One cannot read a book, one can only reread it,” Vladimir Nabokov famously remarked. “A good reader, a major reader,” he explained, is necessarily a rereader because a book cannot be apprehended instantaneously the way a painting can be “taken in.” Only second, third, even fourth readings allow the mind to grasp its entirety.
Rereading, occurring over a lifetime, forms a kind of bookish autobiography. Jane Eyre, for example, might first companion a lonely girlhood, then return during a miserable divorce, and finally surface on a cruise in old age like a long lost friend in the next deck chair—a different book each time because a different reader. Wendy Lesser, the editor of the Threepenny Review, has written a wonderful memoir based on this premise, Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering (Mariner Books, $13, 256 pp.).
Though the notion of rereading is perhaps antithetical to our throw-away culture, anyone who teaches be-comes a champ rereader, a recycler of narrative. But lately it’s been heavy lifting for readers of memoirs, the genre I practice and sometimes teach. What with the cheaters and liars, not to mention breathless self-promoters and heated competition for worst-tale-of-abuse, who wants to reread a memoir? Why even read one? British publishing has devised a dismissive category for such works: “misery memoirs.”
Yet what I treasure in memoir is the personal life contending with the impersonal narrative of history. I recently revisited two favorites, perhaps to reassure myself that the misery memoir has not colonized all the autobiographical turf.
Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir by D. J. Waldie (St. Martin’s Press, $12.95, 192 pp.) captivated me when it first came out. It still astonishes. It’s no easier to describe now than it was before it became a classic of American autobiography. The landscape of Waldie’s Catholic boyhood in the 1950s is Lakewood, California, a postwar tract development. The “chapters” of this deceptively modest book are brief numbered paragraphs, sly literary maquettes of the grid addresses that are the book’s subject.
Waldie’s range is staggering—from intimate, touchingly respectful revelations of family life and spiritual reality to a precise history of land development and public policy regarding water use (and don’t imagine this is the boring part). The first-person voice switches to the third person—the narrator is sometimes “I,” sometimes “he,” as if the anonymity of the tract grid imposed—or offered—personal displacement. A supposedly dry subject—the design of grid patterns—rainbows across the American century with sudden illumination.
Waldie has written nothing less than the spiritual autobiography of the midcentury American suburban dream. It proves to be a subject worthy of tragedy and of his remarkable elegy.
If Waldie’s memoir is a poetic evocation, Annette Kobak’s Joe’s War: My Father Decoded (Alfred A. Knopf, $16, 464 pp.) uses the autobiographical impulse to rewrite history itself. From her lonely childhood in a dreary London suburb with the cruelly ironic name Crystal Palace, Kobak carries into adulthood (past a brilliant Cambridge career, marriage, motherhood, divorce, and success as a biographer) the troubling memory of her distant father, a Czechoslovak émigré who slept with a hammer under his pillow. Deep in middle age the oddity of her childhood with its silences (no telephone, no friends) comes back to haunt.
That mysterious hammer under the pillow is the engine of the book. Kobak’s reconstruction of her father’s wartime life as a code-breaker and its legacy of subterfuge and terror, lead her to reenact his flight from Eastern Europe to London. Finally, his story draws her to archives revealing aspects of World War II history obscured or purposely traduced. The memoir moves from the modesty of the personal to the starkly geopolitical.
I reread the book soon after my first reading to be sure I understood the fresh history it mapped (chiefly the part played by Polish fighters on behalf of the English). But in my rereading I discovered again the breathtaking relation between the personal detail—that hammer—and the seemingly impersonal machine of history. This is the real value of autobiographical writing.
In his memoir, Speak, Memory, Nabokov relates a childhood vignette about a family friend, an army general who, while showing him a match trick, is suddenly called to lead the Russian troops during the 1904 Japanese war, thus interrupting the game. Years later the general, escaping in peasant disguise during the Bolshevik revolution, stops Nabokov’s father, also in disguise, to ask for a light, and they recognize each other.
