Fair and Unbalanced
Littwin: Some of the Books I Read This Year, 2014 edition
IT is that time of year again when I get legions of calls (OK, two calls this year, including one from a wayward uncle, but that’s another story) to do my annual Some of the Books Mike Littwin Has Read This Year column. I try to have a theme, which usually has to do with the prospect of deducting the cost of books and coffee at the Tattered Cover. But this year, I’m going for a charity case even more extreme than independent bookstore owners– that of news reporters. But strangely the theme does not involve reporters losing their jobs.
Instead we have books (two) about reporters covering wars. There’s a newspaper reporter gone novelist telling the story of a bookstore owner raised by con artists, one of them apparently a Russian who explains to his then-young charge that you can best understand the succession of Russian leaders by the vagaries of their hairlines. There’s one about reporters — the famous muckrakers of Mercury magazine fame – who do their best to steal the narrative from Teddy Roosevelt. If you get to the end of this column, you can read the great Dexter Filkins on what reporters do — and how they have to struggle with the truth of what that means.
We’ll start with the Invisible Bridge, by Rick Perlstein, the chronicler of Goldwater, Nixon and the modern conservative movement. (He wrote Nixonland, which is a must-read in the how-dark-and-creepy-can-one-president-be oeuvre.) This time Perlstein takes on the years 1973-76, when the remnants of the ’60s fever dream play out as farce. It is the time of the fall of Nixon giving way to the rise of Reagan, the decline of the New Deal and the beginnings of the American divide. Perlstein takes 800 pages, covering everything from Nelson Rockefeller to Squeaky Fromme, to finally make the point, as one reviewer puts it, that the nation would come to choose between the born-again innocence of Jimmy Carter and the stylizing innocence of Ronald Reagan.
The Man Who Loved Dogs, by Leonardo Paduro. We have here a novel about the assassination of Leon Trotsky, which if you’re a descendent of Russian Jewish Bolshies — as I am — is the way to go. That is just the beginning, though. It’s also about the man sent by Stalin to kill Trotsky in Mexico, about the mysterious man who comes to Cuba and tells the Trotsky story to a would-be writer, about the island where it can be a crime to write any version of the truth, about how revolutions, and those who give everything to them, are inevitably betrayed. Paduro, the Cuban writer of thrillers, makes the story into a page-turner that turns, somehow, on the love of dogs.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, by Francine Prose. It’s a book that sells itself. All that’s required is a quick read of the dust jacket. Paris in the ’30s, a cross-dressing lesbian athlete, expats, artists, libertines, parvenus, race car drivers, starving writers, famous photographers, Picasso, Nazis, spies and the naughty club that brings them all together. Prose can write prose to match the subjects — all of them. She had me there, and hoping Hemingway would walk in at any moment, from beginning to end.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman. I rushed to get this book because Rachman’s first effort was called the Imperfectionists, which is a near-perfect collection of short stories about a newspaper very much like the International Herald Tribune. Rachman, who worked for the Tribune, avoids the sophomore slump with his story of Tooly, whom we discover as a 10-year-old in the hands of con artists, who are neither heroes or antiheroes, but sometimes both. The fact is, we don’t know what they are or how the precocious yet unlearned Tooly – with whom you immediately fall in love — ended up with them. It takes about 20 years’ worth of untold secrets to get to the truth, which reads like a spy story told backwards, except with more jokes.
The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I learned something very important in this book — that Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were buddies. Until they weren’t. And because they were no longer buddies, Woodrow Wilson became president, which would eventually make Glenn Beck very upset. But I digress. Go back about a hundred years and see how messed up things were then, even without Glenn Beck. The heroes of this story besides TR — Roosevelt is the hero of every story he enters — are the journalists at a magazine called the Mercury, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, William Allen White. They were the muckrakers who took on the robber barons and the politicians owned by the robber barons. We need the muckrakers again. Or maybe it’s TR we need.
Every Day Is For the Thief, by Teju Cole. Cole wrote the book Open City which was a W.G. Sebald-like measure of New York by a Nigerian medical student who walked the city streets thinking about stuff. Yep, that’s it. And it won prizes. There was no plot to speak of in Open City, and there’s none this time, which says something about the modern novel. Every Day is a kind of sequel, except that it was written years earlier, about a Nigerian doctor who returns to Lagos from New York in an attempt to discover what home is and whether he can reclaim it. (Spoiler: he can’t.) New York has ruined him for Lagos, or maybe Lagos has ruined him for Lagos. In any case, Cole writes with such rich spareness that you’d follow him anywhere.
Catastrophe, by Max Hastings. It’s the centenary of World War I, and it seems every historian has taken a crack at it. I picked up Catastrophe at a half-price sale in London. Hastings is a British reporter/historian who tells the story like a sportswriter, or maybe a theater critic. He disagrees with those who say Europe sleepwalked into war. And he disagrees with the poets who changed the way we think of war. He doesn’t think much of political leaders or of the generals, and can lay out every mistake they made on the battlefields and off. He understands the strategy, and more important, he can explain it. But mostly, he gives us real people in real time in unreal situations, taking us to the great battles and battlefields of 1914 to deconstruct the start of a war that raised the stakes on all wars. And he never forgets to put the stakes in human context.
The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. OK, the book doesn’t altogether make sense, which isn’t surprising. Mitchell famously bends genres, but any number of writers can do that. Mitchell explodes them, and the shattered pieces each produce their own writerly energy. Fans of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas — the book, not the movie — will love at least parts of the six-part Bone Clocks. Some critics say the sixth part is a disaster — a sci-fi stunt gone wrong, in which too much and too little are explained — and they might be right, but it doesn’t quite matter. There is still the dazzle, the Mitchell intellect and charm and the story line that all make for such great literary fun.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Harris. I can’t quite believe I’m recommending a novel about a Park Avenue dentist. But wait. It’s about a Park Avenue dentist who is completely innocent of social media whose identity is stolen by a patient who convincingly writes a blog in the author’s name, not only stealing his identity, but having him claim to be descended from a Biblical tribe called the Amalekites, who were all but wiped out by the Israelis. So, it’s about God and religion and identity and gum cancer and Zionism and flossing and, of course, the Internet. For a taste, try this: “The mouth is a weird place. Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate – where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul might just fail to turn up.”
The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins. This war is the one that began at 9/11 and never seems to end. It’s the war that Dexter Filkins has covered so brilliantly for the New York Times and now the New Yorker. Filkins is famous for being there, telling the story from the ground up, the same ground where the IEDs are buried. In one telling set piece, he writes of the role of the reporter/observer who may put himself in danger to get the story but who, at the same time, never quite risks everything. This story is in Iraq where Filkins and a photographer join a group of Marines who are bringing back the dead body of an insurgent. In the process of retrieving the body, a Marine is killed before Filkins’ eyes.
He writes: “I felt it then. Darting, out of reach. You go into these places and they are overrated, they are not nearly as dangerous as people say. Keep your head, keep the gunfire in front of you. You get close and come out unscathed every time, your face as youthful and as untroubled as before. The life of the reporter: always someone else’s pain. A woman in an Iraqi hospital cradles her son newly blinded, and a single tear rolls down her cheek. The cheek is so dry and the tear moves so slowly that you focus on it for a while, the tear traveling across a wide desert plain. Your photographer needed a corpse for the newspaper, so you and a bunch of marines went out to get one. Then suddenly it’s there, the warm liquid on your face, the death you’ve always avoided, smiling back at you like it knew all along. Your fault.”
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