Coming to you live from La Pyramide hotel in cloudy Managua, Nicaragua with a run down of what I read in the last two weeks of touring and tanning and general sitting around. Like most beach reads, I will be working through this quickly, and with the possible involvement of rum. My apologies ahead of time.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Status: Available soon.
OUR GRANADA TOUR GUIDE, CAMILO, informed us that in Nicaragua the word deacachimba was the equivalent of the American “Awesome!” Urban Dictionary has different ideas, but I am inclined to believe the guy from Nicaragua first. At any rate, David Mitchell’s “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” is deacachimba, in both the awe-inspiring and high-fiving sense. It’s an extraordinary story of love and betrayal and honor, set on a Dutch trading outpost in Japan at the turn of the 19th century. This was not anywhere close to what I expected, and “Thousand Autumns” is one of those books with such a strong plot, where so much actually happens, that my English-major mind is a little troubled with grasping it as “literary.” But it is literary, and anthropological and beautiful and romantic, making it a beach read with genuine credibility for those of us who don’t like e-books because people won’t be able to admire what good literature we read. After reading and not really loving David Foster Wallace’s posthumous and very unfinished “The Pale King” — which, more on soon or Soon — Mitchell’s book made me say to myself: “Now this is what a brilliant writer does.” I am beginning to think he is one of our greats.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Kathryn Stockett wants to be the first white Toni Morrison.
Status: Not mine to give.
KATHRYN STOCKETT’S “THE HELP HAS, as I understand it, rocketed up many lists and been beloved by millions and has no doubt incurred the hostility of many others. It is, in my estimation, a really good beach read. It’s a lovable, satisfying book and, despite the assumptions people like me make about popular novels, is not without weight. My primary criticism, however, is that Stockett takes on heavy issues a little lightly. The nearest comparison I can think of at the moment is the movie “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” which was — to me at least — an irresistibly enjoyable movie about a struggling teen’s redemption-filled weekend with Zach Galifinakis at a mental institution. Not surprisingly, the movie didn’t really address mental illness in all its dismal and difficult complexities. The same is true with “The Help” and race. Stockett knows enough to know that Black and White is not so black and white, but she never dives into the nest of complexities Black and White women must have lived with in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Had she been able to do so, “The Help” might have gone from being truly enjoyable to being downright essential.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Jackie is a punk. Judy is runt. They both got disillusioned by the Information Ay-age.
Status: Hey ho, let’s go.
JENNIFER EGAN’S “GOON SQUAD” TRIED TO SOUR ME with opening chapters about a young New York neurotic and an aging record producer whose primary function seemed to be to reminisce about, i.e. name drop, old punk bands. I’m glad I persevered, though, because “Goon Squad” is an exceptional book about aging, identity and remembering. In subtext, the story is about much of what Proust wrote about (Egan quotes him at the opening of the book). In actual text, “Goon Squad” is loosely about music, which is so effective as a vehicle because 1) it is so readily nostalgic for so many people and 2) because it is the form of media that has gone through the most revolutionary and resisted changes as a result of digital technology, a struggle repeated by many of the people in the novel. Egan weaves together the colliding chronologies of a constellation of characters (can you tell the rum is working?) in different chapters, each written in their own distinct style. This is, at times, as obnoxious as it sounds; but for the most part it’s riveting and expertly crafted. Egan even managed to overcome my strong reluctance to predicted technologies of the near future. In a few of the chapters that spin her narrative forward into years that haven’t happened yet, she draws some not so unreasonable logical conclusions from today’s cutting edge gadgets, and doesn’t push the envelope too far in most of her imaginings. A Nine-Inch-Nails song from some uncertain year ahead is called “Ga Ga” in order to appeal to toddlers and infants who can now download songs with the push of button; this feels a little extreme. Yet, a chapter from the perspective of an adolescent girl in the 2020s is written in some variation of power point slides. Her mother, who we have met before, complains about this kind of writing, and that seems just about right.