The intro: I envision this occasional series as kind of a “virtual” club of people bound together not so much by common titles but simply a love of reading. I tell you what I’m reading, and you tell me, and we get a sense of satisfaction by knowing there are other people out there who love text in an image-based world. If you share your thoughts with me by Thursday morning, I might be able to work them into an upcoming Sunday Spotlight column.
When you’re a reader, sometimes you go through “book phases” — stretches of time in which you soak up one genre or another. Looking back on what I’ve read since my last installment of the Beehive Book Club way back in November (my goodness, how time flies), I realize that I’ve been saturated in contemporary fiction. (I even gobbled up a couple of thrillers.) Since that time I’ve read more than a dozen novels but only one biography and one general non-fiction work. I think it’s time for a break. When I was at the library today, I skipped the fiction section and grabbed a fat book titled “Absolute Monarchs” about the history of the popes.
Still, I did have a number of memorable reads. My three favorites: Michael Cunningham’s finely crafted “By Nightfall,” Jonathan Safran Foer’s brash “Everything Is Illuminated” and Cormac McCarthy’s wrenching “The Road.”
Just in time for summer, then, I offer my latest (overdue) installment. Add a comment and share your own reading list. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, even just a title or two. I really do love to hear from people — it makes me optimistic about the written word!
“By Nightfall,” by Michael Cunningham. A graceful, coolly wrought, delicate offering from one of my favorite authors. In this tightly focused novel, Cunningham burrows into the life of a 40-something Manhattan art dealer, Peter Harris, who has reached a certain level of success in life (great loft, successful art gallery, nice wife) but is stuck in a state of semi-ennui.
The precipitating event in the book is the arrival of Peter’s brother-in-law, Mizzy (short for Mistake – his wife’s much younger brother, who can still remember crawling into a college-age Peter’s lap when he was 4). Mizzy, the baby of the family, has long taken the angst-ridden, purposeless-rich-kid life so palatable to those with lots of disposable income to play with, and along the way, as he’s trekked to temples in Japan to find enlightenment, he’s also picked up a nasty drug habit.
When Mizzy blows into Peter’s life, however, all seems fair – at first. Then Peter, through an invasion of privacy, learns that Mizzy is still using drugs. And Mizzy, ever the user, turns on his charms, very nearly seducing his brother-in-law – they share a kiss – and then uses the incident to blackmail Peter.
Cunningham uses a familiar trope – the wayward guest who breezes in and upsets the status quo – but his novels have never been merely about plot. We get a richly detailed view of Peter’s interior life as he struggles with the age-old building blocks of a mid-life crisis: What happens when your life has reached the point when it isn’t so much about unbounded possibilities as it is conserving and consolidating your gains? To be sure, Peter’s gains are fairly substantial, but disappointment isn’t something that you can rationally measure. Whether it’s Peter’s career ambitions (he’ll never be the biggest art dealer in New York), his possibly sublimated attraction to men or his strained relationship with his daughter, there is much in this wistful, heartfelt novel to tug at your perceptions of what happiness is.
“Everything Is Illuminated,” by Jonathan Safran Foer. It sounds so clichÃ© to label this startling novel as “wildly original,” or “audacious,” or “startlingly fresh.” But, alas, I bow to clichÃ©. This book resonates with a newness, a freshness, that persists long after the last page.
The theme is the Holocaust, and Foer’s conceit is that he himself is a character in the novel, off on an expedition to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The guide he hires, Alex Perchov, is the novel’s other major voice, in the form of a dialogue that ensues between Alex and the author after Foer returns to the U.S.
In some respects it’s a traditional Holocaust novel: There are the scenes of horrific brutality, the unfathomable atrocities committed by humans against each other. But it’s also a book of wildness and wonkiness, of unbridled lust and downright weirdness. As we flash back to meet the author’s relatives – who cheerfully people the small Jewish town that stands so resolutely through the centuries until the Nazis wipe it out – it’s as quirky a bunch you could meet (it reminded me of a lineup out of a John Irving novel). But for all its story-within-a-story complexity – and despite Foer’s occasional piling on of too much swagger – the book’s complexity gives way to the simple but profound relationship between American author and Ukrainian tour guide – and the lessons they teach each other.
