On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

By Ocean Vuong
Rating: 1

Let’s start with the now pro-forma caveat that I can be a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to novels, and in addition to being a curmudgeon, I attempted to read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous after several very stressful weeks of work and of life. So, if you wanted to take my rating of 1.5 with a few grains of salt, I would emphatically not hold it against you. Hell, I might even look up to you for it.

That concludes the friendly and loving portion of this assessment.

Let’s move on to why I picked up the novel in the first place: in the course of reading over a two week period, two writers who seemed pretty fucking smart raved about Vuong in general, and this novel in particular. I don’t remember who the writers were, I just remember they were pretty fucking smart.

Now let’s move on to what are known in some quarters as the key take-aways.

Prior to attempting to read On Earth, I apparently had a hierarchy of literary sins of which I was only partially aware. What I discovered very quickly as I tucked into this novel is that, for me, pretentiousness is at or near the pinnacle of literary abuses.

Pretentiousness is not the only fault I found in On Earth — it also suffered from melodrama issues — but it was the pretentiousness that got me riled up enough to put the book down after 15 pages.

“How pretentious was it? Can you cite any examples?”

Those are great questions. And yes, I can cite examples.

Maybe the first passage had more of a melodrama problem than a pretense problem.

As context, the novel takes the form of a letter a son writes to his physically abusive mother, who is a Vietnamese immigrant suffering from PTSD due to the war in Vietnam.

“The time with the kitchen knife — the one you picked up, then put down, shaking, saying quietly, “Get out. Get out.” And I ran out the door, down the black summer streets. I ran until I forgot I was ten, until my heartbeat was all I could hear of myself.”

That sounds like a parody of a Cure song. And why were the summer streets “black”?

This next passage was the final straw. Again a bit of context: the novel made several references to the migration of monarch butterflies. That’s what the “fly south” bit refers to.

“If we are lucky, something is passed on, another alphabet written in the blood, sinew, and neuron; ancestors charging their kin with the silent propulsion to fly south, to turn toward the place in the narrative no one was meant to outlast.”

Considering that passage again, maybe it’s just muddled rather than pretentious. Do butterflies have sinews?

It’s possible that the novel gathers steam as the story unfolds. There was also a nice bit of black comedy, when the mother, a manicurist, empathizes with a customer who is bemoaning the loss of her daughter to cancer, but it turns out the “daughter” was a horse.

These are my thoughts. I have been sharing them, but now am done. Ahead of me I have the oblivion of sleep.

I bid you good night.

The Friend

By Sigrid Nunez
Rating: 8.5

It’s so refreshing to read a novel that won a prominent literary award — a National Book Award in this case — that actually deserved to win a prominent literary award.

I recommend The Friend enthusiastically to anyone, but to writers and to dog-lovers in particular. Which is not to say that The Friend is one of these so-called “Dog” books.

Poignant, sharp, moving, warm, funny, profound, wry, generous, smart, poignant, deft — these words all come to mind when I think about The Friend.

Going into detail about the book’s strengths would spoil it for a first-time reader, and I don’t want to do that. I will just reiterate that it’s a great book.

I had a few very minor quibbles with it, most of which I won’t get into here, again because you should read it cold.


By Lisa Halliday
Rating: 2

Kicking off here with the increasingly common caveat that there is an excellent chance that if you read this book, which I put down after 110 pages because I couldn’t stand it and it made me queasy, you will probably like it more than I did.

The narrative bounces between two very different but subtly linked stories. The second of these, which I did not get to, because the first section wrecked the whole project for me, might be the stronger of the two sections. It’s quite possible that the second section redeems the first section. I’ll never know, nor do I care to find out.

I had concentric circles of gripes with Asymmetry.

I went into it cold, which is how I prefer to read a novel the first time. I read Halliday’s bio early on in the undertaking, and it struck me that she may have published this novel later in her life (for a first novel), which, as an old, gave me some hope, so I googled her.

At which point I learned that the protagonist in the story who fucks a famous older novelist was based on Halliday’s actual experience of fucking a famous older novelist; Phillip Roth, if memory serves.

In the novel the older writer pays off the younger writer’s college loan. She went to Harvard. Which left me wondering, did Roth pay off Halliday’s college loans because she was an enjoyable sex partner? Did she go to Harvard? I was curious, but not curious enough to google it!

If I had done sex to a much older famous writer, you know what I would not do? Write an imperceptibly veiled first novel about it!

It’s true that Asymmetry is more than that, but it is also that. Which is kind of gross. But, worse than gross, it felt cheap and demonstrates a lack of imagination as well as taste.

My second issue with the novel is the mere ok-ness of the language. Halliday is not a particularly visual writer, nor does she have much of an eye for detail. These shortcomings weren’t in and of themselves deal-breakers; she’s certainly not a *bad* wordsmith, but the language on the page was average.

What killed the book for me, the radioactive core, was the crap story telling.

Two examples in particular come to mind:

— A strand in the story involving the protagonist’s neighbor, which felt like dead weight. It was dull and seemed to not do much for the story.

