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Books, and a Dilemma

October 23, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

A week ago, I wrote about the expected arrival from the UK of Ian Rankin’s latest crime novel, The Impossible Dead. I’d been waiting six months, and was eager to get started. I also reviewed my crime/thriller reading of the last month and a half. Let me go back a bit further.

You’ll recall that back in late August, after reading a strong review in the Sunday NYT book review of Charles C. Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, I wrote a post about downloading and starting it. I expected it to last me some ways into our NY/Nantucket trip, and I downloaded an old Lee Child thriller, Tripwire, the third Jack Reacher novel, to get me through more of the trip. But as I explained once we arrived in New York, that plan lasted as long as it took me to board the New York bound plane in Seattle, at which point I put 1493 aside and began reading Tripwire. A few days later, in Nantucket, I returned to 1493, but as much as I was enjoying it, and I was, after another day I downloaded and switched to the first of Martin Walker’s novels about Bruno, the rural French policeman, Bruno, Chief of Police.

You know the rest. Back in Seattle, I proceeded to “Bruno 2”, The Dark Vineyard. Next was the newly published Jack Reacher thriller, The Affair, and then “Bruno 3”, Black Diamond.

By then, I was more than ready to return to the streets of Edinburgh, with Ian Rankin as my guide. But The Impossible Dead had only just been released, and I would have to wait for it to ship from the UK. This is where the plot thickens.

What to read in the meantime? Well, there was 1493, which I was only a fifth of the way through and did want to continue. I could always put it aside again if The Impossible Dead showed up. And I had added another book to my list after hearing Alexandra Fuller being interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air about her just-released second memoir, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. Her comments about her mother and growing up in Zimbabwe got me thinking that I might enjoy her first memoir, from a decade ago, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood. I sent an email to Liz, my local Zimbabwean friend, to ask what she thought about Fuller, and she said the first memoir was “the best.” I looked at Amazon and thought of downloading it on the spot, but was put off by the Kindle pricing, which is higher than the cost of the paperback. On the other hand, taking a look at the opening excerpt at the Amazon site, I was already swept up:

Mum says, “Don’t come creeping into our room tonight.”

They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, “Don’t startle us when we’re sleeping.”

“Why not?”

“We might shoot you.”


“By mistake.”

“Okay.” As it is, there seems a good enough chance of getting shot on purpose. “Okay, I won’t.”

As Liz had offered to lend me her hardcover copy, I figured I would wait. Rankin first, Fuller second. And 1493 in the meantime.

There’s yet another complication. As I explained last week in my post about The Impossible Dead, I have learned, for books published in the UK before their US appearance that I am eager to read, to order them from amazon.co.uk. The ideal arrangement would be that I could download them for my Kindle, but that’s not allowed in such situations. So I order the hardcover. What I didn’t explain is that after I finished Bruno 3, I took a peak at Martin Walker’s listings at amazon.co.uk and discovered, to my astonishment, that Bruno 4 is already out. Bruno 3 came out here in the US in August. Bruno 4, or rather The Crowded Grave, came out in the UK at the end of September. Why wait until next summer?

So that was the situation a couple of weeks ago. I could read 1493, wait for Ian Rankin’s new book to arrive, wait for Liz to lend me Fuller’s memoir, order Bruno 4. Given that only 1493 was in hand, that was the place to start.

I read it a little bit each night, then more than a little bit, then by this past week, lots more. Mann is a gifted storyteller, and what stories he tells! Off he goes, roaming the world through centuries, exploring the implications of world trade in goods and people from 1493 onward. Silver. Rubber. Sweet potatoes. Potatoes. Destruction of habitats. People saved from famine. People thrown into famine. Round and round he goes, always illustrating the theme of our economic and ecological interconnectedness.

I will long remember his discussion of silver mining in sixteenth-century Bolivia, the subject of the chapter I had been reading back in Nantucket. There are the silver mines of Potosí, for a brief period one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world. And then there’s mercury.

Almost as important as the mountain of Potosí was a second Andean peak, Huancavelica, eight hundred miles northwest, which gleamed with mercury deposits. In the 1550s Europeans in Mexico discovered a way to use mercury, rather than heat, to purify silver ore. … Miners pulverized silver ore, spread the powdery result over a flat surface, typically a stone patio, then used rakes and hoes to mix in saltwater, copper sulfate, and mercury, forming a stiff cake. … [I’m omitting details to save typing, but it’s fascinating.] Viceroy Francisco de Toledo seized the Huancavelica mines for the crown, thus arranging what he called “the most important marriage in the world, between the mountain of Huancavelica and the mountain of Potosí.

We’re talking about mercury. Mercury mining! This is almost unimaginable.

Candles strapped to their foreheads, Indians hauled ore through cramped tunnels with next to no ventilation. Heat from the earth vaporized the mercury — a slow-acting poison — so workers stumbled through the day in a lethal steam. Even in cooler parts of the mine they were hacking away at the ore with picks, creating a fug of mercury, sulfur, arsenic, and silica.

Mann continues, describing a veritable hell on earth. It’s an amazing book. As this past week went on, I realized that Rankin’s The Impossible Dead would have to wait. I would finish 1493 first.

And so I did, two nights ago. Yesterday morning I read through the appendices, studied the maps, and declared the book finished. What next? Rankin still hadn’t come. But Liz had lent me Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight on Wednesday, so I could start it. For good measure, I went to amazon.co.uk to put in my order for Bruno 4. The lineup was set. Fuller would be first, Rankin next, the latest Bruno book last.

I got all of 14 pages into the Fuller memoir yesterday when the mail came, and with it The Impossible Dead. Now I had my dilemma. It wasn’t too late to switch, having waited for the Rankin book since I put in the pre-order last April. Yet Fuller has the most irresistible voice. Page after page, she writes so beautifully of southern Africa, her family, the dogs.

I’m torn. And 40 pages in. Maybe I’ll stick to the plan.

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