Off-topic— How I pay the bills, and a new blog about email marketing

To support my reading habit (sometimes categorized as voracious, unstoppable, and insane), I work for various clients doing things like providing email marketing strategy and analysis, executing email campaigns, recommending email service providers (ESPs), building automation flows, yadda yadda yadda. I also do a ton of writing and have found a few clients who pay me to interview people and write their stories, which is amazing and fun and sometimes I can’t believe my luck.

So my head is firmly in writing-land and in email-marketing-land. I never could have predicted this while getting my humanities-laden degrees in English and History, but I’m thankful for being in the right place at the right time.

Being the email nerd that I am—and I’ve been known to rant to a roomful of people about the wonders of email marketing—over the years I’ve always casually tossed examples of emails (good, bad, ugly) to another friend who’s also a nerd. We had an email marketing blog over a decade ago which fizzled out but I’ve now relaunched the effort with a new semi-snarky, super-helpful blog for email marketers.

Take a look if you’re so interested. The goals are fuzzy for now, but attracting potential projects is a good start. Plus I really really really want to write a piece about how ESPs suck at welcome messages, and I didn’t want it to live on this site or on any other domain.

Postcards from the Edge

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Another hilarious book of Carrie Fisher’s finally washed up on my shore after months of waiting. Dammit I wish I’d known about her writing talent and appreciated her when she was alive. This is an early one (her earliest?), pub’d in 1987. A book of stories about Suzanne, the actress who gets her stomach pumped free of Percodan and does a stint in rehab with other addicts, who dives back into Hollywood life sober, girding her loins to handle ridiculous parties, who lazes about watching TV and giving up on the world but who meets an intelligent author in the green room when her friend was on a talk show. Her quips are endless, relentless. “Romancing the stoned.” “There but for the grace of overdose go I.” Etc. At one point she puts on the soundtrack to Somewhere in Time to listen to while she takes a bath. It’s pure Carrie, mainlined straight into your heart.

Transit: A Novel

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If I could, I would burrow deep into a Rachel Cusk book and never come out, completely escaping the world forever. Her writing continues to stun, mesmerize, delight. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is, or to draw attention to one specific example or phrase. It’s more the feeling that as you’re reading, her words wash over you with the peacefulness of waves calmly lapping you with warm soothing water. Her characters get into lengthy complicated dialogues that don’t seem such; the lack of “quotes” helps make the conversation seem deeper without jarring your ear with fragments of talk.

For just a sip, here’s the narrator interposing a question after pages of intense reveal from a woman she just met at a mutual friend’s house: “I asked her whether she still had the feeling of unreality, and why she thought it had come in the first place… ‘I like it that you ask these questions,’ she said. ‘But I don’t understand why you want to know.’ ”

The story involves a woman with two children newly free from her marriage, moving to London where she’s able to buy a bad house in a good neighborhood and then sink tons of money into repairs. Her downstairs neighbors are nicknamed trolls by her sons, an evil-spewing older couple who bang incessantly on the floor with their broom, tell neighbors outrageous lies about her, and cook abominably stinky food that reeks through the floor. The narrator is a writer, runs into her ex-boyfriend taking his daughter to school, goes on a jaunt to read her work, teaches creative writing and counsels a student named Jane about not spending her time writing about the painter Marsden Hartley. She meets a man, she visits friends in a fog-enshrouded country home. It’s all quite magical.

My previous exposure to Cusk was in Outline, wherein I describe being “pummeled” by her work. Now ready to read anything and everything by her.

A London Child of the 1870s

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Delightful reminiscences of a childhood in London near the dawn of the twentieth century, a daughter born with four older brothers and parents who fluctuate between having money and not. A very free and open and fun kind of childhood, lots of games got up, sneaking away to ride the “bus” (with horse) around London with her brothers, the 12 hour train ride to Cornwall where much adventure awaited them every summer. It ends abruptly with her father’s unexpected death from being hit by a carriage in the deep fogs of 1879, but apparently there are 2 more books that continue the story.

