Friday, June 16, 2006

Recent Reading

Well, it’s that time again—time for another installment of What I’ve been Reading Lately. One of the pleasures of the two months since classes ended has been somewhat more time to devote to reading not (directly) related to work … Given that I’m currently filling my days with the history and criticism of modern American poetry and studies of masculinity in the cold war, it’s been a delicious pleasure to turn to the following books in the evenings and on weekends …


Ian MacEwan, Atonement. My familiarity with MacEwan is still limited, this being only the second of his novels I’ve read (the first, as blogged recently, was Saturday). Atonement is a startlingly good read, written in MacEwan’s concise engaging prose and featuring a compelling cast of characters—in this case, the members of a quasi-aristocratic family in mid-1930s Britain, who beneficence has led them to take the son of their gardener—of an age with the elder daughter—under their wing, and see to his education. A misunderstood communication between the gardener’s son and the family’s daughter, and the meddling in their affairs of the youngest daughter, and a narrative of tension, of sexual awakening, injustice and, yes, atonement unfolds … highly recommended.

Saul Bellow, Herzog. This one was both business and pleasure—there was no immediate reason, research- or teaching-wise to read Bellow, but then as an ostensible expert on postwar American fiction, my general unfamiliarity with his novels has been an unforgivable gap. Herzog is a work of brilliance, the story of a self-absorbed and arrogant but likable and hapless academic (I love stories that hit you where you live), whose recent divorce and what her perceives as the betrayal by friends and colleagues causes him to come somewhat unhinged. The novel has no specific plot, but is instead a series of reminisces on the part of the eponymous Moses Herzog, interspersed with manic letter-writing to people ranging from his psychiatrist to Dwight D. Eisenhower. As Philip Roth astutely observes, Bellow is one of Joyce’s great literary heirs (as Roth is one of Bellow’s), but where Joyce withholds from his characters his promiscuous and wide-ranging erudition, Bellow bestows all of his great intellect on Herzog—to the point that we both pity the poor man and stand in awe of his mind.

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential. Kristen bought me this book to read along the way from St. John’s—a memoir by bad-boy chef Bourdain, and a very revealing glance at the often seamy life of restaurant kitchens. This is a great read; Bourdain is both eloquent and irreverent and imparts some very useful advice along the way (never eat seafood on Mondays, avoid the brunch specials, if you like your steak well-done, don’t bother getting it at a decent restaurant). He has nothing less that utter contempt for the luminaries of the Food Network, never missing a chance to get in a dig at Emeril Lagasse (for whom he has a particular loathing). What is perhaps most interesting however is the glance into the psychoses that lead people into such a high-pressure career, in which drug and alcohol abuse is de rigeur, full of massive egos and megalomaniacs, at which one must work as a low-paid peon for years and years under the thumb of said dictators, and at which success is at best a capricious thing. Why do people do this? It’s all about the food, baby.

Stephen Lewis, Race Against Time. I’ve always had a massive respect for Stephen Lewis, and this book—the publication of his Massey Lectures in 2005—only adds to that. Here Lewis speaks frankly about his work for the UN as special envoy to Africa, about the crushing horrors gripping that AIDS- and poverty-stricken continent, and he does so without sparing the United Nations (an organization he nevertheless holds in high and optimistic esteem), or any of the other players on the global stage. He also does not spare Canada, singling his own nation out for especial rebuke. The book is required reading, if for no other reason than that it does a good job in cutting through the haze of sentiment and misinformation generated by the UN itself, by the G8 and by such events as Live8.

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman’s Lady and Flashman and the Mountain of Light. Flash is back! The third and fourth installments of the Flashman papers have everyone’s favourite bounder fighting pirates in Borneo and Sikhs in India, respectively. Flashman’s Lady was a bit of a disappointment; much of its first half is devoted to the vagaries of cricket, which even after a hundred pages of Fraser’s not-inconsiderable writing talents I still do not understand in the least. The latter however does not disappoint, as it has Flashy playing political agent in Punjabi India, romancing an insatiable maharani and her equally arduous maid and playing a pivotal role in deciding the future of British India. The great irony of this one is that for once Flashy actual behaves like he’s supposed to (albeit reluctantly, and with quaking bowels), and actually pulls the British fat out of the fire, but gets no credit whatsoever! For a man accustomed to fleeing in terror and receiving credit for courage and glory at home, that must be a hard pill to swallow …

Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch and About a Boy. As discussed in my previous post, I was called upon to be an expert about the novels of Nick Hornby … which prompted me to read some of the books about which I was supposed to know things. As I mentioned, Fever Pitch is an excellent read, and so far my favourite of what Hornby has done. It may be that I saw the film before reading the novel, but About a Boy does come across as a bit formulaic … nevertheless, it remains a good read—written with Hornby’s signature wit—and I was pleased to see that the film’s ending was an invention of the filmmakers. It distressed me to think that Nick would write something quite that trite.

7 comments:

amy said...

Great recomendations but stop with the "good read" business. Its a verb dammit.

Lesley said...

I've been dancing around reading Atonement for a while now. Every time I make it in to the book store I pick it up and then put it back down. Which is sad really, I should pick it up, walk to the cashier and purchase it. I have to say though, there was a movie based on a book (I want to say it was a Jane Austen book but I might be wrong) where they talked about Atonement...oh wait, I think that was in Anne of Green Gables...she was writing a book called Atonement (???) and whenever I think of the title I end up thinking about a Jane Austen or Emily Bronte novel and have this odd desire to pull out Wuthering Heights and push myself through that torment again. Although, I am sitting on several good books that I want to crack open but have little time to actually do so. I think I should take your advice and READ READ READ.

Your list is good though, I always like to hear what other people have to say about a book before I read it. Kitchen Confidential sounds like a really good read. I'll have to add that to my list that includes "Lies, and the lying liars that tell them" by Al Franken.

jer said...

Why object to the use of "read" as a noun? It's a recognised and perfectly acceptable colloquialism, except in formal writing.

jo said...

Yes, and it's is a contraction. See also the spelling of recommendations.

pedanticly yours,
jo (the only member of her book club who thought Atonement was overrated)

Anonymous said...

Lesley--

In Anne of Green Gables--actually I think it was the third or fourth book in the series, Anne of the Island or Anne of Windy Poplars, but I'm not certain--Anne writes a story titled "Averil's Atonement". Her BFF (or "bosom friend") Diana Barry enters Anne's story in a contest sponsored by the Rolling's Reliable Baking Powder company. There's a scene in the story where Averil is baking a cake, and Diana revises the story, putting in a mention that Averil is using Rolling's Reliable Baking Powder. Anne's story wins the contest and she gets the $50 prize.

I mightn't have it all exactly correct, but damn, I'm surprised I remember that much....

jer said...

Indeed... AND Amy used the possessive rather than the contraction! Horrors!

Jo - "pedantically". Sorry - I couldn't resist (or COULD NOT resist).

Are we having fun with our can of worms yet?

jo said...

hey jer,

you're right--though the shorter oxford also lists "pedanticly" but says it's now rare

just as well, really