TOB 2015 Contest Update: Rooster Crowing!

March 31, 2015

It’s the dawn of a new day, the crowning of a new champ.

Susan came into the final week with a nice, but not insurmountable, three point lead.  On Monday, All the Light We Cannot Sees victory over An Untamed Statereshuffled the deck slightly.  Susan maintained her lead, but Jeremy, Felicity, and I climbed three spots each.

Standings after the Semifinals:

1.  Susan – 23 points

2.  Felicity – 19 points

3.  Jeremy and Me – 18

4.-6.  Chris, Melanie, and Timothy – 16 points

With the ultimate victory of Station Eleven over All the Light We Cannot See, Susan’s hopes went from bright to dark.  Like something from the apocalypse.  Chris had prepared well and passed her, 24 points to 23.  Alas, Chris forgot to pack a solar panel and ran just short of the energy needed to win.  Jeremy, apparently holed up in a Walmart next to an REI, outlasted everyone and snagged everlasting glory and a couple new books. Congraulations, Jeremy!

Final Standings:

1.  Jeremy – 26 points

2.  Chris – 24 points

3.  Susan – 23 points

4.  Felicity – 19 points

     Me – 18 points  (I don’t count)

5.  Melanie and Timothy – 16 points

Thanks to everyone who took a shot.  This seems to have been a tough year, comparing the top scores this year to years past.  But I hope you had fun over at the ToB.  Happy Reading everyone!

And just because you didn’t win, say, A Girlf is a Half-formed Thing, doesn’t mean you can’t read it anyway.  It is, hands down, the best 2014 book I read all year.  Ferrante’s trilogy, as great as that is, notwithstanding.  Don’t trust me, rely on the brilliant critic John Self or the Bailey’s Womens Prize committee.  Eimear McBride couldn’t get a publisher for 10 years.  Show Gallery Beggar Press some love for having the courage and aesthetic sense to publish this masterwork.  Or find something new and amazing at McBride’s American publisher, Coffee House Press.  And I am not plugging the book or these presses because I am getting anything for it.  I believe in supporting great writers (Eimear McBride) and the small presses who publish literary work that isn’t commercial enough or something for the big publishers.

If you’re still here, get your nose in a book!

[Formatting errors, lots of them, corrected. I think.]

TOB 2015 Contest:  Standings March 28, 2015

March 27, 2015

It’s been an eventful week at the TOB.  My three favorites have bitten the dust.  I am undecided as to the best of the rest.  Which, coincidentally, is the state of my fan affairs in the lesser March tournament too.  I don’t know why I can’t always get what I want, but there it is.  But maybe you can, especially if you answer to Susan.

Standings as of March 28, 2015:

1.  Susan – 19 points  (Predicted winner:  All the Light We Cannot See)

2.-4.  Chris, Melanie, and Timothy – 16 points

5.  Felicity – 15 points

6.  Jeremy and Me – 14 points

Multiple contestants still have a chance, but, if you’re not in that group, I think your season’s over.  I hope you’ve enjoyed the Tournament and that your favorite still has a shot.

Happy Reading!

TOB 2015 Contest:  Update March 21

March 21, 2015

So far, so good.  By which, I mean that at least several of the books I would find acceptable as champions are still alive.  My favorite too.  I am not quite sure yet whether the list of acceptables includes A Brief History of Seven Killings, but I think it does.  In fact, so far, it is making me rethink my favorites and has me watching a Bob Marley documentary.

But you care mostly about the standings.  They’ve changed.  Melanie and Jeremy are still at #1, but with additional company.

TOB 2015 Contest Standings (as of March 21, 2015)

1-4.  Melanie, Jeremy, Timothy, and Me – 8 points out of a possible 12.

5-6.  Lillian and Felicity – 7 points

No one is mathematically eliminated, yet.  Also, no one has a chance to go the opposite of perfect, which has happened.  Too bad.  The worst possible score at this point is 3.

Best of luck to everyone.  That isn’t really possible, but it is polite.

ToB 2015 Contest:  Pi Day Update

March 14, 2015

The Tournament is underway.  There are more comments than I’ve ever seen on the ToB discussion board and only one contestant is perfect.  My favorite is still in the running, though it hasn’t had its match yet.


