Make My Day

categories: Cocktail Hour



What am I missing? What’s the best new reading? What’s the best old reading? Doesn’t have to be books, I suppose, though it should be portable. No—I leave it open. Books, Magazines, Websites, Books on CD or what do you call ’em, Podcasts. I’m capitalizing them all in equal respect.


I’d like to generate some lists here. Let’s start with the twelve or so books and articles and anything else you think I should be reading this summer. Twelve weeks, is what I’m talking about.


My favorite recent reading was Edward Hoagland’s essay in Harper’s last month: “Last Call: Old Age and the end of Nature.” It’s a lyrical and joyful and yet slightly depressed look at mortality from the vantage point of someone almost 80 years old, a guy who’s written about nature his whole career, and other things. Here’s an arresting line: “The skinning of the earth, the shriveling of diversity, diminishes the reach of ecstasy as a metaphor for life, and therefore my regret at leaving it.” Leaving life, he means.

And I listened to Madame Bovary in the car having not read it since college. And it’s great. It’s really great. In college I was told it was great and was inclined to agree, but this experience, driving long distance, listening, listening: the book really is great, from sentences to paragraphs to the biggest big picture stuff—personality and culture, the works. (Another great one on tape is Lady Chatterly’s Lover—an English actress reads it and it’s unbelievably sexy—also made me realize that I’d read an abridged version in college… the way this actress utters the word cunt, and the context in which the word appears, and the century that has passed since it was placed in its sentence, wow.)

I have come to appreciate Chris Matthews on MSNBC (as found on the internet) very much. And it’s not just that he’s a Holy Cross grad and reminds me of the students I had there. It’s that he’s smart—he’s really smart, also funny. Wise and incisive. Reliably left of center. Probably well right of me, but he teaches me how to argue without spitting. And I love a man who smiles when he’s angry. Is that reading? Yes, in that MSNBC and other websites and have largely replaced my newspaper reading (and completely replaced my TV news thing). I don’t even get the Nation anymore!

New York Review of Books. Indispensible. Smart people who actually analyze books and really say what’s important in them and what’s wrong with them, across a very wide range of interests. I’ve heard writer friends complain that it’s clubby, but really, how many writers can one magazine have in its stable?

Great interview with John McPhee in the Paris Review, current issue. He’ll be 80 next year, another guy getting on in years and still writing well. The thing that struck me most is how hard writing has always been for McPhee. He says he sweats it out all day everyday till the last minutes of his time and finally makes himself write something… McPhee! And he can’t believe it when someone says he’s prolific. Writing as pain.  I want to quote from it right now, but I can’t find the mag in all the piles around here… I’ll update when I do…

I’ve seen a number of good movies lately. Read them, really, since I watch movies as a writer, especially fascinated with structure and transitions, also story. Slowly, I’m realizing that what I want is narrative—the form hardly matters. A favorite recent film was La Danse, a documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet, one season, a gaggle of dancers, some six dances from auditions through rehearsals to performance. Dazzling dancers who know they’re among the best in the world. They get these brutal critiques and just listen and smile and suck it up and make the appropriate changes immediately, before our eyes. Favorite thing was the tough (female) director talking to the frank prima absoluta, who says: I’m getting too old (she’s like 40) to do all these dances this season. She wants to drop one or two. The director says, Of course you can do all those dances! Or something like that—very delicate, as she can’t just immediately agree the dancer is getting too old… Then later, same office, a fabulous new young ballerina is terrified—she’s been called up out of the ranks, she’s sure she’s going to be fired—this you see in her face. And the director says very casually that the prima absoluta may be dropping a dance this season—just the kind of dance this young woman would be right for. I’m not saying we’re going to give it to you. And the young dancer just begins to glow, stumbles all over herself getting out of there, aware that her big moment has just come.

I realize these are all very and fairly mainstream activities—I could go on and on—so, please, tell me about the best new stuff, the obscure corners (aside from myself) I need to know about. What I’m most interested in is finding that next great book that will blow me away. Or narrative in any form—I say it all counts as reading. So much to choose from—you’ll have to sell your picks—why are they better than other stuff I might want to experience?

Because I’m remembering another Harper’s article from some years back, a guy saying, okay, how many books can I reasonably expect to read before I die? (Can anyone identify the author? It was early nineties—I haven’t found it in Harper’s archive as yet—such thin search parameters left in my memory). The number isn’t all that high, once you calculate it. Your life reading list can only be so long. You want to make your reading hours count. You don’t want to miss peak experiences.

Help me out here!

[for more on our recent reading, check out Reading Under the Influence]

[The dog in the photo owns my friend Lily Arnold, who says: “Annabel is reading “Travels with Charley.” She wants to hitch a small airstream to the back of the car and follow Steinbeck’s route, taking down notes from a female’s point of view. We wrote Ellen Degeneres to see if she might want to sponsor us, but she never responded.”]

