Saturday, May 17, 2014

On Treasures and Treasure Houses

I was on my own today in New York City, on my own with no particular place to go and no particular person to do it with, once I’d fed the three bulldogs I’m looking after for my friend Megan. I was in danger of being paralyzed by choice when a friend suggested The Morgan Library — which is what I always suggest to people who have an afternoon free in New York City.

The Morgan Library is an extraordinary place. It is built around the personal collection of a single
man, J. P. Morgan, who was quite possibly the wealthiest man on the planet. (Among other things, he bought out Andrew Carnegie, launched U.S. Steel, and bailed out the U.S. banking system in 1907.) Morgan was curious, energetic, and acquisitive. He had the money to buy the things that interested him, and he was interested in almost everything. Once he had more than would comfortably fit in his own mansion, he asked the architect Charles F. McKim to build him a separate library next to his house, a library that would include a personal office.

“Do you figure it’s haunted?” I asked the security guard who was standing at the entrance to Mr. Morgan’s office. The office is large, but not inappropriately so — no larger than most other executive offices I’ve seen, and smaller than some. It’s dark, with red walls, dark wood and only as much light as would have been available in 1906, although the City had electric light from the mid-1880s. It’s comfortable, and decorated with the pieces I assume he liked best: among other items, a extraordinary 14th century Spanish polyptych, a 15th-century portrait that looks a little like Ian Rankin, and a portrait of the man himself.

“Oh, I think so,” the guard said. “He didn’t live very long after this library was built.” Morgan died in 1913, less than seven years after the completion of the Library. He was 75, on a trip to Egypt and Rome, and his doctors had described him as depressed. (Some have speculated that Morgan's rival, Andrew Carnegie, suffered from what would now be called bipolar disorder; I've never heard that about Morgan, but the man had earned his exhaustion.) He left his collection in the hands of his son, Jack, with the direction only that they be "permanently available for the instruction and pleasure of the American people."

I sat for a while in the original library room (seen above), which has beautiful Art Nouveau skylights, and I thought about how everything, taken to an extreme, becomes the opposite of itself. J.P. Morgan, the richest man in the world, bought as many of the world's intellectual treasures as he could. He bought cuneiform tablets, medieval manuscripts, Thomas Jefferson's correspondence, Jane Austen's portrait. He bought Mozart's handwritten scores and as many copies of the Gutenberg Bible as he could get his hands on (three, two on paper and one on vellum). He bought ancient cylinder seals and fine Gothic metalwork. And he saved it all so that it wouldn't be destroyed, and so his countrymen would be able to come and see it, and study it, and use it to move forward so we wouldn't have to reinvent everything all over again. His extreme acquisitiveness became an unimaginably generous gift.

A case in the original library holds about a dozen examples of late incunabula — the last books created truly by hand, before the invention of movable type. Before movable type made printing (relatively) easy, it took months or years to create a book — so the books that were created were only those deemed critically important for human enlightenment or salvation. Naturally, most of those books were religious documents: bibles, Torahs, the writings of St. Augustine, prayer missals. But the Morgan Library also has a fabulous Italian encyclopedia/dictionary, because the other natural thing to do is to write down all the things you know so future generations don't have to figure these things out for themselves.

What good is that, though, if no one goes looking for the information that's been collected and recorded? Humans have learned how to do great things in our 50,000 years or so of "behavioral modernity," but every few generations, we've also done a great job of forgetting things our ancestors knew. We don't know how the Pyramids were built, or Petra, or Machu Picchu, or Mesa Verde. We haven't been able to recreate Greek fire. Here in the United States right now, we're letting our bridges and highways crumble, and some of our cities fall to ruin. We're bickering about the causes of climate change, but meanwhile doing nothing to defend ourselves against its undeniable effects.

Worse, we're assuming that because the Internet is a giant storehouse of all human knowledge, we don't need to learn things the way we used to. I'm not talking about Common Core (which I don't know much about because I don't have kids in school). I'm talking about my own habits. I don't take notes the way I used to. I don't even pay attention the way I used to, and I certainly don't learn things by heart the way I used to (although you can still try me on "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" after a drink or two). I spent fifteen minutes dithering over a book this afternoon (The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald) because I couldn't remember whether I'd read it or not. I feel like I should have read it; maybe I'll get 30 pages into it and realize that I have. The part of my brain that should remember doesn't any more, because I keep a reading log in Excel. (I bought the book, because that's what J.P. Morgan would have done.) 

