Traveling Sprinkler: A Novel

( 1 )

Overview

Paul Chowder, the poet protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s widely acclaimed novel The Anthologist, is turning fifty-five and missing his ex-girlfriend, Roz, rather desperately.

As he approaches the dreaded birthday, Paul is uninspired by his usual artistic outlet (although he’s pleased that his poetry anthology, Only Rhyme, is selling “steadily”). Putting aside poetry in favor of music, and drawing on his classical bassoon training, Paul turns instead to his new acoustic guitar ...

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Traveling Sprinkler: A Novel

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Overview

Paul Chowder, the poet protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s widely acclaimed novel The Anthologist, is turning fifty-five and missing his ex-girlfriend, Roz, rather desperately.

As he approaches the dreaded birthday, Paul is uninspired by his usual artistic outlet (although he’s pleased that his poetry anthology, Only Rhyme, is selling “steadily”). Putting aside poetry in favor of music, and drawing on his classical bassoon training, Paul turns instead to his new acoustic guitar with one goal in mind: to learn songwriting. As he struggles to come to terms with the horror of America’s drone wars and Roz’s recent relationship with a local NPR radio host, Paul fills his days with Quaker meetings, Planet Fitness workouts, and some experiments with tobacco. Written in Baker’s beautifully unconventional prose, and scored with musical influences from Debussy to Tracy Chapman to Paul himself, Traveling Sprinkler is an enchanting, hilarious—and very necessary—novel by one of the most beloved and influential writers today.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Jonathan Miles
Traveling Sprinkler can be read as a curious coming-of-age novel. And a funny, abundantly textured, warmhearted one, at that.
Publishers Weekly
Paul Chowder, the rambling protagonist of The Anthologist, returns in Baker’s less successful latest. Between trips to Planet Fitness and disquisitions on subjects such as dance music and automobile maintenance, Chowder dwells on drones and other topics of a geopolitical nature. From lamenting his own inability to find (or keep) a girlfriend to decrying the “truly evil” nature of global agriculture industry giant Monsanto, Chowder hurls out his grievances in a gushing, sorrowful soliloquy while striving to reinvent himself by rekindling his old musical aspirations and buying himself a cheap guitar at Best Buy for his birthday. Though the stream-of-consciousness narrative wears thin, the character of Chowder—epic loser and literary striver—feels very real and is almost endearing. He is a study in contemporary dislocation, unable though he is to make any sense of his own condition. But that’s fine; for all Chowder really craves, like the homeless guy on the corner, is an audience he can chirp at for the duration: “Hey, Junior Birdmen. I’m Paul Chowder and I’m here in the blindingness of noon near the chicken hut talking to you about the things that need to be talked about. You know what they are.” Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency. (Sept.)
Library Journal
★ 09/15/2013
If this is a book about Paul Chowder, who came to fame in Baker's The Anthologist, and if Paul now wants to cast aside poetry and embrace songwriting (particularly protest song writing), why does the narrative start with Paul's detailed discussion of the bassoon? Because this is a Baker novel, and a Baker novel finds its ground, then spirals upward in delicious flights of detailed fancy that unwind from point to point but remain connected, just as a traveling sprinkler does. So Paul moves from the "brain-melting bassoon lullaby" in Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird to the way he misses former love Roz, his failed date with folksinger Polly ("I was a rogue mastodon"), the Quaker meetings he attends to meet nice women, his reading Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov on orchestration in high school, his upset over drone warfare ("Why is a kill list a bad thing?…—oh gosh, where to begin"), and his song about an oversize highway load ("It was big/ It was bad/ It was round/ it could explode")—which immediately leads to a discussion of Serbian poet Vasko Popa. VERDICT Baker, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner, is always daring, and what results here is a witty and enticingly coherent blend of the everyday and the profound. [See Prepub Alert, 3/18/13.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Library Journal
In Baker's The Anthologist, Paul Chowder tried to launch a collection of formal verse. Here he's eager to write a pop song or a protest song or, ideally, both. Baker will get the music right, as he played bassoonist (briefly) with the Rochester Philharmonic.
Kirkus Reviews
Baker foregoes the kinky eroticism of Vox and House of Holes this time and gives readers a sweet and idiosyncratic novel about the protagonist of The Anthologist (2009), a poet and pop songwriter manqué. Although Paul Chowder's life is not exactly coming apart, it's also not what it could be. His girlfriend, Roz, has taken up with someone else, he's become less committed to writing poetry, and to make a little extra money, he shrink-wraps boats. (You've seen them, with the tight, white plastic....) On the other hand, he enjoys going to Quaker meetings, and he's really getting into music. We learn he used to be a serious student of the bassoon, but in college, he switched to the study of poetry and now has some regrets. What Chowder would like is a hit song, and he looks for inspiration everywhere. While driving, for example, he sees a truck with an "Oversize Load" banner and begins to improvise: "It was big/It was bad/It was round/It could explode//Yeah, he was driving down the road/with an oversize load." He's also recently taken up the guitar and hopes to impress his neighbors as well as Roz with his musical prowess. Most of all, Chowder is an observer of things and people, and he still has a poet's fascination with words, "garbanzo" being one of his new favorites. His musical erudition is impressive, and the attentive reader will receive quite an education, ranging from the reason for the bassoon solo at the beginning of The Rite of Spring to the brilliance of Victoria de los Angeles' version of Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 to the poignancy of Jonatha Brooke's rendition of "In the Gloaming." In sparkling and witty prose, Baker reminds readers why he's one of the masters of the contemporary novel.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780399160967
  • Publisher: Blue Rider Press
  • Publication date: 9/17/2013
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 543,686
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 8.46 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker is the author of nine novels, including The Anthologist, Vox, and The Fermata, and five works of nonfiction, including Human Smoke and Double Fold  (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award). He lives in Maine with his family.

