SPL bingo card

This summer, Seattle Arts & Lectures and Seattle Public Library sponsored Summer Book Bingo, a self-directed reading project that encourages participants to read a variety of books associated with certain predetermined categories, e.g. “Prizewinner,” “Author under 30,” “Turned into a movie.” Sure, great, reading is fundamental. But it ain’t Bingo.

Bingo works on the element of surprise. In real Bingo, first you get your card. Then, a caller calls out numbers. You check your card: Do I have that number? If you get five-in-a-row, that’s-a-Bingo!

A design for Better Book Bingo:

  1. Patrons purchase a 5×5 Bingo card with the numbers 1 to 24 randomly distributed, the center square being a “free” square.
  2. Each player picks five books for the summer. That’s it. If a player wants to read more, that requires purchase of a separate card with another five books. The five books are submitted and locked in prior to the contest start.
  3. Twice per week during the summer, the library posts the criteria by which the player can circle a number, e.g. “If one of your books contains a talking animal, please circle the number 15.” Criteria are drawn by lottery from a pool of hundreds of suitable candidates compiled by the organizers.
  4. If one of the five books on a card has, say, a talking animal, the cardholder may circle the card.
  5. A cardholder who has circled five squares in a row may submit the card for verification.
  6. An independent panel verifies that, in fact, one of the cardholder’s books does in fact contain a talking animal, and so on.
  7. Prizes are awarded.

Better Book Bingo wasn’t the game this summer, and so here’s what I read.

Checked out from the library:
Tim Parks, Where I’m Reading From

In preparation for a trip to Italy earlier this year, I discovered the non-fiction writing of Tim Parks: Italian Ways, on and off the rails from Milan to Palermo, a book that gives a very precise portrait of Italian culture based on buying train tickets; and An Italian Education, a memoir about putting his kids into an Italian school, with associated real-estate nightmares. At a layer of abstraction above the realities of Italy, Where I’m Reading From contains notes on translations, e-readers, book culture, literary prizes and other topics in literary culture. A fine collection of well-reasoned pieces, but it didn’t stick with me like the Italy-themed books did.

From an independent bookstore:
Joshua Cohen, Book of Numbers

My father’s repertoire of jokes is not so extensive that my brother, sister and I haven’t heard most of them countless times. And so we came up with a numbering system, loosely based on the Dewey Decimal system, in which each number represents a different joke. Lady on a ski lift, 796. Obscene phone call in Latin, 875.

I’m sitting in the kitchen, my brother walks down the stairs.

“Hey Ivan,” he says. “772.”

“You don’t know how to tell a joke,” I reply.

An indexed collection of jokes? Now, that would be a great Book of Numbers.

As for Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers, it would make an excellent candidate for being inscribed on a Better Book Bingo card. It’s got everything you want in a modern novel: a New York novelist writing about being a New York novelist (“If your book has ‘A topic subject to a New York Times moratorium,’ please circle the number 23.”), an eponymous narrator, an episode in Dubai, epistolary interpolation, dialect, September 11, techno-paranoia, sexual inadequacy, and pretty much anything else the Better Book Bingo callers might dream up.

Published the year you were born:
“Dee” Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

In third grade, my first full year in elementary school, our social-studies homework assignment was to conduct a single-question survey of our classmates and then write up the results. My question – and I don’t recall how the questions came about, whether this was my question or the teacher’s – was this: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate our country’s treatment of the American Indians?”

The answers were uniformly low, and there was one outlier: a “0” on the “1 to 10” scale. That was the social-studies teacher. He allowed me to re-code his  answer as a “1,” but he was adamant about the logic behind the “0.”

After reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I now understand why “0” was the correct answer after all.

Set in the NW:
“WTV will be exactly here”

At the book signing following the Seattle Public Library reading for The Dying Grass, I asked William T. Vollmann to help me determine for which square his book would be most appropriate for my Summer Book Bingo card. He picked “Set in the NW” and wrote a placeholder note in the space provided.

That was August 11. Today, I’m only about 250 pages into the 1,200-page novel (plus sources and notes), and likely won’t finish by the end of the contest by 5pm today.

The novel has a dream logic, a cascade of simultaneous voices with parallel levels of thought, the spoken and the unspoken and the context presented all at once, signaled by indentation or titles or simply by voice. The cacophony takes some getting used to. Given the formatting and presentation, I can’t imagine reading it on a Kindle.

The book itself contains its own reference materials: a chronology; glossaries of personal names, places, and texts; a “glossary of orders, isms, nations, professions, hierarchies, divisions, races, shamans, tribes and monsters”; and a detailed list of sources.  These resources are essential unless you’re fine with just rolling with the dream-like quality of the wash of names and situations.

The physical and mental heft of the work is the price of admission. And what you get for that price is incredible.

At the risk of seeming glib, it’s The Wire of the Wild West. In his contemporary portrayal of the city of Baltimore, David Simon took 60 episodes over five seasons to sketch out the workings of its institutions, capture its dialect, explore its culture, plumb the sources of systemic failure. Vollmann’s canvas is larger in scope, farther away in time, and its characters impossibly distant. Yet the underlying task is a similar one and the effect is similar, or more so intensified as happens with literature.

Without the compression of the dream logic, without the cacophony, without a notation of sorts for scene composition, the work would take more time to cover less ground.  And this is ground that must be covered.

