The 100 Book Blog

Book #6, The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey, Salman Rushdie 

From its prologue: 

  “When the Reagan administration began its war against Nicaragua, I recognized a deeper affinity with that small country in a continent (Central America) upon which I had never set foot. I grew daily more interested in its affairs, because, after all, I was myself the child of a successful revolt against a great power, my consciousness the product of the triumph of the Indian revolution. It was perhaps also true that those of us who did not have our origins in the countries of the mighty West, or North, had something in common - not, certainly, anything as simplistic as a unified ‘third world’ outlook, but at least some knowledge of what weakness was like, some awareness of the view from underneath, and of how it felt to be there, on the bottom, looking up at the descending heel. I became a sponsor of the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign in London. I mention this to declare an interest; when I finally visited Nicaragua, in July 1986, I did not go as a wholly neutral observer. I was not a blank slate.” 

  Salman Rushdie is invigorating and trustworthy company. The chance to travel at his side during his three week trip to Nicaragua (“a portrait of a moment, no more, in the life of that beautiful, volcanic country… at a time that felt close to the fulcrum of history, a time when all things, all the possible futures, were still (just) in the balance)” only gives me reason to admire him all the more. And this was a perfect book, being told in bite-sized chapters, for me to read while in the process of moving. Also, it made me realize that, despite having never properly read Rushdie (or John Irving, see Book #5), that I was not quite “a blank slate” coming to either. Because in December, 1992, I attended a PEN benefit for Salman Rushdie (though no one in the audience knew he was going to be there, and apparently he himself hadn’t known for sure until 24 hours behorehand, such was the tight security surrounding him at the time of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s million-dollar-promise-of-eternity fatwa). What an incredible night that was - and two performances stand out in my memory: Bruce Cockburn playing three songs on acoustic guitar, accompanied only by a mobile of windchimes which he kicked at perfect moments - and John Irving, reading the opening pages of Midnight’s Children - which of course, hooked me on Salman Rushdie for life - though I still haven’t read Midnight’s Children for myself - which is just another reason for undertaking this 100-book mission.

Book #5: The Hotel New Hampshire, John Irving 

My only previous John Irving experience was reading The World According to Garp as a teenager, which I hazily remember being fun - though it didn't lead me to more John Irving. As for The Hotel New Hampshire, here are four seemingly-unrelated thoughts: 

1. My movie-buff father confessed to me earlier this year that he "just doesn't get" Wes Anderson. He tried The Royal Tenenbaums, he tried Rushmore (two of my favourites), and he gave up. I got the sense that his frustration was, "People don't talk like that; young people don't talk like that; too eccentric, too weird, too forced." Anderson's notched-up, alter-reality - which I adore - made no sense to him. 2. When Quentin Tarantino was 15 years old, he was arrested for trying to shoplift a book. It was The Switch, by Elmore Leonard - the two main characters of which (Ordell and Louis) were later reprised in Rum Punch, the Elmore Leonard book which Tarantino made into Jackie Brown (see Book #3). 3. As a young reader, my favourite writer was Gordon Korman (Remember him? I Want to Go Home, Who is Bugs Potter?Our Man Weston) 4. Years ago, a bookworm friend of mine was leaving my house and asked for something to read. "I want J.D. Salinger, but grown-up." My book sense told me to send her home with John Updike's Pigeon Feathers, which she later reported was exactly what was needed. 

My Pocket Book copy of The Hotel New Hampshire was a valued gift from another dear friend, whose inscription reads: "Everyone needs a smart bear. Welcome to the Hotel New Hampshire. I hope you like it here." And I did... but I have mixed feelings. Checking into the Hotel New Hampshire (as it were) is a slightly loaded proposition, in the same way that I can imagine The Big Lebowski, or The Mighty Boosh, or the films of Wes Anderson can be for the uninitiated - because they are so beloved, and so quoted from, that for those on the inside, they're a kind of language unto themselves. 

