Thursday, January 17, 2008

My most recent 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.

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 Chile, spent his adolescence in Mexico City (skipping school, stealing books and watching movies), and returned to Chile to support the Allende revolution. He was barely there a month when the U.S. supported military coup took place. Bolaño was arrested and perhaps only survived because one of the policeman was a childhood friend. Bolaño ended up touring revolutionary Central America, and finally wound up in Spain, where he did a number of odd jobs until he married. A poet, he came to the same conclusion that Thomas Hardy did. To support a family, he had to write prose. He wrote a series of short novels and short stories (I praised Distant Star and the wonderful must-read collection Last Evenings on Earth last year). Then he made it big in 1998 with The Savage Detectives, which I read last year in Spanish, and this year in English, and which I recommend with all my heart.

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 Mexico City. In 80 brief pages (well 150, in the Spanish edition) we get this wonderful recreation of that time in late adolescence when we wander city streets, discover sex, and talk about literature as if it reveals the entire world. Something will happen, and four of these characters will flee to the Sonoran Desert in search of a woman poet who disappeared after the Mexican revolution. But we won't find out what happens until the last section of the book. In between, there are a series of vignettes; some 54 or so different narrators piece together the next two decades of Latin American diaspora as we follow what happens with two of the poets that the orphan hooks up with. Some of this long middle section will seem a little slow for readers accustomed to the way plot drives everything forward in popular fiction, but almost every section has its own interest, its own way of grabbing our attention. The Savage Detectives ends up dramatizing a range of emotions and lives against a wide social background, and in Latin American fiction it's considered almost as important a book as One Hundred Years of Solitude. Read the first ten pages. If you enjoy them, you'll love this book. And you'll end up reading anything you can by Bolaño.

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 Chile.

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 London now with his white, upper crust wife, a leading journalist, and he earns his keep as a translator in demand for his knowledge of numerous minority languages of Africa. He also has done special work for the British Secret Service. But one day he's asked to go on a special assignment. He will translate at a meeting brining together the key leaders in the Congo to meet with key western financiers. He thinks what's proposed will save the day, that the leading revolutionary will end up helping the Congo. What he discovers forces him to reconsider everything he's accepted about life and his place in the world.

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 America who owned slaves. I was never sure if the novel was popular because of its subject matter or its treatment--plus it was long. On my way to pick up Andy at college for winter break, I listened to James Peter Francis read the first story, "In the Blink of God's Eye." It begins in 1901 Washington D.C. with a wife whose heard news that wolves roam the streets at night, and from there travels back and forth in time, creating a portrait of both the region and the couple. Edward P. Jones turns out to be the Alice Munro of African-American literature, using personal details to create a social panorama, 30 pages stories that leave you with the feeling of novels. Try the next story and "Bad Neighbors."

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 England, even to satisfy my sixth sense. So now the novel is available in the states, and once again the sense has paid off.

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 Norway by the river and the Swedish border. On the surface, the story involves a son helping his father with a scheme to fell enough wood in the area to make some much needed money, but this simple endeavor also involves a neighboring family and complex relationships that the young man doesn't understand at all. The novel, if you read a chapter a night, feels like a comfortable coming of age novel with some fine descriptions of nature, but if you sit down and read it all during a long afternoon, the various threads of the novel twine together creating a novel that steadily increases in power and interest, even though there's very little that's designed in the story to generate suspense (except for one great chapter set during the days of the Norwegian resistance during WW II). Once you're finished, reread chapter one, and that quiet, innocuous chapter, once you know everything, will break your heart.

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 Paris Review. But in the 60's and 70's, he was also known for finding opportunities to play professional sports and writing about those fish out of water moments. His fist such book was Out of My League: The Classic Hilarious Account of an Amateur's Ordeal in Professional Baseball.

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 Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-1945 to be absolutely riveting.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf was one of the largest naval battles ever fought. Thomas follows four naval leaders, two Japanese, two American, from Pearl Harbor to this battle, which takes over a third of the book to recount. Thomas does a great job of capturing the social attitudes on both sides of the war. He creates such empathy for his characters, and he captures the confusion and mistakes that are part of fighting a war. I was going to read just a quarter of the book to see if it was appropriate for a seventh grade reading list, but I couldn’t put the book down. Night after night I opened it up to find out what happened at Leyte Gulf.

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 Essex.

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.

Last spring, I did read and love and forget to tell you about Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness. Naomi is a 16 year old Mennonite growing up in a traditional community with a disappearing family. The voice is tender and funny. Imagine Salinger with a heart.

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 Mississippi during freedom summer. For background, I discovered Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by John Dittmer. It's a very readable narrative history of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, starting with the squashed efforts after World War II, and leading to the success of Freedom Summer.

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 Libya under the reign of Moammar Gaddafi. At the beginning of the novel his best friend's father has been taken away by revolutionary forces cleaning Libyan life of traitors, and those same men are now keeping a close eye on his father. Suileman only half understands what goes on as he tries to live the life on a kid in a world with no room for play.

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 Cleveland, has (ghost) written the memoirs of Deborah Rodriguez to produce The Kabul Beauty School. I read a few chapters in draft form, and Kris's prose is absolutely riveting; it captures Rodriquez's brashness as she copes with the poverty and cultural contradictions of post war Afghanistan.

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.


Anonymous Gregory Feeley said...

Like Charlie, I teach middle school (although I am between gigs right now) and manage to read next to no fiction during the school year. I also indulge the cute idea of alternating contemporary and "classic novels." (I don't know whether I have kept to this plan, because I end up reading too little.)

I have a few issues of the New Yorker containing Bolano stories stashed away, on the theory that I am likelier to find time to read some short fiction. Does that count?

If I start ranting about how the solution to all this is novellas, tell the bartender to cut me off.

6:57 AM  

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