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Into Oblivion: By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

Ian Ross

An important character in By Night in Chile, aptly named “Farewell,” says in a moment of doubt: “What’s the use, what use are books, they’re shadows, nothing but shadows.” This certainly reflects the modern-day concerns of many writers and, in turn, readers—particularly of literature. As entertainment becomes reduced to what can fit in your front pocket, it becomes harder to ask someone to sit alone with a collection of printed paper glued between two flimsy covers and invest the time and energy to enjoy that novel properly.

But I’m here to make what I think is not a particularly bold claim; it should be considered, in fact, rather obvious, even banal: Roberto Bolaño gave meaning to books, he found more than a use for these shadows; he presented us with their transformative power, their prescience. And for that, we should be grateful.

For those that are unfamiliar with the story (sometimes considered the legend, as rumors abound) of Roberto Bolaño, he was a Chilean novelist and poet who passed away far too early in 2003 from liver failure, though he was, by the end, near the top of the list for a transplant. He was fifty years old, and to think of all the stories that were locked up within that man, still to be written down, is a true tragedy.  

Though Bolaño has had multiple translators by now, the two most famous, and most significant, are Natasha Wimmer and Chris Andrews. Reading Bolańo from these two different artists (which I think it’s fair to call them) was what first really alerted me to the influence a translator has on the text.

Natasha Wimmer translates Bolaño’s writing with a colder eye, into prose more clinical yet somehow broader. And while I found 2666 to be one of the most powerful works of literature I’d ever read (Wimmer’s doing), I still enjoy the Chris Andrews’s translations more (By Night in Chile being one example). Andrews takes Bolaño’s style and tightens up every sentence, while also allowing the language to breathe, giving it the necessary space to find its own lyrical voice. He brings out the magic in Bolańo’s fiction in a way every other Spanish-to-English translator should envy.

Regarding By Night in Chile, the storytelling takes place over a single night, told in first-person by Father Urritia. An ailing priest on his deathbed, he expounds in a feverish monologue about falconry (and consequently freeing a single bird), Pablo Neruda, teaching the intricacies of Marxism to military officers, and the mistakes and regrets of his own life. He turns out to be as unreliable as he is flawed, and this makes for an unmistakably compelling read.

In the book, when Bolaño addresses a certain sickly shoemaker’s elaborate plan for a hero-focused, statue-heavy cemetery, he writes: “At first, news of his idea spread like nimble wildfire lit by a mocking god to amuse the public, but then it went the way of all things, subsiding into oblivion. A day came when nobody mentioned his name anymore. A day came when people began to forget his face.”

This could be seen as almost prophetic, perhaps a niggling fear about his own transience (though By Night in Chile was written before Bolaño was forced to confront his inevitable death, such as he had to for 2666). However, with the English-speaking world’s outpouring of support and enthusiasm for his many works, posthumous or otherwise, it doesn’t look as if this Latin American genius’s name will be forgotten anytime soon. Though he died at only fifty, he has, in my opinion, entered the pantheon of beloved international novelists; he has taken a grand leap onto that immortal list, into the bastion of the forever-cherished.

The Most Ravishing Sentence: Ulysses by James Joyce

Ian Ross

Novelist Gary Shteyngart once said in an interview (while in opposition to the evolution of e-readers) that they ruined the fairytale of some young man hunkered down on the subway, sitting across from a potential lover, holding out his cover of Ulysses and wooing this literary inclined gal by the title in his hands alone. E-readers, with their plastic frames, their digitized screens and overall mystery as to what its owner is consuming, outright stifled this display of Joycean bravado. How are you supposed to pick up girls if they can’t see you sympathizing with Leopold Bloom?

The fact that Shteyngart would go so far as to declare the mere presentation of Ulysses to be some sort of mating call on the crowded trains of NYC (one assumes this is the locale he had in mind, but one could be wrong; I’m sure the art and text on the hardcover of Ulysses looks really slick in Japanese) is an immediate branding that yes, this novel is important and influential and revolutionary and etc., but yes, this book can be sexy too, and yes, when the intimidated reader decides to invest in the effort needed to conquer this beast, they need to remind themselves (at pretty much all times) that the end is worth it, and that they have the mental fortitude to finish, and when someone sees Ulysses on their nightstand and asks, “Are you actually reading that?” they can reply with an affirmative: “Yes, I say. Yes I am, yes.”

