Category Archives: The Roth Project

Changing horses midstream

The pitfall of doing a project like this is that it is a little bit confining.  It’s hard to be as casual about one’s reading when you have such a concrete goal in mind.  If I read 100 pages of a novel and I’m just not feeling it, it’s difficult to set it aside as I’d normally do, because I need that book for the tally and I’ve already invested however long it took me to read those 100 pages.

Well, today that’s exactly what I did.  I had begun The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, a book that came highly recommended.  I gave it 112 pages.  Nothing about the book was engaging me in the slightest.  Perhaps I don’t respond well to multicultural literature.  Perhaps I don’t give a crap about Diego Rivera.  Perhaps I found the narrator so utterly featureless that I…well, for whatever reason, the thought of reading the entirety of its 500 pages was just beyond the pale.  So I said, to heck with it.  I’ve got a whole stack of books here I’m dying to read, why should I waste my reading time on a book I’m not enjoying?

It helped that after a very productive week in which I read two different books in one evening each, plus I have another one 2/3 read that I could have finished in a few hours, I’m ahead of the game.  I’m up to 35 books read and I’m ahead of schedule, so I felt I could afford the time I wasted on The Lacuna to be nonproductive.  Sorry, Barbara.  Not this time.

I’m also eyeballing the Philip Roth aspect of my 2011 book project.  While I am doing very well for my 100 book goal, I’m a tad behind in my Roth goal.  I’m only on my 7th of his books, roughly 1/4 of the way through his 29-book output, so unless I step it way up, I won’t make it.

My project has always been twofold: to read 100 books in 2011, and to read every book Roth ever wrote.  I’m considering divorcing those two goals.  I will still read 100 books this year and I will still read every book of Roth’s in order, but perhaps I don’t need to read all Roth’s books in 2011.  I could stretch that aspect of the project into next year as well.  It would give me more longevity on the name of this blog, that’s for sure!


The Breast, by Philip Roth

I read Philip Roth’s The Breast tonight.

I have no idea what the hell I just read.

It was not remotely long enough to be considered a novel.  I’m not going to count it for the 100 Books in 2011 project, but I will count it (obviously) in my count of Philip Roth books read.

I don’t think I’m going to post a review.  I really don’t know what to think.

In other news, my Kindle is broken.  It fell out of my purse one too many times.  I’ve downloaded the Kindle apps for my PC and my Droid, so I’ll be okay until I can get to Best Buy and pick up a new one, probably at the end of the week.  Still…wah!

#23: Our Gang, by Philip Roth

Begun: 3/25/11
Finished: 3/27/11
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 5/5

I didn’t know what to expect from this book.  I knew it was Roth’s diatribe against Nixon, I knew it was satirical, I knew it was political.  What I didn’t know was that it would turn out to be one of the most enjoyable of all my reads so far as part of The Roth Project.  I didn’t know what a shift in tone it would be, how hilariously on-the-nose it would be, how intentionally ridiculous and how sharply written.

Roth concocts a scenario of a President, Tricky E. Dixon, who comes out in favor of the rights of the unborn, taking it to extremes when he proposes allowing the unborn to vote.  Then he takes it into a top-secret meeting between Dixon and his top advisors when a group of Boy Scouts protests outside the White House, and further into Dixon’s assassination and eventual campaign to be the new Devil down in Hell.  If all this sounds absurd and over-the-top, it definitely is.  It is also a treatise on the sneaky seduction of political spin and doublespeak.  It is all too easy to see how semantic arguments used here in absurdity are used in reality in more subtle circumstances.  I spent the whole read (it is a short book and a fast read) grinning and shaking my head at the sheer audacity of the political commentary.  I’m not normally much for political books, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Quarter-year crisis?

Since I wrote about my one-fifth-done status report not much has changed, but I’m feeling good about my progress.

On April 1st, the year will be one-quarter over.  To be on track I’ll need to have 25 books read.  I think I might make it.  I just knocked off #20 and #21 in quick succession.  Tonight at the library I got a compilation volume of Roth novels that includes the next two I must read, Our Gang and The Breast, and I was astonished to observe that the two of them together total 140 pages.  And I started Our Gang and it is amazingly awesome.  I think I’ll burn through those two with quickness.

Plus I am now almost 60% finished with Bonfire of the Vanities.  You can always tell a Kindle user because they know what percent they’ve read but not what page they’re on, heh.  The reading speed of that book is picking up a great deal as the plot really kicks into high gear.  After that I picked up another quick one, Ian McEwan’s short little novel On Cheshil Beach.  If I can finish those four tomes by April 1st I will be right up the middle.

At the library I also picked up Justin Cronin’s The Passage, a book I’ve wanted to read and which has come recommended.  It’s long.  But if I can make it to 25 books by April 1st, I’ll feel better about throwing in a doorstop of a volume.


I’m coming up against a downside to this project, though.  I’m diving in to some research for a book project I’m considering.  I doubt I’ll be reading complete books for it, more like skimming and note-taking…the problem is I’m going to resent any time I spend reading that won’t get applied to The Project.

Oh well.  I need better time management.  Less Facebook time!

