by Morgan on November 2, 2011
It started with the New York Times Business section, with this arresting photo of Ruth Madoff. The piece was published on Monday to coincide with the release of Truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family. The book wasn’t written by Ruth and Andrew Madoff, but they collaborated closely with the author, Laurie Sandell, and it’s their picture on the jacket cover, not her’s. Ostensibly, it’s their story.
And it seems to me to be the quintessential American story: the swindling sociopath, the pampered blonde wife and two handsome sons. There’s the scandal, of course, but there’s so much more inherent: the Madoffs’ story is about victimization, and fidelity, ownership, and familial loyalty, money, power, vilification, capitalism, courtship and divorce, mental illness, publicity and celebrity, the take-down, the tell-all.
Everyone knows what happened to Bernie Madoff, and probably the bare bones of the fallout, too: his confession to his sons, Ruth’s exhaustive support of her husband (until just recently), the couple’s failed double suicide, the Shakespearean familial rifts, the media’s almost maniacal lampooning of the entire family, the eldest Madoff son’s suicide on the second anniversary of his father’s arrest.
I knew about all these things too, but I didn’t know, for instance, that Ruth had been with Bernie since she was 13 years old. She’s 70. I didn’t know that before her first-born child succeeded in ending his own life, he’d already tried once, and failed, after which he’d begged his mother to cut ties with her husband. She didn’t. I also didn’t know that Ruth still refuses to file for divorce. Or that she’s only breaking her interview ban now because Andrew asked her to help him promote this book, and the last time she didn’t do what one of her sons wanted…
There’s something here that’s begging me to tease it out. Leaving aside the inevitable question of whether she really didn’t have a clue as to what her husband was up to for all those years, what interests me is that there’s something more American about Ruth than perhaps anything else in the Madoff saga. I think her story just must satisfy something I’ve been missing in novels of late: dogged, fiercely real, undeniable character.
That’s why I bought the book, and will review it here. Y’all know I can’t resist an American epic.
A. September/October reading (the ones I can remember, because I think my brain is melting) B. Why my brain is melting
by Morgan on October 25, 2011
Irma Voth, Miriam Toews
The Curfew, Jesse Ball
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
Last Man in Tower, Aravind Adiga
You Deserve Nothing, Alexander Maksik
The Shame of What We Are, Sam Gridley
Everybody Says Hello, Michael Kun
My Wife and My Dead Wife, Michael Kun
Literary Brooklyn, Evan Hughes
The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta
Luminarium, Alex Shakar
Dope, Sara Gran
Of Beasts and Beings, Ian Holding
Treasure Island!!!, Sara Levine
The Street of Crocodiles, Bruno Schulz
The Twenty-Seventh City, Jonathan Franzen
The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
Humiliation, Wayne Koestenbaum
Luminous Airplanes, Paul la Farge
Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion
Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between, Jeff Sharlet
B. I think I’m going to go to New York and learn how to run a bookstore. Then come back. And run a bookstore.
by Morgan on October 17, 2011
Last week Anne Enright read at the central library. My friend Judy has been telling me I need to read Enright, in particular her new novel The Forgotten Waltz, but I’ve never gotten around to it. I’m embarrassed to say, but I think she felt too…Commonwealth to me. (Never mind the fact that she’s Irish.) After years of being forced to read the worst of the Canadian canon in school (Picture: trees. Picture: fishing. Picture: eager, belabored feminism), I still have a kind of unpleasant psychosomatic reaction to books I perceive as being of the vein. Enright’s titles — The Gathering, Yesterday’s Weather, The Forgotten Waltz — don’t help either.
To my delight, Enright addressed this problem specifically. She recounted an anecdote about speaking with a Canadian friend who didn’t like Alice Munro. Enright couldn’t figure out how that could be possible, and then she realized, through the conversation, that the friend thought Munro was writing about, “being a woman in Ontario in the 1980′s.”
“I don’t give a damn about what it was to be a woman in Ontario in the 1980′s. That ‘about’ never occurs to me….a writer writes from a culture, not about it.”
