Although America has come to know vacations at the Jersey Shore through the hijinks of Snooki, Wooki, Kooki, and their pals, not all of us head oceanward looking for debauchery. I just got back from my annual week in Cape May with family and old friends, during which, through sheer force of will, I managed to maintain a book-a-day pace.
Here’s what I read:
Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now — Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything by David Sirota
A hugely entertaining look at the lasting impact of the ’80s. Sirota outlines a few major themes:
- The rejection of ’60s values through a surge in ’50s nostalgia (Grease, Happy Days)
- Narcissism and the rejection of a sense of community (Michael Jordan, Wall Street)
- The militarization of an entire generation of children, with the connected myth of the spit-upon Vietnam vet (it never happened) (Top Gun, The A-Team, Rambo)
- Despite the love of the military, a profound a distrust of the government (ET, Ronald Reagan, Sarah Palin)
- The distortion of race relations and the creation of the “post-racial” culture (The Cosby Show, Barack Obama)
I found his premise — and evidence — quite persuasive overall. He definitely provided an intriguing explanation for the sources of the “what the hell happened?” dismay I feel regularly observing various social, cultural, and political developments. (As someone who grew up during the ’50s and ’60s, I encountered most of the influences he mentioned as a less-impressionable adult — when I encountered them at all.)
The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik
Some fanatical birders undertake what is known as a Big Year — a quest to see as many different species of birds as possible in the continental United States and Canada over the course a single calendar year. In 1998, three different men all embarked on the quest: the man who held the standing record, a workaholic who was trying to retire — again — and a computer programmer who (for financial reasons rather than to make the challenge even more insane than it inherently is) was going to do it while working full-time.
Obmascik writes well, and he does a great job of keeping all the various strands — the personal stories of the three main characters plus numerous walk-ons; the social and historical context of the Big Year; and bird habits and habitats — straight. You don’t need to be a birder to enjoy this book.
Note: Having seen the DVD of the 2011 movie recently, I noticed, but was not bothered by, the numerous differences (some of them significant) between the book and the movie. I’ve got an essay on that subject percolating, though, so I’ll say no more on that right now.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Written in the ’40s and set in the ’30s, the book takes the form of the journals of 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, who lives with her family in a crumbling castle acquired when her father, a one-hit-wonder literary novelist, had been flush; the family fortunes have changed significantly since. A wealthy American inherits the nearby manor, becoming the Mortmains’ landlord, and various changes ensue, including Cassandra’s first experience of love.
Cassandra is an appealing character whose distinctive voice rings true as a bright, rather naïve member of an extremely eccentric family. I kind of wish I’d come across it as a teenager; I think I would have enjoyed it perhaps even more then.
Bonus trivia: Smith later went on to write The Hundred and One Dalmatians.
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson
A first novel that alternates between two narratives — which, of course, turn out to be connected. The first narrative is told through the first-person notes made by Evangeline English in 1923, when she goes to Kashgar, on the Silk Road, with her sister and a third woman. The other two are missionaries filled with evangelical fire, but Evangeline mostly wants adventure, and has a contract to write the titular cyclist’s guide.
The second narrative is in the present day, and follows two different characters: Frieda, who works for an NGO that advocates cross-cultural communication, returns home to London from a long trip abroad to find Tayeb, a Yemeni immigrant, asleep on the landing outside her flat. She lends him a blanket and pillow; he thanks her with a lovely drawing of a bird; they begin, yanno, communicating. Cross-culturally.
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Verdict: Not the best place to start
This was a major bestseller about five years ago; I picked up this copy the last time I was in the Book Trader (a local used book store where I maintain a really crazy credit balance).
Enh. There have been several books subsequently expanding and building on Taleb’s insight, including Thinking Fast and Slow, which I read a few months ago. Despite Taleb’s occasional snarky asides about the sadly conventional mindset of editors (ahem), this could have stood to be a bit more tightly edited: One sentence with an exclamation point is, as Fitzgerald observed, like laughing at your own joke — two in a row makes you sound disturbingly manic. Also, he throws around jargon without always explaining it very carefully: there was a section on “long tails,” for instance, which didn’t make sense if you’ve never heard the term before, which I hadn’t. (And, no, it wasn’t in the very idiosyncratically chosen four-page glossary at the end.) Writers: We editors are not the enemy. We’re here to help you. Really.
I skipped the last section, on the statistical underpinnings of randomness, etc. Enough is enough.
Are You My Mother: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel
Verdict: Don’t bother
Bechdel’s second graphic memoir; the first was Fun Home, in which the lesbian author-artist grappled with her relationship with her late father, a closeted gay man. In this sequel, she tries to figure out her relationship with her mother, who’s still alive.
Fun Home is excellent; if you’ve never read it, check it out. This, on the other hand, is a complete mess. There’s lots of navel-gazing as Bechdel reflects on her therapy with two different shrinks — without, however, actually communicating any resulting insights from that therapy. She also quotes lots and lots of psychotherapeutic theory, a genre with which I have very little patience. Unfortunately, Bechdel hasn’t finished processing her relationship with her mother, so there’s no coherent destination for the narrative.
What Am I Doing Here by Bruce Chatwin
Verdict: For fans only
Chatwin’s last book, this collection of essays appeared just prior to his AIDS death in 1989. I like Chatwin a lot — he was a wonderful writer who chose interesting topics — so I enjoyed most of it. I did, however, skip several pieces that I found dated or just too dry (have I ever cared about Andre Malraux?). Others (on nomads, wolf children, searching for Yetis) hold up just fine.
What can I say? My idea of beach reading is perhaps a bit idiosyncratic.