I’m glad I read “Dee” Brown first, but it’ll be the vividness of Vollmann that stays with me.

Out of your comfort zone:
William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

This was the summer of my re-bar mitzvah.

Instead of just giving myself over to the experience as I may have done in the past, this time I wanted to interrogate it from different angles.

What I learned from James:

  • If someone has a mystical experience, it’s not worth trying to talk them out of it.
  • You’re under no obligation to accept someone else’s mystical experience as truth.
  • Religion can help people to shed bad habits.
  • Prayer seems to make people happier.
  • Brevity is optional.

Set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit:
Neal Stephenson, Seveneves

Impressive science. Rather hopeful in terms of its depiction of how humanity would react in response to a planetary death sentence. Sly portrayal of politicians and their handlers as the villains.

Reminded me what I like about sci-fi: A painless way (no problem sets!) to gain an intuition about scientific concepts. A central conceit (e.g. the moon explodes) spins out into a realistic scenario with great imagination and knowledge.

What I don’t like about sci-fi: The characters tend to act according to the stately, predictable motions of planets bound by Newtonian physics. They act a certain way and pass on their traits to their heirs.

(Major spoiler alert)

Also, some problematic racial and national constructs: the sole Muslim female in space spawns a populous race of submissive Camilians; a backstabbing, two-faced politician spawns a race of border-crossing, politically-savvy Julians (first syllable, rhymes with…); a self-sacrificial character spawns a race of self-sacrificing altruist Dinans; the hyper-intelligent Asian character spawns the Ivians (in their own league, no doubt), and so on. Modern social constructs survive apocalypse.

(End spoiler alert)

Regardless, great fun!

You own, but had never read
Richard Ford, Canada

Fast read. Not bad, but it seemed forced compared to the Bascombe novels. Can’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it was a disturbing scene of sexual exploration, or perhaps it was the literary device of twins itself, which invariably leads to some kind of meta-analysis of divergent paths. One twin leaves America for Canada, the other stays. Thus, a statement about the American condition. A crime novel and a portrait of an adolescent that fails to ring true in either category.

By contrast, the Bascombe novels open to examination everyday existence: a divorced man living by the Jersey Shore, selling real estate, shacking up, getting drunk, maintaining tenuous friendships, accepting failures as a parent. These novels felt real.

Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure

I attended the author reading for this in January 2014 at Town Hall in Seattle. He’s very quick-witted, funny and sharp. Gary Shteyngart and his family were part of the Carter administration’s trade of American wheat for Soviet Jews. Just like Yakov Smirnoff. And both know how to tell a joke.

Before I got the chance to read it, I lent the book to my father-in-law. He gave it back earlier this summer. Then, after I read it, I gave it to my parents. It’s that kind of book. A guilt transmission mechanism. You can give this book to your parents to remind them of their past failures in raising you. Or your can give this book to your children to let them know how impossible it is to raise a well-adjusted child. Everybody wins.

Recommended by a friend
Joseph O’Neill, The Dog

At the start of the summer, I made a pile of several books that had been sitting in the bookshelf, all bought brand new, all unread. Contrary to expectation based on my research interests, I had purchased this particular book not only because it had “Dog” in the title. (I don’t buy every book with “Dog” in the title, although I am likely to pick it up.) More than just another dog book, The Dog has an unnamed narrator, an exotic Dubai setting, epistolary interpolation, dialect, techno-paranoia, the soulless market economy, sexual inadequacy, lawyerly disquisitions, and other characteristics of the modern novel. Spoiler alert: No actual dogs.

My wife, who doesn’t usually read these modern novels, got to it first. “I don’t usually read this kind of thing.” I heard that refrain over and over as she paged through the book. But she finished it, which was enough of a recommendation for me. She’s reading O’Neill’s Netherland now, and likes it better than The Dog. Much more of a conventional novel. The main character has a name, for example.

As for me, I found the nested parentheticals of the narrator to be an appropriate device for depicting the twisty mind of a lawyer. The Dog conveys what it’s like to be trapped by circumstances, by status, by money, by the weight of expectation, the lack of a better idea of what to do next. And it’s funny.

You’ve been meaning to read…
Bill Bryson, A Short History of Everything

A friend gave me this book a few years ago, and I took it off the shelf only recently when I started watching online lectures about the atmosphere and the oceans. Who knows, if I had read this book a few years ago, it may have sparked a deep dive on science. I’d have learned all sorts of things about the world. But no, I waited, and studied religion instead.

And if I had read it in high school? Perhaps today my folks would be saying, “my son, the doctor.” That’s the kind of book it is. It puts the entire universe into perspective, making you curious to find out more.

You finish reading in a day
Harry Harrison, Bill, the Galactic Hero

For this book, I went back and forth between putting it into this category and into “From your childhood.” But if I want a “BINGO,” I need the corner square. So I won’t talk about my childhood sci-fi reading, except to say that after Harrison, I quit the genre. Once you’ve developed an appreciation for the parody stage of a literary form, it becomes harder to take an unfiltered interest in the source material.

Anyway, I read it in a single sitting, and this time around, I may have caught slightly more of the Vietnam War-era jokes. Not sure, though, because there were many jokes and I was too young for the draft.