We recently hit the 75th anniversary of James Joyce’s death, and it got me thinking about his masterpiece. Though my process was a bit weird, I think it’s fair to say I’ve read Ulysses twice, a few years back. During my first go at it I would read a chapter, try and digest just what the hell I’d been witness to, and then read a book of analysis on that chapter, only to follow up with an immediate second read of the prior undigested chapter, and try yet again (now equipped with the proper knowledge) to understand what was going on. Mostly, and I’m sure this is not uncommon, I really just fell in love with the cadence of the novel, with its music (sometimes atonal, sometimes jaw-droppingly mellifluous). From the words alone, Joyce’s genius was unmistakable. He was able to take the English language and turn it into a symphony, craft sentences that make you want to pull a living version of the Irishman aside and shout, “Thank you!” into his near-blind visage.

Ulysses carries an extra-heavy weight for me, however, as within its pages holds my favorite sentence of all time: “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.” I honestly feel I could teach an entire class on those nine words and why oh why they’re completely delectable, how they tickle me. There’s so much to love about that sentence, and I even saw it marked with reverence in a Martin Amis essay before I read the actual book. Waiting for those words to appear in context as I labored page after page was like hunting a basket of candy on Easter morning: it was well-hidden, buried deep, but I knew I’d find it eventually.

This piece isn’t really so much a traditional book review (good luck reviewing Ulysses like that anyway), but more of my own “Thank you” to the sickly, brilliant Irish novelist that changed the very atoms of fiction forever. Books like Ulysses—atomic bombs, that is—often do provoke a bit. They come along once a generation or so, and they twist and shake and explode the rules of what you can and cannot do.

And so I’ll say it again, louder this time, and I want you to really think about this line, about the precision and the pleasurable jolt that often comes from the right words joined at the hip. Yes, I’ll say it again: “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”

These Beautiful Depths: The Sea by John Banville

Ian Ross

If one were to say The Sea is, for the most part, a lyrical examination of memory, it would be hard to poke holes in their statement. After all, this book is mostly a man thinking not just about what he remembers, but how/why he remembers what he remembers, and how that ties him to the past and where that leaves him now. It's contemplative, it's slow, it's not a grab-you-by-your-seat kind of experience. However, if you take off your gloves to do a little work and attune your ears to the beauty of language, you'll find that John Banville's Booker Prize-winning novel is so much more than the above, and has enough layers to make even the most ostentatious of wedding cakes collapse with jealousy.

This little gem of a book (my paperback comes in at 195 pages) starts out gorgeously, and had me perked up from the first sentence: "They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide." My first thought when I dove into these pages was wondering why the hell I hadn't been urged at gunpoint to read Banville before. Having worked at a couple bookstores, I had heard the name, but only muttered, and not with any passion or conviction. It was only the release of his latest work, The Blue Guitar, which I saw front and center at an indie bookshop on the Upper West Side, that I decided to look deeper into his oeuvre. Naturally, the winner of the Man Booker Prize, a relatively short and well-reviewed novel, seemed like a great place to start. I was not mistaken.

Our narrator, Max Morden, is an Irish widower, grief-stricken in his middle age, and his story is really an interweaving of three different segments of time in his life: the present, his adolescence, and the period around his wife's death. What I found most impressive, on top of Banville's gift with words (and what a cultivated gift it is), was the way Max could slip from his current bereaved state where he is revisiting a beach house he frequented as a child into the mindset of his demure self at that youthful age with all the sights, smells, and other sensations so carefully recalled, and then just as abruptly drop us into the hospital room where his wife spent her final days. Not an easy trick for a novelist to pull off, sliding around time so effortlessly.

I did find the need for the occasional trip to the dictionary, but his inventiveness with words that I already knew (or semi-knew) never seemed excessive. Banville toys with what so many of the best stylists do: the use of an unknown word in a slightly off-kilter way. Rather than looking up a definition and seeing that, yes, the exact definition was utilized in the prose, you get a different flavor than the usual; you see a fresh word utilized in an original way, and what a treat that is for those of us who've fallen for language, particularly with love for the constantly deceptive harshness (with brief stints of euphony) of our beloved English.

The Sea ends strongly, wrapping up various plot points and miscellany in a torrential fifteen page burst. A fair complaint would be about how suddenly and brilliantly the novel does indeed tie together, since the rate of its cohesion exceeds the meandering nature and pace of the previous 180 pages. It "picks up" as one might say, and the way the novel concludes, even with its room for ambiguity, does feel rather forced on, if only for the speed at which it does so.

Regardless of this increased pump in pressure, the book was marvelously slick and (dare I use the overused word) elegiac. There's grief in these pages, there's tragedy and lovesick stuttering; there's heartbreak, youthful eroticism and the inevitable confusion to follow, and, above all else, there's the feeling of the strange tide, rolling up the sandy banks to grab you, the unsuspecting reader, and pull you back out into its blue depths, into its beauty.

Great, Another WWII Novel. (All The Light We Cannot See.)

Lauren Mangiaforte

There are worse writing teachers than a Pulitzer winner. I approached this year's, All The Light We Cannot See, as a curious student. After all, two of the novels in my "to write" queue share a lot of features with All The Light -- diverging dual-protagonist plot lines that later intertwine and a setting in World War Two, to name a couple.

When you want to write a book about WWII, I don't think it's strange to ask (perhaps a bit cynically, both in terms of your own writing as well as the general public's taste in novels) if it isn't a little overdone, if it's almost cliche or twee or opportunistic to write about this colossal tragedy. Indeed, it's a crowded field. There are loads of books on the subject. 1,328 results come from searching "WWII novel" on, versus 388 for "WWI novel." I'll admit, I started All The Light with no small amount of weariness and irritation, wondering if I shouldn't just set my book in 1912 rather than 1939. What's the difference?

Examining my own reasons for setting my book in WWII rather than WWI, I can say that half of my motivation is, easily, personal. I lived in Berlin for several months with a German family, one for which the war was not a distant memory but the subject of stories featuring people I knew, visited, lived with. Real people who, for a variety of reasons, joined the Nazi party. Fought. Lost. Had lives after. That is a fair-enough reason (if you need fair-enough reasons to write what you want to write, that is -- and I am not confident enough yet that I don't question my gut's rationale).

The other part of my desire to write during WWII is the part I really shouldn't trust, and that is my authorish tendency toward the dramatic, toward the ease and simplicity of Good versus Evil. I don't know about you, but when I was taught about WWI, I learned that war was evil. When I was taught about WWII, I learned that Nazis, that Germans, that people were evil. And there, I think, is the difference, and why we writers flock to WWII. In the West we don't have another story in recent memory that is so completely anchored around opposites. Us v. Them, Light v. Darkness. Not to mention the fact that, as Americans, we find ourselves so steadfastly on the side of the light in this particular conflict.


What makes All The Light different among WWII novels, if not entirely unique, is its author's avoidance of creating characters and a plot that are centered around these diametrically opposed forces. It can still be considered distasteful to write about a Nazi without deep condemnation, nevermind a sense of understanding or compassion. In fact Werner, one of the book's two protagonists and arguably its hero, is a Nazi soldier. Brought up an impoverished orphan in German coal country, he is identified as a mechanical genius and is invited to attend an elite Reich academy.

Werner leaves home to pursue personal opportunity, and you know what: I couldn't exactly blame him, especially considering he is a naive 14 at the time and that his alternative is to work for the rest of his life in the same exact mine where his father was crushed to death (!). If that isn't a seed sown for what German Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil," I don't know what is.

But author Anthony Doerr heightens the tragedy by allowing us to love Werner and his innocence, his dreams and ambitions. To follow his logic out his front door, finding ourselves approving the initial choices that set the wheels of his life in motion, and therefore implicating and discovering ourselves in what happened back then to many young men like Werner. We would love to think we could make heroic choices, but would we? It is the universalism of this question, and the nuance of this character's experience, that makes All The Light a book about people and which happens to take place in 1934-1944, rather than being a book about WORLD WAR TWO which HAPPENS to be told THROUGH two people who happened to live through IT.

Don't get me wrong: I don't mean to excuse anyone for anything (my ideal job description, outside of "novelist" would be "Nazi hunter circa 1950"). I only mean to point out that the inherent goodness of Doerr's novel lies in his ability to remind us of every person's humanity. After all, forgetting this was what allowed the war to happen in the first place.

Into the Deep End: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

Ian Ross

By nature, the day-to-day of a time travel machine technician is ripe for all sorts comedic juicing. There is a vast selection of concepts for an author to plumb when jockeying through space-time, and plenty of room for profound questions of genuine cosmic importance. The premise alone was an immediate sell for me; the blurbs on the jacket so unashamedly enthusiastic and encouraging that I opened to the first pages with an instant smile stretching up my face. I was ready to laugh, and to care.

What I found in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe nearly satisfied my expectations, at least initially. Even if elements felt tugged straight from Douglas Adams, there was still enough novelty in Minor Universe 31 (our universe’s clever moniker) to generate a few chuckles, a few sympathetic nods of the head. The hero of our story, Charles Yu, shares the author’s name and, we’re led to believe, many personality traits. Not a new idea in fiction, but certainly not a tired one. Not yet.

There is a decent amount of playfulness in the beginning, as Charles travels to a galaxy far, far away to prevent Linus Skywalker (Luke’s overshadowed son) from committing an act he’d surely regret. Charles’s early search for his father also feels meaningful, and is interspersed with fun, made-up facts and suggestions on how to actually live safely in such a science fiction cosmos. Sadly, I couldn’t help but cringe at the depressed AI system in our protagonist’s time machine, TAMMY, which felt like a borderline rip-off of Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Whether the author was aware of TAMMY’s spiritual predecessor or not, her appearance (on page 6) marked the dawn of my concerns about the book. Concerns which, I’m saddened to say, continued to bloom into frustration, and finally disappointment.

Now, I’m a big fan of science fiction (despite what we mostly focus on here at Bookshelf Stories), and an even greater fan of literary work that dives into the deep end of experimentation. And there’s no denying that Charles Yu’s novel took slices from each category, but what was left in Minor Universe 31 felt like the awkward kid on the playground, a little too late in calling first dibs to swing from the jungle gym. The sci-fi magnetism and humor-pumped charm wear off about a third through the book, and though the total page count hovers around 250, the remaining portion is a drag. There are long-winded passages of introspection that seem out of place and (as I channel TAMMY’s enthusiasm) become rather boring rather quickly.

To quote from one of the book’s three epigraphs, this from the long-dead philosopher David Hume: “We are never intimately conscious of anything but a particular perception.” By the time you snap shut How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, you’ve certainly been privy to Charles Yu’s particular perception, and it’s a worn-out, gimmicky, ambitious shot at a first novel. One could never fault his vitality, yet the ultimate outcome is that of a driverless eighteen-wheeler, short on gas, climbing blindly up a mountain toward the clouds. You think maybe, just maybe it will reach the summit. But then you see the pothole and hear the deflating tires. You remember the empty tank and that there’s no one to steer the truck in the first place, and so making it halfway to the top suddenly seems the best you can do.


Wandering & Pondering: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Ian Ross

There’s a whole class of books that fit into the category of what I like to call “the wander and ponder,” and most of them are so slow a read as to be on par with standing in line at the DMV. You get existential dread, a kind of mega-ennui, as you realize every second spent flipping these pages is a second you could’ve been doing just about anything else. You could be fly-fishing, learning Russian, or jumping off a bridge. In certain sections of these sluggish books the bridge doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, while certainly fitting into the wander and ponder classification, is anything but boring. Barnes proves that you can take that trope of a man looking out a kitchen window at a deciduous tree, sipping some chamomile, thinking about his past, and, with linguistic flair, make it absolutely riveting.

Now while The Sense of an Ending might be technically lacking in autumnal foliage, it certainly gives off that impression—that contemplative state of being, playing only to the front rows, in a minor key. There’s a depth, though, in the psychological candor of the novel, that imbues it with a Londoner’s magic.

Protagonist Tony Webster begins his narration in the same vein as some of Barnes’s other books: a reflection on memory and time, on the human perception of these complexities.

“We live in a time—it holds us and moulds us—but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to the theories on how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assures us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock.”

Our narrator establishes right on the first page that this novel will climb onto the saddle of “the wander and ponder” horse, gather up its reins and take it for a strut. What you don’t know, at least not initially, is that the horse’s strut turns into an exultant gallop, and you weren’t even sure when it started to do so.

The book is deceptively short, novella-length, really, but it is rich beyond simple measure. It’s length technically places it in the one-sitting read category, and I in fact did just that the second time I took it off my shelf. The Sense of an Ending, which was the first Julian Barnes I ever read (and quickly prompted another four purchases of his work), has one of those rare qualities that I often associate with Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (which surprised many when it won the National Book Award in probably one of the most competitive years ever, since it was competing with Catch-22 and Revolutionary Road). That quality is the book’s ethereal hold on you long after you read it, despite—and this is the real kick—not being able to describe what it’s about.

Sure, I can reiterate the book’s jacket, and say how it’s about a middle-aged man contending with his past, and what that means when a childhood friend reinserts himself into Tony Webster’s life, but the main character is living out the casual drift of non-threatening retirement after a failed marriage and broken family, and it’s left him perilously reflective.

The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and after having had his novels shortlisted multiple times, Barnes said (when questioned about the ratio of nominations to win), “I think this is the best novel I’ve written in the past five years, and certainly the best I’ve published in the last twelve months… As soon as you hear ‘canon,’ let alone that word ‘oeuvre,’ you reach for your sleeping pills. I don’t look at my books in a totality, I look at them as individuals, and some of them I like more than others.”

It’s interesting, because despite the almost jarring similarities between the wander/ponder of his first novel, Metroland, and having the near identical structure repeated in The Sense of an Ending, you understand why someone might pursue that line of questioning. It’s also apparent that yes, indeed, some of these books are better than others; some books give off the rudimentary odor of cheap perfume—amateurish but charming, at their best. And some books lift you up off the ground and flip you this way and that in the stratosphere, with your back to the Earth, so that all you can see are the stars.


growing up gatsby

Lauren Mangiaforte

Every time I read The Great Gatsby, I find myself identifying with a different character. I have yet to find another book that can serve as a mirror to such an extent. Whenever I stare into its pages, I find myself staring, speaking back, not unlike the legend of Narcissus.

Perhaps this is because I am a midwesterner, and through 15 or 20 rereadings I have noticed something about Gatsby. In the conversation surrounding this book, and in our defining the canon of American fiction, we have ignored a very important factor: The Midwest. It's always the well-behaved child who's overlooked.

Indeed, my sense of seeing myself in the novel is founded on my affinity for its author: Scott Fitzgerald, another product of the upper-middle-class of the Middle West. Certain of his talent, uncertain of his background, enveloping himself with the "consoling proximity of millionaires," moving East to New York and then on to Europe and then back again, perpetually grabbing at the next rung of belonging and becoming on the ladder of the American Dream--which, it's safe to say in the context of Gatsby, we can call "wealth." It is easy to see why I, like many young American writers, latched on to his coattails as if he could pull me up the ladder too. Come to think of it, it is likely no coincidence that my first novel begins with a party thrown by wealthy young people, beautiful little fools.

Through those rereadings I have come to feel an ambiguity about whether we are supposed to admire Gatsby, a midwesterner who has done the magical trick of transforming into a wealthy eastern tycoon. After consuming all of Fitzgerald's work, all of his wife's work, and plenty of scholarship on both of them and their contemporaries, I feel certain in saying Scott himself wasn't certain how he felt about his hero -- or his own roots.

I can see him at his typewriter, editorializing through the lens of Nick Carraway and Midwestern sensibilities while simultaneously living out his own fantasy of life as the dashing, mysterious, money-bleeding Jay Gatsby. I wonder if it ever occurred to him that he could have winded up like either man, and I love to guess which scenes were harder to write for the young author who had only just secured the golden girl of his dreams.


On the east, Fitzgerald notes: "It had always for me a quality of distortion. West Egg, especially, still figures in my more fantastic dreams. I see it as a night scene by El Greco: a hundred houses, at once conventional and grotesque, crouching under a sullen, overhanging sky and a lustreless moon. In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the side, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house--the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares." The wrong house. No one cares. A midwesterner who has overreached gets shot in a fancy pool.

My own copy of Gatsby has been highlighted in three colors, annotated in three pens: high school, college, graduate school. I have crossed out points in the marginalia to disagree with myself, to defend a character. I am running out of room for admiration, for Marxist critiques, for ecofeminist eviscerations. I am still arguing with myself about this book.

A daisy a friend gave me is pressed between two of the final pages:

I am part of the Middle West, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all — Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.
— The Great Gatsby

The book is my quintessential summer read, breaking my heart every time, no matter whose shoes I'm standing in. It sat on my lap as a girl of 18, full of ambition back in the Middle West, and it sits here still, even on my lap in the Hamptons in August, looking out over the big shore places that will soon close, knowing that no matter how many books I write, how many dollars I make, or how many Plaza Hotel champagnes I consume, I will always be the product of my own corner of America.

And I feel surer still that my theory of Scott's uncertainty is true. Both of us borne back ceaselessly into the past of our birth which is hundreds of miles to the west across the rolling fields of the republic.

James Salter: A Life From Scratch

Ian Ross

Having passed away on June 19th, 2015, not long before writing this, James Salter’s departure triggered in me a genuine sadness. He’d made it to 90 years old, and had—it would seem—lived a full life, with children and grandchildren, multiple marriages, over 100 live air combat missions during WWII and the Korean War (that classic glory-rich profession), and the unmistakable status as a “writer’s writer.” What this classification really means, however, is that he was critically acclaimed and appreciated by a few, while simply not selling books to the mass public. To call this a shame would be a drastic understatement, and the one solace I take in this great artist’s death is that maybe it could stir up a Salter Renaissance; an appreciation of his prose, his true-to-life characters, and the overall style of heartfelt care brought to every stunning, laconic sentence. Here’s to hoping his personal death equates to a professional birthing, and for the injection of his name into any literary household.

James Salter published his first novel, The Hunters (1957), at 31 years of age, and his final work of fiction, All That Is (2013), at 87. In this vast-spanning career, which included a book on travel writing and a celebrated memoir, he proved to his readers time and again how powerful, how transformatively beautiful his work really was.

“I didn’t want to become too masculine a writer, because my life had been masculine,” he said in an interview in 2012. This is perhaps a counter to the common comparison to Hemingway that frequented his career. Though he listed Thomas Wolfe and André Gide as far more direct influences, it was the rapid, declarative sentences that brought up whisperings of “Minimalism,” and yet I personally see far more Wolfe than Hemingway in his work. Salter had a style entirely his own; while the sentences were short they overflowed with a kind of lyricism impossible to describe without actual exposure to his words.

I admire myself more on the page than I do in reality." This is a sentiment shared by many writers, which is that what they type/scrawl on paper better represents whom they are than any dinner party conversation or hotel room interview. When I first read A Sport and a Pastime  (1967), all I could think about, besides how much I was enjoying the book, was how truly sensitive the writing felt; how attuned he was to the mysteries and subtleties of raw emotion and, perhaps most difficult for a writer to capture, the unmasking of erotic love on the page he admired.

I then moved on to Light Years (1975), a novel so rich with sensation and moral truth that I had trouble reading it for any lengthy stretch of time. It was, like the majority of his prose, as accessible as most summer reads, but opened you up and exposed you in a way that far surpassed what you expect from scanning some pot boiler on a beach. I had heard the author Jonathan Lethem (whose opinion I deeply respect) recommend Light Years by listing it as one of the books he always returns to when needing to get inspired. Considering Lethem was one of my greatest sources of inspiration, it seemed natural to pursue the book (and the writer) who did so for him. I was not disappointed. Nor was I with All That Is, his final novel that left you in the belief that he had so much more to say; he might as well have just been getting started, for the story raised questions that it quite purposefully did not answer, and all you wanted when closing shut the book was for there to be more.

As a young and, it's fair to say, aspiring writer myself, it's easy for me to empathize with the youthful James Arnold Horowitz (right before he changed his name to Salter), when he teetered on the edge of a truly life-altering decision. To the luck and benefit of us all, he took that crazy plunge: "I decided to write or perish," he said. "It was like starting life from scratch."

While I’ve only read and enjoyed three of his works of fiction, his death sparked and instant rereading of A Sport and a Pastime and the eagerness to get my hands on not only his other (award-winning) fiction, but his memoir as well. While James Salter may no longer be scribbling little reminders to himself and sticking them in notebooks and on his wall, never again to punch away at his electric typewriter, his passing has certainly launched the Salter Renaissance within me, one I can’t wait to indulge. I hope it will do the same for you.


A Spectacle of Literary Envy: The Information by Martin Amis

Ian Ross

Show me a writer who is free from the many nagging, teething forms of literary jealousy and I’ll show you a liar. It haunts all of us, at our deepest core, and this is a fact that Martin Amis clearly wanted to investigate in his novel The Information. He wanted to sidle on right up next to its cage and peer in through the bars, to see the glint of its fangs.

This was a rereading for me (a relative rarity), as I already frolicked my way through the exquisite prose a few years back. I’ll be blunt about it, too: I fucking love Martin Amis. If watching every single YouTube video having “Martin Amis” as keywords is an obsession, then call me obsessed. Amis himself has talked about experiencing the same sensation when first discovering Vladimir Nabokov’s work as I had when I read his: you feel a great tremor in your being, and realize that not only will you have to devour everything this writer has ever written (I’ve enjoyed no less than 18 of Martin’s books), but reread them as well. You get the sentiment that the writer is speaking directly to you (an illusion, of course, but a tingling one), and you want to engage in that dialogue between minds.

Like much of Amis’s fiction, The Information is dark, bitter, and gut-bustingly hilarious. I wouldn’t call it one of his must-reads for an M.A. virgin, but if you’ve dipped your toes into his oeuvre already, it’s totally worth a gander.