  1. malcolm s bates writes:

    First time writer, long-time listener… Many years ago I vowed to keep a journal of every book I read. Fuck that! So I have to remember what I have been reading and my minds not much help. A few things that come to mind that might interest you:

    The Forever War by Dexter Filkins–Dispatches from Afghanistan and Iraq.
    Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer–the story of Pat Tillman. I don’t know why this book didn’t get wider play, especially as the US ramped up its operations there and General McCristal (sp) was a key play in the cover up. Tillman was an amazing character.
    Anything by John McGahrern. I’ve read The Pornographer and By the Lake
    The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston
    Pastoralia by George Saunders
    And I am reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Diaz by Junot Diaz. I heard him on Studio 360 with Kurt Anderson, and he sounded so cool, I thoughts to myself, “Hey selfarino, you have to read this book.” And here I am.
    This year I have been reading a lot of young adult fiction and you will too or maybe you already are with Elysia. There is a world of wonderful fiction out there. A few that stayed with me:
    Skellig by David Almond
    A Perfect Friend by Reynolds Price
    Jim the Boy by Tony Early
    Tom’s MIdnight Garden by Phillpa Pearce (an old one but a goody)
    The Absolute True Story of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie
    Also, you may want to check out the podcast by comedian Marc Maron. IT’s called WTF and twice a week he interviews other comedians, most you’ve never heard of and the yak about comedy. Okay, so I have sold it very well, but trust me you’ll like it.
    And I expect to hear you on the Moth podcast sometime!
    My mom is going to send along a list of books. I am sure it will be more interesting than my list.
    Cheers from Wetland

  2. Steven Stafford writes:

    If you’re ever interested in what I’m reading, check this out:

  3. Lily Arnold writes:

    I believe that everyone who lives in the United States should read “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan. It is nonfiction that reads like fiction, saturated with geological, historical and personal drama, greed and trauma associated with the destruction of our grasslands and prairies known as the ‘Dustbowl”.

  4. sarah workneh writes:

    my tops:

    some are obvious, but just damn good (also known as things you should have read while in school, but were too dumb or distracted to focus on):

    crossing to safety, wallace stegner
    another country, james baldwin
    all quiet on the western front, erich maria remarque
    the brief wonderous life of oscar wao, junot diaz
    discourse on colonialism, amie cesaire
    franny and zooey, jd salinger
    east of eden, john steinbeck
    the adventures and misadventures of maqroll, alvaro mutis
    don quijote, cervantes
    lenin’s tomb and king of the world, both david remnick
    the caretaker (short story), anthony doerr
    the things they carried, tim o’brien
    the i-ching

  5. Perle Champion writes:

    My Recent good reads:
    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
    The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder & the birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age NY
    The Lost City of Z – A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
    Jennimae & James – A Memoir in Black & White

    Past good reads for thought research
    The Self-Aware Universe
    The Elegant Universe
    The Secret Lives of Plants
    Norma Lorre Goodrich’s Books: Merlin, Guinevere, Heroines, Priestesses and Arthur.

    Since you’re a guy, I left out my numerous mind-candy reads: and

    • Bill writes:

      The Poisoner’s Handbook, wow! And I’m not averse to mind-candy, especially at Cocktail Hour, and especially-especially with a Jack and soda. Thanks, Perle. Your site looks great. Could you (or anyone else…) say a little more about one or two of the titles on your list? What is it that makes a great read?

  6. Lia Eastep writes:

    Bill, have you seen the show Parenthood yet? Yes it’s a TV show (on network even) but the writing is so good, the characters, each and every one of them, so complex and interesting.

    You can check out old episodes online.

    • Bill writes:

      I saw an ad for this (I think while watching the Yankees beat Boston the other day–go A-Rod!) and it did look pretty appealing. Interestingly, my old NYC roommate Harley Jane Kozak played the mother in the 1989 movie that it spins from. She’s a writer now, herself, and very successful.

  7. Carson Lee writes:

    So you want a LIST?!
    “All The King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren
    “All The President’s Men” by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
    “Emma” by Jane Austen
    “I, Tina” by Tina Turner, with Kurt Loder
    “Grace And Power” by Sally Bedell Smith
    “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
    “The Audacity Of Hope” by Barack Obama
    “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    “Fear And Loathing: On The Campaign Trail ’72” by Hunter Thompson
    “Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting An Icon” by Wayne Koestenbaum
    “Gone With The Wind” by Margaret Mitchell

    (Maybe you have already read all of these — I enjoyed them; thanks for invitation to share.)

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks Carson–I like the juxtaposition of the King’s Men with the President’s Men. No, I haven’t read all of them. Tell us about “I, Tina,” and “Grace and Power,” if you get a minute.

  8. Lea writes:

    I have a few things to recommend that aren’t so new and a few that are hot off the presses.

    First, check out Frank Rogaczewski’s *The Fate of Humanity in Verse.* It’s recently come out with American Letters & Commentary. It’s witty, political and Rogaczewski has an uncanny ability to pull together disparate materials and make them relevant in this political climate. Actually, I just have to tell you that I knew I would love this author’s work when he published an essay in (the now defunct, I believe) Blue Sky Review in which he brought together Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the retirement of poet and long-time UIC professor, Michael Anania, and essentially, the history of poetry in under seven pages. Hilarious and astute!

    My second recommendation is based on a few poems I’ve read as I’m still waiting to get this book and thinking to teach it next fall: Malinda Markham’s *Having Cut the Sparrow’s Heart.* Her lyric is arresting and feels like the real deal. Markham is a translator of Japanese, and while I can’t say that I hear that exactly in the few poems I’ve read, there is such attention to language in what I’ve read, that I’m not surprised.

    The third recently published book of poetry is Reb Livingston’s *God Damsel.* If you want a book of poems that takes you back to the deliciousness of sound and spell, this is the book for you. Livingston uses religious texts as a structure, but goes well beyond any expectations you might have. Let me put it this way: I was walking through a Gas-N-Go one night with another writer completely sober and we were both quoting her through aisles of beef jerky and Bubble Yum:
    O you who wears a scarlet bra
    and ninny sheath

    pray for us that,
    though you are unworthy of a recognized wrap

    we may have our names voiced from Thy Woe-dodo yap.
    –from “Litany for Thy Talents”

    What the hell is a Woe-dodo?! I don’t know, but I have been walking around saying it to myself now since I read this book!

    For a slightly older read, Ann Killough’s *Beloved Idea* is one of my all-time favorites (published in 2007, I believe, through Alice James books). It uses metaphor like a costume party. (You can see my review in the journal Sentence in 2008, I believe). It deals with the idea of the “nation” through metaphors like “Underpants,” “The Four orsemen,” and “The Octopus.” It’s sad, scarey, thoughtful and funny.

    Finally, and going “way back,” you should check out the Canadian writer, Robert Kroetsch’s *The Sad Phoenician.* It came out in what…1979-is? (By the by, Kroetsch, now in his 80’s has a new book out..forgetting the title at this moment…yes, Bill, we are made up of “loss”!) In any case, TSP both progresses the stories of our narrator’s love and thinking life even as it keeps it in the moment– “ing-ing.” You aren’t sure if this is the sailor or the prairie farmer-scholar at work, but that’s part of its charm. It keeps you off balance, thinking and laughing all at once. Kroetsch is also a prolific novelist (The Studhorse Man, What the Crow Said) and has a great book about Canadian lit and his own writing life: *The Lovely Treachery of Words.* I find it strange that while he’s won the big Canadian literary prizes and was also a prof at Suny-Binghamton for over 15 years, I believe, that few U.S. writers know him. He’s worth exploring as poet and novelist and has had –and continues to have–a prolific career.

    • Bill writes:

      This is great, terrific! I like the sparrow’s heart and the scarlet bra, also the Canadian connection. Alice James Books is headquartered right here in Farmington, Maine. I’ll have to stop by their offices and read some poetry. And the world needs a new bumper sticker: What the Hell is a Woe-dodo?

  9. Roseann Fitzgerald writes:

    Bill, thanks for sharing thoughts on recent books (love reading about John McPhee) and movies that you’ve seen. I just saw “How To Train Your Dragon” in 3-D and it was everything I expected it to be! It’s a great story about a young Viking named Hiccup and how he comes to know himself as not the most warlike Viking, but a compassionate Viking. Great characters, and really funny and the 3-D glasses are definitely worth it.

    I also like to borrow audiobooks from the Library and there’s a Holy Cross graduate who’s made his living reading the books of Jan Karon (The Mitford Saga) and Gregory Maguire (Wicked) named John McDonough. I have his reading of Taylor Caldwell’s “Dear and Glorious Physician” on my list for the summer.

    I also have borrowed both autobiographies by Alan Alda because he reads them: “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed (and Other Things I’ve Learned” and “Things I Overheard While I was Talking to Myself”. I swear I read these because of the great titles, but there’s nothing like being on a long drive and laughing along while Alda tells his stories about growing up in Burlesque houses with his father Robert Alda, managing his career as a young actor and finding the love of his life, his wife Arlene (a professional photographer).

  10. Rick Van Noy writes:

    Want to check out the Hoagland piece. Thanks for calling our attention to it. I recommend American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell. There’s a line in “King Cole’s American Salvage” about a character having scars the color of power steering fluid under his hairline and she’s just so good at creating characters through the images and temper of their lives. Reading it, though, just about made me want to quit trying she does it so well.

