As promised! I read a lot less non-fiction than fiction this year, but I seem to have made up for it by highlighting favorite passages a lot more.
Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky
A road trip with David Foster Wallace in 1996. Essential if you’re a DFW fan.
how other people regard you does not have enough calories in it, to keep you from blowing your brains out
That I think a lot of people feel—not overwhelmed by the amount of stuff they have to do. But overwhelmed by the number of choices they have, and by the number of discrete, different things that come at them. And the number of small … that since they’re part of numerous systems, the number of small insistent tugs on them, from a number of different systems and directions. Whether that’s qualitatively different than the way life was for let’s say our parents or our grandparents, I’m not sure. But I sorta think so. At least in some—in terms of the way it feels on your nerve endings.
I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy. When in fact there are parts of us, in a way, that are a lot more ambitious than that.
So I think it’s got something to do with, that we’re just—we’re absolutely dying to give ourselves away to something. To run, to escape, somehow. And there’s some kinds of escape—in a sort of Flannery O’Connorish way—that end up, in a twist, making you confront yourself even more. And then there are other kinds that say, “Give me seven dollars, and in return I will make you forget your name is David Wallace, that you have a pimple on your cheek, and that your gas bill is due.”
we’re gonna have to build some machinery, inside our guts, to help us deal with this. Because the technology is just gonna get better and better and better and better. And it’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. Which is all right. In low doses, right? But if that’s the basic main staple of your diet, you’re gonna die. In a meaningful way, you’re going to die.
Psychotics, say what you want about them, tend to make the first move.
Because I’d like to be the sort of person who can enjoy things at the time, instead of having to go back in my head and enjoy them then.
These really—the really commercial, really reductive shows that we so love to sneer at. Are also tremendously compelling. Because the predictability in popular art, the really formulaic stuff, the stuff that makes no attempt to surprise or do anything artistic, is so profoundly soothing. And it even, even the densest or most tired viewer can see what’s coming. And it gives you a sense of order, that everything’s going to be all right, that this is a narrative that will take care of you, and won’t in any way challenge you. It’s like being wrapped in a chamois blanket and nestled against a big, generous tit, you know?
American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot by Craig Ferguson
Memoir by the late night talk show host. Ferguson is a pretty good writer, and has had an interesting life (well, interesting if you enjoy alcoholic redemption stories). Slight tendency to the sentimental, but I enjoyed it.
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
The story of the recent financial meltdown told through profiles of people that actually saw it coming and bet on it happening. Lewis makes writing clearly about complex topics look easy, and the stories he’s found of the contrarians who bet against the tide are compelling. Highly recommended.
“The single greatest line I ever wrote as an analyst,” says Eisman, “was after Lomas said they were hedged.” He recited the line from memory: “‘The Lomas Financial Corporation is a perfectly hedged financial institution: it loses money in every conceivable interest rate environment.’ I enjoyed writing that sentence more than any sentence I ever wrote.”
An investor who went from the stock market to the bond market was like a small, furry creature raised on an island without predators removed to a pit full of pythons.
Dorkismo: the Macho of the Dork by Maria Bustillos
A book about the pleasures of being an unabashed enthusiast.
It was ok, if you’re into that sort of thing. [rimshot]
I actually really liked this book; Bustillos makes a strong case for loving what you love. (Which, can be hard to do, no?)
Pity by contrast the poor avant-gardist, trapped in a permanent state of bilious disapproval, straitjacketed into his world of safe little hatreds. Nothing surprises, excites or delights him. His world-weariness has slowly eaten up his whole personality until he cannot dare to admire so much as a pair of tennis shoes, for fear they might be the wrong kind. He never permits himself to say, “Wow!” anymore, let alone shriek “ENGAGE!”, or anything else, on an airplane.
In case the reader is not familiar with the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett, they are full of the absolute wickedest people murdering babies and having incest on the q.t., while the novels of Ronald Firbank (if you could call them that,) featuring such characters as the King of Pisuerga getting “an impression of raised hats” really are camp as tits, which is a phrase I heard this Scotsman say one time.