The advent of print killed the bardic tradition, and the advent of keyboards has killed the art of penmanship. Thomas Jefferson wrote a beautifully legible hand, which you can see at the Morgan Library. Are computers killing memory? Is the Internet killing libraries?

J.P. Morgan had the world's knowledge in one single building. Theoretically, I have the world's knowledge in the MacBook Pro on my lap. I am not sure I'm better off. I certainly don't have as nice a view.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The View from Room 820

Because objects in motion tend to remain in motion, it should not have surprised me that the gallstones that brought me to the emergency room 10 days ago would continue to wreak havoc. Last week was spent trying to find a balance between extreme discomfort/nausea and a medication level that would let me get my work done, as well as shuttle back and forth to the doctor's for tests and scans. The tests got worse, not better, so when I saw the surgeon at a previously-scheduled appointment yesterday morning, he said, "I think we're going to admit you."

"Look, you're in the penthouse," the hospital auxiliary lady said when she showed me to my room. It's true; I'm on the top floor of the Virginia Hospital Center, with a wall of windows that looks out onto a nice suburban neighborhood. I can see trees and the highrises of Ballston, though it's been pretty gray since yesterday.

The Virginia Hospital Center is rated one of the nation's best hospitals, with good reason. It used to be Arlington Hospital, but was rechristened 10 years ago after a massive renovation/expansion. The buildings are big, clean and shiny, and the staff have been nothing but kind. I'm in a private room, with wi-fi and cable and an IV drip that beeps if I bend my arm wrong.

That said, hospitals are for sick people. I don't think I belong here, or at least I don't want to believe that I do. I spent about an hour (at least, it felt like an hour) in an imaging machine last night, and based on those results I think I'm having some kind of surgical procedure today. I'm really, really hoping to be home tonight, even though my bed at home is not adjustable and the hospital has better cable. I have no big insights from my hospital experience, except the obvious ones: nurses are great. Patient care assistants are great. Twelve hours is probably too long for a shift. Hospitals smell weird.

The one really good thing about all of this is that I have health insurance. God forbid this should have happened last year, when I didn't. 

Thanks to everybody who's called or emailed to express concern. I'm in good hands and should be home soon, tomorrow morning if not tonight.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Gall of It - and March's Reading List

Let the record show that March 2014 was a crummy month for me and many people close to me, and I am glad to see the end of it. (I did manage to salvage the very end of it with a viewing of Muppets Most Wanted in good company.)

Sometime between now and the end of April I will be bidding farewell to my gallbladder, which has become clogged with stones and is interfering with both my liver and my spleen. The medieval attribution of bad temper to those organs is justified; I am uncomfortable and irritable and generally unpleasant to be around right now. You may think it's funny to remark that you notice no difference in my usual demeanor. You may even be correct about this, but please notice that I'm not laughing.

Anyway, I read quite a lot in March. About half of it was work-related and therefore confidential, but here's the list for public consumption.

What I Read in March

Elmore Leonard, RUM PUNCH. I reread this for a book club discussion on Fairfax Public Access Radio at the beginning of the month. I'd thought I remembered it pretty well, but realized that I was remembering the movie Jackie Brown, not the book it was based on. The book is sharper and more violent than the movie, and the central character is not Jackie but Max Forster, the bail bondsman played by Robert Forster in the movie. I hadn't realized that RUM PUNCH itself was a sequel to THE SWITCH, which I haven't read. Anyway, RUM PUNCH is a great novel about midlife and how we decide where to make our stands, as well as being a highly entertaining caper novel.

Alma Katsu, THE TAKER. Alma was the guest author on the radio show I participated in; I'd met her a few years ago at the Virginia Festival of the Book, but am embarrassed that I didn't get around to reading her first novel until now. It's a great historical fantasy romantic epic, in the tradition of Interview with the Vampire and Outlander. Lanore's passion for the young man she can't have drives her from colonial Maine to Boston, and into the arms of the dangerous Adair, who is not what he seems to be. I'm looking forward to reading the next two books in the series.

