After my older brother e-mailed me that he was halfway into Artemis by Andy Weir, I e-mailed him, “I gave up reading The Martian on the first page.” Then, he asked, “Can you even judge a book after reading one page? That’s like judging a book by its cover…or just reading the inside cover.”
Of course, I judge books by their covers, their titles, their table of contents, their front matter, their first page, etc. I’m sure my brother does, too. I’m also sure I was annoying him like only a younger brother can do. He must have felt like I was dumping on something he liked. But I didn’t want to do that, I just wanted to say that I had closed the book’s covers for my own reasons, albeit maybe reasons he had left them open.
Usually, I give a book around 50 pages. Our mom—an early childhood education teacher, before becoming a theologian—raised us on that page count while reading us children’s chapter books. As an adult, I started to keep an annual reading list. Also, I began to tally the books that I ended up stopping.
My e-mail conversation with my brother sent me back to last year’s books—13 in total—in the order that I had stopped reading them. I mostly returned to their first pages. If the sincerest form of flattery is imitation, then perhaps the sarcastic form of annoyance is emulation.
1.) Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro
Shall we look back? I asked my reading log.
Flagstaff in April. The air dry, the sky clear after a winter of little snow. I’d given up on the novel about a fifth of the way through, a too rich perspective, too richly worshipped affair. Small scenes strung together a husband and a wife and a lover, creating a fragmented narrative. Constellative, I’d thought when I first started the book, expecting starry passion, but figuring out later that there was little to connect the parts together. The narrating wife—a Christian believer—worshipped her lover’s passion instead of worshipping God. Perhaps she wanted to connect the two? A burning passion that she worshipped like a god.
I didn’t believe it.
2.) Flight by Sherman Alexie
The cover showed Zits, a young man in a headdress and combat boots holding automatic weapons in each hand standing in front of a bull’s-eye. Zits—a Spokane youth passed off from foster family to foster family—acted tough by cursing his social worker. He was gone, seemingly set on mass murder in Seattle.
People put up a shield to protect themselves from the vulnerability of a hurt deep down, like Zits, but Alexie didn’t trigger his typical defensive mechanism of humor, instead, he shot offensive hate.
I disarmed the book from my hands.
3.) The Last Report on the Miracle at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich
The page was white with black text half down after a Prologue, and the story seemed singular, focused on one character. Erdrich’s best writing was when she stayed focused and in place when all she had to explore the world was one character. She had written and rewritten many novels, adding chapters with more characters. Dressed in black yoga tights and a loose T-shirt, with scarves tying her to her chair like she said she did during “The Art of Fiction” interview, she must have at first stayed with the sole character at her desk. She focused on a Priest—a woman who had lived as a man—reflecting back on a life serving the Ojibwe, until a need, like love, surged to Erdrich’s brain, necessary, slowly, she began to bring in her previous characters from other books. She leafed out a family tree. Just after her late chapter “Fluer’s Children,” the reader snapped with the weight on the branching overstory.
4.) How to Get into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak
I remember stale cigarette-emitting smoky suits, silent Soviet blocks, and wild fur coats from my childhood in Warsaw, Poland. I remember a classmate named Mishka (bear cub in Russian) with an Ursine-sized father who did “business.” I remember our neighbors’ drugged German shepherd asleep behind their steel fence lifted off the hinges—the bolt still locked shut—and set on their driveway with only an oil stain left of their BMW. I remember my buddy Konrad’s mom in their house wearing only a white lacey bra and silk panties with garters and hose down to stilettos putting on her fox coat before going to Mass.
I don’t remember secrecy or danger or seduction, or even LA glitz, in How to Get into the Twin Palms; only the camouflaging of a Pole in America trying to be a Russian. An identity crisis.
I knew who I was: not a reader of this book.
5.) All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Hal from “2001: A Space Odyssey” is a mechanical menace. Bender from “Futurama” is a monkey-wrench. Murderbot from All Systems Red was an exposition and confessional spewing narrator that I only understood for wanting to kill the human crew of scientists who spoke as peacefully programmed as “Alien” androids:
“Ralhi sighed, ‘No, you’re right. I’d feel terrible if anyone died because we were overcautious.’
‘We’re agreed, then,’ Mensah said. ‘We’ll keep going.’”
I haltingly disagreed.
6.) Nothing by Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon
If somebody isn’t saying something somewhere to someone then nobody is saying nothing nowhere:
“I shrugged. She could’ve meant anything and I tried to think of something to say in reply, something real maybe but there was nothing.”
7.) Sip by Brian Allen Carr
My sweaty socks dried on a boulder behind me. I wiggled my wrinkled toes in front of the trail. Sunlight filtered through clacking aspen leaves on the south face of Mount Elden, an old four-mile wide lava flow.
I love going on a hike by myself with a book and at my half-way point taking a stretch and then sitting down to read for as long as I can. The idea of a world where people consumed shadows fascinated me, but I wasn’t satiated by the story. The idea felt absent; or rather, present but not filling.
My world was too bright to read one of not quite darkness, not substance, but of the void.
8.) The Devil in the Valley by Castle Freeman, Jr.
Some authors write a slow-burning book. Not an idea, not a malaise, not a future yet to be, not an identity crisis, not stories masquerading as novel chapters, not a fury, not a narrator speaking to someone who already experienced the story, but a situation.
What if the devil came and offered you wishes? Of course, he’s going to grant you them in exchange for your soul. Of course, you’ll want money, power, sex, revenge, but you won’t feel wealthy, strong, loved, or at peace. Of course, if I know the situation then what’s the possible new story to tell?
I didn’t keep reading for the answer.
