Friday, December 7, 2012

Gregory D. Johnsen

Gregory D. Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, is a PhD candidate at Princeton University. A frequent guest on NPR, he has contributed essays to the New York Times. His new book is The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia.

Not so long ago I asked the author what he has been reading. Johnsen's reply:
For most of the past four years, as I have been writing The Last Refuge, I’ve read primarily fiction. I’m not really sure why this is, but I’m a big believer in reading what you like and so I just went where my tastes led.

Now that I’m finished with the book I’ve found my tastes running more toward non-fiction, particularly biographies. That change is represented in the books that are currently next to my bed, which are:

The Back Chamber (Donald Hall): Donald Hall is my favorite poet, and fall always puts me in the mood to read him. He reminds me of cold mornings, spiced apple cider, and New England – all things I associate with fall and the creep of winter’s beginnings.

A few weeks ago The New Yorker published an essay that mentioned that The Back Chamber was his final collection of poetry. I hope that’s not true. But if it is he has left us with a great one. The centerpiece and longest piece is “Ric’s Progress,” a biography as poem. Wonderfully spare and full all at once, it is the type of poem that I like to read late at night with a mug of something warm.

The Wisdom Books (Robert Alter): Next to the Psalms, the wisdom books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes are my favorite books of the Bible. Browsing in my local bookstore a couple of weeks ago, I came across this translation with notes by Robert Alter. I was hooked immediately, and now I spend a little time most days reading a few chapters aloud to myself.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (D.T. Max): I have never read David Foster Wallace’s sprawling novels – Infinite Jest or The Pale King – preferring his non-fiction to his fiction. But this wonderfully readable biography by D.T. Max convinced me that I should do so, and soon. Max pulled off the rare feat of transforming a great article – a profile of Wallace for The New Yorker – into a fantastic book. Like most of my favorite reads, this one sucked me in to its own little universe for a few hundred pages before spitting me back out a little sadder and a bit more uncertain of the life I see around me. I turned the last page with a touch of regret.

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Sylvie Simmons): Other than loving “Tower of Song” and “Hallelujah,” I didn’t know much about Leonard Cohen. Several years ago a friend gave me a copy of Beautiful Losers, which I read one weekend in Yemen. I read Simmons' new biography of Cohen on my latest trip to Yemen. Not as well written as Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, it still manages to bring Cohen and all his many foibles to life.

Sweet Tooth (Ian McEwan): I always get excited when I hear about a new Ian McEwan novel. I loved Atonement and Saturday. His earlier stuff, particularly his short stories, don’t have the same level of enjoyment for me, but knowing how talented he is I still look forward to each new release. I’m also a big fan of spy novels – particularly Alan Furst, and the latest by Charles Cumming was good as was Dan Fesperman’s The Double Game – and so when I heard Sweet Tooth was a spy novel I couldn’t wait to buy it. I found it at a bookstore before the official release date and finished it over Thanksgiving. It started out great and I was hooked, but I hated the end, which seemed, to me, too clever by half. It reminded me of the ending to Amsterdam, which I also disliked – although many others liked the tidiness of that ending.

Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie): On the way home from Thanksgiving I picked up a copy of Midnight’s Children. I’m a big fan of Salman Rushdie, particularly some of his early novels. Shame is my favorite, and still the best book I’ve read on Pakistan. I’m not terribly far into this one, but like the best Rushdie it has already captured me with its playful language and wonderful description of one character’s nose.
Read more about The Last Refuge at the W.W. Norton website.

--Marshal Zeringue