Cities I’ve Never Lived In: Stories

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Dreamy, ethereal, gauzy, not very good stories; mostly east coast, Maine and NYC. The only one that sticks out as interesting was about the woman with two kids whose husband ran away when he found out she loved another man on the island they lived on (in Maine); she goes and lives with her father-in-law, the grocery on the island closes, she must schlep groceries from the mainland where she works. The eponymous story was about a woman who travels around volunteering in soup kitchens then eating there, living in hostels. But overall the writing wasn’t anything you could sink your teeth into and appreciate.

Amusing Ourselves To Death

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I had to wait several weeks for this to filter through the library to me since everyone seems eager to understand the calamity of Election 2016. This book helped, despite being over 30 years old (pub’d 1985), by outlining the ways our television culture redefines discourse. It holds up well through the decades if you can overlook the dated cultural touchstones (even the intro from Postman’s son in 2005 dated quickly, mentioning Tivoing and Game Boys).

Postman first outlines the ways that print culture forced various modes of communication, mentioning Plato’s recognition that no intelligent person would write down their philosophy in unchangeable text. How strange writing must seem to people of an entirely oral culture “a conversation with no one and yet with everyone.”

In 1835, de Tocqueville presaged the arrival of Twitter hundred of years ahead of time: “In America, parties do not write books to combat each other’s opinions, but pamphlets, which are circulated for a day with incredible rapidity and then expire.”

From the perspective of someone with a 2 second attention span, it’s mind boggling to imagine the audiences for the Lincoln-Douglas debates that took seven hours. “Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? or five? or three? Especially without pictures of any kind?” He then shows an example of the complex clauses used by Lincoln while speaking and says (of Reagan, but it applies to Toxic T) “It is hard to imagine the present occupant of hte White House being capable of constructing such clauses in similar circumstances. And if he were, he would surely do so at the risk of burdening the comprehension or concentration of his audience.”

Enter photographs and advertising, then slogans and the decline of text was on the rise. But the death knell came with the invention of the telegraph, which “dignified irrelevance and amplified impotence… making public discourse essentially incoherent.” He quotes Lewis Mumford as saying that it brought us into a world of “broken time and broken attention.”

Television forced everything to become entertainment, including the news; everything is there for our amusement and pleasure. This focus on amusement makes us leery of caring about facts, quoting a 1983 NYTimes story saying “President Reagan’s aides used to become visibly alarmed at suggestions that he had given mangled and perhaps misleading accounts of his policies or of current events in general. That doesn’t seem to happen much anymore [due to lack of public interest].”

Walter Lippmann in 1920 wrote: “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies.” This assumes that the press would function as lie-detectors and that the public would care. We don’t. Further on, Postman notes (quaintly for 2017’s alternative facts) “And there is no Newspeak here. Lies have not been defined as truth nor truth as lies.”

On the pernicious effects of commercials:

A person who has seen one million television commercials might well believe that all political problems have fast solutions through simple measures—or ought to.  Or that complex language is not to be trusted, and that all problems lend themselves to theatrical expression.

I do have some concerns with his statements, especially the comment that “a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph. Analytic thought it too busy for that, and too detached.” He also mistakenly assumes “women were probably more adept readers than men” on the American frontier, woefully ignorant of the lack of basic education open to them. Jane Franklin, Ben’s sister, rose up in my mind, embarrassed about the spelling errors in her letters to him.

O Fallen Angel

Originally published in 2010 as Zambreno’s first book, it’s re-released with an awkward and unnecessary introduction by Lidia Yuknavitch who first published it. The end acknowledgments bookend us with praise for Yuknavitch in a way that just leaves me wishing we could have the text sans Lidia.

It’s a weird, triptych-ish book that follows the story of Mommy, Maggie, and Malachi. Mommy is in full denial that the world is falling apart, closing her eyes to her daughter Maggie’s self-destruction. Malachi sets himself on fire and jumps off an overpass onto the highway.

Zambreno’s language sparkles: “Cell phone towers of Babble.” ; “Mommy likes books with stiletto heels on the pink cover. Anything pink. Pink, pink, pink. Think pink! Don’t think at all!”; “Caution is GrandMommy’s middle name. Although it’s really Marie, like all good Catholic girls.”; “The whole family likes to watch TV—they gather around it, it is their altar… Missy she is three and needs to learn to sit like a lady! Which is on your ass watching the television! It’s best to practice the assumed position of apathy and defeat!”

