A small book with big ideas.

Andrew Sean Greer’s novel, The Story of a Marriage has created quite a stir in the reviewing world.  Some have loved it, some have labelled it trite and predictable.  I seem to fit somewhere in the middle, veering towards the former.

This is a small book that is big on themes and ideas.  It is certainly a story of a marriage, be it a rather unconventional one, but is is also a story of the effects of war, of 1950s America, prejudice, parenting and what it means to love. 

How Hollywood taught us to stop worrying and love the fifties.
Seeing is believing: How Hollywood taught us to stop worrying and love the fifties.

Perhaps the book tries to cover too many themes, and that certainly has been some of the criticism, but the 1950s were a time when issues such as racism and sexuality were beginning to fester, when the world was full of suspicion and fear, as well as recovering from two wars. 

Greer  manages to inject all of these issues into his book via the main character Pearlie.  As the book progresses we realise that although she is naive, she unwittingly represents major upheaval, and is symbolic of everything that 1950s America was fearful of. 

 It is hard to write about this book without giving away the plot and some of the surprises, however I can say that it grew on me, and that I was intrigued to find out what would ultimately happen to this rather tenuous, but strangely compelling marriage.

How to Read Like a President

Jon Meachem has written a fascinating article in the New York Times How to Read Like a President. He surveys the reading of a number of presidents and talks to the current presidential contenders, asking them what books were most important to them.

John McCain mentioned Hemingway (in particular the character of Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls), the stories of W. Somerset Maugham, The Great Gatsby, All Quiet on the Western Front and James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, especially The Last of the Mohicans. He likes William Faulkner  especially  The Bear and  Turnabout.  McCain speaks of nonfiction less often but he has read — twice — Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Barack Obama’s list includes The Federalist, Jefferson, Emerson, Lincoln, Twain, W. E. B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Non American writers include Graham Greene  The Power and the Glory and The Quiet American, Doris Lessing The Golden Notebook, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and Gandhi’s auto­biography. In theology and philosophy Obama mentioned Nietzsche, Niebuhr and Tillich. Obama cites John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, about a labor dispute; Robert Caro’s Power Broker, about Robert Moses; and Studs Terkel’s Working. But he also includes Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments on his list.

Both candidates are fond of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, a classic of American political writing about a corrupt Southern governor and based on the real life Huey Long of Louisiana.

Of course, in these days of spin, you might suspect that the reading list was carefully chosen by someone else to create the right impression but read the whole article and judge for yourself.

It doesn’t mention anything about George W Bush’s reading….

The wonderful world of Louis Theroux

The call of the weird - travels in American subculturesI am an unabashed fan of unflappable roving reporter Louis Theroux.  For those of you unfamiliar with his genius, Theroux (son of author Paul) specialises in documenting the wacky, weird, and extreme in modern American society.  As a Brit he takes a calm and generally non-judgemental approach with his “subjects” whether they be neo-Nazis, Madams, or motivational speakers. 

The beauty of Theroux is in his willingness to throw himself in at the deep end and explore different lifestyles while never flinching from asking the hard questions of the people he encounters there.

I am delighted to find that from next week TVNZ are screening Inside story : Louis Theroux.  This four part series has Louis earnestly investigating America’s most hated family, gambling in Las Vegas, plastic surgery, and life behind bars.  The call of the weird : travels in American subcultures is his book in which he chronicles some of the more memorable oddballs that he has come across over the years and it’s a very entertaining and enlightening exploration of the quirky and unusual characters he’s come to know.  A great read for new Theroux fans or old.