Out of darkness comes light, or sometimes more darkness. That may be Mohammed Hanif’s message in A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Vintage, $15, 336 pp.). Hanif, a graduate of the Pakistan Air Force Academy, imagines the final days of General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq before that dictator’s death in a mysterious plane crash. Zia, seen here as a paranoid buffoon, begins each day by wondering who is trying to kill him. The prisons are filled with the hapless victims of his paranoia and ignorance; his hero is Nicolae Ceauşescu, the brutal Romanian dictator. Ali Shigri, a young Air Force pilot seeking revenge for his father’s death, sets the catastrophe in motion. Injustice and absurdity abound equally, giving Hanif the opportunity for extraordinarily dark and brilliant humor. General Zia’s last plane ride is memorable: onboard are tribute cases of mangoes for the general and poisoned air freshener for the pilots.
Alexander McCall Smith, a gentle moralist who has charmed me for years, wants the world to be good. In 44 Scotland Street (Anchor, $15, 325 pp.), he creates a jewel box of interesting characters and moral dilemmas. Fans of Ian Rankin’s boozy Edinburgh crime novels will hardly recognize McCall Smith’s version of the city. Here, nothing much happens: a painting disappears, a secret tunnel is found, a romantic dream appears to be shattered. But the characters, bohemian and otherwise, are engaging. Big Lou owns a café and is reading her way through Proust. Cyril is a dog who drinks beer and winks at women. You will delight in learning how they navigate the often-muddy waters of the moral crises McCall Smith creates—including the dog, who dreams of biting people’s ankles, but knows he must not do so.
Olive Kitteridge (Random House, $14, 286 pp.), Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize–winning story collection, is dominated by the eponymous Olive, whose gruff Yankee charm and direct manner mask anger and fear of change. Strout celebrates with wry humor lives carved out of hardship, endurance, and simple need. Her grasp of human folly, faded dreams, and tragedy is acute and sympathetic. Olive’s character is peripheral to some of the stories, but hers is the voice we hear most forcefully: snappish, mocking, bossy. We meet her in middle age, her opinions as rock-ribbed as the coast where she has lived all her life. We see her last as an elderly widow, stunned by the comfort she finds in the bed of an elderly widower. You will find it hard to put down these intertwined stories of ordinary small-town folk living in Crosby, Maine.
The oft-disrespected state of New Jersey shines in David Rosenfelt’s murder mysteries. His books feature a smart-mouthed defense lawyer named Andy Carpenter who suddenly inherits millions of dollars, leaving him free to pick and choose his clients. In Rosenfelt’s first book, Open and Shut (Grand Central Publishing, $4.99, 320 pp.), Andy wins a new trial for a death-row inmate, one Willie Miller, thereby opening a large can of worms for some very important people. Andy’s marriage ends, his father dies, and assorted acts of violence occur, mostly in the gritty environs of Paterson, New Jersey. Andy loves to hang out in Charlie’s sports bar with his best friends, detective Pete Stanton (tall and handsome) and newspaper editor Vince Saunders (fat and sarcastic). The book is fast-paced, smart-alecky, and perfect for the beach.
The French, they are a funny race. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the compelling murder mysteries of Fred Vargas. In This Night’s Foul Work (Penguin, $14, 409 pp.), the action begins with the routine murder of two drug dealers. The singularly offbeat Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, who leads an odd collection of coppers in the Paris version of the serious-crimes squad, suspects something more sinister. Along the way to bagging their quarry, the coppers take plenty of time for fine dining and drinking, not to mention l’amour. Vargas burdens the plot with diversions and false leads, plus more information than you will ever need about deer antlers and pig snouts. But she writes with elegance, erudition, and some drollery.
Matthew Algeo’s Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip (Chicago Review Press, $24.95, 262 pp.) re-creates the vacation that Harry and Bess Truman took in the summer of 1953, after he left office, with Harry at the wheel of his Chrysler New Yorker. They were private citizens going to celebrate their wedding anniversary in New York City. Harry had a passion for cars, and this road trip, sans Secret Service and press details, remains unique in presidential history. When the Trumans left Washington, their only income was Harry’s small army pension. Congress had yet to fund presidential pensions, office space, secretarial staff, or security. Truman believed that former presidents should not accept money for making speeches; he took out a bank loan to cover expenses. The Trumans had a modest budget, usually putting up at inexpensive motels or staying overnight with friends. They ate in roadside diners and relished the rare moments of anonymity. In tracing their steps from Independence to New York City and back again, Algeo stayed whenever possible at the same motels, eating in the same diners, even visiting private homes. As the book touches on some of the politically charged moments of Truman’s presidency, it breathes life into a remarkable man. Harry Truman, a man of many parts, was notably pugnacious in his defense of democratic ideals (and of his daughter). As it happens, he was also a very good tipper. It’s marvelous to read; enjoy the time warp.
