Friday, August 20, 2010

A light summer’s reading

I have made no secret that most of my time this summer has been taken up with what is euphemistically called “relocating.” Other than books that I have read on assignment, I’ve had time for only a few others, none of which got beyond disappointing me. Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman’s biographical study of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe who died sixteen years ago amidst fervent shouts that he was the messiah, did little more than recast the official Chabad version of the rebbe’s life. The authors were particularly tone deaf in their reliance upon the biographical fact that Schneerson was academically trained as an engineer. Unable to explain how he switched without apparent warning from a secular career to become the world’s most prominent Hasid, they fall back upon saying only that he “engineered” the switch.

Pearl Abraham’s American Taliban, a reimagining of John Walker Lindh’s story, stumbled badly. Abraham makes her John Jude Parish a surfer who is “committed to the daily minute, to living the present in the present tense, to finding the extraordinary in ordinary time, in the here and now.” The choice was an astute one, if Tim Winton’s Breath is a faithful account of surfing. Of course, Winton’s novel came out two years before Abraham’s.

Jesse Katz’s memoir The Opposite Field is about two of the subjects closest to my heart: fatherhood and baseball (coaching Little League baseball, to be specific). There is much to like in the book, but eventually its earnestness began to wear on me. Perhaps I have developed an allergy late in life to lyrical waxing about baseball.

The best book that I read while struggling to organize and manage the cross-country move was Allegra Goodman’s Cookbook Collector. Not her best novel, but an interesting peek into the IPO’s that inflated many a bank account during the dot-com bubble of the ’nineties. Goodman’s shifting point of view, her interest in several characters at once, her refusal to preen or condescend, keeps the novel fascinating on every page. I’ll have more to say on The Cookbook Collector at greater length a little later. For now, though, I’d have to call it the book of the summer.