Been reading a lot during these last few months. More than usual and not just because of the pandemic. When I finished Bad Axe back in the spring, I decided to wait a while before beginning the next one. A little tired, a little unfocused, a little too much TV and Internet news.
To fill the void I started spending several hours a day with a book in my lap. I hadn’t read so much in a while.
For the last couple of years I’d been writing, and rewriting, editing, researching, deleting, daydreaming, sitting at my desk and watching my cursor blink. Deleting some more. Killing my darlings and killing a few more.
So my reading started with no particular aim in mind. I wasn’t reading to be inspired. I wasn’t reading to gather details or info for the next book. I was reading in a capricious, random way. Downloading those opening samples of ebooks and seeing what caught my attention. It’s the way I suppose a lot of readers select their next selection. Word of mouth, surfing around Amazon or Goodreads, asking my wife, Evelyn, who reads a lot more than I do and is very selective. She gave me a bunch of good ones. But mostly I just bounced from fiction to non-fiction, literary to crime. A little biography.
Here’s my list with a few observations.
Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens. Lyrical and rich with natural setting. A court case that feels a little like the one from To Kill A Mockinbird. All in all an excellent novel, except for a bit of narrative cheating that is meant to be a final twist but which seems silly and an unfair trick on the reader that reminds me of some of my students’ stories that ended with, ‘And then I woke up.’
A Better Man, Louise Penny I’d heard great things about her work for a long time but never read one. She’s excellent. And some of the scenes in this one that portray a raging river are downright chilling. I’ll start with some of her earlier work next.
Camino Island, John Grisham My friend Les Standiford suggested this one. A book about books and bookstores and writers and hardly any legal issues at all. Again, I found much to like and entertain, but there were tricks that didn’t seem that tricky. The opening of the novel suggested a big time thriller. But it turned into more of a cozy. Oh, well. Books and bookstores, that was plenty enough for me.
Eyes of Prey, John Sandford I love Lucas Davenport even when he’s caught up in a novel about politicians who have to be the most boring literary characters known to man. And the ending was badly contrived and not up to the usual Sandford standard. But still, I’ll read the next one no matter what.
Leonardo Da Vinci, Walter Isaacson Leo was so compulsively creative and so incessantly curious and so damn smart about so many things that the book almost made me want to turn in my membership card to the human race. My pitiful output never seemed so pitiful. What an amazing man, and Isaacson captures the time and the man with the vivid clarity of a novelist.
The Redhead by the Side of the Road, Anne Tyler I’ve always enjoyed Anne Tyler’s work. It’s wry and unpredictable and always wise. I liked this story of a computer repair schmuck who is looking for love and finds it, sort of. My only complaint: I wish it was about 50 pages longer.
The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson I’m never disappointed with Larson, and this view of Churchill during his most challenging few years digs deep into a complicated and fascinating man.
The Dutch House, Ann Patchett I listened to the audio book of this one. Read by none other than Tom Hanks. This is a book about a family and their love/hate relationship with a house and all that it represents to their family. Hanks is great. The book is mesmerizing and real and emotionally wrenching. I loved it and could have started it again the moment it ended. Patchett is a wonderful writer. Simple, clear and deeply affecting.
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles Wow. Another winner. A man imprisoned in a five star hotel for political reasons. Moscow, Russia, history, characters galore. Who would have thought such ingredients would be so engaging? Beautifully written. One of the best books I’ve read in a long long time.
Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews More Russia, more politics. A young woman goes to the most harrowing spy school you can imagine. Intricate and clearly written by a man who knows every detail of the spy game. Which is both a strength and weakness. Sometimes see the spy procedure in such detail is a little tiresome.
Winterkill, C.J. Box. I like the characters and the frozen settings of Box’s books. This one seemed a little ho-hum, not the best Box, but not bad. A pleasant few hours.
How To Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan I read Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma years ago and loved his mastery of the food and farm culture. This one is about hallucinogens. Something I have a little experience with. One of the great tragedies of the modern era (he argues, and I sort of agree) is that our American Puritanical culture has made the benefits of hallucinogens illegal even to study (until very recently). It’s not a mind-changing book for me, but very informative and challenging.
Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari I remember reading The Naked Ape in college and realizing I loved books that explained everything, and I mean everything all together in one place. Sapiens is that book too. With kind of hard edge. A really hard edge. Everything is about survival. Religion is a joke. Every period in the history of man is about the same thing: domination. It’s convincing and its scale is vast and you can see how people might use this as a kind of Bible for whatever mean-spirited thing they wanted to justify. But it’s pretty damn impressive in its scope.
In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larsen Another Larsen book. This one about Hitler’s rise as seen up close by the American ambassador who saw the dreadful surrendering of all moral values of those surrounding Hitler. The slow erosion of all that makes us human. There’s a love affair and a gradual rise of dread and danger as Hitler’s hold on the world becomes firm. Fascinating. And if you’re looking for echoes to current events, you’ll probably find them.
Stillhouse Lake, Rachel Caine A serial killer story like I’ve never read before. Quite a gripper. First in a series. Maybe not Silence of the Lambs, but damn good.
The End of Everything, Katie Mack. A cosmologist with a great wry take on things guides we poor mortals on a trip through some space/time/universe/lightyears/E=MC squared stuff, right into one giant black hole after another. I understood about one-tenth of one percent of this, but it was dazzling and fun in a mind-boggling way.
Too Much–Never Enough, Mary Trump. Why would anyone in their right mind want to read anything else about Donald Trump. I must not be in my right mind. She confirms from a psychoanalytical form what is painfully obvious from the evening news. I just intended to read the sample, but she’s actually a pretty good writer, especially given her subject.
Beneath a Scarlett Sky, Mark Sully This one is hard to sum up. It’s certainly not a masterpiece of beautiful prose. The language is primitive and sloppy at times. But as second World War thrillers go, the hero of this novel beats Forrest Gump at his own game. He’s everywhere, does everything, meets everyone that matters (just short of Hitler) and somehow I was dragged along for the amazing and improbable ride. Bound to be a movie. And bound to be as big a blockbuster as it was as a novel. I liked it a lot despite the unpalatable prose. Just goes to show that stories and characters matter more than style.