Brush with Infinite Jest


So BJ and I went over to Ann Arbor for a nice lunch and to visit one of our favourite bookstores (that’s Literati if you are wondering, and I would highly suggest you seek it out if you are in the area).

Picture if you will: We are at lunch and can’t help but overhear the two young women who are at the table behind us:

“Some people say that Infinite Jest is over-wrought writing, but I just think that David Foster Wallace was using language as an analogy.”

Wait…what. We both were like…THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT INFINITE JEST!!

First, we found someone who actually read Infinite Jest (other than BJ and I). And second, someone, a real-life person, who actually liked it. It’s like I found big foot, the loch ness monster and a unicorn all in the same place.

Let me confess something right here, I am an introvert by nature and I don’t seek out conversations with people…never mind strangers. But, this was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I told BJ I was going to go over to their table and ask some follow up questions….and he looked a bit like this

say what

I will admit, it was a bit unconventional, but how many chances to you get to talk to a unicorn…I mean someone who has read Infinite Jest.

Luckily, they were pretty chill and happy to talk about literature. I started by confessing that we overheard their conversation and that I pretty much hated Infinite Jest. I did get two nods of understanding on that point. So I asked, why they liked it.

Their response was interesting – basically it boiled down to a couple of things:

  1. Trying to read Infinite Jest as a novel will lead to disappointment. If you approach it in small essay type chunks that is a better approach.
  2. The “story” is an allegory for other things – so it’s not the story itself but what it represents.

I get both of those things. I also admitted that I do think DFW is a brilliant writer, but more of a sprinter writer and not a marathon guy.

I respect their view and found it helpful. But here is the thing for me – when I read I want it to be an escape from my day-to-day drudgery – I want to either be transported or informed. Infinite Jest did neither of those things for me. It was tedious and irritating. Which I don’t find an escape in, since it’s kind of like my regular life.

There is a teeny-tiny part of me that has considered re-reading it to see if I might have a better understanding of it. But here is the thing, life is too short to waste on books that irritate you. So unless I run out of reading material, or I am stranded on a desert island with a copy if Infinite Jest – I don’t see myself trying to crack the code.



BJ’s year in review…

OK, so a reading year in review, following up on Barb’s review.  I actually wasn’t too keen on this topic, but then when I looked back at the books I read, I discovered little nuggets of unexpected pleasure when thinking back on the books of 2018.  Let me recount them.

karamFirst, our big-impossible-reading-project was Brothers Karamazov.  It was the best of the 3 books we have done so far.  It is a compelling book that can be read on so many different levels but still works as a straight story.  Its characters and story are still relevant today.  I honestly think anyone could read this book.

We didn’t blog about going to see Hamilton in November, but that certainly falls onto the literary scale.  Especially since I was one of those nerds that read the Chernow biography about the time that Lin-Manuel Miranda did.  The show was great.  Hard to believe you can exceed expectations that are as high as the ones we took in the door. It was a lifetime memory.  It also links into this year’s reading because grantone of the books I got for Christmas last year was the Chernow biography of US Grant, which was, of course, very good.  Grant is a great character because he is so multi-faceted.  Also, it shed excellent perspective on the Grant Presidency, which usually is labeled as “corrupt” and then skipped over.  Lastly, the book also doubles as an education of the times he lived

I read two award-winning books.  The first was A Horse Walks Into a Bar, which won the Man Booker.  Books that win that award can be dicey–I’m sure they have high literary quality but they are often allergic to readability.  This book was really good.  It was presented in anless original way and gradually revealed the pain that often is behind humor.  I also read Less, which won the Pulitzer Prize.  It was deserving as well.  A great story and a great character about life in the twilight.

I also read a couple books that probably don’t go down as literary but were fantastic red sparrowreading experiences.  Red Sparrow is a smart spy thriller, along the lines of The Americans.  The challenge is to not make the characters be cliches–you don’t need “The Russian Guy.”  Also, Putin is a character.  The other CAA bookone was Powerhouse by James Andrew Miller.  I’m a big fan of Miller’s oral histories and also a closet Hollywood-people-behaving-badly junkie, and this history of CAA was difficult to put down.

