Authwhore’s Obligatory End-of-Year Recommendations

December 24th, 2008 at 8:00 am

Of the fifty-six books I read in 2008, most were really good.

Unlike the Establishment of book reviewers snuggly embedded in their ivory towers with snacks and stacks of free Advanced Reader Copies from the finest of New York’s publishers, the rest of us must seek entertainment, knowledge, and enlightenment in the half-off bins and bargain sales and paperback shops.

I cannot provide a list of the best, “must-read” books of 2008, because most of the books I read in 2008 were not published in 2008. But for all of you with The Cause, recklessly plundering half-off bins, bargain sales, and paperback shops, may this list provide a humble glimpse into all the good reading Out There.

Good writing is timeless, never bound to an arbitrary year. Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Franz Kafka’s The Castle, and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 provided some of my most enjoyable reading experiences of 2008.

The non-fiction books consumed in 2008 provided stirring perspectives for making sense of our world and the people who tend to inhabit it:

Traffic

The Rest is Noise

Schulz and Peanuts

The Shock Doctrine

Outlaw Journalist

The Happiest Man in the World

Ultimately, 2008 was a year of superb novel reading. However incisive and relevant non-fiction books may be, it is always the novel that manages to grasp and expose those nebulous, ill-defined aspects of life that make it so horrifying and magnificent:

Blindness

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Then We Came to the End

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

“Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”
-    Albert Einstein



The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon by Ronald K.L. Collins & David M. Skover

December 22nd, 2008 at 8:52 am

Dig, I read this book about Lenny Bruce, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon by Ronald K.L. Collins & David M. Skover.

Collins and Skover, both lawyers, do not provide a traditional biography of the infamous “sick comic,” but rather a legal lineage of his battles against misdemeanor obscenity charges brought forth as a result of his stand-up acts. The book also includes an audio CD of actual Bruce performances for which he was arrested. The supplementary interviews, commentary, and Bruce acts make for an incisive, illuminating account of this man’s life.

There’s plenty of relevant reasons to be reading about Lenny Bruce. That radical packet of papers we call a constitution just does not seem to go away. We’ve come a long way since the 60s when Bruce was prosecuted and persecuted for saying things like “dwarf motherfucker” and railing against the establishment. And if the constitution can eventually get around to protecting Bruce’s raunchy, satirical-comic descendants (George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Bill Hicks, Margaret Cho, Howard Stern, Sarah Silverman, etc, et al), then certainly it must protect those confined and flabbergasted by the legal wrangling brought on by our modern culture’s flogging of gay marriage and prisoner’s rights.

Lenny Bruce is a fascinating case study in the progression of an open society’s values, especially what a culture deems acceptable satire and criticism. Bruce’s predicament was one artists will find themselves in for generations to come, just as Joyce, Flaubert, Miller, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Burroughs all struggled for the Freedom of Expression, the value of art free from censorship, the importance of liberating language from social constraints.

“Every age needs a Lenny Bruce and every age will try to kill him.” – Peter Hall



Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser

December 18th, 2008 at 5:01 pm

Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser

I don’t know why I like this book so much, but it probably has something to do with everything James Wood says in How Fiction Works.

Martin Dressler is a damn fine read and I make no apologies for not being more articulate and eloquent on the matter. Some books you just read and recommend; consume and pass on. No need to pontificate excessively. If you want praise and explanation, any of the many glowing blurbs plastered around the book will suffice. They’re all dead on.

I eagerly look forward to enjoying Millhauser’s latest work, Dangerous Laughter, currently being lavished with praise by the New York Times as one of 2008’s best books.



How Fiction Works by James Wood

December 11th, 2008 at 5:11 pm

How Fiction Works by James Wood

This slim volume is a most enjoyably practical and intelligent work. Wood has strong feelings about literary merit and the function of fiction and he writes about it in such an even, impassioned diction that you cannot help but nod in agreement and marvel at his simple explanations and examples. It is a truly special work, one that is both theoretical and pedagogical but also practical and useful.

Following my reading of How Fiction Works by James Wood, I will move on to How Language Works by David Crystal, and thusly be entirely prepared to write my novel. Indeed.

As Wood explains in How Fiction Works, “If the book has a larger argument, it is that fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities.”

But it is Wood’s critique of “commercial realism” that I found most interesting and quite possibly the closest he gets to potential controversy (reviewing this book, I am trying to pick my words carefully, thus “closest” and “potential”).  Wood explains that, “Commercial realism has cornered the market, has become the most powerful brand in fiction. We must expect that this brand will be economically reproduced, over and over again.” James Patterson, Janet Evanovich. You’re on watch.

Wood concludes with a rousing call to arms for writers in which he pleas, “The writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable aging. The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.”

My reading of this book comes at an interesting time; a time in which the publishing industry is suffering from an ongoing technological revolution that is challenging its long-held methods of sharing the “written” word with readers while also struggling with a recession.

But also, it is a time in which the publishing industry is doling out deals to the literary questionable: Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber, and 9-year-old Alec Greven, author of the dating guide, “How to Talk to Girls.” (Please read Timothy Egan’s piece in the New York Times for a much more articulate observation on this phenomenon.)

Most of all, How Fiction Works reminded me why I read. I read because of everything explained, praised, and criticized in this book. People always ask me what I am reading. They never ask why I read so much.

But now I will have an answer if they ever do. In book form nonetheless. So I can read it.



The Abe of Obama

December 7th, 2008 at 12:36 pm

Much has been said about Barack Obama.

Much has been said about Barack Obama and the books he reads.

Much has been said about Barack Obama reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”

Much has been said about the similarities between Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln.

And for good reason. While I am only on page 11 of Team of Rivals, I have already noted the following:

(and seriously, I swear to god, I am not simply reading this book because it is now in the news, I have owned it for some time now, having snagged a hardcover first edition for 10 dollars during a bargain sale at Barnes & Borderzon.)

Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama were both nominated by their party to be presidential candidates above considerable odds and the presence of much more prominent, formidable opponents.

They were both from the state of Illinois.

Lincoln’s only elected experience was a single term as Representative. Obama’s only experience was a single term as Senator.

They both chose a former opponent as Secretary of State.

Which is all great. Lincoln was a great President. And Obama is proving to be one.

But here’s my problem:

Abraham Lincoln was shot.



Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

December 1st, 2008 at 6:06 pm

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Non-fiction books of this ilk seek to discern some significant, useful meaning from our frenzied existence by closely examining a specific element of said frenzied existence, whether that thing is relatively big (traffic) or small (toothpicks).

And while Mr. Vanderbilt certainly succeeds in identifying several fascinating tics about our modern existence based on how and why and where and when we drive, he more importantly illuminates what someone much more wise and laconic than I was referring to when he mentioned that, (forgive my anonymous paraphrase) “Man is so great, he hangs suspended in a web of his own spinning.”

And that means bureaucracy.

In his quest to reveal an answer to “Why we drive the way we do and what it says about us,” Vanderbilt inadvertently takes a detour and descends into the boiler room of life in order to visit the bureaucrats who keep the pistons of society pumping.

Meet Sebastian Thrun, director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Stanford University.

Meet H.W. Heinrich, an insurance investigator for the Travelers Insurance Company and the author of a seminal 1931 book, “Industrial Accident Prevention: A Scientific Approach.”

Meet crash reconstructionist J. Stannard Baker.

Meet Carl Andersen, a vision specialist with the Federal Highway Administration.

Meet Mark Nawrot, a psychologist at North Dakota State University and an expert in “motion parallax.”

Welcome to the Los Angeles Department of Transportation’s Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control.

Meet Ray Krammes, the technical director of the Federal Highway Administration’s Office for Safety Research and Development.

Meet Peter Weeden, a senior engineer with the Traffic Section of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Welcome to the Federal Highway Administration’s Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center. And the Human Centered Systems Laboratory at the Federal Highway Administration.

Meet Hans Monderman who was, until his death, the world’s best-known traffic engineer (Vanderbilt neglected to mention if he died in a car crash).

Meet Qamar Ahmed, Delhi’s joint commissioner of traffic.

Meet David Shinar, an expert in the psychology of traffic at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University.

Traffic is just gridlocked with a plethora of public health consultants, urban planners, transportation experts, engineers, psychologists, and risk experts.

And this is why I have such faith in books and feel so strongly about their importance. What other readily available place or thing do we have access to that provides such expertise and knowledge? Unlike museums and smart parents, books are shareable, transportable, and relatively cheap. They’re even free at public libraries!

But most of all people, can we please stop calling it a road? It’s a locomotor flow line.