The last few months have been a mixed bag for me when it comes to books. It shames me to admit I ran out of steam half-way through War and Peace. In the period of self-flagellation that followed I tried everything.
I generally only write about books I wholeheartedly endorse, without reservation. There are so many great books out there. Why not celebrate them? Plus it’s easy to take cheap shots at bad writing. The three books below, however, have lots to recommend them even though I can’t give them unqualified raves. That’s saved for the last one in this missive.
Uber-biographer Claire Tomalin, who’s given us vibrant, textured depictions of the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Hardy, among others, turns her lens on her own life in A Life of My Own. And her life bursts with rich material. Her tempestuous marriage to Nicholas Tomalin, a dashing war journalist, ends when he is killed, at age 41, while reporting in Israel. Her first son dies in infancy, another is born with spina bifida, her daughter’s severe depression ends in suicide.
Tomalin serves up a delicious portrait of literary London of the 1960s and ’70s and you’d give anything to be at the dinner parties populated by Michael Frayn (whom she married at 60), V.S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux, Victoria Glendinning, Christopher Hitchens, and Martin Amis, with whom Tomalin had an affair despite the fact that he was 17 years younger.
As in her acclaimed biographies, Tomalin threads the personal, professional, and the contextual, showing “how it was for a European girl growing up in mid-twentieth century England” and what it took to become an independent woman.
Now 85, Tomalin is indeed a grand dame and her memoir is satisfying reading. However, the memoir kept me at something of a distance. I imagine after many years depicting the lives of others, it’s challenging to describe your own life and make decisions about what to reveal and what to keep private.
I next opted for pure entertainment with Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling’s pseudonym for her novels featuring detective Cormoran Strike) and Tana French’s The Witch Elm.
I adore private detective Cormoran Strike, the Irish black-haired, heavy-drinking, one-legged veteran, illegitimate son of a rock star and super groupie, who’s somewhat inexplicably a serious babe magnet. He’s smart, funny, and a sharp, equal opportunity critic of the upper classes and knee-jerk lefties alike. It’s great fun to watch him on the scent of a case, dragging his painful prosthetic leg throughout London, punching people out, pissing them off, and falling into bed with glamorous women. In our #MeToo world I reflected more than once on the fact that this very macho (albeit with a sensitive side) man was written by a woman.
Strike’s sensitive side comes out in his attraction to his office assistant, Robin, who earns her stripes the hard way and becomes his business partner. At the start of the new novel (the fourth in the series) Robin marries the unfortunate Matthew, a union we’re certain is doomed. Part of the fun of this book is the question of when Strike and Robin will finally fall into each other’s arms for good.
This is a big (650 pages) baggy book with a complicated plot that opens with a deranged man’s vague memory of the long-ago murder of a child, and goes on to include blackmail, and counter-blackmail, a suicide that may be another murder, characters from the British government’s top echelon, high society, and a social resistance movement. Also horses and jewels and more..
Too complicated for me. While I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, I got tuckered out about three-quarters of the way through, losing track of who was who and who was on first. I still heartily recommend the Cormoran Strike series. Best to start at the beginning with The Cuckoo’s Calling.
And then there’s Tana French, who to my mind is the best literary crime novelist (with John Banville) writing today. Her latest, The Witch Elm, opens with a self-described “lucky” protagonist, an up-and-coming publicist at a prestigious art gallery, returning home from a night out drinking with pals, only to be beaten nearly to death, suffering serious brain damage and memory loss.
He recuperates at the family’s Dublin estate, where his beloved uncle is dying from brain cancer. The mystery comes in the form of a skull discovered in the hollow trunk of the tree that gives the book its title. Once we discover the identity of the skull the mystery of how the victim died and why gets deeper.
The story has a semi-unreliable narrator whose insight into his own privilege grows as the novel unfolds and loads of psychological suspense, a Tana French trademark. As the dying uncle puts it: “One gets into the habit of being oneself. It takes some great upheaval to crack that shell and force us to discover what else might be underneath.”
While I always enjoy reading French, there were a few too many twists and turns in the novel’s denouement. I do think fans of highly intelligent, well-written crime fiction should read Tana French. It might be best to start with In the Woods, followed by Broken Harbor.
The book that put me squarely in my happy reader place is Susan Orlean’s magnificent The Library Book.
Using the 1986 fire that devastated the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) and the mystery of its origin as a jumping off point, Orlean writes a book that manages to be a history of LA and of public libraries themselves as well as a love letter to what may be the last truly democratic, free public cultural space.
Her book is peopled with the often colorful characters who’ve been at the helm of the LAPL. And I do mean characters—Charles Lummis, appointed city librarian in 1905, was a womanizing former newspaper reporter who dropped out of Harvard and literally walked to California. His favorite outfit was a three-button suit coast and trousers made of bright green wide-wale corduroy, which he wore with a red and black patterned cummerbund, a wide-brimmed Stetson and moccasins. His wild parties were legendary.
She also spends some time on Harry Peak, the prime suspect in the library fire, a young, wannabe actor shifty type who could have walked straight out of Day of the Locust.
Orleans is a truly gifted writer. She describes LAPL, at the corner of Fifth and Flower in downtown LA, as “ankle-height’ compared to the “leggy office towers” surrounding it; outside the building “pigeons the color of concrete marched in a bossy staccato.”
As a newcomer to LA, Orlean takes her young son to the library (her idea of Los Angeles at that time “as a radiant doughnut, rimmed by milky oceans and bristling mountains with a big hole in the middle”) reviving memories of visiting the library with her own mother as a child:
nothing had changed—there was the same soft tsk-tsk-tsk of pencil on paper, and the muffled murmuring from patrons at tables in the center of the room, and the creak and groan of book carts, and the occasional clunk of a book dropped on a desk…. The sense of gentle, steady busyness, like water on a rolling boil, was just the same.
As a major library fan I’m a sucker for this stuff. In my former life as a producer of cultural events, I had free books galore. Now I spend lots more time in libraries and, like Orlean, have come to appreciate them anew. Here in Marin I’ve come to know the Mill Valley and Sausalito libraries, each with its own character, and hold them dear.
One of the most vivid chapters of the book is the one in which Orlean burns a book to see and feel what the arsonist would have experienced the day of the library fire. Naturally the idea repels her:
A book feels like a thing alive in this moment, and also alive on a continuum from the moment thoughts about it first percolated in the writer’s mind to the moment it sprang off the printing press—a lifeline that continues as someone sits with it and marvels over it, and continues on, time after time after time. Once words and thoughts are poured into them, books are no longer just paper and ink and glue: They take on a kind of human vitality. The poet Milton called this quality in books “the potency of life.”
I could cry reading that.
A bit of library trivia, among the many such gems in The Library Book: the most popular picture in the library’s photography collection is of a five-ear-old elephant named Bimbo Jr. riding a surfboard. The runner-up is a picture of a Volkswagen bus filled with a large number of cats parked on Venice’s Muscle Beach.
Orlean brings this lovely book full circle at its close when she describes a late afternoon at the library just before closing time:
I looked around the room at the few people scattered here and there. Some were leaning into books and a few were just resting, having a private moment in a public space, and I felt buoyed by being here. This is why I wanted to write this book, to tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine, and how that feels marvelous and exceptional. All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here I am, please tell me your story; here is my story, please listen.