Biography

An elegant writer who has taken stream of consciousness to dizzying postmodern heights, Nicholson Baker has produced a body of work that is eccentric, inventive, and extremely difficult to categorize. In his virtually plotless novels, characters ruminate on the minutest details of everyday life and lose themselves in memories of Proustian intensity. His nonfiction is equally unconventional, filled with meticulously researched minutiae and passionate polemics on topics of great personal interest -- perhaps only to himself.

Baker's quirky brilliance was evident early on in several convoluted short stories that appeared in The New Yorker and Atlantic. But he hit his own idiosyncratic stride with his 1998 debut novel. Essentially one long, loopy digression riddled with footnotes nearly as long as the narrative, The Mezzanine traces a young man's meandering thoughts during a brief escalator ride from the ground floor to the mezzanine of the office building where he works. The "action," such as it is, takes scant minutes, but it's time enough to lay bare the protagonist's entire inner life. In his review for The New York Times, Robert Plunket singled out for commendation "...the razor-sharp insight and droll humor with which Mr. Baker illuminates the unseen world."

In other novels, Baker has taken us inside the heads of many characters: a young father bottle-feeding his infant daughter (Room Temperature); a middle-aged man whose early-morning ritual begins with lighting a fire (A Box of Matches); a man who stops time in order to fondle and exploit unsuspecting women (Fermata); two people a continent apart who indulge in graphic sexual fantasies over the telephone (Vox). (Fermata and Vox were widely criticized as "literary pornography." Vox created additional buzz, when it was revealed that Monica Lewinsky had given a copy to President Bill Clinton.)

Although Baker can never be accused of dispassion, the peculiarity of his nonfiction has led to mixed reviews. In lengthy essays and articles and wildly discursive books, he has paid extravagant tribute to his literary hero John Updike (U and I: A True Story), decried the destruction of library card catalogs (an essay in The Size of Thoughts), led a crusade to preserve and archive entire collections of American newspapers (Double Fold), and challenged the traditional view of World War II as "inevitable" (Human Smoke).

Baker's brand of erudite obsession may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is easy for literate readers to fall in love with his glittering prose. He is, above all else, a lover of language; and in his deft and capable hands, even the most mundane objects and events spring to glorious, full-bodied life. Summing up the singular, seductive charms of Baker's writing, Salon critic Laura Miller may have said it best: "...dazzling descriptive powers married to a passionate enthusiasm for the neglected flotsam and jetsam of everyday life."

Good To Know

A two-week writing seminar with Donald Barthelme at the University of California jump-started Baker's writing career.

His great-grandfather Ray Stannard Baker served as press secretary to president Woodrow Wilson and won a Pulitzer prize for his biography of Wilson.

Baker's first area of interest was music, rather than literature. A talented bassoonist, he attended Eastman School of Music with an eye to becoming a classical composer. Midway through his first year, he changed his major to English. He transferred to Haverfod College in Philadelphia, graduating in 1980.