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

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Cleverly titled and fun read about how data scientists are wielding their WMDs in finance, education, prisons, government, hiring, and ecommerce. O’Neil points out that WMDs tend to punish the poor because the rich are processed more by people and the unwashed masses processed by machines. One signature of a WMD is that the model contributes to a toxic cycle and helps sustain it, not pulling in enough feedback to allow it to correct itself.

Models are opinions embedded in mathematics.

Great anecdotes throughout, from the DC school teacher who lost her job due to an algorithm based on her students’ test scores, to the rejection that a Vanderbilt-dropout got from several part-time minimum wage jobs due to personality tests (Kyle was tested for extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to ideas).

She covers wellness programs and their invasive tracking, along with social media tracking, search behavior logging, all adding up into bits that go into the Big Data cauldron to be sipped at leisure by the WMDs or other interested parties.

Little Dorrit

If everyone started the day by reading an hour of Dickens, I’m convinced the world would be a better place—in good humor and with eyes twinkling. This 800+ page tale envelopes you, luring you into its cozy layers, tales within tales. Dickens serialized this between 1855-7 when he was in his forties, getting better with each foray into the printed world. The characters pile up fast and furious, and if you’re not paying attention, you have to flip back several hundred pages to wonder where it was that you first heard of Mrs. Merdle (not to be confused with Mrs. Meagle, although their stories do slightly cross) and her squawking parrot. The eponymous character, Little Dorrit, is Amy Dorrit, daughter born to a gentleman in debtors prison and raised all her life there until fortune smiled on him with his friends uncovering the fact that he was heir to a title and lots of money. Mr. Dorrit immediately wants to forget the previous 25 years of his life and turns his back on those who helped him, but Amy still yearns for those simpler days with Arthur Clennam and Maggy (the 80 year old child). Dorrit dies in Rome along with his brother, and this seems fortuitous, releasing Amy from the need to “marry well” and removing the threat of having Mrs. General as her stepmother.

There’s a mystery laid down at the beginning, when Arthur returns from China after his father’s death to ask his mother if there were some sort of wrong that he had done to someone that needed reparation. His wheelchair-bound mother sniffs off this suggestion and turns her back on him to solely run their business with Mr. Flintwinch when Arthur gives up his claim. Spoiler alert: she’s not really his mother! And the mystery is that she’s withholding £1000 that should rightfully be Little Dorrit’s, although I’m a bit confused about the circumstances.

Dickens is at his best when he pokes fun of the obtuse inflated flaccid bureaucratic arms of government, here represented by the Circumlocution Office. “Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving – HOW NOT TO DO IT.” He goes on to detail the red tape, paperwork, forms, and in general abhorrence to “doing things” in preference to “not doing” anything. Much of this rings true about our illustrious Congress in the early 21st century.

His writing is always entertaining, secret jabs and pokes that make you laugh like “his genius, during his earlier manhood, was of that exclusively agricultural character which applies itself to the cultivation of wild oats.” His description of Pancks as a tugboat steaming away always brought a smile to my face whenever he appeared. And when describing Mr. Baptist/Signor Cavalletto, “He looks to me as if every tooth in his head was always laughing.”

You also pick up random bits of life from mid-19th century, like the fact that bakers kept their ovens going continuously and would cook food in it for people for a small fee (like a leg of mutton stuffed with oysters in this case). Refrigerators were in use (and called such); at this time they were vessels filled with cold water or any cool place.

Once again I’m amazed at the variety of names. A sampling: Mr. Pancks, Mr. Rugg, Mrs. Chivery, Plornish, Flora Finching, Meagles, Doyce, Clennam, Merdle, Gowan, Tite Barnacle, Stiltstalkings, Barnacle Junior, Mrs. Bangham, Flintwinch, Mrs. Tickit.

The Thirteen Travellers

Delightful collection of stories about the residents of a posh apartment home (Hortons) in the center of London, all figuring out how to live post-war in 1919. Published in 1920, this provided a fantastic glimpse into the chaos and psychic mess that people had to deal with.