— A passage in the book with page after page of accounts of baseball games. I think, I hope, that these pages, which by this point in the story were torture for me, were meant to suggest that the flame had been extinguished in the romance. Which is fine. But if you’re going to communicate that through extensive play-by-plays of baseball games, I’m going to stop reading your book.

Things Fall Apart

By Chinua Achebe
Rating: 8

To my shame and discredit, I believe Things Fall Apart is the first novel I’ve read by an African novelist. I picked it up largely to address this gap and because I have not read nearly enough writers of color in general.

It is the most widely read novel in Africa, and it was among the first to find a wide audience outside of Africa. It was also Achebe’s first novel. It’s objectively a stunning accomplishment.

It became clear early on that, at its worst, Things Fall Apart was going to succeed based solely on its merits as a piece of ethnography. The story takes place in the late 19th Century, and Achebe is a member of the Igbo tribe, who are the novel’s subjects.

But the book succeeds on a number of levels beyond mere ethnography. It takes a bracingly subtle and nuanced perspective on the theme of colonialism.

The other aspect of the book that was surprising was its unabashed embrace of feminism. It seems in this regard it was not merely a first African novel, but that its take on gender was decades ahead of its time, irrespective of geographical considerations. It’s difficult to imagine the impact a book like that must have had.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and would recommend it highly; we are lucky to have it.


Jesse Ball
Rating: 6

I suppose my strongest criticism of Census is that there isn’t more of it. It’s a pretty slender little story, 240 or so pages, with many blank pages and many pages with one letter of the alphabet that takes up the entire page.

It’s a father-son road-trip meets Kafka kind of novella, the father is a widower who is near death, the son has Down’s syndrome. The father, for various reasons, has volunteered to be a census taker and is bringing his son with him, but the Census in the novel is not quite like the US Census.

I’ll start with the criticisms of the book, but it is mostly a good book; I’d recommend it cautiously, but not enthusiastically, for reasons I’ll explain below.

The novella has an interesting foreword, in which Ball explains that he wrote it in honor of his brother, who has Down’s syndrome, and in which he explained that the father-son framework seemed to be the best way to tell his story.

Given the centrality of Ball’s brother, and the son in the novella, one of my main problems with the book was the extent to which this key character played second-fiddle.

The entire story is told from the father’s first-person perspective, and, while much of the book concerns itself with the father’s impressions of the son, the son is a bit of a cypher. There is no character development to speak of. Which is kind of baffling, to me.

There is a formality to the book’s tone that I’m not sure always works in its favor. A stiffness. It reads at times like it’s standing at attention.

I personally would have liked to have seen Ball run a bit farther with the threads he was playing with; he was onto some good stuff, and I wanted him to keep digging. The book’s brevity, which I’m sure was a conscious decision, is a liability.

I didn’t find it to be a particularly visual novel. There were a few passages where a lack of descriptive detail gave me the sense that there was something dialed in about it.

All of the griping aside, there is a lot of good writing on the pages, and some good thinking. More than anything the book makes me curious about what he could do in a longer and more sustained novel.

A House for Mr. Biswas

V.S. Naipaul
Rating: 5

Biswas. What can I say. It … it just really started to bore me around the 200-page mark. I gave it an additional 110 pages after that.

You could see from the writing why he won a Nobel prize; his powers of observation are formidable. He’s a gifted story-teller. Early on in the novel there were events that seemed to be packed with 10 levels of meaning.

But then the novel seriously bogged down; page after page after page of not particularly interesting mini-dramas between Biswas and his varied families.

I made it to Part II, where Biswas moves to the capital of Trinidad and Tobago and starts working for a newspaper, and I thought, “Aha, now this will start to pick up,” but, wrong. It then immediately picked up with the family melodramas.

I leave open the possibility that this was part of Naipaul’s plan: a 400-page set-up for 100 pages of world-class literary pyrotechnics, but, I could not hang with this book.

I wouldn’t un-recommend it though, it is highly likely that my boredom indicates a low IQ or lack of character.

An Update on My Own Damn Novel

2004: I started trying to write a mostly autobiographical novel, generated a rambling, unsuccessful 80 page manuscript, and stopped.

AUG 2017: After the death of my magazine, feeling demoralized and creatively adrift, I resolved to have another stab at it, so I went to Vermont for a week and locked myself up with a typewriter, in a cabin on a lake, drank way too much liquor, and came back with ... not much.

JAN 2018: Rooting around through Google Drive, I re-discovered the first manuscript, decided to try to bang that into shape, and realize that much of the material had already been picked over in another novel, and lost interest in that, but continued to wrestle with ideas.

JUNE 2018: I had an idea for a story and write 3268 words.

DECEMBER 2018: I stop writing because I need to do some outlining.

JUNE 7, 2019: After six months of outlining, with 56 pages of notes, I started to write again.

JUNE 24, 2019: Dismayed by slow progress, it occurred to me that I could try to write on the subway to and from work. Over the past five days I wrote 1500 words, which is completely not shabby.

