All posts filed under “Books


H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (2014)

150309_r26195-945Helen Macdonald’s beloved father died unexpectedly, she plunged into grief, she acquired and trained a goshawk, the process of the successful training aided the process of successful mourning, and she wrote a book about it.

That’s the received line here, and it’s all true, but the book’s actually quite a bit more interesting than that “Hawk Pray Love” summary suggests. Chief among these is Macdonald’s decision to pack into her book a biography of T. H. White, and an analysis of his own book The Goshawk. It’s amusing to find that NYRB now calls The Goshawk “the predecessor to Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk,” as if the earlier work somehow derives from the later, instead of vice-versa. Amusing, but to the point, too, since I think Macdonald’s decision to make a literary connection with White is an important symbol of continuousness for her. “Someone came before me, then I lived, someone will come after me” is crucial mantra for one in the throes of grief.

As for the hawk–she’s called Mabel, but answers to combinations of frozen chicks and whistles–well, the hawk is magnificent. Macdonald writes beautifully about the training and the relationship she develops with Mabel. You could imagine such a story going horribly awry, with trainer and hawk “becoming one” and accounts of hunts written from the point of view of the hawk. Macdonald commits no such crimes; she’s relentlessly clear-headed and unsentimental as a writer, even when (especially when) she’s experiencing moments where she’s hopelessly muddle-headed and sentimental as a human.

This book succeeds beautifully as a memoir, a natural history, a biography, and a work of literary analysis. Quite a feat–I enjoyed it very much. I’ll read The Goshawk next, but FYI I wish I’d read it first.


The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)

81HiLi7irkLYou can probably relax about those new year’s resolutions, folks. Kolbert’s brisk, oddly chipper account of previous mass extinctions and the current one unfolding in not-so-slow motion is a terrific and informative read, and also had, for me, an unexpected liberating effect. Reading it reminded me of reading my beloved Cioran: “Although I feel that my tragedy is the greatest in history–greater than the fall of empires–I am nevertheless aware of my total insignificance.” This probably isn’t the response to Kolbert’s work I’m supposed to be having; it’s certainly not Sierra Club approved. But I don’t think you have to be a thanatophiliac to walk away from this book feeling less like buying a Prius and more like having a nice walk with a good friend, followed by a big martini. The jig is so, so up.

Besides death, the book’s other great underlying subject is time, which is so much harder to talk about. Death has so many wonderful qualities — visibility, insistence, surprise. Time’s like air, a dream. Invisible, indifferent, repetitive. We can never know enough of it to get a sense of its entirety. Which is longer, two million years or two hundred million? We think we know, but we have no idea.

Anyway, sorry, kind of going off the deep end there. Super read. Get it as an ebook and save a tree.



KetchupCan’t keep up the full-blown posts while school’s in session. This isn’t everything seen, heard, and read this semester — just what I can remember off the top of my head.

Atonement, Ian McEwan (2001). Hundreds of terrific sentences and a lively yarn. Is it now always necessary that every novel has to be about both what it’s about and also about novelists?

Ex Machina, Alex Garland (2015). This made me so mad but now I’m having trouble even remembering it. I think it had to do with the fact that it was masquerading as being all Jaron Lanier philosophical when really it’s just about grubby horny boys wanting to look at sexy naked girls without feeling bad about it. Two choices available to female-coded beings in this world: slave or murderer. See my commentary elsewhere regarding those recent Scarlett Johansson movies; she’s the queen of this kingdom, and Luc Besson is its Don King.

Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, Errol Morris (2011). Manic, obsessive, repetitive, and great investigation of photography’s truthiness and its consequences. Particularly astute on the ways photographs can be put to use as political propaganda.

Diogenes the Cynic: Sayings and Anecdotes, With Other Popular Moralists, ed. Robin Hard (2012). I didn’t like Diogenes as much as I thought I would. His inconsistencies irritate me. Turns out I’m more of a Seneca guy. What are you going to do.

Dialogues and Essays, Seneca. Still working on this. Not as immediately accessible as Marcus Aurelius but I’m warming to it.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius. I love this like I love Montaigne; their spirits are so close. (My understanding is that Montaigne oddly doesn’t seem to have known Aurelius — a pity.) The Staniforth translation is the best. The Robin Hard one may be “better” for classicists but it’s awful for human consumption.

