Catching Up

OK, folks, it’s been a while but I’m back. Applying to jobs is stressful! I’ve still been reading, though. Probably too much so as to avoid doing things I should be doing, like sending out cover letters and résumés. I had an interview last week in DC that went well, so now I can relax a little. I’ve read too many books to do full reviews of so I’m going to give short reactions to some of the better books I’ve read over the past several months. Here goes!

I. In Bed with Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood, and the Private World of an American Master by Tim Teeman

If you’re looking for something salacious, thought-provoking, and full of history, look no further. Teeman’s investigation of Gore Vidal’s life, including his upbringing, his romantic and sexual relationships, and his writings, reads like a wild romp through mid-century America. Vidal’s views were radical for his time and very likely still would be today. In particular, his views on sexual orientation were and continue to be divisive. Despite the fact that he lived with a man for decades, by his own account slept with hundreds of men, and wrote legendary books like The City and the Pillar that defined gay literature for many years afterward, Vidal refused to identify as gay. There are only gay acts, he claimed, not gay people. Gore Vidal’s views on human sexuality make this look into his sexual and literary life an interesting contrast to the identity politics of today. Perhaps Vidal was right? I’m not so sure, but Teeman’s book was nonetheless a satisfying read.

II. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Of the Roth novels I’ve read over the past couple of years, The Human Stain is without a doubt my absolute favorite; I have a hard time believing that any of his numerous other novels will outshine it for me. However, TPAA is a well-written (as always) and convincingly imagined retelling of WWII American history. In Roth’s fictitious America where Charles Lindbergh, anti-Semite, has become President, America’s Jews worry that they might face the same brutal carnage as their cousins in Europe. As in his other novels, the tension between Jewish and American identities and family drama (Roth uses his own family as a template in this novel) play a central role in the plot.

III. The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

Kushner’s celebrated novel definitely lived up to all the hype, something I can’t say about her first novel, Telex from Cuba. In this novel a girl named Reno (yes, she is from the eponymous city in Nevada), the 1970s New York art world, and radical politics of post-WWII Italy are woven together in a way that feels very much of the moment, despite being set 40 years in the past. Kushner has a real gift for dialogue and creating well thought out characters. This is one of those rare novels that is simultaneously both smart and eminently readable.

IV. As Meat Loves Salt Maria McCann

The English Civil War meets gay romance in this titillating novel that the Economist called one of the year’s best. McCann creates a believable romance between two men during one of the most turbulent periods of English history. She uses enough period language to transport you 400 years into the past but not so much that the work becomes unreadable for a layperson. This is a long book, but it’s fast moving plot, rich characters, and, of course, some strategically placed sexual trysts, make it a real page-turner.

V. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Before reading this book I didn’t know much about Scientology other than the fact that some of its most prominent members, Tom Cruise and John Travolta, were famous and powerful figures in the entertainment industry. Wright’s investigation into the religion (it is classified as being such by the IRS for tax purposes, a particularly interesting episode detailed in the book) reads like investigative journalism of the best sort. I came to this book wanting to know more about the actual beliefs of Scientologists and came away shocked and appalled by the extreme physical and emotional abuse the Church perpetrates against many of its members. A must read for anyone interested in religion, belief, and cults.

VI. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

I’ve always heard good things about Larson’s popular history books. Being particularly interested in the years around WWII, I decided to give this one a go. The books tells the unlikely story of a University of Chicago history professor who moves to Berlin in the 1930s with his wife and two grown children to serve as US Ambassador to Germany. Larson gives a real sense of immediacy to the family’s encounters with the German establishment and the expat community as over time the begin to grasp the gravity of events taking place around them. This book is a fast read makes an excellent weekend escape.

VII. NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith

NW follows several residents of immigrant neighborhoods in the northwest section on London, offering up rich insights on class, culture, race and socioeconomic background in modern Britain. I read this book expecting a lot more than I got. Last summer I read White Teeth and was absolutely blown away by its ingenious plot and fascinating characters. NW lacked the narrative richness and engrossing quality that kept my engrossed in White Teeth page after page. I rarely say that a book was a huge disappointment, but NW has earned that unfortunate designation from me.

VIII. Lords of Finance: The Bankers who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahmed

This is an excellent book on international finance after the first World War. I know, that probably sounds like an awful lie. But, truthfully, for a well thought out and convincingly laid out argument as to why the world – particularly Europe – found itself in such trouble in the the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, once would be hard pressed to find a better book than this. A mix of biography, history, and narrative prose make this book approachable for anyone interested in the subject regardless of background.

IX. Found in the Street by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith has spun yet another tale of disturbing intrigue. Ralph Linderman, like so many of Highsmith’s “weirdos,” thinks of himself as a good guy, but everyone else who meets him encounters something slightly off about the middle-aged man with a dog named God. A night guard by profession, he has taken to following Elsie, a young blonde girl from upstate New York, often warning her not to fall in with the wrong crowed. When Ralph finds and returns a lost wallet to John Sutherland, an artist, the tension between Ralph and the other characters begins to mount. Ralph is generally regarded as a creep, often gets the facts hilariously wrong, but in the end, he may have turned to have had Elsie’s best interests in mind all along.

X. Little Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart

Novelist Gary Shteyngart tells the story of he and his family moving from 1970s Leningrad to Queens New York. His memoir is a comedic and heartbreaking story about a family of Russian Jews starting over in the United States and the struggles Shteyngart faced in living up to his parents’ expectation that he should become a lawyer. I now plan on reading Shteyngart’s novels and hope that I can pick up on some of the autobiographical details included in them. Little Failure should find its place among other great immigrant tales.




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