Tag Archives: David Levithan

With a Zero at Its Heart – Charles Lambert

If I was to mention to you a book written in 24 themed chapters, each with 10 numbered paragraphs of exactly 120 words in length then your thoughts may go several ways. Some of you may think it sounds pretentious, some of you may think it sounds too clever and a gimmick, some of you may think it sounds like an author testing their craft and being experimental leading to amazing results. The latter of you would be right, the book I am describing is Charles Lambert’s With a Zero at Its Heart which I had the pleasure of living with for a while recently and was rather sad to leave.

The Friday Project, paperback, 2014, fiction/non-fiction (you decide), 150 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I can’t decide if With a Zero at Its Heart is a novel or a memoir. I can’t decide if it matters. I have decided that with each chapter being made up of ten concise short bursts of recollection around a theme that it lingers somewhere delightfully between the two. I have also decided it is going to be quite a mission to do it justice and explain just how wonderfully it evokes the story of a (rather bookish) young man as he grows up, discovers he is gay, finds himself, travels, becomes a writer and then deals with the death of his parents and the nostalgia and questions that brings about the meaning of life and how we live it.

What is so clever about With a Zero at Its Heart is the way that the novel is constructed. I don’t just mean the 24 chapters with 10 paragraphs all of 120 characters, though this makes for a very condensed work and intensifies the gamut of emotions (joy, sorrow, love, loss, the works) throughout. Initially because every paragraph in every themed chapter is from a different point in the narrator/authors life you worry that you are disconnected. Soon you feel completely opposite as the more you read the more you connect these snippets and short stories from a life into the wider whole story. For example we follow, on and off, the huge story that is the experience of the death of his parents, we also follow smaller stories like a bunch of cleaned bottles which clearly are a vivid part of his memory and have a tale to tell. There is something joyous in the celebration and companionship of the bigger and smaller stories all interweaving.

He’s waiting for his father to get home, standing on the sofa beside the bay window that looks out onto the street. When the car comes round the corner he waves and jumps up and down. His father drives past the window and beneath the arch that leads into the yard, then storms into the house. He’s furious. He walks across the room and grabs the arm of his son, who’s still on the sofa, and pulls him off until the boy is half-standing, half-crouching on the floor. His father slaps him round the back of the head. By the time his mother comes in they’re both shaking. That sofa’s new, his father says. He must think I’m made of money.

It is in a way a collection of 240, I think I have done the maths right there, moments that in themselves are a small story and world within the bigger universe of a person’s memory. Here also the themes in each chapter come in to play. The titles are wonderful, with a sense of the serious and the fun, like ‘Language or Death and Cucumbers’, ‘Money Or Brown Sauce Sandwiches’ or ‘Correspondence or Coterminous with the Cat’. Yet what is fascinating is that as we read about subject like death, money, sex, and the body we see how the relevance of those words and indeed those objects change as his life progresses. The first paragraph/memory/story being the earliest and then they come nearer to the future.

It is also a book very much about books, writing and the power of words and language. Through both the experimental form, showing us what words can do in varied and unusual ways and the fact that the prose is so short, sharp and beautifully pristine. As I mentioned the condensing of it has a real intensity which will sit with you throughout. It is of course also the story of a young man who becomes a writer and creator of stories themselves.

His favourite aunt gives him a typewriter. The first thing he writes is a story about people who gather in a room above a shop to invoke the devil. When they hear the clatter of cloven hooves on the stairs the story ends, but the typewriter continues to tap out words, and then paragraphs, and then pages until the floor is covered. He picks them up and places them in a box as fast as they come, and then a second box, and then a third. There is no end to it. I am nothing more than a channel, he whispers to himself, and the typewriter pauses for a moment and then, on a new sheet, types the word Possession.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I loved With a Zero at Its Heart. I found it deeply touching and moving in its subject and prose, and also exciting for its form. It is one of those wonderful books which tests you slightly as a reader, plays with you (in a good way) and then grabs hold of you and takes you over. It is a relatively short book yet one that I was reading both in gulps and then having a break to let all the stories settle and the bigger picture slowly but surely form. It is in essence the story of a life in 24 chapters and is quite unlike anything I have read before. Highly recommended reading, one of the most original books I have read in a very long time.

