UPDATE 12/9: Welcome to readers who are here because of my Sunday Spotlight column. And if you’re a books fan, be sure to check out Rick Bentley’s story about a Fresno State student who shares her 1,000-square feet apartment with almost 10,000 books.
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.
I get very excited when The New York Times comes out with its list of 100 Notable Books of the year. But I also feel a little overwhelmed. There are so many books to read and not enough time. And while I enjoy keeping up with current titles, there are so many older books clamoring for my attention that I just sort of sigh and dream about a life spent reading.
It turns out I’ve only read one book on this year’s Times list: John Irving’s “In One Person.” I’m an Irving Loyalist through and through — I read every one of his novels as they’re published. Like most of my reader friends, I have a special affection for his earlier works (ah, the thrill of reading “A Prayer for Owen Meany” for the first time), and I’ve been a little less enraptured with some of his newer stuff, but I always come back for more.
That said, “In One Person” is a solid, gripping read. It’s funny, surprising and very sad. Irving’s narrator, a headstrong young man named Billy Dean, lives in a small Vermont town in the early 1960s, goes to an all-boys private school and has an extended family of rather eccentric characters. (His grandfather, owner of the mill in town, is known for playing women’s roles in the local amateur theater society.) Oh, and there’s a wrestling subplot. (Does all this sound familiar?)
Yet Irving doesn’t go for easy laughs or fanciful story arcs in this briskly told tale. As the young Billy comes to terms with his sexuality, he concludes early on that he is completely comfortable in his bisexuality. Attracted both to men and women — albeit a certain type of both genders — he never so much shocks his friends and family as just simply asserts himself. (And this was the ’60s, remember.) Billy becomes an outspoken novelist, and as he uneasily enters the era of the AIDS crisis, we grasp the devastation. At the same time, Irving — not exactly an overly sentimental writer to begin with — conveys great tenderness without laying it on thick. It’s a happy and melancholy book, which I consider a great balancing act.
OTHER TOP PICKS
“The Keep,” by Jennifer Egan. There’s a story within a story in this brilliantly conceived, deftly executed, widely acclaimed novel – and the amazing thing is that both of those stories are so fiercely amazing that even while you have a full view of the author’s bag of stylistic tricks she’s using to weave the whole thing together. In that’s sense, it’s very “meta.” But unlike most such examples of the technique today, there isn’t the self-important, blustery odor of self-awareness usually associated with such outings. The book is bracingly clear of all the bravado.
Instead, we get two compelling (and quite odd) stories. One is about a man named Danny who has been summoned by a long-estranged cousin, Howie, to a remote Gothic castle somewhere in Europe to help with what Danny thinks is as a major remodeling/renovation project. Danny is sort of a mess – he’s running from some New York thugs he got mixed up with – and the summons comes at a convenient time, even though there’s some weird back history between him and Howie. (When they were kids, Danny helped with a prank gone bad that left Howie trapped in a series of caves for three days.) But Howie isn’t up for garden-variety revenge. He has grander plans as a sort of guru leader establishing a new kind of community.
Early on, we realize that the castle part of the story is actually coming from the fertile brain of an incarcerated prisoner writing a story for a writing workshop. The prisoner, named Ray, has a crush on the teacher, Holly, and as their unlikely relationship starts to form, this other “story” soon begins to match the castle one in terms of audacious plot and magical effect.
I think this is one of those cases that if you try to analyze too deply why “The Keep” works so well, it falls apart. It’s as if you don’t want to shine the light too closely – or too long on the “machinery,” even when that machinery is so lovingly placed front-and-center. The book just works.
“The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court,” by Jeffrey Toobin. This book couldn’t have been more timely, coming just three months after the highest court in the land upheld the Affordable Health Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Toobin takes us behind the scenes of the court, giving us capsule portraits of each justice, then giving us a glimpse at their interactions with each other. The author sets up a philosophical showdown, personifying it with Chief Justice John Roberts on one hand (a former corporate lawyer determined to see his brand of constitutional conservatism, which relies heavily on an originalist view of the Founding Fathers’ intentions while writing the U.S. constitution) to President Obama on the other (determined to save the legacy of the New Deal and the power of the federal government to effect change.) Toobin, in fact, offers a startling premise: that it’s actually Roberts who is the “activist” – by carrying the constitution-above-all arc to the extreme – and Obama the judicial conservative, wanting to preserve rights for women, gays, minorities and others emboldened by 20th Century court doctrine.
