March 29, 2017
I purchased this 2004 edition of Bernard Malamud’s 1966 novel The Fixer for no other reason than my gently mad, inner book collector wanted it – and I wanted it for its introduction, in which Jonathan Safran Foer talks about the difference between a good book and a great book, as well as for Foer’s signature on the title page. I could’ve read the introduction online. Also, I don’t collect Foer. (Book collectors will understand this. Herein is the madness.)
The Fixer tells the story of a Jewish handyman named Yakov Bok, who leaves his small village after his divorce, hoping for a new life in Kiev. It is 1911, and Tsar Nicholas II rules the Russian Empire in a climate of fear and uncertainty. This non-practicing Jew gets caught up in a horrific, mind-bending nightmare when accused of murdering a Christian boy with ritualistic blood-letting. He’s thrown into jail, refuses to confess to a crime he didn’t commit and suffers daily beatings. After a long time, he finally is granted a trial, which is more for show than justice. In the book’s introduction, Foer writes: “Regardless of Yakov’s ultimate fate, a few good people have expressed their solidarity with him, and hence their humanity and his.” Foer tells us some of these few good people include those watching Yakov go to trial. They are waving and shouting their support. “It’s the most they can do, and it’s a lot,” Foer explains.
Great books are necessary (while good books are involving, entertaining, critically acclaimed but not necessary), according to Foer. And they are necessary when they show us the importance of our sympathy, mercy and open-mindedness in the midst of injustice and bad times: “Good books often remind us of our troubled world. Great books go a step further: they remind us of our humanity. And it’s only our humanity that can fix the world.”
I’ve learned over the years that memorable words and thoughts need to be on the bookshelf, so I can read them in the form of which they were originally created, instead of on a page printed off the internet. It’s just not the same without the book. Especially when it comes to universal concepts that resonate with as much power today as they did in the past — and as they will in the future.
“Our world – our desperate, broken world – needs existential novels, novels that give us something more valuable than hope: a call to action. The real fixer isn’t Yakov Bok. (He’s a character in that world.) And it isn’t Bernard Malamud. (He’s the bridge between that world and this one.) The real fixer is each of us. We must do something. That’s what this novel, like all great novels, reminds us.”
June 21, 2009
Today I turn 54, and in celebration of my birthday, I created a list of 54 favorite books.
They are books I read compulsively or couldn’t forget; books that were memorable in either content or in reading experience; books that may have enlightened me; and books I simply enjoyed.
The list is random (no ranking) and unorganized (memoir, mystery, fiction, history are intermingled) because this is a top-of-mind list recorded as the titles came to me.
Due to brief commentary or summaries with each entry, the length prohibited delivering the list as a blog post. Hence, the new blog page 54 Years, 54 Books.
Authors include Alice McDermott, Saul Bellow, Daphne du Maurier, Joan Didion, Ellen Gilchrist, Bernard Malamud, Norman McLean, Penelope Lively, Alice Kaplan, David Denby, Joan Chase, Michael Herr, Ward Just, Graham Greene, Anne Lamott, Francisco Goldman and many more.
For me, the list was a chance to revisit several books I’ve not touched in years. For you, I hope it provides ideas for good summer reading.
May 30, 2009
The story, set in a sleazy Hollywood bar and told by the observations of an alcoholic barback, brings to life pathetic derelicts with energetic, colorful honesty.
Written in the rare second-person viewpoint, as if the nameless barback is taking notes for a book, Ablutions creates impact beyond a typical addiction story by the protection of the distant “you” pronoun and the intimacy of its uninhibited judgments and descriptions.
I was, on the one hand, disgusted with how the drugged-up, liquored-up characters behave and, on the other hand, compassionately fascinated. Their lives are completely foreign to my own, or those of anyone I know.
Perhaps because of that foreignness, I read Ablutions with rapt attention.