2010 reading, part 1

Well, in last year’s note I promised to read some books by straight people, and I _did_…but first there was my Edmund White phase. I read his memoir _My Lives_ and his trilogy of autobiographical novels, _A Boy’s Own Story_, _The Beautiful Room is Empty_, and _The Farewell Symphony_, and for months my conversation was peppered with bon mots (bons mots?), observations, and narrative tidbits from Ed: returning home from Paris with jaundice “My skin was the color of bad teeth, and I was so thin and indifferent that everyone at the airport spoke to me in French.” A figure of the Sacred Heart featured Jesus “pointing to his juicy exposed heart like a free-clinic patient with a disturbing symptom.” In Rome, he took to doing his grocery shopping with a briefcase to avoid the terrible shame of being a man with a bag of groceries…etc.

Not that much actually happens in these books, but I was almost never bored–White is determined, as more writers should be, not to let a page go by without saying something interesting. He also presents his story, first growing up as a clueless gay kid in the 1950s Midwest, then the Village pre- and post-Stonewall, then Rome and Paris, with an anthropological field-worker’s combination of detachment and bizarre detail. “Bizarre” on the one hand refers to the mores and rituals of the dominant society from which he was an outcast, and on the other to aspects of his own world that are far from my personal experience, for example the acronyms used in hustlers’ adverts. Also some wonderfully endearing portraits of friends, especially Maria in The Beautiful Room.

Something of the same refreshing distance, and a flair for verbal flamboyance that is not in Ed’s league but still amusing, are to be found in Simon Schama’s _The American Future: A History_. Schama’s book seems to be an attempt to give Brits trying to follow the 2008 campaign an understanding of the origins and history of American attitudes toward things like war, religious freedom, and immigration, and I found him a lot more interesting than most writers on American history (a topic that generally bores me). Did you know that Rhode Island was founded as a haven of religious freedom from the bigots of Massachusetts? Did you know that, after the Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 1800s, many Chinese people got into the US by crossing the southern border disguised as Mexicans? I know some people find Simon a bit too glib and out-there, but I mostly don’t mind.

Science fiction can also offer an exhilaratingly distanced view of one’s own world, as in the stories of George Saunders; I read several of his stories set in nightmare future theme parks, but my favorite, “John,” is told by a teenager who has spent most of his life in a kind of marketing and product testing fantasy camp, so that his entire world consists of advertising and product placement. This means that the language of Abercrombie & Fitch is his only resource in telling us his story, which makes it extremely funny and rather touching. I would also recommend the anthology in which I found “John,” a collection of love stories edited by Jeffrey Eugenides and called _My Mistress’ Sparrow is Dead_, which may well be the worst anthology title ever. Anyway, it’s a cool anthology, with nicely chosen old favorites (Lady with Little Dog, The Dead) and fun new items by Gilbert Sorrentino, Miranda July, Saunders, and I forget who-all else.

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