I am definitely going to have to head to more of Charles Lambert’s back catalogue as it is rare that an author can write a book with such an unusual form and make something so emotive and compelling. The last time I came across such books were Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology and the slightly shorter – in all senses – and teeny bit more gimmicky (if I am being honest, though I liked it a lot)  The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan. I have to say though, Lambert’s has a much heftier emotional punch than either, and you know how much I love Mr Rhodes! Have any of you read any of Charles Lambert’s novels and if so which should I head to next? Which other original and ‘experimental’ books have you tried and been rather bowled over by and why?


Filed under Books of 2014, Charles Lambert, Review, The Friday project

Other People’s Bookshelves #33; Jeremy Largen

Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a regular series of posts where you get to have a nosey at other book lovers bookshelves. This week we are off across the ocean to Chicago (though I may be delayed in quarantine) to join the lovely Jeremy, one of the many, many booklovers who I have come to know through social media and now wish I could teleport to visit for a nice cup of tea and bookish natter every week or so (and to join his book group too). Sighs. Anyway, less about me and my science fiction whims, I will hand over to Jeremy and let him introduce himself while I get my visa checked and medical assessment and join you later on…

I’ve always been a reader for as long as I can remember.  I grew up in the country and there wasn’t a lot to do.  My brothers enjoyed fishing, hunting, being outside, but I preferred to stay in and escape in a book, or if my parents forced me to go outside and “play,” I would take my book with me. I read pretty much anything, except I don’t like biographies/autobiographies, especially about famous people, but memoirs are okay.  Nor do I like Westerns.  I’m not a shoot ‘em up, cowboys and Indians kind of guy.  My favourite, and my go-to genre, when I just want to escape is fantasy.  I love the worlds.  I love the magic systems.  Fantasy, for me, is imagination at its best. I moved to Chicago about 9 years ago, for the job opportunity.  I had a hard time making friends, not being one to really go to the bars all that much, nor was I all that extroverted, so I decided to start the Chicago Gay Men’s Book Club in 2008, to make friends.  I never imagined that it would be so successful.  I’ve met some really great guys since, and have made some lasting friendships that I cherish.

I also recently started a book blog, www.bookjerm.com, which I’m kind of learning as I go.  I’ve never blogged before.  I’ve been rating and writing blurbs for books I’ve read on goodreads.com for several years, but writing full book reviews is new to me, and challenging, though finding time to actually write, I think, is probably the most challenging.  But I’m super excited about it and looking forward to developing my site as a place to house all my bookish thoughts, etc.  I’m also on Twitter, @BookAddict34, where I “tweet” about books, movies, and life in general.

photo 1

Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

All the books I keep are on my shelves.  I usually only keep the books that I really love, for one reason or another, and donate the rest.  I think, at least at the moment, I have more books I haven’t yet read then books I’ve actually read.  I’ve got a bit of an addiction when it comes to buying books.  I was out this afternoon, in fact, buying more books to add to the already overflowing shelves. 

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

I used to alphabetize all my books, but decided it wasn’t fun anymore.  The constant shifting of books became too tedious to keep up with.  I usually group authors together where I have several of their works, e.g., Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Carroll, but the rest I just make sure they go on their designated shelf; Shelf 1, which goes straight across both bookcases 1 & 2 in my living room is for Fiction (larger trade size paperback).  I have several books by Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Carroll, two very different writers, but both phenomenal writers. Shelf 2 is for non-fiction, which I don’t have a lot of.  These books only take up one bookcase.  On shelf two of the other bookcase starts my Fiction (smaller mass market paperback size), which runs on to shelf 3 of bookcase 1 as well.  Shelf 3 of the second bookcase is dedicated to The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, a favourite fantasy series of mine. Shelf 4 is where I keep my GLQBT books.  I don’t read a lot of this genre.  David Levithan was an amazing discovery of mine last year.  I absolutely loved Two Boys Kissing and Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which he co-wrote with John Green.  Shelf 4 of bookcase 2 is where I house my Harry Potter books and books in French.  Dangerous Liaisons is probably one of my favourite books of all-time, which is on this shelf.

Finally, the bottom two shelves of each bookcase is dedicated to my TBR.  They are the most jam-packed, overflowing shelves in the entire bookcase.  Sometimes I wonder if I don’t enjoy buying books more than reading them.  At this point, if I stop buying books today, it would take me more than a decade to catch up. I also have two, smaller, bookshelves in another room, which houses my books on writing, which I have a slight obsession with reading, and other reference books, such as grammar and French. I try to cull books once or twice a year, but am hugely unsuccessful.  I will begin by saying, “I am going to get rid of 20 books today, to make room for some new ones,” but at the end of the day, I will be lucky to decide on five.

