Category Archives: literature

Year In Reading, 2013

40 43 books read or partially read, not counting the re-reading of comfort food books (Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Dorothy Sayers mysteries, and Pride and Prejudice) but totally counting War & Peace, because I read the shit out of that, except the epilogue, which I skimmed the shit out of, because UGH TOLSTOY I GET IT NAPOLEON HISTORY EUROPE. Other than the epilogue, though, it really was pretty good! That was a pleasant surprise.


Here is the full list, roughly in order:

The Orphan Master’s Son (Johnson) – A

Life After Life (Atkinson) – A

Finishing the Hat (Sondheim) – A

Lonesome Dove (McMurtry) – A-

War and Peace (Tolstoy) – A-

Tenth of December (Saunders) – A-

A Tale for the Time Being (Ozeki) – A-

On Writing (King) – A-

Just Kids (Smith) – B+/A-

[all five of] The Patrick Melrose Novels (St. Aubyn) – B+/A-

Dear Life (Munro) – B+

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (Waldman) – B+

Speedboat (Adler) – B+

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Sloan) – B+

Crazy Salad and Scribble Scribble (Ephron) – B+

Half the Kingdom (Segal) – B+

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (Semple) – B+

The Long Goodbye (Chandler) – B+

Foreign Affairs (Lurie) – B/B+

The Golem and the Jinni (Wecker) – B

Parrot and Olivier in America (Carey) – B

Your Baby and Child (Leach) – B

The Song of Achilles (Miller) – B

The Middlesteins (Attenberg) – B

The Burgess Boys (Strout) – B

Miss Silver Comes to Stay (Wentworth) – B

Double Indemnity (Cain) – B

The Interestings (Wolitzer) – B/B-

The Private Patient (James) – B-

Angry Conversations with God (Isaacs) – B-

Thrones, Dominations (Patton Walsh) – C



When I Was a Child, I Read Books (Robinson) — UF

The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoyevsky) — UF



The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (Greer)

Love, In Theory (Levy)

Telegraph Avenue (Chabon)

Bringing up Bebe (Druckerman) <– If Carrie from SATC had not just gone to France but stayed there, had a baby, and written an inane memoir



Flashes of War (Schultz) — by a friend! Can’t rate it objectively but can kvell.

Without Risk, Can There Be Reward?

Spain in August, as perhaps you’ve heard, is hot. The house we’re borrowing has no pool, no A/C, no fans, even. If you leave anything outside the fridge, it is, in mere moments, claimed by flies, colonized by ants — or it collapses in on itself, like a black hole.

The house’s primary occupants only ever come here during the winter, and they warned us. “August?” they said politely, when we unfurled our plans. So excited were we to get a chance to come to Spain that we didn’t think too clearly or ask too many probing questions, like “How far is the beach?” or “What do you do for Internet?” It was a house! In Spain! How important could such quibbles be? And, of course, we’re grateful, stupidly grateful to be here. Don’t mistake me. This expression you see on my face, between the mosquito bites? That’s gratitude. It’s just: Oh man, those bites. We all have so many red dots everywhere that we look like ongoing games of Connect Four.

Last night we played the house copy of the original “Risk!” which hails from before the Kennedy assassination. The game has since divested itself of the exclamation point, perhaps in acknowledgement of our grimmer, postmodern times. In essentials, it remains the same. As Wikipedia puts it:

“Setup time: 5–15 minutes

Playing time: 1 to 8 hours”

It took us much longer since neither of us knew the rules — Mr. Ben had never played before, and I only vaguely recalled the endless furious battles for world domination that once took over my childhood. In fact, I think we’re still playing, even though we’ve long since packed away the board, complimented each other on a good game, and declared it a draw. In marriage, there is no draw; there is only victory assured and victory delayed, and each of us continues plotting that devastating sneak attack to secure Ukraine.

Speaking of Mr. Ben, my life’s companion, my heart’s desire, and my co-lugger of suitcases through five different airports, he has discovered in himself an ability to drive stick. Thanks to his intrepidity, we’ve also made it to a small public pool not too far away, and to the beach, where we have submerged our miserable bodies and found some relief.

We’ve also wandered around the distressingly touristy, overpriced Costa Blanca town of Denia,waiting to be inspired. Instead, we have mostly encountered mediocre food at alarming prices. In rough moments, I think Denia has all the charm, grace, & beauty of Tel Aviv, only without the character or the quality meals; then I repent and admit that some of the streets wind pleasantly through plazas, and there is, after all, a castle. Anyway, we’ve decided to take a break from our vacation and run away to the more gracious inland city of Cuenca, capital of La Mancha, for a few days. Next week, before we fly out via Madrid, we will probably spend some time in Toledo, too.

Basically, what I’m saying is, we are snobs, and also I am spoiled from having so recently, and at long last, been in England. History! Literature! Architecture! Quaintness and cuteness and politeness, oh my. If only I could package up some of Spain’s excess sunshine and bring it to Gloucestershire, I would lack for nothing.

As my reading list reflects, I have only left the UK physically. Since coming to Spain, thanks partly to the excellent library of my hosts, I’ve been on a mostly anglophile tear, making my way through:

* Foreign Affairs, the largely forgotten Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alison Lurie

* At Lastthe final Patrick Melrose novel, by Edward St. Aubyn

Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

* The Private Patient, by P.D. James — not her best

* One Man’s Meat, by E.B. White — American, but with a very proper British appreciation for dry humor, the past, and the foibles of his fellow man. And to give you a sense of how blurbs have evolved since the 30’s, when White first wrote this collection of essays, this edition quotes the Yale Review as proclaiming it “Good writing.”

* The second half of Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers — for the 52nd time, because it is here, it is her best (well, one of them), and I cannot help myself.

To Cuenca, I will probably bring Parrot and Oliver in America, and, of course, the game of Risk!

Initial Here, Sign There

People/Things With Whom I Share Initials

from Most Exciting to Most Disturbing

  • Elizabeth Bennett
  • Eric Blair (you might know him better as “George Orwell”)
  • Honorary Jew Elif Batuman
  • The Empire State Building
  • “Extra Special Bitter” Beer
  • Emily Bronte
  • Emily Bazelon
  • The Encyclopedia Britannica
  • My boss
  • Elizabeth Bathory (“Countess ELIZABETH Bathory is perhaps the most prolific serial killer in history and is remembered as the “Blood Countess.” She was born in 1560. Her wealthy family included the King’s of Transylvania and Poland. For political reasons, Elizabeth was married off to Count Ferencz Nadasdy of Hungary. She killed peasant girls, maid servants and women of the lower gentry. Her motives are unclear. Vampire lore claims that she believed their virgin blood would make her young, while most historians believe the murders were due to sadistic pleasure.” Seriously.)
  • Emma Bovary
  • Eva Braun

My Year in Books 2011

At the end of a nicely literary year, I’m currently reading or just finished the following:

Intense, and intensely grim, but beautifully written. The copy I got from the BPL included a great introductory essay by Jonathan Franzen that adds depth to the book (when read afterwards, as proper introductions are).

The kind of noir that shows you how it’s done. Who was it who called it one of the three classic books set in LA?

Only just started it but already I’m swept away. Gornick also wrote one of the most important books I came across this year, The Situation and the Story (see below).

It doesn’t finish with quite the same verve and pop as it begins, but it’s well-written, engaging, and smart all the way through. My favorite First Novel of the Year.

This gets my vote for Most Disappointing First Novel of the Year. It falls into the same traps as Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which I also had to put down in frustration for being obnoxiously over-written. The premise is so promising, too! Will someone else please write the book this meant to be?

Again with the grim. The Submission is too much like real life, only rehashed and exaggerated. You’d think that’s what good fiction is supposed to be, and Waldman is a competent writer, but for me it doesn’t quite connect. I need fewer characters, including at least one I can relate to and like, as well as fewer stereotypes and more surprises. Otherwise, it’s just like reading the news.

