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I Read Books

December 30, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments


Warning: This is likely to be a long and boring post (a tartine) in which I ramble on about the books I’ve read over the last nine months.

Let’s start our tale with Karl Rove. There are many good reasons to read the Wall Street Journal. How can one not love their daily feature articles on the bottom of the front page, or their culture coverage on Fridays and Saturdays? But watch out for Karl Rove’s weekly column. Whenever I accidentally stumble on it, I turn the page as quickly as I can. As a result, I missed Rove’s column last Friday. I went back to it the next day, after reading about it elsewhere. It’s the column in which he tells us about George Bush, Book Lover, and their 2006 competition to see who could read more books:

It all started on New Year’s Eve in 2005. President Bush asked what my New Year’s resolutions were. I told him that as a regular reader who’d gotten out of the habit, my goal was to read a book a week in 2006. Three days later, we were in the Oval Office when he fixed me in his sights and said, “I’m on my second. Where are you?” Mr. Bush had turned my resolution into a contest.

At year’s end, I defeated the president, 110 books to 95. My trophy looks suspiciously like those given out at junior bowling finals. The president lamely insisted he’d lost because he’d been busy as Leader of the Free World.

In the ante-penultimate and penultimate paragraphs of Rove’s column, we learn about the real Bush, not the caricatured moron:

In the 35 years I’ve known George W. Bush, he’s always had a book nearby. He plays up being a good ol’ boy from Midland, Texas, but he was a history major at Yale and graduated from Harvard Business School. You don’t make it through either unless you are a reader.

There is a myth perpetuated by Bush critics that he would rather burn a book than read one. Like so many caricatures of the past eight years, this one is not only wrong, but also the opposite of the truth and evidence that bitterness can devour a small-minded critic. Mr. Bush loves books, learns from them, and is intellectually engaged by them.

Now, Yale may be different from Harvard, but I can assure you that 35 years ago one could be a history major at Harvard without being a reader. Just ask some of my classmates on the hockey team. And you know that Bushes at Yale have even more advantages than future NHL players at Harvard. Too bad Bush didn’t read any books about the proper treatment of war criminals.

Let me turn to the principal subject of my blog: me. I long imagined that if I were given lots and lots of free time, what I would most enjoy doing is sitting around reading book after book. The flip side is that I keep acquiring books that I just have to read, start them the moment they arrive, read 10 or 25 pages, then put them aside as various other duties distract me. Not that I find the books uninteresting. Rather, I know that if I allow myself to get any further in them, I will spend the next two or three days doing nothing else, which I can’t afford. Well, this year was different. In April, after I left the Dean’s Office, I began nine months without teaching obligations and with the freedom to pursue whatever interests I wished. Was it really true that free time would be used for reading? Let’s review the record.

In April, we traveled a lot. I had lots of distractions. I carried books all over, finally settled on one, started it late in the month. It was Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I had devoured his most recent novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, while in Nantucket the previous September, and had long been eager to read this one. Joel had read it and highly recommended it. With travel temporarily done, I raced through it in early May, completing it May 7. It was nothing like I had imagined, and it was filled with narrative passages of sheer brilliance.

Next up, but I was slow to get into it, was Richard Russo’s most recent novel, Bridge of Sighs. I was a big fan of his two previous novels, Straight Man and Empire Falls, but this one didn’t engage me in the same way. I slowly got absorbed in the characters and saw it through to the end (on May 18), but I was less than excited.

And then came Joseph O’Neill’s magnificent short novel Netherland, which I have told so many people to read (and which was on the NYT top ten list for 2008). It’s about life in New York City just after 9/11, about marriage, about emigrating and learning new cultures, about the hidden world of cricket in the city, and about that glorious character Chuck Ramkissoon. I enjoyed no book this year more than this one, though several were every bit as wonderful.

The book-reading calendar I started keeping shows that there was a break in my reading at this point, coinciding with our trip to Boston in early June for my 35th reunion. (Had I started my blog before then, I would have had lengthy accounts of the activities. Oh well. Biggest surprise: J.K. Rowling’s brilliant commencement speech. Best panel discussion: habeas corpus, the Supreme Court, etc., featuring a history of habeas corpus presented by classmate and old friend Gerry Neuman [who got his PhD in math with me at MIT before returning to Harvard for law school — he is now on their faculty] and a review of the case of Boumediene v. Bush by classmate Seth Waxman, who argued the case in front of the Supreme Court — it was decided just after the reunion.)

The book I had brought to Boston for the reunion was Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, which largely focuses on New Mexico in the nineteenth century and the clash of Spanish, US, and Indian forces and cultures. My colleague Tom Colonnese in our American Indian Studies department had recommended it to me in the wake of our April trip to New Mexico and the time we spent in Albuquerque with Gail’s old high school friend Randy, a member of the Jemez Pueblo. it reads like a novel, with a lively and gripping narrative. Superb book.

I’ve never been much of a thriller reader. Call me a snob if you wish. There are a few crime novelists I follow closely. At the top of the list is Ian Rankin, with his long-running series of Edinburgh-based books about John Rebus, who retired with the publication of Exit Music in September 2007. (I always pre-order the books from the UK Amazon rather than waiting the half year before they are published in the US.) But most crime or suspense thrillers I ignore, and I ignore their reviews as well. But somehow I found myself reading Janet Maslin’s regular reviews of this genre in the NYT and buying some of the books she praised. I discovered a whole set of authors, previously unknown to me, who come out with new books every summer or two and whose books immediately jump to or near the top of the bestseller lists, only to fade after 2 or 3 weeks. The regular readers snap them up, and then they’re gone.

The first book I stumbled on in this category was Lee Child’s Nothing to Lose. Maslin said one couldn’t put the book down and she was right. I started it around 8:00 PM on a Friday night, June 13, and finished it the next afternoon. In retrospect, it was one of the sillier books I read this year. But it sure was gripping.

Back to real literature. Next up was Richard Price’s Lush Life, a crime procedural but also a fine novel about life in Manhattan. According to the calendar, I finished it June 19. And then it was on to another New York novel, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children. A chance exchange in April with my colleague Becky Pettit in the Sociology department convinced me I should read it, and I did. I have a hard time reading about brilliant academics who are bums, which describes one of the principal characters. (I had the same problem when I read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty a year ago. Another book I just had to have. I ended up receiving two copies of it three Christmases ago, but had to wait two more Christmases to finally read it.) But it was good, and on June 23 I was in a panic to finish it before we celebrated our 23rd anniversary. I was packing, dressing, and reading the final pages all at once. Fortunately, Gail was delayed, so our departure for downtown was postponed, giving me the time I needed to get to the end.

Our anniversary dinner was at Tom Douglas’s Dahlia Lounge. We decided to take a walk afterwards, before returning to Hotel Andra, which is just across the street from Dahlia Lounge (and above another Tom Douglas restaurant, Lola). Where to walk? A bookstore of course. We went over to Barnes & Noble in Pacific Place and I bought my next novel, Joshua Ferris’s Then They Came to the End. It turned out to be the funniest novel I have read in years, and I have recommended it since to many people. I would have recommended it to many more if I could remember the title. If I haven’t yet recommended it to you, I hereby do so. Read it. It’s great. If you want to know more, it’s about a Chicago advertising agency that is sinking in the wake of the dot.com bust, but that hardly gives a clue of what it really is like. And the entire narrative is in first person plural. When we read a novel in that format, we hear the authorial voice in a different way. It’s hard to pull off, but we love it when it is done well.

That takes me to June 26, the day I finished it, which was also Joel’s 21st birthday, but he was in Boston, so we didn’t celebrate it with him until July. Well, Jessica insisted that we go out to dinner, which we did, so in effect we celebrated in absentia.

That was a Thursday. We had a pretty full weekend, culminating with the start of the summer math program for high school kids that I help run. That Sunday night, I turned to another book I had long intended to read, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir about her youth in Iran, Persepolis. I finished it the next morning and immediately read through the continuation of her memoirs, Persepolis 2. This brought June to an end.

