What’s Obama Reading?

Did you ever wonder what George W. Bush read during his terms in office? I can’t say that I did. I do, however, often consider what pages the Obama family is turning. Joseph O’Neill, Obama’s latest notable author, seemed a bit cocky (but appreciative, yes) about earning the President’s stamp of approval. Read more from the Washington Post:

How much literary juice does the president have? Well, without it, O’Neill would have been holding a hardcover. After the Obama nod, Vintage Books rushed the paperback of the cricket-obsessed, post-9/11 novel into print, never mind the lamentable inability to slap a “Barack’s Book Club” label on it. “It’s all a little unreal, isn’t it?” O’Neill, 45, said in an interview before the ceremony. He said he was “thrilled” by the mention — he was an early Obama supporter — but promptly issued a caveat:

Novelists should believe strongly enough in what they do to say, “What’s the big deal? Why shouldn’t the president read my book?” O’Neill said. “Surely it’s not contended by anybody that the only valuable information about the world is to be found in briefing books.”

Although Random House released O’Neill’s novel this time last year, I hadn’t heard of it until now. In hopes of educating myself and my fellow readers, here’s the book summary AND excerpt:

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

In a New York City made phantasmagorical by the events of 9/11, and left alone after his English wife and son return to London, Hans van den Broek stumbles upon the vibrant New York subculture of cricket, where he revisits his lost childhood and, thanks to a friendship with a charismatic and charming Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon, begins to reconnect with his life and his adopted country. As the two men share their vastly different experiences of contemporary immigrant life in America, an unforgettable portrait emerges of an “other” New York populated by immigrants and strivers of every race and nationality.

EXCERPT: The afternoon before I left London for New York—Rachel had flown out six weeks previously—I was in my cubicle at work, boxing up my possessions, when a senior vice-president at the bank, an Englishman in his fifties, came to wish me well. I was surprised; he worked in another part of the building and in another department, and we were known to each other only by sight. Nevertheless, he asked me in detail about where I intended to live (“Watts? Which block on Watts?”) and reminisced for several minutes about his loft on Wooster Street and his outings to the “original” Dean & DeLuca. He was doing nothing to hide his envy.

“We won’t be gone for very long,” I said, playing down my good fortune. That was, in fact, the plan, conceived by my wife: to drop in on New York City for a year or three and then come back.

“You say that now,” he said. “But New York’s a very hard place to leave. And once you do leave . . .” The S.V.P., smiling, said, “I still miss it, and I left twelve years ago.”

It was my turn to smile—in part out of embarrassment, because he’d spoken with an American openness. “Well, we’ll see,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “You will.”

His sureness irritated me, though principally he was pitiable—like one of those Petersburgians of yesteryear whose duties have washed him up on the wrong side of the Urals.

But it turns out he was right, in a way. Now that I, too, have left that city, I find it hard to rid myself of the feeling that life carries a taint of aftermath. This last-mentioned word, somebody once told me, refers literally to a second mowing of grass in the same season. You might say, if you’re the type prone to general observations, that New York City insists on memory’s repetitive mower—on the sort of purposeful postmortem that has the effect, so one is told and forlornly hopes, of cutting the grassy past to manageable proportions. For it keeps growing back, of course. None of this means that I wish I were back there now; and naturally I’d like to believe that my own retrospection is in some way more important than the old S.V.P.’s, which, when I was exposed to it, seemed to amount to not much more than a cheap longing. But there’s no such thing as a cheap longing, I’m tempted to conclude these days, not even if you’re sobbing over a cracked fingernail. Who knows what happened to that fellow over there? Who knows what lay behind his story about shopping for balsamic vinegar? He made it sound like an elixir, the poor bastard. (Read more . . . )

Happy reading, y’all.

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