In the fall, I'm going to be starting my third year of a three-year master's degree program. A doctoral degree isn't out of the question, but in all likelihood, this is the very last school year I'm ever going to experience... which makes this the very last summer I'm ever going to have. Ever.
With that comes the death of a summer pastime of mine: blitzing through books. I read one or two books, fiction or nonfiction, over the course of a school year, but I'm so flippin' busy they take months to get through. But over a summer, I can take down five, six, seven, or eight and enjoy every minute of them. Last summer, I read: >> Never Let Me Go >>Arthur & George >> The Remains of the Day >> Saturday >> Atonement >> Specimen Days, and>> The Ruins. It felt good.
Here I am, embarking on my final summer reading blitz. I'm going to chronicle it. I'm halfway through my first installment; the rest are on deck, waiting to be read. The progress/plan so far:
1) What is the What? by Dave Eggers.I'm about halfway through this one, and so far, it's absolutely great. I'd tried to read other Eggers books but never finished them. Eggers writes another man's memoir--the title page literally reads, The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, by Dave Eggers. The subject matter is the real deal: Achak Deng is one of the much-discussed "lost boys of the Sudan," and his story is potent stuff. 6/15/07 UPDATE. Finished What is the What? It's wonderful. Eggers' voice is so clear, so honest--his story comes through with incredible clarity, but it's not without poetry. Moving, sad, morally provocative stuff. Highly recommended.
2) Jamestown, by Matthew Sharpe. This one's up next. From what I understand, it's a novelization of the story behind the colony and its founders, but all told in some sort of crazy post-modern mode with a vaguely contemporary setting (they arrive, for instance, by bus, and they don't come from England--they come from a bombed-out New York City.) 6/23/07 UPDATE: Finished Jamestown. Excellent stuff. Admittedly, I wasn't entirely prepared for the approach Sharpe takes; this is truly, deeply irreverent material, hyper-hard and vlugar. It's a super-cynical fantasy vision of a defeated, ugly North American world repeating history. Some things never change, the author seems to suggest--we're just as capable of allowing our inability to relate to other cultures destroy us now as 17th century colonists were (almost too obvious a point; turn on the news). Running beneath all the blood, mud, and bad words, though, is a luminous little current of humanity. They talk smack to each other and don't last long, but between grizzled Johnny Rolfe and a certain native princess, there's a lustful romance that's bursting with its own optimism.
3) The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson. This is a nonfiction work about one of the last big cholera outbreaks in England--an 1854 spasm that wiped out a neighborhood.The book focuses on two guys--a brilliant, sleuthy physician, and a local clergyman with his finger on the pulse of the neigborhood--who teamed up and figured out how cholera spread (not by vapours inherent to poor neighborhoods, but by an organism-to-organism contaigion). I'm about 1/3rd of the way through. It's exciting and informative. UPDATE: 6/29/07 Finished. This is an easy book to recommend to anyone with an interest in public health, Victorian England, nasty diseases or deadly mysteries. It is, for the most part, an engrossing non-fiction mystery: the guys at the center of the epidemic's investigation pulled off an amazing feat of logic, persistance, and science. Author Johnson wanders a bit, but his writing is always poetic and impassioned, and the subject matter so compelling it's hard to fault him.
4) The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth. UPDATE: 7/3/07 Finished. The setup for Roth's amazing novel is this: in 1940, running to oppose Democratic incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt's bid for a third term, aviator extraordinare, admirer of Adolf Hitler and noted anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh runs for and wins the US presidency. His campaign strategy? Roosevelt and his Jewish supporters are warmongers; vote for Lindbergh or vote for bloodshed. As if that weren't an ambitious enough premise for novel, consider how Roth tells it. The Plot Against America is told as a straight memoir of his childhood, growing up (as the author really did) Jewish in Newark New Jersey, an 8 year old with a hardworking mother, a passionate dad, and a talented brother. Amazingly, it's a perfectly convincing recollection, filled with all the rich details ofchildhood a busy blue-collar neighborhood. It's all here: the complicated relatives, the odd neighbors, success at school, family vacations. Looming over it all, however, is a terrifyingly plausible reality. By 1942, America is a peaceful nation, alright, but Nazi dignitaries dine as guests at the White House, folksy programs of cultural assimilation divide and dilute Jewish communities, and rebellious American youth defect to Canada and enlist to fight Hitler The most commanding presence in the story? Fear. It permeates everything, not least of which, the little American families unsure of their future in a country which fears and hates them because of their ancestry. It's a powerful, sad, impressive work about American culture, the politics of the 20th century, and the Jewish American family experience.
5) The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I'm a McCarthy virgin. I've always planned on reading Blood Meridian, but never got around to it. The Road came out just a year or two ago, and it's been on my list. It deals with a man and a child, wandering across a war torn landscape; there's a theme emerging in my selections, maybe. UPDATE: 7/14/07 Finished The Road. This is a good one; difficult, though, to absorb at first. McCarthy's writing is impressively spare. It's a streamlined use of words which suits this work, in particular, in how suitably it echoes the titular path and its surrounding landscape: this is a world utterly blasted to the bone. Appropriately, the author never presents a bird's eye view of his premise. The backstory remains as big a mystery to us as it does to the protagonist man and his son. Like the wandering pair, we don't know precisely what has lead to this nasty scene, or exactly where the story is taking place... but it's not difficult to guess that it's an America leveled by firey warfare on an atomic scale. The result feels more like a meditation than a novel--The Road is less a story arc than a poem. The poetic themes? Questions, really. What do life, and familial love,look like against a backdrop of unspeakable death? How do social creatures retain themselves in a world where society has toppled away? How stubbornly do we cling to hope? Finally, it's impossible to read The Road and not pause, periodicaly, to consider how implausible human holocaust is. There's something naggingly prophetic about this book.
6) Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje. UPDATE 7/19/07 Finished Divisadero. This novel, by the author of The English Patient, was a needed change of pace. I realized I'd read 5 books dealing, in some way or another, with human apocalypse and lives overturned on a massive scale. I was craving a down-to-life story. Divasadero, set largely in my home stomping grounds of Northern California, was a swell antedote. The book's numerous threads and characters are difficult to summarize, but on the whole, Ondaatje's narrative springs from the experiences of two sisters--Anna and Claire--and an ill-fated sexual experiment one shares with a farmboy in their teenage years. The sisters grow into adults, live lives in different corners of the world, one eventually settling down to study the work of an obscure French poet with demons of his own. Divisadero spans several decades, several wars, and ultimately, several broken hearts; at the end of the day, it's a terribly sad peek into the bonds that fail us, and how we reflect on them. The author is also obsessed, it seems, with regional atmosphere--California farm life, Nevada desert culture, rural France; they're all mined for careful, evocative details. Did I mention that Ondaatje's prose is crazy good? The man is a poet.
7) On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan. UPDATE 7/23/07 Finish On Chesil Beach. Hot damn, this is good. With Saturday, Atonement, and now On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan has become one of my favorite authors, if not my very favorite. The premise? The narrative itself describes only a few hours in the lives of protagonists Edward and Florence, young English kids on their wedding night at a seaside hotel. In the opening lines, we're given the essence of the novel's content: they're an educated, pleasant, gentle pair, and both are virgins.Edward doesn't know what he's doing, and Florence, though madly in love, isn't just nervous about sex--the thought revolts her. Suffice to say, a heavy air of dread permeates each page. How bad, you wonder, is this going to go? In On Chesil Beach, McEwan does with perfection what he managed so slickly, if a little unevenly, in Saturday (also a great book): he takes a single episode in his characters' lives, a simple event, and predicts--correctly--that examining it closely will reveal worlds of insight about these people. It's a process he manages in reverse, so to speak. McEwan fills the pages with bits and pieces that convey with incredible clarity how Edward, or Florence, is thinking, and why--it's little bits of personal history, or a remembrance of mom, or school, that provides a growing picture of a human being that rings so true, the story's unsettling events come into crystal focus by book's end. On Chesil Beach is a relentlessly close view of how people work... or, rather, the different, complex ways in which we work, and how even the subtlest variations between two individuals can brew terrible pain.
8 ) In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick. I'm working on this nonfiction examination of thewhaleship Essex, a vessel from Nantucket that was apparently oblliterated by a pissed-off sperm whale in 1821. Its survivors learned a very hard lesson about the formidable forces of nature.
X) Libra, by Don Dellilo.I've decided to take on Delillo's 1988 novelization of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald. UPDATE: POSTPONED. I realized that I didn't have a great shot of finishing Dellilo's dense tome before I have to get back to heavy work in August, so despite finding the first 40 or so pages pretty engaging, I'm putting Libra on hold--probably until next year.
Any additional suggestions? Read on, folks! Read on.