If to be hip means to know what is au courant from what is “so five minutes ago”—to have the highest, strictest standards for such things—then necessarily, the less you love, the better you are.
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
The story of the discovery of how cholera is communicated. Well-told, captures the London of the time quite well. Kind of felt like an extended magazine article.
The collecting of human excrement was a venerable occupation; in medieval times they were called “rakers” and “gong-fermors,”
Help by Garret Keizer
As will be obvious from the number of quotes that follow, I fell in love with Keizer’s prose reading this book, an examination of the subject of help: giving it, receiving it, refusing it. Keizer’s range and subtlety of thought is impressive, as is his ability to turn a phrase.
I also have not lost my hair or any of my teeth, which another singer, James Brown, claims are the main things a man needs to hang on to. (I assume that is especially true if the man is James Brown.)
I can imagine God as a pure altruist, but I have trouble imagining a human being purified of all self-serving without also imagining a human being who thought he or she was God.
Small wonder, finally, that self-help literature can seem like so much masturbation.
If we loved symmetry more than hope, we could say that help is like the swinging door of human experience: “I can help!” we exclaim and go toddling into the sunshine; “I was no help at all,” we mutter and go shuffling to our graves.
I recognize, as Dante did, that the only help for someone lost in his own dark wood may be a willing descent into his own hell.
Along with the fight-or-flight response we have to danger, most of us have what might be called the cynic-or-sucker response to need.
Whether we were “made to suffer” or not, it would seem that we have but three basic choices with regard to deciding whether someone else was made to suffer. The first is to say that yes, he was. Either he was or I was, and the choice is in my hands. Therefore I choose to inflict suffering in the hopes that those afflicted will be rendered powerless to afflict me.
in time my shoulders broadened and whiskers darkened my chin, disco came and went, a space probe shot beyond Mars, and then my middle broadened and my beard turned gray—but those little children in Africa are still there, still watching me eat my dinner. Should I tell him that seeing yourself in your coffin is not nearly so bad as seeing yourself in hell?
Maybe I also cite it as a warning against the danger of inferring that God is trying to tell you something when it is merely your human limitations talking, and what they’re saying is that you have human limitations.
the life of a bohemian free spirit always depends on the willingness of at least a few squares to provide the free rides
Kissing a leper for his edification is a bit like riding a unicycle in front of a quadriplegic for his amusement. You had better be a saint to try a stunt like that.
To disparage an act of altruism because “it made you feel good” is like disparaging the birth of a child because the parents enjoyed conceiving it.
Perhaps that is “mission” in the fullest sense, to make music in a dark wood and to be answered by a different music, by a mating call that invites us—not to take liberties but to move a little closer.
We think of ourselves as a hedonistic society; would that we were. Hypocrisy is not hedonism. Our hypocrisy is to hoard our private pleasures and feel guilty about them at the same time, instead of relishing them in such a way that we wish—and work—for all to have their share.
Of course if everyone did what anyone did, the world would be miserable.
When you’re young, you think the best way to have literary conversations is to get a job in a bookstore; after a summer of selling cat books, you’re cured of that.
She quoted an obstetrician who had once served as her mentor: “The uterus can humble any man.” She concluded by acknowledging the paradox. “Confidence and humility may seem diametrically opposed, but the very best people have both, all the time.”
Human beings may find it difficult to feel gratitude without recalling the anguish of the moment in which they needed the assistance for which they are grateful.
We also need to recognize that an apparent lack of crisis is our crisis. That we live in “a period which must be reckoned as an exact and prolonged antithesis to a moment of truth” (John Berger), when “advertising agencies now present buying a particular model of car or acquiring a certain computer as a revolutionary gesture only slightly less radical than the storming of the Bastille” (David Rieff). We labor under the illusion of inconsequence; we’re not sure if we could find our way to hell even if we were bent on going.
Instead, I want to retort: Who are these people, Katie Carr included, who can overlook every excess and negligence performed in the name of personal fulfillment or creative expression but whose noses twitch like a diviner’s rod at the slightest eccentricity in the struggle to save human beings?
