Reread Project: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs: A very different model of what reading can be all about.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

by Alan Jacobs

Hardcover, 150 pg.
Oxford University Press, 2011

Read: January 2-3, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

Read would give you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your study intellectual diet, any more than eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily accessed. The poet W. H. Auden once wrote, “When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there’s something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit”—for our own personal Christmases and Easters, not for any old Wednesday.

I picked this up as my first book of the year as a way to refresh the mind, come into the year with a reminder of what kind of reader I want to be. As I write this, I’m deliberately not looking at what I wrote last time I read this, but you may find it interesting. Maybe not. I don’t know if I’ll end up repeating myself.

I remember this book being as close to a mission statement for my approach to reading as you could hope for—particularly because I came to it late in life. It’s not like this is a book I read in college and it shaped me/my thinking, but it’s something that I came to a couple of years ago and it was as if a more erudite and thoughtful version of myself had written it.

The beginning of the book is the heart of it, he sets forth his central theses, core argument:

one dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading: Read at Whim.

Reading shouldn’t be about self-improvement (primarily), it isn’t the mental equivalent of eating Brussels Sprouts. It should be for pleasure. And to maximize that, Jacobs will argue—read at whim.

Following that, Jacobs talks about many aspects of reading for pleasure—note-taking, thinking about what we read, focus (and how to expand it), the role of ereaders (he’s surprisingly pro-ereader), fighting distractions, evaluating what we read and more.

I was particularly struck this time through by his section on re-reading. For growing in appreciation for, or understanding of a work. Or because you enjoy escaping into a well-known and beloved world for a period.

Jacobs frequently quotes Auden, at one point he cites Auden’s five ratings for a book—I think we should maybe replace the standard 5-Star system with this:

For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good, and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe with perseverance I should come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.

Most of all, this is a celebration of/appreciation of reading. Jacobs is a kindred spirit to us readers as well as a humanities professor. Reading is both a passion and a profession—and both (particularly the former) are clearly seen in these pages.

Our goal as adults is not to love all books alike, or as few as possible, but rather to love as widely and as well as our limited selves will allow.

Hear, hear. That’s a good reminder.


5 Stars

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Food: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan (Audiobook): Gaffigan’s Tribute to the Topic that Defines his Comedy

Food: A Love Story

Food: A Love Story

by Jim Gaffigan

Unabridged Audiobook, 7 hrs., 17 min.
Random House Audio, 2014

Read: December 11-13, 2019


This is largely what I said about the book in 2015, but I have a few more thoughts about Gaffigan’s book on parenting, Jim Gaffigan offers a book on his true strength: food.

As with Dad is Fat, a lot of this is material I’ve seen/heard elsewhere, but most of it isn’t. There’s more than enough original material to satisfy even those who’re familiar with has specials. I think, so anyway—I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of Gaffigan’s material, as much as my children want me to (I wouldn’t mind it, either).

On the whole, this is about what foods, dishes, and practices he likes—but he breaks it up with things he can’t stomach or understand. Sometimes, like with the chapter on Reuben sandwiches, he handles both.

The chapters on Coffee, Steak, Doughnuts, Breakfast, Hot Dogs and Bacon stand out particularly for me. Although the pair “Nobody Really Likes Fruit” and “Even Fewer People Like Vegetables” really amused me, even beyond the great titles.

Actually, there’s really nothing that didn’t amuse me.

Naturally, there’s an entire chapter devoted to Hot Pockets. That’s all I’m going to say about that, it speaks for itself.

Because the book is pretty tightly focused, there are two ways I’d recommend to read this book: in one setting, or broken up into tiny chunks over several days. There’s a danger of things getting repetitive that either of those tacks reduces.

I’m going to limit myself to just a few highlights, there’s quotable material on almost every page:

A.1. was always on the table when my dad would grill steaks. It seems everyone I knew had that same thin bottle of A.1. It always felt like it was empty right before it flooded your steak. Ironically, the empty-feeling bottle never seemed to run out. I think most people still have the same bottle of A.1. that they had in 1989. Once I looked at the back of a bottle of A.1. and was not surprised to find that one of the ingredients was “magic.”

Of course I am aware that doughnuts are bad, horrible things to eat, and according to my health-nut wife, they are not appropriate for a trail mix. I’ve repeatedly tried to explain to Jeannie that I’m on a different trail. Mine leads to the emergency room. Trail mixes have nuts, and my favorite nut is most definitely a doughnut.

