Monday, August 15, 2011
Thursday, July 09, 2009
My Summer 2008 Reading List
SUMMER READING LIST
Apologies also for any typos and awkward phrasing.
I have a popularity problem. I saw Titanic the night it opened in
About a year ago, Rodney Peppers, a local writer (if he keeps writing, you'll end up hearing him about from people more important than me), mailed me two Diaz stories and said I had to read them. I did, and I was bowed over. So the minute Diaz's first novel came out, I snapped it up. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the great novel of modern immigration.
Oscar is the son of a woman who fled the
But this is just not Oscar's story. It's also the story of his sister, of Yunior, and most importantly, Oscar's mother and the cursed star the family lives under. The curse is really that of Europe meeting the Caribbean, of the
Diaz can narrate with much of the skill of Gabriel García Marquez, but the magic here isn't Márquez's magnified reality; it resides instead in Diaz's language, which combines Spanish, slang, geek phraseology, historical references, and such a sense of rhythm and precision that the voice of the novel, if you like the voice, can hold you on its own. Much like Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, which I recommended last year, this is a novel where you can read the first five pages and know if you want to hang out for the rest.
Speaking of Bolaño, New Directions has published a translation of Bolaño's first important work of fiction, Nazi Literature in the Americas. It's a mock encyclopedia of right wing writers, a This Is Spinal Tap for literary types, with entries on everyone from Argentine poets to American sf writers, all of whom to varying degrees support the unsupportable. Some entries are short, wry. Others are long and take on the heft and weight of short stories. This is the work of fiction (you can't really call it a novel) that introduces Bolaño's great theme--art can galvanize the individual, but art is not the salvation of anything.
Let's continue the irreverent tone and move onto satire. The great modern American satirist, of course, has been Kurt Vonnegut, who started off as a science fiction writer because sf gave him the tools to talk about he world at large. When Vonnegut realized sf would lead him into a ghetto where the keepers of literature locked the gates and threw away the key, he stopped calling his work sf.
James Morrow started off as a satirist, but unlike Vonnegut, Morrow took the work of speculation seriously. Morrow no longer looked like a guy using fantasy to make a comment on today (academia accepts that). He looked like he was writing the real stuff, and it didn't matter how philosophical his work was, it looked sf enough to lock those gates.
He had to write about the second coming of Christ (as a woman) in His Only Begotten Daughter for the
After all this heavy lifting, The Philosopher's Apprentice has the feel of a lark. Written in a rich, witty prose, this is the most Vonnegutian of Morrow's novels, satirizing every sacred cow in modern
Now, switching subjects with no good transition: You could make a study out of poets who become better known as prose writers. Thomas Hardy is the most famous. Roberto Bolaño follows in his footsteps. David Malouf is another. I hold that Malouf is the greatest living writer in
This week in paperback, you can buy Malouf's Complete Stories. Actually it's a omnibus of three short story collections, two of which have never appeared before in the
The next poet comes from
By the way, if you want to order a book published in
The next poet is really a translator. All of us, I'm certain, follow the careers of certain writers. I've ended up following the career of a translator. Michael Hofmann,, the son of a noted German novelist, grew up in
The Seventh Well a very fine novel. Written in vivid language, each chapter focuses on a character or theme. Its overarching drama is the collaborative act of survival, so it's a novel of resistance rather than a laundry list of human evil. Wander is a master of capturing human gestures, so even the most brutal action can be seen in human context, so we can plainly understand how actual people could have perpetrated such heinous acts. I now want to read more by Wander, but I fear this will be the only novel of his to be published in English.
I don't read biographies often, and I fear reading biographies of writers I like. Very often people are wiser in their books than in their lives, and I don't want to doubt that wisdom. However, sometimes a writer fascinates me, and reading a good biography turns out very often to have the same feel as reading one of their novels. Somehow their fiction was their life. I found this to be true of Ross Macdonald, the mystery writer, when I read Tom Nolan's very fine biography. This year Joyce Carol Oates made a big deal about Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life by Philip Davis. Malamud grew up in a stressful environment--he was the son of a Jewish grocer living in an Irish Catholic neighborhood of
On a much smaller scale, Stewart O'Nan's Last Night at the Lobster is a moving portrait of every day people on the day when their place of employment, a New England Red Lobster, closes down. Manny Deleon, the protagonist, is a modest, necessary hero. This is a short novel, and it has all the strengths (and a few of the weaknesses) of a well made independent film.