Lawrence Block, THE BURGLAR WHO COUNTED THE SPOONS. You cannot go wrong with a book about Bernie Rhodenbarr, bookseller and semi-reformed burglar. The latest in the series works on a couple of levels; as a classic whodunit in the tradition of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe (an influence the book openly acknowledges) and as metafiction about the business of bookselling. The theft of a Colonial American spoon turns out to be related to the death of an elderly socialite, but it's much too complicated to explain here, and I'd be depriving you of the fun of reading the book.

Serena Mackesy, HOLD MY HAND. Bridget Sweeny, fleeing her abusive ex-husband, takes a position as housekeeper for a vacation rental property in a remote part of Cornwall. The townspeople warn her about the house, but no one tells her why. Odd things start happening, and Bridget's daughter Yasmin makes a new invisible friend as the house's history forces itself inexorably into the present. Great reading for a blustery winter's night; I do love a good ghost story.

Donna Johnson, HOLY GHOST GIRL. Superagent and eminence grise Dan Conaway, who represents Donna, thought I'd love this book, and he was right. Donna Johnson's mother ran away to join a tent revival when Donna and her brother were tiny, and the children spent their formative years traveling with Brother David Terrell and his followers. As the years passed, Donna came to understand that Brother Terrell was not only her mother's pastor but her lover — and eventually the father of two of her sisters. He thoroughly enjoyed the material benefits of his ministry, and ultimately served time in federal prison for tax fraud. But — and this is what makes this book so compelling — he was also, as far as Donna could tell, a man of great and genuine faith who appeared, at times, to carry miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit to his followers. Donna bears witness to all of this, with an awe-inspiring compassion.

Jo Wood, IT'S ONLY ROCK AND ROLL. I admit I bought this because it was a Kindle Daily Deal, and I needed something mindless. Jo Karslake was a 22-year-old model when she hooked up with Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, and the two were all but inseparable for 30 years until he finally left her for a teenager. The book reads like a book-length People magazine feature, which is not a criticism; it was exactly what I wanted, but weeks later I can barely remember anything about it. I did finish it with the conviction that no one in their right mind would want to be a Rolling Stones' wife or girlfriend.

Declan Hughes, ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE. It's been much too long since we had a new novel from Declan Hughes, and this book won't be out in the US until the summer. You should pick it up, once it's out. It's a standalone, a novel of domestic suspense that taps into the deepest fears of midlife: that we're wrong about everything, from the plans we've made to the people we love and even what we thought we knew about ourselves. Claire Taylor comes home after a week away to discover that her husband, children and belongings are gone, and the family dog is dead in the yard. A day later, a man's dead body is found in the yard, and Claire's husband Danny is the prime suspect.

Gavin Edwards, LAST NIGHT AT THE VIPER ROOM. Halloween is central to the plot of ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE, and it's the heart of this book as well, a nonfiction look at the short life and terrible death of River Phoenix. It's strange to think that was already 20 years ago. The Los Angeles Edwards describes had already changed by the time I got there in 1999, and it's obviously changed even more now; some of it lingers, though, and some of it will repeat itself as long the entertainment industry exists. Edwards places no blame, but shows us River Phoenix as a young man in an environment he had no tools to manage. After reading this book, I want to watch the movie Dogfight, which Phoenix made with Lili Taylor in 1991.

Spencer Quinn, THE DOG WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. I recommend the Chet the Dog books for whenever you're alone and doped up in a hospital emergency room; this is the fourth in the series. Chet, the narrator, is so cheerful and pure of heart that even when things go bad, there's always the possibility of a treat, a game of fetch or a good patting. Chet and his human partner, Bernie, take a job as bodyguard for a single mother who's not telling them her whole story, but wind up hunting for her young son when he goes missing. Late in the book we meet (briefly) a young dog who might turn out to be connected to Chet, so now I have to track down books five and six to find out who this puppy is. Until I can get another dog of my own, Chet and his friends are a happy substitute.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Five Things I Had Forgotten About Virginia Beach

I'm back in Arlington today after eight days in Virginia Beach, which was probably the longest stretch of time I've spent there since I left for college in August 1982. We moved to Virginia Beach when I was seven and I left when I was sixteen, but it's still the closest thing I have to a hometown. My two brothers live there, Mom's grave is there, Dad still keeps an apartment at Chicks Beach. Since Mom's death, though, holiday gatherings tend to be at my sister Peggy's, outside Richmond, and it was usually too much for me to drive the extra 90 miles from Richmond to Virginia Beach.

Now, however, it's 200 miles door to door from my house to James and Sara's, so there'll be a lot of the Southside in my future. In fact, I'll be there on April 12 to see Bruce Springsteen, and I expect to be back a lot over the summer. (Summer traffic is a nightmare, but my work is flexible enough to let me travel at off-hours.)

The City of Virginia Beach has transformed itself in the 30+ years since I left. For one thing, its population has nearly doubled. Construction is constant, a little overwhelming. Most of it looks shoddy, houses of siding and polymer shingles next to my childhood neighborhoods of red brick. (Brick is cheap in Tidewater Virginia, or used to be. The land is clay, and ships from all over the world carried bricks as ballast, and left them behind when they sailed away with tobacco, whiskey and hams.) The whole south half of the city used to be farmland, and some farms remain, but most of the farmers sold out; the money was too good, and everything was cheaper in North Carolina anyway.

Not everything has changed, though. The Virginia Beach SPCA is exactly where it was when my Girl Scout troop visited it, out on Holland Road; back then it felt like a trip to the country, and now it's right off a major intersection. The Willis Furniture sign is still a landmark on Virginia Beach Boulevard, welcoming visitors to the gracious neighborhood of Thalia. The planes over Dam Neck are still deafening, and I still wonder how anyone lives in that flight path. (Lots of people do.)

And a few things I had forgotten, and was glad to remember.

1. Virginia Beach is huge. It used to be Princess Anne County; they turned the whole thing into a city. It's 497 square miles, of which about half is land and about half is water. By comparison, the entire state of Rhode Island is just over 1,200 square miles. "Around the corner" in Virginia Beach means about five miles away.

2. The Virginian-Pilot is a damn fine paper, especially its military coverage. My brother and sister-in-law still get home newspaper delivery, and I had forgotten what a luxury that feels like.

3. It's not all Navy. The Navy is the single largest employer in Virginia Beach and its sister communities of Norfolk, Chesapeake and Portsmouth (Hampton and Newport News too, but they're on the other side of the bridge). If you don't work for the Navy, chances are good that you work for a Navy contractor (as my brother and father do), or for an organization that serves Navy personnel and their families. But the serious money in Hampton Roads isn't Navy, or Navy-related. It's real estate, and some of it goes all the way back to the bad old days. The powers that be in Virginia Beach were there before the Navy and will be there after the Navy is gone. I can't say whether that's good or bad, but I went to school with some of them. It was a good school, with an honor system and a weighty sense of history.

4. Virginia Beach has a lot of churches. A lot. My brothers and sisters and I fought a lot as kids, and my mother would quote her own mother: "See, how these Christians love each other." Well, the sheer number of independent churches in Virginia Beach is pretty good evidence that no matter how much humans might love the Lord, the first thing they're going to do is fight about it. It's kind of impressive that so many individual communities can support so many places of worship, but it's hard not to remember the Tower of Babel when you drive past a whole row of them.

5. Pollard's chicken is still the best. No contest. When I was engaged, we were going to have Pollard's cater the wedding reception. I may never get married, but maybe they can cater my funeral.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

When Kindness Becomes a Commodity

Greetings from Virginia Beach. I've spent the last week down here with family — cancelling my trip to Left Coast Crime, which I'm sorry about, but this was more important — because we're all dealing with the usual life-cycle issues that any big family goes through from time to time. (And while I mention that, fierce congratulations to my cousin Christine and her husband Patrick, who welcomed their third son into the family earlier this week. At last count, I had 21 first cousins; I have lost count of how many first cousins-once-removed I have, but it's somewhere in the dozens.)

