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Monday, May 31, 2010

Halfway Over Gravity's Rainbow

If you've ever been tempted to tangle with Thomas Pynchon's masterpiece, Gravity's Rainbow, don't let me dissuade you. But be warned: You're in for a challenge.

I started the book two months ago after my post about That One, Ultimate To-Be-Read Book. And I'm only just now to about the halfway point -- 360 pages in. So, to understate a bit: It's been slow going. It's no real secret that Gravity's Rainbow is difficult, notoriously so -- up there with Ulysses on the list of most inaccessible novels ever written. But why?

I've read and thoroughly enjoyed other "difficult" novels, most notably Infinite Jest. But Gravity's Rainbow is in a class by itself. In Infinite Jest, the difficulty was mainly due to the fact that Wallace jumps around so frequently by scene and in time, that the reader gets easily disoriented. But that's part of the fun, and it's never hard to understand what's happening on a section-by-section basis. You can sort of sit back and enjoy the prose and worry later about how a section or anecdote or extended joke fits into the novel as a whole. Everything sorts itself out eventually.

On the other hand, Gravity's Rainbow makes Infinite Jest look like a Twilight book. Pynchon frequently digresses several times within a single scene, jumping back in time, relaying a very bizarre dream, or just simply spending a page or two in totally random description. I've got my guide book to help me -- it nicely summarizes each section and annotates Pynchon's obscure references (from German corporations to African history to Pavlovian conditioning). But as hard as I try, I often find myself drifting and glazing, only to "come to" half a page later and have no friggin' clue what he's talking about anymore.

The plot (and I use that term loosely) itself about an American serviceman in World War II who is schlepping around Europe near the war's end to try to find out why he becomes sexually aroused right before a V-2 rocket explodes. And that's the normal part of the book. I'm tellin' you, from drug-induced dreams where a character is flushed down the toilet to scenes involving sexual practices that would make Ron Jeremy blush, this is far-and-away the strangest, hardest, most glutton-for-punishment book I've ever read. 

There are a few sections (and I mean ONLY a few) that are straightforward narratives where a character is being chased through an underground rocket lab or playing a drinking game with a British officer to try to bleed him for information. And those actually are a lot of fun to read, and often laugh-out-loud funny. They've kept me going. But the book, so far anyways, is just too hard to derive much pleasure. I've heard the fun of reading Pynchon is in the re-reading, and I have read through a few scenes from the beginning of the novel a second time, and they do make a lot more sense. But, reading the whole thing again? Whew - not sure about that. I'm definitely going to finish this first read, though, and when I do, maybe I will grab a Twilight book, just to wash my brain out!  

So what is the most difficult book you've ever read? Why was it difficult? Did you finish?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Historical Heft: A Look at Long, Epic Novels

A coincidence, this is not: Many literature geeks also seem to be history buffs. After all, what is history but a series of connected stories that coalesce into a single narrative? You know, kind of like a novel. So it certainly makes sense that anyone who enjoys made-up stories will enjoy real ones. And, if you're like me, when real and made-up stories are mashed up (in the parlance of our times) then, well, boo-ya!

I've always loved the long, epic historical novels by writers like James Michener, Leon Uris and Herman Wouk. They do take some patience, admittedly, but they're a fun way to learn about history. And they are damn entertaining. I still count Leon Uris's Trinity — a novel about unrest in turn-of-the-20th-century Ireland — as one of my all-time favorites. I also loved Uris' Exodus, about the founding of Israel, and I've read most of his catalog, including Mila 18, Mitla Pass, Redemption, O'Hara's Choice, The Haj and Battle Cry.

Not counting Leo Tolstoy, Michener is probably the originator of this genre — publishing massive tome after massive tome that rarely drop below 700 pages. His books are infamous for almost literally starting with the dinosaurs, and then progressing through time to the present in a series of connected vignettes that hit all the major historical events of the place he's telling you about. Of his more than 25 books, I've read four: Caribbean (810 pages), The Source (1,078 pages), Chesapeake (1,083 pages), and Texas (1,322 pages). My favorite was The Source, but Texas was very good, too. 

I learned more about World War II from Herman Wouk's hulking two-book series, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, than I did in any high school or college history course (and I was a history minor!).  Most (old) people probably know this story from the 1983 Robert Mitchum mini-series, but I highly recommend the books — if you've got a few, um, months, of free reading time. I also really enjoyed Wouk's two-novel series about the founding of Israel, The Hope and The Glory. And, though it doesn't exactly fit the criteria of this post, Wouk's The Caine Mutiny is fantastic as well.

