly easier to describe as a metafictional romp through a sci-fi world than it is as a book about family but… it might not be a better book. It’s not, I don’t even think, the book we have after page 89.

None of this is to say it’s not completely enjoyable–it is–or that I wouldn’t recommend it–I would–but it’s the kind of book that ultimately might make a better case for Yu than for itself.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Fiction, Yus

Exhibit 1.8.3

In the Lake of the Woods


In the Lake of the Woods


There might not be a novelist I enjoy more but think about less than Tim O’Brien. Going After Cacciato is one of my favorites, but I can’t claim to have ever once gone back and studied its structure–though it’s brilliant–or typed its sentences–though they’re beautiful–or thought of it as the kind of book I’d aspire to write–though I suppose I would.

Somehow O’Brien only seems to exist for me as a reader which is refreshing, really. It’s a better, less selfish relationship than I feel like I have with Didion or Murakami or Nabokov. Those are writers I’d like to be when drunk on egotism or alcohol. O’Brien is a writer I’d like to read, and the only other one I can think of whose impact seems so perfectly quarantined from my own work is, not coincidentally, Joseph Heller.

It’s the war, of course. It’s always the war with O’Brien and you could blame him for it if he weren’t so damn compelling at using it as a way to show how there’s no real peace. O’Brien’s characters are haunted by half-memories and horrors, none more than the protagonist of In the Lake of the Woods which is not our would-be senator but the writer trying to reconstruct what’s happened. It’s O’Brien at his most personal and clever in these footnotes and hypotheses, never letting us forget that when we’re talking about Vietnam we’re talking about many narratives, only some of which even get told and almost none of which agree. Truth isn’t a concept O’Brien seems to believe in and thank god.

Because instead we get this, a mystery without a solution and a history still being fought over as the years fade (by none more than those who were there). There’s this confused swirling around the My Lai atrocity that runs round the novel and comes to a head with the writer’s realization that even he doesn’t even remember what he remembers of the war, or what has come from stories and movies, or what he’s just imagined. The only thing he knows is that “My own war does not belong to me.”, making the book, like all of O’Brien’s fiction about the war, a kind of reclamation from the army, the media, and, most of all, the trauma.

An impossible one, of course. Excepting maybe Oliver Stone, no one has done more to shape narratives about the war than O’Brien, and if he can’t make sense of it, no one can. So it’s no accident that his novels are magical and contradicting and solutionless. It’s a reclamation, I guess, but one mostly interested in making the case that the Vietnam soldier–maybe all soldiers–are the quintessential post-modern subjects.

That seems like more than enough for one writer to take on, and, while it’s terrible that anyone should have to follow in O’Brien’s bootsteps, this being the world, some surely will. We can only hope they hold onto as much humanity and imagination after so much violence set against those very things.


Comment / Posted in 2013, Fiction, Wars

Exhibit 1.7.17

Marguerite Duras’s The Lover



I sure am reading some small, sad books. This one, however, is less the story of some grand, tragic romance than it is the careful consideration of one’s first, flawed affair which, even more than 50 years later, still stings with the specifics of its circumstances and its failure. Duras’s dreamy, nimble prose makes the absence of nostalgia here clear, and she doesn’t shy away from the truth of how she, a 15-year-old girl with a 27-year-old Chinese lover, entered into this affair for money and protection or how, though the collapse of it seemed to devastate her lover, the affair played a different role in her life.

Still, Duras wants to show how she was, in her way, no less in love with him despite her youth and the necessity of the affair to her making it out of a collapsing family. Love here is a complicated thing rising both easily and permanently, as with her toward her younger brother, as with her lover toward her, and also developing gently through the tortured growth of a life. He loves her blindly and completely regardless of age, race, or custom, but Duras, who stopped being a girl in his arms, it’s only after she’s left him, when she is a woman, that she seems to understand what it’s meant to her and to love him back long after it matters.

We’re united in a fundamental shame at having to live.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Fiction, Lovers

Exhibit 1.7.14

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion



A lot of this book in other books, it seems to me, thinking specifically of Mary Robison’s excellent Why Did I Ever, but a great deal of Didion’s nonfiction as well. Maybe because I just re-read The White Album, but hard not to see this as kind of a companion piece, a kind of rewriting of that end of the 60s history from one of the floozies hanging around The Doors. Which is not to say Maria, our narrator, is a floozy, exactly (nor that she knows Jim Morrison), but she’s certainly adrift in the orbit of controlling, famous men and subject to the mental and physical violence that goes along with their lack of concern. An emotional history rather than a political one, Didion’s novel finds a way to say something about the emptying out of a depressive not through diagnosis but through the relentless and wrenching spirals of a life (oftentimes literally).

