Tenth of December
Random House, 2014
This was my first foray into the mind and writings of George Saunders and it was fantastic.
Yes, I am a little late to the Saunders bandwagon, as his writings have racked up awards, and the audiobook production of his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo had a 166-person cast including the voice work of the other short story writer I feel embodies a similar casual-yet-earnest linguistic style, David Sedaris.
Regardless, Tenth of December, was the collection that put Saunders on the map, and deservedly so; it ought to be everyone’s starting place for his work.
The book is a short story collection, but an odd one. The stories in both theme and at times setting bleed into one another fairly seamlessly, with a generally consistent narrative voice throughout. In lesser books, this would cause confusion and make the entire collection feel like a homogeneous blob; but here the distinctions come from plot and character. The stories are darkly hilarious. He’s never “cute” funny, but existentially so.
The Remains of the Day
Vintage Int’l, 1989
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is, as the Amazon product page calls it, “universally acclaimed”. It won the Booker prize the year of its release, and no less a pedigree than Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson graced the screen in its film adaptation. I personally received recommendations for this book from people that both know me well and whom I greatly respect for their taste in literature.
Imagine my surprise, and the depth of my self-doubt and questioning of my own aesthetic inventory, when I read this book and really, really despised it.
There are absolutely no surprises in this book, Rick and Bubba’s Guide to the Almost Nearly Perfect Marriage by Rick Burgess & Bill Bussey. Look at the cover. Read the description. You’ll know exactly what you’re getting yourself.
In short, if you’re the middle-‘Murica, somewhat Christian-y, suburban white person this is geared towards (who’s likely the exclusive group that reads this kind of Christian bookstore fodder), you’ll probably enjoy it. But not because you will learn anything. Not because you will grow. Not because there’s anything of substance or depth here. Just dad jokes and dad stories about how gosh-darn knuckleheaded these guys are, how hot their wives are, and how (gasp!) marriage is hard and requires communication and love.
Along the way to those profound insights are the kind of conservative cultural Christian Evangelical tropes one expects from silly books like this. “Culture” is evil and bad and waiting to suck the Jesus out of you. Women should submit to their husbands and husbands should lead their families (“but not because we’re misogynists! We’re the first tell you our wives are far more capable than we are! It’s just because the Bible says!”). Keep God at the center of your life. Try to eat and be healthy, but also make fun of how obese you are.
“Truth is identity between intellect and reality. A lie is a knowing and intentional violation of the truth.”
With these words,Judge Andrew Napolitano draws the battle lines within which he will fight for the rest of this book, Lies the Government Told You: Myth, Power, and Deception in American History. Unfortunately, though, these lines are where the book’s liabilities also fall.
The book goes through a series of principles on which the American mythos has been built and offers vivid anecdotes, data, history, and musings as to how the American government has not only fallen short of these ideals, but has codified and structuralized the outright denial of those ideals.
There’s a little something for every political stripe here. For example, the opening chapter, “All Men are Created Equal”, spends most of its time sounding like a Black Lives Matter treatise, recounting the views of slavery by the founding fathers, disillusioning the Lincoln-as-great moral-Liberator myth (arguing that Lincoln freed slaves more out of political calculus than genuine moral courage), and the systemic injustice of Jim Crow. In this, he talks like an activist trying to show how America has never been on the side of black humans. And yet, he ends the chapter by waxing away about how affirmative action is just one more version of “government sanctioned racism”.