Nobody asked, but here’s what I’ve been reading lately when I
should have been studying technical manuals about undersea drilling. I
assume that’s what other Washington journalists are reading because
suddenly they are all experts on what was, until recently, a pretty
obscure subject. You have The Atlantic Wire’s permission to skip the
newspapers this weekend and pick up a book instead. Don’t worry: the
Wire’s crack team of hungry recent college graduates will be chained to
their computers as always, monitoring outbreaks of opinion wherever
they occur around the globe. By Monday morning they’ll have it all
predigested for your disputational pleasure. Meanwhile, you can be
reading for fun. I recommend:
· The Imperfectionists by Tom
Rachman, a funny and poignant first novel about an imagined
English-language newspaper published in Rome. Sure, journalists like
reading about journalists, especially when the author grants all his
characters, no matter how unattractive, a generous dollop of humanity
and nobility. But this is a book about journalists that even a
non-journalist can love. Actually the newspaper is largely in the
background (or “deep background” as journalists like to say). The story
is presented as a series of character sketches from which the plot
emerges sort of crab-wise. It’s quite a technical feat, but if that
makes the book seem like work, forget I said it. The book is not work.
It’s about work.
· The Ask, By Sam Lipsyte. Already widely
heralded and rightly so. Also a first novel, also funny, also poignant,
and not about journalists. Most of the characters work in the
development (that is, fundraising) office of a university. Non-profit
organizations in general, and their fundraising departments in
particular, have a vast unrealized potential for comedy and tragedy.
There should be TV sit-coms set in these places. (You get a bit of the
joke in NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.”). The book’s hero, Milo Burke, is
a comically slovenly figure like Ignatius J. Reilly in “A Confederacy
of Dunces,” only cursed with self awareness. Don’t tell me how it comes
out—I’m not done yet.
· And then there’s Hitchens. I reviewed Christopher Hitchen’s last book
the one about God, and there were complaints—not completely
unjustified—that I had reviewed the author, not the book. Comes now the
author to review himself, in a 422-page memoir called (stupidly, unless
there’s something I don’t get, “Hitch-22.”. I think we’re pretty much
in agreement about him. My review was mixed to favorable, and his is
about the same. The self-deprecation, which comes at suspiciously
regular intervals, is among the least convincing aspects of the book.
But at least he thought to do it. Midst all the name-dropping, it helps.
you don’t choose to write your memoirs while still (barely) in your 50s
out of excessive modesty, accusations of vanity are a bum rap. IF
Hitchens were vain or self-centered, the book might be better. It could
be forthrightly about him. Instead, he is attempting to recapture some
cultural moments he has passed through—especially the late 1960s. This
project doesn’t really succeed. So read the book for the name dropping.
You’ll enjoy it.
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