One of Baker's most passionate concerns is preserving complete runs of newspapers as a valuable record of American history. To that end, he founded the American Newspaper Repository in 1999, when he learned the British Library was selling off or trashing its bound volumes of post-1870 newspapers.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      1954
    2. Place of Birth:
      Rochester, NY
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, Haverford College, 1980

Read an Excerpt

One

Roz called to ask me what I wanted for my fifty-fifth birthday. One of her many good qualities is that she remembers people’s birthdays. I thought for a second. I knew what I wanted: I wanted a cheap acoustic guitar. You can get them for about seventy dollars at Best Buy. They come in an exciting cardboard box. I saw two boxes, leaning against a wall, waiting, last time I was there. I almost said that’s what I wanted—I came dangerously close to saying it—but then I didn’t, because you really can’t ask your former girlfriend for a guitar, even a cheap guitar. It’s too momentous a present. It presupposes too much. It puts her in an awkward position. And of course you can’t say, “What I really want is I want you back,” either.

So instead I said, “I think what I really want is an egg salad sandwich.” Roz has a particular way with egg salad— she adds in a rare kind of paprika or tarragon or some elusive spice I don’t understand. “We could meet at Fort McClary,” I said. “I’ll bring the picnic basket and the sliced carrots if you bring the egg salad sandwiches.”

Fort McClary is a place we used to go sometimes to smell the seaweed and look at the boats. I think it’s where the Revolutionary War began, but I’m not sure. There are huge hewn Stonehengeian stones tumbled about in the grass that were going to be part of a defensive wall that never got built. I think Paul Revere rode his poor snorting horse all the way to Fort McClary to warn that the British were coming, which was the beginning of a pointless trade war that didn’t need to happen.

Roz was silent for a moment.

“Or,” I said, “if a picnic is too heavy-duty we could just have lunch at the Friendly Toast.”

“No, no, I can definitely make you an egg salad sandwich,” she said. I could hear her smiling the indulgent smile of someone who once loved somebody a long time ago.

We agreed to meet at Fort McClary and have a birthday picnic.

Early this morning I had a literary dream. Roz was still living with me and I was supposed to review a book of 1S military recipes called Mess: Great Food from Army Kitchens.

Roz and I were testing one of the recipes, which was for octopus-walnut muffins. Roz pulled the tray of muffins out of the oven and I bit into one. “How does it taste?” she asked.

“Not too good,” I said.

“I’m not surprised,” she said. We shook our heads and tried to think of a way I could say something nice about the cookbook.

“Maybe you could praise the walnuts?” Roz said.

I woke up.

I’m parked on Inigo Road, which is my favorite road anywhere. I wish I could write about the phrase “happy phrase,” but there’s no time. Very soon I’m going to be Fifty Fucking Five. The three Fs. The last time I hit three Fs was ten years ago, and this time is definitely worse. Unless you’re Yeats or Merwin you are done as a poet at fifty-five. Dylan Thomas was in the ground for sixteen years at fifty-five. Keats was dead at, what, twenty-six? Riding on horseback with his sad lungs coughing blood. And as for Wilfred Owen.

The first time I read Keats’s sonnet “When I Have Fears,” I was eating a tuna sub. I was an applied music major, with a concentration in bassoon. I’d found the poem in The Norton Anthology of Poetry—the shorter black edition with the Blake watercolor of a griffin on the cover. I propped the Norton open with my brown plastic food tray and I started reading and eating the tuna sub and drinking V8 juice occasionally from a little can.

Keats says: “When I have fears that I may cease to be.” He doesn’t say, “When I have fears that I may,” you know, “drop dead,” or “breathe my last”—no, it’s “cease to be.” I stopped chewing. I was caught by the emptiness and ungraspability in that phrase. And then came the next line, and I made a little hum of amazement: “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” Keats says, “Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain.”

I don’t want to pretend that the cafeteria spun around. It stayed still. I heard the grinding sound of the cash register printing. But I was thinking very hard. I was thinking about a large tortoiseshell that somebody had given me when I was small. There was a sort of fused backbone on the inside of it that ran down the middle. This bony ridge smelled terrible when you sniffed it close-up, although it had no odor from a normal distance. I imagined the tortoiseshell as the top dome of a human skull, and I imagined Keats’s pen gleaning bits of thought flesh from it.

