If you have heard that the Peace Corps is a good time to get some reading done, believe me, the rumors are true. Between frequent bus rides, rainy days when the campo shuts down, long winter nights, and even random days when the campo seems to be deserted (I am writing this May 6th, the day of a special election here in Misiones and all our Paraguayan neighbors have gone to town to vote), there is ample time to get to all those books you've been meaning to read. Today, with the advent of the Kindle and other E-book devices, even in the middle of nowhere, you can have hundred of books at your fingertips. Without further ado, please excuse the complete lack of cross-cultural analysis and enjoy Mateo's recommended reading list!
- The New Kings of Non-Fiction, edited by Ira Glass. This collection of essays, while endowed with an unfortunately bland title, contains fascinating reporting on everything from stock trading to soccer hooliganism to an interview with Val Kilmer. The thread that holds the diverse collection together is the idea that “objective journalism” is an oxymoronic term. The pieces report from the perspective of the journalist and are infinitely more colorful and attention-grabbing for it. A couple of weak points in the collection (Lawrence Weschler and Coco Henson Scales's pieces are grass-growingly boring and an exercise in self-promotion, respectively) can be forgiven as they are overshadowed by fascinating pieces by Micheal Lewis, Jack Hitt, Susan Orlean, Bill Buford, David Foster Wallace, Dan Savage, and Micheal Pollan
- David Foster Wallace. After reading “Host” in The New Kings of Non-Fiction, I began to seek out more of Wallace's work and have devoured all that I have encountered. Writing on subjects as benign as the Illinois State Fair or as abstract as the use of irony and self-reference in television and its effects on its audience, Wallace not only entertains, but offers up an alternative way to view society. If I had to choose a collection of his non-fiction work, I would offer up Consider the Lobster or A Supposedly Fun Thing That I'll Never Do Again. The fact that Wallace took his own life in 2008 and deprived us of more dispatches from his complex mind is a tragedy. (Note: this recommendation is for Wallace's non-fiction pieces. I am still working up the patience to tackle his incredibly dense fiction work.)
- Chuck Klosterman. You could argue that Klosterman is the ideological heir to Wallace's work, although I would argue that at best he operates at 75% of Wallace's level. He also reports on benign issues, usually related to music or movies, but Klosterman's favored critical device is to take a contrarian view on something (romantic movies do more damage to the collective American psyche than violent movies, for example) and then logically argue his point. If I was at a party and began a conversation with David Foster Wallace, I would probably be glued to him for the duration of the shindig. If I was at a party and engaged Chuck Klosterman, I would probably want to break a beer bottle over his head; not because I disagree with him, but because he makes me angry for turning my world upside down. The best Klosterman collection is probably Eating the Dinosaur.
- Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon. A must-read for any fan of the HBO serialized drama The Wire. Simon's first-hand reporting of his year spent embedded with the Baltimore homicide department is riveting true-crime reporting. Much like his show, the good guys aren't always that great, the bad guys sometimes never get caught, and flaws in the Justice System threaten to convict the innocent and free the guilty. I recommend reading a later addition, as his postscript and post-postscript contain excellent self-reflections and analysis.
- In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote. Only the best non-fiction crime reporting ever written (in my oh-so-humble opinion). Capote single-handedly reinvents the genre in this fantastic 1966 work. The amount of research and interviews that must have gone into it is staggering. Just read it, already.
- Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernières Moving on to fiction, I must admit that I read this book previously, but re-read it while in Paraguay. In the second reading, none of its power or beauty was lost. Telling the story of pre-, during-, and post-World War One Turkey, lives of numerous small-town citizens blend with world events and the rise of Mustafa Kemal (aka Ataturk) to form a tale so real that you cannot believe that it is fiction. One of my favorite lines in all of literature falls on page 7 *spoiler alert* by a Muslim Turk regarding the departure of his Christian Greek neighbors: “Without them our life has less variety, and we are forgetting how to look at others and see ourselves.”
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. Kavalier and Clay tells the story of two cousins in the 1930s, the success they find working in the new medium of comic books, and the personal, professional, and global tragedies surrounding World War Two that come to define them. Nothing I write here can really do it justice, I only want to say that the blend of humor, tragedy, and history tells a tale that seriously challenges Birds Without Wings for the title of “Mateo's Favorite Fiction Work”.
- The Complete Calvin and Hobbes Collection (pdf), by Bill Watterson. We all know Calvin and Hobbes, and I've certainly read the thousands of strips dozens of times before, but I want to draw your attention to something else here. 20 years ago, the year was 1992 and I was 7 years old. I thought Calvin and Hobbes was hilarious. I would read, re-read, and re-re-read the anthologies when they were released. I would repeat my favorite catchphrases with my parents and laugh about Calvin's adventures with his best friend. Today, I am 27 years old, and I think Calvin and Hobbes is hilarious...in a completely different context. I see Bugs Bunny and Loony Toons here on Paraguayan TV occasionally. I still think some of the slapstick is funny, but I think it is funny in the way my 7-year-old self thinks it's funny. Watterson's parody of absolutely every major subject in late 20th century, covering global issues from the environment to art to politics to war (he even predicts the rise of online social networking sites), remains funny, poignant and wise 20 years later. I ask you, what artist, in what medium, can speak to the same person at 7 and 27, and gain their awe and affection for completely different reasons?