Greetings from New York City, where I'm visiting for slightly less than 24 hours. My usual host has fled to the other side of the country this week, so I'm camping out at the adorable and funky Pod Hotel, on 51st Street between 2nd and 3rd. I have a room that is approximately the size of a ship's single cabin, with bunk beds, a tiny sink, and a desk just large enough to hold my laptop and a telephone. It's all very clean, and a crazy bargain at $69/night. (You have to share a bathroom, but those are very clean, too — cleaner than the ones in my old gym used to be, anyway.)
Anyway, it occurred to me that it's been a long time since I posted a reading list, and I'm not sure why that is. It's not that I'm reading any less, but more and more of my reading these days is client-directed and/or presumably confidential. Also, I read a string of books at the beginning of the year that I didn't like at all, and I don't see the point of mentioning a book in this blog just to trash it. (Especially when those books, sometimes, are written by people within my circle of acquaintances.)
So here are five books I've read or listened to lately of my own accord, and liked. What have you been reading lately?
1. NETHERLAND by Joseph O'Neill. In the years after the September 11 attack, Hans, a Dutch banker, finds himself alone and unanchored in Manhattan. His wife has gone home to London, taking their young son with her, and he lives neither here nor there, drifting in some unidentifiable middle space. The only things that seem real to him are cricket, which he plays in a league out in Brooklyn, and his friend Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian emigre who dreams of building a cricket stadium in downtown New York. In the present day, the discovery of Ramkissoon's murdered body reminds Hans of this time and this connection, and he tells us the story in a dreamlike memoir that muses on the nature of friendship, nationality, and belonging.
2. THE MAGIC CITY by E. Nesbit. I'd never read any E. Nesbit (no, not even THE RAILWAY CHILDREN, which embarrasses me), so a friend sent me his own childhood favorite. It's quite wonderful, and a natural favorite for anyone who might grow up to be a writer. Peter, whose quiet, happy life with his much-older sister is disrupted when the sister marries a childhood friend, builds a city that becomes real, and offers him and his new sort-of stepsister (or step-niece, officially) Lucy all kinds of adventures. Inspired by Greek mythology and Bible stories, and an obvious precursor to later classic children's novels such as THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH.
3. FOOL by Christopher Moore. Yes, I know I read this book already, but I listened to the audio recording last week, and the audiobook is such a completely different (but equally delightful) experience that I have to recommend it separately. Make no mistake: FOOL is full of what the narrator calls "heinous fuckery," imaginatively bad language, extreme violence and rampant sexual misconduct, and things you might have just skimmed over on the page are far more vivid (and hilarious) on audio.
4. HANNAH'S DREAM by Diane Hammond. A sweet and simple novel about the love between small-town elephant keeper Samson Brown, nearing retirement at 68, and Hannah, the 44-year-old Asian elephant that has been his responsibility for 41 years. Sam needs to retire, but he can't leave Hannah on her own, in a yard too small and with no family. He dreams of a place where she can move freely, with other elephants, and a new keeper has some ideas about how to make it happen. If you can finish this book without shedding a few tears, I don't think we should be friends anymore.
5. THE UNDERGROUND MAN by Ross Macdonald. Another audiobook, my company on yesterday's drive from Maine to Washington, DC. Lew Archer goes looking for a missing six-year-old boy in a town on the California coast where a wildfire is burning out of control. The boy's father turns up dead, and two apparently unconnected young people take the little boy on the run. Archer's investigation leads to the discovery of more dead bodies — some new, some old — and the untangling of 15-year-old secrets. This is late-era Macdonald, and if you've read the earlier books, the answers won't come as a surprise. That's not the point, though; this is Archer in Winter, coming in sorrow rather than in anger, trying to make sense of a society where even the birds can't raise their children to adulthood. The birds, at least, are poisoned by pesticides; the humans are poisoned by their own selfishness.