What I’ve Been Reading – July 2007

The Plot Against AmericaThe NamesakeSlaughterhouse Five

Books Acquired:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J. K. Rowling

Books Read:
Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
The Plot Against America – Philip Roth
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J. K. Rowling
The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri

I’ve spent the last month doing more worrying than reading. I’ve been wondering what, in God’s name, I might do about reading in the wake of a new child. How will I ever read again? My books will begin gathering dust, slowly collecting in various corners of the house, stacking up simply because I’m too naïve to realize I can’t buy books anymore. My reading life is done, I thought. Done, I tell you!

I imagined the books I’ve purchased over the past six months rising up in a revolt, brandishing the seemingly hundreds of bookmarks that we’ve collected over the years and leading a charge on my brain. My boxes of unread New Yorkers, my ignored Believers, my short story collections and the local newspaper, all joining together to fight for the common good – the re-literacy of my poor child-addled soul.

How could I buy a book again in good conscience? Would this little girl ever let me even turn a page? Would I ever be afforded the time needed to finish a magazine article, let alone a Steinbeck opus? Will this be the last What I’ve Been Reading you ever see that doesn’t include the words “I managed to make it through last month’s issue of Cooking Light; you’d be amazed at what they’re doing with polenta these days.”

With all of that worrying, I forgot to pay attention to the books I actually read – four of them, actually. But I took notes this month for just the occasion, and now I’m frantically typing them out in an effort to get the July column on the Interweb before the August column is due.

The hysteria over Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows filled every corner of the book world this past month, and I was caught up in it, reveling in the full out, tabloid level coverage that only the dual release of a Harry Potter movie and book can garner. Bets were being placed on the plot. Scandal arose over leaked copies and early reviews. Millions of children wondered what the fuss was all about; wondered why their parents had dressed up like a house elf and pitched a tent in front of Barnes and Noble for three days and why their copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was placed in protective plastic sheeting like it was the original Magna Carta, ignoring the fact that it actually was one of 30 trillion first printing copies.

I plowed through the book, as I have every Harry Potter book. I remember every word, but only because the words are so easy to read – the decidedly non-literary style that Rowling has used to bridge the gap between the literati and young children who actually enjoy reading and not just looking like knowledgeable scholarly readers.

I was on a Harry Potter high. I critiqued every item of the Harry Potter universe. And I discovered, after watching the movie version of the fifth book, and the difference between the movies and the books is that the movies will never again capture the magic that the books exhibit. It’s impossible at this point without directing a five-hour, three-intermission Harry Potter fest, to be released on three DVDs with butt pillow and catheter in just a few months.

I loved it. The entire series is great, and I found the ending to be satisfactory. There will be no spoiler alert because I will present no spoilers. What’s the point? If you want to read it, you’ve read it already. If you’re not sure about reading it, nothing that this fanboy is going to say will change your mind.

Amazingly, though, Harry Potter only took up about four days of my life (at 770 pages, one of my most proud feats, I’ll admit) though speed reading Rowling, like I said earlier, isn’t really a feat at all. The rest of the month was spent re-reading old classics (Slaughterhouse Five, which I will say nothing about except that I still like it and am always surprised how close to sci-fi the recently deceased author always gets and how dangerously near literature-pariah he would have become if he had fully crossed over into full-blown sci-fi craziness) and new fiction – The Plot Against America and The Namesake.

I had written a big long thesis on how The Namesake was wonderful and how I was able to relate to it and how everything in it was brilliant and beautiful and all of that. After reading over it, I found it to be boring, so I scrapped it in favor of this: The Namesake is about Bangladeshi family members struggling to find a place in America. The End.

Ha! Just kidding! The Namesake is beautiful, yes, and brilliant too. Of course, everything I’ve read by Jhumpa Lahiri (by which I mean, both of the books she’s published that I personally know about) has been beautiful and brilliant. In The Namesake, a young Bangladeshi boy born in America comes to grips with his name – the faultily created Gogol (a “nickname” incorrectly chosen as a true “family” name) and his struggle to please both his family and his future.

As Gogol goes to college, he changes his name Mikhel, the name that was supposed to be his proper name. In doing this, he spits in the face of his father – a man who loved Gogol (the writer) and chose the name to commemorate an important, life changing moment. He also gains the freedom to change his life from Bangladeshi to American, and the path he takes keeps leading back home.

As a kid who always looked for a chance to reinvent himself, I found The Namesake to be strangely familiar. My most undesirable traits were often ridiculed, enough that I was excited to move on, to leave friends behind and head off to a new frontier. I couldn’t change my traits, like Gogol changed his name, but it’s a rite of passage all the same – the signifier of a new life, of having control over every aspect.

That college discovery period is incredibly nostalgia inducing, where everything is new and the world opens up in front of you, brimming with original knowledge and offering hundreds of different paths. College is often the first time we find a calling, the first time personalities are honed and the first time tastes are experimented with. Some of us venture off into wild frontiers. Some of us stay closer to home. It all depends on how comfortable you are with your past life.

The Plot Against America was more or less a primer in propaganda and how it can ruthlessly change public opinion. While Roth’s novel was set fictitiously in New York City among a group of Jews who have just learned the Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindberg had been elected President and was decidedly keeping them out of World War II (and written with Roth as the narrator, as if this history had truly happened) it was more a story of how a little boy deals with war.

The 9-year-old Roth tends to focus more on trivial day-to-day selfish longings – I don’t like my neighbor, where’s my stamp collection – and these issues are given equal standing with the horrible prejudice being sponsored by the government. Here, the war is brought to life not by the casualties of war but by the crying of a father, the fear of a mother, the turncoat sympathies of a brother.

I couldn’t grasp simple conflicts like Desert Storm when I was 11 and 12, so I can’t imagine how a little boy would be able to even fathom the details of World War II. This was a good look into what those feelings might be, how the fears of suburbia slowly creep into the lives of the children, and how those fears are both blind and acute – both ignored and unrefined, yet very honed, able to pick up the feelings of the general public much better than the adults who have become calloused to them.

Now if I wanted to be a crazy lunatic, I could talk about how there were some similar political landscape between The Plot Against America and our current state of affairs. In The Plot Against America, a leading party (the Roosevelt Democrats) wanted to go to war in order to save humanity, etc., while the party with no power (the Lindberg Republicans) wants to stay out of the war, gains the upper hand in the elections, and begins fighting to stay out of Germany.

Replace “Roosevelt Democrats” with “Bush Republicans”, replace “Lindberg Republicans” with “The Democratic Party,” and replace “Germany” with “Iraq” and there you go. 2006-7 in a nutshell.

Whoa! Did I ever get off on a tangent. Here I am, writing about reading, when I really should be worrying about never getting the chance to read – or write about reading, or think about reading – ever again! Who do I think I am, with this self-duping talk? Who do I think I am, attempting to buck the trend, reading paperback books of 100 pages or less, all the easier to hold while rocking a baby in the opposite hand?

If you don’t see anything next month, you’ll know the reason why.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

This was lovingly handwritten on August 6th, 2007