The pen is really the only tool sharp enough to do the job of brain-gleaning properly. Keats knew that. He had medical training. He was supposed to be a doctor. He didn’t like medical school much, but he assisted at surgeries. The idea of the inside of the head as an object that had crevices and hiding places—that it was gleanable—was something that he knew firsthand. And he also knew, because he was a sick man, that his fears were justified. His mother died of consumption. He was a fourteen-year-old boy when he stayed up watching her 1S die. He knew what it meant for a complicated gentle person to simply cease to be. And his brain was teeming with the unwrittenness of what he had to say. He had to hurry. He knew all that.

The rest of the poem isn’t nearly so good, but it ends with a bang: “Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.”

I didn’t bring the list of things I wanted to write about today. Sometimes I note things I want to write about on a folded piece of paper, but I left my piece of paper in my bed. It’s an empty bed. This may be one of the empty-bed birthdays. I’ve had a few.

But a summer birthday is a good thing. On the branch near my car, on every twig that isn’t dead, there has been a lot of activity. The sap is up in these trees, and the leaves have had no choice but to move outward. Billions of buds in each tree, the leaves tremblingly uncurving, squirming outward. It’s a forced migration. The sap is pressurized and the leaves have to flee outward from the very ends of the twigs. What it creates is a fog of green over all of Inigo Road.

I’ve just been waiting for summer, waiting and wanting, and now it’s here. Yesterday was actually hot, and today I’ve put a Post-it note on the corner of my computer screen: NO YUKON JACK TILL YOU FINISH. I need a new drug. Huey Lewis sang that song and then foolishly sued Ray Parker, Jr., claiming that Parker had pinched the bassline for the Ghostbusters theme.

I’m debating whether to buy a can of Skoal smokeless tobacco.

Three quick farewell shots of Yukon Jack. Oh my flipping God. Deep breath now. Hello, my strangely shaped figments, I’m Paul Chowder. I’m here and so are you. We are in the same Minkowski space, shaped like a saddle. You’re in the saddle and I’m in the saddle and we’re not going to fall off Revere’s horse because it doesn’t exist.

My knees are laughing. Is that allowed?

Here’s my tip of the night. Nod. It’s worth nodding at things sometimes. Just give a big nod. That’s the way they are? Okay, nod, yes. Practice nodding.

Thirty-five years ago, when I was twenty, I sold my Heckel bassoon. And that was that. Now I’m supposed to be writing a new book of poetry, which I’m calling Misery Hat. I don’t want to work on it. Today, to get inspired, I dipped into an extremely long poem by Samuel Rogers called Human Life, because I liked the title. It didn’t do much for me, but I remembered that Samuel Rogers was friends with Tennyson and Coleridge, and that made me haul out my old edition of Tennyson and look at his extremely long poem Maud, narrated by an insane person who rambles. Tennyson was very ill if not clinically insane when he wrote parts of Maud, and a lot of it is unreadable. But there is one very nice soaring patch that everyone remembers. It begins, “Come into the garden, Maud, / For the black bat, night, has flown.” There Tennyson has us. Night itself is a black bat. How thrilling and un-Victorian is that? In the same passage there’s a mention of an unusual chamber group that’s apparently been serenading the roses all night long—a flute, a violin, and a bassoon. It’s a bassoon not because Tennyson knew anything about the bassoon, but because he needed an evocative word to rhyme with “tune” and “moon.” And also because he may have been remembering another poetical bassoon passage, from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner:

The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast,
For he heard the loud bassoon.

Coleridge didn’t know much about the bassoon either, or he wouldn’t have said it was loud. The bassoon’s liability as an orchestral instrument is that it is quite soft, much softer in volume than its size would suggest. At a wedding reception in 1797, when Coleridge was working on his poem, it might have been used to double the bassline played by the spinet or the cello. But bassoonists the world over are grateful to Coleridge for including them in his stanza.

