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10-19-13: Paul Harding 'Tinkers'

Adjusting the World

George Crosby is dying and hallucinating as 'Tinkers' opens. He has eight days left, and in 192 pages, Paul Harding ranges far and wide even as he never nominally leaves the mind of the man dying on page 1. If the awards and acclaim accorded to 'Tinkers' didn't convince you to read it the first time around, then it is time you took yourself to the local bookstore, picked up a copy and read the first page or so. 'Tinkers' is all about the prose, the string of sentences that runs from cover to cover. Harding has created a universe of words in which he immerses his readers.

Make no mistake, 'Tinkers' will require and reward the focus and concentration you bring to bear as a reader. This is a book that understands the pleasures in reading are directly proportional to the amount of work that the writer can inspire the reader to perform. Even though the length might put it in the range of the novella, the density of the prose ensures that 'Tinkers' reads like and feels like a very rich novel.

Here you will find pages without paragraphs and sentences that twist and turn, circling in on themselves and the swooping out for a bigger picture. Harding slips from an internal perception to an external event to a memory with the ease of a snowflake, drifting to earth. Images bubble up and slip into actuality. Dialogue is rare and there are excerpts from a fictional work on fixing clocks, as might have been written by Milton, had he been a clockmaker. 'Tinkers' may be difficult reading, but Harding is a master at crafting narrative tension with prose only, prose that is ever tantalizingly just out of reach.

Harding offers readers most of the plot in the first page. George Crosby is dying, he's got eight days. Eight days of memory, of incident in mind, gives Harding quite a lot of opportunity to roam, and he does so in a manner that turns 'Tinkers' into as effective historical novel of deep time, and a paean to nature, as transcribed by the writer transcribing the thoughts of George Crosby. If that sounds a bit convoluted, it is, but gorgeously so. Harding writes the kind of prose that makes the world go away.

We meet, we become George, his father, his father's father, we pull a wagon through the woods and harbor a volume signed by Nathaniel Hawthorne. A second life, after an escape from the eastern wilderness. Epilepsy and seizures, or are they jolts from the universe that surrounds George, as his world, his mind collapses. 'Tinkers' is best read in one sitting or two, preferably in a natural setting. It's a short book, and if you can achieve the proper immersion, Harding's prose will become as memory to you, as dream to you.

The 'Tinkers' of the title are the men who pull the carts through the woods, fixing this and that; George Crosby in his later years, fixing a clock. But Harding himself is a tinker, a man who modulates your mind and your world with mere language. Read 'Tinkers,' make the effort, and you will understand that Paul Harding knows that words are the best way to fix this world.

10-16-13: Nicholson Baker Follows His 'Traveling Sprinkler'

Changing Course

Paul Chowder may be "three F's" fifty-five years old, and as statistics would have it, through as a poet. But he has an advantage in that he does not seem to have grown up. As 'Traveling Sprinkler' begins, his one-time girlfriend Roz is an ex, but he's hoping she'll buy him a guitar for his birthday. He used to play the bassoon. He admires "The Sunken Cathedral" by Claude Débussy greatly. The thoughts just keep on coming.

If Chowder is through as a poet, it's because he really wants to be a songwriter — thus the guitar. In other words, just the right ones, actually, Paul Chowder has not stopped thinking, and Nicholson Baker is still listening to those thoughts and artfully (but not too artfully) recording them for readers. Welcome to the Paul Chowder poetry thoughtcast, with plenty of MIDI technology, low-key angst, public radio, and love.

If you're intrigued by the title, or anything else of what you've read so far, make a quick trip to the trade paperback section and pick up 'The Anthologist,' the thoroughly charming novel that introduces Paul Chowder. It's not like a lot happens, but that is precisely the point, and it is important. Baker nailed a very unique style in that novel, a lighthearted stream-of-consciousness that he carries on here in wonderfully fine form.

As 'Traveling Sprinkler' begins, Paul Chowder is still in a bit of a downturn. His girlfriend Roz has left him and, worse still, she's taken up with a fellow she works with who hosts a show on an NPR affiliate. He's smart and accomplished and has a real direction in life. Meanwhile, Paul Chowder now has a book of his own poetry due. He's given it an unfortunate title, and he's not surprisingly disinclined to work on it. Instead, he wants to be a songwriter. Baker sets up a wonderfully understated life and generates real tension about the outcome.

'Traveling Sprinkler' includes discourses on many subjects beyond Paul Chowder's personal problems. Readers will get an earful of bassoon, Débussy and the Logic music software program, as well as those sparse but evocative descriptions of the New England landscape. Baker's stream-of-consciousness is restless, funny, and endlessly engaging. You can't help but like Paul Chowder and root for him even as he dithers and does his damnedest to undermine his own best efforts.

For all the light touches in and fun to be had with 'Traveling Sprinkler' (and 'The Anthologist'), Baker displays a real talent for a mind's-eye vision of the semi-rural, artistic life and the New England landscape. Chowder tools around in an aging Kia, finding nice places to park and write and think. With Baker at the helm, we get to as well. Baker makes all this look so easy; he makes life look easy, but we all know that's not generally the case. Read Nicholson Baker and you might be convinced to squint your eyes so just for a second, everything will look right. For a moment, or more, enjoy your thoughts.

10-15-13: Nicholson Baker Introduces 'The Anthologist'

Evasion Is As Evasion Does Not

From the very first sentence of Nicholson Baker's 'The Anthologist,' Paul Chowder promises everything. For the next sweet, smart, funny two-hundred-something pages, Baker delivers that in an utterly engaging experiment that subtly slicks up stream of consciousness into a low-key love story. Chowder's raw, roaming, genuine voice is such a pleasure to read that we're willing to sit on the pins and needles provided as he evades every responsibility in favor of fretting and procrastination.

