It’s been a minute since I’ve written about the books I’ve read, so let me tell you about David Graeber’s BULLSHIT JOBS

Most of my long-time readers probably don't often visit the site itself, but in my menu bar there's a link to an index of all the books I've ever written about (at least between 2008 and 2016). Just now whilst procrastinating I followed some of those links and revisited my thoughts on a few randomly-selected favorites. Part of me was appalled by the careless language (I really overuse 'basically') and part of me was appalled by the careless thinking, but I'm glad those posts exist.

This blog, in its second incarnation (it's gone through at least three or four reboots), was primarily a book blog. I've maintained it through my entire time as a reader of the literary canon, and you can see, if you care to, my initial posts on Anna Karenina and War and Peace and Bleak House and other literary classics that for some reason seemed to demand comment from me.

Lately my reading hasn't slowed, but I've felt less need to write about it. I long ago accepted that I don't really want to be a 'thinker' in the way of a Samuel Delany or Lionel Trilling or Dwight McDonald. Nor do I want to be a smart cultural critic like Pauline Kael or Jo Walton. And I don't even want to be an essayist of any stripe. Although I appreciate all these forms of writing, they don't inspire me. There's a certain density to all the popular nonfiction forms that I find myself uninterested in matching. I also have zero desire to look up quotations or research facts. I think what I enjoy most in the blogs I read is actually the opposite of this denseness; it's the feeling of looseness and playfulness that comes from watching a mind at work (it's what I value most about John Scalzi's or Nick Mamatas's writing, for instance), and it's what I hope to give my own readers.

Sometimes I've thought of collecting all my posts about writing and putting out a little book. It's a saturated market, but I probably have something original to say, both about the structure of the novel and about finding your inspiration. The most difficult lesson, at least for me, has been the process of learning to listen to the whisper-soft voice of my own longing ("This is what you really need to be writing...), and I know that other writers could use a little guidance along this own journey.

But that's all a long aside. In this post we're talking about book-blogging. That's the topic, and I'm sticking to it.

It feels wrong to read so many books and to let them pass without comment. Particularly since I've lately been trying to read more obscure books--novels and essays and short stories that are less fully assimilated into our culture. And I see that in the past two months I've read a few books that've had a profound impact on my thinking.

Probably the most exciting of these was David Graeber's Bullshit Jobs, which is about the very broad phenomenon of people feeling as if their own jobs are, not just meaningless, but actually almost like some sort of scam. For my entire working life, people have paid me to do things whose utility has eluded me. I don't just mean in the broad sense, that I didn't understand why this project was necessary, I mean that in the micro sense: I didn't understand how my work even contributed in any meaningful way to the completion of the project. If, as I learned as an undergrad economics major, I was being paid in some sense for my productivity--my added value to some completed economic project--then why couldn't I perceive that value?

Instead of going with the standard economist's answer ("You can't necessarily perceive the larger picture under which your labor is necessary"), Graeber starts by assuming that people like me are, broadly, correct in our assumption that our labor is without productive value. Instead he develops some theories for how society could've developed in such a way that a large number of people are paid for valueless labor.

The theory is that the apocalypse foretold by mechanization has already occurred: most workers are already superannuated. Our economy simply doesn't have a need for nearly as many workers as there are people. But obviously some immense surplus still exists, and for political reasons the owners of capital are unable to simply take all of it for themselves--they need to distribute the surplus in some way in order to create allies and maintain the political order. This isn't some big conspiracy; it's something that occurs organically. In large organizations, having employees means having power. You fight for a bigger budget so you can employ more people, and then the fact that you employ so many people means you get paid more and are more important. Repeat this many industries, and you have our current economy.

I don't entirely buy the theory, for many reasons (a bit of the economics major lingers inside me still), but I highly recommend the book. It's very worth reading, and it'll explain these ideas far better than I ever could.

Carefulness and obscurity in fiction

I've been reading Stefan Zweig's memoir The World of Yesterday. Zweig is a writer from the inter-war period whose literary reputation has really gone up in the last ten years. I remember 5-10 years ago reading this article that was like, "Hey, there's this dude out there, Stefan Zweig. He wrote this story, 'The Royal Game,' that's a metaphor for the conflict between nations that led to World War II." And that was it. His reputation was confined largely to that one story. He was a curio piece.

