What I’m Reading

November 16, 2009

I’ve thought about doing this for years, but never got around to it before: noting down which books I’ve read recently. I think I “never got around to it” because it always seemed a bit self-indulgent, like declaiming to the world what I ate for breakfast: who cares?

But I’ve had a change of heart.

Here’s the thing. The past few years, I’ve noticed that every so often, something happens and I sort of run into a brick wall where I don’t seem to be able to write anything.

I have two or three (or more) book projects going, and there’s both passion for the topics (on my part) and urgency about their completion (on circumstances’ part) — but I hit that wall anyway. Lunch is over, I go downstairs to my desk, flip on the laptop, and my eyes promptly glaze. As Curly (of the Three Stooges) once so poignantly put it:

“I’m tryin’ ta think — but nothing happens.”

What’s wrong? Why can’t I write? Because: first I have to read.

Such a simple thing, but it’s taken me a while to figure it out. If you want a fireplace to give you heat, first you have to give it logs. If you want words and thoughts to come out of your head, you have to put words and thoughts into it. Reading: feeding the furnace.

Hence my change of heart: since I tell you all about the books I’m writing, wouldn’t it make sense also to mention the books I’m reading?

Surprisingly, although I mostly write nonfiction, most of what I read is fiction. I think that’s okay: the logs you put in a fireplace are the same energy as the heat you get out of it—but not in the same configuration. As long as there’s something interesting going in, we should have something interesting coming out.

So, here we are, first installment: the books I’ve happened to read in the past month or two, starting with the most recent (finished about 15 minutes ago) and progressing back in time to October:

Deadeye Dick, by Kurt Vonnegut.

I got inspired to read more Vonnegut in part because he makes a cameo in John Irving’s latest novel (see below) and Irving studied with him; and in part because a brand new collection of previously unpublished Vonnegut short stories just appeared …

Look at the Birdie, by Kurt Vonnegut.

Previously unpublished short stories by the master. I wrote a eulogy here when Vonnegut’s peephole was closed two-and-a-half years ago (to use the poignantly silly terminology from Deadeye Dick). Vonnegut was one of the most brilliant wordsmiths who ever lived, and also an extraordinarily decent, compassionate human being with an enormously aching heart for the foibles, kindnesses and tragedies of humankind.

Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving.

Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of my favorite novels of all time. This latest comes perhaps closest to that book in tone and overall flavor. I absolutely loved every riotous, tragic minute of it. Irving’s recent several novels (Until I Find You and The Fourth Hand) were disappointments to some; this one has the master back in perfect form.

In viewing some Irving interviews on YouTube (here’s an excellent one, 40 minutes’ worth at the October 2009 National Book Festival), I learned something fascinating: with every one of his twelve novels, he has started crafting the book with the last sentence (“and once I’ve got it, it never varies, not even a punctuation mark”) and then works backwards, outlining the story from back to front, until he has “found” the first sentence — and then starts the actual writing of the book: “By then, it’s a story I already know; all I have to do know is focus on the sentences themselves.”

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wrobleski.

This debut novel won overwhelming critical acclaim (including being an Oprah’s Book Club pick) when it came out last year. [Note: Not a Pulitzer, as I mistakenly wrote earlier — oops.] It’s not easy reading, because the writer sometimes writes a bit impressionistically, so you are not entire sure if what you just read is what you think you just read—but it is gorgeous, magnificent writing and a powerfully moving story.

Relentless, by Dean Koontz.

“What?!” you say, “from Wrobleski to Dean Koontz?!” Yup. Ana and I raced through this latest Koontz together last month on our trip to Malaysia — and we had a blast. Koontz is very uneven: some of his books are just mediocre thrillers, others are masterworks. The Odd Thomas series is the latter, and this one is up there. (How can you not love a thriller about a novelist who discoverss that a reviewer who has just panned his latest book turns out to be a homicidal psychopath who is genuinely out to get him?)

Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, by A. J. Baime.

The only nonfiction in the bunch (though I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers before this, and am just now starting his new book, What the Dog Saw). This is the wonderfully told tale of the glory days of the Mustang and how the two auto giants fought to reign speed supreme. Baime’s prose is mostly delightful, sometimes delicious. Check out the opening sentence:

“In 1963, following a business deal gone sour, two industrialists from either side of the Atlantic became embroiled in a rivalry that was played out at the greatest automobile race in the world.”

Look how much information, drama and suspense is packed into those 33 words—and not a one wasted!

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