August 2008

Dude, I want to read this book: Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) I’ve heard him pushing his book on NPR: A civil engineer waxing socialogical over our automobile ontology.

This book makes me think of my most recent travels. When I was in Manila a year ago, stuck in evening traffic in Ermita as we were trying to get home to Quezon City, I wondered how it was that I never saw any traffic accidents, when every driver seemed to be driving in a passive aggressive haze, courting a fender bender, or clipping the hair off blind street urchins panhandling in the middle of the lane-less thoroughfares “Are you gonna hit me,” the jeepney driver yells at the SUV driver behind his tinted windows, “go ahead hit me! see what it gets you!” No Right of Way, everybody stuck in some kind of 70s experimental chance-based choreography. John Cage Autotopia.

In Bangkok I rode on the back of motorcycle taxis, without a helmet, weaving through traffic. Punctuality trumps safety. All praise Buddha.

In Paris they get their kicks riding roundabouts (according to Vanderbilt, traffic circles are far less deadly than orthogonal intersections.)

In LA every freeway lane is a passing lane, even the off ramps, because every second saved adds up to a longer weekend, a weekend spent on the road.

Nobody drives in NY, they all write ambulatory poetry.


I am a sucker for books with cool covers. McSweeney’s books look to me like cupcakes, they make my mouth water with their antiquarian typesetting and indie-comic graphics.

I am a sucker for books whose synopses read either like an entry from someones dream diary, someone who falls asleep with the tv on or like a list of exhibitions from the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

I am a sucker for darkly comic picaresques told by narrators with the same warmly conspiratorial, erudite and conflicted tone as a Humbert Humbert, even if the narrator isn’t a middle-aged emigre but a barely legal, precocious, and fatherless American boy.

I am a sucker for debut novels written by nonagenarians who remind me of all the WWII vets that were in my novel-writing class, who made me hopeful that when I too am wrinkled and stooped, I will also be a pastiche of all the wonderful books of questionable merit that I may have wasted my youth on.

I am a sucker for books built on aphorisms like, “life is shit”, and “you can’t polish a turd” and “If the shit fits…” But maybe most tragic of all I am a sucker for books that seem so promising, like a cupcake or a bowl of really ripe cherries that only end up giving me the shits.

So, I think a lot of my posts are going to be about books I started but barely kept going–like driving a hoopty, like an unusually challenging New York Times crossword puzzle, like the third dessert that you’re trying to eat for the sake of not wasting it. I’m trying to discern if my inability to finish books that I’ve started is a reflection of bad writing, attention deficit disorder, or there really was a reason I was sent to speech in first grade other than that I was shy and debilitating-ly socially inept. I’ll even give them a tag on this blog, “ADD”. Coming up in my next post, “Angry Black White Boy” by Adam Mansbach.

I’m not flat and sly
Like a spatula creeping up from below.
At most I am a heavy and clumsy pestle
Mashing good and bad together
For a little taste
And a little fragrance.

—Yehuda Amichai

I just read the Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s The Girl On The Fridge, which features reprints from his first short stories. This is the first Keret book I’ve read, but I’ve heard him interviewed on the Wisconsin public radio show To The Best of Our Knowledge; one of his short stories I heard on This American Life; And I saw the film Jellyfish he co-directed with his wife who wrote the script. All contributing to my idea of Etgar Keret as the improbably well-adjusted, inventive, and sagely humanist soul raised in a tempest. So I wasn’t prepared for the brutally ambivalent and cynical voice that overrides the 46 gestures of this compact volume. Are these characterizations of jingoism and misogyny, could it be that the words are so spare that the overall tone of the collection becomes muddled or tenuous?

His stories are minimalist exercises, a writerly quest for that turning point where concision becomes fantasia. Maybe the term surrealism has long been an empty label, too easily applied to any dreamlike passage, every fantastic story told along unfamiliar lines. But unlike the surrealists that wanted to imbue the fascio-rationalist world with the anarchy of dream time, and thereby explode the possibilities, Keret seems to do the opposite, or maybe the unspoken corollary: to reveal the dark substratum, the savage rationalism that dictates dream time, a space of banal violence, the reductio ad absurdum of all ideology.

For me the strongest pieces were the two that bookend the collection, the two that seemed the most optimistic, like the wings of some makeshift deus ex machina barely hovering above all the bloodshed and anger.

Riff on this:

What did you just finish reading?

What would you like to read if you had the time? (Every 15 seconds a new book is published.)

What would you like the world to read?

What would you like to save from the dustbin?

What would you like to compost?

What would Jesus read?

What book would you like to write?

Write it.

Write now.