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Thursday, October 19, 2006

So You Want to Read a Book by Jonathan Raban—Where Should You Start?

posted by on October 19 at 17:31 PM

A reader writes:

I read with interest your article on Jonathan Raban, it made me want to read something by him. He has quite a big body of work and I wondered if you could recommend something of his to start with. Also, I am a rabid Bush hater, and declared a news fast upon his election to a second term. Please don’t recommend anything that will make me read about G W Bush.

It’s a great question. After all, Raban has tons of books. It’s like he has a condition. He doesn’t stop.

I told her to start with Hunting Mister Heartbreak. I know, I know—it’s not new, but for a newcomer to the party I still say it’s the place to start. Scene for scene, sentence by sentence, it’s pure pleasure—quick, hilarious, uncomfortably insightful, about a million different things (New York City, security cameras at Macy’s, driving to Alabama, hotel porn, human bodies found in a lake, the KKK, airplane travel, the gang activity on Second Avenue in Seattle circa 1991, the rain, the writing life)… Man, it’s hard to describe good books. A good bookstore will either have it or be able to get it quickly.

Now Mudede will tell you that I’m wrong, that Passage to Juneau is the masterpiece, which may well be true. Political types should head straight for My Holy War, which is intimidatingly brilliant and rearranged my (admittedly somewhat ignorant) thinking about American foreign policy, young jihadists, and Iraq. It’s bristling, edifying, important

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I think it's safe to say the novels aren't the place to begin.

I started with Passage and while I would probably agree that it's the masterpiece, I've never been disappointed working back from that. You're probably right about Hunting Mr. Heartbreak. At least something of that era will lead you right into the meat of Raban. Coasting, Bad Lands, Old Glory; I think these are all quintessential and you can pick and chose your geographic setting and not go wrong.

Posted by Dan | October 19, 2006 6:24 PM

Bad Land is the masterpiece.

Posted by Fnarf | October 19, 2006 7:00 PM

I'd start by listening to Serge Gainsbourg's Ford Mustang:

Un numéro
De Superman
Un écrou de chez
Une photo
Un tube d'aspirine

It's entirely different Raban referred to of course. But it hardly matters. It's the most stylish uttering of "Raban" you will ever hear.

There is a bit of levity to this suggestion but getting into the mood for reading good prose is like getting into the right state of mind to do yoga. Done the wrong way and reading eats the soul. A good Gainsbourg song like this one, and a nice bottle of, say, Corbieres if you must, St Joseph if you can afford it, and you are halfway to enjoying anything in his oeuvre.

The choice of wine and song is not arbitrary. Try reading, say, Barchester Towers with a Gainsbourg and Corbieres, and you wind up looking for cats to strangle. Sadly, for several cats, I never did find a good wine for Trollope.

Enough. Time for some Chablis, a bit Townes van Zandt and a quick buzz through Charles Portis's Norwood, with some Tequila thrown in 'round midnight.

Posted by kinaidos | October 19, 2006 8:52 PM

I'd recommend picking up Waxwings. It's a novel, which makes it a little easier than some of his non-fiction to begin with, and there's an awful lot to recommend it to the neo-Rabanite. Though it is certainly political, it's set in the late 90's, in a pre-Bush world. It takes place in Seattle during a particularly exciting time in this town- when crazed bombers were sneaking into town and the excellent WTO demonstrations were in full swing. But best of all, it's a very engaging story about very real people from varied walks of life meeting each other. Realistic without being cynical and angry without being bitter, I'd have to recommend Waxwings for a first go.

Posted by Gurldoggie | October 19, 2006 11:37 PM

"Passage" for non-fiction, and for being one of the best descriptions of traversing the inland passage since the Vancouver Expedition.

"Waxwings" for being a spot-on snapshot of the Seattle landscape in the pre-dotcom bust era.

Posted by COMTE | October 20, 2006 12:34 AM

>Bad Land is the masterpiece.

Alright fnarf, for kicks let's pretend that I think you're dead wrong. Bad Land is awesome. It completely nails the history and the present of the region. Passage nails the history and the present of the region as well, but it also nails the life and innards of Jonathan Raban. To my recollection Raban's pulled back a bit in Bad Land which disqualifies it for any masterpiece-like honors. Still a great first Raban book to read, though.

Posted by Dan | October 20, 2006 10:17 AM

Well, of course he "pulled back" a bit -- it's not his story. I guess if your primary interest is Jonathan Raban's personality, then it's the wrong book, but if you want to understand America and the the West, you have to read the book. Homesteading is one of the basic support pillars of this country's history, and this picture of how it finished was largely untold until this book.

Posted by Fnarf | October 20, 2006 10:34 AM

I think they're all ultimately his story. At one level these books are playing a particular region in the U.S. against an English guy and they're successfull at that level, even to the point of largely telling untold stories of homesteading or the ole miss or whatever else. And at another level they're playing an English guy against various regions in the U.S. and they're even more successfull from that perspective. We're not aware of Raban because he writes kick ass stories about Montana and happens to live in Seattle. Who cares? We know him because he writes kick ass stories about Raban -an alien, the other, a foreigner and so illuminates us.

Posted by Dan | October 20, 2006 10:44 AM

The first half of Passage to Juneau is a remarkably vivid account of the landscapes of the Northwest coast. Just riveting and sweet and perfect. And then the second half of the book wanders off into pointless incoherence, an irrelevant trip to England, and generally has the feel of "shit, I'd better just send this manuscript into the editor now."

Posted by Extraction | October 20, 2006 11:51 AM

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