Nobody asked, but here’s what I’ve been reading lately when I should have been studying technical manuals about undersea drilling. I assume that’s what other Washington journalists are reading because suddenly they are all experts on what was, until recently, a pretty obscure subject. You have The Atlantic Wire’s permission to skip the newspapers this weekend and pick up a book instead. Don’t worry: the Wire’s crack team of hungry recent college graduates will be chained to their computers as always, monitoring outbreaks of opinion wherever they occur around the globe. By Monday morning they’ll have it all predigested for your disputational pleasure. Meanwhile, you can be reading for fun. I recommend:
· The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, a funny and poignant first novel about an imagined English-language newspaper published in Rome. Sure, journalists like reading about journalists, especially when the author grants all his characters, no matter how unattractive, a generous dollop of humanity and nobility. But this is a book about journalists that even a non-journalist can love. Actually the newspaper is largely in the background (or “deep background” as journalists like to say). The story is presented as a series of character sketches from which the plot emerges sort of crab-wise. It’s quite a technical feat, but if that makes the book seem like work, forget I said it. The book is not work. It’s about work.
· The Ask, By Sam Lipsyte. Already widely heralded and rightly so. Also a first novel, also funny, also poignant, and not about journalists. Most of the characters work in the development (that is, fundraising) office of a university. Non-profit organizations in general, and their fundraising departments in particular, have a vast unrealized potential for comedy and tragedy. There should be TV sit-coms set in these places. (You get a bit of the joke in NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.”). The book’s hero, Milo Burke, is a comically slovenly figure like Ignatius J. Reilly in “A Confederacy of Dunces,” only cursed with self awareness. Don’t tell me how it comes out—I’m not done yet.
· And then there’s Hitchens. I reviewed Christopher Hitchen’s last book, the one about God, and there were complaints—not completely unjustified—that I had reviewed the author, not the book. Comes now the author to review himself, in a 422-page memoir called (stupidly, unless there’s something I don’t get, “Hitch-22.”. I think we’re pretty much in agreement about him. My review was mixed to favorable, and his is about the same. The self-deprecation, which comes at suspiciously regular intervals, is among the least convincing aspects of the book. But at least he thought to do it. Midst all the name-dropping, it helps.
Although you don’t choose to write your memoirs while still (barely) in your 50s out of excessive modesty, accusations of vanity are a bum rap. IF Hitchens were vain or self-centered, the book might be better. It could be forthrightly about him. Instead, he is attempting to recapture some cultural moments he has passed through—especially the late 1960s. This project doesn’t really succeed. So read the book for the name dropping. You’ll enjoy it.