In Brief

Not much ten­nis news. Nadal wins the Rio Open, Venus takes the Dubai title. Wake me up when the clay court sea­son arrives.

Last week­end, I went down a Break­ing Bad, Sea­son Five, Part I worm­hole just as Sea­son Five, Part II was down­loaded to Net­flix, thank god. That’s ecsta­tic tele­vi­sion, the most riv­et­ing I’ve ever watched. Mean­while, I find myself less and less engaged with The Walk­ing Dead. The show’s oscil­la­tion between the group’s strug­gle to find a home and then sur­vive on the road wears thin. It lacks a macro-narrative, a larger arc; its feels episodic at best, sta­tic more often. That the core group has been scat­tered makes it all the more atom­ized. Con­se­quently the show strug­gles to build sus­pense. In the last episode, I also found it hard to believe (spoiler alert) that Rick could man­age to choke out that guy in the bath­room with­out being dis­cov­ered. I’ve lived in an old house like that. From the third floor, you could hear a base­ment mouse clip­ping its toe­nails. So many loose joints in the place the struc­ture was like a tin-cup telephone.

If you’re a Mar­isha Pessl fan (Spe­cial Top­ics in Calamity Physics), here’s our Salon@615 talk at Nashville’s Main library about her new novel, Night Film. Loved her shoes. (It was a tor­ren­tially rainy night, btw). If you can’t get enough of me in person—I know I can’t, I can’t get away from myself—I’ll be teach­ing an evening class at the Uni­ver­sity School of Nashville on Tues­day evening, March 4. If you’re a New Yorker, I’ll be appear­ing at Brook­lyn Col­lege on March 19 with the poet Dana White and play­wright Donna Di Nov­elli—a brief read­ing from each of us will be fol­lowed by a Q & A. Nashville’s Par­nas­sus Book­store has acclaimed young nov­el­ist Amy Greene (Blood­root) stop­ping by on Mon­day evening, March 3, to read from her new novel, Long Man, which has received won­der­ful advance word. I’ll also be in the audi­ence at Prince­ton University’s Berlind The­ater to hear The Story Award, Dylan Thomas Prize, and New York Pub­lic Library Young Lions Book award win­ner Claire Vaye Watkins read from her novel-in-progress on March 12. She and I enjoyed a nice men­tion in Chang-rae Lee’s New York Times Book Review “By the Book” inter­view. While I haven’t yet read On Such a Full Sea, I highly rec­om­mend his pre­vi­ous novel, The Sur­ren­dered, a 2010 Pulitzer final­ist. The last book to move me as much was Salter’s Light Years.

Losing It at the Movies

“In the first chap­ter we pick up our ini­tial the­matic line: the lay­ers or layer-cake theme. This is the fall of 1828; Charles is thir­teen and on his first day in school he is still hold­ing his cap on his knees in the class­room. ‘It was one of those head­gears of a com­pos­ite type in which one may trace ele­ments of bearskin and otter­skin cap, the Lancers’ shap­ska, the round hat of felt, and the house­cap of cot­ton; in fine, one of those pathetic things that are as deeply expres­sive in their mute ugli­ness as the face of an imbe­cile. Ovoid, splayed with whale­bone, it began with a kind of cir­cu­lar sausage repeated three times; then, higher up, there fol­lowed two rows of lozenges, one of vel­vet, the other of rab­bit fur, sep­a­rated by a red band; next came a kind of bag end­ing in a poly­gon of card­board with intri­cate braid­ing upon it; and from this there hung, at the end of a long, too slen­der cord, a twisted tas­sel of gold threads. The cap was new; its visor shone.’

“In this, and in three other exam­ples to be dis­cussed, the image is devel­oped layer by layer, tier by tier, room by room, cof­fin by cof­fin. The cap is a pathetic and taste­less affair…”

– Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, from Lec­tures on Lit­er­a­ture, Vladimir Nabokov

Ask any­one with kids and they’ll tell you this: hav­ing chil­dren kills your moviego­ing. Let’s for­get down­load­ing Friday’s Net­flix or what­ever you DVRed off STARZ. I’m talk­ing about lit­er­ally going to the the­ater. Some­how, I’ve caught three films in the past three weeks: Grav­ity, Cap­tain Phillips, and, yes­ter­day, The Coun­selor. My grades for these in that order:

Grav­ity (B almost-plus)

San­dra Bul­lock, whose body is on promethean dis­play through­out Grav­ity—espe­cially the movie’s final low shot, where she tow­ers like a god­dess back on (spoiler alert!) Earth—may well have the great­est Pilates instruc­tor on our planet. What shape she’s got­ten her­self in. This was the first thing my wife leaned over and said to me when the lights came up: “God, she looks great.” The movie’s like Speed but with bet­ter effects: it’s really just an elab­o­rate obsta­cle course, Bul­lock forced to jump and re-jump—or swim at the movie’s end—through count­less hoops. It’s worth the admis­sion price for Cuaron’s for­mal inven­tive­ness, the cam­era orbit­ing the actors inces­santly, like an elec­tron its nucleus. Don’t see it if you get sea­sick eas­ily, but see it in 3D. I could’ve done with­out Bullock’s back­story, these extra lay­ers of MOTIVATION and REDEMPTION utterly extra­ne­ous. Isn’t it enough just to get home in one piece? Doesn’t res­cue for rescue’s sake purify the soul? Grav­ity made me nos­tal­gi­cally recall Ron Howard’s Apollo 13—to my mind, a bet­ter film about stay­ing alive in the final frontier.

Cap­tain Phillips (C +)

Yes, Tom Hanks is a great actor, although I’m not the first per­son to flinch when­ever a movie’s rec­om­mended because it has “great act­ing.” Here, too, I really could’ve done with­out the back­story, as “eco­nom­i­cal” as it was, more lip ser­vice than char­ac­tero­log­i­cal, as rote as a long-favored chess gambit—the EVER-ENDURING-STAYING-THE-COURSE-ALL-AMERICAN-COUPLE OPENING. What does Hanks and Keener’s anx­ious chat on the way to the air­port do for the movie? Does it make Hanks’ brav­ery any braver? Cap­tain Phillips is a claus­tro­pho­bic one-trick pony, enlivened only when the Navy SEALS show up and make their awe-inspiring sniper shots. Iron­i­cally, its cam­er­a­work is as max­i­mal­ist as the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary response to the Soma­lis: Yeah, I get it. We’re the world’s ele­phan­tine first respon­ders. We bring air­craft car­ri­ers to an AK-47 shootout or air­lift in SEALS to kill Skin­nies. I’d also like to state for the record that I much pre­fer Doug Liman’s The Bourne Iden­tity to Paul Greengrass’s sub­se­quent sequels. There are bet­ter fights in the for­mer and the latter’s cam­er­a­work makes me sea­sick. (Night­mare thought: Green­grass remakes Grav­ity.)

