I started a new job last month! It is a job that involves answering phones. It is decent work for decent pay, and there is a lot of downtime. If the aggregate downtime while I am sitting at a desk is not close to 50% of my workday, I’d be surprised. Consequently, I have been reading. Reading things on paper! I had practically forgotten how to do that, in no small part due to the fact that I’ve spent the past few years trying to replace all of the paper words in my life with digital words. I’ve done a pretty remarkable job: I’m down to “waaaaaaay too many books” from my 2009 “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU WHY ARE YOU KEEPING THIS WHERE DO YOU EVEN SLEEP IN THIS APARTMENT?” peak/nadir. But my new job requires (for reasons I do not fully understand but accept with no real malice) that I do not have any non-work electronic devices out. So I have been picking, mostly at random, things lying around the apartment that are on paper, and reading them. Below is a list of things I read, in part or in full, on my first full week on the job.
Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead – One of two books I read this week about a New Yorker traveling to rural Kansas. At least, I assume Winthrop was in Kansas, what with its Exoduster origin story and it being in a flat area of the Central Time Zone. Like most things in the book, this was left unresolved and vague. It was an engaging read, though I’m not really sure what, if anything, it was supposed to be about: plotlines and signifiers seemed to dangle as loosely as the pre-revamp Apex bandages with their lousy adhesives. I can also tell that Whitehead really loved the nomenclature/branding thought exercises that take up a significant portion of the book, as his latest book Zone One is chockablock with endless descriptions of fictional products, brands, and media figures. I found it charming here, when it’s at the forefront of the book, but distracting in Zone One.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver – Carver is someone I thought I had barely read. Turns out, I’ve read quite a bit of him, probably through scattered literature classes and anthologies. I felt like a lot of these stories were more sketches of moments than actual, you know, stories — “Tell the Women We’re Going” and “After the Denim” being two exceptions and therefore two standouts — though they were generally very evocative sketches. The title story was the least compelling by a wide margin, but absolutely the best title, so I forgive it.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – This book — like Capote in general, I guess — is one of those things that I’d never gotten around to reading because I felt like I had absorbed all the salient parts through cultural osmosis. This book was also the first thing Jessica suggested when I asked if I could borrow some of her books, since I was apparently going to be getting plenty of reading done on the job. I won’t say anything in here is revelatory, though I admit I assumed the two killers were also lovers. The initial chapters seemed to support this reading, unless 1950s toughs called each other “honey” and “baby” a whole lot, met up for “dates” in diners, and other things that were probably just Capote being ‘cute’.
Capote also might be the originator in popular creative non-fiction of projecting inner monologues onto real life people; I know he apparently did a ton of interviewing of all parties, and the testimony of the killers was well-documented, but he’s running through the private thoughts of the deceased, too. I didn’t think the book suffered for it, though I lament the technique continued into hundreds of other books by less talented authors. Despite this and a slew of people later claiming the book isn’t exactly factual at times, I’m still glad I read it. I am equally glad that Lowell Lee Andrews, the nerdy outsider from the University of Kansas who slaughtered his family over break, did not turn out to be (to the best of my research) to be a Stephenson Hall alumnus. I’ve already made one shameful Lyleman discovery for 2013, I didn’t need another.
Fakers by Paul Maliszweski- I read a good portion of this series of essays a few years back before the book was lost in the churn that is papergoods in my apartment. Maliszweski edited McSweeney’s #8, possibly the last issue of the journal that I read nearly cover-to-cover. I think that is due in no small part to it being one of the last issues to come out prior to The Believer’s launch, a result of which was the drastic reduction of non-fiction in most McSwy’s volumes. I am always more willing to go into non-fiction blindly; even if the essay itself is poorly written, there at least exists the possibility that the topic is interesting and will lead you to learn keen new things. A bad piece of fiction is just a bad story.
For the most part, the back half of this book was a little disappointing: several of the essays are either familiar territory (Joey Skaggs! He tries really hard to trick people in the media!) and/or people who are overt fakers (Sandow Birk! He was making old-time posters about modern things before it became the dominant form of expression on nerd tumblrs!) neither of which seem as interesting to me as genuine, temporarily accepted authentic fakers. I did enjoy the chapter on Clifford Irving, who I had somehow never heard about, despite being the subject of multiple films and apparently dozens of books and articles.
Grantland Volume Four - As I implied above, I’ve largely fallen out of devout reading of McSweeney’s publication. They’re still packed with talented people and people I assume are talented, and they’re almost uniformly handsome things. But as McSwy’s trended more and more towards “Various Pieces of Fiction in an Unorthodox Package” and copies of The Believer piled like cordwood around my home, I became a lapsed reader and subscriber. There didn’t seem to be the same sort of focus; though I admit, a lot of that focus early on may have been projected by me. So I was excited when two new journals with broad but specific territories were launched: Lucky Peach for food, and Grantland for sports.
I read a significant portion of the fourth (and final?) volume of Grantland at work, and I’m sad to say I found it lacking. No doubt it’s an attractive book, and much of the writing in it is solid. But it’s almost entirely reprinted essays from the Grantland website. Maybe this was the case from the first issue. Maybe I hadn’t followed the blog as closely a year ago, and so missed out on the earlier volumes’ pieces’ initial posting. Maybe I just became sensitive to this fact when they started including the original blogpost’s information at the end of each essay. Maybe they just had a hard time filling up four volumes in a year. That could go some length to explaining why there were two different roman a clefs/eulogies for Adam Yauch, back to back, in this volume.
That said, there were a couple of really great pieces in there! People should read them online!
“The Late Adopters” by Robert Draper – More than ever, I am convinced that if I were in a situation where I needed a ton of money at the expense of my quality-of-life and soul — like if my parents or brother were held for a ranson on an installment plan — I should just sell out and be a far-right Republican shill. I could whip up outrage of Baquack Insane Obummer’s latest lunch order over Twitter, and propagate unsourced rumors about FEMA camps on Instagram, and really GOTV on the sectors of tumblr that care about low taxes (and maybe weed legalization) over human rights. They need people like me! Except, you know, people like me who agree with anything they do. That is what this article taught me.
“Money is No Cure” by Emily Bazelon – I only skimmed this one because it turns out Jessica accurately summarized the entire thing to me one night. But it inspired me to look up my high school classmate who was doing federal time for child pornography. He’s out!
“Frank Ocean Can Fly” by Jeff Himmelman – I don’t know why I assumed that either “Frank” or “Ocean” were his real name(s). That’s mostly what I got out of this article. Also I think this was the issue with the Mark Bittman article about making bread. I should make bread.
CONCLUSIONS, BASED ON A TINY SAMPLE SIZE
Collections of non-fiction essays are harder to power through than collections of short stories.
Magazines are difficult because they take up more space on the desk. I had a particularly hard time with the Believers, as I couldn’t even fold them over themselves like the NYTMs.
I have twice been asked “WHAT ARE YOU READING?” by co-workers. Both times they initiated the conversation out of what I assumed was genuine curiosity and not politeness, but looked profoundly disinterested when I tried to explain.
It’s been a really long time since I read something and couldn’t turn to the internet and confirm/deny something for hours. I am unaccustomed to it.