KEY TAKE-AWAY: I'm optimistic that I will complete a manuscript of the novel; I've stuck with it despite a lot of turmoil in my life (moving, new jobs, etc), and there have been a few points where I put it down for a few months but I've always come back to it. I have a list of scenes; there's a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I just have to keep writing. Six thousand words down, about 74,000 to go.


Andrew S. Greer
Rating: 3 

Less is a great book if you love mysteries: the mystery with Less is how something so mediocre and safe won a Pulitzer. 

It’s not a terrible book; I was able to finish it, but there was an element self-loathing involved in seeing Less through to the end. Somewhere around page 100 I started to have nagging doubts about it, and I really should have put it down, but it’s a very easy read. 

Easy to digest is in fact its primary attribute. It’s very occasionally amusing. There are occasional nice bits of writing. The narrative mechanism, the protagonist’s trip around the world to avoid his ex’s wedding, keeps things from getting dull. Kind of. And that’s basically all that the novel has going for it. 

Which is not enough. Less needed more. 

Which is why I’ve ranked it below a few novels that were bad enough that I put them down. Those novels at least tried to ... take some sort of stand, to say something weird. They were in their own ways ambitious. 

Less, on the other hand, is egregiously beige. Perhaps its main problem (among several) is that it is rooted almost entirely in the life and experiences of its protagonist, and the protagonist is dull. Despite being a globe-trotting novelist. 

There is no character development and there’s not much of a plot. The novel’s disregard for telling or significant details condemns it to superficiality. There are no stakes to speak of; not much in the way of conflict, ideas, or insights. It flirts with comedy but is not funny. 

Anyway, I could whine some more about it, but I think I’ll just crack open a new book instead.


Michael Ondaatje
Rating: 5.5

A short review of this one. The first 40 or so pages of this book, the opening act, were completely mesmerizing, to the extent that I thought it might break into my top 10 over at the old Rankings page. However, after the first act, the tale sort of bleeds out, loses its shape and pacing. It peaks too early, and Act 1 positions the remainder of the book, which is really not bad, as the ugly step-child.

Depending on your moods and your star-sign, the opening volley in Warlight might be worth the price of the ticket.

The Hunters

By James Salter
342 pp
Rating: 5.5

I whipped through The Hunters in two days, which is maybe fitting for a novel about jet fighters. The jets in question are flown by pilots in the Korean War. Salter was himself a fighter pilot. I mention the speed that I read the book with because it may partially account for the sense of whiplash I experienced coming out of it. I’m inclined to say that the ending, in some important respects, didn’t work; at least as it relates to the main character’s narrative arc.

The Hunters is an entertaining novel, particularly if you’re interested in the subject matter, less so if you aren’t. It holds up ok after 60 years. There are some affecting passages and poignant reflections on the experiences of the pilots fighting their communist counterparts, mostly in the vicinity of the Yalu River.

The combat, however, is somewhat secondary to the story. More than being a story about fighting communists in the sky, The Hunters concerns itself with the hierarchies and their effects on the American pilots back at their base.

Salter was not much of a success either commercially or critically, but he has his fans among his fellow writers. If you poke around a bit you see respectable writers calling The Hunters one of the best books about flying ever written.

Geoff Dyer wrote an appraisal of the novel a few years ago when Salter died for The Paris Review, and praised this passage:

“Suddenly Pell called out something at three o’clock. Cleve looked. He could not tell what it was at first. Far out, a strange, dreamy rain was falling, silver and wavering. It was a group of drop tanks, tumbling down from above, the fuel and vapor streaming from them. Cleve counted them at a glance. There were a dozen or more, going down like thin cries fading in silence. That many tanks meant MiGs. He searched the sky above, but saw nothing.”

I like “strange, dreamy rain” and “silver and wavering”, and the fuel and the vapor streaming from them are also nice. “Going down like thin cries fading in silence” is pretty effective, although the shift to an audio simile comes out of left field and is perhaps a bit clumsy, if one were inclined to quibble. It’s a visually arresting detail for sure, but I think the description of the moment is merely OK. A better writer might have plopped the tanks into more of a visual backdrop.

Perhaps more representative is this passage, in which the narrator is describing how the group of fighter pilots that the protagonist, Cleve, is going to begin overseeing has not wracked up any downed MiGs:

“That the flight had no claims, though, they were all conscious of. Robey’s, in the room adjoining, was heavy with victories, eight altogether, Robey’s five and three others. On the other side was Nolan’s flight with four. Nolan had two of them. The contrast was marked for a flight between them with none. It was understood that Cleve had been installed to change this.

He finished putting his things away as well as he could and sat down on his cot. He was satisfied. He had a feeling of liking them all and of being liked. It was a rich infusion.”

“It was a rich infusion” sounds like a McCarthy-era TV commercial for instant coffee that for some reason was written as a flashback. Weird syntax, flat verbs, this is sad writing.

Fairly frequently the writing in The Hunters feels leaden or muddled. Salter is at his worst when he is trying hard to be a good writer.

Salter’s life was much more remarkable than his literary output. This New Yorker profile is a great read irrespective of your feelings about or knowledge of Salter.

While I seem to have focused mainly on the novel’s shortcomings, I did enjoy it and would recommend it if you’re in the market for a quick, entertaining, and occasionally inspired tale of long-forgotten aerial gunfights. It works pretty well as a document of its time and place.

The Ask

By Sam Lipsyte
300 and whatever pages
GL Rating: 2

I seem to be in a small minority of reviewers who had a viscerally negative response to Sam Lipsyte’s third novel, The Ask. I put it down after 130 pages. 

Given that other negative reviews of The Ask seem to be rare, maybe take mine with a grain of salt if you’re curious about the novel. Maybe the novel comes alive at page 150. I don’t know, I just couldn’t bare any more of it. 

I loathed it because the writing is lazy, and because the characters are flat and undifferentiated. A snide, jaded rant from a character named Horace could just as easily have been mouthed by the double amputee Iraq vet named Don 20 pages earlier. 

It grated also because it markets itself as funny, but I didn’t laugh once, even though I went into it favorably inclined, based on high praise from a writer I respect. 

There are lengthy stretches of dead exposition that don’t serve to develop the story or the characters. There are flashes of life in the writing, but there are also passages that read like the first draft of a talentless 20 year old in his first creative writing class. 

All of the characters have a chip on their shoulders, and it’s the same chip. Lipsyte, in lieu of creating viable characters, attempts to build an entire novel around an attitude, or more precisely a facial expression — the sneer — and it makes for tedious reading.  

There’s nothing wrong with a novel full of repulsive characters, but they have to be at least be foul in interesting ways. It also helps if there is some kind of authorial or anthropological remove from the characters’ pathologies.

The Ask has none of those things going for it. It’s a third- or fourth-tier novel crouching defensively behind the label of satire. 

And then there are the gender issues. The Ask was published in 2010, seemingly a dozen centuries before #MeToo. So, maybe Lipsyte would have approached his female characters differently had he sat down to write it last week. 

That said, the fact that every female character in the novel is run through a slimy meat-grinder version of the male gaze is, candidly speaking, creepy. It’s not just that the characters are being gross, it’s the novel’s perspective that’s gross. 

A co-worker of the protagonist is named Vargina (HAHAHA THATS A REALLY FUNNY JOKE! GET IT?! “VAGINA”??!!) and, yep, Vargina is a “crack baby.” I don’t recall if the novel states explicitly that Vargina is African-American; regardless, I think this is what the New York Times might call “racially insensitive” writing. This illustrates how the novel itself is boorish and slimy, not just its characters. Lipsyte is right in the trough with his characters. 

The representation of women in The Ask is toxic even by the standards of 2010. 

In short: steer clear. 

All For Nothing

By Walter Kempowski
Translated by Anthea Bell
343 pp
GL Rating: 9.5

I’d recommend All For Nothing without much in the way of reservations, but it’s best read cold. Do not read the introduction or any reviews prior to reading the book itself. I think I came across AFN in the New Yorker, an rave by James Wood, which prompted me to buy the book. Wood has some smart things to say about All For Nothing (link to his piece below) but again I’m puzzled by certain critics’ fondness for plot summary when it serves no real purpose, and when it sort of wrecks the experience of reading the book.


The story is about an aristocratic German family, the Von Globigs, living on an estate in East Prussia just before the area gets steam-rolled by the Red Army in the final phase of World War II.

I don’t have many negative things to say about the book. It may have benefited (maybe) from a tighter edit; maybe it would have been best at 325 pages, but, who knows. He is Kempowski, while I am merely Kosloff. (I don’t even have any regalia.) I did get a bit impatient in the middle section with the pacing, but the plot’s somewhat bucolic velocities are intentional, and ultimately the pacing is used to devastating effect.

It’s largely not a novel of gorgeous sentences, although they do pop up with some regularity. Nor is it an ostentatiously visual novel, although again, Kempowski is no slouch in this regard.

Like many great novels, Kempowski’s story comes to life in its details. The world Kempowski creates is not just plausible, it shimmers, breathes, and surprises in ways that are a testament to his talents. It is, as the critics like to say, keenly observed.

All For Nothing is worth reading for its detached tone, the beguiling affection for but distance from his characters. Writing a book about characters who had drawings of Adolf Hitler in their bedroom, without whitewashing them or making them seem like two-dimensional villains is not an easy task. The full scope of the Nazi barbarities are located mostly on the periphery. The novel’s depiction off-handed and misdemeanor-level local cruelties are suggestive of the crimes that made the Nazis famous.

It’s a novel that gives you the sense that it would stand up to repeat readings, and, who knows, maybe one day I’ll revisit it.

A final point before signing off: Kempowski published this book when he was about 76 years old. Maybe it’s wrong to be amazed that someone at that age can produce fiction of this caliber, but I’m kind of amazed. His biography is just as interesting, if not more so, than the events depicted in the story, elements of which are drawn from his own life.

I’m slotting it in one position below Austerlitz (another WWII novel!) and above The Sun Also Rises.

Here is Woods’ take in the New Yorker.

A Tale for the Time Being


By Ruth Ozeki
432 pp
GL Rating: 4.5

Before I weigh in with my (brief) thoughts on this novel I should caveat them by saying that the period in which I read and then stopped reading it coincided with a move to a new neighborhood, as well as other assorted life dramas. It’s been a stressful couple of months for me, it may have skewed my feelings about the book in a negative direction. 

On the other hand, it might just be a mediocre novel. 

I made it to the 155 page mark before I decided to stop. 

The novel, a finalist for the Man Booker award, has interesting elements, including its message-in-a-bottle premise, and I put it down with a whisper of anxiety that it really takes off at the 200 page mark, or the 300 page mark. All of my reserves of patience, however, have been exhausted. 

Ozeki’s language is very prosaic; occasionally bordering on stilted. This makes the book’s pacing, which I found to be somewhat glacial, harder to bear. 

The story is told from the perspective of two characters: Nao, a Japanese teenager, and Ruth, an Asian-American writer. Neither of them were particularly interesting. They did not say or feel or think things that surprised or delighted or intrigued me. Rather, they felt typical or obvious in a way that was enervating. Beyond the two protagonists, characterization in general was a shortcoming in this novel. 

In short: avoid. 

On Tangled Paths (Irrungen, Wirrungen)

By Theodor Fontane
Penguin Classics edition translated from German by Peter James Bowman
Goodreads Rating: 3.23
GL Rating: 4.5

Came across this title on a year-end “These were great books I read in 2018” list published by the New Statesman. I’d not heard of Fontane, nor of this book.

I picked it up, and was struck by the novel’s opening paragraph:

“At the point where the Kurfurstendamm intersects the Kurfurstenstrasse, diagonally across from the Zoological Gardens, there was still, in the mid eighteen-seventies, a large market garden running back to the open fields behind; and in it stood a small, three-windowed house with its own little front garden, set back about a hundred paces from the road that went by and clearly visible from there despite being so small and secluded. However, the other building in the market garden, indeed without doubt its main feature, was concealed by this little house as if by the wings of a stage set, and only a red- and green­painted wooden turret with the remains of a clock face (no trace of an actual clock) under its pointed roof suggested that there was something hidden in the wings, a suggestion confirmed by a flock of pigeons fluttering up round the turret from time to time and, even more, by the occasional barking of a dog. The whereabouts of this dog eluded the viewer, although the front door on the far left stood open all day long, affording a glimpse of the yard. There was in general no apparent intention to hide anything, and yet anyone who passed that way at the time our story begins had to be content not to see beyond the little three-windowed house and a few fruit trees standing in the front garden.”

The imagery is very dense, and it seems to be a significant passage thematically. While Fontane writes in a realist/natural mode, this paragraph, with its distorted space (small buildings obscuring larger buildings) and mutated clocks has a surrealist feel to it. The contents of the garden are emphatically visible and concealed at the same time. Oddly enough, there’s not really another paragraph like it in the story, which is too bad.

I’ll start with some of the book’s shortcomings before moving on to its … [looks furtively over shoulder, turns back to camera] charms.

My primary gripe with Paths is that the story, the tale of a somewhat down-on-his-pfennings baron who falls for a working girl and is forced to choose between her and a wealthy woman who will keep him ensconced in the aristocracy, feels conventional to a modern reader. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it formulaic, as Fontane’s handling of the story is nuanced, but for the most part it unfolds in ways that do not surprise.

On a sentence-to-sentence level, the writing (as translated) is apt, but it’s generally not much beyond apt. You wouldn’t read this novel for the language.

Finally, the characters are not particularly complex and almost read like types, rather than as individuals.

Those considerations aside, while I would only recommend reading the novel with a few caveats, I did enjoy it, and for reasons that I didn’t anticipate.

While the plot was not a barn-burner, I found early on in the book that the details about life in Berlin and its environs at that time were very interesting, and you get a sense of this from the first paragraph. The book is peppered throughout with references to historical people, places, and events, and it draws from a rich milieu. With On Tangled Paths, the context in some ways outshines the story. This makes sense, in that Fontane had a long career as a journalist, and in fact did not start publishing fiction until is late 50s.

There is one section of the story set in a village called Hanckel’s Stowage which almost managed to carry the entire book. The description of the setting (which itself is not particularly remarkable) and, moreso, the comings and goings of the inhabitants and German tourists, was inspired and masterful.

I was curious enough about the documentary-like details in the story that I resolved early on to root around for more dirt on Fontane and the novel’s backstory. Fortunately the Penguin Classic version includes a top-shelf afterword written by the translator, with many great morsels about the book and its author.

In fact, this was a rare instance where I almost wish I’d read the afterword prior to reading the novel, as I think I would have appreciated the story more. Although I don’t believe he’s particularly well-known in the States, Fontane is generally regarded (according to the translator, anyway) as the foremost German novelist to ply his trade between Goethe and Mann.

Also, while the plot is pretty tame by today’s standards, and doesn’t seem particularly scandalous, it caused a shit-storm when it first appeared, serialized in a Berlin paper. While affairs between horny Prussian aristocrats and mop-toting peasant girls were common at the time, it was not something that was openly discussed. The story’s serialization led to a deluge of cancelled subscriptions.

So, the final verdict: On Tangled Paths, while I’d never put it on a “best book I’ve read this year” list, is a pretty groovy way to while away a few hours, especially if you’re interested in German or European history, or curious about life in Berlin at the end of the 19th Century. It almost feels like a guilty pleasure, but a guilty pleasure packed with … nutrients.

Tally ho!

Baron in the Trees

By Italo Calvino
Goodreads Rating: 4.06
GL Rating: 5.5

I hadn’t read any of Calvino’s work (I know, sad), and The Baron in the Trees’ premise intrigued me. Overall I found it to be something of a disappointment, but it’s a pretty accomplished and intermittently great disappointment. Baron would be a good read if you’re up for something that feels light but also, at its best, brims with ideas and masterful story-telling.

The first half of the book featured some truly top-shelf writing. Calvino has a capacity to consistently wrong-foot the reader’s expectations, and to do so in a way that lends weight and depth to the characters and themes.

The Baron’s life among the trees conjures many referents; the story frames the Baron at points as a Christ figure. He is simultaneously of the world and rejects it. At one point he is pinned to a tree trunk. Calvino packs many ideas into a somewhat goofy premise. The Baron’s arboreal meanderings are at once Edenic, a childish act of rebellion, psychically regressive, and a pre-cursor to political movements that took root a decade later. In terms of its associations, the story brought Tarzan to mind, and The Tin Drum as well, with its diminutive, tantrum-prone protagonist and his idiosyncratic brand of sonic destruction. Last, and probably least, the Baron flitting through the region entirely in the canopy reminded of a spider in a web.

What’s even more remarkable about the novel’s thematic multiplicity is that it largely reads like a children’s fairy-tale.

The final third of the book, or maybe the second half, sees the writing fall off of a cliff, or out of a tree heh heh heh.

Early on, the Baron’s relationship with his mother is beautifully rendered. Aside from the mother, however, Calvino struggles with female characters. The Baron’s relationship with Viola, his main love interest, veers from flat, to irritating, to contrived; and this is in some ways the most important relationship in the story.

Baron has picaresque elements; some of the characters are developed throughout the novel, while others pop up and then are ejected from orbit. Elements of the plot feel tangential, which dampens the drama, although I suspect that was by design. You have the sense at points that some of the characters don’t mean much to Calvino, and his treatment of them is flippant.

The third short-coming in Baron is that trees themselves are not more of a presence in the narrative. Obviously the entire story takes place in the trees, so they are a presence, but they are not developed as they could have been. There is a feint in this direction early on in the book, but Baron could have been a much more profound novel if Calvino fleshed out this aspect of the book in more detail.


Speedboat Review
By Renata Adler
Pages: 192
Goodreads Rating: 3.8 out of 5
GL Rating: 5.5

I believe I heard about Speedboat in an article about famous writers’ favorite writers. Top 10 lists, etc. Speedboat made it onto Joan Didion’s list. I saw it on a table in a bookstore in Cold Spring a couple of weeks ago, and, turning to the proprietor, said, “I’ll have Speedboat please!”

I spent the first 60 pages in love with it, but then earlier this week, as I was tooling around in the East Village, attempting a dismounted flight from a malaise, I stumbled into an independent bookstore I’d not heard of before, Codex, on Bleecker Street. I saw Speedboat on display inside. 

“I’m reading that!” I announced to the woman behind the counter. She had also read it, and when I asked her what she thought, I saw a hint of a cloud pass over her face. 

“It’s a bit...”

In a flash, having thought of myself up to that point as a disciple of the book, I could see she was going to make unkind comments about it, and I attempted to anticipate her beef:


Kind of, was the employee’s response. She took offense to the way the book trashed hippies. 

I don’t recall substantial hippy-trashing in Speedboat, you wouldn’t say it was a counter-hippy platform. However, after I realized and verbalized the idea that there was something bitchy or even a bit cruel in the book’s perspective, I subsequently found it difficult not to see the writing through that lens. Coupled with the fact that Speedboat is not really a novel (it was originally serialized in the New Yorker, and I wonder if it was originally intended to be a novel), I decided to put it down around page 80.

That said!

It’s easy to see how Speedboat came to enjoy the high regard its held in by writers and critics. The book brims with very funny, beautifully structured, and wonderfully nihilistic prose and observations. I flag good writing as I read books, and my copy of Speedboat is festooned with flags. I am very glad that I read the first half, and my gripes with it are subjective, maybe even transitory.

But now for more undermining.

The problem with the book, a sense that Adler spends 80% of it punching down, pointing out other peoples’ stupidity, could have been ameliorated by more insight from the narrator into her own interiority. Jen Fain, at least for the first 80 pages, is mostly a cypher. She spends her time observing and sneering at those in her orbit. At some point I started involuntarily attaching Anna Wintour’s persona to the Fain/Adler, and that may have been the coup de grace. 

I mentioned that there’s no plot, right? There’s little to no plot. 


There are a couple of tricks that Adler has up her sleeve as a writer, e.g. wildly eclectic biographical details for her characters, but she leans on it too much. Through repetition it began to feel less like a secret power and more like a crutch.

Final thoughts: I’d recommend the book, even though I didn’t finish it. The prose is that good, even if it’s fatally flawed as a novel.


The Third Hotel

By Laura van den Berg
Good Reads Rating: 3.4 out of 5
GL Rating: 6 out of 11

The Third Hotel is an ambitious, clever, and energetic novel that achieves critical mass as a story despite some minor issues with characterization, narrative arc, and a scope that favors breadth over depth. I liked it more than Lake Success, Manhattan Beach, and The Sellout, if that helps. (My updated rankings are here.)

I found the first 30 pages of the book to be the strongest, and they were good enough that it carried me through the rest of it, which was merely “good” as opposed to fantastic. The premise and the setting were rich and evocative. The shattered-identity-in-an-exotic-locale motif reminded me of Graham Greene and Paul Bowles.

As the story opens, the protagonist, Clare, who sells elevators in the mid-west (which: LOL), is at a film festival in Havana. Her husband, we learn, is a film critic who was recently killed in an accident. The novel concerns itself with her attempts to process this recent trauma.

Van den Berg’s approach to the Cuba story line, which forms the novel’s dramatic core, brings some innovative twists to conventions you see in stories with similar themes. I won’t go into detail about it because (a) I hate plot summaries, and (b) you will enjoy the book more if you go into it blind.

The Third Hotel had a kind of fleeting, kaleidoscopic story structure. There were many themes, ideas, characters, mini story lines, and riffs in general tucked into a slender book (209 pages). There are repeated references to suicide. We get bits on the history of zombies, critical theory as applied to horror movies, life in surveillance states. Personally I would have liked to have seen some of these notes sustained for longer, although this seemed to be less of an issue for other people I know who read the book. Having read the book once, and quickly, I did not see the relevance of the repeated references to suicide. I may have just missed it. And the cultural theory around horror films was one of the book’s highlights, but van den Berg puts that to bed rather early in the novel.

The profusion of themes coincides with waves of fleeting conversations with inconsequential characters. Reading the novel felt at times like watching a spider weave a web after drinking a pint of espresso. I suspect this was by design, and was also the point of the novel. This rootlessness is part of who Clare is, and it’s exacerbated by her husband’s death. She’s constantly moving because she’s trapped.

The trouble is that Clare’s meanderings wind up feeling a bit anticlimactic. It’s a book of micro-episodes, which is fine, but, in my opinion, they did not always effectively further the plot or our understanding of Clare. The chase that drives the first two-thirds of the story is resolved and then, again, dropped. I can’t help but feel that the book would have had more of an impact if the climax (ha ha) of that story occurred closer to the end of the story.

Clare’s character is also somewhat passive; her goals vaporous. She is, basically, something like a ghost. She spends a lot of time observing from peripheries.

Anyway, these quibbles with the book are by no means fatal. If you’re looking for a fun, thought-provoking story, The Third Hotel is worth a read. Laura van den Berg is a gifted writer, and I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next. My completely scientific and objectively correct opinion is that van den Berg’s best novel is still in front of her.

Lake Success

By Gary Shteyngart
Good Reads Rating: 3.68 out of 5
GL Rating: 6 out of 11

I picked up Lake Success with modest expectations, based on my recollections of Absurdistan, which I either put down without finishing or finished with ambivalence. I wanted to have a crack at Shteyngart’s latest to see how it fared relative to his earlier work.

Lake Success traces travails of a hedge-fund owner, Barry Cohen, and his family as they struggle with Barry’s legal problems and their son’s medical issues.

TLDR: Better than “OK,” but somewhat short of “good.” Lake Success has an aggressively middle-brow sensibility. it’s not a daring or inventive work. To its credit, it is competent, occasionally moving, and consistently entertaining; a picaresque page-turner guilty pleasure that I inhaled in four days.

Part of the allure stems from the book’s gossipy, voyeuristic qualities. The behind-the-scenes glimpses of high-end lives in New York’s high-end apartments are fluent, credible, and titillating.

LS also should be commended for sifting through the complexities of race and identity without stepping in the proverbial dog crap. The cast of characters reflects the city’s and the country’s diversity, and Shteyngart clearly did the homework writers need to do if they are writing across cultures.

I can also reveal that Success makes very good use of a group of German tourists and has a pretty inspired sex scene.

Success repeatedly points to other novels, particularly Gatsby, On The Road, and The Sun Also Rises. Other than attempting to situate his tale in a broader context, I’m not entirely sure what the objective was, but it felt belabored. LS perhaps makes more subtle references to The Odyssey, via frequent mentions of a one-eyed Mexican passenger on a bus and a well-stocked cave (an ex-employee’s dope crib in Atlanta). Although who knows, maybe sometimes a one-eyed Mexican passenger is just a one-eyed Mexican passenger.

