Stuff I’ve Been Reading: March 2005
- Case Histories—Kate Atkinson
- The Crocodile Bird—Ruth Rendell
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold—John le Carré
- Another Bullshit Night in Suck City—Nick Flynn
- Help Us to Divorce—Amos Oz
- The Man on the Moon—Simon Bartram
- Every Secret Thing—Laura Lippman
- Help Us to Divorce—Amos Oz
- Assassination Vacation—Sarah Vowell
- Early Bird—Rodney Rothman
So this last month was, as I believe you people say, a bust. I had high hopes for it, too; it was Christmastime in England, and I was intending to do a little holiday comfort reading—David Copperfield and a couple of John Buchan novels, say, while sipping an eggnog and… wait a minute! I only just read David Copperfield! What the hell’s going on here?
Aha. I see what’s happened. In hoping to save myself some time by copying out the sentence that began this column a year ago, I neglected to change anything at all. If I’d substituted Barnaby Rudge for David Copperfield, say, I might have got away with it, but I couldn’t be bothered, and now I’m paying the price. A few months ago—back in the days when the Polysyllabic Spree used to tell me, repeatedly and cruelly, that they had commissioned research showing I had zero readers—I could have got away with repeating whole columns. But then, gloriously and unexpectedly, a reader wrote in [“Dear the Believer,” November, 2004] and the Spree had to eat their weasel words. My reader’s name is Caroline, and she actually plowed through Copperfield at my suggestion, and I love her with all my heart. I think it’s time to throw the question back at the Spree: so how many readers do you have, then?
Anyway, Caroline also responded to my recent plea for a list of thrillers that might make me walk into lampposts, which is how come I read Laura Lippman’s Every Secret Thing. I really liked it, although at the risk of alienating my reader at a very early stage in our relationship, I have to say that it didn’t make me walk into a lamppost. I’m not sure that it’s intended to be that propulsive: it’s gripping in a quiet, thoughtful way, and the motor it’s powered with equips the author to putter around the inside of her characters’ damaged minds, rather than to smash her reader headlong into an inert object. On Lippman’s thoughtful and engaging website—and there are two adjectives you don’t see attached to that particular noun very often—a reviewer compares Every Secret Thing to a Patricia Highsmith novel, and the comparison made sense to me: like Lippman, Highsmith wants to mess with your head without actually fracturing your skull. Every Secret Thing is an American-cheeseburger version of Highsmith’s bloody filet mignon, and that suited me fine.
Like many parents, I no longer have a lot of desire to read books in which children are harmed. My imagination is deficient and puny in every area except this one, where it works unstoppably for eighteen or twenty hours a day; I really don’t need any help from no thriller. Every Secret Thing opens with the release from prison of two girls jailed for the death of a baby, and no sooner are they freed than another child disappears. “It’s not incidental that a childless woman wrote Every Secret Thing, and I was very worried about how readers would react,” Lippman said in an interview with the crime writer Jeff Abbott, but I suspect that it’s precisely because Lippman is childless that she doesn’t allow her novel to be pulled out of shape by the narrative events within it. I recently saw Jaws again, for the first time since it was in the cinema, and I’d forgotten that a small boy is one of the shark’s first victims; what’s striking about the movie now is that the boy is chomped and then pretty much forgotten about. In the last thirty years, we’ve sentimentalized kids and childhood to the extent that if Jaws were made now, it would have to be about the boy’s death in some way, and it would be the shark that got forgotten about. Every Secret Thing is suitably grave in all the right places, but it’s not hysterical, and it’s also morally complicated in ways that one might not have expected: the mother who lost a child in the original crime is unattractively vengeful, for example, and it’s her bitterness that is allowed to drive some of Lippman’s narrative. My reader, huh? She shoots, she scores.
Assassination Vacation is the first of the inevitable Incredibles cash-ins—Sarah Vowell, as some of you may know, provided the voice of Violet Incredible, and has chosen to exploit the new part of her fame by writing a book about the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. See, I don’t know how good an idea this is, from the cash-in angle. Obviously I’m over here in London, and I can’t really judge the appetite for fascinating facts about the Garfield presidency among America’s pre-teens, but I reckon Vowell might have done better with something more contemporary—a book about the Fair Deal, say, or an analysis of what actually happened at Yalta.
I should own up here and say that Sarah Vowell used to be a friend, back in the days when she still spoke to people who weren’t sufficiently famous to warrant animation. She even knows some of the Spree, although obviously she’s been cast out into the wilderness since she started bathing in asses’ milk etc. Anyway, I make a walk-on appearance in Assassination Vacation—I am, enigmatically, a smoker from London called Nick—and Vowell writes of the four hours we spent sitting on a bench in a cold Gramercy Park staring at a statue of John Wilkes Booth’s brother. (This was her idea of a good time, not mine.)
Being reminded of that day made me realize how much I will miss her, because, incredibly, ha ha, she made those four hours actually interesting. Did you know that John Wilkes came from this prestigious acting family, a sort of nineteenth-century Baldwin clan? Hence the Booth Theatre in NYC, and hence the statue in the park? There’s loads more of this sort of stuff in Assassination Vacation: she trawls round museums examining bullets and brains and bits of Lincoln’s skull, and hangs out in mausoleums, and generally tracks down all sorts of weird, and weirdly resonant, artefacts and anecdotes. If any other of my friends had told me that they were writing a book on this subject, I’d probably have moved house just so that they wouldn’t have had a mailing address for the advance copy. But Vowell’s mind is so singular, and her prose is so easy, and her instinct for what we might want to know so true, that I was actually looking forward to this book, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s sad, because she does such a good job of bringing these people back to life before bumping them off again, and it’s witty, of course (Garfield’s assassin Charles Guiteau was a hoot, if you overlook the murderous bit), and, in the current political climate, it’s oddly necessary—not least because it helps you to remember that all presidencies and all historical eras end. I hope her new friends, Angelina and Drew and Buzz and Woody and the rest, value Sarah Vowell as much as we all did.
