Beat the Reaper

Beat the Reaper: A Novel Beat the Reaper: A Novel by Josh Bazell

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I knew I would enjoy this book from page 1. It’s fast-moving, muscular, and funny. I won’t get into summary, here, beyond the fact that it’s about a doctor with an unusual past and skillset in a crappy hospital in New York, and the things that happen to him over the course of one day, and the ways he deals with them, will have you grinning with glee.

If you’re a fan of thrillers, read it. Even if, like me, you usually can’t stand thrillers because of crappy writing. This writing isn’t crappy. It’s the best kind of writing for a thriller: it stays out of the way of the story.


View all my reviews.

This Is Not a Novel

Or is it?

As mentioned in an earlier post, I recently read David Markson’s The Last Novel, and I was deeply impressed. Markson has written a series (is ‘series’ the right word? I don’t know) of—oh, let’s just call them novels—a series of novels that are more collections of literary trivia and anecdotes with the barest of narratives woven in.

The novels include Reader’s Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel, the last of which being the only one I have read.

Everything you read about Markson will mention that he has invented his own personal style, and now I have mentioned it, too, but that’s because he has: he has found an original way of telling a story in a time when most readers and writers would have thought that impossible. It is, of course, very postmodern. The best word for the structure of this style is ‘collage.’ He reads and finds interesting stories/trivia about writers, artists, musicians, philosphers, and then he writes these down in his own words on index cards, which he then rewrites until he has captured what feels like the right voice. These little snippets

  The thought of Rembrandt’s bankruptcy, at fifty. Of his possessions—his paintings—being sold for whatever pittance they might bring. Of Rembrandt himself being evicted from his home.

are often about death, the material struggles of artists, or the public’s ignorance/failure to recognize genius.

One wonders if this makes him especially popular with other writers.

Anyway, the book was great fun to read, and I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading and art. I wasn’t familiar with a lot (most) of the historical figures he alludes to, but that didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the stories in any way. All you really need to know is that they’re important and you probably should know about them.

;,]/,o’== = ..m.,=ln,

[Note: My son Sean is the genius behind the title of this post. He thought my simple title of ‘Reading’ was lame and boring, apparently.]

Well, I’ve gotten a little bit behind in my book reviewing, here. Since September, I’ve read Neal Stephenson’s Anathem—which is the ass-kickingest piece of science fiction I’ve read since William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition—and David Markson’s The Last Novel. I also read parts of Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life by Julia Briggs and Alternadad by Neal Pollack. Oh, and I finished Peter Carey’s My Life As a Fake before reading Anathem.

I’ll start with Anathem. Stephenson doesn’t call his work ‘science fiction’; he calls it speculative fiction, because he’s training all of his knowledge and creativity on a speculative scenario. ‘What if X happened? How would humanity react?’

In the case of Anathem ‘X’ is the idea that, sometime in the distant future, human civilization has segregated all of the academics and scientists into walled/gated ‘maths,’ which are analogous to monasteries. Given that, what would happen if something strange appeared in the skies?

The plot follows one of these academics, Erasmus, out into a world which is alien to him, and the ideas and details Stephenson sketches out along the way are fascinating in themselves. But he doesn’t stop with the cool details; he tells a great story, too. The book is 900 pages long, and it kept me hooked the entire way through. Things get a tiny bit murky toward the end, but it’s satisfying enough. And getting to the end is so much fun, you won’t care.

How Fiction Works

I mentioned in an earlier post that I would be ordering James Wood’s new book, How Fiction Works, immediately. Thanks to our Amazon Prime membership, I had the book in my self-consciously sweaty hands a mere two days later, and I have now finished reading it.

The title of this book should perhaps be amended, thusly: How 19th Century Fiction Works. Wood is brilliant, but he’s brilliant about a certain kind of fiction, the kind written by Gustave Flaubert and his followers. He doesn’t have time for the ‘maximalists’ (Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Don Delillo, et al., a group he refers to as ‘hysterical realists,’ a term he coined in an earlier essay) and therefore dismisses most postwar fiction, with a handful of exceptions. He quite likes Cormac McCarthy and Norman Rush. I couldn’t tell if likes John Updike (he certainly didn’t like Terrorist), but I think he likes Philip Roth. He likes Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

My point is, his taste in literature is pretty different from mine (I love big postmodern novels by Pynchon and the like). Given that, I became suspicious early on as to whether I could learn anything from his book.

But I can learn from his book. He spends a great deal of time discussing what he calls the ‘free indirect style,’ which, for those who remember high school lit class, was once known as 3rd person limited narration. The narration follows one character’s perspective and is privy to one character’s thoughts. This is opposed to 3rd person omniscient, whose narrator can supposedly ‘see all.’

This discussion is useful because of Wood’s guidelines concerning character and detail (and dialogue). These must all be appropriate to the character. ‘Apprentice’ fiction writers have a tendency to be too authorial, to let their writerly voice take the narrative over, so that the character is lost in too much detail, too much style. Apprentice writers tend to want to show off. These were all good things for me to read.

