Read Like A Man

One of the best opening sequences I’ve ever read is in Denis Johnson’s TREE OF SMOKE.  The first few pages are a jolt into the quiet realities of war, as 18 yr old Seaman Apprentice William Houston Jr. stalks alone through a jungle in Vietnam.  Three years after first reading this, my heart still aches — and I mean literally here — just to think about it.  (If you never saw the NYT review, read it here.  I’ve rarely seen such worthy praise.)

That said, I never got going when I tried to read this 600 pager.  (I’ll spare you my list of lame excuses.)  Now Johnson has a new book out, a 128 page novella called TRAIN DREAMS, and all I can think about is going back and reading TREE OF SMOKE.  Yesterday I saw the review of TRAIN DREAMS in The New Yorker and it brought to mind all the reasons I picked up Johnson’s big Vietnam epic in the first place.  “Johnson’s fiction has always turned on questions of vision. His characters are often weirdly privileged noticers, for whom reality will confess slightly esoteric pigments and details.”  Weirdly privileged noticers.  And “realism in Johnson’s fiction often seems, like the Savoy Hotel, to be about to dribble away into a dream, and what brings it back from the looking-glass world is the exactitude of Johnson’s language.” 

I met Denis a couple of years ago when he visited my grad program (here’s a fun article about him).  He gave a big reading and then sat around the conference room table the next day and, for lack of a better phrase, shot the shit with about 10 of us.  I remember I asked him a couple of questions and, though I don’t recall his answers, I can still see him looking me right in the eye, answering seriously and at length and with appropriate flippancy.  Definitely a shy guy, but comfortable in, and even caustic about, his writing; a guy who seems not to care what anyone else wants from him; an artist who’s not all that comfortable talking about his “art.”  I left there wanting to read everything he’d ever written.  He’s one of those writers I think of when people ask, “should I go to an MFA program?”  Reading Denis Johnson is some damned good schooling.

I don’t know if I’m in the mood for another 600 pager just now, having recently finished Barbara Kingsolver’s THE LACUNA, but the arrival of Johnson’s latest serves as one of those kicks in the ass I often need.  First, I’m getting my hands on a copy of TRAIN DREAMS.  I can squeeze in 128 pages, right?  And second, I was looking at my shelf of “to read” books and most of them are by women.  Not to cause a feminist uproar here, but come on … maybe that’s one reason I’m a little bored with my reading list lately.  I need to hear a different voice.

What are your favorite “man” books?


26 thoughts on “Read Like A Man

  1. Les

    I guess I’d be remiss if I didn’t say anything by Hemingway, but that’s kinda easy. Since it’s almost 9/11, I’ll endorse a wonderful book by Johnathan Safran Foer called Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Author’s a man, but the narrator is a boy. The story deals tenderly and emotionally with the tragedies of 9/11/2001 as a backdrop. Here’s from the dust cover: “Meet Oskar Schell, an inventor, Francophile, tambourine player, Shakespearean actor, jeweler, and pacifist. He is nine years old.” That hooked me, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

      1. Les

        It’s wonderful, Teri. And a great read to commemorate the day, and beyond. Bless you and yours on this time of remembrance….L.

    1. macdougalstreetbaby

      I was listening to NPR the other day and heard about a book called The Submission by Amy Waldman. They touted it as the “novel of 9/11.” Anybody else hear anything about it?

      1. Teri

        I’ve heard of Amy Waldman, because I remember thinking she sounded too much like Ayelet Waldman. What are the chances?? I’m off to look up this book and see what it’s all about…

  2. amyg

    michael chabon

    david foster wallace (but that’s kinda like saying “i love chocolate”, right?)


    NICK HORNBY. (all caps b/c that’s how much i love him)

    i used to love, love, love erich segal and jeffrey archer in high school. and world according to garp. i wanted to write that book.

    the other night i went to the reading for the guy who lives one town over from me and just got a deal with FSG. he writes like a man. clipped sentences. quick, well worded thoughts. is that fair? to give that kinda writing a gender? fuck fair, right?

    i like the one “n” in denis.

    i just realized this morning that i haven’t read a fiction book in months. i bought jennifer egan’s the goon squad and ann patchet’s new one. i’m going to watch wes anderson movies tonight. (fantastic mr. fox w/ the kids, and then the one about the three brothers with my boyfriend adrein brody after the kids are asleep.) wes anderson makes me want to write stories that would fit his movie soundtracks. not that this has anything to do with anything you’ve written except writing in general.

    enjoy your weekend!

