A Running List of Books Read

My reading has been sporadic, and old New Yorkers are more likely to keep my attention these days than books, especially when the issues are before the coronavirus was a staple of society.   The covers offer some solace too when they picture a Sunday morning outing from September, 2019 – not that long ago, or Anna Parini’s “A New Leaf’ from January, 2019.  Short essays by David Sedaris and  Adam Gopnick are refreshing.  And then there are the cartoons…

 

 

 

 

But now and then a book appears, sometimes preordered in the mail or iBooks.  A few I’ve read:

The Starlet and the Spy by J-Min Lee

A profoundly poignant tale of the effects of the Korean War on a young woman who survives the horrors on her country, only to recap the trauma in her mind as she tries to return to a normal life after the armistice.  Alice J. Kim is a Korean translator and typist for the American forces, having abandoned her career as an illustrator and artist.  When movie star Marilyn Monroe is scheduled to visit the American troops still in Korea, Alice is assigned as her translator.  An unexpected friendship develops between the two women as Alice is forced to confront her past.  Although Marilyn Monroe’s appearance in this short novel is small, her role triggers an unexpected note of women’s strength in dealing with their lives.

The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black

Black is the pen name of Man Booker Prize winning novelist John Banville.  As Benjamin Black he uses mystery and crime in easy-to-read novels.  In The Secret Guests, he creates a fiction about the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret being evacuated to Ireland during the war.  If you are a devoted viewer of The Crown and a fan of Susan Elia MacNeal, this story will feed your curiosity about imagined conversations and feelings of the future Queen and her sister.  Short and fun.

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian

Having read Bohjalian before, I was expecting a page-turning thriller, and I was not disappointed.  Maybe a little too close to current events, The Red Lotus reveals a story about a virus released globally – this time through rats.  From a bike tour in Vietnam to a New York City emergency room, the story is fast-paced with just enough romance and horrors to keep you reading. Alexis, the emergency room doctor discovers her new lover has been lying about his background and his family.  The energy packets he left behind where he was found dead lead to harrowing consequences, trailing with deceit and murder.  Although the idea of  reading about a global pandemic when we are all in one may not seem appealing, Bohjalian creates a solvable mystery with a happy ending.

 

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

Tempted by the possibility of hearing the author via crowdnet and motivated to support a local independent bookstore, I bought the book, read the story, and watched the interview broadcast.  Although the author confirms he is not native Hawaiian, he weaves a tale about a poor Hawaiian family beset by the demise of the sugar cane plantations.  The three children in the family follow a typical route by eventually leaving the island for college on the mainland – one with a basketball scholarship, another for an engineering degree, and the youngest and brightest to Stanford for pre-med – and all predictably find difficulty in adjusting to non-island life.

The youngest is also the fulcrum of the story; as a young boy he was rescued from drowning in the ocean by a shark.  Suddenly, he becomes the Hawaiian Messiah, with real or imagined healing powers.  Later, when his “powers” fail him as a paramedic, he returns despondent to his hometown; he dies accidentally or suicidally – it is up to the reader to decide. His brother replaces basketball with drug dealing and jail time, exiting to a life as a drug lord sending money back home.  His sister leaves college to help her destitute parents, and works on a local farm in exchange for food.  She, ultimately, becomes the savior, using her engineering skills to reconstruct and modernize the farm into a profitable business.

Sprinkled with Hawaiian local language and lore, the story may be more interesting to those looking to understand the plight of the Hawaiian family and the magical reasoning used to explain incidents and drive opportunities.

Taking Off

452257583My favorite part of flying is the take-off.  I like to close my eyes as the plane revs up its engines and begins the thrust down the runway.  Against all odds, the tons of metal carrying people in their seats, luggage above their heads and below in the cargo hold, pounds of water and fuel – all miraculously rise into the air.

I always know that moment; I can feel it as the plane rises up off the ground, and nothing during the rest of the flight offers the same exhilaration.   Recently, I zigzagged across the country, wondering if my checked luggage was following my erratic itinerary, but I enjoyed six take-offs in nine days, six ecstatic moments of floating.

As is my practice, I brought old New Yorker magazines to read during my flights – these were dated before the last Presidential election, so I ignored the predictions and focused on the articles.

shopping    Claudia Roth Pierpont’s amazing review The Secret Lives of Leonardo da Vinci convinced me to find Walter Isaacson’s biography Leonardo da Vinci when I landed.  A short piece by Jonathan Franzen – Hard Up in New York – about his life before he was as rich and famous as a writer can be,  inspired me to write this short piece.

When I finish reading, I usually offer the magazines to the flight crew, or drop them in the seatbacks as a surprise for the next traveler.  I’ve been tempted to leave them in the terminal with a code I’ve used for books in Bookcrossing, a website that allows you to assign unique numbers to your books, and use these numbers to track your books as they travel across the globe. I’ve released a few books “into the wild” – in designated public places for others to find.  Let me know if you try it.

And scroll down to see a picture of my travels on Instagram.

 

Calvin Trillin

Calvin Trillin, one of my favorite authors, has a witty view of life to simultaneously lift my spirits while connecting me to his cynical view.  Having related to Tepper in Tepper Isn’t Going Out and laughed through his Travels with Alice as well as innumerable articles in The New Yorker, I had avoided his love letter to his dead wife, Alice, until one of my book clubs picked “About Alice” for a discussion. Unknown-2  The shorter version appeared in The New Yorker, published in 2006 – Alice, Off the Page.

In an interview for the New York Times  By the Book Trillan cites “About Alice,” the book he wrote about his wife who died in 2001, waiting for a heart transplant, as his most personally meaningful.  He also listed books that have “broken through {his} resistance to the magical,” with, not surprisingly, another famous humorist’s book in the collection of his favorites (mine too) – Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader.

The New York Times offered a review of “About Alice” in 2007 – Scenes from a Marriage.

Peter Stevenson writes: 

“This book can be seen as a worthy companion piece to other powerful accounts of spousal grief published in the last decade: Joan Didion’s tale of John Gregory Dunne’s fatal heart attack, John Bayley’s memoir of Iris Murdoch’s decline from Alzheimer’s and Donald Hall’s narration of Jane Kenyon’s death from leukemia.”

Since Alice’s death on September 11, 2001, Trillin has continued to write books and articles.  The last one I laughed over was his candidate for the scariest word in the English language – upgrade.  I could relate – maybe you can too?

“As the upgrades increase in frequency, I can imagine a future when, with the latest upgrade, I can’t find anything at all…With the upgrade to my smartphone, the podcasts I used to listen to are lost somewhere in the ether around West Virginia.”

Related Review:

Tepper Isn’t Going Out

 

A Little Life

9780804172707_p0_v1_s192x300   The subject matter kept me away from A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – who wants to dwell on self-mutilation and  child molestation? I started reading it one night and had just started to enjoy the camaraderie of the four principal characters when the first incident occurred.  Thankfully, I had no nightmares but the next day I could not wait to start reading again and did not stop until I finished.

New Yorker reviewer John Michaud called it “an unsettling meditation on sexual abuse, suffering, and the difficulties of recovery.” You can read his review here for more details on the plot.

Curious about the author, I found several interviews and was surprised to learn Yanagihara has a day job as an editor for Condé Nast Traveler.  In an interview with Alexander Nazaryan of Newsweek,Yanagihara reveals the philosophy driving her writing:  “All life is small…Life will end in death and unhappiness, but we do it anyway.”  In an interview with the National Book Award committee (the book was a 2015 finalist), Yanagihara describes her focus in writing the book:

“So much of this book, especially what it suggests about friendship—its possibilities and its limitations—grew out of conversations with my own best friend…  the realization that what you’re doing may not resolve anything—but that lack of resolution doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing…

The book does focus on friendship but the graphic descriptions of sexual violence make it hard to read.  Added to the trauma is Yanagihara’s mental construct of life – no happy endings here.   In an online interview, she noted, ” I didn’t do any research; Jude came to me fully formed, and writing his sections were always the easiest…One of the things I wanted to do with this book is create a character who never gets better… that there is a level of trauma from which a person simply can’t recover.”

I’m hoping to forget most of the story, but a few redeeming phrases about friendship I will remember:

  • “And he understood that friendship was a series of exchange of affections of time, sometimes of money, always of information.”
  • “…the utter comfort…of having someone who had known him for so long and who could be relied upon to always take him as exactly who he was…”

Read the book, if you dare.

 

Laughing Out Loud – Imaginary Mitzvahs

After a day of smiling at strangers, trying to follow the Chinese wisdom of Michael Puett’s The Path, I came across Calvin Trillin’s essay for The New YorkerImaginary Mitzvahs – and my true self reverted to type.

When I travel, I often tear out essays I want to read again from The New Yorker, before recycling the magazine to a flight attendant.  Trillin is one of my favorite funny cynics, and his litany of good deeds gone undone restored my cranky equilibrium.  But I did have a good laugh.

In Imaginary Mitzvahs, Trillan reviews his attempts to be a good person. When he graciously moves to a middle seat on the plane between a woman holding two crying babies and “a man whose stomach hung over the armrest” to accommodate the two men who “hadn’t seen each other in years…{this} flight is the only time we have to catch up,” he notices one man falls asleep throughout the flight and the other reads.

When he obliges his newly gluten-free vegan cousin by foregoing the sumptuous meaty French meal he had anticipated, his taste buds suffered but he felt virtuous.

Finally, when a cat in a fiery building needs rescuing, he resists – despite his inclination to do good.

There is a limit, after all.

Have a laugh – Read the essay : Imaginary Mitzvahs

9780375758515_p0_v1_s192x300And if you have not read Trillin’s Tepper Isn’t Going Out – my favorite book, here is my review:  Tepper Isn’t Going Out