The Price Of Hunger In The Garden Of Beasts: In Which Three Recent Books Are Lumped Alongside Each Other And Sort Of "Reviewed," Except This Is Not Exactly That

I always liked the type of book review that I think is referred to as an essay review — the kind of critical piece that compares one or more similar or thematically similar books in a way that allows the reviewer to sit above both works in judgement.

There's a great moment in all essay reviews where the reviewer brings the hammer down. It's that moment when a review goes from praising the really wonderful, insightful first book to making you feel badly for the person who had to read the second one. It goes something like this:

The climactic ending of [Insert Title] is as gripping as it is long, as unrelenting as it is buoyant, and as quietly devastating as it is unforgettable.

And then there's [Insert Other Title], which labors to get going, is unenjoyable when you finally get there and ultimately reads like it was written by a committee of monkeys . . .

I would like to do the same thing with Jeffrey Sachs' The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity and Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. I would also like to throw in Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin.

I think that I could almost pull this off with the first two. The third would be a stretch, I imagine.

These, I should add, were the last three books we read for book club.

Maybe at the very least I could think of a unifying theme. OK, let's sketch this out . . .

We've read many books in the fantasy/sci-fi/young adult genre (and I understand I'm lazily lumping it all together) and each time I think that I'll finally understand what people like about those kinds of books. And each time I'm disappointed. We've tried some supposedly good ones, too: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (October 2007), The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (June 2008), Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (May/June 2009), City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer (October 2009) and The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (January 2011). I feel like I've given it the old college try. (An aside: I finally thought to Google the origin of this phrase; I didn't realize there was an ironic twist to it.)

It's not that I don't like the philosophy or moral underpinnings of these books — on the contrary, they're interesting, or at least interesting enough to build a story around — but maybe too much of the writing is lacking some artistry. Sometimes, as in the case of City of Saints, the fantasy is too unmoored from real life. Sometimes there's a moment in an otherwise perfectly good book that takes me totally out of it, as is the case of the bizarre (no, really bizarre!) sex scene in Snow Crash.

Which is to say, when I started reading Hunger Games, I expected to eventually find something about it that I didn't like. And then that moment never happened. While reading it, I kept thinking that it would make a good movie. I found out later that that is exactly what's going to happen. A friend in book club who couldn't participate that month asked what I thought and I told her. Then I lent her the book.

My only real familiarity with Jeffrey Sachs was through William Easterly, whose The White Man's Burden we read in December 2009. I didn't think I was going to like Sachs' The Price of Civilization but my mind was open. Those who know me would snicker, but I know what I felt and I'm telling you that my mind was open. Even after I started it late in the month, which gave me the opportunity to talk to fellow Club members who reported that the book was tear-your-hair-out galling, I was still open minded about the book.

So then I started reading The Price of Civilization and damn it if the thing didn't come off like an 18-hour-long Bill Moyers episode. It's fine to "polemicize," but reading an academic do it is depressing and hollow; not only simplistic, but cynically so. Maybe he intended to appeal to the mass market, but the bigger sin here is making someone care less, or worse, not at all. Though that in itself is an achievement. I guess.

Civilization is now helping to prop up the baby's "co-sleeper," in the hope that if we angle the crib slightly then the baby will be less likely to spit up. I wish I could say that this was my inspired idea but the truth is that Jen just grabbed a few hardcovers that looked sturdy enough. Now you understand why I don't have any concrete examples of what I disliked (though I do remember one oversimplified explanation of Sun Belt political demographics that made no sense if you stopped to consider that maybe East Coasters move there at least in part because they don't want to pay more taxes, not that they'll bring their tax-happy ways with them — but again, I'm going from memory here).

As for In the Garden of Beasts, it was pretty good. I was hesitant to read another Erik Larson book (we read The Devil in the White City in August 2005) but he's good at pulling you in and getting you interested in stuff — even stuff that you assume you don't care to know any more about. Nazis, for one. In Beasts, he smartly focuses on the one aspect of Nazi Germany that's still interesting, which isn't the pornographic violence but rather the dramatic irony that continues to serve as the best "lesson" of that horrible point in time. And the lens he chooses — an American diplomat — is a smart one for his American audience. It's an interesting quick read, even if it skips around toward the end; it's the kind of popular history that works, as opposed to Sachs' attempt at "popular policy."

Posted: February 17th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , , , ,