Struggling to Finish a Book
Published on January 23, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about my attempt to read the Roberto Bolano novel "2666," and other unfinished business.

Here's an excerpt:

"I can’t remember the last time I didn’t finish a book. I think it was middle school, when I failed to complete 'The Red Badge of Courage.' And I managed to get through Stephen Crane’s classic war novel in high school, so it no longer counts as an unread book.

It’s been a long time, but I’m now faced with the question of whether to bail on a book: Chilean writer Roberto Bolano’s massive 2004 novel '2666.'

I’d heard nothing but good things about '2666,' and when I started reading it, months ago, I was excited. I usually enjoy long, acclaimed literary novels. I liked 'Infinite Jest.' I love 'Moby Dick.' I’m a fan of both 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina.' But I’m struggling with '2666.' And because I always finish the books I start, I feel like I’m trapped in a novel I cannot get out of. For various reasons, I cannot bring myself to stop reading. But I feel like, at my current pace, it’s going to take me another three years to read '2666,' and that there are a lot of books I’d rather read instead.

So why can’t I stop reading '2666'? Well, it was so widely praised I feel like at some point it must all come together and start to make sense. I mean, sometimes long literary novels require a certain amount of patience. But I’ve read about 300 pages, and I’m still puzzled by the book’s reason for existence. What is this book about? What is it trying to say? I have no idea. I’m worried that I’ll read all 900 pages and feel like I’ve wasted months and months of precious reading time."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Recent Reads
Published on September 24, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about two books I recently read, both written by newspaper columnists: "No Ordinary Lives" by David Johnson and "1 Dead in Attic" by Chris Rose.

Click here to learn more.

Little Libertarians on the Prairie?
Published on August 11, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the Boston Globe, there's an interesting piece on Laura Ingalls Wilder, her daughter, and their New Deal-hating ways.

Click here to read it.

Reading "House of Holes"
Published on June 13, 2013 by Sara Foss

I decided to read the 2011 Nicholson Baker novel "House of Holes" out of curiosity.

Baker is a well-regarded writer, which is why "House of Holes" was widely reviewed and discussed, despite being an explicitly sexual, pornographic work. People who wouldn't be caught dead reading "50 Shades of Grey" felt comfortable reading "House of Holes," because it is a work of literature. How do I know this? Because I'm one of those people.

Anyway, I've never read anything like "House of Holes." It's surreal and fanciful and very, very dirty. The plot concerns the House of Holes, a sort of sexual spa where guests can indulge their every fantasy and desire, as long as they abide by arbitrary rules that are enforced by the woman who runs the place, Lila. The book is more of a series of vignettes than a cohesive story, which might explain with the book is enjoyable, but never quite seems to build into a meaningful whole. When I started reading "House of Holes," I thought it was hilarious and brilliant, but even at a trim 260-plus pages it felt long: Perhaps my appetite for sexual explicit, loosely connected vignettes just isn't that vast. "House of Holes" is never boring, but the novelty does wear off.


Reading "Super Sad True Love Story"
Published on May 28, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about the comic dystopian novel "Super Sad True Love Story" by Gary Shteyngart.

Click here to read more.

E.L. Konigsburg, R.I.P.
Published on April 25, 2013 by Sara Foss

"From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" was one of my favorite books growing up. 

The New Yorker has a nice tribute to the book's author, E.L. Konigsburg, who died earlier this week.

Literary Notes
Published on March 7, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I offer some thoughts on Richard Russo, inaugural poet Richard Blanco and memoirist Christa Parravani.

Click here to read them.

An Interview With George Saunders
Published on February 20, 2013 by Sara Foss

I saw the short story writer George Saunders read tonight at the University at Albany, and he was fantastic.

Here's an interview with Saunders that The Awl posted earlier this week.

Also, here's a Salon piece on how there hasn't been a revival of interest in short fiction due to the Internet, despite the New York Times' claim that there is.

Rekindling My Love For Fiction
Published on February 18, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about reading "Billy Budd," and how it broke me out of my recent bad mood about fiction.

Here's an excerpt:

"My New Year’s resolution to read more hit an immediate speed bump when I decided it was time to read 'Billy Budd, Sailor,' Herman Melville’s unfinished novella.

'How hard will this be?' I thought to myself. 'It’s a novella!'