In my opinion, however, the line of the book has nothing to do with food:

Bill Shakespeare himself, another actor who did some writing…

Listening to Gaffigan added a little more to the experience—sure, it’s easy to imagine him saying the same things, it’s another one to hear him do it. It’s not a superior experience to reading the book, but it’s an added flavor that makes it fresh even on the second exposure.

I’ve spent the last few months trying to change my eating habits, which made enjoying this celebration of unhealthy eating a little personally ironic (particularly for the 35 minutes I spent on a treadmill), but it still made me laugh. If you’re the kind of person who eats food, has opinions on it, and likes to laugh, pick yourself up a copy.


4 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge<Humor Reading Challenge 2019

Fletch, Too (Audiobook) by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller: Fletch’s Ski Trip to Nairobi

Fletch, Too

Fletch, Too

Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller (Narrator)
Series: Fletch, #9 (#2 Chronologically)

Unabridged Audiobook, 5 hrs., and 43 mins.
Blackstone Audio, 2019

Read: August 21-22, 2019


Up to this point, we know practically nothing about Fletch’s personal life—he’s been married (and divorced) twice and engaged once or twice in addition to that. He’s carried on an on-again/off-again relationship with Moxie Mooney. Served with valor in the Army, made a couple of good friends there. That’s pretty much it—most of what we know about Fletch is about his professional life—and then the amateur sleuthing/investigative journalism he’s done since he didn’t kill Alan Stanwyck. We know next to nothing about his family, his childhood, and so on.

In Fletch, Too McDonald decides to fix that. Picking up right after Fletch Won (like a day or two after) with his first wedding, the revelations start right away. We meet Fletch’s mother, a mystery novelist of some renown (but perhaps not of the highest caliber). After the ceremony, he’s handed a letter from someone claiming to be his father. Fletch had been told that his father had “died in childbirth,” so he’s taken aback by this. The letter describes (briefly) why his father had not been around for his life and that he’s “mildly curious” about his son. If Fletch is at least “mildly curious” about his father, he’s invited to visit him in Nairobi for their honeymoon, tickets are enclosed.

More than mildly curious, and driven to get some answers (or at least a good story), the two hop that plane (bringing their luggage and skis packed for a trip to Colorado). At this point, it stops being a standard Fletch novel and becomes something more akin to Carioca, Fletch. Before they leave the airport, Fletch witnesses a murder (unbeknownst to the murderer).

Fletch makes a couple of attempts to investigate the murder, but due to circumstances, a language barrier, police not given to outsiders’ help, and the lack of anything to go off of, he doesn’t get far. In fact, minor spoiler, the only reason Fletch “solves” the murder is that he recognizes the killer toward the end of the book. Which makes for a fairly unsatisfying “mystery” novel.

Where this book gets interesting is as Fletch and his wife meet some locals, explore the city, and meet a colleague of his father’s. We’re treated to a look at the culture, legal system (or lack thereof), history and some speculative Archeology about the area. It’s interesting—but it feels more like McDonald had an interesting vacation, read some good books on the region and/or had some great conversations with people from Nairobi and wanted to share what he’d learned (again, see, Carioca, Fletch).

I think I appreciated this more than the other non-standard Fletch because 1. I came in with low expectations (remembering how little I liked it) and 2. the supporting characters are more interesting.

At this point, I assume (and am supported by experience) that Miller will do a capable job with the Narration and he helped me enjoy the experience.

This is one for completists, for those who are curious about Fletch’s backstory, or for those who have a hankering for learning about Kenya. It’s not a bad book, it’s just not as good as it should be.


3 Stars
2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Fletch Won (Audiobook) by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller: A Real Mixed Bag

Fletch Won (Audiobook)Fletch Won

by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller (Narrator)

Series: Fletch, #8 (#1 Chronologically)
Unabridged Audiobook, 6 hrs., 30 min.
Blackstone Audio, 2018

Read: June 20 – 26, 2019

This is chronologically the first Fletch novel, he’s a rookie reporter, who’s been bounced around from headline writer, to obituaries, to wedding announcements, and is finally sent to the Society pages—with a warning. Fit in, and don’t make any trouble or he’ll be unemployed. His first assignment is to meet with an attorney, Donald Habeck, in the publisher’s office to discuss a major donation he’ll be making to a local museum and do a puff piece about it. Fletch objects, wanting to do real news—the kind of stuff he’ll later be known for. His editor (Frank Jaffe, a name known to those who’ve read Fletch and Fletch and the Widow Bradley) refuses, insisting that this is his assignment—and maybe later he’ll get a chance to do something else.

