It is the autumnal equinox, midway between high summer and dark winter, the longest and shortest days or our calendar. Entonces? Well, it means that during a long summer I have moved a bunch of books on and off my nightstand, and also have stocked up for winter. Let’s start with what I’ve been reading. And, if this is your first time, or if it’s been too long to keep the rules in your head, we award watts and watts of praise for the books on my nightstand. If a book keeps me awake, turning the pages, it gets 100 watts of brightness. If it puts me to sleep pretty quickly, it gets 10 watts or so. The scientific review system is entirely my own, so I invite you to read these books, give me your candlepower, and suggest some back to me and to the rest of us.
Let’s start. Here is what I’ve Just Finished:
Saturday, by Ian McEwan, the author of Atonement. A day in the life of a brilliant neurosurgeon, from the moment he awakens at 4:00 am and sees outside his window a plane whose engines are on fire, to the trivial car crash he has on the way to play handball to …. This novel is written almost entirely in the first person and, even more, from within that person’s thoughts, memories, fears, worries, and plans, between the moment he wakes up until he performs emergency surgery twenty hours later on the hoodlum who broke into his home and terrorized his family. It has rave reviews, and I give it 90 watts.
A Novel Approach (to writing your first book), by Jack Woodville London. 100 watts. I stayed up a lot of nights writing it… Buy it today. Buy copies for your friends. Make Christmas gifts of it.
Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon. This simple-appearing book of artistic advice, such as ‘Steal ideas to get your artistic self going’ and ‘Fake it ‘til you make it’, is a minor rage. I emphasize minor. 40 watts.
The Swerve, by Steven Greenblatt. National Book Award winner, this book follows the life of Paggio Bracciolini, a 15th century papal scribe who tracked down the thought to be lost manuscript of Lucretius’ work On the Nature of Things, itself a two thousand year old study of the philosophy of Epicureanism. Promoted as the chronicle of the event of humanism that unleased the Renaissance, The Swerve is a remarkable biography of both Paggio and of On the Nature of Things, for which it justly deserves 90 watts. As a thesis of the force that unleashed the Renaissance it is less convincing, given that humanism in both literature (Petrarchus) and art (Giotto, Donatello) predate Paggio’s recovery of On the Nature and that the influence of his discovery is not widely attributable to any Renaissance thought for almost another century. But that is nit-picking, and this is a great book for long winter evenings.
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen. Need I describe it? Even two hundred years after its publication this novel of self-discovery has some of the best-written dialogue and observations in literature. Not just for girls. 100 watts.
Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett. The original minimalist play of Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for Godot to come along for reasons neither they nor we grasp, but meeting in his place the disingenuous Pozzo and his mute slave, Lucky. No one knows what any of it means, I least of all, but reading it leaves no doubt how it propelled Beckett into the forefront of letters. 85 watts, more if you understand it.
The Northmen’s Fury, A History of the Viking World, Philip Parker. This is a phenomenal history of the Vikings, following their movements across northern and western Europe in the eighth to eleventh centuries, their penetration of Russia from the north to Constantinople, and their migration across the North Atlantic past Ireland to the Shetlands, Iceland, Greenland, and Canada. If you aren’t interested in Vikings, well…. But if you are even a wee bit curious about all the pillaging of Lindisfarne, the colonization of Normandy, and the occupation of England, this is the book for you. 100 watts.
And, my (so far) Book of the Year:
Essays in Love, Alain de Botton. In asking Cupid what are the odds of meeting and falling in love with the one for whom life becomes worth living, de Botton recalls meeting Chloe when, assigned to seat 15A of a Boeing 767, Chloe is assigned seat 15B. What are the odds? Well, de Botton calculates them, and they are one in 989.727. And therein lie the seeds of not only meeting and falling in love, but also in failing to stay in love. Step by step we go, all of us, through the pain of idealizing the one who has become the object of our love, the seduction, the fear of possessing and of being possessed, the little cues of discord, the refusal to believe the signs, and the loss of reason to live when … The light bulb just isn’t big enough. This is my must read book for you.
On the Nightstand: Here’s what I’m working on now:
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde. You read it in college. I didn’t.
My Early Life, Winston Churchill. This is one of the Eland publications of rare or out of print books that in some way relate to travel, adventure, geography, exploration, or enlightenment, of somewhere in the world, somewhere in the last three centuries, or maybe the last five. Eland publishes phenomenal books; I’m looking forward to it.
They Called them Soldier Boys, Gregory W. Ball. This is a non-fiction study of the Seventh Texas Infantry Regiment during World War One, from demographics and recruitment in the largely unsettled Texas Panhandle of 1917 through to the unit’s engagement in the last battle of that war to end all wars.
New to the Queue: Here is what is coming up:
A House Divided, the Story of Ike and McCarthy, by Donald J. Farinacci. I’m looking forward to this because of Mr. Farinacci’s masterful work “Truman and MacArthur: Adversaries for a Common Cause.” He is a very good historian of the Cold War, so stay tuned.
Armadillo, William Boyd. Must. Stop. Reading. Boyd. And. Add. New. Authors. To List.
The Lie, Helen Dunsmore. A novel of World War I and the baggage it left in its survivors’ heads.
And, the biggie,
Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. I’ve been savoring the moment that I can stop reading my queue books and pick up this book by the woman I believe to be the best American fiction author since …… Franzen? Can’t wait. (And I’ve promised myself that I’ll read it before I buy the new David Mitchell…..).