Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I read too much

This summer I've been binge-reading at least as much as I've been binge-drinking. When I'm off work there's usually a beer in my hand, a book in my hand, or both.

What follows is a stupid exercise. You can't summarize great books in a few sentences, but I've come to recognize that multi-part reviews aren't very sexy. You get this instead.


Play it As it Lays, by Joan Didion. Superlatives get tired, so when a book is called a classic you figure that's bullshit. This book deserves to be classic. Didion appropriates the allusiveness of Hemingway and predates Carver, she makes Southern California seem more sinister than Short Cuts and Chandler, she writes a brutal and bestial and scorching book about the wreckage of a minor actress who destroys everything she touches. Sometimes saying too much ruins a book. This is a book best appreciated with bourbon on the rocks, a warning, and no advance information.


Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell. I wanted to buy his Cloud Atlas, but I didn't see it in my repeated trips to The Strand, so I picked up his new one instead. It's the story of a thirteen-year-old living in an English village. He has literary aspirations, his parents' marriage is in disarray, he is bewildered and rattled by everything. Mitchell is Britain's hot new writer, but the book doesn't amount to anything very special. He persuasively establishes his narrator without finding any bigger truths. Sometimes that's good enough, and if the book doesn't break new ground, it's enjoyable anyway.

Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky. Here's one of the great might-have-beens: Nemirovsky wrote two novella-length sections of a planned five-part novel about France under Nazi occupation. The first section focuses on elite Parisians fleeing to the countryside at the onset of German occupation, and the second is about French villagers coping with Germans who occupy their town and are boarded in their homes. Nemirovsky wrote amid the occupation, and before she finished the book, she was seized by the Nazis and sent to her death in Auschwitz. Already, she was a major literary figure in France, and her fate adds poignancy to the book's skepticism of elites' acquiescence to the German invaders. The book succeeds in its own terms, but you glimpse the way she planned to mingle her characters and plots, and it's hard not to think that had she lived, she would have written a masterpiece.

The Stranger, by Albert Camus. Dumb to describe one of the 20th Century's great novels in a paragraph, but you'll either read this book or you won't, and my opinion shouldn't mean shit. During the first half, I thought I was reading one of the great books of my life -- a parable about French colonialism in Algeria and the inhumanity it bred. The Plague is one of my favorite books, and if I were in a more ambitious mood, I'd write a post about Camus and Iraq. But I'm not in an ambitious mood.

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro. His most recent book, Never Let Me Go, made me stay up late, fall down backwards, roll around, cry for awhile, swallow my tongue, do 100 push-ups, and paint my apartment black. When We Were Orphans didn't make me do those things, but it's still very good -- the story of a British kid who grows up in Shanghai when suddenly his parents go missing. As an adult he lives in London, where, Bruce Wayne-style, he becomes a socialite and crimefighter. Still obsessed with his parents' disappearance, he returns to Shanghai during its Japanese occupation, believing that he can rescue them. Like Never Let Me Go, it's a story about repression and regret, and an adult who remains obsessed with what happened when he was young.

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst. A big gay Great Gatsby set in Margaret Thatcher's London, Nick Guest leaves Oxford and is taken in by the alluring family of a Conservative Member of Parliament. Nick likes dudes, so he humps a few in the book, but the real fireworks are in Hollinghurst's elaborate descriptions of what's left of London's elite society and the cruel stupidity of Thatcher's politics. Hollinghurst assembles convincing characters and lets them loose. Like Gatsby, it doesn't end pretty.

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. The perfect book to give to your Presbyterian mother or grandmother. But who am I kidding? I don't know why I read it. It's about a Congregationalist minister in Kansas who's dying and writing out the story of his life for his seven-year-old son. Maybe I'm recommending it because it was a thoughtful, moral book, and reading it was like spending time with a really nice old man. If I wrote something unenthusiastic, I'd feel mean, and then guilty.

Not Recommended

Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre. Like The Line of Beauty, this won the Booker Prize, but it's a trainwreck. The author is some kind of Australian drifter who put together a book that reads like a stupid Natural Born Killers and a stupider Elephant. It's a black comedy about a school shooting in Texas. The title character was friends with the shooter. An unscrupulous journalist tries to make his reputation on the story, but then the protagonist flees to Mexico. Heavyhanded hilarity and lots of annoying clamor ensue. Some U.S. reviewers thought the book was anti-American, but I think the writer's slapdash caricatures and broad, clumsy comedy was the product of junk writing more than hatred.


Jeff said...

The only one of these I've read is The Stranger, which I love and is one of my all time faves. I've never read Play It as It Lays, though it has inspired many a convo between me and my girlfriend. She tells me to read it. I make some kind of jerky vaguely misogynistic remark. She then tells me to read it. I go on about the ineptitude of Willa Cather, Emily Dickinson and the Bronte sisters . It goes on. I'm actually sure it's great. I just like messing with her. I'll have to add that to my list. The best book I read this summer was Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. I try to live my life in 1967 at all times.

CrimeNotes said...

I didn't want to go there, but like you, there are few women authors whose work I really appreciate. So many of them are Jane Austen imitators. Play It As It Lays is not that kind of book. I'm convinced that Joan Didion could have taken down Hemingway in a bar brawl. She is bad-ass to the core.

I read Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test when I was a junior in high school. I was too young to know what to do with it, but I loved it, and for the next year a friend and I disturbed enough teachers with our knowledge of the book that we were treated to an impromptu lecture about the dangers of psychedlics. In college I got autographs from Kesey and Mountain Girl when they were passing through. It's time to re-read it, I think.

Jeff said...

Dangers of psychedelics? Hell, if it wasn't for psychedelics I'd prolly be stuck at that summer job at Abercrombie.

CrimeNotes said...

Or else you'd be one far-out shirt salesman.