My brother James and his wife, Sara, are mourning the death of her mother, Linda, after a long illness. Linda lived with James and Sara in the last years of her life, and we took her into our family as she took us into hers. She was kind and funny and optimistic almost to the very end, and her faith was awe-inspiring.

The last couple of months of her life were terrible and terrifying, as so many cancer deaths are. Sara and James, their daughters Gina and Kristan, our brother Ed, our sister Susan and others saw to her needs, drove her to and from doctors' appointments, and in the end sat by and watched, pushing the pain pump so that she could die in peace, surrounded by people she loved.

Last night James and Sara got a condolence visit from Angela, one of the hospice nurses who had tended to Linda in the last months. This lovely woman came on her own time, after a full day's work, partly to mourn but partly to celebrate Linda's struggle, which Linda believed (and I believe) would end in a homecoming. Sara and Angela talked about one of Angela's colleagues, who had also been a great help, but has quit the hospice service because she just couldn't do it anymore.

"I don't know how you do it," said James. Angela (I swear I'm not making that name up) must hear that all the time, but it's true, because the hospice service here is nearly overwhelmed, and will be increasingly so as the baby boomers age. The nursing shortage is more than a decade old, and although the situation had improved a bit over the last decade, it's about to get a lot worse — a lot worse.

Because let's get serious: could you do that work? I could not. It's hard to imagine who in my circle could, although I know a lot of wonderful people. It's hard enough when it's someone you love; if you've been through it, you know how courage and compassion can fail, how helpless you feel, how exhausting it is, how frankly scary all of this can be. Life is the biological imperative; most of us don't go easily.

It's none of my business how much Angela earns, but apparently the median income for hospice nurses is about $60,000. That's not poverty level, but that shames me. It should shame all of us. No, you can't buy compassion — but God, shouldn't we be rewarding the people who do the hardest work of all, the work that makes us (well, me) shudder and pretend that reading books for a living is work, too?

I have no answers, but this is a conversation we need to be having. Forget missing aircraft, misguided foreign military operations, the latest celebrity divorce, or your outrage about whatever kind of sex people you don't know might be having or not having. We all die. We don't get a choice about that. Who is going to help us on that final journey, and how are we going to pay them?

Many years ago, in a conversation with a friend about my grasshopperish attitude toward money and financial planning, he said, "I'll tell you this: Stephen Spielberg is not going to die in a public hospital ward."

We cannot outsource compassion and care, but we can do a better job of rewarding the people who do it for a living.

Thank you, Angela and all your colleagues. And Linda, safe journey home.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Clean and Clear

This is me.

I don't allow my picture to be taken unless I absolutely cannot avoid it, and this has been true for many years. I feel — yes — shame about what I look like, about the weight I've put on and about the reality of time passing.

I had a short window of about four years, maybe five, in which I was aware that I might be somewhere on the spectrum of what other people considered "pretty." It was intoxicating, though I knew better than to trust it. People who knew me back then will remember my disgusting habit (which embarrasses me to think about, even now) of watching myself in a mirror. Was that me? Was that person me? I didn't know, and I still don't.

Nor have I ever trusted in Cinderella-type transformations: in fancy clothes and/or makeup, I am still my schlumpy self, and always was. I never really had a waist, even when my rib bones showed through my skin. I have Irish legs that drop piano-style right to the ground, without ankles. My feet are absurd, Lego-style rectangles, and the best manicure in the world cannot make my hands look like anything but an aging child's. My hair — well, we've discussed my hair.

For many years, the easiest thing to do about all of this has been to ignore it. It's especially easy in Maine, where common sense calls for as many layers of clothing as you can pile on, and nobody pays attention to what anybody wears, in any case. And I lived — for nine years — in an apartment that did not have a full-length mirror. (No, of course I didn't buy one. Why would I buy one?)

I knew I'd need new clothes when I moved back to D.C., but one of the more painful surprises of moving back to the city has been the omnipresence of mirrors and other reflective surfaces in public places. Conveniently, the loss of peripheral vision means I'm not catching my image out of the corners of my eyes, but sometimes it's just inescapable, and head-on is even more disconcerting. Who is that woman? Do I know her?

