A Visit to the Goon Squad

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A Visit to the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Location: Middle bottom, next to Patrick White’s Voss and Look at Me by Jennifer Egan.

Date acquired: 2012. I read it while looking for a job.

It’s unfortunate but I don’t read enough literary fiction – I’ve never much sought stuff under the “Literature” section in Dymocks. I think it’s because there are just too many canon classic that I haven’t gotten to yet that probably deserve my more immediate attention and because I prefer books with High Concepts or a bit more plot.

Furthermore, while It’s definitely a stereotype, I always assume that books that are considered literary are about writers with midlife crises and incipient love affairs. These subjects are not inherently interesting to me. I also don’t like how much of women’s literature- that is literature written for and by women is often marginalised from serious literature and relegated to chick lit (which is a really truly horrid term).

Now and again though I do delve into things written in this century and sometimes even stuff that people are still talking about. For some reason, I was very compelled to read Johnathan Franzen’s Freedom the moment it was published 2010, a book which I devoured and wrote extensively on here. I admire the book greatly, but three years on, I’m not sure if I truly love it and the notion of reading it again feels faintly exhausting. Nonetheless I liked it enough to be very shocked when it did not win the Putlitzer Prize of 2011 (or notably, not even shortlisted) and that a book I had never heard of:  A Visit to the Goon Squad had won it instead.
Freedom is a giant behemoth of a novel that seems like it could have  won any other year (Perhaps it could have won in 2012, where the Pulitzer board deemed none of the books shortlisted of the prize as worthy). But A Visit to the Goon Squad is more mercurial and yes, even more ambitious than Franzen’s attempt at Tolstoy and while I don’t really want to compare the two because both are very compelling and very different, but if pressed for an opinion I would argue that A Visit to the Goon Squad is very much the more interesting, more rewarding of the two.

A Visit to the Goon Squad is not a traditional novel and could best be described as a series of short stories with overlapping characters and narratives. It’s been awhile since I have read the book so specifics elude me but the book begins with a short interlude where a lovely kleptomaniac named Sasha steals a women’s purse and soon jumps from character to character and moves across decades and even genres. A Visit to the Goon Squad elicits a variety of narrative modes: third person, first person, second person, free indirect discourse. The most audacious chapter comes in the late middle and is essentially a powerpoint written from the perspective of Sasha’s twelve year old daughter.

It’s the type of post-modern trick that would make an Arts student roll their eyes over but in Jennifer Egan’s hands it’s one of the most emotionally engaging pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Egan shows how even the most seemingly clinical communication forms: a powerpoint still holds possibilities for narrative and character development. Once I finished this chapter, I felt as if I was witnessing something entirely new and maybe this is a bit much, but I still feel like this must of been what readers in 1925 must of felt when they first read Mrs Dalloway. I feel that despite the 90 year difference, we are all asking the same question: Who is audacious writer – and where can I find more of her?

I Capture the Castle

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I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Location: Top right next to Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons and The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff.
This book is catnip to me. Published in 1948 it was written by Dodie Smith who is best known for creating The Hundred and One Dalmatians. It features perhaps the most winning narrator in literature: Cassandra Mortmain. These are the first lines of the book:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea cosy.”

Like slipping in a warm bath or meeting an old friend isn’t it?
I Capture the Castle is about nothing really, in the way that Jane Austen’s novels are about nothing and everything all at once. The plot itself very Jane Austenish, two sisters seeking their fortune and navigating through the hazardous world of eligible (and ineligible) young men. But Cassandra is so delightful a voice that she feels as fresh today as she must have been more than 70 years ago. I love that the book is very literary in it’s own quiet way with many references to Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters and a parody of a Joycean writer and modernist literature that is terrifically clever but never showy or obvious.

I love this book so much that if I find a book with a blurb that mentions similarities to I Capture the Castle, I must buy it. Inevitably it always ends up being a disappointing exercise because no-one can quite recapture Cassandra’s ingeniousness and charm. This is the edition I have and I love it so.

Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from the New Yorker

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Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker by Anthony Lane

Location: Bottom left next to Writers at the Movies edited by Jim Shepard and “Have You Seen … ?” A Personal Introduction to 1000 films by David Thomson

Date acquired: 2004? Not very sure about this one.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the late, great Roger Ebert. While he wasn’t my very favourite film critic (he wasn’t very discerning and tended to like pretty much everything by the end of his career)- he is probably, next to Pauline Kael, America’s most influential film critic in history and definitely the world’s most famous film critic. If Pauline Kael convinced us that film is an art form that can be taken seriously and initiated a Hollywood renaissance, then Roger Ebert showed us that intelligent, accessible conversation about film is not only possible- but entirely necessary for the cultural zeitgeist. Anyone who talks about film on a mass medium- from David and Margaret in At the Movies to the hundreds of thousands of people who blog or post movie reviews online- owe a debt to Roger Ebert.

Another thing that Roger did better than anyone else was the pan. No-one could eviscerate a film so thoroughly as Roger. See, for example his amazing review of Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigalo. But I think Anthony Lane, the author of Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker, is pretty darn close.

Anthony Lane has been writing movie reviews for The New Yorker since 1993 and he is by far and away my favourite movie critic. A English writer by way of Waugh, Anthony Lane always imparts a curious transatlantic, Nancy Mitfordian quality to his reviews. People often find him frustrating because they can never tell if he ever takes his tongue out of his cheek. It is true that his pans always have an element of the mischievous schoolboy in them. See for example his review of Con Air:

“Advance word on Con Air said that it was all about an airplane with an unusually dangerous and potentially lethal load. Big deal. You should try the lunches they serve out of Newark. Compared with the chicken napalm I ate on my last flight, the men in Con Air are as dangerous as balloons”.

One of my favourite pieces of writing is his rumination on the 2010 Eurovision contest. It is perfectly primed piece of faux serious criticism.

But if you do get a chance to grab a copy of Nobody’s Perfect (which I very much hope you do), you will find underneath the gilded Wildean surface is a critic of great sensitivity and open-mindedness. I like that among the hundreds of reviews he could have chosen from, he decided to include a very favourable review of Roger Michell’s 1995 autumnal and quietly powerful  Persuasion (my favourite Jane Austen adaptation). Though a very small picture in every sense, Lane understands and appreciates the film’s melancholic subtlety even though he normally luxuriates in the absurd. I suppose I feel I can always trust the taste of a true Janeite. I adore the end of his review of Persuasion:

“Heaven knows what MGM would have made of Anne Elliot: “On smarting spinster with the longest, loneliest memory that ever snared a saddened sailor! Girls! Take a lesson from this party-hater!” We fancy ourselves perfectly placed to pick up the distress signals sent out by Persuasion, with its tartness and well-trimmed melancholy. That is how we take our Jane Austen these days. If we are wrong, we cannot help it; we cannot conceive that anyone as long-suffering as Jane Austen could also be so funny. Her balance is beyond us; however good a person we may think she was, she was better.”

It is this review that drew me buy this book and it is one of my favourite things to read.

Other peerless pieces in the book: his reviews of Braveheart (as you would expect) and First Knight (surprisingly positive), his profile on Preston Sturges and his absolutely hilarious report on reading all ten of the NYT top ten bestsellers of Sunday, May 1994.

A History of Reading

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

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Location: Top shelf, far right next to When My Brother was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz and Imagining Characters: Conversations About Women Writers by A. S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre.
It has been almost 10 years since I last read this book but I have the fondest memories of it. A History of Reading is part marginalia, part history book, part art criticism, part memoir and part love letter to the distinct and lifelong pleasure of reading. Unfortunately apart from the fact that a young Alberto Manguel once read for the blind Jose Luis Borges (perhaps the most auspicious beginning of a literary career in history), I can barely remember anything about the book apart for the fact that I developed (and continue to possess) a tremendous amount of affection for it.

I don’t remember any of the marvelous anecdotes about how humans have consumed and enjoyed books over centuries but I’m sure if I peeked into the book again I would be delighted all over again.

A History of Reading instills a curious kinship with fellow readers over time and space that feels both intimate and universal. It is the most marvelous paradox: a book about one of the most solitary occupations afforded to humans that imparts nothing as strongly as a sense of belonging and connection. It’s a cliche but A History of Reading really does make you believe that a reader is never truly alone.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

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Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Location: on my ipod.

Date acquired: Last Monday
I just finished this book today. I actually don’t own a physical copy- I listened to it on audio. This is my third John Green book- all of which incidentally I have “read” on audiobook. I’m not sure exactly why I always seek to listen to John Green as opposed to read his work. I think it’s because sometimes John Green’s voice can seem arch and pretentious on paper but convincing and weirdly heartbreaking when narrated by someone who sounds like a teenager. I feel that the curious combination of John Green +  a talented ( & young-sounding) narrator captures that ineffable mix of earnestness and cynicism that typifies pre-adulthood: the feeling of knowing and unknowing at the same time.