Part of the reason Wood doesn’t like the maximalists is their lack of restraint when it comes to detail. They write big, funny, shaggy books full of superfluous detail and stylistic flourishes that clearly belong to the author, and not to the character(s).

Wood writes that his book is meant for writers and readers, alike, but I would place the emphasis on writers. There are not too many casual readers who would benefit from Wood’s book. If, however, you’re interested in writing, or just interested in narrative structures (who isn’t?), you’d enjoy the book.

Foucault’s Pendulum

I finished reading Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco a while back, but I’m torn about my review.

The book is basically a thinking man’s The Da Vinci Code, but it came out in the 1980s. It follows a group of three editors (well, two editors and one philologist who fancies himself ‘a kind of private eye of learning’; this is the narrator) who cook up an explanation for all the world’s secrets and conspiracies. They do this as a joke, until the joke takes on a life of its own.

It’s fascinating to read Eco because of his intelligence and raw knowledge. The book gets a little slow at some points because of all the obscure history he has to relate, but it’s a good story with good characters. If you like reading about secret societies, this is your book.

Book Row: New York Diary, Part 3

Deciding which of New York’s bookstores to visit should not have been difficult. There are a lot of choices—Barnes & Noble, Borders, Housing Works, St. Mark’s, Gotham Book Mart—but the one to see is the one we (kind of) stumbled on: Strand Books.

We arrived in the city with a long mental list of potential things to do/see. These included: the Guggenheim, the Met, the MoMA, the Apple Store, Ground Zero, FAO Schwartz, Union Square Market, one of the above bookstores, Central Park, and a ‘real New York pizza parlor.’ Obviously, we couldn’t do everything, so we decided on a couple things each day and let serendipity take care of the rest, which is how we typically tackle a new place when we travel.

As it happened, on Wednesday morning (our second day), after visiting Union Square Market, Danielle spotted a young woman with a Strand Books tote and asked her if it was close by. It was: just one block over and one block down.

It didn’t look like ’18 miles of books’ from the outside, but, inside, it was immediately clear where George Will first came up with the original phrase, which was 8 miles of books.’

Once inside we had to check our bags, and then we were off. Danielle and Sean and I quickly got separated—thankfully, Danielle and Sean were together! I wandered amongst the display tables and found one marked ‘The Strand 80.’ A Strand employee was standing nearby, so I asked him if these books were supposed to be the 80 books everyone should read. ‘Oh, not necessarily,’ he said. ‘They’re the books our customers voted for. In fact, some of them probably shouldn’t be read by anyone.’ I looked over the selections. They included The DaVinci Code. ‘That explains this,’ I said, holding up Dan Brown’s 300 pages of monkey doo-doo. He said, ‘That’s certainly one of the ones we’re ashamed of.’

After browsing around and assuring myself that there was far too much to take in during just one visit, I loitered around the front of the store until Danielle and Sean found me. We each chose a book (I picked out The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Danielle picked out The Zombie Survival Guide) and picked out T-shirts, the only souvenirs we brought home. Oh, except for the Starbucks New York mug. And the Zabar’s mug.

Places like the Strand are almost enough to make me consider living there one day.

Books Are Awesome

The Web Urbanist has a beautiful post about books as design elements. I especially like the color-coded library organization scheme. It reminds me a little of Rob’s autobiographically arranged record collection in the film High Fidelity. Maybe in the book, too; I don’t know; I haven’t read it.

It looks like I could easily kill an afternoon exploring this site.


It’s interesting how some of these posts take shape. I’ve been meaning to write about the cover story of this month’s issue of The Atlantic—‘Is Google Making Us Stoopid?’—since it came out, but I didn’t know what to actually say about it until now.

John sent me a link to the Guardian’s books blog about American slowness when it comes to novel-writing and -reading. (This is good news for me, since I’m going on 6 years for Lithium.)

This blog post in turn sent me over to Slate’s How We Read Online, which was just plain disconcerting.

The gist of all this is that the Internet has changed the way we humans read and, more importantly, think. Or so they believe. No formal studies have been done. When I think about my own experience, it seems somewhat true. I used to spend hours at a stretch sprawled on the couch or on my bedroom floor reading novels and comic books. These days, I spend hours at a stretch reading on the Web, and I read novels in short little spurts. My reading habits have clearly changed.

The problem is that many other things in my life have changed, too. A major reason for the amount of time I spend online is that I’m a writer. I need to stay current, and I need to do a lot of research. The Web has been around since 1993, and I’ve been ‘wired’ since 1996. But it’s only in the past year or so that I’ve spent so much of my days staring at a screen.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t sit down and read a book. Barring distraction, I can still sit for an hour or more with a book. I can still think.

I think the problem with the Internet, specifically the Web, is not that it’s rewiring our brains, it’s that it’s the Internet: it’s all connected. There is infinite content, infinite fulfillment.

If you can find it