Yeah, that’ll happen.

Well begun is half done?

So now that I’ve crossed the 20% line on my progress it’s a good time to reflect.

To be on track to complete my project, I would need to have read 20 books by the 73rd day of the year, which is one/fifth of the way through the year.  The 73rd day of the year is March 14th.  So I’m about a week off my pace.  But I do have a book half done right now.

The problem is the Roth books.  To keep pace with those I’d have to have read eight of them so far and I’ve only read four.  To be fair one of them was really long.  And several of the upcoming ones are super short.  But clearly I need to increase my Roth saturation level.  Heh.

I picked Roth for this project because I like his books, but let’s get real…it’s not exactly light reading.  I’m not sure I’d choose to read all these Roth books if I weren’t doing this project.  So reading those is sometimes a second choice when there are fun interesting things to read about forensic science and Titanic research and skepticism and hikers who cut off their arms.  But I’m trying to be literary here, dammit.  And so I shall.

#20: Titanic’s Last Secrets, by Brad Matsen

Begun: 3/20/2011
Finished: 3/20/2011
Format: Hardcover
Rating: 4/5

I’m a bit of a Titanic buff.  I’ve read tons of books about it.  It all started in the 8th grade when my advanced English class did a unit about it for no reason I can discern.  But I was fascinated, we all were, and that was just about the time that the wreck was discovered by Robert Ballard.  And ever since, the Titaniacs (as they’re apparently called), both amateur and professional, have been arguing over how the ship broke up, what sunk it, why did it sink so fast, yadda yadda.  When That Movie came out in 1997, Cameron’s depiction of the sinking (a high-angle break, big drama) was reflective of the best theory of the time.  But that theory’s been cast into some doubt, largely because of the work described in this book which was done by the two wreck divers whose previous exploits were published in the Shadow Divers books and chronicled on TV on “Deep Sea Detectives.”

Their theory is that weaknesses in the hull caused by newly-designed expansion joints made the ship break in two at a much lower angle than the 45 degrees we tend to think of, as little as 11 degrees, which means the sinking would have occurred extremely fast when the ship was still pretty close to horizontal.  Huge pieces of the bottom of the ship (which the divers found among the wreckage) ripped away and the whole thing flooded like gangbusters, taking most people on board by surprise.  It’s a much more horrible situation than a high-angle break, wherein everyone could see what was happening.

The book is surprisingly heavy on history, but it’s a section of the ship’s history one doesn’t often see chronicled: its building and the politics around it, and the men who made it possible.  I was fascinated by this although not everybody would be.  I’d say only 40% of the book was about the current work and the dives to the wreck, and then the investigation.  Most of it was history.  Relatively little time is spent on the Titanic’s voyage and sinking (we know this ground pretty well already).

I love a book I can read in a day.  I love it when I have a day that I can just devote to reading.  Not terribly common these days.  So thanks for the quick, interesting read, guys.

#19: Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth

Begun: 3/11/2011
Finished: 3/19/2011
Format: Trade Paperback
Rating: 4.5/5

This book was released in 1969.  At the time, it was hugely controversial, and it’s not hard to see why as it is when one reads some formerly controversial novels with the eyes and sensibilities of today (ever read Peyton Place?  Not so shocking).  Some sections of this book definitely made me go “DAY-um.”  Steeped in the sexual revolution, this is still Roth’s most famous book even given his forty years of acclaimed output that followed it.  Reading his books in order as I am, I’m struck by this sudden shift in tone, as if Roth consciously sat down to write it with a “No More Mr. Nice Writer” attitude.  He just let it fly, as does the narrator, with frequency (the frequent and vivid descriptions of masturbation were revolutionary at the time).

The book is a long monologue by the narrator, Alexander Portnoy, centered on his oppressively Jewish childhood and his current life of sexual disinhibition and the conflict that’s engendered in him between these two warring impulses.  The book is very raunchy.  I don’t like to use words like “filthy” or “dirty” to describe sexual themes because I dislike the equating of sexuality with dirtiness, but if I did use those words, they would be appropriate here.  At the same time the book is funny, sometimes screamingly so, and paints such a vivid picture of Portnoy’s life, whipsawing back and forth in time, that one feels they’re living it with him.  Portnoy’s parents, the overbearing Jewish mother and marytred father, approach caricature but skate the line with such finesse that one can’t help but believe in them.  Made me grateful to have grown up in boring old Protestant Wisconsin, tell you what.

Roth is often accused of misogyny and I can see why.  Portnoy’s girlfriend is portrayed as a sex-crazy none-too-bright shikse with ridiculous aspirations to respectability and family.  I’m not sure this qualified as misogyny exactly, as there are no doubt women in the world like this.  Her character is never blamed upon her, and Portnoy’s inability to deal with it is blamed on nobody but him.  And Portnoy described two other women who were important in his life, speaking of them with respect and admiration – although the message is undercut when he all but rapes one of them in the only scene in the novel that made me really uncomfortable.  No doubt as was its intent.

There are a lot of books that get banned or protested against that I don’t understand why.  This is not one of those books.  Doesn’t mean I agree.  But I can understand why more buttoned-up people would object to its content.