We’re Reading Wednesday, September 1st — Guest Post

Three books I’ve finally read after hearing about them for years

Image created by the author in Canva

Half-Price Books has turned me into an inept business person. I buy books, then sell them back for less money than I paid. It’s an ever downward profit trend — bad business. 

Fortunately I’m not doing it to make money. I read my purchases and determine the likelihood of reading them again. A lot of books go back and the money is laundered into new literature — but a few find permanent homes on my shelf. 

I’ve been averaging a book a week since June, and not because I’m trying. A back injury has had me out of work for a few months, and I’m bored playing video games. Nothing on t.v. interests me anymore. 

But books? I always got time for books. 

Like an old car that can’t get as far on a tank of gas as it used to, I’m finding myself plagued with PBM (Poor Book Mileage); I read them too darn fast. But three books stood out most of the many I’ve read in the last couple of months. I kept it to three, because though I’ve read a great many books the ones I’ve highlighted below have been on my radar for years.

White Teeth— Zadie Smith

The year 2000 (Y2K) was a big year for a lot of people. The world didn’t collapse in a technocalypse, the first X-Men movie was released, and I hit puberty 2 years before anyone else I knew. A big year.

But more relevant to this piece, one of the biggest literary events was the release of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

It’s her first book and it’s a whopper. Fun, engaging, funny, profound, enlightening — everything you could ever want in a book and more. She spins the meta-fiction so well that it transcends the Armor of Irony so prevalent in late 90s/Early 2000s literature. 

It’s a deeply sincere work following the lives of different generations and backgrounds in London. A white Englishmen and his Jamaican wife, their child; a Bangladeshi man, his wife, and their two children. Spanning, though not chronologically, from 1945 to 1992, with a couple forays into the deeper past and speculation about the future. It’s a truly amazing novel, the kind you will spend months, or even years, thinking about. The kind you will always want to come back to.

Steps — Jerzy Kosiński

The book came out in the late 60s and has lingered, constantly, around the edges of “cult status” while never crossing the threshold. And that’s a shame. 

It’s short, consisting of creepy little short stories vaguely connected by characters and settings. Each one has an unnamed narrator, all first person, and begins depressing and strange, moving further in that direction, incorporating violence and abuses around the Soviet Union. Mostly Poland.

A man is stranded in an island village and has no money to leave, or live. An immigrant makes money driving fast and reckless through narrow city streets. A man watches as a soccer team drives, unwittingly, through a minefield.

It isn’t a happy book, and in truth it will leave you uncomfortable and a bit bummed out — but it’s as brilliant as it is haunting.

Excerpt:

Work was scarce during the war; I was too thin to work in the fields, and the peasants preferred to use their own children or relatives on the farms. As a vagrant, I was everybody’s victim. To amuse himself the former with whom I was finally boarded would take hold of me by my collar, drag me up close and then strike me. 
Sometimes he would call his brother or his friends to share in a game in which I had to stand still — staring ahead with open eyes — while they stood a few paces in front of me and spat at my face, betting on how often they could hit me in the eye.

J R — William Gaddis

White Teeth is a book almost everyone would enjoy — J R, though, is a much tougher sell. It’s one of those books I tried reading several times because I like the premise, but stopped after a few pages. However, in June, I powered through the hump and found myself absorbed.

J R tells the story, one of many, of an 11-year-old school boy (J R Vansant) running a company worth a fortune on paper. He obscures his identity through letters, and directs business from a phone booth at his middle school. Other characters are equally important. Mr. Gibbs is one of the teachers at J R’s school and a classic drunk cynic. Mr. Bast was the music teacher at the school but was fired for “free thinking” and ends up in the employ of J R. There are inept school board members, company executives, police officers, train stations employees — honestly, too many to list here.

The narration is unlike any other book I’ve read. You have no direct insight to the character’s inner worlds and the story is told almost entirely through dialog. There are no chapters, and scene transitions are handled by a kind of leap frogging. Two characters will chat in a restaurant, another one walks in, and the scene switches to them without any break in the narration. You often don’t know whose talking except through clues in the dialog. Its confusion and seeming messiness are part of the experience — and I call it an experience.

It’s a big satire of the American Dream and Wall Street and if you let it, the words will pull you along as though you’re on a theme park ride, stopping at exhibits for a time, before being pulled off to the next one.

It is not for everyone. In fact, one friend I suggested it to said he hated it. I, however, couldn’t recommend it more.


Honorable mentions go to:

  1. The Autograph Man, by Zadie Smith
  2. On Beauty, by Zadie Smith
  3. The Night in Question, by Tobias Wolff (With special attention paid to the short story ‘Bullet in the Brain’)
  4. Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon (still reading this one — over 1,000 pages — but so far it’s very good. A classic Pynchon novel)
  5. Severance, by Ling Ma

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