As we’re kicking it Robinson Crusoe style in a remote corner of Panama, I’ve got an unusual amount of time for reading. I brought several books, but I suspect I’ll be through those before we get back (my FOLORM, fear of lack of reading material, is kicking in). Fortunately, there’s a bunch of books here at Punta Laurel, swollen with the humidity. Some of them even look quite promising. There’s a memoir by Nicholas Sparks, for example. Or, if I’m looking for lighter fare, there’s Julia London’s hilariously titled The Hazards of Hunting a Duke.
In any case, I wanted to write some brief blurbs about the books I’d read. I always feel out of my depth when this site touches on literary criticism, but bear with me:
Foreskin’s Lament – A memoir by Shalom Auslander about growing up an orthodox Jew in New York. If you’re a regular listener to This American Life, you’ve probably heard Auslander tell stories of his ultra-conservative upbringing. It’s a quick read, and terrifically funny. Here’s a quick excerpt:
My family and I are like oil and water, if oil made water depressed and angry and want to kill itself, so Orli and I decided to hire a doula to help us with the birth. Her name was Mary, and she came over a few afternoons later to get acquainted.
“We don’t speak to our families,” I said.
“That’s sad,” said Mary.
“Not as sad as when we do,” I said.
Netherland – A masterfully-written novel by Joseph O’Neill. I first head about it via the gang at the Slate Audio Book Club, who fell all over themselves in praising the book. Stephen Metcalf called it “the best English language novel I’ve read in years”. I’d have to agree. It’s an extraordinarily well-observed story of a troubled marriage, post 9/11 New York and a passion for cricket. O’Neill’s writing reminded me of Nabokov more than once. Consider this sentence that opens a chapter early in the book:
As a teenager I often bicycled into the center of The Hague, a half-hour’s effort of pedaling made both more difficult and more pleasant by a girlfriend who, in accordance with local romantic traditions, sat leggily sidesaddle on the rear seat and accepted this modest transportation with a stalwartness that has, I’m sure, stood her in good stead in later life.
Arthur & George – An exhaustively-research biographical novel by Julian Barnes, about Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edallji. The latter is a solicitor wrongfully imprisoned. Doyle takes up his case to try, in Holmesian fashion, to bring about justice. I’m a fan of Barnes (I’d rank A History of the World in 10 and a Half Chapters on my top ten favourite books list), and this book is another example of his adeptness. It’s a long book–over 400 pages of dense biographical detail. It was a bit of a slog at times, but I’d still recommend it.
Utz – I’d really enjoyed Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines and In Patagonia, so I picked up his novella. It’s a tiny thing, 154 pages in a particularly large typeface. It’s the story of a Czechoslovakian collector of antique ceramics, and the fate of his unwieldy collection. The copy on the back cover says it’s “about the possibility of for freedom in an unfree state”, but that’s a bit high-minded. Chatwin was an appraiser for a London auction house in his youth, and you can find his love for and knowledge of antiquities on every page:
Arranged along the longer set of shelves were plates, vases, flagons and tureens. There were tea-caddies of polished redware by the ‘inventor’ of porcelain, Johannes Bottger. There were Bottger tankards with silver-gilt mounts; teapots with ‘Wateau’ scenes; teapots with eagle-headed spouts and teapots painted with goldfish, after Chinese and Japanese models.
The book feels like a first novel, with Chatwin crafting a ditsy plot based on that old advice, “write what you know”. I always skip the decorative arts section of the museum, so I found Utz to be, at best, mercifully short.
Terrorist – I’ve read a bunch of John Updike novels, and was kind of underwhelmed by this one. It’s a character study of a disenfranchised young Muslim teenager who becomes tempted by extremists to sacrifice himself in the name of jihad. I found the depiction of the protagonist overly-simple, and the plot felt pretty implausible in places. Updike is a terrific writer, but I preferred other novels over this one.