Sunday, August 17, 2008

Summer Book Report

One of the things I used to love about the start of school was reporting to our English teachers on the books we read over the summer break. I always enjoyed watching looks of consternation cross my teacher's faces when I would bypass reviewing the weightier tomes on the summer reading list in favor of long essays on Stephen King's latest (especially the year I reviewed "The Shining," replete with a two-page suggestion for a sequel in which the guy "thaws out" in the spring...I think I received a "Do Over" on that).

No such fluff this summer, as I completed only two books, one fiction, the other history, and both astonishingly sociological in nature. And while I don't usually do fiction reviews here, Pynchon's novel is worth talking about.

I was a Thomas Pynchon "virgin" until late spring, when I decided to tackle "Against the Day." At 1,100 pages, tackling probably isn't the right term...more like assaulting. Reading Pynchon is an exercise in discipline and rigor, but the payoff is well worth it.

With more than 100 characters, even summarizing the novel is virtually impossible. To me, the central theme seemed to be about time itself, as characters moved in and out of "bi-locations" over the course of roughly 30 years (starting with the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and ending somewhere around the end of World War I).

The book is dubbed "historic meta-fiction" which means the events in the book are real but the fictional characters are superimposed into those real events. Pynchon is a master of historical detail, and as you submerge yourself in the characters' lives, you also come away with a history lesson as a bonus.

There were some drawbacks. The constant use of bi-locations (or parallel universes) would often leave me confused. In some cases I was never sure if the characters themselves were even there, as some would be in conversation and then turn to "exit through a wall."

And having learned editing at the hands of the great Crime Commission staff back in the 90's, I could not help but want to reach for my red pen occasionally and cut some of the more arcane passages. Pynchon fanatics, of course, would scoff at such heresy, but some of the eye-glazing minutiae got in the way, in my opinion. Maybe beginning with "Gravity's Rainbow" or "Mason & Dixon" would have been easier.

I am indebted to the blog Chumps of Choice, whose moderators helped make heads and tails out of the more difficult passages (often I'd spend an hour reading from the novel, then an hour reading on the blog about the hour I just spent reading from the novel). It was work, but it was well worth it. The Chums of Chance fly towards grace.

The other book I read was Hal Rothman's "Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the 21st Century." Rothman was a history professor at UNLV (before sadly passing away last year from ALS [Lou Gehrig's disease] at 47), and wrote this book in 2003 after being in Vegas for ten years. It's a fascinating look at the many different sociological demographics in Las Vegas which make it so vibrant.

For example, Rothman explores the role of organized labor and unions in Vegas and how it is possible for many of the thousands of hotel and casino workers to live very middle class lives (own homes, send their kids to college, etc.) thanks to the unions. He also looks at labor stratification, immigrant and day laborers, and the rapidly expanding professional class in law, medicine and finance out in the middle of the desert.

Along with Marc Cooper's "The Last Honest Place in America," and David Schwartz's "Suburban Xanadu" (reviewed here last year), Rothman's book completes a trilogy of essential readings on all things Vegas.

Check 'em out if you get a chance.

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