My expectations for 'Billy Budd' were quite high: I read 'Moby Dick' about five years ago and thought it was the greatest book ever. And I’m not being hyperbolic — I’m hard-pressed to think of a better book. Not that I’ve read every book, mind you. I still haven’t read 'The Brothers Karamazov' or anything by Proust. But I have read 'War and Peace,' 'Crime and Punishment' and 'Anna Karenina,' and I think 'Moby Dick' is the superior work.

Of course, reading 'Moby Dick' is no small task.

It took me about six months to get through 'Moby Dick,' and I celebrated this accomplishment by reading lots of short and easy books. I like literary challenges, but I needed a break after 'Moby Dick.' (I took similar breaks after 'War and Peace' and 'V' by Thomas Pynchon.)

Click here to read the whole thing.

My Favorite Kid's Books
Published on January 14, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about some of my favorite kid's books. The list includes Roald Dahl's "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More" and Stephen King's "The Eyes of the Dragon."

Click here to read it.

Trying to Read "Zeitoun"
Published on December 10, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about reading the Dave Eggers nonfiction book "Zeitoun" in light of disturbing allegations against the protagonist of his story. 

Here's an excerpt:

"When it comes to reading, a friend of mine adheres to a 50-page rule: If the book fails to engage her within the first 50 pages, she puts it down and moves on to something else. This is a good philosophy, but I take pretty much the opposite tact: I finish every book I start, even books I hate. For me, reading is a real commitment. However, I am now faced with the difficult choice of whether to quit reading a book. And it’s not because the book is poorly written, or lacks a compelling story. It’s because the writer, Dave Eggers, appears to have gotten the story wrong, and I feel bamboozled.

Here’s the scenario: A few weeks ago, I picked up Eggers’ acclaimed 2009 book 'Zeitoun,' a non-fiction account of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a New Orleans resident who helped rescue flooded neighbors during Hurricane Katrina, and was then wrongly accused of terrorism and jailed for 23 days. (The Syrian-born Zeitoun is an American citizen; his wife, Kathy, is a Louisiana native and Muslim convert.)

I’m not that far into the book, but here’s what I’ve learned so far: Zeitoun is a devoted husband, father and small business owner, a calm and thoughtful man who treats his workers well and is loved and admired by all who know him. However, recent reports suggest that Zeitoun is a much more sinister character. On Nov. 8, a grand jury indicted Zeitoun for allegedly trying to kill his ex-wife — the couple is now divorced — and ordering a hit on her from behind bars. During the summer, Zeitoun was charged with beating his wife and striking her with a tire iron.

Zeitoun’s troubles were reported earlier this year, but I missed those reports. Instead, I learned of them over the weekend, when I stumbled across an LA Review of Books essay (click here) by Victoria Patterson that asks, 'Did Dave Eggers Get ‘Zeitoun’ Wrong?'"

Click here to read the whole thing.

Reading "Freedom"
Published on November 12, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about the Jonathan Franzen novel "Freedom," which I plowed through on my vacation. 

Here's an excerpt:

"I recently finished Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed novel 'Freedom,' about a year after everybody else read it.

For the first 150 pages, I felt like throwing the book at the wall, even though I couldn’t put it down. That’s the thing about 'Freedom': It’s highly entertaining, compulsively readable ... and often insufferable.

But it gets better, steadily improving as the narrative progresses, and after I got through the first third, I found 'Freedom' much easier to take. On many levels, the book is a joy to read — a witty, nuanced, hyper-realistic satire. But on another level, I often felt like Franzen — and, specifically, his take on family, society and politics in the 21st century — was full of crap. His characters are sharply drawn, and I really felt as if I knew them. But this was also part of the problem. At almost every turn, the characters fulfilled my expectations for them. It was only at the end of the book, when Franzen brings his story to a poignant close, that I felt as though I could begin putting some of my reservations aside."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Revisiting Stephen King: Reading "From a Buick 8"
Published on October 1, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about "From a Buick 8," the Stephen King novel I just finished reading.

Here's an excerpt:

"Every few years I read a book by Stephen King, and it’s a bit like visiting an old friend. I was an avid King reader in middle school and much of high school, but by the time I left for college I’d pretty much moved on. My focus was literature, and the pulpier pleasures of genre fiction struck me as childish and unimportant.

