Monday, May 30, 2011

May Reading

Here's what I read in May.

1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

My friend The Saucy Wench will be pleased to learn that I finally made my way around to reading Never Let Me Go.  The only previous experience I had had with Ishiguro was the dense and meticulous Remains of the Day, which was a satisfying, if tiresome, experience.  Therefore, I grabbed a pencil before I picked up Never Let Me Go, ready to make careful observations in the margins, lest I missed anything.  Within a few minutes I was sitting at my dining room table aghast, pencil long forgotten, drawn in by the mesmerizing storytelling.

The first sentences had me.  "My name is Kathy H.  I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years."  The pages began turning faster and faster.  I had been expecting another novel of manners about the English aristocracy, only to get this--a science-fiction story told from the point-of-view of a young, doomed, carer?

Reading a good book is like scratching an itch you didn't realize you had, and Never Let Me Go scratched such an itch.  It was unable to keep up the unrelenting momentum of its first act, and the second two-thirds of the novel wended its way through a slightly tedious journey to its conclusion, but it was still a dazzling novel written by a wonderful writer.  What are you waiting for?  You oughta read it.

Hey, it's a movie, too.  

After reading the novel, I watched the faithful and tasteful film version directed by Mark Romanek.  It was a fine adaptation with deft performances by Keira Knightly and Carey Mulligan, but it felt redundant to me.  

(By the way, did you know that Carey Mulligan is playing Daisy Buchanan in the upcoming film version of The Great Gatsby, which Baz Lurhmann is filming in 3-D?  I am not joking you, my friend.  They are filming it right now in Australia, of all places.)

(In related news, nobody thought to ask me to play Gatsby, and the role went to Leonardo DiCaprio.  Still, I think I could have done a good job.)

2.  Lots of Short Stories

I went on a short story tear in May, thanks mostly to an awesome anniversary gift from my wife, which centered around lots of short fiction by J. D. Salinger.  After I read those, though, I also read stories by John Cheever, Woody Allen, Philip Roth, and Dorothy Parker, all from Wonderful Town, a collection of New York stories from The New Yorker.  This experience reminded me how much I used to love short stories, and how much of my time I spent reading (and writing) them.

3.  Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

There.  I read Brideshead Revisited.  It is behind me now, and I shall never have to read it ever again.  That's not to say that I did not enjoy reading it--I did enjoy it, at times.  Coming as it was, though, sandwiched between some of the most enjoyable reading I have done in a while, it felt more like an assignment than a real pleasure.

I recently read Waugh's Decline and Fall on recommendation from my professor at Yale, and found it to be irresistibly witty.  Brideshead is witty, too, but is mired down with sentimentality and heady themes of homosexuality, Catholicism, and nostalgia.  The Waugh in Decline and Fall is a delightfully acerbic writer who mocks everything to within an inch of its life; the Waugh in Brideshead is a bit of a preachy buzzkill.  I don't think the author would have disagreed with me, despite the fact that this book became the best-known work of his life.  When he re-read it, five years after its publication, he said he was "appalled." 

It didn't help that the book I picked up about halfway through Brideshead was one of the most interesting things I have ever read, and made the novel seem pale and boring in comparison.  But more on that in a moment.

Hey, it's a movie, too.

I am halfway through the beloved 1982 BBC miniseries version of the novel.  It's good!

4. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

What is the most fascinating non-fiction book you have ever read?  I have a couple of candidates in my mind right now, but I am not sure if any of them could match up to this one, which I devoured in a way that I have not devoured a book in some time.  

This is a hefty one, nearly 600 pages long, but I dispatched it in just about six days.  I started cheating on Brideshead Revisited with it, but tried to hold off until I was done with that novel before giving it my full attention.  

The only proper way to describe this book is as a science textbook for people who did better in their English classes than their physics, geology, or biology classes.  It is divided into 30 chapters covering topics from the birth of the universe to quantum mechanics to plate tectonics to evolution and extinction, and all told in Bryson's learned, conversational tone. And almost every page of it (including the chapter on glaciers!) is fascinating and gripping.  In fact, the only time I put it down was when I encountered a terrifying image of a dust mite on page 489.  I slammed the book shut and gave myself a few hours to get over the willies.

When I was a young lad, I used to love nothing more than to sit in my father's recliner and read my mother's encyclopedia (edition 1962).  Reading this text gave me the same feeling, that I could go on reading and learning without end.

Special Note:  This book is unusual in that it comes in two editions.  The first is a trade paperback, just like dozens of books you already have, with no illustrations.  The other is the Special Illustrated Edition, pictured above, which is shaped like a college textbook and replete with hundreds of lovely illustrations and photos that illustrate black holes, dinosaurs, or grotesquely magnified dust mites.  After reading the latter, I can't imagine how much I would have missed by reading the former.

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