Enright is also the funniest writer I’ve ever listened to. When she came out on stage with her little headset microphone, she looked deadpan into the audience and said, “I feel like Madonna.” And then she proceeded to have the entire place laughing for 65 minutes.
She has a fantastic reading voice, and a propensity to get sing-songy when the material is graphic or taboo: “A man I would cross the street to avoid at nine o’clock – by nine twenty-five I wanted to [singing] fuck him until he wept.”
She read a stunning passage about the power of an adulterous affair, one that ends with the somewhat cringy line: “I felt — I still feel — that if we kissed again, we might never stop.” Then the next line is about losing weight, and the progression is laugh-out-loud funny. “I put that in there just to annoy people who want an important book,” she said.
I thrill at her ability to say this. Really. She’s just unapologetic in a way that’s entirely devoid of affect.
Of readers’ projections: “People say, oh your character, she’s this or she’s that, and I think: No, you are.”
When someone asked her about being an Irish woman writer living in America: “I think I’m supposed to say something about the male writer in America. Gender in America.” And then she didn’t.
She kind of is Madonna.
by Morgan on October 10, 2011
I’m 28 years old. I’ve read Roth and Pynchon and Barth and so on, but those authors never had any immediacy for me. It’s not the generational gap itself, in terms of the Novel’s conventions or context, that keeps me at a remove from them, but more that I always knew I wanted to write, and so was keenly aware of the milieu that I would follow directly.
That was, for a teenaged me: Rick Moody, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Mary Karr, among others.
And so this piece at NY Mag, about those writers and their friendships, feels quasi-religious, inasmuch as The Virgin Suicides, The Ice Storm, and The Liars Club (to this list I would add perhaps only Wonder Boys, in terms of personal significance in the mid-late 90′s arena) were religious texts for me.
It’s so gratifying, so thrilling really, to read about these writers as young people (while panicking that they were not, in fact, young anymore), floundering around in failed or failing marriages, struggling with addiction and depression, trying to figure out how and why to write, and gripping to each other with equal parts bitter jealousy and ardent love.
The rivalrous friendship between Franzen and Wallace is the stuff of lore by now, but it’s interesting to read about the earth that each of them broke in the wake of each other’s successes and failures.
“The key message that passed between them,” as Costello sees it, “was that every ambitious writer struggles.” He adds, “Failing to write wasn’t failure. Jon made it a credential. For Dave, who was naturally a solipsist and scalded by self-doubt, this was a salvific message as to which he needed hourly reassurance.”
If you read one thing this week, this month, read this piece.
by Morgan on September 29, 2011
This morning, it occurred to me that maybe the reason you see so many people reading in New York is because there are so many people in New York. Maybe the reason you see more people reading on the subway here than you do in Los Angeles is because there is a subway, and people use it. Most of the people use it. And one of the only things to do on the subway is read.
Could it have less to do with the type of person who lives in New York ,and more to do with the sheer amount of them? And the time they spend sitting and standing in trains, waiting to get to wherever they’re going?
Imagine it had nothing to do with writers or publishing or Hollywood or universities or any of that. Imagine it was just math.
by Morgan on September 26, 2011
Last night, I co-hosted, along with Jeff Garlin, another wildly unpredictable book club meeting at Book Soup. At this point, the only predictable factor of Jeff’s club is the presence of at least one person who is completely insane.
The conversation was good, and while the turnout is still sparse (and usually, less than half of the attendees have read the novel), I feel like Jeff is finding his groove. The question remains how to get people who actually want to talk about books to come out to a book club hosted by a celebrity.
I won’t give the blow-by-blow, mostly because this strange, inchoate little gathering is so ridiculously weird and enchanting, I’m hoping you’ll just take my word for it and turn out next time. I’ll be choosing the book.
On Wednesday, I’m going to New York for a week or so. Excited about hitting up the New Yorker festival, highlights to include: walking on The Dark Side with T. C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, and George Saunders; double-crushing on Franzen and Remnick; following Jennifer Egan around.