The Coun­selor (n/a)

Scott’s open­ing scene, where Michael Fass­ben­der and Pene­lope Cruz toss beneath the sheets, is so match­lessly erotic and eco­nom­i­cal in estab­lish­ing them as peo­ple we’ll root for that it’s hard for the film not to go down­hill from there. But it does worse than that. It’s a movie that gets hok­ier than fur­ther from it you get, until finally you real­ize you’ve just seen some­thing truly abysmal, the kind of film that jeop­ar­dizes its creator’s rep­u­ta­tion, or at least makes you a McCarthy revisionist.

Late Cor­mac McCarthy loves him some phi­los­o­phiz­ing bad­dies. My god, The Coun­selor’s killers are so inter­est­ing, so thought­ful, as intel­lec­tu­ally ripped as Bul­lock is phys­i­cally. Get­ting waxed by a Mex­i­can drug car­tel appar­ently comes with a series of Great Course’s lec­tures on Quan­tum Mechan­ics and the Moral­ity of Being in a Super­po­si­tion (or in Fassbender’s case, the DVD con­tains a snuff film enti­tled Hola!). Late CM also digs on elab­o­rate meth­ods of killing peo­ple. Why sim­ply shoot a motor­cy­clist when you can first hit your local Jap bike store and mea­sure the exact height required to lop off your target’s head with a garotte wire, strung from truck’s flatbed to a tele­phone pole, this whole oper­a­tion demand­ing numer­ous trips to your local hard­ware store—I always for­get some­thing at Home Depot—plus assem­bly and a nine-hour stake­out on a deserted high­way. (These assas­sins have plenty of time to catch movies at the the­ater, let me tell you.)

More hokum: Brad Pitt’s Westray has the prophetic abil­ity to enu­mer­ate gar­ish modes of car­tel mur­der which then occur in the same nar­ra­tive. Talk about not tak­ing your own coun­sel, Coun­selor. And how does Javier Bar­dem ever get laid with that hairdo? Is he ugli­fy­ing him­self as a way to apol­o­gize for mar­ry­ing Pene­lope Cruz? This is his third instance of bad coif­fure (see No Coun­try for Old Men and Sky­fall). Que alguien lo ayude!

Here was a ques­tion I couldn’t answer: Just because Cameron Diaz wears feline-like eye shadow, has what appear to be razor-sharp steel fin­ger­nails, toys with her prey, owns a pair of chee­tahs, AND has a chee­tah tat­too run­ning down the length of her back, am I sup­posed to think she’s like a big cat? She’s also in great shape, hasn’t lost any flex­i­bil­ity what­so­ever, unless that was a body dou­ble doing the split atop Bardem’s Ferrari.

McCarthy’s view of women is the most trou­bling thing about The Coun­selor. Gramps has a bad Madonna/Whore com­plex, I’m afraid, and the ladies are either pure Cruz’s or rapa­cious, witch-of-fuck Malk­i­nas. A vagina is like a remora? This is prob­a­bly why the Nobel com­mit­tee will never come call­ing, in spite of Sut­tree, Blood Merid­ian, and the Bor­der Trilogy’s great­ness. Add to this mix the fact that McCarthy’s becom­ing a true crank: The world’s end­ing, he seems to be say­ing, and he’s glad he won’t be around to see it. Diaz’s End Times speech at the movie’s con­clu­sion is a lazy bit of cir­cu­lar logic. Bad peo­ple doing only bad things think everything’s bad and will be ever­more until The End, which is com­ing soon.

Gone is Sut­tree’s hope­ful­ness. Remem­ber the book’s final scene, when the boy shares his water with our hero as he emerges from the wilderness:

“[Sut­tree] could see the pale gold hair that lay along the sun­burned arms of the water­bearer like new wheat and he beheld him­self in wells of smok­ing cobalt, twinned and dark and deep in child’s eyes, blue eyes with no bot­toms like the sea. He took the dip­per and drank and gave it back. The boy dropped it into the bucket. Sut­tree wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. Thanks, he said.”


Readings Recap

Writ­ing this from my stand­ing desk, and to all my desk-bound friends out there, if you can switch to one, do. I’m a hap­pier, more refreshed per­son at the end of the day, and I attribute it to this change. Mean­while, I’ll be appear­ing at the fol­low­ing uni­ver­si­ties over the next cal­en­dar month:

Jan­u­ary 28, The Uni­ver­sity of Ten­nessee, 7 p.m.

Feb­ru­ary 20, Uni­ver­sity of West­ern Ken­tucky at Bowl­ing Green, 7 p.m.

Feb­ru­ary 21, Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­sity, 7 p.m.

After com­plet­ing Part One of my sec­ond novel, I put on the brakes to do some research. That doesn’t leave me much time for read­ing out­side my job, though I’m halfway through Richard Ford’s Canada, and Part One, I’m happy to report, was incredible.

But a recap: In terms of sheer num­bers, 2012 was not a great read­ing year, though in order, I read the following:

1. Signs and Won­ders by Alex Ohlin

A story col­lec­tion I blurbed and I only blurb a book that grabs me. Like many read­ers, I was stunned by William Giraldi’s NYTBR take­down of it—not my read­ing expe­ri­ence at all. Ohlin plots her sto­ries beau­ti­fully. Shit happens—a lost art in lit­er­ary fic­tion. I found myself tugged along by her nar­ra­tives, wait­ing to see how things resolved. Take my word for it.

2–4. The Brief Won­drous Life of Oscar Wao, Drown, and This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

My year of Diaz. Drown is a remark­able debut and I’m espe­cially awed by the final story, “Nego­cios,” wherein Diaz retells his father’s coming-to-America story, appro­pri­at­ing this ambiva­lent nar­ra­tive with­out exor­cis­ing his own demons of assim­i­la­tion. Oscar Wao has numer­ous stretches that bring the news, as William Gad­dis used to implore. Three sto­ries in Lose Her—“Otravida, Otravez,” “The Pura Prin­ci­ple,” and “Invierno”—are perfect.

5. A Ges­ture Life by Change-rae Lee

The sec­tion about the war is extra­or­di­nary and the novel is a study in emo­tional restraint and dra­matic irony.

6. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

I appeared with Mr. Shteyn­gart at the Fol­ger (a gas) and had the plea­sure of din­ing with him dur­ing a break at last year’s Fes­ti­val Amer­ica. The novel gave me crazy dystopian dreams.

7. The Typ­ist by Michael Knight

It isn’t easy to write some­thing as spare and mov­ing as Knight’s tale of a typ­ist nego­ti­at­ing post-war Tokyo.

