Tag Archives: Notable

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

Ecco, HarperCollins, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my local library.  A 2011 New York Times Notable book.

I first discovered Russell Banks when a friend and I went to see The Sweet Hereafter.  It was a film that had me wanting to read the book, a rare occurrence.  Since that time I’ve read several novels by Russell Banks and enjoyed them.  There is always an undercurrent of tension that runs through his work, like the hidden currents in a rip tide poised to drag away an unweary swimmer.  He is willing to look at things we often turn  away from.

In Lost Memory of Skin Banks writes of a part of our society we would rather hold distant and separate from our lives.  Under a causeway in a coastal Florida city there is an encampment.  Men convicted of sexual crimes, having served their sentences and been released from prison, live there.  It is the only place in the city that is 2,500 feet from anywhere that children might gather.  Here we meet the Kid, twenty-two years old and just released on parole.   He is camped out with other offenders, a mixed group thrown together in the only place in the city where they can legally live.   The Kid is lost, knows he messed up.  Still a virgin, he’s been charged with a sexual crime through his own stupidity.  He’s figuring things out, trying to learn the rules.

     He  likes the distinction: there’s good and there’s evil.  Evil is worse than bad.  And it’s a lot worse than merely dumb or unlucky or illegal.  That’s what makes God’s rules superior to all other rules: if you break one you’re not just dumb or even bad, you’re fucking evil!  You have knowingly disobeyed God.  To be evil is to be bad in an extreme way – sentenced to life without parole and locked up in hell for eternity when you die.  If you believe in hell, that is.  Which the Kid does although he does not believe in heaven.  Same as with God whom the Kid believes in when things go right but not when things go wrong.  Which doesn’t make him an atheist exactly or an agnostic.  Just inconsistent.  From page 75.

As the Kid struggles with who exactly he is he is approached by a huge man who claims to be a professor wanting to do research on the homeless, on sex offenders.  As they spend time talking we learn some of the Kid’s back story.

Raised by an uncaring mother, left alone to fend for himself, he discovered online porn at a young age.  His only comfort an iguana named Iggy, he soon looses himself to the small screen.  Completely emotionally detached from others, he lives with the “lost memory of skin” that is pornography on the internet.  Time spent talking with the Professor, a man who has his own secrets and compulsions, allows the Kid to gain some understanding of his past as well as some possibilities for the future.   He begins to understand that there may, in fact, be a future.

Now slowly he’s starting to realize that he might not be exceptional but at least he’s important for being who he is, that he’s not really like the mass of mankind from the beginning of time whose entire lives and everything they chose to do or not to do is determined by their givens, the conditions and circumstances they were born into and the people they found there to accompany them in life.  Until now the only living creatures who seemed to care what he did or thought and were therefore affected by his actions and thoughts were Iggy and Einstein the parrot and Annie the dog as if the Kid wer closer to being reptile, bird or four-legged animal then a human being alive and conscious in time with a beginning, middle and end to his life, all three parts existing simultaneously in each separate part.  His subjective life – his accumulated memories, wishes, fears, and reflections in the last few days – ha started taking on an importance to him that it had never held before.  And consequently he’s begun to have a new interest in the subjective lives of the people who are connected with him starting with the Professor but including the men who live alongside him under the causeway.  Even the Shyster whose story up to now he has had no desire to know since he had no story of his own to compare it to.  From pages 225/226.

Russell Banks is willing to shine a light on characters who do despicable things out of ignorance and he offers readers a way to view these characters compassionately.   We live in a culture were we choose to spend a lot of our time online in one form or another, disconnected from reality and plugged into the internet without really weighing the risks of such a choice.  Nothing makes this clearer to me than the growth of online pornography and the complacency that surrounds it.   Lost Memory of Skin is a novel about this culture, about American society in the early part of the 21st century.  It will be in my top 10 list for 2012.

Mr.  Banks states that he often writes about “the unintended consequences of good intentions”.  There is a wonderful interview about the writing of Lost Memory of Skin here.


Filed under LiteraryFiction, Notable Books, Thoughts

The Notable Book Perpetual Challenge

The Notable Book Perpetual Challenge asks participants to to set yearly goals.  In 2011 I neglected to post my reviews to the challenge web site.  I plan on posting on the web site in 2012.

I hope to read at least 12 notable books in 2012.  Here are some possible titles.

From the ALA 2011 Notable Books for Adults list:


A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

Next by James Hynes.

The Surrendered by Chang Rae Lee.

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes.


Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier.

