One sign of my advancing age is that I have a hard time finding books to read. I go to the public library and bring home seven or eight novels. I begin to read five or six of them, and put four of them down in boredom or irritation or worse. I search around for non-fiction as well, but don’t find much that appeals to me. I can’t get overly indignant about this. Writing a good book is hard to do—and so we should expect good books to be rare. That so many mediocre to bad books are published is no cause for outrage either. As with any endeavor, you need the mediocre for the excellent to float upon. If there weren’t a critical mass of people invested in the effort, despite their not being very good at it, the enterprise would fade away altogether.
In any case, for whatever reason, I’ve been on a winning streak. I have read a number of very good books over this past month. So it’s great to be able to share good news.
First up, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. Mitchell is such a great straight-forward writer that I can only regret his sliding into the fantastic in his novels. But that’s just the price of admission. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a great novel that captures the feel of colonialism tied to an absurd science fiction/adventure story. Bone Clocks has as good a description of what it felt like on the ground in Iraq in 2005-2006 as one is ever likely to find. And it has an equally compelling post-apocalyptic vision of our world after global warming and other disasters has destroyed it (circa 2040). All of this great stuff mired in a complex fantasy world about some people who get to me immortal—with long tedious explanations of how it all works. Still a great book—complete with the following stern warning:
“Five years later, I take a deep, shuddery breath to stop myself crying. It’s not just that I can’t hold Aoife again, it’s everything: It’s grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent. The comforting liars we voted into office—all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles. People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Plague, as if it’s an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of Earth’s Riches knowing—while denying—that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.
David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks, pg. 560-61 (New York: Random House, 2014).
Next up: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. This book, of course, has been receiving raves all over—and won the National Book Award. It took me three weeks to read. It is so intense that I had to put it down for four or five days before I could bear to pick it up again. Whitehead, too, has his fantastic elements. But, unlike Mitchell, he doesn’t feel compelled to explain them. They are just there, another feature of a narrative that is, very often, disorienting. Quite deliberately so, since that disorientation mirrors the predicament of the protagonist. I won’t say anything more; it’s a great book.
Two more to mention now—and then I’ll be back with more in a future post.
Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside. I quoted this book a few days back. It’s about black on black homicide in Los Angeles—and not only details that horror, but also shows how most of our received ideas about it and its causes are wrong. It’s a sad tale about racism, about our society’s failures, and about the dreadful trap into which many blacks, especially black males, are born. Her story also has a few heroes—dedicated police detectives who need to fight an apathetic system, woeful underfunding and understaffing, and hostility form just about everyone they encounter in the attempt to bring killers to justice.
Finally, a novel called The Midnight Choir by Gene Kerrigan. I very rarely read this type of book. It’s best described as “noir.” It’s about a number of policemen in Ireland, mostly Dublin. As intricately—and perfectly—plotted a novel as you will ever read. But it’s the characterizations and the setting of the scene that makes this novel so superb. Absolutely compelling and convincing even as it plays fast and loose with the reader’s sympathies. It’s such a pleasure to read a book so well-crafted while also so thoughtful and clever.