Now, thanks to the translation and reissuing of his novels and, lately, of this memoir, he's roared back to life. Thanks must be given here, as with many literary resuscitations, to the NYRB classics imprint. I read two of Zweig's novels, Beware of Pity and the Post-Office Girl in NYRB editions. His memoir, however, was put out by the University of Nebraska Press! It's almost unbelievable, considering that it has hundreds of Amazon reviews and has attracted quite a bit of critical acclaim.

Like Nabokov's Speak, Memory (which I've never read), Zweig's novel is an evocation of a lost world: the Vienna of the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was a particularly fertile period for fiction. Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities and Joseph Roth's Radetzky March were also written during this time, as well as a host of lesser books that may or may not also be making a comeback (of the authors Zweig mentions in his book, I've read works by Hugo von Hoffmansthal and Arthur Schnitzler as well, and Schnitzler at least deserves to be more widely known).

As with all memoirs of bygone times, it's hard to know what is real and what isn't. Zweig describes a time of literary ferment, when everybody cared deeply for culture and art, when theater actors were mobbed on the street, when the conductor of the Opera or the Symphony was a superstar, and when 18 year old kids looked upon poets and authors almost as divine beings, completely separate from you and me.

I don't entirely disbelieve this account. I've only been to Vienna once, but it struck me that even today, it's a city that prides itself on being cultured. Even the commercials that showed on television had a very dreamy, artistic quality, and I have a vivid recollection of wandering through a public park as an aria from the Marriage of Figaro was pumped through the square by loudspeakers.

But even within this ferment, Zweig sought out a somewhat niche area. He avoided the popular press, he avoided the big imprints that sometimes published lighter fiction, and he exclusively sought out only the most renowned presses, theaters, and publications. As a result, his work, those of his fellows, and those of his idols, was often very unknown during the time in which he worked. He in particular recalls during his time in Paris that the writers in whom he was interested were the exact opposite of the super-star writer. They were humble people, who often worked minor civil service jobs, lived simple and bourgeois lives, and wrote without expectation of reward. He also comments that the three people in Paris who would later make the biggest impression on the literary world, Paul Valery, Marcel Proust, and Romain Rolland, were all entirely unknown even in the literary world at this time.

I've several times now read literary memoirs about small groups of highly intellectual people who wrote in periodicals with poor circulations or for small presses or in tiny editions, and who later had an outsized influence on the world (also coming to mind is Norman Podhoretz's memoir Making It), and I can't deny that there is something very attractive about this image.

It's all farce and image, of course. Plenty of authors seek out immediate notoriety. Plenty of great authors write for money, or write for the commercial press. But I am attracted to the monastic quality that Zweig describes, the sense that the work itself has its own purity that will someday shine through. He tells, for instance, of going to visit Rodin in his workshop, and seeing Rodin start to work on a sculpture. The artist works for a few minutes, making corrections to a clay model, and when he's done he's surprised to find a strange young man in his studio: he'd entirely forgotten that Zweig was in the room.

This vision of artistic greatness has seeped into our culture and congealed. Books nowadays come with their own creation myths that are released in tandem, or even before, publication. The story of how The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took ten years to write, for instance, or the idea of the immense periods of time that elapse between books by Donna Tartt or Jeffrey Eugenides. Yet oftentimes that labor is more of a reaction to celebrity culture than it is an inherent demand of the work. I think oftentimes authors take a long period to follow up on books simply because the pressure of delivering another success is so immense. In some ways this is the opposite of the careful, painstaking work of a Proust or of a Romain Rolland.

In my own revisions, I've really been enjoying the gentle suturing I've done on the book. Most of the changes I'm making aren't going to matter to the reader, but they matter a lot to me. I do feel slightly resentful that the work needs to come to an end. Part of me thinks a few more rounds of revision would really be useful.

Everything about this book has been hurried. I wrote it to fulfill my contract with Disney, then after losing my agent and publisher, I rewrote it, feeling hurried and oppressed, because I wanted it to sell but I also didn't quite have the same faith in the book. Then since it's sold I've been working on my publisher's (albeit very generous) deadlines. I've worked quite a bit on the book, but every word in it is also new since August of this year, and I feel that newness in the pages. Even now, I'm writing new scenes, and I think, well, these scenes are more or less going straight to press, they won't ever get that time to sit and be mulled over.

