Why I write unconventional (and unpopular) book reviews

I am driven to write book reviews for my blog though these posts are seldom popular compared to my running posts. Why do I do it?

I realize that books are (and always have been) my greatest passion. Running was undoubtedly my greatest talent. It shaped my whole life. Through running I discovered another facet to my self-identity, one that the sixteen-year-old bookworm had never experienced: I was an athlete who could love the sense of physical power and effort. I gained a completely new appreciation of my body.

Yet books are what completely engage me and excite me. The admiration and awe I have for great writers surpasses my reactions to even the most outstanding athletic achievements.

I write my book reviews for two reasons: First, I write for myself. Book reviews are my vain attempt to capture the essence of great writing. What exactly am I trying to hold on to when the reading is done?

• the evocation of emotion and memories
• new ideas (or, paradoxically, ideas so familiar to me that I am bonded to the writer)
• spiritual epiphanies and psychological truths
• the escape from too-harsh or too-mundane reality through the beguiling delight of a good story (what’s going to happen next?)
• the zany creativity of unusual style or word coinage/combinations or meandering long sentences that sometimes extend to paragraphs or even pages that leave the reader dizzy, coming up for breath eventually after being suspended in another world.

The second reason I write book reviews is because I’m compelled to share what I love. Yet I always experience a sense of futility while writing book reviews. I know I can’t do justice to the book; the best parts of my reviews are the quotes, but what can I do when countless sentences and paragraphs of a book are worthy of quoting?

Some books are so rich in their layers or themes or details or technical structure that they have to be reread. That’s what I thought about The Brothers Karamozov (Fyodor Dostoevsky) and Traveling Sprinkler (Nicholson Baker) [See my book review here.] Some books are so loved and reread that their characters become like real people or friends. For journalist Rebecca Mead, Middlemarch (George Eliot) has been a lifetime companion—she wrote about this in her recent highly-acclaimed book My Life in Middlemarch. The book I simply call “my favourite book” is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith). I read it first when I was twelve, and have reread it so many times I can repeat many sentences and paragraphs of it by heart.

Avid readers know there is never enough time to read, especially now with all the distractions of the Internet. In fact, the online world just gives me more suggestions about worthy books; it gives me access to more book reviews, blogs, and other opportunities to interact with people about books.

All of this conflicts with the fact that reading (and writing) are solitary activities best done without distractions. I also feel torn between the desire to read (and reread) classics and my favourite books, and the urge to devour the latest books and keep up with the evolution of writing techniques, forms, and contemporary topics. The illustration below gives a quick view of the books I’m eager to read, and what led me to them.

A collage of book covers with text about the books

Some of the books I want to read RIGHT NOW!

My comments about how I was reminded about John Updike’s work illustrate one thing I love about the Internet: the randomness of discovering jewels or links to jewels. Hermione Lee’s article about Updike’s writing not only made me want to read more of him, but encouraged me as a writer. For one thing, Lee’s article is over 2,600 words long, so there is still a place for extended book reviews and analyses about writers.

I was also encouraged to discover that Updike drew heavily upon his own life as the source for his fiction. I have struggled with questions of how to use personal experiences without being totally narcissistic, and how to use real people and experiences as “seeds” for fiction without simply recounting real events.

For Updike, childhood memories remained vivid and appeared in his writing. His adult life was tumultuous—he had multiple wives and carried on multiple affairs, and none of his friends, family, or lovers were exempt from being incorporated into his fiction. According to Adam Begley (whose biography of Updike Lee critiques in her article), “What mattered most profoundly to him wasn’t sex or even love; what mattered was writing.”

I don’t know yet how far I will get on my journey to becoming a good writer. But my book reviews are my way of cementing the wonder and appreciation I feel for a good book. As Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to be a good reader, you don’t have time to be a good writer.”

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Nicholson Baker’s Traveling Sprinkler showers emotion and technical genius on every page

Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker coverNicholson Baker has blown me away with his latest novel, Traveling Sprinkler. I’ve been trying to write a book review about it for days—but everything I write seems inadequate to describe Baker’s virtuosity—his astounding range of emotional, humorous, and intellectual tones.

I could start by describing what the book is about (though even that is impossible). Traveling Sprinkler is Baker’s second book starring poet-turned songwriter Paul Chowder, whom Baker first introduced in his novel The Anthologist. Chowder is a captivating narrator, by turns hilarious, sad, self-deprecating, informative, and tender. At the beginning of the story, he is somewhat depressed as he faces his upcoming fifty-fifth birthday after a recent break-up with his long-term girlfriend, Roz. Though she has found a new man, Chowder longs for her and is not giving up without a fight.

