Beautiful sentences

I didn’t want to go home. My wife was different than she used to be, and we had a six-month-old baby I was afraid of, a little son.

Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son

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098.3 KAT Literary Hoaxes: An Eye Opening History of Famous Frauds

This seems like it should be a fascinating area to write about: From the fabricated Shakespeare documents that took in Charles and Mary Lamb in the 19th century to James Frey’s “memoir” in the twenty-first century, there’s a lot to write about. As it turns out, though, most of the stories aren’t that interesting. JT Leroy’s story is interesting to read, but despite his fame, James Frey turns out to be not that interesting. Clifford Irving’s Howard Hughes memoir hoax was another interesting story, although better told by Irving himself in The Hoax, later made into a film with Richard Gere. Overall, the book could have been better executed had Katsoulis been more selective in what she chose to include.

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081 REQ Requiem for a Paper Bag: Celebrities and Civilians Tell Stories of the Best Lost, Tossed and Found Items from around the World

Found magazine is one of those concepts that I wish I’d come up with: publishing the strange and unusual artifacts that end up as the detritus of civilized life. In this case, Rothbart, the editor of Found canvassed assorted celebrities and civilians (as near as I can tell, this designation is for those people who are well-known writers who don’t quite rise to celebrity status) for their best stories of found objects. In a few cases, the responses are fiction (or even poetry). In a couple instances, one piece responds directly to another which left me wondering how exactly the compilation process worked, particularly with those responses (did the authors of those pieces say, “what else have you got? I’m stumped”). 

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2014 in reading

I set out this year to make my reading a bit more diverse. I fell a tad short of my goal for women writers making only 39.6% when I was aiming for 40% but had 13.5% non-white. I ended up choosing my next book to read 10.8% of the time in pursuit of these numbers. I had 9.9% of my reading written by dead white men and 30.1% by non-US authors.

69.8% of the books I read were by authors new to me, and I’ve met 10.8% of the authors of the books I’ve read. 60.8% was fiction and 5.9% was poetry. 3.9% was in translation and 1% was in Spanish.

And now, my top books of the year:

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
Great short stories by a master of the form. 

The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim
Magical realism and brutal realism in contemporary Iraq 

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford 
I read this in college 25 years ago, coming back to it, I still love it. 

Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
A great account of a mystical experience. 

The Instructions by Adam Levin
A work of pure genius. Once I finished, I went back to page one to read it again. 

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
A lyrical tribute to libraries of all kind. 

Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Killian Plunett, Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong
An alternate version of the Superman story done brilliantly. 

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
A great investigation of identity and deception, 

The Year of What Now: Poems by Brian Russell
A beautiful depiction of painful experience through poetry, even more impressive in that it’s fiction!

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2014 in rejections (and acceptances)

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2014 apparently ended up being the year that I got the most pieces out thusfar (although the general trend has been upwards). My personal rejection rate is up to 25% from 20%, a new record and this year’s acceptance rate came out at 3.1% (three acceptances versus 93 rejections). 

My plan for 2015: Finish draft 11 of the novel, get another story sold, do one last revision of the novel and then queries.

070.92 THO Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Some time after college, I realized that drunk and stoned people were not all that fun or interesting to be around. This, in the end is the big problem with Hunter S. Thompson’s book. On the flip side, the narrative voice here is so compelling that it’s hard not to read on. The second part of the book, where Duke and Gonzo are covering the National District Attorney’s conference, is by far the stronger part of the book, with some genuinely entertaining commentary on how the “straights” viewed the drug culture.

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051 GRO The Receptionist

When the current craze for memoirs struck, I kept finding myself wondering who these people were and why we should care about their lives? It seemed to me that having done something notable with one’s life was a prerequisite for a memoir being worth writing, let alone being read.

Janet Groth falls on the edge of this classification in my mind. Her life seems to be largely notable because she’s lived her life on the margins of the lives of other notable people. In particular, she happened to work at The New Yorker in the midst of the William Shawn era, which to my mind, was when the best writing was published in the magazine (please don’t get me started on the Tina Brown period which is when I stopped reading the magazine).

Being on the margins means Groth’s own story is marginal. At times she’s wonderfully informative, for example, when writing about her experiences freelancing for Muriel Spark (who is inexplicably identified by the jacket copy as a playwright). At times she is a bit gossipy and some of her attempts at disguising the identities of the people she writes about are laughable in their failure.

There’s almost a good book here, but I feel like for that to happen, it would have needed to have less Groth and more of her environment in the telling.

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069.5 OLD The Secret Museum

As a child, one of the treats of the year was members’ night at the Field Museum. We’d get to go to the top floor of the museum where the researchers worked and see the stuff that wasn’t on display, that was being actively used in research. More than anything else, what remains in my mind was cabinets filled with drawer upon drawer of beetles on pins from around the world. The idea of beetles inches long with monstrous horns was such a bizarre and wonderful thing, it’s a wonder that I never became an entomologist. This was the first hint I had that a museum is much more than the objects in the glass display cases in the public areas of the building.

Molly Oldfield sets out to write about some of the artifacts at assorted museums (mostly in England, but a handful in Brazil, the United States, Canada and continental Europe) that are not on display. The cover promises “some treasures are too precious to display…” but that’s not always the case of the items she discusses here. Some are just too big to display (a flag from the Battle of Trafalgar, a whale skeleton), in some cases, the items will be on display as soon as the museum reopens or the rubble of a statue is reassembled from its World War II damage.

The library’s copy was previously read by someone who seemed to have an ever-growing distaste for Oldfield, starting out by pointing out apparent contradictions with the anonymous reader’s apex of disgust reached with the pencilled note, “It’s all about you, all the time, isn’t it Molly?” Some of the apparent contradictions this reader found are, in fact, not contradictions at all (for example, that the field at Wimbledon could be seen from every seat yet a hundred seats had partially obstructed views). Still, it became a challenge to read this book without the sense of the previous reader looking over my shoulder, one of the curious effects of reading a public library copy of a book.

I would have liked there to be more of a narrative constructed from the disparate items in the book. At times, Oldfield refers back to other objects she had seen in her research, but it feels as if there could have been even more of this done, creating the sense that one discovery inspired the journey to make the next, something which could have made this a more compelling read rather than an anthology of short pieces on the parts of the museum’s collection that aren’t on display.

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031.02 MAT The Concise Guide to Sounding Smart at Parties

Here’s a rule: If you’re going to put together a humorous collection of facts, it should be (a) humorous and (b) not contain unintentional mistakes. Matalon and Woolsey manage to miss the mark on many fronts, with factual errors that were unintended (e.g., saying that Bohemia became part of modern-day Austria) and having humor which is juvenile, repetitive and just plain unfunny. The jokes struck me as the sort of second-rate humor that you might find in a college paper desperate to fill the column inches. What the book had going for it was residing in the 030 shelves, designated “Encyclopedias and Books of Facts” in which category this seemed the most likely candidate for a cover-to-cover reading. I’m beginning to think that the So–Sz volume of the World Book Encyclopedia might have been a better choice.

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The Big Countdown

In this year’s edition of my countdown to death, I drop from 90 years to 84 years. My biggest source of additional life expectancy would be diet and exercise. Losing six years of life is a bit sobering. I knew this last year, but it’s even more important now, especially that I have progeny to raise that I’d like to see further my genetic line which means I might want more than 38 years before I die. Not to mention all the reading and writing I would like to do. On the flip side, retirement saving has become a bit more manageable.