Here in Iowa City, the only town in America whose economy is fueled entirely by football, alcohol and literature, we get more than our share of readings to attend. While I don’t make it to all of them, I did manage to hear Marilynne Robinson read a few weeks ago. Ms. Robinson is an enchanting reader, and her new book Gilead was atop many “best of” lists for 2004. As anyone who has read a review of Gilead knows, it is Robinson’s first novel since Housekeeping was published 24 years ago, and the way many in the media talk about it, it might as well have been 224 years ago. While Robinson has written two non-fiction books about such varied topics as John Calvin and Great Britain’s nuclear policy, Gilead is indeed her first new work of fiction in many years. But so what? I for one would like to see more authors take their time between novels. One of my favorite writers, J.F. Powers, wrote only two novels and wrote them nearly 30 years apart. They’re both nearly perfect, and I don’t find myself wishing he wrote more. In fact, the scarcity makes it that much more likely that I’ll actually read one of his books a second or third time, something I rarely do. I don’t think I’ll find myself diving into Kingsley Amis’ very fine Old Devils as I’ve been poisoned by the vast sea of mediocrity that separates that book from his masterpiece Lucky Jim. So hats off to the Marilynne Robinsons, the J.F. Powers, and the Donna Tarts of the world. I sometimes wish we had a few more of them and a few less mediocre novels.
I found an interesting interview with Jonathan Safran Foer today. I'll be including this in an upcoming post about books to look forward to this year, but I wanted to post it separately first because I think it's pretty interesting, and I can't recall seeing it posted anywhere else. In the interview he talks about his forthcoming novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which will include photography along with the text, and which seems to be a continuation of the rule-breaking, avant-garde style he has been cultivating. The rest of the interview provides an interesting picture of this young author. The only annoying thing is that the interview is kind of hard to get to. First go to this link, click on Foer and then click on "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."
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Between July 1 and November 5th, I don't think I read anything longer than a three-page spread on Politico or anything more literary than a New Yorker cartoon. Political campaigns are experiments in all sorts of deprivations. The days are long and narrow, filled with fast food containers and the sounds of vibrating Blackberries. I started on the Obama campaign back in January in South Carolina. Many of my colleagues on the general election campaign in Pennsylvania had been at this for almost two years, a stunning feat of endurance that stretched from hours spent knocking doors after dark in frozen New Hampshire, straight through to the week of all-nighters that preceded Election Day.Among the things I lost to an around-the-clock schedule, books were not the most precious. On any given day I missed talking with my friends, or going for a run, more. But if books were not the things I missed most, their absence was in one way the most profound. While the hurly-burly of the campaign never caused me to question the importance of calling my dad or cooking a meal, it did cast doubt over the value of reading.In this past Sunday's Times Book Review Jonathan Lethem wrote of the author Roberto Bolano, that he "never tires of noting how a passion for literature walks a razor's edge between catastrophic irrelevance and sublime calling." The frantic activity of a campaign questions the relevance of a reading life. It was energizing these past few months to feel myself so squarely in the flow of history, and coming down the homestretch in October, it would have felt like I was stepping out of the current to have spent an afternoon reading. But just as one can only subsist on almonds and M&Ms for so long (I made it a week), after awhile I found I needed books as much as I needed vegetables. Literature is sublime when it invigorates awareness of the world around us, and we rely on the store of that awareness in times, like campaigns, when there is not a lot of opportunity to assess where we are or to question where we're going. Now that it's over and I'm reading again, I find that stories are not so much a refuge or a pause as they are a way for me to put my feet on the ground again.
In the Guardian, Richard Adams comments on the proliferation of "biographies of things," and the tendency of authors and publishers to assert that these things "changed the world." e.g. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky.In a sense, yes, all these things have changed the world, but only in a general sense that everything that exists changes the world.
The unexpected pleasure and wonder of my book year is Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, which was a birthday present from dear friend Judith Schneider. I started the novel because Judith was egging me on and realized immediately that I was in for a treat. The story of the Stephanides family begins in Uludag, now Turkey's premier skiing resort, in the city of Bursa, during the Turkish Independence War. Brother and sister Stephanides leave Bursa as the Greeks are pulling out and travel to Izmir (Smyrna) to take a ferry to France, during which the siblings get married. In the epic story that follows, Eugenides takes the reader through the struggles of this first generation Greek couple in Detroit during extraordinary times: first prohibition, then the Great Depression, and finally World War II. In the meantime, the Stephanides family grows and Eugenides moves on to the baby boomers, the hippies, and the seventies as he describes the life of the narrator and third generation granddaughter Calliope Stephanides. Calliope, or Cal for short, discovers during her teens that she is a hermaphrodite and develops an affection for a girl she names "Object of Desire." Middlesex is a very unusual novel, and as weird as the protagonist is, it is really easy to connect with Cal and travel through the extraordinary events of the twentieth century and the psyche of a teenager, who is more at odds with her/his being than most others. Euginedes' writing is very fluid and Middlesex is an amazing piece of work that leaves one wondering how autobiographical it is. I suggest that you find out for yourself.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4
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My book-loving friends keep writing me great emails that I feel compelled to share with all of you. Here's one from my friend John about the great books he's been reading:Currently reading Libra by Don Delillo. I've heard from a few people that it's a modern classic, and though I don't know if I necessarily agree with that, it is very good. Fictional retelling of the assassination of JFK. I think it might be overshadowed by Oliver Stone's JFK, but I would say it's an even more plausible a version of what happened. Just finished reading Dispatches by Michael Herr. Don't know if you've read it, but you probably should. He was a freelance journalist in Vietnam (which is what the book is about) and was also the screenwriter for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Probably the most readable book about the Vietnam War; haven't read that much though. I also saw The Sheltering Sky on your queue. Amazing book. That really got me into reading again. Very stark, but somehow it struck a chord. Something about wanting to be an ex-pat, but also seeing the hubris that we Americans have, especially in relation to foreign cultures. Some things never change. Probably my fave author of right now is T.C. Boyle. Love his stuff. His last novel, Drop City, is a great read. The thing about him is that his stories are highly readable. Great stories, great characters.A couple of quick comments: I've been wanting to read Dispatches for a very long time, and I think most of you know how I feel about T.C. Boyle. Also, everyone should check out John's new band The Vanity Fair, they were sent here to rock. I also got a great email from longtime Millions contributor Brian that I'd like to share with all of you:Not a lot of time, but just wanted to drop an e-mail, let you know I read Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. Fantastic. He went to Spain to write about the Spanish Civil War but felt so strongly he joined the fight. He was in the trenches, fought, got shot in the throat, recovered, took part in street battles in Barcelona, was pursued by the police for being a member of the Marxist group P.O.U.M., fled to England and wrote the book. This passage is from just before he fled: "I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone's imagination. White sierras, goatherds, dungeons of the Inquisition, Moorish palaces, black winding trains of mules, grey olive trees and groves of lemons, girls in black mantillas, the wines of Malaga and Alicante, cathedrals, cardinals, bull-fights, gypsies, serenades -- in short, Spain. Of all Europe it was the country that had had most hold upon my imagination."Great stuff guys. Thanks! If anyone else out there wants to contribute, just drop me an email. Remember, my Millions is your Millions. I have tons of stuff to write about, including the two books I finished last week, but I'm off to New York tomorrow for a few days, maybe a week, so it may have to wait until I get back.