There’s a catch—Habeck is murdered in the newspaper’s parking lot on his way to this meeting. Fletch jumps on the opportunity to report on this, but the senior crime reporter shoos him off (and Jaffe). Fletch tries to exercise squatter’s rights, but no one is having any of it. Naturally, this means that Fletch will ignore this and will investigate the murder on his own—and typically is a few steps ahead of both the police and the senior crime writer.

In the meantime, he has to do his actual job (at least until he has something he can print). There’s another story they want Fletch to work on, there’s a local “escort service” parading itself as a fitness establishment—Jaffe insists that Fletch do an expose about them. To stay employed, Fletch agrees—but threatens the most detailed and explicit expense report ever. This isn’t a story that appeals to Fletch—I don’t think he cares too much if this service is just close to prostitution, or if it’s the actual thing—and he has better things to do with his time. Also, he’s about to get married, the last thing his fiancé is going to want is him hanging around a brothel all day.

The opening chapter is a hoot. As are several of the encounters Fletch has with the members of Donald Habeck’s family (particularly his wife)—and Alston Chambers never fails to be amusing. The escort service story is fun, and ends up being the kind of thing that Fletch can write about—but its main purpose is to give Mcdonald an opportunity to opine on our cultural obsession with beauty, health, and so on, while causing problems for Fletch’s personal life. There’s not a lot of meat to this story, but there’s a lot of fun. On the other hand, the murder investigation is great and vintage Fletch. It’s the best part of the book (as a mystery novel, I guess it should be, right?)

All in all, a decent Fletch novel—full of interesting characters, a nice twist, Fletch bucking all sorts of authority (police, veteran reporters, Frank Jaffee), and more than a few amusing situations. It works as an origin story, how did he become the sort of reporter we know, etc. As I mentioned earlier, we even see young Alston Chambers — just starting as an associate in a powerful law firm. But—and this is a big but— this places Fletch at the newspaper we know he ends his newspaper career with as a rookie, as a man about to be married (for the first time). We know there’s not a lot of time between the end of his first marriage and Fletch, but there’s some. Enough for a second marriage and the Window Bradley events, but not much more. What there isn’t time for is the past referred to in Confess, Fletch, Fletch’s Fortune and even hinted at in The Man Who — and the first two of those depend on Fletch’s history to work. Unless we’re to believe that his wives let him leave the state, work in a variety of other papers, developing a Fletchian reputation, move back to the same paper he started his career in (with the same senior editor), and then hit him up for alimony and still be carrying a torch for him. It stretches credulity a bit too much for me to stomach. The next book, Fletch, Too, doesn’t help things.

Does that ruin Fletch Won for me? Not totally, but that alone keeps it out of my personal top-tier Fletch novels and rank it slightly above The Widow Bradley (only for the chuckles it gives me). Clearly, McDonald isn’t as picky about this sort of thing as many of his readers are, but man, that rankles. Still, it’s fun, it features entertaining characters— some odd poetry—and enough Fletchisms to keep you happy. It’s a good time, and if you ignore what it suggests about the rest of the series, you should have a good time.

—–

3.5 Stars
2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Carioca Fletch (Audiobook) by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller: A Bad Fletch Book — whodathunkit

Carioca FletchCarioca Fletch

by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller (Narrator)
Series: Fletch, #7 (#5 Chronologically)
Unabridged Audiobook, 6 hrs., 3 min.
Blackstone Audio, 2018
Read: May 21 – 25, 2019

Just in case people were thinking I’d drunk too heavily in the Fletch/Gregory Mcdonald Kool-Aid bowl, this should alleviate any concern. I just don’t like this book.

Following the events of Fletch, our now-jobless journalist is enjoying life in Brazil, he’s got a girlfriend, is making some investments and friends and is about to enjoy Carnaval. Quite by accident, he runs into the newly-widowed Joan Allen Stanwyk, and things get a little awkward for a bit. But before he can follow up with her, an elderly Brazilian woman claims that he’s the reincarnation of her murdered husband, come back to identify his murderer.

This distracts Fletch greatly and between that, and a new group of acquaintances who seem to be rich young men who devote all their time to wine and women, Fletch can’t deal with Joan. He first has to spend some time trying to deal with the problems of their debauchery, this supernatural claim and learning about the Brazilian culture in general.

This might, might, be an okay book if it was about any other American hiding in Brazil, learning about the culture and people. But it’s not a Fletch book. He doesn’t solve the mystery by being clever or interviewing anyone. It’s not a particularly funny book, either. It’s mostly Fletch bouncing from situation to situation with little control or agency for a couple of hundred pages, and then solving a decades-old mystery by a cheap stunt.