“The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy. A deeply affecting, shockingly simple novel that presents a singular father-son relationship in the midst of unthinkable deprivation. Civilization collapsed several years ago, and the U.S. lies in ruins, most of its population dead. The few who remain have turned into scavengers and brigands.
In the thick of this, we meet the Man and the Boy, who are on the move. They travel along the “Road,” McCarthy’s general term for the ribbon of a bygone era that still cuts through the countryside. They march toward the ocean, mostly because the Man figures that there has to be something better there.
We learn a little about the Man’s background as the narrative unfolds. The mother of the boy was pregnant when the catastrophe occurred, and for years they endured as a family until she succumbed to the despair of their situation, presumably committing suicide. From then on it’s just the Man and the Boy, and their fierce will to live keeps them moving.
It’s a bleak, haunting novel, and the few times of promise – such as when the Man and the Boy stumble upon an undiscovered cache of food and supplies, guaranteeing them a few days of blissful meals and rest – are aching. I’m struck by a fascinating theme of McCarthy’s: the Man muses that in telling stories of what life was like before the catastrophe to his son, it’s as if he represents an alien civilization: one that the boy can only imagine through what is left behind, much like an archaeologist reconstructs an era through ruins. We think of our society as being so strong and dominant, yet it is only a generation away from also retreating into the wisps of memory and history.
Some of the other books I’ve recently read or listened to on CD:
“The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn,” by Janis Hallowell. When a homeless man sees a vision of a Virgin Mary-style apparition – and when that young woman turns out to work just down the street – he starts a frenzy. Could a new “Virgin” carrying the Messiah be in our midst? Such is the premise of this intriguing, if a little shallow, exercise in pop-culture theology.
Francesca Dunn is the 14-year-old cellist who gets caught up in all the excitement. No one would likely have given the visions of Chester, the homeless man, much thought if there weren’t a couple of timely “healings” that take place in Francesca’s presence. Word gets around, and soon the crazies that seem to follow such metaphysical sideshows around the country are on the scene, making life much different for Francesca and her mother. Francesca starts believing she’s pregnant, even though she’s technically a virgin – one of the many nebulous details that the book waffles through to keep our interest – and, even more interesting, develops a bit of a Messiah complex herself as she basks in the attention and devotion of total strangers.
Chester’s character is nicely drawn, and I was intrigued by the connection between his psychological travails – he is overwhelmed by his sense of smell – and his apparent metaphysical acuity. I just didn’t buy that a crowd could become this devoted on the basis of a couple of miracles attributed to homeless men. Where is the Virgin shaped like a tortilla? It’s almost as if Francesca’s alleged pregnancy is too subtle for believers to latch onto.
Still, for all its broadness, there’s something here with a nice punch. Religion and craziness, depending on your view, aren’t that far apart, and this book makes the point nicely.
“The Sign,” by Raymond Khoury. Well, here’s one way to fight global warming: Kidnap and imprison a couple of genius scientists and force them to create the technology for a big, swirling sign in the sky above Antarctica’s melting ice. Then throw in an elaborate conspiracy involving one of the world’s richest guys, a noted political thug and a famous brainwashed Catholic monk, and you have a plot to get people to believe in a supernatural condemnation of global warming — and the possibility of starting a new religion as a way to control the masses. And the bad guys would get away with it, too, except for everyman hero Matt Sherwood, who soon learns that his beloved brother, Danny, was one of the kidnapped scientists.
