Monday, December 31, 2012

Christopher's Top Ten of 2012

So you're telling me we've been doing this for six years?  That, my friend, is madness.  In those six years I've read 313 books, which is probably five or six times the number of books I'd read in my life up to that point.  At the end of the year, it's nice to look back and recognize at least one unqualified success, I think.

Here are the ten best books I read in 2012.  I still have some left to review, like Middlemarch, but I'll get around to it.  I'm not including books I re-read, or any of the Shakespeare plays because, well, that's just not very interesting.  He's been on enough lists.

10.) Baudolino by Umberto Eco - Brent commented on my review of Baudolino by saying, "So this is basically Life of Pi."  He was being snarky, but there's a lot of truth to that.  Both Baudolino and Life of Pi are about finding value in religion and myth while divesting them of the necessity to be exact truth, but while Life of Pi does it with a dishonest bit of sleight-of-hand, Baudolino puts the games it plays with truth front and center.  Baudolino, a courtier of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, creates elaborate lies about the mythical Eastern king Prester John as a way of legitimizing Barbarossa's power.  Then, preposterously, he sets out on a journey to find the king he's invented.  A lesser author would have Baudolino discover that the people and places he's imagined have come to life, but Eco provides stranger, more ambiguous discoveries. 

9.) The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon - What I liked best about The Crying of Lot 49 is that it was fun.  Though it shares the postmodern anxiety about the gulf between language and what it represents, it is neither bewildering nor unpleasant because it recognizes that that gulf opens language up to play.  The sheer ridiculousness of the novel's central conspiracy--that there exists a massive, ancient, and secret rebel postal service--suggests that if we really can't make sense of the world, we may as well have a laugh at its expense.

8.) Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - I think that Roth, too, is having a lot of fun in the sublimely filthy Sabbath's Theater, though it's a fun that is punctured by the demands of grief and the promise of death.  It is a novel about the limits of fun, about what the joys of sexual hedonism can and cannot do.  The aging pervert and puppeteer Mickey Sabbath finds himself unable to deal with the death of his longtime lover, which forces him to reflect on the life he's lived.  Honestly, that description sounds boring as hell, but Sabbath's Theater succeeds because it tempers its poignancy with sexual farce, like a novel-length expansion of that time Rabbit Angstrom asked some woman to pee on him.  More importantly, it deftly navigates sexual morality, neither forgiving Sabbath for the cruelty his libido sometimes produces nor slipping into prudishness.

7.) VALIS by Philip K. Dick - I was originally going to have Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on this list, but I think it got just barely shoved off by VALIS, my final book of 2012.  It may be a record of Dick's growing mental instability, but it is honest about that instability, and I'm not sure I've ever read a book as forthcoming or as raw.

6.) The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark - I think that The Mandelbaum Gate is Spark working intentionally outside of her comfort range: the pace is slower, the characters more sympathetic, the violence toned down.  In my review I suggested that one reason for that might be that Spark viewed the book as being semi-autobiographical, in so far as it is about a Catholic convert with Jewish ancestry.  But even if that's not the case, it's a remarkably powerful book, fashioning the image of a divided city into a metaphor for divided histories and divided selves.  Throw in a light-hearted spy caper, and it might be the best Graham Greene book Greene never wrote.

5.) The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers - Writers who are really sensitive to the nature of human existence have an ear for the way people talk past each other, too wrapped up in their own plans and needs to recognize the plans and needs of others.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of the greatest novels I have ever read in that regard.  It is the story of a handful of small town Southerners who strike up a friendship with a deaf-mute, each seeing in his inability to respond an imaginary sympathy to their own worries.  No book I've ever read captures just how it is that a world that is so full of people can be so damned lonely.

3.) (tie) Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy - I wanted to read Anna Karenina in anticipation of the Joe Wright film that was recently released.  And while that film (which I enjoyed) is so needless of its source material I might not have bothered, I'm glad I did, because it was really great to be immersed in Anna Karenina.  The story of Anna and her doomed love affair with Count Vronsky is an elegant tragedy, but there is something cold and insular about it that does not permit the reader to share in it.  It might have been a very off-putting book if not for the B-plot of the landowner Levin and his beloved Kitty, whose romance is something like the negative image of Anna's, and for the collection of vivid, fascinating characters that collect at the edges: Anna's stoic, suffering husband Karenin; the lecherous, sanguine Stepan Oblonsky; etc.

