Five books I reread in 2008 that you should try in 2009

Today is Jan. 2, 2009.

Looks like you ought to find something new to read. For me, there are those books I can’t seem to put down, even if I’ve already read them and have a stack of new stories I hope to try.

In 2008, I returned to more old friends than I normally do. Below, see the five books to which I returned and why you should give them a go if you haven’t, or a second look if you can.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961): A close friend gave this to me as a belated birthday gift before I left summer 2006 to study in Tokyo. So, I read the classic World War II-satirizing American novel in the East Pacific. Fitting or not, this novel, which I got to much later than most, will always be the first book that ever made me laugh outloud (for good reasons). It is smart and unbelievably witty. I won’t even be naive enough to think I should describe it further, as anyone with half a brain will say this is, if not the Great American Novel, then in that class. Here’s a passage that employs Heller’s theme of military excess and bureaucratic blustering:

“You’re dead, sir,” one of his two enlisted men explained. Doc Daneeka jerked his head up quickly with resentful distrust. “What’s that?” “You’re dead, sir,” repeated the other. “That’s probably the reason you always feel so cold.” “That’s right, sir. You’ve probably been dead all this time and we just didn’t detect it.” “What the hell are you both talking about?” “It’s true, sir,” said one of the enlisted men. “The records show that you went up in McWatt’s plane to collect some flight time. You didn’t come down in a parachute, so you must have been killed in the crash.” “That’s right, sir,” said the other. “You ought to be glad you’ve got any temperature at all.” Doc Daneeka’s mind was reeling in confusion. “Have you both gone crazy?” he demanded. “I’m going to report this whole insubordinate incident to Sergeant Towser.” “Sergeant Towser’s the one who told us about it,” said either Gus or Wes. “The War Department’s even going to notify your wife.” “Goddammit,” [Doc Daneeka] expostulated politely in an uncommon excess of exasperation, “what’s the matter with you two men anyway? It just isn’t right for a person to have a low temperature all the time and walk around with a stuffed nose. Just look how cold I am right now. You’re sure you’re not holding anything back?”

The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah (1968): A professor of mine bought me my first legal beer, while I was studying at the University of Ghana in West Africa in 2005. He’s the same man who turned me on to and went as far as to give me his old worn copy of Armah’s classic novel, which is equal parts moving and dense.

I always note that this is a book I wouldn’t blame someone for not loving. It is hard to love, I think, confused and diffuse, with, at times, remarkable detail. I think I love it, and, though the author’s West African roots may make it a less marketed product, I believe this is one of the great novels of all-time. Truly.

When I picked it up again this summer, I had to begin with my favorite passage, which I had no problem finding. It is the first two paragraphs of Armah’s sixth chapter and it is as fast moving and scattered as I could only wish I could someday be.

Why do we waste so much time with sorrow and pity for ourselves? It is true now that we are men, but not so long ago we were helpless messes of soft flesh and unformed bone squeezing through bursting motherholes, trailing dung and exhausted blood. We could not ask then why it was necessary for us also to grow. So why now should we be shaking our head and wondering bitterly why there are children together with the old, why time does not stop when we ourselves have come to stations where we would like to rest? It is so like a child, to wish all movement to cease. And yet the wondering and the shaking and the vomiting horror is not all from the inward sickness of the individual soul. Here we have had a kind of movement that should make even good stomachs go sick. What is painful to the thinking mind is not the movement itself, but the dizzying speed of it. It is that which has been horrible. [Beginning Chapter Six]

Third and Indiana by Steve Lopez (1994): I walked into an internship interview in Philadelphia a couple years ago and, when asked to list some favorite books, was stopped when I listed this. The interviewer hadn’t heard of it. I don’t think there should be a soul in the Philly region – or, I’d even argue any big city in the country – who hasn’t read this book, considering I called it the top book every Philadelphia has to read. Lopez signed my copy of this book after a lecture of his at the Free Library in April, which was a neat chance to meet a writer I greatly respect – even if his columns can’t be as good at the Los Angeles Times because he doesn’t have Philly’s color.

