The New Year has arrived with all its baggage. Chill winds. Clouds low on the horizon. Garden flowers pleading to be pruned. Junebug demanding to be let out, then back in, then back out. But winter is not all grim and wet, by no means. The shorter days mean longer nights, (not technically, but you know what I mean), and longer nights mean more time to read the books you got for Christmas or, in a pinch, the books still on the stack.
What are these books? And will they keep us awake, turning pages, long past the time to go to sleep? Let’s see. Here are mine.
(And, if this is your first On the Nightstand, we rank books by whether they keep us turning the pages at night. A 100 watt book is a great read. A 20 watt book is a cheap sedative to help you sleep, and so on…..
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. She is one of the two best American novelists for writing dense, intimate, and vivid scenes and characters you believe you know. The worlds she creates are as clear to the reader as if s/he was living in them. She also writes a remarkable blend of traditional story arc (protagonist meets problem, finds solution, then ….) and ancient forms, such as Greek plays in which the tragedy of the ending is told on page one. She is a sorceress, and The Secret History and The Little Friend are equal to Jonathan Frantzen in their capacity to create families, enemies, friends, intrigues, and histories in very tightly packed vignettes while telling a gripping story. The Goldfinch does so as well but…. It is the story of a thirteen year old caught up in a terrorist tragedy who somehow lands on his feet, then proceeds to make a decade’s worth of bad decisions. It is the book’s curse that when compared to her other two masterworks,this comes in third. It must be read, however, and I urge you to do so, but it is her 100 watt light bulb in the firmament of her other two 200 watt halogens.
My Early Life, Winston Churchill. Memoir as campaign literature, but very good campaign literature. He traces his privileged but lonely childhood, discomfort with Harrow, and the love of horses that led him to a military career in India and Africa, a career advanced by a combination of pushing himself forward ahead of other officers to get into the next battle and of good family connections, hardly the stuff of democracy. But the stories are good to read, including hopeless efforts to tame the very Afghan valleys that today are the source of tribal terrorism, and his escape from captivity in the Boer War, a self-satisfied tale that may have made conditions much worse for the other officers left behind. It ends at age 25 with his finagling his way into an election with relentless speechifying. It’s a solid 90 watts, in perspective.
The Lie, Helen Dunmore. I gobbled this tale of a soldier of the Great War come home to the West Country, and was disappointed. He finds an ancient and reclusive neighbor woman in her last breaths, watches her die, then cleans up her cottage and moves in without notifying anyone of either fact. Hmmm. 50 watts, if you like to read soldier tales from the Great War.
They Called Them Soldier Boys, Gregory Ball. This is the history of the 7th Texas Infantry Regiment in World War I, from the formation of local companies in the Texas Panhandle in 1917, through training in the Texas 36th Infantry Division in Fort Worth for a form of warfare that was obsolete by the time it got to France, to the tragic frontal assaults of St. Etienne and the redemption at Forest Farm. This is a very narrow subject but if you want to follow doughboys sent to fight in France, this is your book. It is detailed, accurate, and well-sourced. 100 watts for the faithful.
A House Divided: the Story of Ike and McCarthy, Donald J. Farinacci. Don is a superb writer, witness his first history, Truman and MacArthur. This follow-up history of Eisenhower walking on egg-shells to defuse the volatile and slanderous senator from Wisconsin is a delicate balance of trying to understand Ike’s difficulty in securing the Republican nomination in the face of the Republicans’ most powerful and yet most disgraceful elected official. I would have liked a bit of work on typography and sourcing, but the story itself is well written and enjoyable. 80 watts.
Armadillo, William Boyd. My faithful will no doubt roll their eyes at my reviewing yet another Boyd novel, a habit I acquired when a friend gave me Any Human Heart. Unfortunately, Armadillo let me down. It is the story of an insurance investigator in London who, surprise, works for a bunch of crooks who lie, cheat, and steal to avoid paying claims, wrecking the lives of others and getting rich in the process. It also is the story of an insurance adjuster who has the mad dash hots for a woman he sees in the back window of a cab, stalks her, and sets up a place for her to land when her husband turns out to be even worse. Sorry. Not his best. 75 watts. But….
Voices of the Old Sea, Norman Lewis. I added this to my stack for the sole reason that it was a Norman Lewis book, he who spent World War II in Naples asking well-dressed but impoverished Neapolitans if they were secret fascists, a post for which he was chosen because his commanding officer noticed that he had blue eyes (“the color of truth”). This is risky; not all of his books are so impish. Voices of the Old Sea, however, is the book he was born to write. After the war he finds a way to vacation in a fishing village in Spain that has not changed in a thousand years, apart from the men being conscripted into the wrong side of the Spanish Civil War. They are impoverished, superstitious, isolated, and all communicate verbally by composing impromptu blank verse. Lewis stays several summers and is accepted into the community in time to witness the miracle of the twentieth century – the collapse of their economy as a black marketer co-opts their labor to turn a ratty villa into a destination for foreign tourists. It will be hard to top this in 2015 for book of the year. A pure 100 watts. Go find a copy and read it. Do it.
And, on my nightstand:
The Flamethrower, Rachel Kushner
The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark
Fragrant Harbor, John Lanchester, and ….
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell. But you knew that, didn’t you.
See you soon, and stay warm.