1-2.  Melanie and Jeremy – A perfect 5

3-7.  Five Contestants – 4

Congratulations to Melanie and Jeremy!  Everyone else still has a great chance, so don’t fret, yet.  The consensus for Monday, in case you are wondering, is Station Eleven by a country mile.  (You, collectively, predict the next four days of next week to go:  Redeployment, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, A Brief History of Seven Killings, and All the Light We Cannot See.)

[Edited to reflect my error in scoring.  Two players had perfect scores.  This is a good opportunity to say, as we move forward, please do e-mail me if I have, or you think I have, miscalculated your score.  I err on occasion, obviously.  Thanks in advance.]

Unofficial Tournament of Books 2015 Contest

March 5, 2015

The contest is back in 2015!  The rules are the same as always.

Step One

Fill out your TOB 2015 brackets.

Step Two

Send your picks to me, in some interpretable format*, at a yahoo address beginning kerry_7.  [Edit:  Please make the subject line:  TOB 2015 Contest.   Thanks.]

I just need your picks from a valid e-mail address.  Your entry is an implicit, and like totally legally-binding, assurance that you aren’t entering more than once.  Oh, and don’t forget the tie-breakers:  1.  Tell me how many votes the winning book will get (out of 17); 2.  If it’s still tied, whoever enters first.  Entries must be received prior to March 9 when the first match goes live.  I don’t know when that is or how long it takes e-mail to arrive once sent, so you should probably try to get your entries in sometime on March 8.

Step Three (optional)

Check back periodically to see how you are doing compared to other entrants.

Step Four

Wait for your awesome prize package in the form of your choice of two books from Graywolf Press (because they recently published a new book by Sarah Manguso, my favorite TOB judge of all-time) or Gallery Beggar Press (because they published A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride, my favorite find of 2014) or Coffee House Press (McBride’s U.S. publisher) or Milkweed Editions (because Orion You Came and You Took All My Marbles and Montana 1948).  Technically, if you win, you’ll first have to tell me your pick of books unless you just want to read what I tell you to read.

That’s it.  Again, please only one entry per person.   In case you care, I selected these publishers for the reasons given, not because any of them are subsidizing this in any manner.  Of course, they could throw in bonus material if they read this and want to be cool like that.  I’ll still be buying two books for the winner, full freight, because I can and because I want to support and promote these particular small presses.  Good luck and have fun!


*  An interpretable format might look like this:


I would like to enter your TOB 2015 contest.  My picks are:

Round 1 Winners (8 books)

Bone Clocks, Brief History, All the Light, Brave Man, Annihilation, Station Eleven, Redeployment, Those Who Leave

Round 2 Winners (4 books)

Brief History, All the Light, Annihilation, Those Who Leave

Zombie Round (4 books:  Round 3 winners plus 2 Zombies)

All the Light, Those Who Leave, Untamed State, Station Eleven


All the Light, Those Who Leave


Those Who Leave

Tie-break: 9

Blog Suspended

December 11, 2012

I apologize for not posting this sort of notification earlier.  Life circumstances have conspired to prevent me from devoting the attention I would like both to this blog and to reading fiction generally.  I do plan to return to regular posting, but have no estimated date of return.

Please do visit the wonderful blogs in my blog roll and, hopefully, maintain the RSS feed because I will return.  Eventually.  This year is looking like a complete wash, however.  Thank you to everyone who continues to check in on me and my blog, who supported the blog with visits and comments when I was doing my part, and who continue to keep the online book world going in various ways, including by continuing your own wonderful blogs.

May the next book you read be a new favorite.  Happy Reading!

I have stepped away from my blog.

May 31, 2012

I apologize for the infrequent posting.  I am swamped right now, so have not been able to give the attention I would like to fiction generally or this blog in particular.  I will post a review of <I>The Buddha in the Attic</i> late next week.

Happy Reading!

