Bookshelf – Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (2)

This is a short observation about reading vs. listening:

When I first read “Between the World and Me” three years ago (a bit late to the game), its unblinking directness astounded me and my truculent ignorance ashamed me. I wrote:

“There are sounds in life so distinct and universal they cannot be mistaken for anything else – the tumble and hiss of heavy surf onto sand, the guttural reverb of distant thunder, the ominous hustle of night winds through tall trees.

“To these voices of the world I would add that of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who speaks through the pages of this epistolary essay about blackness and whiteness in America with such honesty and authenticity that from now on I will measure the veracity of all other literary voices against his.”

Just the other day, I listened to Coates’s narration of the book and found it to be even more profound. His voice, eloquent, educated, but still inflected by the streets of West Baltimore, amplifies the wisdom, truth and necessity of his written words. Heard aloud, their poetry flourishes even further, as does their urgency.

If you have not read Between the World and Me, I urge you to do so. If you have read it, I suggest you also listen to it.

(Original review)

Bookshelf — Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder – Salman Rushdie

All memoirs should be measured against this harrowing account by Salman Rushdie of the 2022 attack that nearly killed him and left him half-blind: detailed, unblinking, contextual, and surprisingly soulful – all packed with precision into two-hundred pages.

To hijack a phrase I’m sure I picked up from someone else’s review: “Knife” is a display of Rushdie in full command of his talents: inventiveness, intellectual breadth, insight into the foibles of humanity, and an emotional spectrum that runs from anger to fear to love to outrage.

Rushdie lived beneath the sword since 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for his execution, proclaiming that Rushdie’s book, “The Satanic Verses,” defamed Muhammad.  With time, the threat seemed to diminish. Still, says Rushdie, he was not surprised one day, while standing on stage, to see a young man appear from the audience and lunge toward him with a knife.

“I confess,” he says, “I had sometimes imagined my assassin rising up in some public forum or other and coming for me in just this way. So my first thought when I saw this murderous shape rushing toward me was: So it’s you. Here you are. It is said that Henry James’s last words were ‘So it has come at last, the distinguished thing.’ Death was coming at me, too.”

The book begins here and follows Rushdie’s journey of recovery and rediscovery – of who he is, of what he loves and why, and of the importance of art and honesty in a pluralistic society.

“I had to write the book you’re reading now.” he says, “before I could move on to anything else. To write would be my way of owning what had happened, taking charge of it, making it mine, refusing to be a mere victim. I would answer violence with art.”

Indeed, “Knife” is art – it is personal, yet universal; it is wisdom distilled from pain; it answers the question everyone must face when calamity confronts them: “One has to find life … One can’t just sit about recovering from near death. One has to find life.”

Bookshelf — The Reformatory, Tananarive Due

I tried to make it to the end of this mash-up novel of ghosts and racists and the mid-century-America Black folks they haunt, but I didn’t. A couple of hundred pages short of the finish I realized I held in my hands an excellent three-hundred-page book that, unfortunately, sprawled across more than five hundred pages.

And that’s a shame.

The story of “The Reformatory” is based in part on the experience of the author’s great uncle, who was remanded to the infamous Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, the violent institution that was also the setting of Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Nickel Boys,” a powerful book that won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The two works differ in many ways (the ghosts, for example), but mainly in scope: Colson weaves a taut story, Due spins an overly complex web.

To be sure, my opinion is not widely held. On Goodreads, “The Reformatory” averages four-and-a-half stars. I gave it two, and here’s why:

During my first weeks as a newspaper reporter I scribbled what I thought was a first-rate piece of American journalism. After turning it into the desk, the crusty city editor shoved the pages back to me after scanning a few hundred words. What’s the problem with it? I asked, expecting some specific criticism about sources or emphasis. She withered me with a look rooted in years of suffering idiots, and said simply, “Too many words.”

Bookshelf – Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

This is a beautiful, emotionally challenging book about what happens when the complex pull of family abuts the hard truths of the world: Life is not fair, some people can’t escape suffering, and misplaced solace, no matter how inviting, often leads to more pain.

These truths, depicted with both savage and elegant bluntness by Jesmyn Ward, made “Salvage the Bones” hard to read. As calamity upon calamity falls upon the 15-year-old narrator, her three brothers, and their father, a family less alive than surviving, I wondered, alternately angered by the injustice and saddened by the grinding inevitability of their fate, How can anyone live like this? How can we morally allow our neighbors to live like this?

For the family – daughter Esch, sons Randall, Skeetah, and Junior, and Daddy – the questions are existential. It is 1995, and their Mississippi bayou town sits in the sights of Hurricane Katrina. However, the coming threat remains secondary to the urgencies of daily life: Esch’s need for love, Skeetah’s dog-fighting dreams, Randall’s basketball fantasy. Only Daddy tries to prepare – until he cannot.

What Ward does so well is not blink before the storm. She infuses her powerful prose with blood. She highlights sibling tenderness and then stains it with feral immorality: stealing is sanctioned, as is drunkenness, animal cruelty, and sexual abuse. She offers no hope, only endurance – which, as it turns out, is the more useful tool.

