Reading List — April

April 23rd, 2008

April was the cruelest month for writing, even crueler than March, at least until around the 15th, when my creative processes wheezed and cranked into gear. For a while, I read in self-defense, working my way through an extremely mixed bag, the product of shopping in Southeast Asian used-book stores where the stock is very heavy on Dean Koontz and Tom Clancy (no slur intended). So what I wound up with landed on my shelves by the purest of chance. Here goes:

T is for Trespass, Sue Grafton, 4.5 stars: Grafton is one of the wonders of the world. She started off good and worked her way to wonderful, and this is one of her best. For the first time (as far as I know) she departs from Kinsey’s first-person narrative to write third-person segments centered on the absolutely terrifying female sociopath at the story’s queasy center. The character is a caregiver for the elderly who speeds their transition from this world to the next for material gain, and she’s as frightening a character as I’ve read in a long time. This was a one-sitting book for me; it kept me paralyzed until almost 3:30 AM, on a day when I’d spent seven hours battering the keyboard with my forehead. It also made me laugh out loud five or six times, for example when Kinsey remembers a stuffed bear she had as a child, to which she could feed candy. The candy dropped into a little metal stomach, and Kinsey could later open the stomach and eat the candy. Kinsey says it’s still her idea of a perfect relationship. Should win an Edgar.

The Immaculate Deception, Iain Pears, 3.5 stars: One in a series of mysteries written by the immensely erudite author of An Instance of the Fingerpost, this book begins with the theft of a painting on loan to Italy, the safety of which has been personally guaranteed by the Italian prime minister. The continuing characters are Flavia de Stefano, a female Italian cop who heads the Art Theft Bureau (those Italians!) and her British art historian husband, Jonathan Argyll. The canvas (pun intended) soon broadens to include terrorists, an unsuccessful performance artist (sort of an oxymoron), and lots and lots of riveting art history, which I could read even without the mystery. But the mystery is a good, solid one. An American woman thief who apparently played an important role in one or more of the earlier books (this is the seventh) makes a delightful appearance. I’m ordering all the other titles to read when I get back to the States.

The Eleventh Draft, Frank Conroy (editor), 5 stars: This is the book of the month. I’ve already done a blog on it, called (what else?) The Eleventh Draft, but it’s worth another mention. Basically, it’s just a collection of essays on the writing life by a bunch of writers connected with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But what a bunch of writers. I can’t imagine a writer or would-be writer not finding something precious here. If I finish my new book, Misdirection, it will be largely due to The Eleventh Draft. Pretty much everything we writers face is touched upon, often from multiple perspectives: characters, story development, building from detail, work habits, why writing is worth the effort, inspiration vs. perspiration vs aspiration, you name it. The book entertained and inspired me, and it may have helped me build the ladder I needed to climb out of the hole I was in. If it didn’t, the failure will be mine.

Fermat’s Last Theorum, Simon Singh, ??? stars: I’m not rating this because I’m not competent to do so, although if I were I’ll bet I’d give it five stars. Simon Singh is one of the world’s premier clarifiers of abstruse material, whose The Big Bang is the best book I ever read on the history of cosmology. Well, this isn’t about the history of cosmology. It’s about math. And I can’t do math, despite which I actually found the book fascinating up to a point. I’ll describe the point in a minute, but first, some background. A theorum in mathematics is a statement that is absolutely true, capable of a much higher level of proof than a mere theory in any other branch of the sciences, most of which look like alchemy or phrenology in comparison. Pierre de Fermat (d. 1665) was one of those inspired amateur savants who were so thick on the ground in the 17th and 18th centuries. His theorum is simplicity itself. He took the Pythagorean Theorum (a-squared plus b-squared equals c-squared, remember?) and proved that this does not hold true for any mathematical power except the square of any whole number — not the cube, not the fourth power, not the 111th power, or ANYTHING. And he jotted it down in the margin of a book, noting that he had devised an elegant proof, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough room in the margin for him to squeeze it onto the page. So people (or at least mathematicians) have been working like bees to find the proof ever since. And apparently, someone did, not so long ago. Anyway, I was doing fine until about page 170, when Singh got to imaginary numbers. This may be no mystery to some of you (it’s as simple as tapioca to the guy who overestimated my intelligence and loaned me the book), but at that point my mind refused to go further. Imaginary numbers? Aren’t all numbers imaginary? And you would use imaginary numbers to count what? Unicorns? Heffalumps? Clouds of flower fairies? Dead stop. Put down book. Pick up mystery. Sleep. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could walk away so easily from overwhelming situations in so-called real life?

Bamboo Palace, Christopher Kremmer, 4 stars: In March of 1977, the Pathet Lao, the communist rebels who had taken over the former Kingdom of Laos, descended on the palace in Luang Prabang and carried away the king, queen, and several other members of the royal family. In the years that followed, the government was always vague about the king’s whereabouts and well-being. At no point did they formally acknowledge his death. Kremmer previously investigated this mystery – without solving it – for a book called Stalking the Elephant Kings. In the aftermath of that book (which I read and liked), he heard from a number of people who had been close to the Lao royals, and with their assistance, he went back to Laos and burrowed into the past – a past of American bombing raids, ethnic and political divisions among the Laos, an unfocused and increasingly hapless monarchy, and the hard-eyed revolutionaries of the Pathet Lao, working their way south under the tutelage of their Vietnamese mentors. Saddled with a succession of government minders, sometimes infuriating and sometimes woefully, even hilariously, inept, Kremmer works his way toward the final piece of the puzzle, the death of Savang Vattana, the last of the Lao kings. A wonderful read for anyone who’s interested in Southeast Asia.

Underground, Haruki Murakami, 4.5 stars: In the aftermath of Aum Shinrikyo’s Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subways, the Japanese media played a unanimous one-note samba, demonizing the religious cult, lionizing the survivors, raising the inevitable questions about how Japanese society had produced such a nightmare, and generally painting everything in broad, lurid strokes – very similar to the way American media handles, say, the kids who run amok with automatic weapons on a high school or university campus. Murakami, probably the greatest living Japanese writer of fiction, takes a novelistic approach, ignoring all the generalities and blame-slinging and interviewing those involved to tell the story of what actually happened to the people who were unfortunate enough to be on the subways when the Aum Shinriko members punctured their transparent bags of liquid Sarin with sharpened umbrellas before leaving the trains. Ninety percent of the book is told in the words of the survivors, people whose lives were changed forever during that single rush-hour train ride. Murakami mostly keeps himself off the page. The patient accumulation of detail creates a heartbreaking effect: where I was coming from, where I was going, why I was on that train, what it felt like, what I did, what others did, what’s happened since. This is heroism on the smallest and most impressive scale, and villainy so petty it’s almost impossible to believe the magnitude of its outcome. I wept several times. The most recent edition contains a new section, “The Place That Was Promised,” that broadens the approach through interviews with Aum followers. Oddly, it’s the flattest and least effective part of the book. There’s an emptiness at the center of it that is, I suppose, the point, but it didn’t engage or move me in the way the survivors’ stories did.

Ex-Libris, Ross King, 3.5 stars: A literary thriller, actually two related stories set roughly forty years apart in the 17th century, just before and in the aftermath of the 30 Years War. The central character, Isaac Inchbold, is a seller of rare books and manuscripts, perfectly happy to lead a small, regular life among the volumes he loves. That life is upended when he undertakes a commission to find a fragment of a work called The Labyrinth of the World by Hermes Trismegistus, the ancient polymath who was believed to have influenced Plato until it was proved, in the early 1600s, that he was a literary fraud created by Greek monks in the 1st century AD. So the chase is on for a fraudulent book, and – as Isaac soon learns – the chase itself is fraudulent, leading him into a world of unreliable books and even more unreliable memories. Unfortunately, the fun comes to a close as the book ends with a scene that reminded me irresistibly of Woody Allen: the hidden plot is explained in a long, incredibly complicated narrative that touches on the moons of Jupiter, finding longitude at sea, the physical properties of sandalwood, the dimensions of the giant bamboo rat, the discovery of the Solomon Islands, the Inquisition, the unification of the Hapsburgs – you name it – all delivered at machine-gun speed as Isaac and his female client flee through a flooding cellar while walls burst open to admit tons of water, the enormous house above them creaks and threatens to collapse and bury them, and three Spanish assassins chase them. Like anyone who writes mysteries and/or thrillers, I face the “explanation problem” in every book. How do you structure the story so you don’t need fifteen pages of here’s-what-really-happened, without giving the whole thing away? While I enjoyed Ex-Libris, King didn’t solve the problem.

