Friday, March 1, 2013

What I read in February

Tenth of December by George Saunders. This collection of stories blew me away. A very few of the stories are hopeful--the title story, for instance, finds hope in an otherwise hopelessly cruel story. But the overall effect of the stories is one of overwhelming, crushing, mundane horror. I'm thinking of the inner monologue of the would-be rapist in "The Victory Lap," which reveals a motivation all the more terrifying for its banality. I'm thinking of "Puppy," in which a privileged choice of principle about whether or not to adopt a puppy leads directly to suffering and death. A similar privileged choice has fire consequences in "My Chivalric Fiasco."

I liked the stories best which switched back and forth between perspectives. Many of the stories do this. Saunders is some kind of genius of empathy. He consistently made me understand a world through the eyes of one character, and understand and care about that character's choices, before achieving the same for another character in the same story. Then, when those characters (who I knew well individually) came into conflict, it was heartbreaking when they couldn't communicate with each other.

The Black Box by Michael Connelly. A detective novel in a long series about LAPD detective Harry Bosch. I don't typically read books like this but, on balance, I enjoyed this one. The prose is simple--the sort one's eyes can pass over quickly. The typical paragraph doesn't have very much important information in it--they're easy to skip over without missing much. It's all very easy to read, and almost completely about the plot, kinda boring scenes about Bosch's relationship with his daughter notwithstanding. And the plot is pretty good. A (white) journalist was murdered in LA during the Rodney King riots. Bosch ends up on the case after 20 years have passed, and eventually discovers a conspiracy to cover up war crimes from the Gulf War. The pieces fit together just right, though I'll admit I didn't think about them very hard.

One of the threads running through the first part of the book is the political pressure Bosch feels to drop the case before he solves it. The thinking goes like this: it would be politically imprudent for the LAPD to solve none of the murders from the riots (almost all of which, we presume, are of people of color) except one of a white person. Connelly seems interested is responding to that criticism through Bosch, but never does a convincing job. Does Bosch gravitate towards this case because the victim was a white woman? (Ditto for Connelly?) So, maybe the book is kinda problematic from that perspective. But it was enjoyable nonetheless.

Believing is Seeing by Errol Morris. I have such a huge crush on Errol Morris. The book's subtitle is "Observations on the mysteries of photography," and Morris writes about the famous discrepancy between the two Crimean War photographs of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the images from Abu Graib, WPA photography during the depression, war photography in the Gaza strip, and an unidentified dead man clutching an ambrotype of his children at Gettysburg. Each essay begins with a photograph (or two), but quickly broaden. Morris asks: what can a photograph actually tell us? What does "truth" mean in the context of a photograph? What can any historical document or object tell us about the past? These are compelling questions that Morris doesn't quite answer. But answering them doesn't seem to be his goal. Instead, he sketches out the parameters of the questions as clearly as he can, so readers can make up their own minds. This is really quick, compelling reading. The Black Box and Believing is Seeing are both detective stories, in a sense. But Morris' book is a high-concept detective story.

A Sense of Where You Are by John McPhee. A not-much-longer-than-magazine-length profile of Bill Bradley as a student-athlete at Princeton. It's obvious from the beginning that McPhee regards Bradley as something like the platonic ideal of a basketball player. McPhee can't help but gush. He describes Bradley's greatness stemming from a sort of heightened self-awareness--or, using McPhee's phrase, Bradley's sense of where he is.

The writing here is strong, and the subject interesting. One gets the sense from McPhee that Bradley was great at basketball almost because he couldn't help himself. The book succeeds when it is a straight profile of Bradley, describing what makes him special. It works because his genius is at once transparent and completely inaccessible. Bradley can describe, in straightforward language, the simple mechanics of why he missed any given hook shot, for example. But his ability to intuit or measure those mechanics separates him for nearly everyone else.

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