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Bookish Delights 2010: The Fiction Edition

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Top Ten-ish anyone? Well, that was the plan when I thought I could curtail my longwinded wordiness enough to encompass both my fiction and nonfiction choices all into one article. Alas and alack, I am unable to crank up the 10 to 11 today without the excess verbiage — but I will be back to address the rest, a few days into ’11. 

Don Delillo, Point Omega

In a finely-honed and harrowing novel, the desert landscape “unravels and reveals” for a reclusive and retired war official, to the point that he finds he doesn’t crave the solitary life as much as he thought he would. He finds himself expounding on his pet theories with a visiting photographer, intensely and with singular purpose. Especially hard-hitting is Elster’s contention that the world’s closing in on the omega point, a concept proposing an eventual “leap out of our biology,” as Elster puts it, a “sublime transformation of mind and soul or some worldly convulsion.”

Do we have to be human forever? Elbert asks. “Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field.”

But it could be that the reader is being set up for a fall when a didn’t-see-it-coming incident occurs, devastating and mystifying, one that alters the direction and dynamics of the narrative and characterizations. The enigmatic Point Omega, conspicuous for its slimness, ultimately comes away as skillfully interconnected and coherent. Indeed, whether the book clicks in right away or continues to be an open-ended works in progress, it really is, in the end, the most thought-provoking of works, the seamless kind that sticks with you like a vexing memory.

Robert C. Benchley, Ed. by Thomas J. Saunders, The Athletic Benchley, 105 Exercises from the Detroit Athletic Club News 

“Every boy should have a dog, for a dog teaches a boy three valuable traits: fidelity, perseverance and to turn around three times before lying down.”

Is The Athletic Benchley a contradiction in titular terms? No matter how out of shape Robert Benchley may have appeared, the well-regarded humorist and writer — who once said, “It took me 15 years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous” — wasn’t about to quit not giving up when it came to his stint as a favored contributor, from 1920 to 1932, to The Detroit Athletic Club News, the monthly house organ for members of that legendary auto and advertising club.

Though the Algonquin Round Table’s Master of Nonsense, also a drama critic and author, had success as an actor in movies and in many of his own film shorts, the best way he can be appreciated is in print. Whether you flip through for one-liners, or immerse yourself headfirst, Benchley, went on to inspire and influence such comic folk like S.J. Perleman, Bob Newhart, Dave Barry, and many more. There’s a lot to savor in this unique gathering of timeless wit, especially now as The Athletic Benchley offers articles in their original presentation and with the original artwork.

Furthermore, not only will you feel like you picked up a Vanity Fair or New Yorker from the 1920s or ‘30s, you’ll get such articles as “Bringing Back the Morris Dance,” which attempts to instill much in the way of gosh-darn modern day practicality: “It seems a shame,” notes Benchley, “to be devoting ourselves to golf and tennis and drinking when we might be out of doors prancing around a pole and falling down every few feet.”

Brendan Connell, Unpleasant Tales

Things, when they can’t be bothered to go bump, will — in the altogether ooky and eerie Unpleasant Tales of misery and imagination told in the tome at hand — just as soon bump you off in the night and be done with it.

Indeed, author Brendan Connell takes an unflinching and matter-of fact approach to a kaleidoscopic, phantasmagoric horror of depravity and decadence, with a bent toward themes of borderless obsession and perversity. ”For an artist, all experiences are exquisite,” says a character in “The Tongue,” and by extension this all-access awareness turned all-excess experience is instrumental in shaping many of the stories’ extreme characterizations and storylines. Get your warm ‘n’ fuzzy somewhere else. These aren’t your father’s shudders and shocks.

Masha Hamilton, 31 Hours

“Tomorrow Jonas’s day belonged to a greater cause. Tomorrow he would be pure energy, a spark and a flash, a name on a million lips. But today he was just Jonas, Manhattan Jonas, Upper West Side Jonas, young man Jonas…”

A self-deceiving, home-grown terrorist, believing himself a martyr, not a monster, straps on a vest of explosives and prepares to enter the New York subway system. The hours between being Manhattan Jonas and being on a million lips – those tightly stretched 31 Hours, to be precise – did not so much belong to a greater cause as belong to the actions of a foolish and immature young 21-year old who deceives himself and others into believing that he is a sensitive and impressionable loner and not the inhumane orge he truly is. Yes, he is overwhelmed by his rage and passion over the world’s injustices, but it’s to the point of irrationality (“We’re all terrorists… Every single one of us…”), and despite the signs of mental instability (“He feels like something’s missing, like the world is immoral and only he sees it”).

Masha Hamilton skillfully interweaves the sequence of events and the telling of the tale from various perspectives in this first-rate literary suspense.

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

With another genre-bending departure in the pages of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, two-time Man Booker finalist David Mitchell shows himself as unwilling as ever to compromise his unpredictable, exploratory literary leanings, bearing out The Guardian’s claim that “each of his books seems entirely different from that which preceded it,” including the wondrous 2000 debut Ghostwritten, and Number 9 Dream. With an bold historical romance set in turn-of-the-19th-century Japan, enlightening historical details are seamlessly interwoven with wicked wit and wordplay as it follow the travels and travails of the devout young clerk Jacob de Zoet who, coming to Dejima — an artificial island located in Nagasaki Bay and used as a trade outpost by the Dutch East Indies Company — has five years to earn a fortune sizable enough to marry his wealthy fiancée in Holland. But complications arise with Jacob’s intention to put the company’s financial records in order and weed out corruption, when — after meeting midwife Orito Aibagawa — he becomes embroiled in events far more threatening than forged ledgers. A well-researched work, The Thousand Autumns is an enticing and inventive read.


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