By Guest Writer and Outdoor Enthusiast Roger Dawkins
At present in Australia, a season of MasterChef (based off the British show) has just finished and one of the judges has succeeded in getting under my skin because of his stereotypically “critic” persona. It’s predictable in every way, right down to his cravat, blazer, and smug demeanor. No, I’m not that guy, but I am going to do a bit of critiquing myself by recommending a batch of books for this month.
For your approval, here are three books, in fact. All of them, though not necessarily new, were pleasantly surprising; they were either something I found on my shelf, something I discovered on the cheap (read: sick of watching reruns of The Wire), or something I felt compelled to read.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Road is an end of the world story about a dad and his son. Doomsday’s come and gone and all hell has broken loose in what’s left of the world, and dad and son set out on a massive trek to find a better place to live. Think road movie, horror story, coming of age story and capital “L” literature all in one. It’s an easy read – pull this one out on the train in the morning and you’ll be reeking credibility.
End of the world tales are typically corny, but this one’s great. It’s scary and sad, but not in a “oh, that’s sad” way, but a kind of poignant sadness-like you end up sort of living with the two characters and so the sadness and terror you feel as a reader is almost empathetic. I’m sure the reason is McCarthy’s writing; it sounds high-brow saying “this guy writes so well” but it’s really true in this case: there’s an affective rhythm in the writing that makes the suspense unbearable and the sad moments like massive gaping wounds.
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Honestly, I grabbed this book for three reasons: it’s a ten buck Penguin, and, well… the title is awesome, the authro is the same age as me and he’s already smashed out a “Penguin classic.”
Great read, this. In fact, if you’re going to choose one of my three recommendations, make it this. Everything Is Illuminated is about a man who goes to the Ukraine in search of a woman who helped his grandfather escape from the Nazis. At his side is a wacky translator who gets his own grandfather on board to help too (as it turns out that even though he’s enlisted as their driver he’s blind).
But, it’s the way the story is crafted that make this novel so great. There’s multiple layers that really complicate things in a good way: the tale of the actual trip to the Ukraine, the translator’s account (in the form of letters) of the same trip, as well as sections retelling the hero’s family tree over more than a century. Sounds confusing, but it’s fantastic.
There’s no shortage of hilarity and healthy doses of dry humor (kind of in the same style as DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little), yet it’s a bit fantastical and surreal too: characters almost feel caricatured and overly innocent, sort of similar to the way Amelie comes across in the movie of the same name. Best of all, Foer uses writing in a cool way to emphasize bits of the story: the words themselves and the way they are written, spaced, and punctuated make you realize how language is more than just a communication device.
But fear not, this book is not an exercise in literary snobbery. It’s the perfect mix of great story and cool writing style. It’s a reminder of movies that are engrossing, but a little quirky. Think Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.
Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry by B.S. Johnson
This book is another surprise. Perhaps because I didn’t purchase it, on purpose. It’s a bit on the older side, originally published in the 1960’s – reminiscent of a high school library. There’s an obnoxious blurb on the back that says “The future of writing depends on people like B.S. Johnson.” An immediate turn off? Yes.
After a few attemptes, I decided to penetrate the beast and found myself unable to put it down. Give the book 10 minutes and you’ll understand. It’s the story of a guy in England who gets a job and, feeling a little tired of society and everyone in it, sets out on an (escalating) series of pay-back pranks. Think Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, but a little more malicious and petty-in a black-humor kind of way.
I think it’s the winks to the reader that give this book its black-humor irony too. B.S. Johnson tears down the fourth wall by addressing the reader directly – making obvious the fact that we’re reading a story. These moments aren’t a cop-out to explain the plot (nod to High Fidelity), and they’re not an arty device aimed at disrupting your “absorption” into the story either (1960s Godard movies or Brecht’s plays); instead, they’re funny, clever, and entertaining.