The structure of the book is excellent. It's as perfect a thing as I've ever put out, but I still somehow want more from it. And yet I also feel that the market won't really reward that care. Whether the book succeeds or fails will depend entirely upon only the broadest possible reactions: whether people identify with the protagonist whether librarians and teachers think it's 'important'; whether it arouses in kids a sense of hope and longing. By the time they get to the third chapter, they'll either be sold on the book or they won't, and the rest won't particularly matter.

I think all writers ultimately know this. Zweig had books and plays accepted by the most prestigious venues in Austria at an early age, and yet he pooh-poohs these works, saying he's never allowed them to be reprinted. He knew instinctively that he hadn't yet created anything truly great.

In the same way, I think writers need to hold themselves to higher (and different) standards than the market does, and yet that's not an easy thing to do, because the mere fact that these standards are different means they are unrenumerated. Nor will you even have the satisfaction of seeing readers or critics grasp what you're doing--they might like it, but they're unlikely to like it because of those things you put into it. A really intelligent and sympathetic reading is something that most authors don't get until they're well into their careers.

This book is done (or almost so). I honestly don't think I could handle another round of revision. But with my next book I hope to be able to take more care throughout.

Recently read a trio of novels that weren’t appreciated in their time (and also maybe are still not appreciated)

I love Edith Wharton. So much so that I slogged through her memoir A Backwards Glance. It wasn't worth it. Most of it was not about writing. A substantial amount was about interior decoration. But there was some good stuff in there! For instance, Edith Wharton was _not_ really a part of literary high society, either in the US or in London. Her main writer friend was Henry James, with whom she was extremely close. But she does describe the literary productions of a few other friends, amongst whom were Howard Sturgis and David Graham Phillips.

Well what I always say is that if they're good enough for Edith Wharton, then they're good enough for me! I promptly ordered Sturgis's Belchamber, which wasn't even available from Project Gutenberg! Damn, you've gotta be obscure when even Gutenberg won't archive your book. You've gotta be obscure when even the NYRB classics series, which specializes in reissueing obscure out of print books, has allowed their edition of your book to fall out of print.

And it was really good! I honestly don't know why the book hasn't gotten a great reception. It's about this dude, Lord Belchamber, who is heir to a great fortune, but who is just a shy, bookish, timid, retiring guy. The problem is that his brother and his cousin are terrible wastrels, and because he has the purse strings, it falls to him to reign them in whilst also not allowing them to be ruined by their own excesses. Belchamber, although shy, has a strong sense of right and wrong and of his own responsibilities. He is the British sense of propriety, divorced from the British sense of masculinity. Lots of readers, apparently, hate him, but I thought he was sweet! Very, very worth your time.

Susie Lenox, David Graham Phillips's book, is a bit more of an acquired taste. It's about a girl in turn of the century Indiana who has an affair and runs off with this dandy, who of course promptly abandons her. Then she begins a picaresque adventure that takes her through the Cincinnati and New York underworlds. It's like a mash-up of MOLL FLANDERS with HOUSE OF MIRTH. Lennox constantly flirts with prostitution, in various forms, but then flinches away, only to flirt with it again. The book goes on a bit too long, but I was quite engaged throughout, and I thought it had interesting things to say about morality, propriety, and relations between the sexes.

The third book I read that was unappreciated in its time, although Wharton does not mention it, was Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. So good!!! I read Agnes Grey, her first novel, a few years back, and I was struck even then by how different this book was from anything else I'd read from that period. She seems far more influenced by continental authors, by Balzac and by Stendhal, in particular, than by any English writers. There's not a touch of romanticism in Agnes Grey. It's all about the dreary, day-to-day experience of being governess to two brats.

But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was even better!!!! Here the eponymous tenant, Mrs. Graham, details the story of her disastrous marriage to a rake and spendthrift. Bronte is excellent at making her husband seem initially to be not that bad, and to even be loving, before everything starts to slide downwards. Graham does her best to save him, and then she does her best to protect their son from him, and, finally, she feels she's been left with no other option than to flee.

The book is a work of astounding moral force, and I loved the characters (except for the somewhat flat narrator of the framing tale, which is about a man who falls in love with Graham after she's fled from her husband), but I was also struck by how much more mature the writing was than it is in many 19th century novels. The landscape, the architecture, the flowers and the plants, they all have a critical role to play in the symbology of the book, and unlike in many comedies of manners, you really feel like you're inhabiting a living world (compare, for instance, Jane Austen, who never describes anything). It's mostly a work of realism, but there's a slight touch of the Gothic that, in my opinion, really improves and elevates the novel. I would definitely class it above Wuthering Heights (a book to which it bears many surface-level similarities, in setting, situation, and structure). I'm sorry Anne didn't live longer; she would've written some great stuff.