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

I don’t think I can actually remember this, but I do remember walking into a bookstore when I was young and buying Needful Things by Stephen King.  I remember feeling very adult.  It was a heavy hardcover, too, which made the experience that much more adult-like.  I was going through a phase at the time where I was devouring books, especially horror novels. 

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

This would probably be my Anne Rice books.  I have all the Vampire Chronicles, and these are the ones that people make the most comments about. These books take up half a shelf on one of my bookcases.  I used to hide them behind other books, but decided what’s the sense of having books if I’m just going to hide them.  These books were part of my horror phase when I was growing up, and I display them proudly, since then, however, I have a hard time reading vampire stories.  It would have to be a pretty fantastic vampire story to appeal to me today. 

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

I would try to save as many of the books as I could.  I have nightmares about losing my books in a fire.  I live on the first floor of my apartment building, I think I would just start chucking them out into the street before jumping out the window after them at the last minute.  My most prized books would probably have to be The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.  I really love this fantasy series.  There are 14 books so far and it’s still going—I hope it never ends.  I’m not one to collect antiquated books, or go to a ton of book signings, though meeting Jim Butcher is on my list of things to do before I die.

photo 6

I have a funny story about book signings, actually. I recently went to my first this past year.  It was Dave Eggers, who was signing for his new book at Unabridged Books here in Chicago.  I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius a couple years prior and absolutely loved it.  After waiting in line for just over an hour, I stepped up to get my book signed.  I was expecting him to just write: “To Jeremy” and then sign his name, but he scribbled over the entire page, covering it in black marker, which leaked through to the next page.  I cringed at this defacement.  I take great care of my books, maintaining their pristine condition, even after reading them, so for me to even relent and allow a book to be signed is something special.  Dave Eggers basically ruined that book for me.  So, bad first experience.

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

I remember reading V. C. Andrews at a very young age and thinking, “I probably shouldn’t be reading this.”  I then, of course, told my brother about these scandalous books and he was even younger than I was.  We both read these books back-to-back.  It’s probably the fastest I’ve ever read a book, ever.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

Absolutely, but only if I loved it.  I’ve borrowed books before where I had to have my own copy; I needed to “own” it.  Recently, for example, The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wecker.  I borrowed a copy from a friend and absolutely adored the story.  I had to have my own copy for my shelf, which the hardcover with the black edged pages is gorgeous by the way.  I’m the same way with ebooks.  I’m one of those rare individual that reads ebooks and physical books equally.  If I read an ebook that is amazing, I will go out and buy a physical copy for my shelf.  I don’t know why I do this.  It’s a compulsion, I guess.

photo 3

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

I’m constantly adding new books to the TBR shelves, but the one I’m most recently excited about is Harriet the Spy, which was a childhood favourite of mine.  The 50th anniversary special edition just came out last week, and I can’t wait to find time to sit down and read this again.  I only hope I like it as much as an adult as I did as a child.  Ready Player One is another that I recently purchased.  I’ve heard so many good things about it, and I’m always drawn to the cover art when I’m in the bookstore, so I decided to buy it.  I’ll get to it, eventually.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

I’ve been a bit nostalgic lately for my childhood favorites.  I wish I would have saved all these books that I read in my childhood!  I’d really like to get my hands on the Ramona Quimby series by Beverly Cleary or the Anne of Green Gables series, both of which I absolutely loved.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I would like them to look at my books and think, “Wow, what an intelligent, well-rounded reader.”  However, what I usually get is “Anne Rice?  Really?”  I read everything, but the books that I’m most judged for are my fantasy and horror novels.

photo 7


A huge thanks to Jeremy for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, who else feels like they don’t want to go home and would rather stay and have a chinwag for much longer?  Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Jeremy’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?


Filed under Other People's Bookshelves

The Lover’s Dictionary – David Levithan

When authors play with the conventional format of a novel, it can either be a wonderful thing or a complete disaster. ‘The Lover’s Dictionary’ by David Levithan is a book that has a rather inventive format as it tells a love story though in the form of a dictionary. Sounds odd, well bizarrely its not and it actually really works. In fact it’s this sort of novel that tries to be different, succeeds and makes a rewarding read and yet hasn’t been paid much attention. It is these sort of books that I want to be reading more of and writing more about on Savidge Reads.