What redeems this book is the Joan Allen Stanwyk material that bookends it. Those are the only chapters that really feel like Fletch (and, they’re grounded in the rest of the series). Also, Fletch’s background in, interest in, and history of investing in art is shown here in embryo—as well as the other things he does to pay for his villa, GCN stock, racehorses, and so on. So that’s good, but we didn’t need to see it, the character was good enough without that.

Naturally, Dan John Miller had nothing to do with any of my problems, he does a great job as usual.

This was just a misfire for Mcdonald (not the only one in the series), and is easily forgotten—and should be.

—–

2 1/2 Stars
2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Fletch and the Man Who (Audiobook) by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller: Mcdonald and Fletch at their Best

Fletch and the Man WhoFletch and the Man Who

by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller (Narrator)
Series: Fletch, #6 (#8 Chronologically)Unabridged Audiobook, 6 hrs., 14 min.
Blackstone Audio, 2018
Read: May 14 – 18, 2019

“Good morning,” Fletch said. “As the governor’s press representative, I make you the solemn promise that I will never lie to you. Today, on this bus, we will be passing through Miami, New Orleans, Dallas, New York, and Keokuk, Iowa. Per usual, at midday you will be flown to San Francisco for lunch. Today’s menu is clam chowder, pheasant under glass, roast Chilean lamb, and a strawberry mousse from Maine. Everything the governor says today will be significant, relevant, wise, to the point, and as fresh as the lilies in the field.” …

“Is it true you saved Walsh Wheeler’s life overseas?” Fenella Baker asked.

“That’s another thing,” Fletch said. “I will never evade any of your questions.” He turned the microphone off and hung it up.

I think this is my favorite Fletch novel (that spot may actually bounce between this and Fletch’s Fortune), and I could practically recite portions of this with Miller’s narration while driving. This doesn’t mean I didn’t catch anything new, it just means that I enjoyed this time through immensely.

An old Army buddy (and C.O.) of Fletch’s calls him up for a favor — his father, Caxton Wheeler, is running for an unnamed party’s presidential nomination and has just had to fire their long-term press secretary, could Fletch step in? Minutes before Fletch arrives at the hotel the campaign is using a young woman plunged to her death from one of the rooms on the higher floors (later shown to be the candidate’s room). Fletch’s first job is to discover if she jumped or was pushed — and then to make sure that it had nothing to do with the campaign.

Sadly, it appears she was pushed — and she was associated with the campaign. Even worse, it seems like she’s the latest in a string of dead women near the campaign. Giving Fletch a quandary. He needs to figure out who is doing this killing (assuming it’s one person), insulate the candidate — and keep anyone else (i.e. the press) from printing the facts.

Fletch as an obstacle/opponent/facilitator (all at the same time) of the press in any shape is just a lot of fun. His instincts, training, and inclination is to dig into a story, find the facts on his own, and run the story. His new job is to feed information to reporters, keep them from doing any fact-finding on their own, and to hide aspects of the story. It is so fun to watch him struggle in this role.

Particularly because one of the reporters on the press bus is Freddie Arbuthnot, someone who might be a better reporter than Fletch. She’s certainly more employable than he is — as she’s a crime reporter, her presence on the campaign tells Fletch a lot about how serious this string of murderers is. Also, she’s a whole lot of fun as a character, so the reader gets something out of it, too.

Speaking of returning characters, we get Alston Chambers again — I need to do a better job of tracking his career path, but I think he’s moved up in the world a bit since we saw him last, so good for him. Alston served with Fletch under Walsh Wheeler and provides some vital information for his friend. He’s also just a great guy for Fletch to talk to and bounce things off of, helping both the character and reader to process what’s going on.

So who are the recipients for Mcdonald’s critique/satire? There are so many — tabloids (particularly the mid-80s version of them), politics, the press’ political coverage (about the horse race, not the ideas/work), pressures on a candidate (Wheeler is given drugs to wake up, keep him going and then to go to sleep because there’s no way that he could do that naturally with the pressures/pace of the campaign). Given his target-rich environment, the book could’ve been twice as long just to give Fletch the opportunity to tilt at a few more windmills and wouldn’t have lost much of its punch. Like I said with Fletch’s Moxie, it seems like his satire is even more on-point now than it was thirty years ago. Which really shouldn’t be the case.