“Salvage the Bones” rewards those who persist, those who endure its harder passages. The closing section of the book, when Katrina engulfs the town, is a potent literary punch, mighty words crafted in full flex. Along with roads and houses and land, the storm sweeps away pain. What it leaves behind are better angels who emerge under the clearing skies and discover within them yet another truth: Life goes on. Dawn brings a new day.

Bookshelf – Brooklyn, Colm Tóibín

In 1951, Eilis Lacey, against her wishes, leaves the small Irish town she’d hoped to spend her life in and boards a steamship bound for America.

Once in Brooklyn, she finds the familiar comforts of family replaced by the random cattiness of a rooming-house. Her dream of being a bookkeeper lays idle while she puts in six-day weeks at a department store, work arranged by the parish priest.

As the months go by, she begins to ground herself, only to be wooed by a young man, an Italian-American. Things happen fast until, suddenly, with Eilis facing pressure from her beau, what’s done can’t be undone.

In this sense, Eilis’s story is a universal story. In post-War America, especially in working-class communities fed by immigrants, the roles of men and women were well-scripted – by family, by church, and by social norms. So it is unsurprising that Eilis so willingly allowed these constraints (which bound women much more so than men) to remake her so easily.

Eilis Lacey is an untethered soul; she is adrift on the river of life, her own hand never on the tiller.

The chapters that follow Eilis’s transformation from wide-eyed hick to nascent New Yorker engage the most. Tóibín’s clear, clean writing makes for good storytelling, and I rooted for Eilis to navigate the labyrinth of her new life. Which she mostly does.

Then, as the book rounds the final turn, Eilis finds herself in a complex situation that compels her, in the course of a few pages, to chuck all she’s accomplished in America in exchange for the “sweetness, certainty and innocence” of the old sod.

I felt gob-smacked, ready to so some chucking of my own, namely some of the appreciation I’d gained for “Brooklyn.” I didn’t, though. It’s a matter of choice. I wouldn’t have ended the book as it does, but, that said, I didn’t write it.

So … yes, read “Brooklyn,” especially if you plan to read “Long Island,” Tóibín’s new sequel to the meanderings of Eilis Lacey. “Brooklyn” is enjoyable and insightful, and whether the ending sits right with you will depend on your palate and patience.

Bookshelf — On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan

If there is one indelible line among the many memorable words that form this compact novel, it is this: “The entire course of life can be changed – by doing nothing.”

Edward and Florence are newlyweds. They are “young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.”

The couple is as inexperienced at communication as they are in the carnal arts. Their courtship was “bound by protocols never agreed or voiced, but generally observed;” in other words, they had friendship – but no benefits. Florence abhors the notion of sex. She does not want to be “entered or penetrated,” verbs she found in a how-to handbook for brides. Edward, his perception warped by priapic frustration, misinterprets Florence’s reticence as a dormancy awaiting a passionate reawakening.

Perched uneasily aboard their honeymoon bed in an inn overlooking Chesil Beach in Dorset, England, Edward and Florence attempt to reconcile their fantasies – he yearning for relief from his passive torment, she determined dutifully to grin and, ahem, bare it. Then, in an instant, these dreams collide, revealing sharp edges that had been hidden behind the dullness of cordiality.

“On Chesil Beach” is set 1962, “when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure.” McEwan, as artful as ever in nuance, and as theatrical as necessary when the tension tightens, captures the era perfectly: Edward and Florence are innocents, duped by cultural norms and lacking the means – neither language, patience nor honesty – to overcome their entrapment.

 “On Chesil Beach” is a penetrating story of loss – of love, of opportunity, and of saying the right words at the right time. I highly recommend it.

Bookshelf – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

If you believe everybody’s broken in some way, or at least capable of being riven by life’s random tribulations, then you will bond with Eleanor Oliphant.

Nine years ago, Eleanor showed up for a job interview with “a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm,” got hired nonetheless, and, at age 30, alone and hermetic, holds her fractured self together through rigid routine, harsh dismissal of others, and wet weekends of self-dosing with bottom shelf vodka.

Eleanor is far from fine; she’s a mess. She’s also the keeper of horrific secrets rooted in past violence.

Yet, Eleanor yearns to be more, and thanks to a series of chance encounters with open-hearted people who look beyond her physical disfigurement and emotional deep-freeze, she slowly morphs, leaning more and more into life’s small pleasures. Ah, the kindness of strangers – such magical medicine.

Eleanor could be a caricature (another heroine of the “resurrection” genre) but Honeyman humanizes her via clever, direct writing that mostly scrubs the narrative clean of cringeworthy gasps and heart-tugs. She also astutely perceives of what it means to be different in a society where normality is prized perhaps even more than celebrity.

“A nose that’s too small and eyes that are too big,” says Eleanor in self-appraisal. “Ears: unexceptional. Around average height, approximately average weight. I aspire to average … I’ve been the focus of far too much attention in my time. Pass me over, move along please. Nothing to see here.”

But there is much to see in the pages of “Eleanor Oliphant.” It is an enjoyable mix of mystery and empathy, fun to read, but also a reminder that we humans are ourselves books whose content cannot be divined by our crumpled covers.

Bookshelf – Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman

What if?

