the candler blog

“Books, Jerry”

Reading, Writing

Back in January I decided to read a book. Call it a New Year’s resolution, maybe. I read a lot, all day every day, but chats, tweets, blog posts, articles and the like. It’s like that scene in “The Bizarro Jerry” episode of Seinfeld where Elaine describes her new cohort:

Elaine: …They read.
Jerry: I read.
Elaine: Books, Jerry.
Jerry: Oh… big deal!

Before January the last novel I read was Swann’s Way,1 the first of seven volumes in Marcel Proust’s massive In Search of Lost Time.2 Shortly thereafter I devoured David Bordwell’s excellent Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies3 in a matter of days. Those are the only two full-length books I read in 2012, and for months I didn’t read anything at all. So I wanted to kick myself back into gear this year.

I decided to start with Stephen King’s The Stand. Having never read a single book by King, it seemed a decent starting point as it’s well regarded as one of his best. I very slowly started working my way through it, but it’s a tome. Months passed and I started to realize that 2013 would be as fallow a reading year as 2012. Worse: I didn’t want to move on to any other book until I conquered all 1,153 pages of The Stand. I was stuck.

So I broke down and renewed my long dormant membership to Audible and downloaded the audiobook. I listened to it sitting on my porch, in the car, walking around the grocery store. In a matter of weeks I came around and finished the book and it sparked something inside of me.

Since finishing The Stand in May I’ve read nine-and-a-half (more on that below) books and I’m still going. I’m writing less, yes,4 but I’m enjoying taking in these books while I’m on what feels like a personal streak.

I keep track of my reading on Goodreads, the bookish social network that was recently acquired by Amazon. You can follow my reading exploits there. When I started using Goodreads back in 2009 I considered it a novelty, fully aware that digitally tracking what page I was on in a book was at best foolish, at worst pompous. But now, four years on, I love that I can look back on what I was reading, the pace at which I read it and what I thought of it after the last page.

A quick note on the book links below. Where possible I linked to the edition of the book I read. None of the links point to Kindle books simply because I feel paperback editions make for more reliable Amazon links; Kindle books change cover images sometimes, for example, which makes me wary about which edition is on offer at a given link. In some cases, as in the Proust and Dostevsky books mentioned here, the Kindle editions are extremely unreliable, with some public domain translations being repackaged. My point is simply this: I link only to the editions I think are worth reading.

Without further ado, here’s what I’ve been reading this summer, with a few thoughts on each book.

My Summer Reading List (So Far)

The Stand by Stephen King: Initially I wanted to read King because I was looking for some fiction to fall into. It’s been a long time since I’ve written fiction myself and, at the time, I was looking for an inroad to explore writing it again. King is renowned for being a universe-builder, and I wanted to see how that comes together on the page.

The Stand is a masterpiece. It’s long and it took me half a year to finally get through it all, but at no point was I bored. In fact when it ended I felt as though I needed more. I must read more Stephen King.

The Love of the Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald: In the run up to the release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, I was looking to re-familiarize myself with the source material. Instead, the girlfriend recommended I give Fitzgerald’s posthumous The Love of the Last Tycoon a try. A quick, slim read, it’s a great Hollywood yarn. Romantic and affecting, I couldn’t put it down. It’s full of great little aphorisms that still feel relevant. On Hollywood: “It’s a mining town in lotus land.” Yep.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde: Another suggestion from the girlfriend, this is Fforde’s first Thursday Next novel, a character he has spun into two separate series. In short: this book is nonsensical by design, but there is also a certain charm to it. For about the first half of the book I railed against the alternate history Fforde has built, but eventually the pieces came together for me. The action scene that takes place in the latter half of the book, which, mind you, occurs along multiple temporal planes and at varying speeds, is unlike anything I’ve ever read. I’ll move on to the rest of the series in due time.

Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Brody: Another tome I’d been meaning to conquer for years, I finally picked this one up. It’s not a straight biography, hence the mouthful of a title. For the first few chapters I tried to follow along and watch or re-watch the films discussed in each chapter, but I didn’t even make it to the 1970s before I realized this is an untenable (if still enjoyable) way to read a book.5 Brody has written a definitive account of Godard’s cinema, yes, but it’s truly much more than that.

Thanks mostly to the fact that Godard is such a central character in both French and cinematic history, this really is a book about the growth of an art form and the convulsions of a nation. Brody gives succinct yet illuminating descriptions of the founding and dismantling of the French New Wave and the events leading up to May 1968. He does this without removing his critic’s hat, which is to say he fairly discusses the work of Godard both on its face and with the benefit of his world-historical perspective.

I am ever the more appreciative of Brody’s The Front Row blog in light of having read his book; each post on Godard (this 2011 entry on Godard’s anti-Semitism comes to mind) now seems like an addendum, though I should hope he will expand the book in later editions.

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse: I think it was a few years ago, after watching Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie’s A Bit of Fry and Laurie sketch-comedy show6 for the first time, that I got the urge to read Wodehouse. The duo went on to play the eponymous roles in the Jeeves and Wooster series, based on Wodehouse’s two most famous characters. And so I read a few short stories which proved illuminating.

It’s not simple to pin down a canonical order in which to read Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories. Some were published in magazines, some in anthologies and still others in novel form. The novels are often re-workings of old shorts to boot. Suffice it to say, The Inimitable Jeeves is a fine place to start, regarded as the first complete novel. It’s simply brilliant. No one turns a phrase like Wodehouse. I really should have a slim Wodehouse volume ready to go between all other books I read.

