Thursday, September 8, 2016

Living in a Fictional World: Themes of the Past Year in my Reading

One of the realizations that I've come to recently is that I spend almost as much time in the fictional world as I spend in the real world. That's kinda scary, isn't it? Between reading regular ol' books, my Kindle, and audiobooks I spend a good 2-3 hours of my waking hours each day reading and thinking (I think I spend the rest of my time cooking, eating, and thinking about food). OK, that's when I'm not working at one thing or another. This might be a little bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but there is some small bit of truth in it. 

And I've come to wonder if I am trying to escape the present larger reality of our world (with a capital R), or the reality of my soon-to-be-totally-empty-nest life, or if somehow the fictional world is just a lot easier to understand. I don't know.

Of the books I've read in the last year or so, I think I could probably characterize them into several broad groups: Straight Fiction; Humorous or Humorously-toned Fiction; Satire; Dystopia; and Non-Fiction.

Those straight fictional worlds exist in the world as I know it and are not meant to be a wink-wink comment on the absurdity of life. These books range from Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (which I finally got to read during our trip to Israel in February—that was a strange juxtaposition) to Sue Miller's The Lake Shore Limited, Adam Haslett's Imagine Me Gone, and recent stunners like The Nix (Nathan Hill) and Swing Time (Zadie Smith).

(The example of Swing Time reminds me of a tangential theme in my reading in the last year—that of the difficulties of race and class and our understanding of those topics. I read a lot of books this year that explored those dimensions in the fictional universe—Whitehead, Saunders, McBride, Beatty, and Hamid among others)

Those books I thought of as Humorously-Toned featured a narrative voice that often stood off to the side, winking at the reader, sending us a message that s/he was dealing with real world issues but with an ironic distance that, as a reader, beckoned me to join in with them.  Some of the books in this vein that I read this year included: Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, and Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen.

But when "this old world" kept getting me down, I retreated to the rooftop to read my satire. It was definitely here that I felt the most...unburdened. Satire was my sweet spot. There was the utter levity and ridiculousness of David Duchovny's Holy Cow; David Grossman's ironically- and other-worldly-set A Horse Walks into a Bar; Paul Beatty's masterfully-funny The Sellout; and the absolute tours-de-force of Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad) and George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo). What these books all had in common was that they existed in alternate universes, realities similar to but different from the world as we commonly know it. Whether told from the perspective of cows (!), ego-obsessed, twisted, damaged, and dying Israelis (Grossman), Lincoln and many other contemporaneous ghosts (Saunders), escaped slaves in alternate realities along stops on a very real underground railroad (Whitehead), or a world where the lines of the map are literally redrawn (Beatty), all of these authors approached their characters and the situations they were describing with biting wit and a mirror so strange but so true. This was definitely where I lived this year—in the satiric world. Feel free to analyze at will.

Similarly, I roamed freely among several dystopian worlds this year, including Sinclair Lewis's alternate reality of a demagogue-in-chief (I read both the book and the play, perhaps with an eye to produce the latter someday) in It Can't Happen Here—perhaps a phrase many of us spoke more than a few times in the last eight months or so, and Philip K. Dick's dated but scary The Man in the High Castle.

In many ways, my non-fiction reading reflected what I was reading in fiction, too, leaving me with much head-shaking and many a sad smile. Maureen Dowd's collection of essays The Year of Voting Dangerously: The Derangement of American Politics was a mirror back on the past year in politics in the US; Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock was an incredible look at a Trump-like film-flam artist, a real-life success story who made millions off of monkey testicles (honest). I read William Safire's Scandalmonger to learn more about the scandal highlighted in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton and came away with an appreciation of the complexity of the political world and the downright mean and nasty side of manipulation and truth-distorting that comes about when warring interests do battle in the public arena.

Is reading an escape? For me it is. But it is also a microscope, or maybe a pair of reading glasses. There's so much fuzziness out there, so much I don't understand. I use books and my forays into the fictional world as a way of sharpening what I see and what I am thinking about. Yes, to some extent, that means I am reading to only confirm my opinions. Perhaps I need to broaden what I read, learn to challenge those opinions and worldviews. But then again, everyday life does that, with every ridiculous tweet and attempt at manipulating reality. Truth is under attack. What better way to combat that than to retreat into fiction?

