Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Reviews Are In…

I’ll be flying to Chicago tomorrow to say goodbye to a much-loved uncle. I write a great deal about the struggles and difficulties that we face when attempting to be “the right kind of man” in a culture that’s tugging us in a thousand different directions, a thousand different conceptions of manhood, and I should say that my uncle was definitely one of those guys who epitomized everything you’d want in a man, a family member, a father, and he didn’t even make it look tough. Great man, and we’re all going to miss him.

I’d planned to write a couple posts over the last two weeks to spotlight some different Nathan Holic links and interviews, etc., but the virtual world of my blog has to take a back seat to the real world. I figured I’d gather these links into a single blog post, and post them into various pages throughout this site, and boom: you’ll have them all in one place, and I’ll still catch my flight.

So what’s happening? What’s new for me?

“Don’t Critique Me”: I read with Chicago author Lindsay Hunter at Functionally Literate in downtown Orlando this past Saturday. The video should be available soon, and I’ll post it when it’s up (Lindsay was freakin’ awesome). We were old grad school cronies, too, so in anticipation of the event, I wrote an essay for the Burrow Press blog in which I found my old fiction workshop critiques for her stories, and then critiqued my own critiques. Check it out here. If you’re a Lindsay Hunter fan, you should also check out The Drunken Odyssey’s podcast interview with her, which was recorded directly before the Functionally Literate event.

Review in Scene Sarasota: Sarasota’s arts & culture magazine, Scene Sarasota, just ran a great review of 15 Views of Orlando in their September issue. They wondered if there would ever be a “15 Views of Sarasota,” to which I can only tell the online world: if there’s a demand for it, we’ll do it. But you’ve gotta let us know. And you’ve gotta get Stephen King on board.

Interview at Knightnews: I spent about an hour talking with the folks from Knightnews.com, the online news hub for University of Central Florida students. It’s an attractive site, very multimedia heavy, and I got the chance to talk about American Fraternity Man, the culture of the National Fraternity, the hazing and alcohol culture at campuses across the country, and my own thoughts on both student and administrative successes and failures. It’s a video, so watch on the device of your choice.

American Fraternity Man reviewed: the first reviews of AFM are in, and while I’m always nervous/anxious for each one, I’ve been really happy with what folks are saying about my book. Here are some quick quotes and links:

“This book is hard to put down…It is a reminder of the complexities of this system, but most importantly a reminder that, at the core, relationships and influence are the most important and most effective tools we have when developing students. American Fraternity Man is everything you love and hate about fraternity life. It is a great story for anyone who knows what it is like to be miserable, challenged, and still love their job.”- Association of Fraternity/ Sorority Advisors, “Essentials” Newsletter
“American Fraternity Man is many things at once–funny and tragic, pro-Greek and anti-frat, bildungsroman and travel narrative, indictment of whiney millenials and the adults who made them that way. For GDIs (I’ll let you read the book for a translation of that abbreviation), the novel is a window into a world that is often misunderstood, even hated, but whose inhabitants are no less human, whose stories are no less worthy of telling.” – Dianne Turgeon Richardson, Sundog Lit
“I feel that all college students should take the chance to read this book…This book was an eye-opener to me…” – Books With Bite
Okay, so that’s the link round-up for this week!
It’s awesome to get great reviews, but I’ve gotta tell you: it’s just awesome that people are reading the book. So if you’ve been to any of my readings lately, or if you’ve picked up the book, or if you’ve finished plowing through it: thank you so much. I don’t take any of this for granted, and I appreciate any support you’ve given me.

Infinite Jest: is this about me, or the characters?

I spent much of the summer reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and regardless of my final thoughts or critical appraisal, the book itself was an experience that succeeded in challenging me as a reader. Along the way, I constantly consulted the web site Infinite Summer, just to measure my reactions against the multitude of bloggers and readers who posted there, and I had to keep using and abusing their “Infinite Summery” to keep track of various character/plot details. So I’ve got much love for the site, and the overall project there, and highly recommend it to anyone opening this hefty tome. (I’ve wanted to say “hefty tome” for awhile now, btw)

Cover_IJ

My thoughts after finishing Infinite Jest are complicated, as they should be after reading something that is 1,100 pages of dense prose. So I’m going to try to unpack and distill them here, in easily digestible bullet-points, before I deliver my ultimate conclusions at the very end. I don’t know how well I can contextualize the book and its particulars, either, so if you haven’t read it, this might be a blog post to skip.

  1. There were a lot of great moments in this book. Some were small: individual sentences that just shone so bright I had to dog-ear pages or get out my phone and take a picture because I’d feel awful if I forgot about them. Absolutely timeless and brilliant. Some of the great moments were larger: long sequences of extreme empathy and such insight that it doesn’t feel possible that a single person could have observed (and written) all of this. (I say “observed” in the sense of a fiction-writer. To see it in real life and takes notes. To imagine it, based it on your real-life interactions and observations. Etc. I know that this book is not a work of weirdo-memoir a la Eggers, even though much of it seems to parallel Wallace’s personal experiences from tennis academies/ rehab centers.) To start off any discussion of Infinite Jest without acknowledging David Foster Wallace’s incredible skill as a writer (and specifically as a fiction writer) would be unfair.
  2. “Good moments” doesn’t necessarily mean “good novel,” though. So I need to be clear about that. I can love individual pieces without loving the whole. (Likewise, I can also love a whole without having a whole lot of individual moments that I found to be ground-breaking, etc. Like, we’ve all listened to albums that were great, but that didn’t seem to have that one amazing single?)
  3. I did not find Infinite Jest to be a good novel as a whole, or a good story. Despite those aforementioned “great moments,” I’m looking at this book as a novel. Not just as a nice collection of individual moments. Not just as a study in voice, or writing style. A novel. And “novel” implies a certain tradition, a certain set of expectations, a certain structure…Students cringe when I use words like “story” and “structure” in my class because they think that these words mean that I’m imposing a “stupid formula” on them; they think that–since they just discovered DeLillo and Heller and Barthalme–“story” is beneath them. But that’s not really the case. Even in wildly experimental novels, we see well-crafted stories. Storytelling is an art form. Storytelling matters. Storytelling means that you have a reader, and you’ve got something important or interesting to tell them. And storytelling is really fucking hard. And usually the students who complain about “story structure” are the ones who just can’t learn how to tell a story, and so they spend all of their time justifying the complex choices in their flawed fictions (fictions which, incidentally, could be dramatically improved if only the students cared about the readers who will be consuming this piece). Okay, so back to Infinite Jest: there were a lot of good moments, and if the author had cared enough about the characters (and the reader) it could have been a good book and a good story…but the structural issues in this novel are just too great, and they just wind up weakening the story, detracting from it, preventing it from what it could have been. This is one of my lasting thoughts, when instead I should have been left with thoughts about the characters and the situations.
  4. Quick note: I believe that the best storytellers disappear. The second that the storyteller reminds you that he/she is there, or that this work is all about him/her…well, then the story suffers. Sometimes the author is part of the story, as in the case of Kurt Vonnegut, so it makes sense that he pokes his head in. But for me, the best stories (not “fictions,” not poems) are immersive experiences where story is the top priority. Even in books like Middlesex, where beautiful prose makes you stop and admire it on occasion, or House of Leaves, where the prose is met with a variety of extra-textual elements that draw attention to themselves, every choice seems to be made to support the story, first and foremost.
  5. Other quick note: I love long novels. Infinite Jest is long, but I knew that it would be long when I, like, saw the book. I wasn’t naive. As I mention above, my favorite novels are big thick immersive experiences. I loved The Corrections, and I loved The Secret History and The Little Friend, and I loved The Bonfire of the Vanities, and I loved The Jungle and Anna Karenina. I love to fall into a book and forget that I’m reading it, to have a whole month of my life consumed in the experience. There’s nothing quite like it. So I was really pumped about reading Infinite Jest. I loved David Foster Wallace, too, and I thought: big book, plus awesome author, equals incredible experience.
  6. However, it’s too fucking long. Let’s get this out of the way first. I dedicated two complete months of my reading time to this book, and while I didn’t necessarily think that this would be a problem…it was. Why was it a problem? Because the book did not keep me consistently engaged, and because so much of it did not seem to value my time. Kurt Vonnegut was fond of saying that you should “use the time of a complete stranger in a way that he/she will not feel their time was wasted,” and there was too much of this book where I felt my time was wasted. Long twenty-page passages that revealed only one important sentence. And when we’re talking about Infinite Jest pages, a single page is the equivalent of two or three or even four Tom Wolfe pages, or Donna Tartt pages, because he is a huge fan of unbroken text (i.e. single paragraphs that stretch onward for twenty full pages) and are thick with jargon and technical terminology. Initially, I was told that the book would take about 200 pages before I got into it, which I was already skeptical about. 200 pages? No author needs 200 pages to get a reader interested. That’s a slap in the face, because that means that you’re wasting my time with those first 200 pages; they could have been structured in a way that would have been engaging (don’t tell me that they couldn’t have). But then I got to page 200, and I was told that, well, actually, you’ve got to get to page 500 before the book becomes engaging. And when I got to 500, yes, the book finally had a structure that seemed to progress the story in a meaningful way, a way where the reader was suddenly a valued part of the exchange. After 500 pages, story finally took precedence in the authorial choices. But 500 pages? A full month of laborious reading just so I could have a story in the final 500 pages? If you want two months of my time, you’ve got to do better than that; you’ve got to keep me engaged for two months; you’ve got to show me that you care about the reader and not just about your own ambition as a novelist. By page 500, I was only getting more and more pissed about how much time was being wasted on material that could easily have been cut/condensed without compromising anything.
  7. That’s the big thing: “without compromising anything.” Because DFW’s fiercest advocates will suggest that the book’s length is necessary because the rambling quality of the prose is a trademark of DFW’s voice. I would argue that the exact same effect could have been achieved with thirty fewer words per page. With forty fewer. Fifty. I would even argue that there are full chapters that literally add nothing, or that add so little that the important material could be revealed elsewhere. The argument for the book’s gargantuan size is basically, “He’s an artist, so let him do what he wants!” But from the perspective of a writer/editor, I think that’s bullshit. Every artist faces constraints. Infinite Jest was already edited and cut down from a larger page count, so DFW was not so far above editorial guidance that his art was hands-off; it just wasn’t cut enough. Additionally, the unending/unbroken paragraphs have no reasonable explanation other than to piss off the reader and test his/her resolve. You’re telling me that a ten-page paragraph is necessary as a unit of thought? That it wouldn’t have been improved with, like, a little break here, and a little break here, to create the sort of rhythm that could aid the reader in moving through the text. Hell. Look at me: this blog post is dense, so I wrote it in a bullet-pointed list. You know why? Because I don’t hate the reader, and I want the reader to move through the text cleanly and with some speed. I want you to know what’s important, which ideas you should hold onto, and which ideas might simply be supporting claims. You’re my reader: I care about clarity because I don’t want to waste your time.
  8. Look at me. I’m getting angry. This is what happens when you waste two months of my reading time. This is also what happens when I see so many Infinite Jest supporters who seem to refuse to acknowledge that there are any flaws in the book at all, and who–in their every review or blog post or whatever–justify every damned decision in the book, as if DFW could do no wrong. I mention the tiniest thing, and I feel like there’s a backlash coming. Dude. The paragraphs are stupidly structured. Yes. Yes, they are. Yes, they are. (See, now I’m arguing with an imagined DFW supporter. God.)