One more thing: another bit that pushed me to rekindle reading Wodehouse was this quote from John Ratzenberger in the October 2012 GQ oral history of Cheers:

It was the last generation of writers that had grown up reading books instead of watching TV. So you weren’t getting anything that was derivative of I Love Lucy or Happy Days. You were getting real characters [like those] they read in P.G. Wodehouse or Dickens or somewhere along the line, because they had all grown up with a love of literature.

I’ve been re-watching Cheers since reading that as well; he’s spot on. And, well, maybe that has more than a little something with my wanting to read more Wodehouse.

Vulgar Modernism: Writing On Movies And Other Media by J. Hoberman: This is that half book I mentioned above. If we’re going to split hairs here I actually read two-thirds of it. This is a collection of Hoberman’s writings from the 1980s. I put it onto my to-read list as online conversation about Vulgar Auteurism reached a fever pitch. Hoberman’s moniker has nothing to do with VA, but since the word vulgar was in the title it piqued my interest nonetheless.

This is an excellent collection, a recommended read for any aspiring (or duly employed, for that matter) critic. A common refrain against younger, greener critics is that they only know movies (see also:Ratzenberger, above). Hoberman is a sponge for all media, and he spouts that knowledge in everything he writes. It’s not the only way to be critical, but if you can’t imagine what it’s like to write with a working knowledge of arts and media theories, read some Hoberman.7

The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz: Credit where it’s due: this book first caught my attention when one of the booksellers at McNally Jackson recommended it on one of the in-store displays. Ajvaz’s novel is a reverie, a fever dream reminiscent of Italo Calvino, specifically If on a winter’s night a traveler. Ajvaz twists and turns through interlocking narratives about a mysterious unmarked island and other far flung places. One of the best set-pieces involves a chase along a large fluorescent sign that anyone with even a passing interest in type design will enjoy. This was a fun one to get lost in.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: I didn’t particularly enjoy Cline’s novel. It’s simple and painted in broad strokes, which is to say it’s really for a younger set than myself. That said, I do actually like the world he’s built in The OASIS, a futuristic gaming platform that has become more than an escape from reality, but a reality unto itself.

It’s easy to see how we’re heading on a path toward more fully realized digital selves at the expense of our grip on reality. Cline’s future is dystopic, but he seems to think it’s the technology that will ultimately save us from ourselves, which seems unlikely given the problems The OASIS has ultimately wrought by the time the novel picks up.

Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky: I read Crime and Punishment in high school. I remember about enough to know the context of the name Raskolnikov should it come up in conversation. I’d been meaning to revisit Dostoevsky, specifically to give the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translations a spin. I went with the slimmest volume and yet another recommendation from the girlfriend (she knows her stuff), Notes from the Underground. I found it to be a brilliant bit of comic work that, in fact, goes hand in hand with the Wodehouse I’d just read.

Dostoevsky’s unnamed underground narrator reminds me of the schlemiels from Yiddish literature, only full of ten times as much bile. Plus, he has this to offer, which comes at a good time for me as I try to write more:

I’m bored, and I constantly do nothing. And writing things down really seems like work. They say work makes a man good and honest. Well, here’s a chance, at least.

The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy by Stanisław Lem: I’m quite excited for The Congress, Ari Folman’s first film since his Oscar-nominated animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir. Starring Robin Wright and Harvey Keitel, the film played at Cannes where it seems to have landed with a thud. It has no American release date announced. Anyway, the film is based on Stanisław Lem’s The Futurological Congress, though the trailer makes it appear as though the film has very little to do with the book, a fact which I might bristle at for any other book I enjoyed reading. Not so for this one.

In a word, Lem’s novel is nuts. I don’t envy Michael Kandel, who translated the book from the Polish. Almost every other word is a pun or a fictitious pharmaceutical or a futuristic machine with a wacky name and purpose. I have no clue how this sort of wordplay translates over, but I’m so, so glad it does. In Lem’s future there’s a drug for everything, even how we perceive reality (and a pill to cut through that as well). Read it. Go read it now.

Onward

Now that I’m in a reading groove, I’ve decided to try reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I’m 8% of the way into it (I’m reading an ebook) and I sort of don’t know what the hell is going on. A more accurate way to put it would be that I don’t know how to describe what’s going on, but I am rather enveloped in this wild, unpredictable universe. Whenever I get lost or frustrated there’s always the Infinite Summer message boards to get me back on track.

I’ve been adding books to my Goodreads “to-read” shelf and picking from them at random. Their recommendation engine is quite good, but I’ve got enough that I already know I want to read that I should be set for a long while. If you’d like to suggest a read, I’d love to hear it in the comments, or drop me a line here or on Twitter.

Well, now that that’s out of my system back to writing about movies and technology. Maybe.

  1. All links leading to Amazon in this post are affiliate links. I’ll get a little cut of whatever you buy on Amazon from the links, which helps keep the candler blog up and running. I thank you in advance for supporting independent writing.

  2. That link leads to Wikipedia for simplicity’s sake, but if you’re looking to read any of In Search of Lost Time I recommend picking up the Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions.

    I read the aforelinked Lydia Davis translation is part of these editions, of which only four of the seven volumes have been published in the U.S. If you’re looking for these editions, be wary of any ebooks that are free or incredulously cheap; the Davis translation is worth it.

  3. I am, in fact, a blurb on the book’s product page; from this post.

  4. Oh, you’ve noticed?

  5. I don’t have a VCR anymore, so it would have been an incomplete viewing anyway (to say nothing of the fact that much of Godard’s work isn’t available on home video). Pro-tip: read Brody’s chapter before watching the film in question.

  6. A taste.

  7. I stopped reading it for two reasons: a) It was due back at the library and b) I had read the more grandiose pieces in the book. All that remained were reviews which, unless I were to watch the films and mete out Hoberman’s opinion, hold much less significance for me.

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