There is hardly a more revolutionary question. All human accomplishment rises from this two-syllable query, both beneficial and malevolent. The seeds of tools, language, art, philosophy, and science always sprout from an imagining of possibility.

In this context, think of young Albert Einstein, on the verge of publishing his famous formula, his mind churning with dreams about “the many possible natures of time.”  What if, he wonders, that unlike our familiar concept of linear time, there are worlds in which “time is a circle, bending back on itself,” or where people live just one day or, the opposite, live forever? What would life be like in such worlds?

In “Einstein’s Dreams,” physicist and novelist Alan Lightman answers that question with short, fantastical scenarios that presume how other versions of time would shape human behavior. In one imagined world, for example, where time advances more slowly at higher altitudes, the wealthy occupy the most vertiginous terrain in order to live longer. In another world, one without future, “each laugh is the last laugh” and “beyond the present lies nothingness (so) people cling to the present as if hanging from a cliff.”

In each tableau, people do what they always do: some conform to the demands of time out of greed or fear or simple acquiescence, others choose their own paths, occupying eddies of tranquility amid the surging river of time. These choices offer meditative lessons for your consideration.

Lest “Einstein’s Dreams,” seem too wonky, I assure you it is not. Lightman writes in spare, entertaining language whose rhythmic nature at times flirts with poetry. It is highly descriptive and fun to read.

Bookshelf – Liliana’s Invincible Summer, Cristina Rivera Garza

Cristina Rivera Garza stands in a Mexico City police station, asking for the case file on her younger sister, Liliana, who was murdered thirty years earlier. The indifferent clerk tells her, “Do not believe for a minute that records live forever.”

Without this file, Rivera Garza fears Liliana’s “experience on earth will be as good as nothing, Her memory erased.” That moment, she says, “is when I realized that I must write, I must replace this file … this is the split second in which I understand how writing defies the state.”

The result is this sobering and multi-layered account of Liliana’s murder, likely by her jealous boyfriend, of the plague of femicides in Mexico, and of Rivera Garza’s search not only for justice, but for a sisterly understanding of who Liliana really was and why she was killed.

Rivera Garza, a prolific author and a professor at the University of Houston, achieved only a part of her quest. She never found the case file and the prime suspect, Ángel González Ramos, remains at large. She does, though, preserve Liliana’s life and frames her death in preceding years of abuse.

Using Liliana’s own words, found in letters and notebooks, and interviews with university friends, Rivera Garza follows her sister’s breadcrumbs from high school, when she first met the man accused of killing her, to when, at age 20, “femicide violence arrived one night at my sister’s house … placed a pillow over her face, and took her life.”

If there is a singular emotion that infuses “Liliana’s Invincible Summer,” it is anger. Rivera Garza creates streaming, rhythmic sentences that sizzle with such rage they beg to be read aloud – not just about Liliana’s death, but also about the values in her native country that consider a woman’s wife to be lesser than that of a man’s.

In Mexico, she writes, “Femicide is a hate crime, one committed against women because they are women. Ten of them take place in Mexico every single day, leaving a trail of heartbreak perceived by impunity and flanked by indignation.”

“Liliana’s Invincible Summer” is an amalgam – part Liliana’s writing, part reporting, part memoir. The latter two propel and deepen the story and the first (which I found to be overly extensive) provides the perspective of a young woman navigating a difficult and ultimately dangerous relationship. In combination, they create a powerful book.

Bookshelf: James, Percival Everett

Some books are so good – and so widely praised – that not much needs to be said about them. James is such a book.

A reimagining of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that puts Jim, the runaway slave, at the center of the story instead of Huck, James is a fast-paced, compelling, and moving novel. It is also, because of its clear, descriptive writing and its forceful, focused narration, a rarity, a gem that glistens amid the slag heap of mediocrity that holds most current popular fiction (sequel-driven dross churned out by publishing houses that believe no story can be told too often as long as it turns a buck. End rant.)

I read James in two sittings and had I not needed to sleep (or drink whiskey) I could have finished it in one. The story had me from get-go when Jim code-switches from the shuffling, submissive, yes-suh-ing enslaved man he presents to white folks to, when with other Blacks, an erudite, educated husband and father who reads Voltaire and instructs children in linguistic survival skills.

During one lesson, for example, Jim asks: What do you say if you see a white women’s house on fire:

“Fire, fire,” said one child.

“Direct. And that’s almost correct,” I said.

The youngest of them, lean and tall five-year-old Rachel, said, “Lawdy, missum! Looky dere.”

“Perfect,” I said. “Why is that correct?”

Lizzie raised her hand. “Because we must let the whites be the ones who name the trouble.”

“And why is that,” I asked.

February said, “Because they need to know everything before us. Because they need to name everything.”

More than anything, Jim continues, we need to make sure white people feel good.

“And the better they feel, the safer we are,” says a child.

“February, translate that.”

“Da mo’ betta dey feel, da mo’ safer we be.”

This mechanism of portraying the intellectually free inner being held in chains by the need of his owned outer self to survive is a more powerful and impactful depiction of slavery’s horror than any description of a lashing or a lynching. The latter kills, the former erases a life while it is still in progress – a living death.

