Saturday, June 12, 2010

Five Books I've Read or Listened to Lately

A rainy day. I have work to do, errands to run, the World Cup to watch. I am more than usually irritable, for no reason I can identify, except an acute awareness of my own shortcomings.

A friend once told me about making a drinking game of an episode of "Slings & Arrows" where they drank every time someone said "Sorry." If I could have a drink for every time I've said "Sorry" in the last week or so, I'm sure I'd be in a much better mood. Sorry.

1. Christopher Farnsworth, BLOOD OATH. My friend John, on his own book tour, was recently quoted as saying that vampire novels have become the literary equivalent of chicken, a vehicle for whatever flavor the writer's really interested in. I like having friends who say smart things like that. This vampire novel is a political thriller with some interesting historical interludes and a few Frankenstein-zombie hybrids thrown into the mix; very entertaining, just the thing for a summer afternoon. Nathaniel Cade is a vampire sworn to protect the President of the United States, and Zach is the ambitious young White House aide assigned to be his wrangler. Zach's first mission in his new job is to oversee Cade as he protects the President from the nefarious schemes of an apparently immortal mad scientist. This book would also make a great TV series, if it hasn't already been optioned.

2. Steven Bach, LENI: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl. A fascinating look at the pioneering German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, one that raises as many questions as it answers. Ultimately evenhanded, it spares its subject nothing. The central truth of Riefenstahl's life is that the best work she did was for and with and through the offices of the Nazi party, and she was never willing to admit or regret that. Her sheer persistence and longevity would be enough to make her a marvel, but her extraordinary lack of self-awareness made her a monster, too. It's a discussion that will never have an answer: does great art require that degree of self-absorption and willful disregard for ordinary human behavior? If it does, do people who produce great art earn the right not to be judged as ordinary human beings? I say "No," but suspect that Ms. Riefenstahl would disagree.

3. Derek Haas, COLUMBUS. Derek Haas' second novel about the professional assassin Columbus is as clean and fast as a hit man should be. After a routine job goes awry, Columbus finds himself the target of not one but two assassins, hired under a contract that pays even after the client dies. "I told you not to like me," Columbus tells the reader, but it's hard to resist his honesty and urgency. The sequel lacks the emotional gut-punch of Haas' first novel, THE SILVER BEAR, but it's a worthy follow-up, and Columbus is one of my favorite new characters in crime fiction.

4. Stephen R. Bown, SCURVY: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail. I discussed this book earlier in the week; just fascinating, excellent as cultural, medical and naval history. A cautionary tale, too, about how bureaucracies ignore evidence in favor of expediency — even after the British Navy saw the effects of tinctures of lemon and orange on scurvy, they made wort of malt the official anti-scorbutic, because it was so much cheaper. The eventual adoption of lime juice as the scurvy remedy had as much to do with class snobbery as it did with scientific evidence, and Bown tells the story beautifully.

5. Jess Walter, THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS. I stayed up much too late last night reading this book, and wonder how much of today's mood has to do with the anxiety and sorrow and frustration I felt for its characters. Matt left a job in journalism to start "," a website that combined investment advice with literary insights and poetry. As the book begins, he and his wife and their two sons teeter on the verge of financial doom; as the book unfolds, they go over that verge, and Matt considers some options he'd never thought himself capable of. I may have more to say about this book after I've had a few days to process it, but it simply blew me away. I've always been impressed with Walter's work, and feel overwhelmed by how good this book is. It is not light reading, but it does exactly what literature should do: it put names to things I didn't know about the world and human nature, or had been only half-aware of. In the future, if anyone wants to know what life was like for the middle-aged American professional in 2009, this book will be all they need.


Yvonne said...

That Jess Walter book sounds brilliant Clair. Must put it on to-read list.

Karen Olson said...

As I told you before, the Jess Walter book depressed the hell out of me. Maybe it's because he was a journalist, and I know too many people who have been laid off and out of work more than a year, even two years, now. But I couldn't even finish it because I wanted to jump off a building halfway through. I know it's gotten good reviews, and it's brilliantly written, but I guess I felt that I needed a little more hope.

AnswerGirl said...

I don't want to spoil the book for people who haven't read it, but it does not end on a grim note.

Jack said...

It ends with his selling millions of books and being a millionaire? No, wait, he couldn't have written that into the book unless it was like Spaceballs -- out on video before they finished filming.

Richard said...

I just bought LENI at the PALS animal shelter book cart at the Sears Mall. I bought it on a whim but now I will read it

Kevin Wignall said...

You know, I think I disagree about Riefenstahl and I wonder if it's just a question of distance. Do we condemn the great artists who glorified the Medicis and the Borgias because they worked for tyrants and despots?

I also think there are levels of complicity. I think it was Coco Chanel who, when challenged about being too friendly with the Germans during the war, pointed out that Picasso's studio never went without heating and yet no one was challenging him.

Perhaps in the end, the art must stand on its own (even within its historical context) and Riefenstahl's Nazi-era work is breathtaking.

AnswerGirl said...

Kevin, if she'd just taken their money and gone her merry way, that wouldn't bother me much. But Bach presents convincing evidence that she knowingly used slave labor from prison camps as extras in her magnum opus, Tiefland (which I've never seen, and hear is nearly unwatchable). Whether Riefenstahl knew these prisoners — ethnic Roma and Sinti — were destined for Auschwitz is debatable. I'm willing to believe that she didn't, but she was certainly willing to take advantage of their imprisonment, and denied any knowledge of their status until almost the very end of her life.

Derek Haas said...

Thanks for another thoughtful review, Answer Girl!