Other festivities on the agenda are a bonkers- sounding launch party for Paul La Farge’s Luminous Airplanes at The Center for Fiction, and one for Helen DeWitt‘s Lightning Rods at the powerHouse Arena. Also, forcing Laura Miller to have coffee with me.
This trip is, in essence, a cold-call on New York. It’s me saying, “Hey! I’m here… AND I GOT A WORK VISA, BITCHES!!!”
That’s right. You can’t get rid of me now, America.
I’m also eager to go on a bookstore Tour de NY. The idea is to absorb, osmotically, what makes a great community bookstore, in preliminary planning for my own future store. Which, by the way, I found a great spot for. I just need to kick the current tenant out.
I’ll check in from New York. Drop me a line if you have an aunt I should say hi to, or a cookie I should eat.
by Morgan on September 14, 2011
I just purchased a copy of Literary Brooklyn, and am dismayed to discover that by the second chapter, I’ve already found five typos or major errors, including the use of the phrase, “Word War II.”
This is egregious. Please forward to the editorial department my offer to copyedit for free on coming new releases; your readers deserve better, and so do the authors. I’m sure Mr. Hughes would agree with me.
by Morgan on September 8, 2011
Today I had lunch with my very literate and literary friend, Judy. Judy and I talk about all kinds of things, but mostly we talk about books. Actually, lunch with Judy is like unlocking a door and stumbling into a room full of people who are, miraculously, just like you, after being exiled among aliens for twenty years. Or something.
It’s so refreshing to get together with someone and talk about books, to remember that talking about books is a reason to get together. I wish there was a place to go where you knew you’d find someone there who wanted to talk about novels as much as you do. Or even just a place where you knew there’d be people reading. Bookstores are useful for this, but they’re not a sure bet anymore, unfortunately. The last time I went into Book Soup, the girl working the cash hadn’t heard of David Foster Wallace. I’m not joking. And there are zero chairs for sitting and reading. That’s another problem, though.
So not a bookstore. I mean some sort of social club where you just go and read. I guess that’s not very social. But you know what I mean. You can read, or you can talk to other people who like to talk about reading. But you just get to be around readers.
When I lived in Montreal, the McGill library used to stay open 24 hours a day during exams. There were many nights when — restless, over-caffeinated, procrastinating on studying — I’d throw my coat on over my pajamas at midnight or 1:00am and trudge over to the library. I’d head straight to the fiction section and there they would be: people, tucked into corners, perched in study carrells, or lying on the floor, reading. I’d find a book and a spot and settle in.
Sometimes I’d get into conversations with someone else, and sometimes these conversations lasted until 6am, when we’d stagger out into the snow-bright morning and go for breakfast before heading home to bed. But often I wouldn’t talk to anyone at all. I’d just enjoy reading in the company of other people. As solo an activity as reading is, it’s lovely to do in groups. There’s a subtle, nurturing energy that materializes after extended periods of communal silent reading, everyone focused wholly on the book in their lap, but aware, sensitive to the other readers. It’s magical. And I met many other people who were going to the library for the same reason I was: not to cram for exams, just to read in the presence of other readers.
Whether I’m talking about books or reading them, it’s nice to remember I’m not alone. I can always go on the internet to confirm that, but it’s just not the same as a warm body.
by Morgan on September 3, 2011
Anatomy of a Disappearance, Hisham Matar
Look at Me, Jennifer Egan
Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, Mark Binelli
Los Angeles: People, Places, and the Castle on the Hill, A.M. Homes
Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, Geoff Dyer
U and I: A True Story, Nicholson Baker
In the Lake of the Woods, Tim O’Brien
The Magician King, Lev Grossman
Anthropology of an American Girl, Hilary Thayer Hamann
The Curfew, Jesse Ball
Slow summer for reading, actually. I blame it on trips, weddings, writing. But I did manage to cultivate a full-blown obsession with Jennifer Egan. After lamenting (loudly) about all the accolades she got for A Visit from the Goon Squad, I now feel okay about it in the same way that I like to believe that some directors win Oscars for so-so films just because they’ve deserved to win an Oscar for so long.
