Too Many Books In The Kitchen

I'm Michael Hingston, books columnist for the Edmonton Journal (new columns every other Friday).

My first novel, The Dilettantes, was just published by Freehand Books. Here's everything you might want to know about it.

Other topics under discussion: podcasts, strange sodas, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Moby-Dick.

Email me, if you like, at hingston [at] gmail [dot] com. I'm available for hire and I like free books.

WRITING

Favourites: 2009 / 2010 / 2011 / 2012 / 2013
What I Read: 2009 / 2010 / 2011 / 2012 / 2013 / 2014 (so far)

All Reviews /
All Interviews /
All Columns

Mark Abley (1)
Henry Adams (1)
Chris Adrian (1)
Charlie Ahearn (1)
César Aira (1) (2) (3)
André Alexis (1)
Rona Altrows (1; interview)
Jonathan Ames (1)
Kingsley Amis (1)
Martin Amis (1) (2) (3)
Karen Armstrong (1)
Margaret Atwood (1)
Jane Austen (1)
Paul Auster (1)
Tash Aw (1)
Todd Babiak (1) (2; interview) (3; interview)
Chris Bachelder (1; Q&A)
Nicholson Baker (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
Rosecrans Baldwin (1)
Jesse Ball (1)
J.G. Ballard (1)
Julian Barnes (1)
Kevin Barry (1)
John Barth (1)
Arjun Basu (1)
Elif Batuman (1)
Samuel Beckett (1)
Robert E. Belknap (1)
Katrina Best (1)
Otto Binder (1)
Laurent Binet (1)
Mike Birbiglia (1)
Heather Birrell (1)
Caroline Blackwood (1)
Andrej Blatnik (1)
Roy Blount Jr. (1)
Boethius (1)
Roberto Bolaño (1) (2)
Mike Boldt (1; interview)
Jacques Bonnet (1)
Jorge Luis Borges (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)
Grégoire Bouillier (1)
Thea Bowering (1; interview)
Tim Bowling (1)
Stephen R. Bown (1; interview)
C.P. Boyko (1; interview) (2)
Inge Bremer-Trueman (1; interview)
Bertram Brooker (1)
Grant Buday (1)
Nellie Carlson (1)
Raymond Carver (1)
Adolfo Bioy Casares (1)
Michael Chabon (1)
Marty Chan (1; interview)
Dan Charnas (1; interview) (2)
Corinna Chong (1)
Chris Cleave (1)
Lynn Coady (1; interview) (2) (3; interview)
Douglas Coupland (1; interview)
Buffy Cram (1)
Lynn Crosbie (1)
Amanda Cross (1)
Nancy Jo Cullen (1)
John D'Agata (1)
Mark Z. Danielewski (1)
Diana Davidson (1; interview)
Don DeLillo (1) (2)
Charles Demers (1; interview)
Kristen den Hartog (1)
David Denby (1)
Helen DeWitt (1) (2)
Patrick deWitt (1; Q&A) (2; Q&A)
Marcello Di Cintio (1; interview)
Nicolas Dickner (1) (2)
Dave Eggers (1)
Alison Espach (1) (2; Q&A)
Percival Everett (1) (2)
Jim Fingal (1)
Anne Finger (1)
Meags Fitzgerald (1; interview)
Jonathan Safran Foer (1; interview)
Kaitlin Fontana (1; Q&A)
Cheryl Foggo (1)
Mark Frauenfelder (1; interview)
Jim Fricke (1)
Bill Gaston (1)
Marie-Louise Gay (1)
David Gilmour (1)
Malcolm Gladwell (1)
Misha Glouberman (1)
Adam Leith Gollner (1)
Manuel Gonzales (1)
Adam Gopnik (1)
Emily Gould (1)
John Gould (1)
Lee Gowan (1)
Linda Goyette (1)
Gwethalyn Graham (1)
Amelia Gray (1)
Chris Hadfield (1; interview)
Daniel Handler (1; interview)
Adam Haslett (1)
David Hayward (1)
Alan Heathcock (1)
Steve Hely (1)
Aleksandar Hemon (1)
Lee Henderson (1; interview)
Kira Henehan (1)
Lawrence Herzog (1)
Sheila Heti (1) (2; Q&A) (3) (4)
Jessica Hiemstra (1)
Miranda Hill (1)
Nick Hornby (1)
Robert Hough (1)
Sean Howe (1)
