January Reading Overview

» January 13th, 2020


Marquez is a masterful writer. Sentences soar and float with ethereal beauty. Example: “Little by little, listening to her sleep, he pieced together the navigation chart of her dreams and sailed among the countless islands of her secret life.” Lovely, but: Find that a little creepy, too? This is where Marquez gets complicated. He immerses readers in the romance of unrequited love and tender passion while allowing his elderly but remarkably virile protagonist to blamelessly sleep with a 14-year old girl whose prospects, as a result of this abuse, do not end well. Trust me that nobody will be reading this in high school English these days.  Or in college English for that matter. The novel makes Lolita look tame.  But then again Nabokov never did this: “He played, murmuring the words, his violin bathed in tears, with an inspiration so intense that with the first measures the dogs all over the city began to howl, but then, little by little, they were quieted by the spell of the music, and the waltz ended in supernatural silence.” Works for me.




For years, when I had a Twitter account, I used as my photo that famous image of Abbey leaning on the rifle with which he had just bullet-holed his television. Real good pic. I’ve read Abbey’s work for years, and have generally been a huge fan of his nonfiction (naturally, Desert Solitaire) although less enthused by his fiction (still, The Monkey Wrench Gang is an exception to my skepticism). His life was always vague to me, but–as I’m reading a lot of literary bios these days–I thought I’d take on James M. Cahalan’s Edward Abbey: A Life. There are flaws to this biography but it’s generally quite well done. The best proof of this claim is that by the end of it I really did not care for Ed Abbey as a person. In fact, I think he was largely full of shit, a man who invented himself as cheap caricature. But the crank had his insights that, jejune as they were, were also, if you want to get down to the lick log, funny. When he learned he might die, he quipped, “At least I don’t have to floss anymore.” Yeah, funny, but not enough to compensate for how badly he treated so many people, starting with himself. For the record, I no longer use his photo on my Twitter account, in part because I shot my Twitter account. You should, too. Abbey would approve.

Given it’s status as a longtime #1 NYT bestseller, given the vast positive commentary it generated, and given the author’s rise to stardom, Hillbilly Elegy came to me with elevated expectations. God what a horribly confused book. To be sure, it’s a page-turner. I mean, a real page turner. I started to read it while on a brief trip to the Florida Keys, where, on page 100, I dropped it, full immersion, into the bathtub. The paperback sunk like a cinderblock and then swelled to the size of a phonebook, so I did the natural thing: I got dressed and went right back to the bookstore and bought a second copy.

But by the time I finished it I wish I hadn’t padded the profits of this truly deceptive and manipulative book. The upshot is that the author is an incredibly impressive person who overcame some horrific early childhood experiences to make it to the Marines, Ohio State, and Yale Law School. The trajectory alone makes for the story.

But in that last hallowed venue he became preoccupied with class privilege. Others had it and he did not. Even as he rose in the ranks–law review, job offers, etc–he victimizes himself as unworthy, uncouth, unprepared, out of the LOOP. Not buying it, JD. What Esq. Vance never realizes is that the unique nature of his experience–seeing the class spectrum from so many angles–does not privilege him to draw the sweeping conclusions that he draws about class status, work, and upward mobility in ‘merica.

Unless he wants to invest his law degree with an authority he finds so vacant, he is only qualified to draw conclusions about one subject matter: himself. I wish he trusted that that would be enough. But, as a result of his deterministic insistence that once an Appalachian hillbilly always an Appalachian hillbilly, he ends up, due to this essentialist notion (and the false confidence of his credential), entirely ham-handing class in America. When a guy from such poverty insists that the government cannot help the poor folk he seems to know so well, you know something has been skewed for ulterior motives. When a Yale Law grad complains that nobody ever taught him that a belt and shoes should match, and deems that ignorance as genuine cultural oppression, I’m sorry, but I have more sympathy for the “welfare queens” he condemns.

My word, dear lord, hail mary, this Kurt Lipschutz (byline klipschutz) is some wonderful combination of smart, fun, irreverent, flippant, and beat. The single best thing about reading his new book of poems–Premeditations– is the thrill of witnessing a poet’s love of poetry. I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with klipshutz looking at art, and learning that he writes songs with the musician Chuck Prophet. Well, yeah he does. This volume is somehow both a personal testament to poetry, a history of poetry, and poetry all in one junket. Example: Ginsberg’s Howl is poetically cast as “the poem that changed America’s diapers/brought Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp out of the closet.” Amen. Who needs more than that. [sic]

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