Books I Read Last Month (Oct2020)

A Flag For Sunrise – Robert Stone
Outerbridge Reach – Robert Stone
Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb – Thomas Powers
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail – Cheryl Strayed
The Feast of Love – Charles Baxter
The Invisible Circus – Jennifer Egan

Two of these books truly belong in last month’s column but due to character limits and such, I saved em for this month to do em justice.

“A Flag For Sunrise” wasn’t quite as exciting as “Dog Soldiers”, which was my initial foray into Stone’s oeuvre, but is nevertheless masterfully plotted. The novel adeptly ties together disparate story threads, weaving together a fictionalized portrait of the Sandinista uprisings in central America. A communist nun, an American anthropologist, wealthy husband-and-wife smugglers, an agnostic priest, a brutally vicious lieutenant, and an American speed freak named Pablo comprise the cast of characters from whose point of view the story is told.

“Outerbridge Reach” recapitulates a lot of familiar Stone themes: sailing, drugs, art, carnal& spiritual love. An upper-middle class man, consumed by a mid-life crisis, enters a regatta, a boat race around the world, despite little sailing experience. A documentary filmmaker, famous for chronicling the underground, sets out to make a movie capturing this “everyman” feat of daring, and becomes smitten with the wife of the dilletante sailor. While these later works of Stone evince more craftsmanship in storytelling elements, I still prefer “Dog Soldiers” out of three novels Ive read, probably because its story covers emotional terrain very personal to me.

“Heisenberg’s War” is a fucking tome of speculative history, positing that the ingenious Heisenberg purposefully obstructed the Third Reich’s atomic bomb program. It took me over two months to finish this thing; its dense with facts and history relating to the German and American efforts to build an atomic bomb, using the contemporaneous, and revolutionary, discoveries in particle physics and quantum mechanics. I was quietly proud to learn how central the University of Michigan played in this story; apparently, many reputable physicists belonged to the faculty in the 30s and 40s. (I could even mentally picture the exact location where momentous meetings occurred.)

Somewhat relatedly, “Feast of Love” is a novel–really, a collection of intertwined short stories– that’s set in Ann Arbor in the early 00s, so much of it was incredibly vivid and I could readily envision. This is the first novel that’s set in my old stomping grounds. Certain characters, like the old Jewish philosophy professor, are timeless campus archetypes, while others, like the tattooed ex-junkie with a tongue piercing, are dated. Seriously, a tongue-ring?! Even the mental image of a man with a tongue piercing makes me cringe. Regardless, great book, and now I wanna see the movie with Morgan Freeman.

So impressed by “A Visit from the Good Squad”, I was compelled to read Jennifer Egan’s first novel, “The Invisible Circus.” If that novel was something I wish to God I had written, this was something I know I could have with some ease. Maybe I was underwhelmed because of the high expectations set by her magnum opus. Anyways, at the end of the 70s, a naïve, pretty 18 year old girl, haunted by the memory of her (deceased) hippie older sister, journeys to Europe to retrace her sister’s last days almost a decade earlier. She’s disillusioned by what she discovers, much like that generation before her, who began with such energy and high ideals, convinced they were gonna change the world for the better, only to peter out or mirror the fascist elements they resented. It’s said a writer’s first novel is either one of two kinds: coming-of-age or a bildungsroman, a German word meaning a novel of (self-)education. This novel is the latter. (Uh-oh, while it’s true there are two types, I’m not 100p it’s called a bildungsroman, and my dictionary doesn’t have an entry there. Whatevs, fact-check it yourself, I’m jus trying to impart some knowledge.)

Finally, “Wild” fits into my favorite category of writing to read: the explicit, modern memoir. It rehearses a lot of my favorite themes, like sex, drugs, and self-discovery. Cheryl Strayed decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail solo-dolo, which runs from San Diego up thru Oregon and Washington to the Canadian border. Despite having little experience, she undertakes this arduous journey in response to the existential crisis she’s suffering from the death of her mother, her recent divorce, and even more recent addiction to heroin. She threads moments from her life into the larger story of the journey itself and the events which inspired it. While I think a lot of the meaning she ascribes to this obviously life-changing event at some chapter ends is a tad overwrought and melodramatic (it reminds too much of recovery literature), she conveys the little epiphanies that compriss the experiences of her journey with beauty and skill.

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