Summer Reading, 2016

As a reader, there have been times when I've hit low, dry stretches of fiction, where it seems like every book I pick up seems banal, tired, predictable, empty. Then there are times when themes grab me, and I find myself chasing down rabbit holes of meaning, symbols, and parallels. Or an author's poetry and metaphors move me to tears and deep thoughts and feelings. This summer has really been a good stretch for me. I've picked up some really great books in the last ten weeks or so, chased some MacGuffins of my own, and had some incredible realizations. 

Here's a rundown of some of the books I read in the summer of 2016:

The Circle, Dave Eggers
I'm not a huge Eggers fan. I didn't love A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, his first work. Nor did I love Zeitoun. In both cases, the author was so front and center, intruding so clearly, that I felt uncomfortable, like sitting in an obstructed view seat at Fenway. Moreover, both teetered on the tricky edge between fiction and fact. Eggers' stance was never clear to me in either book and I gladly put him away and found other things to occupy me. But a few months ago a friend recommended The Circle to me and I thought I'd give Eggers another try. The synopsis sounded simple and intriguing,  and posed some of the same questions I've been asking myself about the ubiquitous power and saturation of Google, Facebook and Amazon. Young Mae Holland gets a job with the Circle, an all-encompassing, data-gobbling internet giant. Within weeks, she becomes a full-fledged Kool-aid-drinking acolyte, spouting such pearls as "secrets are lies", and "sharing is caring" (the sharing of all of your information, that is), and "privacy is theft". Along with major politicians seeking full accountability, Mae accedes to the gentle pressure of The Wise Men and wears a camera to broadcast and narrate her life, all in the name of "transparency" and "closing the Circle". Yes, it feeds into the views of those who worry about privacy issues, data-mining, identity theft and the intrusion of Google/Facebook/Amazon et al into all of our lives, but I think these are all questions and issues that we need to confront head-on, maybe not before it's too late—I'm not ready for a dystopia yet—but we all need to think about what kind of world we want. In the end, the plot spins towards its ultimate and predictable end, with no surprises or real insights. But the strength of the novel really rests in the questions it poses, not in any answers.

Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead
Other than Zone One, Whitehead's zombie novel, I've read all of Whitehead's fiction. He has an incredibly unique voice, from the strange and other-worldly The Intuitionist, to the hard and scrappy John Henry Days, and even the under-appreciated Apex Hides the Hurt, a comic novel that actually still haunts me in some ways. I picked up Sag Harbor about the same time that I learned about Whitehead's newest novel, The Underground Railroad. I don't know why I hadn't read Sag Harbor. In so many ways, it was a perfect end-of-summer read. Its frank nostalgia calls to mind those late summer evenings when you realize that time has past, that school is calling, that childhood is in the rearview mirror. I don't doubt that this may be part memoir—it has that feel—but it just doesn't matter. It is a beautiful, funny, evocative portrait of a teenaged summer in a beach community. Warm beer, barbecue, endless hours of idleness and dreams, secret longings, bad music, hard-to-shed labels and nicknames, first jobs, first concerts and first kisses. That the novel takes place in an African-American community is not so much an integral element as a marker; this novel is as broadly American as can be. And yet the themes of displacement, of incongruity, of outsiderness are there and deeply moving. 

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra
The Star of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra
I'll bundle these two breathtaking works together based on the fact that they cover the same geography, both physical and emotional. Marra writes about Chechnya both before and after Communist rule.  He is brilliant—funny, ironic, poignant, serious. What are the costs of war, of the dissolution of a nation and of communities? What and how do we trust our neighbors, our families? Marra asks big questions and paints with a very broad brush. Both of these works are moving and essential reading for the modern world. My favorite scene, of old people swimming in an industrially-polluted and aptly-named lake, has really stayed with me:

