A short quarantine reading list

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Photo by Lilly Rum on Unsplash

Even before a ton of ordure hit the propeller-style cooling device I’d only read three books this year.

Three. 

Since the age of six or seven I’ve been capable of reading three average-length books a day. Once, when I was about 9, I read 1,000 pages in a day, to see if could.

On another occasion (again, pre-teen) I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy in three days.

The point I’m sidling towards is that it is a sign of spiritual/ emotional/ logistical malaise when my word-consumption dips to such low levels. (The other obvious conclusion is I was backward as a kid, which is fair, but there were reasons.)

Being almost too far gone in anxiety to even read a book is new and unnerving. Books have always been a reliable portal away from the unappetitliche present, but the present present has got me so tied in knots I’m afraid to miss anything.

Initially, I tried to negotiate this in my usual Protestant, eat-your-beet-greens-they’re-good-for-you fashion. That is, I started a book about Palestine. If there is one thing more depressing than coronavirus, it’s the situation of Palestine. Reading about children getting shot with tear-gas canisters and all the other interminable head-fucking brutality of the Israeli occupation was enough to make me think that maybe enough humans are ugly enough that we all deserve to be wiped out by a virus.

Not reading material for these times.

After that failed effort, I didn’t read anything for a few days. Then my friend Nick emailed and it turned out I bought his book (presciently titled It Gets Worse) last year and forgotten to read it. That’s like discovering the bottle at the back of the cupboard you thought was cheap emergency plonk is a fantastic vintage meant for a special occasion.

This is a special occasion.

So, I’m (finally) on my way to having read four books this year. When I finish Nick’s book I may go back and reread his first, Bitter Experience Has Taught Me, because it’s nice to hear a friend’s voice — especially when it is funny, acid, and laden with anecdote.

After that, I’ll try Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde and Primo Levi.

Disparate, yet equally essential.

All of these writers, including Ms Austen (whose reputation for daintiness is undeserved) exhibit rare levels of integrity, perspicacity and moral clarity. They took the world as it was, but refused to accept the supposed constraints of that relationship.

And they, one and all, write sentences so good I have to pause and let the wave of admiration/envy/admiration pass. Right now, it’s reading for pleasure, or not at all.

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Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

Recommended – Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

The first time I read ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ was last week. It is so incandescently brilliant I started buying copies for the right people. Then I worried that maybe I read it too quick, that it wasn’t as good as I thought. So I’m re-reading it and holy jesus, it is even better.
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Quick summary: The novel chronicles one day in the life of 19-year-old soldier Billy Lynn, who’s on leave from Iraq. It’s Superbowl Sunday. He and his squad are completing a ‘Victory Tour’ as honored guests of the Dallas Cowboys.

America. Money. Grief. Sex. War. Love. Death. Booze. Cheerleaders. Religion. Football. Guns. Loss.
Billy has to navigate it all with nothing more than his instinctive dignity and the brute education of Army life.

I don’t know how Fountain does it but it’s done. The characters leap off the page. The plot is fast and tight. The writing is coruscating. It’s a novel Hunter S Thompson might have written if he kept his shit together (it does for the Superbowl what ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’ did for that legendary sporting event).

Here’s a sampling of Fountain’s astonishing prose:

“She was still capable of sad, skewed smiles from time to time, forcing the cheer like Christmas lights in the poor part of town.”

“The Look, his gaze so frank and open-ended that Billy can’t help but wonder, Why me? At first he feared it was the start of some hideous gay thing, gay thing being virtually his sole reference point for prolonged eye contact from a fellow male, but lately he doubts it, a conclusion which required no small broadening of his view of human nature.”

“Okay, so maybe they aren’t the greatest generation by anyone’s standards, but they are surely the best of the bottom third percentile of their own somewhat muddled and suspect generation.”

“‘I’ll say this for nina leven,’ a man confides to him, ‘it shut the feminists up.’
‘Ah.’ Billy consults his drink. The feminists?
‘You bet,’ the man says. ‘They aren’t so interested in being ‘liberated’ now that we’re under attack. There’s certain tings a man can do that woman just can’t. Combat, for one. A lot of life boils down to physical strength.'”

“The money vibe can be felt at once, a faint hum, a kind of menthol tingling of the lips.”