And here’s the final round-up of WHAT I READ BESIDES “THE NEW YORKER” IN 2011:

  • A Dance With Dragons (Martin) – A-
  • A Moveable Feast (Hemmingway) – B
  • A Red Herring Without Mustard (Bradley) – B+
  • A Walk in the Woods (Bryson) – B+
  • An Unsuitable Attachment (Pym) – B+
  • An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (James) – B+/A-
  • And the Pursuit of Happiness (Kalman) – A-/A
  • Best American Non-Required Reading 2008 – unfinished but good! B/B+ ish
  • Bonk (Roach) – A/A-
  • Bossypants (Fey) — A-
  • Broken Glass Park (Bronsky) – B+
  • Buttered Side Down (Ferber) – B+
  • Canterbury Tales (Chast) – B
  • Claire DeWitt And the City of the Dead (Gran) – B+
  • Disobedience (Hamilton) – B
  • Excellent Women (Pym) – B
  • Game of Thrones, Books 1-4 – B+/A-
  • Homesick (Eshkol) – A-
  • House of Holes (Baker) – B+/A-
  • Human Croquet (Atkinson) – B/B-
  • I Remember Nothing (Ephron) – B
  • Incendiary (Cleve) – B/B-
  • Kafka Was the Rage (Broyard) – Unfinished and uninteresting. C+?
  • Life Among the Savages (Jackson) – B+/A-
  • Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House (Daum) – B
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (Simonson) – B+
  • Mary Ann in Autumn (Maupin) – B-
  • My Mother She Killed Me … (Bernheimer) – B
  • Mysterious Benedict Society (Stewart) – B/B-
  • One Day (Nicholls) – B
  • Orange Jumpsuit (Cobble) – N/A. How can I rate a book written by a close friend in which I play a supporting role?
  • Raising Demons (Jackson) – B+
  • Rich Boy (Pomerantz) – A-
  • Room (Donoghue) – A
  • Sacred Games (Chandra) – unfinished but strong; I want to come back to it
  • Spook (Roach) – B+
  • Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America (Biskind) – unfinished & not sure I’ll pick it up again. Turns out dirt on Beatty’s sex life doesn’t really do it for me.
  • Started Early, Took My Dog (Atkinson) – B/B+
  • Starting from Happy (Marx) – C+
  • State By State (Weiland/Wilsey) – B+
  • State of Wonder (Patchett) – A
  • The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (Summerscale) – B-
  • Swamplandia! (Russell) – B
  • The Finkler Question (Jacobson) – B-
  • The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society (Shaffer) – B
  • The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (Bronsky) – A-
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Skloot) – B
  • The Lazarus Project (Hemon) – B
  • The Magician King (Grossman) – B
  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Bender) – B-
  • The Sabbath World (Shulevitz) – B+
  • The Situation and the Story (Gornick) – A
  • The Sun Also Rises (Hemmingway) – Unfinished but ugh. C
  • The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (Summerscale) – B-
  • The Tiger’s Wife (Obreht) – B+/A-
  • The Tragedy of Arthur (Phillips) – B-
  • The Warmth of Other Suns (Wilkerson) – unfinished but I definitely want to get it from the library again. Engrossing, wonderfully-written history.
  • The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag (Bradley) – B+
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Le Carre) – A-
  • To The End of the Land (Grossman) – A
  • Unbroken (Hillenbrand) – B
  • When Everything Changed (Collins) – A
  • Your Voice in My Head (Forrest) – B+/A-
  • Zone One (Whitehead) – Unfinished and I think I’d like to go back to it, though I felt mixed in the moment. B?


2011 Discoveries

Genre novels. I’ve always been one of those people who could appreciate Dorothy Sayers, the occasional quality YA novel, and Harry Potter, while still being a snob about genres in general. In 2011, I got over myself. Perhaps “Buffy,” which I watched way too many hours of over the course of the year (especially on the treadmill–it’s excellent exercise viewing), gets some credit. Regardless, I went in headfirst and got swallowed up by George R. R. Martin, John Le Carre, PD James, the debut novelist Sara Gran, and Walter Mosley. I also bought a copy of The Maltese Falcon, which I haven’t gotten around to yet. Turns out, and gee, who’s surprised, I’m a huge dork for this stuff. Can’t get enough. Feed me, Seymour, feed me!

