We put so much pressure on the narrators of the books we’re reading. From the get go, they can make or break the story they’re telling. In the four narrators I’ve met in the last three books I’ve read, one taught me empathy, one made me laugh and want to cook (though not what he was cooking), one charmed me with her passion to make it on her own, and one, well, let’s say hope I never meet him again.
Perhaps it was just having seen the extraordinary documentary “The Horse Boy,” about a parents’ search for a cure for their son’s autism, that made me particularly empathetic to the plight of the narrator Christopher Boone in Mark Haddon‘s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. There’s a subject interviewed in the film who says that there is nothing wrong with people with autism. They’re just different kinds of human beings. That comment stuck with me as I read the book. Christopher has Asperger’s Syndome. His parents are separated. A dog has been murdered in his neighborhood and he must find out who did it. He counts cars on the way to school, their colors dictating what kind of day he’s going to have. He does math in his head to relax himself. By taking us inside Christopher’s mind, Haddon has created the most memorable character, in a book that I’ve read, since Owen Meany in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. Like everyone around Christopher, we need to have patience with him. He’s our narrator after all, and the only way we’re going to get the story. But he never asks for it. He knows his limitations and what he must do, and that’s why we empathize with him. Even when we start to sense where his detective work will lead him, we still understand his needs and support him. What’s most wonderful about the book is how, in empathizing with Christopher, we empathize with those around him as well: the father who is trying his best, the mother who had to be honest with herself, and the neighbors saying and doing the things they think are best for Christopher. The novel is an absolute joy to read. I loved it.
If you’ve fantasized about living in Italy (and who hasn’t?), you’ve certainly read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, or Ferenc MÃ¡tÃ©’s The Hills of Tuscany, or one of my favorites, Robert Hutchinson’s When in Rome. If you’ve read James Hamilton-Paterson‘s hilarious 2005 novel Cooking with Fernet Branca, though, it’s not all villas and helpful villagers and handsome guys named Marcello. Sometimes it’s shady realtors, annoying neighbors, eccentric Italian film directors, late night helicopter visits and too much of the medicinal digestivo of the title. That’s fine by me.
Hamilton-Paterson gives us the story through alternating narrators. First is the culinary adventurous, borderline-sinister Gerard Samper, a celebrity sports figure ghost writer about to embark on an autobiography of a boy-band-star wanting legitimacy. Marta is his neighbor, an emigre from Central Europe working on a film score for a famous Italian filmmaker. While Gerry is busy being appalled and irritated by just about everyone, whipping up the most ridiculous recipes — one of his early ones a Garlic and FernetÂ Branca ice cream meant to scare his neighbor away — Marta is stealthily taking advantage of Gerry’s unique vocal stylings to inform her new score. We get both sides of the story. It’s Gerry that truly makes the book click and gives it its snap, while Marta provides the saner counterpoint, especially when observing Gerry.
I read the book on the beach, where I think it’s meant to be read. It’s light, laugh-out-loud funny and hits the spot. You’ll still want to live in Italy after it, perhaps even moreso. In a moment of synchronicity after, I was in a local liquor store looking to replenish my stash of the Italian digestivo Amaro — it’s hard to come by in Nashville — when the salesman and I started talking about other herbal Italian after-dinner drinks. He said, “there’s another one, like Amaro, that Italians drink. What is it? I can’t think of it.” He was racking his brain when I responded, “Fernet?” “Yes! That’s it. Fernet Branca!” I had never heard of Fernet Branca until the book
It’s been almost twenty years since Douglas Coupland published Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture and popularized a name for those post-boomers among us born between 1961 and 1981. We were cynical and sarcastic. Disaffected. We watched too much television when we were kids. Consumed too much music, gave the world MTV, Madonna and Nirvana and would be the first generation to make less than our parents. We liked The Replacements and wondered why they weren’t bigger. We were artists, by default.Â So what has become of us, other than our hoping to come across a Hot Tub Time Machine? According to Jeff Gordinier in the enjoyable X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Suckin,’ we did OK, sorta. He reminds us that much of the golden age of the internet was created by Xers. Many great world-changing non-profits are helmed by Xers, as is our nation. President Obama was born at beginning of the generation, in 1961.
If we look to Sam Lipsyte‘s novel, The Ask, we’re still cynical and sarcastic, and making less than our parents. In fact, we’re assholes. And Miles, the narrator of the book, is our living embodiment. An artist who never really succeeded — he doesn’t paint anymore, anyway — he now helps young artists reach their dreams by working in the development department of a small liberal arts college. The title of the novel refers to the all-important pitch that development folks, at universities, non-profits, cultural institutions, hospitals, etc., make to potential donors. It’s “the ask,” and the donor is “the ask.” Miles isn’t so good at it. After saying something inappropriate to the student daughter of a major donor, Miles is fired, only to be asked back when Purdy, a potential major donor and former classmate of Miles from college, personally requests him. After that, it’s all a bit convoluted. Purdy’s got a son whose legs have been blown off in the Iraq war and is blackmailing him. Miles marriage is falling apart. There’s a guy who builds decks and has an idea for a reality show. Purdy’s son crashes a cocktail party and yells, “Daddy.” It’s all too much really, and should sound the death knell for any attempt at art about the generation. We may not be that interesting. Miles knows this too, and in chapter twenty-five, Lipsyte delivers a zinger of dialogue. In a conversation with his supervisor Vargina (pronounced just like you think it is), Miles asks:
“No. I mean, if I were the protagonist of a book or a movie, it would be hard to like me , to identify with me, right?”
“I would never read a book like that, Milo. I can’t think of anyone who would. There’s no reason for it.”
Bonus “Thought on What I’ve Been Reading.”
I don’t read many business books, but every now and then, one piques my interest. Seth Godin has legions of fans, and I check in on his blog fairly often, but Linchpin is the first of his books that I’ve read. Like most other business books, there’s much that applies and much that doesn’t. While early chapters didn’t speak to me, the remainder of the book is an inspiring gem that will get you working on new projects (“projects are the new resumes,” Godin tells us) and approaching your current job with renewed vigor. We’re all artists in Godin’s view, and once we accept that,Â we’ll be better prepared to work in the new economy.