The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading
By Edmund White. (Bloomsbury, 223 pages, $28.)
Anyone at a loss about what to read next can earn double points by picking up the newest book by Edmund White: “The Unpunished Vice,” subtitled “A Life of Reading.”
As White hopscotches engagingly among books and writers he loves, he leaves an enticing trail of works by authors gay and straight, including many by such lesser known writers, at least in this country, as Jean Giono, Pierre Guyotat, Henry Green, Colette and Curzio Malaparte.
In noting biographers’ keen interest in Green, the English aesthete who wrote nine novels before ceasing to write in his 40s, White gets off one of many great one-liners, saying one doorstop biography “always struck me as an elephant in pursuit of a butterfly.”
White’s casual, jump-around approach is accentuated here, as much of “Vice” began life as pieces for New York Review of Books, the Guardian and Paris Review. Doesn’t matter, at least if you are a longtime admirer of White, as I am. Whether talking about his own writing, writers he has known, gossipy biographical tidbits, the allure of libraries, “the greatest novel in all literature” or the books he rereads regularly, White generously shares opinions he’s developed over a lifetime and also gives us a plenty of ideas for our own to-read lists.
Not bad for a slow and nonsystematic reader who “never gets to the bottom of anything, but just steps from one lily pad to another.” White’s quirky, offbeat taste arises frequently, as when he avers “I love anything about Istanbul, where I had spent many happy summers” or mentions that the first gay novel to appear in Russia was “Wings,” by Mikhail Kuzmin, in 1906.
Somewhat disappointing is the near absence of comment about Genet or Proust. White chose to omit the two French giants, as he wrote biographies of each. Enormously pleasurable, however, is how White can be convincingly enthusiastic about extremely difficult or avant-garde writers and also love a bestselling novelist such as John Irving. It is White’s gift to bring these seeming polarities into some kind of humming unison under a banner extolling the cherished communion between reader and writer.
White’s pick for best novel ever written? Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.”
A Place for Us
By Fatima Farheen Mirza. (SJP for Hogarth, 400 pages, $27.)
This novel, the first by 27-year-old California writer Fatima Farheen Mirza, is a stunner, worthy of a place among the finest books ever written about an American family. It opens at the wedding of Hadia, a young doctor who is marrying for love — routine for her generation, but not for her Indian-American immigrant parents, Rafiq and Layla.
No matter — all is joyous, except for one tension: Hadia, her younger sister, Huda, and her parents are all anxious because the family’s youngest member, prodigal son Amar, has shown up after having been mostly incommunicado for several years. Amar drinks, smokes, sneaks out of prayers, breaks all the rules and yet is deeply loved by his family despite their estrangement from him.
From this tense affair, the novel travels into the past to tell the family’s story from the points of view of Hadia, Amar and Rafiq. The characters are exquisitely drawn, especially Rafiq, who as an ailing old man looks back at his life as a father and thinks, “The older I get, the easier it is for me to imagine that God can forgive a man for his sins when they only affect him, but maybe He wants people to mend any hurt and harm they cause their fellow brothers and sisters while in this life, while living in this realm.”
That this brilliant book’s characters are Muslim immigrants is crucial to its unfolding, but surprisingly unimportant in the sweep of things. It could have been about any number of close American families with strong faith, traditions and pride.
“A Place for Us” is a remarkable, beautiful and timely story, well deserving of the rave reviews it’s getting from every corner. A tip of the hat to actress Sarah Jessica Parker for making it the inaugural offering in her imprint publishing venture.