On the other hand, maybe she would not have, because her book was panned, when it came out, for, essentially, its moral laxity. The reviewers faulted Anne for writing vulgar scenes where the husband and his friends are partying and tormenting the protagonist, and they fault her protagonist for choosing to leave the husband! Anne ripped the mask off of some realities that Victorian-era book reviewers really wanted to keep ignoring, but, more importantly, from the modern perspective, she did it while retaining her own humanity. This isn't a novel about an oppressed woman; it's about a woman struggling to live a decent life within oppressive circumstances.

In the end, that's what all three of these novels share. These books are all deeply moral. They're about people who have a strong sense of right and wrong, and who find that although their society pays lip service to their ideals, it does not expect them to actually follow those ideals.

As I've grown older, I've become more and more interested in the ways that ideals and morality impact personal behavior. There is so much fiction about how social systems interact with people and how people interact with social systems, but less about how it affects the ways they interact with each other. Or perhaps moral fiction has always been rare, but it's only the moral fiction that survives. These three books, while they were not successful upon release (Susie Lennox was probably the most successful, and I see that it was adapted into a movie in the thirties, but Wharton refers to it as unjustly forgotten), all still have tremendous power even after more than a hundred years, and not many books of that (or any) era can say the same.

I recently read a paper book

I can't recall the last time I read a paper book cover to cover (I think it was a Kent Haruf novel given to me by a friend six or twelve months ago), but recently I wanted to read Keigo Higashino's Naoko, and it was only available in paper, so I purchased and read it.

The tactile quality of the paper book was undeniably pleasant. I enjoyed the feeling of pages flying from my right to my left hand. Progress through the book was a physical adventure, and I seemed to pick up momentum as I got through it. With each page, I could see that I was completing a greater and greater portion of the remaining text, and my subjective feeling was that I completed the book faster than if I'd read it on the Kindle.

Reading in artificial light was difficult. I felt like no matter how many lamps and overhead lights I turned on, the paper was still dimly lit. But reading in daylight, even with just the light from a partially-blinded window, was extremely simple and caused no perceivable strain. This was true even though the type on the book was much smaller than I'm used to on the Kindle. And I was put off by the difficulty of highlighting passages or looking up terms in a paper book. Since Naoko was set in Japan, it would've been most helpful to have been able to look up the various place names and cultural references.

I'm often told that people experience some form of sense-pleasure, often attributable to nostalgia, when they hold a paper book. I don't believe that this was the case for me, but the human mind is a strange thing, and perhaps there was a deeply submerged element of that emotion within me.

All told, I was pleased by my paper book adventure. In fact, in the interim time I was inspired to inspect my wife's bookshelves to see what other paper books I might read, and within the course of a few hours I read Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, in which I also experienced the same feeling of motion that I think is perhaps a peculiar attribute of the paper book. I am sure this sense of motion could be replicated in electronic format, but since it's directly related to the bulk of the paper book, whereas the strength of the e-book is in its weightlessness, I think these two qualities will forever remain opposed.

I am still not certain in what situations a paper book is superior to an e-book. Sense of an Ending and Naoko are very different books. One is somewhat meandering literary mystery, the other is a metaphysical thriller, but both are quite short. I think reading a longer book in paper format would be difficult for me. The last time I tried was with Herman Wouk's Youngblood Hawke. The book was excellent, but the print was quite small, and by the time I was done I had a splitting headache. Lately I've had back troubles however, and I did enjoy that the paper book can be read in a greater variety of physical positions than can the e-book, and I think perhaps for this reason a longer book would be more comfortable to read. I just wish they didn't make the print so small (and yes I know about large print books, but the problem is that it's the longest books that have the smallest type!) In any case, I will soon experiment further.


Apparently sales of Sinclair Lewis's book It Can't Happen Here have skyrocketed since the election of Donald Trump. This is a book, written in 1936, fascism's first heyday, about a homespun politician's rise to the Presidency and subsequent institution of German-style fascism in the United States.

I feel like a little bit of a hipster about Sinclair Lewis, since I liked him long before he was cool. Main Street is one of my favorite novels, and I read Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, Arrowsmith, and Dodsworth in a great big rush about six or seven years ago. I'm pretty sure I wrote about them on this blog at the time (omg this blog is ten years old, it's absurd), but I'm too lazy to dig up the posts right now.

What strikes me most about the book, however (which I'm currently listening to on audio) is the primary parallel between it and Hitler that Trump has not followed. Both the rise of Buzz Windrup, the politician in It Can't Happen Here, and the rise of Hitler were facilitated by the creation of paramilitary forces that quelled dissent by extralegal methods. Windrup's 'Minutemen' occupy Congress after he declares a state of emergency, and Hitler's SA was used, after the Reichstag fire, in a similar manner to arrest all opposition and to intimidate the Reichstag into giving him dictatorial powers. In the latter case, the SA, which had about two million members, was by far the largest armed force in the country (the army only had 100,000 members) and was literally unstoppable. From the moment that Hitler took office as Chancellor, there was no longer anything that the citizenry of Germany could do to stop him.

Right now, for all the parallels between Trump and Hitler, there exists no such paramilitary force. I'm not saying one couldn't be created. Given the degree to which law enforcement and the military and the various gun-owning persons in this country tend to be pro-Trump, it's not impossible that he could create such a force in relatively short order. But as of this moment, it doesn't exist.

Which is more of an accident than anything else. I think the thing that Sinclair Lewis did not predict (and he predicted a lot) is the sheer ineptitude of Donald Trump. It's something that we, as Americans, really don't have an easy time understanding. He has a certain low cunning that enables him to stop other people from having victories--nobody is ever able to claim victory in a deal w/ Trump, because he's always willing to pull the rug out from under the them, even if it hurts the country as a whole--but he's just not particularly organized, and he's not great at delegation or at leveraging other peoples' talents.

Our nation is in pretty rickety shape right now, and if our democracy endures, it won't be a testament to anything we did, but rather to all the things that Trump failed to do.

Frustrated with the way so many authors play it safe when it comes to questions of morality

Recently listened to a book, The Wicked Girls, that to me is clearly based on the real-life story of the novelist Anne Perry, who along with another girl, killed a woman while a teen (also the basis for the movie Heavenly Creatures). Perry's story, assuming she hasn't killed anyone as an adult (which seems a safe assumption to me), gives rise to questions about the nature of evil, cruelty, and rehabilitation. Some of these same questions are tackled by this thriller, which is about two women who meet again, twenty-five years after committing and being prosecuted for a murder as eleven year old girls, and find themselves entangled in a serial killer's rampage. To be honest, I found myself wavering considerably on this book. To me the whole thing hinged on the construction of the murder that they committed as kids, and this is precisely the issue that the novel spends most of its length trying to obfuscate. What makes Perry's case so disturbing and interesting is that the murder she committed was quite premeditated. Her friend's mother was going to take her friend away, so they killed the mother in order to stay together. The killing was not quick or simple; it required twenty whacks on the head with a brick. And now the person who committed this crime is free, and she walks around as easily as you or me, writing books, giving interviews, and living a very normal and, to all appearances, quite matronly existence. That is fascinating. The story told in this book is much less so.

However, I understand why Marwood wrote it this way. This is the third book I've read recently which featured a character who had acts that the reader was meant to think are vile or morally gray. In one of those books (unnamed because this is a spoiler), it turns out that the murderer actually killed another guy in order to stop him from raping and killing a girl in a war-zone. And in Jeff Zentner's Goodbye Days, a kid is ostracized because he sends a text message and his friend's attempt to reply, while driving, result in him crashing and all the passengers in the car dying (note, the protagonist of this book isn't in the car, he's just a guy, somewhere else, who sent a text message). In both of these cases, the act is so far from being morally ambiguous that I threw up my hands in frustration. Like, we all agree that killing in self-defense or defense of another is okay, but if you want it to be even _more_ okay, then surely it's alright in a warzone, where there is no law, and where your victim is a soldier who is abusing his authority. Similarly, there is nothing wrong about sending a text to someone who is driving. If there's any culpability, it's in the person who engages in texting while driving, not the person they're texting with.

