Thursday, July 09, 2009

My Summer 2008 Reading List





[summer, 2008]

Apologies also for any typos and awkward phrasing.

I have a popularity problem. I saw Titanic the night it opened in Cleveland because I'm a James Cameron fan, but if I hadn't done that, I probably never would have seen the movie. There's something about popularity that makes me leery. I didn't see Iron Man or the fourth Indiana Jones movies when they came out, and so I probably never well. About ten years ago, Junot Diaz's collection of short stories, Drown, came out to great literary praise and fanfare, so for some reason I just had to assume that so many people had to be wrong.

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 Dominican Republic. He's overweight, socially inept, and a ravenous reader of science fiction and fantasy. He plays Dungeons and Dragons and works continuously on a large magnum opus. Oscar is so inept that he can't fit in either world, the Dominican or the white mainstream, but still he plugs ahead, seeking out love and friendship. Oscar's story is narrated by Yunior, Oscar's alter ego, a Dominican with a degree of cool; Yunior befriends Oscar to get closer to Oscar's very attractive sister....

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 United States meeting the Dominican Republic. Better than anyone, Diaz captures the Janus face of the modern immigrants relationship with America. There's the land of potential that you find, but that there's that old history of dictators of your native land, installed or supported by your new homeland that proclaims democracy as its value. There's the land of new possibilities, but there's the tug and comforts of your own culture.

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Márquez's magnified reality; it resides instead in Diaz's language, which combines Spanish, slang, geek phraseology, historical references, and such a sense of rhythm and precision that the voice of the novel, if you like the voice, can hold you on its own.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 New York Times Book Review to open the gate and leave it ajar. The attention continued when he wrote Towing Jehovah. SF writers like to take some common place thinking to test it out. All through the twentieth century there has been talk of the death of God. What does that mean? What if--and What If? is the great sf question--God was actually dead and his body fell to earth. What would be done with it? How would people react? What would happen to religion itself? The questions took two more novels to answer (well, actually to ask more thoroughly). Two years ago, Morrow presented his masterwork, The Last Witchfinder, a novel narrated by Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica. Its story dealt with the key Renaissance conflict between superstition and the Enlightenment.

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 America. Seventeen-year-old Londa Sabacthani has no moral center. Young philosopher Mason Ambrose is hired by Londa's very rich mother to train her daughter's moral sense. The mother tells him that Londa suffered brain damage in an accident, but there's a darker secret (Morrow, while working on this novel, called this his Frankenstein novel). After her education, Londa is unleashed upon the world with her mother's wealth and a determination to set things right. Unfortunately, no one agrees on what's right, and soon she's doing battle with the "feel-good theocracy" of "Corporate Christi." While the novel is written in a kind of modernized and bemused Tristam Shandy/Tom Jones prose, the range of emotions and events is much broader. This novel is laugh out loud funny on one page, moving on another, and amusing throughout (if you can be amused by the sharp edge of satire).

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 Australia. Americans and Brits will tell you it's Peter Carey. Australians will tell you it's Tim Winton. A number of years ago I recommended three novels by Malouf. Start with Remembering Babylon, a short novel set in a small bush town in the nineteenth century. Enter a young man, a sailor who fell overboard and was rescued by a group of aborigines among whom he lived for a while. When he shows up in the town, no one knows who he is, if he's white or black, civilized or savage, and tensions develop when one family takes him in. Follow that with The Great World, Malouf's Tolstoyan masterpiece. It follows the arc of the lives of two men who met in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II and ends up demarcating Australia's shift from a sleepy 19th century outpost to a modern country. And Harland's Half-Acre is Malouf's sleeper, a fine novel about an artist who decides to reside in the wilderness.

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 U.S. I recommend that you read the three parts in the order they first appeared. The richest stories, the ones to read last, are the front of the book. Malouf's approach tends to be reflective. He finds the personal moment that mirrors the larger social milieu, whether it be about a son taking his impossible mother to see Ayer's Rock, a boy on his first hunting expedition, or writer returning to his native city where he is mugged. When I typed out some potential sentences to use in a review, I discovered how much a poet Malouf truly is; each sentence was composed of clear phrasing that was easy to remember, its rhythms quiet but clear.

The next poet comes from England. Seven years ago I listened to an NPR interview with Gerard Woodward, a poet with a degree in anthropology who earned his keep not by teaching anthropology but by filling vending machines at the University of Manchester. His first novel, August, had just come out (but there won't be an American edition until this August), and it traced the lives of the Jones family over a series of Augusts. I liked the novel enough to read the sequel, I'll Go To Bed at Noon, which was short-listed for the Booker and is one of the great novels about alcoholism. Woodward shows cause and effect, ups and downs, and this approach written in plain-seeming rhythmic sentences showed an emerging master. Now the trilogy of the Jones family concludes with A Curious Earth. If August was a wistful family portrait, and I'll Go to Bed at Noon a family tragedy, the new novel is a comedy. Even the opening, in which Aldous Jones, retired and widowed, is living on his own and drinking too much, is full of clever observation. Aldous suffers an accident that puts him in the hospital. Reflecting on his life, he decides he has to live, and his search for an actual life forms the rest of the novel. Woodward is a true anthropologist; the reader is both participant and observer. We catch the insides of Aldous's life and clearly see the lines of fate as he makes his choices. But as Aldous tries to establish relationships with several very different women, the novel takes on a tone different from the other novels, and the effect is delightful.

By the way, if you want to order a book published in Britain that doesn't look like it's coming any time soon to the States, go to Currently they don't charge any shipping.

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 England and became a fine poet (get Approximately, Nowhere out of the Cleveland Public Library). With his knowledge of both German, and the poet's understanding of English, he's turned into a fine translator (judging from reviews and his ability in the target language). Years ago I recommend his translation of Death in Rome, about members of a German family in Rome just after the war, playing out their own private battlefield. This year, I read The Seventh Well by Fred Wander. Wander was born in Vienna, was captured in Vichy France, and escaped 22 detention and concentration camps during the war. He lived in East Germany, but although a novelist, didn't write about his experience in the camps until his daughter died in a mudslide near where Wander lived with his wife. The resulting novel was ignored for years because it appeared behind the Iron Curtain.

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 Brooklyn. His mother was schizophrenic, and 13 year old Bernard saved her from one suicide attempt. His young brother later came down the same malady. Bernard wanted from an early age to become a writer, and Davis does a fine job of following his commitment to writing and how it places a fault line of tensions throughout his life. I skimmed the analyses of the novels, but the rest of the biography was fascinating. Davis agrees with Anthony Burgess and me, that Malamud's two masterpieces are The Assistant and Dubin's Lives. The Fixer is the novel that made Malamud famous (The Natural, a novel I've never warmed to, is the one that kept him fed), and it highlighted how different he was from, and placed him in the shadows of, the innovators, Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth.

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 Ireland. Her stories have the quality of fable but the specificity of actual time and place.

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 Thailand but educated in American creative writing programs, thus his stories have a Thai feel to them but a grace of prose that seems the norm of writers trained in strong graduate programs. Nam Le was born in Vietnam, raised in Australia, and also attended American creative writing programs. His collection of stories The Boat is powerful in different way. Much like David Mitchell, Nam Le is comfortable switching location and style, so we get a story about an adolescent assassin in Columbia or a high school student facing the key bully in small town Australia, and we get two stories with radically different senses of place and culture and language, both written with precise, vivid prose.

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 Melbourne, pawning a watch which belonged to the victim. Three cars are sent to intercept their return, and things go horribly wrong. The nature of Australian racism is exposed for a moment and quickly covered up. For a while, I feared this would be another mystery with a dark and driven character, the kind of novel that James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, and Ian Rankin have almost turned into a cliché--the troubled protagonist who somehow single-handedly solves everything. However, Cashin is truly an exile, both from his job and himself, and he's busy trying to put his own life together. Temple turns out to be a magnificent writer of landscape and townscape, and he uses clipped sentences to marvelous effect. The novel becomes a headlong page turner in the last third, and it's great fun, but almost a shame.

I read Temple's first novel, Bad Debts, and it features Jack Irish, a lawyer and a gambler (he bets on horses). The gambling scenes I skimmed, but the rest, about a large conspiracy, I read quite quickly with full readerly attention. I'll read more in the series this summer.

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 (Gorky Park, Havana Bay, Wolves Eat Dogs) and pleasant time consumers. Stalin's Ghost falls in between these two poles. Renko investigates a case that forces him to confront Stalin's legacy in these days of mobster capitalism when Stalin begins to look like a hero again.

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 Yuma," the basis for two movies of the same title, and I enjoyed Leonard's succinct, effective story telling.

Another thriller is the historical novel, Winter in Madrid, by C.J. Sansom. It's 1940, and Harry Brett, shell-shocked from Dunkirk, is asked by the British Government to go to Spain. The Spanish Civil War is over, and Franco's ruthless dictatorship has taken over. The Brits fear that Franco will ally himself with Germany in the ongoing war, and they want to make sure Franco remains more or less neutral. Brett's job is to hook up with an old school friend who has interesting business relations with the fascist government and find out what's going on. The novel moves right along (Cindy Cookinham's husband read it quickly), and Sansom has a historian's sense of time and place. The novel is quite evocative of a war torn Madrid.

The two books that moved me most were by Manuel Rivas, a famous writer in Spain but virtually unknown in the States (both novels are published by Overlook press). Rivas' first novel is called In the Wilderness, but it's actual title translates more as Among Wild (or uncivilized) Company. In brief chapters written as prose poems with the feel of folk tales, we follow the lives of several villagers as the town they grow up in changes from a land of the 19th century to the twenty-first. Commenting on all these events are former oppressors re-incarnated as animals. It's truly a magical novel, meant to be read bit by bit, not in one headlong rush.

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 Barcelona in the late 1940's. His follow up novel, El Juego del Angel, is now out from Vintage Books, and once my ISAACS report is in, I'm picking up my electronic Spanish-English dictionary and am going to disappear. I expect the English translation will be out sometime within the next year.

Happy Summer! Happy Reading!

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