Toobin’s insights into the court are fascinating. (And I just fell in love with the tiny and sometimes mean Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who just keeps plugging away.) The author doesn’t really have a scoop in terms of the Obamacare decision, but he does set the scene very well, with Roberts first deciding that the law stretches the “commerce” clause of the Constitution too far, and he’s ready to join with the four other conservative justices to strike it down, but then has second thoughts, finally changing his mind to uphold it in its near entirety. To me, Roberts’ decision was primarily a political one, realizing that striking down the significant achievement of Obama’s first term would further damage the integrity of the court.
“Bossypants,” by Tina Fey. There are moments in the car you remember. Tina Fey and I will always share the desolate stretch of highway between Mojave and Lancaster in the high Southern California desert. That’s when I reached the point in Fey’s super-funny memoir/commentary in which she responds to Internet critics who call her, among other things, “pear-shaped,” “bitchy,” “overrated” and a “troll.” Her pert response: How dare this anonymous commenter call her a troll? Has he/she ever seen Fey guard a bridge?
I laughed hard and long enough at this caustic, brilliant section that I considered pulling to the side of the road.
Fey’s breezy, thoughtful book is part memoir, telling us a little about her childhood (she was slashed by a stranger with a knife when she was little, leaving her with a scar), teen years (she was a theater geek who happily found community with a bunch of older lesbians) and early career (as a member of the second touring company for Second City, the rule was that if there were more people on stage than in the audience, the show was cancelled). Weaving in her years at “Saturday Night Live,” where she became head writer, we get a taste of what it’s like behind the scenes at the show. And she gives us a recap of these momentous recent years, with “30 Rock” becoming a critical hit and, of course, the famous Sarah Palin sketches on “Saturday Night Live.”
But balancing all this bio material is an interesting feminist critique on the role of women in the entertainment industry – and her determination not to play it safe. (She really is a “Bossypants” – her show employs 200 people.) Her book is a comic gem – and a thoughtful one as well.
Some of the other books I’ve recently read or listened to on CD:
“IQ84,” by Haruki Murakami. Just call this one the biggie. Murakami’s fascinating, tender, exciting, mundane, often beautiful and occasionally infuriating opus of a novel about an alternate world with two moons, and a love affair kept apart across those two worlds between two extremely likable and remarkable characters (a math cram-school teacher named Tengo and a martial-arts instructor named Aomame) just seems to go on and on. And so, in a sort of deliberate act of counter-progamming, I’m going to make this very very short:
I loved it and hated it. Am I glad I read it? You bet.
“The Leftovers,” by Tom Perrotta. The Rapture happens. A swath of the population suddenly vanishes. You’d think the Biblical literalists would be happy, right? But not in Perrotta’s intriguing and melancholy post-apocalyptic novel, in which the disaster is less easily conceived than you might think. Instead of sweeping across the world in brimstone fashion, the Rapture doesn’t unfold according to Biblical expectations. Instead, a segment of the population simply vanishes. There’s no apparent reason to it all: Some people were good, some bad, some Christians, many not. (This, of course, infuriates many of the Christians left behind, especially those most vocal about their special place in the universe.)
Perrotta doesn’t spend much time on the actual disappearance itself, blending the event obliquely into the storyline. In this case the book reads much more as realist fiction than some sort of sci-fi piece. The author is most interested in the people left behind.
“Damned,” by Chuck Palahniuk. Madison, the daughter of a distracted movie actress mother who bears an uncanny resemblance to Angelina Jolie and a billionaire father so filthy rich he can barely remember all the houses he owns, is 13 when she dies of a marijuana overdose. That’s how she ends up in Hell, penning pensive letters that start: “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison.” Palahniuk’s 12th novel proves that he’s cruising through on the reputation of “Fight Club.”
This black-comic romp – which imagines a Hell that’s part updated Dante horrors (there’s a Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm and a towering Mountain of Toenail Clippings) and part riff on contemporary annoyances (the two most popular jobs in Hell: telemarketer and Internet porn purveyor). Palahniuk has his clever moments: Each human being is allowed to honk no more than 500 times over the course of a lifetime, with offense No. 501 triggering an automatic condemnation to Hell. And his sarcastic jabs at pretentious rich people are, well, pretty rich. (Madison’s parents keep adopting foreign orphans and turning them into photo ops. And how about that private plane customized with a “green” interior?)
But he’s repetitive, and his prose feels brittle and bitter. His narrator, Madison, sounds like a middle-aged writer congratulating himself on his wit. A late burst of narrative involving Madison and her merry band of friends taking on Hitler and then Hell itself starts entering groan territory. And the ending – so stupid. Palahniuk simply slaps “to be continued.” Is this a set-up for a sequel or an attempt to add yet one more annoyance to an annoying novel? In the end, I could care the Hell less.