  In July 1990, when the warmest month in Kirovsk’s fifty-three-year history coincided with the collapsing of Soviet authority, the elderly began swimming in Lake Mercury. In the mornings they gathered on the gravelly banks with their gray hair bunched beneath fur hats and they stripped to their undergarments. When they raised their hands, their triceps sagged from the bone.
   One man gazing at the waters patted his potbelly tenderly. Maybe he’d spent the last fifty years wondering if it could be deployed as a flotation device, and now, finally, would find the answer. There’s nothing quite like the sight of two dozen half-naked octogenarians. We enter the stage of life as dolls and exit as gargoyles.
   “Why are you swimming here?” I asked one of the women. She stood  beside a rusted sign that warned off swimmers. She was no taller than me—which is not to say I was short, just short for a biped. Her hazel eyes held my fuzzy reflection. Her generation had journeyed  through hell so we could grow up in purgatory. She glanced to the rusted sign. It depicted a grapefruit-headed man made of forty-five-degree angles falling into the open jaws of a shark.
   Perhaps before she was arrested and condemned to Kirovsk, she had grown up by a lake where her father had taught her to float by keeping his hand beneath her arched spine so she knew she wouldn’t  sink, that he would be there, until one day she lay on the calm surface, her back parabolic, her arms crucified on the water, her brown hair sieving algae, and she flitted her father a look and he raised his hands as if her glance was a loaded gun, and for a second she floundered, terrified she would sink to the lake bottom without him to hold her, but she stilled her arms, gulped the air, she was doing it, all by herself, she was floating. Perhaps she wanted to tell me that if she had outlived Stalin, the Berlin Wall, and the Soviet Empire, a little dirty water wouldn’t kill her.
    Instead, she glared at the sign. “I’ve fried scarier fish with just a sliver of butter.”
    She joined the other grandmothers. Clad in nothing but discolored undergarments, they hobbled to the gravel bank. All around, smoke blabbered endlessly from the smelter stacks. A woman with a noose of scar tissue carried her wooden cane right into the water. The others followed, and all together, they waded in. After a half-century drought, they remember how to swim. A husband and wife backstroked across the lake, water glistening toward shoulders, legs splashing in unison. A rope, lashed around their waists, tied them together, in case one began to sink. A one-legged man paddled with slow thrusts of his arms. Both real and phantom legs were weightless in the water below. A man with a mustache as wide as his waistline,  whom all the world had nicknamed Walrus, took his first tentative strokes, marveling at the cool rush against his skin, the freedom of movement, and began weeping right there in the water for the countless times he had given up hope, the countless times he had prayed for death in the mines, in the prison camp, and now, now gratitude cracked him open, and he thanked God for ignoring his prayers, for letting him live long enough to learn to swim.
    And in the middle of the lake the woman I’d spoken with floated on her back, eyes closed, as if nothing in her many years had ever gone wrong.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
How could I not read this important book right now? Part letter to his son, part memoir, part plea to reason, Coates asks us to deeply examine the roots of racism and the meaning of the senseless violence against the black body in our nation. It's a deeply disturbing book, frightening, accurate, a call to action and to personal examination. 

The Surrendered, Chang-rae Lee
Lee's latest book represents a little bit of a departure for him. Although much of the action takes place in Korea, and one of the main characters is Korean-American, the book does not really revolve around issues particular to that culture or subculture. Instead, what he presents are a couple of raw character studies—violent, rough, disconcerting. Born into the horrors of the aftermath of WWII, June Han grows up angry, rebellious, and cruel in an orphanage during the Korean War. She survives, somehow, and lands in America, and thrives as an antiques dealer. The novel begins and ends with her search for her missing son, who himself is displaced and haunted. The other main character is Hector, an American soldier who is also at a loss for where to go and who to be. Both characters have lost parents, friends, lovers, and themselves in their search for identity and meaning. In addition, both June and Hector are haunted by their love of one woman, Sylvie Tanner, the wife of the minister who ran the orphanage where June was raised and where Hector worked as a handyman. 

