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

1 December 2010
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Barbara Demick

North Korea, the last holdout of hard-line communism, is so foreign to the Western way of life that it seems to be not only from another time but from another planet. Demick's remarkable book shows us what life is like for six ordinary North Koreans. We meet a communist stalwart, a young woman who never bought the party line, and a pair of teenagers who would endanger their futures by even being seen together, so they slip off for long walks in the darkness, beginning a nine-year courtship in which they do nothing more than hold hands. A spying neighbor's report of the slightest criticism of the "dear leader" could get one sent to a labor camp for life, so no one acknowledges the country's increasingly obvious collapse. The lights go out, meager paychecks stop coming at all, and then the food disappears. An estimated ten percent of the population died in the famine of the 1990s. Even today, most North Koreans have nothing to eat for lunch and have never heard of the Internet. Yet the country persists. And some who manage to escape find the modern world overwhelming. The young lovers, now adults, look back on their walks in the darkness as the happiest time of their lives.

24 September 2010
Jonathan Franzen

Franzen's first novel since The Corrections mines much of the same territory but feels hastily written and doesn't break any new ground. The long marriage of middle-aged Minnesotans Patty and Walter Berglund is rotting from the inside, not helped at all by their longtime friend, a rock star who provides the immoral voice of the novel. Franzen provides himself many opportunities for riffs on popular culture, panic about impending doom of the planet at the hands of humanity, wonky critiques of both the left and the right, bafflement with the youth of today, unexamined misogyny, adolescent concupiscence, and gross-out slapstick. Much of this is entertaining. He is adept at capturing how a certain segment of America—the darker side of Lake Wobegon—lives, dealing with awful neighbors or annoying relatives. What is probably the strongest part of the novel comes early, as he shows us how the outrage that happened to Patty as a teenager was both a specific crime and the deeper hurt of being wronged by her family. Family is Franzen's main concern; he packs his novels with long and complicated relationships bound by both love and anger. But the heart of this novel is a deep hole of depression. The main characters "don't know how to live" and the impotent drama they generate wears out themselves, each other, and, most of all, the reader.

29 August 2010
Prospect Park West
Amy Sohn

Amy Sohn has Park Slope's number. She surprised me with this novel about the stay-at-home moms of the gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood. It's gossipy and funny, but with an intricate farcical plot about celebrity worship, lesbian crushes, marriage, and real estate panic. There's a little too much name-checking and brand-dropping for me, but plenty of juicy oh-no-she-didn't moments and painfully true observations. She nails the earnest co-op members and the tensions of 'post-racial,' just-pre-Obama urban American life, while letting us get to know what's going on in the heads of the women pushing the strollers past those brownstones.
Also by Sohn: My Old Man

9 July 2010
The Vegetarian Myth
Lierre Keith

Acquiring food, for most modern westerners, is a completely danger-free proposition. Yet some people must feel they need to earn their dinner by drawing blood, because nothing stirs up self-righteous anger and wrathful condescension like telling other people that what they eat is Wrong. Keith claims to have destroyed her body from two decades of veganism, and to want to save others from the same fate. But if she really wanted to be helpful she might actually reveal what she was and wasn't eating then, and is and isn't eating now. I get the feeling she might never have eaten a vegetable in her life. But you won't hear "God made animals out of meat" here. In fact, Keith believes that refusing to eat animals, while thinking nothing of eating silent and non-cute plants, is an example of arrogant human anthropomorphism. She takes seriously the idea that plants are living creatures who want to live just as much as we do. She does not dispute the horrors of factory farming. But she says she has finally realized that nothing can stay alive without something else dying, and vegetarians and vegans are misguided to think otherwise—they will ruin their health if they don't eat meat, and soil-destroying agriculture is doing even more harm to the planet than eating meat would. Her solution is to eat animals, and products from them, that she raises, humanely, herself. She says growing your own food is one of the three most important things you can do for the planet, the other two being not owning a car and not having children. But an energy-efficient, non-car-owning lifestyle seldom allows one to live anywhere where it's possible to grow anything more than a pot of basil on a windowsill. And how can she expect humans not to reproduce, when her central argument is that's what all animals and plants live to do? Attempting to divine what is a "natural" diet and separate out romanticization of our hunter-gatherer past (do we really want to give up modern medicine, literacy, and indoor plumbing?) may leave the reader more confused than ever. I'm glad for one thing—this book about the role of food in the author's life isn't another 'memoir with recipes.' Yikes!

9 July 2010
Bike Snob: Systematically and Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling
Eben Weiss
(according to the copyright page. On the cover it says the author is "BikeSnobNYC.")
This book is for every cyclist who's ever been yelled at to "get on the sidewalk"—that is, every cyclist. Equal parts manifesto, guidebook, and entertainment, it has something to teach the novice, veteran, and even the non-cyclist about the rules of the road, basic maintenance, cycling history, and all the many varieties of creatures on two wheels. I recognized the cycling archetypes, like the Beautiful Godzilla and the Lone Wolf, even though I'd never given them names. I learned about cycling sports I'd never heard of, including one where you spend part of the time riding the bike and part of the time carrying it (though I shouldn't be surprised that someone decided to take what is possibly the most beautifully efficient machine ever invented and make it a chore to use). Says BikeSnob, "Cyclocross is something cyclists are supposed to appreciate, and even if they don't like Cyclocross they are generally afraid to admit it. In this sense Cyclocrossers are the cycling equivalent of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys." Sometimes the author's zeal gets in the way of his generally ample common sense—there's "no reason not to wear a helmet," but thinking you can't get on a bike without one is "buying into the myth that cycling is dangerous"? Yeah, your head injury will really stick it to the man. But mostly he's right on, even as he makes you laugh. Now, can BikeSnob do something about the alarming things I see every day on my commute along the bike path? A baby in a snuggli dangling from a rider's chest? A panting dog on a leash tied to a moving bike's seat post? Cyclists on cell phones and joggers plugged into iPods? Helmets hanging from handlebars, presumably to be whipped on by their owners when they see they are about to crash? An astounding number of middle-aged men riding no-hands and looking very proud of themselves? The world would be a much better place if everyone—cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists—read this book.

30 May 2010
After the Workshop
John McNally

Our hero, Jack Sheahan, is basically Jim Anchower with an MFA. In the twelve years since he graduated from the famed Iowa Writer's Workshop, he hasn't added a word to his once-promising novel, and he hasn't had a date since his fiancée left him. He works as a media escort—a chauffeur, gofer, and hand-holder for visiting writers—a job that barely covers his bar tab and requires him to dodge poseur novelists, scheming workshop students, and cutthroat publicists as well as snowbanks, ice patches, and the drunken fraternity brothers of Iowa City. On the night in question, a series of mishaps and coincidences results in an odyssey of misadventure that's only a little far-fetched, making for a laugh-out-loud novel that is the smoothest, easiest read of any I've found. How can a book about not being able to write make writing look so effortless?

30 May 2010
The Three Weissmanns of Westport
Cathleen Schine

When Manhattan attorney Joseph Weissmann leaves his seventy-five-year-old wife after 48 years of marriage, she and her two grown daughters decamp to a seaside cottage in Westport, Connecticut. The younger daughter is also in dire straits, having run aground her career as a literary agent. The older daughter is in better shape but feels the need to fulfill her family role as the responsible one by coming along to look after the other two. Schine has been compared to Jane Austen, and I see a parallel in that when the money disappears no one seriously considers just going out and getting a job, preferring instead to seek a wealthy spouse or rely on the beneficence of a rich relative. In this case the three Weissmanns are in various states of panic about their newfound poverty, but it's the kind of poverty where one doesn't hesitate to jet to Los Angeles if the plot requires it, and is thus hard to take very seriously. In fact, Schine isn't one to make it clear to her readers how seriously she wants her novels as a whole to be taken, with their blend of breezy tone and painful subject matter. Even the elderly men squirm out of their responsibilities like sheepish boys, and even two middle-aged women can't get past the flighty sister/worrywart sister dynamic they started in childhood, but we're not sure whether to laugh or cry. That's okay. Except when it got bogged down in way too much baby besottedness, this mix of tragedy and comedy kept me turning the pages.

23 May 2010
The English Teacher
Lily King

The best part of this novel is the set-up. A teacher who has always been the sole parent of her 15-year-old son marries hastily for reasons she doesn't fully understand, and then walks around in a daze, stupefied by her new stepfamily and asking herself "What have I done?" As the story of her past comes out, it seems that her life has mirrored the novel she's known for teaching, but her critical skills haven't translated from the page to real life, to the point where she apparently can't even see the parallels that are obvious to the reader. Too obvious, in fact, but the pedantry of this storyline is broken up by chapters in the voice of the son, a boy a bit more sensitive than most, longing for a family and pining for a girl as he comes of age in the late 1970s. I liked all the loose ends here, and was sorry to watch them get tightened up.
Also by King: The Pleasing Hour

2 May 2010
Octavia Butler

The antebellum South is probably not the first place most time travelers would choose to visit, especially if a time traveler is a 26-year-old black woman living in Los Angeles in 1976. But Dana Franklin doesn't have a choice. Every time her great-great-grandfather, a white slave owner, gets into trouble, she's sent back to rescue him. She has to make sure he lives at least long enough to father her great-grandmother, so she stays on his plantation and works alongside the slaves, chafing at her bondage but also surprised at how easily she starts to adjust to it. Can she be careful not to change the past, while also making sure it doesn't change her? The slight flatness of the dialogue and characters are made up for by Butler's suspenseful plotting, meticulous research, and fearless stare into the darkest depths of history.
More time travel: The Time Traveler's Wife, Time and Again

14 March 2010
Stuff White People Like: The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions
Christian Lander

People who write about stuff white people like are actually white themselves, but that's okay because white people like irony (#50). Do not think too hard about a white person making fun of white people for liking self-deprecating humor (#103), or your head might explode. Pretend to agree that mocking people for their race is edgy and smart. Tell them that they aren't like other white people because they can laugh at themselves. They will like to hear you say this, because white people like being the only white person around (#71). If you do point out to them that stereotypes based on race aren't cool, they will just say that they are really laughing at rich people, so it's okay. The problem is that they are really laughing at educated people. Do not point this out to them as it will make them sad.

14 March 2010
Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage
Elizabeth Gilbert

After a messy divorce and a rejuvenating jaunt around the world where she met a sexy Brazilian 17 years her senior, Gilbert was in no hurry to get married again—until the Department of Homeland Security got involved. She was ready to settle down with her partner, whom she calls Felipe, in New Jersey, but the officers who detained him at the airport said the only way he could join her is if they got married. So she decided to write a book to talk herself into the idea. It's a mix of statistics on marriage (very interesting, even if Gilbert's conclusion is there's no point in paying attention to them), conversations with friends, family, and people she meets in her travels (anecdotal and unscientific, but also interesting), and glimpses of her own relationship as the couple travels around Southeast Asia while waiting for their immigration case to be settled. The book depends entirely on the reader's fondness for its author, which, given the success of her most recent book, is likely to be ample. There's no contemporary writer I would rather read than Gilbert, except on the subject of herself. She's candid about Felipe's crankiness during their exile, but somehow her own flaws, which she is eager to bare, are along the lines of I'm too much of a people person, I'm just too caring, I can't cope with the guilt of being a wealthy person in Cambodia, in fact, I'm just so quirky and interesting that my idea of a fun getaway is a trip to Cambodia. From a talented writer sharing her decision to change her life by marrying, I was hoping for more candor and honesty.
Also by Gilbert: The Last American Man and Stern Men

14 March 2010
Short Girls
Bich Minh Nguyen

Two twentysomething Vietnamese sisters from Michigan make a familiar pair—the pretty one and the smart one. The one who never finished college is having an affair with a married man, the other is an immigration lawyer whose husband has just moved out of their house. Believing they have little in common and wary of each other's criticism, they spend most of the book avoiding each other, but they are still connected by their father, the inventor of the Luong Arm, a device inspired by the sight of his diminutive daughters on tiptoe trying to reach too-high American shelves. If a bit predictable, this novel is smart, sometimes funny, and an enjoyable read.

14 March 2010
Indecent: How I Make It and Fake It as a Girl for Hire
Sarah Katherine Lewis

Smart girls who support themselves in the sex industry and then write books about it are a dime a dozen, but Lewis is the most readable of the lot, perhaps because she isn't very eager to include herself in the story. Instead, she tells it like she sees it, sharp-tongued and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, revealing her workplaces in all of their filth and her customers in all their pitiableness. Keeping herself at a remove (surely a self-preservation skill she learned in her line of work) leaves the reader guessing and makes for a less than full picture, but this is still a book you'll want to read every word of.
More about sex work: Paying For It

14 March 2010
Something Borrowed
Emily Giffin

Giffin's first and best book yet is about a plain, studious girl upstaged by her beautiful and spoiled best friend until she starts an affair with the friend's fiancé. None of the players behaves honorably, or even likably, but this kind of story is about the situation rather than the characters, and you'll keep turning the pages to find out what happens.
Also by Giffin: Love the One You're With and Baby Proof

14 March 2010
American Voyeur: Dispatches From the Far Reaches of Modern Life
Benoit Denizet-Lewis

The reaches aren't all that far. You have your gay men who get married, your gay men who like sports, your black gay men on the down low, your white gay men on the down low, and your lipstick lesbians. The pieces collected here were originally published in magazines and have the tendency common to magazine articles to end just when things get most interesting. Sex and youth culture are this journalist's main interests. Denizet-Lewis is nearly 30 but still able to win the trust of adolescents. In a piece about teenagers and "hooking up," the disturbing prospect of teens unimpressed with sex and girls pressured into it is tempered by his portrait of the ease with which male and female teenagers interact as friends. In another piece, a young man who was born female is living as a boy, with his middle school's cooperation—something his family didn't find about until months into the school year. It's unfortunate that the author lost touch with him. As in all of these stories, we want to keep following the lives of which Denizet-Lewis has given us such tantalizing glimpses.

18 January 2010
The Bigness of the World
Lori Ostlund

The stories in this collection are all very similar but not redundant; reading each one is like being shown another facet of a diamond. Ostlund's two basic premises, a lesbian couple's relationship disintegrates as they travel in a developing country and a small child tries to understand the behavior of irresponsible adults, are presented with quiet humor and studded with small, sharp details such as sugared orange juice in Malaysia or Minute Rice with butter as an afterschool snack in Minnesota. Most of the characters are shy, fussy, middle-aged Midwesterners, lacking in social skills, lashing out in frustration at a world that has disappointed them, and strangled by their inability to express their emotions, although Ostlund lets us in their heads and describes beautifully what is there. Every story has at least one gay character, and the feeling of needing to keep this secret is part of what causes their separation from the rest of the world. I want to tell Ostlund that those people don't have to be tragic figures, that being that way doesn't doom you to a lifetime of unhappiness—many reserved Midwesterners go on to find love and live happy, fulfilled lives. The bigness of the world is frightening, the many ways that people can fail each other even more so, but Ostlund describes both with compassion and grace.

2009 reviews

2011 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