Saturday, December 31, 2011

Books Read, 2011 Edition

Michelle Davidson Argyle Thirds
Michael Bond Paddington Helps Out
Kate Bernheimer (ed.) My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me
Hannah Pittard The Fates Will Find Their Way
Jaimy Gordon Lord of Misrule
Samuel Beckett Molloy
Samuel Beckett Malone Dies
Antonia Byatt Possession
Albert Camus The Stranger
Agatha Christie The Murder on the Links
Phillip Morledge The Technique of the Mystery Story
F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby
Louise & Yuan Hsi Kuo Chinese Folk Tales
Louis de Bernieres Birds Without Wings
Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway
David Mamet Writing In Restaurants
David Kyvig Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940
Cleveland Amory Who Killed Society?
Graham Swift Waterland
Theodora Kroeber The Inland Whale
E.M. Forster Aspects of the Novel
Davin Malasarn The Wild Grass
Albert Hourani A History of the Arab Peoples
Henry James The Ambassadors
William Mumford Africans Learn to Be French
Anton Chekhov Forty Stories
Alfred Jarry The Ubu Plays
William Shakespeare Macbeth
Troy Nethercott How To Disappear Completely
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume 1
Haruki Murakami The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume 2
Tara Maya Conmergence
Agatha Christie The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume 3
Alina Bronsky The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine
Dashiell Hammett The Thin Man
Apuleius The Golden Ass
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume 4
Peter Carey Oscar and Lucinda
Jose Maria de Eca de Quieros The Illustrious House of Ramires
Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber
JRR Tolkien The Hobbit
Thomas Mann Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories
Victor Pelevin The Life of Insects
Charles Portis True Grit
Kate Chopin The Awakening
G.K. Chesterton The Man Who Was Thursday
William Shakespeare Antony and Cleopatra
Paul Auster The New York Trilogy
Vladimir Nabokov Pale Fire
Samuel Beckett The Unnamable
Harper Lee To Kill A Mockingbird

Plus a bunch of nonfiction that I just don't keep track of properly, mostly read as research for the novels I've been writing and I'll spare you all of that, mercifully. In 2012, my aim is to read a bunch more Chekhov, a bunch of Nabokov and Camus and Faulkner and O'Connor, a bunch more Shakespeare than I managed to fit in during 2011, and I will continue to look for living American authors that I enjoy as much as I enjoy dead European authors. Competition has not been exactly fierce. I also would like to read more from Jose Maria de Eca de Quieros (another dead European), who was one of this year's glorious new finds. Possibly there will be some Joyce and Melville and Stendahl on the list as well; who knows?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on"

The title of this post is of course the last line of Samuel Beckett's novella The Unnamable, which I finished reading yesterday. Beckett puts on quite a performance in this piece, and while I'm not sure I can say I read it--because somehow one doesn't quite engage with The Unnamable the way one does with most texts; one sort of exposes oneself to Beckett exposing himself rather than one properly reads a narrative--I can say I let myself experience the novella as much and as well as I could. Admittedly there was some drifting on my part due to the way Beckett's short phrases so easily fell into a repetitive and partially numbing rhythm, but I certainly didn't sleep through it and gosh, but there's some powerful stuff in there.

Of course it's all about the futility of effort and the meaninglessness of speech or action, typical Beckett fare, but what do you do right after reading Beckett? Jump up and clean the house or start an exercise program? How do you transition from the absolute bleakness of The Unnamable back into your daily life? Me, I had a cookie and then typed up Chapter Five of my own novel in progress. After Beckett, my cruelties to my protagonist seemed charming and harmless in comparison. Well, it's early days yet in that novel (I'm at about 25,000 words or so, which is nothing).

What do you read after Beckett? If you've just finished Waiting For Godot, you can move on to anything, can't you? Godot is slapstick comedy even if it's serious subject matter. Nobody sheds a tear for Vladimir. I was tempted to pick up Shakespeare, and then Faulkner, and then I wavered at the stack of O'Connor I got for Christmas and then thought vaguely of fluffier stuff and of course I mean to read Moby-Dick again either next year or in 2013...Finally I gave the bookshelves a good looking over and picked up Harper Lee. I've been meaning to read To Kill a Mockingbird all year, and I've just got enough time to meet that goal. It's been decades since I read it and it's quite fine. Better, frankly, than I remembered it being.