Welcome to Me, Shira Piven (2014). A little Truman Show, a little Nurse Betty, a little To Die For. Doesn’t quite hold together, is too one-note and too relentlessly committed to despair, but it’s still a smart movie.

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Suzan-Lori Parks (2015). If you’re struggling to write a play about a soldier come home from a war and you find out that your favorite living playwright’s new play is titled “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” you have some kind of mixed feelings. But the main feeling here is satisfaction, since this is one of Parks’ best.  I admire her so much. I’m particularly impressed that she’s getting less and less obscure, but isn’t losing any of the fundamental ambivalences that make her work so provocative. This work is every bit as incisive and destabilizing as, say, The America Play, but I can also imagine this one put on by a high school drama club, whereas earlier work was a bit too far out for that kind of venue. Wonderful, wonderful piece; wish I could have seen it at the Public.

The Sellout, Paul Beatty (2015). Beatty reminds me of my good friend Jeffrey McDaniel, such a fecund imagination that he’ll never use one clever metaphor when three have come to mind. The novel works as a crazy comic satire on contemporary race relations, politics, poverty, capitalism, Los Angeles, and also as a sort of fictional beard for Beatty’s more essayistic commentaries on all of the above. I sometimes wish Beatty didn’t feel the need to stuff every single sentence with as many jokes as possible, but all that candy is laced with enough acid that I suppose it balances out in the end.

Also reread Roth’s The Radetzky March  and The Emperor’s Tomb this fall, for fun.  

Also reading more Simon Stephens plays.

TV: Sandy convinced me to watch Orphan Black. It’s pretty dumb but I did watch the whole thing. It’s kind of ironic that here you have a show with all these strong female characters, but only one actress getting work! Also watched the Netflix series Narcos, FX’s The Americans, and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Also re-watched the entire span of The Wire and thought it’s holding up very well. More and more, I find I watch fewer movies and more series. This depresses me a little, but I don’t know why.

Listening: Nicholas Jaar, Claude von Stroke, The Juan Maclean, Dexter Gordon, McCoy Tyner, Maya Jane Coles. Utterly in love with my absurdly expensive Spotify subscription.

Looking: Thinking a lot about August Sander’s People of the 20th Century, Sternfeld’s Stranger Passing, and this post from Blake Andrews on “docutrinity.”


Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, Margaret Atwood (2008)

9780747598718More than a year since reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, my head’s still spinning trying to come to grips with the concept of debt, which once seemed very simple to me and now seems deeply nebulous. Just recently, I was trying to recommend that book to a friend and found myself unable even to explain what it was “about.”

Atwood’s book, which started as a series of lectures and reads very conversationally, might be a better place to start than Graeber. It’s not nearly as detailed or researched, and there’s a much lower ratio of mindblowers-per-page, but it’s also far more approachable and comprehensible.

Unsurprisingly, Atwood’s particularly good at exploring the ways debt appears in literature, with shrewd and lively analyses of Middlemarch, Faust, and — of course — Dickens, particularly A Christmas Carol.

Breezy, smart, recommended.


The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson (2010)

WarmthofOtherSuns_paperbackAbsolutely marvelous book that taught me a great deal not only about its most immediate subject, the Great Migration, but about race in America more generally. You learn an awful lot reading this — Wilkerson did an incredible amount of research — but it’s no textbook. Wilkerson uses the simple but effective device of choosing three people who left the South, and structuring her narrative around their life stories. So it’s as much a triple biography of three very interesting characters as it is a work of general history. Highly recommended.


Teju Cole, Every Day Is for the Thief (2007)

81HtWazT5IL._SL1500_Cole was born in the United States to Nigerian parents, moved to Nigeria as a young child, then moved back to the U.S. for college at 17. Some time later, I’m guessing in his late 20’s, he returned to Nigeria to visit relatives, and this book seems to be a product of notes taken on that trip. It’s billed as fiction but has few of the usual trappings of fiction. It very much reads like a lightly revised set of journal entries.

Like many, I found Cole’s Open City (2012) pretty intriguing; I compared it to Sebald, which is mighty high praise. In that book too, which was also billed as fiction, a narrator who bears a very strong resemblance to the book’s author mostly walks around thinking about things and transcribing his encounters with friends, strangers, and places both familiar and un. The quality of the reflections in Open City were far more complex, nuanced, and historically conscious, though, than are those in Every Day Is for the Thief.