The Simpsons, which is the consummate gauge of pop culture in my opinion, has joked about these bricks of books in two different episodes. To me, this is strong evidence for the fact that I'm not alone amidst the stuffy history professors in enjoying these books. There is an element of main-stream-ness to them as well. In one episode, the local yokel Cletus wields Trinity as a weapon, stating that "Nothing cracks a turtle like Leon Uris." In another, a bookstore has a sign outside advertising a special: "Michener: $1.99/Lb." Good stuff. 

I bring this up now, because I've just immersed myself in Edward Rutherfurd's 900-page history/fiction mash-up titled New York. We started in 1664, and more than 100 pages in, we haven't gotten much further. It ends in modern times, so we have a lot of time to travel yet! This is my first time reading Rutherfurd, supposedly a disciple of Mr. Michener, so I'm hoping it turns out well. Anyone read any of his other novels? Are they any good?

What about you?  Are you a history buff as well as a literary geek? What are some of your favorite hefty historical novels?

(Others long history novels I've enjoyed, but won't detail at all since this post is approaching the length of Michener novel: Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth, the Shaara's Civil War trilogy, John Jakes North & South trilogy, etc., etc)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Let The Great World Spin: Elegant, Profound, Beautiful

Better described as a literary work of art than a novel, Let The Great World Spin, is brilliant and profound — and well-deserving of its 2009 National Book Award. As life is episodic, so are the interconnected stories of a diverse cast of characters that populate this novel. An Irish Catholic monk. An African-American hooker, and her heroin-addicted daughter. A wealthy socialite named Claire grieving the loss of her son in Vietnam. A Jewish judge. Computer geeks. A guy who photographs graffiti. The novel revolves around the connections — often in unexpected ways — of these characters with the common thread of Philippe Petit's daring tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in August, 1974.

Part of the wonder of the novel is the verisimilitude with which McCann renders these characters. Endowed by their creator with beautiful, elegant, but clearly delineated voices, these New Yorkers practically spring off the page. They are so real, themselves so human. And through them, McCann offers a simple road map for being human: Connect. Love. Hope.

But the novel isn't just about the interconnectedness of people; it's about connecting with a moment, a memory, an image. As the broke-down hooker Tillie wastes away in jail, she remembers a week spent at an expensive hotel with a trick who only wanted to talk with her, respected her, practically loved her. She relies on that memory to help her navigate the vicious downward spiral of her life. Gloria, a poor black woman, who befriends the grieving mother Claire based on their shared experience of losing children to the Vietnam War, explains this idea as clearly as the English language could render it: "I guess you live inside a moment for years, move with it and feel it grow, and it sends out roots until it touches everything in sight."

This novel is also a portrait of New York City. Spanning races and classes, it's a tribute to the city's diversity, richness and history. As McCann tells us through one of his characters, "The city lived in a sort of everyday present....New York kept going forward precisely because it didn't give a good goddamn about what it had left behind."  And then later, "(The tightrope walker) had made himself a statue, but a perfect New York one, a temporary one, up in the air, high above the city. A statue that had no regard for the past." For that reason, Petit's walk was a "stroke of genius."

And though 9/11 is never mentioned explicitly, it's clearly the undercurrent for and possibly the impetus of this novel. As people connected based on the novelty and shared experience of Petit's walk, so also did they connect on the shared and horrific experience of the terrorist attacks on the most horrific day in American history. McCann, seemingly randomly at the time, includes a photo of "a man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building." The photo's weird trick of perspective didn't mean anything particularly interesting until 27 years after it was taken. Now, looking at it, and contemplating its prescience, you can't help but shudder.

This is a novel that I cannot leave; it really affected me. As I've written this, I've gone back and reread several of McCann's elegant passages. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but for McCann, it only takes 95 or so. He conveys images, emotions, memories in words and phrases that are just so precise. For example: "She had the bluest eyes, they looked like small drops of September sky."  How many times have you read novelists who totally flub an eye-description analogy? Not McCann — it's perfect, and that's just one of hundreds of examples throughout the novel. I can't recommend it more highly. Please read it. Please. 


GIVEAWAY WINNER
Thanks again to TLC Book Tours, who sponsored this giveaway and hosted this blog tour. Again, please click here to see the other stops on the tour and read the other reviews from the other fantastic bloggers.

I'm happy to announce that, rather poetically, random.org decided to select a New Yorker as the winner of my giveaway. Congratulations to Colleen who runs the blog Books in the City.  Thanks to everyone who entered.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Renaissance or Ridiculous: When Celebs Write Fiction

Remember that scene in the movie Boogie Nights when Dirk and Reed think that because they've been successful porn stars, they should have no trouble recording hit pop songs as well? The result, of course, is disastrously hilarious: "Feel, feel, feel, feel my heat."

A similar delusion of grandeur seems to have overtaken (or been planted in) a small but growing contingent of real-life celebrities. Because a person can act, host a reality show, or generally make a fool of oneself on television, apparently writing fiction is the next logical step? And publishers are disgorging these celebrity-penned novels to the shelves faster than Tiger Woods can issue insincere apologies. The reason why publishers see these novels as good investments is simple: They sell well. And the reasons they sell well are also simple. One: People buy things when there is a famous name attached, whether novels or nose hair clippers. Two: People are obsessed with celebrity, and many of these novels are thinly veiled memoirs.

So here are a few recent examples of novels by celebrities: Model and professional crazy lady Tyra Banks announced this week that she'd be publishing a novel titled Modelland (pronounced "Model Land," as Tyra helpfully explains) that will "touch the dreamer in all of us." Uh huh. Lauren Conrad of TV's Laguna Beach and The Hills fame has published not one, but two novels, titled L.A. Candy and Sweet Little Lies. Great titles. Brooding actor Ethan Hawke, famous for playing a spectacular wuss in just about every role he's ever taken, published a novel several years ago titled Ash Wednesday. Reviews were mixed. Singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett and cornerstone-of-the-right Newt Gingrich have also published fiction. Hell, even Pamela Anderson of sex tape and Barb Wire fame, has unleashed two novels on the world! Frightening, isn't it?

How these novels actually get published is probably more of an interesting story than the stories in the novels themselves. Does a grubby agent whisper in a celeb's ear about a new money-making "scheme"?  Does a publisher give a book deal to a celeb whose name is hot, secure a ghost writer, and then publish the novel without the celeb so much as glancing at the manuscript? (Does anyone really think Pam Anderson wrote two books?) Or does the celeb sincerely believe s/he has a story to tell that the world can't live without and dutifully pounds it out between takes or rehab stints?

Perhaps I'm being too cynical. Publishers argue that profits and sure sales from these puff pieces allow them to take chances on other less-marketable, much-more-literary books. But is that really the case? From where I'm sitting, firmly in the camp of "literary snob," it's hard to see any redeeming value whatsoever to these novels. I realize I'm not exactly going out on an idealistic limb here, and even though I understand the allure for some folks, trading on celebrity to publish crappy fiction will always boil my blood.

But, hey, let's close on a high note, because for every rule, there is an exception. And so I give you actor James Franco. Franco, who has made a career out of being exceptional, choosing widely varying roles in everything from blockbusters (Spider-Man) to little-know indies (Sonny), is publishing a book of short stories in the fall titled Palo Alto. But here's the twist: Franco has an English degree from UCLA, an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and was recently accepted into an English Ph.D program at Yale. And here's the further twist: He's actually good! Check out this story he recently published in Esquire. It's a bit messy, but I liked it! 

So, what do you think about the rash of celebrities posing as novelists? Have you read a celebrity novel that's any good?

Monday, May 17, 2010

How To Talk To A Widower: When Grief is Hilarious!

Normally if you read several books by the same author, and the main character in each of those books is pretty much the same guy, you'd be annoyed and probably scream "Unoriginal! Repetitive!"  But Jonathan Tropper manages to pull this off. How? His prose reads like a 330 pages of stand-up comedy, so you don't really mind that he doesn't spend a whole lot of time on character development. But beyond his wonderful prose, as I've mentioned before, I love reading Tropper because his stories have heart, and are just so, for lack of a better word, true.

If you've read Tropper at all, you'll easily recognize Doug Parker, our protagonist for How To Talk To A Widower, as Zack from Everything Changes and Judd from This Is Where I Leave You. He's a wise-cracking, self-deprecating dude's dude with a slightly off-kilter family and a complicated relationship with women.

In this novel, the angle is that Doug's wife Hailey, 11 years his senior, has died in a plane crash (Doug is 29). And so he's spent the last year grieving — which has limited his activity to drinking heavily, feeling sorry for himself, occasionally yelling at people who express sympathy, and writing a monthly column for a magazine about how to talk to a widower. But Doug's twin sister Claire, who has her own relationship dilemmas, convinces him that he needs to get back into the dating pool. Meanwhile, he's also charged with the care of his wife's 16-year-old son from a previous marriage, who is angry at the world, as teenagers are. Hilarity ensues.

But, again, the fun derived from this novel is directly attributable to the writing. Want some examples?  Sure, no problem: "Pity, I've learned, is like a fart. You can tolerate your own, but you simply can't stand anyone else's." Too low-brow?  Then this'll really make you wince: "I've never been to an OB/GYN office before, and you can almost see fractal bends in the air from all the estrogen floating around in here."

I read the last 200 pages of this novel on a plane in a feverish, barely-looking-up trance. I loved it! So if you're looking for something on the light side that'll make you laugh, think and even get a little emotional, check it out.

Friday, May 14, 2010

NYC Fiction & GIVEAWAY: Let the Great World Spin

One of my all-time favorite "sub-genres" of fiction is stories that take place in New York City. Part of the reason is that when I was growing up in a small town in Ohio dreaming of writerly fame, New York always represented sort of a paragon of sophistication and success to me. I'd always assumed that I'd be living in NY someday, and I had visions of working on my soon-to-be-published manuscript in Central Park on a sunny Sunday afternoon right before subwaying off to a meeting with my agent. While that hasn't quite yet come to fruition, the allure of the city is still there. As a Chicagoan, that idealization of New York seems almost traitorous, but I can't help it — it's one of my favorite cities in the world to visit, and I so I still love reading NYC novels.

I bring up this up now because forces have converged to make it a great time to plow through several NYC-themed novels in a row. First, I'm participating in a Let the Great World Spin blog tour, and I'm doing a giveaway in conjunction with the tour — please see details below. Last year's National Book Award winner has garnered positive review after positive review, so I'm stoked to dive in.

Secondly, I'm heading to NYC in early June for a much-needed vacation. So, between now and then, I'm also planning to read New York, by Edward Rutherfurd and Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem.

Here is a Top 11 list of some NYC novels I've enjoyed, in order of how much I enjoyed them. It's by no means an exhaustive list, and I encourage you to read the rules of the giveaway below and add your favorites!

1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
2. Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer
3. Falling Man, by Don DeLillo
4. Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill
5. The Believers, by Zoe Heller
6. A Fortunate Age, by Joanna Smith Rakoff
7. The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud
8. The Brooklyn Follies, by Paul Auster
9. The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris
10. All the Sad Young Literary Men, by Keith Gessen
11. Free Food for Millionaires, by Min Jin Lee


Now you:  

GIVEAWAY DETAILS
I'll post my review of Let the Great World Spin on May 25th, but in the meantime, I'm giving away a copy of the book. To enter to win, please comment below and tell me which criteria you meet, and don't forget to leave an email address so I can contact you. You'll receive entries based on the following criteria:

+1 New Follower
+2 Existing Follower
+2 What's your favorite NYC novel?  


I'll announce the winner on May 25th. Thanks to Lisa and TLC Book Tours for sponsoring this giveaway and organizing the tour. For other reviews on the Let the Great World Spin tour, please click here for the schedule.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Solar: McEwan's Cynical Scientist

You won't find too many literary characters more despicable than Michael Beard, the star of Ian McEwan's new novel, Solar. Michael is the prototypical dumb smart guy — he's a capable, well-respected physicist, but he can't seem to get his personal life together, and Solar is basically a study of his (deplorable) character. When the novel opens, Michael, a serial philanderer, is trudging amidst the ruins of his failed fifth marriage and happily resting on the laurels of the Nobel Prize he won decades ago.

Solar is also a novel of ideas, to use a cliche — McEwan is an incredibly skillful writer, easing us in and out of complex scientific and philosophical notions in a way that enlivens them, keeping the reader engaged. To me, one of the more interesting parts of the novel is a discussion of why more women don't go into physics. To get to the root of this question, we see Michael, as a scientist and therefore staunch objectivist, defending his discipline against what he believes to be silly postmodernists who believe that science is only one of many possible ways of understanding the world — on par with philosophy, sociology and religion.

To relate this to climate change, Michael's opponents would say that it's just as legitimate for fundamentalist Christians to be exasperated by those who don't believe in God as it is for scientists to dismiss as idiots people who don't "believe" in climate change. Obviously, most scientists would disagree with the validity of that analogy.