Blah blah blah, blah blah blah. My next post will finally be about Lydia Davis' short stories and then I'm going to quote some of the best bits from Beckett's Molloy trilogy. See if I don't. After that, maybe, I'll beazle and prolix about the letters of young Anton Chekhov, who promises not to bore his correspondents with talk about his published stories and plays and then writes page after page about his published stories and plays. I did not see myself in that bad habit. No, I did not.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

My 2011 "Advent Ghosts" Story

The smell reached the old man as he chained the barn door: his wife roasting the last of the deer meat. Now they'd no food but grain, though he’d see about that.

He returned to the cabin, shaking snow from his coat.

How are they?

Wild, he answered. Forgotten all language. They still sing: noises not even words but I recognize the melodies.

Terrible. Our children.

They’re animals, he said. Never human. I trained them to build things, now they hide in the dead forest and sing. I found thirteen; the rest starved or froze. There’s fresh water and grain in the barn. That roast smells good.

What will we do? Can you retrain them?

He shook his head. They’ve gone feral. Won’t let me near them, don’t wear clothes and they’re covered with fur. Never saw such a thing.

He sat down, picking up knife and fork. I’ll fatten them up. We’ve slaughtered all the deer.

Oh Papa, the old woman said.

They aren’t human, Mama.

This story is my contribution to Loren Eaton's "Advent Ghosts" annual storywriting collaborative. You can read the rest of the stories at his blog here. Loren is very cool to host this year after year. Thanks, Loren!

The rules are to write a 100-word spooky story for Christmas Eve reading. I have cheated a bit here, coming in at 167 words. My first try was about 300 words. If I found the right angle I could probably get to 100 words, but I'm both happy with the story as it is and a very lazy old man, so I abandon my editing at this stage. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Epistemology with Samuel Beckett

I'm reading the third book in Samuel Beckett's "Molloy" trilogy, The Unnameable. What can I possibly say about a book with no plot, no characters, no conflict to be resolved except that it's a great book?

The Unnameable is a first-person monologue given by a voice, possibly disembodied, possibly deceased, possibly enshrined in a funerary urn in a graveyard or possibly somewhere else. Possibly this is the afterlife musings of an author, for the narrator mentions characters encountered in the first two books of the trilogy, and implies that they are fictitious characters. Though it's impossible to say for sure what's "fiction" and what's "real" here.

This is an epistemological novel. The narrator is compelled to speak, because he has the power to speak (indeed, possibly he must speak because he is the creation of language), but what can he say? How does he know what is true? How does he know what he knows? Does he trust the evidence of his senses, and if so, why?

This is also an ontological novel. The narrator attempts to define categories of things but abandons the attempt over and over. How can he be sure of any of it? Almost all the things he "knows" are in the form of received wisdom and he's seen how many of the truths learned in school turn out to be lies, so why trust any of it? How can you trust any of it?

This is a philosophical novel. The narrator tells you what he remembers, tries to assign meaning to those events, and then realizes that in the end he has no real idea what any of it signified, if any of it mattered beyond the moment.

So what is the narrative like? Most of it is in the form of a single unbroken paragraph that carries the narrator's thoughts from subject to subject, looping back after digressions to the subjects he's trying to think about, but there is nothing more important in his primary subjects than in his digressions and he knows it. Everything is equally unimportant. Being and nothingness, God and godlessness, life and death: it's all the same in the end. As Tom Stoppard might say, for all the points of the compass there is but one destination and you end up, after all the fuss, dead in a box. What can you possibly say about that?

The only way Beckett (or anyone) could carry this off, this existentialist stream of consciousness, is by leavening the bleak realization that there is nothing to say because there is nothing worth saying, with a healthy stream of humor. Like Chekhov and Kafka, Beckett realizes that the absurdity of existence isn't just tragic, it's funny as well. Or perhaps it's like Byron said: "If I laugh at any mortal thing, 'tis that I shall not weep." Hard to say.

On knowledge:

To tell the truth, let us be honest at least, it is some considerable time since I last knew what I was talking about.

On God:

My master then, assuming he is solitary, in my image, wishes me well, poor devil, wishes my good, and if he does not seem to do very much in order not to be disappointed it is because there is not very much to be done or, better still, because there is nothing to be done, otherwise he would have done it, my great and good master, that must be it, long ago, poor devil. [...] A little more explicitness on his part, since the initiative belongs to him, might be a help, as well from his point of view as from the one he attributes to me. [...] Let him enlighten me, that's all I ask, so that I may at least have the satisfaction of knowing in what sense I leave to be desired.

That's good stuff, if you're me anyway. Through a glass darkly, with a sense of humor. There is no "story." But the prose is surprising, alternately absurdist and beautiful. If Modernism is your thing and you've never read Beckett, get thee to a bookstore. I'm reading the 1997 Everyman's Library edition, which is a gorgeous volume that I got last Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Pale Fire: A Novel I Can't Tell You About

I am nearly finished with Vladimir Nabokov's 1962 novel Pale Fire, and I will admit now that about 70 pages back I stopped thinking about this book as a puzzle to be "solved." This is my third time with this book and while I think this is the best read I've managed to give it so far, I still must throw up my hands and surrender to the author. I don't know what's going on here, not quite. I have my suspicions about Kinbote and Shade, of course, and I naturally suspect that the whole of the book is Nabokov talking about Nabokov (because--and let's be honest--when is Nabokov not talking about Nabokov?), but really I can't do any better than suspicions and vague ideas about the possible "reality" upon which the telling is based. And I'm fine with that, because it's been a splendid ride. Nabokov shakes your head up in a way nothing else can. If nothing else, I'm no longer angry at old Vladimir for being so much smarter than I am.

Because old V is so much smarter than I am, I find that I can't really say anything worth reading about Pale Fire. I recommend it to everyone but don't come running to me with your questions about it. Five minutes with Google will gain you far more scholarship than I can pretend to offer. Not just because Pale Fire is a book that's smarter than this reader, but also because, I'm coming to realize, I don't actually know how to talk about reading.

I'm a far brighter person when I sit down to write fiction than I am when I sit down to write about fiction. I think I'm at my absolute best--intellectually, that is--when I am writing a story. This weekend I did a lot of work on my piece for the Literary Lab's "Variations on a Theme" anthology, and there are passages of shining brilliance there that I'll never equal in writing outside of a story. I'm good at fiction. I'm not so good at this, what I'm doing now: talking about fiction.

But I can write well enough to say that even though Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire might leave you as baffled as it leaves me, you should get yourself a copy of it and read the damned thing. It's short, it's funny as hell, it will make you think in ways you probably don't usually think, and it's full of surprises and pathos and no, I don't remember how it ends (I have 40 or so pages to go) but good readers don't read for the endings, they read for the experience of having been in contact with the narrative. Or whatever. I don't know why good readers read, but it has nothing to do with discovering how the plot works out. Note that I use the phrase "good readers" to mean "people like me." I make no apology for that.

Anyway, there's this from page 272 of the Vintage trade paper edition:

If I correctly understand this succinct observation, our poet suggests here that human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Misreading "Pale Fire"

It occurs to me (and likely others have gotten here long ago before me) that Charles Kinbote, when he looks at John Shade's poem "Pale Fire" and sees it filled with references to his own life, is not necessarily doing anything more than any other reader of poetry or prose. Possibly part of Nabokov's project in Pale Fire (the novel, not the poem within the novel) is to suggest that every reader who feels he has "connected" to a text is at least partly misreading the text, projecting himself onto and into the work, interpolating his own ideas with those of the innocent author. Which means that perhaps Kinbote isn't as mad as he seems (though he's quite mad, of course), and you and I are more mad than we might like to think. When I read the poem (or the commentary on the poem) and misunderstand an allusion (and doubtless I've done this), how much am I twisting the intended meaning of the text? Is my misreading an invalid reading, or--as semioticians might claim--am I making a new reading that's just as valid as what Nabokov intended? And if that's so, why not claim that "Pale Fire" isn't about John Shade's relationship to the idea of his approaching death, but is in fact nothing more or less than a poem about the last king of Zembla?

Also, this:

Which is a blurry photo of Mighty Reader and me riding the Christmas Carousel downtown, at about 8:00 PM last night. It was quite a fine time.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

(Help me, Will! Pale Fire)

I'll example you with thievery:
The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
And her
pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears; the earth's a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stol'n
From gen'ral excrement- each thing's a thief.

--William Shakespeare, "Timon of Athens" Act IV, Scene III

I hadn't yet read Timon of Athens the first two times I read Nabokov's novel Pale Fire, so I didn't get the reference. The parallels between Kinbote and Timon are clear now, too. Oh, Vladimir, you are so clever. There's more than Shakespeare references in the 999-line poem that is allegedly the centerpiece of this novel. There's "Hurricane Lolita," and Zembla of course, which is possibly the setting for the nonsense tale by O. Henry, though neither prisoners nor Zembla are named in that tale. I am nearly infinitely charmed by Mr Nabokov. Which is what always happens when I read his books. At some point I'll wish to hurl the volume as hard as I can into a wall or a fireplace, but I'm not there yet.

Anyway, I'm about five pages into the "commentary" section of the novel. I have ignored Kinbote's advice to read the comments before reading the poem and I'm reading the book in the order it's printed. The poem, which I never liked before, seems quite fine this time around, though once again all of the shaving imagery is a bit off-putting. Is there some connection between "shave" and "shade?" I don't know.

If you've never read the book and wonder what I'm yammering about, I tell you that a poem titled "Pale Fire," the final and possibly incomplete work of a poet named John Shade, is discussed at some length by a Professor Charles Kinbote, who moved into the rental house next door to Shade a few months before the poet's death. Both Shade and Kinbote lecture at a university in the fictional town of New Wye, Appalachia. Kinbote claims to have been asked by Shade to take the poem and have it published, Shade being sure he was close to death. Possibly Kinbote stole the manuscript and forged a letter giving him power of attorney over the work. In any case, as we begin to learn from the second page of the introduction onward, Kinbote is off his nut and is not to be trusted.

The poem itself is a rumination on death as written by an old man. He thinks back over his life as a poet, over the unhappy life and early death (possibly a suicide) of his daughter, and he thinks over his long marriage to Sybil. The whole poem is written to Sybil; she is the "you" to whom Shade constantly directs his thoughts. "Pale Fire" is a fine poem, too. It's not just a prop to support the games of the novel.

Kinbote's introduction, where he justifies his having edited, published and commented upon Shade's poem, is about 15 pages long. The poem itself takes another 33 pages, and the rest of the novel is 225 pages of Kinbote's commentary, allegedly about the poem but actually about himself. There's also a 10-page index to the work, put together by Kinbote, which is a marvel of egotistical psychopathy. Or psychopathic egotism; take your choice. In any case, Kinbote is an utter solipsist and he steals the fire of Shade's poem (Shade/shave/Shakespeare? I don't know) to glorify himself and what are probably his delusions of grandeur. Have I said too much? All the wrong things? No idea. Pale Fire is a brilliant short novel and if you haven't read it, why haven't you?

Monday, December 12, 2011

burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator

There was so much frost this morning that when I first glanced out the bedroom window, I thought it had snowed during the night. The lawn, the parking strip and the lids of the curbside recycling bins were all white, glowing hazily under the streetlamp. Alas, no snow. Not yet. It was also warmer than I thought it would be. I walked down the hill and only thought to put on my gloves when I arrived at the bus stop and began to wait for an express coach. Along the way I’d glanced up to see the moon setting in the west, clear and hard white like bone against the indigo sky. A heron passed overhead, huge and silent and improbable, his long legs trailing behind him, his wings beating with slow deliberation. What’s he doing up at that hour? The fishes must all be asleep still, deep down in the riverbed.

I am reading, again, Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, which book features my favorite of Nabokov’s unreliable narrators, Charles Kinbote. I’d forgotten how much fun Kinbote’s madness is, and how Nabokov lets that madness crack through the academic fa├žade of Kinbote’s narrative. I’ve forgotten much about this book, I’m sure. Only a few pages in, I can tell you that the prose is wonderful ("ecstatic" is the word used in Updike’s back cover blurb) and the humor is pure Nabokov: the author and the reader share jokes that the narrator isn’t in on. What fun there is in store for me.

Last night Mighty Reader and I watched "It’s a Wonderful Life." Jimmy Stewart was a fabulous actor. I always forget that and I’m always surprised, year after year. What any of this has to do with anything else in this mess of an essay, I’ve no idea.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Auster In A Locked Room

I am pushing to finish reading "The Locked Room," the final story in Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy. I hope that by the time my evening bus commute is done, I'll have seen the end of this book. While a lot of what Auster does in these stories is clever and fun, I just have to say that by the time "The Locked Room" is underway it's clear that Paul is not, as the kids say, bringing it. If the kids still say that, or if they ever did. This story is not brilliant work.

Admittedly I'm not getting all of the references Auster has woven into the narrative, and I suppose that there could be whole levels of meaning that I'm too ignorant to even see in this trilogy. But the main problem with "The Locked Room" is that the story itself is not compelling and the prose is sort of flat. Auster attempts to create suspense with the cliche of his narrator announcing, "It was then that I should have seen what was to come" or "Little did I know then that I was living in denial" and cetera, in order to prick up our ears and fill us with expectation. Alas, too much of this stuff (like, more than zero instances) is just a boy crying wolf, and by the time Auster's protagonist claims "I was going to find him and I was going to kill him," I am merely yawning. Whatever, Mr Narrator. Maybe the point of all this meaningless action is that action has no meaning, but at least put some effort into your presentation. I'm doing all the work here, and it's not worth the time or labor.

Well, I have one more chapter to go. It'd best be one hell of a chapter. Next up, I'm reading either Beckett or Nabokov.

Edited on 12/9/11 to add: I just don't think the final chapter spun the whole trilogy into shape the way I guess it was intended to, but the last couple of pages were quite fine and I like the image Auster leaves the reader with. So my verdict is that The New York Trilogy is, as my friend Carl says, "a fine first novel" but it doesn't live up to the reviews it got at the time. As I said in my last post, that probably says a lot more about reviews and reviewers than it says about Auster or his book. There were big swaths of these stories that I liked a lot, but I just can't make myself unreservedly recommend them. The stories concern themselves primarily with the relationship of writers to writing, with the author to the work, but in the end the narratives aren't actually self-referential in what seems a meaningful way; there's no real center, no fixed point. I get that the lack of a fixed point is part of Auster's theme, but I just don't think he really got there with this set of stories. Though I think that writers would find them valuable studies. Certainly I've gotten some interesting ideas by mulling over what Auster did and didn't do here. I will likely read more of his books, because I'd like to see what Auster can do with his looping postmodernism when he's not writing about writing.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Nabokafka With Paul Auster

I am reading Paul Auster's 1986 debut novel The New York Trilogy, which is actually a collection of three novellas (City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room) that bear some superficial resemblance to detective stories. This is one of those books I've read about but never read until now, and I am not sure exactly what I'd come to expect from Mr Auster but reviews routinely call the collection "genre-bending," "brilliant," "remarkable" and "innovative." And they're not; not quite, not if you've read Nabokov or Kafka or Borges.

These stories are about identity, in that the loss of the protagonist's personal identity is the primary dramatic action of the stories (I admit that I haven't read The Locked Room yet but I assume--possibly wrongly--that it generally follows the large-scale pattern of the other two stories). City of Glass concerns a writer, Daniel Quinn, who--under the pen name William Wilson (which is also the name of a character in an Edgar Allen Poe story)--writes books about a detective named Max Work ("max work" is one possible translation of the Latin "magnum opus," so this is, like, a funny joke). Quinn lives a solitary live, with no friends or direct contact with his publisher or agent or family (his wife and son died a few years before the story begins). He feels close to nobody except his fictional detective.