When I look back on the books I read, I see a couple of my rankings that don’t seem to stand the test of time.  One is Ohio, which I gave 5 stars but maybe was a 4 in retrospect.  Or maybe I’m influenced by later ratings from other readers.  And then there was Who is Rich, which I gave 3 stars but remember more fondly now.

I did do a reading challenge.  With the Brothers Karamazov, I tamped down the goal to 12 but I actually read 18.  Goal for this year is 20, plus Ulysses, #4 in the series.

Barb’s Year in Review

booksale-champagneIt’s that time of year when people make lists and look back on the year that was. I’d like to say this will be different, but who am I kidding. As we wind down 2018 here are some of my thoughts on the year that was….in book related terms.

This past year was our first full-year of having this blog. So that’s a thing, right? There is probably another post that I can write about what I’ve learned – good and bad – about the blogging process. It’s been fun to have somewhere to write about books. Also, it’s been a cool thing for us as a couple to have something to talk about – other than football and who is going to clean the bathroom.

It was a big year for me in non-book related things – moving and settling into a new city (well, actually country). I had a lot of downtime after I moved, so I was able to plow through many books. That was a pretty good way to spend some time. As a result I managed to read 52 books without breaking a sweat.

As for the ‘top’ books out of that 52 – here is what I’ve got:

american marriageAn American Marriage by Tayari Jones was a standout for me. It was a great book – both in storytelling and the subject matter being heartbreaking and topical. For me, it was cool to get to review it before it was published, have it be an Oprah’s book pick and be a very popular book (it made former President Obama’s read list).

firesLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng was just a superb book. It was engrossing and so well written. I literally can’t say enough about that one. I am always skeptical about books that get rave reviews but this one stood up to the hype. Also, she is from Ohio – my new home state. So yay Ohio!

16201Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn was a quirky and cool read. I haven’t reviewed it yet (stay tuned) but it was a reading hi-light for me, for sure.

KaramazovAnd then there were the Karamazov Brothers – our 2018 reading project.This was a surprise to both of us that we enjoyed it as much as we did.

Overall, I was, and am grateful that I am able to read and enjoy as many books as I do. And equally grateful that I can share my thoughts and reviews. Here is to a great 2019 filled with love, laughter and books! Cheers!


Election Day Political Books

So it’s Election Day, and I’m hoping that most of you are voting today or already have.  Either way, it’s a good time to review some of my favorite political novels.

There are a lot, but I wanted to highlight four that you may or may not be familiar with.

AdviseandConsent1stEdAdvise and Consent by Alan Drury is a classic.  It is the inside story of  (wait for it) a confirmation battle in the US Senate for a nominee for Secretary of State.  Obviously timely, it was referenced on occasion during the recent Kavanaugh fight.  It is an excellent book. that shows us that cutthroat and ruthless personal politics didn’t start with the Trumps or the Clintons or the Bushes.  It won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie with Henry Fonda.


TheLastHurrahA second book that is also well known is The Last Hurrah.  It is the story of Frank Skeffington, an old-school ward politician who runs one last time, only to find out that the world has changed when he wasn’t paying attention.  It contains an interesting bit of policy analysis (kind of) about how the New Deal changed the business of ward healers, who had formerly provided assistance to the needy…for a price.  This book was made into a Spencer Tracy movie.

GayplacesmallThe third book is nearly unknown.  It is by Billy Lee Bratton and is considered by many to be the best political novel ever written.  It’s called The Gay Place and it contains three novellas set in Texas in the orbit of an LBJ/Huey Long-like figure and in the era of “Beef, Booze and Blondes” politics in Austin.  It is indeed a great book that shows the political life in the most real sense…how power and personality shape the politics, not policy.

