Posts Tagged ‘Nicholson Baker’

Book Links 9-14-12

September 14, 2012

Hard to improve on the original title, Authors Behaving Badly.  Scary stuff that I, frankly, don’t understand. Yeah, we all love what we do, and it hurts like hell to hear someone else say that they don’t. It still doesn’t give you the right to assault them.  Just seriously not cool. Hope the agent is recovering well.
Popular science lets us know that literature is good for our brain. Well, yeah. Though I’m not sure they should have a picture with an Ayn Rand novel in it for the article. I guess it goes to show that any literature has to have some benefits.
The New York Times has an interview with Nicholson Baker. I like the guy’s books, so I’m putting it up here.

Some good news on the book buying front: sales at bookstores went up in July. I’m not sure it’s so much a sign of people going to bookstores rather than Amazon or if it’s just another sign of the economy turning around. I’m betting the latter.

And it looks like we know where publishers are going to try to make their money back if Amazon is going to slash prices. Hachette has “bumped” their prices to library’s by 220% for ebooks. I can sort of get Random House’s limiting downloads, though 26 seems way WAY too low. Someone somewhere has to have an idea of how many times a book is typically taken out of a library before they have to buy a new copy, and that number has to be far higher than 26. Find that number and use that. And just charge them what you’d charge them for a typical hardbound copy. Libraries is one of the last institutions we should financially plunder.

Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker – review

August 10, 2012

Baker’s Human Smoke is an enthralling, sprawling montage of events that led up to the United States’ official involvement in WWII. It actually goes just past that, rounding out on Dec. 31, 1941, but it really only makes sense to end it on the last day of the year, with the United State’ entry into the war coming so shortly before it. The wonderful thing about this book is that I felt like an idiot while reading it.  Baker sets the book up to read in short burts, often less than a page or even half a page in length. He will jump from one person’s account of living in the early stages of the Nazi regime in Germany and then jump to the Quakers lobbying FDR to allow them to send food and assistance to people recently put beneath the Nazi boot heels. Baker does a remarkable job of weaving numerous histories together into a satisfying whole that is impossible to move away from for long.

My feeling like an idiot happened on average in about one in five of these vignettes. While Hitler&Co. clearly had a thing against the Jews, the rest of the prominent world leaders weren’t exactly friendly.  The impression  I have always gotten of history is that the Nazis quickly rose to power, then began massacring the Jews and there wasn’t a whole lot that could have been done. That this genocide was almost predestined and just had to happen. Instead, there were numerous opportunities for goverments to have stepped in and mitigated the human disaster that was to become of the Jews and other minority groups who fell under Nazi rule. The United States refused to alter their immigration policies. What amounted to refugee ships were turned away at ports. Other nations refused to step up and give the Jews safe harbor.  I hate to refer to it as indifference (though it would be a nice term than anti-semitism, which is did seem to at least border upon at times) but the coldness of other nations when there were moments they could have stepped in was abhorrent.

I was also mildly shocked at Churchill’s cold bloodedness. It’s easy to sort of be okay with his willingness to kill German’s at the time, but some of the quotes attributed to Churchill throughout the book make him appear nearly indifferent to the horrors caused by his naval blockade and the amount of collateral suffering imposed by his actions. By contrast, the German’s do not come off as nearly the monsters history largely paints them as. It seems that there was a genuine opportunity for the worst of their attrocities to be avoided, or at least greatly mitigated, by a different approach (such as allowing the Jews to get the hell out of Europe before everything hit the fan instead of slamming shut the immigration doors).

Another thing that I wasn’t as aware of before reading is how the US goaded Japan into action. Baker does not have a lot of takes from the Japanese side, but they really are not necessary considering the wealth of what he has from the Americans. FDR wanted to get into the war and Pearl Harbor gave him the excuse to do it. There have been some conspiracy theories that the US knew it was going to happen and did nothing just for that purpose, which I don’t fully believe. But it is clear that FDR was repeatedly jamming a stick into the side of Japan, trying to get them to react. It’s the lengths America went to for this that got to me. I had no idea we supported China’s fight against Japan so long or so openly. Or that we taunted them by giving fuel to the Soviets but not to them.  Or the numerous smaller things that just kept poking that stick.

