Friday, January 02, 2004

Out With the New. More of the Same

A couple of days into this new year, 2004, and things of old do not die easily. I'm still in Belgium (one more day)... I'm the same weight I was two days ago (a stone more than last year, I fear)... I'm still listening to the same set of Kate Rusby songs I downloaded upon my arrival... and I'm still reading, for reasons that elude me altogether, about religious pluralism (which is, for those who do not know, the opposite of religious dogmatism, of the sort that says 'I'm right' and therefore 'You're wrong'). In desperate search for something new, but nothing to make me assess all that I have and take for granted -- this is not the time for soul-searching, these cold January mornings in stone houses surrounded by snow -- my mid-morning pancake, caked in brown sugar (mmmm!), was accompanied by the Best Books of 2003 lists in the San-Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times. Though I've only read a couple of the books on either list, there is some nice looking stuff in there. A couple of the highlights for me included:

Gilligan's Wake. By Tom Carson. A loopy, exuberant novel-type prose event that sees 20th-century America through the lives of the castaways on ''Gilligan's Island.'' The originals are augmented by culturally significant characters, from Amelia Earhart and Holden Caulfield to Richard Nixon and Maggie the Cat. [Note to one of my Hoosier guest bloggers of old: this looks to be up your alley.]

Oracle Night. By Paul Auster. An up-to-date metasomething novel on a dizzy rotation between life and invention, situated in a writer's notebook; the writer, Sidney Orr, recently very ill, has lost his will to write until he buys an exotic notebook in Brooklyn. Immediately stories begin to proliferate, right from the bottom of the page upward, in a stew of creation and discovery, communication and concealment.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. By Azar Nafisi. Recalls how Nafisi secretly gathered a group of women in her home in the Islamic Republic of Iran every week to study such banned authors as Austen, Fitzgerald, James and Nabokov. The question of "how great works of imagination could help" them negotiate their "present trapped situation" allowed the women's own stories of brutality and hope to entwine with those of the characters they studied. In this account of her experience, personal insights such as the texture of Nafisi's marriage or her relationship with her two children are tucked away within the larger questioning of literature, her students, her friends and the regime.

Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. By Jessica Stern. "Religion is a kind of technology," as Jessica Stern puts it in "Terror in the Name of God." "It is terribly seductive in its ability to soothe and explain, but it is also dangerous." Religious violence springs from a desire to find a clear purpose in the confusion of a world dominated by American capitalism, Stern asserts. A Harvard professor and former government policy wonk, she spent five years traveling around the globe to research this remarkable study, which combines psychological depth with forensic scholarly rigor.

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. By Jon Krakauer. Krakauer's new work is a fantastic read, right up there with "In Cold Blood" and "The Executioner's Song" in its depiction of that strange American blend of piety, violence and longing for the End Times. His book's bizarre tale revolves around the true and horrifying 1984 murder of a young woman and her baby daughter by Dan and Ron Lafferty, two brothers who joined a fundamentalist, polygamist Mormon splinter group and soon began following their own twisted revelations. Krakauer masterfully weaves Mormon history and modern polygamy into a seamless story about the strangest subculture of the American Southwest.

Vernon God Little. By DBC Pierre. A first novel that is smart, ridiculous and funny even though it is nourished chiefly by the Columbine High massacre of 1999; its 15-year-old protagonist, whose best friend has killed 16 classmates, is the focus of the town's lust for retribution. [ed. I've been hearing insanely good things about this. Most Booker Prize winners lose their luster over time, but this one might prove exceptional.]