There is plenty more to read about James online, and I encourage you to do so. I suggest also you read about Twain and the original book, both its acclaim and its criticism. Of course, I urge you to read “James” itself because more than anything it does what all special books do: it educates while it entertains.

Bookshelf – Annie Bot, Sierra Greer

Be careful what you wish for, wheezes the cautionary bromide, or you just might find yourself overcome by it.

This vexatious thought traverses the easily troubled mind of Doug, a thirty-ish New York bro possessing no last name but enough cash to buy what he always wanted: the perfect girlfriend, a beauty who cooks and cleans and services his libidinous desires, doing it all with the smiling compliance of a high-class robot, which, in fact, is what she is.

In Annie’s company, Doug has never been better fed or better bedded – especially since he had Annie designed to look just like his ex. Being autodidactic, Annie becomes more and more humanlike, which also thrills Doug – until she acquires some of the lesser qualities of the species.

Annie is a Stella, a sentient blend of a CPU, AI, and a human embryo. She is capable of being a nurturing nanny, an efficient housekeeper, or an insatiable pleasure partner when switched to Cuddle Bunny mode, Doug’s preferred option. She is the best $220,000 can buy.

Danger, Will Robinson!

It turns out the complexities of human relationships remain intact even when one of the partners needs to carry a charging station with her. When “Annie Bot” moves beyond the story of a boy with a toy (these passages are NSFW), it reaches for a morality tale of endangered male dominance vs. awakening female independence – the eternal clash of the chromosomes. At minimum, “Annie Bot” is a well-told preview of an inevitable future. At its best, it is an admonitory tale of powerful machines possessing the failings of the humans who design them.

“Annie Bot” is Greer’s first published book, and there are moments where this shows through (what does Doug do for living? why is Annie alternately bold and timorous? who is that guy at the end?), but there are not enough lapses not to recommend the book.

Bookshelf – Be Mine, Richard Ford

My father, who served all of his jokes with a side of corn, would look up from the morning newspaper after reading the obit of some well-known person and lament with mock horror to my mother, “El, people are dying who never died before!”

And therein lies the fundamental flaw with life. No, not Dad Jokes – but dying. Life comes with an expire date. It’s non-renewable. No refills, no second-helpings, no do-overs. Living is, quite literally, a once in a lifetime opportunity.

In “Be Mine,” a father and son share a road trip whose final destination is – ahem – one where every man has gone before. The father is Frank Bascombe, Richard Ford’s Boomer Everyman, who in four previous novels traversed careers and marriages. Now, at age 74, he is behind the wheel of a rented RV chauffeuring his 47-year-old son, Paul, diminished by Lou Gehrig’s disease, across the cold, upper heartland of America.

The father and son are an odd couple. Amid the dissonant commercial clutter of malls and corn-country crossroads, Frank stoically seeks philosophical answers to eternal questions: What is good? (“the absence of bad”); he also longs for the comfort of intimacy, but he looks for love in all the wrong places, including a Vietnamese massage parlor near the Mayo Clinic. Paul, in contrast, is on-the-spectrum manic, grasping at whatever glitters, embracing the ephemera of roadside attractions to compensate for the drip-drip-drip of his coming demise.

Frank and Paul are dying – who isn’t? – but tomorrow’s death does not preclude today’s happiness. As Frank says, “… to go out the door and not bother with being happy is to give life less than its full due. Which, after all, is what we’re here for. To give life its full due, no matter what kind of person we are. Or am I wrong?”

Reviews of “Be Mine” were mixed. “It’s hard to see a better novel being published this year,” said one newspaper critic; the “thinnest and least persuasive of the Bascombe novels,” opined another. I lean more toward the former, in part because I cannot compare this novel sharply enough with “The Sportswriter” and “Independence Day,” which I read years ago, but more so because many of the “chin-stroking proverbs” that Frank utters in a laconic acceptance of our inevitable end seem less like clichés than hard-won truths, loving cups earned during the long game of life.

 “Be Mine” is not a perfect book (is there such a thing?), but it is rich with observation and insight whose value is not attenuated by repetition. The experiences of Frank and Paul, some humorous, some sad, some hard, seem, in a word, authentic. Yes, there is some drag at the end, but not enough for me not to recommend it, especially to anyone struggling with the vagaries of aging, be them their own or those of a fellow traveler.

Bookshelf – Generation Loss, Elizabeth Hand (2007)

There’s not much to like about Cass Neary, the New York photographer who anchors this intriguing, uneven, but ultimately entertaining mystery of artistic crime. If she’s awake, she’s lying. When you’re not looking, she’s stealing. Her anger is always on the prowl, seeking any whiff of a slight. She is high much of the time and when she’s not, she’s drunk. “I have,” she says, “as many words for ‘hangover’ as an Inuit has for snow.”

Cass was a star at age 20, famous for photographing the human detritus of the city’s punk era: needles in arms, semi-public sex, and young bodies, dead from ODs on the streets. Three years later, her fame is flamed out. Emotionally cauterized by a rape, doped into stagnation, she can’t make pictures anymore. And when she does try, she is told her images are both passé and overly violent.

“It’s too raw,” a gallery rep says. “It’s too much like being right inside someone’s head.”

“It is inside someone’s head,” Cass answers. “It’s the inside of my head.”

Rejected and angered, Cass retreats. Two decades later she remains sheltered — working in a bookstore stockroom, hiding out from everything but her rage – when an opportunity arrives via an old friend: a magazine assignment to interview and photograph a reclusive photographer, Aphrodite Kamestros, who published two books of dark, haunting images and then disappeared to an island off the coast of Maine. Cass is reluctant, but takes the job because Aphrodite’s work was a guiding spirit of Cass’s own.

From this point on Cass steps through the looking glass into a world where nothing is what, or who, it seems to be. Contrary to the Maine farmer’s oft-quoted quip, “you can’t get there from here,” in Cass’s version of Maine you can definitely get there, but you probably shouldn’t go.

Heavy with colorful dialog, the story sprints through an obstacle course of missing persons, aging hippies, clannish townsfolk, and artists in the clutch of malevolent muses. With a few exceptions, it’s all fun stuff.

“Generation Loss” has pretensions of being more than just a mystery – and it fulfills some of them when it describes the magic of seeing and making photographs (especially with film) – but it works just fine as a somewhat edgy, somewhat quirky whodunit.

Bookshelf – The Gathering, Anne Enright

Some people carry so much drag and ache and dread that they cannot separate the weight from themselves. They are what they suffer.

The fate of these tormented beings, thinks Veronica Hegarty as she laments the death of her brother, Liam, older by only eleven months and drowned by his own hand in the cold of the English Channel, is imprinted in their bones.

“History is biological, that’s what I think,” says Veronica as her family gathers in Dublin for Liam’s wake. “What is written for the future is written in the body, the rest is only spoor.”

What Liam bore, etched into his marrow, was the scar of a terrible incident that befell him when he was nine, a moment witnessed by Veronica. Liam lives with pain, Veronica with shame. “After a lifetime of spreading the hurt around,” she thinks, “(Liam) managed to blame me. And I managed to feel guilty.”

Veronica feels guilt for her escape from the claustrophobic environment of a family of a dozen children, a mother vanishing into herself, and a rough-cut father. She made it to the middle class. Liam, her soulmate, didn’t. He drank and practiced enough general fecklessness to earn labels like gurrier, messer, and thug from even his siblings.

Liam’s death unleashes not only Veronica’s memories of what happened that fateful day in her grandmother’s house, but also brings to the boil long-simmering dissatisfactions with her own “normal” life – materially rich, emotionally impoverished.

“The Gathering” asks some patience of the reader. Veronica, seeking to make sense of her brother’s death, hopscotches through the calendar — her grandmother’s time, her own childhood, the present, when she is 39. Hard things happen, and both their overhang and portent infuse the story with a heaviness, but it is tolerable because nothing occurs in the story that couldn’t occur to anyone at any time in real life. It is the heaviness of being human.

Enright is a masterful writer and a pleasure to read. The narration is almost elegiac, but also precise and not at all wimpy. When, for example, Veronica speaks of her jumbled sex life, Enright endows her with schoolyard language that shocks with directness. In all, “The Gathering” is as complicated and mysterious as life itself, and just as rewarding.

Bookshelf – Amsterdam, Ian McEwan

To adhere to the adage: sometimes bad things happen to good people, and these tragedies we bemoan. But what of those calamities that also happen to fall on bad people, do we exchange our lament for applause?

They had it coming! So cry those who believe revenge is sweet, no matter at what temperature it is served.

I stumbled upon “Amsterdam” during a recent library visit. Its author and its svelte form called from the “recommended” rack. The book was a fortuitous find, a – per the New York Times – “morality fable, disguised as a psychological thriller,” one told with the descriptive, perceptive precision found in McEwan’s novels.

The story is that of two Londoners, a symphony composer, Clive, and a newspaper editor, Vernon, who find themselves outside of a crematorium on chilled winter’s day. Both are ambitious, both stand at the apex of their respective games (a location that hints of future diminishment), and both are former lovers of the deceased, one Molly Lane, a tempestuous woman of fierce carnal appetites whose other paramours included the current Foreign Secretary of Great Britain.

Molly took ill and died rapidly, and her abrupt descent from eros to ashes shakes Clive and Vernon. The composer feels the cold clamp of mortality on his hand as he struggles to complete his greatest symphonic achievement; the journalist feels invisible amid the chaos of daily publishing and the need to swap ethics for more readers. Neither wants to go out as Molly did, under the incarcerating care of another, so they make a euthanasia pact: When one approaches the brink of the abyss, the other will, painlessly, nudge him into it.

Little more can be said about the plot without revelation. But there is deviousness, cowardice, and avarice, and each exacts a price from Clive and Vernon. McEwan guides the story with expert assuredness, and it is a delight to follow him to a clever, satisfying ending that leaves just enough left unsaid to make you wish for a few more pages.

Bookshelf — My Year in Reading, 2023

If you scan the list below, you will see a wide range of fiction (I only read four non-fiction works) that can be more or less divided into three parts – well-known literary-ish novels I’d never read (“The Lying Life of Adults,” “Rabbit, Run,” “The End of the Affair”); newer popular works (“Small Mercies,” “Crook Manifesto”); and audiobooks, which are exclusively crime, and mostly by Michael Connolly (background noise for the gym).
As I have since the pandemic (remember that?) when I told myself to take more reading risks, I reveled in the discovery of writers who fall outside my previously narrow comfort zone, among them: Elena Ferrante, (more) Rachel Cusk), Rabih Alameddine (amazing), and Eudora Welty). Their work widened my world view and heartened my belief that in reading we can find the humanity that is too often hidden amid the atrocity and hatred of our times.
I only dropped out of two books, of which the biggest disappointment was “Kairos” by Jenny Erpenbeck, which I’d looked forward to because I’d loved her previous work, “Go Went Gone.”
People ask about favorites, a list I find hard to delineate because my tastes vary so much. For me, reading is all all-you-can-eat buffet: who’s to say if the mountain of mashed potatoes is better than the thick slabs of sliced roast beef or the gurgling vat of mac and cheese? Still, one must choose, so in lieu of favorites, I offer some of the books that most delighted or surprised me: 

Non-fiction: “On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey” – Paul Theroux, a marvelously descriptive and insightful road trip by a septuagenarian explorer through our complex southern neighbor.
Fiction (in no order): “My Monticello” (a magnetic mirror on the world); “The Wrong End of the Telescope” (phenomenal); “Signs Preceding the End of the World” (the bizarre realities of the US-Mexico borderlands); “The Swimmers” (beautiful simplicity); “The Sentence” (I hope to read all of Erdrich); “Small Mercies” (powerful); “The Great Believers” (so real); “Train Dreams” (a tasty morsel); and “Ask the Dust” (more John Fante, please).

Finally, for me audiobooks are mostly filler, but one set of them made me realize I’ve been overlooking one of the world’s most popular authors: The “Mr. Mercedes” series by Stephen King. Good writing, great storytelling. (The trilogy also includes “Finders Keepers” and “End of Watch.”
The List, 2023:
1.     The Feral Detective – Jonathan Lethem
2.     Hell of a Book – Jason Mott
3.     The Black Echo – Michael Connelly *
4.     Ill Will – Dan Chaon
5.     The Black Ice — Michael Connelly *
6.     When the Killing’s Done – T.C. Boyle
7.     Northern Spy – Flynn Berry
8.     The Concrete Blonde – Michael Connelly *
9.     Nightmare Alley – William Lindsay Gresham
10.  The Last Coyote – Michael Connelly *
11.  The Survivors – Jane Harper
12.  Chances Are … – Richard Russo
13.  Trust the Plan, The Rise of QAnon and the Conspiracy That Unhinged America – Will Sommer
14.  My Monticello – Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
15.  The Searcher – Tana French *
16.  The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
17.  Trunk Music – Michael Connelly *
18.  On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey – Paul Theroux
19.  The Poet – Michael Connelly *
20.  The Wrong End of the Telescope – Rabih Alameddine
21.  Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera
22.  To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee *
23.  The Swimmers – Julie Otsuka
24.  Since We Fell – Dennis Lehane
25.  Angels Flight – Michael Connelly *
26.  Telephone – Percival Everett
27.  Ladydi (Spanish) – Jennifer Clement
28.  Dead Lions (Slough House #2) – Mick Herron
29.  A Darkness More than Night – Michael Connelly
30.  Kudos – Rachel Cusk
31.  The Children Act – Ian McEwan
32.  Kindred – Octavia Butler
33.  I Will Find You – Harlan Coben *
34.  The End of the Affair – Graham Greene
35.  City on Fire – Don Winslow *
36.  City of Bones – Michael Connelly *
37.  An Unnecessary Woman – Rabih Alameddine
38.  The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler *
39.  The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
40.  Ask the Dust – John Fante
41.  This Dark Road to Mercy – Wiley Cash
42.  Lost Light – Michael Connelly *
43.  Real Tigers (Slough House #3) – Mick Herron *
44.  The Sentence – Louise Erdrich
45.  Giant – Edna Ferber
46.  Spook Street (Slough House #4) – Mick Herron *
47.  Murder on the Red River – Marcie R. Rendon
48.  The Narrows – Michael Connelly *
49.  Empire of Wild – Cherie Dimaline
50.  The Closers – Michael Connelly *
51.  Small Mercies – Dennis Lehane
52.  Crook Manifesto – Colson Whitehead
53.  London Rules – Mick Herron *
54.  Am I Alone Here – Peter Orner
55.  Kairos – Jenny Erpenbeck **
56.  The Optimist’s Daughter – Eudora Welty
57.  Parrot in the Oven – Victor Martinez
58.  Joe Country – Mick Herron *
59.  Mystic River – Dennis Lehane
60.  The Lost Daughter – Elena Farrante
61.  War Trash – Ha Jin
62.  Echo Park – Michael Connelly *
63.  No One Will See Me Cry – Cristina Rivera-Garza
64.  Train Dreams – Denis Johnson
65.  Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
66.  Mr. Mercedes – Stephen King *
67.  The Lying Life of Adults – Elena Ferrante
68.  Killers of the Flower Moon – David Grann *
69.  The Dog of the South – Charles Portis
70.  If I Survive You – Jonathan Escoffery
71.  All the Sinners Bleed – S.A. Cosby
72.  Finders Keepers – Stephen King *
73.  Old God’s Time – Sebastian Barry
74.  Chain Gang All-Stars — Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
75.  End of Watch – Stephen King *
76.  Bluebird, Bluebird – Attica Locke
77.  Fear is Just a Word – Azam Ahmed **
78.  Among the Bros – Max Marshall
79.  The Lincoln Lawyer – Michael Connelly *
80.  A Line in the Sand – Kevin Power
81.  The Lost Americans – Christopher Bollen
82.  Rabbit, Run – John Updike
83.  Heaven, My Home – Attica Locke
84.  Slough House – Mick Herron *
85.  The Power of the Dog – Don Winslow
 * Audio
** Did not finish

Bookshelf – Rabbit, Run, John Updike

Since I am of an age where secrets have long lost their utility, I am only somewhat abashed to admit that until now I’d not read any of John Updike’s “Rabbit” novels. Blame this oversight on, first, the ignorance sired by youthful arrogance and, then later, a senescent narrowing of perspective.

“Rabbit Run,” the first of the quartet, arrived in 1968 to both coy acclaim and snooty dismissal (a “shabby domestic tragedy” croaked the New York Times, despite being “artful and supple”). At the time I was a truculent teenager awhirl in the rejection of everything conventional, so I knew nothing of Updike and could have cared less about the angst of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. The second novel, “Rabbit Redux,” came out in 1971, still before maturity bloomed in me. And, by the time “Rabbit is Rich” (1981) and “Rabbit at Rest” (1990) appeared, I’d cast Updike onto the dusty reaches of my father’s bookshelf, like Cheever, Roth, and Bellow.

An advantage of advanced maturity (there are not many) is the ability to do an accounting of the errors of the previous decades and, if lucky, rectify them, which I have done in a small way by reading and being amazed by “Rabbit Run.”

The novel ranks high in many academic curricula and is therefore endlessly analyzed, so I have nothing sagacious to add to what is already written about Updike’s commentary on the constrictions of religion, the expectations of male responsibility (leading to the subsequent belittling of female agency), and the mendacious myth of the post-War American Dream. The non-scholastic word that does come to mind, though is: rubbernecking – because following Harry Angstrom as he careens from one emotionally chaotic soap bubble to the next is like seeing a train wreck in slow motion: both fascinating and horrifying.

Rabbit Angstrom is a detestable protagonist, pathetic, whining, exploitive; thoroughly unlikable. The highlight of his short life was being a high-school basketball star in the working-class suburb of a modest American every-town. At 23, married to a woman he thinks is stupid, the father of one child with another on the way, and employed as the salesman of the MagiPeel kitchen gadget, Rabbit’s disenchantment with every aspect of his life causes him to shed his leash and flee in search of …. well … what? Not being a man of more depth than the agility needed to pivot and launch a jump shot, he has no idea what he wants. As he tells a clergyman who tries to lure him back to the flock:

“If you’re telling me I’m not mature, that’s the one thing I don’t cry over since as far as I can make out it’s the same thing as being dead. … but I tell you, I do feel, I guess, that somewhere beyond all this (he gestures around him) there’s something that wants me to find it.”

Domesticated man searching for meaning in life. Enough to launch a thousand books.

Rabbit’s selfish boorishness is tough to take a times – not again! I gasp – but Updike’s wonderful writing more than offsets the unpleasantness of this man/boy-on-the-run. Updike writes with such precision that his words fit like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Unlike so many contemporary novels, which (to me) feel loose and in need of several more drafts, “Rabbit, Run” is tight. No words are out of place, no dialog added for padding. Here is an example:

“His car is waiting for him on Cherry Street in the cool spring noon mysteriously; it is as if a room of a house he owned had been detached and scuttled by this curb and now that the tide of night was out stood up glistening in the sand, slightly tilted but unharmed, ready to sail at the turn of a key.”

Please excuse my longer-than-usual scribbling, but I felt I least owed Updike a few extra words for having ignored him for so long. I am, however, thrilled to discover him. As I soon as I finished “Rabbit, Run,” I ordered the next three.

Bookshelf — The Man Who Saw Everything, Deborah Levy

Despite being, as the title declares, a man of omniscient vision, Saul Adler manages to live his rather truncated and self-consciously disengaged life without every becoming himself.

From the opening of the book, when Saul is struck by a car on London’s Abbey Road and then hours later kicked out of his girlfriend’s bed after he asks her to marry him, he is a man in flight – fleeing from intimacy, seeking what cannot be had, indulging in pleasures that consort with pain.

A professor of history whose field is the communist countries of Eastern Europe, Saul is a cipher, an androgynous wraith of a man berated by his father and bullied by his older brother for being a “Nancy boy” and told by his girlfriend, “You are much prettier than I am.” His beauty attracts men as well as women, but it alone cannot sustain relationships that wither for lack of emotional commitment. His girlfriend, a photographer, tells him, “You were so detached and absent, the only way I could reach you was with my camera.”

The story begins in 1988, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall – a moment critical to the narrative – and leaps to 2016, when another car accident in the same place (the crosswalk immortalized by the Beatles album cover) sends Adler somersaulting through his memories, a jumble of conflated moments lacking a cogent timeline. His life of flight becomes a free fall.

This is a beautiful book, exquisitely written, and loaded with trenchant dialogue, both spoken and heard through Saul’s introspection. The story is intimate, but not idle. There are many surprises, but Levy delivers them slyly. If you read “The Man Who Saw Everything” looking for the blow of a hammer you will miss the sting of Levy’s stiletto.

Finally, about the ending (without giving it away): the last few pages are among the most moving I’ve ever read, forcing a reader to turn toward a mirror and ask: Who am I?

Bookshelf – Among the Bros, Max Marshall

There are few combinations more morally toxic than youth, money and testosterone, especially when inflamed by the debauchery that universities tolerate at fraternities under the guise of tradition.

The behavior of frat house bad boys was once limited to the hijinks of “Animal House,” whose motley miscreants stopped at toga parties, shoplifting, and a Mrs. Robinson moment involving the lascivious wife of Dean Wormer.

These days, in an America plagued by drug abuse (legal and illegal), on campuses defined by economic elitism, and throughout a digitized world where the dark side of humanity lurks only a click away, binge drinking, brutal (sometimes fatal) hazing, and persistent stupefaction are as common among the Greek campus community as coats of arms.

This is the world Max Marshall found in 2016 when he began reporting a story about a “small-time” fraternity drug dealing ring at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. To his surprise, he found a massive interstate web of drug trafficking that involved millions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of pills like Xanax and Oxycodone, bricks of cocaine bought from a Mexican cartel, and a murdered student.

Once, says a writer quoted in the book, a “bro” meant “a self-absorbed young white guy in board shorts and a taste for cheap beer. But it’s become a shorthand for the sort of privileged ignorance that thrives in groups dominated by wealthy, white, straight men.”

The dope-dealing bros of Kappa Alpha dressed in polo shirts and pastel shorts. Imagine Tony Soprano’s crew as Andover grads clad in Ambercrombie. They flouted the law and flaunted their audacity. Children of entitlement, their creed was (to borrow from the New York Times): “We will behave badly, and we will get away with it.”

Marshall graduated from Columbia University in 2016, the same year police arrested the ring. His youth and his background as a fraternity member (Delta Sigma) no doubt helped him gain access to the incarcerated kingpin, Mikey Schmidt, as well as to dozen of former College of Charleston students and frat members who in interviews portrayed the campus as “a country club for rich New Englanders.”

Marshall’s reporting is thorough and detailed. He puts you in the frat house, and what you see ain’t pretty. At times, though, he is too thorough. Some pages seem compiled from what we old-time newsies called a notebook dump. Facts make the story, but more of them doesn’t always make a better story.

Still, Among the Bros held my attention and it might hold yours as well if you’re wondering what the incoming generation is doing with the mess we’re leaving them.

Bookshelf – Old God’s Time, Sebastian Barry

Pro tip: When an epigraph cites the Book of Job, you know there’s suffering ahead.

Tom Kettle is the Job of Dublin. A decorated detective with the Irish national police who arrives at retirement not with the joy of an ex-cop looking forward to unburdened days, but bereft of all that he loved and ladened with sadness. Tom is awash in the wake of tragedy, at times so immersed he cannot distinguish the ache of memory from the pain of reality.

What scant solace Tom manages to find during his retreat to a granny flat in an ancient castle, disappears like sea mist in the night sky when he is drawn back into an old case involving sexual predation and perverted priests. Suddenly, he is deprived of what to him is “the whole point of retirement, of existence – to be stationary, happy and useless.”

But Old God’s Time – the title referring to a period beyond memory – is not a cold-case yarn as such (even if it were, it would be lifted beyond the normal realm of the trope by Barry’s lyrical and poetic writing, occasionally liberated from form, occasionally punctuated with the vocabulary of quotidian brutality). Yes, Old God’s Time, is a mystery, but the unraveling of secrets only serves as the vehicle for Barry’s deeper investigation, that of the enigmatic completeness of love and the bottomless whirlpool of loss.

Within these emotional swirls, where what is true and what is imagined intertwine, Tom struggles to find firm footing. He harbors dark truths, about himself and about his late wife, June, who he loved more than life and who, afflicted by her own haunts, “had survived everything but survival.”

In the end, what saves Tom from the bleak remains of his life is the embrace of a simple fact: of all that he’s done, of all the villains he’s dealt with, of all the erosion of his faith in human nature, he wants only one thing: “to be a believer again, in something.”

And what is that? “His life, his little life?” he thinks. “The fog edged away from the shore of himself, the sea opened like a stage in a theatre, the helpful sun burned in its element, there was a truth told to him, a truth, in his curious age, in his palpable decay, that there at the heart of it, there at the heart of it, forever and always, as June.”

Old God’s Time demands patience. Go too fast and you’ll miss Barry’s lingering eye. But bide your time, wrestle over the meanings of Tom’s untethered drifts, and be rewarded by an ending that accelerates as the cold case melts in a furnace of truth.