  9. Okay, sorry. (taking breath) The book has a story, and a plot, but Wallace’s plot doesn’t serve the story. This kind of builds on what I wrote a little while back. Quick definition: “plot” is the deliberate sequence in which the author arranges the hundreds of different elements of story. “Plot” is the way the author chooses to introduce characters or situations or setting. “Plot” is the author’s choice of putting a memory on page 6 instead of page 300. “Plot” is the opening line, and the closing line. You can tell the same story in a hundred different ways. Infinite Jest is a story that could have been told in 5 pages, or 25,000 pages. When we sit down to read a long book, we assume that one of the author’s purposes is to immerse us in the story and help us to truly experience it (as I mentioned above), whereas a quick story will be like a punch to the gut, but not a full-out 25-round fight. In this book: there are moments when the plot is meaningful, when it makes sense that a character is introduced at this/that precise spot, but there are way more moments when DFW’s structure is just a mess, when we say “Why the hell didn’t you tell us sooner?” or when you later say “Maybe I should reread the early portions of the book, since they gave me no valuable information, and I was lost, and now I’m reading valuable information that could have helped me to understand them, but I’m on page 600, so fuck if I remember what the hell was on page 20,” etc.
  10. For starters, the overall structure is confusing, and has no necessary function. For the uninitiated, the book is structured out of chronological order. We begin at the end, with the main character somehow rendered unable to speak or communicate. Then we just start skipping around in time randomly. We are introduced to characters whose importance we do not understand, and situations which will not be mentioned again for several hundred pages. And while I’m not necessarily against out-of-order storytelling, the problem here is that DFW does not construct the order of information in a helpful way. For instance, the sections/chapters of the book are generally labeled as “Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken,” or “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment,” and we don’t actually know what this means until well past page 200. The book takes place in a weird future where all North American countries have unified, but we aren’t introduced to the particulars of this world until…geez, page 400 maybe? I used the word “random” above, and I’m sure someone will point out that DFW had a reason for the structure…but having a reason doesn’t mean that it was a good reason. To paraphrase Chris Rock, “you can drive a car with your feet, but that don’t make it a good fucking idea!”
  11. The problem, then, is that we are constantly misreading the text. Basically, we assume the world is round, and then the author comes along and tells us (200 pages later), “Oh, and by the way, did I mention that this world is flat? Ha ha! Boy, that changes things, right?” Again, DFW supporters strongly support this artistic decision. They’ll tell you that it makes you want to read the entire book again as soon as you’ve finished. To which I say: “Fuck you.” I read authors who construct their texts in a meaningful way that will teach me how to approach their world. I do not read authors who play jokes on me; it’s super-easy to hold one over your audience…the author inherently knows more than the reader, after all. If I have to watch a movie twice just in order to understand it, I say: “Poorly edited movie. You could have plotted this in a way that helped the viewer to understand the world and the characters and the conflict, etc.” Same goes for books. Yes, I enjoy books/movies that offer something new on the second read/view, but not books that only become intelligible on the second go-round.
  12. The book, then, feels like a joke on the reader. There’s actually a great moment in Infinite Jest (a moment of unparalleled honesty, in fact) where Wallace is describing an experimental film from James Incandenza called The Joke. It’s a movie where cameras are trained on the theater’s audience, and then the audience gets mad because they’re being pranked, and they all storm out of the theater having paid real money to look at their own faces as a movie-joke. Well. That’s this book, in a nutshell. It’s long, and deliberately confusing, and is designed to make you have to reread the text in order to understand what the author could have helped you to understand on the first read, but didn’t, because he apparently hated you. If you flip the final page and say, “Oh man, I’ve got to reread to figure out what just happened,” the joke’s on you. The author could have crafted this story in a way that didn’t waste your time, in a way that you could have read (and loved) it in a fraction of the time. There are thousands of great books out there that do take you as a reader seriously, and that you would enjoy (trust me: you would love them), if only you’d put down Infinite Jest and venture forth.
  13. But doesn’t that make Infinite Jest brilliant, because  the reread thing, like, mirrors the Entertainment described in the book? For the uninitiated: this book focuses (in part) on a video called “The Entertainment,” which is so hypnotically addictive that viewers become zombies and watch the movie on repeat and fail to ever do anything else with their lives afterwards. Literally. They would cut off their fingers to get the movie back on. They never speak again. Etc. So supporters will tell you that the structure of IJ essentially mirrors that of the hypnotic never-ending “Entertainment,” since you sit there reading 1,100 pages and then flip back to the start to read again. Except. Except it doesn’t. Because watching a video is passive, and reading a book is active, and that’s sort of the point of critiques for book-reading and against TV-watching. Also, the book only inspires this re-read function in a very small percentage of readers: David Foster Wallace Disciples. Those by whom he can do no wrong anyway. Most readers likely fail to get beyond 100 pages in this book, and–judging by conversations I’ve had–even fewer get beyond 200 pages, or 300, or 400. Many start the book several times, but never make a dent because it is so laborious. Personally, I re-watched each season of Game of Thrones not because its structure left me confused, but because it was so expertly constructed that I wanted to better understand the world, and the pieces involved, and how the writers had done it. The second viewing was enriching, but the first viewing had been awesome on its own. The same is not true of Infinite Jest, where even the fiercest Disciples will admit that you’ve (at the very least) got to get past the first 200 pages before the thing starts to become engaging. 200 pages of text to “get through”? Again, this is a structural problem, not an argument for structural brilliance.
  14. David Foster Wallace Disciples justify everything in this book. Listen, I’ve got my own favorite books, and my own favorite authors who can do no wrong. So I don’t hold anything against the DFWDs who love this book and everything it helped them to see and experience. I’m glad this book worked for them/you. Please try to understand these two things: (1) I’m working through my response to a book that did not work for me (but required a tremendous investment, which I gave to it), and (2) Even if you love a book, you can still admit its flaws, right? As I scan comment boards and reviews and online responses to this book (especially at Infinite Summer), I see this fierce support of the book’s every trait/element, and hey, maybe this is a result of an equal/greater critical tsunami against the book (after all, a lot of people apparently hate it, since so many give up on it)…what do I know? But just as I shouldn’t criticize DFW himself for the fans who support him, DFW supporters shouldn’t support the book mindlessly just because some critics or readers have raised legitimate arguments against it. The excessive length, for instance, is a damn good argument. Please do not try to find a reason to justify it, just because this is your favorite book/author. Don’t tell me that there isn’t a great 750-page novel in here that could actually be much better. That’s not even up for debate. It would have been possible. Admitting flaws is not admitting that the book is worthless, or that your experience was worthless, or that IJ is going to go out of print if you don’t keep hollering about how good it is. On the Infinite Summer site, there was a single featured blog post from one reader who was frustrated, and couldn’t understand why she was the only one who wasn’t enjoying the book (or even engaged by it). She was then shot down by scores of comment-boarders (“Wahhh! Quit your bitching!” “Give up, then, stupid!”, those types of comments), to the point where her next featured blog post did an abrupt (and probably insincere) about-face; now she suddenly loved the book, and was so sorry she…etc. Listen: it’s okay to be honest. The book isn’t going anywhere.