I appreciated the fact that Mcdonald left party names out of this, and none of Wheeler’s policies can be easily labeled as belonging to one of the major parties. Anyone can read him as being one of their own (or, if they’re so inclined, one of the other guys). There’s not targeting or critique of a particular party, just the entire process.

At one point, inspired by a conversation he has with Fletch, Wheeler has a moment of statesmanship (a no-no for a candidate, Fletch is told) where he talks about the ways that technology is connecting the planet and helping share information in ways unthinkable generations earlier, and talks about how it will increase in that way. Essentially predicting the Internet as we know it. Granted, it’s a more utopian vision of the Internet rather than the dumpster fire it frequently is. But Wheeler/Mcdonald has a vision for what today is in a way that no mystery writer in 1983 should’ve.

Caxton Wheeler and his driver, Flash, will show up in a Flynn book that takes place sometime before this. They’re not there a lot, but I remember the first time I read that and it blew my mind (that was my second Flynn novel and I’d yet to find Confess, Fletch so I had no idea the universes were linked) while in Middle School.

Dan John Miller is great yet again — I’ve got nothing new to say about him. I need to track down some of his other narrations, see what I think of them.

Mcdonald shifts gears with his writing and the series after this, and I really, really wish he wouldn’t have. A few more books in the vein of Fortune, Moxie, and The Man Who would’ve been a boon to his readers, and would’ve solidified Mcdonald amongst the all-time greats. I’m sure he had his reasons, but from my vantage point (now and for the last couple of decades), he shouldn’t have. In the meantime, this work is a great mystery, fantastic commentary on politics and the media, and even a bit of prescience — bundled together with Mcdonald’s sharp prose, winning dialogue and characters that demand to be re-read. I can’t recommend Fletch and the Man Who highly enough.

—–

5 Stars
2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Fletch’s Moxie (Audiobook) by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller: Fletch Solves a Very Hollywood Murder in Key West

Fletch’s Moxie (Audiobook)Fletch’s Moxie

by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller (Narrator)
Series: Fletch, #5 (#8 Chronologically)

Unabridged Audiobook, 5 hrs., 51 min.

Blackstone Audio, 2018

Read: April 24 – 29, 2019

So in the last book, we met Moxie Mooney while Fletch was still a working journalist. They’d known each other for some time at this point, and it might have been just about the last time they saw each other until now, sometime following Fletch’s Fortune (when his tax problems were taken care of and he could return to the States), although she had visited him in Italy shortly before this.

Moxie’s decided she needs Fletch’s help with something, she’s got some sort of problem that needs investigating, and who better? When Fletch arrives on the movie set for her current project in Florida, he’s just in time to help her with a brand-new problem. She’s appearing on a (pre-taped, thankfully) TV interview with her business manager—the only people on the set (or near enough the set) are Moxie, her manager, and the interviewer. So when the manager is killed with a knife to the back, there aren’t a whole lot of suspects.

Fletch jumps to action and gathers a lot of information (as only he can) before the police really even know what’s going on, including an in-depth interview (that doesn’t look like one) with the widow. He then whisks Moxie away to the home of a business associate in Key West, to keep her out of the spotlight while he can do some digging into both of her problems.

Great plan, that doesn’t account for two things: 1. Moxie’s father, the illustrious stage and film actor, Frederick Mooney—known more now for a constant state of drunkenness is visiting her, too, and has to come along; 2. Moxie tells the director and most of the cast where she’s staying and they arrive, too. Having a cast of movie stars past and present staying in one house tends to attract a bit of attention—especially when they’re associated with an unsolved murder.

One thing Fletch has done recently is buying enough stock in GCN (Global Cable News—a CNN-like entity) that executives take his phone call and pay attention to his news tips. This turns out to be pretty advantageous and helps with some of his research—this will prove fruitful for future books, too.

Fletch investigates the murder in the way he does best—by talking to people and interviewing them without their realizing it and making phone calls. I just love watching him work. It’s an intricate problem and Fletch’s solution is quite clever.

This particular book gives McDonald a chance to do two things—better explore Moxie’s character (who might be a richer character than Fletch, but not one you could base a series on) and lampoon Hollywood and its approach to the art/business of movie-making. Almost everything he talks about in this 1982 book is still prevalent — and maybe moreso.

I have nothing new to say about Dan John Miller—he’s a really good narrator and perfect for the series. I assume at this point, I’ll hear his voice in my head for at least part of the time I think about this character in the future.

This isn’t my favorite Fletch book, but it’s one of the best and a great showcase for both the character and McDonald. Amusing, insightful, smart and fun—hard to ask for more.

—–

4 Stars
2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge