So Much to Read
"A man ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good."—Samuel Johnson

10 December 2004
The Inner Circle
T. C. Boyle

This novel about sex researcher Alfred Kinsey is much better than the recent movie about the same subject, in which Liam Neeson, with what must have been great difficulty, played a thoroughly unsexy Kinsey, bounding around like a cross between Pee Wee Herman and Eraserhead. Neeson's Kinsey is a big puppy dog, not the perpetually tumescent monomaniac the real Kinsey seems to have been, and for all the red-state opposition to the film, it barely flirted with anything that would challenge the heterosexual love story at its center. The book, though fiction, is probably more like the real story, meaning stranger and more complicated, as well as racier. It, too, focuses on a mostly monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and it is here you'll find the best sex scenes in the book. Therein lies a lesson that Kinsey, for all his groundbreaking work, never seemed to grasp: Sex without a story is just body parts.
Also by Boyle: Drop City

10 December 2004
Mystic River
Dennis Lehane

If you're willing to suspend your disbelief that every cop, thug, teenager, and working stiff in Boston can launch into an eloquent soliloquy on the meaning of life after a sip of beer, then you'll enjoy this. It's clear from the start that something bad has gone down, but it doesn't all click into place until the end—and it's a nauseating click. I found the beginning just a little slow, but once it picked up I couldn't put it down.

22 July 2004
The Body of Jonah Boyd
David Leavitt

A novelist loses his only copy of his greatest work on a Thanksgiving visit to a family that includes a fifteen-year-old aspiring writer. At first, what has happened seems obvious, but as the story unfolds the truth turns out to be more complicated and sinister. Leavitt stays one small step ahead of the reader at all times and not a word is wasted in this compact, well-crafted novel. The narrator, surely a cousin of Barbara in What Was She Thinking?, thinks she's an impartial observer but turns out to be more carefully observed than she thought. While none of the characters is exactly likable, their actions reveal the darker motivations in human nature, and since it's a novel and not a real dinner party, that's a good thing.

22 July 2004
Truth and Beauty: A Friendship
Ann Patchett

Novelist Ann Patchett met poet Lucy Grealy at Sarah Lawrence in the early 1980s, but it was when they shared an apartment at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop that their friendship was forged. Grealy, in Patchett's description, was a fascinating and maddening person. Oddly enough, Grealy's own memoir, Autobiography of a Face, which I read seven years ago and which throughout Patchett's book is referred to as a masterpiece, sticks with me hardly at all. I was impressed by the harrowing descriptions of the chemotherapy she suffered as a child, but Grealy always seemed removed from her experiences and not of much interest as a personality. Not so in Patchett's book. Lucy Grealy—childishly needy, sex-crazed, a spendthrift—would have been a very difficult person to have as a friend, but she certainly wouldn't have been dull. As a child, Grealy had Ewing's sarcoma, a rare cancer that ravaged her face and resulted in a lifetime of radical, disfiguring surgeries to replace the missing part of her jaw. Until Grealy's life spins out of control, she and Patchett together are the grasshopper and the ant, Dionysus and Apollo, poetry and prose, and this tribute to Grealy, who died of an apparent heroin overdose in December of 2002, is a beautiful story of friendship and the writing life. "Iowa City in the eighties was never going to be Paris in the twenties," writes Patchett, "but we gave it our best shot."

22 July 2004
Generation Kill
Evan Wright

Like David Lipsky, Wright took an assignment from Rolling Stone to write about the military and ended up writing a book. Unlike Lipsky, he was in a war zone rather than a military academy, and his book benefits from the rawness and danger. As the Iraq war begins in March of 2003 he is right there with a company of marines as their jeep is fired upon, as they shoot unarmed shepherds, as they banter and wrestle in their underwear to stay in shape, and as they chafe under incompetent command as much as they do under their torturous Mission Oriented Protective Posture suits. These are men don't fit the Marine stereotype: a Dartmouth graduate; a devoted yoga practioner; an aspiring rock star; and an atheist and electronics geek. Wright lets us get to know them as well as their leaders: the general who is paralyzed by indecision; and "Captain America," who wreaks havoc with his panic and bluster. With the rules of engagement ever shifting—an unarmed civilian with a cell phone could be an innocent businessperson or he could be instructing his cohorts on where to aim their missiles—this is a war that is increasingly confusing and scary, and this close-up account is engrossing.

22 July 2004
Little Children
Tom Perrotta

The title could refer to the adults in this novel: a father obsessed with Internet porn, several suburban moms taking their frustration out on each other, and a Peter Pan-ish stay at home dad who begins an affair with one of them. Wandering through the book and leaving a trail of slime is a pedophile, and hot on his heels is a retired cop turned vigilante. Perrotta captures perfectly the feel of a summer spent lolling by a suburban pool and sharply satirizes a certain smart but aimless middle-class type. His novel, though improbable, is solidly entertaining, edgy and sexy, and kept me simultaneously rooting for and disgusted by the adulterers. Like goldfish crackers (which appeared on the cover until Pepperidge Farm threatened to file suit, apparently unable to recognize free advertising when they saw it), this was easy to gobble up, and left me feeling a little sick afterward.

10 May 2004
Subwayland : Adventures in the World Beneath New York
Randy Kennedy

Collected here are Kennedy's New York Times "Tunnel Vision" columns on one of the wonders of the modern world: the New York City Subway. He writes about the rail fan who reconstructed a motorman's cab in his bedroom, Coney Island pigeons who hop a ride on the F, the practice of "pre-walking" (calculating exactly which car will position you at the right staircase or exit door at your destination), and meeting cute on the train. If you've ever wondered who decides whether the Andean flute players or the breakdancers get the coveted performance spot underneath Times Square, this is your book. I especially liked the piece about a photographer who takes pictures of people's faces just as the doors shut on them and they miss their train. Shortly after reading this I was lucky enough to encounter in person a character from these pages: the silver-painted man, in his stock-still performance at Port Authority—and I missed my train to watch him.

10 May 2004
The Skeptic's Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions
Robert T. Carroll

In this compendium, organized in short, alphabetized entries, Carroll debunks both the obvious nonsense like Bigfoot and spoon bending, and pursuits that otherwise intelligent people give credence to, such as astrology, acupuncture, and the belief in a divine being governing the universe. His sensible nature is bracing and refreshing: If psychics really had the powers they claimed, he points out, wouldn't they be highly sought after as advisors to law enforcement officials and world leaders? He's impatient with silliness and gets a little testy at times, but entertainingly so.

10 May 2004
The Outside World
Tova Mirvis

A cheerful but not lightweight story about two Orthodox families, one Modern Orthodox and bemused by their Ba'al Teshuva son who returns from a trip to Israel with a black hat, the other very frum and frantic about their oldest daughter who harbors secret ambitions and is chafing at the pressure of rapidly becoming an old maid at twenty-two. The kids meet in the middle and fall in love, and the families have to figure out how to get along.
Also recommended: Seven Blessings

10 May 2004
Working Fire: The Making of an Accidental Fireman
Zac Unger

Unger, our likable memoirist, is smart and self-effacing and a gung-ho firefighter after he answers an ad on a bus stop and finds his calling. He gets ribbed in his Oakland department for having grown up in private school on whole wheat bread and encouragement to discuss his feelings, but he proves himself and gives us a marvelous look at firehouse culture along the way. And now I know the difference between a fire engine and a fire truck (which will help me impress five-year-old boys).

10 May 2004
Jew v. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry
Samuel G. Freedman

In the United States, secular in theory yet permeated by religion, Jews are as likely to have cultural conflicts with other Jews as they are with non-Jews. Freedman looks both at subtle neighborhood friction and at high-profile cases such as the Orthodox students who sued Yale for requiring them to live in coed dorms, examining the tensions caused by the desire to present a unified face as Jews, the resentment against those who are perceived as wanting to benefit from secular culture without making concessions to it, and the deep differences between a secular and Torah-based worldview. His discussion of the near-disappearance of Yiddishkeit institutions is especially illuminating: Formal American Judaism is now almost entirely religious, leaving a gap for secular Jews who love Judaism and want to pass it along to their children. Not surprisingly, there are few clear answers and, sadly, the divisions among Jews seem increasingly unbridgeable.
See also: Postville

10 May 2004
Name All the Animals
Alison Smith

Smith's older brother dies in a car accident at the age of 18, leaving her and her parents to struggle with the loss and with the revelation of the dark circumstances of his death. The tragedy hangs over this memoir, but it is also the story of a girl coming to understand her unusual parents, Catholicism, and her burgeoning friendship with a schoolmate. Smith has a delicate touch and keeps the darkness from overwhelming her story.

10 May 2004
Mystery Ride
Robert Boswell

A novel you can sink your teeth into: Stephen is in love with his ex-wife, Angela, but dating single-mom Leah; Angela's husband, Quin, is in love with Angela, but sleeping with the loopy Sdriana; Stephen's brother, Andrew, is even a little bit in love with Angela, but busy being an architect in New Mexico. Angela, for her part, has her hands full with a total nutcase of a teenaged daughter, Dulcie, and her own unexpected pregnancy. Throw in Stephen's enigmatic neighbor, Spaniard, her loose cannon of a boyfriend, Ron, and Leah's daughter, who falls simultaneously for her boyfriend and for Jesus Christ, add a couple of unexpected plot twists and a few completely bizarre scenes, and you've got a good ride. Bonus: The title is from a Bruce Springsteen song.

