The Bookman series by John Dunning has been my latest passion. I first read about this series in a very cool new magazine we’re getting at the library called Bookmarks, which is all about books and reading. Anyway, I love stories about books. Sounds weird, huh? I freely admit I am a book geek. I loved Codex by Lev Grossman, The Codex by Douglas Preston, and several other mysteries featuring bibliophiles. However, the Bookman series is just the best by far. The protagonist, Cliff Janeway, is a former Denver police detective who harbors a sincere passion for books. The first in the series, Booked to Die, features Janeway still in his role as police detective, but included in the story are the events that occur which end his police career and begin his career as a book collector and seller. Sprinkled throughout all the stories are bits and pieces of eclectic information about books, what makes them valuable, and what make people kill for them. I whipped through these books in record time and highly recommend them to anyone who, like me, loves books and mysteries.
The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Reynolds. Reynolds, a staff writer for Entertainment Weekly and Esquire, decided one day to take on a task attempted by his genius father (who, incidentally, calculated the speed of light in fathoms so he would be the only person in the world to have that esoteric information) and spent a year reading every volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Why, you ask? Apparently, Mr. Reynolds, who firmly believed he was the smartest boy in the world when he was a child, had begun to feel un-smart and thought it was time to bulk up the brain. The book started off being very entertaining. I could read it in snippets when I had a few extra minutes here and there, and it did alleviate the boredom of sitting in a few doctors offices. However, I quickly tired of the author’s cleverness. Sure, there are a few good entries that made me laugh out loud, but by the time I got into the J’s, I just found the whole thing incredibly annoying. But then, what do I know?
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. “The birth of Jesus has been well chronicled, as have his glorious teachings, acts, and divine sacrifice after his thirtieth birthday. But no one knows about the early life of the Son of God, the missing years – except Biff. Ever since the day when he came upon six-year-old Joshua of Nazareth resurrecting lizards in the village square, Levi bar Alphaeus, called “Biff,” had the distinction of being the Messiah’s best bud. That’s why the angel Raziel has resurrected Biff from the dust of Jerusalem and brought him to America to write a new gospel, one that tells the real, untold story. Meanwhile, Raziel will order pizza, watch the WWF on TV, and aspire to become Spider-Man. Verily, the story Biff has to tell is a miraculous one, filled with remarkable journeys, magic, healings, kung fu, corpse reanimations, demons, and hot babes – whose considerable charms fall to Biff to sample, since Josh is forbidden the pleasures of the flesh. (There are worse things than having a best friend who is chaste and a chick magnet!) And, of course, there is danger at every turn, since a young man struggling to understand his godhood, who is incapable of violence or telling anything less than the truth, is certain to piss some people off. Luckily, Biff is a whiz at lying and cheating – which helps get his divine pal and him out of more than one jam. And while Josh’s great deeds and mission of peace will ultimately change the world, Biff is no slouch himself, blessing humanity with enduring contributions of his own, like sarcasm and cafe latte. Even the considerable wiles and devotion of the Savior’s pal may not be enough to divert Joshua from his tragic destiny. But there’s no one who loves Josh more – except maybe “Maggie,” Mary of Magdala – and Biff isn’t about to let his extraordinary pal suffer and ascend without a fight.” Moore’s work reminds me of John Irving’s early work. His story ideas are so fresh and original that I can’t keep away from his books. I thought Fluke was out there, but Lamb far surpasses the witty and fearless writing in that book. Despite the wry and often irreverent humor in Lamb, the life of the Christ simply shines. Moore has rooted out the best things about Christ and the beginnings of Christianity — such as forgiveness, bloodless sacrifice, and love — things that, 2000 odd years later, have in many ways been sucked out of the daily lives of the believers. A truly extraordinary book.
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. This was the December selection for the library book club. Admittedly, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to read it during the month, but I had read it years ago and sort of remembered the story. In fact, I read it for Sr. Joan’s Social Studies class at Nazareth Academy way back in 1978. Do I remember much of the book? Not really. What I remember the most was the field trip Sr. Joan took us on to the May Ling Chinese restaurant at the corner of Lake and Ridge. This was an annual event for her class that was apparently much anticipated by some of the more regular customers at the adult book store located just before the restaurant. Picture a whole gaggle of Catholic school girls trooping down Lake Avenue, led by a nun who I believe could have easily taken down any lecherous old man who looked at one of us the wrong way. What was she thinking? Funny how age and motherhood gives you a whole different perspective on things. What struck me during our discussion was that the role of women portrayed in the book isn’t much different than what we’re seeing now in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Buck wrote the story of O’Lan and her husband way back in the early 20th century, yet little has changed in the East. *Sigh*
The Weeping Woman by Michael Kilian. The first in Kilian’s Jazz Age series of mysteries starring the intrepid Bedford Green, former writer, current owner of a less-than-successful art gallery in Manhattan. Peppered with lots of real life characters from the 1920’s like Picasso, the Fitzgeralds and the subjects of my current favorite biography*, Sara and Gerald Murphy, The Weeping Woman is pure fun to read. Mix up a pitcher of martinis and go to town!
Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill. Gifted artist Gerald Murphy and his elegant wife, Sara, were icons of the most enchanting period of our time; handsome, talented, and wealthy expatriate Americans, they were at the very center of the literary scene in Paris in the 1920s. In Everybody Was So Young, Amanda Vaill brilliantly portrays both the times in which the Murphys lived and the fascinating friends who flocked around them. Whether summering with Picasso on the French Riviera or watching bullfights with Hemingway in Pamplona, Gerald and Sara inspired kindred creative spirits like Dorothy Parker, Cole Porter, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Nicole and Dick Diver in Tender is the Night were modeled after the Murphys). The era of the Lost Generation has always fascinated me, and Vaill provides a delicious keyhole look at this period and the people who made it so colorful.
The Purpose Driven Life – I was inspired to read this book when some people at my church decided to read it as a group beginning in Lent and reading through Easter to the Ascension. It’s a simple commitment, really. Read one chapter a day for 40 days and figure out your purpose in life. I was pretty skeptical, probably because during the course of the last 20 years that I’ve spent in libraries, I’ve seen hundreds of books like this one come and go. And truthfully, this one isn’t much different. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s a lovely, thoughtful, thought-provoking book, but it’s just one in a long line of books intended to help the average Joe’s and Josephine’s of the world make sense of their lives. Maybe I’ve just become too jaded, or maybe I’ve just come to my senses as I’ve gotten older, but I don’t expect an author, no matter how honorable his or her intentions, to be able to navigate the various paths of my life and cause everything to fall neatly into place. Life isn’t sensible, and once you accept that, you can find a purpose.
The Game by Laurie King – The latest in King’s Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series is just as witty and engrossing as the earlier books. This time, Russell and Holmes are out to find Kimball Harris, the real-life inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, who is actually a spy for the British Empire. Their travels take them from London to the Middle East, to India and Tibet. Good fun.
True Southern Tales and Weird Stories — I’ve been having great fun reading a couple of those pulpy “true stories” books that are made up of short chapters about things like alien encounters, men in black, green children, spontaneous human combustion, huge fish, and other weird stuff. I used to love the Ripley’s Believe It or Not pulp paperbacks when I was a kid, and I’ve just been having a blast immersing myself in these goofy stories.
Candy and Me: A Love Story by Hilary Liftin – This was one of the Online Book Club selections a couple weeks ago and I LOVED the daily chapters. I just got the book from the Rochester Public Library and can’t wait to dive in and finish it. Although I’m not a big candy eater, my daughter is and I’m considering reading the book aloud with her. I totally identified with Liftin’s mother who lost it when she kept finding mounds of empty candy wrappers stuffed behind Hilary’s bed. I just started keeping a jar of empty wrappers in my laundry room — it holds all the wrappers I pull out of Lizzie’s pants every week. We found a stash of Laffy Taffy under the living room couch this morning. What kills me is that the child never has any cavities, and never gains any weight! She hasn’t gained more than 5 pounds in the last 4 years.
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse – I first read this a few months before it won the Newbery and remember feeling kind of puzzled. Everything about it was unusual — from the photo of the girl on the cover to the way the text was written in blind verse. I don’t think I paid it very much attention, and I recall being surprised it won the Newbery. I recently read it again and found much more affecting. The story itself is heartbreaking — Billie Jo essentially kills her mother by accidentally throwing a pot of burning kerosene right in her face. She also badly burns herself and spends the next year or so coming to terms with both the loss of her mother and the loss of her ability to play the piano. Hesse’s use of the verse lends a lyrical quality to story, and I noticed this time through how she actually shaped the verse to resemble the subject — e.g. the verse on playing the piano is actually shaped like a piano keyboard. Although this is a children’s book, I think adults would appreciate it, too.
The Tuesday Club Murders by Agatha Christie – When my father-in-law found out I liked Agatha Christie books, he made it his mission to find me a copy of every book she ever wrote. He somehow managed to find me a whole set of leather-bound Christies that are just about the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen. I started reading them one by one about a year ago, and The Tuesday Club Murders is my latest from the set. It’s a collection of short stories about Miss Marple where she is invited to play a game with several people who try to stump each other with unsolved mysteries. Of course, the old lady kicks butt and solves every one.