Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Threats from the Goon Squad--My Season's Reading

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I wax rhapsodic over Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. It's definately one of the best books I've read all year. I love the pep talk that Benny gives to the non-courageous Scotty: "Time's a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?" (page 269). I bought the book because it deals with punk rockers coming of age in the 80's, but I didn't expect to be so profoundly moved by the tales of these characters growing into mid-life.

I'm seeing a theme in my reading choices, reading choices which I assume are fairly random. I picked up Egan's book because of a glowing book review, and I picked up a few other books on this theme as I wandered through the library. The latest book I've read carries on with similar themes: aging (especially the part where we look up to discover that we're at mid-life) and art and beauty.

I just finished Michael Cunningham's latest, By Nightfall. What a great book. I've loved Michael Cunningham for a long time now, even before the rest of the nation discovered him after he wrote The Hours. I love him because he infuses his work with English major allusions; he makes me want to go back to reread great Modernist literature. I love him because of his language. I love the way he weaves things together.

I've also loved Cunningham for years because of his insights into the writer's life; for example, in an essay in Saturday's The New York Times, Cunningham writes about how all writing is really the work of translation. This essay came one day after Jeanette Winterson's review of Cunningham's latest book. I went to my public library website, and low and behold, the book was in. I went right out and grabbed it.

What a beautiful book. How sad and tragic and oddly hopeful. It makes me want to own an art gallery. It makes me want to create art. But more importantly, it makes me want to continue to create beauty out of words.

I'll leave you with some choice quotes, but I'll put them out of order and not put the page numbers with the quotes, so as not to spoil the plot. Seriously, read this book. It may make my list of the best books of 2010, maybe even the best book I've read in 2010 (can it really beat out Egan? Hmmmm, must think a bit more).

"What do you do when you're no longer the hero of your own story? You shut down for the night and go home to your wife, right? You have a martini, order dinner. You read or watch television. You are Brueghel's tiny Icarus, drowning unnoticed in a corner of a vast canvas on which men till fields and tend sheep."

". . . the sky so blank you can imagine God forming it with His hands like snowballs and tossing them out, saying Time, Light, Matter."

"To what extent do the Impressionists exist at all because it was suddenly so much cheaper to leave Paris and go to Provence?"

"Even now, after all those ad campaigns, after all we've learned how about bad it really and truly gets, there is the glamour of self-destruction, imperishable, gem-hard, like some cursed ancient talisman that cannot be destroyed by any known means. Still, still, the ones who go down can seem as if they're more complicatedly, more dangerously, attuned to the sadness and, yes, the impossible grandeur. They're romantic, goddamn them; we just can't get it up in quite the same way for the sober and sensible, the dogged achievers, for all the good they do."

By Nightfall is a book full of fabulous nuggets like those above, while at the same time spinning a plot about characters who make me both care about them and wince. I couldn't put it down, and once I was finished, I read parts again. Some books, I finish and I think, well, that's time I'll never get back. This book enriched me and expanded my sense of time, and that's no small thing.

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