Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Five Good Books I've Read or Listened to Lately

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.


Tom Ehrenfeld said...

1. The High Window by Raymond Chandler. Just finished in this morning. A later Marlowe, and absolutely wonderful. Tighter than earlier Chandlers that to me are a bit too heavy in their lean-ness, this story of Marlowe tracking down the stolen rare coin the Brasher Doubloon involves yet another cast of seamy LA characters. Naturally the rich are corrupted hot-house flowers who drink too much port and cheat at solitaire, who buy their secrets at the cost of other’s souls, and naturally Marlowe must be the good man on the mean streets restoring a shade of order.

2. The Drowning Pool by Ross MacDonald. I just started reading MacDonald last year. The Dalton Case and the Chill were revelations to me—wonderfully crafted and tightly plotted, with everything tying together marvelously, you can’t help but slap your forehead saying “of course” when you learn how the past has become present. This was a great one, yeah, and a great look at LA in a certain place in time. But I did feel like he was using a few familiar elements in terms of plotting.

3. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. This time on audio, my daughter and I are listening to a terrific reading. There’s just something so delicious about Agatha Christie—the way her characters talk and speak, the way you can know what exactly is going to happen and still marvel at her ability to keep the secret. The first time I read this story about ten folks who die on an island it was to learn who did it; the next time I think it was to enjoy the details; the third time I believe it was to try to learn how she did it. This time (and I can’t even remember if there have been times since) it’s to revel in her dialogue, in the way she jokes about the characters, about her familiar tropes of the reptilian judge and homicidal maniacs.

4. Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll by David Kirby. Kirby is a wonderful poet with an amazing talent of bundling humor, quotidian details, passion for music and art and travel, with poignancy in his poetry, which I absolutely adore. His poem about Little Richard, House of Blue Light is sweet and funny and touching. This non-fiction book works its heart out to make his point that the voice of Little Richard is essentially the voice of America in the late twentieth century, that modern life began with Tutti-Frutti. I love Kirby’s poetry and respect his argument, but there are times when I feel (and don’t tell Kirby!) that reading his non-fiction feels a bit like watching Michael Jordan playing minor league baseball or Quentin Tarantino acting….

5. Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka. I don’t know how I got to this age without knowing anything about the guy who created modern manga. Am reading a big book on the life and art of Tezuka, and as a result got the first two Astro Boy books. What a strange, imaginative, utterly intoxicating experience. A fifty-year old comic about a robot boy who fights for the good of humans and humanity, who battles evil robots with an assortment of powers, not the least of which are machine guns attached to his buttocks.

AnswerGirl said...

Thanks, Tom! I have not read THE HIGH WINDOW, and can't remember whether I've read THE DROWNING POOL, but I believe that book was the basis for the Paul Newman movie "Harper" (why they needed to change his name from Archer to Harper, I don't know).

Tom Ehrenfeld said...

Oh do read the High Window. Nothing to me will match The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye...but this is great stuff (and if I had to say, better than Lady in the Lake or Farewell My Lovely,