Saturday, August 21, 2010

Slouching Into Fall: Best Books of Summer 2010

One of the tragedies of a summer ending is ending a summer's reading. Soon we bring a close, if we have not already, to those hours of getting lost in a book, of time unimpeded by intrusive thoughts of papers ungraded, classes to prepare and teach, errands to run and meetings to attend. Only in the summer (or on a cross-country flight) am I able to re-experience the pure joy of beginning and ending a book in one day, that happy sense of having been entirely emptied out of my own thoughts and occupied by someone else's, and the sweetness of reluctant departure from a world I do not live in. Reading is, in short, one of the few available ways of making a journey to the past that I know that is also effortless, happy and free (I am eliminating psychotherapy and my own scholarship from the list of time-travel methods, and while reading is not always free, it can be with the help of a good public or university library.)

The only thing I have eliminated from the total immersion reading experience as an adult is reading nonstop and simultaneously eating an entire jumbo bag of candy. It's probably obvious why I don't eat and read at the same time anymore, and if it isn't, get on your own bathroom scale and guess. So, although Radical Readers will recognize two of these books from earlier posts, here are....

The Best Five Books of Summer 2010

Best War Book: Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn (Atlantic Monthly Press,2010.) A Marine veteran, Marlantes has been working on this first novel about his Vietnam experience for thirty years. Warning: it's really long. But it's also really good, and contains some of the most moving moments I have ever read in war fiction. You know these guys are really in the $hit in the first chapter, when one of their comrades nearly dies from a leech crawling up his urethra and the chopper pilots won't risk sniper fire to come in and get him. It has kind of a hail Mary ending, but it is a good read about what happens to ordinary soldiers in a war that has ceased making sense or having any objectives that are not political. Warning: do not read this book if you are, or have a friend or relative, deployed or about to deploy, to Afghanistan.

Best Biography: Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford University Press, 2009. Reviewed on this blog in June.) Need I remind you that the libertarian physician and candidate for Senate in Kentucky, Randal Paul, calls himself "Rand"? Have you ever wondered why? Part of the genius of this book is that stuff like that, and the possibility that the Tea Party movement has some intellectual coherence after all, starts to fall into place in your head. There has been a rash of important monographs on the rise of the Right over the past ten years, but almost none of them reach back before World War II to lodge the complexities of contemporary conservatism in an older intellectual history. This history includes, and cannot be fully understood without, the emigration from the Soviet Union of aspiring writer Alisa Rosenbaum and her self-invention as anti-totalitarian philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand. Burns' well-written book did something a good biography should: demonstrates why someone matters. I've never been able to make it past the first 100 pages or so of any of Rand's novels, and I have always thought of her as a thinker most people grow out of. But that isn't true, and if you really want to understand Libertarianism, where it fits in the spectrum of conservative thought in the United States, and why it has such broad attraction to middle-class Americans, read this book.

Best Gay Book: Terry Castle, The Professor (HarperCollins, 2010.) The subject of a three part conversation between myself and Historiann here, here, and here -- with a special contribution from Comrade PhysioProf, this series of essays on culture and contemporary intellectual life kept me captivated throughout. Read our posts to see if it is your cup of tea, but its combination of humor, pathos, weed, lesbians and downtown academic dirty gossip has a little something for everyone. It also got me fatally involved (to the tune of ten downloaded albums to date) with jazz great Art Pepper, and reminded me of what I was doing and thinking about decades ago when I wasn't so involved with being so frakkin' responsible all the time.

Best Novel (Thriller): Scott Turow, Innocent (Grand Central Publishing, 2010.) OK, I made it through The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but I really didn't get why it and Stieg Larsson's other two novels are so hot. My view of a thriller is that you should have all the information you need to correctly guess who the perp is, even -- or perhaps especially -- if the clues are woven into character rather than material evidence. There was less of a buzz on Turow (Michiko liked it) because of the summer most readers spent touring obscure towns in Sweden, but I thought Innocent was far better plotted, and the characters all expertly drawn. It's a sequel to Turow's 1987 debut, Presumed Innocent, in which Rusty Sabich, now a judge, finds himself with another inconvenient death to explain and another extramarital affair to hide. Furthermore, while Turow never commits himself to answering the question of who committed the murder in Presumed Innocent, this sequel offers a chilling possibility about what Sabich might have known all along.

Best Novel (non-Thriller): Brady Udall, The Lonely Polygamist (W.W. Norton, 2010.) I spent long periods of my childhood in the Mountain West, so even prior to HBO's Big Love I have always been fascinated by all things Mormon: the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (otherwise known by us kind Gentile kids as the Norman Pumpernickel Singers), Fawn Brodie, Dr. Pepper, white longies under everything, whole towns full of blonde blue-eyed white kids with the same highly recessive genetic traits, getting sealed by a Priesthood holder -- the whole nine yards. Udall, who talks about his polygamous family connections here, has written a fantastic book that features contractor Golden Richards, a man with four wives, two houses, over twenty children and a lot of money problems. It's also a nuanced view of what the commitment to family really means in polygamy, and an insider's look at the non-sensational, quiet lives of most people who live the Principle: unremarkable folks who don't marry pre-teens, and who balance everyday domestic difficulties and community governance with an extraordinary mandate from the Divine. As Golden gets himself into deeper and deeper hot water with his wives, his story runs parallel -- and intersects tragically too late -- with the story of a sad, angry little boy who fights not to be forgotten in the crowd of Golden's many dependents.

Readers, what are your picks? Feel free to add new categories.


And now, for your viewing pleasure, a reminder that if you assign meaningless papers to your students this fall you will have to grade them too:


Anonymous said...

Best Biography: For my money it's "Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, vol 1," by William H. Patterson. Heinlein practically invented modern science fiction, and thus had enormous influence on American popular culture. From his childhood in Butler, Missouri his time at Annapolis, his work with Sinclair's EPIC political organization, to his service during WWII, this thoroughly documented bio is a fascinating insight to one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century.

Katrina said...

Oh, my favourite history-book-for-pleasure this summer was "Passing Strange" by Martha Sandweiss.
(everything else I've read recently was published a long time ago...)

Historiann said...

I'm just back from the beach, and my beach reading books were great. I especially liked Joyce Carol Oates's The Falls (2004). It isn't a brand-new book, but it was an engrossing tale of the perils of heterosexuality and the corruption of small-town life for one family in Niagara Falls, NY, in the 1950s-1970s. That's pretty much what you expect from Oates, but she weaves into the story the early attempts to sue for damages from the Love Canal dump site, and the toll it takes on the privileged local scion (and his family) who initially takes up the plaintiffs' crusade.

Oates is my favorite vacation writer. Her work is very absorbing and not too taxing, but it still counts as literary fiction rather than genre fiction, in my book. Plus, she's probably the most prominent feminist novelist writing today aside from Toni Morrison. And she writes more books than I take vacations, so there's always a new book out there for me to pack along.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Castle's booke is fucken great.

I just read this gripping booke about a cave exploring race between Americans spelunking in Mexico and Ukrainians spelunking in Georgia (the country) to find the deepest fucken cave on Earth:

"Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth" by James M. Tabor

academic_drifter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
academic_drifter said...

I'm about two-thirds of the way through Melvin Urofsky's Louis D. Brandeis, and not only is it the best biography I have read this summer, but the best I have read in some time. It contains the insights of a career spent studying Brandeis, and is unlikely to be surpassed as an account of the justice's life and achievements.