Mary-Beth Hughes (1)
Maude Hutchins (1)
Neamat Imam (1; interview)
Isol (1)
Harry Karlinsky (1) (2)
Esmé Claire Keith (1)
A.L. Kennedy (1) (2)
Etgar Keret (1)
Ross King (1; interview)
Chuck Klosterman (1) (2; interview)
Ryan Knighton (1)
Jane F. Kotapish (1)
Louise Ladouceur (1; interview)
Sarah Lang (1; interview)
Annette Lapointe (1)
Grant Lawrence (1; interview)
Nam Le (1)
Perrine Leblanc (1)
Fran Lebowitz (1; interview)
Shelley A. Leedahl (1)
Alex Leslie (1)
Lawrence Lessig (1)
Jonathan Lethem (1) (2) (3) (4)
Adam Levin (1)
Michael Lewis (1) (2)
Naomi K. Lewis (1; interview) (2; interview)
Tao Lin (1) (2; Q&A) (3)
Ewa Lipska (1)
David Lipsky (1) (2)
Sam Lipsyte (1)
Erlend Loe (1)
Lisa Lutz (1)
Janice MacDonald (1; interview)
Pasha Malla (1; interview)
Ben Marcus (1)
Adam Marek (1)
Clancy Martin (1)
Lisa Martin-DeMoor (1; interview)
Zachary Mason (1; Q&A) (2)
Colin McAdam (1; interview)
Tom McCarthy (1)
Franklin Davey McDowell (1)
Yukari F. Meldrum (1; interview)
Herman Melville (1)
Laurence Miall (1; interview)
David Mitchell (1)
Lorrie Moore (1) (2) (3) (4)
Horacio Castellanos Moya (1)
Haruki Murakami (1) (2) (3) (4)
Michael Murphy (1)
Billeh Nickerson (1; interview)
Jason Lee Norman (1; interview) (2; interview)
Dorthe Nors (1)
Benjamin Nugent (1)
Andrew O'Hagan (1)
Michael Ondaatje (1; interview)
Daniel Orozco (1)
John Ortved (1)
Patton Oswalt (1)
Boris Pahor (1)
Chuck Palahniuk (1; interview)
Orhan Pamuk (1)
Amanda Petrusich (1)
DC Pierson (1) (2; Q&A)
Hannah Pittard (1)
Padgett Powell (1)
Thomas Pynchon (1) (2)
Jennifer Quist (1)
François Rabelais (1)
Nathan Rabin (1)
Kadrush Radogoshi (1; interview)
Ross Raisin (1) (2)
Simon Rich (1; interview) (2) (3)
Edward Riche (1)
Ringuet (1)
Santiago Roncagliolo (1)
Adam Ross (1)
Nicholas Ruddock (1)
Salman Rushdie (1)
Karen Russell (1)
Richard Russo (1)
Mike Sacks (1; interview)
Daniel Sada (1)
Laura Salverson (1)
José Saramago (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)
George Saunders (1)
Elissa Schappell (1)
Anakana Schofield (1)
Salvatore Scibona (1)
Will Self (1; interview)
Carol Shaben (1)
Leanne Shapton (1)
Mikhail Shishkin (1)
Gary Shteyngart (1; interview)
Norm Sibum (1)
Katherine Silver (1; Q&A) (2; interview)
Zadie Smith (1) (2)
Lemony Snicket (1; interview)
Carrie Snyder (1)
Muriel Spark (1)
Dana Spiotta (1)
Kathleen Steinhauer (1)
Cassie Stocks (1; interview)
Cordelia Strube (1)
Alan Sullivan (1)
J. Courtney Sullivan (1) (2)
John Jeremiah Sullivan (1)
Miguel Syjuco (1)
Justin Taylor (1) (2; Q&A) (3)
Rob Taylor (1; Q&A)
Lysley Tenorio (1)
Lynne Tillman (1)
Ken Tingley (1)
Miriam Toews (1; interview)
Wells Tower (1)
Matthew J. Trafford (1)
Neil Turok (1)
Ellen Ullman (1)
Deb Olin Unferth (1)
Jean-Christophe Valtat (1)
Richard Van Camp (1)
Padma Viswanathan (1; interview)
Jorge Volpi (1)
Sarah Vowell (1)
David Foster Wallace (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)
Russell Wangersky (1)
Mélanie Watt (1)
Teddy Wayne (1; interview)
Chris F. Westbury (1; interview)
Colson Whitehead (1)
David Whitton (1)
Ian Williams (1)
John Williams (1)
D.W. Wilson (1; interview)
Kevin Wilson (1)
Michael Winter (1)
James Wood (1)
Molly Young (1) (2; Q&A)
Vlado Žabot (1)