So there was a “sacredness” I couldn't help but be aware of during my time with the Berrys - Irving's cartoonishly oddball family, whose company I often rejoiced in but whose hyper-eccentricities (the sole gay character sleeps only with a dress-maker’s mannequin, for instance) and insider-slogans (“Keep passing the open windows,” “Sorrow floats,” “Life is serious but art is fun!”) wore me down a little with their cuteness. The Hotel New Hampshire is the madcap story of the five-sibling Berry family told through three incarnations of the eponymous hotel, and the first Hotel New Hampshire, which is nearly half the book, filled me with delight, and had me laughing out loud in a way that very few books do (I had a chest cold, so each time the laughing led to a coughing fit - and at Hotel New Hampshire #1, there was something on every page that got me joyfully hacking away). At its best, The Hotel New Hampshire lived up to its own proposal that "The single ingredient in American literature that distinguishes it from other literatures of the world is a kind of giddy, illogical hopefulness."  

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Salinger’s Glass family (the most charismatic of the Berrys is even named “Franny”). Precocious siblings, a dysfunctional but loving family, quirkiness galore, suicide. Whatever else it may be, “Life is never boring in the Hotel New Hampshire.” At the height of my delight, its verve and irreverence returned me to my childhood thrill of reading Gordon Korman - and if a friend of mine told me she wanted “Gordon Korman, but grown-up,” I'd send her home with The Hotel New Hampshire. It sent me off with many catchphrases that make me smile (“You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed!,” “In the Hotel New Hampshire, we’re screwed down for life!,” and of course, “Everyone needs a smart bear.”) It left me needing to reread The Great Gatsby, and wanting to give A Prayer for Owen Meany a try - while knowing that, in the end, I might "just not get" John Irving. But above all, it left me wishing that a 15-year old Wes Anderson had been arrested for shoplifting a copy of The Hotel New Hampshire - because it's Anderson's translation of Irving's weirdo-world that I would most love to see. 

ps. Synchronistically fun for me alone and maybe for fans of The HNH: the very day I finished Irving's book I watched Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black, which opens with Jeanne Moreau's titular bride attempting to throw herself out of an open window. A few days later I saw Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (another dividend, incidentally, of reading Patton Oswalt's Silver Screen Fiend - see Book #2) and watching the extras, I laughed aloud to discover that when Wilder was growing up in Vienna, his father was a hotelier - and that furthermore, as a young newspaperman Wilder was sent one afternoon to interview Freud (the other Freud). He was denied an audience on account of Freud’s contempt for the newspapers - nonetheless, it never feels like coincidence to notice these very different works of art talking to each other in the most unexpected ways. 

Book #4: Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell 


This is the only book so far on this list that I will absolutely read again. Pure storytelling magic. It put me in mind of the Tom Waits lyric, "I wanna know... we all wanna know... how's it gonna end?" I bought my movie tie-in edition at some airport bookstore or other several years ago, and I've been intimidated by it the whole time I've owned it. It felt so good to get to it, and I enjoyed it so much, that in my journal it says "I finished Cloud Atlas today and now anything feels possible."

As a storyteller, David Mitchell's operating on the magician-level of Italo Calvino (think If on a Winter's Night a Traveller), telling six very seperate stories - in some cases happening centuries apart - any of which a less extravagantly talented writer would be proud to have put out in a single novel. The six stories intertwine and overlap in ways that will leave you savouring the puzzle long after you put it down. This is a book that left me wanting to reread it on the spot - while equally compelling me to find anything and everything else David Mitchell has written (my girlfriend read The Bone Clocks last year and now I can't wait).

Cloud Atlas is a spectacular mix of old and new: it's made of ground-breaking dystopian secret-agent science fiction, far-flung apocalyptic societies, edge-of-your-seat 1970s espionage, and at the same time is as cozily old-fashioned as a roaring fire. The stories (with names like "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" and "The First Luisa Rey Mystery") are unveiled in an intimate, brandy-snifter Victorian style, employing long-lost diaries, half-recovered manuscripts, or letters found amongst the belongings of the recently murdered.

This is a book to curl up with and disappear into. It's a high wire act. And like Calvino's If on a Winter's Night, it's a performance that's not only virtuosic, but which also glories in the very possibilities of books themselves. I turned the pages in awe, and I wanted to know (we all wanna know...) how's it gonna end? I just didn't want it to have to end in order for me to find out.

ps. I saw the Wachowskis/Tom Tykwer movie of it when it first came out four years ago and loved it. And I have nothing against movie tie-in copies of books (in fact I often kinda like them, unless that book is Cold Mountain). I'm now looking forward to reseeing and rereading Cloud Atlas.

