January Reading

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Here’s what I’ve been reading.  How’s about you?

1. Hard Times, by E.L. Doctorow

My year started off the right way when I received a copy of E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times in the mail from my good friend James of the blog Ready When You Are, C.B.  James and I were roommates for our summer at Yale, and since then we’ve kept in touch through Facebook and our respective blogs.  (And if you really want to read a good blog about books and reading, you really should check his out.  Here.  Here’s another link to his blog.  Just click it.  You’ll thank me.)
James and I were talking about westerns, and I confessed that I had not read many of them.  I have read True Grit and Lonesome Dove (three times), and James promised me he would mail me one of his favorites by E.L. Doctorow.  And he did!
Furthermore, James mailed me this paperback in the purest way possible–he simply tied it up with a string, wrote my address on the back cover, and slapped some stamps on there.  No envelopes, no packaging, no muss–just a book in my mailbox.  And all the stamps were Western-themed, even.
So, after the delight of receiving the book, all I had left to do was read it.  Welcome to Hard Times is a sparse, often brutal novel about a man trying to overcome his weaknesses and shortcomings in the face of pure evil.  The evil is personified by The Man from Bodie, a vicious little bastard who looms over the entire novel, despite being absent from the plot for about 95% of the time.
I enjoyed Welcome to Hard Times, and I would like to read more of E.L. Doctorow.  The novel, as I stated, is brutal, but the author remains generous throughout, in a way that keeps the reader from feeling abandoned to the wilderness of murder, snow, rape, and hopelessness.  Welcome to Hard Times reminded me slightly of the novels of Cormac McCarthy (especially Child of God), but Doctorow sticks with you, whereas McCarthy will take you to the grimmest corners of despair and just leave you there to fend for yourself.  
(I want to read Homer and Langley, but my friend Kelly has guaranteed me that I would hate it.  Hmmmm.  We’ll see.)
2. The Transcendentalists
I’ve already written about all this.  Read it if you like.
3. Gulliver’s Travels (parts one and two), Jonathan Swift
Gulliver’s Travels has been on my to-be-read list since I was just a lad, so I decided to give it a shot.  I read the first and second sections (Gulliver’s trips to Lilliput and Brobdingnag) at a fairly quick and enjoyable pace.  The novel was witty and amusing, but I clearly could have used some help with the historical context.  The humor of Travels did not escape me (and I now see how much of Swift there is in the members of Monty Python), but I was not always certain who he was lampooning in Lilliput or Brobdingnag.  
I left Gulliver just as he was being accosted by pirates at the beginning of part three.  I’m afraid I may never see what happened to him in Laputa.
4. “Does Football Have a Future?” by Ben Mcgrath
Last Wednesday, I received two very different magazines in the mail, both of which featured James Harrison.  The first was Sports Illustrated, which has this fantastic photograph of a menacing, bad-ass Harrison in a two-point stance, just waiting for his chance to take the head off of a quarterback:
The other magazine, the January 31 edition of The New Yorker, contained this article, “Does Football Have a Future?” by Ben McGrath.   This article also contained a photo of Harrison, but this picture was the cringe-inducing shot of number 92 laying out Mohamed Massaquoi of the Cleveland Browns.  

I prefer the first one.

The New Yorker article by Mcgrath outlines what any thinking football fan has already come to understand–that football is a violent game that is most likely not sustainable in its current form, and that by watching and rooting we are implicitly participating in a ritual that destroys men’s bodies (and, in some cases, their lives.)  

The article is written not in the breathless tones of the blowhards on ESPN, but in the reasoned voice of a man who has done his research.  Furthermore, the article unfolds over the course of the Steelers’ 2010-2011 season, and references specific games and hits that I watched on TV during my family’s traditional Steelers Sundays.

Check out the article.  AND GO STEELERS!  
4. Checkpoint by Nicholson Baker
It was not my intention to re-read this novel.  In fact, I’m not sure how it happened, and I kind of wished it hadn’t.
Quick background.  Nicholson Baker is one of my favorite writers.  I have read many books by him–The Mezzanine, U and I, The Fermata, Vox, A Box of Matches, and this one, Checkpoint.  I have been trying to avoid reading guys like Philip Roth, John Updike, and Nicholson Baker recently, simply because I know these writers and should be branching off into new areas.  
Anyway, for some reason I picked this book up and started reading, and I couldn’t put it down.  If you do not know what the book is about, you should at least read a synopsis, because it really is unique in the plot department.  This novel came out in 2004, just 13 months after the Iraq war started, and brings a new standard to the concept of topicality in a novel.   
The queasiness of the early Bush years emerges in the first few pages and doesn’t let up until the end.  When the book was released, in April of 2004, the war had really just started.  You know what hadn’t even happened yet?
The photograph from the hooded man at Abu Ghraib.
Nicholas Berg.
The death of the 1000th American soldier.
Bush’s reelection.
“You go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
Ok.  Stop stop stop.  This ain’t that kind of a blog. 
But if you pick up Checkpoint as I did, you might find yourself pulled right back into the thick of the Bush years,  simmering in the unrelenting rage of Jay, one of the only two characters in the book.  How you get out it of it your own decision.
Go Steelers!

2 thoughts on “January Reading

  1. I knew it was risky, but with a worn out paperback like my copy of Welcome to Hard Times, I thought I'd take the chance. It's amazing what you can send through the mail if you try.

    The rest of Doctorow, what I've read of him anyway, is not much like Hard Times at all. This one was a departure for him, even though it was his first novel. I liked both Ragtime and Book of Daniel.

  2. I think you may have been drawn to Checkpoint because Rocco picked it up off the shelf, looked at the cover and said "Rainbow!" He then left it in the floor for us to pick up later. Thank Rocco for that one.

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