"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Joseph Smith and Goon Squad

For the second year in a row, I've somehow overwhelmingly read books written by men. I'm not sure why. My guess is that it's partly a function of the subtle ways in which our culture gets slightly more excited about male writers than female writers (the male "genius" archetype), and I am pretty deeply vulnerable to hype. Also, it may be that as an aspiring writer, when I read a book I look to identify with its creator, and so seek out fellow dudes. In any case, I'm going to try and keep things a little more even this year. So, here we go ladies!

No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith by Fawn M. Brodie

I've mentioned in an earlier post how much I love Mormonism, and I've been meaning to read a good book about Mormon history for awhile. Brodie's biography of Smith is considered a classic, and its easy to see why. The writing is florid (sometimes too florid), and the narrative is amazingly neutral. I really recommend this to anyone who's interested in the topic. Even just reading through a few random chapters would be worthwhile.

I had originally intended to use this opportunity to write a long-ish thingy about religious conviction and experience, and about modern day Mormon culture and the ways in which religions seem to change over time. But are you even kidding me? Do you know how long that would take? Its the weekend! Let's all just go outside and go for a walk. I know it's pretty cold right now, but it's a refreshing sort of cold, you know? Let's try that Greek restaurant you always walk by on the way home that you've heard is great even though it looks kind of run down.  Lets have a beer and catch up on our Netflix. Have you seen Breaking Bad yet? I'll watch it again from the beginning if you're down, I really will.

A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan

Holy moly. Just wowza, this book! Amazing!

Okay, just... give me a second, because this is a hard one to describe. It's a novel written as a series of stories, but they're all deeply interconnected, involving the same large cast of characters over the course of several decades, non-chronologically. Some are in first person, some in third (one in second!). One chapter is written as a magazine profile--and pretty bald-faced parody of David Foster Wallace--one chapter is literally a PowerPoint presentation. One takes place in the near future and is populated by an omnipresent form of communicating called "T's" (essentially texts) like th blu nyt, th stRs u cant c, th hum tht nevr gOs awy.

Will Blythe's appropriately dizzying summary of the plot over at NYTimes can't be beat:

"The book starts with Sasha, a kleptomaniac, who works for Bennie, a record executive, who is a protégé of Lou who seduced Jocelyn who was loved by Scotty who played guitar for the Flaming Dildos, a San Francisco punk band for which Bennie once played bass guitar (none too well), before marrying Stephanie who is charged with trying to resurrect the career of the bloated rock legend Bosco who grants the sole rights for covering his farewell “suicide tour” to Stephanie’s brother, Jules Jones, a celebrity journalist who attempted to rape the starlet Kitty Jackson, who one day will be forced to take a job from Stephanie’s publicity mentor, La Doll, who is trying to soften the image of a genocidal tyrant because her career collapsed in spectacular fashion around the same time that Sasha in the years before going to work for Bennie was perhaps working as a prostitute in Naples where she was discovered by her Uncle Ted who was on holiday from a bad marriage, and while not much more will be heard from him, Sasha will come to New York and attend N.Y.U. and work for Bennie before disappearing into the desert to sculpture and raise a family with her college boyfriend, Drew, while Bennie, assisted by Alex, a former date of Sasha’s from whom she lifted a wallet, soldiers on in New York, producing musicians (including the rediscovered guitarist Scotty) as the artistic world changes around him with the vertiginous speed of Moore’s Law."

Egan's ability to make these desperate elements feel cohesive is pretty amazing. There was maybe only one occasion when I felt as though I were starting over. Her writing is exciting and poetic. The characters feel real; they're enormously flawed but written with real generosity and authority.

It's a book about success and failure, and about change and the effects of time on our lives. Read it!

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