Lent started this week, and I began it with something else I haven't done in at least 10 years: I went to Confession. And yes, it was terrifying, but only before I stepped into the stall. Once I sat down with the priest, it was easy, because he was glad to see me and I was glad to be there. The pastor of my church is an older man, a funny man, a man who has seen and forgiven much worse sins than mine — and a man who understands that his job, on behalf of the God we both believe in, is to say, "Welcome home."

So it felt like a strange coincidence — and yes, I'm getting to the point of all of this now — that on Wednesday, the incomparable Laura Lippman posted a photo of herself without makeup to Facebook and Twitter, in order to tell Kim Novak that it was okay to look the way you're supposed to look. She challenged everyone to do the same, and the response has been and continues to be overwhelming.

Erin Mitchell has assembled many of the photos into a video here. Take a few minutes to watch it, and realize what I did: we look like ourselves. It didn't even occur to me to judge how my friends in this video looked, I was just so happy to see them all. I've bookmarked that video and I'm going to watch it whenever I need a little help. Thank you, Laura, and thank you, Erin.

Posting my own photo (above) felt like going to Confession. It cleared me and freed me. No, I don't look the way I wished I did, but it's nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, I can change it if I want to, and maybe I do; I've just finished a three-day whole-foods cleanse that I'll probably adapt for the rest of Lent.

I might even buy a full-length mirror this weekend. (And as I type that I think, but that's just crazy talk.)

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

February's Reading and a New Word

Lent started this morning, and I learned a new word: metanoia, which in a religious context means "repenting," but in the original Greek means "a transformation of mind."

Despite some recent evidence I've seen to the contrary, I don't believe that human beings are naturally lazy or incurious. Look at any group of kindergarteners; they are busy and they want to know why. Where and how do people lose that? What beats it out of them?

I am busy and I want to know why, although I admit to laziness when I think I can get away with it (seldom, when one bills by the hour). This year I want my reading list to reflect that; last year's reading was too closely tied to my work and my personal preferences. But books, if we let them be, are the most powerful tool of mental transformation available.

I still have to read a lot for work, and thus February's list doesn't include a few things I read for clients. But it's more eclectic than usual, and I'm happy about that. Here's to metanoia, not just for Lent.

What I Read in February

Greg Herren, FASHION VICTIM. Although I prefer paper books (hardcover or paperback), I'm not above the temptations of cheap or free downloads. I'm mildly embarrassed that it took a free download for me to read one of Greg's books, because he is a hilarious and thoughtful person and rather intimidatingly prolific. FASHION VICTIM is a romp, a light-hearted mystery that introduces magazine writer Paige Tourneur, who has secrets of her own. The next best thing to a weekend in New Orleans.

Chuck Wendig, BLACKBIRDS. Chuck Wendig is another prolific author whose books I hadn't read yet; I meant to read this last year, but finally got to it because it too was a cheap download. (Yes, I bought from independent booksellers this month, too.) It's the first in a trilogy about Miriam, who can see how people die. Most people have it coming, as Clint Eastwood says in Unforgiven, but when Miriam meets a rare good guy and realizes that his imminent death may be her own fault, everything changes. I am impatient to read the second and third books in this trilogy.

John Straley, COLD STORAGE, ALASKA. The advance readers' copy of this book traveled in the front seat of my car for most of November and December because it was always the book I was going to read next. When the hardcover arrived, I could not put it off any longer, and I was glad I didn't. Cold Storage, Alaska is a tiny fishing/canning town on the Alaskan coast, hundreds of miles from anywhere. Miles McCahon, the town's physician assistant, has mixed feelings about his brother Clive coming home after a prison term. Clive's showing up with a strange dog and a lot of unexplained cash doesn't make Miles feel any better. People might compare this book to Carl Hiaasen, but Straley's voice is his own, and his view of human nature is far more loving and generous. COLD STORAGE, ALASKA made me homesick for Maine.

Dorothea Benton Frank, THE LAST ORIGINAL WIFE. I wanted to like this book. I really did. I loved the first chapter, in which we meet Leslie Carter, who is contemplating ending her marriage of 30 years, and has no compunctions about asking a well-preserved stranger for a referral to her plastic surgeon. Leslie's husband Wesley deserves to be left, no doubt, but Leslie herself is so one-dimensional and self-absorbed that I didn't care whether she'd find true love with her high-school sweetheart. And a howling timeline error — ten missing years — told me nobody read this book very closely before it was tossed to the public. Books like these give fuel to every jerk who looks down on "women's fiction."