Book #3: Unknown Man #89, Elmore Leonard 

I’m an Elmore Leonard fan and as a teenager I spent a lot of hours hanging with his eccentric underdogs, small-time crooks, and their off-kilter dialogue. But this 1977 story of Detroit process server Jack Ryan's search for a missing man ("Unknown Man #89") reminded me that at times, Elmore Leonard can be overrated. This one came off like a rehash (in this case I guess a "prehash") of 1992’s Rum Punch (adapted by Quentin Tarantino into Jackie Brown - my favourite Tarantino flick by far). Unknown Man felt like a cheap Rum Punch switcheroo. In Unknown Man it's process server Jack Ryan, in Rum Punch it's bail bondsman Max Cherry; Unknown Man has colourful badass-thug Virgil Royal, Rum Punch has Ordell Robbie - the woman who becomes the partner-in-crime in Unknown Man is Denise Leary and in Rum Punch it's Jackie (Burke in the book and Brown in Tarantino’s movie after Foxy Brown). Perhaps Tarantino has blurred by judgement by making such a great film of Rum Punch. The truth is, I haven't read it since I was a kid. If Hitchcock had lived to make his 54th film, which according to Truffaut was going to be an adaptation of Unknown Man #89, maybe he'd've taken the same kinds of liberties Tarantino took with Rum Punch (who made Ordell Robbie black and played by Samuel L. Jackson, turned Burke to Brown for Pam Grier, etc.) that make Jackie Brown such a standout. But we'll never know, and Unknown Man #89, despite being published 15 years before Rum Punch, still reads like a repeat.  

A related recommendation: The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by George V. Higgins. I read this in Mexico over New Year’s 2015, and if you’re into top-drawer crime fiction, Higgins has the style and substance. The story of ageing, low-level Boston hood Eddie Coyle is revealed almost entirely through overheard dialogue, and the best of its kind I’ve ever read. Higgins was a Boston lawyer, journalist, and newspaper columnist who apparently wrote 14 novels before his “debut” (he destroyed the first 14), and it shows. Badass.

Book #2: Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film, Patton Oswalt 

 Hearing Patton Oswalt relate the ways in which his movie-mania could sometimes put a strain on relationships with friends, lovers, and acquaintances brought back memories (not to mention present-day frictions) that were a little too close to home. It doesn't dominate the book, it's just something that hit me in particular. Like The Bad Sleep Well, which I namechecked in my previous post - I love that film so deeply that it's (nearly) impossible for me to understand why everyone wouldn't love it as much as I do. But I can tell you right now, they don't. Which is a good thing to learn if you want to, you know, get along with other people. This memoir is definitely for anyone who's made a lifeline of going to the movies, but it's also a fly-on-the-wall window into the standup comedy scene in Los Angeles in the late nineties - and into comedy in general. The best takeaway for me so far is that it inspired me to go out and rent Blue Collar, a gritty heist-gone-wrong story and first film by Paul Schrader (who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), who managed to corral Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel (who apparently hated each other on set) and Yaphet Kotto to tell a working class crime story for which Richard Pryor delivered a performance unlike anything else he ever did. With great use of music by Captain Beefheart, Jack Nitzsche, and Ry Cooder. I know that this book hasn't paid all its rewards just yet, but it was worth reading for the opening credit sequence of Blue Collar alone.