Some other notes:

  1. I understand that I’m not the smartest reader in the world. Yes, I get it. There are a lot of people smarter than me, but I don’t back down from challenging readings. I can already feel the critiques of my critique of Infinite Jest, comments telling me to go back to reading Twilight or Dr. Seuss or whatever, as if I don’t ever read books, and I just so happened to try a Big Difficult Book, and I’m mad at it because it was Big and Difficult. Go look through my Reading List. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I try to make my reading wide and varied. We can disagree about the merits of Infinite Jest, but not about the merits of my own reading life.
  2. I’m also not the quickest reader. I will freely admit that I’m a slow reader, in fact. That it would take me an hour to get through ten pages of Infinite Jest. And I will freely admit that this sort of thing contributed to making me an even angrier reader. It’s as if David Foster Wallace was writing his essays for a real reading audience (his essays are amazing), but he wrote his novel for this weird audience of…himself. And ain’t nobody as brilliant as DFW, even if they’d like the world to perceive them that way.
  3. I’m not the smartest or the quickest, but I am a dedicated reader. I treat all books the way that my mother taught me to treat my veggies. I give ’em a shot. And it’s very very rare that I don’t finish a book. Because I don’t want to make a judgment until I know exactly what the author was doing. So if this blog post offends someone who loved Infinite Jest, there’s a lot of things you can accuse me of: but you can’t tell me that I didn’t spend a lot of time and energy with this book, that I didn’t make as solid an effort as any author should receive, and that I am making my judgments based on some incomplete read. (No, it is not an incomplete read to have only read it once.)
  4. Maybe I’d have enjoyed it if I read it during a different time in my life. I also did not enjoy On the Road, by the way, because I read the book when I was 28. I have friends who basically told me I was crazy for not liking it…but they read it when they were 16, and it changed their lives and outlooks, etc. Maybe I’d have enjoyed Infinite Jest if I read it when I was younger, early twenties perhaps, when I didn’t get angry at spending two months with a book. But now, I have to fight for my reading time. I’ve got a wife, a baby, a full-time job, and my own writing life. Carving out a reading life is much tougher. And so I get upset when I feel as if I’m wasting my time, or as if I’m spending my time with a book that doesn’t care as much about me as I do about it. (Yeah, I know, that sounds a little creepy.)
  5. To all the people who have heard “Oh my God, you’ll love it!”, I say: “Probably not.” Go read David Foster Wallace’s essays instead. In his essays, he was constrained by editors, given direction by the rhetorical situations of the publications. He knew he had a specific audience, and so he was not given free reign. It’s this freedom, I think, that made Infinite Jest such a bloated out-of-control mess, the feeling that he–Wallace–could do whatever he wanted. Nobody pushed back and said, “Well listen, this could be a much better book if we–“

