Operation Shylock – Philip Roth 4/5 Stars
This is one of those books I got really excited about when I was like 20 and I bought or got ahold of and then never read. In fact, I remember sitting on my brother’s couch and reading one page and being like OH NO and not reading any more. I like Philip Roth a lot, warts and all. He’s ridiculous and writes a lot about maleness, but I am male and it sometimes connects with me. In addition, for whatever problems he has, he’s a GOOD writer. His writing is so competent and interesting and solid. Not every novel is a success, but this one is and he was right on the cusp of a really strong decade and a half after a less successful 15 years prior.
This book is about Jewishness. In the novel, Philip Roth, the writer and narrator, reads an article about himself, visiting Israel and giving a speech about “Diasporism” which for this novel means the returning of Ashkenazi Jews back to European lands. This is anti-Zionist, but it’s not posited as anti-Jewishness, so much as seen as an extreme position and act designed to salvage Jews from the world that hates them. The worry here would be that increased aggression in the Middle East would lead to the annihilation of Israel before the world could save it. Between recent upheavals in Iran and the impending Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Roth seems to feel like this would be a solution.
The problem is: Philip Roth didn’t give that speech. It turns out he has a double posing as him and running around Israel and other places in the world giving this speech. That’s where it starts.
This is a novel about doubles, about duality, and of course about the state of Jews and Israel in the world. This novel works as a kind of Double of the Dostoevsky novel The Double. Read that too.
I couldn’t have read this at 20 and made any sense of it for a lot of reasons, but I was glad to have borrowed it from a Little Free Library, read it, and returned it, officially unburdening myself of an old debt.
Unbelievable – 3/5 Stars
So if Roy Moore had won on Tuesday I would not have read this book. This book is a little too real and a little too much of a revisiting of a seriously horrible time and experience in all of our lives. If you voted for Trump, it’s horrible for you too and you just don’t know it I guess. Unless you are Donald Trump or rich like he pretends to be, he ain’t gonna help you. I know you’re not Donald Trump because he can’t read.
Anyway, Katy Tur was assigned to cover Donald Trump’s campaign throughout the election. She explains pretty early that this was not a choice assignment because of how little anybody took it seriously for the longest time. She tells the story inside and out from the beginning through the end and includes a lot of the on the ground feelings and revelations of the campaign. In addition, Tur also tells her own background that led her to journalism and understanding sensationalism.
Here’s the issue: early in the book Tur tells us she is not a political analyst. She definitely understands news and news reporting, news writing, and how to ask good questions during an interview. But she doesn’t provide a lot of analysis about the campaign. This is not really a book that has enough in it to be a book. The biographical information is not necessary and boring when it occurs and since it doesn’t do much to explain the subject. She’s a good writer, but this book probably came a year or two too early and needed more background, more sourcing, and more time.
Outline – 4/5 Stars
Speaking of Philip Roth, I was curious, having read about a dozen of his novels that I never really listen to or read interviews with him. I am interested in his words, but like with most writers, I feel underwhelmed by any writing less than a novel or a perfected work. Also, I tend to not really care nor want to have a lot of background with them. Usually, unless someone is a child molester or a Nazi and still alive and practicing, I tend to only really worry about the novels themselves. But I wanted to hear his voice, so I watched an interview with Roth and he was discussing a comment he made in the 80s about how in 25 years no one would read novels. He didn’t mean this as a provocative kind of comment so much so that novels would continue to get more and more relegated to a smaller and smaller audience. That may well be true. Novels had their heyday in the 19th century as a form of mass entertainment, and while plenty of novels were art, it’s more of a 20th century thing to write novels AS art. And literary criticism in anything resembling what we have today didn’t start until the 1920s. So maybe Roth is right, minus the impact of YA and Children’s books, that it will become a smaller and smaller reading circle.
So this is one of those books. It’s about a literary conference in Athens where writers are teaching “How to Write” as a seminar topic. It’s an interesting book because each thread of this book is written in different styles, telling different stories, and providing thoughtful and interesting analysis and posing thoughtful questions about the state of literary circles. It’s interesting that it takes place in Athens, the birth of Western culture, which is now a cesspool of right-wing nativism.
Spy of the First Person – 2/5 Stars
As my score indicates, I didn’t really like this book. It’s not really a book or not really a novel. It’s performance art of a kind. The subject of the writing, ruminations on observation, food, life, family, and death are also the subject of the “writing of the novel”. There is constant attention paid to and constant writing and pr about how this book was written by a very dying Sam Shepard. The book shows him on the back looking out to sea. From the back cover I know he handwrote most of this, dictated the rest, and edited it verbally with Patti Smith and his family up until the last few days before he died. I know that there is haunting and stark prose, important writing, all that.
I don’t wish to doubt the importance of the act of writing to Shepard and his family as he knew he was dying from ALS. But the result is a book that is out in stores and in libraries. This book is a capital product that cost money and resources and takes up space on shelves. And so it’s an object for critique. The writing might have been important and reifying but the results are not a book that is significant to read. The writing is fine, but it’s underwhelming. The artifact is more important than its contents.