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5.29.11
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5.8.11
[MUSIC REVIEW] Avalon Quartet in Close Encounters at Mahaiwe
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5.7.11
[FILM REVIEW] Bill Cunningham New York
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What I read on my summer vacation

9.3.06
We took a week off a few weeks ago and swapped houses with friends on the Southeast Massachusetts coast. They were eager to spend a week in the Cultural Berkshires, wanting to take advantage of all the riches the region has to offer, including Jacob's Pillow, Shakespeare & Company, The Mount, Tanglewood, Chesterwood, great restaurants, etc.

We, on the other hand, were looking forward to ESCAPING the cultural riches and just going somewhere where there was, in comparison, almost nothing to do.

Our friends have a house just a five minute walk on a private road to a private beach, so for wife and kids that was heaven. I took two brief visits to the beach, both on day one, and that was enough for me (this has something to do with having grown up in a maritime town, which I'll explain some other time).

Anyway, my plan, at which I succeeded, was to do nothing all week except hang out with my family and read novels.

I wound up playing croquet quite a bit because our friends had a nice croquet set and a perfectly rectangular yard right off the patio set up for playing the game. I liked it a lot.

I took a few weeks around the hood, but not too many.

I read almost no newspapers; only turned on the laptop twice for short bits; listened sometimes to NPR (the Israel/Hezbollah war was raging and at the time no one was sure if Tel Aviv would get hit, if Syria or Iran would get drawn in, or if Armageddon was around the corner)); grilled some meat and fish; drank a lot of tea; but otherwise, all I did was crossword puzzles I'd cut out from the papers from the week before and read the following novels:

1. Crossing California by Adam Langer. I read this at the recommendation of my good friend Matthew Tannenbaum of The Bookstore in Lenox, Mass. It was a great, fun read; did a great job of capturing a certain time; in fact, it was eerily like Langer's Chicago version of Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude, except this one had more Jewish and Bob Dylan content, which is probably why Matthew correctly figured I'd like it.

2. Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov . Somehow I'd only ever read Lolita, in college, by Nabokov. Friends who know my taste in authors have always said I'd like Nabokov. (I'm a huge Jerzy Kozinski fan.) I liked this just fine; I probably would have liked it better twenty years ago when I would have been more amused by one of these academic comedies. Since now I find almost nothing amusing about academia, my tolerance for the foibles of campus life is very low. BUt I certainly appreciated Nabokov's gorgeous language and vivid characterization of the title character.

3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (duh). Somehow I escaped reading this throughout high school and college, not by design but merely by chance. I was surprised by the economy of the prose. I can't tell if it helped or hurt that I'd just watched the Robert Redford film some time in the past year. But of course I enjoyed the book a lot in the two hours I spent reading it (it's very short).

4. The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro . I had never read anything by this author before, and would have had no desire to read anything by the guy who wrote the book upon which the film The Remains of the Day was based had Ishiguro's name not constantly come up in the same company as several of my favorite contemporary English authors (he's English, not Japanese, though presumably of Japanese ancestry), including Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, and Ian McEwan. So I always wanted to read SOMETHING by him, and this is the book they had at the used bookstore here in town. Boy, did I pick a dooozy! Over 500 pages, for one. But somehow i read this in under two days. Not because it's gripping, necessarily. At times it's infuriating. (I probably got through it through sheer will and determination to keep going and get to the next book on my list.) I had no idea what i was getting into , but I quickly found myself in a familiar world, and one that I like: I found similarities between this work and works by Haruki Murakami (again, having NOTHING to do with the fact that they're both Japanese, in Murakami's case, by birth), which I like a lot, but also like something out of a David Lynch movie -- a world where time and space and logic are dispensed with, yet one that also vividly portrays real psychological truths about its characters. I was also drawn to this book because of the role that music plays in the story -- I greatly enjoy novels that deal intelligently with music and musicians (a great one is Vikram Seth 's An Equal Music (Seth is a Brit of Indian origin) and Norman Lebrecht's The Song of Names.

5. Yellow Dog by Martin Amis . Amis is one of my really most favorite authors. As I recall, this novel was totally trashed by critics when it was published just a few years back. While it doesn't rank at the top of his ouevre, it certainly boasts a lot of his strengths: fantastic use of language (sometimes I think Amis is our Joyce); smart McEwanesque interlocking of private and public stories. I'm not sure what the critics objected to -- the sordidness of the subject matter? The preposterousness of the plot? Anyway, second-rate Martin Amis is surely better than the vast majority of the dross out there. I have to admit, by the time I got done with the Ishiguro, there wasn't enough time to get through all this on vacation, and I had to finish this up at home, and before I got to the end, it had to share my reading time with....

6. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright, which is what I'm reading now, and which is incredibly mind-blowing. I don't typically read contemporary political/historical non-fiction, but this book should be required reading for anyone who is going to open his mouth and say anything about George Bush, 9/11, and America's alleged role in or responsibility for provoking resentment around the world. You may have read some of this excerpted in The New Yorker, but it's Wright's historical sweep and context that makes this book such a stunner. To quote from the publisher:

A sweeping narrative history of the events leading to 9/11, a groundbreaking look at the people and ideas, the terrorist plans and the Western intelligence failures that culminated in the assault on America. Lawrence Wrightís remarkable book is based on five years of research and hundreds of interviews that he conducted in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, England, France, Germany, Spain, and the United States.

The Looming Tower achieves an unprecedented level of intimacy and insight by telling the story through the interweaving lives of four men: the two leaders of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri; the FBIís counterterrorism chief, John OíNeill; and the former head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal.

As these lives unfold, we see revealed: the crosscurrents of modern Islam that helped to radicalize Zawahiri and bin Laden . . . the birth of al-Qaeda and its unsteady development into an organization capable of the American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the attack on the USS Cole . . . OíNeillís heroic efforts to track al-Qaeda before 9/11, and his tragic death in the World Trade towers . . . Prince Turkiís transformation from bin Ladenís ally to his enemy . . . the failures of the FBI, CIA, and NSA to share intelligence that might have prevented the 9/11 attacks.

The Looming Tower broadens and deepens our knowledge of these signal events by taking us behind the scenes. Here is Sayyid Qutb, founder of the modern Islamist movement, lonely and despairing as he meets Western culture up close in 1940s America; the privileged childhoods of bin Laden and Zawahiri; family life in the al-Qaeda compounds of Sudan and Afghanistan; OíNeillís high-wire act in balancing his all-consuming career with his equally entangling personal lifeóhe was living with three women, each of them unaware of the othersí existenceóand the nitty-gritty of turf battles among U.S. intelligence agencies.

Brilliantly conceived and written, The Looming Tower draws all elements of the story into a galvanizing narrative that adds immeasurably to our understanding of how we arrived at September 11, 2001. The richness of its new information, and the depth of its perceptions, can help us deal more wisely and effectively with the continuing terrorist threat.









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