54, Wu Ming, 4 stars: The number in the title refers to 1954, the year in which the novel takes place. “Wu Ming” (which is Mandarin for “anonymous”) refers to a more-or-less nameless group of five Italian writers who, under the name “Luther Blissett,” wrote Q, an absolutely enormous novel about the counter-reformation, set in the time of Martin Luther. If Wu Ming reminds (remind?) me of anyone, it’s Neal Stephenson in his Baroque Cycle Trilogy mode — sprawling and yet focused stories, dozens of characters, lots of forward momentum, and a sharply defined sense of place. The characters in 54 range from Italian lounge lizards to Yugoslavian partisans, and from Generalissimo Tito to Cary Grant and Lucky Luciano. With so much happening, and so many people it’s happening to, the book’s entry curve is pretty steep — close to vertical — but it’s worth the climb. I had a wonderful time, even though — name-drop ahead — I once had the privilege of having a long lunch with Cary Grant, and Wu Ming’s Cary Grant is a long way from my Cary Grant. But I think most people who like big, brawling, intelligent books will love 54.

10 Responses to “Reading List — April”

  1. Larissa Says:

    How did you end up at lunch with Carey Grant? My mom will be jealous. Oo, I kinda sorta know someone who had lunch with someone really famous….:D

    Sounds like you got lucky. I have been scrounging for some decent books myself…but I found David Copperfield for 3 euro so I bought it. It weighs as much as the baggage maximum for RyanAir (how I love thee) but I like it so far. 😀

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Yes, I lucked out with the month’s books. And I love “David Copperfield.”

    In a previous incarnation I ran a public relations firm. One of our employees was a remarkable man who represented, among others, Cary Grant. I went to a very leisurely lunch at my associate’s home at which the other guests were Grant and Prince Albert of Monaco. And even in his late sixties, Cary Grant was the most beautiful man I ever saw in the flesh, and absolutely the best-dressed.

  3. Sylvia Says:

    Wow, what a very mixed bag of interesting books. I have easy access to English books now but in a way I kind of miss that potluck system of used books in a foreign country.

    I once drank a beer in a dirt pit which had previously been Cary Grant’s swimming pool. Claim to fame. 😉

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Okay, Sylvia —

    You win Best Sentence of the Month Award with “I once drank a beer in a dirt pit which had previously been Cary Grant’s swimming pool.”

    Damn, that’s good.

  5. Lisa Kenney Says:

    I am always so entertained by your reviews that I almost forget to think about whether or not I’d like to read the books themselves! And I was completely bowled over, as you were by Sylvia’s sentence.

    It’s the perfect first line for a book!

  6. Steve Wylder Says:

    My wife and I spent our wedding night in the Blackhawk Hotel in Davenport, Iowa, where Cary Grant and his wife, Barbara Harris, spent the night of November 28-29, 1986. Grant died the night of the 29th.

    I’m always amazed at your monthly reading list, Tim. Mine pales in comparison, and usually includes many books on tape/CD, as my job puts an incredible strain on my eyes. I’ll put together a list for April, as you’ve asked.

    Both my parents were in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late 1940s and early ’50s. I’ll have to check out The Eleventh Draft.

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Lisa — See the newest blog, “Sylvia’s Sentence,” where I challenge people to come up with an idea for a novel that would begin with, um, Sylvia’s sentence. Prizes and everything.

    Steve — Amazing how many people have had some sort of brush with Cary Grant. I suppose the sheer length of his career has something to do with it. And reading your work, I doubt that your reading pales in comparison with mine; you cover some remarkably interesting and esoteric territory.

    I think you’ll love some of the essays in The Eleventh Draft. Ethan Canin’s essay about learning how to build a story from details instead of starting with a grand theme is worth the price of the book all by itself.

  8. Dana King Says:

    I had the privilege of reviewing 54 when it came out, and I agree with your assessment. Steep entry curve, lots of weird stuff (like the self-aware television), but a hell of a read. I remember sitting back when I was finished and wondering, “what just ahppened here?” A few days later, I was thinking what a great experience it was. Even now, reading your brief review is bringing back scenes, characters, and plot lines I haven’t thought about since I read the book. It leaves an impression.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Agree totally, Dana (and nice to hear from you again). I thought about it for days and also ordered the first one from Amazon, so it’ll presumably be waiting for me when I get back to the States.

    Terrific book. And how are you?

  10. Dana King Says:

    I’m well, Tim, thank you for asking. Been busy, and going though another of the inevitable–for me, at least–frustrating writing cycles, so I’ve been a little derelict in keeping up with everyone. I meant to comment on Coke’s sponsorship of the Phillippines’ cruxificyion festival (there are two words you don’t often see in the same sentence), but my computer ate the comment and I just never got back to it.

    I’m happy to see things are moving along with your newest effort, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

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