I started yet another book last night, 1491. It’s about Indians prior to Columbus. I love history, and I’ve always been fascinated by Indians. BTW, people are usually surprised to see them referred to that way rather than Native Americans, but of the American Indian writers that I’ve read and the students I’ve had over the years, Indians is the way to go. The 1491 author confirms it.
Anyway, the question is, will I finish it? I’ve started so many books this year and only finished the ones connected to my class, although I did get through a couple for my reading group, neither of which were very good. I only check in with the reading groups infrequently at this point, but they introduced me to a few of my favorites over the last few years, esp. Atonement. So far this year I managed a fairly crappy book by a Canadian author and Arthur and George, which I thought I would like but it ended up being only OK and basically turning me off to Julian Barnes, the author, one of those darlings of critics who….just isn’t that good.
Then I wonder if it’s just the contrast with what I assigned to my class that’s killing everything. Besides Clockwork Orange, they read James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Frankenstein, Heart of Darkness, and Death Comes to the Archibishop. All are so original and tackling such giant issues that fiction as entertainment, or worse, as therapy, ain’t doin’ much for me.
A couple years ago, I started to try to plow through the NY Times top 10 books for a given year, and last year I did pretty well, 6 out of the 10. Honestly, I think I’m kind of dumb for doing this. The Times has plenty of crappy writers and the books are, as you’ll see below, chosen I think more out of loyalty to some former college friend than anything else. But it is fun to be current, and if nothing else, covering some of the Times waterfront means that you can get in some pretty interesting conversations with people who have been schnookered into reading the same damn thing. So here are the Times picks that I managed to read last year:
Veronica. Dennis had turned me on to Mary Gaitskill and bought me a short story collection. (He doesn’t believe that I read most of it, but I did.) I like, don’t love her. The novel resonated because it’s about a former model trying to deal with a good friend dying of AIDS, so… well, no-brainer. Good book, quick read, but kind of a meh when all’s said and done.
Prep. ARGH! What crap. What were they thinking? Dumb book about stupid rich kids. Clearly written by someone who went to the same school as whatever Times knucklehead picked it.
Saturday. This is by one of my boyfriends (Dennis is OK with me having boyfriends as long as they remain unaware of the fact), Ian McEwan. I loved Atonement and knew this one wouldn’t hit that bar. Again, it was OK, but no Atonement. But I do think I would have read it anyway just because I think McEwan’s really, really good.
Kafka on the Shore. I’m really glad I read this one because it introduced me to Murakami, but his short stories are better. Still, this was really lovely and inventive. It made you feel like you were in one of those clean, Zen-looking Japanese rooms with Hello Kitty and that cute frog trying to get in the window. I’d read another by him. Probably the most satisfying of the fiction I read.
On Beauty. Ramona gave this to me for Christmas; I think it’s one of the nicest gifts anyone’s gotten me. She definitely wouldn’t pick this one for herself, and obviously did some research and figured out I’d like it. Ironically, it’s the one I haven’t read yet. I am frankly jealous of Zadie Smith. Woman just writes a sentence and she gets a damn book contract. But I will read it at some point.
The Assassin’s Gate. My, did the spouse yowl when I brought this one in the door, momentarily forgetting that when he began studying politics, he read things from all points of view. I’m actually gladdest I read this book because I disagreed with it the most, and it gave me a better window in the pro-war liberal mindset than anything else probably could have. Self-righteous, manipulative, and one of those books that basically says war is good as long as you do it the way this writer thinks you should do it. He’s another Thomas Friedman. Ew. I currently have a couple of good books on Iraq, and they’re better for the contrast with having read this one. Will report when and if I finish.
Post War. Another spouse provoker. This massive, don’t-drop-it-on-your-foot tome about Post War Europe lost me after one chapter when I realized that, over 1000 pages, the author, Tony Judt, hadn’t included a single footnote or a bibliography. Now maybe he gets to all that within the content, but I thought he was an arrogant prick for not letting me check out his sources on my own. I read approximately one twelfth of it before taking it back to the library.
The Lost Painting. This was a fun, not very well-written book about recovering a long-lost Caravaggio painting. Quick read, and made me realize that this kind of detective work must be very cool if only occasionally rewarding. But I’m mystified that it made any top ten list. Nice content, but really no style.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is on my shelf, borrowed from Lou. See, when they’re not from the library they just sit and sit…Also, the final book of the top 10 is a de Koonig biography, which I still hope to get to.
So far, this year I’ve tried The Places in Between, about Afghanistan and…well, after 3 chapters I had the gist and took it back to the library. Falling Through the Earth was another one of these Times picks from some first time 28 year old and….it’s just not good. It’s got to be the school thing, that’s all I can think of. The Looming Tower has been great so far, and I’ll report when I finish it. I’m also digging Mayflower, but there’s no rush on that at the library, so it’s sitting face down under the coffee table right now and hopefully neither of the cats has barfed on it yet.
On the fiction front, I currently have the Amy Hempel stories, untouched. I started Special Topics in Calamity Physics and think I will hate it (yes, another whippersnapper. I am both jealous of her golden life and annoyed by her lack of polish, even though the poor thing’s only…I don’t, know, 28 or something). I started Absurdistan and it was kind of fun but it reminded of a combination of Borat and a Russian contemporary novel I had just read; I liked the Russian book better, it was all about some guy wandering around train stations while completely drunk on vodka. And what was he looking for? More vodka! I love Russians, they’re completely crazy.
Meanwhile, Becky gave me 2 books that I would love to get to, Freddy and Frederika, and a book by one of the kids forced to be a child soldier in Africa. And Mom recommended M.M. Kaye’s autobio, which looks pretty yummy given that she lived all over the world and wrote possibly the great epic romance, The Far Pavilions. They’re sitting patiently on the bookcase. School’s over soon. I can’t wait to just curl up and read them.