Thursday, July 8, 2010

What I Read During My Summer Vacation

First, a confession: I read no poetry on my vacation. For much of my vacation, I didn't have easy access to a computer or the Internet, so I read no blogs, no online journalism, no Wikipedia entries. Yup, it was back to the old-fashioned world of bound books written on paper and The Washington Post in the ink-stained fingers version (to be fair, the newspaper has mostly solved whatever problem it was that used to leave my fingers black after I read it, way back in the 1980's and 1990's).

I read novels. I'm always happy to discover that my attention span hasn't permanently shortened. I am still capable of diving deeply into a big book. It's much easier when I don't have to go to work.

I started off by reading Anna Karenina because I wanted to be free to read more modern novels during my travels. Nothing is worse than a plane yoyage with a book that is less than captivating. I blogged about my Tolstoy reading some weeks ago, so I won't rehash it here.

I decided to start my airline reading with One Day by David Nicholls, since it was the only paperback in my stack. This book takes us through the lives of two characters year by year, but on one day only, July 15. We see the two as they graduate from college and head off into the stormy years of early adulthood. We wonder if they're really right for each other. Occasionally, we see one or both of them in a particularly odious phase, but since it's one day, and by the next chapter a year has passed, we don't have the reader's dilemma of trying to care about characters who are unlovable. Instead, they seem complicated and realistic. It's a great novelistic device, and Nicholls uses it to full effect. There's quite a shocking twist near the end, but I left the book feeling satisfied. Nicholls claims to have been inspired by a several plot twists in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but I haven't had time to go back to think about this.

Next, I decided to tackle the biggest novel in the stack, The Passage by Justin Cronin. You've likely heard of it: an apocalyptic vampire novel, about a government experiment gone awry and the world goes smash. It's the first of a planned trilogy, and I did worry a bit that it would leave me hanging. Happily, that is not the case--the book has a natural ending, while leaving readers like me thirsty for more. As I was reading it, I kept thinking that if I was a graduate student in a department that allowed such topics, I'd love to write about the influences of Stephen King upon this novel. I expected to see echoes of Salem's Lot, King's vampire novel, but I saw more of The Stand. Much of the novel's battle between good and evil takes place in the desert Southwest, which made me wonder how many other apocalyptic depictions of similar battles take place there (King's The Stand does, for example). It's a great book, very literary for those people who like to dissect novels that way, but for those that don't, the literary bits don't slow down the trajectory of the thriller aspects of the novel. It's the longest novel I've read in some time (almost 800 pages), but I zipped right through it.

Next, I read a series of linked short stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I love linked short stories that give me a novelistic reading experience, and Egan is a master here. Great characters, great movement through time and place, and even some experimenting with form (the short story as PowerPoint presentation---I didn't think it could work, but it does).

I read 52 Loaves by William Alexander. I wanted to like this book. I heard the author interviewed on a Diane Rehm Show episode. I've found with many authors, and with this one too, once I've heard them interviewed on NPR shows, I've heard the best parts of the book. Alexander takes many side trips to explore the worlds of yeast, heat, flour, and monasteries. I just didn't care about some of the subjects, like pellagra, enough to want to read about them in detail. Other subjects, like his monastery experience, I'd have liked to hear more about. His decision to bake one loaf of bread using the exact same recipe each week seemed like a hokey device to get him a book deal; I'd have found it more interesting if he experimented more.

Then I turned my attention to The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes. He explores a time during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when Science and the Arts (and to a lesser extent, Religion) weren't considered to be mutually exclusive. I'm still reading it and enjoying it immensely. It's a heavier book, and I'm appreciating that heft even more after the fluffiness of 52 Loaves.

Now, of course, it's back to work and the eternal quest to find time to do all the things I want to do, as I'm also putting in 40-50 hours of work each week and resisting the intellectual black hole of television.

Perhaps I read more poetry when I'm not on vacation because it's easier to dip in and out of volumes of poetry (the same reason that I write more poetry than anything else these days). Happily, I have a huge stack of volumes of poetry waiting for me now. More on that as I dive into them.

1 comment: said...

I enjoyed that. Bizarrely, my last two posts were about One Day and Jennifer Egan who I hadn't heard of until a couple of days ago.

I'd love to get your feedback.