Ultimately, though, this novel is about Michael. We travel with him from the Arctic to his London home to the desert of New Mexico, where he tries to develop a new solar energy technology. Ostensibly, his goal is develop a source of clean energy and save the world from climate change, which seems very admirable, but only until you realize that he's only doing it for personal fame and fortune. Throughout the story, you constantly feel bad for the people, his women especially, who are caught in Michael's misogynistic maneuverings. Even so, there are some laugh-out-loud funny parts (during his trip the Arctic, Michael stops to take a pee, and his thing gets frozen to his zipper), especially in the first few chapters as McEwan seems to realize he needs you on his side to continue telling Michael's depraved tale.

So I won't render an absolute judgment on this book, because it'll appeal to different folks. If you're turned off by a protagonist who is such a turn-off, you'll hate this book. But if you don't need likable characters to enjoy a novel, this could work. For me, the cynical view of climate change action — that the majority of those working on solutions are either greatly deluded or only doing so for personal gain — was more than a bit irritating, which is too bad, because I enjoyed the writing, the physics, and the discussions about renewable energy. I also had fun rooting for Michael to get his comeuppance.

(Also, if you are skeptical of or just cynical about climate change, you'll probably really dig this novel. It'll fit nicely on your shelf next to State of Fear, by Michael Crichton.)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Compendium of Literary Links

1. Publish or Perish — Did you see this fantastic article in The New Yorker by Ken Auletta about the e-book landscape and how iPad began changing it well before the first geeks even got in line at the Apple Store last month?  The piece describes the often contentious relationship between publishers, retailers and readers, and the reasons for those bad feelings. About midway through, Auletta provides a breakdown of a publisher's approximate cost on a per-book basis. This really gives you a sense of how thin margins are, and why publishers are a strange mix of terrified and magnificently furious at amazon, who seems to have designs on eliminating publishers from the book business altogether. There's an interesting tidbit of news near the end of the article: Google is starting its own e-book store this summer called Google Editions. Publishers will set the price for Google Editions purchases, which can be used on any e-reader device.

2. The Reading Ape on Auletta — For an incredibly well-written exegesis of Auletta's piece, check out this point-by-point dissection by the Reading Ape. I didn't have as near a clear understanding of the article until I read this. Highly recommended!

3. The 2010 Pulitzer for Fiction — What's even more perplexing than the fact that I somehow missed this announcement (but please cut me some slack, I was stuck in Germany on an unplanned "volcation") is the actual choice for the book itself: Tinkers, by Paul Harding. Haven't read it, never even HEARD of it. Apparently, it came out more than a year ago. Has anyone out there made their way through this book? What can you tell us about it? 

4. Book Recommendations via IM — Bored at work and itchin' to chat with someone about what your next read should be? The good folks who run the used book store arm of a Chicago literacy campaign called Open Books are offering to talk with anyone via instant messenger about book recommendations, or presumably anything book-related else you'd care to chat them up about. Having spent several hours at Open Books shelving their newly donated books, I can tell you from firsthand experience that these guys know their literature. So sign on and have at it! 

5. With Reverent Hands — Today, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to participate in a weekly feature called With Reverent Hands at Aarti's BOOKLUST blog. The idea of the weekly posts is to get exposure for obscure books that deserve a wider readership. My post today is about The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay. I'm grateful to Aarti for the chance to further explain a fantastic book I touched on briefly in a post the other day. Also, I'd encourage you to follow Aarti's blog and browse her past posts — she reads and reviews a wide range of books, and is a dynamic and fun-to-read writer. Not surprisingly, she has quite a following, so the comments section of her posts is always robust and very interesting, as well.

Any literary links you'd like to share?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace

Right off the bat, let me apologize to my readers for this too-long and rather narrow post, subjectwise  — I fully realize that this post and the book it's describing won't appeal to anyone who hasn't read Infinite Jest or who doesn't care about David Foster Wallace. But I loved reading "Becoming Yourself" and wanted to write about it in some detail in case someone out there is a DFW fan and hasn't come across it yet.

And but so, if you ARE as big a fan of David Foster Wallace's writing as I am, then reading this book may be as difficult as it is illuminating. The reason: How do you square the light-hearted, good-natured writer that splashes jokes and humor throughout these pages with the man who suffered from a crushing depression and hung himself 12 years later? It's truly tragic, and while I loved reading this, it made me immensely sad a lot of the time, too.

