...And here is some more inspiration.
*** June 2011 Newsletter Pick ***
Suffering for decades from severe, intractable depression, David Foster Wallace brought it to an end in September 2008. He left behind anguished, heartbroken family, friends, and colleagues, as well as many hundreds of pages of his novel in progress. It had been more than 10 years since the publication of Wallace's iconic, hilarious Infinite Jest, and while during this period he published several marvelous collections of short stories and essays, this work was his consuming focus. Writer's block does not seem to have been a problem -- a hugely brilliant and complex mind possibly was. It was through this lens of chronic depression that I read The Pale King, which even without this perspective would have been the most complicated reading experience I've ever had. In a very moving note before the novel opens, Wallace's editor of many years, Michael Pietsch, describes the process by which he organized the material -- not just manuscript pages but thousands of Wallace's notes regarding possible directions characters and plot might go. He freely admits it would probably have been a very different novel had Wallace ultimately shaped and finished it. "Although not by any measure a finished work, I wanted those who appreciate David's work to be able to see what he had created -- to be allowed to look once more inside that extraordinary mind," Pietsch writes, in an introduction which also poses all the unanswerable questions any thoughtful reader might have. Likewise, publishing many of Wallace's notes at the end was a masterstroke.
Only Wallace could have conceived of a novel whose overarching theme is sadness and boredom -- the stultifying effects of quotidian, repetitive existence -- and in the same work have created such startling, memorable moments and characters. Much of the book is set at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, circa 1985. One of Wallace's notes refers to "shifting points of view, structural fragmentations, willed incongruities," which seemingly might make a reader wanting a beginning, middle, and end run screaming from the room, but should actually have the opposite effect. The plot is part labyrinth (not maze), part Japanese puzzle box -- I started keeping a log of characters' appearances and disappearances not to control meaning but to join in the action.
Wallace was creating a novel of ideas, many of which I have scarcely grasped, but his way of making you look at something really deeply changes you and your world view. Is that too hyperbolic? I don't think so. It is often those exquisite (and sometimes horrifying) descriptions of mental or verbal tics that only you have experienced that shake you from your solipsism and open your eyes more fully.
I was completely riveted by this novel: there are scenes I will return to over and over, some because they are so funny, others because they are brilliantly apt, still others for the power of Wallace's language to evoke the strange and wondrous in human existence.
*** April 2011 Newsletter Pick ***
Very occasionally over my reading life, a book will cause a subtle shift in my worldview, a cerebral or spiritual expansion, a crack in my cosmic egg. In 1976 such a book was The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston. Though my original copy is long missing, I still remember the rich deep maroon of the cover with the brightly colored images -- and imagery within that I will carry with me always. Thirty-five years later in I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, this extraordinary poet and activist reflects on the intervening years and the approach of an inconceivable 65th birthday ("I don't want to look like Grandmother..."). Writing with the grace, humor, and arresting language I've come to expect from her, Kingston excavates her ancestors, her life, and her world with elegiac exuberance. This is my handbook, my Lectio Divina, for the journey ahead. How perfect that the dust jacket is a rich spectrum of grays, not spectral but wise. Thank you, Maxine.
This brilliant first novel is equal measures elegant prose and riveting narrative. Reading it you are immersed in the period (1660s), the place (Eyams, an isolated English Village), human struggles (sex, plague, apostasy) - like being transplanted into a Breughel painting.
An extraordinary work of intellect and passion - one of those novels that in its breadth sets the tone and leads the way to a year's reading program. Layers of story weave 1950's upper west side jazz clubs, the Kabbalah, T.S. Eliot's great love affair, the machinations of an ambitious graduate student, and the shock of buried family secrets into one glorious novel.
With the endless offerings of hooking up/breaking up chick lit, here at last is a novel of a mature relationship. A loving marriage confronted with social upheaval, at times insoluble conflicts, ardent opinions, great passion, and the tenacity to hold on to each other through it all. In the best of all possible worlds Lizzie's Mike might be your next door neighbor.
If you're thinking about reading Saramago (and you should), this is a great place to begin. My favorite of all his novels - more picaresque than surreal (unlike Blindness), laugh-out-loud funny with a premise outlandish to anyone but a Californian. (Portugal breaks off from Mainland Empire and floats out into the Atlantic).
Toni Morrison on acid? David Sedaris channeling William Faulkner? In some ways Eudora Welty's spiritual heir. The stories are unlike any I've ever read. What a fabulous new talent.
Funny, heartbreaking, strange, delightful, Greer brilliantly sustains a plot device others have failed at. Oh Max, I still weep for you.