I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.
— Malcolm X
With Thanksgiving — and the abbreviated work week it brings for many of us — upon us, I’m going to do something I last did a couple of years ago in this space. Namely, I’m going to give myself a break from writing about the trials, tribulations and occasional triumphs of this place we call home and tell you instead about some of the best books I’ve read most recently. I hope you’ll try some or all of them for yourself — and, if you’re so inclined, let me know what you think.
The Book of Illusions, by Paul Auster. I first encountered Auster in the mid-1980s, when I read The New York Trilogy, three short novels — City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room — that are best, if inadequately, described as existentialist detective stories. Whether because reading them sequentially turned my then-young mind so thoroughly inside-out, or simply from inattention or neglect, I didn’t make my way back to Auster until earlier this year, when I picked up a used copy of The Book of Illusions on a whim (one result of which is that I’m now enthusiastically playing catch-up; I’ve since read one more of his novels, and have another nearing the top of the pile on my “to be read” table).
The book’s ostensible protagonist — one effect of Auster’s style is to make almost everything seem ostensible — is a college professor whose wife and children have died in a plane crash. In the throes of grief and depression, the professor stumbles upon the silent film comedies of Hector Mann, a more obscure contemporary of Chaplin and Keaton who suddenly stopped making movies and was never heard from again. Becoming obsessed with Mann, the professor writes a book about his films, the publication of which opens the door to a dark and spiraling mystery. In a passage describing Mann’s penultimate film, the author could just as well be amplifying the overarching refrains of his own work:
It is a meditation on his own disappearance, and for all its ambiguity and furtive suggestiveness, for all the moral questions it asks and then refuses to answer, it is essentially a film about the anguish of selfhood.
The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, by Ben Bradlee, Jr. The history of baseball is littered with great stories and colorful, compelling characters. I’m a lifelong fan, and for my money, the most captivatingly complicated figure the game has produced is Theodore Samuel Williams. Tempestuous, mercurial, unapologetically profane and sometimes openly hostile to fans and sportswriters — the latter of whom he referred to, with a mixture of humor and contempt, as “the knights of the keyboard” — Williams quietly visited sick children and raised and donated funds for their medical care; he was similarly generous to former ballplayers who had fallen on hard times.
Williams broke into the big leagues with the Boston Red Sox — for whom he would play his entire career — in 1939, a brash 20-year old who openly proclaimed his intention of becoming “the greatest hitter who ever lived.” Two seasons later, he compiled a batting average of .406, and remains the last player to eclipse the magical .400 mark. Across a career that ended in 1960, Williams hit .344, with 521 home runs and more than 1,800 runs batted in — numbers that would have been burnished much further had he not missed nearly five full seasons serving in the military during World War II and the Korean War. In the last at-bat of his storied career, he hit a home run, a feat instantly immortalized by the writer John Updike in an essay for The New Yorker, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”
The characterization “a man’s man” has become unfashionable, but for both better and worse, there is no more apt description of Williams. Beyond his exploits on the diamond, he was a decorated fighter pilot — one of his comrades was future astronaut John Glenn, who called Williams was one of the best fliers he ever saw — and also achieved renown as one of the world’s top sport fishermen.
On the flip side, Williams had two failed marriages, as well as another complicated domestic relationship that lasted for 20 years. He also had highly fraught relationships with his three children, two of whom he joined near the end of his life (he died in 2002) in a highly publicized and controversial agreement — especially among friends, associates and other family members, who believed the increasingly ailing Williams was coerced — to have his head preserved cryonically, in hopes of being resuscitated at some future date. As with the rest of this sprawling and exhaustively researched volume on a towering American figure, author Bradlee handles the subject with aplomb.
The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene. I’ve read a good deal of Greene over the years, but somehow got around only recently to the novel that is widely considered to be his masterpiece. Set in the Mexico of the 1930s, a time when that country’s government was intent on suppressing the Catholic Church, it is the story of an unnamed priest who, to the point at which the reader first encounters him, has managed to escape the crackdown.
As Greene relates immediately, the priest’s survival is not a matter of courage or guile, but in fact quite the opposite. He is craven and deeply flawed morally — in Greene’s coinage, a “whiskey priest.” As his tale moves toward an ending that only seems inevitable once it has arrived, the priest comes to the realization — or, perhaps more correctly, the revelation — that he is left with only one means of possible redemption.
One of the hallmarks of Greene’s style is his ability to convey profound truths about the human condition in a way that is both deeply evocative of mood and setting and as matter-of-fact as a police procedural. In The Power and the Glory, he writes of the priest, knowing that the authorities are closing in on him, happening into a native settlement of a half-dozen mud huts; the inhabitants come out to look at him, “watching the rare spectacle of something worse off than themselves.” Later, he describes a rainstorm that “came perpendicularly down, with a sort of measured intensity, as if it were driving nails into a coffin lid.”
Atonement, by Ian McEwan. For a long time, I consciously resisted reading McEwan, despite — or, given my sometimes contrarian nature, perhaps because of — the insistence of numerous critics and friends that the Englishman may be the best writer of fiction currently living. Then, several months ago, one of those friends handed me a copy of Atonement, with the at least half-serious admonishment that if I didn’t read it posthaste, our friendship would be in jeopardy.
Afterward, all I could say was, “Thanks.” McEwan’s prose is beautiful without the slightest hint of showiness, exposing successive layers of meaning and nuance with the exactitude of a scalpel. The very title of the book is a twist that is not revealed until an ending that hits like a punch to the solar plexus, the coda to a spiraling tragedy that unfolds between a summer’s day in 1935 and the midst of the carnage of World War II — all the result of a precocious child’s misinterpretation of a single moment that is beyond any child’s understanding.
Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. This is the book I finished most recently, and I’ll say at the outset that it probably isn’t for everyone. I really didn’t think it was for me, either, as I’m not much for the details of military campaigns, which is largely what the book consists of, but when it comes recommended by Mark Twain, I have to figure it’s worth getting around to eventually.
Grant finished the book in 1885 as he was dying of cancer, and roughly three-quarters of it is spent recounting his experience of the Civil War. His prose style is straightforward and unpretentious, but amidst his accounts of strategy, troop movements, battles and military politics, Grant’s utter and unpretentious humanity shines through. “Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions,” he wrote. “We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.” Near the end of the book, he wrote of his reaction to the assassination of President Lincoln, whom he had been invited to accompany to Ford’s Theater on that tragic evening:
It would be impossible for me to describe the feeling that overcame me at the news of…the assassination of the President. I knew his goodness of heart, his generosity, his yielding disposition, his desire to have everybody happy, and above all his desire to see all the people of the United States enter again upon the full privileges of citizenship with equality among all. I knew also the feeling that Mr. Johnson had expressed in his speeches and conversation against the Southern people, and I feared that his course towards them would be such as to repel, and make them unwilling citizens; and if they became such they would remain so for a long while. I felt that reconstruction had been set back, no telling how far.
Angels at the Gate, by T.K. Thorne. Folks in Birmingham know this author best as Teresa Thorne, retired Birmingham Police captain and head of the downtown CAPS patrol program since its inception. She’s also an outstanding writer of both fiction and nonfiction, as this novel, published in the spring of 2015, demonstrates with authority.
Angels at the Gate is set at the time of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, as told in the Bible. Thorne relies on both biblical and historical accounts, underpinned by exhaustive research into each, as well as her considerable storytelling powers. The book’s hero is Adira, a girl of a nomadic tribe who has been raised by her widowed father as a boy. Approaching womanhood, and faced with her father’s murder and the loss of all she has known, Adira must make decisions about her future as her very life hangs in the balance.
Thorne handles her material, which culminates amid the conflagration in Sodom, with a hand that achieves a deft balance between storytelling and history, and between wrenching drama and gentle humor. Do yourself a favor — and support a local writer — by picking up a copy of this fine book.
With that, I’ll close with my best wishes for a wonderful and meaningful Thanksgiving for you and yours. Next week, back to the grind.