I have lately been giving some thought to the idea that the book-as-a-thing is on its way to becoming a specialty item, crowded out by the idea of the book as a stream of fungible and violable content.
The most striking image of this change—like the toppling of a statue—came in 2009 when the Associated Press, as part of a not-unusual journalistic race to get and reveal the contents of Sarah Palin’s book Going Rogue, obtained a copy, cut the binding off it, and fed the pages into a scanner.
They didn’t want to read the book. They wanted to search it. It was more useful to them as digital content. The act was as symbolic of the forces roaring through our culture as any dynamo Henry Adams ever beheld. Amazon.com now sells more Kindles than any other single item of any kind, and when there is a Kindle edition of a book, 50 percent of the copies Amazon sells are in Kindle form. That number, of course, grows. The e-book is winning.
My first recommendation for summer reading is therefore a general one. Consider that, whether you want to be or not, you are currently enrolled in Media Studies, by virtue of being alive and reading during this massive digital revolution. Read something that will inform that experience. My cheekiest suggestion is Reality Hunger—A Manifesto (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95, 240 pp.), David Shields’s Warholian screed exalting intellectual banditry, faux memoir-writing, and the postmodern disassembling of conventional notions of authorship. Not a particularly likable book, and consisting almost entirely of snippets gleefully plagiarized from other sources, Reality Hunger is—as is so often the case with carnage—difficult to look away from. For people who read, it’s the ultimate conversation-starter and a prethrown gauntlet.
It strikes me that Shields’s case for auteurism as a ridiculous, hidebound, media-corrupted, and incurably tainted notion was made less didactically and much more hilariously in Mark Leyner’s two 1990s novels, Et Tu, Babe (Vintage, $11.95, 176 pp.) and The Tetherballs of Bougainville (Vintage, $13, 240 pp.).
To people who are sickened by Shields, I say: Find something that helps you keep up the other side of this argument. Alas, Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton, $26.95, 288 pp.) is not yet out as of this writing, but the excerpts have been promising. Or you can do what I do: drag the very nice Gingko Press edition of Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic Understanding Media ($24.95, 611 pp.) around with you like Marley’s chains.
Which reference leads us back to Dickens and to reading for pleasure and to the undeniable power of the book-as-thing. My most powerful personal image is Charles Palliser’s wonderful, obsessive Dickens knock-off The Quincunx (Ballantine, $20) whose 788 pages so thoroughly seized me in the summer of 1992 that the volume became a nearly living thing, a storage organism of sweat and damp summer night air, food slicks, and sun lotion.
I also recommend What I Loved (Picador, $15, 384 pp.), Siri Hustvedt’s eerie novel about the New York City arts scene of the 1980s and about two interlocked nuclear families in SoHo. Hustvedt has a gift for making comprehensible the avant-garde expressions of a moody artist (working in the style of Joseph Cornell and his boxes) and then threading in the far more familiar story of a kid going mysteriously off the rails. I fell in love with this book while reading it in Akumal, Mexico. An American woman working in a little grocery there noticed it under my arm. We fell into a conversation, by the end of which I knew her name and some details of her life, which she conducts from a motorized wheelchair. She asked me to drop off the book if I finished in time. I kept forgetting and on my last day left the book, musty with jungle smells and sandy from the beach, in a palapa with a note asking someone, anyone, to bring it to her.
That’s what I mean about the power of the book-as-thing.
I seem less willing to give away my copies of the two novels—In the Woods (Viking, $15, 464 pp.) and The Likeness (Viking, $15, 480 pp.)—of Tana French, a young Irish writer who I suppose invites comparisons to Dennis Lehane but who writes with such originality and such enviable awareness of the forces that shape and sustain our lives that I resist comparing her to anybody. French is hardly a secret; the books have been wildly popular. I want to reinforce, however, the idea that French is one of those writers who just happens to use crime and cops as a fulcrum for more generalized explorations of basic human questions, especially the pressing issue of identity itself. How do we decide who we are? She writes with a full, aching, heavy Irish heart, pumping out an oxygen-rich imagery that reeks more of Yeats than of any other crime writer.
On a closing note, I will observe that assignments of this kind often invite the writer to walk around the house, head cocked sideways, looking at his various bookshelves and at the spines of all his books. If my suspicions about the book are correct, this very activity will grow, with each passing year, to seem more like the province of stubborn antiquarians. You will simply ask your e-reader (to borrow a phrase) what you loved.