3.) (tie) Middlemarch by George Eliot - Something about placing these two novels in a tie just seemed right.  Tolstoy reportedly had an admiration for Eliot, and it's easy to see why: Middlemarch is a big brick of a book about an entire community of provincial Britishers, held up by two columnar romance narratives.  Give everyone Russian names and it might as well be Anna Karenina.  Or, rather, if you made a Venn diagram of Tolstoy and Jane Austen Middlemarch would be the vesica piscis in the middle.  When I can, I'm going to give it a proper review, but I want to do it justice.

2.) Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson - Housekeeping is, along with The Blue Flower, one of the two books I've read this year I would call revelatory; that is, they exceeded my expectations and showed me something I hadn't seen before.  In Housekeeping, it is the ornate but immaculate prose, which gives voice to sentiments I've often had but had not had the words to describe.  It is the story of a young girl being cared for by her aunt in the Western town of Fingerbone, but more than that it is about the inherent sadness in the separation of things.  I find myself returning to one line of Robinson's again and again: "What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?"  I don't know what that might look like, the knitting up of the fragments of the world, but I know that it is something I have yearned for without knowing that I yearned for it.

1.) The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald - I don't know what to say about this novel.  I think it may be perfect.  Its conciseness, its humor, its baffling lightness--it captivated me in a way no other novel has this year.  It is the story of the German poet Novalis, who fell in love with a not very pretty and not very smart girl but loved her with immense passion and sensitivity.  Each moment, each character, is so carefully and distinctly wrought with only a handful of words.

For lack of anything else constructive to say about it, I'll note this: One of the trends of 2012 for me was an amplified interest in female writers: McCullers, Eliot, Robinson, Fitzgerald, and of course Spark, whom I've always loved.  I read a recent interview with V. S. Naipaul in which he said he's never read a female author who he thought was as good as he is.  Mr. Naipaul, if you're reading this, I'd like to say: 1.) You're kind of a crusty old misogynist fart, and 2.) You clearly haven't read this book, and you should.  (I also read Fitzgerald's Offshore, which might have made it on this list if there weren't a self-imposed one author rule.)

So there you have it--another year in the books.  If you read this blog and have enjoyed it, thanks.  If you want to join us in 2013--and we'd love for you to join us--send me an e-mail at  I'd like to welcome back Randy, who's rejoining us after a year's hiatus and assures me that he is going to review only books about Satan worship.  See you next year, folks!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

VALIS by Philip K. Dick

The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than the razor's edge, sharper than a hound's tooth, more agile than a mule deer.  It is more elusive than the merest phantom.  Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.

VALIS is simultaneously the most bizarre and the least fantastical book of Philip K. Dick's I've ever read.  It is bizarre because it is about a man, Horselover Fat, who has prophetic visions implanted in him by a benign force through a pink beam of light.  It is not fantastical because it is, almost to the letter, completely autobiographical.

Dick makes no effort to conceal the fact that Fat is himself; he announces it in the first couple of pages.  "Horselover" is a translation of the Greek word Philippos, and dick is the German word for "fat."  And yet in his capacity as narrator, Dick speaks to the man he lovingly calls "Horse," interacts with him, tries to guide him through a long series of griefs that include the suicide and cancer deaths of friends, divorce and alienation.  When Dick says, "I am Horselover Fat, and I am writing this in the third person to gain much-needed objectivity," we are in the uncomfortable space between the canny tricks of an accomplished writer and the neurosis of a madman.

But that's one of the most interesting questions VALIS tackles: what separates sanity from insanity?  If Dick admits that he, as Fat, has become unhinged, does that somehow make him less unhinged?  The pink beam that hits Fat reveals to him, piecemeal, a religious cosmogony that he records as a massive exegesis, like Dick did in his own life.  It is a semi-Christian, explicitly Gnostic theology that says that the years between 103 and 1974 AD were imaginary and that the times of the Roman Empire still continue behind the illusory 20th century.  But it also says that the world is inherently irrational, created by an irrational God (this is a quintessential Gnostic tenet) and that the pink light, beamed in by what Dick calls "God," "Zebra," and "VALIS" in turn, is a rational source breaking in through the irrationality.  This source is not divine but human, transmitted by a group of our beneficent kin who never let themselves slip into the mad, unreal world in which we live.

