Originally published April 30, 2012
Am I the only one who approaches a new book with mixed feelings? What if it disappoints? What if I don’t care about the characters? What if there are no good maps? Sometimes I will let a book “ripen” in the stack by my bed, whiling away evenings reading the newspaper or a magazine, until I guiltily pick the book up, review the jacket, read “About the author”, take a deep breath and plunge in.
Two nights ago, I did that with The Lost City of Z by David Grann. DBH and I are great readers of adventure/explorer non-fiction. Z is “a tale of deadly obsession in the Amazon”. And, after two evenings, I’m hooked. Even the maps are good. The explorers are suitable megalomaniacs and the Amazon jungle is deathly and uninviting.
At the same time, I’m listening to The Tiger, A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant. This is about the Amur tiger in the easternmost province of Russia, nestled just above China on the Sea of Hotsk. No maps in CD book unfortunately, so I had to pull out the atlas. Though the stars are the tigers, Vaillant craftily weaves stories around the incredible Russians, some from the West, most indigenous people, and how they survive in this completely hostile environment. Vaillant’s photo on the website reveals an extraordinary amount of chest hair for a blue-eyed blonde. Hmmmmmm. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvIVQFw_444
Beginning a book that I listen to either from my MP3 player or in the car, does not share the risk of the unopened book. Recorded books are to keep my mind occupied while my hands are doing other work: driving a car, sewing, gardening, cleaning. They make the time fly. I still fondly remember listening to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (all 63 hours or it) while gardening in the intense Indiana heat and humidity at our home in Beverly Shores. Yes, I did fast forward through the endless repetition of John Galt’s philosophy.
In the car, I’m listening to T.C. Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done. Not my favorite T.C. book, but he usually takes you to a new place and perhaps a new point of view. This one is about the battle on the California Channel Islands between the US Park Service, who want to return the islands to their original condition by eliminating all the non-native species introduced over the past 500 years by humans, and the PETA-type who are against killing any living thing, non-native or not. As with most T.C. books, there are no real winners, a just lot of losers trying to do what they think is right.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe resides on my Kindle. He’s been there for about a year, as I only use the Kindle when I fly and I try to only download books in the public domain, which are free. Last year was the 100th anniversary of the publication of UTC, so it received a bit of press and even a book written about the book. I’d never read it. The book is largely written in slave dialogue which makes it a bit of a struggle. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, used that same technique and was offputting to many readers.
Hilary Mantel just wrote a small article in the Review section of the Saturday WSJ about the language challenge of writing books set in the 16th century. Her books (Wolf Hall, winner of the Booker Prize) cover the royalty, the serfs, the servants, Brits and foreigners. In the 16th century, written English was emerging. Educated men and women wrote and spoke Latin. Her challenge is to create a language understandable to the modern reader that still feels somewhat evocative of the age depicted. Evan Connell does an excellent job of crafting 13th century “speak” in his book, Deus Lo Volt, the memoire of a Crusader. It’s just strange enough that the reader has to “work” at rhythm and pace of the words, but not so challenging that you are put off by the effort.
So many books…so little time.