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The Omnivorous Reader - June, 2022


The Omnivorous Reader

July 3 · Issue #16 · View online

Recommendations, reviews, and assorted digital flotsam and jetsam

I’m enjoying my first true summer vacation for the first time in over a decade–one of the many, many benefits of leaving the administrative office behind. So I’ve had plenty of time to read…
Why you’re getting this: I’m Chris Cunningham, and this a newsletter with reading suggestions. If you’re receiving this, I thought you might appreciate it.
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The Pale King, revisited
Reading David Foster Wallace’s final novel, The Pale King, was bittersweet, not only because of shadow cast by his suicide but also because it’s clear Wallace hadn’t finished shaping and revising the novel.
There is plenty of humor and insight in the collection of chapters, notes, and writing fragments cobbled together by Wallace’s editors and estate, but you can also tell (as his editor notes in the introduction to The Pale King) that the novel “would be vastly different had [Wallace] survived to finish it.”
The newly published Something To Do With Paying Attention, however, is a standalone novella that Wallace evidently did consider complete and toyed with the idea of publishing it on its own. The contents of the novella do appear as a chapter in The Pale King, so there’s nothing technically new about it. Still, the standalone chapter telling the story of the personal revelation of a young man deciding to choose a career as an accountant for the IRS encapsulates everything that Wallace seemed to want to say about attention, boredom, and meaning in his unfinished novel. It’s brilliant–the final work of a master craftsman.
"Here's the thing, Judd..."
I continue to subscribe to the fruit orchard theory of library usage, particularly when it comes to the nonfiction section: If you read a book and enjoy it, look around the shelves where you found it and you might find other books that you’d similarly enjoy.
That’s how I stumbled on Sick in the Head by Judd Apatow. I was already in the social history section of the library when I saw this collection of interviews that Judd had conducted with a variety of comedians.
Turns out, Judd has been interviewing comedians and artists since he was a teenager. Many of the interviews begin as autobiographical sketches of Seinfeld, Steve Martin, or Chris Rock, but they end up in some unusual places with surprisingly philosophical insights about life, comedy, and meaning.
And the nature of the interview format and the variety of the artists Judd interviews makes it an easy, but curiously compelling, read.
The Goon Squad Rides Again
It’s hard to sum up why I found Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Visit From the Goon Squad so enjoyable, but if you haven’t read it yet or it’s been a few years since you tried it, I’d recommend starting there first. In the decade since I last read it, this novel’s exploration of growing up and getting old has only grown more poignant…but I guess that’s to be expected. As Egan said in an interview in 2010, time is the goon “…you ignore because you are so busy worrying about the goons right in front of you.”
Her latest work, The Candy House, continues to follow many of the characters from Goon Squad into the near future where human experiences and memories have been digitally archived, providing a near-dystopian backdrop for Egan’s continued exploration of narrative, meaning, aging, and memory. But the novel isn’t really about the technology, but about the consequences the technology has on each of us.
Now that's how you build a world!
I like huge, sprawling works of science fiction and fantasy, but it took me a long time to finally read Eye of the World, the first book in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. I mean, there are upwards of 20 books in the series–it’s a serious commitment. But then Amazon came out with a show about The Wheel of Time, so I finally gave it a shot.
It wasn’t worth it.
This might be because Jordan is right up there with Tolkien in terms of inventing classic tropes from the genre, so what was inventive in the 1970s just seems unoriginal today…but Eye of the World still struck me as flat, formulaic, and dull.
I did learn something in reading it, though, that strikes me as important when tackling similar series with huge casts of characters and complex, fantastical plots: Ignore the prologues and plow through the first few chapters before making a decision as to whether or not to keep going.
With these huge epics, there are bound to be at least a few prologues or chapters of setup that just need to be ignored. Don’t know the characters or understand the setting? No worries–just keep on going.
It’s sort of like arriving in a foreign country. There’s plenty that you won’t understand at first, so don’t get back on the plane just because something at the airport is confusing. Eye of the World did get marginally better–or at least comprehensible–after the first few chapters, so I resolved to keep that in mind with other series.
That lesson served me well when I took on a different fantasy series later this month: Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archives. I had picked up and abandoned the first book in the series The Way of Kings several times before, but after yet a another friend recommended him to me, I decided to give it another try, and made sure to keep reading through the nearly incomprehensible opening prologue.
I’m so glad I did. Once the book started picking up speed, it was…well, it was everything that The Wheel of Time failed to be: Suspenseful, surprising, and ultimately enormously satisfying. I grabbed the next installment, Words of Radiance, soon after and enjoyed that as well. 1,200+ page fantasy epics might not be your thing, but if they are, The Way of Kings is one of the best
I hope you’re doing well and that you can find (or make) the time to read whichever of these books catches your interest–and I hope that you quickly abandon it if it turns out to be something that’s not for you. And if you come across a book that you’d recommend, please let me know.
Take care,
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