The problem, however, is that if these books were written in a way that was actually morally ambiguous, they would've been taking something of a risk. In Zentner's book, the obvious solution would be if the protagonist had been the driver of the car and if he'd been the only person to survive. Texting while driving is not good, but it's also something lots of people do, and yet it's only when you crash that suddenly you're a murderer. That would be a classic examination of moral hazard and of hypocrisy. But if that'd been the story, people would've hated the protagonist, and they would not have enjoyed the book. Which is absurd, because literally three quarters of people have texted while driving. It's sort of an Emperor's New Clothes situation (similar to, say, underage drinking or using illegal drugs or cheating), wherein a massive percentage of the population is doing something--if it's not you, then it's your father, your mother, your kids, or your husband--and yet we pretend it's somehow beyond the pale.


I don't think it's impossible for a book to succeed commercially if it contains ambiguous morality. I mean, it's especially true when we have thrillers. Gone Girl contained some terrible people. The protagonist of The Girl On The Train was a terrible and terribly self-absorbed alcoholic. But in general, and this is entirely my own unscientific impression, it seems that the authors of most commercial hits have tended to play it safe when it comes to moral questions.

Really feeling excited about reading and writing again

Don't have much today that's important to say. I am sick and it's Friday, so, you know, it's a free day of sorts. My dad bought me the Aaron Sorkin Masterclass a year ago, and I've finally gotten around to listening to it. There's good stuff here and there, but the part I liked best was where he was takes me about eight to twelve months to write a script, and most of that time is not spent writing. Most of that time, I get up, go through the day, and go to sleep, and I have not written anything. I spend more time trying to write than actually writing.

That was sort of a relief! Nice to know that not everybody out there is just this productivity machine.

I also recently read Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise, in which this critic, writing in 1938, attempts to analyze the things that stop a person from fulfilling their initial promise as a writer. And the thing he identifies as being the most pernicious is success.

And I think this is so true. I mean I think of the other YA authors in my debut year who had big successes in their first books, and because of that their publishers put them on the one book a year treadmill. And of course you don't actually get a whole year to write the book, because what happens is they spend four months deciding on or editing your proposal, and then you get three months in which to actually write the first draft of the book. Then the publisher is just always holding the whip to them, trying to keep up their sales momentum, and of course the quality of the books is never what it was with their debut book.

The result is that their debut book, which should've been their worst published novel (because obviously you ought to get better the longer you write, or at least during the first decade or two of your career), ends up being their best novel, and although they might publish for a long time, they don't ever get their feet underneath them for long enough to produce the work they're truly capable of.

Unfortunately, if you want to earn a living by writing, this book treadmill is the only way (aside from having one book that becomes a perennial seller so that you just make fifty thousand dollars a year, every year, no matter what you write). Otherwise you've got to teach, and although teaching is great, I think I'm with Cyril Connolly in saying that it too is an 'enemy of promise.' I think here the evil is more subtle. It's just that unless you write a very particular kind of book, teaching is inevitably going to take you away from your source material.

For instance, if you write beautiful books about life in the Mississippi bayou, your reward is that you end up getting a job, probably, at Michigan or Iowa and never see the bayou again! For some writers--those whose work already instinctively breathed the air of academe--this isn't a problem. But for others I think being cut off from your source material ends up, after a few years, killing off some part of your creativity.

But what can you do!? People need to live! They have to eat!

I don't know. There's not an easy answer. Having a non-writing-related day job and laboring in obscurity avoids several of these traps, but then there's the issue of time. Can you really take the time you need to write when you're doing something else for most of the day. Also, people write because they love writing. Ideally they'd like to do it more of the time. If they loved selling insurance, they probably wouldn't need to write. So there's always an impulse to find some way to make this your job.

Anyway, I am lucky, in some sense, that I escaped the book a year treadmill (see: the three and a half year gap between my first book and Winter 2020 when my next book will come out). I got to take my time to write a book that I really loved, and I feel very grateful for that. Of course, nobody 'gave' me that time. It was just a natural interval caused by me not being a runaway success and hence my publisher not feeling too stressed about getting another book out of me. But nonetheless it was valuable.

Maybe someday I will be a runaway success. That would be awesome! But for now I do treasure the way I still have a normal life. I'm still in contact with my source material. Most of my friends are non-writers. I live in a very unintellectual city, where I frequently encounter people who have very different values from me. This is good. I like it. Money isn't the least complicated thing about my situation, but I've so far made it work (my book advances have helped a lot with this!)

I don't know. We'll see. I'm slowly learning the value of taking my time and of tolerating failure. I used to think of all my many, many, many false starts as failures. Now I just think of them as getting me one step closer to a beginning that will actually work. It takes time though. An incredible amount of time.

Okay, I got reaaaaaally into Cameron Hawley, then I got into Michael Connelly and Scott Turow too!

Haven't posted much about my reading lately. I spent a lot of January reading Cameron Hawley's remaining books. I know I posted about Executive Suite earlier, but I liked his other stuff too! I'd say the weakest was Cash McCall, his second book, which relies too much on the mystery surrounding its eponymous figure (a Howard Roark-type personage who is, essentially, a corporate raider). But The Lincoln Lords, which is about a businessman who, after years of jetting from company to company without accomplishing much, finds himself unemployable, and The Hurricane Years, about a playwright-turned-advertising-executive who has a heart attack at age 44 and starts to wonder WHAT WAS IT ALL FORRRRRR?????

Okay, the books do venture occasionally into the realm of the hokey, especially in The Hurricane Years, where this doctor becomes very, very, very personally invested in his amateur psychoanalytic reading of the protagonist's personality. But the books are essentially very nuanced comedies of manners that center on relations within the business sphere. This is basically my bag. I love it. I mean where is there more interpersonal drama, in our adult lives, than at work? It's there and it's in our families. That's it. That's why all sitcoms are either workplace sitcoms or family sitcoms (okay and Girls and Master of None and Friends and...alright, whatever, so it was a generalization).

Afterwards for some reason I got into legal thrillers. I think it was because I bought The Lincoln Lawyer on sale at audible...oh my god, I just realized, just now, that I only read The Lincoln Lawyer because its name was reminiscent of Cameron Hawley's The Lincoln Lords. Well anyway it was a good one. I read Connelly's other four Mickey Haller books, which are all about a defense attorney who's just north of shady and who's willing to do whatever it takes to get his murderous clients (except what if they're really innocent!) off the hook. They're all fantastic, except for the the third, The Reversal, where he becomes a special prosecutor. That one didn't satisfy in the same way.

It's hard to say what made them so compulsively listenable. Haller is an appealing hero. He's hardboiled, but he still believes in things. He wants his clients to be innocent. He wants to do well. He genuinely thinks most of them deserve better than they get. And I also like the focus on finances and on the daily practice of running a business. I mean it's a bit romantic, isn't it, to be running a business out of your car, right? And the courtroom antics are great. I do find all trial books and TV shows to be a bit far-fetched nowadays, since actual trials are SOOOOO rare. I talked to a criminal defense lawyer recently who said that in all his years of practice, he's only gone to trial twice! But at least Haller recognizes, in each case, that the trial is a rare occurrence.

Once I had the bug, I wanted to read others, so I sought out a few other legal thrillers. I read Defending Jacob by William Landay, which is, basically, a bad seed story. A prosecutor investigates a murder at a school, only to find that the main suspect is his son (the second two thirds of the book is the trial of his son). But it's an exceptionally well-written one. The voice is so pitch-perfect: it sounds like a fusty fifty year old small-town prosecutor who's frustrated with modern life (whenever the narrator talked about Facebook and Twitter or interviews teenagers it really made me giggle).

Finally I ended up with Scott Turow. I really have very mixed feelings about him, because on the one hand he's much better than most bestselling novelists. His books are as much about character development and interpersonal relationships as they are about legal drama. They all seem to be about middle-aged men who have to come to terms with their own smallness and limitations, but you know what? That's okay! Write what you know! Of the ones I read, I'd say the best was Personal Injuries, which is about a shady personal injury lawyer who gets popped for tax evasion by the IRS and then gets bullied into participating into an investigation of a ring of crooked judges. Although there's plenty of drama surrounding their attempts to get these judges, a good part of the book's suspense comes from our unfolding understanding of the nature of the man, Robert Feaver, whose dishonesty started all this.

Feaver, our snitch and (sort of) protagonist, starts off seemed really weak and cowardly, but as the novel goes on, our opinion of him flips and flops, turning one way and then the rest. And you know that in the end you're going to end up feeling terminally ambiguous (who is he? what is this man worth?), but when the ending finally comes, there's still a moment of quietness that's very affecting.