Alina Bronsky. The best writer you’re not reading, possibly because books in translation don’t get a lot of attention in America. (Unless they’re about bisexual Scandinavian hackers with axes to grind.)

Mary Roach. Roach writes non-fiction for people like me who don’t want to have to work to learn things. Factoids from her masterpiece Bonk continue coming to mind eight months after I read it, and it works as a terrific 2011 book as an intellectual, witty Superego-like counterpoint to the hilariously, gleefully filthy Id of House of Holes.

Shirley Jackson. If you only know her for her chilling short stories, try her memoir — her first-person account of trying to raise a brood of high-spirited children in mid-twentieth-century middle America is almost as scary and twice as funny.


2011 Disappointments

Hemingway. Was it watching Midnight in Paris that pushed me into Papa’s arms? His books were good at getting strange young men to approach me on the subway and that’s the best I can say for them. Except I did love the exchange at the end of A Moveable Feast where he tries to convince F. Scott Fitzgerald that he has a perfectly normal-sized penis, no matter what Zelda says. Hemingway here is a very good friend: he not only tells Fitzy he’s being silly, he also drops trou to compare and takes his still sorrowful, unconvinced buddy to a museum for a tour of naked sculptures. Overall, though, Papa’s self-absorption left me cold.

The Finkler Question. This flaccid, unfunny humor novel won the Booker Prize. I’m trying to remember now why I rated it even as highly as I did, considering I enjoyed very little of it. Ambition? A good concept? Maybe I felt sorry for the author. That happens sometimes.

UPDATE: A old friend accuses me of grading on a curve! Do I? Do I now need to rethink everything??


Jonathan Franzen and Lorrie Moore were beyond charming last night at 92Y — where I had never actually been before. My darling Aunts Marjy & Jane took me to that hallowed ground, which Jon Stewart described as the third holiest site to Judaism, after Jerusalem and Zabar’s.

On stage, Moore and Franzen giggled like old friends. They also each had great answers to an audience question: When do you know you’ve arrived at the right ending?

Lorrie Moore talked about the difference between novels and short stories in this respect. Short stories demand endings that shine light backwards on everything that has come before, she said. Novels, by contrast, shine light outwards on what could come next.

Jonathan Franzen said that you know you’ve hit on a good ending (if not the “right” one) when the paralyzing anxiety occasioned by all the worse endings you’ve thought of begins to fall away.

The audience sort of mooed happily, the way groups do when someone says something that makes perfect sense.

Walking out, I told my aunts that Franzen is one of my literary boyfriends. (Adorable Brit David Mitchell, who I saw read at BookCourt, is another, because I am not so monogamous in my literary life: I also go on crazy dates with Jonathan Ames, talk politics with hot grandma Anne Lamott, and have passionate Southern evenings with Ann Patchett.)

Imagine my surprise when I went to sleep that night and dreamed Franzen had become my *actual* boyfriend. Which led to this exchange over GChat:

Logan: um, did you do it?
Me: no!
Logan: just checking
Me: we walked around swarthmore arm in arm
Logan: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Me: isn’t that kind of even better??
Logan: that is even better. amazing, amazing dream.
Me: i also dreamt that i had to pee in a suitcase for some reason. like, everyone else got to use a toilet and i had to pee in a suitcase. but that was a separate dream.

The Gun on the Wall

When I picked up an unabridged (though yes, translated) version of the the Canterbury Tales a couple of weeks ago, I’m not sure what I was expecting. Stories, of course. So many novels lately successfully weave together loosely-related stories: A Visit from the Goon Squad, which was so exciting it had me up at 3:00 AM thinking about narrative; The Imperfectionists, which is not quite as good as I hoped it would be, but still worth reading; Olive Kitteridge; and the Ms. Hempel Chronicles, off the top of my head. I wanted to see how the master, and perhaps originator, of the genre pulled it off.

I knew some of the stories would be a little bawdy, others would be religious, and many, if not most, would have morals. But I was not prepared for what I found. In fact I was so unprepared that, reading it on the subway one morning across from an Orthodox mother and daughter, I got so flustered I had to turn the book over on my lap.

