I have a few more books to share, but this time I will do something a little different: write about a book I have not finished yet.
I looked into the site’s archives and couldn’t find a direct reference, but I’m pretty sure one of the reasons I started writing about the books I read here is because of the influence of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column in The Believer magazine. The Believer is an art and culture magazine I would pick up occasionally back when I traveled for work. As I was already a fan of Hornby, I always looked forward to his columns both for suggestions on new things to read and for his delightful accounts of what he purchased and read each month.
A few weeks back I was hanging out in Barnes & Noble while M was at volleyball practice. In the Essays section I found Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub, a collection of his columns for The Believer. I picked it up, flipped through it, and realized I probably hadn’t read one of his columns since I stopped traveling for work in 2004. I put the book back on the shelf, but added it to my library list. On my library trip the following week, the book was in, so I grabbed it. I decided this would be a very casual read; I’d only get through a column or two at a time in between other reading projects. If I needed to renew the book, or even return it and complete it down the road, that would be fine.
I’m right at halfway through the book as I type this. Thanks to it, I have a new sub-list within my master To Read list of books Hornby has written about that interest me. The rest of this entry will hit on three of them.
It’s been fun to read through Hornby’s columns. He is a voracious reader – sometimes knocking out over 10 books a month – and even better, still buys a lot of books each month. For that alone he is inspiring. He also tends to read good books, which makes my To Read list better. And his writing remains sharp, funny, and personal, all elements I’ve always tried (with varying levels of success) to infuse into my writing.
Y: The Last Man, Book 1 and Y: The Last Man, Book 2 – Brian Vaughn, Pia Guerra, José Marzan Jr.
My once-per year crack at a graphic novel/comic book. Hornby actually reviewed the first three books in this series but I’m only through two so far. Comics often revolve around some kind of catastrophe, usually involving radiation that mutates normal people into super-beings, and the resulting ramifications for society. This series is built on a catastrophe but then focuses on how regular people react to it.
The catastrophe? Something – no one knows what yet – has abruptly killed every living male mammal. Except for two, that is: Yorick Brown, an unemployed recent college graduate who relies on performing magic and escapes to make money, and his pet monkey. Brown’s only goal is to conceal his identity until he can somehow make his way to Australia, where his girlfriend was on a research trip before men were wiped out.
But the surviving women of the world have other plans for him. The US government, including his mother who in a representative from Ohio, wants to lock him away in a protected location where his genes can be studied to see if he holds the key to the survival of the species. A group called The Amazons, who see the destruction of man as a moment of liberation, want to hunt him down and kill him. His sister just happens to be part of this movement, and is intent on being the Amazon that captures him. And a group of Israeli soldiers seek him for, well, we’re not sure yet. It could be to use his DNA to build up a bigger army to continue rolling over their Arab neighbors, something they’ve done easily since so many Israeli women have military training. Or it could be to destroy him before an Arab country snatches him and gets working on their own new army first.
The story is pretty solid: A post-apocalypse story is always good in my eyes. The writing is good. And, as with stories like The Stand, there is the built-in hook of making you want to read until you learn what it is that wiped out almost every man on earth. I’ll be going deeper into this series.
Citizen Vince – Jess Walter
I had not read, nor heard of, Walter’s books. But Hornby is a fan, reviewing several of his books favorably. And this one is really damn good.
The main character is Vince Camden, a man in the witness protection program living in Spokane, WA. He runs a donut shop in the mornings. In the late night hours he gambles with the local riff-raff, sells a little weed, and also dabbles in his old racket: selling stolen credit cards. Life is a lot slower than it was for him back East, before he informed on the Mob, but he’s also alive and not doing too bad.
In late October 1980, though, two things happen to change his life dramatically. First, he receives his voter registration card. By his reckoning, in his former life he was always either in jail/prison, on parole, or a convicted felon on election day. This will be his first opportunity to vote, and the responsibility hits him hard. He begins badgering anyone he talks to about who they’re going to vote for in the upcoming election. He doesn’t just want to know how people are going to vote, but why. He feels an immense responsibility attached to his vote, and he wants to make sure he’s considered every angle before punching out a candidate’s chad.
The second turn in his life is running into a guy, known as Ray Sticks, from back east. Ray is not the kind of guy you want to run into. It shakes Vince to his core and soon he is back in New York, trying to figure out who sent Ray west and if he holds a contract on Vince’s life. This trip ends in a late night card game with boss John Gotti and his crew, from which Vince escapes with his life in exchange for doing Gotti the proverbial favor.
Much of the book revolves around Vince, and other characters, trying to figure out who they are. Does his moving across the country, taking a new name and occupation, change who he is? Will his potential girlfriend become a different person when she gets her real estate license and moves in with Vince, giving up her life as a prostitute? When a cop turns dirty after his child dies, is he the same person or someone completely distinct from his earlier self? All of that, along with the standard mob and crime angles, make for a good enough book.
But where Walter really shines is in a thin section in the middle of the book. Here, he briefly jumps into the heads of both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on the Sunday before the election. Carter has just received new conditions from the Iranian parliament for release of the American hostages. He grapples with the appropriate response while looking back on the past four years, and what will happen the following Tuesday. Carter comes across as weary and resigned to the inevitable, worried most about doing the right thing for the hostages, but also concerned at his inability to connect who he is today to the man he was in 1976. Reagan, on the other hand, is light and buoyant. He knows he’s going to win, and is quick with one-liners that convey his optimism. There is a simpleness to him that suggests he does not understand how profoundly becoming president will change his life. Or, perhaps, it suggests that because of his age or his refusal to waste time thinking about such things, he will remain the same person when he leaves office that he is going in.
I loved this section, not just for grounding the story firmly in a distinct moment in time, but for how showing Carter and Reagan on opposite ends of the same moment reinforces the theme of how experience, location, and outlook change who we are.
- I can only go back-and-forth to school so many times each day. So if I can squeeze a Target, grocery, or other errand run into a practice window, I’ll avoid doing the round trip. ↩