Since I’ve been back from my adventures in Asia, I have found some reading momentum. This usually happens for me in the summer, but this year I was scared it wasn’t going to. When the spring semester ended, I was excited to have the chance to get lots of reading done, but it simply wasn’t happening. I couldn’t get into anything, and I floundered through the opening 15 pages of various books, never catching any traction. Luckily, the 50+ hours spent in airports and on airplanes in my Asia travels sort of forced me to do some reading.
During my travels, I read–for very different reasons–Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) and Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009). I had purchased Greene’s book because it popped up when I did some Google searching for “novels about Vietnam” and it was the only one I found that wasn’t about the Vietnam War (at least directly). I really, really loved it, especially since I had watched some of Ken Burns’s recent documentary and had some knowledge about the historical and political context of the region before the war. It’s a great novel, but it’s even better considering it was written in 1955 but basically predicts what ended up happening less than ten years later. I thoroughly enjoyed it. McCann’s novel I had read before, and I re-read it because I’ll be using it in a class this upcoming semester. I don’t remember loving it when I read it in the past, and I wouldn’t say I loved it this time. But it checks all of the requisite boxes of a good contemporary novel, and I do really love the interweaved narratives circling around the centering event of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Two Towers. There were some parts where I was flipping ahead, disengaged and hoping for the next chapter to start. But, overall, it’s worth reading, and I *hope* my students have things to say about it. I also started Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995) while I was in Hanoi, but–like an idiot–I left it in the backseat of a taxi. What a waste. I hope whoever found it speaks English and likes to read.
My time abroad gave me some momentum, and I’ve only continued since I’ve been back. I have read A LOT in the past month, and hopefully I can squeeze in 1-2 more books before school starts in a couple of weeks. Here’s a list, followed by some specific thoughts about a few of them:
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett (2016)
Less by Andrew Sean Greer (2017)
There There by Tommy Orange (2018)
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon (2018)
Early Work by Andrew Martin (2018)
The last three I bought based solely on “Recommendations” on Amazon–they were books that kept popping up in my searches, so I went for it. I bought Less because it’s the most recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Imagine Me Gone is a book I’ve seen in every bookstore I’ve walked into for the past couple of years. I finally figured that I should stop just looking at the cover and read it.
Of these five, my favorite is undoubtedly There There.
I try my best to always avoid reading the summaries in the dust jacket flaps or on the back covers, so I’m not sure what this one says. But I would be willing to bet that it says something along the lines of, “A harsh, unflinching look at the contemporary experience of Native Americans.” And, well, this is pretty much the same line I would use to describe the book, too. For some reason I say that hesitatingly. Is it wrong to call this a “Native American” book? If I do, am I relegating it to some sort of margin? If I do, am I unfairly attaching thematic stereotypes and “typecasting”? If I don’t, am I overlooking the book’s central focus and stripping it of its thematic heart? I don’t know.
Regardless of how I would sum it up in one sentence or what syllabus I would/wouldn’t put it on, I loved this book. Fair warning: It’s harsh. But pretty much every book I ever talk about on here is harsh. There are lots of things I liked about it, but I think the main one is its readability. I felt like I was reading Junot Díaz, which for me is a very high compliment. The book is colloquial in ways that seem authentic, regardless of the fact that I am no judge of whether or not a book about Oakland is or isn’t authentic. The group of characters is diverse to say the least, and although there were a few times where I was a bit confused about how each character related to others, or where in the story certain events or people fit, the last 25 pages or so brought everything together in a powerful way. Again, a warning: It’s rough. But it’s fresh, and it’s open-eyed, and it’s human. It taps into that level of reality from which some books always hover too far, and it hits notes that need to reverberate ever more loudly in our society. If you find yourself in a bookstore and you see the book, even if you don’t buy it, sit down, turn to the “Interlude” (about halfway through), and read it. Those 10-15 pages alone make the book valuable, and they are pages that I plan on incorporating into my classes immediately.
As far as the other four books go, I also really enjoyed The Incendiaries and Imagine Me Gone. Well, “enjoyed” probably isn’t the correct word for either. One of them is a graphic, heartbreaking look at the effects of mental illness, and the other is a narrative about the seductive power of religious cults, romantic love, and the overlapping of the two. Considering this, neither is “fun” to read, but both had me engrossed and I read each of them very quickly. I read Incendiaries on a flight to Las Vegas, and I read the other one in less than a week or so. Both of them would make fantastic movies, but not the types of movies that would make very much money at the box office. Let me put it this way: neither movie would star Dwayne Johnson, and at least one of them would probably be released around Christmas and get nominated for an Academy Award and probably never make it to theaters in Abilene.
I had read some quick reviews talking about how hilarious Less is. There are funny parts, and Greer clearly has a quick sense of humor not normally seen in books that win Pulitzer Prizes. A couple of times I laughed out loud at some of the wordplay. But–the Pulitzer? Really? I’m not sure how this book won, and I don’t think this is a book that I will ever think about much in the future. I feel the same way about Early Work. This one came out very recently, and I don’t think it will be winning any awards. Very readable, with clean prose and some interesting observations for someone like me that went to graduate school and has read lots of the authors mentioned by the pretentious characters. But, in the end, these characters aren’t likable. They are selfish, and aimless, and lazy, and apathetic. I read the entire book in a few days, and then I realized that I’m not sure why I did, nor am I sure what I was supposed to take from it. A look at the empty lives of 21st century aspiring-artists-in-their-late-20s? Okay, I guess.
– – – – – – –
School starts in two weeks, which means that meetings start in one week, which means that pleasure reading ends soon. I’ll still be reading a lot–more, actually–once school starts, but reading for class is much different than reading to read. But if giving up pleasure reading means getting back on campus, with new students and new classes and new chances to engage, that’s a trade I’ll take every time. I don’t think you can beat August on a college campus. So much energy, and such a sense of expectation and excitement. It is my absolute favorite time of every year, and I’m getting excited just typing this.
Of course, August quickly ends, and by mid-September that freshness has turned into, “How long until Christmas break?”