One evening Quinn gets a phone call asking for the Paul Auster Detective Agency. "There's no Paul Auster here," Quinn says. After a few more of these calls, Quinn decides to pretend to be Auster and he takes the case of Peter Stillman, whose father (also named Peter Stillman) is about to be released from prison. Stillman Jr is afraid Stillman Sr is going to kill him. So Quinn, telling himself to act like detective Max Work, pretends to be Auster and begins to spy on Stillman Sr in order to protect Stillman Jr. The case goes nowhere and nothing seems to have any meaning or purpose and Quinn becomes frustrated and obsessed and loses himself in the search for patterns in the behavior of others--which is of course the work of a detective. At his wit's end, Quinn finally goes to the apartment of Paul Auster, whose address Quinn finds in the phone book. Auster, of course, is not a detective. He's a writer, working for now on a book about Don Quixote and Cervantes' relationship to the work. Or possibly Quixote's relationship to the work, if Don Quixote is a true story as it claims itself to be. Who wrote Don Quixote, Cervantes or Quixote? Who is writing City of Glass? Paul Auster? "Paul Auster?" Who is the unnamed narrator who bursts into the narrative on the final page, the friend of "Paul Auster" who is apparently investigating the disappearance of Daniel Quinn? Et cetera. There's loads more stuff going on, and lots of pairing of character and action and image that may or may not supposedly mean something.

So Auster presents us with layer upon layer of identity (or perhaps not layers so much as colliding theories or a soup of commentary about theories), implying that the relationship between an author and his work (or a father and his son, or God and his creations, or a man and himself) is mysterious and possibly unknowable. Or so it might seem. On the surface.

Which is my problem with the two stories I've read of this trilogy so far: it's all merely taking place on the surface. It's all playing games with homonyms and names and duplication of actions, but there's no true exploration of identity other than the claim that your name is not your identity and that your name is just a word and the meanings of words change and therefore your identity itself is subject to change. Some shadow play about the nature of language also being the nature of reality, which is a nice image if you're a writer, but really there's not much of any depth here. There's not much beyond the surface games.

Granted, the surface is highly attractive and enjoyable. The stories remind me a lot of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," which is a dandy play and a rollicking fine film was made of it but of course beneath all Stoppard's word games and references there isn't really anything there. It's pretty and clever and witty but hollow, and that's what I tend to feel about The New York Trilogy. It's a well-made and entertaining shiny hollow ball, but it's still hollow. Auster has crafted a dazzling collection of interesting gestures, and has borrowed some ties and shoes from the closets of Nabokov and Kafka and Borges, but he hasn't really said anything with all of it. Ghosts seems to comment upon City of Glass, but does it comment on the latter, or does it merely borrow images from it?

I'm enjoying the collection--hell, this morning I almost missed my stop because I was so caught up in the writing--but at the same time I feel let down because there's just not more to The New York Trilogy than the cleverness of the forms and allusions. Possibly I'm being unfair to Auster, though. The writer, I mean, not the detective. This is a better book than most and if I'd read it after The Man Who Was Thursday instead of after Antony and Cleopatra, I'd probably be gushing about it instead of dissecting it. I'm a difficult audience and I know it. I keep trying to come up with a positive sentiment with which to end this post, but I keep running into the difficulty that no matter what I want to say about The New York Trilogy (and really, I think it's worth reading so go read it), I am compelled to temper my praise and I realize that what I'm actually objecting to is not Mr Auster's novellas, but to the critical reception of those novellas. The problem isn't that Auster has failed in any way (he says himself, in his guise as Paul Auster, fictional novelist in City of Glass, that the primary duty of a novel is to entertain, and the primary goal of a novelist is to see how much he can get away with in the way of telling tales), but that the reviews I've read of the novel have been written by people who aren't familiar with the works from which Auster is deriving his stories; if you've never read Nabokov or Kafka or Borges, Auster can seem like a magician. If I hadn't read any of the reviews before reading the book, I'd be enjoying myself more than I am. I should rewrite this little essay and turn it into a review of reviews, but I won't because time is short and I am lazy.