Here’s my favorite quote:

The truly able, it appeared, had only so much time to squander on disillusion and self-analysis. Then those destructive vanities were turned round and put to the business of doing what had got to be done. The truly gifted, as opposed to the merely clever, were too busy running things to be bothered.

sundayThe fourth is a little lighter and has won no awards.  It’s called the Sunday Macaroni Club…and it’s a delightful book that tells the story of a corrupt Philadelphia politician and one of his particular henchmen.  If you have been in politics, you know this guy.  It’s funny and it’s true.  Great beach read.

Oh, I forgot All the King’s Men.  And probably a bunch of other ones.  But for today, there’s your reading list.

Sisters Brothers: Book or movie?

p15564646_p_v12_abWelcome to the newest episode of date night with the married book nerds…

So BJ and I went to see a movie last week and we picked Sisters Brothers. Why? Well we both read the book and liked it a lot, and thought why not. Truth be told, it was BJ’s idea, I had no idea it was made into a movie.

Anyway, the good (or bad) thing was neither of us could remember what the book was about or any specific plot details, since we read it back in 2013. We remembered there were two brothers, named Sisters (hence the Sisters brothers….clever, huh?). That’s about all we recalled. So it was almost as if we were watching the film with fresh eyes.

The gist of the book: it’s set in the old west (1850’s Oregon and California) and it’s about the brothers who are following a dude who had done wrong by their boss “The Commodore”. By  nature, the pace of the book is plodding and slow, because these dudes are travelling by horse through rugged country. They meet weird and interesting characters along the way. The main theme of the book is the elder Sisters brother questioning his part in the lifestyle they have – shoot ’em up, killing and whiskey drinking are not really for him.

So, how do you take a plodding plot and internal struggle and put it on the screen in visual form for 2 hours…..

At the time while I was watching the movie, I thought it was ok, but not great. It moved along fine. I was meh about it. The thing is, afterwards when we started talking about it, we both actually liked it more. I think it’s a movie that needs to sit with you for a while and sink in.

I do think that the casting of John C. Reilly as the older brother Eli was spot on. He actually looked exactly like I thought the character would. Riz Ahmed did an awesome job as the stalk-ee Hermann Kermit Warm – I think he actually made the character better than it was portrayed in the book.

So the big question: which was better, the book or the movie? I will just say this and get it out of the way, the book is always better (mostly). I think in this case, as is in most cases, the book had a depth and humour to it that the movie couldn’t capture. However, I think that it was a pretty faithful adaptation with some good additions.

Should you read the book? Of course! Should you see the film? I would say if you like that kind of movie, then yes.


Old Books and Re-Reading….

open old book, a rose in a vase and a featherOn Arts and Letters this week was an article from The American Conservative about the “Hedonism of Reading Good Books.”  (by E. J. Hutchinson, a professor at Hillsdale College).   It draws back to William Hazlitt’s On Reading Old Books, (an old essay that takes on additional significance when you see that it was written in 1821.

Anyway, it brings up two topics that I think are always relevant in literary discussions.

The first is, you guessed it, reading old books.  I’ve always said that they could quit publishing books today and you’d still have plenty of great stuff to read for 10 lifetimes and most of it is available for free, either at a library or on the web.  We’ve certainly shown our commitment to this idea with our reading projects, including The Brothers Karamazov this year.

So, I’m always up for digging back into an old classic, whether it might be from the WAY BACK files or even a forgotten book like Stoner.  It makes me think a little bit about Helene Hanff’s reading tastes in 84 Charing Cross Road.  There is beauty in old classics…those are also my favorite paintings at the museum.

And I agree with the idea that a book that has stood the test of time is usually good.  However, I’m not prepared to give it the de facto seal of approval that you can read from these two guys.

For example, a lot of people (but certainly not Professor Hutchinson) began to look back to It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis when Trump was elected.  I suspect in most cases, that lasted about three pages.  Lewis may have won the Nobel Prize and his books are still in print, but his writing is absolutely jarring to the modern ear.  Anyway, old is not necessarily better.

I also give you Edith Wharton.  Never read Edith Wharton.

And beyond that, you might think about the great “new” books that Hazlitt missed because he didn’t read new books.  I do agree that you don’t want to be careless about what you read because it wastes your time and hurts your brain.  I just don’t agree that has to be all old books.

The second issue is re-reading.  Barb and I know a woman who re-reads Gone With the Wind every year.  That’s extreme.  I don’t have anything that matches that, though I have from time-to-time re-read books.

Books are an experience between who you are now and the book.  Since you are always evolving over time, you will find that a book is different when it is read after, say ten years.  (In theory of course, since you are constantly evolving, it would be different every day or minute or second, but let’s not be dicks about it).

There’s also prime time for reading certain books.  I had a professor who told us to read Walden before the age of 24 or never.

My best example was re-reading the Confederacy of Dunce, which I read once as a teenager (attracted by the tragic nature of the Toole bio) and then again later.  With a more mature and developed sense of humor, I was able to appreciate what is now one of my two favorite books.

One last thing.  Going back to the title of Hutchinson’s piece….all reading is pleasure.  Call it Hedonism if you like, but reading is a pleasure.

On learning about the DFW Conference…

DFW logoPeople sometimes ask me “where do you find articles like that” and I am more than willing to reveal my sources.  One of them is Arts and Letters Daily, a website run by The Chronicle of Higher Education.  The site provides links to academic articles on a wide variety of topics in the humanities.  If you’re looking for something to read, it won’t let you down.  Right now, there are stories about denialism, Oscar Wilde’s US book tour, and whether learning French involves a period of hazing.

The next question is usually “where do you find the time to read all that” and the answer is I don’t.  I get their digest every week which points me to the top 5 articles.

Which is all a long way to let you know that this week the #1 article was Academics Explain David Foster Wallace to Me:  A report from the 5th-annual David Foster Wallace Conference.  It was published on The Outline and was written by Daniel Kolitz.

The reason it caught my attention is that Barb and I read Infinite Jest as part of our annual impossible book read, which you can read about here.  Let’s just say we weren’t  big fans.

There are literary qualities.  DFW was a magician with words and detail.  He was observant and prescient.  But, Dave Eggers called it “lexical diarrhea” when it came out and he’s right.  It’s self-indulgent and narcissistic and even with the “look ma no hands” style moments, the whole is vastly overrated.

I have enjoyed some of DFW’s non-fiction, especially when he goes to (wait for it) a trade show on adult films or on a cruise and reports back on the people he sees, employing his incredible power of observation to great comedic effect.

The first thing that struck me about this essay was that much of it actually read like the DFW coming back and writing an essay about visiting a conference about himself.  There’s observation and sympathy and some really good laughs.  Kolitz actually has a DFW-like command of detail when he describes something, as in:

Which is how a surprisingly accessible talk on the “synecdochic network of the Encyclopedic novel” — from Kathryne Metcalf, a neon-orange-haired graduate student in American Cultural Studies at Bowling Green State who’d driven through the night from Ohio to get there — wound up being delivered to me, and only me, while at regular intervals raucous, sold-out-crowd laughter erupted from the next room (this from a panel titled “Depression, Alienation, and the Medical Gaze in Infinite Jest”). Eventually another person did slink in, allowing me to tactfully flee next door, which sounds cruel but by this time Metcalf had ceded the floor to her Skyped-in co-panelist, an Italian named Marco who’d spent much of the talk darkly muttering to someone (or something) off-camera. (“Honestly I don’t really know what happened,” Metcalf told me, over make-your-own-tacos at lunch. “He defined the word ‘ouroboros’ over and over, and then he talked about programming for a while, and then he defined ouroboros a couple more times, and then it was over.”)

It’s like of a land-o-lakes-lady-holding-the-butter-with-her-picture-on-it moment.


Also: even at DFW-fest, BGSU always represents!  #ayziggy.

