16 November 2008

books in the breach

for a whole panoply of reasons, i'm in san francisco instead of in el salvador. some of my readers will be surprised by this news. to tell the truth, i'm still a bit surprised by this news myself. but my present to myself on the occasion of my twenty-seventh birthday was the realization that Adults (people of twenty-seven, for example) don't have to withstand something awfully unpleasant just because (a) the Adults in question initially calculated that the something in question would be significantly less unpleasant and/or (b) the now clearly unpleasant thing is, technically speaking, survivable.

one side effect of my situation, which not incidentally involved being sick every day for a month and then taking a hatchet to my original dissertation design, is that i've been doing a lot of reading. i'm plowing through files of ancient newspaper articles and manuscripts; i'm reviewing my theoretical foils; i'm google-scholar-ing with abandon and marking up the bad Marxist anthropology that results. on particularly Off days, and at bedtime, i'm reading fiction, too. like lots of other people, i find that reading is a nice patch, or salve or something, for those painful holes in productivity and sense of purpose that emerge out of times like these.

although the truth is, i do not recommend cormac mccarthy's the road for anyone who's feeling blue. it is the scariest post-apocalypse i've ever read about, not just because mccarthy is good at describing violence but because whatever it was that effectively ended the world is never quite identified. i do recommend the book for practically everyone else. i suppose the other fiction i've been picking up isn't exactly cheerful, either, although we at least have the backward-looking relief of knowing that the events described in suite francaise and the brief wondrous life of oscar wao don't end it all.

suite francaise describes life in france during the early part of the german occupation; its author, irene nemirovsky (and i assume all my readers will forgive the lack of diacritics), died at auschwitz sixty-four years before the book finally made its way into print. the text of the novel is one thing -- it's a sad and personal look at how scarcity and panic make the worst of people, and was written during the very events it describes. it includes no reference to the plight of france's jews, which is either astounding or perfectly understandable alongside the notes and letters that accompany the novel itself: nemirovsky's acknowledgement of both nazi policy and her personal fate is stunning.

i described oscar wao to my bully-studying father as a book about a bully victim, which is more or less true. but it's also a book about dictatorship and repression and dungeons and dragons and immigrants. its freedom with footnotes put me in mind of consider the lobster. its freedom with language is more singular, more interesting, and more fun. other fun, or at least interesting, reads lately: look at me, by jennifer egan; wasted, by marya hornbacher; gilead (finally), by marilynne robinson.

oh, and my awesome friend erica made me drag out the nicomachean ethics for the first time in a while. excellent!