The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

two light books

It's nice to be home, sort of. After a drive from Pittsburgh to Texas, we got four days in steamy Austin before we headed out to Portland for my sister's wedding. (Congratulations to the newlyweds, and all of our admiration for a beautiful wedding.) Now we're back in Austin and I'm getting down to some serious work on this research I'm supposed to be doing. I've been looking at the Alfred A. Knopf archive, especially on the collaboration between Knopf and the USIA's "Books in Translation" program--in the 1950s, the USIA subsidized foreign publication, in places like India and Burma and Japan, of books that would convey a positive image of American culture (such as LIFE WITH FATHER) and American foreign policy (such as REPORT ON THE ATOM). I've also been looking at the papers of people like Stephen Spender, Michael Josselson, and Nicolas Nabokov. Interesting stuff.

Although I shouldn't, I've been doing some light reading. Not HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, but that's in the pipeline (my wife has it now). I started with John O'Hara's APPOINTMENT AT SAMARRA even though I knew absolutely nothing about it--I actually thought it was a T.E. Lawrence-style 1930s intrigue book about Iraq. Well, it's not, but it's fantastic. It's a very cynical, fast-moving story that combines Fitzgerald with Cheever (well, O'Hara was a classic NEW YORKER writer) before the fact. I was surprised at just how cutting, and at times explicit, the book really was. And it's tough. There's also a lot of Nathaniel West in there. I moved on from there to Curtis Sittenfeld's PREP, which just wasn't good. As my wife points out, all young writers have that coming-of-age novel in them, and they want to get it out, and they all think they can do it better than everyone else. Sometimes they're great--CATCHER IN THE RYE, of course, but I also think RULES OF ATTRACTION isn't bad--and sometimes they're weak--MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH, unfortunately. PREP falls into the latter category. It's clich├ęd, and although it has some insights about the class and race and gender dynamics of prep schools and, most interestingly, about prep schools' self-consciousness about how they are perceived by the larger society, most of those insights would be familiar to anyone who's been around America at all these days. It's baggy and long and I'd like someone to explain "show, don't tell" to Sittenfeld, whose training at Iowa should have drilled that into her.

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