striking gold

January 6, 2011

While I’m not a voracious reader, I do read  a lot. And in the last 10 years there’s probably a handful of books that once I’ve finished the last page and closed the back cover, I’ve felt compelled to evangelize them: The Botany of Desire, Lonesome Dove, The Lost, The Sandman Series, Disgrace, Maus, The Cold Six Thousand & American Tabloid, Blade Runner, and His Dark Materials. Ok, that’s more like two handfuls over the course of 12 years. But anyway, in any given year, I’m much more likely to evangelize an essay or a short story or a poem. I read a lot of this kind of stuff and I think the possibility of greatness is maybe more achievable in these abbreviated forms. It’s the same way for me with music. I can usually come up with 20 really great singles at the end of the year, but I’m hard to pressed to list more than 2 or 3 whole records that are so great they compel me to say “you gotta listen to this.”

So I feel like I got away with something or got a great surprise when right here at the end of the year I read two books that I can’t say enough about, except go read them. They are that great. I already mentioned A Visit from the Goon Squad, but I want to add on to what I said before. Because it’s a very rare book that when it ends, I want it to go on for another 50 or 100 pages, and not because there was anything wrong with the ending, but because I want to keep reading about the characters. That’s what happened with Goon Squad. I got to that last page and I was like “please don’t make this end.” For a couple days,  I kept trying to explain all the characters and their interlocking stories to Rachel, because I wanted to keep them alive. Jennifer Egan pulled off this brilliant mix of heartbreaking humanity and dark satire. Read it; you’ll see.

The other book is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I raced to the end of that book. I had to find out hat was going to happen to the characters and to see how the story unfolded. I tore through over 500 pages in about 3 days. I was hooked like a junkie. I’d heard that it was an ambitious book and I was worried that it was going to be this heady, idea laden tome, where the characters and the story got sacrificed for exploring ideas about freedom, but Franzen struck the right balance between the aesthetic and the ideological approaches, a feat that has escaped many, if not most, of his contemporaries. It’s kind of an epic story and part of me wants to proclaim that Freedom will surely be one of the great American novels, but that sounds corny, so I’ll just say I wanted to to say it and leave it at that.

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