What I’ve Been Reading — June 2006


Books Bought/Received:

Nausea – Jean Paul Sartre
The Wall – Jean Paul Sartre
The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography – Kathleen Norris
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, #13 – Chris Ware (editor)
The Facts of Winter – Paul Poissel (translated by Paul La Farge) (received two)
Dear New Girl, Or Whatever Your Name Is — Lisa Wagner, Trinie Dalton, Eli Horowitz
The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup – Matt Weiland & Sean Wilsey (editors)

Books Read:

Towards the End of the Morning – Michael Frayn
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, #13 – Chris Ware (editor)
The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup – Matt Weiland & Sean Wilsey (editors)
The Facts of Winter – Paul Poissel (translated by Paul La Farge)

Oh, summer. With the sun’s rays glancing off of our slowly tanning skin, you and I, the readers of the world, settle down for a few months of warm relaxation. This is the time for cracking books open under the heat of a mid-July day and for catching up on all of that light reading we’ve thrown aside for darker, colder novels with little joy and lots of pain. It’s summer! Break out the John Grisham! Uncover the Tom Clancy!

Personally, I figured I’d use the summer to wade through the multitude of books I’ve let collect over the past few months – no thanks to the Augustana Library Book Sale and a weak moment of book purchasing in April. In addition to this mess, I managed to collect even more books – none of which I paid for, except one – that one being The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, which you’ll read about later when I expound graciously on my sudden fandom for the World Cup.

Kerrie collected four books of interest from our friend Sara’s garage sale. She moved to Montana, and while we are all sad that she left, we did end up with some reading material out of the deal. The gem was Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, a novel I’ve heard many good things about and am excited to start one of these days. Of a lesser importance are two Jean Paul Sartre books – Nausea and The Wall. They’re great because, well, they’ll look super intelligent on my bookshelf. They’ll sit next to The Autobiography of Mark Twain and On Human Bondage on the “look at the books I have in my collection” shelf. Also picked up was Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. That will go on the shelf I just named.

Of course, regular readers have heard about my McSweeney’s ordeal. I’ll just link that post if you want the story behind the acquiring of these books. The odd thing is, though, after they sent me all of those free books, they sent me another copy of The Facts of Winter. Now I have two copies of a book that I never asked for. I guess that’s what guilted me into reading it this month.

Anyway, it was time I tackled some of the promising selections that I’d nearly forgotten about just three months later. First on my list: Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn.

I did not realize that Frayn was such a well-known and respected author when I bought Towards the End of the Morning off of a library table. Instead, I was drawn by the cover – a City of London sign announcing Fleet Street, the city’s old newspaper district – and the promise of a quirky P.G. Wodehouse-esque novel. Later, I learned that this was a reissue, a call back from an earlier pressing in 1967, so there must have been some clamoring for it in the last few years.

Towards the End is about two people – John Dyson and Bob – who push through careers in the crossword and nature notes department of an unknown London newspaper. John dreams of a life on television. Bob just dreams of life being steady and ordinary. Both work together without really getting anything done.

It’s their interactions with each other and with the general public – friends, family, co-workers, neighbors – that drive the novel. Both John and Bob seem impervious to anything around them, which leads to entire chapters of miscommunication, confusion, and intense worry. All of which are hilarious. We’re talking subtle, soft humor here – there’s nothing that’s going to have you rolling on the floor, but there’s enough to leave you smiling through every foible.

I realize that I’ve given you the impression that I actually finished this book straight through. That’s not the case. I was interrupted twice while reading Towards the End with compilations that warranted immediate attention.

First, after my short battle with McSweeney’s Press (a company run by author Dave Eggers, creator of The Believer magazine) and after finally settling business and, in return, getting a whole box of stuff, I decided I couldn’t wait to read McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13, an older edition of their quarterly literary journal. This one happened to be the comics issue. And after reading through the entire journal, I went online and ordered a subscription. It was that good.

McSweeney’s #13 serves as a primer for the history of comics as well as the state of comics today. More than 50 different artists were rounded up, from R. Crumb to Art Spiegelman, to contribute original pieces — from a short, one-page comic to an entire mini-book included as an extra. Even the cover folds out to become a comic by Chris Ware, editor and master designer. It’s beautifully bound, painstakingly researched, and spattered with literary commentary. Author Michael Chabon, This American Life’s Ira Glass, and legend John Updike all make appearances. If you’re a fan of comics, or if you want to rekindle whatever love you had for graphic novels, comic books, and newspaper strips, you’d be advised to go find a copy of it somewhere.

The second distraction wasn’t just a book. It was an entire sport. Once every four years, I rediscover international soccer – primarily, the World Cup. And every four years, once the tournament is over, I promptly lose the love I had displayed just months before. I always mean to stay in touch once the World Cup is over, but I never do. I don’t know enough about European clubs and can’t find coverage of United States soccer, so I just lose it all together. But for a month and a half, I’m an expert. And that’s what led me to buying The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup.

The Thinking Fan’s Guide is exactly what it advertises – 32 essays by different writers about the 32 countries that participated in the 2006 World Cup Finals. The essays range from David Eggers’ gym teachers calling soccer communistic to Aleksander Hemon’s unfortunate mix of sex and soccer. Nick Hornby struggles with the choice between club team (London’s Arsenal, which employs a vast number of the French national team) and country (England, of course). Does he root for England? Or does he root for his Arsenal players? Sukhdev Sandhu thinks Saudi Arabia’s too soft, while William Finnegan laments the loss of Portugal’s best surfing spot – thanks to modern culture and, in part, soccer.

On top of 32 great essays, Franklin Foer (Jonathan Safran’s brother – any regular reader knows of my fascination with the entire family) describes the government most likely to win a World Cup ala his book How Soccer Explains the World. In addition, it’s packed with stats – useful demographic information on each country, past World Cup winners and the records of current World Cup participants, and the likelihood of each team to win. Brazil leads, obviously, with Trinidad and Tobago dead last. It’s great for everyday soccer fans, and invaluable for the every-four-years fan, like myself. Hell, I’d even go as far to say you’d enjoy it if you hate football, er, soccer. Look at it as a travel anthology with 32 different points of view.

Finally, I dipped into another of my “free gifts” from McSweeney’s – Paul La Farge’s translation of Paul Poissel’s The Facts of Winter, a book of dreams, so to speak. Over the span of three winter months, Poissel documents a series of dreams just as they occur. Most seem fictitious, but they still mimic the kind of weird dreams you come across in your own life. Remember that one where you were on a canoe, but the canoe didn’t have a bottom, and your third grade teacher kept telling you to paddle harder but you couldn’t because your oars were made out of gelatin? No? Do you remember something like it?

Chances are you do. Those weird dreams are chronicled in The Facts of Winter. It’s a really quick read (both the French and the English translations are back to back, so you only read half of the pages) and worth while if you’re into that whole “interpreting dreams” thing. Though there aren’t any interpretations. Just the dreams. It’s weird, but pretty cool.

Summer reading is supposed to be relaxing. Basic. The easiest of the easy, a way to disconnect from whatever you do during your forty working hours and reconnect to the sun, sand, and a cooler full of beer. With subjects like comics, sports, odd dreams and a goofy newspaper world, I think I started things off rather well.

Now, if I can keep the pace up, I might actually make a dent in that pile of books.

This was lovingly handwritten on July 1st, 2006