I realize that goes against everything I’ve ever said about judging books on their own merits, but whatever. She’s just so good. I read The Keep a couple months ago, adored it. Look at Me blew my mind this summer. No joke. My brain exploded. If I didn’t feel the need to immediately lend my copy to a friend, I would have started over from page one.
Okay, now. September. This fall is huge for new books. In order to stay sane, I’ve been relying on The Reading Ape’s notable books calendar, which nicely combines the most anticipated books from The Millions’ list, and his own personal most-anticipated list.Irma Voth, You Deserve Nothing, The Art of Fielding, The Marriage Plot, GAH.
And of course, since it’s back-to-school time, I’ll be revisiting my favorite campus novels. The Secret History is a no-brainer (and my current book club pick, being my favorite novel in the universe), but Wonder Boys, Changing Places, Election, and Pnin are all worth picking up if you’re feeling fally, as I am. (Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian, and in Canada, there is an actual fall.) Actually,here you go.
Oh, and Harry Potter isn’t a terrible idea either. I mean: coolest school ever.
by Morgan on August 28, 2011
On car trips, my brother and I used to play a game called Dead or Alive, which we found (still find) hilarious. It’s pretty basic. You name someone whose mortality status is questionable, and the other person has to answer, as fast as they can: dead or alive?
Ted Copple: dead or alive?
Miles Davis: dead or alive?
Leonard Nimoy: dead or alive?
I was reminded of our game this week. I’m reading Nicholson Baker’s U and I: A True Story, a non-fiction, self-exploratory book about his relationship, as a reader, to John Updike, a living writer whom Baker admires. In it, he pins down something I’ve been grappling with in the midst of my highbrow/lowbrow considerations, namely that there’s something distinctly and instantly more “highbrow” about reading a writer who’s dead. But the inverse can also be true…
Now, I read mostly living writers. My interest is (mainly) contemporary American fiction. Sometimes I get chastised for this by people who consider the “masters” the only writers worth reading. I always respond by saying that, while I give the classics their due credit, there is something far more dynamic, something far more…living, in reading living writers.
Here’s what Baker writes:
“The intellectual surface we offer to the dead has undergone a subtle change of texture and chemistry; a thousand particulars of delight and fellow-feeling and forbearance begin reformulating themselves the moment they cross the bar. The living are always potentially thinking about and doing just what we are doing: being pulled through a touchless car wash, watching a pony chew a carrot, noticing that orange scaffolding has gone up around some prominent church. The conclusions they draw we know to be conclusions drawn from how things are now. Indeed, for me, as a beginning novelist, all other living writers form a control group for whom the world is a placebo. The dead can be helpful, needless to say, but we can only guess sloppily about how they would react to this emergent particle of time, which is all the time we have. And when we do guess, we are unfair to them. Even when, as with Barthelme, the dead have died unexpectedly and relatively young, we give them their moment of solemnity and then quickly begin patronizing them biographically, talking about how they “delighted in” x or “poked fun at” y – phrases that by their very singsong cuteness betray how alien and childlike the shades now are to us. Posthumously their motives become ludicrously simple, their delights primitive and unvarying: all their emotions wear stage makeup, and we almost never flip their books across the room out of impatience with something they’ve said. We can’t really understand them anymore.
Readers of the living are always, whether they know it or not, to some degree seeing the work through the living writer’s own eyes; feeling for him when he flubs, folding into their reactions to his early work constant subauditional speculations as to whether the writer himself would at this moment wince or nod with approval at some passage in it. But the dead can’t suffer embarrassment by some admission or mistake they have made. We sense the imperviousness and adjust our sympathies accordingly.
Yet in other ways the dead gain by death. The level of autobiographical fidelity in their work is somehow less important, or, rather, extreme fidelity does not seem to harm, as it does with the living, our appreciation for the work. The living are “just” writing about their own lives; the dead are writing about their irretrievable lives, wow wow wow.”
I hadn’t thought about it in this way, hadn’t considered the strange incongruity of our affections toward deceased writers, at once granting them an untouchable esteem, and infantilizing them. See David Foster Wallace for recent example of this phenomenon.
Quick. John Updike: dead or alive?