Now that I’m older, I see the error of my ways. As a writer, King might not be on par with, say, Melville or Tolstoy, but he’s a gifted storyteller, with a knack for characterization, description and making simple yet profound insights into human nature and the world. His horror novels are creepy and somtimes gross, but they’re also moving, and they get under your skin.

I recently finished reading King’s 2002 novel 'From a Buick 8,' which he wrote while recovering from a near-fatal accident that occurred when he was struck by a car while walking on a country road in Maine. (King wrote about this incident at length in his excellent memoir/writing guide, 'On Writing.') A similar event provides 'From a Buick 8' with a certain impetus: The story opens in the aftermath of the death of State Trooper Curt Wilcox, who was killed when a drunk driver smashed into him while he was making a routine traffic stop. Curt’s teenage son, Ned, has been hanging out at the barracks since his father died, doing chores. One day, Ned discovers the barrack’s secret: A vintage Buick Roadmaster without a scratch on it and some curious features, such as an immobile steering wheel. Ned asks the commanding officer, Sandy, about the car, and Sandy and some of his colleagues do their best to explain the mysterious vehicle’s secrets."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Thoughts on "The Hunger Games"
Published on August 6, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I offer some of my thoughts on "The Hunger Games," as well as similar works, such as "Battle Royale" and "The Most Dangerous Game."

Here's an excerpt:

"I finally read 'The Hunger Games,' and I enjoyed it.

The book is brisk, pulpy and exciting, and I’m looking forward to reading 'Catching Fire,' the next book in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling dystopian young adult trilogy. At the same time, I was a bit shocked by the fact that children all over the place have read this violent book, in which kids are forced to kill other kids as part of some sick annual tournament sponsored by a futuristic totalitarian regime. Whenever I felt this way, I reminded myself that I read all sorts of disturbing and horrific literature when I was a kid, and that 'The Hunger Games' certainly couldn’t be any worse than, say, 'It' by Stephen King, or 'The Chocolate War,' by Robert Cormier. Today, the A.V. Club took a look at 'The Chocolate War' in their young adult book column, describing the book as a 'malevolent gem,' geared toward 'fans of unhappy endings.' Nobody dies in 'The Chocolate War,' but the level of violence — physical and emotional — is quite high, and packs even more of a punch than the 'Most Dangerous Game'-themed 'Hunger Games.'

Published in 1924, 'The Most Dangerous Game' is a short story about a man who falls off a yacht, swims to an island and is hunted for entertainment by the aristocrat who lives there. I read 'The Most Dangerous Game' in the seventh grade, around the same time I read the classic novel the 'Lord of the Flies,' about a group of British children who descend into savagery when marooned on an island. Obviously, works of literature (or movies) where humans hunt and kill each other like animals is nothing new, and 'The Hunger Games' is a proud new entrant in this bleak and subversive canon. What makes it a little different is that it’s clearly packaged for a teen audience, while the authors of 'The Most Dangerous Game' and 'Lord of the Flies' probably imagined a more adult readership."

Click here to read more.

Rule of Thumb contributor J.K. Eisen expounded on this topic here, while Rule of Thumb contributor Tony Are discussed "The Hunger Games" book and movie here.

Reading "Working"
Published on July 16, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about the Studs Terkel book "Working."

Here's an excerpt:

"A description of 'Working' might make it sound rather tedious. Published in 1974, the book is a collection of interviews in which people talk about their jobs — what they do, how they feel about it and their attitudes toward work and life in general. What’s amazing is how interesting the interviews are — Terkel’s subjects provide vivid accounts of their work, as well as wise insights drawn from years of toil, even when the jobs being discussed seem fairly mundane: waitress, accountant, hospital aide, bus driver. I was also impressed with how many of Terkel’s subjects are gifted storytellers — how eloquently they speak of their hopes, dreams, fears and joys. Each interview contains poetry, and truth.

'Working' gives lie to one of the big myths of our time: that blue-collar work is somehow less important, less worthy of respect, than white collar work. Terkel speaks with auto workers, truck drivers, welders, heavy equipment operators and miners, who all give the impression that they’re working very hard, at jobs that are physically demanding and require a certain amount of know-how to do well. We hear from a service station owners who put in 12-hour days, a cab driver who fears for his safety and a janitor who takes pride in his work, saying, 'You can call me a janitor. There’s nothing wrong with a janitor.'"

Click here to read more.

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