The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness by Oren Harman.

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

Just Kids by Patti Smith.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson.

From the New York Times 2011 Most Notable list:


The Art of Fielding  By Chad Harbach.

The Barbarian Nuseries By Héctor Tobar.

11/22/63 By Stephen King.

Ghost Lights By Lydia Millet.

The Leftovers by Tom Perotta.

The Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks.

A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles.

Mr. Fox By Helen Oyeyemi.

Say Her Name By Francisco Goldman.

The Sense of an Ending By Julian Barnes.

Shards By Ismet Prcic.

Space, In Chains By Laura Kasischke. (Poetry)

The Stranger’s Child By Alan Hollinghurst.

Taller, When Prone By Les Murry (Poetry)

Train Dreams By Denis Johnson


The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning By Maggie Nelson.

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World. By David Deutsch.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. By Steven Pinker.

The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. By Jonathan Lethem.

1861: The Civil War Awakening. By Adam Goodheart.

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. By Charles C. Mann.

Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India. By Joseph Lelyveld.

In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. By Erik Larson.

The Information: A History. A Theory. A Flood. By James Gleick.

Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion. By Janet Reitman.

Is That A Fish In Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything. By David Bellos.

The Memory Chalet By Tony Judt.

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War. By Tony Horwitz.

One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir. By Binyavanga Wainaina.

Pulphead. By John Jeremiah Sullivan.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. By Stephen Greenblatt.

To A Mountain In Tibet By Colin Thubron.

There are many other notable book list links at the Notable Books Blog.  I have actually read and reviewed several of the books on the 2011 NY Times list and will link the reviews to my challenge page.


Filed under Challenges 2012, Notable Books

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

Simon & Schuster, New York, 2010

From my TBR pile.  The only other  work I’ve read by Baker is a nonfiction book,  Human Smoke.

Paul Chowder, an  occasionally published poet, is trying to write an introduction to a poetry anthology entitled Only Rhyme.  He’s having trouble.

But every time I actually tried to start writing the introduction, as opposed to just writing notes, I felt straightjacketed.  So I went out and bought a big presentation easel, and a big pad of presentation paper, and a green Sharpie pen, and a red Sharpie pen, and a blue Sharpie pen.  What I thought was that I could practice talking through the introduction as if I were teaching a class.

And in order to be relaxed at the easel, I drank a Newcastle.  Also coffee, so that I would be sharp.  And still I wasn’t sufficiently relaxed, so I drank some Yukon Gold that I found in the liquor cabinet.  No, not Yukon Gold, that’s a potato, Yukon Jack, a kind of Canadian liqueur.  It was delicious.  It added a slight Gaussian blur.  And then some more coffee, so I’d still be sharp.  Blurred, smeared, but sharp.  from page 29.

Paul is adrift, his girlfriend has left him,  at times he is heartsick, at times full of piss and vinegar, and his editor is getting nervous.  Always, his head is filled with poetry, with language, and he talks about it.  A lot.  It made me laugh.  He also talks about the formation of language, stuff I had to spend many hours learning about before working with students with dyslexia.  Just brilliant.

Baby talk, which is full of rhyme, is really the way you learn to figure out what’s like and what’s not like, and what is a discrete word , or an utterence, and what is just a transition between two words.

How does it happen?  Well, it happens gradually, and it happens by matching.  Matching within and matching without.  First you have to learn that a certain feeling in one part of your body, your tongue, matches with a certain feeling in your brain, which is a sound.  A slightly different feeling in your tongue matches with a different sound coming out of your mouth and a different sensation of muscular control registering in your brain.  Each subtle difference of sound feels different.  And this is all very difficult and takes a lot of trial and error and babbling and drooling and lip popping and laughing.  from page 107.

I like poetry.  It is obvious that Nicholson Baker likes poetry.  He has written one of the best books about poetry I have read.  Fiction or nonfiction.  Maybe the best.  He talks about rhythm and meter in ways that are easy to understand, ways that are fun, like a pop song with a great hook.  I don’t think you even have to like poetry to enjoy this novel.  If you don’t, The Anthologist might open up a whole new world for you.

Now I want to go out and read all the fiction the Nicholson Baker has written, maybe even his newest.  His new book is getting lots and lots of press.  I wonder why?

Other reviews:

A Work in Progress

Fizzy Thoughts

Jenny’s Books

Olduvai Reads

Tales from the Reading Room


Filed under LiteraryFiction, Notable Books, Review

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Twelve, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

This book as won multiple awards and been on many Notable and “Best of”  lists.

