Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Living in a Fictional World: What I've Read Lately

My life is full of space. There are gaps, lacunae, holes; physical, spiritual, mental, and especially temporal. It's been a long time since I've written in here. Not that anyone reads it. But it is a record. I'm aware that time is passing much too quickly and in strange, unordered chunks of varying speed. Days will go by in a flash, then weeks, months, and years. Lately, the only way I can mark time is by what I'm reading. And, as always, I'm reading a lot. I often think about how I spend more time in fictional worlds—in reading and listening, and in watching—than I do in the real world. Is that a bad thing?

There's no sense or pattern to my reading. Any kind of pattern I can devise will be artificial but, for what it's worth, allow me to pair some books together, as if they are inherently comparable. Let's start with two books that take off from fictional universes that were not of their own creation, Barbara Kingsolver's Demon Copperhead and John Banville's Mrs. Osmond. Kingsolver's book takes as its frame Dickens'

David Copperfield. But instead of setting Dickens's story of his main characters rise through poverty to become a published and respected author in mid-century England, Kingsolver sets us in poverty-stricken and opioid-soaked Appalachia. Kingsolver masterfully takes the characters that inhabit David Copperfield and updates them for modern times, retaining their essential qualities, renaming them (e.g., the notorious smarmy villain Uriah Heep becomes Ryan "U-Haul" Pyles; Murdstone the cruel stepfather becomes Murrel Stone; The Micawbers become the McCobbs, etc.). What remains is a deeply disturbing book which clearly outlines the troubles of a whole section of the country, preyed upon by the medical industry. It's a brilliant, sad book in many ways and the use of Dickens's fictional frame enhances the reader's experience.

Less successful is Banville's Mrs. Osmond. Unlike Kingsolver, Banville reuses the exact same characters from Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, giving them all postscripts and new directions and explanations. Whereas Kingsolver revels in the speech patterns of West Virginia in imitation of Dickens's English, Banville imitates James's style, with long sentences full of unfamiliar words (please define or correctly use "inspissatedly", "prelapsarian", or "hebetudinous"—anyone? anyone?). Moreover, the direction he takes Isabel Archer is perhaps not where James intended and it left me wondering what the original author would have thought about Banville messing about with his characters.

What I enjoyed about Kingsolver is that she took on the world (or, at least, a portion of it) and tried to describe it, give you a feel for the flavor of it, the problems people were facing and thinking about. Two other books I've read recently do a similar kind of thing. I've been reading a lot of Louise Erdrich lately. I find her novels tough-going, not because they're difficult to read but because there's nothing easy in what she writes about. She often highlights unsolvable conflicts of culture and history. Such is the case with The Master Butchers Singing Club. Set in a small midwestern town after the first world war, it deals with immigration, war, small-town life, death, poverty, spiritualism, and ownership. This is not a story told outside of history, but one that is about history and the long-term effects of decisions and actions made long before. 

And, as long as I'm mentioning Erdrich, I also finished her wonderfully strange and timely Covid-era novel The Sentence, which came out in 2021. There are many delightful things about this book, but I was especially taken with the main character, an Ojibwa woman named Tookie. She was/is a piece of work as they say. Stern and funny, her life in all its comic oddness really drew me in. One thing I loved about this novel is how the title meant so many things: it's literally the name of a book that a character has died reading; it also refers to Tookie's prison sentence; and it also points to particular sentences and meanings throughout. In an interview, Erdrich said: "I gathered extraordinary sentences. healing sentences, sentences that were so beautiful that they brought people solace and comfort, also sentences for incarcerated people. " 

To top everything off, Tookie works in a Minneapolis bookstore (owned by a novelist named Louise) and makes wonderful, idiosyncratic book suggestions, like her list of "short perfect novels":

• Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabel
• Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
• Sula by Toni Morrison
• The Shadow-Line by Joseph Conrad
• The All of It by Jeannette Haien
• Winter in the Blood by James Welch
• Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle
• The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
• First Love by Ivan Turgenev
• Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
• Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
• Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
• Fire on the Mountain by Anita Desai

Reading the title of a book you've loved or read is like a little whisper to the readers, a "come, join my club" kind of feeling. Interspersed throughout The Sentence are memorable characters, like Flora, the hated/beloved customer who dies and haunts the bookstore; Pollux, the cop who arrested her for her Keystone Cops-esque crime, and who eventually became her partner; and Hetta, Tookie's sort-of step-daughter, and her son Jarvis. In addition to Covid, how could a book set in Minneapolis not deal with George Floyd and the protests afterwards? There are so many themes and moods in this novel, and it feels locked in history at this particular time. It was bewildering and sad, funny and smart. Parts of it gave me the same kind of feeling when you have a sore or a paper cut: the way you stroke it, probe it, feel and re-feel the pain. 

Lessons by Ian McEwan looks at the twists and turns of one man's life as told through the lens of the last 80 years or so. Roland's mediocre, unfocused life probably rests on the fulcrum of one event (or more?) from his childhood, his sexual relationship with his piano teacher when he was a young teenager. As he reflects on his past, he wonders if things would have (or could have) been different had he made a different choice. Not a new idea, but interlaced with Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Brexit, 9/11, Covid, and, well, you name it, everything that has happened in my lifetime, this novel explores the tipping points in all of our lives, and the sacrifices we have too make. In many ways, the book is deeply depressing, but it also looks to the importance of connection and of truth-telling and living truthfully. I was incredibly moved by this haunting big book—big, not for length (though it is over 400 pages), but for the bigness of the ideas and of the palette. I could say more about how my life paralleled Roland's life at points but I think I shall leave that for another time.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Living in a Fictional World: Pandemic Reading

I always retreat to fiction. Or maybe I retreat in fiction. I need stories, I need poetry, I need beauty. At times during this other-worldly apocalyptic hellscape we're attempting to live through, I have felt like abandoning the world entirely, slipping through the Pevensie children's wardrobe into another world, out of time, cut off from reality. I always loved that image: that Susan, Lucy, Peter and Edmund could enter Narnia and grow and change and have lives, but still exit back into the other world as their same selves. I, for one, am tired of my same self and this world, and would love to enter another world, perhaps never to return.

You would think that would lead me to reading more fantasy. Goodness knows I can't take any more dystopia. Whatever I read of dystopia comes from the New York Times every morning. I want to step through a wardrobe here and be back in the real world again. 

But no, this pandemic year I have not read fantasy as much (other than the years-delayed sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood: The Testaments). I've read some quasi-historical fiction that perhaps takes me back to another time, or at least takes me out of this time. Of books of that sort that I've read recently, let me mention, two successful to some extent, two not. 

I'm not sure what made me pick up popular author Elin Hilderbrand's Summer of '69. Perhaps it was because I am a child of the 60's and an deeply awash in the history and trivia from that time. Perhaps it was because I used to center my classroom around a study of the decade. Perhaps because it was a New England-type of book. Whatever the cause or reason, I found myself asking who reads dreck like this? Its thinly-drawn one-dimensional characters, overt racism cloaked as woke-ness, and facile predictability pretty much infuriated me. I'm actually not sure why I finished it.

B.A. Shapiro's The Muralist, on the other hand, is more nuanced in its depiction of the art world of the 1930's in New York. She takes some liberties with history—portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt and some minor political actors in the run-up to WWII—but does so in the service of exploring a fictional enigmatic female painter, perhaps an influence on Pollack and Rothko. The book is uneven and scattered at times, but she asks some great questions about the purpose and creation of art, ownership, motives, sponsorship, and lost history.

I've read most everything that TC Boyle has written. His latest novel, published in 2019, is Outside Looking In—a terrifically understated, unsensational title for an exploration of the LSD trials done at Harvard and beyond in the 60's. All of Boyle's fiction has a "point", similar to Tom Wolfe. Boyle likes to capture the essence of a moment in time or in a particular subculture and spin out a story within that time and place to fully describe it. He does that here in sometimes spell-binding fashion, including a prologue capturing the moment when Albert Hoffman first ingests LSD in 1943, as seen through the eyes of a fictional assistant. 

Among the many reasons I pick up a book, I've never chosen one simply because the name of one of my daughters is in the title. But that's why I picked up Jami Attenberg's Saint Mazie. The set-up is a familiar one (it even bears a slight resemblance to Shapiro's The Muralist to some extent): a diary is found and the author wants to know more about who the writer of the diary was. Mazie is one of those typical New York characters—brazen, outspoken, iconoclastic. She drank and partied her way through Prohibition, opened up her movie theater to the down-and-out during the Depression, and generally became a saint to the locals who knew her. This charming little book really surprised me and, as the pandemic worsened and we became more and more aware of those who were suffering, it spurred me to take action even more than I already had. It really was an unexpected gift, as I wouldn't have predicted that this book would have affected me in the way it did.

    Speaking of unexpected gifts (and breaking away from historical fiction), two books really delightfully surprised me recently: Charles Yu's bizarre, hysterical yet deep Interior Chinatown, and Kevin Wilson's Nothing to See Here. I love trying to describe each of these books to people because the set-ups are just preposterous. For instance, the basic plot of Wilson's book is that the narrator, a young woman drifting purposelessly through life, has been asked by a wealthy friend to be the nanny for her new step-children. The 10-year old twins she has to take care of are fairly normal and well-adjusted, considering one teensy little problem: when angered or upset, they burst into flames. I was surprised how much I got out of this book—especially the shreds of humanity and grace that the main character is able to muster up, despite her scattered life; the effects of simple kindness and of listening; and the sometimes all-consuming fire that lives within all of us. Why aren't more of us literally on fire more of the time? 

   Yu's book is deeply original and bizarre. The set-up here is that we are reading a screenplay, starring a man who exists either as a man in actuality or as a character in a TV show called "Black and White", purportedly a "procedural" of the CSI variety. His whole goal in life is to move from being "Generic Asian Man" up to "Featured Asian" or maybe even "Kung Fu Guy". What a clever way to explore race, society, marginalization, and assimilation. I loved how the book teetered between what seemed like reality and the real world of the fictional show. This was one of the funniest, most interesting books I've read in a long time. 

    It's possible that I could have written this post entirely about books set in the 60's, as the last book I'll mention is David Mitchell''s Utopia Avenue. The title comes from the name of a band, born at the right time in the right place in late 60's London. The band's mystique comes from a blend of styles and personalities—think Pink Floyd meets the Doors meets Fleetwood Mac—with obvious and bizarre references and cameos by everyone from Dylan to Leonard Cohen to Janis Joplin. Since all of Mitchell's novels relate to one another in a sort of fictional meta-verse, I kept expecting the "real" story to kick in long before it did, given that one of the main characters is named de Zoet (harkening back to his Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet). But we never really get there, except for one small section about 2/3 of the way through the novel. Yes, its well-written—neatly-drawn characters, some beautiful scenes, twisty journeys down winding narrative paths. But it's also predictable, and unexpectedly, well, maudlin and sentimental at other times. I felt as if I were reading an exposé about a band in Rolling Stone written by someone who writes Hallmark cards. After all was said and done, I wondered to myself why he wrote this. I'm not sure I have an answer, because he certainly didn't bring anything new to the table about the music scene of the 60's. And, even more curiously after The Bone Clocks, there's nothing new about Mitchell's meta-verse either (should you care to read more about the world of all his linked novels, go here—but don't say I didn't warn you).


Monday, November 4, 2019

Living in a Fictional World: The Past Year in My Reading

What a strange time of life this is. No kids around, fewer responsibilities, an outside world which is at turns beautiful, intolerable, painful, incomprehensible. I've always used fiction as a way to understand my life and the world we live in. But it's actually a little odd and maybe even disturbing how frequently and fluidly I move from story to story during my day.

Reading is a big part of my life. I spend hours a day reading and listening to the written word. I start my day, everyday, with the newspaper. I listen to books or podcasts while driving and while walking Wally. I read on my commute into town, either of the dead tree variety or on my iPhone. I read every night before bed. I experience books on the written page, through my phone, on my Kindle, and on my computer.

At any one time, I may have several books going at once, depending on the medium, my location, my mode of travel, and the time of day. A quick look at what I am currently reading on my Good Reads account shows these works (with the mode of consumption in parentheses):

The Green Ray, Jules Verne (Kindle)
The Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe (book)
The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates (audio)
Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens (book)
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas (phone)
We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver (book)

Over the last year or so, my reading has fallen into a couple of interesting categories: short stories (perfect for commuting), graphic novels, contemporary novels of all sorts, African-American authors, and comic fiction.

I have always loved short stories. Some of my earliest memories around intense, obsessive, immersive reading come from poring through the short stories of O. Henry, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Thurber, and so many more. To me, a great short story reads and feels like a good poem, the meaning tucked away behind metaphors, images and visions. I love reading a beautifully-crafted short story. Recently, I've discovered that short stories are perfect for my once-a-week commute into Boston. I haven't minded reading novels on these commutes—I've always been pretty good about picking up narrative threads even when I haven't opened a particular book in a while.

But I've found in the last few months that reading short stories makes perfect sense. Of these, three particular ones stand out: In Persuasion Nation by George Saunders, The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret, and Delicate Edible Birds and Other Stories by Lauren Groff. Saunders and Groff are two of my favorite writers of late and their stories don't disappoint, but for very different reasons. Groff's stories are like mini-novels, with fully-realized characters, strange symbols, and varied meanings; Saunders' stories are just plain odd and off-kilter, other-worldly, even though they're of this world. He has a way of making the bizarre and strange, the dystopic and futuristic, seem natural and scarily possible. I've never read Keret's work before, but this Israeli writer is one of the hot young writers who it seems like everyone is reading now. His stories are blessedly short and always strange, full of a dark comic humor that I often didn't understand.

Although I am not a big fan of memoirs (I found the hype around Educated suspicious, especially once I went down some rabbit holes on the internet), two of the graphic novels I've come across in the last year have been thought-provoking and intense: The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui and Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob. I admit that I can be somewhat obnoxious about my avoidance and dislike of memoirs. There's something about curating one's life, shaping it into a narrative arc, and basking in the glory of its perfect imperfections that just gets on my nerves. But what are autobiographical graphic memoirs then? Aren't they the same thing? Perhaps. But these two books ask some really important questions about race, identity, what it means to be an American, an immigrant, a good person, and how we deal with our past. These graphic novels were among the most throught-provoking and interesting works I've read this year. Equally important to me was reading Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Ever since reading Maus many, many years ago, I feel like I've discovered an affinity for the marriage of the written word with the vivid imagery of illustrations. McCloud's intelligent prose, balanced with humor and a deep understanding of the medium, made this an enlightening and important read.

Over the last few years, I have found myself increasingly troubled by and fascinated by the African-American experience in fiction. From Octavia Butler (Kindred), James Baldwin (Go Tell it On the Mountain, If Beale Street Could Talk, Another Country), Colson Whitehead (The Nickel Boys), Rosalyn Story (Wading Home), and Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Water Dancer), I have found myself trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. Call it the guilt of a white liberal if you will, I feel compelled to understand and explore the African-American experience in this country. Perhaps nothing brought it home more than a recent trip to New Orleans. Rosalyn Story's post-Katrina novel Wading Home brought so much into sharp focus while we were there. Her novel served as counterpoint and confirmation for some of my day trips we did—our depressingly real tour of the still-decimated and ignored lower ninth ward; a trip to the Whitney Plantation, which focuses entirely on the 300 people who were enslaved there. The long, sad history of African people in Louisiana is filled with nameless deaths, endless brutality, and uncompensated-for tragedy. No surprise, these themes aren't limited to New Orleans, as they appear prominently in all of the books I've listed above (which should include my recent re-reading of Toni Morrison's masterpiece Beloved as well as abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin). I'm not solving anything here. I'm trying to make sense out of the what and the why around this country's participation in one of the world's greatest atrocities and its after-effects. There's reparation, yes, but there's also acknowledgment and honoring, naming the nameless, memorializing those who came before if only to recognize their humanity and their stories.

Outside of these works and themes in my reading, I vacillate between reading older fiction (Charles Dickens, Ray Bradbury, Pat Barker, Alexandre Dumas, and Jules Verne among others) and newer works. I guess that's in part because some of what I read is guided by whatever my two book groups are reading. For instance, the last book we read in the book group my wife and I are in was David Nicholls' Us. The book was recommended to me by a good friend from college, perfect (and funny, too, if a little painful) for our time of life. As a couple confronts divorce at the cusp of empty nest-hood, the narrative teeters between the past and the present, and how we work and live through relationships. In my college's alumni book group (SwatBooksBoston), we started our year of post-colonial literature with Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John. Kincaid's coming's-of-age story in Antigua, set upon the backdrop of a post-colonial society, is mesmerizing and poetic.

But I find myself on other paths as well. Kent Haruf's Plainsong trilogy had been recommended to me a number of years ago. When I finally got around to reading it, his beautiful, simple prose reminded me of Stoner, and the landscapes of Alice Munro, but with more humor and more heart. I found Ruth Ozick's My Year Without Meat a deeply affecting read, too, though it tended too much toward the polemic, almost like some of T. C. Boyle's fiction. But then, Richard Powers's Overstory, though it covers similar politics, it covers different territory, was deeply engaging and beautiful. And let's face it, with so much existential gunk out there, I also have found a need to read funny things, too. My favorites over the last year are two older works by Mark Dunn, Ibid and Ella Minnow Pea. Somewhat related to Nabokov's Pale FireIbid is a novel told entirely in footnotes, about the life of a three-legged inventor and philanthropist. Ella Minnow Pea tells the hilariously tragic story of the island of Nollop through letters among the island's citizens. A statue to Nevin Nollop, the island's namesake and creator of the sentence "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog", has been damaged. Letters keep falling off the statue memorializing that sentence and, as they fall, the island's government proclaims that those letters shall not be used anymore, and so thy are not used in the text of the novel either. Ridiculous and fun, and a sure-fire cure to the 24-hour news cycle.

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

Friday, May 6, 2016

What I'm Reading and Thinking about Now

Friends, I haven't posted anything in a long time. I'm too embarrassed to look up when my last post was. That doesn't mean I haven't been reading. In fact, I would say I'm reading more now than at almost any time in my life. That I can read dead-tree books, books on my Kindle, and listen to books in the car makes my life a constant flow of fiction. No, I don't read much non-fiction, unless you count the newspaper (but I won't go there about the possible fiction of journalism). I'm a story boy. I love a good story, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I love plot only.

Take the case of the books I am currently reading: John Wray's The Lost Time Accidents is a meandering, asynchronous journey through time and space, following the fate and fortunes of two brothers and their descendants, including one who is stuck in time, perched in an armchair on a particular day at a very particular time, unable to move but able to think and talk, as he tells his story to his absent lover, Mrs. Haven. It'd be totally antithetical to the point of the novel to get too hung up on the plot aspects of the story. It's all about time and meaning, cycles and spirals. Curiously, I am listening to this book—I wonder what it would be like to actually be reading it...

On my Kindle, I am reading another Jess Walter book, after finishing Citizen Vince last week. I really enjoy his writing. His characters are vivid, savvy, complicated souls in a constant search for identity and meaning. Citizen Vince uses the backdrop of the election of 1980 to explore a man's attempts at re-definition as a result of being in the witness protection program. However implausible the story is and the details of the program, I really enjoyed the humor and the characters. Interestingly, Vince shows up in The Financial Lives of Poets. I don't remember which was published first, but Vince appears briefly in the background as Marty, which had been Vince's real name, along with his wife and teenaged son. Fun to think that it's the same world.

But this is in a different place, if not a different world, a world filled with lost dreams and broken promises (in fact, it just occurred to me that this world isn't that different fromErnest Cline's Ready Player One). Matt's destroyed his simple middle-class life by going too far out on the broken and dying limb of journalism, and jumping off to pursue a ridiculous dream: a website devoted to financial advice, offered in poetry. The poems that appear throughout are depressing indictments of the plain and simple life—marriage, suburbia, parenthood—and offer comic and dark commentary to Matt's life as it spirals down the toilet. Going to lose the house? Why not try selling weed? Suspicious of your wife's late-night typing? Log into her Facebook account and see evidence of her cheating with her old boyfriend. Funny, sad, bittersweet...but as yet, offering no redemption. I don't see a way out of it all for Matt or for his family. We'll see.

I'm also reading Nathan Englander's novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, which I've wanted to read for a while and which I picked up after reading his spectacular collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. And I'm still dipping into Dickens' David Copperfield. I wish I could finish DC all at once, but I'm enjoying the slow dips and the steady returns after weeks away.

For my Swarthmore book group, we read Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. I've read the book three times now and I'm still amazed at the quality of the writing, the idiosyncratic voice I hear in her words. I can't tell if it's that I don't know enough about the New Testament or whether it's her frontier/pioneer/western orientation that makes her writing so unfamiliar and sometimes impenetrable for mer. But I still love her writing in this novel. Though many members of my group disagreed with me, I see it as a novel about conformity and about society much more than it's about madness or survival. Ruthie struggles so much to understand. She wished she could be like her sister Lucille, but she knows she's not. She'll never fit in and doesn't seem to even want to, while it's Lucille's goal to be like every else, to have what everybody seems to have—a stable family life, the right clothes, an adherence to tradition and commonality. Ruthie isn't like that and that's revealed even before the ever-roaming Sylvie shows up. Sylvie provides her with a model for how she can be happy while not necessarily being attached to anyone or anything. I don't think Sylvie's necessarily crazy—she just doesn't buy into everything that everyone else does. I like that about her and about Ruthie, too.

For my other book group we read Chris Cleave's Gold, a book I both hated and admired. It's a book about a friendship in very extreme circumstances, and one that not many people have ever experienced. Of course it's a fantasy, set against the upcoming 2012 Olympics in London. Two bike racers—three best friends, two women and the man one of them marries—are all set to compete in the trials for the Games. The best part of the book are the fanatical scenes of their daughter, 8 years old and undergoing cancer treatment. The only way she's able to survive is to picture the cancer as the Dark Force and her battle against his star cruisers and various armed soldiers.

So...I'm still reading, still thinking, still looking for themes and ties between all the works I'm consuming. More another time.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Reading and Read, 2016

What I'm Reading Now
The Senator's Wife, Sue Miller
Ill Will, Dan Chaon
All the Names, Jose Saramago
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

Recently Read
The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, Thomas Mullen
The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
The Lake Shore Limited, Sue Miller
Holy Cow, David Duchovny
Swing Time, Zadie Smith
A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, Norman Maclean
Today Will Be Different, Maria Semple
A Horse Walks Into a Bar, David Grossman
The Sellout, Paul Beatty
Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, Brock Brock
Scandalmonger, William Safire
A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman
Imagine Me Gone, Adam Haslett,
It Can't Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis,
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
You Remind Me of Me, Dan Chaon
The Year of Voting Dangerously: The Derangement of American Politics, Maureen Dowd
The Nix, Nathan Hill
The Good Lord Bird, James McBride
The Little Red Chairs, Edna O'Brien
Razor Girl, Carl Hiaasen
The Last Days of Night, Graham Moore
The Financial Lives of Poets, Jess Walter
The Lost Time Accidents, John Wray
Gold, Chris Cleave
Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
Citizen Vince, Jess Walter
The Buried Giant, Kazoo Ishiguro
A Fan's Notes, Frederick Exley
Exley, Brock Clarke
The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Salman Rushdie
Welcome to Braggsville, Geronimo T. Johnson
To the End of the Land, David Grossman
A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson
White Teeth, Zadie Smith
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray
This is How You Leave Here, Junot Diaz
Suspended Sentences, Patrick Modiano
So Long, see You Tomorrow, William Maxwell
Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad
Mr. Bridge, Even Connell
Robinson Crusoe, Dafoe
Gulliver's Travels, Swift
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng
The Changeling, Kenzaburo Oe
Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant, Roz Chast
The Strange Library, Murakami
The Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
The Children Act, Ian McEwan
Orfeo, Richard Powers
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem
After Dark, Haruki Murakami
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
Marcelo in the Real World, Francisco Stork
Looking for Alaska, John Green
Paper Towns, John Green