7–8. Burn­ing the Days and All That Is by James Salter

I’ve never been shy about my admi­ra­tion for Salter, whose new novel is due out this April, a sweep­ing tale about a New York edi­tor dur­ing publishing’s hey­day. Still, if you’re new to Salter’s work,  I’d rec­om­mend his “rec­ol­lec­tion,” Burn­ing the Days, worth the jacket price alone for the descrip­tions of his Korean fighter-pilot years and his har­row­ing dog­fights with Russ­ian MIGs: “Behind us they had the scent of the kill, they could see the strikes; noth­ing would dis­lodge them. I was in panic. We were turn­ing as hard as we could and they were turn­ing with us. The altime­ter was unwind­ing. Strain­ing to look back, I could see them, steady and unmov­ing, like the pods behind you on an amuse­ment park ride that rise when you rise and go down when you go down, mechan­i­cal and effort­less.” I dare you not to get hooked.

9. Billy Lynn’s Long Half­time Walk by Ben Fountain

For many read­ers and writ­ers, Fountain’s National Book Award final­ist, Flaherty-Dunnan first-novel-award-winner, and NBCC award final­ist is the book of the year, and I wouldn’t be sur­prised to see it make the Pulitzer short list, if not win it. It’s tale of Bravo squad’s mis­er­able and ecsta­tic Thanks­giv­ing Day at a Dal­las Cowboy’s game that’s also send-off of the Iraq War’s con­tra­dic­tions and our soul-killing excesses: Amer­i­can max­i­mal­ism and its dis­con­tents. Its lan­guage soars.

10. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

If you haven’t yet read it, it’s as great as you’ve heard.

11. Swamp­lan­dia! by Karen Russell

Yes, the novel is occa­sion­ally uneven, but only occa­sion­ally. The book’s com­pletely orig­i­nal and its bil­dungsro­man within the novel, The Dredger’s Tale, is aston­ish­ing. I’ve read the first two sto­ries from Vam­pires in the Lemon Grove, her upcom­ing story col­lec­tion, and I’d bet any amount of money she’ll come to be con­sid­ered one of the country’s most inven­tive, inim­itable writ­ers. She’s the clos­est writer we have to Calvino.

12–13. The Inter­loper and Panorama City by Antoine Wilson

I read both nov­els by this comer before review­ing the lat­ter in December’s New York Times Book Review.

14. Gilead by Mar­i­lynne Robinson

If you haven’t read it, to quote my edi­tor, Gary Fisketjon, get a life.

15. Bat­tle­born by Claire Vaye Watkins

Another huge tal­ent, and a col­lec­tion equal in orig­i­nal­ity to Diaz’s Drown. Also a recently announced NBCC final­ist. Here’s my mini-review and Q & A with her from Chap­ter 16.

16. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jen­nifer Egan

I had the plea­sure of appear­ing with Ms. Egan at The Fes­ti­val Amer­ica. GS is great. You start it think­ing it can’t work, but it does, won­der­fully, and its trick is to make you feel time’s pas­sage. Going in I was dubi­ous about the power point chap­ter and it turned out to be one of my favorite sec­tions. A must read.

17. The Big Miss by Hank Haney

True, one feels a lit­tle slimy read­ing this. Not only does Haney cash in on his sev­eral years coach­ing Tiger but he’s also cloy­ingly earnest while sell­ing him out—not a win­ning com­bi­na­tion. Still, it’s fas­ci­nat­ing, and I came away from it hum­bled by the sac­ri­fices required to be as dom­i­nant as Tiger once was and, if there’s karma, may well be again.

18–21. Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk by Edward St. Aubyn

Amer­i­can fic­tion writ­ers I know are pass­ing this Brit’s nov­els around like some non-lethal form of crack cocaine, and we here across the pond are spoiled read­ing this quin­tet in sequence, released as a quar­tet by Pic­a­dor to coin­cide with the pub­li­ca­tion of the con­clud­ing novel, At Last, because we didn’t have to wait out the cycle. Con­se­quently the books feel like one mag­nif­i­cent, epic novel, a tow­er­ing achieve­ment about our strug­gles to come to some free rela­tion­ship with our past and enjoy some­thing like atone­ment and progress. On a tech­ni­cal note, Aubyn also ends his nov­els more grace­fully then nearly any­one I’ve ever read, except per­haps Salter.


Whatever Happened to Crazy?

As it turned out, yes­ter­day, before I’d heard any news of the Sandy Hook mas­sacre, I’d decided, upon return­ing home from an errand, to have lunch with my first grader, Mar­got. Her school is under a half mile from our house, also a  neigh­bor­hood school. She eats at 10:30—what with Julia Green being over­crowded, they have to rotate kids through the lunch room in early bird fash­ion. Before I entered, I noticed there were work­men on the roof, and an exten­sion cord was run­ning from the main office to the top of the build­ing, which propped open the door. Con­se­quently, I didn’t have to be buzzed in by the sec­re­tary. But, of course, the sec­re­tary, Ms. Stark, whose daugh­ters I’d taught when they were at Har­peth Hall, knows me—to the degree, that is, that any­one knows anyone—and would’ve buzzed me right in any­way, as she does every­one, I imag­ine, who comes to the door, right?

I came home after­ward and, surf­ing for a sec­ond before resum­ing work, jumped onto At the time they were report­ing three peo­ple injured in the shoot­ing, but within a half hour, every­one knew it was much worse than that.

Let me share with you my numer­ous expe­ri­ences with vio­lent crime, gun crime par­tic­u­larly. Some­times I feel like I’m cursed.

I cer­tainly did at Hol­land House a cou­ple of years ago, when our New York friends, Amanda and Larry, were in Nashville to see a Preda­tors game and asked us to join them for a late din­ner at East Nashville’s Hol­land House. About a half hour into our meal, two masked gun­men entered the restaurant—one with a sawed-off pump action shot­gun, the other car­ry­ing a pistol—told every­one to get on the ground, and robbed the place. The guy with the pis­tol went to one side of the estab­lish­ment, into the kitchen; the other took the bar’s money and then patrolled the booths for valu­ables. I was lying on my back, my hands folded behind my head, as if I were at the beach, mut­ter­ing to myself about my fate, that it was my des­tiny to get capped thus, since it was my third time being held up at gunpoint.

I guess it was my way of deal­ing with the sit­u­a­tion. Later, I’d think about how the dude with the shot­gun calmly strolled toward our table, look­ing me right in the eye, and took, of all things, my Black­berry. If I’d been armed, I thought later, in my vain­glo­ri­ous and after-the-fact videogame dreams, I could’ve shot him at close range, but fur­ther analy­sis stared spool­ing con­tin­gen­cies. What about the other guy, then? Would he have fled? Or would we have exchanged gun­fire in the restau­rant? Who else would we have man­aged to shoot in the process, if any­one? Had I been killed, or killed some­one, or the gun­man, would it have been worth the scant cash I car­ried, or my Black­berry? It seems to be an expe­ri­ence one shouldn’t wish for. After­ward, while we were all get­ting seri­ously drunk to soften our adrenal crash, I was thank­ful for two things: that no one was hurt and that the police showed up late enough for the two men to get away. Who knows what would’ve hap­pened if they’d arrived in time for a standoff?

