It’s spring. Roses are blooming, the irises and Copper Canyon daisies are filling out and sending musky little scents through the study window. Junebug is crawling around the garden stalking some pitiful creature. My nightstand runneth over. In short, what better time to pick up a book and see whether it eases you into a springtime nap or rivets your attention from first page to last?
In this episode we look at books and authors who have won. There is a Pulitzer, a Nobel, and a Booker Prize, plus some nominations that in any year except the year of their publication would likely have won themselves. If this is your first trip to On the Nightstand, the books we review are rated by how well they keep you awake. A 20 watt book helps you drop right off (unless its writing is so bad that you stay awake nit-picking) and a 100 watt book keeps you awake all night. With that, let’s see what’s …
On the Nightstand
Let’s start with This Might be a Good Story, Jon Mark Beilue. This volume contains more than fifty short investigative stories of good people doing good things, of bad people getting second chances, and of people who could be you and me and, well, life happens. In Town Gives Back to its Own we learn that the town of Groom surprised Paula Brown by giving her a new home, buying and rebuilding a fixer-up and moving her in, wheelchair and all, just before winter. There are stories of trying the life of a beggar to see what it’s like, of the funeral of five actors killed in a car wreck, of an 80 year old who adopts a blind 14 year old, then loses everything in a fire. Of going to help orphans in Haiti but winding up in a foreign jail. This book is 90 watts of chocolate chips and potato chips, little bites that are so good you can’t stop at just one.
God on the Rocks, Jane Gardam. This slender novel, a 1978 Booker nominee, is the story of 10 year old Margaret Marsh who slowly comes to realize that her father is a zealot, her mother is a woman who married security instead of risk, her governess is a flake, and that the strange family in the mansion behind the No Trespassing sign knows a great deal about art but little about life. Then one day Margaret’s father wades out into the ocean to preach the gospel…. 85 watts.
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell, a Booker nominee in 2014. David Mitchell is a magnificent writer; Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are previous Best of the Year in past installments of On the Nightstand. Holly, a teenage girl, runs away from home and, unbeknownst to her, her six year old brother disappears the same day. She has a seventh sense, to see through people who, as it happens, are trying to save the world from Hugo Lamb, a Cambridge youth who cheats his friends, robs his god father on his death bed, and hides from hoodlums beating up his mates over the failure to pay for prostitutes before casting his lot with some time-travelling demons who are trying to take over the world from Holly’s time-traveling good guys. Good writing but not, for me, a good story. 75 watts.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan. Winner of the 2014 Booker, this novel spans the life of an Australian doctor swept up in WWII only to become a POW on the infamous Burma highway, the railroad being built to the deep north by Japan that is run by a savage guard. We follow the tragedies of the girl back home, the cobbers who are worked to death, the mindlessly- cruel guards, and the post-war Australia and Japan that they came back to, all I’m afraid, without successfully investing us in any of them. It is a bit of Bridge on the River Kwai for Aussies and, I’m afraid, too sweeping in its scope to stay with a story arc. 80 watts.
Suspended Sentences, Patrick Modiano, is a stunning book. Nobel Prize winner Modiano has written three novellas of life in France between the 1930s and 1980s, magically recreating the senses of a world that is just outside one’s reach and memory. He writes of parents who, for reasons not explained, are not there, of a photographer who takes remarkable images of people he doesn’t want to see again, of a haphazard inquiry into the suicides of a young couple that was obviously a murder, taking us to streets that no longer exist, buildings replaced by office blocks, names of people that might be remembered. Suspended Sentences is like going home after fifty years and almost (but not quite) remembering who eloped with whom, who joined the army and never came back, of the babysitter who took care of you, or was it her brother or sister, of memories and events that are just beyond your grasp. 100 watts.
The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark. With images of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Ballad of Peckam Rye, I eagerly raced through this tiny novel whose size, as it happens, turns out to be the best thing about it. It is the story of a woman named Lise who consciously sets out to leave her safe job, go on holiday to a foreign country where she can act out of character as a temptress, and get herself murdered. I detested this book. It might keep you awake but you will be angry with yourself for letting it do so. No watts, none at all.
In the queue:
It is possible that the next installment may have an eastern flavor.
I am eagerly awaiting Del Staecker’s new book, Sailor Man, the story of a boy who enlisted in the Navy at age 16, only to find himself in every major World War II battle in the Pacific in the march toward Japan.
To that add Fragrant Harbor, John Lanchester’s novel of a young Englishman who in 1935 leaves home for Hong Kong, where he learns the banking trade just as that outpost of empire is overrun by Japan in the first days of World War II.
To that add The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, the Pulitzer Prize winning story of a North Korean boy who, because he is an orphan, is detailed as a dark tunnel fighter in Our Beloved Leader’s underground incursions underneath South Korea, a job at which he is so good that he is rewarded with the post of kidnapper of opera stars from Japan….
Four Hours in My Lai, by Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, the account of the army’s darkest day in the Vietnam war and of the attempts to cover up the murder of over three hundred civilians.
Enjoy your Spring. I have to go rescue a gecko from Junebug.