On some level we need the poor to be blameless so that, in the inevitable discovery that they are not blameless, we can be free to loathe them again. And hold ourselves blameless in our loathing. Not giving a shit, in other words. I’ll tell you what we really need. We need them not to be poor.
It is only to the innocent that the devil speaks of new knowledge and forbidden fruit; to the rest of us his undying refrain is “Cut your losses.”
That we are quicker to admire the good heart than to help it. That in the end we regard it as no less expendable than the poor.
If we fear that systemic justice will abolish mercy, then something insidious has already abolished our imaginations.
Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker by Anthony Lane
Collection of reviews and essays from The New Yorker film critic. Lane is the kind of critic you almost want to dislike movies, because he is so incredibly witty in his dislike. He can also be very playful, like in his review of the movie Yes, which he played off the movie’s use of verse for all the dialog by writing his own review in verse. (Sadly, not collected in this volume.)
Very enjoyable, and good for reading an essay at a time, although it can be hard to stop at just one.
As a rule, writers should be treated like rubber plants—lightly pruned, occasionally watered, but basically left to do their own thing in a corner, away from direct sunlight.
Obviously, I could never meet the guy; his sensitivity and height suggested someone who dealt with unappreciative critics by holding up their hearts, still beating, in front of their bulging eyes.
The primary task of the critic, (and nobody has surpassed the late Ms. Kael in this regard), is the recreation of texture—not telling moviegoers what they should see, which is entirely their prerogative, but filing a sensory report on the kind of experience into which they will be wading, or plunging, should they decide to risk a ticket.
I am as corrupt as the next man, but, I must admit, the notion that you could trim your critical opinions to accord with the fizzy water in which you recently dipped your ass had, until then, never occurred to me, and it still strikes me as impractical today.
Think of the worst possible reason that John Singleton might have had for calling his new movie Poetic Justice. Now make it worse. And again. You still won’t be close to the truth, so here goes: the main character is named Justice, and she writes poetry. Get it?
It appears to be based on the principle that nothing is as scary as hitting a drum apart from hitting it harder
The Fugitive represents quite a jump for Andrew Davis; until now, his most successful work has starred Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris, both of whom look as if they only just discovered fire last week.
Zoran is possibly the least mercurial boy in the history of movies. He is stubborn, solid, gullible, and about as elfin as a dump truck.
This movie is so insistently heartwarming that it chilled me to the marrow.
Once Murron is dead and avenged, the film gathers pace, following what sounds like a plot but is in fact an anger-management session attended by approximately ten thousand people.
Roland Joffé’s film is, in the words of the opening credits, “freely adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne,” in the same way that methane is freely adapted from cows.
I’ve eaten bowls of spaghetti that were more tightly structured than this picture;
Kilmer has many qualities, but the wholesale abandonment of ego is not one of them.
I am a major Foster fan, but one thing is perfectly clear: Ellie does not need a long trip into space. She needs to get (1) a square meal inside her, (2) some rest, and (3) laid. As a matter of fact, she does get laid, early in the film, but only by Matthew McConaughey, and that doesn’t count. It certainly has very little effect
An alien watching modern movies would think that human intercourse consisted of nothing more than two faces approaching and docking in horizontal silhouette.
Richard Burton took a rockbound Bavarian fortress with the calmness that comes only to those who have previously stormed Elizabeth Taylor
it isn’t every day that you get a chance to deliver the line “My pajamas are all tailored.”
The time is then. The place is Egypt. The boy is born. The prognostication is dodgy. The answer is bulrushes. The boy is launched. The boy is found. The adoption process is unimpeded by interference from government agencies. The dad is Pharaoh. The brother is Rameses. The stage is set. The day is dawning. The bush is burning. The bush is talking. (“I am what I am.” The bush is Popeye?) The message is clear.
One shouldn’t make a fuss about this, but, still, if I go to see a movie entitled The Mummy I feel that I have a democratic right to expect bandages.
Cruise spends so long in the air, getting his little legs ready for the killer kick, that his opponent could easily wander off, have a cup of coffee and a doughnut, and still make it back in time to get it in the neck.
At the time, most critics scorned the picture as deafening and dumb; in retrospect, it feels like a mature, even witty, exercise in self-reference, considering that the effect of watching a Michael Bay film is indistinguishable from having a large, pointy lump of rock drop on your head.
There was even a birdbrained screen version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which a friend of mine, ignoring all warnings, paid to see. A fortnight later, he was sitting up and back on solids, but it was a close thing.
In his last two books, Jurassic Park and Rising Sun, the issues raised were, respectively, “Look out! Raptors!” and “Look out! Japs!”
The result, in the case of The Day After Tomorrow, is not so much a novel as a six-hundred-page fact sheet with occasional breaks for violence, cunningly arranged to give readers the illusion that they are in the holy presence of truth. Hence my favorite moment in the book, the most exquisitely boring clause to be found anywhere in the bestsellers: “Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt.”
“Sexual activity almost always occurs in private and is usually talked about in highly routine and nonrevealing ways,” they say. To which the only possible reply is: Fuck off.
Lear, with his connoisseur’s palate for oddity, would have appreciated the shameless way in which Levi arrives at afterthoughts without appearing to go via thoughts.
The first time Erica sees him, she knows that he is the one. You can tell this from the sudden, mad zing in the prose: “Another thing that was interesting about him was the structure of his face.” How can she resist it?
When Rand writes of one character that “the oval of his chest and stomach sallied forth, flying the colors of his inner soul,” what she means is “He was fat.” But that would never do.
Karl, meanwhile, made steady headway through a pile of frankfurters with a side dish of mustard. He might as well have hung a sign over his head saying “I’m still German.”
Marxist dialectic would dismiss all this as commodity fetishism, but the trouble with Karl Marx is that, through no fault of his own, he never saw Helena Christensen wearing a flame-colored, rhinestone-studded bikini thong.
a room of those exquisite Indian miniatures in which the woman’s calm, otherworldly gaze suggests not that she is nearing climax but that she is trying to remember where she put the keys to the elephant.
On Some Faraway Beach by David Sheppard
Fairly exhaustive biography of Brian Eno. If you’re interested in Eno, I’d recommend it. If you’re not, not so much.
Role Models by John Waters
Collection of essays from the director. I’m not the hugest John Waters fan, and this didn’t really change my mind. Waters can be provocative, but he can also try too hard to be so.
Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein
Speaking of trying too hard - Adelstein has a great story to tell, about covering the crime syndicates in Japan as a foreign reporter, and having his life threatened for uncovering some of their secrets, but his over-excited prose got in the way for me—you don’t need to oversell this story, but it felt like Adelstein did time and time again with language so hard-boiled it neared parody.
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier
The story of Frazier falling in love with the idea and reality of Siberia. He is so detailed and evocative on the horror of Siberian mosquitoes in summer that I don’t quite want to go there, but I certainly felt like I learned what it would be like to visit, plus a whole bunch of incidental Russian history. Recommended.
“Why did I come back here?” she repeated. “This place is insane. The women’s bathroom is totally insane.” “Why is the women’s bathroom insane?” “In the women’s bathroom there is a woman doing her dishes. Where could she have come from? I have no idea. There are dishes and pots all over. She is scrubbing away. There are chicken bones on the edge of the sink.”
I was made a bit nervous, however, by the resort’s manager, a large, blunt-featured man in a thigh-length sport shirt, and especially by his habit of carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle everywhere he went. He carried it any old way, however he happened to have last picked it up—by the barrel, by the butt, by the strap—as if it were some miscellaneous object he was bringing in from the car. Once passing by the dining hall I saw him clearing tables after breakfast as his Kalashnikov leaned muzzle-down against the wall nearby. Also, several horses roamed the resort grounds, and they loved to knock their heads against the cabins. You’d be taking a nap and—thunk—the head of a horse just outside would hit the wall.
The smell of America says, “Come in and buy.” The smell of Russia says, “Ladies and gentlemen: Russia!”
Learning Russian (or trying to) showed me that in my everyday life, perhaps like many adults, I use my brain mainly for scheming.