19-5-27* was the combination of my Master Lock in high school--19 Surefire Secrets! 5 Must Do Stretches! 27 Shortcuts To Staying in Shape! No thank you, I don't subscribe, but I do love the predictable covers of self-help magazines. Oodles of lists on how to achieve fitness, sexual allure, and great abs (it really is all about one's abs, isn't it?). Be honest: did you even know what an ab was the first time you saw this dipthong in print? The writers' mags are just as bad. Recently I saw "22 Ways to Develop a Character" with an exclamation point; tough to imagine Henry James reading that article. Then there's the intriguing possibility of Foreign Affairs using the same technique to grab your short-term newstand attention: "16 Ways to Win Back the Eastern Ukraine!" or "The 22 Top Republican Fantasies About Benghazi!" Lots of traction there. Or the staid Economist: "Jamie Diamond's Top Ten Ties Worn When Testifying Before The House Banking Committee!"
Dear Reader: it irks me that Talented Reader doesn't have a catchy cover with lots of numbers and fake advice to arouse your interest. What do we offer you but idiosyncratic reviews of books, mostly without plot descriptions (and books mostly without plots)? We're yearning for bigger sales, an income stream, six-pack abs. So here we go: but not, of course, with any positive advice about improving your health, diet, exercise regime, or even your literary life. No, we'll take the low road and instead of pushing you toward five books that you MUST READ! this year in order to be happy, sexy, and slender, we'll suggest five plus books that you should avoid, books that you have been told are worth your time but which are--take our word for it--a waste.
--All poetry by John Ashbery. And while we're at it, any article, book, or statement by Helen Vendler on JA or any other poet. Or the New Yorker, or the New York Review of Books (I've cancelled my subscriptions) those paeans to Ashberyism. The Ashbery industry is one of the great literary scams of this or any other era. Think Robert Service, hallucinating.
--Don't bother reading the Michael Chabon novel you were planning to read, whichever one it might have been (aside from Wonder Boys). My guess, which is worthless, is that the likeable and competent Mr. Chabon yearned for NYT bestseller success and renounced his literary passion after the publication of Wonder Boys. All that has followed this amusing second book has been unlikeable--meandering plot-thick stories about loveable eccentrics (Kavalier and Klay, Yiddish Policemen, Telegraph Hill) whose adventures have a comic-book quality and little that is sustaining. I loathe loveable eccentrics.
--Admit it, you promised yourself that this would be the year you read ALL of Norman Rush. I've recently recovered from NRism--months of slogging through Mating and Mortals, and even, god help me, Subtle Bodies. Don't do it. Halfway through Mortals (which is Mating and therefore confusing) it occurred to me that I hate all novels about White People in Africa, almost all novels about adultery, and most novels that confuse personal anomie with the great crimes of imperialism. Read Achebe instead.
--That copy of Portrait of a Lady gathering dust on your bedside table? Or, god help you, The Golden Bowl? Or some novel or other by G. Eliot or Dickens or Thackeray (Vanity Fair!) that you "just can't get into"? Just let it go. Ego te absolvo. Not all of us are cut out for Bleak House or Martin Chuzzlewit (e.g. me). My old friend Trustman read all of Dickens, every last word, while walking her dog. Can you imagine the strength of character this took? Admit it: you're weak, you'll never have a six-pack, killer thighs, or finish Middlemarch. Be like me. Join a Recovering from Victorian Novels group. They're everywhere--check the Yellow Pages. Or read Lydia Davis while detoxing. You're basically a good person.
--To wrap up, I'll offer broad advice for the book-lorn that has helped me:
Instead of Murakami, read Oe
Instead of The Brothers Karamazov read The Idiot
Instead of War and Peace (that swollen clunker) read Anna K (really, it's all right, sort of like admitting you don't really like whole wheat bread)
Instead of Eliot and Pound read Hart Crane
Instead of all those tedious and over-hyped Javier Marias novels read Pessoa's Book of Disquiet. In fact, go Portuguese this year. Try Antunes' Fado Alexandrino.
Try Henry Roth instead of Philip, Richard Yates instead of Junot Diaz, Perec in place of Le Clezio, Jean Strouse's brilliant biography of Alice James instead of yet another book about George Washington or T. Jefferson, and by all means read all of Kawabata Yasunari. "Twenty-Seven Things I Learned About Life From Reading Snow Country" is a cover story you won't ever see, but that's the way it goes.
And, by the way, the notion of "training easy and running fast" is utter nonsense. Ask Dennis Kimetto, whose face you will never see in "Runners World. "
*How fun to begin a sentence with a numeral!
George Ovitt (1/26/15)