9.) Couch by Benjamin Parzybok
Kelly Link is a genius. The Mac Arthur Foundation awarded her one of their grants. To celebrate, Link and her husband Gavin J. Grant, put the books at their Small Beer Press on sale for the week of the announcement. And so, I searched their catalog and stopped when I read the blurb: “[A] gentle, funny book that ambles merrily from Coupland to Tolkien.”
I’ve been there and back again (read: read The Hobbit) more than any other book. If someone brings up a book to compare to another book, then I’ll compare that book to the other book. Thom—a large, literature major and out-of-work I.T. guy, Tree—a wiry, wire sculptor, and Erik—a guilty, but not-yet-caught con-guy all carrying a couch around Portland that becomes lighter when it’s taken where it wants to go and heavy when it doesn’t, can’t compare to Thorain and Company returning for revenge to Lonely Mountain where Smaug the dragon’s shadow cast over a hoard of treasure.
10.) Aimless Love by Billy Collins
I am the listener who put you down
after you read “The Revenant” about putting your dog to sleep.
Like him, I’ve come back to tell you,
unlike him, I always liked you and your poetry.
While Sailing Around the Room
I didn’t consider The Art of Drowning.
When I had a Picnic, Lighting
wasn’t an issue nor was The Trouble with Poetry.
I envied the way you wrote,
the abundance of graceful poems.
You sat in a chair to write,
a notebook on the table, a pencil in your hand.
I didn’t stop with Ballistics,
but I thought it was a cheap shot
to name Raymond Chandler
who never gave me a Big Sleep.
I admit I didn’t see a future
for me—a Gemini—to read
another one of your books
after Horoscopes for the Dead.
I was loyal,
since I read through many pages.
I loved your poems about dogs and
your favorite poets, both companions.
The dropping of your end lines drove me mad.
You seemed to trip on your own scansion.
All I wanted from your book-on-CD
was the voice on the page given breath.
While you read, I listened to you bore
as your poem tallied the owner’s score
of offenses against the wilding dog
who was now up in heaven with God.
Now I am stuck with your sound,
as irritating as a torn
yellow raincoat that I can’t imagine
using under The Rain in Portugal.
All you need to know now
is what I already knew then,
I won’t listen to you—
even if you write about cats writing prose—again.
11.) Darling by Richard Rodriguez
I had taken the “spiritual autobiography” about the desert to my aunt for Thanksgiving. My aunt—a retired United Methodist pastor—espouses the connectedness with Abrahamic religions. But I couldn’t understand the purpose of including a chapter on the “Tour de France” and an article, “Final Edition,” about the end of the San Francisco Chronicle. Neither the bike race nor West Coast periodical’s demise made sense next to “Jerusalem and the Desert,” a Zionist tour.
In the disappointing, “Disappointment” chapter, I agreed that, “[d]isappointment is a fine literary theme—universal,” but I couldn’t follow the non-sequitur simile of “the young high school English teacher, himself disappointed…wears it like leather.”
Did he wear the disappointment as a second skin? Did the disappointment, like a leather jacket, seal him from some cold? Or make him too cool?
I was too disappointed to read for any answers.
12.) The Human Stain by Philip Roth
It was in the fall of 2011 that my professor Steve Pett—who would see my cohort of grad students through before retiring, was an associate professor of Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State and the editor for some twenty-odd years of Flyway—confided to me that he would print anything by Philip Roth who had never sent something to his literary magazine. Twice a week I met with Pett, taking a writing workshop and an editorialship in the century-old Landscape Architecture building’s ground-level floor, that looked as if it could still stable horses on the concrete like it did when it was Iowa Agriculture College’s barn, and it hunkered between the snazzy journalism building and the agronomy greenhouses, a weathervane without the compass points lofted above its roof and marked no direction.
It wasn’t until last summer, after Roth died, that I first read Roth, finding Goodbye, Columbus in a Little Free Library and read the book on a visit back in Ames. I understood Pett’s appreciation for Roth’s critique of post-World War II America’s religion, sex, class, and race. Later, when I read The Human Stain, I figured Pett liked Roth’s alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman.
Roth used Zuckerman as the narrator of another person’s—the professor Coleman Silk’s—the story of feeling excommunicated from a college town after calling some always absent and unseen students “Spooks,” who happened to be black. Roth discarded Zuckerman as he told Silk’s upbringing as a black man who revisioned himself smoothly as a Jew! Once Roth revealed Silk’s identity I didn’t care to go back to the college town and surely Silk revealing himself—roughly this time—and the consequences.
Back in Ames, during summer, Iowa State had not been the same. I had gone to campus, but it was empty of my fellow grad students and even my own undergrad students. Only memories of us ghostly remained.
13.) so you don’t get lost in the neighborhood by Patrick Modiano
“I should like to speak to Monsieur Jean Modiano.”
A curt and estranged voice. That should have been his impression.
“Monsieur Modiano? Can you hear me?”
Modiano wanted to hear everything. That was the point. His writing shouldn’t deafen despite muting his first-person perspective.
“This is he.”
“It’s about your novel, monsieur.”
He had written a novel about Jean Daragane. Yes, it had been about a novelist. The novelist recalled he had written a novel Le Noir de l’été as a missing person ad.
“I lost you in your novel, monsieur.”
Printed on the cover was an analog black phone hanging upside down from its uncoiling cord. Underneath it was: Patrick Modiano. Layered beneath both was a map of Paris.
“I wonder where ‘I’ am. On every page, it doesn’t suit you to use ‘he.’”
Yes, a curt and estranged voice, for sure. And even, Modiano thought, the tone of a disgruntled reader.
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