Reading Baker’s collection of excerpts makes it appear as though the leaders of the world were nearly spoiling for another war. And those who were actively pushing for military engagement were marginalized by those that were. there’s a certain feeling of connection between this and the W. presidency after 9-11. It seemed that regardless of anything else that was to happen, war would be declared. It’s a brutal idea, that was might be desired by a select few to the point of inevitability.

Reading Baker’s afterward, he notes that all of his quotes, all of his material, are readily available to the public -largely through newspaper. I’ve also been reading Baker’s book Double Fold, which I’m unlikely to finish as I just can’t get into it (though I will keep trying.  In Double Fold, Baker documents the attempt of libraries to ditch their newspaper collections in favor of microfilm or whatever new tech has happened by that is supposed to be able to store a whole lot of newspaper in a tiny tiny space. The short of it is that our digital and film copies are largely horrible and error filled. Words, sometimes pages, are lost. Finely detailed pictures are reduced to blobs. In an effort to save space, our libraries have blown vast sums of money (as Baker points out, far more than it would have cost to just build a warehouse to store the stuff they wanted to replace) to make barely legible copies that are wholly inferior to the originals. This has resulted in us losing a vast amount of knowledge about our past.  It has also resulted in our scholarly work on history changing, as there are fewer and fewer caches of source materials for our historians to draw from.  We are literally destroying our past, so it  may be no wonder that we so often seem to repeat it.

Here is the B&N link for Human Smoke.

And here for Double Fold.

A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker – a review

July 19, 2012

Alright, trying to get back on the horse and start cranking out some more book reviews, starting with this little read by Nicholson Baker. A little while back I reviewed Baker’s unapologetically raunchy House of Holes and found it fitting in with pretty much everything I have ever read of Baker’s. This was by no means a bad thing. I thoroughly enjoy Baker. Regardless of how deeply he dives into the sexual, I’m not sure I’d ever call him pornographic in the sense that he’s just doing it to do it and to titillate through it. I may just see too much in it, but I believe there has always been something more to Baker’s writing, that there has to be something more, because amidst all of the boobs, asses, penises and whatever else he works onto his pages, there’s also a breathtaking humanity. A Box of Matches is that humanity in focus.  Nowhere in these pages will anyone shoot through a drier at the laundromat to a sexual oasis. Instead, it will be page after page of a middle aged (or slightly passed middle age, depending on how pessimistic you want to be) man getting up every morning, making his way to the living room, starting a fire, and then ruminating for a moment on life.

what stands out to me now is how the narrator begins with attempting to get up earlier and earlier, attempting to find moments of true solitude while also avoiding waking himself up any more than he has to. He trains himself to work in the dark, but has a bit of a disaster when this or that item isn’t where he was accustomed to leaving and finding it. The only light he wants in the morning, at least until anyone else is up and about is the fire light. This makes me think of Werner Herzog’s recent documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In it, Herzog talks of not only the images on the walls, but how firelight must have played across them, and how the flickering of the light may have given them movement, a sense of liveliness.  I have to think that there is something similar to the narrator’s wanting to sit in front of the fire every morning, without any other lights intruding upon the dance of the flames and how the flames resemble the narrator’s memory.

While trying to make sense of life, recounting episodes from the previous day or from years before, his memory seems to ave that same flickering appeal. Really, they are very much like paintings in a dark cave. They are always there, they were put there for a reason, but they need to be illuminated to be noticed, to be significant. Not only do they need light cast upon them, but they need a special light to make them alive.  With each passing chapter, the narrator seems to be attempting to throw new light onto his life, to see it a different way, to divine something from the flickering images on the wall. I can’t say he dissects his life, it never comes across as that distanced and cold. In fact, the use and image of the fire works to dispel this idea. It’s not always the warmest practice, but there is a closeness to the narrator’s continued efforts that makes his journey distinctly human.