Beyond that, though, it raises some interesting questions.

First, why (or how) did this author get his own society?  I mean that both literally and rhetorically.  Importantly, the story notes that the international DFW society has 170 members, so that provides some perspective.  But, what is it about DFW that has inspired this kind of passion in anyone, even in small groups?

You do get an idea when you read the article.  I’m not sure I reached understanding, but there are notions in there.

More importantly was the chance to think (again) about the relationship between bad people and their art, the discussion of which Kolitz noted was ruining “first dates” across the US.

It’s a tough one.  I love Midnight in Paris.  Can you still watch it, knowing who Woody Allen is?  Can you really compartmentalize all that?  That’s a tough one.

My perspective has always been that you have to separate the creator and the art.  Caravaggio was a raving asshole.  Do you take him off the walls of the museum?

I also understand that my perspective might be a product of white (and male) privilege.

Having said that, as I read this article I did see the point.  You can’t separate the self-indulgence, lack of impulse control and narcissism of the man who slept with his students and abused his girlfriend with the self-indulgence, lack of impulse control and narcissism of the man who wrote a ten-page description of moving a mattress or all those footnotes or any of the diarrhea that is in much of Infinite Jest.

Even that’s kind of a chicken shit way out of the debate about whether it is right to read/watch these people.

In the #metoo world, it isn’t an academic debate.

Last note.  Even as an Infinite Jest critic, you have to note that this book will not go away.

When you have an unpopular opinion on a book

img_0368I was fortunate to have the chance to review the book ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ by Ottessa Moshfegh. (You can find my review here.)

Here is the deal: I didn’t love the book. It did keep my attention, it was different but I just didn’t gel with it. Nothing wrong with that, right?

The book has received much buzz. Mostly about how awesome it is. There has been praise for its ‘dark humour’ and being ‘caustic and acute’.

A few weeks ago (yes, I am behind on the blog posts) when the review for the book was on the cover of the New York Times Book Review section. Obviously I was curious on what the reviewer had to say.

I will take a minute for an aside. One of the really cool things about this blog is that I (we, because my husband does it too) get access to books before they are published and can read them before there is any press or other reviews. It gives me a chance to make up my own mind on it. Not that I don’t when reading a book that is already out, but it’s a bit different.

Back to the New York Times…

The reviewer said of the book: “…darkly comic and ultimately profound new novel….” And went on to have positive things to say.

Huh. Maybe I missed something.

Here is the awesome thing about books – you don’t have to like every one. That’s why there are so many books in different genres.

I will say that the New York Times review did have some interesting takes on the book. The thing is, when I am reading it and then reviewing it I look mostly at the enjoyability factor. Did I like reading it and would I recommend it to my family and friends? I am not really into looking at the literary quality or the writing technique or all that other stuff (I leave that to my husband, who is way smarter about these things than I am).

I think that if I had read the review in the New York Times and then read the book, I would definitely have had a different reaction. Ok, maybe not definitely, but I think that I would have gone into it reading it with a different mindset.

The positive reviews don’t change the fact that I didn’t love the book. Also, just because I didn’t love the book, doesn’t mean it’s not a good book. So if you are interested in it, a fan of her writing or are just curious, go and get yourself a copy. Let me know how you like it!


Why libraries are important

img_0362I saw a disturbing trend on Twitter on the weekend, people were talking…”talking” about how Amazon should replace libraries. The good news is that most of the talk about this, or at least it was on my feed, was saying a big old HELL NO to this idea. That gave me hope.

This whole thing was apparently started by a piece in Forbes magazine: Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money (which they have since taken down). The good news is that when I googled the situation, this was the first article that popped up: Forbes suggested Amazon should replace libraries, and people aren’t having it.

Whew. But I still feel like I need to have my say in this. Because…well, what’s the point of having a blog if I can’t yammer on about things that I feel passionate about.

