Home > Books, Technology, Travel > I Read Books, III

I Read Books, III

December 13, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I haven’t written lately about what I’ve been reading. I noted in my first post after we got home four weeks ago from our trip to Europe the hopeless magazine catchup task. And there was the TV show backlog too, but somehow that was easier to deal with than the magazines. It seemed like every time I brought in the mail, there was another New Yorker or New York Review of Books or Harper’s or something. The worst part of the backlog was that I was unwilling to start a book. Or maybe that was second worst. Worst might have been that I couldn’t decide what to read, or how to read it. How to read it? By that I mean, if there’s a book I’m interested in, do I read the physical book or, now that we have Kindles, in the electronic version on my Kindle?

Let me run through the options I faced before telling you what I did read. (I know, I’ve already provided a hint. Forget that for now.)

I need to go back to the beginning of September. You’ll recall that just before we headed to Nantucket, I finally got Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World, which I’d been wanting to read all year. (And by the way, it’s on today’s NYT list of the ten best books of the year.) But as I was packing, I decided it was too thick to take in my carry-on bag, so I left it home, and on arrival in Nantucket, I headed to Mitchell’s Book Corner, where I bought Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher thriller, Killing Floor. On finishing that, I went to Nantucket’s other great bookstore, Nantucket Bookworks, where I bought Jhumpa Lahiri’s first short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, because I so loved Unaccustomed Earth (on last year’s NYT top ten list).

I never did read the Lahiri book. On our return from Nantucket, Ian Rankin’s new novel The Complaints was waiting for me from UK’s Amazon. I read it, then Logicomix, and then I got my Kindle, in preparation for our trip. As a test of the Kindle reading experience, I downloaded and read yet another early Lee Child Thriller, Die Trying. Weighing on me all this time was my desire to read both Lords of Finance and Interpreter of Maladies, combined with the realization that I had already paid for them in book form, so I wouldn’t want to pay again to have them on the Kindle for the trip. In the midst of this, having read rave reviews everywhere of Hilary Mantel’s new novel Wolf Hall (even before it was awarded the Man Booker Prize), I decided that was the very next book I would read, only to discover that it wasn’t available on the Kindle.

What to do? In the meantime, there were other developments. As I mentioned in my Kindle post, after I bought my Kindle, but before we got one for Gail, I was saying she should try mine out first. I remembered reading good things about Lorrie Moore’s new novel A Gate at the Stairs, thought that might be the sort of book Gail would enjoy, and showed off the wonder of instantly downloading a book you want. And then Gail was talking to our friend Carol in Edinburgh, who suggested with our upcoming Venice visit in mind that we read John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels. Showing off again, I downloaded it as they spoke. And my friend Werner, who all but ordered me to get a Kindle for the trip, had also recommended Neil Sheehan’s cold war history (of sorts) A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon, so I downloaded that too. I was armed with lots of books, both physical and electronic.

I had visions of reading all the electronic books while we were traveling, but this proved unrealistic. After all, we weren’t in France and Italy to read. But what did make sense as the first priority was Berendt’s Venice book, which I started right away and finished in France. It does such a good job of bringing alive a variety of Venetians, along with some recent social and political conflicts, making me all the more excited to get there. After that, I had a hard time deciding what to read next. This is while we were still in France. I tried several of the books. (In addition to those I’ve mentioned, I had also downloaded Nick Hornby’s new novel Juliet, Naked and James Dodson’s lengthy biography Ben Hogan: An American Life. Oh, and I couldn’t bear the thought of continuing to put off Lords of Finance, so I bit the proverbial bullet and downloaded it onto the Kindle, meaning I had now bought it twice.)

With Werner’s strong recommendation in mind, and my fear that if I started a novel, I would end up reading it in small spurts and not doing it justice, I went with Sheehan’s book. It worked out well. I could read it in small bits — while resting at a hotel before dinner or briefly before falling asleep at night — and still follow along as I learned about the decisions made in the 1950s and 1960s that led to the building of our nuclear missile arsenal, as well as many of the fascinating characters behind the decisions. My principal disappointment was the way in which Sheehan sucks the reader in by telling such a fascinating story of the early life of Bernard Schriever, then continues to keep a focus on Schriever through the rest of the book, but with much less attention to his personal life. What starts as a dual biography-history becomes much more a history, with Schriever appearing frequently but without my understanding just what it was about him that made him succeed. Well, see for yourself. It’s a good book, worth reading.

I finished the Sheehan book in Chicago, the final stop of our trip. And that brings me to the point where this post began. Magazine backlog, TV backlog, what to read, etc. I still had Interpreter of Maladies and Lords of Finance at the top of my list, along with the memory of how much I enjoyed the opening pages of A Gate at the Stairs. (Mind you, when I say “opening pages”, I’m revealing the difficulty I have freeing myself of the archaic notion of a book. After all, Kindle books don’t have pages. I read the opening — what? Locations?) Given my delusion that I would actually read through my old magazines, I decided once again not to get absorbed in a novel, and instead began Interpreter of Maladies. I read the first two stories, one a night. And I was reminded of just how bleak the experience of reading Lahiri’s stories is. They are extraordinary. I marvel at how much character and family history she brings to life in 20 pages. (Yes, I mean pages this time.) But she also manages to lay bare the pain. After two of her stories, I needed a break.

Was it Lords of Finance time at last? Well, no. I thought maybe I should get Wolf Hall. I went to Amazon and discovered that whereas it was unavailable for the Kindle when I was desperate for it in October, it is now kindle-ized (I think that’s actually part of the standard Kindle terminology), so I could have it in physical or electronic format. Had it not been for this, I’m sure I would have bought the hardcover book and read it by now. But I couldn’t decide which to get, just as I can’t decide which version of Lords of Finance to read, inasmuch as I have both forms available. I solved that problem by reading neither. Instead, I began — and two days ago finished — Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, which by the way is also on the NYT list published today of the ten best books of 2009.

What a wonderful book! By all means read it. It’s told in the voice of a 20-year-old college student in the year following and the shadow of September 11, 2001. Well, more precisely, she looks back on the events of that year from the perspective of a few years later as she narrates the story. She’s sure one sharp observer for a 20- or 25-year-old. She may at times borrow some of Lorrie Moore’s own, older wisdom. Just guessing. I don’t want to say too much. I don’t know how to say much more without revealing plot details. Not a lot happens, or so it seems for a long time, but then, well, I shouldn’t say more. I’ll just mention that there’s a great scene towards the end in which the narrator finds herself in a fancy restaurant and details her experience there. Oh, and if I thought that by switching to A Gate at the Stairs from Interpreter of Maladies I would be able to escape from the pain of life, I was wrong.

Now, once again, I need to decide between Lords of Finance and Wolf Hall, except that I don’t have Wolf Hall yet. Of course, that problem can be solved in less than a minute, if I’m prepared to read it on my Kindle. Maybe I’ll read another Jhumpa Lahiri short story while I try to decide.

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