Friends, Chaucer likes the word “cunt.”

Sure, he’s not the only one. Characters on the Sopranos made liberal use of the word, usually as a prelude to or an excuse for murder. Henry Miller sprinkles it on his prose like salt. But everyone knows that Henry Miller is rated R, or NC-17. I had no idea the Canterbury Tales were. They seem so staid simply by virtue of being old.

That’s the real shock here. It’s not just that Chaucer enjoys an edgy, monosyllabic word that perhaps carried less weight in England 700 years ago than it does in the US today. (Seems possible, according to one etymological history.) It’s that these pilgrims, Chaucer’s characters, have such gleefully filthy imaginations. Wives cheat on husbands with students, lodgers, cousins, monks, anyone available, really. Virgins are hardly immune from the lust that seems to overtake married women: when they are surprised by amorous fellas, they give as good as they get. And men? Men will leap on anything with two legs and a hole.

That, in short, is the venerable, aged, enduring classic the Canterbury Tales: smut, smut, more smut, some boring moralizing, a dash of out-of-the-blue Jew hate, followed by smut, smut, smut, and smut. Okay! Now the naked Chaucer from A Knight’s Tale makes more sense to me.

Also shocking: I discovered this weekend, when I went home to join my family in picking out a headstone, that my father had a gun. True story. The man who, as far as I know, only ever shot off his mouth, bought a Smith & Wesson in New Mexico and brought it to DC shortly after moving there. The same Wild West instincts that were guiding him told him not to bother with a permit, apparently.

My mother bound the gun up in a kerchief inside an Anne Klein shoebox, which she taped shut and kept in her closet. And that’s where it stayed. I never heard about, nor saw, the gun. Until now.


My favorite writers are middle-aged

I came to a strange but inescapable conclusion when I found myself largely unmoved by the New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40“: the writers that thrill me most tend to be of a different generation than me. Rivka Galchen, off of the New Yorker list, is brilliant both in person and on the page (as I discovered at the Brooklyn Literary Festival and in reading Atmospheric Disturbances, respectively); and, before this, I felt bad that Sarah Shun-lien Bynum hadn’t gotten more attention for her rendition of the same song that won Olive Kitteridge the Pulitzer Prize. put together a good alternate list which includes Myla Goldberg, whose Bee Season finally taught me, at the age of 20, not to judge books by covers, and which inspired me to aim big in writing my own first novel.

Still, I realize, my favorites — and the authors of some of the #BooksThatChangedMyWorld, as Susan Orlean put it yesterday — are not the bright young things, or at least, not anymore. They are, in fact, either Middle-Aged, British, or Dead (though rarely all three at once):

  • Jonathan Franzen (middle-aged)
  • David Mitchell (British)
  • Ann Patchett (buying a Corvette as we speak)
  • Susanna Clarke (Limey)
  • Jane Austen (dead)
  • Dorothy Sayers (as-a-doornail)
  • Michael Chabon (menopausal)
  • Anne Lamott (grandmother!)
  • Marilynne Robinson (virtually a crone)
  • Dorothy Parker (worm-meat, but hopefully happy at last)

Some books #ChangedMyWorld at the time but have since faded comfortably into the ether:

  • Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and Tom Robbins’s Still Life with Woodpecker taught me that there was life outside my Jewish Day School. WAY outside.
  • Bridge to Terebithia — Wait, you mean people you love can *die*?
  • The Princess Bride — And life isn’t fair?
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry — And there’s serious, endemic injustice built into the system? (This series affected me even more strongly than To Kill a Mockingbird. Though I loved them both.)
  • Midnight’s Children — And other countries have stories worth hearing?
  • Gone With the Wind — And the South was a victim in the Civil War? (I believed this for about five minutes, until my father sat me down to have a chat. Still, that was a very disorienting five minutes.)
  • The Mists of Avalon — And patriarchy has not always been the default operating system of every functioning society in the world?
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — And something really funny can still be profound?
  • Slaughterhouse Five and Vonnegut in general — ditto. That’s a lesson I never stop learning.