Some of my earliest memories that make me warm and fuzzy are about the library. The excitement of going in as a child and having basically endless possibilities of reading materials (I actually still get the same feeling now). My mom used to take me to the  story telling time at the local branch. All of these things instilled a life-long love of books and reading.

One of the first things I did when I made the move from Toronto to Toledo was get a library card. It was partly to get access to the reading material: magazines and books. But a large part of that for me was that it was an anchor and a way for me to start building roots in a new and unfamiliar place. It represents a sense of community and belonging to a group of people who love books and reading as much as I do.

I spend a lot of time alone during the day. And it gets lonely. One of the places I have frequented is the library. People are friendly. It’s mostly quiet. There are comfy chairs to read and tables with outlets to plug in your computer to do whatever work or research you need to do (or just plain old goofing around on the internet). But I was with people. I didn’t need to talk to anyone or make friends. I didn’t want to have to buy a $4 fancy coffee. I just wanted to sit and be in the world. How many other people find solace in the library when they have no where else to go?

I get that puts the “burden” on taxpayers. Why should I pay for someone to have a nice place to go and goof around on the internet? Here is why. Especially today where the world feels fractured and is so impersonal, we need to have spaces for people to go and gather and feel like they are part of a community. Where children can go and hear stories read to them and feel the joy of picking out a book and learn about caring for books and responsibility. Where people are there to help you find what you need – that book with the blue cover, or whatever you are seeking. The library is about more than books. It always was and it always will be.

I think that libraries have done a great job in keeping up with the times and technology and the needs of their users and give people a reason to use their services. How many businesses can say that? I can read magazines on my iPad or computer, I can watch movies, and I can even stream music now. Oh right, and that’s besides the books I can rent for free. This is because libraries understand that they are part of the community and bringing people together.

I am happy that there was a rally around libraries – all over Twitter there were stories from people who have sought help from their local library, how one actually had a stuffed animal sleepover and sent out pictures (cute!) and generally how the library is important to a lot of people. It gives me hope that the world isn’t as sucky a place as it sometimes seems.

Here is what I suggest: if you don’t have a library card go and get one. It’s super easy, and you don’t even have to go outside. Many libraries have online cards so you can check out electronic media. And if you are feeling adventurous, go to your local branch. It will make you happy. I promise.



Fourth of July! By the book…

1067See what I did there? By the book…it’s a book blog…


So this is my first fourth of July living in these United States. The first thing I will say is it’s definitely a different experience than how Canadians celebrate Canada Day (which was July 1st). I will say that Canadians are better (more enthusiastic) about embracing their nationalism but it’s nothing like it is in America.

However…..on to books…

American history is way more interesting than Canadian history. There, I said it. Is it because it’s more or less interesting? Not particularly. But I do think Americans are better at selling the origin story. There are heroes: George Washington, Paul Revere and more “recently’ Alexander Hamilton. I dare you to name a hero of Canadian confederation? I’ll wait over here…<plays Jeopardy music>

Admittedly I have read more books on US history and presidents than I have about Canada. In my defense, I have read books on Trudeau (Pierre, not Justin), Montcalm and Wolfe….and, well that’s possibly it. I did start one about Sir John A. Macdonald (the first PM of Canada) but I couldn’t finish it. I won’t bother to start a list of American related history books I’ve read, we would be here all day.

The one that comes to mind is 1776 by David McCullough. First off, McCullough is a master storyteller. I have read a few books by him and they are all extremely entertaining. You feel is if you are reading a novel, not a history book. And the story of 1776 is interesting – a bunch of guys who wanted to create a new  country and wanted to vanquish the big bad king. (Or something like that.) It’s a good vs. evil story. You have rogue dudes. A guy riding at midnight on a horse with a lantern. And fancy hats!

In his post, BJ mentioned that his step-father didn’t learn about US history in his British school. But being as I was in Canada and we are next-door neighbours, we definitely learned about US history in school. So it’s more familiar to me.

Anyway…..enjoy the day! Have a hot dog and enjoy some fireworks. Happy Independence Day!