My ipad is now crowded with books. I think I have to accept that, in this land of no lending library, I have become an e-reading person. I’m not happy about this fact, but what to do? The nearest bookstore is a car-drive-traffic-park-mall away (and expensive), while amazon can just magically e-zap to me whatever I want. I figure it’s only a matter of time until Wille Wonka’s vision of TV dinners comes true: I’ll order a bathing suit from amazon, it will appear on my ipad, I will pluck it off the screen and it will become a three dimensional object in my hand (and make me look five pounds thinner, but that’s a post for another time).
I just finished the amazing new biography of Catherine the Great. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, I think because I live in non-fiction; I read to spend time in other peoples’ imaginations. But my friend Karen convinced to get this book and I’m glad I did. It would take a prodigious imagination to come up with a story that resembles Catherine’s - stage a bloodless coup to oust your husband from the throne, take twelve lovers (probably not simultaneously), build an art collection that became the cornerstone of the Hermitage Museum. Plus expanding the national boundaries, attempt to re-write the legal code to be more equitable, introduce Englightenment ideals to an entire country…Let’s face it: Catherine is the original bossypants. The only thing I didn’t find out is whether there’s any truth to the legend about Catherine and her horse. If you know what I’m talking about, don’t look to this book for answers. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s probably for the best.
Less highfalutin but still compelling is Stephen King’s latest tome, 11/22/63. Yes, that’s the date Kennedy was shot. It’s a pretty good story about time-travel and consequences and love–but you know what? Stephen King needs an editor. It’s a good novel but it clocks in at 849 pages. That’s only slightly shorter than War and Peace, for god’s sake. When I was reading King’s book, my e-reader made me very happy: carrying around the actual book would count as weight lifting. I could’ve used the book to do bicep curls. And it’s hard to read when you’re doing bicep curls. The book captures the era of the early 1960s perfectly, but the plot sags under its own weight, literally and metaphorically.
Two other writers just came out with new books that don’t quite match their best work, although their best work is so good I shouldn’t quibble, I guess. Usually I loves me some Lee Childs–his Jack Reacher books have been responsible for many a late night as I read just one more page and then suddenly it’s 3AM. But his latest, The Affair, seemed a kind of generic go-by-the-numbers Reacher. Maybe Childs feels as glum as I do that Tom Cruise (a small but mighty fellow) is going to play Reacher, a supposedly massive fellow, in a movie version of One Shot. I can’t remember the plot of The Affair, but it was a serviceable thriller if you find yourself stuck in the terminal at O’Hare with a dead phone battery and nothing else to do. James Lee Burke’s latest detective story, Feast Day of Fools, features Hackberry Holland, who we first met in Rain Gods, a few years back. The novel packs in border politics, illegal immigration, religion, several gruesome murders, and a few torture scenes for good measure–but the gruesomeness feels forced and the plot spirals all over the place. If you’re new to Burke, do yourself a favor and start with his great Dave Robicheaux novels, set in Baton Rouge. The one thing I gleaned from Burke’s book? His novel The Lost Get-Back Boogie was rejected one hundred and eleven times over a period of nine years. Then it won a Pulitzer. For those of us with a drawerful of “thanks but no…” letters from agents and publishers, that’s an encouraging tidbit.
What else? The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), which reads as if it’s Ondaatje’s boyhood story of coming from Ceylon to England on a huge ocean liner, but is in fact a novel. I’m not accusing Ondaatje of Frey-like faux-memorism, but the book seems to suffer from its neither/nor status: I was willing to suffer the narrative flatness when I thought Ondaatje was capturing his own eleven-year old mindset, but a novel needs to do more, I think, to create a world in which we want to lose (or find) ourselves.
A novel that reads brilliantly like memoir is Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending, a middle-aged man’s reflections about the failed love affairs of his youth, a friend’s mysterious suicide, and what it means to realize that you’re no longer young. The twist at the novel’s end made me wish I was reading an actual book, so I could more easily flip back through the pages to glean the clues that Barnes weaves subtly, almost invisibly, into the narrative. This book is less than a quarter the length of King’s massive effort, but word-for-word, Barnes’s book packs a bigger wallop.
Ann Patchett’s latest novel, State of Wonder, also packs a hell of a wallop. It’s a modern-day re-casting of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness–and wait, before you run in terror, thinking “oh sweet jeezuz not another lost in the jungle with crazy people story,” this book is not just a generic jungle story. What is the price you would pay to realize your ambitions? What do we owe the people who love us and whom we love? At what point does “research” become obsession? Patchett brings these questions together with the mysterious workings of “Big Pharma,” a love story (which is, of course, at the heart of Conrad’s novel too: Kurtz is the emotional center of Marlowe’s universe), fertility drugs, and the legacy of Western imperialism in Africa into one kick-ass adventure story that had me sliding the pages forward as fast as I could go.
I slid the pages of Gail Caldwell’s memoir more slowly, but only because I was sort of teary-eyed and snuffling through the entire short book. Let’s Take the Long Way Home is Caldwell’s story about her best friend, the writer Caroline Knapp (Drinking: A Love Story), who died of cancer at the scary-young age of 42. The book’s subtitle is “A Memoir of Friendship,” and that’s exactly what it is: how two women on the verge of middle-age (because now that I’m 48, “middle age” starts at 50), became soul mates to one another, unified by a love of writing, dogs, rowing, long walks, and the minutiae of life. Caldwell’s book captures the deep intimacy of female friendship–an intimacy that can feel like a love affair–and also the overwhelming agony of loss. “For years we had played the easy, daily game of catch that intimate connection implies. One ball, two gloves, equal joy in the throw and return. Now I was in the field without her: one glove, no game. Grief is what tells you who you are alone.” Running alongside the story of their friendship is the story of their shared love for their dogs–and while I’m not at all a dog person, I cried as much at the death of a dog as I did at the death of Caroline. This book is the one that you buy to have on your shelf after you’ve read the digital version. It’s that beautiful.
What’s next in the queue? Just Let Me Lie Down, which my friend Margaret suggested as good for a giggle; Crossers, by Philip Caputo, whose Acts of Faith is one of the best novels I’ve ever read about Africa; Waiting for Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk; and The Ruins of Us, written by The Flying Chalupa‘s sister, which makes them two of the most talented sisters since those singing Andrews chicks.
What are you reading now?