I waited a long time to read this book.  Even though I had no desire to revisit this horrible event I kept hearing and reading about Dave Cullen’s in-depth study of the 1999 Colorado high school shootings.  I finally borrowed a copy from the library and discovered that Columbine is so well-written and well-researched that I couldn’t put it down.

I remember Columbine, I remember the two shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and the horrible images that came over the television.  The stories of how these two students snapped and went after jocks, seeking revenge for bullying and harassment and how the “Trench Coat Mafia” was the group behind the murders was all over the media.  Turns out everything they told us about the Columbine shootings was wrong.

Dave Cullen,  reporting for Slate.Com, first visited Columbine High School at around noon on April 20th, 1999, the day of the shootings.  He spent 9  years researching this book, listening to tapes, watching videos, reading journals and conducting interviews. Talking to students, parents and teachers, investigators and police.   He dug deep and his reporting shows it.  It come across as clear and balanced.

Cullen gives us background on Harris and Klebold, in a way he makes these “monsters” human.  Reading their journals and listening to their friend,s investigators on the case believe Eric Harris was a psychopath and that Dylan Klebold suffered depression.  Reading their backgrounds and histories gives a very different view from the one the press reported.  The things I found most interesting in Columbine are Cullen’s analysis of the media circus surrounding the incident and the fact that the police covered up information they had on Harris and Klebold.  It turns out that this incident could have been avoided if certain people had communicated with other people, including some student who had hints of what was going on but never took the boys seriously.  Isn’t that always the way?

Columbine is not easy to read, the descriptions of the shootings and the suffering of the victims is intense, but I found it very worthwhile.

Other review:

Reading Rants

start narrative here

Have you read and reviewed this book?  Leave a comment so I can link you.


Filed under History, Nonfiction, Notable Books, Review

Tinkers by Paul Harding

Tinkers by Paul Harding

Bellevue Literary Press, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

A Publishers Weekly 2009 Notable Book

An odd, beautiful book about a son and his father.  As George lays dying, surrounded by his family,  he drifts in and out of time, revisits his childhood and memories of his family and his father,  Howard.  Howard was a salesman, a tinker and an epileptic who deserted his family.  George retired from teaching and learned to repaired clocks.  Built of time, memory and dream, Harding has created a story filled with unusual people and unforgettable images.  Some are beautifully descriptive.

Nearly seventy years before George died, his father, Henry Aaron Crosby, drove a wagon for his living.  It was a wooden wagon.  It was a chest of drawers mounted on two axles and wooden spoked wheels. There were dozens of drawers, each fitted with a recessed brass ring, pulled open with a hooked forefinger, that contained brushes and wood oil, tooth powder and nylon stockings, shaving soap and straight-edged razors….

He tinkered.  Tin pots,  wrought iron.  Solder melted and cupped in a clay dam.  Quicksilver patchwork.  Occasionally, a pot hammered back flat, the tinkle of tin sibilant, tiny beneath the lid of the boreal forest.  Tinkerbird, copppersmith, but mostly a brush and mop drummer.  From page 11/12.

What of miniature boats constructed of birch bark and fallen leaves, launched into cold water clear as air?  How many fleets were pushed out towards the middle of ponds or sent down autumn brooks, holding treasures of acorns, or black feathers, or a  puzzled mantis?  Let those grassy crafts be listed alongside the iron hulls that cleave the sea, for they are all improvisations built from the daydreams of men, and all will perish, whether from ocean siege or October  breeze. From page 77/78

Others are out of a dream.

A wind came through the trees sounding like a chorus, so like a breath then, so sounding like a breath, the breath of thousands of souls gathering itself up somewhere in the timber lining the bowls and depressions behind the worn mountains the way thunderstorms did and crawling up their backs the way thunderstorms did, too, which you couldn’t hear, quite, but felt barometrically – a contraction or flattening as of tone as everything compressed in front of it, again, which you couldn’t see, quite, but instead could almost see the result of — water flattening, so the light coming off  it shifted angles, the grass stiffening, so it went from green to silver, the swallows flitting over the pond all being pushed forward and then falling back to their original positions as they corrected for the change, as if the wind were sending something in front of it…From page 128

There is incredible freedom of style in this book.  Harding  moves from the mundane to the unusual, even the visionary, without floundering or loosing his sense of balance.  His language is clear and precise, almost blinding, like a laser, like sunlight glancing off a field of snow.  I have never read a book like this, and will not forget it.


Filed under New Authors 2010, Notable Books