I. Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass
First, the significance of the titular object in this book is unclear, compared to the total mind-blowing weight of the Golden Compass and the Subtle Knife in the first two books. So this object enables the woman who is meant, in theory, to be the serpent of this revisionistic Eden to see Dust? Does she ever actually do anything with it, though? The one thing this book has going for it is its perfect example of what an anticlimax is: the death of The Authority, a.k.a God. Do, do, do read the first two books of this trilogy, but try yer hardest not to read book three. It’s a let-down.
II. Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“Negro, please—this ain’t a fucking comic book!” So asserts the (deuteragonistic!) narrator of this Pulitzer Prize winner, but it’s a total lie. The last book I read that was as comic-book-y as this one was probably Everything Is Illuminated or maybe White Teeth. What’s going on in this book and in those other is this need on the part of the hyphenate author (Dominican-American in Díaz’s case, Jewish-American in Foer’s, and Afro-Caribbean in Smith’s) to look back on his or her unhyphenated heritage and see it only as perfected and impossibly ideal. Here, all penises are gigantic, all breasts are buxomly enormous, and everyone has impossibly good sex. Or no: impossibly great sex. Better sex than you’ve ever even thought of. Even the bad times and the violence are somehow wonderful and exciting. I’ve never been a fan of nostalgia, and what, if anything, saves these novels from falling victim to such an easy trap? I don’t know anything about the lives of Dominican-Americans in the U.S. today, and while you (Junot) might argue that this novel clues me somewhat in, I don’t buy it.
III. Dustin Long’s Icelander
Here’s a book I bought when McSweeney’s had one of its “We’re going bankrupt any day now” sales. I also bought Yannick Murphy’s Here They Come, which I wasn’t much of a fan of, so I didn’t think I would be interested in this novel. Oh, was I wrong. Our Heroine (so she’s named throughout the book) wakes up one morning and finds her dog missing. It doesn’t help that this is the day that commemorates the series of novels a writer named Magnus Valison wrote based on the memoirs of her mother. It’s like her own private Bloomsday, with people coming from around the world to amass in her town and try to get her autograph. Her mother’s long dead and her father is getting senile, and suddenly here is this man named Nathan—an actor who starred in a contemporary retelling of Hamlet and now writes novels—trying to be her friend. Add to this sort of immediately troubling and difficult scenario (can you imagine watching people wanting to re-enact your own hard life?) the fact that Valison’s novels are set in Vanaheim, the secret hidden world that exists under the surface of Iceland. The people who reign here are the Refursekir, an elite cadre of ninja-like warriors who wear foxskin shirts and make absolutely no noise. That this book never borders on preciousness or quirk is such a great accomplishment. Read it. Read it now.
IV. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose
This is probably a great book, another murder mystery. It’s a shame I couldn’t bring myself to finish it.
V. John Cheever’s Oh What a Paradise It Seems
She let him kiss her goodnight and he would, for the softness of her lips and the fragrance of her breasts, have waited for her in a condemned mine shaft. She was, as women go, relatively punctual and Sears had come to believe that punctuality in engagements was an infallible gauge of sexual spontaneity. He had observed that, without exception, women who were tardy for their dinner engagements were unconsciously delayed in their erotic transports and that women who were early for lunch or dinner would sometimes climax in the taxi on their way home. (32)
One night when they were making love the record player was performing a romantic piano concerto that closed with a long chain of percussive, false and volcanic climaxes. Every time the pianist seemed about to ascend his final peak he would fall away from the summit into a whole spectrum of lower octaves and start his ascent once more, as would Sears. Finally Renée asked, with great tenderness: “Aren’t you ever going to come?” “Not until the pianist does,” said Sears. This was quite true and they concluded their performances simultaneously. He never knew whether or not she had understood him. (39, emphasis added).
Aren’t women just so totally stupid? Aren’t they so predictable, and ready to be used? It’s such a shame this book ever saw the light of day. Am I wrong to be reading it after-the-fact, knowing that its author once wrote, in his journals, that a blow-job was just about the nicest thing one man could ever do for another? Cheever’s amorousness for women in this book is so false and transparent it’s completely hard to even turn the page. Fortunately the whole terrible thing is only 100 pages long, and so you can read it on the plane. Ask to borrow my copy, which had this little placard inside the front cover, easily the best part of the book:
I pray thee, Reader, do not soil this book
Or mark the phrases which may thee impress
That he who later reads may, for himself,
Discover all its charm and truthfulness.
GENEVA PUBLIC LIBRARY
Such faith, such faith.