One Big Damn Puzzler by John Harding
Last Christmas I gave the John Harding novel “One Big Damn Puzzler” to my wife as a Santa gift. She read it and told me I had to read it, for its laughs and oddities, and its anti-American (or, really, anti-modern world) slant, and because so many of the scenes had stuck with her. This last week I read the 200K-word book, and my wife was spot on: this novel has so many odd adventures, characters, and themes inside, that I shall remember it, and its “idea” of life vs. art vs. existential breadth, for a long time.
On a small Pacific island, Managua, one of the village elders — and its only literate member — is translating “Hamlet” into the local pidgin English, a language “gift” from the American army that had used the north half of the island as an aerial bomb proving ground. Enter William Hardt, American foreign-claims attorney, who descends on the island to get them compensation for the harm that America has done to the island, and the so-many-legless people (from late-exploding ordnance).
What Hardt discovers is a society that is entirely unreliant on the outside world, and which has its own view of life, death, sex, society, and love. While many fine scenes exist for excerpt, one of the shining lights in the novel is the Shakespeare-to-vernacular that Harding has accomplished for Hamlet’s soliloquy.
The Magus by John Fowles
The stranger the book, the better I like it. And this book is strange. As all stories — well-written stories — have some overriding mystery, we readers are pulled along by characters who don’t much know themselves why they do what they do; not exactly, anyway. It’s call “personality.” Now isn’t that the essence of life? So for THE MAGUS, the mystery is a step onto a wire, a thin wire, that gets longer and thinner, and higher, as you move with the characters.
What I liked most about the story was that, once I realized there was a veil between what I thought I knew (dramatic irony) and what was really happening (fictively), the more I liked the book. Not all books can do this effectively; not just any writer can take the care which this kind of story needs. THE MAGUS is a well-written, well-crafted, and thoroughly original book that should be on your reading list. It has history, psychology, love, sex, intrigue, betrayal, and redemption.
I Married a Communist by Philip Roth
The story of the rise & fall of Ira Ringold, a hood in his youth, zinc minor to escape his youth, Communist to escape the mines, and discovered-radio-personality to bring the good word of REVOLUTION to America. I liked this book for many reasons, but mostly because Philip Roth knows how to write a descriptive sentence AND dynamic dialogue. As a story heavily laden with politics — and America’s disastrous treatment of Communist-leaning (or not) citizens in the 1950s during the HUAC hearing and RED SCARE days — some readers might think this is a difficult book. It is, if you’re uninterested in 20th-century American history. Otherwise, the reward of this book comes through the story of human beings living in these times, experiencing the emotions of the day, re-living those emotions, and attempting to come to terms with them. Also, this human puzzle (if there’s not a puzzle, this isn’t a Roth book) comes together in the last 20 pages. And that ending is as satisfying as any book I’ve read in 10 years.
The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.