TOB 2012 – Reviews of Contenders

March 2, 2012

For fans of the Tournament of Books, I have collected reviews of each of 2012’s contenders. And, don’t forget, get your TOB 2012 Contest entries in by midnight on March 4th. In the order they appear on the brackets:

The Sense of an Ending:

Mine: “The life we remember is not, after all, the life we have lived. A new narrative must patch the rip in the fabric formerly weaving emotion and events together. Barnes masterfully explores this reconciliation in ways that I have not quite seen before…Barnes has moved the stakes of the subject outward a smidge.”

A Rat in the Book Pile: “As a meditation on memory the work would carry more conviction were the differential between history and memory more subtle, the divergences smoother. Although there are shadings of memory there are also jarring inconsistencies which smack more of an unreliable narrator than a nuanced memory. Memory is not so much reinterpreted as reinstated.”

The Asylum: “[W]hat cannot be in doubt is that this is Barnes’s most death-pervaded book since, well, his last one. Death, getting close every day, is always personal. In Frank Kermode’s work of literary criticism from which Barnes takes his title, “the sense of an ending” refers to apocalypticism, the end of the world. Barnes’s concern here is far more serious than that.”

Kevin from Canada: “Barnes does not waste a single word in this wonderful short novel…..I will add a caveat to my positive assessment: I cannot set aside my own age when it comes to appreciating the way that Barnes has captured the process of looking back into what produced this current stage of life and left the trails of “remorse” that he explores in the book…..For me, The Sense of an Ending was a very special book that demanded — and got — an immediate second reading.”

Tony’s Book World: ” It is not very often today where a novel starts with a premise and follows that premise through to its logical conclusion….[I]t is such a pleasure to read a novel that is smarter than we are.”

The Devil All the Time:

Mine: “Aside from the fact that Pollock uses the trope of serial killers, only employs male characters who (by the end of the book, almost to a man) have killed, and (except for Grandma Emma and saintly Charlotte) only employs female characters whose greatest pleasure is dropping their panties for fat slobs, the book is reasonably well-written…..These are characters, overtly “good” or “bad”, who serve primarily as vehicles for scenes involving either sex or violence, and often sex and violence together.”

Mostly Fiction (Brodie): “It’s heavy, horrific, beautifully written and filled with studies of people one hopes never to meet. There were times when I felt like a voyeur, watching something that was meant to be private and not shared but I read on anyway, fascinated and sometimes disgusted, but always riveted and totally impressed with the quality of the writing. The tenor, weight and tension of the novel never lets up.”

Mostly Fiction (Van Horn): “The prose is sleek, tight, and tidy with the spills of human degeneracy and base desires. But there is a taut and tense plot, too, a story that will have you biting your nails to the quick while you gasp with mortified pleasure at every single page.”

Lightning Rods:

Randall Reads: “It’s an unnecessary fleshing out of an absurd premise. The skeleton of a story that stands as the novel, to me, shows that there’s not a lot of substance behind it. Of course, this may all very well be the point of Helen DeWitt in how she wrote it. The characters are extremely thin, which would be a sign it’s all to the point. But I didn’t get the point.”

Salvage the Bones:

Randall Reads: “Ward does a great job of drawing her scene and characters. “The Pit” and its inhabitants are memorable and likable, warts and all. Esch and her brothers–Randall, Skeetah, and Junior–are the primary family members through which you experience the story, with their deceased mother’s spirit playing as big a role emotionally as their Daddy does physically. You’ll instinctively love Big Henry and be suspicious of Manny. In fact, I think those two secondary/tertiary characters are as memorable as any I can think of.”


ANZ LitLovers LitBlog: “But did I like it? Not very much. Do I think it’s a significant work illuminating some aspect of the human condition? No, not really, there’s nothing very original about any of the themes.”

Mostly Fiction: “Murakami shirks conventional expectations, refusing to answer the questions he poses and tie his loose ends into pretty little bows. He breaks from craft wisdom – stick to the essentials – with gratuitous descriptions and his characters repeatedly mull over the same plot points. He even challenges Chekov’s famous maxim by introducing a gun that never goes off. But I can’t help but feel that’s the point; life isn’t pared down to essentials, and insofar as our lives have meaning, they’re necessarily narratives, stories just as mundane – and hopefully just as magical, if not as fantastical – as this one.”

The Last Brother:

Mine: “The themes of brotherly love and familial bonds are predominant in this book, as well as the inherently tragic nature of life itself. This is not a light and happy read. Prepare for an emotional wringer. And, yet, the feelings Appanah elicits do not feel falsely won. There was a real story and there is real art in Appanah’s rendering.”

Moving Under Skies: “This was one of the titles from the Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen that I was most excited to read, an anticipation that was somewhat disappointed as this one made no huge impression on me. I liked it, I was happy to have read it once I had finished…..[I]t worked until the ending, which–spoiler, I suppose–nearly destroyed the book for me.”

The Stranger’s Child:

Kevin from Canada: “It is not for me — the prose started out flat, moved on to annoying and became even more self-indulgent and tedious as the novel wore on. I like Proust (and his style) but I am afraid the characters and world that Hollinghurst portrays never came to life for me. Unable to enrol in either story or style, I found the read a difficult slog.”

The Tiger’s Wife:

A Rat in the Book Pile: “The story-telling is good. Suspense is maintained, although I am not a big fan of the abrupt cut from one story-line to another. There’s a lot to be said for a discursive style which conceals its diversionary intent…..I should mention that Obreht uses dissimilar styles for her different voices, and does so convincingly. And I should refer admiringly to the depth she brings to the daughter/grandfather relationship.”

another cookie crumbles: “I was struck by how direct and wonderful the writing is – it’s emotive without being sensational, and it’s beautiful without being hyperbolic…..I loved this book, and would recommend it greatly.”

Mostly Fiction: “Even if the somewhat disparate threads in the book fall slightly short of tying into a seamless whole, this debut novel is easily one of the year’s best….Obreht tackles large and complex issues here: war, loss, the sense of place and how it forms who we are.”

Sasha & the Silverfish: “I was fascinated by this novel, gripped by the near-mythical events that only lore-tinged narratives can accomplish—but I took away nothing coherent. That is, if someone asked me what the book was about, I would have no choice but to say, “See, there’s this, well, I really can’t say it neatly.” That is, “Holy pandas, I have no fucking clue.” That is, “Oh, I like it well enough, but please don’t ask me what it was about—what it’s supposed to be about, what it’s supposed to accomplish.” That is, “There’s a tiger in there somewhere. I think.””

State of Wonder:

Mostly Fiction: “Patchett at her best is a magician of wonder, and this is indeed among her best. I count her Bel Canto as one of the best books I have ever read…..I found myself reading State of Wonder slowly and more slowly, allowing myself to sink into her depth of character, enjoying the deliberate pace of her revelation, reluctant to start another chapter until I had digested the one just finished.”

Sasha & The Silverfish: “Frankly, the cause of whatever failure State of Wonder has, I’m all to willing to heap on its lead Dr. Marina Singh’s shoulders…..Again and again, I had to witness her sheer nothingness. She’s a blank slate, she’s nothing. There’s supposedly all this wonder around her, but she is always a victim to that wonder’s underbelly, she never reciprocates what wonder the setting and the story throws her way. She’s technically part of something revolutionary…, but what does she do? She just stumbles around, prey to insects and stubborn scientists and her own fool self. Ugh.”

The Sisters Brothers:

Mine: “[The] glimpses of the everyman struggling with the world are, actually, much more exciting than the gunplay. It is a struggle for good and evil that is inside us all, a struggle with no clear winner (though sometimes a clear loser)…..Eli’s is the common struggle to make the best of an often harsh world.”

Kevin from Canada: “deWitt is a strong writer; the narrative is fast-paced and even the awkwardness in some of Eli’s wording is effectively deliberate. Unfortunately, for an action-based book, most of the incidents are quite predictable and even when the story becomes more contemplative you can only take the notion of a hired gunslinger with a heart so far.”

Reading Matters: “My problem with the novel lies mainly with the story arc. The first half is essentially a series of set pieces strung together. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, because they demonstrate the brothers’ less obvious differences and their rivalries…..But the second half, in which the brothers find Warm and then set about the task for which they’ve been hired, falls a bit flat. It doesn’t all go according to plan — that would be far too obvious — but it does get a bit melancholic. This isn’t helped by Eli doing a little too much soul-searching.”