OTHER PIECES

"Comic Sans" (The Incongruous Quarterly)
"'No Fear' T-Shirts Based on Board Games" (McSweeney's)

"The Men in the Mirror"
"Moby-Dick; or, My Favourite Book"
"The Pop-Culture Annotated 'Lord's Prayer'"
"Tumblr Recommends"

Field Notes: The Mystery Guest, Stoner

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THE MYSTERY GUEST

SYNOPSIS: Grégoire Bouillier’s 2004 memoir (translated by Lorin Stein in 2006), about the mysterious re-entrance of his departed ex-girlfriend into his life, and the equally mysterious birthday party she invites him to.

CONDITION: A Mariner Books paperback, bought new from Powell’s.

THOUGHTS: Nicholson Baker’s obsessively detailed memoir U and I begins with the author discovering a famous writer’s obituary in a newspaper. This kicks off a giddy, free-associative string of thoughts that eventually leads Baker to his subject (the subtle influence of John Updike on Baker’s own works).

The Mystery Guest kicks off from almost the exact same set of circumstances. Grégoire Bouillier frames his memoir around the discovery in his local Parisian newspaper that Michel Leiris, a famous French surrealist writer, has just died. And things do indeed take a similarly quick turn for the unusual—but in Bouillier’s case, it has less to do with his own caffeinated thoughts than a seemingly fated external event. His ex-girlfriend—the one who’d taken off, years earlier, with hardly a departing word—calls him on the phone.

But not to apologize. On the contrary: she’s going to the artist Sophie Calle’s birthday party, and she’s in charge of bringing a “mystery guest,” someone completely unknown to Calle. Bearing no obvious baggage about their shared past, she asks Bouillier if he will be that guest.

He, of course, agrees.

I’d heard a lot about The Mystery Guest before I picked it up on vacation last year, but looking back, I think I’d latched onto the promises of zaniness and literary cartwheeling a little too much. Bouillier’s thought processes are appealing in their specificity—and he’s more emotionally in tune than someone like Baker is in U and I (probably for obvious reasons, given their respective muses)—but I’d be lying if I said this book felt magical, as it does to others.

The book does have some nice turns in it, particularly involving a mysterious Virginia Woolf quote, as well as the incredibly fancy bottle of wine Bouillier brings to Calle’s party, which she doesn’t even open—it gets deposited, untouched, into her ongoing birthday-present art project. And Bouillier himself is charming and aggressively intelligent in that way that French people tend to be.

