Dead trees

November 4, 2007

I spend a lot of time staring at screens, so I’m always a little nervous when we head off on a vacation with limited internet connectivity and no television. In a place as beautiful as Zion National Park, it’s hard to care, and I always get a lot of reading done.

Best of the pile of prose was Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Penguin Group). It’s all sloppy and raucous on the surface, but mythic and almost perfectly constructed underneath, and it’s got incredibly memorable characters. For a novel that’s ostensibly about a fat geek who wishes he could get laid, that’s saying something. But Diaz has apparently never met a digression that he couldn’t tweak into something intelligent and thrilling, and his protagonist’s nerdish obsessions are just part of the tapestry. I haven’t had much success with geek tragedy, but this book is an absolute thrill.

Not in the same league as Diaz’s book but wonderfully readable and smart, Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher (St. Martin’s Press) humanizes those irritating culture wars that make us all froth. In it, a sex education teacher pays for a moment of frankness by having an abstinence-only curriculum forced upon her by an activist congregation and a craven school board. Then she finds out that a member of the congregation is the coach of her daughter’s soccer team. Freedom, faith and sex mash together in appealingly messy ways, and the characters are uniformly well-rounded and endearing. It’s nice to see an author strike a balance between “flawed” and “intolerable,” which Perrotta manages quite neatly. There are some easy marks in the cast, and the book is much funnier for it, but there’s an overall generosity to Perrotta’s approach that’s really rewarding. If it sounds like an HBO original picture, it probably will be at some point. Fans of the novels of Stephen McCauley will feel right at home.

And because you have to read some laughably improbable crap while on vacation, I was really happy that my partner had brought a couple of books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child along, The Book of the Dead and The Wheel of Darkness. They both star that most ridiculous of Mary Sues, Special Agent Pendergast, and they’re complete hogwash, but they’re amusing all the same. As in all Preston-Child novels, vague supernatural menaces and staggering authoritarian incompetence conspire to put hundreds of indifferently characterized extras at risk, and only Special Agent Contrivance can save them. How these two authors have managed to avoid being burned in effigy by whatever professional organization exists for museum curators I don’t know, not to mention any secret society that exists for the defense of narrative plausibility. But when your plane has been delayed for two hours and your mind is already running to thoughts of homicide and widespread mayhem, it’s good to have one of their books handy.

I read some comics too, but I’ll get to them later.