Also, sitting in the dark in front of the fire has a primitive aspect to it. The idea of dissection is scientific, modern. Baker’s searching narrator is anything but modern. He doesn’t use a lighter, but matches. He doesn’t have a gas fire with fake logs, but a real honest to God fireplace that has to be loaded with wood, lit with care and then managed. He goes out of his way to not light a lamp or hit a light switch. The only allowance he does seem to make to modernity is using a coffee maker. No matter how desperately you want to get back a simpler life, I guess you always have to have your coffee.

It seems significant that as the novel comes to a close, the narrator comes full circle.  He crumbles up the now empty box of matches and decides he wants to just go back to bed and lay with his wife.  Is he moving away from embracing memory and deciding to embrace the present instead?  I think there is certainly a hint of that here. Baker seems to be saying that memory has its place, but sitting in the solitude of memory involves sacrifices of its own. While the flickering images of the past can be comforting, even mesmerizing, they are still only images being played against the wall of the cave. While these moments are not forgotten, they are most certainly gone and attempting to live within them is foolish. Instead, there is the now, the forging of new memories that matters.  Even when that memory is just going back to bed.

House of Holes by Nicholson Baker – review (adult content)

May 9, 2012

Most books have a little, fancy fonted script on them that says “a novel” or stories.” Nicholson Baker’s book has a book raunch on its cover. It lives up to it.

I’ve tried to come up with something more to say, to find a reason for its blatant sexuality beyond it wanting to be blatantly sexual and revel in all things lascivious. I can’t. Maybe I didn’t pay close enough attention, and just missed it. Maybe I got too distracted by the rows of meatsticks, the stacks of boob fat and the buckets of come (though not “cum”) that litter each story. This isn’t to say the entire novel isn’t without substance. There are people looking for love, looking for connection, and looking for themselves. the ubiquity itself of the sex may form a comment of its centrality of our lives. Either in its abundance or its absence, its joy or its perversity, it plays a key, if not central, role in defining who we are. What Baker is possibly doing is pushing that to the front and center, where it can’t be ignored, and letting loose with a bevy of language to make its unsettling presence slightly more palatable.

It is Baker’s vocabulary and verbal ingenuity that really carry the novel. He doesn’t hide behind it. Every term I used above, he uses in the text, and it never comes off as the author attempting to shirk the reality of his material. Instead, “boob fat” is partly humorous but also straightforwardly honest. Meat stick is exactly what it is. The term is ridiculous, flaunting its physical reality in a way a more clinical term like “breast” or “penis”  can’t embody.  In this way, House of Holes avoids being pornographic. While the visual material wouldn’t make it past an MPAA board without an X,  the language moves it beyond the bounds of a common smut novel. Baker’s playful inventiveness allows him to be straightforward in a way that allows Sex to be the focus but to also lose its taboo. Instead, its position in the makeup of our lives can be seen more directly, more clearly, and perhaps more honestly. Humor makes sex approachable, and Baker goes out of his way to make every meatstick and boob fat immeasurably approachable.

It should be noted that the House of Holes isn’t free. It’s definitely a for profit venture. However, it should also be noted that the for profit parts seems to largely rest on the male partakers. In payment for the services of the House of Holes, men literally lose arms, balls, and heads (and not just the south of the shoulders variety).  While the men losing body parts seems part for parcel at the House of Holes, the only criminal in the book is the Pearloiner, who steals women’s clitorises.  And I don’t recall any moment where a woman is forced to lose a body part, especially a sexual one, as a form of punishment or payment. There is a clear double standard at work, despite women getting just as much (if not more) sexual enjoyment from their stays at the House of Holes as the men. Is Baker saying that women need to be encouraged to embrace their sexuality more, so using it as a punishment (in any form) is verboten? At the same time, is he saying that men perhaps cater to their sexual cravings too readily, and need to be reigned in a bit?

I realize now that I’ve went on for a good while after saying that I wasn’t sure what the novel was about or where additional meaning could be culled from.Looking back on it, I’m not sure how much is real and how much is my invention,m  or perhaps all literature is the sum of what we pull out of it (and put into it).


Here’s the book at Barnes and Noble. As always, I’d encourage you to go to a real book store in your neighborhood and get it-and not just browse it so you feel more comfortable ordering it online later. With bookstores being a bit of a dying breed, I’d encourage the use of B&N.