We went by the Book Thing on Saturday. For those unfamiliar with it, the Book Thing is a great service here in Baltimore where you can walk in and take books for free. In the midst of all of the discarded Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel and bestsellers of the past, including many Leon Uris doorstops, there are occasionally some real gems. It's also a great place to unload books you no longer have any use for. We dropped off two bags of books and returned home with a pretty good selection. These are the ones that are of the most interest to me:
JohnBerger – Once in Europa (middle book in Pig Earth trilogy); Keeping a Rendezvous (art crit. essays)
J.G. Farrell – The Siege of Krishnapur
Rebecca Goldstein – Mazel; Strange Attractors (stories)
Knut Hamsun – Hunger (Robert Bly translation)
Mark Helprin - Winter’s Tale
James Purdy – In the Hollow of the Hand
Jose Saramago - Baltasar and Blimunda
Muriel Spark – Reality and Dreams
D.M. Thomas – The White Hotel
John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy of Dunces
Rebecca West – The Fountain Overflows
Patrick White – The Living and the Dead
Two of these books (Helprin's and Toole's) happen to have been among those receiving multiple votes in that silly "top novel of the last 25 years" poll The New York Times ran recently (for a reminder, here is that list again, at Amazon, which was the first non-Times link that came up on Google). Speaking of which, it turns out I've read 16 of the 25 books listed (I'm counting the Updike, even though I've only read the first two Rabbit books, neither of which were published in the last 25 years, and only the first book in Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy), though neither of these two (both of which my wife--er, partner--has read: she liked Winter's Tale, but did not find A Confederacy of Dunces to live up to its considerable advance hype). There are plenty of good reads on the list, of course, but the fact that even a single person thought that The Plot Against America was the best book of the last 25 years is worrying. Much was made about the preponderance of Philip Roth novels on the final list, but that by itself does not bother me. Roth has, in fact, written some great novels in the period in question. I have no complaints whatsoever about Sabbath's Theater or The Counterlife--both are excellent, though I think the former is clearly the greater book. I think Operation Shylock is probably a bit overpraised, and American Pastoral definitely is, and yet I enjoyed them both. I also liked The Human Stain, but as with Plot, there is not a chance in hell that it is the greatest novel of the last 25 years (personal taste and opinion bedamned!). I always feel that these last three novels receive more than their share of praise, because they are perceived to be about something important, unlike the apparently trivial Sabbath's Theater, with its arguably unpleasant protagonist (whereas I was sorry when he was gone). American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America are all entertaining novels and they contain some great writing from Roth, but as complete novels they do not remotely measure up to Sabbath.
As for the rest of that list, I remain mystified as to the massive appeal of Beloved. I loved Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye (I've not yet read Sula), and I even liked the apparently much-reviled Paradise. But Beloved, while not without its finer moments, left me wondering what the big deal was. I don't have much to say about the rest of it, other than I like the Delillo books represented and thought that Edward P. Jones' The Known World was brilliant.
Ok, after that timely mini-rant, back to the weekend haul. If I had been only allowed to walk out with one of these books, it probably would have been Hunger, which I've been meaning to read for some time but somehow had avoided buying. The John Berger books should be interesting; I read his great novel G some years ago but have not followed up with anything else of his since. I was pleased to find the two Rebecca Goldstein books. I loved her novel The Mind-Body Problem, and liked the more recent Properties of Light as well (also, her new book about Spinoza intrigues me). Purdy's book is the fourth of his novels I've found at the Book Thing. Of Saramago, I've only read, and loved, The Stone Raft, but with Baltasar and Blimunda I now have three of his books at home waiting to be read (the others are Blindness and The Cave). I've never read anything by Muriel Spark, but her recent death, um, sparked my interest. This one is a late novel, from 1996. I don't know how her late work compares to her early stuff. I don't know anything about the D.M. Thomas novel, but it looked potentially interesting. Rebecca West and J.G. Farrell are writers I've heard much about but never read. I'm always pleased to find a Patrick White novel. The Living and the Dead is an early one (from 1941). Naturally, the Complete Review has it under review.
We also picked up Freud's The Future of an Illusion (actually, I'm fairly interested in this one, too, since I've not read a lot of Freud), plus two French grammars, a Ruth Rendell mystery and two by P.D. James.