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.