Lake Success suffers from several deficiencies. First, Shteyngart is not a first-rate noticer of details, nor is he a visual writer. Descriptions of places and physical settings are functional, not inspired. The narrative itself, as mentioned above, is very conventional, which is fine if you don’t mind a story that doesn’t take chances with the form. Regarding character development, as with acting, good characters in literature are believable; great characters are both believable and full of surprises. The characters in Success fall into the former category.

There is also a vaguely superficial and disposable quality to the book; the protagonist’s emotional and spatial journeys feel like a bit of a lark. He’s a teflon, Peter Pan-esque figure.

The book was written shortly after a number of the 2016 campaign events it depicts. Success draws liberally on the particulars of the 2016 presidential race: 538.com, Pepe the Frog, Marco Rubio, etc. The political component, however, feels a bit like window-dressing.

The challenge with that kind of proximity to the events at hand is that you write without much perspective on them, and you run the risk of producing a book that feels dated 10 years later. Trump’s victory does play into the story, but maybe it’s nibbling at the edges too much when it should have been more central.


By Peter Handke
Translated from German
Good Reads Rating: 3.5 out of 5
GL rating: 2 out of 11

I bought Across on a whim at a groovy little bookstore in the East Village, in part because the cover design is excellent, and it’s a first edition (UK) novel for the reasonalbe price of $25. I guess you could say that I felt, at that moment, like living on the edge. 

I also hoped it would be a good novel, of course, but hit the brakes after 25 pages. It’s tedious writing, much of it an artless agglomeration of details about a few villages and landscapes outside of Salzburg, Austria. It is bereft of visual flare, with a leaden, dour tone. There was not a single “aha!” or "wow!" moment, in terms of the language. 

Although it’s not explicit, you get the sense that the narrator feels sorry for himself, and he wants you to feel sorry for him too. 

Handke is an intelligent personage, and it comes through in the writing, and it’s possible that I’m putting the novel down prematurely, but, basically, I could not hang with this novel. 

The First Bad Man

By Miranda July
Published 2015
GoodReads rating: 3.59 out of 5
GL rating: 9 out of 11

August 26
I've finished reading The First Bad Man, and it is a remarkable, periodically astonishing first novel. If you haven't read it yet, my advice is to do so, but don't read anything about it before-hand. It's best read cold. This post is spoiler-free.

July manages to pack complex ideas and themes -- as well as brilliant and original plot and character developments -- into a book that masquerades as something more conventional. The story and characters are replete with left turns that are jarring yet completely credible in the context of the narrative; not an easy trick.

There was enough meat floating beneath the surface (ewww) that I had a fleeting urge to immediately go back and re-read it. There were a few points in the novel where I was confronted by questions such as, "how the fuck did she do that," or "where the fuck did that come from?"

The novel is also very funny; not "continuous LOLOL" funny, but on at least one occasion I found myself laughing a bit harder for a bit longer than I wanted to while on a subway.

I don't have much to offer in terms of criticism. I can say that the caliber of the story-telling is generally and consistently high, portions of the book were merely "good," rather than fantastic. There was one brief section, maybe 20 pages, where the writing lost some of its energy, and I was concerned that the remainder of the book was going to sag. Fortunately, it was a brief lull. 

I was curious to see what other reviewers had to say about Bad Man, and they were less bullish on it than I am. It's a better novel than reviewers gave it credit for. The main criticism seems to be "nice first innings, but twee" or quirky. 

There was one moment in the novel where I wondered if Wes Anderson was a minor influence, but quickly discarded this idea. Bad Man is darker, more sophisticated, and less cartoonish than Wes Anderson's work, which irritates or enrages me. Bad Man is not I repeat not twee or gratuitously quirky.

After finishing it tonight I looked again at where I'd placed it in my goofy little rankings, and I'm now uncertain about spots 4 through 10. I've put Bad Man above Austerlitz. Lot 49, and The Sun Also Rises, and I'm wondering if that makes sense. 

Part of the reason I've placed Bad Man so high in the rankings is that I believe it's harder to write a gripping story with relatively low dramatic stakes. It's more of a challenge to make the normal seem, you know, magical. 

Rankings aside, buy and read the shit out of The First Bad Man, it's a gem.

Disclaimers: Miranda July went to UC Santa Cruz while I was there; a former friend dated her very briefly. I've never met her, nor did any of this affect my reading of the book.

August 23
I've today assigned The First Bad Man a preliminary ranking and rating (first time I've done that) because I'm very into the book and I needed to take action. I'm about 85 pages into it, and it's amazing writing. I'm withholding final judgement until I finish it; Manhattan Beach was very good, until it sort of fell apart, but my sense as of today is that The First Bad Man will not fall apart because it's not as much of a plot-driven novel as Manhattan Beach was. 

I'll have a full review posted soon-ish, watch this space.