Book #1: Our Kind of Traitor, John Le Carré 

I grew up with a man who's slightly Le Carré-obsessed. Le Carré titles (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley's People, The Russia House, A Perfect Spy) make me feel cozy and safe whenever I see them, because they were always there. (This is what I mean about feeling that I've read books without having read them: I've seen them on shelves and heard them described so often - not to mention seeing the movies - that I feel like I've read them, whether I have or not.) So it was appropriate to my 100-book decision to begin with John Le Carré. By total coincidence, my father's presently rereading his entire works in the order they were published, in conjunction with Adam Sisman's John Le Carré: The Biography. And I just happened to read one he hasn't gotten to yet, it being the third-latest release (newest is The Pigeon Tunnel, launched three weeks ago - and how do I know this? - because of my dad). Our Kind of Traitor is a great read - and perfect vacation entertainment, to boot - even more so for me because a point of its plot hinges around a party on a yacht which in the book is anchored off the very part of Croatia's Dalmation Coast where I read the book. The story is told with the kind of analytical observation of character and minute parsing-of-motive that I associate with Ian McEwan, and yet (as it often is with McEwan as well) I found myself turning the pages for the story itself, which is paced and unveiled to perfection. Without giving anything away, I'm also grateful to Le Carré for the very un-Hollywood ending (though I'm excited to see the film starring Ewan McGregor, directed by Susanna White), which reminded me of Akira Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well. Want to be gripped by a compelling, unsettling tale of an ususpecting couple caught up in international money-laundering intrigue that'll hold you right to its last page? Well then, you've got your next book. 
 

The Hundred Book Plan 

  I have a book problem. I know you're aware of my postscript problem (and it's comforting that you care), but it's nothing compared to my book problem. In short, too many years of buying books and not enough reading them. Purchasing and playing with books new and old is an instant, dopamine-unleashing pleasure, I'm sure you know it well. But as Warren Zevon observed in the documentary made in the final months of his life, "When we buy books, we think we're buying the time to read them." My life over the past ten years has been so hectic and unconducive to reading that the "books I've been meaning to get to" have become uncomfortably disproportionate to the "books I acquire compulsively." So I decided in Croatia that I'm going to read 100 of my own books before making another purchase. And not just any 100 books, but ones with which I have unfinished business. Books I started but was too busy to stick with; books I've been circling, flirting with; or books I've neglected for so long that my promises to them have lost all value; then there are the books I almost feel I have read - by sheer osmosis - but which I never actually have; books that were given to me; books I've been long intimidated by; books that've taunted me from the shelves, and whose taunts have grown more brazen as the years go by. 

  So I made a list of 100 such books, ranging from Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (I've owned my copy sixteen years, and reread many of his titles, but never for some reason the one that's been recommended to me the most) to Geoff Berner's Festival Man (which is ridiculous - I've begun it several times, I'm a huge fan, and it's a hilarious read!). My list includes daunting tomes like T.E. Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (I've read the first 100 pages at least three times and practically know the opening paragraph by heart: "Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances." How's that for a first line?) and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (been looking at it for twenty years now). Gifts which I owe it both to myself and the gifter to read, like John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire, Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers, or James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Classics like Bronte's Wuthering Heights (I didn't read it in high school and my english teacher insisted that I keep the Georgetown District High School copy - which I still have - til I was ready for it), A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, Steinbeck's East of Eden. Joyce's Dubliners. Authors whose books I've barely touched or never opened at all: Pat Barker, Annie Dillard, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, Zadie Smith, Virginia Woolf. And on and on. There are some rules: rereads don't count. Nor do books that've been loaned to me, or that belong to my girlfriend. To be counted in the countdown, they have to be my books. The order will dictate itself, and I'm sure there will be surprises - and detours that distract me from my mission - but no purchasing another book until I've checked off 100 of my own. 

  I'm giving myself 3 years, distractions and detours considered, and I'm going to post a brief report on each of the 100 as I read them. The first book of my 100 is John Le Carré's latest. Read on, and feel free, if inspired, to share about books you yourself are reading.

SUMMARY

I have a book problem.

In short, too many years of buying books and not enough reading them. Purchasing and playing with books new and old is an instant, dopamine-unleashing pleasure, I'm sure you know it well. But as Warren Zevon observed in the documentary made in the final months of his life, "When we buy books, we think we're buying the time to read them." My life over the past ten years has been so hectic and unconducive to reading that the "books I've been meaning to get to" have become unacceptably disproportionate to the "books I acquire compulsively." So I decided that I'm going to read 100 of my own books before making another purchase.

I'm giving myself 3 years - distractions and detours considered - and I'm going to make a brief report on each of the 100 as I read them. Stay tuned. Keep reading.

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