Thursday, August 20, 2009

Summer Reading


P. and I are trying to be disciplined and read before we go to bed. But ever since he returned from Iraq with ALL FOUR SEASONS of The Office on his computer, it's been really hard to be a good bookworm. Just being honest. So we're doing our best to be nerdle-the-turtles AND enjoy the comic horrors of Michael Scott's one-liners.

Here's what's on our nightstand:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
One of my absolute favorite American novels. Received to less-than-critical acclaim when it was published in 1952, East of Eden is a sprawling, sometimes heavy-handed allegory of the story of Cain and Abel set in northern California between the Civil War and WWI. Compared to Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden is less tightly-woven, more excessively grand and ambitious; it's many characters are complex, ever-evolving, sometimes vulgar, and always surprising. It's an epic tale of morality, fraternal competition, and the quest for the American dream set in the golden hills of the Salinas Valley. The first hundred pages or so build a slow momentum, but once Steinbeck has all his players on the stage the plot explodes into unimaginable fragments that make this his most brilliant, complicated work.

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert
Although I couldn't stand the histrionic navel-gazing in her best-seller "Eat, Pray, Love" Gilbert does much better when she's not writing about herself. Here she chronicles the mercurial life of Eustace Conway, who literally walked into the woods when he was 17 and never returned to the comforts of modern life. Part Daniel Boone wilderness narrative, part Thoreauvian meditation on a purposeful life with nature, it's a damn fine little book that will inspire you to reconsider our relationship to the land.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby.
Favorite adventure/travel book ever. Hysterically funny, totally politically-incorrect, outrageously inept Newby, a mediocre fashion designer in London, quits his job and drives (yes, in a car) to the most remote region of Afghanistan with his witless chum, where they set off to climb some unnamed peaks in the incredibly remote Hindu Kush range. Written in the late 50's, A Short Walk is especially fascinating and relevant to read now because Newby writes with a tongue-in-cheek British colonial air about a place that is now ground zero for the Taliban. Beyond his amusing misadventures is real journalistic grit, and Newby's passion for the Kohistani people and research on the bloody history of the region is absolutely pertinent and riveting.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
I haven't finished this book so I can't write a legit review, other than it's a wildly fantastical allegory of the modern evolution of modern India, as played out in the story of two boys from different castes switched a birth on the eve of India's independence from British rule. Divinely lyrical, wondrously constructed magical realism on the grand scale of Rushdie's India in the midst of tempestuous political change.

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
I'm late to finally sink my teeth into Pollan's clear-headed, fascinating, scientific dissection of what he calls "America's eating disorder." That is, our total dislocation from where our food comes from. Pollan breaks down four meals and where they came from into four sections of the book: industrial agriculture (your average Big Mac, for example), "big organic" (say, a meal from Whole Foods), a local farm (free-range hens and chemically untreated produce) and finally, Pollan's back forty (a meal foraged from his own woods). Similar books on industrial agriculture vs. organic can be sanctimonious, but Pollan is too good a writer and too hard-nosed an objective researcher to forsake good journalism to push ideology. But you may consider your dinner in ways you'd never imagined.

Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey by William Least Heat-Moon
Every decade or so Heat-Moon comes out with a new book, and it's cause to drop everything and celebrate (His road trip masterpiece Blue Highways is the highbrow answer to On the Road). It's no wonder it took him so long to write his most recent door-stopper of a tome; it's a 600-page, scrupulously researched book about quoz, an archaic word for things one comes across serendipitously. Here he covers pre-Colombian earthworks in Illinois, the history of the American railroad, drug smugglers in rural Florida, and the murder of his great-grandfather, all while retracing the journey of the ill-fated and obscure Hunter-Dunbar Expedition that Jefferson sent down the Ouchita River in 1804. Spellbinding in its Twain-like wit, sprawling in its subject matter, and immensely satisfying.

1 comment:

  1. hi lily, i am here at karine's reccomendation. love your posts and wish there was more...
    at the moment i've just finished Rushdie's book of short stories called East West. while not as complex as his novels they have me equally enthralled.


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