20 February 2004
Stern Men
Elizabeth Gilbert

Two islands off the coast of Maine have been locked in a lobstering territory feud as long as any of the residents can remember. Ruth Thomas is a young woman who was raised by her father on one of the islands and who is smart enough and tough enough to leave and never look back. Yet she returns after boarding school, to the motherly Mrs. Pommeroy and her brood of seven boys; to the doddering old Senator and his hunts for hidden treasures in the sand; to her nemesis, the slithering Cal Cooley; and to a golden young lobsterman who doesn't say much, but doesn't have to. The eccentric islanders are so oddball and their dialogue so fresh that it's hard to believe this is fiction. Gilbert, a journalist by trade, is an amazingly assured writer and her novel has the sweet uplift of a romance and the delightful weirdness of dark comedy.
Also by Gilbert: The Last American Man and Committed

20 February 2004
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
Bill Bryson

Almost on a whim, Bryson set out with an overweight buddy and several pounds of canned goods to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. They didn't get very far, but the story of their misadventures, along with various infobits about history, urban planning, and the weather between Georgia and Maine, makes for a great read. No one is better than Bill Bryson at making you learn and laugh at the same time. I read this five years ago, and even today I can be lying in bed at night and a scene or phrase from this book will cross my mind and I'll crack right up. How can you beat that?
More Bill Bryson: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

20 February 2004
The Namesake
Jhumpa Lahiri

As silky smooth and delicately sweet as a mango lassi—and as chilly. The first novel by the acclaimed author of the short story collection The Interpreter of Maladies is about a Bengali couple who emigrate to the United States, and their son, Gogol Ganguli, whose burdensome name is a legacy from his father's past. The novel begins with his parents' arranged betrothal and ends with Gogol in his thirties. Lahiri is a short-story writer, master of the quick sketch and the allusion, and she approaches this novel like an express train ride, breezing along with a few enticing and carefully selected details here and there and slowing down every once in while for a pithy observation. Her characters move effortlessly through life, falling in and out of love, succeeding at school and work, and partaking in the delights of Boston, New York City, and the New England countryside. Finishing the book is like waking from a pleasant, cardamom-scented dream that quickly fades, leaving little to think about.

9 February 2004
My Husband Betty: Love, Sex and Life with a Cross-dresser
Helen Boyd

This is a groundbreaking book about men who like to dress in women's clothes and the women who love them, even if they hate their cross-dressing. It's thorough and informative, sure to be helpful to the stunned wife who's just discovered, after thirty years of marriage, why her pantyhose so often go missing. Boyd is aware that this is one of the last few closets ("Helen Boyd" is a pseudonym), but also critical. When cross-dressers complain to her that they can't, like she can, wear whatever they want, she smartly points out both that women can't wear whatever they want without risking harassment and that as long as a cross-dresser stays in the closet he hasn't earned that right or freedom. Boyd is honest: there's no guarantee that your cross-dressing husband isn't on his way to becoming your wife (and/or ex-husband). (In fact, her next book, She's Not the Man I Married, finds the couple farther along in their journey.) Boyd knew about her husband's habits almost as soon as they began dating, and freely shares that although she's a "tomboy," a feminist, open-minded, and interested in gender issues, it's masculinity she's sexually attracted to, and his cross-dressing is a constant struggle in a basically good marriage. She's funny ("When my husband sits on the couch in high heels and a dress, yelling at the football game, I call it 'the worst of both worlds'") and not shy about asking the hard questions ("Why does 'getting in touch with his feminine side' require him to wear clothes that you think make him look like a slut?"). Her openness, intelligence, and critical eye make her a great guide to this subject, and have also gotten her kicked off several listservs for trying to understand cross dressers and refusing to accept that a man has to feel terrible about it. She rightly points out that, in any relationship, it's communication and cooperation that are important, and her insights about gender roles, aggressiveness, and negotiation are useful to people of all genders and orientations.

9 February 2004
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

Reporter LeBlanc spent years living with and closely observing a loose-knit Puerto Rican family in New York, and wrote herself so far out of the story that her absence is palpable. The litany of poverty, drugs, desperation, and incompetence begs huge questions: How do these people feel about being the subject of an acclaimed and high-profile book? How can anyone have stood by for years and watched them live like this? LeBlanc's writing is finely tuned, and this is a compelling read from the first page—compelling like a car wreck. Teenagers become mothers, and not much later, grandmothers, without ever learning basic skills to take care of themselves or their children. Tenants are at the mercy of their slumlords, rats crawl over them as they sleep, but when a lawsuit nets a several thousand dollar settlement the money is quickly blown on takeout food, leather jackets, and cab rides. Drugs are a dangerously alluring source of cash, and when the cops bust them, these parents of small children, unlike Enron criminals Andrew and Lea Fastow, aren't permitted to arrange to serve their jail time when it's most convenient for them. Anyone who has read the local news section of an urban newspaper is familiar with this sort of human misery, and the book is completely bereft of analysis, so the reader is left wondering: What are we supposed to do with this information? The pleasure of the fine writing leaves a sour aftertaste; these are real people out there, and their failures will have repercussions far beyond one random family.

<—2003 reviews

2005 reviews—>

"There was so much to read, for one thing, and so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young breathgiving air...I was rather literary in college—one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the Yale News—and now I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the 'well-rounded man.' This isn't just an epigram—life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all."—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby