Thursday, April 29, 2010

Night Table Reading

Deep within its perfumed pages, Vanity Fair magazine has a monthly feature that asks celebrities and various people of note what book currently resides on their night stand. You can believe, if you wish, that Renee Zellwegger slumbers in her oxygen chamber while verses by Rimbaud run through her squinty little brain, but I prefer to imagine the frantic poolside call to her publicist to find a volume weighty enough to lay claim to.

I usually have a few books going at a time, but lately I've been so busy with my job, various plans with friends, and a recent family crisis that it seems to have taken me forever just to get through Francine Prose's A Changed Man. It's a very engaging novel that examines subjects as wide-ranging as single parenthood, the Holocaust, and the Aryan supremecy movement. I'd stumbled across and really enjoyed an earlier book of Prose's, The Blue Angel, and read it on vacation in Maine last summer. It's a really captivating story about a dipsomaniac (dipsomaniacal?) Vermont college professor who hurtles into a very misguided affair with a student. Prose has the ability to tease out a story in a way that's both entertaining and relatable, and though you can see the sexual harrassment lawyers converging from nearly the start of the tale, as a reader you just need to see how she sketches in the awful culmination, like a tsunami breaking on a beach.

Determined to stock up on books to see me through the next few weeks, I made some notes when reading reviews in The New York Book Review, Atlantic, and some other magazines, and ordered a bunch through Amazon. These are what are now on my night table (or, actually, the coffee table in my den), and I hope to get started on them immediately. In no particular order:

Digging Up the Dead, by Michael Kammen. A person's reputation goes through many changes throughout the course of his life. But that's true after death, too. Historian Michael Kammen examines how personages throughout history, such as John Paul Jones, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Boone, Jefferson Davis, and Abraham Lincoln, have all been subjected to exhumations and reburials based on shifting assessments of their reputations, changing burial practices, and political upheavals. Sounds fascinating and macabre. 

When I ordered Steven Spielberg's America, by Frederick Wasser, I expected it to focus on his uniquely American filmmaking perspective, particularly his introspective and questioning approach to middle-class complacency. The jacket notes promise me a "...fresh and provocative take on Spielberg in the context of globalization, rampant market capitalism, and the hardening socio-political landscape of the United States...." Okay, well, I'll read it anyway. Or maybe I'll skim it.

Pictures from an Institution, A Comedy, by Randall Jarell. I've been hearing about this book for many years. People whose opinion I value have told me it's a hilarious satire of campus politics and political correctness. The fact that it was first published over 50 years ago makes it all the more intriguing

Animals Make Us Human, by Temple Grandin. Several years ago I enjoyed Grandin's bestseller Animals in Translation. Grandin is an autistic woman who compensated for her inability to bond with other humans by focusing solely on the minds and comforts of animals, even designing slaughterhouse mechanisms that reduce fear and anxiety among cattle about to get the axe. Her new book focuses on how we can better understand animals -- in this case, pets -- so that we can provide them the best and happiest lives "on their terms, not ours."

Survival City (adventures among the ruins of atomic America), by Tom Vanderbilt. Having lived under the shadow of nuclear annihilation my entire life, I'm eager to read Vanderbilt's book, which examines the legacies of the Cold War and the blueprints put into place to manage and perhaps even withstand the apocalypse we all once thought was inevitable.

One Nation Underground. The Fallout shelter in American Culture, by Kenneth D. Rose. Are you seeing a theme here? Apparently this book traces the ways in which the fallout shelter became an icon of popular culture, and even a symbol of plucky American adaptability.

Irving Thalberg. Boy Wonder To Producer Prince, by Mark A. Vieira. I love Hollywood lore, so I can't wait to dive into this thick tome. I know quite a lot about Thalberg already, particularly that he was instrumental in creating pioneering film masterpieces like Ben-Hur, Grand Hotel, and The Good Earth, and that he made stars of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer, whom he married. I also know that he accomplished all that before dying at 37. I'm really looking forward to delving into the details of this man's life, and am fascinated that someone is able to piece it all together more than 70 years after the fact. 

Renee, would you like to share?

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