Books I Think You Should Read

I got a new computer and so have been sorting through all my files, including the book reviews I’ve written over the years.  In so doing, I decided to share with you seven books that I think you should read!

Black Swan Green, David Mitchell

Black Swan Green is the story of Jason Taylor’s thirteenth year. He is targeted by bullies because of his stammer, a budding poet surrounded by boys who perceive writing poetry as being “too gay,” and a son in a slowly dissolving marriage.

David Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical novel is masterful in that it so absolutely captures his protagonist’s voice in a way that resonates and evokes the fear and wonder of being thirteen while at the same time being unique, humorous, and wise. Like Mitchell’s other novels, Black Swan Green has a very particular vernacular. This one captures 1980s England, and we feel enmeshed in this other world even if we’ve never visited it. Many of Mitchell’s sentences are whole novels in and of themselves, and his invented vocabulary is perfectly onomatopoeic. This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann

I have a lot to say about this book, but let me start by saying this: You should read it. To repeat: You. Should. Read. It.

The novel is loosely based on the day that Philippe Petit tightrope walked the World Trade Center; he’s the heart of the novel, and he kind of steals the show. This was, after all, such a glorious, crazy, hopeful act, and McCann’s writing captures all that breathlessly. But there’s more. Because this act was about a bold reclaiming of public space, and because McCann is writing post-9/11, there’s an intensity and urgency to the stories he’s telling about the ways that our lives rub up against other lives and the role that art plays in connecting us. We get a glimpse into the life of a photographer of underground graffiti, the mind of a hacker who falls in love with an unknown woman whom he talks to on the phone as she watches Petit dance on the tightrope, and an Irish priest whose love for even the most disenfranchised transforms them too.
McCann’s prose is startling and exuberant. He knows how to let his language soar and how to communicate the everyday of language and life too. As you are reading, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in the hands of a master. Enjoy it!

Room, Emma Donoghue

This is a novel that it’s better not to know too much about, so avoid the dust-jacket if possible; allow the story to unfold as you read. The narrator is five year-old Jack, and he’s precocious and clever, and it’s a delight to read the world through his narrative. He describes life in “Room” with his Ma, and, despite the bond between the two and all the incredible, engaging ways his mom has devised to raise him to be thoughtful and intelligent, it soon becomes clear that something about their life is not quite right.

Seeing the world through Jack’s eyes gives us insight into what it means to be social creatures, how much we take for granted, and how important love and care are for healthy development. It’s also a commentary on modern media and commercialism; though it’s never didactic. Emma Donoghue’s novel is highly engaging, emotional, and gripping.

Saturday, Ian McEwan

Saturday is McEwan at his finest. The novel begins with Henry Perowne waking earlier than usual on a Saturday morning to witness a strange sight out his window. The narration follows him through to his very late falling asleep at the end of that Saturday. This “day in the life” echoes Virgina Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and, like Woolf, McEwan’s novel is filled with the complex and human inner monologue of Perowne, a neurosurgeon, as he goes about his day contemplating a world on the brink of war with Iraq and the relative nature of good and evil. The novel would be excellent even if nothing happened, as it displays how rich all the happenings of a single human life are; however things do happen. Dramatic events unfold, and the Perownes are faced with their own mortality.

Summertime, J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee’s new novel is not just an interesting conceit. It is a luminous, complicated picture of the life of an artist and writer.

But let’s start with conceit, which is fun and intriguing: A biographer is writing the biography of the late J.M. Coetzee. This isn’t that biography; rather it’s notes from interviews the biographer collected from a handful of people who knew Coetzee, mostly women who held some kind of romantic interest for him, discussing their relationship and the kind of man that he was. To be clear, this is fiction: For instance, much of the narrative discusses Coetzee’s relationship living with his aging father, yet accounts suggest this is not factually accurate. Further, what emerges is a not very flattering portrait of a man who seemed to only dabble in writing and wasn’t taken seriously as an author–his real-life Nobel Prize and two Booker Prizes dispute this characterization; though his winning the Nobel as well as the real titles of his books are mentioned. Certainly much of the fiction is mixed up with fact, and the piecing out what is “real” is one intriguing aspect of the narrative: After all, don’t we all have versions of ourselves we believe in, which may or may not coincide with the ways others perceive us? In taking on this conceit, Coetzee acknowledges that one’s public life is a complicated affair, and that trying to write one’s life story is even more complicated.

Beyond this idea, the book is beautifully written. A brief exchange between cousins reflecting on growing up in the rural regions of South Africa evoked such nostalgia in me for a childhood I never had, and the book has such a longing melancholy that, while at the same time it seems to be describing the life of a man who barely lived, it encourages such a fierce desire to live.

The Hours, Michael Cunningham

This may be a perfect novel! It’s the story of a day in the lives of three women, with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway a fourth character of sorts, all woven together brilliantly in a way that shows us both our connection to the larger ebb and flow of life as well as the idea that we all have our own unique experiences.

In the style of Woolf, Cunningham creates a rich interior world for his characters, showing that we are not just what we do in the world but also what we’ve done, how our memories have shaped us, and how we think as we move through our lives. The novel is infused with such beauty and sadness as we watch Virginia Woolf create Mrs. Dalloway and struggle with the mental illness that eventually drives her to suicide. Clarissa, like her namesake “Mrs. Dalloway” prepares for a party for her brilliant writer friend who is dying of AIDS as she remembers their fleeting romance as young people. And Laura Brown finds herself caught in the role that she should be playing as a wife and mother of the 1950s, as she desires brilliance, romance, or just the chance to read all day.

The movie does an excellent job of capturing the melancholy, beauty, and feel of the novel, but the novel should not be missed as Cunningham’s prose is detailed and finely textured. And then go read Mrs. Dalloway!

The Plot Against America, Philip Roth

This is a provocative novel that posits a very real course for American history. Of course, now in 2009, it’s easy to say that America should have been involved in World War II if for no other reason than to end Nazism and fascism, but questions of going to war are always far more complicated. So when Roth imagines a past for America with no World War II involvement, he makes it highly plausible, and, as the novel unfolds, the history that he re-imagines feels eerily resonant.

Charles Lindberg, a charismatic, larger-than-life figure becomes president, defeating FDR for a third term, much because of his good looks and heroic charm and also because he can package and sell Antisemitism to a nation full of fear. But what makes this book a great read is not this highly fascinating scenario, but the narration. The narrator is a nine year-old boy, who experiences the upheaval in his world with fear and curiosity, all of which brings a charming and humorous view. Philip is surrounded by a well-informed and political family, so we learn about the fate of the nation as he does through newscasts he overhears when he’s supposed to be sleeping and his parents’ hushed, worried discussions at night.

The only negative of this book is an ending with a silly attempt to justify Lindberg’s Antisemitism in a way that almost lets him off the hook rather than acknowledging that plenty of very powerful people have all kinds of oppressive views.

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