If May was the month of periodicals, June is the month of novels.
Catching Fire and Mockingjay by Suzanne collins
After being thrilled with The Hunger Games, I was excited to finally
complete the trilogy. Kimberly had gotten both books on reserve from the
library, so I read them after her. I was not disappointed. Catching
Fire and Mockingjay continue what is great about The Hunger Games -
a compelling and readable story combined with a thought-provoking
I feel that these books have already become an important part of the
canon of youth literature, and that is a good thing. It seems incredible
that young people are getting exposed to books which question "the myth
of redemptive violence," and moreover that such stories are being made
into blockbuster films. I am not sure what young people are thinking
about these stories - whether or not they realize the profound critique
they offer of our society - but I know that in a powerful story that
message can be internalized, and that is good for everyone.
What is the What by Dave Eggers
What is the What is characterized as a novel, but it is
paradoxically also the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. As a
result the book carries the rather inane Library of Congress designation
"Autobiography - Fiction." (Apparently between relying on Valentino's
distant memories and Eggers' treatment of the subject, the publishers
felt compelled to call it a novel). But don't let the taxonomic
confusion deter you, it is a good read.
Eggers is a fantastic writer. I have read both Zeitoun and A
Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and loved them both. His
telling of Valentino's story is quite compelling and readable. The book
doubled as a good primer for me on the history and nature of the
conflicts in Sudan over the past several decades. It was interesting to
read about the possibility of a new nation - South Sudan, which has of
course now come to pass.
At Home by Bill Bryson
This book is subtitled "a short history of private life." Bryson guides
the reader on a tour of his English country parsonage to give an
explanation of the rise of the various furniture, contrivances,
garments, and the rooms themselves in the typical home. If you have read
Bryson before, you'll appreciate his charming style and readable yet
I enjoyed the book as a whole, but my primary critique is that Bryson's
structure is a bit contrived. In a few places the connection between the
room and the topic is tenuous at best. For example, the "Study" chapter
is dedicated not to a space dedicated to intellectual pursuits, but to
household pests. The tenuous connection is that Bryson says the study is
where his mousetraps are most often sprung.
Much of our standards for homely comfort are derived from Victorian
England, so much of the history in this work is centered there. An
unintended consequence of this focus has been me coming to regard that
society as terribly depraved. I feel quite lucky to have not lived
through it. At Home is
recommended, but first-time Bryson
readers really ought to check out A Walk in the Woods as well.
Too Far To Go by John Updike
In next month's reviews I'll cover the current issue of Tin House, which
has an article on the so-called "Merritt Parkway" novels. These are
novels of marital strife in the midst of suburban discontent, the most
prominent of which is Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I saw the
film adaptation and positively hated it.
When I discovered that Too Far To Go (which I had acquired second
hand) was a collection of short stories centered on the breakup of a
marriage, I was worried that I would be terribly disappointed. But
Updike did well with the topic. Rather than despising the main
characters as I did in Revolutionary Road, I find myself empathizing
with them somewhat. Yet I was still on the whole baffled by their
behavior and outlook (and I am proud of that). I recommend anyone read
Updike (Terrorist is a good start), but this collection is probably
not his best work.
The July 2012 issue of Harper's includes "Reason for living" by
Christopher Beha, which is a rather striking review of three books an
atheistic ethics. I was particularly pleased by the skewering of Sam
Harris' attempt at objective morality.