What follows is a long and complicated action thriller — not the type of book I usually go for, but good for long drives — that gets more interesting because of its concerted forays into such issues as right-wing political extremism, the cynicism of religion and the ease with which the crisis-obsessed media can be manipulated. Probably the surprise for many red-blooded American Christian readers is the determination with which Khoury delivers his pan-ecumenical message suggesting that — God forbid — there might be more than one way to Heaven. Khoury writes:
“We all pray to the same God. That’s all that matters. … God doesn’t care about what you eat or what you drink. He doesn’t care about how often you pray to him or what words you use or where you go to do that. He doesn’t care who you vote for. He only cares about how you behave toward one another. That’s all that matters.”
For some, those are fighting words.
Khoury’s themes elevate this work above the standard-issue thriller, but the interminable action sequences and Hollywood-style celebration of the underdog thrashing the villain were a little much. At least the fight sequences gave me time to muse on the idea of the relative ease of appropriating the spiritual realm for worldly domination. Heck, it’s one of the things that humans have proved most adept at over thousands of years.
“Freedom,” by Jonathan Franzen. In “The Corrections,” Franzen also burrowed down with a dysfunctional American family, one led by a wobbly, Alzheimer-afflicted patriarch attended to by a meddling and long-suffering wife. What struck me most about that book was just how little true affection bound the Lambert clan together. (It’s interesting, too, reading my 10-year-old thoughts on the book, that I didn’t really like “The Corrections” as much as I started to think I did years later. Goes to show how a book’s image can be rehabilitated, probably influenced by positive messages from the popular culture.)
Now, in “Freedom,” Franzen again gives us a sprawling portrait of a family: this one the product of the marriage of Walter and Patty Berglund. She’s a Minnesota college basketball talent who probably comes closest to intensity in life when she’s on the court, but who even then can’t settle into a full-fledged embrace of the present. He’s a furiously hard working, idealistic, by-his-bootstraps gawky lad who feels passionately about income inequality, overpopulation and — from the moment he meets her — Patty. After college they move into a fixer-upper home in St. Paul, produce two children — the precocious Joey, who starts sleeping with the next-door-neighbor girl at something like age 14, and the aloof daughter, who remains above it all. Major chunks of the plot are devoted to a longstanding love triangle between Patty, Walter and his best friend, a charismatic rocker named Richard Katz; later, we get immersed in a storyline involving the environmentally friendly Walter getting sucked into an elaborate plan to obliterate a West Virginia mountaintop in the name of conservation.
It’s a pleasurable book, one you can snuggle into, in a sense, giving us richly developed and deeply flawed characters. But there’s something about Franzen’s insistence on weaving upscale progressive issues into the book that smacks of pretentiousness. It’s as if he wrote the novel with the expectation of being lauded at neighbor cocktail parties, with like-minded individuals showering him with pithy compliments about his political insight. “Freedom” emerges as thoughtful novel, but it doesn’t manage to be gripping.
“You Don’t Love Me Yet,” Jonathan Lethem. In this charming and only slightly twisted wisp of a novel, Lethem doesn’t engage in the full-scale flirtation with sophisticated absurdity that he did so well in his big, fat, New York-based “Chronic City.” Instead, this slim dalliance with Los Angeles is more like a good-natured comic romp. Our main character, Lucinda Hoekke, is a wannabe rocker in L.A. who has big dreams for the still-unnamed band she and three other struggling musicians have formed. Her day job, working for her ex-boyfriend conceptual artist, is to man the phones as part of The Complaint Line, a conceptual installation piece he’s doing at his gallery. Through this project she makes a connection with a man she dubs The Complainer, a booming voice on the line with whom she becomes infatuated.
Things get complicated when she takes some of the Complainer’s pithy sayings and feeds them to her bandmate to work them into new songs. Then she finally meets the Complainer (and has a two-day sexual sprint with him that in Lethem’s hands is hilarious, graphic and downright astonishing), and learns that he has wants to leverage his claim to ownership of the band’s songs into a chance to actually be in the band.
Lethem populates the novel with quirky characters, from the soulful Matthew – Lucinda’s veterinarian on-and-off-again boyfriend who smuggles a kangaroo out of the zoo – to an obnoxious L.A. concert impresario who likes to sniff women’s armpits. There are plenty of riffs on art – the impresario decides to stage a performance-art piece called “Aparty” where everyone comes with headphones and is supposed to dance to their own music – and lots of love for rock and roll. (Lethem’s description of the band’s potential monster hit, called “Monster Eyes,” is sublime.)
Is it the all-encompassing, brilliant sprawl of a “Chronic City”? No. But I don’t want to beat up on Lethem for that. It’s a brisk, fun read, and for that I was more than satisfied.
“The Ask,” by Sam Lipsyte. This crisp, acerbic account of a flailing artist employed in a university development office is like a blast of morning breath: on the caustic side, overpowering, a potent reminder of humanity at its less than best, but also very real. The protagonist, Milo Burke, kicks off his story when he gets fired after a run-in with a vicious (and rich) student, and it’s only after his vastly wealthy college friend, Purdy Stuart, intervenes by proposing a large gift to the university but demanding that Milo be the one to see it happen. The plot thickens when Purdy’s illegitimate son – a disgruntled Iraq war vet with titanium legs – pops up to make things rough for dad.
Lipsyte is a cunning wordsmith, and he aims at a wide array of subjects: the slippage of America, the frightful obtuseness of the filthy rich, the ridiculousness of the contemporary art scene, the idiocy of political correctness. (His slash-and-burn subplot about his young son’s daycare center, run by a wacked-out faction of educational theorists who fling child-rearing theories at each other, is wickedly funny.) When Lipsyte gets hold of something to mock, he does it with a tenacious, vicious grace — such as with another amusing riff on one minor character’s proposal to fashion a reality TV show on the idea of bringing in famous chefs to death rows to prepare last meals. At first you’d think the major target of the book would be the pomposity and bureaucratic rigidity of higher education, but when you get past the amusing potshots, he’s more interested in honing in on how our success-oriented culture relishes bashing the mediocre in all of us.
What Lipsyte isn’t brilliant at, however, is plot. For all its quippy smugness, the book remained for me a curiously inert affair when it came to narrative. I trudged through it rather than plowing, and I was left afterward with an overwhelming sour outlook toward the ramped-up, screwed-up world created on the page. The first thing I did after reading the final page was brush my teeth.
“Blasphemy,” by Douglas Preston. When the “world’s smartest man” convinces the U.S. government to shell out $40 billion to build a massive particle accelerator built in an Arizona mountain, he proposes to come one step closer to unlocking the mysteries of the Big Bang. But when the machine, dubbed Isabella, suddenly comes to “life” with greetings for the elite scientists working on the project – and then proceeds to claim to be a very different God than that of the Bible – things get messy. Add to that a scheming Washington lobbyist, a slimy televangelist, a crazy Navajo preacher and an ex-CIA man named Ford who acts as our guide, and you’ve got the ingredients for a sprawling thriller. Preston creates a gripping first half, and he’s obviously understands how to structure a pleasing thriller. (If the lobbyist were any greasier he’d slide out of his clothes.) But his attempt to pontificate about God vs. science starts to bog things down, and some gaping plot holes don’t help. I found the ending clichÃ©d and silly, especially when the scientists on the project embrace their new “religion” wholeheartedly. (If God were in their control room, couldn’t he do something about the fundamentalist lunatics trying to break down the door?) Preston might write halfway convincingly about science, but his insights into religion and human nature aren’t exactly profound.
“No Regrets,” by Carolyn Burke. Poor Edith Piaf: a huge talent, an early and painful death. But it’s hard to imagine her wanting it any other way. This well-researched biography, which attempts to cut through some of the myths and legends that have arisen about the charismatic singer, can’t pretend to know all about Piaf. But it’s clear that she loved to sing, and that she got a spiritual sustenance from it, and the fact that she pushed herself so hard – at the detriment of her health – is one more clue that she put a premium on those magical moments she was able to make on stage.