But let me back up for a second: The story behind this book, for those unfamiliar, is that in early 1996 at the height of David Foster Wallace's newfound Infinite Jest-resultant fame (and he was quite the literary rock star!), Rolling Stone sent reporter David Lipsky to follow him around on the last leg of his book tour. The article was never published, but the result instead is this barely edited transcript of their conversations about life, literature (both traditional and avant garde), television and film, dogs, drugs, depression and dozens of other topics over the course of five days.

Several themes emerge from the conversations:
1) DFW was hyper self-aware, but also almost painfully shy and self-conscious and always self-deprecating — Almost every important answer DFW gives is couched with a sort of disclaimer that he's aware how what he's saying could be misinterpreted in print. He's constantly asking Lipsky to be nice and portray him positively in the article — which is one of the reasons why Lipsky is terrified to actually write the piece (thankfully for Lipsky, RS canceled the article). One of the best parts of the book is near the end of their time together when Lipsky asks him about his "act" of appearing as a normal person, when everyone knows he's so much smarter than everyone else. This is one of the questions (along with questions about his past drug use) that really rubs DFW the wrong way, because DFW insists that he's been nothing but genuine throughout. He's not posturing or being anyone but himself. It's easy to understand Lipsky's skepticism, because it's amazing to think that someone who was as smart as DFW was really can come off as a guy you'd love to have some beers with — making jokes about being disappointed that his fame hasn't gotten him laid, discussing music and movies, or warning Lipsky about using the bathroom 'cause he "just wreaked a little havoc."

2) DFW was uncomfortable with his meteoric rise to fame, especially after a somewhat pockmarked past, including a stay in suicide-watch ward in the late 1980s  — He really had no idea how Infinite Jest would be received. He knew he'd written a good book, because he'd worked so hard on it, and at that level he was satisfied and proud. Finishing that book was his personal justification (even with two other published books under his belt) that he was truly a writer. His reaction to the critical acclaim and massive attention as almost a pop culture icon (every girl wanted to date him, every guy wanted to be him) was only that it would erode his credibility as a serious writer, both in his own mind in the mind of his readers. In fact, his biggest concern was that the fame would affect his writing — that he would be so worried about making his follow-up as impressive and worthy-of-attention as Infinite Jest, that he'd get bogged down in a loop of perfectionism. Here's how he puts it: "I have an enormous ambition to be centered...I mean this stuff, it's really scary...I'm now so scared of having the ambition to be regarded well by other people."

3) DFW was as incredibly smart and incredibly funny in person as he is in his writing — In the introduction, Lipsky describes DFW's voice as a writer as "the best friend you'd ever have, spotting everything, whispering jokes, sweeping you past what was irritating or boring or awful in humane style." I couldn't agree more, and DFW's wit, charm and intelligence is best illustrated with some quotes from the book: 
— On reading vs. TV (and DFW LOVED TV): "...a book has to teach a reader how to read it. You teach the reader that he's way smarter than he thought was. I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you're dumb." Later, when they're talking about why books are losing ground to other mediums (and remember this was 1996!), DFW argues the reason is that reading requires its consumer to do work, whereas TV doesn't — it's incredibly passive, and Americans are incredibly lazy.
— In response to a flight attendant who has announced that "Smoking only is permitted outdoors." DFW: "Permitted only outdoors. It's not the only thing that's permitted outdoors." Lipsky adds: "Irritated as a grammarian and as a smoker."
— NPR radio guy prior to interview DFW: "We're gonna record digitially. I hope that's okay." DFW: "So, only yes and no answers?"
— On being a writer: "I don't think writers are smarter than other people. I think they may be more compelling in their stupidity, or in their confusion."
— "Although of course you end up becoming yourself" — DFW is talking about the influences of your parents, but then, of course, at some point you diverge and forge your own identity.

The one thing that bothered me as I read this book (other than the fact that Lipsky seems to be constantly trying to prove how smart he is to DFW, and thus inserting himself quite frequently into the narrative) is something I read in a recent interview. Lipsky said he never talked to DFW again after the time they spent together, and I wondered why. The two have such a great rapport, and admit to each other that they think of each other as friends after the time spent together. So what happened? 

It's worth noting that Lipsky did eventually use the material for an article —  a wonderfully moving tribute piece to DFW soon after he died, which RS, dickily, seems to have removed from their site (or at least you can't get to it anymore without jumping through an unreasonable number of hoops), but you can read it here. If you're a DFW fan and haven't read this piece yet, clear your schedule for the next hour, and do it now. Finally, here's my blog in which I chronicled my own battle with and victory over Infinite Jest.