12/12/2003

Most Intriguing...

I’ve always enjoyed the New York Times’ use of the word “Notable.” The phrase “Notable Book,” of course, does not indicate whether the book is notably good, or notably bad. Even better is the word “Intriguing,” as deployed in People’s “Most Intriguing People” List. Not having read more than a dozen books that came out this year, I can’t compile a “favorite books” or “best books” list. But I can give you a “Most Intriguing Books” list, thereby indemnifying myself against any charges of false advertising. Most of these I simply saw reviewed somewhere or other. Still, I found them “Intriguing.” For the record, my personal Best Book of the Year I Read (part of) is the Updike. He’s not the kind of writer who wins Nobels—too sectarian, too disinterested in history. Still, the book, with its jacketful of ego shots and handsome binding, seems like an arm-waving: “Here I am! Look at me! Doesn’t anyone recognize the magnificence of my achievement?!” That I do is perhaps, sailor, the point of what I have written.

John Updike: Early Stories
Sarah Vowell: Partly Cloudy Patriot
Edward P. Jones: The Known World
Suzann-Lori Parks: Getting Mother’s Body
Joan Didion: Where I Was From
Don DeLillo: Cosmopolis
Robert Lowell: Collected Poems
Graham Swift: Light of Day
Colson Whitehead: The Colossus of New York
Dierdre Blair: Jung
Jhumpa Lahiri: The Namesake
Jonathan Lethem: Fortress of Solitude
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Living to Tell the Tale
Peter Carey: My Life as a Fake
J.M. Coetzee: Elizabeth Costello
Nicholson Baker: A Box of Matches
Z.Z. Packer: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
Roddy Doyle: Rory & Ita
Michel Houllebecq: Platform
A.S. Byatt: A Whistling Woman
Aleksandar Hemon: Nowhere Man
Ben Marcus: The Father Costume
William T. Vollmann: Rising Up and Rising Down
Sheila Heti: The Middle Stories
David Foster Wallace: Everything and Nothing
Matthew McIntosh: Well
J. Robert Lennon: The Mailman
Susan Sontag: On Regarding the Pain of Others
Stephen Millhauser: The King in the Tree
Eric Schlosser: Reefer Madness
Eduardo Vega Yunque: No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook…
Mario Vargas Llosa: Paradise
Tobias Wolff: Old School
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Shirley Hazzard: The Great Fire
Paul Auster: Oracle Night
Chris Ware: Quimby Mouse
Nicholas Moseley: Inventing God
Toni Morrison: Love
Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake
Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
William Boyd: Any Human Heart
Monica Ali: Brick Lane
Dave Eggers: Sacrament
Geoffrey Pike: To Ruhleben and Back
Jonathan Raban: Waxwings
Richard Price: Samaritan
Geoffrey Wolff: The Art of Burning Bridges-A Life of John O’Hara
James Wood: The Book Against God
Dale Peck: What We Lost
Jim Crace: Genesis
Donnell Alexander: Ghetto Celebrity
Sherman Alexie: Ten Little Indians
Marcel Proust: Swann’s Way (trans. Lydia Davis)
Stuart Dybek: I Sailed With Magellan
Heidi Julavits: The Effect of Living Backwards
Ann Cummins: The Red Ant House
Vendela Vida: And Now You Can Go
Sandra Newman: The Only Good Thing
Robert Stone: Bay of Souls
Richard Powers: The Time of Our Singing
T.C. Boyle: Drop City
John Banville: Shroud
Charles Baxter: Saul and Patsy
Elaine Pagels: Beyond Belief-The Secret Gospel of Thomas
Eric Hobsbawm: Interesting Times-A Twentieth Century Life
Anthony Swafford: Jarhead
Simon Winchester: The Meaning of Everything-The Story of the OED
Michael Lewis: Moneyball-The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
The 15th Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style
James McManus: Positively Fifth Street-Murders, Cheetahs, and…
T.J. Binion: Pushkin-A Biography
Benita Eisler: Chopin’s Funeral
Norman Rush: Mortals
Against Love: A Polemic-Laura Kipnis
Gunter Grass: Crabwalk
Jay Cantor: Great Neck
Nadine Gordimer-Loot
Louise Erdrich-The Master Butcher’s Singing Club
Howard Nemerov: Selected Poems
Barry Unsworth- Songs of the Kings
Pete Dexter-Train
Simic-The Voice at 3:00 a.m.
Kevin Young-Jelly Roll Blues
Richard Bausch The Stories of Richard Bausch
Benjamin Clavell: Rumble, Young Man, Rumble
Zoe Heller: What Was She Thinking?
Austin Clark: The Polished Hoe
Curtis White: The Middle Mind

