Tuesday, February 28, 2006

February Reading

Affliction by Russell Banks. Except for some fine prose describing the New Hampshire landscape, I found this book unsatisfying, unlike the movie it spawned. Wade Whitehouse clearly loses it, but why? Banks seems to suggest that, at root, Wade's problems are caused by a cycle of male violence started (or simply perpetuated) by his abusive, drunk father, Glenn. But there is little in Wade's past to suggest that this violence, or the male culture of which it is a part, could have driven him to -- spoiler alert -- killing his father, burning down the barn, and hunting down and killing his best friend. I just didn't buy it.

Melville: His World and Work by Andrew Delbanco. Moby-Dick is probably my favorite novel of all time; it's just so vibrant, so alive, so diverse, so American. As Delbanco writes, "one of Melville's signal contributions to our literature was to help destroy Old World forms and supplant them with something new and essentially American." In this book, Delbanco has given us a fascinating look at the man behind the mask, as it were -- at his life, his family, his friends (including Nathaniel Hawthorne) and associates; at his work; at the city (New York) in which he lived most of his adult life and which influenced him so deeply; and at the political, social, and intellectual world he inhabited. I have to confess that, for me, the book lost some steam as soon as Moby-Dick was covered at about the halfway point; then again, I was reading primarily for background on Ahab and his crew. And I also found some of Delbanco's biographical techniques -- such as projecting Melville's fiction back onto the author's life -- wanting. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable literary biography.

The Right Man: An Inside Account of the Bush White House by David Frum. Part memoir, part history, part political commentary, Frum's account of his brief time in the White House is fascinating and, befitting a speechwriter, eloquent at times. He worked for the president for about a year, but that year ended up including more history than anyone bargained for. In fact, Frum, who worked primarily on economic speeches, was contemplating leaving the job when 9/11 happened, worried that, after the passage of the tax cuts, he wouldn't work on anything "big." History intruded, and he stayed through the 2002 State of the Union and contributed to some of the most memorable, most important speeches of modern times -- perhaps of all time.

No Way to Treat a First Lady by Christopher Buckley. This extremely well-crafted satire charts a hilarious and ultimately believable course between plausibility and implausibility: there is little here that seems absurd, so far have our media, legal system, politics, and government traveled down that road. There are strong hints of the O. J. Simpson trial (Buckley mentions a star athlete, one J. J. Bronco, who was acquitted of murder when his attorney imputed racism) and of Bill Clinton's sexual dalliances, although the president here is of unnamed party. The president's lover, Babette Von Anka, bears a striking resemblance to Barbra Streisand; in a delicious twist, Von Anka's original name is revealed to have been Gertrude Himmelfarb. The book is filled with such little, chuckle-worthy details, like the aircraft carrier named for Tom Clancy.

The Wishbones by Tom Perrotta. Ultimately, despite its hilarious take on aging (if early 30s can be called "aging") musicians in awkward social situations, this is a love story. Dave Raymond, who in his 30s still lives at home, is the guitarist for The Wishbones, a modestly successful wedding band in the New Jersey suburbs. They're not on the cusp of making it, but they're doing pretty well for themselves, all things considered. After witnessing the lead singer of another band die on stage, Dave proposes to his girlfriend of fifteen years (off and on). It's time; he's not getting any younger. But he doesn't imagine meeting someone who will change his life completely in the few months before the wedding. He does. It's funny. And there's a happy ending . . . of sorts.

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