But I wasn’t prepared for how much time he spends in isolation, poring over his ex’s every last movement and motivation. The book’s charms became, through no fault of its own, restrictive. So it’s a write-off for now: I’ll have to give it another go in a few years, and see how it stacks up when free of the burden of my big, dumb expectations.

* * * * *

STONER

SYNOPSIS: John Williams’s recently resurrected 1965 novel about the life of a farmer’s son-turned-university-professor in Missouri in the first half of the 20th century.

CONDITION: A beautiful paperback from the New York Review of Books Classics, also new from Powell’s.

THOUGHTS: Speaking of expectations, I don’t think there’s ever been a book that I’ve been as predisposed to love as Stoner. For one, it’s a campus novel, which is my very favourite of sub-genres; for two, it’s part of the illustrious NYRB line; and for three, it’s gotten nothing but rave reviews from literally every person I’ve ever seen talk or write about it. (Both Stoner and The Mystery Guest hold spots in The Millions's hall of fame.)

And, well… you guys are going to hate me for this.

Okay, hold on. Back up. I was actually very taken by the second half of the novel, during Stoner’s long, slow decline into old age. Once his life has quietly imploded, and, more importantly, he’s resigned himself to that fact, the prose is graceful and at ease with its permanent rain-cloud mood. Stoner’s stoicism, his discomfort with social norms—it all makes sense as the world increasingly passes him by. And the scenes where Stoner gives a rival professor and his grad-student disciple an academic disemboweling are delightful, through and through.

But there’s a kind of moral voyeurism at play in the first half of the book—the one where a young Stoner chafes against his pre-determined lot in life—that really irritates me. It takes different forms, but the basic sentiment is this: Stoner grows up in an era where people routinely do things that we call tragic (eg. marry a respectable woman, even if they do not love one another). Sometimes he glumly accepts things; other times he tries to rebel, and gets punished for it. In all cases, we are invited to gawk at how tragic these obviously tragic things are.

I don’t find this kind of thing entertaining, or provocative, or even all that useful. Frankly, it’s a one-note idea, and almost immediately becomes a manipulative one, too. That’s how much of Stoner's first halffelt to me—like one long jerk of the chain.

In particular, during the scenes where Stoner’s wife—formerly timid, currently transformed into a catty society woman—launches her passive-aggressive plot to ruin the bond Stoner has with their daughter, I found myself actively recoiling from the page. (My tolerance for father-daughter relationships being destroyed is probably nil to begin with, but still.) You know there’s no way for him, a working father, to win this kind of argument about which parent is fit to do the raising, but Williams asks you to believe in his hero, time and again, only to then confirm: yep, there was no way for him to have won that.

When its hero is achieving his mid-life crisis (grimly, steadily), Stoner feels like a neverending gauntlet of injustice and cruelty—and in the depths of those moments, I wanted to opt out from the whole thing. I’d already granted Stoner his tragic status by page 10. What more does this book want from me?

The politics are a concern, too. Williams has concocted a conspiracy of hysterical women and crippled colleagues and students trying to keep his humble, plain-spoken, straightwhitemale protagonist down. Left to his own devices, of course, Stoner is a model parent, scholar, and human—it’s all these other people (capitalize the O, if you like) who stifle his potential. Some of this is to be expected for 1965, but I’m surprised no other review I know of has mentioned it. It was an alarming sticking point for me throughout.

And if Williams won’t give Stoner a character flaw, then the reverse, an annunciation of the man’s beliefs and virtues, would have been nice. A lifelong professor of English literature, there’s never any real reason given as to what lit the fire under Stoner’s ass as a student, making him abandon the agriculture program and, eventually, his farmer parents, who were counting on him to revitalize the family property. No mention of how his character and worldview change, either. Stoner has his own deep-seated repression to contend with, of course, but Williams never gives books any more inherent allure than, say, working the dusty fields. This seems like a huge missed opportunity.

The entire internet is against me on this one, I realize that. But trust me: nobody is more disappointed that I didn’t love Stoner than me.

Jan 25, 2011
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