Sunday, August 19, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 78
Title: Black Dogs
Author: Ian McEwan
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 8-5
Pages: 149

Books now read in ’07: 79
Title: Enduring Love
Author: Ian McEwan
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 8-8
Pages: 262

Books now read in ’07: 80
Title: The Zero
Author: Jess Walter
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 8-12
Pages: 326

Books now read in ’07: 81
Title: Foreign Affairs
Author: Alison Lurie
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 8-16
Pages: 291

Books now read in ’07: 82
Title: Saving Daylight
Author: Jim Harrison
Genre: Poetry
Date Completed: 8-19
Pages: 121

Can you forgive me, dear reader? Will you? I have broken our pact – I write, you read. Understand, all six of you have not been far from my thoughts, but it would not been easy, or convenient, to post. I have been traveling. For work. 10 days on the road. (Isn’t that a song?)

Traveling is good and bad. It allows you to visit new bookstores, attend book sales, track down authors, but it does not allow you time to post. And, more importantly, it is time away from the comforts of home. From the wife and the puppies.

I was in Iowa and Illinois. Des Moines and Chicago. The State Fair. Republican candidates for president. The straw poll. Mrs. Romney and family in first class on the flight from Des Moines to Chicago. That sort of thing, if it makes any sense at all. If it doesn’t that may be a good thing for you.

Such travel means airports, and airports mean reading. First in Washington and then in Des Moines and, finally, waiting to return home, in Chicago, where the weather was blissfully cool and free of humidity. Unlike Iowa or Washington where it was (and has been) uncomfortably hot and damnably humid.

On to the books.

Two early works by Ian McEwan. Black Dogs appeared in 1992, it is his fifth novel. Enduring Love, his seventh, appeared in 1997. I find it instructive to read an author’s early works – themes appear, stylistic tendencies, interests. You can see the writer that you love beginning to emerge from these early efforts.

Black Dogs is a study of faith vs. rationalism. A couple, united by their belief in Communism, are pushed apart soon after their marriage by the wife’s near mystical experience when she fights off two vicious black dogs. Do the dogs truly exist? The wife believes so. The husband does not.

This novel begins as a “talky,” philosophical exercise until late in the book when the dogs appear (or not). In that scene, as the wife fights for her life, while her husband is distracted by an unusual caterpillar, we witness McEwan’s emergence as a writer in command of his craft. The novelist’s techniques, still transparent in Black Dogs, become palpable and powerful in Saturday.

Enduring Love might be a less interesting novel than Black Dogs, certainly that would be true in the hands of any other writer. The protagonist finds himself joining a group of men trying to rescue a young boy from a runaway hot air balloon. In the attempt, one of the men is killed.

It seems obvious where this novel might go – who let go first? Who failed? Was it our protagonist? – and McEwan seems to be headed in that direction when Enduring Love veers into wholly unexpected terrain. One of the men engaged in the rescue attempt falls in love with our protagonist, begins to stalk him. And, yet, no one believes our protagonist. Not his wife. Not the police. Not the reader.

Enduring Love becomes, like Black Dogs, an exploration of reality. Whose experience is genuine? By the time, McEwan unveils the answer there’s a contemporary horror sitting in the living room wielding a knife. And yet the novel still refuses to follow a conventional conclusion.

Neither Enduring Love nor Black Dogs is as skillfully wrought as Amsterdam, Atonement, Saturday or McChesil Beach, but they point, solidly, in the direction of these superb novels and to an accomplished author.

The Zero by Jess Walter was shortlisted for the 2006 National Book Award for fiction. It is a weird, paranoid, ironic exploration of a cop’s life in the days following 9-11. The Zero refers to Ground Zero, and is a horrifyingly magnetic reality in the life of the cop, Brian Remy, and his comrades.

Brian has gaps in his life. He seems to be working as a special agent for one of the myriad intelligence agencies that sprang into existence in the days following 9-11. Brian flits from one scene to the next like Billy Pilgrim popping in and out of time. In his saner moments, or perhaps his maddest, he seems horrified by the work he does. Yet there seems to be nothing he can do to stop it. He leaves notes to himself. Notes that he doesn’t remember answering, yet does.

As with Being There, the film featuring Peter Sellers, Brian is like some autistic savant. Everyone thinks he knows more than he does and mistakes him for a wise man. The reader truly isn’t sure whether Brian is a wise man or Forest Gump. Our deliberate confusion is part of Walter’s skill in walking us through a confusing new world.

The Zero is deliciously ironic, and what seemed like paranoia in 2006 seems like only the most recent news report of 2007. Among the books shortlisted for the 2006 National Book Award this is the best and most interesting I’ve read so far.

Alison Lurie’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Foreign Affairs, is the best example I can offer for wandering away from the bestseller list. Written more than 20 years ago, Lurie’s novel is still as humorous and incisive now as the day it was written.

Something of a comedy of manners, it is the story of the love affairs of two Americans, both professors of English from Cornith University, who are in London, ostensibly for purposes of research. Fred Turner, a handsome man still in his 20s, hates London until he embarks on a love affair with an older actress. Vinnie Miner has convinced herself that her English friends do not see her as American. She believes she has been thoroughly assimilated. Thus, Vinnie’s love affair with a large and loud Tulsa engineer is an uncomfortable as it is irresistible.

Lurie’s novel, too, is irresistible. Let’s put it this way, how can you not adore a book with the following line: “A person without inner resources who splits infinitives, Vinnie thinks.” Now that’s deliciously funny as is Lurie’s novel.

Finally, a small collection of poetry by Jim Harrison. Saving Daylight is sometimes humorous, sometimes opaque as poetry should be I suppose. Considering Harrison’s age it is not surprising to note that many of the poems are concerned with the approach of death or its aftermath. Fortunately, Harrison still waxes poetic about dogs, wild birds, women and food.

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