Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Summer Reading Anyone?

I've been doing a whole lot of reading lately, immersing myself in novels, living in fiction.  I wouldn't call it escapism, necessarily; as fiction has always been, for me, a path into the deepest places, a way through unnameable pain and uncertain hope.  Whatever my reasons, I dare you to read any of these books.  They're a little wild, risky, and well worth the journey!

Bangkok 8 and The Coroner's Lunch are exotic who-dun-its, quick reads for summertime.  John Burdett's Bangkok 8 is set in Thailand at the dawn of the 21st century and features a slightly neurotic, wildly creative Buddhist detective: Sonchai Jitpleecheep.  Somebody's killed a U.S. marine--with snakes!  You've got your Buddhist themes here; you've got your international intrigue; you've got a little bit of sexual tension and misadventure.  And all those snakes!  In other words, something for everyone.  The Pacific Rim living on the edge! 

Interestingly, The Coroner's Lunch is another Pacific Rim mystery, this one set in 1976 Laos, just after the revolution.  Colin Cotterill's created another compelling crime-solver: Coroner Siri Palboun.  As Siri sorts through a tangled web of unsolved killings, Cotterill paints a strange and colorful picture of post-revolutionary Laos.  It's a wild world of Buddhist monks, party officials, policemen, Hmong villagers and many others--trying to sort out a new world of cynicism, orthodoxy and loss.  Dr. Siri is a 72-year-old discovering new passion and ancient secrets--within his soul and beyond.  A quick read, and a story of unexpected twists.

The Marriage Plot and In One Person are two of most insightful, earnest, human books I've read in a long while.  What distinguishes them, for me, is the compassion of these writers for their characters.  In both cases, it's truly extraordinary.  Both writers (Jeffrey Eugenides and John Irving) believe in fiction and honor their own vocation in these stories.  In the forward to his novel, Jeffrey Eugenides quotes Francios de La Rochefoucauld: "People would never fall in love if they hadn't heard love talked about."  The Marriage Plot dives in, headlong, exploring the passion, vulnerability and courage of characters we come to know and recognize in intimate ways.  Parts of ourselves walk the pages of this book.  And they have things to show us, hopes to reveal, sadness to witness.  The story begins at Brown University in the '80s and follows three students through their studies, their longings and their emerging adult choices.  It's real.

John Irving
Irving's In One Person is about so many things, as it is with all his novels.  I've long cherished A Prayer for Owen Meany as one of American lit's great reads.  I found In One Person moving me, stunning me, challenging me in many of the same ways.  To start with, I guess, this novel's about William Dean and his coming of age, his sweet journey into sexual awareness and maturity, his struggle to embody and embrace bisexuality in the 1960s.  It's pretty graphic in places, so be forewarned; but William encounters a whole cast of characters along the way, some of whom are as generous and kind as any novel's characters ever have been.  Off the bat, it's easy to think of this as a story about sexual identity, oppression and liberation.  And it is about all those things--in profound ways.  But as I put it down, I was aware of something else, just as memorable, just as important.  Along the way, across decades of pain and discovery, longing and lust, William runs into his share of bullies and idiots.  He has to navigate American homophobia and survive his own mother's disgust.  But, at the same time, he gathers mentors and teachers.  One is a childhood friend; another is a small-town librarian; still another is William's own sweet grandfather. These are the kinds of folks who make our strange travels safe, who show us the markings on the trail.  In One Person is about a man who discovers a complexity within.  It's also about a man who becomes, who discovers, who embraces his calling--with the help, love and tenderness of others.  In his "one" life, we recognize the kindness and courage of devoted friends.  This is, in so many ways, an ode to friendship.

Reading!  What would summer be if not for books?!  Enjoy the journey.