“What pleases me,” Nabokov says, “is the evolution of the match theme.... The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.”
If our stories are, finally, our lives, then the memoir, at its truest, is not a “retelling,” but a rereading. We follow the “thematic designs” as we would an intricate plot in a cherished novel, binding self to world.
It was on a transatlantic flight to Italy last February that I came to appreciate the cultural significance of beach reading. I boarded the plane thinking that in the eight hours I’d spend on the flight I could knock out 150 pages or so of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. Unexpectedly, however, each seat on the plane came equipped with its own television screen, featuring all the latest films from Hollywood to Bollywood. So instead of 150 pages, I read twenty, and then watched Sean Penn’s Into the Wild and the latest episodes of The Office. One of the last safe houses for public reading has finally been flooded by screens and soundtracks. The beach, I think, will hold out a little longer.
Beach reading tends to be fiction. In a time when the novelist is being squeezed on both sides by the filmmaker and the memoirist, the novel remains the genre of choice for the beachgoing public. A few years ago the online magazine Slate asked several writers and editors, “What’s your favorite beach book?” Almost all picked fiction. For summer reading, then, I’ll recommend two novels, but first a work of criticism.
To classify Sven Birkerts’s latest book, Reading Life: Books for the Ages (Graywolf Press, $16, 256 pp.), as a collection of literary criticism would be accurate but also slightly misleading. These are personal essays, as much about life as about reading. “Reading is open, in the world, in life,” Birkerts writes, “because reading is the most complex and volatile way we’ve found to merge the experienced and the imagined. Turning the pages of a challenging novel we spark up not just our intellect, but also our emotional and our dreaming selves.” Each essay is dedicated to a favorite novel, and whether he’s writing about The Moviegoer or Madame Bovary, Birkerts always relates his own experiences, merging them with the novels’ imagined worlds.
In The Emperor’s Children (Vintage, $14.95, 496 pp.), Claire Messud attempts the same kind of merger. Her story, set in the months before and after September 11, 2001, concerns the lives of three single New Yorkers entering into the fourth decade of their meandering lives: Danielle, a documentary film producer; Julius, a critic for the Village Voice; and Marina Thwaite, winsome daughter of Murray Thwaite, a famous journalist who made his name covering labor strikes and demonstrations during the 1960s. Marina is trying to write a work of pop sociology on children’s clothing. Ludovic Seeley, an Aussie sent to New York to “foment revolution” with a stylish new magazine, wins her heart. Add to all this the destabilizing presence of Marina’s cousin Bootie, a college dropout who is sick with desire for true learning and a “real” life.
Messud is a subtle and compassionate satirist. The reader gets the sense that the characters’ questions and doubts are questions and doubts the author herself has grappled with. She describes a period of uneasy quiet at the dawn of the twenty-first century: Western liberal democracies have reached a comfortable plateau—political stability, economic affluence, a continued respite from the fear of war. But what does one believe in? What does one live for? Murray Thwaite, the successful journalist, is struggling to write a summa tentatively titled How To Live. Ludovic Seeley’s “revolution” exposes falsehoods but has difficulty proposing truths. At first, all the awkward striving of bright young people is comical, but this is much more than a satire of manners. The Emperor’s Children is deceptively serious about the unseriousness it describes.
Less sprawling but equally ambitious is Doris Lessing’s novella The Fifth Child (Vintage, $12.95, 144 pp.), copies of which are now everywhere adorned with a golden sticker that reads, “Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.” (Lessing won the prize last October.) Lessing begins her tale in the London of the 1960s. There Harriet Walker and David Lovatt, two people who feel at odds with the sexual and political liberations of the time, meet, fall in love, and decide to live a traditional life, in a big Victorian house outside the city, with many children. An aristocratic life is not easy on a middle-class income, however, and soon the new baby and the expensive mortgage force David into asking his wealthy father for financial support. Despite this, everyone is happy. But this is not a novel about a happy family. This is a horror story.
The fifth child almost kills Harriet during her pregnancy, and emerges at birth as an alien creature, strange in appearance, perpetually hungry, loud, and violent. He does not connect with his mother, does not get along with his peers, cannot be tender, cannot be still, and is happiest when he’s watching news accounts of violence and war on television. He is an unexpected monster, one that the Lovatts’ relatives, and most of the Lovatts themselves, want to get rid of. Harriet, however, despite her suffering, cannot look past the humanity of her child. Many recent apocalyptic stories, like Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road or Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men, offset the bleakness of impending doom with hope incarnated in a child. In Lessing’s vision—which was born during, in her words, the “violent” 1980s—the child is a harbinger of doom and tests the limits of human compassion.
The ’60s and 2001, doom and gloom—perhaps a little too heavy for the summer. But that’s what the beach is for: the warm sand somehow eases the dramatic tension. As for me, I might give Nostromo another try.
Start your summer reading with The People’s Choice (Plume, $13.95, 320 pp.), Jeff Greenfield’s hilarious poisoned valentine to the U.S. electoral system. When MacArthur Foyle, the new Republican president-elect, cannot wangle out of a promise to ride a horse in a parade for crippled children in downtown Cheyenne, disaster strikes. The horse, mistakenly injected with adrenaline by a kindly vet with poor eyesight, takes the equine-phobic Foyle for a brief, terrifying ride that results in Foyle’s death. Political intrigue and hanky-panky follow, as competing groups try to thwart or uphold the will of the people. I had a good time reading about the “dewy-lipped” young network correspondent who believed that “Beirut was a province of El Salvador.” Greenfield’s portrayal of Theodore Block, the overprivileged but morally upright vice president-elect, is a romp. Block’s stupefying gaffes lead one wag to say, “In the words of the late, great Daffy Duck...Shoot him now, shoot him now.” The liars, cheats, sycophants, power brokers, and small sprinkling of good guys who inhabit this book could all be plucked from today’s headlines. Keep laughing, until November.
If today’s headlines have you by the throat, try Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time (Penguin, $15, 368 pp.) by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Mortenson, raised in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro by missionary parents, was an experienced climber when he joined an expedition to ascend K2 in northern Pakistan. He was separated from the group after failing to reach the peak. Lost in the bitter cold, he was rescued and taken to the remote village of Korfe, the first foreigner ever to set foot there. It changed the course of his life. The villagers were impoverished, unwashed (Mortenson smelled the village well before he saw it), and mostly illiterate. They were also hospitable, and accepting of the harsh conditions in which they lived. Mortenson was deeply affected by the children’s fierce desire to learn despite the lack of books or a full-time teacher, so he pledged to Haji Ali, the nurmadhar or chief, that he would build a school for them. How he builds the school, and many others in neglected and desperately poor areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, is a unique and important story. Mortenson had few assets beyond per-sonal courage, stamina, and the altruism instilled by his parents. Nor could he imagine the adventures that awaited him: he was kidnapped by Wazir tribesmen, survived a fatwa, and defied the Taliban. I make note of the book’s remarkable photographs. The faces of Haji Ali and the other sturdy souls God places in such unforgiving landscapes is a disarming affirmation of our common humanity.
Across the river and into the trees might bring you to Three Pines, the setting for Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $6.99, 368 pp.), the second in her nifty mystery series about a small Canadian village. In the days just before Christmas the village provides a perfect setting for a devilishly clever murder. Three Pines is prosperous and charming, its citizens seemingly content, its inn and shops cozy gathering places. But nestled in its midst is a viper, CC de Poitiers, the Queen of Mean, a wretched and abusive mother, a faithless lover, a greedy, nasty piece of work. Her fiendishly executed demise breaks no hearts, but it does unearth some secrets and poses a tantalizing mystery for Armande Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Ga-mache is a reflective, compassionate copper, and sexy in his mature way. Like all Penny’s characters, he is well drawn and interesting, and I would doubtless enjoy having a cognac with him at the inn on a cold winter’s eve. Meanwhile, two more deaths and some false leads keep you guessing until, in the last few pages, the murders are solved, loose ends neatly tied, and Gamache, his wife, and a few jolly friends ring in the New Year with oysters and Champagne.
Although classified a “mystery” by my public library, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Harper Perennial, $15.95, 464 pp.) is actually much more. In 1948, all Jews are expelled from Israel. They are resettled with a lengthy leasehold in the Federal District of Sitka, a frozen Alaskan wasteland that, years later, throbs with Yiddish sensibilities. Meyer Landsman, a depressed, alcoholic detective and his partner, Berko Shemetz, set out to solve the murder of a heroin-addicted chess genius. Meyer’s ex-wife, the tough, wily, very lovable police inspector Bina Gelbfish, is their boss. She orders them to concentrate on a dozen old unsolved murders and to forget the chess genius. Meanwhile, menace hovers in the subplot: the leasehold is about to revert to federal rule and its Jews may again be without a homeland. By turns mournful and very amusing, the book is a jam jar of ghosts and memory, of rent garments and Zippo lighters, of secret tunnels and Hasidic tough guys. The dialogue is so marvelously larded with Yiddish that I was almost convinced I could speak it by the time I finished the book. It is indeed a murder mystery, but also a love story and a lost chord. You will bid shalom to Meyer, Bina, and the gang with regrets.
I always enjoy visiting Michael Dibdin’s Italy. It is a dark, dispiriting, corrupt place, but with good food. In Back to Bologna (Vintage Crime, $12.95, 240 pp.), another in his series featuring Aurelio Zen, the urbane, world-weary detective, Zen is himself having an emotional crisis. He is appealing and attractive, but his personal life is a mess. Posted to Bologna to solve a high-profile murder, Zen becomes involved in an amusing and very public battle of egos between a bird-brained celebrity chef and a famous professor of semantics. An-other contest of sorts plays out between the spoiled son of a rich lawyer and an idealistic student from Southern Italy. Surprisingly, the story ends with a cheerful turn in Zen’s domestic life, a dash of redemption for both the chef and the professor, and the decision of Rodolfo, the student, to listen to his heart and return home to the south. Molto bene!
In the midst of our country’s unending “war on terror,” we are graced with a trio of formally inventive novels that explore the aftereffects of both war and terror with unblinking moral vision. These novels can’t simply be described as “political”; concerned with everyday lives as much as with violent eruptions, they certainly don’t offer us a way out of our current morass. But by imagining individual journeys through literal and metaphorical terror zones, they succeed in creating the disturbing, mysterious, and empathetic experience that the best novels offer, while taking a clear stand on the side of those who suffer most when under political repression.
No contemporary writer has concerned herself more with war’s suffering than Pat Barker. Her Regeneration trilogy explored the psychological damage inflicted by World War I; and in Life Class (Doubleday, $23.95, 311 pp.) she returns to that war, surveying its devastation with such clarity that readers may feel they, too, have experienced some measure of its sorrows. Life Class divides its narrative between a pair of lovers, Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke. Painters, not soldiers, they nonetheless struggle to define their relationship to war. Though the story opens in peacetime, soon war breaks out, and Paul leaves his London art school to serve with the Belgian Red Cross. Elinor travels to Ypres to visit him and to paint wartime scenes, but quickly returns to the pacifists and artists of Bloomsbury—resolving to paint free of war’s stranglehold, even as Paul moves physically and artistically closer to the carnage.
Barker explores the consciences of both painters as they debate war and its representations: a comment, clearly, on the war novel itself. Her lean and insistent prose, meanwhile, lends her own novel real power. Combining epistolary ruminations with frank, urgent vignettes of sexual pursuit and muffled violence—scenes that are never explicitly linked to the war but which linger suggestively—Life Class proves both gripping and strangely bracing in its suggestion that, like Paul and Elinor, we all take a position on war, even when we avert our eyes.
Susan Choi, whose American Woman was a startling fictional meditation on the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst, also infuses her new work, A Person of Interest (Viking, $24.95, 368 pp.), with recent historical overtones. The novel evokes both the Unabomber and Dr. Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos nuclear scientist accused of spying and ultimately exonerated. Indeed, Choi’s protagonist is named Professor Lee, and readers never learn either his first name or, significantly, his home country; he is identified as Asian or, ominously, as “the Oriental.” Mathematician and immigrant, Lee is a victim of terrorism (a bomb kills his university colleague as he huddles next door) who soon becomes a suspect. Choi tells most of Lee’s story from his perspective, using a narrative voice that is formal, intelligent, reserved, and meticulous. As the investigation against Lee pro-ceeds, the narrative picks up speed and urgency, simultaneously deepening the mystery of the bombing and uncovering Lee’s private, guarded past.
Choi’s boundless empathy for her frustrating, fussy protagonist creates an almost palpable sense of his resentment and loneliness. Even more impressive is the deft way she toys with the reader’s expectations: Who is capable of the bombing? Might religious fundamentalism be implicated? A Person of Interest zeroes in on the American propensity to point a finger at the foreigner or the zealot, even as it exposes the personal and social illusions both protagonist and reader suffer. Ultimately, Choi nudges the story toward hopefulness; by novel’s end, in a show of narrative generosity, she even suggests extending cross-cultural forgiveness to the FBI.
Junot Díaz is also a generous narrator, a go-for-broke storyteller who channels the voices of Dominican immigrants, street kids, literary theorists, and lovelorn losers of both sexes. Readers of his collection of stories, Drown, waited eleven years for the publication of his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead, $24.95, 352 pp.). The wait has been worth it. Recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Oscar Wao is extravagant, intellectual, coarse, sarcastic, frustrating, original, authentic—and moving.
Díaz tells the intertwining stories of four Dominican Americans: his alter ego Yunior; Yunior’s sometime girlfriend Lola; Lola’s fat, nerdy brother Oscar; and Oscar and Lola’s operatic mother, Belicia. The story time-travels between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, backtracking from the present-day lives of young folk to the story of Belicia’s own youthful flight from the Dominican dictator Trujillo and his thugs. The story of Trujillo’s reign of terror hovers over the present just as a fukú—an ancient curse—hovers over Oscar.
Oscar Wao is a self-conscious postmodern narrative, commenting on its own construction and tucking its politics into lengthy footnotes. While Díaz’s fury at political terror is louder and showier than either Barker’s or Choi’s, his narrative balances anger with a sometimes befuddled humor all the more striking for its unexpected sweetness. What all three writers share is the willingness to look terror in the eye—convinced that writing about the power to maim, murder, and terrorize is one way to break its spell.
DAVID S. CUNNINGHAM
I read and teach theology for a living, which tends to deter me from taking it to the cabin or the beach—let alone recommending that others do so. But I do appreciate authors who are able to raise profound theological questions without appearing to do so—in fiction and drama, and in essays on politics, friendship, and the environment.
Andrew O’Hagan’s beautiful novel Be Near Me (Harvest Books, $14, 320 pp.) is a breathtaking meditation on both the longing that draws us into relationships and the surprisingly satisfactory nature of “The Single Life” (the last chapter’s title). David Anderton, the novel’s protagonist, is a Catholic priest in Scotland, whose inert parishioners leave him without much scope for exercising his aesthetic and intellectual gifts (cultivated as a young man at Oxford). So he focuses his energies on gardening, wines, and some of the parish’s wayward teenagers. Trouble erupts when, after a night involving too many of the teens’ favorite pursuits, Fr. David transfers his remembrances of his one true love (an Oxford companion who died in a car accident) onto the teenager sitting beside him on the couch, culminating in a (relatively chaste) kiss. Although the townspeople chase him out with the equivalent of pitchforks and torches, he continues to negotiate a number of positive relationships (with his mother, his housekeeper, and his bishop) while still coming to better understand his own conflicted personality.