Charles Darwin knew slightly more about the bassoon than either Coleridge or Tennyson. When he was old and sad he asked his son to play bassoon for a heap of earthworms, to study their responsiveness to low sounds. He also played a tin whistle for them and pounded on the piano and shouted at them. “They took not the least notice,” Darwin said. There’s also a poem about the vowels by John Gould Fletcher, one of the Imagists. The letter U, according to Fletcher, sounds like “torrid bassoons and flutes that murmur without repose, / Butterflies, bumblebees, buzzing about a hot rose.” Fletcher read the torrid bassoons passage to Amy Lowell in London, and later he wrote an autobiography called Life Is My Song. Later still, depressed, he drowned himself in less than three feet of water in a recently dredged pond in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Selling my bassoon was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made. I’ve regretted it a thousand times since. And here’s the strange thing. I’ve written three books of poems, and I’ve never once written a bassoon poem. I have never used the word “bassoon” in a single poem. Not once. I guess I was saving it up, which is not always a good idea.

Nan, my next-door neighbor, asked me to help with her chickens. She has five hens plus one droopy-tailed bantam rooster who has a reputation for being fierce and territorial, although he’s always fine with me, staring at me warily from one eye and cock-a-doodling a fair amount. Nan is away in Toronto taking care of her mother, who isn’t doing well. She, Nan, has been acting a little odd recently—preoccupied and remote. It could be that she’s worried about her mom, but also I think her “friend,” Chuck, is maybe no longer in the picture. He takes care of submarines, and there was an arson fire at the Navy base in Kittery that caused half a billion dollars’ worth of damage to a very fancy nuclear submarine. A worker at the base confessed to setting the fire because he wanted to leave early that day. That’s how things are in the navy.

All I have to do is let the chickens out in the morning, so that they can spend the day pecking for trifles in the grass. I scatter some cracked corn under the bushes to give them a better peck-to-success ratio. Then, as dusk comes, I wait for them to file back into their shed and I close the door. You can’t herd them, you just have to wait till they go in of their own accord. I’ve gotten in the habit of bringing my white plastic chair over to Nan’s yard and waiting for them to be done with their day. If I don’t close the door, the chickens may be attacked at night by raccoons or foxes.

Ah, there they go now, filing into their enclosure. The hens are big and brown and fluffy, and their back parts are white with chickenshit and egg laying. The rooster is small and iridescently blue-black. I guess they mate all night, I don’t know. There’s a faded sign on the door that says “Every Birdie Welcome.”

The white plastic chair is comfortable, but not as comfortable as the driver’s seat of my car. I practically live in my car these days, and I usually buy gas at Irving Circle K. One reason I like Irving is that they play oldies music from tinny speakers at the gas pump. Another reason is that they leave the little clickers in the pump handle so that you can start filling your tank and then go inside to buy a bottle of Pellegrino water and a bag of Planter’s trail mix from a man at the register who looks like he’s nursing a massive hangover. Today at Irving I went back out to the car with my purchases and I absentmindedly tried to drive off without removing the gas spout from my car. I heard a clunk and looked back and saw the pump hose lying on the ground, surrounded by what seemed to be a dark spreading stain of gasoline. I thought I’d torn off the handle. I said, “Oh, no!” and got out, and then I saw that it was just a trick of the shadows. The spout was fine. It had pulled free of the car and fallen, and there was no sign of damage to the hose and no leaked gas. I felt a huge relief. I drove off singing a song that I heard a few weeks ago in Quaker meeting, called “How Can I Keep from Singing?” One of the meeting elders, Chase, had stood in the silence and said that all morning he’d been remembering a song that Pete Seeger used to sing. Pete Seeger learned it from a singer named Doris Plenn, Chase said, who learned it from her grandmother. And then he sang it. He wasn’t a great singer, but it didn’t matter. “My life flows on in endless song,” he sang. “Above earth’s lamentation.” I was so impressed by the song that when I got home I looked it up on iTunes and bought two versions of it, one by Bruce Springsteen and one by a group called Cordelia’s Dad, accompanied by slow fiddle chords.

Long ago the Quakers were opposed to music—they said that the effort a musician expended to learn an instrument kept him from worthier pursuits. But now they sometimes stand and sing at meeting.

I really need a guitar. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2014

    What a gem!

    I am in utter thrall of this wonderful, funny, tender-hearted novel from a true master of the medium. Sprinkling his playful wit about in gorgeous prose, Nicholson Baker has created a mesmerizing world that lingers long after one puts down the book. And yes, be prepared to get lost in virtuosic writing on any number of strangely affecting subjects -- Debussy, poetry, bassoons, cigars -- Baker's range boggles my mind. Here is a work to take to heart, so sit back, read, and enjoy. I, for one, want to read it all over again.

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