In absorbing the details of her life, it’s striking how lavish she was in terms of physical connections with other people – how many lovers did she have? You start to lose count – but also how unlucky she was in terms of physical ailments. And even just in terms of car accidents. Her body wracked with pain and her system stuffed full of drugs to keep her functioning, she nevertheless pursued her art with the vigor of a young, fresh, budding teen. Pretty impressive stuff.
There’s also the intriguing notion of a woman being bound up in a national identity. “She personified the Gallic way of meeting adversity in her belief that there was no reason to regret the past, no reason at all,” Burke writes. I think it’s hard for us in today’s Post Cynical Society to truly comprehend what it’s like to triumph over adversity, as Piaf did as she overcame her scrappy street background and her beloved France overcame occupation by the Germans. I came away from this book impressed once again by Piaf’s tenacity and style.
“Divisadero,” by Michael Ondaatje. This is one novel, but it almost reads like two – a bifurcated approach that first delves into the lives of two sisters, Anna and Claire, growing up in the Petaluma area in the 1970s. A farmhand named Coop, four years older, has been with the family since he was small. When Anna and Coop have sex – and her father discovers them – the family is torn apart and the pieces settle unexpectedly in the years ahead, with Coop carving out a life as a professional gambler and Anna running away from home and eventually ending up in France researching a writer named Jean Segura, who lived and died in the house where she has settled.
I made a mistake with this book: It isn’t one to listen to in the car. Ondaatje’s prose is gorgeous in a restrained, piercing way, and it is too complex and dense to be delivered in an aural format. I was completely caught up in the story of Anna and Coop, and I was disappointed – even alienated – when the novel veers back in time to recount Segura’s life. (I chalk this up partly to an extremely poor dust-jacket description of the book, which completely avoids the French storyline.) I’ve learned my lesson: no more Ondaatje in the car.
“Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture,” by Ross King. They said it couldn’t be done” are six words that get tossed around a lot. But could they be any more appropriate for the story of Filippo Brunelleschi, the cantankerous 15th Century Florentine artisan who designed and built the dome for the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore? When the cathedral was originally designed – long before Brunelleschi’s time – no one knew how a dome with a 140-foot span could be built without the obtrusive flying buttresses of Gothic architecture. But someone would think of something, right? (It reminds me how people today are confident that global warming will be solved by some smartie just a few years down the road. We can only hope.)
Brunelleschi was arrogant, but he was brilliant – and he knew how to work the meddling fathers of Florence who controlled the money. King details Brunellschi’s feud with long-standing rival Lorenzo Ghiberti, and he tosses in some interesting tidbits of daily life in 15th Century Florence, but mostly he gives us an analytical account of Brunelleschi’s design genius. (He figured out how to design the dome’s curves so they needed no supporting framework during construction.) The best part: Brunelleschi saw his dome completed only months before his death.
“State of Wonder,” by Ann Patchett. Little did Dr. Marina Singh realize that when she took a job as a researcher at a pharmaceutical company that she’d wind up deep in the heart of the Amazon. That chain of events unfolds after Singh’s colleague, sent by the company to check on the progress of a fertility drug being researched by a temperamental and legendary doctor named Annick Swenson, unexpectedly dies. When the president of the company, with whom Marina is involved in a secret relationship, asks her to check things out, she agrees – and discovers a weird, lush world with a whole bunch of secrets.
Just finding Dr. Swenson takes a big chunk of the book, and while some will say that the limbo part of the story, when Marina is cooling her heels in the Brazilian city of Manaus while trying to connect with the secretive doctor, is too dawdling, I found myself most drawn to this part of the narrative. (Sometimes the smaller mysteries in life are the most satisfying.) Once Marina finally gets to the doctor’s isolated compound and learns more about the research project, some of the luminescence of the book is lost. But in terms of evoking a fierce sense of place and delving deep into complicated characters, I really got caught up in this adventurous tale.