Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Books Read in November

Just like last year, I disappeared on vacation for the first week of November, which made the rest of the month overly crowded with incident and left me with less time for reading and blogging than I have most months. Still, having a vacation to get entirely away from everything is still wonderful; I recommend it to everyone.

Here's what I managed to read this month; most of the titles are directly linked to my reviews of those books, either here or elsewhere. There are also capsule reviews below of Fierce Pajamas: An Anthology of Humor Writing From The New Yorker, A. Scott Berg's mid-'70s biography Max Perkins, Editor of Genius, Ken Grimwood's World Fantasy Award-winning novel Replay, and John Kelly's grim and gripping history of the Black Death, The Great Mortality.

This is as good a place as any to mention that I intend to clear the slate at the end of the year, and post something about every last book I read in 2009 before 2009 is done. Some of those may be short and malformed, but I want to clear my desk and sail into 2010 ready for new challenges. This will probably mean a flurry of posts during the last week of the year, but we'll see how it works out. As I write this, though, there are over two dozen books on the checklist, including two that I read in January!
  • David Remnick and Henry Finder, editors, Fierce Pajamas: An Anthology of Humor Writing from The New Yorker (11/4)
    This came out in paperback in 2002, when I got it. I read some of it then -- I remember taking it to one of my family's many Christmases, which was probably '02 or '03 -- and some of it at odd moments over the next half-decade. And then I took it along to The Mouse and finally finished it; mostly late in the evening down in the hotel lobby. (My sons and The Wife went to bed at about 9; I tried that the first night and woke up, fully awake, at 4:30, and so took my extra solo hours in the evening after that point.) It's difficult to review humor in the first place, since it's so subjective, and it's equally difficult to talk about an anthology -- so this book, with 139 pieces by dozens of contributors, makes me throw my hands up. It's got fine work from all of the people you would expect -- from E.B. White and Dorothy Parker to S.J. Perelman and Robert Benchley, from Woody Allen and James Thruber to Ian Frazier and Calvin Trillin -- divided into a handful of archly-titled categories, like "The Writing Life" and "The Frenzy of Renown." It's definitely not a book to read straight through, but it is a vital book for anyone interested in the strain of literate, elite humor that The New Yorker embodied in the 20th century.
  • Will Eisner, A Family Matter (11/10)
  • Will Eisner, Minor Miracles (11/11)
  • A. Scott Berg, Max Perkins, Editor of Genius (11/13)
    Note, first of all, how that title can be taken two ways -- depending on whom one considers to be the genius. (Second, puckishly, note that this is not the Scott Berg, but merely A. Scott Berg.) Perkins is probably the most famous book editor in the history of the world -- most famous as an editor, I mean -- but he's still not all that famous. Berg, probably astutely realizing exactly what the audience for a book like this was, concentrates almost entirely on Perkins's professional life. That means that Max Perkins reads almost like a group biography of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe, with occasional digressions on Ring Lardner and a few others. Berg skips Perkins's childhood almost entirely, only sketches his (apparently tumultuous) relationship with his wife, and mentions their daughters only for color or when one of them is getting married. Max Perkins is organized semi-chronologically, which came to seem a mistake -- Berg keeps getting ahead of himself while running through Perkins's work with one author, and then has to back up and fill in on other aspects of his life. Perkins will probably never get another biography, but I think the materials here, and Berg's aims in writing this book, would have been better served if Berg had organized it by author, and written much more obviously a book about Perkins's working relationships, rather than writing what looks like a biography that spends so little time on its subject's actual life. Max Perkins is a fine book, both about what it means to be an editor specifically, and what kind of life a dedicated man in any line of business is likely to have -- one defined entirely by the work he does, and interesting only insomuch as that work is -- but it substitutes Homeric catch-phrases about "Yankee reserve" for a deep examination of Perkins's character and personality.
  • Ken Grimwood, Replay (11/14)
    In any other month, I'd probably try to break out Replay and write a full review of it -- it's a great book, a classic of the SFF field, and one that's not as well-known as it could be -- but, according to my checklist, I'm still twenty-five books behind with barely a month to go in the year (and that's after writing about nine books in the last twenty-four hours). So Replay is going to get short shrift, unfortunately. It's a timeslip fantasy, but a more personal one than, say, Time and Again -- its hero, Jeff Winston, dies of a massive heart attack in 1988, at age 43, and wakes up in his own eighteen-year-old body, twenty-five years earlier. Jeff (and others) come up with various explanations for his "replaying" over the years, but there's never any clear evidence -- there's no way to tell why this is happening. So, like all of the rest of us, Jeff Winston has to live his life -- but, unlike you and I, Jeff has to do it again. And again. And again. Sure, he knows what's coming up -- he can make a quick fortune betting on sports and parlay that into a bigger fortune in the stock market -- but all that means is that only he can surprise himself. Grimwood hit upon a great idea in Replay, and he methodically covers it from every angle -- Jeff gets to live his life over and over again, correcting his mistakes, and then correcting those mistakes, and so forth, but there's never going to be a life free of mistakes. No life is perfect, and being able to do it over doesn't make it better -- more, having to do it over, and over, makes each iteration more of a slog. Grimwood does introduce other complications along the way -- and I'll leave it to those who haven't read Replay yet to discover them for themselves -- but it all has the structure and heft and inevitability of a great tragedy. (Not to say that Replay is a tragedy itself -- I won't say anything about the ending, other than that it's absolutely perfect.) I've had many "replay" fantasies myself, wishing that I could go back to this age or that, and undo things I did, or do things that I avoided -- I'm sure we all have. Replay uses those longing feelings to weave a masterful story of what a life can be, and what it should be. It's one of the great fantasy novels of our time, and everyone should read it, during one of their lives.
  • Donald E. Westlake, The Cutie (11/15)
  • Lawrence Block, Killing Castro (11/17)
  • Josh Lieb, I Am A Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President (11/17)
  • Rick Geary, Trotsky: A Graphic Biography (11/19)
  • John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (11/24)
    This is a book that was engrossing to read, and which taught me many things -- most of them at least faintly horrible and mildly disgusting -- that I didn't already know. But it's not a book I want to think about and grapple with for an extended period of time, so it's not getting a fuller review. Besides, it's a nonfiction book from 2004, which I bought after it was remaindered, so I'm quite late to begin with. It is, as the subtitle explains, a history of the Black Death, covering the various places in Europe that it devastated, starting with the Crimean town of Caffa in the late spring of 1347, and continuing through Anatolia, Sicily, Italy, France, England, and other points until the plague reached Moscow (seven hundred miles nearly due north from Caffa in 1352. It's inescapably an episodic book; each chapter covers one general region, with subsections on different towns and areas, organized generally chronologically. And those sections all tell very similar stories: plague hits, huge numbers die, but life goes on in one way or another. Kelly's strengths are in marshaling a large array of primary and secondary sources, in having those at his fingertips and being willing to jump from one to another (particularly when they contradict each other), and in pulling out the telling details and statistics along the way. This is a book about five years in which the population of Europe dropped by a third, and where some regions lost much more than that; it's inevitably a book about death, both in general, individually, and en masse. But Kelly isn't ghoulish; he remains devoted to pulling the human details even in the midst of mass graves and ferocious pestilence. This is a valuable book for anyone interested in the transition out of the medieval era, for students of human communities under stress, and anyone who wants to know what people are like when the worst happens.
  • Roger Zelazny, The Dead Man's Brother (11/25)
  • Will Eisner, Life on Another Planet (11/27)
  • R. Sikoryak, Masterpiece Comics (11/29)
  • Tom Pomplun, editor, Graphic Classics: Louisa May Alcott (11/26)
And that was November -- my hope is that December will be slightly less hectic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So, it's a light read?

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