1. There’s Absalom Jay, the man at his best in the 1890s who simply withers without funds/social engagements/society in the post-war world.

2. Fanny Close is the highly competent portress who takes over the job when all the men ship off for war, and retains it when they come back; she’s quite pleasant to everyone because compared to her sister Aggie, everyone is dreamy.

3. The Honorable Clive Torby is a silly chit of a man who spends his parents money without care until the day that it runs out and then he cheerfully goes out and learns how to be a (one-armed) house-painter.

4. Miss Morganhurst is an old spinster who only cares for her tiny dog and who effectively seals off her brain from any war news; she goes insane and dies after her dog dies and she’s unable to keep the vivid horrific war images from her brain, insisting that she was there: “I was there, you know.”

5. Peter Westcott is a has-been novelist who borrows the flat of a rich and successful author; he snubs modern authors for their cheap tricks and says he could do it as well as they: “Write in suspensive dots and dashes, mention all parts of the human body in full, count every tick of the clock, and call your book ‘Disintegration,’ or ‘Dead Moons,’ or ‘Green Queens.’ ”

6. Lucy Moon comes to visit her aunt in Hortons on the eve of her wedding, discovers that she knows nothing and has not yet begun to live. She exchanges glances with a strange man at the symphony and realizes she will not marry the older man she’s said yes to.

7 & 8. Mrs. Porter and Miss Allen have a bit of a ghost tale in them, haunted by the apparition of dead Mr. Porter who swore that as soon as Mrs. Porter began to enjoy her life without him, he’d come steal her for death.

9. Lois Drake is one of those hard, modern women who thrived during this time, whooping it up with men and living loud, drinking whiskey, flaunting convention. Only it turns out that her best friend falls in love with the man Lois is in love with, leaving her alone and weeping.

10. Mr. Nix is the manager of Hortons who begins having bad dreams after the war. This rings quite true for me in 2017: “everyone was having bad dreams just now, that it was the natural reaction after the four years of stress and turmoil through which we have passed.” His wife decides to leave him and assert her independence, at which point he falls madly in love with her again and vows never to take her for granted.

11. Lizzie Rand is an old maid whose last job as a companion netted her a boatload of money from the woman who wanted to spite her nephews and nieces. She meets a widower who struggles to let go of his wife’s image, and he soon proposes to her. Lizzie turns him down because she sees how easy it is to dominate him and just wants to stay pals.

12. Nobody is actually Tom, back from the war thrice wounded and inheriting a pile of money from his uncle. He’s dead on the inside until he has a chance meeting where he helps an old couple get home in the rain to their squalid home.

13. Bombastes Furioso is the storyteller who cannot seem to tell a completely true story about himself but does not think he is lying. His stories are threatened to come to an end when he falls in love with a woman who says she’ll marry him if he stops lying.

Double Game

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My Sophie Calle obsession continues as I followed the breadcrumbs from Paul Auster’s Leviathan to her response here in this volume. For backstory, Auster based one of the characters in Leviathan (Maria) on Sophie, using examples of her real work but also making up a few projects which she hadn’t done. In response, she does the projects that he made up, and also invites him to create another project for her that she’d focus on for up to a year. Auster pens four pages of a Gotham Handbook, with instructions for Sophie—smile at people and count how many you give/receive, talk to strangers, hand out sandwiches and cigarettes to the needy, and cultivate a spot somewhere.

She dutifully takes on all of these, and commandeers a phone booth at Greenwich and Harrison in Tribeca by painting the floor, installing flowers, kleenex, snacks, orange juice, ashtray/cigarettes, comment card, magazines, folding chairs. Every day she swings by for an hour and tapes the phone conversations, tidies up and re-installs things that go missing.

Paul’s directive about talking to stranger has some lyrical passages about the importance of talking about the weather, “the great equalizer…. To discuss the weather with a stranger is to shake hands and put aside your weapons. It is a sign of good will, an acknowledgement of your common humanity with the person you are talking to.”

The rest of the book is filled with images and text explaining the other projects that Auster had referenced, some new details overlain on things I already had seen. Most blown out was The Hotel, with pictures and descriptions of every hotel room she cleaned during her 3 weeks in Venice.

Moments of Being

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There was a frenzy of publication of VW’s unpublished works once she died, this collection of memoir writing no exception. This edition is comprised of  Reminiscences (written about Vanessa for her unborn child, Julian, with lots of detail about Julia, their mother ), A Sketch of the Past (100-odd pages written in 1939 in gulps taking a break from writing Roger Fry’s biography), and three pieces VW launched at the Memoir Club—22 Hyde Park Gate, Old Bloomsbury, and Am I A Snob?

It’s a hodgepodge, and the bits of greatest interest to me are, as usual, around her voracious reading habits. She mines the vein of her complex feelings about her father, rehashes details she can remember about her lovely mother, and gives us rich detail about the daily lives of Victorians and Edwardians, including the existence of a town crier at St Ives that was actually used by one of their guests who lost a brooch, shuffling along with a bell crying “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez.”

There’s also a phrase that rings particularly true in 2017 w/r/t Vanessa as she rejects George’s efforts to bring her into high society, (emphasis mine):

“But poor George was no psychologist. His perceptions were obtuse. He never saw within. He was completely at a loss when Vanessa said she did not wish to stay with the Chamberlains at Highbury; and would not dine with Lady Arthur Russell —a rude, tyrannical old woman, with a bloodstained complexion and the manners of a turkey cock. He argued, he wept, he complained to Aunt Mary Fisher, who said that she could not believe her ears. Every battery was turned upon Vanessa. She was told that she was selfish, unwomanly, callous and incredibly ungrateful considering the treasures of affection that had been lavished upon her—the Arab horse she rode and the slabs of bright blue enamel which she wore. Still she persisted.

On Leslie Stephen:

Yes, certainly I felt his presence; and had many a shock of acute pleasure when he fixed his very small, very blue eyes upon me and somehow made me feel that we two were in league together. There was something we had in common. “What have you got hold of?” he would say, looking over my shoulder at the book I was reading; and how proud, priggishly, I was, if he gave his little amused surprised snort, when he found me reading some book that no child of my age could understand. I was a snob no doubt, and read partly to make him think me a very clever little brat. And I remember his pleasure, how he stopped writing and got up and was very gentle and pleased, when I cam into the study with a book I had done; and asked him for another.

Later, still trying to understand her relationship with her father:

But from my present distance of time I see too what we could not then see—the gulf between us that was cut by our difference in age. Two different ages confronted each other in the drawing room at Hyde Park Gate. The Victorian age and the Edwardian age. We were not his children; we were his grandchildren. There should have been a generation between us to cushion the contact. Thus it was that we perceived so keenly, while he raged, that he was somehow ridiculous. We looked at him with eyes that were looking into the future.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden

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The first book by Katherine Mansfield’s cousin Mary, the one that gave her the name “Elizabeth” forever, is like a sandwich at tea time, crusts cut off the bread, proper, yet lacking. There are some good bits, such as when she first begins, glorying in her solitude for six weeks as she fixes up the house by overseeing those who are actually doing the work, and spending all of her time reading alone in the garden. She affectionately nicknames her husband Man of Wrath and after thoughtfully capturing baby owls for him to train, he is shocked at the idea, Elizabeth remembers that phrase “Two paradises ’twere in one to live in Paradise alone.” But no, she has 3 babies and a husband, and scores of people who insist on visiting. When conversation at a dinner party in a neighboring town veers towards Elizabeth being “abandoned” in her house, she insists that she enjoys it and is quite happy “buried” in her home. She almost mentions that she was surrounded by books but “reading is an occupation for men; for women it is reprehensible waste of time.” So she pretends with them that she is not happy. The rest is a diary of her garden, what blooms, what is planted, and then the last half taken up by a Christmas visit of a friend, Irais, and a stranger brought in because she is a friend-of-a-friend, Minora. Unfortunately, Minora is an Englishwoman intent on writing a book, and she whips out her notebook to record the many amusing things Elizabeth and Irais say. There’s a brief interlude where the Man of Wrath lectures about why women are inferior, and then the women leave after a month. It’s a curious artifact, pub’d in 1898.

The Women’s Room

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One of the signs of enjoying a book is when I prolong its completion, choosing to sip at the bubbly goodness instead of gulping it in one sitting. Thus went reading this one, a feminist classic from 1977. Brilliant in parts, somewhat draggy and long-winded in others, but overall a gem. The narrator inserts herself into the story in 3rd person as Mira, revealing her dual identity at the end as she’s writing this book over the summer break along the Maine coast, the months free from her teaching gig. Throughout there is a recurring theme of string beans and shit, “years spent scraping shit out of diapers with a kitchen knife, finding places where string beans are two cents less a pound…” —the image is referenced seven times through the book. “When your body has to deal all day with shit and string beans, your mind does too.”

Mira at the beginning is hiding in the women’s room at Harvard, unable to face the fact that, as a 40-year-old woman in graduate school, people look right through her. We then whirlwind back to her previous 15 years, a marriage that breaks up with two sons in tow, but more importantly a grim and extremely detailed view of the madness gripping suburban white women that Friedan covers in Feminine Mystique. All the women in the group Mira joins end up going insane, attempting suicide, or just being beaten (or beaten down). After Norm, the husband, asks for a divorce, Mira tots up a bill for her services over the fifteen years and gets a nice settlement for herself.

On pregnant women: “It is this sense of not being a self that makes the eyes of pregnant women so often look vacant. They can’t let themselves think about it because it is intolerable and there is nothing they can do about it.”

“I wanted my life to be a work of art, but when I try to look at it, it swells and shrinks like the walls you glean in a delirious daze. My life sprawls and sags, like an old pair of baggy slacks that still, somehow, fits you.”

The acronym “mcp” (male chauvinist pig) was so common in 1977 that it’s scattered throughout these pages without any explanation.

A couple of great scenes:

  • Early mansplaining: The party where Mira discovers Harley is a monologuist and cannot carry a conversation. When two men are speaking together, “it was not dialogue, it was one-upmanship… it was two monologues carried on simultaneously…. He was interesting as long as he was explaining things…”
  • Val’s radicalization after her daughter is raped, where she resigns from all her social justice work and only focuses on radical feminist causes (which ends up getting her killed by the police when they try to free a prisoner, a woman who stabbed her rapist and was convicted of murder).
  • Description of Mira’s visit to her parents where conversation rules kept things extremely boring. This reminded me painfully of the gulf between myself and family, a gaping void into which real conversation is not permitted. “But still she had to listen to the boring recital of actions performed by strangers, or people she could barely remember. They were actions without motive and without consequence, and about as interesting as the parts list for an atomic submarine… But on and one they went. They could fill three days with it.” More telling, “They shuddered at the word socialism, and even socialized medicine seemed to them something tinged with evil… She tried, in simple language to suggestion something of this to her parents, but they could not hear her. The things were in two different categories in their minds: capitalism was good, high medical bills were bad, but they had no connection with each other. She gave up. By nine thirty, Mira’s head ached. She longed for ten o’clock, when the Wards would turn on the news, after which they would go to bed.”

Also interesting to note that it was a common practice for people to bring their TVs over when they visited people, or to rent them when her sons were in town visiting. The portable sets of the 60s and 70s would just plug in and get the channels the antennae fetched.

Leviathan

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It’s been over twenty years since I read any Paul Auster and I’m convinced I need to do a reboot after finishing this delightful book. I came to Leviathan by way of Sophie Calle, who figures as Maria Turner in the book, with several of her real life projects featured. Dedicated to his pal, Don DeLillo, I wondered what kind of post-modern treat I’d be subjected to, but very much enjoyed it. Well-written and a tasty tale to boot…. the best book written by a man that I’ve consumed in months/years? Perhaps there is hope for them yet. (Although the women are slightly cardboard, at least there is a lack of overt misogyny and his writing smooths away my wrinkled brow)

The narrator, Auster thinly disguised as “Peter Aaron,” hurriedly writes the book of Benjamin Sachs’ life in the weeks following his death by accidental explosion when the bombs he’s setting off across the nation at all the Statue of Liberty replicas goes off before he’s ready. There are some hard lefts in the plot, such as when Ben is swallowed up by the earth, e.g. disappears for years. Entertaining and well written. Putting Auster on my list again.