Ann Patchett: State of Wonder (2011): The crisp plot in this early Tournament of Books elimination is an excuse to get from the early Moments of Pathos to their reprises near the end. Patchett’s Moments of Pathos seem fresh because she gets out of the natural habitat of the middle-class novelist — most of the story takes place in Amazonas. Sure, everybody hates a tourist, which Patchett counters not by making her lapsed-doctor heroine less touristy but by making touristiness an essential theme. That goes double for white privilege.

Norman Ollestad: Crazy for the Storm (2009): Ollestad’s true survival story is too brief to fill a book, so it’s woven with reminiscences of other adventures with his father. It’s a credit to UCLA’s creative writing faculty that it flows. Still, fans of true survival stories are the necessary and sufficient audience for the book.


Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse (1927): For the first hundred pages I was worried that this would be a high-achieving precursor to the relations-between-the-sexes novels that litter bourgie lit. It wouldn’t be horrible to read that way — Woolf is the rare author who can write convincingly from both female and male perspectives. Soon, though, the modernism steps up a gear with one of the great terrible dinner parties in literature. Woolf doesn’t so much paint the partygoers’ thoughts as their experience of thoughts. Time passes, plot points are tossed off in square brackets, and Lily Briscoe offers a rejoinder to the male canon from Homer to Joyce.

Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman (1949): The characters are in danger of turning into animated GIFs, and in the end Happy becomes an angry face infinitely cycling with his father’s. But to reduce Willy himself to a revelation scene is too lossy. Biff’s real but terminal schoolboy achievements aren’t stable grounds to build dreams on. Yet Willy keeps dreaming, since fulfilment, even as it becomes more and more unlikely, is necessary to compensate for dreams already lost. It’s a hope bubble that has to burst at some point. That’s what Willy should have been selling. He should’ve gone into banking — or politics.

George Herriman: Krazy & Ignatz: The Komplete Kat Komics 1919 and 1922: Though I’ve only read Krazy Kat haphazardly, I agree with the smark consensus that it’s the Greatest Comic Evah, though we’ll see if I sustain this belief as the Pogo reprints roll out. The ‘22 Eclipse reprint contains eleven Kats in kolour, which adds surprisingly little (this isn’t true of the return to colour in 1935).

Frank King: Walt & Skeezix 1921-1922: As a Garrison Keillor-hater I was skeptical, but Bogart is right, this is great. The humour is generally gentle, though the ones where Walt or his friends get riled up are the funniest, and only the gamophobic gags fall completely flat. But it’s the characters that make this. Skeezix aside, they don’t so much develop as sharpen here, with the Alley gang’s personalities becoming more cartoony, and Walt’s relationship to the non-automotive world becoming clearer. Must. Read. More.

Let the Great World Spin

Tightrope walker. World Trade Center. Manhattan in the Seventies. Priest shooting up. Tom Waits on a jukebox. Grieving mother. Artists being artists. Rapid-fire sentences. Your victim’s funeral. Hooker with an 124 IQ. Reading Rumi in prison. What a coincidence! Like having sex with the wind. You’re still reading? Judge named Solomon. Wife of the star of the Negro debating team. Will she finish her crossword? Some things will be better in thirty years. Some things won’t. In the city of laughter. City of tears. City of hopes. City of fears. Small world after all.

19th century subjects for further research: Charles Dickens

Austen and George Eliot were more incisive. Joyce and Faulkner were more challenging. Dickens was a sentimentalist and a caricaturist. Yet I’m happy to call Dickens my favourite English-language prose writer, because I haven’t read anyone with a better understanding of narrative. Still, I’ve only read A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations, which means I can only suspect he’s the greatest.

19th century month: Edgar Allen Poe

I don’t get much out of his verse: while his fascination with dead, beautiful women is understandable given the bereavements in his life, it rarely makes for good reading. The exception is “The Raven”, which just goes to show his major gift is narrative. On one hand, he invented the mystery story*, which, inasmuch as the fun parts of mysteries are (usually) their resolutions, is a more efficient genre than the mystery novel. On the other, his horror had many antecendents, but few of them went directly for the soul.

*An interesting thing about “Rue Morgue” is the extent to which Dupin is guessing. This was probably not something the genre could sustain.

19th century month: Herman Melville

How important is “American” in the description of Moby-Dick as a Great American Novel? Few dispute that it’s a great novel, regardless of country, but is its greatness inextricable from its Americanness? Of the two classic human characters, Queequeg isn’t American, and you’d have to be elastic to link him to immigration. Ishmael’s and others’ views of him shed a little light on Northeastern racial attitudes, but not much. But Ahab’s substitution of rationality for mania has long been a feature of American life: sometimes for the better, often not. It’s no stretch to claim that Ahab anticipates our Tea Party, which, after all, isn’t the first one.

19th century month: Honoré de Balzac

I put off attempting Balzac for a long time because I assumed you had to read a lot of him to grasp what he was doing. I finally sat down with Pere Goriot, and it’s as rich per page as any novel of the century. Burton Raffel’s translation reads clearly and wittily. The book can’t compete with King Lear’s language, but the realism makes the pathos crisper, and there’s so much going on besides to illustrate what a later Frenchman would call the rules of the game. I very much want to read about the further adventures of Rastagnac, so another 27 books go on to my reading list. I’m sure I can get a paper out of it: “The Social Network of La Comédie Humaine”. Hey, it’s a more deserving topic for the treatment than Eurovision.

19th century subjects for further research: Stendhal

Just read Book One of the edited Moncrieff translation of The Red and the Black. It has its merits but it seems A-minussy, and I’m not making Book Two a priority for this project. Julien, whom I want to hug and slap at the same time, is an excellent creation. Madame de Renal does not seem to be a high point of the portrayal of women in literature, especially after my recent reading of Austen.

19th century week: Jane Austen

The Great Austen Adaptation Wave of ‘95, of which the high point—aside from wet Colin Firth—was Clueless, has meant that Austen hasn’t been taken as seriously in years since. Good. Genre novelists are meant to be read widely, and I view her and Dick as vying for smartest genre novelist ever. And none of Dick’s innovations are as crucial as free indirect speech. To get an idea of how far ahead of the curve she was, compare her use of FIS to Goethe’s: the great German seems hamfisted in comparison, at least in translation.