Clive Cussler with Grant Blackwood, SPARTAN GOLD. Since I don't take vacations, this book was a great substitute. Professional adventurers Sam and Remi Fargo stumble upon a German mini-submarine in a Maryland swamp, which turns out to be linked to a relic of a broken wine bottle that may have been part of Napoleon's lost cellar. Of course an international supervillain has been searching for this lost cellar, and will do anything to track it down — so Sam and Remi start a chase of their own, from the Caribbean to the Riviera, with Ukrainian strongman Hadeon Bondaruk and his henchman on their heels. I learned a lot from this book, and it was perfect airplane reading, as it let me imagine I was flying to Monaco instead of to JFK.

Dyan Cannon, DEAR CARY: My Life with Cary Grant. I love celebrity memoirs, and I refuse to call them a guilty pleasure. I just want the celebrities to remember something interesting. This charming memoir is fascinating and not a little sad, and would be even if the two people involved hadn't been movie stars. Dyan Cannon was 23 and, by her own account, oddly innocent when she met Cary Grant, who was 58 and had already been divorced three times. Their age difference was so extreme that it took her a while to realize he was courting her, and then even longer to realize he had no intention of marrying her. When she made it clear that she wanted to be married, he agreed, but they might have been better off going their separate ways. Cannon is direct and honest about almost everything, including Grant's LSD use and her own drug abuse, but her casual references to "purging" made me wish she'd been more open about her eating disorder, if that's what it was.

Frank Langella, DROPPED NAMES. Yes, I read two of these in one weekend, immobile on the couch with a sinus infection. It was all I could handle. This book is a feast of anecdotes about Langella's encounters with some of the most famous people of the last century. He met everybody, and slept with a lot of them: Noel Coward, Rita Hayworth, John F. Kennedy, Yvonne DeCarlo, and on and on. With one exception, everyone he talks about in this book has died; even the last survivor, Bunny Mellon, is no longer able to contradict him. But Langella is insightful, even as he's being brutally honest. His portrait of Anthony Perkins is loving (though coy; he hints at experimentation with men, but confesses nothing), and his description of his flirtation with Elizabeth Taylor is wistful and compassionate. He also makes no bones about being a complete monster in his own right — but what a life, what a book.

Saira Shah, THE MOUSE-PROOF KITCHEN. I read this book in one long insomniac night, and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. Anna, an ambitious London chef, is married to Tobias, a scattered but talented composer. Their first child is born with birth defects so severe that both Anna and Tobias consider leaving the baby at the hospital, and never bringing her home at all. Instead, they buy a ramshackle farmhouse in rural France, and try to make something out of their shattered dreams. Saira Shah herself has a child with profound disabilities, which makes any criticism I have of this novel feel like criticism of the author's own parenting, although Shah has emphasized in every interview that she and her partner are not Anna and Tobias. The book sometimes feels almost too honest, but Anna and her family are saved by the intervention of characters who feel a little too much like "magical natives," and I'm not sure I bought the ending. Like all good books, it told me things about myself I might not have wanted to know.

Laura Lippman, AFTER I'M GONE. I was a fan of Laura Lippman's books before I met her, and am grateful to call her a friend. Even so, this is quite possibly her best book, which is saying something. Small-time gangster Felix Brewer disappears on July 4, 1976, but this book isn't about that. It's about what happens after he's gone — to his wife, Bambi; to their three daughters; but most of all to his girlfriend Julie, who disappears herself ten years later, only to be found in an advanced state of decomposition in 2001. Sandy Sanchez, a retired Baltimore detective who works cold cases for extra money, decides to look into what happened to Julie, and Lippman takes us through the 30+ years of the Brewer women's lives without Felix. Every character here is starring in her own life story, and the truth turns out to be something that happened while they were doing that — in fiction, as in film, as in life, so much is about whatever you happen to be looking at, at any given moment. No, I'm not going to explain that any further. Just read this book.