Friday, February 07, 2014


The English Girl by Daniel Silva  
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon 
Rough Country by John Sandford
Brimstone by Robert B. Parker
Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith
Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett 
Double Down by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann 
Adventures with the Wife in Space by Neil Perryman  

So, as a kind of New Year’s resolution, I decided to start keeping a record of the books that I read during 2014. In some ways, I regret not starting this much earlier in life – somewhere around the time that I read my first book, which was a Secret Seven adventure by Enid Blyton, which I think might have been when I was five or six – but it’s a little late for that now. Still, it would have been rather lovely to have a record of all that I’ve read, an indicator of progress and accomplishment. I could even have marked particular achievements with a gold star, like finishing Don Quixote, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, and War and Peace, and little frowny faces of regret for those books started but then abandoned (A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, which I still believe talks about me behind my back in a French accent) and books that should never have been started to begin with (too many to name, I suspect, but I still want back that time spent on The Da Vinci Code).

Anyway, eight books read in January doesn’t seem like a bad start to the year, as I’m tentatively aiming for an average of a book a week, so knocking down eight in one month will make up for those inevitable periods when I either get bogged down in a book, or encounter one that takes a little more time and effort to read.  (In the Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland’s study of the birth of Islam, was one such book last year. I learned a lot from it, most of which I fear I’ve already forgotten, but the minutiae of various branches of the faith detailed in the last third proved to be heavy going, and I felt like a man slogging through thick, compacted snow.)

And what of those books? Well, I’m something of a fan of Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon books, even if, as often happens with an ongoing series, the structure of each novel is pretty standard: Allon, an art restorer and Israeli agent, is pulled reluctantly into some case of international terrorism; bad things happen; he gets his gang together; and vengeance is meted out.  Actually, leaving out the international terrorism element, that could describe most mystery novels, my own included. In Silva’s case, this is all accomplished with a considerable measure of style, and no small amount of tension. He’s very good.

Here’s the thing: I don’t believe in the concept of guilty pleasures. If you like something, and it doesn’t do anyone else any harm — or, indeed, yourself —then it’s fine to like it. If anything about the Allon books makes me slightly uneasy, it’s a general tendency to paint the Israelis entirely as a force for good, and the Arabs or Russians as pretty much uniformly bad. Now I’m no expert, but I suspect the geopolitical situation is slightly more complex than that. End of note.

That notion of guilty pleasures is one that is explored both tacitly and explicitly in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which had been on my shelf for a long time marked, metaphorically speaking, “to be read . . . sometime.” I read Chabon’s first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, when I was in college and liked it a lot. It was one of a number of books given to me as a thank-you by one of my classmates in return for escorting her to the Trinity Ball, which was no chore. (She also gave me Looking for Rachel Wallace, which was my introduction to the novels of Robert B. Parker.)  

Kavalier & Clay is set in the world of comic books during and after the Second World War — the first golden age of comics, if you will. It also functions as a passionate defense of the idea of escapist fiction, and the fact that the hero of the comic book created by the title characters is called “The Escapist” is no coincidence. The final pages contain a lovely defense of escapism, taking as its starting point the myth of the golem, the defender of Prague’s Jews created from clay, which is worth quoting here:
The shaping of a golem, to him, was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something — one poor, dumb, powerful thing — exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of a vain wish, when you got down to it, to escape. To slip, like the Escapist, free of the entangling chain of reality and the straitjacket of physical laws . . . The newspaper articles that Joe had read about the upcoming Senate investigation into comic books always cited “escapism” among the litany of injurious consequences of their reading, and dwelled on the pernicious effect, on young minds, of satisfying the desire to escape. As if there could be any more noble or necessary service in life.
Lovely, isn’t it? If, as a reader or, indeed, a writer, you ever feel called upon to defend your choice of reading or subject matter respectively, it would be worth learning that section so you can quote it back in full in the face of your critics.  Actually, I had a meal recently with someone who, with the best possible intentions, seemed determined to force me to expose what s/he believed to be my inner demons, the monkeys on my back that drove me to write. I know that I have them, but I tend to keep them to myself. But when I tried to explain that, on one level, to leave my readers feeling contented with the time they had spent with my book was the most basic requirement I make of my work, my interrogator appeared rather disappointed, as if this was somehow insufficient.   It’s not everything, I said, but if it was all that I could offer, then it would be enough.

We move on. The John Sandford novel, a co-write with a friend of his (although his friend’s name doesn’t appear on the cover, which is a bit underhand) is one of the novels featuring the Minnesota police investigator Virgil Flowers novels as opposed to Sandford’s better-known books centering on Flowers’s boss, Lucas Davenport. Sandford, either alone or in cahoots, has a particular gift for writing action, which is harder to do than it sounds. He’s also funny in print, which again is harder to do than it sounds. 

The late Robert B. Parker had the same gifts, and while Brimstone is one of his westerns, it still reads very much like one of his Spenser PI novels, which were, in their way, westerns set in present-day Boston. Parker’s work is proof positive that we read for character, not plot. Brimstone’s plot isn’t up to much, and the same could be said for any number of the Spenser novels, but it was a pleasure to spend time in the company of the characters, and his books have passed many a happy flight for me, and kept me entertained over solo dinners when I’m away from home.  God rest his soul. 

Tatiana, meanwhile, is the latest of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, and is published in the shadow of the writer’s struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. I understand that it was dictated, and it seems to me that this process has altered the texture of his writing. MCS was always a very good prose stylist, but the writing in Tatiana is particularly graceful, with a distinctive rhythm to it.  It’s one of the best of the later Renko novels, maybe even the best.

Terry Pratchett, too, writes while dealing with a debilitating illness, in his case Alzheimer’s, which seems to me a particularly cruel affliction with which to curse a novelist, given the importance of keeping a thousand small details in play from start to finish. Raising Steam, the latest Discworld novel, bears no trace of Pratchett’s illness and, while it’s not the funniest of the series, it’s still a joy to enter that perfectly constructed world. I had the pleasure of interviewing Pratchett in Dublin some years ago, and I enjoyed his company. He’s on the board of trustees of the Orangutan Foundation, incidentally, in no small part because the Librarian of the Unseen University was transformed into an orangutan during an unfortunate magical incident and decided to stay that way, as it made it easier to get around the stacks.

I’m not really much for political books as a rule, but Halperin’s and Heilemann’s Game Change, about the 2008 US presidential election, gripped like a thriller, as well as amusing me greatly. Double Down isn’t quite as interesting, mainly because the tension between the emerging Obama and the Clintons isn’t as strong, and there is no Sarah Palin moment. The most entertaining scenes occur during the Republican Party’s nomination process, as a series of increasingly unlikely candidates (hello, Herman Cain) pop up, ignite briefly, and then fall to the ground in flames. Poor old Mitt Romney comes across as someone who has been told how regular human beings behave but has never actually met one, and so must go purely on misguided instinct when he’s forced to imitate one. I actually ended up rather liking Romney, even though I wouldn’t want to be trapped in an elevator with him and forced to try and make awkward conversation.  

And finally, a little salve for my geek soul: Neil Perryman’s Adventures with the Wife in Space deals with the author’s mission to force his wife Sue to watch every episode of classic Doctor Who — in other words, from the BBC sci-fi series’ birth with William Hartnell to its temporary demise with Sylvester McCoy.  It helps if you know what they’re talking about, or else discussions of Daleks, Yeti, Zygons, and the sartorial selections inflicted on Sixth Doctor Colin Baker may well go over your head, but it’s funny and loving as a portrait both of fandom and marriage, even if, by the end, Perryman concludes that no small number of Doctor Who episodes just aren’t very good.  It’s that plot/character thing again, and something else: no matter how bad the episodes, those of us who were, and are, devoted to the series came back because we got to spend time with the Doctor in the Tardis.

We got to escape, for a time . . .