Of course there was also my 2001 inci­dent at Nashville’s Sevier Park. At the time, I was work­ing at the Scene, edit­ing our Best of Nashville Issue. I had a long night of work ahead of me and so at 6 p.m. I bolted home to let my dogs, Henry and Tucker, out for a while. I grabbed my six-foot-long lacrosse stick—I was a defense­men in high school and college—a ball, and loaded the boys up, choos­ing the dicier loca­tion over Elm­ing­ton Park, which was far­ther from our home then. It was twi­light when we arrived, two women were just leav­ing with their dogs, and within a minute of play­ing fetch I heard some­one say, “Yo!” and turned to see two youths approach­ing from the top of the hill. “Here we go,” I thought, draw­ing on too many expe­ri­ences to count, “I’m about to get mugged.” But I had my dogs with me, a weapon, and, by God, wasn’t I also was a state cham­pion wrestler. Let us have at it. Here’s what I didn’t do: run. And that moment of hes­i­ta­tion, be it from social train­ing or the dic­tates of the super-ego—whatever makes you assume the world isn’t deadly—might’ve been my undoing.

Both kids, for they were no more than sev­en­teen, were heav­ily armed. The one who’d called out had a Tec-9, the hived sup­pres­sor on it so long he had to carry it in two hands. The other had a .38, which he was bran­dish­ing gang­land style, grip par­al­lel to the ground and bar­rel pointed at my face. I was stunned by the artillery present, utterly speech­less. They stood by my sides. “Get on your knees,” the kid with the Tec-9 said. He got no reac­tion from me—I was still too gob smacked by all the firepower—so he cracked me across the tem­ple with the sup­pres­sor. This left a per­fectly cir­cu­lar welt, which I’m thank­ful to say I was able to show my wife later. The expe­ri­ence also per­ma­nently destroyed my deter­rent fan­tasy that a fierce look­ing dog (Tucker, our blue heeler, was big for his breed, with a bobbed tail and Shepherd’s ears, not one to be messed with) would keep you safe in a dark park.

Get on your knees,” the thug repeated, and I did, at which point, Tucker, latched onto the other perp’s calf and began to do his death roll. Here we’ve arrived at the other great macho fan­tasy: that your dog, how­ever big, might do a Rin Tin Tin and save the day. In fact, it only made a grim sit­u­a­tion worse. The guy screamed, told me to call the dog off or he’d shoot him. I, mean­while, did the thousand-yard stare, said: “I can’t make him do any­thing,” at which point Tucker mirac­u­lously relented and, along with our bor­der col­lie, lay down, pant­ing. The assailants then put both weapons to my tem­ples and said, “Empty your pock­ets.” And here, reader, I had that clichéd men­tal event you’ve heard about but per­haps thought non-existent: the out-of-body expe­ri­ence. I tele­ported a good fif­teen feet away and stood watch­ing this scene: Two black kids with their weapons to the tem­ples of a kneel­ing man, a lacrosse stick lay­ing across his thighs. At this point, I had a clear thought uttered like a whis­per: “You’re going to hear two pops and then you’re dead.”

But they took my wal­let and loped off.

I won’t bore you with the story of my late 80s drug buy on 87th and Ams­ter­dam with Michael Dor­rian, Jon Flana­gan, and the not-yet-preppie-murderer Robert Cham­bers, which nearly ended with us being shot by a crack dealer pack­ing a .45. I’ll also spare you the story of the kid I got into a fight with while I rode the uptown bus to school my senior year, who pulled a Big­foot lock-blade on me that I didn’t see while we were hav­ing words nose to nose and also wasn’t mur­der­ous enough to dis­em­bowel me in those sec­onds of unaware­ness, and whose wrist I ended up break­ing in the fight that ensued, and made me some­thing of a leg­end among Trinity’s lower class­men present, none of whom came to my aid, mind you, none being as brave or self­less as Sandy Hook’s prin­ci­ple or psy­chol­o­gist, the pair who ran toward the gun­shots (fuck y’all who hate teach­ers unions) as we were locked in mor­tal com­bat, which it was.

Unfor­tu­nately,  unbe­liev­ably, I could go on—I was first mugged when I was five—but I’ll spare you those sto­ries as well as the foiled attempts (in mid­dle school, come spring, I started car­ry­ing a base­ball bat to Trin­ity, and once had to use it) that still didn’t edu­cate me enough to avoid the one I’d described ear­lier, because one is bless­edly not edu­cated enough in a civ­i­lized soci­ety. But here’s my point:

The idea that any­one only par­tially trained car­ry­ing a con­cealed weapon could’ve pre­vented or, at least, lim­ited the deaths in Aurora or CT, is ludi­crous. We the civ­i­lized are civ­i­lized because we walk around like cit­i­zens, not sol­diers. We don’t expect crime. We may be street smart, but we aren’t trigger-ready or bat­tle tested, and even the well-trained (see New York City’s recent Empire State build­ing shoot­ing) miss. A lot. In other words, we’re not first to draw and last to shoot. It’s oppo­site, if we even draw.

We react to the crime, and we react late. Being civ­i­lized, the lag is what the crim­i­nal relies on.

So let’s please drop the per­sonal defense argu­ment. Or, put another way, name three instances off the top of your head when an armed cit­i­zen took out a crim­i­nal. I can’t either. And pre-crime tech­nol­ogy, with all of its fas­cist impli­ca­tions, doesn’t exist yet.

I don’t want my daugh­ters in a school where teach­ers are armed.

I don’t want my teach­ers armed. Using deadly force isn’t part of the job descrip­tion. Teach­ers, for some kids, are scary enough. Teach­ers, for some kids, aren’t scary at all. Dig?

Height­ened secu­rity, albeit impor­tant, is always an after-the-fact band aid. To whit: Amer­i­can air­line secu­rity. Yes, let us please review safety pro­ce­dures at our schools. But remem­ber, once the lockdown’s taken place, someone’s already in your kid’s school, shoot­ing up the joint.

I don’t want to take guns away from respon­si­ble own­ers. Let them go to the range with their kids and shoot as many tar­gets as they like. Or ani­mals, for that matter.

Here are my hum­ble sug­ges­tions for rea­son­able stricter gun controls:

1. You must be thirty years or older to own a gun. That way, your psy­cho­log­i­cal his­tory is well-enough estab­lished that any flags would appear on a back­ground check.