Let's move to the small scale of the short story. One of the best books on writing I've read is Ron Carlson Writes a Short Story which tells step by step how he wrote "The Governor's Ball." This is a "how you go about writing" book, and it recounts all the right choices you can make if you want to sit down and write a story. In fact, if you pick up Carlson's selected stories, A Kind of Flying, you'll discover that Carlson's how-to book is just another Ron Carlson short story. Carlson is an optimist, but he understands why life can look so shadowed and dark, so even in a story about a happily married couple trying to have a baby, he can portray the potential for collapse. Carlson's story are energetic and sometimes outrageous ("Bigfoot Stole My Wife.")
I gave the very handsome British edition of Claire Keegan's Walk the Blue Fields to Bill Johnson for Christmas; at the end of June you can get the book in trade paperback in the States. It's a wonderful collection. Keegan writes a pared down, highly charged prose. Imagine the emotional honesty of Alice McDermott wedded to the writing style of Raymond Carver, then set it in rural
Some more short stories. I won't go into length about Junot Diaz's Drown, but if you like Oscar Wao, you'll like these stories. Diaz is a master of using small moments, such as a family fathering, to find social fault lines. His stories are riveting.
Several years ago I recommended Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, a young man raised in
I've missed Australia since I worked there for six weeks back in 1999, and to return I read Peter Temple's The Broken Shore. Joe Cashin is a big city detective living his life out in exile, working for the small town police department where he grew up. He spends his extra hours rehabilitating an old family home and dealing with his family's issues. A prominent citizen is murdered. Word makes it to the small town police. Three aborigines were in
Keeping up the high end thrillers, I also read the new novel by Martin Cruz Smith. His mysteries featuring Russian police detective Arkady Renko seemed to alternate between powerful novels that transcend the genre (
Elmore Leonard is known as a great American crime writer, a writer of a pared down prose style that pleases both readers and college professors. His sense of plot is too out of control for my tastes, but on a whim, I picked up one of his early novels. Leonard started off writing westerns before the genre went bust in the early 1960's. The novel I selected, Hombre, is wonderfully short, 180 pages, reminding us of those days when you could pick up a genre novel after dinner and finish it before the evening news. The novel starts off tense as a number of different people need to catch the last stage out of a dying town, and it ends in a tightly written climax.
I enjoyed Hombre so much that I picked up The Collected Western Stories of Elmore Leonard. I started a third of the way through with "3:10 to
Another thriller is the historical novel, Winter in
The two books that moved me most were by Manuel Rivas, a famous writer in
Manuel Rivas' second novel is a masterpiece. The Carpenter's Pencil at first seems one more novel about all the people rounded up by Franco after the Spanish Civil War, another novel about victims. But no, the viewpoint character in this novel is one of the prison's guards, Herbal, who wears behind his ear the pencil of a left wing artist he had shot. The ghost of the artist speaks to Herbal, much like a conscience, and the guard struggles between his brute nature and his artist's conscience to try to preserve the life of a doctor who is marked for death.
That's plenty for know. Several years ago I made a big deal about Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón wonderfully involving story set in
Happy Summer! Happy
Labels: Bernard Malamud, Claire Keegan, David Malouf, Fred Wander, Gerard Woodward, James Marrow, Junot Diaz, Manuel Rivas, Michael Hofmann, Nam Le, Peter Temple, Roberto Bolaño, Ron Carlson, Stewart O'Nan
Thursday, January 17, 2008
My most recent reading list
SUMMER READING LIST
Please note: this was written Wednesday night after graduation, between the hours of 8:30 and 1:00 am and proofread at 7:15 am the same Thursday morning, so please forgive typos and strange sounding word arrangements. For teachers who read, summer is a great time. You can stay late up until the night finishing that book that refuses to be put down. You have the energy to concentrate on those novels that demand more of you as a reader. I think of several books I've read in the past year, and they are great works that reward intensive reading.
For teachers who read, summer is a great time. You can stay late up until the night finishing that book that refuses to be put down. You have the energy to concentrate on those novels that demand more of you as a reader. I think of several books I've read in the past year, and they are great works that reward intensive reading.
Of course, some people like to say, all I want is a story, a good story.