A Rat in the Book Pile: “[B]ereavement in its own right is the primary theme. It drives the novel, and Russell charts the journey through grief with unrelenting bleakness. It is hell, it is denial, and it is vulnerability. It is solitary and it never ends.”

Mostly Fiction: “With her energetic prose, quirky settings, and fantastical plots, Russell is a writer’s whose style forces you to sit up and take notice, sometimes at the cost of emotional involvement with her work. However, Swamplandia!, with all its flashing-neon prose is an insightful (and surprisingly funny) exploration of the loss of innocence that inevitably follows the death of a parent.”

Tony’s Book World: “To me the Swamplandia! story is irresistible. Some of the reviews I’ve read refer to the story as magical realism. I disagree. I’m here to tell you that there really are woman alligator wrestlers, and there are families running alligator farms. The daughter Osceola believes in ghosts, but there are a lot of real people who believe in ghosts. There is talk of ghosts in the novel, but no actual ghosts. I would call Swamplandia “improbable but not impossible” realism. Between that and magical realism, there is a world of difference.”

The Cat’s Table:

Mostly Fiction: “It is a beautifully rendered story of growing up and living with the memories of youth. The novel’s language, the tone, the images and the tender approach to his subject suggest that this is probably Ondaatje’s most personal and intimate novel in many years.”

Kevin from Canada: “The Cat’s Table does not so much tell a story (although it does do that as well) as sketch the outlines of another one — for me, the best part of it was the way that it set my mind rolling on similar aspects of my own history and encouraged me to fill in those gaps. That is a substantial accomplishment for any novel…..The Cat’s Table was a most rewarding achievement.”

Reading Matters: “This not a plot-driven novel, nor is it a character-led one. But its interleaved storyline, switching between the past and the present, is strangely compelling — even with Ondaatje’s cool, detached tone…, you want to keep turning the pages…..Despite its strengths, I came away from the book not feeling any great love for it.”

The Marriage Plot:

Mine: “[T]he most interesting parts of the novel were Roland Barthes and the ways Leonard was like DFW. The less like DFW Leonard was, the less interesting the novel became…..The interior [of this novel] is more than mere curiosity, but not sufficiently more that I have any inclination to press it into the hands of passersby.”

A Momentary Taste of Being: “[T]his was a compelling, interesting, fascinating look at very intelligent people making mostly very poor choices……The prose of the book is, at times, quite lovely.”

Mostly Fiction: “With devastating wit and a nod to intellectual and academic influences, Jeffrey Eugenides creates a fresh new way to approach the predictable marriage plot, revealing its relevance in today’s world. It is an achievement.”

Kevin from Canada: “The second half wasn’t bad, it simply did not realize the potential that the first half showed…..[The Marriage Plot] makes for very good escapism, but doesn’t deliver on the promise of the opening paragraph with its reference to all those great authors.”

Sasha & The Silverfish: “Recently, a friend asked me, on Twitter, if I’d read it and liked it. I told him it was a college novel, and a love triangle, and that it was lovely. I add now that it brought me back to college and its sneaky little promises of infiniteness, of love, of the golden life beyond it…..But what can you do when you read a book that lends you a voice? That shares not just your love for some very specific object, but allows you to express that love, if only by pointing at a passage?”

Tony’s Book World: “The novel ‘The Marriage Plot’ is itself a marriage plot, but I can tell you that Jane Austen has not a thing to worry about. One thing that is missing in the plot is a central character who is a little older, who can look at these graduating college seniors with a little distance, a little irony. As it is I felt mostly claustrophobic disdain for these youthful characters.”

Green Girl:

Mine: “For me, with fashion and hookups doing most of the work of plot, the novel lost its way. I became disengaged and felt removed from Ruth by the end…..I lost the thread. I would say the end was disappointing, but the story had unraveled to the point I was no longer invested in the outcome.”

The Nervous Breakdown: “Kate Zambreno has written a powerful, hypnotic, and lyrical book, with Green Girl. There have been comparisons to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and I think that is a good place to start, but somewhere in here there is also the violence and danger of the misanthropic American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, and the work of Mary Gaitskill, as well. It is not just a cautionary tale, but also the baring of a soul—in all of her complex, damaged and vulnerable glory.”

The Art of Fielding:

Mostly Fiction: “Was the book intended as satire, I wondered? But the humor is not consistent. Harbach writes well for the most part, but now and again you see him reaching a little too hard…Then there are the implausibilities…But what finally sunk the book for me were the sexual relationships, none of which I could believe.”

Kevin from Canada: “[A] book that is not only entertaining but, in its own way, thought-provoking. A good “college” novel takes you back to your own experience…..That, though, is the “depth” of the novel: on an entirely satisfying surface level, it is a story that features a largish cast of well-developed characters, every one of whom I found interesting.”

Open City:

Mostly Fiction: “Open City, with its meandering ruminations of disparate topics, is not for readers who look for books with specific plot lines and incidents. And while Julius discusses many subjects of immediate interest at length (even the New York City bedbug epidemic gets an airing here), he is less than forthcoming about what seems to have been a less than straightforward past.”

Kevin from Canada: “Perhaps because I liked the tone and surroundings of the first third so much, I became increasingly frustrated as the novel proceeded…..For me, Cole had not established Julius well enough as a character for his memories to be sufficently interesting and the “thoughtful” conversations he engages in lacked the depth required to produce true insight or engagement — I found myself eager for him to move on to the next one.”

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

October 19, 2011

Augie March tells his own story beginning with his childhood in depression-era Chicago. His family is poor and his mother weak. The decisions are made by a domineering and realist grandmother. Augie’s description of her early in the novel gives a taste:

If wit and discontent don’t necessarily go together, it wasn’t from the old woman that I learned it. She was impossible to satisfy.

She does her best to ensure that the boys do well in school, stay out of trouble with the law, and learn to lie effectively to obtain medical care or food despite not qualifying for particular programs. Her goal is not so much “good” boys as successful boys. She wants for them whatever will get them ahead in the world and, hence, allow them to help with the family bills.

[T]he old lady, following her own idea of what that fate would be, continued to find various jobs for me.

Saying “various jobs,” I give out the Rosetta stone, so to speak, of my entire life.

Augie bounces from job to job, from mentor to mentor, from love to love, never able to settle into a position in life. He strives for something extraordinary, though he is not sure what that something is. His brother, Simon, is neither as idealistic nor as unfocused and, thus, generally makes more money. But this is plot and I like the writing most.

Bellow is particularly good at identifying and conveying the essential quality of a person. Describing a hulking, good-natured man called “Five Properties”, the narrator follows a few examples of the way Five Properties jokes and interacts with people with this nice summation:

He gave himself an awful lot of delight.

I like this guy as minor as he is to the story.

But the minor characters are important, Augie realizes that, particularly at a young age, he is more a product of influences than an independent agent.

All the influences were lined up waiting for me. I was born, and there they were to form me, which is why I tell you more of them than of myself.

As skillfully created a narrator as you can find, he tells us, of course, all about himself in the way he describes his “influences”. Bellow has that felicity with language that allows an author to speak on multiple levels simultaneously. For example:

William Einhorn was the first superior man I knew. He had a brain and many enterprises, real directing power, philosophical capacity, and if I were methodical enough to take thought before an important and practical decision and also (N.B.) if I were really his disciple and not what I am, I’d ask myself, “What would Caesar suffer in this case? What would Machiavelli advise or Ulysses do? What would Einhorn think?” I’m not kidding when I enter Einhorn in this eminent list. It was him that I knew, and what I understand of them in him. Unless you want to say that we’re at the dwarf end of all times and mere children whose only share in grandeur is like a boy’s share in fairy-tale kings, beings of a different kind from times better and stronger than ours. But if we’re comparing men and men, not men and children or men and demigods…if we don’t have any special wish to abdicate into some different, lower form of existence out of shame for our defects before the golden faces of these and other old-time men, then I have the right to praise Einhorn and not care about smiles of derogation from those who think the race no longer has in any important degree the traits we honor in these fabulous names. But I don’t want to be pushed into exaggeration by such opinion, which is the opinion of students who, at all ages, feel their boyishness when they confront the past.

If you suspect Einhorn is not quite as superior as Augie believes, you win a gold star. Augie does not, however, and that is brilliant. With a blindspot in his self-awareness, Augie scoffs at the “boyishness” and naivete of others who, incorrectly, believe men are different now than they were then. It is clear that Augie has caught a touch of hero-worship, a malady of youth if there ever was one. He uses the then-fashionable “N.B.” for “nota bene”, which became fashionable because a (then current) hero comparable to Ceasar or Machiavelli, namely FDR, had used it in one of his fireside chats. Augie is all enthusiasm and praise when, as Bellow also deftly conveys, the truth is much more messy and complex.

We learn something about Augie and something about Einhorn while being prodded with an observation on the world and history. Who are the great men of today? Or, alternatively, would intimate analysis of all great men bring them down to earth as flawed, sometimes petty or weak or selfishly grasping? From history to metaphysics and back through philosophy, Bellow peppers this novel with a learnedness as impressive as it is unobtrusive.

Bellow is, as James Wood has said, one of the “really great prose writers.” He was as eloquent writing about cars as people or ideas:

[E]arly in the morning Joe Gorman picked me up in a black Buick; it was souped up, I could tell the first instant, from the hell-energy that gives you no time to consider….[I]n and out of Gary in two twists and on the road for Toledo, where the speed increased, and the mouth of the motor opened out like murder, not panting, but liberated to do what it was made for.

Slender, pressing down nervous on the wheel, with his long nose of broken form and the color running fast up his face and making a narrow crossing on his forehead, Gorman was like a jockey in his feeling toward the car. You could see what pleasure he got out of finding what he needed to wrap his nerves in.

Bellow’s are sentences to touch and stroke. His prose has a distinctive sensuousness even as it burrows to sharp, slicing truths. The Adventures of Augie March manages to surprise with little stocking-stuffers on each page. And that is the least of the achievements here.

Not everyone, apparently, fell in love with Augie. That I can believe. Augie is not a conventional hero who prevails over all obstacles. Life treats him like a rugby ball, punching, kicking, and grasping at him. Bad guys win while Augie loses. Mostly, though, the characters lose as people usually, eventually, do. In the decades since Augie entered the scene, many critics have marked this book as Bellow’s arrival as a serious man of letters. The novel marked a less restricted approach than he had used in his first two novels. He is quoted later as saying about Augie March:

I took off many of these restraints…I think I took off too many, and went too far, but I was feeling the excitement of discovery. I had just increased my freedom, and like any emancipated plebeian I abused it at once.

And he was probably right. The story itself is a many-armed seamonster. Augie is buffeted about like a mote of dust in a droplet of water. He is acted upon more than he acts, making him a frustrating protagonist. His powerful but diffuse ambition stymies itself, pushing in too many directions or none at all. This is conveyed well, but perhaps there is too much of it. A partial listing of Augie’s jobs gives a flavor of how widely he ventures: newsstand clerk, book thief, dog groomer, eagle trainer, salesman, bodyguard, smuggler, and merchant marine. Augie March does not have the same tightness of Bellow’s later Seize the Day. A little more authorial tyranny might have improved the book. Or not.

Bellow acknowledged “the great mass of sand and gravel” in the novel but seemed pleased, as am I, that he “took [his] chance.”

Summer Vacation

August 28, 2011

While I have not really had a summer vacation, only a busy schedule which has interfered with my blogging (and reading), the blog itself has been on vacation. I plan to begin posting regularly again on September 6th and, if nothing else, each Tuesday thereafter for the foreseeable future. Actually, I hope to continue the posts a fair bit beyond the foreseeable future, as I cannot see far into the future at all.

My apologies for not making a similar announcement before now, but I was not sure when I would be able to resume. Of course, I should have announced a break, but I kept thinking “next weekend I will post something”. Events would conspire against me, or I would feel they had, and I postponed posting another week until, I see, I took a whole summer off. Oops.

On Tuesday the Sixth of September: Siri Hustvedt’s The Blindfold.