I have this longstanding fued with Rusty Iron about books. Despite his many good traits, the dude hardly ever reads novels written by women. In fact, I can tell you the last such book he read: Annie Proulx's Postcards. And that was about seven years ago. It's a fine book, admittedly (and much better than her later novel, The Shipping News, if you'll pardon the digression), but you can only coast on it for so long before I start to question your chick-friendly cred.
Now, when I take him to task for this, he argues that he needs to read books that are relevant to him as a 21st-century male. My counter-argument is that books are meant to expose us to other people's perspectives... and therefore it behooves us to read books by and about people who are very different from us. And Nick Hornby doesn't count. You just can't convince me that a white, thirtysomething, middle-class British guy is all that different from a white, thirtysomething, middle-class Canadian guy (outside the whole calling soccer "footy" thing).
All this is by way leading up to my point (and I do sort of have one): in the right writer's hands, any human experience, no matter how foreign to one's own, is compelling. Such is the case with Jonathan Lethem and his most recent novel, The Fortress of Solitude. It's the story of Dylan Ebdus, growing up white and motherless in all-black Brooklyn in the 1970s, and other than the growing-up-in-the-'70s thing, it's about as far removed as you can get from the story of yours truly, who grew up white and with a mother on a dairy farm in rural Ontario. Outside of Jon Jon on Sesame Street and Arnold and Willis from Diff'rent Strokes, I didn't even see a black person till I was 14.
Half coming-of-age story, half social anthropology (I'm the first to admit that what I don't know about race issues and hip-hop culture would fill a library), and half surreal urban comic-book-slash-fairytale (so fractions aren't my strong suit... sue me), Fortress is one of those insidious books that sucks you in like quicksand till, next thing you know, what started out as a plan to read a few pages at bedtime has turned into one of those six-hour marathon page-turning frenzies that make you hate yourself at work the next day.
Really, I should have known better. The exact same thing happened when I read Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (a fantastic noir novel about a third-rate detective with Tourette's Syndrome) and Amnesia Moon (an excellent sci-fi story reminiscent of Oryx and Crake, but better... sorry, Margaret Atwood!). I picked them up and literally couldn't put them down till the end.
So, yeah... The Fortress of Solitude. Read it. But not on a weeknight.
In that spirit, here's a list of some other novels that have put bags under my eyes:
- Clarissa by Samuel Richardson - You don't think a 1600-page 18th-century epistolary novel can be a page-turner? Neither did I, till I stayed up all night to finish this one.
- The Beach by Alex Garland - I'm not saying it's the best book ever. I'm just saying that it totally sucked me in, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - See my notes re: Clarissa about the deceptive tiger-trap allure of some classics.
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien - Before the movie ruined the ending for everyone, I couldn't sleep till I knew how things turned out. But man, I really think Tolkien could have used an editor for the final section on the scouring of the Shire.
- Skeleton Crew by Stephen King - I was 15 years old and it was my first night sleeping in our new house. I've never been good at sleeping in strange rooms, so I picked up this collection of short stories. Then I was so creeped out I really couldn't sleep. I ended up putting the book in the hallway and shutting the door.
- A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley - I blame my weakened, fatigued condition for the fact that I actually cried -- no, wept -- in outrage at the father character. I haven't flat-out hated a literary character that much since Noah in Timothy Findlay's Not Wanted on the Voyage.