Friday, October 30, 2015

Knopf 100 -- Day 12

41. Michael Kerr's Dispatches is widely considered to be the best work published on Vietnam (Liz wrote about this book earlier in the month). I went backwards, having started with Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone Box Me Up and Ship Me Home and The Things They Carried, then A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo, and then of course Neil Sheehan's stunning book, A Bright Shining Lie. By the time I read Dispatches I was pretty convinced I had read the best of what I should have read, but Dispatches is on another level. I do like how I came to it, maybe all out of order it worked for me. Knopf has continued publish important books on war, interesting what changes and what doesn't. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins and Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran are both reminiscent of what Dispatches was able to convey, the insanity of it all. Imperial Life really blew me away, I highly recommend it if you haven't taken a look, it's a bit different from other books in the genre, but incredibly enlightening.

42. I am going to cheat a little bit on the next two books because I couldn't decide which of Mark
Salzman's books to write about. When in a bind over choosing, choose both (that's how I wound up in a bigamist lifestyle but that's a story for another day). Lying Awake is one of my favorite novels; it just lends itself to endless conversation and thought. The plot hinges on a monastery nun, Sister John, who after some years of doubt over her path is given a gift of spiritual visions. These visions allow Sister John to produce volumes of verse, which become quite popular and help finance the monastery.  After the visions, Sister John suffers cluster headaches and often passes out. Finally forced to seek medical treatment, it is revealed that she has been suffering from epileptic seizures, caused by a brain lesion which doctors feel can be treated successfully. Of course with the treatment the visions will end, and this is the choice Sister John is left with. This book is nearly perfect. Or maybe it is perfectly perfect. I love it and find myself talking about it often even after fifteen years.

43. Mark Salzman's next book would be different, but then maybe not really. While trying to finish his follow up novel after Lying Awake, Salzman needed to research high risk youth and he wanted to get a realistic feel for young men in trouble. His good friend happened to teach a writing class at a detention center for boys at risk, so Mark went along and ended up being so moved that he also volunteered to teach a writing class. Mark met all the characters you would expect--the trouble makers, the young men who may never be able to turn their lives around, and  the boys who are so likable but also so troubled. What is so moving is the care and passion these young men bring to their writing. It's gut wrenching, funny, hopeful, and of course although written a decade ago, brings us to recent political discussions about long overdue prison reform.

44. Because this post is sort of dark and possibly a bit of a downer (no, really), I want to include a bit of color, a bit of humor, so let's talk about Nora Ephron's neck. Her slim little collection of essays sort of turned the world on its head. I Feel Bad About My Neck solidified Ephron as one of America's smartest and best humorists. After Ephron's death Knopf published a fantastic volume, The Most of Nora Ephron, that not only includes classic essays, but the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally, everyone's favorite Ephron film  (personally, I favor Silkwood, come on Cher and's the best). Also included are some pieces that Ephron wrote when she was starting out as a reporter, possibly the best part of this book because they are difficult if not impossible to find elsewhere. Should we all meet in my backyard and watch a double feature of You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle? [The legal director of this blog recommends NEVER accepting an invitation to Gianna's house.]

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