Reading List — July

August 27th, 2008

As an indication of how preoccupied I am with finishing MISDIRECTION, the July reading list is appearing on August 27.  And it’s incomplete, too. In order to get this online at all, I had to leave out about half the books I read last month.  But this is still long.  Anyone with an interesting life will probably want to skim what follows or move to some blogger who not only believes, but also demonstrates, that brevity is the soul of wit.

What I Think About When I Think About Running, Haruki Murakami, 3.5 stars:  Murakami is one of my two or three favorite living novelists, and After Dark was my favorite novel last year.  For the first half of this book, which essentially is a running memoir, I thought it was a five-star dead cert.  Murakami goes for distance; he runs marathons and ultra-marathons and even triathlons.  At the outset he began to talk about the similarities between distance running and writing novels, and some of it was revelatory to me.  Like this:  I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person but with an unspecified number of readers . . . I’ve consistently considered this invisible, conceptual relationship to be the most important thing in my life. Or, talking about the prolonged commitment and energy necessary to write a novel, he says:  To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm.  This is the important thing for long-term projects.  Once you set the pace, the rest will follow.  The problem is getting the flywheel to spin at a set speed — and to get it to that point takes as much concentration and effort as you can manage. But after about the midpoint, Murakami really stops talking about writing, and the book actually becomes a running memoir, which is interesting, but not as interesting (to me, at least) as exploring running as a metaphor for writing.  On the other hand, the book got me running again, so it must have affected me on some level.

The Last Judgement, Iain Pears, 3.5 stars: Before he became an international best-seller with An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears wrote six mysteries featuring the art historian Jonathan Argyll and his inamorata, Flavia de Stefano of the Italian Art Police. (I reviewed another in the series, An Immaculate Deception, in March.)  These books are just plain fun for anyone who’s even mildly interested in history, or painting, or the history of painting, or tidy, well-conceived mysteries where nobody gets eviscerated and there are no unconvincingly brilliant serial killers babbling glibly as the victims pile up like firewood.  In this one, a fifth-rate “Death of Socrates” by a deservedly obscure artist sets into motion a series of events with roots that stretch all the way back to the Nazi occupation of France.  There’s Pears’s usual cast of intellectuals and cops, heavier on the cops, and a great feel for place — in this case, Italy and France.  Wholly civilized fun, nothing to put on the passenger seat and read at red lights, but a thoroughly diverting read.  Jonathan and Flavia manage to stay well on this side of tiresome despite occasional Nick-and-Nora exchanges (okay — the first person to identify that literary allusion wins a copy of one of my Simeon Grist books).  That’s one way of seeing whether anyone is reading these things.

The Meaning of Absolutely Everything, Simon Winchester, 5 stars: This remarkably slender volume tells the story of the dictionary, first published more than a century ago, that continues to set the standard to the present day.  Quintessentially Victorian in the optimism with which they set the scope of their task, the original editors of the Oxford English dictionary sought to (a) identify every English word in use at the time or at previous times; (b) define each word, however many meanings it might have; (c) track down its derivation; (d) ransack the entire body of written English, from the earliest scraps to the classics to the daily paper to find the first instance of its use in print; and (e) identify three to five quotations that demonstrate the use of each of the meanings attached to the word.  And all without computers.  Winchester, who also wrote Krakatoa, The Professor and the Madman, and three admirable books about China (among many others), is a lucid guide to the intricacies and eccentricities of this enormous task, which involved thousands of people who sought, copied, and sent in quotations.  (They included a murderer and several certifiable lunatics.)  Along the way, he also manages to present an admirable survey of how the English language evolved, and a fascinating gloss on earlier dictionaries.  If any of this sounds even remotely dry, it’s my fault; The Meaning of Absolutely Everything is a delight from start to finish, one of those books that makes the reader sit up every couple of pages and say, “I didn’t know that.”

The Forger’s Spell, Edward Dolnick, 4.5 stars: In the 1930s, Han van Meegeren was a modestly successful Dutch artist with an immodestly immense ego.  Deprived of the recognition he felt he deserved, he decided to prove his genius (and stick a finger in the critics’ eyes) by forging the masters, and the master he picked was the great painter with the fewest surviving pictures, Vermeer.  And Van Meegeren forged lots of them.  But then history lifted a big heavy paw, and the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, and behind them came the corps of art experts dispatched by Hitler and Goering to steal every masterpiece they could find.  And what did they want most?  Vermeers, of course.  Both Nazi leaders were soon the proud possessors of new “Vermeers,” and Van Meegeren was a rich man, living in a mansion and spending a fortune on wine and women of the commercial variety.  When the war ended, so did Van Meegeren’s run of luck.  He was imprisoned for selling state treasures to the Nazis, a crime for which the penalty was death.  On the other hand, the punishment for forgery was a few months in jail.  Van Meegeren made his choice immediately, but the authorities refused to believe that the Vermeers in question were forgeries — so he painted one for them.  As riveting as Van Meegeren’s story is, the most fascinating material in the book has to do with the painting techniques of the old masters, and the ways in which forgers try to make their work convincing.  One particularly thorny problem is that oil paint hardens very slowly — about 100 years for a painting on which the paint is applied at an average thickness.  Or, for something like Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” where the daubs are extremely thick, it can take two to three centuries.  Like most forgers, Van Meegeren baked his paintings in an oven, but even so, the paint didn’t harden convincingly.  Fortunately for him, the first commercial plastic, Bakelite, became available at that time, and Van Meegeren found that paints mixed with Bakelite hardened very quickly when exosed to heat.  So the world-acclaimed “Vermeers” were actually painted with plastic.  The book’s most blatant eye-opener comes when the reader looks at the pictures of Van Meegeren’s forgeries.  They’re terrible.  Insipid, lifeless, badly colored, amateurishly drawn — it’s impossible to believe they fooled the world.  Terrific book.

Real Life, Natsuo Kirino, 4.5 stars: Kirino, who wrote the amazing Out a few years back and the deeply disturbing Grotesque last year, is back with one of the greatest setups for a thriller I ever read: a group of Japanese schoolgirls forge cell-phone and text-message relationships with a boy their own age who is on the run after murdering his mother.  The girls are friends, highly individual characters, and the boy, who lives next door to one of them, is no one they would normally socialize with.  But these girls feel pressured to conform in virtually every possible way, and the boy who has broken one of society’s most primal taboos acquires a kind of outlaw glamor that each of them reacts to differently.  This is an extremely disquieting book, psychologically and morally, a coming of age novel in a landscape so dark it might as well be pitch black.  Kirino is (or her publisher says she is) one of Japan’s best-selling thriller writers, and on the basis of this novel and Out, I can see why.  She also has the most self-dramatizing author photo I’ve ever seen anywhere — it would be enough all by itself to keep me from reading her.  Luckily for me, I read her before I saw the picture.

The Deceived, Brett Battles, 5 stars: Battles’ second Jonathan Quinn book takes off like it’s been shot from a gun, and then it accelerates. And, remarkably, it also presents us with a cast of fully rounded characters; often, when a book moves this fast, the characters are little more than smears on the narrative’s wall.  From the opening scene, when Quinn shows up for a job — his profession is cleaning up crime scenes — only to discover the body of an old friend, through the action-piled-on-action closing sequences in steamy Singapore, Battles never once dilutes the urgency and momentum of the story. Quinn, whom we met for the first time in The Cleaner, is not only convincing, but also convincingly smart. I think there are few more dismaying effects in fiction than meeting a character who’s supposed to be smart, who the author tells us is smart, and whom everybody else describes as smart, and who . . . isn’t. Quinn is genuinely smart, and that helps us believe in him and in everything that happens to him.  Battles is also extremely good at setting the scene and making the setting part of the story. The most successful literary settings (I think) not only contain the characters, but also reflect them. Whether Quinn is in the bone-dry desert or the humid sultriness of Singapore, there’s an interaction between setting and character that made the whole story richer for me.   The only writer I know of right now who’s as good as Brett Battles at this kind of red-zone tension is Lee Child. That’s good company to be in. And since Lee Child sells lots and lots (and lots) of books, let me say that you’re going to love Brett Battles if you like Lee Child. Buy this book.

Lunar Park, Bret Easton Ellis, 4 stars: Like a lot of people, I gave up on Bret Easton Ellis after American Psycho, which I thought was simply unforgivable, slasher porno with product placement. So Lunar Park has been sitting neglected on my shelves for a couple of years, until three days ago, when I finished my current books and everything else in the house I hadn’t read was upstairs. And my legs were tired from my run, thanks to Haruki Murakami.  So I took the book off the downstairs bookshelves and opened it, half-expecting to rip it down the spine and toss it after twenty pages. Instead, I put my life on hold and just read.  Ellis is the book’s central character, and it begins as a memoir of excess: cocaine, heroin, alcohol, obscure pharmaceuticals.  He survives a brutal father who is presented as a portable vortex of rage (one early sign that the book might not be completely on the level is that it’s dedicated to the memory of Ellis’s father.)  On various combinations of chemicals he writes his books and gets into trouble with friends like the equally fried Jay MacInerny.  But then he marries and tries to settle down, and things begin to slide into Stephen King territory.  Things go horrifically awry, and eventually he becomes convinced that he is being stalked by Patrick Batemen, the titular psycho of American Psycho; Ellis’s own younger self; and his dead father.  Even more horrifying, whatever is after him may be a combination of all three of those people (as, of course, a writer’s characters probably are).  I’m not going to tell you any more, except to say that the book is rich in both convincing relationships and lost souls, and that the horror set-pieces are models of how to write this material.

I left out half a dozen good books.  Maybe I’ll get around to them in January, when I write the reading list for August.

5 Responses to “Reading List — July”

  1. Greg Smith Says:

    I just finished reading The Bone Polisher which I enjoyed very much so I hope I’m the first to respond to the trivia question. You were referring to Nick and Nora Charles of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man which also spawned a film series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. I love that name.
    It rolls off the tongue so nicely.
    You can’t adopt wire haired terriers for twenty odd years and not know about Nick and Nora.
    When we walk our criters in public places some senior citizen invariably asks us about our Asta Dogs.
    Yes Tim, we read this stuff. I use it as my perpetual springboard into writing sessions so please keep it coming.

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    You win, Greg. Asta dogs, indeed. And although it’s probably heresy to say it, the movie was at least as good as the book.

    Let me know which Simeon Grist titles you already have, and I’ll send you another one.

  3. Jen Forbus Says:

    Geez Tim, as if my TBR pile wasn’t out of control as it is! 🙂

  4. Lisa Kenney Says:

    Scott loved “The Forger’s Spell” and it’s on my TBR stack now too. I’ve got the Murakami book and I just (5 minutes ago) finished “Kafka on the Shore”. I’ll probably read “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” before I read the memoir though. You’ve got me pretty intrigued with “Lunar Park”.

    I’m curious about the remaining six books you didn’t choose to list. Are you really not going to post any more until January?

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Jen — I have a whole WALL of TBR books, essentially floor to ceiling, so don’t expect pity from me. In fact, it’s sort of like frequent flyer miles — having a lot of unread books makes me feel rich.

    Dana — I accidentally deleted your comment — there were literally 137 pieces of spam, and I got kind of robotic with the delete key, and THERE’S NO WAY TO UNDELETE A DELETED COMMENT IN WORDPRESS (sorry for shouting — if anyone knows differently, PLEASE let me know.)

    Lisa — The Murakami book ultimately disappointed me (as I think I said in the review), but what the hell. It’s short. LUNAR PARK is, if nothing else, an extremely original book and an interesting look at the dark side of a writer who has created some very dark characters. However, I also think Ellis was laughing himself silly in places.

    I’ll post another book thing sometime in the next week or two, by way of catching up on July and getting a start at August. And thanks for asking.

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