Monday, February 9, 2009

Three, three, three books in one!

So, in the last week I read three book-like things, and I'm too proud of myself not to include all three of them here, even though one is technically a magazine and another one is a collection of articles from that same magazine.  You may have heard of McSweeneys from my sidebar or from a reference in the popular teenage pregnancy movie that is not Unwed Father.  Anyway, the same people who put out the Internet Tendency and the print journal also have a lit mag called The Believer, which is good to read on the bus if you want to talk to the eager Christian types.  I read it with my headphones on so that I just get lots of weird looks.  The issue I just finished is the January 2009 issue, in which I learned about bomb shelters (which came in handy for a later book), a 1961 children's novel, Gordon Lish and a novel/memoir made up of suicide notes.  It made me smarter and it will make you smarter too.

From that I moved on to Shakespeare Wrote for Money, a collection of essays that Nick Hornby wrote for the Believer back in 2007.  His column was called "Stuff I've Been Reading," and in it he cataloged all the books he bought and all the books he read in a month.  It both highlights the cavern between those lists and creates a new list for me, called "Stuff I want to buy/read."  There's a post-it on my cubicle wall right now that says "Clay, Skellig, Sharp Teeth, Don't Sleep There are Snakes."  This makes me seem interesting and intelligent to coworkers who are not at all weirded out by it.

Anyway, I had read all these essays before, being a regular subscriber to the Believer, but it was good to read them again in quick succession.  And especially portentious since he wrote about "The Road," by Cormac McCarthy, which is the third book I read this month.  That, combined with the piece in January's Believer about bomb shelters made it so I couldn't just skip over the M's in my bookshelf, no matter how much I wanted to.

And I really, really wanted to.  Hornby doesn't exactly give it a bad review, but he points out that the adjective "unflinching" is always applied to extremely dark and disturbing books, as though writing about happy things is really just shying away from the truth.  And this book is most definitely dark.  And pretty disturbing, even if you know what you're getting into.  It's very well-written, and it flows more quickly than you'd expect (though I wouldn't recommend reading it on a plane as I did, since it gives you the impression that when you land there might be nothing left of the planet).  But for about the first 150 pages of this 200 page book, the most you can say about the "plot" is this: a father and son wander the nuked landscape, encounter marauders who eat people and people struck by lightning who do not eat people.  They almost die a lot.  

Now I'm going to tell you the ending.  You can read the book even knowing the ending, but I hear that it's bad form to not warn people.  So consider this your warning.  In the end, the father dies of what is probably radiation sickness.  Literally moments later the son is lucky enough to meet some "good guys," including a woman, a man and two other children, who take him in and most likely save him from starvation or being eaten.  Throughout the book, the man (the characters don't have names) spins tales of where they are going and how they will find the "good guys" and tells the boy that he is "carrying the fire."  But, as the boy points out, the two of them don't act like the good guys; they don't share their food or help others.  They don't act like the bad guys either (no marauding or eating people), but until the very last moment I was sure that there were no "good guys," and that that was the point.  As long as everyone considering him/herself "good" does nothing to help others, then there will be no society or grouping of The Good.  They will wander alone, fend for themselves, and die.  If they encounter one another, they will hide or scare each other off, because they're more afraid of getting killed than hopeful about rebuilding.   So the sudden introduction of this small clan of The Good was confusing to me.  I'm not sure whether it's meant to be a ray of hope that some people really were "being the change they wanted to see", or if McCarthy suddenly "flinched" and just didn't know how to end his book without some happy ending.  You read it and let me know.

So, that ought to give you good choices and also shame you into reading.  You should also know they're coming out with a movie version of The Road, so if you want to just lie to me and say you read it, but watch the movie instead.... well, I'll be able to tell the difference and I'll make fun of you.  Plus, you don't want to see half of what they talk about in the book on a big screen.  You'll never sleep again.  


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