In the negative column, I feel like Turow's books come off sort of racist. There's a particular sort of 80s and 90s liberalism that's worn extremely poorly. I think before now I'd noticed it most often in the work of Tom Wolfe (particularly The Bonfire of the Vanities and Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers). It's the liberalism in which of course you acknowledge that black people have it hard, but where you also argue that black people are too militant and that they're damaging their own cause. It's the liberalism in which every black person is alway playing the race card and calling you out for racism. It's the liberalism in which you pretend that white prosecutors and cops are actually anxious for the chance to prosecute a white man--the liberalism where you pretend that, because everybody is so liberal, white men don't really get a fair shake in the justice system.

Since this is clearly the opposite of true, it just ends up feeling racist. The gender politics of his books can feel similarly out of date. But if you can look past that, they're pretty good. Definitely much better than most bestsellers.

Cash McCall, by Cameron Hawley

I first came to this author through his perhaps better-known book Executive Suite, but this book, his second, is the superior one. Hawley's schtick was that he was, like Wallace Stevens, both a working businessman and a writer. His books, too, were comedies of manners and morals that centered around mid-sized American corporations like the one in which he worked (the Armstrong Cork Company). Basically, McCall is what'd happen if a smart person picked up The Fountainhead one day and really, really wanted Rand's vision of the world to be true, but eventually realized that it just sort of wasn't. There's a sort of dialectical evolution here. Hawley obviously starts from a similar place as Rand: he believes in free markets and in the worthiness of building and constructing things. But at some point, his deeper knowledge of human nature intrudes and complicates the scenario.

Cash McCall seem to be about a businessman-hero in the Ayn Rand style: Cash McCall is a man who coldly assesses other people at a glance. He has plans within plans, and he sees the world at a much higher and more strategic level than do most. He also talks in these semi-philosophical speeches. But he's not an architect, and he's not a builder. He's basically a corporate raider. McCall conducts what we would, in modern times, call a Leveraged Buy-out. He targets companies which are, for some reason, undervalued, and he borrows money to buy them. Unlike someone like Warren Buffett, he doesn't even hold onto the companies: he revamps or disassembles them and unloads them after 6-12 months--usually for a profit.

The book centers around his acquisition of a small plastics company (and his romancing of the company founder's daughter). Throughout, McCall is held up in opposition to Grant Austen, the founder, who stayed put and operated this company, Suffolk Molding, for thirty years. The book plays with you so expertly, never letting you come to easy conclusions about who's the hero and who's the villain.

I found myself admiring the book immensely. It is clunky at times, in that very 1950s and 1960s way that many popular novels, particularly by male authors, tended to be. It reminded me, for instance, of The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit or of the polemics of the era, books like The Organization Man or The Lonely Crowd. It's just very...matter-of-fact. I don't how to describe it. The book is very focused on its own tale, and not very focused on description or scene or dialogue.

And yet it has a subtle brilliance. This book, more than most I read, seems very fully-realized to me. It's exactly the book that the author wanted to write, and I hope someday someone can say as much about a book of mine.

Have been reading a lot of biographies of painters!

Watching this Doctor Who clip about Vincent Van Gogh got me interested in the painter, so I read an extremely long biography of him. It was tedious at times (the thing where he obsesses about some woman and barrages her with romantic overtures wasn't even cute the first time he did it, much less the third or fourth) but overall I found it fascinating.

The best thing about Van Gogh is that he painted for ten years, and it's not clear that there was even a single person in the world, including his brother, who thought he had any talent. And when he finally did get his big break (in the same year he died), it was because some young art critic was searching for an example of naive art that he could elevate. He, and the French public, was captivated by the idea of this artist, a known madman, who'd been hanging around the Parisian art scene for years and years without getting anywhere. The critic needed his art to be great, so he said it was.

There's so much subjectivity in visual art. It's incredible how people looked at Van Gogh's work, and they really saw nothing worthwhile in it. This was during the heyday of impressionism, and his terrible life-drawing skills shouldn't have mattered, but somehow they confirmed to his audience that this person didn't really know what he was doing, that he was just some tyro and poser. He didn't have that effortless control that artists are supposed to have. Oftentimes he aspired to realism, but failed.

And I'm not better than the rest. I think his work's beautiful when hung up in a museum, but if I passed one of his paintings on the street, I probably wouldn't stop to pick it up. What I've noticed in several of the artist biographies I've read in the past few weeks is that these artists, even more than public adulation, wanted just one good and sympathetic viewer: someone who could stand in front of them and gain some sort of honest, unmediated emotion.

But the person who can do that, and who's able to have trust in the strength of their own feelings, is extremely rare, and, so far as I can tell, Van Gogh lived and died without ever finding that person.