Thursday, March 02, 2006

EC Teaches a Literature Class

[Ed. note: A little treat for you today, my dear readers, as we have a guest writer today at Pound for Pound to save you from the unrelenting dreariness of your bol. EC is one of the most brilliant, accomplished people I know, a lawyer, an artist, a yoga master, fashionplate, a cosmopolitan. More than anything, she is someone I turned to to find out about the literary world, as she is an ever-grindin' reader, able to tell you the best shit you've never heard about. It's an honor to have her put her thoughts down at my blog, and hope that you don't come to expect this level of intelligence or wit in the future. FYI, the above picture is a peek into her bedroom as she starts another book.]

EC on Books She's Into Right Now (and Forever)

"The Ghost Writer," written by Philip Roth, is his most unusual (though probably not considered his literary best-- that credential usually goes to "American Pastoral"). It's part of the Zuckerman Trilogy, which also includes "Zuckerman Unbound" (think Prometheus turned on his head), "The Anatomy Lesson," and "The Prague Orgy" (which is its epilogue). The book features a young academic, Nathan Zuckerman, who uncovers the shocking and pervese truth that Anne Frank lives (that whole diary thing was a hoax of sorts) and is having a dirty dirty affair with their mutual professor. Seriously, only Roth could get away with such blasphemy. It's brilliant, it's funny, and-- like all Roth-- it's self-loathing and misogyny in their best and most sophisticated form. When you're finished reading "The Ghost Writer," you should proceed to read everything else that Roth has ever written. Philip Roth takes Jewish humor to a whole other level-- Woody Allen's kindrid spirit or Jerry Seinfeld's darker and smarter and much older brother. If misogyny is really your thing, check out "The Dying Animal" in particular. If Roth’s satirical Anne leaves you wanting something more serious on a related topic, pick up “Inside the Third Reich” by Albert Speer. These are Speer's post-Nuremberg memoirs, written from prison and chronicling his integral role in Hitler’s government. It’s truly one of the most fascinating and disturbing first-hand accounts of anything ever written.

If you haven't read Nabokav's "Lolita," you should have and you should. If you have already read Lolita, then you should still re-read the first paragraph (often touted as the greatest first paragraph ever written):
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."
(Note: you have to read it outloud in order to appreciate what makes this language so powerful.) Now consider that Lolita was written in English, even though English was Nabakov's third language-- and reflect on the level of genius it takes to write something so unbearably beautiful in any language, much less one's third. I know it's a little cheesy, but every time i read that first paragraph, my eyes tear up a little bit-- it's just so painfully beautiful. I guess I really am a nerd.

"The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger is the best book I’ve read this year (although it came out in 2004). It's not obscure, but it's amazing-- and fitting with PoundforPound because it's wrought with punk music references, since the main character is a punk devotee, dating back to his youth at the time when the Clash WAS punk. I resisted this book for a long time as too Oprah's book club-esque (although it’s not actually an Oprah book)-- the kind of book that lands on the lists of too many suburban housewives’ book groups. Yes, pretentious assholes like me are the reason that Jonathan Franzen didn’t want “The Corrections” on Oprah’s Book list (“The Corrections” is awesome, btw, you should read that too). But, seriously, this is not a book “for people who don’t read,” which is my snooty term for books I think are beneath me. I did myself a huge injustice in waiting so long to read it, and only finally did so because a friend whose opinion I respect made me promise to read it... I read the book in one sitting and it blew me away and really changed the way I thought about love and the nature of waiting versus living.

For some non-fiction-- I recommend "Founding Brothers" by Joseph Ellis, a series of true stories about America's Founding Fathers, but very anecdotal (they read like short stories)... they include both well-known stories (i.e. the Aaron Burr duel-- perhaps better remembered from the long-ago milk commerical), but also some obscure and really amazing anecdotes. Pay special attention to the chapter on Philadelphia, which tells the story of how Philly was almost the capital of the United States and how we just missed our calling. That chapter has always colored my perception of this city, and what it's missing. As much as I love Philly, it's always seemed like a depressed city to me. If Philly were a person, it would be the type of person who almost got what it wanted and had it snatched away at the very last minute, spending the rest of his life trying to catch up to what it just missed in its youth... Admittedly, I’m not a huge non-fiction reader. By the time I read the newspaper, and the New Yorker, and The Economist, and Harpers, and The Atlantic, I really want to escape reality into an alternate universe with a good piece of fiction. But, that’s part of the appeal of “Founding Brothers”-- they are true stories that are so outlandish that they read like fiction and still give a really amazing insight into our history and some amazing men, without your having to burrow through a 1,000 page David McCullough biography of John Adams or Truman (both of which are supposedly incredible, but which I haven’t read for the aforementioned reasons).

Three of the hottest books this past year, with the most buzz: “Saturday” by Ian McEwan, “On Beauty” by Zadie Smith, and “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro. Any of these books was expected to (and deserved to) win the Booker Prize, but in a big upset, they lost to “The Sea,” by Irish writer John Banville. The critics were upset because they liked “The Sea” less, and I was upset because I hadn’t even been interested enough in “The Sea” to read it. Ah, book world scandal-- it was all happening even before James Frey.

Finally, if you’re looking for other great books to read, here’s my short list of books not already mentioned: “Straight Man” by Richard Russo (my favorite academic satire), “The Good Soldier” by Ford Madox Ford (a British classic from 1915-- the Modern era-- that begins with the famous first line “This is the saddest story ever told.”), "Being Dead" by Jim Crace (tells the life story of two dead lovers intermingled with descriptions of the decomposition of their corpses), “Franny & Zooey” (Salinger's better and more pretentious novel-- I know I’m in the minority with that opinion), “Revolutionary Road” by Richard Yates, everything ever written by Salman Rushdie that actually takes place in India (this includes all his books written before “The Ground Beneath her Feet”), everything ever written by Woody Allen. And, if you’re looking for a reason to get off your ass and read all these books, read “Ex Libris” by Annie Fadiman, a truly inspiring book about love for language and reading that will make even the laziest of you feel like breaking out the nerdy reader in you.


Anonymous said...

I totally approve of this literary tangent.

Anonymous said...

Nice post by "EC."

She should contact the blogger over at; he's asking about "bad Booker beats."

Anonymous said...

i just went on a book-buying spree and purchased, among others, the time traveler's wife. i'm expecting big things, jack and ec!