Saturday, September 06, 2008

Books That Made Me Happy This Summer

This post is supposed to be about what a pathetic summer
it has been in book selling. Sales were sluggish, the election stole away media coverage from books, there were no blockbusters, Kindle this, Kindle that, blah, blah, blah. I'm sure most of you could fill in your own depressing financial details.

My various titles for this entry included, "Summer: The Season That Wasn't," "The Dismal Season," "Where's Harry Potter When You Need Him?" and "Doesn't Anybody Read Around Here?" My abandoned lead paragraphs quoted T.S. Eliot, took potshots at Dick Cheney, bemoaned the Phillies season (hey, they are only two games out, despite not hitting), likened the AmazonKindle to kindling and even asked for readers to come and volunteer at the store until sales picked up.

No matter what I wrote, my finger kept pressing that delete key. The truth is that I'm just not that down about books right now despite the wounded economy and the mind-numbing Presidential race. I had an amazing summer of reading new and old titles. Many of my vacation days were spent sprawled out on beaches and couches enthralled by the prose of John Updike, Richard Bausch, Michael Frayn, P.G. Wodehouse and Rivka Galchen.

Even when I wasn't on vacation, I found myself running home to read after work. I read snippets of novels while walking down the street (that drives my wife insane), tying my shoes, cooking dinner and eating breakfast.

How could I write a depressing blog when there's just so much literature out there that invigorates me? How could I only dwell on the negative when books have been my sustenance for the past three months? I couldn't. Instead, I'll talk about what books I love and hopefully inspire someone out there to pick up a book (preferably at the Boulder Book Store) and read.

I've added a couple of lists to the left-hand side of the blog. I figure it's about time I learn how to use these fancy Blogger features. After all, I'm supposed to lead a seminar on how to blog at the regional independent booksellers show in a couple of weeks.

The first list is my favorite novels since 2000. The usual suspects are to be found, including Philip Roth, Zadie Smith and Ian McEwan, but hopefully a few of the more obscure picks like Percival Everett, Susan Choi and Judson Mitcham will spark some interest. The second is an annotated list of my favorite books of 2008 that also includes a few surprise picks, including the fantastic memoir by Michael Greenberg (I usually don't go for memoirs), Hurry Down Sunshine.

Here's a look at some of the books that really captured my imagination this summer:

Asia For the Price of a Paperback

I'm currently engrossed in Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace. The scenes Ghosh depicts of the teak business in the late 19th century are harrowing. It's hard to imagine elephants and men engaged in a magnificent struggle against nature in order to get the teak trees out of the mountainous forests of Burma. Ghosh humanizes history in the manner of a great movie without resorting to cliched or one-dimensional characters.

Earlier in the summer, I had the pleasure of meeting the dapper Ghosh at a party in Los Angeles. He was there to promote his new book Sea of Poppies. We were in a crowded restaurant with dozens of other booksellers and several other authors. I gravitated toward him, because I was trying to avoid the embarrassment of meeting debut novelist Rivka Galchen. In an earlier blog, I mentioned Galchen's fetching author photo as the most convincing reason to read her book. Despite my efforts to avoid her, my assigned seat turned out to be directly across from Rivka.

Ghosh and I exchanged pleasantries about the weather, London and book parties before I worked up the nerve to ask him about a scene in his previous book, Hungry Tide, that I was quite taken by. In the scene, two people strap themselves to a tree in a typhoon in order to survive. Only one lives through the night. Ghosh leaned in towards me and confided that he has been asked about that scene before. We talked for awhile, and I thanked him for introducing me to people and parts of the world that I could never see on my own.

John Updike Redux

The reading highlight of the summer was without a doubt John Updike's Rabbit Redux. I read one Updike novel a year, and I am reading them in order. I must say that this one was my favorite so far. The character of Skeeter, a black activist and small-time drug dealer, is immensely engaging, profane, comic and tragic all at the same time. I read an old hardback copy of the book that I found for $15 in Half Moon Bay, California in late March. I waited until my annual beach vacation in Cape May, New Jersey to crack open the 37-year-old novel. As the waves lapped at my feet, I was transported back to the turbulent summer of 1969.

