Or, feeling virtuous over finally having read Augie March
It is winter deadfall cleanup season here in north central Maryland, so this letter was composed to a snarling soundtrack of leaf blowers. I made my way through a couple of door-stoppers this month, including an American classic. Yes, I am feeling pretty good about myself.
- The Best American Essays 1997, Ian Frazier (ed.) Progress on my project to read chronologically every annual edition of the BAE. Twelve down, 25 to go. This volume edited by Ian Frazier, who seems to have a shorter attention span—this volume includes an unusual, for the series, number of shorter pieces. Highlights: Jo Ann Beard’s extraordinary “The Fourth State of Matter,” Debra Dickerson’s seething “Who Shot Johnny?”, “A Drugstore Eden” by Cynthia Ozick, and Joy Williams’s savagely misanthropic “The Case Against Babies.” That last one, whew.
- The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow. Exuberant in a way few serious novels are these days, exemplary of a time when novelists were major cultural figures. (Those were the days, huh?) Bellow’s drunk-on-words protagonist strains credulity at times, wears on the nerves and the patience at others. But I responded to the muscular rush of it all, and may not think it’s a classic but am happy to have finally read it.
- I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, Sylvie Simmons. At least 100 pages too long. The story of fascinating man becomes, by the last quarter, a tedious cataloguing of recordings and tour dates. As with so many contemporary biographers, Simmons overvalues comprehensiveness, sacrificing narrative energy.
- Eastbound, Maylis de Kerangal. Newly translated novella by the French novelist. A terrified Russian conscript deserts the Russian army with the unexpected assistance of a French woman who herself is deserting a relationship. In the middle I started to want a payoff. I got it with the extraordinary last 20 pages.
- “You Are Not Expected to Understand This”: How 26 Lines of Code Changed the World, Torie Bosch (ed.) Shallow and dull collection of essays on computer code’s impact on our lives. Pass.
On deck: Leonard Cohen’s last poetry, essays from Jutland, a Danish experimental novella that Laura Miller called “weird, beautiful, and occasionally disgusting”—how could one resist?—and maybe some William Maxwell.
And what have you been reading? Share in the comments section. You don’t even have to tell the truth. We’ll not be vetting your literary claims.