    1. Teri Post author

      Reading Michael Chabon makes me so crazy with awe I can barely focus. I wonder what he’d be like over a nice dinner conversation?

      Sedaris I could read daily, hourly. When people don’t get his humor I know I won’t get along with them so well. C’est la vie!!

      Right now I’m reading Edward P. Jones’s THE KNOWN WORLD, encouraged by Lizi. Then I’m on to some Denis Johnson.

    2. Teri Post author

      Oh, and I totally go through those Nonfiction Power Surges too, AmyG. I mean hell, I read about the ramp up of Nazi power in Germany on vacation….

  3. Downith

    Teri, I was reading your post and thought “wierdly privileged noticers” I like that. And then I kept reading and you had high-lighted it too.

    He sounds great but I really have to think about 600+ pages these days . . .

    1. Downith

      Dammit – weirdly. I’m sure I’ve had another misspelling of weirdly somewhere when I commented – maybe here? maybe over at Lisa’s?

      1. Downith

        Didn’t answer the question. Man reads which I’m interpreting as male authors

        Colm Toibin- Brooklyn

        John Irving- Garp and The Cider House Rules

        Mordecai Richler – Barney’s Version

        … off the top of my head

      2. Teri Post author

        I think I have Brooklyn around here somewhere. I thought Toibin’s The Master was excellent. Talk about a guy who sees the details….

  4. Averil Dean

    Revolutionary Road. I’ve read it a couple of times and I just love it. The next book I write is going to be set in the 50’s–or 60’s, a la Mad Men.

    1. Teri Post author

      Oh gosh, Revolutionary Road! Loved it. Richard Yates’s short story collection is to die for, too. In fact, he’s at his best in the shorter form I think.

  5. amyg

    do you have the new vanity fair yet? there’s this great article (that i’m reading right now and got up in the middle of to tell you about) by a friend of the chad H. guy who wrote The Art of Fielding and it’s soooo up our alley. it’s all about the books and agents and publishing. like a Poet & Writers piece, only written with that story-telling that Vanity Fair puts into its pieces. it’s like candy. (and there’s a crushingly heartfelt review of joan d.’s new book by christopher hitchens that made me tear up and it’s less than a full page.)

    1. Teri

      I don’t have the new Vanity Fair yet, maybe it’ll come today. But I looked online and found a 2004 essay by Joan’s brother in law, Dominick Dunne, which was excellent.

  6. macdougalstreetbaby

    I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t think of a soul so I’m going back to childhood. I offered this name up to Averil a few weeks ago, too. Paul Zindel. He’s wacky and smart and has the best titles I’ve ever heard.

  7. Sherry Stanfa-Stanley

    I’m gonna go with Downith’s mention of John Irving as my long-time favorite male author (particularly Garp and Owen Meany), although I think he could used a ruthless editor these days. The best two books by men that I’ve read in the last couple of years were Let the Great World Spin (I know you weren’t a fan) and Then We Came to the End. Just bought the newest by Joshua Ferris, so we’ll see if I think this one’s a winner too…

  8. Lyra

    Brooklyn solidified Toibin as one of my favorites.
    But bored with female writers?? What?? (You know I couldn’t let that go 🙂 )
    I have been making an effort to read more women as I’ve noticed a male slant in my reading. Right now I’m on A.S Byatt’s The Children’s Book.
    I did however just finish Juliet, Naked not too long ago and really enjoyed reading something that didn’t require the focus as some of the epics that I get involved with do. Hornsby’s writing is so quick and catchy, and he’s just so damn funny. I need those sorbets between courses. And what a lovely lemon sorbet he is.

    1. Teri

      Sorbets between courses?? You should maybe take up this writing-thing. 😉 Love that sentence.

      You are reading too many men, I’m reading too many women. Maybe we should have a swap meet.

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