    Here’s another McPhee interview I heard recently. Will we hear more about McPhee in Dave’s post against the literature of fact?

  11. John Jack writes:

    My reading selections might be seen as eclectic. I have a single-minded purpose. Reading as a dedicated writer prospecting for paydirt.

    I recently reread Upton Sinclair’s The Cup of Fury, 1965 Spire massmarket paperback edition, copyright 1956, at about the time Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour debutted. I bought it for a nickel at a library used book sale and read it while drunk back when I was a drunkard on a twenty-one-year binge. Both then and now, I read past Sinclair’s self-righteous temperance thumping to get at the dirt he dishes on gifted writers he pitied for their destructive “social” drinking habits. I wondered if my view of drinking has changed since I’ve been forced onto the water wagon. It hasn’t. I miss single malt scotches’ peaty bouquets, dark chocolatey and coffee malt-flavored porters, full-bodied bloody-purple sirrahs, and the self-medicated buzz that shuts out existence’s harsher trespasses for awhile. I live out the ongoing struggle between predestination and free will. C’est la vie and que sera sera. Like usual, in Fury, Sinclair aims for the high-minded road and tumbles into the gutter drunk on his moral superiority.

    One of the more impactful books I read as an emerging creative writer is Anne Charter’s Kerouac: A Biography. Cigarettes, bourbon, benzedrine, and phlebitis, oh my! The writer’s life for me! No, seriously, Charter’s depiction of Kerouac’s poet’s progress prepared me for the hardships of a writing life.

    I read Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight out of curiousity for all the hoopla it generated and because of my wont to be able to discuss it informatively. It’s taken a licking in many circles and yet it’s as popular as sliced bread. Come on, what’s up with that? Protagonist Isabella Swan, strong traces of “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Beauty and the Beast,” to say the least. Sympathetic vampires al la Anne Rice’s sympathetic vampires reimagined as the fading glory and gallantry of old money’s parasitism. Meyer’s reimagined vampires slanted to good and noble beasts as the social parasitism of high school elitist cliques. Mixed messages.

    I’m eager to lay eyes on Nathan Bransford’s middle-grade category novelJakob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, 2011 Dial Books release. Bransford is a literary agent with the San Francisco office of Curtis Brown. He runs a highly popular blog on publishing heavily slanted toward commercialization of art and evolving publishing technology. I’m curious how a hypermodernity-ist literary agent structures and styles a novel and prospecting for insight into the mindsets of agents. The novel’s one-liner pitch says it’s about some kids who trade corndogs for a spaceship, venture into space, and break the universe.

    Also on my reading wish list, Michael Toolan, professor of English language, English department chair University of Birmingham, Alabama, self-styled stylistics-ist, and linguistics-ist and narratologist. I’ve read his Recent Papers. “The Irresponsibility of FID” reads like a condemnation of Free Indirect Discourse, but ironically praises FID with halfhearted damning. I’m anxious to read Toolan’s The Stylistics of Fiction: Literary-linguistic Approach, 1990. I’ve sampled what’s available at Google Books. My library can’t get it on interlibrary loan. Amazon wants $125 for it. My discretionary spending budget is in the red and no sign on the horizon of tipping into the black.

    I also found Toolan’s “Narrative Progression in the Short Story: First Steps in a Corpus Stylistic Approach,” “Narrative Coherence–An encyclopaedia article draft version,” “Verbal Art: Through Repetition to Immersion,” and “What do poets show and tell linguists?– (Copenhagen Linguistics and Poetics Symposium)” informative, enlightening, and entertaining as a prospecting writer.

    “Narrative Progression in the Short Story” hazzards a few quidelines for writing and detecting Free Indirect Thought that I found most enlightening.

    I’m also interested in The Writer’s Craft, the Culture’s Technology an anthology of papers by expert literary stylistics-ists edited by Toolan focused on technology’s influence upon contemporary culture.

    Toolan’s Web page from which his Recent Papers can be freely accessed;

    Audio-visual media writer-reading-wise, I like comparing and contrasting box office flops and fiascoes with runaway blockbusters. Heaven’s Gate is considered one of if not the worst films ever made. It was responsible for United Artists Studios’ demise. I like it because of its Realism approach to the Cattle Range Wars of the Midwest. Romanticized Westerns pale in reality-proxy comparison. I suppose Historical Realism is tough to pull off in film. Backgrounded high-concept premises and foregrounded low-concept premises invert audience expections for priority of delivery.

    Meanwhile, a few proofreading jobs came in. A couple worker’s compensation suit doctors’ deposition transcripts, more jobs coming in the day’s forecast. The never-ending parade of human suffering, greed, and corruption delivered to my laptop. Pages to go before I sleep.

  12. Nina writes:

    The new video is charming and brilliant. ILBD (I love Bill’s Dad)