And this issue of storytelling raises some great issues. Reviewers all the time talk of certain writers as being great storytellers: Grahame Greene, John Le Carré, Stephen King, Michael Connelly. But often what we really mean is that these people know how to take easy to tell tales--tales involving ghosts, cops, spies--and tell them better than anyone else. It's easy to be a great storyteller when you have the anti-ADD subject matter to start with.
But let's say you want to tell the story of a 17 year old orphan. He lives with his aunt and uncle. He wants to be a poet, but he promises his caregivers that he'll be a lawyer. He goes up to bed that night and cries. He then goes to law school, but in secret starts attending a poetry workshop.
I'm not writing about spies or monsters, though the guy who runs the poetry workshop turns out to be someone of a egotistical creature, but already the story has taken the nature of thwarted desires and secret gatherings to hold the reader's interest. What do you call someone who takes the elements of every day life and relates them in such a way that we read on, riveted to the page?
A master storyteller. And that brings us Roberto Bolaño, one of the greatest writers I've discovered in the past few years. Bolaño was born in
It starts with the orphan I described above, who gives up the study of law to hang out with a bunch of rag tag poets in the streets of
An interesting side note: the British reviewers prefer this big magnificent book to his short novels. The American reviewers prefer his short novels, particularly At Night in
The same disparity has happened with other of my favorite writers. The British reviewers like David Mitchell's early, dazzling, wide-canvass novels, Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas. American reviewers preferred his more traditional, coming of age novel Black Swan Green. And American reviewers didn't see much to see in John Le Carré The Mission Song while the English reviewers saw a wonderful bildungsroman. As you may predict, I'm more with the British reviewers.
Bruno Salvador is the orphan product of a love affair between a Congolese woman and a Catholic missionary. He lives in
The novel takes a while to build up a head of steam, and it doesn't have the moral complexity of early Le Carré. His early novels dealt with the ambiguities of the war against communism. In the name of the final good, people commit evil acts, which creates a powerful moral resonance. In his later novels, the question changed. Now that we've saved the world from communism, who'll save it from capitalism? Bruno learns what most of us know: the saints of capitalism are only saints in public; the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the road from hell is lined with rewards for the proper investments. The line between good and evil is less ambiguous in late Le Carré. He has gone from middle age conservative to angry old man, and this new novel shines with the earned wisdom of his anger as well as his narrative skills and his ease with language.
Sometimes I spend a lot of time struggling with how much time I want to commit to a writer. Years ago I read Richard Powers' wonderful Galatea 2.2 and thought I was going to end up a Richard Powers' fan. The next two books I chose were hard going, and I gave up. Powers the man of ideas was often at war with Powers the narrator. His new novel, The Echo Maker, seemed like a good place to start again. Powers the idea man wants to look at what makes us human as research shows us how easily we change once the chemistry of our brain changes. The notion of a central soul that's our true self has taken a beating by the discoveries of modern neurology. Some of what Powers tries to do feels second hand; if you've read Oliver Sacks, the novel doesn't seem all that cutting edge. But the story of a truck driver who, after an accident, thinks that his sister is no longer his sister, but an impostor, is an involving story, and the second half of the novel gains in resonance as Powers lectures less and dramatizes more. Read the opening pages, and you'll know if this is a novel for you.
Edward P. Jones seemed to be one of those writers that I'd have to get around to one of these days. His first novel, The Known World, was about an African-American in antebellum
I have a sixth sense that often helps me find good books. I remember the way David Lodge's Nice Work stared at me from the library book shelves or how the Maude translation of War and Peace kept calling for attention when I wrote at my grandmother's over the summer. For the past year, Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses has caught my attention, but the dollar has shrunk so much that I no longer risk ordering books from
Out Stealing Horses starts just before the millennium. A 67 year old man, who considers himself an old man now, has moved to the country to live on his own. A meeting with a neighbor causes him to think back to 1948, when he was 15 and lived with his father one summer in rural
Now I'm a Per Petterson fan, and I'm reading To Siberia, his second novel, and his first translated into English, about a brother and sister in a small Norwegian town during the Nazi occupation. Next up is In the Wake, a novel about a writer dealing with the death of loved ones in a major ferry accident. Per Petterson's great theme is about living on after fate sends you one of its telegrams, reminding you that no matter how well you live your life, you have no control over life itself. His vision is complex but never despairing. There's a richness to these lives that make them worth living, but Petterson never shies away from those things that make life so hard.
In English 7, we started a unit on narrative nonfiction this year, so Nate Burch and I had to read a bunch of books to develop a reading list.
George Plimpton is probably best remembered as a founder and life-time editor of the
Plimpton suggested to the editor of Sports Illustrated that the best way to know what it was like to pitch for Major League baseball was to actually pitch and then write about it. He makes a deal to pitch before the start of an All-Star game and prepares for it with all the dedication of the average seventh grader (meaning he practiced once or twice). He steps up to the mound and faces greats of the day such as Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. The opening chapters are a bit over-written and the language becomes plainer once Plimpton starts pitching. Always amusing, some of this book is laugh-out-loud funny. If you like this, you can find Plimpton's books on training with the NFL and NHL.
I found Evan Thomas's
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was one of the largest naval battles ever fought. Thomas follows four naval leaders, two Japanese, two American, from
The book that moved me most this year was True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman. A novelist and memoir writer, Saltzman was asked to teach a class of teenage criminals. He hesitated. Why should he help boys who’ve done terrible things? But he’s drawn in by their writing and their humanity. He’s a fish out of water, uncertain how to talk or work with them, so we read quickly to find out how well Salzman will handle difficult situations. The book captures a terrible moral conflict: these kids have grown up in terrible situations and they face incredible trials, but they’ve also done terrible things (most of the students Salzman taught with are in jail for murder). Some of this novel is quite funny and some of it is heartbreaking.
When we divvied up books to read, Nate Burch, my colleague, chose a bunch of the famous ones. He loved Seabiscuit, as did Mark Krieger and April, and he couldn't put it down. He was also taken in by Devil in the White City, which has inspired both David Wright and Dick Parke to try and enlarge this book's readership. Finally, at Ian Craig's suggestion, he read and liked, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship
At this point, you can argue, quite fairly that there aren't enough books by women on this list. I wanted to read the new Alice Munro and the new Alice McDermott, but I just haven't gotten around to them. Those will be two summer time joys.
For a year now, I've conducted a series of interviews with Abe Osheroff, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, and a radical activist since he was 16. To supplement our conversations, I did a bunch of reading, and discovered several titles that I would like to pass on.
Abe grew up in Brownsville, a poverty stricken Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, the compost heap that not only produced Murder, Incorporated, but also produced the initial members of the Celtics, Danny Kaye, Joseph Papp, and Alfred Kazin. In the 1950's Kazin wrote an account of returning to his old neighborhood and the memories it evokes. A Walker in the City is a wonderful recounting of a youth, of a neighborhood he couldn't wait to leave, of a place he longed to return to.
There are hundreds of books about the Spanish Civil War. In 1936, three generals staged a rebellion against the democratically elected government. Immediately the rebellion was supported by Hitler and Mussolini, making the civil war the dress rehearsal for World War II. A recent synthesis on the war is the very readable The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 by Antony Beevor. Beevor is a rabid anti-communist, and this slant hinders his judgments. Because the left has romanticized the Republic, he sets out to destroy every pillar of idealism holding up that romantic theater, but he doesn't weigh in as much on the house of horrors built by the fascists. However, the historical detail is so rich I highly recommend it with this important caveat.
In 1964, Abe raised $20,000 to build a community center for an African-American community in
I want to quickly mention Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell. Ree Dolly takes care of her two brothers and his ailing mother in the rural Ozarks. Her father has been arrested and has jumped bail. The bank will reposes the house if doesn't find her father. Ree is a great character, and the language evokes a sense of place and a vibrant culture. I didn't like the resolution to the novel--it seemed like much ado about nothing--but the road to the end is quite engaging.
Another book that captures time and place with great ease is Hisham Matar's Booker short-listed In the Country of Men. Nine year old Suileman is growing up in
Finally, a plug for some local writers:
Kris Ohlson, who wrote Stalking the Divine, a mix of memoir and reportage, a look at the Poor Clares in
Thrity Umrigar's third novel is now out: If Today Be Sweet. Again, I only know the book through a few chapters I read in draft form, but the looks at the complexities of a marriage between an Indian man and his American wife when the Indian mother-in-law comes to stay.