Stuff I’ve Been Reading Lately

Like I tell my writing students (& as was told to me), you have to be a good reader to be a good writer. Here are some of the books/stories I’ve been reading lately.

Dana Spiotta’s great novel EAT THE DOCUMENT. The title refers to the never-seen documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1966 tour of England with the Hawks (the tour where he was called a “Judas” during a performance because he had “gone electric”). While EAT THE DOCUMENT (the novel) features a fair amount of music references (one of the characters is obsessed with the Beach Boys’ doomed “Smile” project), the main plot concerns two fugitives from justice who, years later, are living separate, seemingly normal lives in Washington State. Spiotta elegantly shifts back & forth in time, from the early ’70s to the near-present day, using multiple narrators to chart the incognito lives of these two former Weather Underground-type activists who have not seen one another since they went on the run nearly 30 years earlier. Most interesting to me is how Spiotta withholds certain information (e.g., the exact details of the crime that sent the characters underground) for most of the novel, & also how she allows the reader to make links between the various sections without telling us where to look. I can’t wait to read her newest book, STONE ARABIA, which has gotten rave reviews.

Nicole Krauss’s novel GREAT HOUSE shares a lot of qualities with EAT THE DOCUMENT, especially its fluid exploration of time. Like Spiotta’s novel, GREAT HOUSE uses different narrators & leaps back & forth in time, but it’s even more ambitious in some ways because, while Spiotta clearly delineates the time changes (with chapter breaks), Krauss seamlessly wanders through the years within the same sections, often within the same paragraph, so that a character may start with a scene that happened today &, almost without our noticing, moves on to a deep flashback for several pages. It’s quite a performance. My only beef with the novel is that one section toward the end seems almost perversely slow to get to the climactic scene in which an elderly widower learns his late wife’s most deeply kept secret. Like EAT THE DOCUMENT, GREAT HOUSE would easily inspire, in a reader more anal than I, the creation of a chart on which all the far-flung characters’ relationships are linked, complete with a time line. That the reader never actually needs this sort of chart is a testament to Krauss’s clarity.

Another recent novel with multiple narrators that leaps around in time is Colum McCann’s LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, a kaleidoscopic love letter to New York that revolves around Phillipe Petit’s stupendous tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Chapters move back in forth between characters who directly observe the walk (including Petit himself) to those who only hear about it on the news as their own chaotic lives play out. Of course any novel that concerns itself with this particular feat is actually, in some way, about 9/11, & how the city’s diverse citizens go about their lives during times of crisis & beauty. It’s a life-affirming novel that, again, deftly weaves its various strands in a way that is not at all confusing. Also check out MAN ON WIRE, the fabulous documentary about Petit’s death-defying walk.

On the nonfiction front, I’ve been reading John Lanchester’s illuminating book I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone & No One Can Pay, a sort of layman’s examination of the financial crisis that blew up in our faces in 2008. Lanchester makes the debacle as comprehensible as is humanly possible, which is to say that I now understand the crisis about 50% more than I did before. His outrage is infectious, & his humor necessary–otherwise my head might explode. Interestingly, just as I’m reading this book, Lanchester has published a short story in this week’s New Yorker. The story, “Expectations,” which actually appears to be an excerpt from his forthcoming novel (why do they do that at the New Yorker? Why do they publish novel excerpts when there are so many good, legit short stories out there?), is about a London “bankster’s” anticipation of, & reaction to, his yearly bonus. The story seems to take place in late 2007, just as the financial world started to boil over, & it makes for fascinating reading in tandem with I.O.U.


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