NOTE: If you want to complain about the “20 Under 40” list, Gawker has created a handy-dandy How To guide. Have at it!

Write from Wrong

I have a bit of history with Gary Shteyngart. First I read Russian Debutante’s Handbook and admired him. Then I read this interview in the Forward and despised him. Various people who have come in contact with him told me various unsavory stories that helped solidify my dislike, and I didn’t read Absurdistan, which might have complicated it.

Now I read this interview with him and feel all conflicted. On one level, I can relate to an uncomfortable amount of what he says. Like this:

Before the book deal, while you were working those five years on the manuscript, did you identify yourself as a writer?

No, no, no! Are you kidding me? I’m always shocked by Americans and their self-confidence. They haven’t published anything, and you ask them what they do and they say: “I’m a writer.” I say, “Oh, who is your publisher?” And they say, “Oh, well…I’ve been working on this book for the past 87 years and it’s brilliant but…” I do have to say that takes a lot of chutzpah and that’s wonderful. It really means that you think of yourself as a writer. I didn’t think of myself as a writer until the book came out.

On the other hand, we diverge here:

What were you spending your money on at the time?

Beer. Wine. Vodka.

Oh, Russians. I got my hair cut by a Russian this weekend. Or, more succinctly, I got bobbed! The Russian in question, Leila, was excellent at what she did, and yet she still managed to rub me the wrong way.

ME: (looking in the mirror) I don’t know. I’d like it to be a little … more exciting?
RUSSIAN: (disapproving) Well, you are the boss. You tell me what to do and I do it. But how do I know what you think is more exciting? Maybe you think mohawk is exciting.
ME: There are a lot of mohawks about these days.
RUSSIAN: Tell me about it.

Eventually she gave me a great haircut. But how much do you have to pay a Russian to do a good job *and* be nice to you? A question for the ages.

Back to Gary, who is either more ballsy, more arrogant, or simply more determined to be a full-time writer than I am:

I always tell my students to find a non-profit job because non-profit means that there is no bottom line! Or some kind of municipal job. You want to work 9-5, so that when the day is over it’s over and the weekends are yours. And the best thing, which I had at a couple of jobs, is when you can lock yourself in your office and write. People would say, “Oh Shteyngart is not a team player, he is always locked in his office, God knows what he is doing in there!” I used to work at this non-profit that dealt with immigrant resettlement and I would help write directions for new Russian immigrants, like how to not get drunk, how to avoid AIDS, stuff like that. That took max a couple of days a month, really. And the rest of the time I would lock myself in my office and work on the draft of my first novel. Half of it was finished by my senior year in college and the other half was finished working that job. It wasn’t the kind of service job where I would come home exhausted. I would come home ready to write or would have accomplished the writing at the office. It was brilliant.

I didn’t work more than two years at any one given place because there’d be lay-offs or people would realize I wasn’t doing anything.

It is twisted, but I kind of admire that. Here I am trying to please my bosses at whatever 9-5 job I am currently working while also trying to ultimately do the author thing. I would never close my door and work on my novel. For shame! Also, until now I’ve never had a door. But perhaps Gary’s willingness to piss off anyone who is ultimately unimportant *means* something. It can be freeing, I imagine, to stop caring about inessentials. Trouble is, the idea that someone could dislike me — especially a boss — has never been something I could shrug off.

I have to admit I’ve never worked more than a year and a half at any given place either. Not entirely by choice, though. Again, like Gary. Hrm.

On Friday, I met Mark Oppenheimer and we talked briefly about Gary Shteyngart. I mentioned the offensive article in the Forward. Turns out it was his piece — he was doing the interviewing. I also met the adorable & fantastic Myla Goldberg, who went to Oberlin like Gary Shteyngart, and the adorable & fantastic Irina Reyn, who went out on dates with Gary Shteyngart back in the day. Holy lord, people, can a world with six billion people in it be so small and yet so full of Russians?

ETA: Jesus Christmas, as the children say: The man is everywhere! Here is another interview with him on Tablet.

Contents are (marginally less) fragile

I knew Friday was going to be rough when I started off the morning by almost stepping on a cockroach in my bare feet.

Friday *was* rough, as expected. Even by the evening, when I abandoned all attempts to feign normalcy and instead went to the gym for an hour, I was faced with a Very Special Episode of “What Not to Wear” starring a cancer survivor who had lost both her breasts as well as ninety pounds. “Now that she has beaten cancer through sheer determination,” said the voiceover, “she faces another challenge: how to dress her new body.”

Luckily all my energy was going into propelling my body forward on the treadmill, so I had no strength with which to pummel the screen.

Yeah, Friday sucked, as did Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. There were bright spots! If you were with me on any of those days, you made them bearable, so thank you. Overall, though, I felt like a plucked chicken, and not even a tasty one.

Then, this morning, I woke up to a brilliant, sparkling sky. Suddenly I am sympathetic to all of God’s children. I am nodding and smiling. I am identifying with everything I read, like this, via Finslippy:

I’ve been feeling ever since like I should wear a shirt that reads, “CONTENTS ARE FRAGILE,” and actually that we should all wear that shirt, so that we can all remember to be kind to each other, because life can be so hard, and we’re only here for a little while.

Yes, Alice, goddammit! Yes. I embrace you! Mwah!

And you, Morning News Tournament of Books! Come over here, you old so-and-so. You are almost making me weep with happiness. (At least so far. I cannot vouch for what will happen if Wolf Hall and other favorites of mine from 09 don’t keep advancing.) Quotes like these made my morning:

Let’s say that the standards that apply to people-—the basic character-defining requirements—=are that a person be funny, smart, and kind. This is my rubric and possibly yours. If a person is funny, smart, and kind (or two out of the three) any other flaw can be forgiven.

It has never occurred to me to apply the same standard to books, which have an aesthetic dimension not even touched in the funny-smart-kind paradigm. And yet …

Yes, TOB! That is exactly right! Thank you.

You know what else is sublimely right? This chart matching famous writers with their day jobs. YES. I cheer for you, Lapham Quarterly. Hurrah!

Maybe Mr. Ben sprinkled MDMA on my Oatmeal Flakes this morning. After four days of Fester Gloom walking around (who has, to be honest, been making guest appearances in our apartment all month) I couldn’t blame him.


Without realizing that Defective Yeti had declared this November to be National Novel Reading Month — the novel in question being Catch 22 — my book group also chose to sink its wine-stained teeth into Catch 22. I had read it before in high skool and I remembered three things:

1) Major Major Major Major!
2) War is crazy. In war there are no heroes, only people struggling to maintain their sanity; and if that, maybe, once in a while, coincides with Doing the Right Thing, then cool, but no one goes out of his way.
3) There are an awful lot of whores.

My memory proved accurate. It’s not an easy read: the story loops back in on itself, tangential characters wander on and off screen, there are almost as many unnecessary adjectives as loose Italian women. In parts you really have to push yourself through but each time you’re rewarded with a scene that’s so good you wonder how anyone couldn’t love this book.

And what struck me this time was how revolutionary this kind of myth-busting must have been when the book first came out. At this point, in a post-Vietnam world, we’re accustomed to hearing that the people who fight for our freedom may have flaws, that not everyone who ventures out on a battlefield has pure and noble intentions. But this book is about World War II: The Good War, the one we’re supposed be to be able to be proud of. These soldiers, described by Heller in all their specific grinning idiocy are members of our Greatest Generation. How did he get away with that? Even today it wouldn’t be easy.

Despite its stylistic flaws, I think that courage is going to be my key takeaway from this reading. But um, I do wish there were one female character who wasn’t an empty-headed, busty buffoon. On that note: in honor of whatshisname, another great white shark of mid-century American fiction who died this past weekend, Jezebel put together a roster of He-Man Woman Hating Club. Made me feel better about feeling alienated by so much “contemporary” lit. Read the comments too. They are pure and noble.

ETA: if this isn’t enough bile for a Wednesday morning, here’s some additional spewing, bubbling, volcanic hate for Maureen Dowd.