“The Rainbow,” by D.H. Lawrence. There’s enough oomph buried within the pages of Lawrence’s sprawling, bold and contemplative novel to power hours of discussion and at least 40 or 50 doctoral theses. (Which I’m sure it already has, and then some.) Is it the most beautiful, the most compelling, the fiercest fount of human insight that I’ve ever read? For me, no. Perhaps I was burdened going in by the “masterpiece” label. Much of its notoriety throughout the years, of course, is because of the lesbian sex – in this case, offered (modestly, at least in 21st Century terms) far into the innards of the storyline.
But “The Rainbow” is more than just a few naughty bits. It’s a frank discussion of sexual dynamics and tensions between the sexes. As Lawrence follows three generations of the Brangwen family, we see time and again the paths of the men and women diverge – the men on the whole far more content to bask in their relatively comfortable standing in life, the women far more angst-ridden as they go up against a mostly dismissive society.
“Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy,” by John Julius Norwich. Norwich is a historian, not a theologian, and he admits he’s pretty much a Protestant agnostic, so there isn’t much veneration in these pages. But neither is there dogmatic mockery. Instead, Norwich simply zeroes in on the powerful and the odd. He hits some of the biggies, from the politically astute Leo I (who successfully negotiated with Atila the Hunt – some say bribed) to the theologically influential John XXIII, who really shook things up. As a historian writing for a non-academic market, it’s also no surprise that Norwich is drawn to the freakish (was there really a Pope Joan, who gave birth to a child while in an ecclesiastical parade?) and the scandalous (Pope Julius III is said to have made his younger male lover a cardinal).
It’s a riveting, rollicking history, and I was fascinated by the dominance of popes for so many centuries as political players who might as well have been secular statesmen jockeying for power.
“A Thousand Splendid Suns,” by Khaled Hosseini. This warm and compassionate novel from the author of “The Kite Runner” is both a tender generational tale and a blistering account of life in contemporary Afghanistan under the Taliban.
We meet Mariam, a bastard 15-year-old married off to 40-year-old Rasheed, who abuses her – especially after she miscarries. In a parallel story that gradually joins with the first, we’re immersed in the high-spirited late childhood of Laila, a smart and funny Kabul teen who dreams of a career ahead of her. Conflict interferes, however, and when Laila’s parents are killed by stray bombs, she is taken in by Rasheed, who then proposes marriage. Laila’s acceptance of that proposal is influenced by the fact she knows she’s pregnant with her boyfriend’s child, and because she believes he is dead, Laila is resigned to her wife as subordinate second wife.
Hosseini’s novel starts slowly, and the transition between the two seemingly separate storylines is awkward. But once Laila joins Rasheed’s household, and the enmity between her and Mariam fades and a true sisterhood begins, it’s easy to get swept up in this emotional and compelling tale. Americans have never known war within their own borders, and they know next to nothing about Afghanistan, so for me this book was an immersive experience.
“Red Mars,” by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’m sure there were scores of readers with an increased interest in Mars after the successful landing of the Mars Curiosity rover. Though Robinson isn’t a brilliant writer, I think he does have brilliant ideas, and I felt willing to occasionally slog through some of his slightly turgid prose and plotting because the subject matter is so fascinating. I’m glad I did. The premise – Earth sends its first permanent colony to Mars in the form of 100 stalwart team members – tickled my notions of settling a new planet. And Robinson’s “science,” which I have no idea is viable or not, gives the exercise an intellectual charge. While his characters and plotting do get a little brittle, I like how the author in this trilogy sets up the arguments on how to develop Mars with very human faces. On one side, those (including the scientist Ann) who want to keep the planet as pristine as possible. On the other, those (including the scientist Sax) who want to completely change its atmosphere by making it warmer and eventually make it possible to breathe on the surface.
Through the first book and the second, “Green Mars,” we wade through a tangle of conflicts, from the fight of the “Mars Firsters” Against the metanational corporations on Earth, which have effectively seized political power, to generational issues involving the original settlers and their offspring. One of the fascinating elements that Robinson uses is an age-extending medical procedure known as the “Treatment,” which effectively means that people can live to 150 years or more. The practical impact of this procedure becomes all too clear on overpopulated Earth, with wealthy people able to afford to live longer and poorer people desperate for the chance.
While I think Robinson has a keen sense of science – or at least science fiction – and an interesting take on politics, I do have to question his economics. By the end of the second book, “Green Mars,” public works spending has exploded, with countless amazing bridges, trains, cities, water projects and other huge investments occurring in seemingly unlimited waves. I understand that Earth sees Mars as the future, and probably as a safety valve, but I just couldn’t buy the idea of unlimited development – much of it seeming to benefit the underground economy – taking place.
Still, it’s a fascinating story, and a pretty good read, if a bit wordy. I’ve held off on finishing up the trilogy with “Blue Mars,” but I plan to soon.