Here are my final conclusions.

This book’s most interesting conflict is not necessarily that of the characters. Instead, it’s the conflict of the author. This is a novel that seems to be torn between (a) Post-Modern/ Ironic Novels that are more concerned with the Author and His Ideas and Jokes and Wicked-Smart Displays of Wit (caps mine, heh heh), and (b) Sincere and honest storytelling, which cares (and cares deeply) about the characters and their motivations, and what will become of them.

In other words, Infinite Jest doesn’t know if it should be about David Foster Wallace and his abilities, his performance as super-smart and important novelist, or if he should just shut up and let it be about the characters on the page. It is Irony vs. Sincerity. (Which, incidentally, is a theme that some of the characters are actually wrestling with…so we know that this very conflict was on the author’s mind.)

There are moments in the book when Wallace zooms in tight on a character, when we stick with that character and become heavily invested in his/her life. It is at these moments when the emotion of the book is palpable, when we can’t put it down; you can see and feel and taste the humanity, how much capacity for caring that DFW actually had. When people say that they started to really get into the book after 500 pages, it’s because a great deal of the final 500 pages are written with this philosophy in mind (over-written, but still).

But at the same time, it often feels like Wallace was fighting against these types of moments. Like these (the moments of true humanity and honest character building) were cracks in the “smart structure” of the Big Important Post-Modern Book he was trying to write. Like, as soon as he realized he’d written something that was emotionally moving, he had to switch real quick to a funny pseudo-essay about video phones, or a quick passage about herds of feral hamsters, or whatever.

Consider this quote from his character Mario Incandenza, who is unceasingly positive and honest and good-willed:

It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.

It’s this sort of tension that, I feel is responsible for all of the flaws that I found in the book. As if David Foster Wallace wanted to write two different books at once, and maybe please two different audiences at once: he was struggling with whether to write something Sincere, or Ironic, and that conflict bubbled over into every nook and cranny of the book. It’s almost like trying to combine Star Wars and Spaceballs into one movie. And the final result (for me) was interesting, but only on biographical level; by the end of the book, I became more interested in the life of David Foster Wallace and the evolution of his art than in the piece of artwork that I was supposed to be engaging with. (In other words: I want to read his biography, which I imagine will be more enriching than reading Infinite Jest. But now that the book is shut and the blog post is over, I’m really okay not caring about IJ or any of its characters ever again.)

Review – 15 Views Volume II

There’s a new review of 15 Views Volume II published at The Nervous Breakdown.

 

Check it out! Here’s an excerpt:

The hard work and attention to detail that went into producing 15 Views Volume II: Corridor is uncanny. The narrative is fluid, and eerie silhouette-like papercuts kick off each chapter and add to the overall personality of the compilation. The result is a mosaic of literary and visual brilliance that captures the everyday essence of life in two of Florida’s most misunderstood metropolitan areas.

–Lavinia Ludlow, The Nervous Breakdown

Book Reviews/ Reviewer Reviews

So…I’ve been writing reviews and critiques for a long time now.