email me with additions, por favor

12/07/2003

Snowed Out Without a Gun

In honor of yesterday's trip through a blizzard to the Jersey shore, where the scheduled Springsteen Christmas show was snowed out...and in honor of my being swamped by assignments, applications, and work...and in honor of the season, I present you with this, a festively packaged excerpt from an aborted draft of an essay on the Boss and the Man upstairs, which I've been commissioned to write for the inaugural issue of The New Pantagruel:

"...Disregarding, for the present, the tinny drums and backup singers that mar side A of The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle, the things that have tended to make some people uncomfortable with Bruce Springsteen are precisely those that have made people uncomfortable with Jesus Christ: the bombast, the mythos, the relentless fixation with the poor and downtrodden, the guilelessness, the wanderlust, the insistence that audience participation be more than sitting on your ass for a few hours every once in awhile, be an act of faith. The casual way devotees refer to each by their first name: Bruce. Jesus. If there is a point where the critical contiguity of the two breaks down, it is this: no one seems to be confused about where Springsteen stands on such hot-button issues as killing, gay rights, discrimination, cultural pluralism, domestic automobiles, and sex . Unlike the Bible, the Boss has never, to my knowledge, been accused of propagating mixed messages.

In an age where expressions of faith and devotion shade into acts of willful ignorance and violence so frequently that irony has become the de facto badge of neutrality, it proves easier, in some circles, to openly address spiritual matters through the medium of popular culture than it does to try to discuss Christ, or, for that matter, Moses, Mohammed, or Mithra. That I more frequently use Tunnel of Love than the Lamentations of Jeremiah to explicate my own faith to friends is perhaps this evidence of my own religious wishy-washiness. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m often unwilling to put in the hard work nowadays required to explain, say, that it’s possible to be a Christian pacifist, or an ecumenical Christian, or a Christian socialist. Far easier to point to “Living Proof,” or “The Rising,” and to say, as the Quakers do, “That friend speaks my mind.” Nonetheless, as anyone who has witnessed a recent E Street Band concert can attest, the experience of tens of thousands of people reaching into the air and singing “With these hands, I pray for your love, Lord” is as powerful as anything you’re likely to encounter in church.

Which begs the question: what is it that has allowed Springsteen’s overt statements of belief to endure, and to unite audiences, at a time when almost every other unironic gesture towards the spiritual, from the President’s fervid invocations on down to the town nativity scene, sows discord? A cynic might answer that Springsteenian faith demands little enough to be palatable to all, and that its theology is sufficiently vague to alienate none. There may be some truth there, although I will argue that Bruce’s records have always constituted a kind of Christian rock. Moreover, I am unwilling to accept that the state of grace that prevails at a Springsteen show is simply an illusion. Digging deeper into the meat of the question, I find, first, that the Springsteen catalogue possesses a similar appeal to that of the Bible’s “words in red,” only minus two millennia of exegesis and institution. That is, Springsteen’s life work presents, among other things, the story of an ordinary guy with a powerful sense of mission, who endures some trials, gains a following, and comes, in the course of time, to a few simple but deeply beliefs. And, secondly, that Springsteen’s fumbling toward faith gains traction when he turns from the Dylan-influenced poetry of his early work and the dramatic monologues of Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska, and Born in the U.S.A. to the confessional voice that has distinguished his best work since then. This voice, unlike, say, the sententious rhetoric offered by our president, allows Springsteen to offer us gestures of faith while convincingly sharing his own fears, doubts, depressions, and sins. His audience can listen and say, 'Hey, that guy’s like me. I’ve felt that. I’ve been there. And when he sings about God, I know what he’s talking about.'"