Saturday, June 25, 2011

what I read on my vacation this year

Spending a week in the wholesome fresh air of the Sierras, with no internet connection, a person can have a lot of time on her hands. This year I decided to do my "guilt reading", and I hauled along the books I've been meaning to read but never get around to opening, plus books from two of my all time favorite authors (Jonathan Coe and Jon Ronson), which I couldn't resist treating myself to.

"The Psychopath Test" by Jon Ronson (Riverhead Books 2011): I love Jon Ronson more than just about any other nonfiction writer (and I was a fan long before George Clooney made "The Men Who Stare At Goats" into a movie), and this is his best book yet. You should all rush out and pick up a copy. Ronson became interested in madness after he was asked to solve the real-life mystery of who was sending cryptic yet expensively printed books to random professors. Ronson visits a man locked up potentially for life after being diagnosed as a psychopath, spends time at L. Ron Hubbard's English country estate with psychology-bashing Scientologists, interviews hippie psychologists who held naked encounter groups for mass murderers in a Canadian prison, and becomes so obsessed with the idea of finding psychopaths that he starts diagnosing his friends and acquaintances. Highly thought-provoking, educational, and extremely witty.

"Opium Season: A Year On The Afghan Frontier" by Joel Hafvenstein (Lyon Press 2007): It took a while for me to get into this dry book by a well-intentioned, energetic fellow who worked for an aid agency tasked with getting Afghanis to stop growing opium poppies, but I was so glad I kept reading. Soon I couldn't stand to put the book down and was thoroughly frustrated that no one around me was also reading it and could discuss it with me. I wish I could command Pres. Obama and the entire Congress to read this book. Hafvenstein explains the difficulties of working in Afghanistan better than anyone else, with the customs, terrain, history, tribal rivalries, etc... His book illustrates so vividly, among other things, the age-old problem that people on the ground -- actually doing the work in war zones -- know better what is going on than those who command them from air-conditioned offices on the other side of the world. Hafvenstein and his colleagues refused to work in a particular town and developed a huge mistrust of that town's tribal elders, but were overruled and sternly scolded by their superiors. The results were heartbreaking and predictable, with several aid workers being killed by Taliban with the obvious collusion of the mistrusted elders. He also explains so clearly why farmers insist upon growing opium poppies: the gum is resilient and easily transported (as opposed to, say, tomatoes, which a farmer laments get shaken to bits in a truck traveling for hours over unpaved mountain roads), the traffickers will finance a crop (who pays ahead of time for carrot-growing?), the crop is easily gathered (as opposed to, say, strawberries, which are backbreaking to harvest). Afghanistan is a big problem, but Hafvenstein has a lot of ideas about what could be done (such as prioritizing training professional police, which he convincingly shows is an ignored yet crucial problem).

"Ritual" by Mo Hayder (Atlantic Monthly Press 2008): I just recently discovered Mo Hayder, and I can't believe I hadn't before found her tightly written crime fiction with its real and engrossing characters. In "Ritual", African traditional medicine practiced by immigrants seems inscrutable to the British police, who find a severed hand which, to their dismay and disbelief, was used to bring good luck to a restaurant. Strongly recommended.

"Long Drive Home" by Will Allison (Free Press 2011): This was the first disappointment of my vacation reading. This book has been so well-reviewed and so lauded, and I'm a sucker for its particular genre, the "one-bad-day-caused-my-whole-life-to-fall-apart" novel. So I got this for myself as a special treat, and then I hated it. SPOILER ALERT: The plot was not believable to me Really? A detective will devote his life and energy to prosecuting someone with no prior record for the murder of a teenager who drove into a tree while over twice the legal blood alcohol limit and talking on a cellphone at the very moment of the crash? And a loving, happy, devoted wife will divorce her husband, the father of her child, the moment he gets into a car accident to protect herself from liability, because her lawyer father raised her to be cautious? I AM a lawyer, and I think that's ridiculous. Aside from the issues I had with the plot and the characters, this book also pissed me off for being too short to be a hardback. (I fully realize that here I sound like the fussy eater from jokes: "the food was so bad, and there wasn't enough of it"). A waste of time and money.

"The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim" by Jonathan Coe (Alfred A. Knopf 2010): Jonathan Coe is a genius, and this isn't one of his finest books, but it's an enjoyable read if you can let go of your sorrow that he'll probably never again write anything so perfect, so unforgettably flawless as "The House of Sleep" or "The Rotters' Club" or "The Winshaw Legacy." Coe's protagonist is a deeply depressed toy salesman/customer service representative who mulls over his divorce, his estranged relationship with his father, and his growing obsession with a man who faked sailing around the world.

"Lit" by Mary Karr (Harper Collins 2009): the third memoir from the well-celebrated author of "The Liars' Club." This is no "Liars' Club", but I guess there is an unsatiable demand for memoirs from Mary Karr. Here she writes about her alcoholism, a stay in a mental hospital, her unsuccessful marriage, and her conversion to Catholicism. I enjoyed the first half of this book but got really irked and frustrated by the end. Her account of the failure of her marriage was so one-sided that I longed, longed for some objectivity. In particular Karr lost my sympathy when she refers grandiosely to "remembering the day of my suicide." What suicide?? All she did was buy a freaking hose and have a drama queen freakout on the phone to a friend about how she intended to hook up the hose to the exhaust pipe of her car. That is not a suicide. That's not even full-on suicidal ideation. Anyhow, I will always love Mary Karr for "The Liars' Club" (one of the most moving and powerful memoirs ever written), but this book was irritating. Unfortunately I can't even sell my signed first edition because Lola knocked my glass of red wine over it. Sadly I think my own cold, workaholic ex-husband (I'll take on Mary Karr in a Battle of The Standoffish, Selfish, Emotionally Withholding Ex-Husbands any day) took my copy of "The Liars' Club" when he moved out.

"Serpent Box" by Vincent Carrella (Harper 2008): I usually hate fiction set in the Appalachians which indulges in folksy writing, elegizing old women who know "medicine plants", and endless yammering about the Bible, but somehow Carrella sucked me in for all 455 pages. I should have hated this book: it kept telling the same story over and over again of how a pregnant woman is caught out in a thunderstorm and crawls into a gap in the trunk of a hanging tree to give birth, including from the point of view of someone who wasn't even there. And then there was the flowery, overly-stylized country writing. I can't believe I finished a book containing such sentences as "She did not know that autumn's first snowfall ripens that part of a woman where the lifeseed will catch, or that the wandering spirit of a true love will seek out the first child of spring." But yet somehow I was hooked, hanging in there for all those 455 pages. This is undoubtedly the best novel in the "deformed Appalachian child whose ambition in life is to be a snake handler" genre.


sfbernal said...

Lot of books - you are obviously a fast reader. We are going to Camp Mather this week 9July 2nd) and I have my stack of books and unread New York Times magazines but with a 5 and 2 year old I dont expect much reading

the Drunken Housewife said...

I read almost nothing when I had a 2 year -old there! Instead I had to monitor her for drowning, fish for tadpoles, etc.., etc.. Your day will come.