Back in 2005 or 2006, I started an account on Shelfari, and wrote a short review of every book that I read. Hundreds of short reviews, most of them trying to look at the book from a writer’s perspective: what could I gain from it? Some of the more articulate and insightful reviews now survive as blog posts here on my site, while others are…best left there on Shelfari, buried beneath hundreds of other short postings and comments.

I learned a lot from writing those reviews, no matter how dreadful some of them were. I learned that every book has an author, and that every author is a real person, and that every Real Person Author is probably the same as me: they read their reviews, and they care about what readers think. On the positive side, I was actually contacted by Brad Listi (Attention. Deficit. Disorder., and founder of The Nervous Breakdown), who loved my review of his book, and who thanked me for a thoughtful examination of the contents. At the time, that was the closest I’d ever come to a “celebrity encounter” with a real author (not counting my professors). On the negative side, though, I wrote a pretty scathing review of a book called Nylund the Sarcographer, by Joyelle McSweeney; it’s a book I still dislike and wouldn’t recommend, but it’s a small-press offering by an obscure poet, so did I really need to write something that so loudly trumpeted how terrible I thought the book was? Well. When I recently checked my old book review, I noticed that there were a grand total of four (4) people who have the book on their shelves, and one other review: this one a single sentence, generic, and much kinder, likely the review of one of the author’s friends. And someone had marked my review (which was extremely specific about the book’s failings) as “not helpful.” Oh no, I thought. The author definitely read this review. The author definitely thinks I’m a gigantic a-hole, maybe even marked the “not helpful” button herself.

Since 2007 or so, I’ve also been writing critiques for my Creative Writing students’ poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. In a single “Introduction to Creative Writing” course, I will write 75 highly analytical and personal 1-2 page critiques, one for each student for each genre in which they write. In a fiction or nonfiction workshop class, the workload is more reasonable: a detailed 2-page critique for each author’s short story. In every single critique, I am forced to consider the audience: I am not writing to other readers and telling them whether they should check this book out, but instead writing to the author him/herself to tell them what is working in their manuscript, and what ideas need further attention. The result is predictable: half of the students love me, and love the rigor with which I attend to their manuscripts; the other half hate me, and think that I’m attacking them, and (on some occasions) refuse to speak to me, or refuse to revise (the “I don’t care what you have to say! I’m a genius!” defense mechanism), or call me “harsh” and “unreasonable” in their evaluations, or cry (literally), or even begin to defend sloppy writing (“Come on, Mr. Holic. A few typos don’t really matter.”).

In any case, I’ve written thousands of reviews and critiques in the last decade of my life, some of which were appreciated, and many of which were not appreciated. (I even had a student who bragged that he had not read my comments.)

And now I’m writing a book review/ reading essay series called “Reading Books While Burping My Baby” over at Burrow Press Review. I try to focus on small-press books in the column, but really, I write about whatever I happen to be reading, and discuss how my own reading habits are changing as a result of having a baby. The latest installment is here, and focuses upon Jess Stoner’s mixed-media/ hybrid novel I Have Blinded Myself Writing This.

And what do you know? Jess Stoner read the essay, loved the discussion (and the criticisms), and made a really awesome post on her tumblr account. This was a real first for me, to have an author so grateful for the review I gave. Maybe I feel like the last seven years of reviews and critiques have actually been building me into a solid, honest-to-God book critic.

It makes me feel even better to contrast the above with the following exchange between author Patrick Somerville and The New York Times book review. The article is a must-read. Apparently, the book critic completely misread the novel, and not in an excusable way (i.e. not due to the fault of the author’s own poor/ confusing writing); the critic attributed the events of the entire first chapter to the wrong character, thus altering and muddying the book’s story and structure, and causing everything to collapse. Corrections were issued, but what does a correction matter to an author whose book has now been given a poor review that cannot be taken back? The book critic can’t re-read and re-judge the book, after all.

There is a similar responsibility in writing book reviews and student critiques, I think. To say something misguided in a student critique would be (potentially) destructive; it might even mean that you’re teaching the wrong principles, setting the student down a path where they think that 2+2=12. You’re writing directly to an author, and you don’t take on that task lightly. With a book review, the audience is obviously different, but maybe the responsibility is the same; maybe the critic should keep the author in mind…the main responsibility is to the reader, certainly, but just as good reviews can herald the arrival of new talent, bad reviews can sink careers before they even get started. A bad review might not matter for Stephen King, but for me? No, the author isn’t the primary audience, but if the critic remembers that the author is an audience, maybe it’s easier to remember the responsibility of writing a fair and critical review.

On the flip side, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing authors write things like “Thanks for the review!” on one another’s facebook walls, and I’ve become accustomed to seeing overwhelmingly positive reviews published throughout the small-press world. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. “Croney Critiques.” This is what happens when the critic makes the author into the primary audience for the review, and now we’re dealing with something that’s irresponsible for readers. Maybe it’s even irresponsible to the book’s author.

In my own writing, I strive to be as honest as possible. If I don’t give you honesty, then what the hell am I giving you? We’re both wasting our time. But honesty isn’t an excuse for hurtful or hateful commentary, either.

In any case, check out “Reading Books While Burping My Baby” over at Burrow Press Review. Critiques are always welcome!

Reading Books While Burping My Baby

I know that it seems that the majority of my postings lately have been about my baby, or about fatherhood, but you know what? When you have kids, you start to view the world through the lens of parenthood. Impossible to get away from that. I can guarantee I’ll never be one of those people who drives past Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights billboards and writes editorials in the Orlando Sentinel about how the billboards should be taken down because they’re too scary. I also won’t ever complain about prime-time TV, and will never say “How am I supposed to tell my kids about this?” when I see a politician having an affair or a pro baseball player on steroids or a Janet Jackson nipple. Rather than seeing the world as something to shield my child from, I promise that I’ll attempt to see the world as a series of learning opportunities: “You see that, Jackson? That’s what we call a ‘poor decision.'”

So I won’t stop talking about fatherhood, but I can guarantee that I won’t be annoying about it. Hopefully that’s a good deal, right?

All of this as a lead-in, so that I can say: I’ve got a new blog over at the Burrow Press Review called Reading Books While Burping My Baby.”

You might have noticed that I don’t write many book reviews on my own site these days (though I do still update my “Reading List” page). Well, I’ve been searching for a way to reach a wider audience with my reviews, and to find a way to talk about how I read, rather than just the quality of what I read.

This month, I talk about Three Ways of the Saw by Matt Mullins, and a bunch of stories from One Story, including a great one from David James Poissant. My first few installments touched on Best American Non-Required Reading, Roxane Gay’s Ayiti, Ryan W. Bradley’s Prize Winners, Ben Tanzer’s Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine, and Artifice Magazine. Check it out at the link above. Hopefully it’ll give you your book review fix, along with your baby fix.

The 9/11 Report

The 9/11 Report: Graphic Adaptation is a fascinating read, I think, both for what it does well, and for its negatives implications.

What does it do well? I think that it proves that graphic novels can tackle nearly any subject, and that the mixed-media approach of art and text can be extremely useful in distilling even some difficult information. Did this subject need a graphic adaptation? No, not necessarily. But does any book need a movie adaptation? No. And some manage to offer a new angle, new and interesting perspectives, that the original material did not. That, I think, is the case here.

The negative aspect of this graphic novel, though, is this: it is already being categorized as a “young adult” piece of literature, which is odd to me. What makes something young adult? Pictures? Are we saying that comics dumb down even the most sensitive and important material, like the 9/11 Report? There’s a growing trend in creating graphic novel biographies (the recent Che biography, an MLK Jr. biography) that I would love to see continue, but if it is assumed that these are watered-down versions of the original, rather than a new artistic treatment impossible in text alone…then the form of graphic literature has a real problem.

I think this was a noble attempt. Not perfect, no. Hopefully, the next attempt will be more visionary, though, so that we can put to rest the question of whether a graphic adaptation is just a kid’s version of adult information.

Bridge of Sighs

Richard Russo again explores the decay of small-town life in America, and although he’s done this brilliantly before (Empire Falls, obviously, went over pretty well, right?), I don’t think he’s ever hit us over the head with his ideas on why small towns have failed as he does in Bridge of Sighs. And I still can’t decide whether it’s effective or…well…a bit much, and a bit overkill, considering his other novels.

This book focuses on two main characters, Lucy and Noonan, boyhood friends from a small industrial town in upstate New York (where else, Russo?) whose lives took vastly different paths. Lucy cannot leave the town, despite the death of all industry there, and despite the slow collapse of the town’s sense of community, because he still hopes for the best and fears a life outside the town of Thomaston. He’s had trouble making friends, but is incredibly loyal to all those who have ever shown him affection, and is annoyingly good-natured, refusing to acknowledge the bad in anyone. Noonan, on the other hand, has always been an agnostic, a cynic, raised by a terrible set of parents and determined to leave Thomaston and do…something, anything. He winds up becoming a famous painter and travels throughout Europe.

It’s an interesting strategy that Russo has chosen to explore the small town of Thomaston and its stranglehold on the people who have never left (one character escaped, the other didn’t, and we get both points of view), but the novel’s main problem is this: it begins with the narrative moment of Lucy telling his readers that he will soon travel to Venice to meet back up with Noonan. Then, Lucy begins a 500-page narrative of his childhood, interspersed only occasionally with present-day scenes, which further the narrative moment of Lucy and Noonan meeting again. But, like Eugenides’ Middlesex, the author becomes so engrossed in the past narrative that the present narrative (the reason we continue reading, the moment we are waiting to truly see) takes a backseat, and–not to ruin the ending–never really pays off in a way that we were hoping for. Oh, it’s all well-written, and it’s all engaging, but the author sets us up for something, then gets wrapped up in what amounts to a sub-plot or an extended flashback.

Russo, as I mentioned earlier, also becomes more overt in his theories of small-town decay than ever before. The decline of Empire Falls was tragic, yes, and extremely well-developed. The decline of Thomaston is equally tragic, but it is also violent (we have blood-red water, cancer, house foreclosures, and an overall feeling of overwhelming pain and melancholy with the fate of this town) and unforgiving. We get the sense that all small towns are doomed because large corporations open up shop, close down all local businesses, bankrupt or drive away all the former businesspeople, convert all jobs to low-paying retail or service, and force all smart people to want to get away as quickly as possible.

This is Russo’s theory, it seems, and to be honest, it’s not far off in our current culture. But I don’t think it has ever felt so pessimistic, so insurmountable, as it does in Bridge of Sighs. That doesn’t make the book unlikable, but it does tell me that Russo needs to find new subject matter, and quick. I can’t take another Bridge of Sighs; I need my Russo to have some humor, some hope.

The Wettest County in the World

A year or two ago, I published a piece of fiction in The Saranac Review which alternated between traditional text and illustrated comic page. You can actually find a link on my “links” page to my post-publication interview with the editors, where I discuss some of my thoughts on mixed-media literature. The Fiction Editor of Saranac, though, is Matt Bondurant, and I just learned that his novel The Wettest County in the World is in production as a big-budget Hollywood film. Good for him. I’m hoping that the result is something that has all the style and complexity of other recent ’20s and ’30s-era crime films, from Public Enemies to Boardwalk Empire (and even the two-season series Carnivale).

But before the film comes out next year and makes a ton of money and everyone begins associating the story with the director’s style, not the original novelist’s style, here’s a quick look at the book itself.

Bondurant’s The Wettest County in the World is an amazing piece of work, part fact, part legend, part absolute fiction, but always strikingly honest. The book follows the Bondurant Brothers (the author’s grandparents) through an extremely violent and hypocritical time period in American history, Prohibition.

The brothers are bootleggers, and while the book delves into various conspiracies involving lawmen, and paints several bloody scenes of deliveries gone wrong, men shot, men beaten and bloodied, the most interesting moments of the novel are those when we focus on the very human conflict between brothers. Jack Bondurant, the youngest, is simply not cut out for this lifestyle, no matter how hard he tries to fit in with his older brothers, and every page on which Jack appears with either of his brothers, it makes for extremely tense (and extremely satisfying) reading.

While the story is fast-paced, intricate, and employs multiple chronological shifts (there’s a sub-plot, told from many years after the narrative moment, involving Sherwood Anderson attempting to learn the truth about the bootlegging conspiracy), Bondurant’s prose style is worth exploring here, also. He writes in a dusty and gritty prose that owes quite a bit to Cormac McCarthy, and while it’s beautiful and original and full of amazing imagery, all I kept thinking throughout was: So you really like Cormac McCarthy, huh? Bondurant doesn’t use quotation marks, and he utilizes the stylistic strategy of simply listing, in sentence fragments, many poetic details in a row (much like Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy). Again, I thought the prose was rich and concise all at once, but sometimes feels like a borrowed style. This shouldn’t take away from the achievement of this book, but authors and readers alike know–whether fair or unfair–that certain Major American Authors have hoarded certain Interesting Stylistic Choices as their very own, and to use them yourself will inevitably beg the comparison. Any horror movie with a masked slasher will be compared to Halloween, after all; that doesn’t make Scream any less successful, but certainly we know that Scream owes much of its success to the masked killer films that came before.

The Wettest County of the World, though, is a fantastic little gem that (hopefully) gains renewed interest after its film adaptation, and is (hopefully) useful in catapulting Bondurant into the Barnes & Noble Buy-2-Paperbacks-and Get-1-Free big leagues.

It Can’t Happen Here

While Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here is remarkably prescient of the events to come in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the World War II years specifically, and while some of the ideas even transfer well to the early 2000s’ post-9/11 hysteria (the passing of the PATRIOT Act, for instance, and the surrendering of civil liberties), it isn’t necessarily a great book.

Lewis is a great writer, of course, and there are flashes throughout this novel of a great prose artist, but a discerning reader can certainly see that this thing was written in a matter of months. The narrative moves along so quickly, with such little regard for the shifting of perspective or for the shifting of structural strategy, that it’s easy to imagine Lewis blazing away at his typewriter, churning out pages with barely a glance at the finished product before shipping it off to his editor.

The result is a protagonist who is poorly developed, who we don’t care about, and who serves only as a prop, a vehicle, for all of the political events swirling around him. He has little agency, just seems thrown about, and frequently makes or listens to sweeping political speeches that could just as easily have been editorials previously published by Lewis himself.

It Can’t Happen Here should join the interesting American canon of paranoid political novels (right up there with, say, Alas Babylon) because, while I wasn’t satisfied with the book as character-driven fiction, it never failed to be engaging or relevant. But to be honest, it is most interesting as an artifact, a slice of 1930s paranoia, and not as a piece of enduring literature.