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.