4th Estate; 2011; hardback; 211 pages; sent by publisher

How on earth could a dictionary of words tell a love story? Well the easiest answer I would have to that is to say ‘go and read David Levithan’s new novel The Lover’s Dictionary’. However as I should be hinting at why it’s worth doing that a single short sentence isn’t really a justifiable reason or incentive.

Levithan uses a selection of words, in alphabetical order of course, and then below the word in a sentence, a paragraph or a page or two long piece creates a moment or incident in the relationship that builds an image of a time in that relationship. Be it from ‘anthem’ to ‘kerfuffle’ or ‘leery’ to ‘yearning’ in each case clearly, simply and very effectively Levithan draws the reader into the most intimate and emotional moments of a couple’s journey. That last bit makes it sounds saccharine and its not, I don’t like saccharine novels, so it’s probably best I give you an example, my favourite of which was ‘buffoonery’ because it made me laugh, a lot.

buffoonery, n.
You were drunk, and I made the mistake of mentioning Showgirls in a near-empty subway car. The pole had no idea what it was about to endure.

Though with alchoholism and adultery all lingering between the lines of this novel don’t go thinking it’s just a lovely story of love, there are the darker sides of it too. After closing the final page of ‘The Lover’s Dictionary’, which is a deceptively short novel to read, I actually felt like I had witnessed the development of a three year relationship from its very start to its very finish and with the highs and lows that come during that time period. Rather amazing then that this has happened without knowing either of the names of the two people who create that couple. In fact you are never even sure what the sex of the second person in that novel is, its left a mystery, the nameless narrator we only learn is male half way through, the lover however could be a man or a woman – you just know that this person is rather stunningly beautiful, because the narrator spends a lot of time obsessing over this and the insecurity it breeds in them.

This slightly insular edge the narrator has, seemingly caused by a slight inferiority complex is one that we have all had in relationships before I am sure. In fact it’s the slight feeling of empathy that Levithan creates with the nameless narrator which means you can put yourself slap bang in their place, and it’s occasionally a little uncomfortable. It’s this very real sensation that I liked so much about the book, love isn’t all flowers and joy, it can be hard work, and it can be heartbreaking. It has both the good sides and the not so. Levithan explores these two spectrums of feelings and all those that fall in the middle of them too. I loved how the book hit on those moments of random togetherness we can sometimes feel with someone, I haven’t seen it done so well in a book for quite some time.

meander, v.

“…because when it all comes down to it, there’s no such thing as a two-hit wonder. So its better just to have that one song everyone knows, instead of diluting it with a follow-up that only half succeeds. I mean, who really cares what Soft Cell’s next single was, as long as we have ‘Tainted Love’?”
I stop. You’re still listening.
“Wait”, I say. “What was I talking about? How did we get to ‘Tainted Love’?”
“Let’s see,” you say. “I believe we started roughly at the Democratic gains in the South, then jumped back to the election of 1948, dipping briefly into northern constructions of the South, vis-à-vis Steel Magnolias, Birth of a Nation, Johnny Cash, and Fried Green Tomatoes. Which landed you on To Kill A Mockingbird, and how it is both Southern and universal, which – correct me if I am wrong – got us to Harper Lee and her lack of a follow-up novel, intersected with the theory, probably wrong, that Truman Capote wrote the novel, then hopping over to literary one-hit wonders, and using musical  one-hit wonders to make a point about their special place in our culture. I think.”
“Thank you,” I say. “That’s wonderful.” 

As I mentioned above books that strive to do something different with fiction can go several ways. People can find them contrived, calculated, maybe a little niche and a little too gimmicky, or they can be the next best thing ever. I would put ‘The Lover’s Dictionary’ somewhere in the middle. I did feel a little at the start like this was going to be one of those books you would only buy someone for valentines day which would then end up in the garbage a few months or years down the line. Well shame on me, because this is much more than that, it has a depth despite how succinct it is. Actually, as I think on it, it could be the succinct brief nature of ‘The Lover’s Dictionary’ that makes it so compelling and hits the emotions home to the reader. I don’t want to call this book ground breaking or experimental, it’s just something that’s rather different and really works. 8/10

I haven’t read any of Levithan’s other work, I think he is much better known in the US than he is here, or am I wrong? Has anyone else read his work and what did you think? Has anyone else read this novel? What was the last novel you read that used an unusual format and did it work for you?


Filed under David Levithan, Fourth Estate Books, Review