I do not think, as Dick did, that he received information from three-eyed humans residing near the star Fomalhaut.  But there are ideas in here that are compelling, that cannot be dismissed as one man's quackery, and that seem to me to be genuine and heartfelt responses to deep suffering.  I have immense sympathy for anyone who has come to believe that the universe is essentially irrational.  What is most remarkable to me is Dick's ambivalence about whether his/Horselover Fat's cosmogony is sense or sheer senselessness, and the nakedness with which he seems to confess that the fictionalization of his experiences, and perhaps his entire  career as a science fiction writer, represent a desperate attempt to corral the world into sense:

You can understand why Fat no longer knew the difference between fantasy and divine revelation--assuming there is a difference, which has never been established.  He imagiend that Zebra came from a planet in the star-system Sirius, had overthrown the Nixon tyranny in August 1974, and would eventually set up a just and peaceful kingdom on Earth where there would be no sickness, no pain, no loneliness, and the animals would dance with joy.

It is the highest praise I can give the novel that, while I was reading it--and perhaps even now--I couldn't differentiate between fantasy and divine revelation.  The second highest praise I can give it is that, though it serves mostly as a frame for the presentation of Dick's cosmogony, it remains a highly entertaining and deeply moving novel.  The mixture of grief and humor Dick applies to Fat's life is some of his best satire.  Here's Fat's suicide attempt:

What had saved his life initially emanated from a defect in the choke of his car; the choke hadn't opened properly as the engine warmed, and finally the engine had stalled.  Fat had made his way unsteadily back to the house and lain down on his bed to die.  The next morning he woke up, still alive, and begun to vomit up the digitalis.  That was the second thing which saved him.  The third thing came in teh form of all the paramedics in the world removing the glass and aluminum sliding door at the rear of Fat's house.  Fat had phoned his pharmacy somewhere along the line to get a refill on his Librium prescription; he had taken thirty Librium just before taking the digitalis.  The pharmacist had contact the paramedics.  A lot can be said for the infinite mercies of God, but the smarts of a good pharmacist, when you get down to it, is worth more.

I particularly liked the cynicism of Fat's skeptical friend Kevin, and the incredibly dark humor of Sherri, the awful, parasitic cancer patient that repays Fat's kindness with utter cruelty.  The book's second half, which becomes more clearly fictional (and includes plot elements lifted from Dick's first attempt to fictionalize his exegesis, Radio Free Albemuth), is unpredictable and absorbing: Fat and his friends make contact with a two-year old girl, Sophia, who seems to be the earthly avatar of VALIS who commissions them as her emissaries on Earth.

Certainly Dick felt that way--did he, or did he believe, that he had met someone like Sophia?  Or is the book's latter half merely a madman's rationalization his mad philosophy?  The book ends in an unsettlingly ambiguous place, and that its ambiguity speaks for Dick's rationality and reflectiveness makes it no less difficult to evaluate.  As we rev up for "a national discussion on mental illness," I value VALIS, as I do One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, for its urgent reminder that mental illness and mental health are not clear opposites, and that prophets and geniuses are not always easily indistinguishable from madmen.

Brent also reviewed this book in 2010.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve struggled a little with how to review Flight Behavior because my feelings about it are conflicted. I was extremely excited to receive an advance copy for review, and, at first, it met my expectations. The prose was good, the main character, Dellarobia, was well-drawn, and the plot was intriguing: Dellarobia climbs the mountain behind her house, planning to cheat on her husband, only to have her mind changed when the side of the mountain appears to be on fire. Upon closer inspection, it turns out the “fire” is actually a massive migration of butterflies whose migratory patterns have been messed up by climate change.

There are other characters, the primary one being Ovid Byron, a scientist--entomologist, probably--who arrives on Dellarobia’s farm to study the butterflies. He’s the most developed character outside of Dellarobia herself, and when the two of them share a scene, things work pretty well. Kingsolver’s prose is excellent--her language is evocative and warm without being overblown, and it’s well-suited for describing the ethereal beauty of the butterflies.

However, after getting about midway through the book, I began to have misgivings. First, it was the speechifying. Look, I’m not a climate change denialist, and I largely sympathize with Ovid’s (and Kingsolvers) concerns about the environment. That said, there are numerous multi-page conversations that do little to advance the plot, but instead serve as a way to soapbox global warming. Kingsolver is a good writer--surely there must have been a better way to embed the information than exposition dumps disguised as dialog. Some of it is interesting, but no one likes to feel like their novel is preaching to them.

The other issue I had with the book involves its treatment of the non-Dellarobia characters in her hometown. They are, at the beginning, presented in the broadest way possible. Her husband, nicknamed Cub, is a redneck, as his father, nicknamed Bear. His mother, Hester, is overbearing and controlling, and mostly unkind. They’re all deeply religious, and believe that the butterflies are a sign for God. They’re also vehement climate change denialists, at least at the beginning, although their views do change minimally throughout the novel. Overall, though, the book gives them the short shrift. We are told repeatedly what a good man Cub is, even if he isn’t quite the good man for Dellarobia, but we’re never really shown, so my ultimate impression of him was that he was a man-child who never even tried to be an adult. Bear gets even less characterization. Hester is a legitimately complex character, but she disappears for long stretches of the book, and a revelation about her near the end never really resolves. I felt no love in Flight Behavior for any of the tertiary characters, save maybe Dellarobia’s rambunctious friend Dovey, and though the book seems to be presenting some sort of faith-vs-reason dichotomy, it lands so firmly on the side of reason that it sometimes feels more like a satire than a realistic novel.

Finally, there’s the issue of the ending, which I will be partially spoiling below. If you haven’t read the book and don’t want to know the ending, stop reading now.


The novel ends with Dellarobia deciding that, yes, she has married the wrong man, so she decides to get a divorce, move out of town, and go back to school. She breaks this to her son by a) telling him she has some exciting news b) sharing said news i.e. that she’s moving away and going back to school but he’ll still be able to see her c) justifying her decision by comparing it to crapping the bed, and d) withholding what is essentially her going away gift, an iPhone, until her young son admits that things will never be the same. Lest this sounds like an exaggeration, here’s the passage:
“What if I want everything to stay how it is?” he asked.
“Oh, man, that’s the bite. Grown-ups want that too. Honestly! That’s what makes them crap the bed and stay in it, I’m not even kidding.”
His eyes scooted away from hers, avoiding the verdict.
“It won’t ever go back to the way it was, Preston. You have to say that right now, okay? Just say it and I’ll give you the pod-thing.”
He glanced over at her, making sure, and said it. “It won’t ever go back to how it was.”
“Okay” She handed it over. “You’re the man.”
The high-school language ("Oh, man", "I'm not even kidding") seems wildly inappropriate for breaking world-shattering news to your child. This section so impacted my view of Dellarobia that it retroactively tainted the rest of the book. The story begins with her about to make a selfish mistake, and ends with her selfishly upending everyone’s lives and forcing them to accept it whether they like it or not. The very end comes out of nowhere, and feels like a cosmic attempt to validate Dellarobia’s choice, but her treatment of her child and husband had already wrecked her character for me by then. Maybe this is just a personal bias, I don’t know. All I can say is that, while it has its strong points, I ultimately didn’t enjoy Flight Behavior that much, even though I really wanted to.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Thirty Days With My Father by Christal Presley

"[S]ometimes I felt sorry for my father, and sometimes I wished he would die. And all the while I loved him and wondered if the war really had made him like he was or if it was just him."

At a writing workshop, a speaker posed a question: "What if you wrote about the thing you fear the most?" This prompt resonated with Christal Presley, and she knew what she feared the most: her father and "the war he brought home with him from Vietnam." This question lead her to decided to talk with her dad either on the phone or in person (they didn't not live all that close to each other) every day for 30 days.

Presley had haunting childhood memories of her father, of him "snapping" and chasing her around the house because she had dropped some plates, or him locking himself in his room for hours, of him announcing that he was going down to the river to shoot himself and then walking out of the house with his rifle. Presley had a relationship with her dad, but it was a relationship of fear and confusion. He was never physically violent toward her or her mother, but she says that there were time when she thought it could escalate to that.

Presley began her writing project tentatively. The phone call on day one of the project couldn't have lasted for more than a minute, consisting of her father telling her that he didn't want to talk about the war, and her quickly hanging up the phone. But she was persistent, sticking with her stated goal. With each passing day, her father opened up more about his experiences in the war. It wasn't long before Presley and her father were discussing things that happened in their home during her childhood, at once apologizing, consoling and analyzing. By the end of the thirty days, Presley's relationship with her father has changed drastically. She looks forward to talking and seeing him, and he with her. And perhaps most importantly, being able to move on from some of darker spots in her past has enabled the brighter spots to shine through. As she put it, "It's interesting how the good memories come back when you stop being angry."

Thirty Days is structured like you would expecting a writing project like this to be structured. It is comprised of 60 sections: an entry for each day and a journal entry that accompanies each daily entry. I found it interesting to see how both Presley and her father changed in how they dealt with each other. Her conservative Christian upbringing resonated with me, having grown up the same way. I think this made me connect with her in a way that I wasn't expecting.

I don't think this book is for everyone. It follows a fairly predictable trajectory, with few twists or turns, and the writing is fairly spartan. However, if you are interested in learning more about PTSD and its affect on families, this book will be a valuable resource.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

MEPHISTOPHELES: Be done with nursing your despair,
Which, like a vulture, feeds upon your mind;
The very meanest company bids fair
To let you feel a man among mankind.
It's not that we propose
To toss you in among the rabble.
I am no ranking devil;
But let us say you chose
To fall in step with me for life's adventure,
I'd gladly, forthwith, go into indenture,
Be yours, as well as I know how.
I'm your companion now,
And if this meets with your desire,
Will be your servitor, your squire!

FAUST: And for my part--what is it you require?

MEPHISTOPHELES: Never you mind, it's much too soon to worry.

How does one review Faust?  It took Goethe's entirely life to complete it, and seemingly contains every thought, every idea, every feeling that he felt was important to human existence.  It's so immense, so bizarre, so full of things to talk about that it defies description.

The story, at least at the beginning, is very familiar: The scholar Faust sells his soul to the demon Mephistopheles in exchange for endless knowledge and power.  In most versions of this story, this will predictably come back to bite Faust in the ass, but Faust isn't that kind of book.  By the end of the book, the deal that Faust makes with Mephistopheles seems quaint, and pretty much forgotten.

There are two parts: The first is a tragedy, in which Faust uses his powers to seduce a young woman named Margarete.  She has his child, but kills it, and dies for it, although it seems that at the very end she is redeemed.  This story is heart-rending, and Faust's tearful visit to the mad Margarete in her cell just before her execution is pretty hard to take:

MARGARETE: Day!  Yes, day is here, it dawns so gray;
This was to be my wedding-day!
Tell no one that Gretchen was yours already,
My poor wreath's shredding!
What's done is done!
We shall be one,
But not at a wedding.
The crowd is thronging, no word, no laugh;
The square is milling,
The streets o'erfilling.
There tolls the bell, they break the staff.
How they pounce on me, bind me!
Already I am on the scaffold laid,
All necks shrink back from the winking blade
That will glint and find me.
Mute lies the world like the grave!

Now, this part of Faust is strange.  The whole thing is written like a play, but the stage directions are so ornate and the number of parts so monstrous that it could never possibly be performed.  There are lines attributed to figures like "This World's Child" and "Prontophantasmiac" and a talking soap bubble.  There are some talking marmosets.  But at least the overall story of what Faust inflicts on Margarete is recognizable as a genre tragedy.

The second part, however, infinitely ramps up the weirdness.  Faust now finds himself in the court of an Emperor, to whom he and Mephistopheles offer their services by, among other things, introducing paper currency.  Then Faust, in his role as the Master of Revels for the Emperor, has Mephistopheles conjure up the image of Helen of Troy, falls in love with her, and spends a huge chunk of Part II searching for her to be his lover.  Then he returns to the Emperor's court and spends the rest of his life on an urban development project using the power of the sea to build a great city.  There are really great moments--like when Mephistopheles murders an innocent old couple at Faust's behest because their home is in the way of the development--but it's impossible to confine all of those moments into one major narrative.  (Or so it seems to me; I'm sure others have tried.)

I don't mean that it doesn't hang together, but rather that the work as a whole is so ambitious and so bizarre that the issue of "hanging together" seems irrelevant.  Goethe called it an "incommensurable" work--it can't be measured--and I think I agree.  If I've spent this entire review just telling you what happens in it, it's because I have no idea how to approach it or evaluate it, and if I wanted to, it would probably take me a lifetime.