The publishing industry relies on anticipation of the new: hot young writers, new titles by best-selling authors, this season’s throwaway beach reads. Readers of serious literary fiction, however, are often hoarders of the not-so-new: piles of unread but still anticipated books and ever-lengthening must-read lists. Here are a few choice picks from the wobbling stacks that had, until the promise of summer, accumulated on my own desk (and floor).
Though A Mercy (Vintage, $15, 167 pp.) is Toni Morrison’s latest, it has been at the top of my pile for well over a year now. Morrison is a challenging writer, in the best sense, and I had saved this intense, compressed novel for a stretch of time that would allow me to savor it. Morrison asks nothing less of her readers than to reimagine American history. Her setting is the New World of the late seventeenth century, where an Anglo-Dutch farmer and trader travels the Eastern Seaboard. Though he finds slavery distasteful, he keeps three women in bondage: the young African Florens, a Native American called Lina, and a “mongrelized” shipwreck survivor, Sorrow. Though Morrison is especially interested in the ways women negotiated bondage, landscape, and motherhood, her broad, generous vision also leads her to explore the lives of two white indentured males who may never see their freedom; a free black man, the blacksmith Florens loves; the trader himself; and his wife, who may be dying of smallpox. Lyrical perspectives, from slaveholder’s to slave’s, inform a plot centered on disease, sexual passion, and possession in all its forms. Religious practice has always been a major motif for Morrison; here, master and slave alike are inventive and idiosyncratic in their sinning, and religion can be “a flame fueled by a wondrous hatred.” But a priest (“the only kind man I see”) teaches Florens to read and write, and other acts of generosity require almost unfathomable self-sacrifice. Morrison’s portraits of a wide range of characters and beliefs are multilayered and often wrenching, her voices as lushly engaging as the bountiful, treacherous new landscape of America.
Gina Ochsner, in her marvelous short stories, has often ventured to Eastern Europe for territory to explore, her landscapes as reflective of contemporary post-Soviet culture as they are redolent of the great Russian novelists. Her readers have waited for The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25, 370 pp.) since Ochsner’s second collection of stories in 2005—though she is an Oregonian, the novel was released first in Great Britain, but for her American followers the wait has certainly been worth it. Focused on the inhabitants of a decrepit apartment building in Perm (“the gateway to Siberia”), Dreambook follows Olga, a Jewish translator of Russian military propaganda; Tanya, an Orthodox artist and coat-checker at the All-Russia All-Cosmopolitan Museum of Art, Geology, and Anthropology; Azade, the Muslim latrine-keeper whose bullying husband leaps from the building; and Yuri, a veteran beaten by thugs, including other veterans, on a regular basis. Realist, satiric, absurdist, fabulist, and fantastic in turn, Dreambook’s plot centers on the impending arrival of the Americans of Russian Extraction for the Causes of Beautification, who are seeking to fund a worthy institution. Tanya, dreaming of color, love, and a job at Aeroflot, is assigned to reel them in. Ochsner’s touch is deliciously light, her absurdities calling up the ghosts of Gogol and Bulgakov. But she is also as soulful as Turgenev or Chekhov, and religious faith is as central to her concerns as it was to Tolstoy’s. This does not prevent her from rendering a world that is often sordid and violent—indeed, it often requires her to do so—but she is no dour moralizer. Even as she satirizes all the forces roping in young men for brutal military adventures, she celebrates Russians resisting mad bureaucracy, faith struggling toward charity, and icons fashioned from chewing-gum foil.
The British novelist Joanna Kavenna’s Inglorious (Picador, $15, 286 pp.) was released in the United States in 2008, the same year she won the Orange Award for New Writers, but I have only now discovered it because of her strong new novel, The Birth of Love (Metropolitan, $15; 320 pp.). The new release is an intricate, ambitious meditation on childbirth across centuries, well worth reading, but it is the deceptively simpler Inglorious that I find completely compelling. Rosa Lane, a successful London journalist in her mid-thirties, faces a classic existential crisis after her mother dies. One day, confronting her computer screen and the possibility of a “future draped in grey,” she impetuously e-mails her resignation and walks out on her career. Soon enough her handsome lover, Liam, abandons her for her best friend. Other friends also desert her, by degrees, as she becomes poorer and needier, and the tempo of her unraveling picks up. In summary, this sounds like a potentially grim study of grief, but Kavenna is an endlessly witty and inventive writer who sees London and Londoners afresh. Rosa herself is a self-deprecating, fiercely intelligent, compulsive list-maker (“Read The Golden Bough, the Nag Hammadi Gospels, the Upanishads, the Qur’an, the Bible, the Tao, the complete works of E. A. Wallis Budge...Catch a train...Stop thinking about Liam and Grace...Stop writing lists”). Her journey away from worldly success is terrifying and often exhilarating.
