Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Two books

I just finished two books, both of which are more than notable.

W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz is a novel for all lovers of serious fiction.  It's got the traditional Sebald touch - a few photos to spice up the narrative.  But the story itself, about a man coming to terms with his forgotten/ignored early childhood, is a startling examination of memory and its power over us.  Along the way, there are more than a few provocative observations on time and architecture.  And even though Austerlitz is translated from German, it's not at all stilted.  I should tell you that fans of paragraphs and chapters will probably be disappointed.  Paragraphs can go on for ten pages or more.  There are no -  as in zero - chapters.  To be fair, there are a couple of what might be called sections.  To be fairer, some sentences run to half a page, so that kinda more than cancels out the sections thing.  This is a can't miss choice for book groups that refuse to dabble in genre or popular fiction.  B/t/w - one of my friends (she teaches literature and also has good taste) finds Sebald's writing too somber.  Somber yes, but too somber is up to the reader.

Robert Caro 4-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson is, without qualification, without question, without a doubt, the best biography of all time.  And that's in spite of the fact that vol. 4 - the one that covers his entire presidency - hasn't been published yet.   (I'm praying that Caro doesn't kick off before he's done, but it could be close.)  I was waiting a long time since vol. 3 (2003) for a fix for my Caro jones.  The problem is that he's only written one other bio (he was a journalist before becoming a biographer), and that was in 1975, before he started in on LBJ.  But I couldn't hold out and had to take on The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.  Its 1162 pages (not including notes, index, etc.) of massivity make it difficult to read in bed and nearly impossible to carry around waiting for the opportunity to sneak in a few pages.  On the other hand, it's the second best biographical work of all time.  Especially if you're from the New York City/Long Island area.  In that case, you will learn an amazing amount about how your surroundings became your surroundings.  (What, you thought that someone saw an expanse of sand and declared it Jones Beach?)  But even if you've never set foot in New York, this book is a close to a must read as any biography can get.  First, Robert Moses was no ordinary urban planner.  Take all the baseball players elected to the Hall of Fame up until now and put them together.  Comparing that composite to any single player is like comparing Moses to any single planner.  And, even better (unless you lived in NYC/LI), both he and his legacy were deeply flawed.  That story makes for terrific reading.   Best of all, though, is what you'll learn about power.  Especially how power works at city and state levels.  Caro's journalistic background is evident in his writing.  It passes any reasonable academic muster while remaining almost compulsively readable.  If you can lift it, read it.

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