Our hero is Richard Tull, a failed but persistent novelist (his newest book, titled Untitled, seems to be such a slog that it turns anyone who attempts to read it gravely ill) is overcome with the sting of jealousy for his dear friend and fiendish rival, Gwyn Barry. Gwyn, unsurprisingly, is a successful novelist—almost comically successful, despite Richard thinking his books are garbage. There’s a lot on Richard Tull’s failure in The Information; it pops up early and sticks around until the end. Jealousy, crime, pornography, and violence all make heavy appearances, too. But above all, this book is about the lust for fame, and what that does to those horny enough to fight for it.

The Information.JPG

I feel the aforementioned tremor every single bloody time I pick up a Martin Amis book, fiction or otherwise. It’s as if I’m a great and experienced composer scanning sheet music and hearing the symphony in his head; but the last thing I want to do is keep it my little secret. I want the whole literate world to read Martin Amis, to bask in the style his own novelist father called “relentlessly original” (though not as a compliment) and to appreciate these sentences, this music.

Ah, who am I kidding? The Information is fantastic. Sure, it’s not the ideal place to start on your own Martin Amis journey, but I reread it with glee, and had to shake off my own literary envy at the verve and vigor of his sentences. Though he’s getting on in years now, I kind of want to be Martin Amis. He has cultivated a Muse-given gift over the years, one I’m not so sure I can mimic. But all that jealousy aside, I like to turn up the music (that word-gushing symphony,) lean forward, and type away.

To quote from The Information's first page: "Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob probes, and you would mark them." While Martin Amis's writing has never moved me all the way to tears, I do like to keep a couple tissues ready, just in case.


gritted white teeth: on literary jealousy

Lauren Mangiaforte

The first thing Ian and I talked about -- or, rather, texted about -- was our favorite authors. "Living or dead?" he asked me. "DEAD," I responded, "I want the expired ones."

I like dead writers better than living ones. A lot better. This is one of the things my contemporary-literature-prone (bless him) boyfriend is trying to help me through. Making me a better reader and writer, and probably also person. 

For most of my life, I thought I'd be a professional literary eulogizer. That is, an English teacher. I even crossed the Atlantic to attend a pretty prestigious master's program that I hoped would bring me, after years of reading more expired authors, to a life as a professor of literature. There has always been safety for me among the bookish crowd in the underworld. I'm not a competitive person but I can be a jealous one, and as a result it is easier for me to celebrate Charles Dickens' robust characters when I know he's nestled safely under a slab of slate in Westminster Abbey than it is to celebrate Zadie Smith's when I know full well that she is living in London and cooking up more marvelous people in her imagination as we speak.

Another of Ian's initiatives to cure my of my envy for living writers: get me to more readings. About a week after we met, I found myself at one in New York's McNally Jackson bookstore. Beforehand, Ian bought me Smith's White Teeth. I started it almost immediately.


It is of course a monstrously good book. A unique book. Written with an exuberant confidence normally reserved in the literary realm for first proposals in Jane Austen novels. 

Spanning several decades, it centers on Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones, two middle-aged friends whose common experience during wartime ties their friendship and the fates of their families together far more than their disparate beliefs and personalities. Though there are as many themes as there are points of view in White Teeth, the question that kept driving me through my envy (and awe) was why on earth these two people would or could remain friends this long and how they could not, after what they had been through together.

The inventiveness and freedom with which Smith writes is well-documented and formidable. Her ear for matching character to dialogue/voice is impeccable: Hemingway characters all sound like Hemingway; Mamet characters all sound like Mamet. Smith's characters speak with their own voices to such an extent that you almost have to assume the author is schizophrenic.

Naturally, my envy of Zadie Smith and her remarkable book is the result of comparison, which is itself the result of my fear of not being interesting enough, of not having anything new to say. But that fear doesn't mean there isn't also value in embracing my contemporaries, even though it might stir up some insecurity. As safe and prolific as my favorite dead authors and their Elizabeth Bennetts and Jay Gatsbys may be, none of them have experienced the glorious, dangerous, globalized, internet-ed, post-colonial, post-9/11, postmodern, post-post world. So for the purposes of learning, they are what I would like to call "differently useful" to me and my characters living in the 2000s than, let's say, Zadie and Samad and Archie. How could we not be friends, after what we have been through together?

White Teeth did more than make me feel envy, it made me feel guilt of the best kind, which is just anticipation by another name if you respond to it the way you should. I am looking forward to my next 21st-century adventure with Zadie Smith.


All Unhappy Women Are Alike: My Poorly-Timed Summer with Anna Karenina

Lauren Mangiaforte

It is a truth universally acknowledged that our mindset while we read a book shapes our experience of it. 

So it seemed to me at the time that the train thing at the end was a total cop out. Maybe Tolstoy was as tired of writing about her as I was about reading. It could have also been the neck strain was too great as I held the heavy paperback above my face, lying flat-backed on the trampoline in my parents’ back yard in Illinois as Anna got run over over in Russia. Too many characters, too much drama, and too many horses.

Yet, all three of those things were some of my favorite 19th-century-novel tropes, third, fourth, and fifth only to rogues, whores, and wars. By all standards, Anna Karenina should be one of my favorite novels. It's not. Perhaps there was no room then, in the summer after my fiancé had called off our wedding, for some other woman with a cumbersome name’s problems.

I try to read an epic, usually a Russian one, every summer. I think it probably has something to do with the tireless and latent academic in me. I need, almost, to prove to myself that I can still marathon-read with the best of them. The last few summers, the heaviest items in my suitcase as I head out to the Hamptons with my family have been The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace. My aunt and uncle gave me The Count of Monte Cristo for my birthday this year, knowing it would show up at their pool come August. I typically think of serious books as the perfect beach reading.

Photo by Juliette Tang

Photo by Juliette Tang

I guess it makes sense that reading about Dostoyevsky's famous onion was easier when I was gainfully employed than Alexei Karenin's party-pooping was while I was living with my parents. 

A part of the reason I loathe it is because the novel's two settings, the rural and the urban, were so totally different and fascinating in comparison to my own depressingly dull suburban environs. I was jealous of all those princesses in opera dresses, of St Petersburg society, even Levin out on the farm in the country near Moscow.

All this, as I had come back to Schaumburg, Illinois, famous for its shopping mall and huge IKEA, straight from a summer in dazzling Berlin and a year in the castle-encrusted Scottish seaside town of St Andrews, Scotland. You can see where the frustration came from. Anna getting screwed over by her Vronsky, me getting screwed over by mine. That was the summer I guess I learned that unhappy women are all alike; and that every happy woman is happy in her own way.

I think sometimes maybe I'll try it again. As Shakespeare said, a man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age. But probably not. Why spoil such a meaningful if terrible memory of reading? There are so many books I'll forget before I forget that one.

So До свидания. We’ll always have Schaumburg, Anna.


A Star-Studded Affair: The Luminaries by eleanor catton

Ian Ross

The Luminaries is one of those hulking, majestic books that makes you stop and stare, and after it won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, I was no stranger to this gape. Due to the ever-shrinking space available on my bookshelf, I impatiently awaited the paperback release, so as to save an extra inch. It called to me, though, this novel. When at my local bookshop, I would pick it up, test its weight, and scan the first few pages again, and again. If I used a calendar (I’m one of the lucky few who’s able to get by without), I certainly would’ve noted the paperback due date in red marker. 

“So how is this giant book?" you wonder. Well, my edition boasts a solid and utterly fantastic 830 pages, and every single one—even during the more sluggish portions—was actually quite the treat. Eleanor Catton is a virtuoso, and this work is a breathtaking epic. (Please note I would say the virtuoso thing regardless of her youth; which, at the time of publication, was only fucking 28). 


It takes place in the 19th century during the New Zealand gold rush, and has enough principal characters to make Dickens blush behind his beard. The book is not only written expertly with vibrant and vivacious language, but it is carefully constructed to align with the zodiac. I regret to inform the hungriest readers that my own journey through the novel did not involve me paying super-duper close attention to how it was structured. And it is a regret; you can tell how much thought and work went into fulfilling this additional feature, you really can. But the main point to be had is that, in the most joyous way, the fine-tuned structure doesn’t really matter: the book is brilliant even if you go in unaware. 

This a page-turner, and thank the heavens for that, ’cause there’s a lot of them. But as anyone who likes to chomp down on one of these literary beasts knows (and why else would you be here?), the reward at the end can be tremendous. Maybe The Luminaries will have that payoff for you; maybe it won’t. Regardless of the destination (and the brief snippets of drudgery required to remember who the fuck everyone is), the ride through this young New Zealander’s masterpiece is fantastic. 

The whole experience is a bit like going to see a 4th of July fireworks display in a new city. You’re not quite sure if it’ll be as good as previous efforts, and there are bound to be moments between the big bursts when you think, That’s it? After all this fuss? At the end of the show, however, when the sky quiets down and the pops and fizzles cease, you will have still been to see some motherfuckin’ fireworks. You just saw some shit explode in the sky, and it was pretty marvelous.