Updike creates a rich world of jostling characters where whites and blacks are always on edge in the sleepy Pennsylvania town of Brewer. Rabbit's wife has left him for a used car salesman. Rabbit is far from lonely, though, because in addition to his 10-year old son, Nelson, he has taken in a beautiful white teenage runaway named Jill. She was foisted on him by a black co-worker who was scared that the presence of a white woman staying a black person's house might bring unwanted police attention. Things get really complicated when Rabbit starts harboring a young black man, Skeeter, who is wanted by the local police.

In the evenings, Skeeter lectures this ad-hoc family about the coming revolution. In Updike's vision, black power has infiltrated the white suburbs, drugs have found their way past the manicured lawns, and interracial sex is happening in the 1950s love seats. All of this occurs while Vietnam and the moon landing are constant sources of distraction and even amusement on the television.

Rabbit seems to tolerate everything, but he's an outsider, a conservative family man at heart. One of my favorite lines comes when Skeeter is preaching to Rabbit, the runaway, and Nelson about what will come after the revolution. Replacing the old order with something new fascinates Skeeter more than the inevitable revolution itself. Rabbit is only half interested in these night rants. "'And you're the black Jesus going to bring it in,'" Rabbit mocks. "'From A.D. to A.S. After Skeeter. I should live so long. All Praise Be Skeeter's Name.'"

In Rabbit Redux, you never quite know if a character's comments will be met with laughter or violence. It's a community of people that are on the edge. They are all just one word away from wounding each other. Somehow, Rabbit manages to muddle along and befriend the people you'd most think he'd offend. That tension between humor and aggression drives the whole work.

Peace in a Time of War

Richard Bausch's new novel, Peace, is an extraordinary and touching World War II story. It's a small book, really a novella, that conveys both the horrors of war and also what bonds people together. I found it to be thoroughly engaging. I read most of it on a plane ride, unable to put the book down even after we landed and people were heading into the terminal.

Bausch puts us on a mountain side in Italy during the German retreat of World War II. Three American soldiers are led up the hillside to scout the Nazi position in a driving rainstorm. They are led by an old man who may or may not be a fascist sympathizer. During the climb we come to know the three soldiers and how they got to this moment of their lives. They are continually debating whether to report their commanding officer, who killed a woman in cold blood just hours before the trio left on this mission.

Peace is essentially a chamber piece, with the four characters speaking to each other and also maintaining internal monologues. The men are haunted by both their good memories of home and their bad memories of the war as their mission wears on and the rain turns to snow. We come to know Captain Marson the best of all the characters, and it his how he handles his own ethical and moral dilemma at the end of the novel that truly makes this work one that resonates beyond its specific setting.

She Makes Portnoy Look Tame

Steerforth reprinted Fredrica Wagman's 1973 novel Playing House earlier this year. It would never have occurred to me to read this relatively obscure work, except that the new edition featured a foreword by Philip Roth. Roth is not a blurb slut or someone who writes a lot of forewords, so I figured this novel must be something special for him to take his time and single it out.

Wagman writes in an impressionistic prose, and it isn't always easy to figure out what's going on with her characters. The crux of the story is the narrator's childhood incestuous relationship with her brother. That relationship hovers over the rest of her life, but not in quite the way the reader would expect. Well, perhaps a seasoned therapist would expect it, but not me. Roth perfectly sums it up in the opening words of his foreword.

"It would appear from Playing House that the prohibition forbidding sibling incest is designed primarily to protect impressionable children against sex thrills so intense, and passionate unions so all-encompassing and exclusive, that life after the age of twelve can only be a frenzy of nostalgia for those who have known the bliss of such transgression."

Wagman's novel is an incredibly intense, almost feverish read about a woman's life that is spiraling out of control from the moment the incestuous affair ends. No one measures up to her memories of her brother. She nicknames her doting and steady husband, who would spare no resource to save her, The Turtle. Even her children are mere shadows passing through her life.

The siblings never renew their relationship after childhood, but each appearance of the brother leaves the reader with a queasy feeling. It almost seems as though things would be better for the narrator if they got together. Her efforts to replace the brother sexually take her to territory that Roth's most notorious character, Alexander Portnoy, never tread.

It's a disquieting read, to say the least. Probably one that I will never recommend to a book club. But one that made me think, pondering the nature of writing, madness and love.

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