Review of Six Memos For The Next Millennium by Italo Calvino

Calvino’s lectures, prepared but not delivered late in his career, are just as thought-provoking as his fiction.

He discusses some key, broad aspects of literature, and his personal discoveries of certain propulsive forces in writing. His discussion of Multiplicity I found most interesting, and the way he categorized encyclopedic and plural texts. It will certainly aid your understanding if you are already familiar with Flaubert, Gadda, Balzac, Ovid, Dante, Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Mann, Goethe, Poe, Borges, Calvino, Leopardi, Eliot, Joyce, Perec, da Vinci and more, but familiarity is by no means required for enjoyment. Skillfully, Calvino ropes in the work of all of these authors, outlines their methods in some measure and suggests how precisionism or autodidacticism or lightness and suggestion led into the completion or success of the work. By handling a wide range of styles and general approaches, Calvino offers a splendid viewpoint of artistic achievements of the mind.

There are many quotes, especially from the Zibaldone, which could have used some condensation. But it is easy to see how Calvino’s own work, such as If On a Winter’s Night, Cloven Viscount, Baron in the Trees, Nonexistent Knight, Invisible Cities, Palomar, Cosmicomics and other books, were inspired by literary predecessors, and he even reveals the sparks of intuitive imagination that led to their shape and form.

Review of Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace

Polishing off the remainder of DFW’s works has been a treat this year. I began by listening to the author-read audiobook, then picked up the paperback where the audio left off.

What an astounding journalist he was. “Consider the Lobster” is an in-depth look at a lobster festival. “Big Red Son” is a porn industry inside scoop. But like most of his books, the surface narrative and the snarky commentary enlarge upon grand and universal themes. The omnipresent wit and sophistication is never absent, though the subject matter is rather specialized. Shock and awe are two of the many techniques Wallace employed sentence by sentence.

Included are also reviews of an Updike book, Kafka’s aesthetics, and Joseph Frank’s 5-volume Dostoyevsky biography. All of them offer unique approaches to the book review form, while maintaining traditional appeal and technical proficiency.

Ever the perfectionist, DFW does not write a poor sentence. Many of his long footnotes are demanding, even bound to be irritating, and he does not restrain himself in this collection. “Authority and American Usage” is a tough expose on an obvious topic. DFW flexes his linguistic skills but strains the reader’s patience if they are more inclined to read for plot and character. I always prefer his fiction, but there are few nonfiction books I enjoyed more than this one.

Totally in character, he provides a review of an abysmal tennis biography, which is also a resounding meditation on sports biographies as an industry. An impressive article. Then “Up, Simba,” a very long and ultra detailed recounting of his campaign coverage for McCain, destined to become dated in future generations, but displaying many of his writerly strengths. For someone who is not immersed in politics, it makes for a difficult read, but rewards as it demands, like the best of his output.

If you can’t get enough DFW, pick up this book. You won’t be disappointed.

Review of Both Flesh and Not: Essays by David Foster Wallace

Not sure if I’d recommend this one. It’s DFW, and yes, it’s witty, acerbic, articulate, et. al. but the items under discussion did not engage me in the way that Lobster, and Supposedly Fun Thing did in their turn. I’d therefore call this his least successful collection.

They padded the thing with extracts from his vocabulary lists, which I found a might tedious. If I wanted to look up definitions for abstruse words, I’d Google. But why would I? Wallace himself rails against Academese – how people use big words to sound smart. He distinguishes proper smart-writing as extra-precise, and surprising et. al. You could play the double-bind game and say he has to point out snobbery to patently avoid it, and he goes out of his way to call himself a snob, but then tiptoes around the whole snobbery issue elsewhere. It comes off as him not being able to decide whether he wants to embrace the self-image or be repulsed by it. (See “American Usage” essay from Lobster for concrete evidence of snobbery embrasure).

The title essay is a methodical Federer expose, reminiscent of Jest. Plenty of tennis trivia. Not sure I needed the close-up, lengthy descriptions of jock straps etc. Overall, an illuminating, journalistic look at the sport. But again, he’s written THE Definitive novel on Tennis. The not-so-Finite Jest. Ergo, this is less impressive.

Also to be found here is his long essay on Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which I found more lovely than the novel itself. He studied Witt back in his college thesis days, and he is something of an authority. It helps, if you’re like me and didn’t get much out of Markson’s seminal work, to disabuse you of your disillusions.

In another: Probably the best metaphor for a writer’s relationship to his manuscript, a mini-essay, which expands a comparison ripped from Delillo’s Mao II. Extremely memorable.

He goes on to review a terrible Borges biography and a duo of novels from the “math prodigy” genre, which latter essay turns out to be well-nigh unbearable.

A Terminator 2/ film industry article flexes his pop culture musculature. A funny and telling thing, that one is.

Then the explanation of “conspicuously” young writers of his generation, up and coming, breaking rules, and a cynical analysis of what they are actually doing. I already knew what he was telling me. Anyone who reads someone like Bret Easton Ellis can get the feel for why it attracted attention. This one made DFW seem like a snide, weasel-shaped anti-writer.

I was entertained. I got more of Wallace’s distinct voice. But I was not enthralled.

Review of My Back Pages: Reviews and Essays by Steven Moore

ISBN 1557134375 (ISBN13: 9781557134370)

This is a book of professional book reviews, about 780 tall pages. All about writers from the 20th Century, with maybe a few exceptions for writers from the late 19th and early 21st.

As explained in a closing essay, this is the pseudo-third volume of his Alternate History of the Novel series. The total page count of about 2700 pages comprises a more inclusive survey of literature than Harold Bloom’s canon books, and more specialized information on hard-to-find, less-famous, unconventional, and just-plain-interesting books. They are less didactic than Bloom and written in a very readable, yet polished style.

List of books I bought after reading this book:
Graves – The White Goddess
Coover – Public Burning
Stephen Wright – Meditation in Green.
Lawrence Norfolk – Pope’s Rhinoceros
All of Lawrence Durrell
Books I still plan to buy: Kathy Acker, Karen Elizabeth Gordon, Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter, more Djuna Barnes, Mary Butts, Elizabeth Smart, Ronald Firbank, Frederick Rolfe, Will Self, Mary Camponegro, Jeanette Winterson.

All of the other big names Moore discusses at length I already owned or disagreed with. Even books I didn’t love were still given fair, well-rounded examinations.

Authors discussed at great length:
William Gaddis (Moore is the world authority).
William Gass
Thomas Pynchon
William T. Vollmann
Joseph McElroy
Alexander Theroux
David Foster Wallace
Paul West

Some surprises:
Moore really liked Kafka on the Shore. I’ve read it twice and I missed half of the things he picked up on. His 2-page essay is illuminating and provides many compelling arguments in defense of the bizarre novel.
He mentions Graves’ White Goddess, Gaddis’ The Recognitions and other favorite works constantly. After years of studying these texts, he could not help but name-drop them. Even if you haven’t read half the books he mentions, you can use the evidence he provides to make the all the necessary reading choices of your foreseeable future. After purchasing all three volumes, I will probably never need a book recommendation again. Oddly, he neglects Italian and German literature, as well as all of the novelists from Liechtenstein, but I doubt anyone can expect to outdo Moore’s accomplishment. He has clearly read thousands of books, most of them with the attention of a professional reviewer, if not a scholar.

I was already a fan of Wallace, Gass, Gaddis, Theroux, McElroy, Vollmann, Pynchon, Joyce, Antunes, and dozens of others, but he managed to teach me a surprising amount about books and writers I thought I knew well. It was nice to see someone finally tear Mailer to shreds and stomp and spit on the shreds. Junk Mailer deserves its own book, and people need to stop ignoring his atrocious mistakes.

So far my reading experience has taught me I hate David Peace and simply fail to enjoy most of Danielewski. Moore defends them with much empirical, aesthetic analysis. Ducornet, Delillo, Elkin, Lowry, Barthelme, Barth all get loving treatments. If I’m speaking your language, definitely pick up this book.

Special warning about the 2 volume Alternate History of the Novel. It is a masterpiece. However, are you the type of reader who is interested in Tibetan literature? Do you see yourself reading Ancient Chinese epics? Since I am obsessed with books like Honoré d’Urfé’s and proto-novels of Japan and China, these histories were godsends. But consider where your interests lie. My Back Pages suggests enough delectable reading material for a decade.