It’s a book about circles, basically.

At its best, it creates something beautiful out of exploring being (and heading) nowhere. At its worst, it unnecessarily strains against that definitionally limited narrative for the sense of scope and consequence Didion finds in her essays (leading to expositional 1st person passages in italics which add little but an ending, one we could have imagined just fine). Far more good than bad and more amazing than good, however, it’s a powerful book about powerlessness.

Two minutes in Silver Wells, two minutes here, two minutes there, it was going to be over in this bedroom in Encino, it could not last forever.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Fiction, Lies

Exhibit 1.7.8

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American



I remember seeing the adaptation of this movie in Des Moines at The Varsity and being blown away by Michael Caine and the movie and somehow Brendan Fraser (O, who am I kidding, I’ve liked Brendan Fraser since School Ties). It was one of those movies I felt so much that upon leaving the theatre I decided I’d never see it again. Or read the book. Or even watch School Ties. It was all dead to me.

And not because it was the best movie I’d ever seen–or even of that year, necessarily–just that there was something so uniquely devastating about Caine’s performance that, being a little bit precious and a whole lot of 19, I just up and decided that I wanted to keep the feeling of that theatre and that night. Like I said, it was one of those decisions one has with certain art, less about the movie maybe than me.

(I still do this sometimes, wanting to protect something, wanting to skip a test).

But of course I remember nothing about that night now, just some dusty pact I made that I tore up in order to finally read this book. Was I on a date? I think so, but I also remember seeing a movie there the very next week (or maybe the week before?) by myself. One was this, and one was The Pianist and while I’m almost certain I saw this with a girl, it would not shock me if I asked the girl–the girl would not want me to ask the girl, I’m pretty sure–and she said we actually saw Adrien Brody running through bombed-out buildings. Or that we saw both together. Or that we were in a group. Or neither.

And that’s the kind of necessary loss of one’s own life that’s all over Greene’s book, one that, if we can forgive it some of its unintentionally problematic representations, probably deserves a critical re-reading now that’s it’s so many decades freed from the wars in Vietnam. O, it’d be silly to ignore that stuff (or how awfully vindicated Greene must have felt for the rest of his life)*, but this is not primarily a book about Americans or Vietnam or even literal war. This is a book about losing love to time, that war, so much so its narrator often goes on long internal monologues like this one:

In the moment of shock there is little pain; pain began about three A.M. when I began to plan the life I had still somehow to live and to remember memories in order to somehow eliminate them. Happy memories are the worst, and I tried to remember the unhappy. I was practised. I had lived all this before. I knew I could do what was necessary but I was so much older–I felt I had little energy left to reconstruct.

Fowler is old or very nearly and unlike Barnes‘ guy already resigned to nothingness, he’s fighting to keep something after a life of supposed neutrality, one where he’s gone from station to station, woman to woman, until he’s finally learned most of the world’s–and his own–secret workings. And though there’s something like a happy ending here, by that point the book has already made its point the cost of certain knowledge. Fowler is the one who knows. Fowler is the one who hurts. Fowler is the one who has always done nothing.

Its beautifully done, this setup which pits his political conscience against his personal, history against future, love against love; this setup that let’s his cynicism be both his problem and his salvation. Because he knows the violence it will take to move forward but how he cannot stop himself anymore than the American can. Because if Pyle is a true believer of democracy, Fowler is a true believer in love (or at least his need for it, a distinction he would not be the least bit interested in).

And maybe I shouldn’t feel bad that I don’t remember the night of the movie better or that I can’t ask, but I still do.


* We also have to add Graham Greene to the E.M. Forster Memorial Wall of People Who Lived Way Later Than Seems Right. Greene died in 1991. It’s nearly possible for him to have caught an advance screening of School Ties before he went.
Comment / Posted in 2013, Americans, Fiction

Exhibit 1.7.6

Blind Huber by Nick Flynn



Things I Previously Knew About Bees

1. We shouldn’t let them near any of our favorite Culkins

2. They’re all dying and we don’t really know why

3. Nick Cave is probably why

4. I like honey

5. That one Futurama episode with the space bees is sad

6. There aren’t really space bees

7. Sadly

8. Probably

9. I mean, we wouldn’t really know if there were

10. If there are, we shouldn’t introduce them to Nick Cave or any of our favorite Culkins


To be blunt, Blind Huber is no Some Ether–one of my favorite poetry books–but it’s always a thrill to see a writer explore a personal fascination as esoterically weird as a blind French beekeeper born in 1750. Did the world know it needed this book? No, but apparently Nick Flynn did which is exactly why it should exist. I’ll never know or feel as much about bees as Nick Flynn must have to write this book, but for its short length, I got to understand what it would be like to feel such a connection to the unconnectable that one has to put it into words.

