Heavy Reading 

Recommendations for the gloomy of heart

Recommendations for the gloomy of heart

There’s no better time than during the holidays to ask some of the most fundamental questions about human nature. For instance: Are human beings capable of change? Specifically, in the year that’s passed between this Thanksgiving and the last, has your racist sister-in-law embraced a more evolved set of views about people of color? And how about that brother of yours? Is he still using those two beautiful children of his to bend your poor parents to his will?

Let’s face it. Most people don’t change. That’s why the holidays are not only the most depressing time of year for some of us, but also the most potentially explosive. People and life tend to disappoint. Recognizing this fact as self-evident, we offer the following book recommendations to help carry you through November and December’s long journey into night. If your holiday strategy is to hide in the corner and read (and drink) while your spouse’s family dukes it out, these books will confirm your bleak view of human existence during the most wonderful time of year.

If Robert Benton’s recent film adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain managed to get moviegoers to pick up the book before it hit theaters, that’s a good thing. The movie suffers the loss of narrator Nathan Zuckerman’s energetic voice and intelligence, and the powers of Roth’s perennial alter ego are on full display in this terrific read about the prurient late ’90s. Best of all, these readers can go on to explore Roth’s remarkable output of the last several years, including a heartbreaking memoir about his father’s death, Patrimony. There are also four outstanding novels: Operation Shylock—timelier than ever given the recent uptick of violence in Israel—Sabbath’s Theater, The Dying Animal and, most depressing of all, American Pastoral.

The latter tells the story of Seymour “Swede” Levov—Roth’s modern Job—a man who grew up a star athlete in mid-20th century Newark and came to embody (and embrace) everything optimistic and good about the American Dream. After a stint as a marine, Levov takes over his father’s Newark glove business, becomes a millionaire, marries a Miss America finalist and moves into the house of his dreams—in short, he becomes an American success story. But when his young daughter, Merry, begins to embrace the more radical tactics of the Vietnam anti-war movement, transforming herself from overachiever to terrorist bomber to fugitive, the story takes an unrecoverable turn toward tragedy. Roth charts the country’s upheavals from the ’60s through the late ’80s as a series of political and social blasts that destroyed our most cherished values—a period Roth calls “the indigenous American berserk” from which none of his characters escape.

Short story lovers know that the reigning king of the form is Tobias Wolff. His three collections, In the Garden of North American Martyrs, The Night in Question and Back in the World are chock full of classics (read “The Liar” in the first, “Mortals” in the second and “The Rich Brother” from the third if you want to sample Wolff’s greatest hits). But it’s his memoir, This Boy’s Life, that has garnered popular attention and is considered by many to have revivified the genre. Not surprisingly, Wolff’s first novel, Old School, has been met with high anticipation in literary circles—and it doesn’t disappoint. Set in 1960, at an unnamed New England prep school, the book centers on the young narrator’s efforts to find a place—and an identity—among his class’s literary elite. Regularly visited by famous writers (Frost makes an appearance, as does Ayn Rand), the boys compete in a literary agon, the victor winning a private audience with the esteemed guest. When a third, monumentally important writer agrees to visit campus, the narrator is driven to a self-destructive act of betrayal that sends his life careening headlong into the Vietnam conflict and a period of dissolution afterward. Never has Wolff’s central theme—that it is often through lies that we discover our essential nature—been explored more deeply and heart-wrenchingly.

Finally, there’s the mother of all depressing holiday books, Jonathan Franzen’s sensational The Corrections. For every 10 people who own it, five haven’t actually read it, the complaint being that it’s impossible to get through the first 60 pages. Get through them, because the payoff is huge. The story of the Lambert family, the book charts the progress of the lives of mother Enid and father Albert’s three struggling children as they flail through the booming ’90s. There’s the hapless, philandering professor Chip, who, in an effort to correct his failed professional life, finds himself organizing an Internet pyramid scheme deep in the heart of exploding Lithuania. There’s successful portfolio-manager Gary, who is spiraling into depression and whose wife and children have taken sides against him. And finally, talented chef Denise, who, in an effort to redress her unresolved emotional conflicts with her parents, finds herself caught in a destructive love triangle with her boss and his wife. Overshadowing these three stories is the tyrannical desire of mother Enid, who, before her husband dies of Parkinson’s disease, wants to get her dysfunctional family together for “one last Christmas.”

If you don’t recognize at least one member of your own family in this book, you’re from Mars. And if none of these darkly beautiful works manages to comfort you in your misery during the holidays, perhaps you should consider Prozac.

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