Most lovely is the way this book raises questions about celibacy, sexuality, authority, and power, yet without announcing an agenda or taking sides. All agendas and alignments pale in comparison to the simultaneous love and loneliness that we all feel, as reflected in David’s imagined words to his lost friend: “Be near me. The world is rowdy and nothing is certain. None of us was meant to face the day and the night alone, though that is what we do and memory now is a place of fading togetherness.”
Love and loss are also at the heart of my current favorite series of mystery novels. Mary Russell, the young protagonist of Laurie R. King’s series, was sent to live with her English aunt after her parents died (in an accident for which Mary had always blamed herself). She buried her grief in scholarship on ancient languages and theological texts, until one day—wandering through the Sussex Downs—she met an avid beekeeper lately retired from detective work. How many men fit that description? He is, of course, Sherlock Holmes, whose powers of observation, deduction, and perseverance are well matched by the young Mary. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice launched a series of finely wrought mysteries in which the two pursue their craft in tandem. Particularly noteworthy is King’s deft grasp of Conan Doyle’s narrative voice and characterization of his hero; those who know Holmes well will find him alive again in these pages, but more interesting for being forced to work with (rather than against) his intellectual equal, who is (egad!) a woman. The books often wrestle with theological elements, whether a text (A Letter of Mary), a place (O Jerusalem), or a charismatic preacher (A Monstrous Regiment of Women). The eighth and latest installment, Locked Rooms (Bantam, $6.99, 528 pp.), is set in Prohibition-era San Francisco, with flashbacks to the 1906 earthquake, allowing us to learn gradually where the secret past of Mary’s family—and untimely deaths—has been locked away.
Family secrets of a less tragic sort are the centerpiece of David Auburn’s play Proof (Faber and Faber, $13, 96 pp.). Plays should be performed, not merely read; but those who take time to imagine them on the stage will find them deeply satisfying summer reading. In this taut, four-character work, we are introduced to anxiety and genius in Catherine, the daughter of a famous mathematician. The fact that her father is recently de-ceased does not prevent him from standing over her shoulder as the play opens, which leads her to wonder whether she might have inherited some of his madness along with his brilliance. Catherine’s older, sensible sister wants her to move to New York, where there are adequate “resources” (which, as Catherine realizes, probably equals “living facility for your bughouse little sister”). The first act ends with a stunning revelation, is-suing in new conflicts that drive the play toward its open-ended conclusion.
Mathematics has much in common with theology; both demand a facility for abstraction, since they make bold claims about realities that elude our grasp. The play takes us directly into that nonempirical world, raising serious questions about what counts for evidence or “proof”—whether in the abstract realm of mathematics, or within the equally elusive regions of the human heart.
The play of abstract and concrete is a running theme in my last offering. David James Duncan is the author of two fine novels, The River Why and The Brothers K; his latest collection, God Laughs and Plays (Triad, $15.95, 264 pp.), explores how the great wisdom traditions intersect politics, institutional religion, and environmental concern. Duncan’s tireless advocacy for the planet, combined with his youthful escape from a fundamentalist upbringing, has left him more than a little miffed at the Christian Right. His essay, “When Compassion Becomes Dissent,” written on the eve of the Iraq war, reads like the work of a Hebrew prophet, both in its prescience and its attempt to call his audience to their own better selves. “Unsaying the Word ‘God’” is an essay in the great apophatic tradition of speaking about God by observing that God cannot be spoken. Some readers may object to Duncan’s eclectic use of traditions and his pluralistic “leveling” of Christian and other faiths; but given the way Christianity has been abused for political purposes in recent decades, I have some sympathy for those unwilling to pledge their allegiance to it without nuance. Duncan stands in a long tradition of those who have quoted “Christ against the Christians”; if such theology is not exactly orthodox, it has been, at certain historical moments, precisely what Christians have most needed to hear.