Projects like this don’t always lead to the best art but sometimes it feels like the purest.


Look at the nest in the rafters,

look closely. Those


streaks are fragments of your barn, paint

chewed to pulp. Everything


passes through us, transformed.


– from “Paper Wasp”

Comment / Posted in 2013, Bees, Poetry

Exhibit 1.7.5

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes



A book written in decaf Earl Grey–and I mean that in a nice way and as a vague insult to this book’s drowningly milquetoast* Britishness–Barnes’s novel is a slight but chilling history of the end of a relationship some 40 years before the novel’s present action. Or maybe that’s not quite right. The present action is really only the second half of the novel, the bulk of the narrator’s life retroactively made summary in this telling, but one could just as easily say it’s a book of present and future, action and consequence, rather than mystery and unraveling. Ultimately, I suppose, it’s both which is why it’s far more compelling than it has any right to be.

It’s that sense of what’s lost not to cruelty but time that does it. We’re never stilled so we’re never sure if which pieces we want put back together and which we want swept under the rug. Which are nostalgia and which are need. Which were important and which only seem important due to some emotional compound interest. Because there are successes and there are failures here and one doesn’t erase the other, and neither does apology. And certainly Barnes is very much apologetic all the way through, the telling of our narrator’s life done with the self-deprecation of someone who has seen the present, and the plot–despite some details I’ll spare as they genuinely shocked me–mostly confined to a near-elderly man’s attempts to figure something out he missed 40 years before and his inability to understand what any of it should mean to him after a long, bland life.

(The book might be at its best when it hints at all the other stories that might have been told about our man, yet how this one, despite his barely being on the periphery of it, is the one that matters most, perhaps because he was outside it. The book might be at its worst in its occasional rueful boomer wankery about how things have changed).

All and all, it doesn’t amount to much in summary, but in creating a life that’s veered from regrettable to shruggable, Barnes has made something rather beautiful. O, it’s weak tea all right, but that’s sort of the point. Most lives are, the book suggests, but their absence of profundity doesn’t make them tragic and their tragedies don’t make them profound.

This book often is. When it was over, I had this strange urge to reach out to people I hadn’t spoken to in a long time to reconnect and say, “Sorry about all this being alive. Let’s do better than that. How are you?”

But the point, I suppose, is that you can’t. And of course I didn’t.

*Oddly, this word is a relatively late American addition to the language. I’ll let it stand.
Comment / Posted in 2013, Endings, Fiction

Exhibit 1.7.4

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons


So I re-read Watchmen for a class I’m teaching, but when I went to write about it for this, I remembered I’d covered this ground a couple of years ago when I first read it. Here‘s me on the movie. Here‘s me comparing it to Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I’d add a couple of things:

1) I was either smarter then or had a lot more time.

2) I still think the movie is better than the book (or, at least better than it’s still thought of).

3) I still don’t think the movie is very good because–gasp–I still don’t think the book is very good.

4) Well, “very good” in the literary sense. It’s still highly entertaining. Nothing wrong with that.

5) That’s kind of a copout. I find plenty to talk about in class (mostly the Black Freighter/extra-textual stuff).

6) We should all never forget that every word here is being written by someone who was once obsessed with Mary Worth.

7) God, what’s Mary Worth up to right now do you think?

8) Someone is reading Poe as they die in bed. Of course.

9) Even in just these two panels, I think I can guess the entire plot: A mother is dying but doesn’t want to finally tell her daughter who her father is because he was a deadbeat who has only recently been trying to get back in their lives. That’ll do, Mary Worth. That’ll do.

10) God I miss having an office job.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Books, Graphic Novels

Exhibit 1.7.3

Falconer by John Cheever



I decided I’m going to do my best to write a sentence or two about the books I read. We’ll see how long this lasts.

So, here we go. Cheever’s Falconer probably read as far more edgy when it was published in 1977 though the heart of the story has very little to do with the casual homosexual relationships in Falconer prison and a great deal to do with the violence any relationship–to women, men, drugs, the past–enacts on a man. To be sure, the prison is a larger metaphor for any life’s denial and suffering, but in the book’s most loving relationship, Falconer comes to seem like a kind of safe space (as our narrator can love a man there but not, he knows, outside the walls). This is perhaps the greatest toll time has taken on the book: Cheever writes heartbreakingly about what it means to be in a prison he can’t imagine leaving.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Books, Fiction