What next? I mentioned Ian Rankin. The other crime novelist I read regularly is George Pelecanos, and I had his newest book on pre-order, in preparation for its early August release. Gail and I were at a Barnes & Noble again on that Monday, June 30, when I saw an old Pelecanos novel on remainder for a couple of bucks, so I grabbed it. I had not been systematic in reading him, and among his last 6 books or so, I had skipped a couple, this being one. Perfect timing. I could go back and read the ones I skipped in preparation for the new one. So that’s what I did. I bought Soul Circus that day and finished it July 3. Then I found Drama City on remainder at Amazon, so I bought and read that.

At the same time, I ordered another book Amazon had on remainder at some absurdly low price, Joe Posnanski’s The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America, and that was next. Posnanski is my favorite sportswriter, and in fact the person who got me into blogs. Joel, tired of my obsession with the weekly on-line column on football of Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, told me that if I wanted to read I good sportswriter, I should try Posnanski. So I did, and Joel was right. His blog was the first one I read regularly. And the first one whose RSS feed I subscribed to, when Joel told me I should subscribe rather than compulsively checking the website several times a day for new posts. Now, instead, I compulsively refresh my news aggregator several times a day to check on the many blogs I subscribe to. Posnanski’s book on Buck O’Neil, the late, great manager and storyteller of Negro League baseball, is quick and easy reading, filled with one wonderful anecdote after another. It was a good break from crime and intrigue.

I’m up to July 14 now. Reading was getting in the way of work. I was due to teach a class for my summer math program on the morning of July 23, my first classroom activity in 7 years. I was busily learning material and writing up notes, far more than I would need for the class, but I had gotten absorbed by the subject matter, so reading got put aside for a few days. There would be time for that in California, where we were going that weekend, but first I had to get ready.

On Friday, the 18th, we flew down to Santa Barbara for our five-day trip, with two nights at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa and two days at San Ysidro Ranch. We were in Ojai for a celebration of 50 years of the Summer Science Program, which I attended in 1968, the summer before my senior year in high school. I could write at length about it, but not here.

San Ysidro Ranch

San Ysidro Ranch, Main Building

And then we stayed on two more days at San Ysidro because I had never been in Santa Barbara before, thought staying an extra day would be nice, read about it online, and decided it merited at least two days. It’s in Montecito, just outside Santa Barbara, surrounded by homes costing in the many millions, some of which burned in the big fires this past fall.

We stayed in our own cottage, the Rose Cottage. And that’s where I read my next book, another Janet-Maslin-reviewed summer thriller that I gave a try and that raced on and off the bestseller list: Christopher Reich’s Rules of Deception. Hardly a great book, but I liked it enough that I’ll probably read his next one when it comes out. I finished it just in time for us to pack and check out of the ranch, go down to the Biltmore across the street from the ocean for lunch (both the ranch and the Biltmore are owned by the same guy, Montecito resident Ty Warner, the beanie baby billionaire), and then drive around before heading to the airport.

When we got home that night, July 22, I was surprised to find that the new George Pelecanos novel, The Turnaround, due out in early August, had already arrived. I had my class to teach on the 23rd, but I started it the next day and finished it on the 26th. I must say, reading three of his novels in three weeks left me a little weary, so I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have. I did learn a lot about the layout of Washington, DC, as I started studying all the locations on google maps rather than passively reading about the characters driving to one street or another.

And then on to another summer release reviewed by Janet Maslin, Chasing Darkness, by the apparently well known (but not to me) LA crime novelist Robert Crais. That brought July to a close.

I was ready for real literature again. Time for Don DeLillo. The first of his books that I read was Mao II. I didn’t much like it. All I remember is the Reverend Moon mass marriage scene. Then came Underworld, a book I had to have when it was published, but in my two attempts to read it, I had never get past the famous opening passage that takes place on October 3, 1951 at the Polo Grounds, where Bobby Thomson hit the home run now known as the shot heard ’round the world. Plus, I once started but never finished Libra. Did I really want to read DeLillo again? I guess so. In May 2006, the NYT published the results of a survey of prominent writers, critics and editors, who were asked to pick “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.” Toni Morrison’s Beloved was the winner. Don DeLillo’s Underworld was one of four runners up. And among the books listed that received multiple votes were Libra and White Noise. Clearly I was missing something in my failed attempts to read DeLillo. The obvious next one to try was White Noise. I did. I was in awe at times of the book’s brilliance. But I was ready to give up several times along the way. I finished it. August 9. Now I have to go back and read Libra. Some day.

I needed another silly crime novel/thriller after that, and Harlan Coben’s Gone for Good fit the bill. I knocked it off pretty quickly. Next up, Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side: The Inside Story on How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. This is essential reading (and another of the NYT top ten books of the year). I mentioned it briefly in a previous post. I’ll say nothing more for now.

The Mayer book, which I finished August 17, ended three months of sustained reading. Distractions began to get in the way again, among them my growing anxiety over Joel’s need to find an apartment in Boston by August 31 so he wouldn’t be on the street on Labor Day, September 1. That’s a dramatic story, but let me jump ahead to September 1, when after a brief stay in Boston to help Joel as needed, we brought him and some of his belongings to his new apartment, said goodbye, headed to Logan, and flew down to Nantucket for our third annual stay at the Wauwinet.

Wauwinet Inn, Nantucket

Wauwinet Inn, Nantucket

This was the subject of one of my first posts, written two weeks after we were there, in which I described the feeling we have every time we go that we are ready to move there. Three months later, I can say that the feeling does wear off, but I’m sure it will return. In that Nantucket post, I already described my next book, which happened to be sitting in our room at the inn when we arrived, Frank Conroy’s Time and Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket. I read it the next day. It made us all the more eager to live there.

My other Nantucket reading was another crime novel Janet Maslin tipped me off to, James Lee Burke’s Swan Peak, about which I remember nothing. I have to look it up. Oh, right, it takes place in Montana. A “Dave Robicheaux novel.” They usually take place in New Orleans, but he’s in Montana for this one. I enjoyed it. I finished it our last day in Nantucket, at the inn, before we headed off to the airport four our four-hour stay. It may take only 30 minutes to fly to LaGuardia, but we had to wait four hours for our plane to make it from LaGuardia to Martha’s Vineyard to Nantucket. A painful delay, while Joel flew in parallel to New York from Boston and got in two hours ahead of us. We had to cancel plans for dinner with my old friend Ira, but we did make it at 10:00 PM to one of our favorite restaurants on Long Island, Garden City Pizza.

The shocking news is that after finishing Swan Peak on September 5, I didn’t finish another book until December 19, when I came to the end of Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War, which I wrote about two weeks ago. I’ve read portions of several other books along the way, but that’s the only one I finished.

What happened? Magazines. Blogs. The election. When I got back from Nantucket and New York, two New Yorkers awaited me, and soon a third arrived, all filled with articles on different aspect of US politics. I also had catching up to do on the New York Review of Books and the Atlantic. And there was Sarah Palin. We arrived in Boston on Labor Day weekend to the announcement that she was McCain’s running mate. We were at the Wauwinet Inn for the Republican convention, which we mostly ignored. Once we got back to Seattle, there was serious catching up to do. And magazines were not enough. Nor were the NYT and the WSJ. We needed the blogosphere. Gail and I kept adding RSS feeds, kept reading more and more. And two weeks after our return to Seattle, after three days that Gail and I spent watching the Ryder Cup on TV, I started this blog. Sunday night, September 21. It hasn’t left much time for books.

Nonetheless, I am surrounded by books I’m eager to read, I’m in the middle of one, I’m part way into two more, and I’ve started another few. Here’s a quick roundup:

1. As described in my post last week, I’m reading Judith Herrin’s Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. I’m learning a lot, and enjoying it, but the book has a somewhat plodding style. It’s well written, but not too lively. I could be tempted to switch to another book if the right one showed up.

And what do you know, a lot of books showed up last week.

2. Joel gave me Patrick French’s new biography The World is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul, yet another book in the NYT top ten for the year. I mentioned my desire to read it in a post from the end of November. And right now I’m 40 pages into it, learning about Naipaul’s grandparents and parents and life in Trinidad in the 1920s and 1930s. So far it’s every bit as good as I anticipated.

3. I also mentioned Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, by Gordon M. Goldstein, in my post at the end of November, and I got it for Christmas from Gail. (A day late, thanks to FedEx’s problems.) I’ve read the first few pages. It may not be a great work of literature, as the Naipaul biography is likely to be, but it appears to tell a fascinating story, one worth reading now as we try to extricate ourselves from war once again.

4. When Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) came out in August, it got the lead review in the Sunday NYT Book Review. I got excited about reading it, but decided that I’d rather stick to fiction. Come Christmas, Joel gave it to me. In the meantime, Joel had pointed out that I could read Vanderbilt’s blog, which I’ve been doing, so I have a pretty good idea of the kind of stories he tells in the blog. I’m about 30 pages in, and I’m enjoying the anecdotes. Time again one recognizes oneself in his stories. Yet the book is annoying in its constant alternation between stories and psychology or social psychology, with references to some scientist’s study or article. I’ll keep reading. Maybe I’ll just skip around. Plus, the author’s excessive use of the singular ‘they’ is driving me to distraction.

5. Joel requested and we bought for him Michael Downing’s Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time. It came out three years ago. I see from the Amazon site that it will soon be re-issued in paperback. It’s short. He read it already and it is now on my pile. I looked at the first few pages. It looks pretty interesting, and the topic is one I often think about. I’ll read it. Maybe not right away.

6. Yet another of the NYT’s top ten books for the year is Jhumpa Lahiris collection of stories Unaccustomed Earth. I bought it for Gail. (It came a day late — see FedEx again.) And I read the first 3 pages of the first story. I had to put it aside. After all, it’s Gail’s book. And I’m in the middle of other books. But I may dip into it again soon.

7. I’m also reading, but randomly, Mark Stein’s How the States Got Their Shapes. There’s a chapter for each state, and some topics recur since states tend to touch other states. The chapters are arranged alphabetically. This promotes skipping around, since the discussion of one state often leads you to jump to the discussion of an adjacent state. Even Hawaii, which would seem to be a simple state, has an interesting story.

8. I almost forgot that I started Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, some time in the fall. I can’t remember why I put it aside. I was busy with other things. Blogs. Election. Etc. I will surely return to it. I needed two years to read On Beauty. White Teeth may have to wait also.

There are other books I’ve started in the last two years that I keep nearby but do not appear to be actively reading. For example, last year I just had to read Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 when it came out. I bought it right away and got over 100 pages into it. I have only another 740 pages to go. Somewhere along the way, I put it aside. Then it went and received the Pulitzer Prize for History. I hope to return to it. And then there was American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, which I once again bought when it came out and got about 100 pages into before stopping, and which also won a Pulitzer Prize, two years ago.

Trinity Site, New Mexico

Trinity Site, New Mexico

I pulled it out again in anticipation of our New Mexico trip last April, especially because part of the trip was our visit to the Trinity A-bomb test site in the White Sands Missile Range. (One can visit the site only twice a year, the first Saturdays of April and October. We scheduled our New Mexico trip specifically so we could be there for the April visiting day.) I hope to return to this book too.

Well, you get the idea. Books and books and more books, all over the house, that I’ve started but abandoned. Cheating at Canasta, the William Trevor short story collection I had to have a year ago. The first story was so depressing I put the book aside. Mary Gordon’s Circling My Mother: A Memoir, a beautifully written book that I read about half of last spring. And her volume of collected short stories from two years ago. (I’m just sitting here looking up at my nearest shelf, above the computer.) Alice Munro’s short stories. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which Joel read when it came out and passed on to us. Simon Armitage’s poetic translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with the original text on facing pages. I’ve tried reading the original, with its fabulous alliteration, or even just reading it aloud for the sound. But I haven’t gotten too far.

I’ll stop, even as I gaze on more unread books. I just can’t keep up with President Bush.

Categories: Books, Family, Travel
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