Paul Chowder is a minor poet, as he sort of tells it. He's been tasked with creating an anthology of rhyming poetry, and Baker spends a lot of time talking about poetry in a unique style of prose; it rambles, it lectures, it free-associates and every word has the ring of truth, a personal truth for our protagonist, Paul Chowder. Things are not well for Chowder. His girlfriend, Roz, is losing patience with his woolgathering ways. His editor is calling only slightly less often than his creditors. He's kind of a mess.

But what a mess, and in Baker's hands, a wonderful engaging, fun-as-hell to read mess. 'The Anthologist' tells readers quite a bit about poetry and nearly as much about Chowder, by way of what he evades both telling us and doing. We meet his neighbors, his friends and watch with a combination of fear, sympathy and wonderfully nuanced narrative tension as Chowder makes his life worse ... then a bit better ... then a bit worse. Nothing is a foregone conclusion in 'The Anthologist,' even a conclusion itself.

Baker's prose is a complete joy to read, and Chowder's discourses on poetry, his penchant for setting poetry to music and his mastery of self-sabotage are all in good fun. Baker is a master of understated characterization. He gives readers what will prove in our reading memory to be a vividly-etched group of friends, neighbors and associates in a series of thrown away asides, tiny episodes and seemingly mumbling mentions. For all the evasive side-stepping on display, Baker's prose is remarkably consistent and engaging.

In 'The Anthologist,' Nicholson Baker shows the incredible power of literary slight of hand and misdirection. As we are immersed in the meanderings of Paul Chowder's mind, our own minds are set free as well. The little things that make of up most of our lives are allowed to loom large. The minutia of our melancholy moods, the momentary shivers of joy that break them up, and everything between — it all comes into focus, crisp and clear and there on the page, captured in the prose of a man who loves poetry. No matter how you feel about poetry going in, you're going to love it as well when you finish 'The Anthologist,' even as you recognize that prose, the prose you've just been immersed in, has all the power and all the poetry of poetry. Don't try to hard to wrap your brain around the contradiction. Enjoy it, and this novel. This is the ease of everything you know.

10-14-13: Jonathan Lethem Plants 'Dissident Gardens'

How Does Your Family Grow?

We need look no father than our own families to find mystery. Those who brought us up, those who we brought up, the fathers and mothers and daughters and sons all prove to have identities outside the family; they are men and women as well. It seems obvious from the outside, but from within, it is buried in the murk of memory.

Jonathan Lethem's 'Dissident Gardens' is a complex, engaging, intense exploration of family, a series of prose memory probes sent into the murky depths. It's not a straightforward story. Lethem peels back the layers of memory asynchronously, beginnings here, endings there, middles here, untangling knots of story in the precise manner of families.

Here is the story of Rose Zimmer, the Red Queen of Sunnyside Gardens, American Communist about to be sent packing from the party for her sins. Here is her difficult daughter, Miriam, the Pixie Dust Hippy Enchanter, and her husband Tommy Gogan, who wanted to be a folk singer. Here are the cousins, nieces, nephews, the grandsons, lovers, their children. Here are the lives.

'Dissident Gardens' is an expansive novel, a tale told in sidewise steps and prickly prose that suits the subjects, a Dickensian tale of mid-20th century New York. We meet Rose Zimmer as she is about to be ejected from the American Communist Party, for taking on a black lover, a local cop. Miriam is leading her own rebellion, mostly against Rose. Mother and daughter are at the core of the story, but the family is large. It extends beyond relation, into the neighborhood, and into the world, as built by Lethem.

As the story unfolds and the generations are revealed, a mystery involving Rose presents itself. Moving back and forth in time, slicing the story into now and then, Lethem, crafts a vision of a family's world in New York, with the kind of detail and excitement anyone might feel, sitting in their own living room and waiting to find out just what happened to members of their own family.

Lethem's prose is exciting and generally quite funny. 'Dissident Gardens' will make readers laugh out loud early and often. He can craft a sentence with just the right balance to tip the mood from serious to silly without ever sacrificing a grounded sense of the there and then or the here and now. His characters have names that are both believable and memorable in the manner of the best work of Dickens. Rose's maiden name is Angrush, and she often does seem to be rushing towards anger, though she does not always get there. Lethem's grammar makes his world fun to read about, vivid and screwball in the way families are vivid and screwball.

Storytelling in 'Dissident Gardens' is superb and rich. Each piece sits nicely in its own time, but the story is not told chronologically. We'll get a lab of the past, a slice of the present and then a rich segment between the two. Whole episodes are mentioned in passing and then revealed in detail. It's a glorious reading experience to explore Rose's family in Lethem's depth-probe manner. Putting together the puzzle of just what's important and why gives the narrative a real sense of intense tension, with every successive scene adding to the world.

'Dissident Gardens' is the third of Lethem's big New York novels, following 'The Fortress of Solitude' and 'Chronic City,' and his first fully historical novel, given that much of it is set more than half a century ago. With 'Dissident Gardens,' Lethem really hits the perfect balance between the antic and the tragic. There's certainly more humor than unhappiness, but the latter sets off the former and makes the laughter genuine. It's tinged with nostalgia, sadness, the stuff of life. Readers who love reading, who crave the experience that only a big, funny, well-wrought novel can offer need look no further.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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