1a. The back­ground check must include an applicant’s medical/psychological his­tory; or at least it must be accessible.

2. As to the back­ground check, make the one to get a firearm really fuck­ing expen­sive. Like at least a thou­sand bucks.

2a. Add a pro­hib­i­tive safety tax to the pur­chase of any hand­gun that is pro­por­tional to its fire­power. So you have to pay, say, an addi­tional $1000 tax on an AR-15 Tac­ti­cal rifle, as well as on its bul­lets. The lat­ter will be known as the Chris Rock tax.

3. Have the money raised by these taxes fund more school psy­chol­o­gists and give them a more active role in edu­cat­ing their stu­dent bod­ies about warn­ing signs among peers. Make them the van­guard defend­ing our schools from within. You won’t pre­vent all crimes but you’ll pre­vent some.

But Christ Almighty, do something.

Thoughts? Feel­ings? Write me at


This Is How You Blog

I’m a ter­ri­ble blog­ger and a good friend recently harangued me for this, so I promised him I’d ded­i­cate a few min­utes a week­day to writ­ing a post.

The last five books I’ve read:

Gilead by Mar­i­lynne Robinson

Bat­tle­born by Claire Vaye Watkins

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jen­nifer Egan

The Big Miss by Hank Haney

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

Books I’m eyeing:

Breasts: A Nat­ural and Unnat­ural His­tory by Flo­rence Williams (she hap­pens to be a for­mer high school classmate)

Drown by Junot Diaz

Canada by Richard Ford

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Art of Field­ing by Chad Harbach

The Patrick Mel­rose Nov­els by Edward St. Aubyn

But first up, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. He’s appear­ing at UT Octo­ber 29th and I’m mak­ing the drive east to hear him. If you haven’t read his story col­lec­tion Empo­rium, get a life. Can’t wait to read his North Korean epic.

No losers in the five I’ve com­pleted, fyi. I’ve talked to friends who bailed on Gilead because they found it sta­tic whereas I found it brac­ing, its intel­li­gence sear­ing. I pull this pas­sage at ran­dom: “The thump in my chest goes on and on like some old cow chew­ing her cud, that same dull end­less­ness and con­tent­ment, so it seems to me. I wake up at night, and I hear it. Again, it says. Again, again, again.” Claire Vaye Watkin’s Bat­tle­born—its ten sto­ries are howls out of Nevada—announces a real tal­ent. I did a Q & A with her for and her answers were fas­ci­nat­ing. I had the plea­sure of serv­ing on a panel with Jen­nifer Egan at this year’s Fes­ti­val Amer­ica and her Pulitizer-winning novel pulls its dis­parate sto­ries together ele­gantly and mov­ingly (I espe­cially dug the power point chap­ter). Could not put down Haney’s tell-all on coach­ing Tiger. Came away from it shak­ing my head regard­ing the sac­ri­fices and defor­mi­ties that go with the pur­suit of great­ness. Diaz’s col­lec­tion is flat-out fun and three sto­ries in there—“Otravida, Otravez,” “The Pura Prin­ci­ple,” and “Invierno”—are knock­out. Read­ing Diaz, I’m reminded of a recent quote by Mar­tin Amis:

But most nov­el­ists I think are much more aware than they used to be of the need for for­ward motion, for propul­sion in a novel. Nov­el­ists are peo­ple too, and they’re respond­ing to this just as the reader is. It sounds schmaltzy to say but fic­tion is more to do with love than peo­ple admit or acknowl­edge. The nov­el­ist has to not only love his characters–which you do, with­out even think­ing about it, just as you love your chil­dren. But also to love the reader and that is what I mean by the plea­sure prin­ci­ple. The dif­fer­ence between a Nabokov, who in almost all of his nov­els, nine­teen nov­els, give you his best chair and best wine and his best conversation…compare that to Joyce, who, when you arrive at his house, is nowhere to be found, and then you stum­ble upon him, mak­ing some dis­gust­ing drink of peat and dan­de­lion in the kitchen. He doesn’t really care about you. Henry James ended up that way. They fall out of love with the reader. And the writ­ing becomes a lit­tle distant.”

At the Fes­ti­val Amer­ica I got panel and/or hang with Chad Har­bach, Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Dee, Dinaw Mingetsu, Wells Tower, Karen Rus­sell, Jen­nifer Egan, Teju Cole, and Gary Shyten­gart to name just a few. It was a ball and has me stoked for this weekend’s South­ern Fes­ti­val of Books, whose lineup is also remark­able and includes Junot Diaz and Ben Foun­tain (con­grats on their NBA final­ist nods). Plus I get to have din­ner with Gillian Flynn at an undis­closed location.

Also had the plea­sure of catch­ing Michael Chabon’s Nashville appear­ance at our Salon@615 read­ing series. My favorite moment apart from his read­ing? Some­one asked: What have you learned in 25 years of writ­ing? Noth­ing really, he answered. It doesn’t get any eas­ier and, if any­thing, you lack the stu­pid con­fi­dence you had at 25. Tele­graph Avenue took him five years to write.

I found David Daley’s inter­view with Jef­frey Eugenides instructive.


The very deadly Mr. Peanut Turk­ish cover.

To end: Although my story “In the Base­ment” did not win the BBC Inter­na­tional Story Award (*sniff*), I was cer­tainly flat­tered to be on the short­list. It’s cool to hear your work per­formed by an actor, pro­duced, in the par­lance of radio. And a year in to draft­ing my new novel, I am happy to report that I haven’t com­mit­ted sui­cide or applied to nurs­ing school. Yet.


And the Winners Aren’t…

Who hasn’t weighed in on the Pulitzer committee’s fail­ure to give a fic­tion award this year to either Denis Joh­son (Train Dreams), Karen Rus­sell (Swamp­lan­dia!), or David Fos­ter Wallace’s posthu­mously assem­bled novel The Pale King. There’s an excel­lent piece of report­ing in the HuffPo explain­ing the inner work­ings of the non-decision, Nashville’s Ann Patch­ett (book­seller and occa­sional nov­el­ist) wrote a ter­rific New York Times Op Ed, Time’s Lev Gross­man weighed in, and then both Patch­ett and Gross­man appeared on PBS’s News Hour, their opin­ions adding to the mil­lions who’d either chimed in, offered their own lists of final­ists, exco­ri­ated the cho­sen, bemoaned the over­looked, decon­structed our “prize cul­ture,” touted the jury’s authen­tic­ity, saw it as yet another death knell of publishing’s hot house culture—the dying of its gatekeepers—promising a brighter future when e-books will bring us an ever wider array of tal­ent. But we’ve heard all of this before. It hap­pens every year a winner’s picked.

Still, it’s a downer. If the World Series were only played dur­ing one week in fall and tor­ren­tial rains made games impos­si­ble, it would suck­eth big time. So I’m depressed about it.

Here are my sev­eral cents.

1. It’s extra­or­di­nar­ily hard to write a good book, not to men­tion a great one.

2. It’s unlikely that an extra­or­di­nary book will get the recog­ni­tion it deserves, espe­cially in its day.

Con­sider that none of Don DeLillo’s first five books sold a lick, or that next to no one read Cor­mac McCarthy’s Sut­tree upon its pub­li­ca­tion (a book which took him twenty years to write, mind you, and is a tow­er­ing work of genius). Moby Dick was con­sid­ered a titanic fail­ure after the com­mer­cial suc­cess of Melville’s South Pacific mem­oir, Typee. Emily Dick­in­son was never pub­lished in her life­time. Alice Munro hasn’t won the Nobel Prize. Nor has Haruki Murakami. Or Cor­mac McCarthy, or Philip Roth, or Don DeLillo. DeLillo, by the way, didn’t win a Pulitzer (though he was a final­ist for Under­world). James Salter’s never got­ten a whiff of any of these grand awards, and peo­ple, I’m here to tell you, you’ve never read a book as great as Light Years (if you haven’t read it yet), or A Sport and a Pas­time, or his aston­ish­ing memoir—he calls it a rec­ol­lec­tion—Burn­ing the Days. And there is so much I haven’t read and not included here, not to men­tion hun­dreds of exam­ples I’m leav­ing out.

3. Awards are arbitrary.

In 1961, Walker Percy’s The Movie­goer—a lovely book—won The National Book Award, beat­ing out Yate’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Road. Both went on to write many books after­ward, one between peri­ods of clar­ity in the fog of chronic alco­holism, despair, and rel­a­tive anonymity while the other was crowned the post-modern king of South­ern let­ters. In another uni­verse, Yates antic­i­pated Mad Men and Percy only wrote one good book.

3a. Luck is blind.

4. Kafka begged Brod to burn his man­u­scripts before his death. Brod did not honor his request. Thus we have the Kafkaesque.

4a. X, the great­est author you’ve never heard of, whose novel, Y, is the great­est novel ever writ­ten, had a friend, Z, who, unlike Brod, hon­ored his friend’s deathbed wish, and burned Y.  Though I’m not cer­tain this has hap­pened, it is highly likely to have occurred.

5. To the win­ner go the spoils.

5a. The three non-winners will divide the non-spoils, i.e., a big bump in sales.

5b. Except for Fos­ter Wal­lace, who is beastly dead.

5c. His novel, I might add, was not completed.

5d. The eas­i­est way to fin­ish a novel is to have some­one else do it for you, whether you’re dead or alive.

5e. A novella is a short novel. A novel is a long narrative.

6. Amer­ica loves winners.

7. Lit­er­a­ture is not a spec­ta­tor sport.

7a. Nei­ther is it an agon or a competition.

8. In the past two weeks there’s been a whole lot of talk about books. A good thing.

9. Less is less, to quote the great Stan­ley Elkin, more is more, and enough is enough.

10. Nobody likes a list that ends on 9.

Unfor­tu­nately, the sub­se­quent din has, to a degree, crowded out the final­ists’ achieve­ment, which is get­ting to this penul­ti­mate stage. No small feat when you con­sider the excel­lence and luck required just to make it through the jury’s win­now­ing. It was telling—in no way the fault of Patch­ett or Gross­man, but dur­ing the News Hour inter­view cer­tainly telling—that only at the end of the story were the final­ists finally men­tioned, yet another way this cacoph­o­nous world of instan­ta­neous response and com­ment blares over art, which, more often than not, is slowly pro­duced and is also to be con­sumed thus.

And the Win­ner Isn’t…Novak Djokovic

Ten­nis fans’ eyes were on the Monte Carlo Mas­ters last week, to my mind the most beau­ti­ful tour­na­ment loca­tion on the ATP. My wife, dur­ing her junior year abroad, passed Monte Carlo’s sea­side coun­try club on a moped, looked out over the cliffs, the Bedouin hos­pi­tal­ity tents, the red clay courts—all of it framed by the sea—and thought: This is lux­ury. Next to Madrid’s Magic Box, the cam­era cut­aways to the crowd, decked out and beau­ti­ful, sip­ping Kir Royales and liv­ing their Olympian lives, are unri­valed. So is Nadal here; he’s won the thing an unprece­dented seven straight times.

He won again last Sun­day, demol­ish­ing Djokovic 3 and 1. Yes, Novak’s gramps died. We’re sorry for your loss, sir, but it didn’t seem to bother you as you stormed back against both Dol­go­polov and Berdych from a set down in the pre­vi­ous rounds and, let’s face it, if you choose to com­pete you must take your licks with­out excuses: a W’s a W, an L and L. Did the match tell us any­thing about the cur­rent state of their rivalry? Has Nadal righted the ship given his recent seven-match los­ing streak to the Djoker?

Nadal will never again dom­i­nate against this man, that’s for sure. Novak is sim­ply too good at this point; he’s also tasted too much blood; he knows now how beat Nadal—how to beat every­one, for that mat­ter. But the great rival­ries have ebbs and flows, are often char­ac­ter­ized by runs, peri­ods of ascen­dancy (see: Borg/Mac). Ten­nis is a game of adjust­ments, after all, and despite the fact that Novak’s level was down a notch due to death of Grand­papa, a thump­ing it was nonethe­less, the lop­sided score demon­strat­ing just how high a level he has to main­tain to beat Rafa, let alone play with him. But it also was a study in the Spaniard’s adjust­ments to his nemesis’s game and a demon­stra­tion of what he’s learned from his losses, par­tic­u­larly at the Aus­tralian Open, where, it seemed to me, he finally got to a point where he real­ized he could beat the Serb again.

First and fore­most, Nadal served both aggres­sively and at a very high per­cent­age, mov­ing the ball around the box like a pitcher: he had clutch pop and con­sis­tency. On bal­ance, his depth was ter­rific dur­ing the ral­lies and he took Djoker’s speed from him, often going up the mid­dle, forc­ing Djoker to cre­ate angles. Most inter­est­ingly, I thought, was Nadal’s will­ing­ness to go to Djokovic’s back­hand (the Serb’s lethal weapon) and up the line with his own—a com­plete sur­prise to me and, clearly, to his oppo­nent. All told, these tac­tics were sub­tle pat­tern changes that fret­ted Novak’s usu­ally remark­able antic­i­pa­tion. Com­bine these nanosec­ond hes­i­ta­tions with Monaco’s slow clay, so sim­i­lar in pace to the French Open’s, and they blunted every aspect of Novak’s game, giv­ing Nadal that much more time over the course of the match to dic­tate. And so on we go to Barcelona. It will be a great spring for tennis.

And the Win­ner Is…Gary Shteyn­gart

I had the plea­sure of appear­ing with Gary Shteyn­gart at Wash­ing­ton, DC’s Fol­ger Shake­speare Library last week, a dou­ble thrill for me because its new direc­tor, Mike Wit­more, is one of my best friend’s from Vas­sar, the guy I bounced my ear­li­est writ­ing off of, and so read­ing under his roof (and Willy the Shake’s) was, for me, a coming-full-circle and a gigan­tic thrill. Plus I got access to the library’s vault and saw the folios, Queen Elizabeth’s sig­na­ture and, no shit, her gir­dle. Make that a triple thrill, by the way. Slate’s Hanna Rosin, whose work I greatly admire, mod­er­ated.

On stage, Shteyn­gart is elec­tric, hys­ter­i­cal, poly­phonic, hyper-associative—he knocked back some kick­ass choco­late before we went on—Robin Williams if he were a Russ­ian Jew with lit­er­ary tal­ent. I’d read Super Sad True Love Story, Shteyngart’s most recent novel, the week before, and not only thor­oughly enjoyed it but also had it enter my dreams. (In my dystopian night­mare, my chil­dren put on a play of Game of Thrones for me, but their imag­i­na­tions, they claimed, were inca­pable of work­ing with­out their iPads. My kids don’t have iPads, FYI; they also don’t watch Game of Thrones.) It was also rev­e­la­tory to hear Shteyn­gart read aloud—he picked the great din­ner scene in the novel when Lenny Abramov takes his beloved, the young Korean Eunice Park, to meet his par­ents. I’d sug­gest to read­ers unfa­mil­iar with his work to per­haps sam­ple an audio of the novel before read­ing it, because it only adds lay­ers to his satire because the var­i­ous voices tell us so much about Amer­i­can cul­ture, and his vision of post-literate United States is at once funny and dis­turb­ing and, I fear, here now.

Thoughts? Feel­ings? Feed­back? Write me at



Game Plan

Nashville’s stormy spring is as dan­ger­ous as it is beautiful. 

You won’t catch me watch­ing the Indian Wells men’s final between Fed­erer and Isner. My boy Nadal was knocked out by Fed last night, 3 and 4, a rain-delayed match played in swirling, com­par­a­tively cold con­di­tions that recalled Fed’s five-set, two-day long, U.S. Open quar­ter­fi­nal vic­tory against Andre Agassi in 2000-whenever. Props to Fed, though; com­men­ta­tors got it wrong before both these matches: Nadal’s high-percentage spin and Agassi’s train­ing in windy Vegas were for naught. It was Fed who was not only more adapt­able but also more aggres­sive, his supreme foot­work on dis­play. Crazy wind’s always a fac­tor but gen­er­ally Fed moves so flu­idly to the ball it’s as if he’s not play­ing in the same wind as his oppo­nent, and his will­ing­ness to accept the tough con­di­tions refutes Mats Wilander’s asser­tion that he’s not a fighter, or men­tally tough. Of course he is. And when Nadal lifted his game in the first set to level things a 3–3, Fed was there to kick him back down the lad­der; when the Spaniard awoke at 2–5 in the sec­ond and he started to roll again, Fed­erer lay out a speed bump. Match. The great points were scin­til­lat­ing and the Swiss seems com­mit­ted to flat­ten­ing out his cross­court back­hand when­ever Nadal cheats to his own fore­hand side. Has Fed welded the chinks in his armor? With the Big Three play­ing at this level, the French Open could be truly extraordinary.

Still, the match of the tour­na­ment for me was Isner’s win against Djokovic. His gar­gan­tuan gifts aside, there’s no greater plea­sure in sport than to see a game plan per­fectly exe­cuted and unques­tion­ably Nadal could learn a lot about how to beat Djoker from this match. We’ll for­get Isner’s inim­itable, freak­ish serve, which is absurd in all sorts of ways (angle, pace, con­sis­tency, bombs deliv­ered by a guy with a great pitcher’s can­ni­ness and a kicker that, twice, jumped over Djoker’s head) and con­cen­trate, instead, on his unflinch­ing com­mit­ment to 1) an aggres­sive return of serve 2) a will­ing­ness to come into net when­ever he hurt Novak and 3) a will­ing­ness to crack fore­hands when­ever the oppor­tu­ni­ties pre­sented them­selves. In short, he played a per­fect match. And then Fed thumped him in straights. What a time to be a pro. What a greedy bunch are Fed and Nadal and, now, Djoker. Thirty-seven Grand Slam titles between the three of them, and there’s the Gen­tle Giant, try­ing to get his. My heart goes out to him.

My heart goes out to Maria Shara­pova, too, who must look across the net at Vic­to­ria Azarenka and see an oppo­nent who does almost every­thing bet­ter than her except maybe serve, and it’s been a long, long time since Maria has con­trolled a match against a top player with that shot. In the final, Az seemed to have all day to find open court, not that she needed it. With the pos­si­ble excep­tion of Kim Cli­jsters, no one in the women’s game redi­rects the ball bet­ter. I said it’s a great plea­sure to see a game plan per­fectly exe­cuted; a close sec­ond is to see great tal­ent fully real­ized and I couldn’t help but think about Az in Oz sev­eral years ago, a set up against Ser­ena hav­ing nearly blown her off the court in two, when sud­denly the pres­sure mounted, the heat went to her will and psy­che, and sud­denly she was stum­bling around like she’d been shoot­ing vodka on the changeovers and ulti­mately had to retire from dizzi­ness. I’ll make a bold pre­dic­tion: if Az stays healthy, I swear, she’ll win The Grand Slam this year. I don’t even think either of the Williams sis­ters could play with her at this level.


It has been a ter­ri­ble read­ing year for me so far—I’m talk­ing sheer numbers—this hav­ing noth­ing to do with the qual­ity of the books I’ve tack­led. Thor­oughly enjoyed Junot Diaz’s The Brief Won­drous Life of Oscar Wao and would have fol­lowed that exu­ber­ant Geek-Spanglish voice any­where. Re-read Wells Tower’s Every­thing Rav­aged, Every­thing Burned before hear­ing him read/speak at Van­der­bilt. The man can write a sen­tence and is a com­plete gen­tle­man in per­son. I’ve already men­tioned Alix Ohlin’s upcom­ing Signs and Won­ders, a won­der­ful story col­lec­tion by a writer who com­bines quick­sil­ver sto­ry­telling abil­ity, sheer nar­ra­tive dex­ter­ity, with an almost spooky emo­tional intel­li­gence. Am cur­rently slog­ging through Mann’s The Magic Moun­tain (there’s a movie?). Got no gripes with Mann, by the way. It’s amaz­ing how he antic­i­pates Thomas Friedman’s flat world, for instance:

Tech­ni­cal progress [Set­tem­brini] said, grad­u­ally sub­ju­gated nature, by devel­op­ing roads and telegraphs, min­i­miz­ing cli­matic dif­fer­ences; and by the mean of com­mu­ni­ca­tion which it cre­ated proved itself the most reli­able agent in the task of draw­ing together the peo­ples of the earth, of mak­ing them acquainted with each other…”

But all my energy has been going into my novel, Play­world, and I’m fried by day’s end. Have made some real break­throughs after sev­eral months of blind alleys and dead ends. Some moments of deep despair. Writ­ing: You need seri­ous guns to do it. Also Stephen Colbert’s sense of humor. At the sug­ges­tion of Jedi-master (and stu­pen­dous nov­el­ist and short story writer) Steve Yarbrough, I did, how­ever, read Alice Munro’s much anthol­o­gized story “Car­ried Away” from Open Secrets. Dear Tol­stoy: Eat your heart out. Any fans of her work should read her Paris Review inter­view: she’s a pure writ­ing ani­mal. I have inside infor­ma­tion that her new col­lec­tion, due out this spring or sum­mer, is remarkable.


In Praise of Failure

It wasn’t one of my New Year’s res­o­lu­tions but I’m com­mit­ted to blog­ging more. I did, how­ever, resolve to read a story a day (on top of my other read­ing) and am two tales into Alan Heathcock’s Volt. Two pas­sages I’ll share. After all, why not let a book rec­om­mend itself? They’re both from the sec­ond story, “Smoke.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “What’s bet­ter any­way, Ver­non? To have the Devil in me, or to have it be me alone?”

And this:

Ver­non crossed the room and crawled from the shim­mer­ing cavern…pushed on toward the light of day. He stepped out onto the ledge and into the heat, and it felt like leav­ing a the­ater after the mati­nee had shown a sad film, the glare of sun­shine after the dark­ness far too real to suffer.

At left, mean­while, Com­pan­hia Das Letras’s (Brazil) fan­tas­tic Mr. Peanut cover, incor­po­rat­ing the book’s mys­te­ri­ous murder/suicide and a Mobius band.

Finally, from Chap­ter 16, an essay of mine adapted from my com­mence­ment address to Har­peth Hall’s Class of 2011. It’s in praise of failure.


Dead Week

Two-thousand and eleven gives us this neatly pack­aged dead week, the last of the year, a Sun­day to Sun­day, Christ­mas to New Year’s Day, dur­ing which time it seems next to noth­ing gets done while the things you never seemed able to do are finally accom­plished: draw­ers are lined, the garage is orga­nized but still the tide’s nei­ther out nor com­ing in and the fam­ily wakes later than usual. We build a fire in the morn­ing. We read. The kids play with their new toys, qui­etly, in cor­ners, or join us under com­forters on the couch, their feet freez­ing. Sched­ules are oblit­er­ated. I call friends I haven’t spo­ken to in ages. On the radio, tele­vi­sion, and inter­net, everyone’s tal­ly­ing: Best Books, Best Movies, Biggest Gaffes, Top Sto­ries. The rabbit’s loose some­where in the house. The Christ­mas tree is so dry it might spon­ta­neously com­bust. Our dog, Henry, who we had to put down after 15 years of com­pan­ion­ship, haunts our home. In the morn­ings, all of us some­times wake to the sound of his high, dusty bark. We’ve reported this to each other indi­vid­u­ally, cor­rob­o­rated it. My wife spec­u­lates it’s because we haven’t buried him yet. We’ve put that off too.

Look­ing back, it was, more than any­thing else, a great read­ing year and, for what it’s worth, I thought I’d share my list, an adden­dum to the Year in Read­ing piece I wrote for The Mil­lions (check out that series when you have the chance). I’ll begin with what will prob­a­bly be the last book I’ll have fin­ished this year, unless I’m some­how for­tu­nate enough to get Alan Heathcock’s much-acclaimed Volt under my belt. That was James Salter’s Light Years, which I can’t rec­om­mend highly enough. It aston­ished and moved me more than any book has in quite some time and is inar­guably a mas­ter­piece. If you haven’t dis­cov­ered Salter, put Light Years or A Sport and a Pas­time at the very top of your list for 2012. You won’t be disappointed.

Here goes:

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (I read this twice)

The Adven­tures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

The Let­ters of Saul Bel­low edited by Ben­jamin Taylor

The Ore­gon Exper­i­ment by Keith Scribner

The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes

The Sto­ries of John Cheever

The Jour­nals of John Cheever

Tiger, Tiger by Mar­gaux Fragoso

Dis­grace by J.M. Coetzee

On Being Blue by William Gass (a re-reading)

Out Steal­ing Horses by Per Pettersen

Blood Merid­ian by Cor­mac McCarthy

Dusk and Other Sto­ries by James Salter

The Cur­few by Jesse Ball

Mad as Hell: The Cri­sis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Pop­ulist Right by Dominic Sandbrook

What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. Pres­i­dent? by Kevin Mattson

Live from New York: A His­tory of Sat­ur­day Night Live by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller

End Zone by Don DeLillo (a re-reading)

Thir­teen Ways of Look­ing at the Novel by Jane Smiley

Project X by Jim Shepard

Like You’d Under­stand, Any­way by Jim Shepard

The Vir­gin Sui­cides by Jef­frey Eugenides

First Love by Ivan Tur­genev (I don’t know, fifth or sixth time read­ing it)

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (it’s com­ing out this year and I blurbed it—a total ball)

A Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Liv­ing in Paris by Eric Blau

A Sep­a­rate Peace by John Knowles (a re-reading)

The Sense of an End­ing by Julian Barnes

Lolita by Vlad­mir Nabokov (maybe sixth time I’ve read it)

One res­o­lu­tion for 2012: Read more.

Finally, in Ladies and Gen­tle­men news, the col­lec­tion was named a top book of the year by The San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle and The Book Lady.

Enjoy these last days of 2011.



If you have any doubt that this is a golden era in men’s ten­nis, watch this video. Next, watch what Rafa does at 2:35 in this other video. It’s worth it for two rea­sons. First, the dis­play of absurd ath­leti­cism; sec­ond, Kim Cli­jsters’ mini-swoon afterward.

Mean­while, here, left, is the Piper’s cover for Ladies and Gen­tle­men (very cool) along with a ter­rific UK review of the col­lec­tion in The List (it’s pub­lished by Cape there next month).

Some other stuff: my piece for the great Year in Read­ing Series for The Mil­lions as well as one in Tin House about Par­nas­sus, Nashville’s new inde­pen­dent book­store. Finally, a very flat­ter­ing arti­cle about Ladies & Gen­tle­men from Chapter16, which, I’m flat­tered to add, was a year-end, best-of pick by Three Guys One Book.

More soon.

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