(apologies to the NYT)

BY THE BOOK

Lloyd Sachs Sticks up for his Kindle

Cliff Wirth

April 6, 2020

“I also have a weakness for stories about survivors of plane crashes, so ‘Dear Edward’ was right up my alley,” says the pop culture writer and book reviewer, whose most recent book is “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit.”

What books are on your nightstand?

This question always bugs me, because it ignores the Kindle factor. But, sticking to hard copies: Robert Forsters’ Grant & I: Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens; David Joy’s When These Mountains Burn; Zeruya Shalev’s Pain; Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal; Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table;

What’s the last great book you read?

My recent discovery of the Oxford Mississippian Michael Farris Smith left me in a state of exultation. His current novel, Blackwood, is a dark, penetrating, sometimes overwhelming masterpiece about the impossibility of reconciling with the past. It’s also a stark warning not to go near kudzu vines if your life depends on it.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

Years ago, Warren Zevon strongly recommended Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers. I took it out of the library and put it on my reading list – which is where it stayed for a year, three years, 10 years… I was thrilled when the Chicago Public Library declared an amnesty on overdue – or, in this case, stolen – books. I haven’t gotten to it yet, but I have started it!

Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?

No and nothing.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Since my wife left a hot iron on a Barcalounger I got for cheap many years ago, I haven’t had a good place to read in the house. (I know, I know: I could buy a new one!) And I tend to fall asleep reading in bed. I’ve always fared best on getaways and vacations, best on a canvas chair facing a lake. I hear cruises (remember them) were really good for that too.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

I’ve raved in print about two or three books over the years that I was sure would get a lot of attention, only to see them fall off the zeitgeist and never be heard from again. I was knocked out by the eerie atmosphere and lyrical despair of The Broken Ones, a 2011 doomsday thriller by Australian screenwriter and poet Stephen Irwin. But as far as I can tell, I’m the only person outside Brisbane who is aware of its existence.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

Deep breath: Walter Mosley, Lorrie Moore, Greil Marcus, Roger Angell, Rachel Kushner, Michael Chabon, Attica Locke, Jennifer Egan, George Pelecanos, Gary Giddins, Paul Auster, A.B. Yehoshua, Scott Spencer, Michael Koryta, George Sanders, Manohla Dargis, I can’t go on I can’t go on.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

Only one, The Merck Manual. When I was a kid, I looked up every last symptom I had in my dentist father’s desk copy. I was sure I had tapeworm! I have a revised edition from about 20 years ago that I grabbed at a book sale, but I haven’t looked at it in at least three weeks.

What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?

I’m not an easy touch in this regard, but Stanley Elkin never fails to make me LOL. I found The Living End, which I recently re-read, even funnier the second time around than the first.

The last book you read that made you cry?

Aharon Appelfeld’s The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping. The stealthiest inducer of tears, Appelfeld wrote about the Holocaust, which he survived as a child, without directly referring to it. Your emotions rise up from the deepest depths, as if from beneath the floorboards of consciousness.

How do you organize your books?

Inconsistently. One shelving unit is dedicated to crime fiction, grouped by author, but I’ve got mysteries scattered all over the house. I have all of Philip Roth’s books together – it’s my personal Monument Park – and Ian McEwen’s and Ann Beattie’s and William Trevor’s. But other favorite authors are upstairs and down, inside and in the garage.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

I’m not easy to gift when it comes to books. G-d bless friends and family members who try! My choice would be Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, even if I did make it known to my sister-in-law that I wanted it and even if I haven’t read it yet.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

From Ann Napolitano’s Dear Edward: When a plane is flying too slowly, “a synthesized human voice. . . repeatedly calls out, “Stall!” in English, followed by a loud and intentionally annoying sound called a cricket.”

What moves you most in a work of literature?

Overcoming odds and/or obstacles, by a character or group of characters or a community. Or tragically failing to overcome same.  

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

Crime fiction comes first. I also have a weakness for stories about survivors of plane crashes, so Dear Edward was right up my alley. I don’t avoid science fiction or romance novels, but I don’t read them either.

Who’s your favorite fictional couple?

Tony Hill and Carol Jordan in Val McDermid’s Wire in the Blood mysteries. The TV series was pretty, pretty good as well.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

Horn of the Moon Cook Book. I certainly was surprised. I’m going to ask my wife to re-file it.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I was an active reader from an early age, gobbling up the Hardy Boys, baseball biographies and the works of William Pene du Bois. The strange mystique of those books, including The Twenty-One Balloons, really captured me.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Franz Kafka, Elaine May and Philip Roth, even though he’s never very happy with me in my dreams.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I’ve started John le Carre’s The Honorable Schoolboy two or three times and for some reason am unable to get into it. It’s a father and son novel; maybe that has something to do with it.

What do you plan to read next?

My big toe has been hurting, so maybe The Merck Manual. If not, Lily King’s Writers and Lovers,  which important people in my life say they love.

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