Bucky F***ing Dent, David Duchovny
I picked this up in a great independent bookstore in Lenox, MA and was totally surprised by this book. Yes, I picked it up because I'm a Sox fan, as well as a baseball fan in the larger sense, and also because I've always been amused by that adjective associated with the light-hitting Yankee shortstop. But the humor of the book, and even the strangeness of the main character's worldview, pulled me in. Duchovny actually is a writer, much to my surprise. Ted is a struggling (but mostly stoned) writer who makes barely enough to eat as a peanut vendor at Yankee Stadium. The pennant race of '78 reunites him with his dying father, a sharp-tongued former ad man and die-hard Sox fan. To keep his spirits up, Ted plots with his dad's cronies in the neighborhood to keep the illusion that the Sox are ahead of the Yankees in the race. Deeply touching and very funny, this novel brought to mind much about my relationship with my own father. In addition, Duchovny got me interested in researching Eddie Bernays, the self-proclaimed father of public relations and the nephew of Sigmund Freud.

A Fraction of the Whole, Steve Toltz
This gets my vote for the weirdest, wackiest book I read this summer. It's long. It's funny. It's strange. It has elements of John Irving, John Kennedy Toole, even Thomas Pynchon. The story is about two brothers, Jasper and Martin Dean, and on the surface it's a coming of age story—lots of here's where that came from and why your father is the way he is kind of moments. But it's also about crime, about small towns, about the futility of life, about choices, anger, resentment, revenge, fame.

Playing for Pizza, John Grisham
I read this at the suggestion of a sports-loving friend of mine who knew I'd just been in Italy. It's a light and imperfect read, and is classically Grisham. Characters and situations are unremarkable and unlikely, the writing is flat and uneven. A big D for me.

The Lost Time Accidents, John Wray
Another strange book about brothers. Ambitious and sprawling,  The Lost Time Accidents covers a lot of time...or not much at all. Filled with bizarre characters and spanning the globe, the story examines time and the way we experience it based on the lives and loves of two men, Kaspar and Waldemar Tolliver. The novel deals with time, Einstein, madness, evil, death camps, fate, Nazism, L. Ron Hubbard, science fiction. 

The Arsonist, Sue Miller
I hadn't read anything by Miller for a long time before picking this up for our book group. To me, the story is about choices we make in our lives—set against the backdrop of a series of fires set in a summer vacation community in the mountains of New Hampshire. A burned-out (pun intended) Frankie returns from doing aid work in Africa, emotionally scarred and dead from empty, failed relationships and work she now sees as futile. She falls for the town's local newspaper editor, himself a refugee from relationships and unfulfilling work (he's burned his bridges and landed here). But love isn't at the center of the story, to me. It's about caring for aging parents (Frankie's father is fading into Alzheimer's) as much as it's about a community dealing with issues of class—all of the homes that are being burned belong to summer-only residents. Some of the sharpest scenes in the book occur between the "flatlanders" and the full-time residents (and "flatlands" calls to mind those who can only see in 2D, in Flatland, missing the depth and dimension), as between Frankie's mother and her former boyfriend of 60 years before, or between her and the hired help. Although the book did not receive very good reviews, perhaps due to its unsettled and unsatisfying ending (if you're looking for things to tie up nicely), I think Miller calls into question some very important issues about how we treat each other and think about issues of class and privilege. Frankie can choose where she wants to be and what she wants to do in this world and others—those full-time residents and the people she left (abandoned, to her guilt-ridden mind) in Africa, cannot leave. From a Washington Post review: 

(Miller is) interested in the friction between modest folks who maintain the town and “chatty, self-assured summer people” who expect it to remain an accommodating setting for their leisure. The fires force everyone to consider “who owned the town and who merely used it.” Advised to put locks on the doors, one offended visitor says, “This is not why we come here.” Miller adds, “There was something threatening in this tonally, inflectively, as if to say, If you can’t manage this better, we won’t come here anymore.

And later, in the same review:

An older character in town who serves as a kind of sage offers a counterintuitive explanation for the fires — and the resentment that may be fueling them: “That expectation that we’ll all get along — that didn’t use to matter so much,” he says. “Because there was no such expectation. There was no social mixing. . . . We knew our place.” In other words, our pretense of egalitarianism is destined to aggravate tensions between groups that live very different lives.

The Good Lord Bird, James McBride

The Nix,  Nathan Hill

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy