...if I'm going to take this constructive public humiliation thing seriously, it seems like the only option. So here goes:
So far in this accursed calendar year (and let's note here that I've been unemployed most of the time, with no legitimate distraction from worthy literary pursuits), I have read:
Tom Wolfe - I Am Charlotte Simmons (and I even cheated by starting it in 2005)
I have a lot to say about this, but will have to post it later as I need some sleep. Suffice it to say that there are many things I dislike about Wolfe's views (in so far as I can glean what they are from the novel), but I did stick it out for over 650 pages, which perhaps speaks for itself. He's a good writer, I don't dispute that.
This book annoyed me a lot more than Bonfire of the Vanities (though both are arguably longer than they need to be), but I guess it would be fair to say that I took Charlotte Simmons more personally as it's my own generation under attack. I could easily enjoy Wolfe's cold appraisal of 80s greed, corruption and so on, but I find it a lot harder to take when he lays into today's college kids. I've just had enough of hearing about the failings of people my age, how amoral and self-indulgent and irresponsible we are, how we attach no more importance to sex than to a handshake. However, I have to concede that my relationship with my mother is not Tom Wolfe's problem!
Another drawback for me in reading this is that, again, because I'm familiar with the type of world he's describing, his endless explanations of aspects of youth culture that seem to me absolutely ubiquitous and self-evident begin to grate very quickly. I know the detached, thoroughly researched reporting style is a trademark of his, but what hole are his readers supposed to have been living in for the past 20 years, that they should need to have every little film reference or slang term explained to them in words of one syllable? I can only assume he is aiming his insights into our culture at future generations and/or creatures who may drop in from outer space.
Still, my main problem with the book is its implication that our society is going straight to hell because the young ivy league students, supposedly the leaders of the future, are so shockingly depraved, superficial, and lacking in any sense of what's right or important. Maybe this is just me, but I think if there's a sinister, worrying trend in the US today, it's the strengthening of repressive, far-right forces which threaten civil liberties and reproductive freedoms. Isn't that a bit more disturbing than the idea of some undergraduates drinking beer and (gasp!) having sex?
Wolfe is well-known for his ability to capture the zeitgeist and expose the specific foibles of society at a given time. This book seemed more like an old-fashioned morality tale to me, and Wolfe's attitude to his subject matter felt very reactionary. I've only read this and Bonfire (and despite all this negativity, there are still a few other books of his I'd like to try reading), but judging from those, I'd say he tends to dislike almost all his characters intensely, and shows them very little mercy. There's no shortage of deserving targets for criticism in the world today, so Tom, if you're out there, either lighten up or start directing your righteous venom somewhere more appropriate.
Richard P. Feynman - Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!
This book was a source of absolute joy to me from start to finish. I do have a weakness for the accessible writings (memoirs or other kinds of writing aimed at unenlightened non-scientists like myself, eg Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology) of brilliant scientists and mathematicians, but this is a particularly adorable example. A kind of rough autobiography consisting of a collection of anecdotes, memories and observations.
The whole package seems too good to be true: not only was Feynman an incredibly talented and eminent (with the Nobel prize to prove it...) theoretical physicist, he also emerges as witty, kind, fun, adventurous and interested in (and good at!) an almost absurd range of activities, from safecracking to seducing showgirls (well, perhaps those two aren't so different, but my point still stands). Also, unlike so many exceptionally intelligent people, he was obviously a great teacher, who found it important to explain scientific concepts in the simplest, most accessible way possible, instead of wallowing in his own intellectual superiority.
The book is funny, sweet and full of really good insights about all sorts of things. Again and again I had that feeling that good writing can give, of surprise mixed with recognition. When you think: "Yes! That's exactly it, but I'd never have thought of putting it that way." If he were still alive, I'd be sorely tempted to write him fan mail, so I guess he had a lucky escape there in terms of timing.
Due to the nature of the book, there isn't very much actual science in it, and I must say, it whetted my appetite for more. I was in a bookshop recently eyeing a massive volume of Feynman's lectures, but I couldn't kid myself for a second that I'd be able to understand them, so I tore myself away.
All in all, reading this was a very uplifting experience, and I (along with the rest of my family, as it happens) am utterly hooked on Feynman. I now want to read everything else there is on him. First on my list are Six Easy Pieces, Six Not-So-Easy Pieces (both explaining some physics for the benefit of ignorant types like me), What Do You Care What Other People Think? (a kind of sequel to Surely You're Joking, apparently) and Don't You Have Time to Think? (a collection of his letters which I flicked through recently and which seemed very exciting).
I tend to be fascinated by the tortured, antisocial type of genius, but Feynman seems like the absolute opposite, and certainly no less interesting for that.
...um, yes, the moment of truth... that would be the grand total of what I've managed to read so far this year (apart from a few other things that don't really count). Shocking. Inexcusable. What can I say?
One of the things I've read lately that doesn't count as a whole book is Annie Proulx - Brokeback Mountain, which I missed the first time round because it was published in the New Yorker long before my obsession with that magazine began (or my obsession with gay men for that matter...). I want to say some things about the story, and about the film actually (predictably enough, I loved them both), but that really will have to wait for another entry, as I'm about to collapse from exhaustion. In the meanwhile, here's an absolutely brilliant review of the film from the NYRB, about why it is "the gay cowboy movie" and all the better for that, rather than a "universal (ie not really homosexual at heart, honest) love story".
At the moment I'm in the middle of a few books: Gabriel Garcia Marquez - One Hundred Years of Solitude (though Yana's winning that race by a substantial margin, I believe), Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs (edited by John Pilger, given to me by Yana and so far very, very interesting), Eurudice - F/32: The Second Coming (can't tell if I'm going to love it or hate it), and, in a fit of total self-indulgence prompted by being ill in bed for so long recently, I've started re-reading Bob Dylan - Chronicles (but don't worry Ya, I won't offend you by discussing it here).
So, more updates to follow very soon, I expect.