Those of you who like to imagine that the literary world is a vast conspiracy run by a tiny yet elite cabal will not be surprised to learn that I read Rodney Rothman’s book because Sarah recommended it, and she happened to have an advance copy because Roth-man is a friend of hers. So, to recap: a friend of mine who’s just written a book which I read and loved and have written about gives me a book by a friend of hers which she loved, so I read it and then I write about it. See how it works? Oh, you’ve got no chance if you have no connection with One of Us. Tom Wolfe, Patricia Cornwell, Ian McEwan, Michael Frayn, Ann Rivers Siddons… You’re doomed to poverty and obscurity, all of you. Anyway, Rothman’s book is the story of how he went to live in a retirement community in Florida for a few months, and it’s very sweet and very funny. If you’re wondering why a man in his late twenties went to live in a retirement community in Florida, then I can provide alternative explanations. Rothman’s explanation is that he wanted to practice being old, which is a good one; mine is that he had a terrific idea for a non- fiction book, which in some ways is even better, even if it’s not the sort of thing you’re allowed to own up to. Travel writers don’t have to give some bullshit reason why they put on their kayaks and climb mountains—they do it because that’s what they do, and the idea of voluntarily choosing to eat at 5 p.m. and play shuffle-board for half a year simply because there might be some good jokes in it is, I would argue, both heroic and entirely laudable.
In Early Bird, Rothman discovers that he’s hopeless at both shuffleboard and bingo, and that it’s perfectly possible to find septuagenarians sexually attractive. He gets his ass kicked at softball by a bunch of tough old geezers, and he tries to resuscitate the career of a smutty ninety-three-year-old stand-up comic with the catch-phrase “But what the hell, my legs still spread.” There are very few jokes about Alzheimer’s and prune juice, and lots of stereotype-defying diversions. And Rothman allows the sadness that must, of course, attach itself to the end of our lives to seep through slowly, surely and entirely without sentiment.
So this last month was, as I believe you people say…oh. Right. Sorry. What I’m trying to say here is that, once again, I didn’t read as much as I’d hoped over the festive season, and one of the chief reasons for that was a book. This book is called The Man on the Moon, and I bought it for my two-year-old son for Christmas, and I swear that I’ve read it to him fifty or sixty times over the last couple of weeks. Let’s say that it’s, what, two thou-sand words long? So that’s one-hundred-and-twenty-thousand-odd words—longer than the Alan Hollinghurst novel I still haven’t read. And given I haven’t got many other books to tell you about, I am reduced to discussing the salient points of this one, which has, after all, defined my reading month.
I bought The Man on the Moon after reading a review of it in a newspaper. I don’t normally read reviews of children’s books, mostly because I can’t be bothered, and because kids—my kids, anyway—are not interested in what the Guardian thinks they might enjoy. One of my two-year-old’s favorite pieces of nighttime reading, for example, is the promotional flyer advertising the Incredibles that I was sent (I don’t wish to show off, but I know one of the stars of the film personally), a flyer outlining some of the marketing plans for the film. If you end up having to read that out loud every night, you soon give up on the idea of seeking out improving literature sanctioned by the liberal broadsheets. I had a hunch, however, that what with the Buzz Lightyear obsession and the insistence on what he calls Buzz Rocket pajamas, he might enjoy a picture book about an astronaut who commutes to the moon every day to tidy it up. I dutifully sought the book out—and it wasn’t easy to find, you know, just before Christmas—only to be repaid with a soul-crushing enthusiasm, when I would have infinitely preferred a polite, mild, and temporary interest. Needless to say, I won’t be taking that sort of trouble again.
After his busy day on the moon, Bob the astronaut, we’re told, has a nice hot bath, because working on the moon can make you pretty “grubby.” And as my son doesn’t know the word “grubby,” I substitute the word “dirty,” when I remember. Except I don’t always remember, at which point he interrupts—somewhat tetchily—with the exhortation “Do ‘dirty!’” And I’ll tell you, that’s a pretty disconcerting phrase coming from the mouth of a two-year-old, especially when it’s aimed at his father. He says it to his mum, too, but I find that more acceptable. She’s a very attractive woman.
Amos Oz’s Help Us to Divorce isn’t really a book—it’s two little essays published between tiny soft covers. But as you can see, I’m desperate, so I have to include it here. Luckily, it’s also completely brilliant: the first essay, “Between Right and Right,” is a clear-eyed, calm, bleakly optimistic view of the Palestinian crisis, so sensible and yet so smart. “The Palestinians want the land they call Palestine. They have very strong reasons to want it. The Israeli Jews want exactly the same land for exactly the same reasons, which provides for a perfect understanding between the parties, and for a terrible tragedy,” says Oz, in response to repeated invitations from well-meaning bodies convinced that the whole conflict could be solved if only the relevant parties got to know each other better. I wanted Oz’s pamphlet to provide me with quick and easy mental nutrition at a distressingly mindless time of year; it worked a treat. He kicked Bob the astronaut’s ass right into orbit.