Now at the top of my stacks: Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, Valerie Martin’s The Confessions of Edward Day, Roberto Bolaño’s The Skating Rink...The piles of unread novels grow, but the summer light lingers: time to make a dent.
All of June, on talk shows and book-fair panels, admirers and detractors alike will be discussing Christopher Hitchens’s long-awaited memoir, Hitch-22 (Twelve, $26.99, 448 pp.).You might as well read it, too. Whatever you think about the man’s political opinions, the stories he tells about his legendary career are a lot of fun. But after you’re done, pick up a pair of shorter memoirs by an equally elegant writer from the next isle over, John Waters.
Waters is a columnist for the Irish Times, a music journalist, and a playwright. He’s not as well known as Hitchens in the United States, but he ought to be. Lapsed Agnostic (Continuum, $19.95, 225 pp.) and Beyond Consolation (Continuum, $19.95, 193 pp.) are a pair of pointed meditations on the experience of a generation that, according to Waters, finds itself entering the last decades of life without certainties and without rites. It is the experience of that generation—the Boomers or, to use Waters’s phrase, the Peter Pan Generation—that Waters shares with Hitchens, and this kinship is what makes a comparison between the memoirs interesting. The day of reckoning is near, but each writer reckons in his own way.
Hitchens’s reckoning, as he describes it in his memoir, is against God. He does not feel any need, as he surveys the experience of his generation, to appeal to a higher source of meaning that would bring all those decades together. In this he is the opposite of Waters, who found his way back to the Catholic faith in recent years. This change was not in the first place intellectual; it began with the discovery of an inner dependency. Waters recounts this discovery in a language that sometimes risks airiness but remains grounded by the stories of suffering that precede his meditations. “The Reality I address in these moments [of prayer],” he writes,
is not the reality I live with every day, and yet it has something of that reality about it. It is almost on the same frequency but not quite. There is a need for me to adapt myself, to slip ever so slightly off the frequency of everyday reality and acquire a harmony with this Otherness. Of course, this is to put things the wrong way around, for it is everyday reality that is off key, though, being caught within its logic, we think of it as in perfect pitch.
Language is the central concern of Beyond Consolation, a book Waters was inspired to write by the last interview the Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain gave to the Irish press in the spring of 2008, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Waters, who had always admired O’Faolain as a writer, was struck—or rather, shattered—by her ability to articulate despair, by her “nihilistic clarity.” For Waters, this clarity contrasts starkly with a contemporary media language no longer able to speak clearly or convincingly about the opposite of despair—about the hope of life after death, about any religious view of human destiny.
Thus Waters embarks on a survey of his culture and his past, hunting for misuses of language and deficits of imagination. Hitchens himself might admire the gutsiness with which he takes on the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney:
Although his poems indicate that he reflects on the deepest matters at least as much as anyone else…he confined himself, when asked a straight, literal question in the context of a prime-time radio interview, to the declaration that all his reflection, all his introspection, all his imaginative adventuring have led him to nothing except the conclusion that the material realm, the one we know, is all there is, with the implicit rider that the best we can hope for, from art or poetry or anything, is perhaps some kind of imaginative refuge from this reality, to be maintained and curated by people like himself.
Waters is just as tough on his own past words. It is his rigor—of judgment and of conscience—that makes his books worth reading.
One wonders what he thinks of the great Italian writer Ignazio Silone, who used to say that he believed in an Easter Resurrection that has not come to pass. In Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35, 448 pp.), Stanislao G. Pugliese of Hofstra University tries to connect the various commitments and events in the novelist’s complicated career.
Silone (1900–1978) was born in the small Abruzzian village of Pescina. One of the poorest regions in Italy, Abruzzo is also prone to earthquakes. It was a terrible earthquake in 1915 that proved to be one of the most formative events in Silone’s life. It lasted thirty seconds and killed thirty-five hundred people in Pescina, including Silone’s mother and all but one of his siblings. Orphaned and alone, he attended a couple of boarding schools, until doctors (mistakenly) told him in 1918 that he had only one year to live. So he quit school immediately to become a writer. His whole life was a series of struggles, political and personal. From these struggles came the novels that made him famous—Fontamara (1931), Bread and Wine (1937), and The Seed Beneath the Snow (1940).
Silone often revised himself and his views. One of the founders of the Italian Communist Party in 1931, he ended up contributing an essay to the famous anti-Stalinist book The God That Failed (1949). It later came to light that during World War II, Silone collaborated with the Allied Intelligence Service, the O.S.S. But though he abandoned Communism, he never abandoned his commitment to some sort of socialism, and he never completely abandoned the Catholic faith. His novels speak for themselves, of course, but now we also have the remarkable story of the life behind them—a life in which the desire for justice and the desire for salvation came to seem like two sides of a single desire.