One of the reasons I am sad about the end of summer is that it is a time of year that I get a lot of reading done. Time to read and summertime are synonymous in my mind. And this has been a particularly good summer for reading. So on this Labor Day, I report on a few of the books I’ve enjoyed since Memorial Day…
36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Goldstein
The rare book that incorporates serious philosophy into a work of fiction. Of course, this isn’t terribly difficult if your main character is an academic whose book on the psychology of religion has become a surprise best-seller, earning him recognition in Newsweek as the “atheist with a soul” (think: a less grumpy, more Jewish version of Christopher Hitchens). All of the characters in the book have a belief approaching the level of religiosity in something: game theory, radical life-extension, mathematics or, of course, love. It is to Goldstein’s credit, that the loosely plotted story, which sort of ambles rather than unfolds, remains so engaging all the way through. Another nice touch is the Appendix, which includes the titular 36 arguments as well as their counter-arguments. I like works that take an honest look at faith without getting all gauzy — if that makes any sense. Goldstein takes religion seriously, but not religiously. I wish more people would.
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman
I’m not a Jane Austen guy. It’s a huge demerit against any claims I might make to being a literate adult. Even when it has gotten souped-up with zombies and sea monsters, I haven’t made the time to read any of it. However, I have read and enjoyed a lot of Allegra Goodman’s work and it always gets compared to Jane Austen. I’ll have to take their word for it. The Cookbook Collector is a wonderful portrait of a moment in time, the tail-end of the internet boom and a constellation of characters whose fortunes (literal and metaphorical) rise and fall with dizzying speed. At the center are two sisters: one a innovator and wildly rich CEO of an internet start-up and the other a perpetual grad student who is happiest wrapped-up in the rare-book collection of her aloof boss. Betrayal, love, lost identity and a resolution that takes place, as one would expect, at the wedding reception of an unlikely marriage are just part of what make Allegra Goodman such a joy to read. Her books are about something — call it the way we live or fail to live. The well-intended mistakes we make that have unforeseen, grave consequences are dispensed to characters large and small with little regard for fairness or justice. It’s a recognizable universe.
Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin by Hampton Sides
This book profoundly affected me — not so much for the thriller aspects of its narrative of James Early Ray’s escape from prison, ultimately successful assassination of MLK Jr and flight from justice; but for the vagaries of fate that delivered Dr. King to the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. Sides paints a picture of a King in crisis, struggling to maintain his non-violent movement amid the rise of black power and the decline of black ghettos where civil rights have proved meaningless without economic empowerment. Add to that the local drama of a sanitation workers strike and provide as the main antagonist an assimilated Southern Jew, recently converted to Christianity who refuses to budge. It is a setup worthy of a Greek tragedy as hubris run amok brings down a great man, who had he not died, might have lived to see his greatness diminished by a country spiraling down into the death rattle of the 60s, soon to be decidedly conquered by Nixon’s silent majority.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
One part dystopian novel of a future America beset by debt and dismissive of anything not young, hot and sexy and one part the tale of two children of immigrants who never cease to be dominated by the hopes and dreams of others; Shteyngart’s novel was so much better than either half of that description might lead you to expect. Embedded in this story about a society dominated by surfaces, is a true love of tangible things that provide meaning: books (with actual and sometimes smelly paper), neighborhoods with decaying buildings and infirm inhabitants, foods found only in a childhood home. It is as much about the memory of the present currently slipping away from us (how we waste it!) as the disturbing future Shteyngart (an admitted sci-fi geek) relishes describing in macabre and absurd detail.
Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life: A Book by and for the Fanatics Among Us by Steve Almond
If this book has a flaw in its premise, it is that a book by and for music fanatics is ultimately doomed to a lukewarm embrace because by presenting himself as THE authority in fandom, the author inevitably, alienates, or at best denigrates, the target audience. And there is an element of the know-it-all with a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes and theories in this book that can’t help but grate. But Almond is so freaking funny that any reader with the slightest amount of generosity will be taken in, relax and comprehend that the author knows EXACTLY how insufferable he can sound. His deconstruction of Toto’s crap-classic “Africa” is worth the price of purchase alone. If you’re leery, the book comes with its own “bitchin’ soundtrack,” which you can listen to on his website.
These are some other books I’ve read and enjoyed, but am too lazy to provide real write-ups. They’re all good reads:
The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah–A Memoir by Joel Chasnoff
Capitalism and the Jews by Jerry Muller
Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-hop Culture by Thomas Chatterton Williams
A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction by Ruth Franklin
The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa by Sasha Polakow-Suransky
The Magicians: A Novel by Lev Grossman
The Ask: A Novel by Sam Lipsyte