I’m going to try to be nice about this, but a not very nice analogy keeps coming to mind. The narrator of this earlier work (published well before Open City by a Nigerian press; republished, one imagines in some haste, by American and British houses after Open City‘s success in order to capitalize on the author’s moment in the sun) spends a lot of time complaining about corruption in his semi-native land, and is particularly disgusted by the fact that everyone in Lagos — policemen, gas station attendants, deliverymen, museum guards — seems to expect substantial baksheesh for performing little or no real service. Well, I paid $17.95 for this book and got 162 pages of pretty jejune and petty prose. In a large font.

I don’t blame anyone for being young. I’m sure that when Cole took this homecoming trip and wrote in his notebook, “At times, the absurdity makes one laugh. Other times, the only possible response is a stunned silence,” he believed he had achieved a genuine insight. But the book is filled with similarly immature and sometimes even inane specimens of weak wisdom, written in a stilted high style so as to attempt to make “one” sound more authoritative than “one” actually is. “One” is particularly put off by the narrator’s persistent contempt for average people, and the unexamined pleasure he derives from discovering cultural institutions — a fancy bookshop, a fancy music conservatory — which suggest to him that perhaps the country isn’t completely benighted after all. It never occurs to him, or at least he never lets on if it does, that such institutions (like similar ones in every country) can only be sustained because of the existence of a hyper-wealthy class which in turn depend upon economic inequality.

I liked Open City but did have a nagging sense that there might be less there there than I was projecting onto it. As often happens when I encounter flâneur narrators, I wondered whether the text’s apparent aimlessness was a thoughtful and meaningful construct or simply the result of compositional half-assery. In the end I gave the novel the benefit of the doubt, but reading this earlier work casts something of a pall on the later. I’ll be very interested to see what comes next from Cole.


Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber (2011)

debtI don’t often read 400-page books on economic history, but this one had me thoroughly engaged the whole way. I don’t think it can really be summarized, and I won’t try. I underlined about a third of this book and I think my annotated copy itself will have to stand as my notes. I will write down one idea that has continued to rattle in my head since finishing the book.

Contrary to common belief, there’s nothing immoral about being in debt. Indeed, being in debt to someone is a way to maintain a human connection to them. If I loan my neighbor a couple eggs one week, and the next week she brings me some of the cookies she baked with them, and then I mow her lawn for her because she broke her ankle, and then she watches my cat while I’m away for the weekend, we are in a healthy pattern of recurring indebtedness to one another. Note that the inexactness of the “repayments” helps to keep the relationship going. If I loan my neighbor a couple eggs, and the next day she brings me back a couple eggs, I’ve been repaid exactly, but what else has happened? Our relationship is severed. Graeber provides examples of some cultures where it’s considered quite rude to pay a debt back exactly. In effect, you’re saying “I don’t want to have a relationship with you any more.” So people in this cultures will deliberately over- or under-repay debts, so as to keep the relationship going.

I’d never thought about debt that way before. Obviously my mortgage lender doesn’t think about it that way, either, right? Our mutual goal, on the contrary, would appear to be to get to the end of our relationship, by me paying back the money I owe on my house. But wait — is that really the bank’s goal as well as mine? If everyone paid all the banks back, all at once, everything they were owed, why would the banks continue to exist? The bank insists on being paid back, but it also never wants to be completely paid back. How does it survive that fundamental existential contradiction? This book, among many other things, is a long answer to that short question.


Redeployment, Phil Klay (2014)


This collection got a good review in the New Yorker earlier this year, and since it’s subject is one I’ve been interested in, I got hold of it and read it this summer. I’ve kept up pretty well with the journalism from the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The literature of a war takes longer to emerge.

It’s a strong and admirable collection, but it’s not a great one. The stories are straightforward, sometimes even programmatic enactments of the awful conflicts our returning soldiers face, without much aesthetic ado. That’s fine, and honest, and valuable, and I was very pleased to learn that Klay’s just taken home the National Book Award for 2014, since the attendant rise in sales will likely bring this subject matter into the lives of a lot of people who haven’t yet come to understand the challenges veterans face today.

But if you’ve been tracking those challenges through the myriad nonfictional sources (e.g., Thank You for Your Service, David Finkel; Lethal Warriors, David Philipps; Homefront, Richard Hankin; and so many excellent public television documentaries), Klay’s book will likely feel pretty flat in comparison.


The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner (2013)

flamethrowercoverMany contemporary American novelists write novels to mansplain contemporary America to me which is one reason I tend not to read many contemporary American novels. Rachel Kushner starts racking up points with me from page one on the basis of her chosen subjects and settings alone; I cannot recall ever having read a novel set in the New York art world of the 1970s, industrializing northern Italy in the 1950s, or leftist Italian movements of the 1970s, much less all three.

The novel opens with our protagonist, Reno, a young would-be artist, using a fancy Italian motorcycle to make a mark on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Everyone else present is there to marvel at the power and force of machinery; Reno is there to make a drawing of impermanence. The novel ends (don’t worry; only the mildest of spoilers to follow) with an Italian would-be anarchist using a set of borrowed skis to make a mark on the side of Mont Blanc as he flees the police pursuing him for crimes he’s committed against the Italian industrialist family who manufactured the fancy Italian motorcycle aforementioned. You begin to see the layers of theme and association Kushner’s built up. The novel is about the rise of industrialized postwar capitalism, its early roots in Futurist fetishization of machinated speed, the ways in which its apparent hegemony was undermined by anarchic movements artistic and political, and the ways in which those movements began to fail.

At what point did modernity start to seem other than purely glorious? Everyone’s got a different answer for that, depending on where and when you come from. 1914, 1945, 1967 — you can make strong arguments for any of these, of course. You don’t hear hear 1978 very often, the year the Red Brigades killed Aldo Moro. Have kids these days ever heard of Aldo Moro, or Baader-Meinhof? There’s probably a band in Bushwick named Red Army Faction. God, that’s a depressing thought.

Anyway, apparently Kushner (b. 1968) is old enough to know and young enough to be able to reimagine those “years of lead” when the ideologies of the 1960s turned into the uprisings of the 1970s, and then everything went to hell.

I’m going on about politics because that’s the part most interesting to me, but Kushner’s evocation of the New York art world at this moment is actually the most entertaining part of the book. The implicit but never enforced idea is that the revolutionary movements in art going on at the same time as these attempts at political revolution and anarchism are just as exciting but finally just as overheated, under-baked, and doomed to be remembered more as zigs and zags of fashion than agents of actual upheaval. The characters Kushner creates in the Soho of the early 1970s are wonderful, and it’s fun too to guess who’s supposed to be representing actual artists of the time; I think I may have spotted William Eggleston? Can that be right?

There’s some unevenness in this book — some scenes can feel like they were only written because Kushner had to get someone from point A to point B — but there are some sequences that are genuinely thrilling in their cascades of association which seem both truly surprising and absolutely inevitable. It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s the best work of contemporary fiction I’ve read in a long time.

I’ve got one other line of thinking that doesn’t make me very happy. Our protagonist Reno is a young woman from nowhere (Reno) trying to navigate all the sophistication and sophistry of the rich, the urban, the Italian, the artistic, etc. I wish she had in the end, or even the middle, found something to be other than a girl who looks to men to define her, and something to do other than react to situations. She begins the book with an idea about an art project; Kushner doesn’t let her do anything with it, and by the end, we’ve pretty much forgotten that she ever had any artistic ambitions at all. Is that supposed to be a comment on the fate of female artists of the time? That seems like an interpretive stretch. Anyway, I’m just saying that I felt more interested in Reno’s artistic aspirations than she seemed to be herself.


Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, Jim Holt (2012)


Well I just wrote a long post about this which disappeared when I hit the “publish” button. Coincidence?

So, nutshell: Nicely done. Occasionally got a little too sciencey for me, and when people start talking about logic I want to jump out a window, but there was a lot of great stuff in here. I particularly liked learning about the fecundity principle, Spinoza, and the bias toward nothingness as the ontological norm.


P. S. The titular question is not the one Holt poses to the various philosophers and scientists he interviews. Rather, he asks the far more interesting “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I guess the publisher’s publicists didn’t think that was catchy enough.