Chowder is a loveable character despite his flaws, for he shows persistence and determination in following his passions. His obsession with songwriting is fuelled by his longing for Roz, and he experiments with instrumentation software for countless hours to create accompaniments for his lyrics and adjust his own singing voice.

The love story within Traveling Sprinkler, though it is the soul of the book, is also a scaffold to support the dazzling array of “subjects” that Baker’s agile mind weaves into his novel. Chowder’s past and current obsessions include not only traveling sprinklers (about whose history, structure, and function we learn a lot), but American politics (mainly anti-war rants), Quaker meetings, cigars, poetry, and, above all, music.

Music is a unifying theme in Traveling Sprinkler, which is fitting because it is Chowder’s route back to Roz. But the novel is about more than music: it is rich and dense in what it contains within its less-than-300 pages; though it includes many subjects, Baker connects them all; and each subject is like a Russian doll where you keep uncovering inner layers.

Nicholson Baker’s trademark as a writer is his ability to pay attention to minutae; he can use this for humorous effects or to probe into the absolute raw insides of something he’s passionate about. In Traveling Sprinkler, he goes “deep” in many subjects. Each reader will differ in which parts of the book they find the most emotionally affecting or fascinating.

I was particularly moved by the novel’s sections about French composer Claude Debussy and his tenth piano prelude, “The Sunken Cathedral” (“Le cathédrale engloutie”). Perhaps this is because I played some of Debussy’s simpler piano pieces when I was a child. I remember “Clair de Lune” and “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”, and how I loved the strange chords of Debussy’s music, so different from the other “boring” classical pieces I had to practice.

Baker’s technical mastery as a writer overwhelms me. He weaves his sections about Debussy and “The Sunken Cathedral” throughout the book, gradually revealing more and more. I don’t know how he does it; I only know that I was incredibly moved, haunted, by these beautifully-written sections about the composer who died of rectal cancer in 1918. Baker mentions Debussy’s sunken cathedral first on page 40 of Traveling Sprinkler, again on page 70, and again several times before he gets to his climactic expression of his passion for this piece. On page 254, near the beginning of a four-page-long section about “The Sunken Cathedral” (most of it within a single paragraph), we read a simple sentence containing the thesis of the analysis to follow: “This piece was Debussy saying goodbye to everything.”

And what is “The Sunken Cathedral” about? From page 255: “It’s really about all sunken frightening beautiful artful ruined human things.”

How many writers can use adjectives that way? How many writers can go on to elaborate in two more pages of incredible prose-that-is-poetry, all together in a single paragraph? There is another beautiful descriptive passage about “The Sunken Cathedral” on page 97, within a two-page-long paragraph. It’s not too much. I wanted to quote something but every sentence is perfect and I can’t put a two-page quote into a book review. You have to read it.

My rave about the sunken cathedral sections is just one example of the intensity of Baker’s enthusiasm. But don’t be misled by my rave into thinking that Baker is too deep or philosophical a writer. He is like that, but he is also profane, biting, and hilarious. Chowder’s musings about how he could write a song about himself called “Why Are You Fat?” had me holding my gut laughing. In another part, Chowder is examining the way his mind jumps from one subject and one metaphor to another in his poems. This is what he concludes about metaphors:

…too many colours make the rinse water muddy…On the other hand, the world is full of metaphors that are happily coexisting in our brains and we don’t go crazy. You have them all swarming and nesting and reeled up in there, but they don’t trouble one another…I want to pour them all in and let them go wild together. Let all the metaphors fuck each other like desperate spouse-swappers, I don’t care. (pp.41–42)

I’m glad Traveling Sprinkler contained all those swarming, nesting, reeling, and fucking metaphors. I also appreciated the deceptively simple, chatty style of other parts of the book. I almost felt like I was making a wonderful friend in Paul Chowder, a friend who reignited my interest in writing, poetry, and music. I sure learned a lot about the construction, history and repertoire of the bassoon! More importantly, I was reminded about music that I’ve loved in the past, and introduced to a cornucopia of new music delights to sample.

Above all, though, Traveling Sprinkler is an unsentimental love story, one that includes ugliness, uncertainty, and vulnerability. Baker is a one-of-a-kind writer who leaps from profanity and humour to pathos and tenderness without skipping a beat.

***

Nicholson Baker is the author of Vox, The Fermata, The Anthropologist, and many other books about things erotic, profound, and mundane.

You can listen to a YouTube video of Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov playing “La cathedral egloutie” here.

Quotes in this review are from:

Baker, Nicholson. (2013). Traveling Sprinkler. New York: Blue Rider Press (Penguin Group USA)