“Meanwhile,” the newscaster said, “in a continuing story that still gathers attention and baffles authorities, three more bodies have been painted on North Broad Street, bringing the total number to thirty. A police spokeswoman confirmed that three more juveniles had been killed in apparent drug-related incidents in the Badlands over the last week, and that the additions on Broad Street seem to correspond to the actual deaths, as has been the case since the paintings were first observed around the beginning of June. The spokeswoman said it remains unknown which person or persons are responsible for the paintings, and that no effort is being made to solve the mystery.” The Badlands, Eddie thought. That’s where he was moving. He was moving to a place where bodies were piling up in the street.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002): A high school friend whose intellect and pen I respected more than anyone I knew then or do now and from whom I have since lost touch first told me in 2004 about Foer’s book, which soared through reviews enough to win the ignominious literary distinction of being made into a film.

Still, despite its popularity, I enjoy very much the stories Foer intertwines, particularly, I think because he was so young when he wrote this – just 27 when it was published, though much of the writing dated to when he was 21. While I liked the movie, I knew it could never take on the hundreds of years to which and dozens of characters to whom Foer invests chapters.

I am also a sap for an author who can write clearly an accent, as Foer does with his Ukranian translator-character. I hope very much to someday read this to a child of mine, keeping him involved with my silly, stereotyped eastern European accent. Foer’s novel combines incredible heart and tragedy with moments of real comedy, mostly from that Ukranian translator, “dubbed Alex.” In this passage, “Alex” is writing the author about a portion of the story, which Alex is filling in with the details he experienced, but the author did not.

[begin stereotyped Eastern-European accent] I could not perceive if you were appeased by the last section. I do not understand, to where did it move you? I am glad that you were good-humored about the part I invented about commanding you to drink the coffee until I could see my face in the cup, and how you said it was a clay cup. I am a very funny person, I think, although Little Igor says I merely look funny. My other inventions were also first rate, yes? I ask because you didn’t utter anything about them in your letter. Oh yes, I am of course easting humble pie for the section I invented about the word “procure,”  and how you did not what it signified. It has been removed, and so has my effrontery. Even Alf is not humurous at times. I have made efforts to make you appear as a person with less anxiety, as you have commanded me to do on many occasions. This is difficult to achieve becausese in truth you are a person with very much anxiety. Perhaps you should be a drug user [T. 142, paperback].

The Best American Travel Writing edited by Tim Cahill (2006): This was a Christmas gift from my sister in 2006 and had it finished before January 2007. This collection is, no surprise, full of what travel writing should be: captivating, and transportive, often sardonic and humorous. Collections of great writing from various writers and publications can do that (There is a 2008 Travel edition, but I haven’t read it). At least three of the submissions are easily worth the cost of the book, or time it takes to read the entire thing, though most are exception. One though, “The New Mecca” by George Saunders is likely the funniest piece of journalism I have ever read. Indeed, hyperbole aside, Saunders’s piece for GQ is already included in a post I have long been creating: my ten favorite pieces of journalism I have ever read (see that future post). Here’s a teaser from my favorite section of the lengthy, 24-page masterpiece:

My God, if you could have bottled the tension there in my suite at the Burj! The absolute electricity of disappointment shooting back and forth between the lovely Ukranian and my kindly Personal Butler, the pity, really…  Sorry, uh, sorry for the, you know, trouble… I say. No, sir, the lovely Ukranian says. We are sorry to make any difficulties for you. Ha, I thought, God bless you, now this is service, this is freakin Seven-Star Service!

I read this piece on a plane once and was genuinely disruptive with my uncontrolled giggles. Treat yourself.

Have you read these? Did you reread any books yourself in 2008? Any suggestions for what I should pick up in 2009?