Brick Lane, Monica Ali (2003)

Sort of like Good Times, except in London council flats instead of Cabrini Green, and everyone’s Bangladeshi instead of African American. The cast features all the types you might expect: a woman who everyone thinks is immoral but who’s actually good as gold; a woman who constantly professes piety but is actually a loan shark; the young Turk who wants to change the world; the little girl desperately embarrassed by her poverty; the good kid who gets hooked on smack; the neighborhood toughs; the always-dreaming, always-scheming, always-out-of-work father; and, at the center of the story, Nazneen, the young mother who just wants everyone to be happy, including, if possible, herself. Technically speaking, the novel is a bit clumsy in its larger architectures. Time is not handled well, for example: Ali will write patches of summary that make it seem like months have passed, but then you realize that it’s only been a few days. She (or, more likely, her editor) also insists on inserting big hints that Something Important is soon coming down the pike, as a way of compensating for the fact that there are large tracts in the middle of the novel that really don’t move the plot along at all. But these large-scale construction troubles are more than compensated for by Ali’s terrific detail work in scene after scene of subtle discovery among the characters. The complex pathos of Nazneen’s doofus/genius husband Chanu is rendered with particular brilliance; I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more fully realized three-dimensional fictional character. This novel could’ve stood a bit of trimming, but then they say that about Dickens. I’m probably wrong too, for the same reasons.

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Eugénie Grandet, Honoré de Balzac (1833)

Is there any purer pleasure than reading Balzac on a summer morning? A perfectly surprising yet perfectly symmetrical joy. I’m a relatively modern kid, I think–anxious and suspicious to the core–but sometimes the relief of committing myself into the hands of a fully omniscient narrator is just too blissful to be questioned. It’s the same feeling those old ladies holding up pictures of Stalin on May Day must be after.

As always with Balzac, the story here turns on the author’s frighteningly detailed insights into two very complex and apparently very different phenomena: human nature and financial planning. A paragraph of brilliant characterization is inevitably followed by one explaining the workings of some obscure investment vehicle. If Old Prodigious were to be reincarnated in today’s USA, I bet he’d set a story in a Rent-a-Center. Oh! if only!

The Good German, Steven Soderbergh (2006)

Not sure what I’m reviewing here, since this isn’t so much a movie as a movie so wholly in thrall to other movies as to be reduced to a kind of essay, or, better, a kind of scrim thrown over pre-existing movies. That may all sound a little arty-farty, but seriously, it’s impossible to watch the awful Tobey Maguire acting like an actor acting like a craven American solider in occupied Berlin without immediately beginning to experience the movie as a movie about movies rather than a movie. Then the sublime Cate Blanchett comes on and proceeds to do a passable Marlene Dietrich impersonation. What is the point of all this? Why would you watch this instead of The Third Man or Casablanca? Soderbergh is such a weirdo; I genuinely like this about him. The Good German is the filmmaking equivalent to The 1900 House, and just as perverse and fascinating.

All the Names, Jose Saramago (1997)

Enchanting novel, elemental and strange as a walk in the forest. A minor civil servant at the city’s hall of records, where are stored the names of all who live and all who have lived, has a predictable hobby of compiling extensive clipping files on certain famous individuals. But one day he finds the file of an ordinary person has somehow gotten into his set of extraordinary ones, and he becomes fascinated with the possibility of learning more about her. Since there are obviously no clippings to be found to round out his knowledge, he has to become a kind of detective. A slender premise, but Saramago is such a canny thinker that he manages to build the novel into a sublime meditation on human curiosity, the value of the individual, and the thin line between being and not-being. Terrific, masterful book.

Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart (2006)

Wonderful fun. Imagine if Syriana was a comedy–as it probably should have been–and you’re headed in the right direction. Obese Russian son of a mobbed-up oligarch has hard currency to burn and all the pleasures of the former Soviet republics (sturgeon omelets, Mercedes limousines, platoons of teenaged prostitutes) at his disposal, but all he really wants to be in New York, city of his dreams, eating a slice and sitting on a stoop in Washington Heights. And that he can’t have, because the Americans won’t give the son of a gangster a visa. So lots of collisions of high and low and East and West as the kid tries to make a way for himself, one minute it’s body shots and gangsta rap, the next it’s black bread and wheezing old-school bureaucracy. The novel’s insights into the ways the west is leaching into the east and vice versa are smart, but a bit too fun; sometimes I wished for a little more vinegar, a little more wickedness. The feeling here is closer to Tom Robbins than Nabokov, I fear. I hasten to say that I adore Tom Robbins.

Encounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee (1972)

Saw this at a library book sale for two dollars and couldn’t resist picking it up, though I’m sure I’ve read it before, and read it through that very afternoon. McPhee’s prose goes down like clear water from one of those gorgeous mountain streams he’s always writing about, and the story here, of renegade Sierra Club leader Dave Brower’s encounters with a miner in the Sierra Nevadas, a developer in Georgia’s barrier islands, and a dam builder in the Grand Canyon, are genuinely compelling. Funny to read this book forty-odd years on from the meetings it dramatizes, since it’s possible to check up on how its various debates panned out, as it were. I’m glad to find, for example, that the work the developer intended to do on Cumberland Island never came to pass. McPhee’s vaunted objectivity can be wearying. We’re meant to at least partially sympathize with the evil jackal who wants to blow up the Sierra Nevadas to extract their copper so we can have more telephones. Get real, man.

Black Book, Paul Verhoeven (2006)

WWII in occupied Holland. A Jewish young woman tries to hide, run, escape, survive, resist, capitulate, get laid, fall in love, sabotage Nazi headquarters, spy for the Resistance, help the big soft-hearted SS officer she’s fallen in love with escape, escape herself (again), learn Hebrew . . . Poor Carice van Houten is in almost every frame of the film, and my God she sure earned her money here, with all the running around Verhoeven makes her do. The most expensive film ever made in my ancestral homeland, and it’s a disaster. Mostly because of its schizophrenia, as it tries by turns to be an action-adventure movie with explosions, a crafty spy thriller with clever plot twists, a somber docudrama with statistics about the extermination of the Dutch Jews, and–most fatally and ridiculously–a wildly melodramatic love story in which the young woman falls for the Nazi she’s supposed to be spying on, who has turned out to have a heart of gold. Awww. The plot contains about a hundred twists, most of them utterly improbable, and some of them so breathtakingly stupid I literally laughed out loud, as did the otherwise remarkably well-behaved high school students in the row behind me in the tiny Provincetown movie theater. Oh, and it’s almost three hours long. If I hadn’t paid $8.50 for it I wouldn’t have stayed. My favorite thing about it was peeing when it ended.