It’s lighter than The Fault in Our Stars (probably my favourite book of 2013) but quietly devastating in it’s own way. Most people prefer the second titular willgrayson of the lowercase letters. But I secretly love the somewhat generic, far more functional Will Grayson. I found his (utterly platonic but completely devoted) love story with his larger than life gay best friend (the improbably named Tiny Cooper) one of the most delightful things I’ve read all year.

I haven’t yet really mentioned David Levithan, who co-wrote the book with John Green. His creations: the second lowercase willgrayson and the fabulous, most surreal high school musical featuring all 18 of Tiny Cooper’s ex-boyfriends are truly wonderful.

The Elements of Style

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The Elements of Style by William Strunk JR. and E.B. White

2000 (1959) Fourth edition, Allyn and Bacon.

Location: Top shelf, far left next to the Penguin Books box positioned on The Great Gatsby side.

Date Acquired: 2005

The Elements of Style is the quintessential rulebook for writers, pendants, and people who are both. This was loaned to me by my absolute favourite English teacher in Year 12- and unfortunately I never gave it back. I still feel a bit guilty about it.

It was given to help me achieve greater finesse and clarity while writing a 5000 word essay about Virginia Woolf for Extension English Two. Unfortunately, though it has been six years since I first acquired this book, I’ve never actually read past the first chapter. Perhaps it is because the first chapter is basically a grammar primer. This are the opening words to The Elements of Style:

1. Form the possesive singular nounds by adding ‘s.

Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write:

Charles’s friend

Burns’s poems

the witch’s malice

Captivating right? Actually, as time goes by I am more and more attracted to The Elements of Style,and I am sure that I will probably get around to reading it properly and inscribing its rules to my heart.

There is in fact always a copy of The Elements of Style next to me while I write. The first happens to be near me by coincidence, because it is on the shelf side closest to the desk on which I am typing this post up. A second copy is on my desk at work, a copy that I am even fonder of than the one at home because this one is a terribly old paperback at least 20 years old and falling to pieces, with a cover that I have taped back onto the rest of the book. When I was sitting next to the copier at work, people would constantly notice it and strike up a conversation about it. It seems that The Elements of Style is as ubiquitous as much as it is intimidating to all writers. The Elements of Style reminds us that primary school English has failed us all- and we could all write much better than we currently do.

Foreword

I am not a great reader. This statement is not a coy attempt at self deprecation. The truth is that I spend at least ten times as much time on Facebook than I ever do reading for pleasure. This would be a fairly depressing fact where it not the case that, in terms of reading, I am the eternal optimist. I still hold hope that someday I shall read all 1536 pages of one of the longest novels in history: Clarissa written by Samuel Richardson in 1748. Clarissa, by the way, is an epistolary novel about a man who succeeds in raping and destroying a virtuous woman just because she realises (unlike the literary heroine of our generation, Anastasia Steele) that an asshole is an asshole and not a romantic prospect. It’s a veritable page turner, that one.

 
What I do think I am most though is a book collector. Not a great collector or even a prolific one. But considering that until a couple of months ago when I started my first real job, my disposable income was essentially nil, I have accumulated a statistically significant amount of books compared to mean (When I say mean I mean compared to other people who are my age but have much cooler things to spend their money on like cars and traveling). And no, I haven’t read all of my books and if I were really truthful I’d say the ratio of read and unread was closer to 55:45 than 70:30. Just of a few of the 45% on my bookshelf I haven’t read: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, Robert Kennedy and his times by Arthur M. Schlesinger and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (one year on since I first bought that book and the main character isn’t even yet a glimmer in his father’s eye much yet born yet).

 
While I say that am not a great reader I do think I am a good book owner. I always use a bookmark, keep them out of the sun and most importantly- never lend to other people (except for my dear friend Jo who is a much better reader than yours truly- she actually finishes books). I am also good at remembering weird details about books I own. For most of the books I own I can still remember: a) the year I bought them, b) where I bought them, c) how much it cost.  They may not mean anything to anybody else, but from my books I can see the big moments of my life. By looking at my bookshelf I remember what I loved and what I hated at 13, 15, 18, 20. Some of the books remind me of where I’ve traveled (I always buy books while on holiday – luggage handlers look at my bags and weep).

 
As a person who has always been uncomfortable with revealing anything too personal-I’d like to think that my books would be able to tell people more about me should they wish to know- albeit in an oblique way. So this is my blog, or rather a catalogue of books that I like to think represent who I am, or who I was. To be honest, this is just a way for me to write about books without having to think too much, or write anything really radical or original. This blog is just about books on my bookshelf-and how they came to be there.