1.) Nixed Swan Thieves. Probably could have plodded through—I had made it some 40 pages in—had I not happened, while searching for a visual of the (real? fictional?) painting in question, onto the headline of some Boston newspaper oh-so-wittily describing the book as “art-filled, but not artful.” That kills it for me. I hate reviews. I don’t even want to know what you think of a movie trailer before I see it. It doesn’t matter that it shouldn’t matter. It does. Other views have tainted my unsullied taking-in of the book, and now, encouraged by whoever at the Boston Whatever, I allow myself to see things I am otherwise very good at blocking out. The prose’s dullness compared to Colum McCann’s. (Even if that is a hard act to follow.) The tired familiarity of yet another well-off middle-aged doctor seeking to spice up his well-off, moderately boring life with danger and delusion. The unearthed remembrance that it’s not that The Historian changed my life or anything; it just steeped me in Europe when I was in Asia, and wanted to be somewhere else. All these things made going onward unappealing. I used to doggedly plow through any book, no matter how unloved, but no more. So:
2.) Picked up The Sparrow, thinking to reread a book I read 15 years ago and whose scenes, a handful of them, remain as stark and educational as if some grandparent had sat me on their knee and explained what was what. But, first page read, no dice. I don’t want to be told a story like it’s a news bulletin. Not following the luminous writing of Zoli. I know you can overdose on that; you can get tired of being lifted up by the shape of the words and want only for them to nudge you placidly along toward some plot-driven ending, but while I wouldn’t run out and borrow another Colum McCann book (if there are any left I haven’t read), I don’t want the news bulletin style. Next candidate:
3.) Peace Like a River, which meant something to me even before The Sparrow? Nope. First page. Don’t want to be told a story all hyuckity-hyuck, back-in-my-day-we-walked-uphill-both-ways. I don’t mean to demean the book; it was my favorite for a time and it touched me, but I don’t want to be talked down to like that, not now. Next:
4.) Bad Dirt? Annie Proulx? God no. Why is this even here? I only finished The Shipping News because I read it in my finish-it-at-any-cost phase. I don’t care that she hand-writes everything in cursive on yellow notepads before typing it all up. What’s that supposed to say to me? Dedication? OCD? Her writing makes the world seem like a shitty place to live in. Moving on.
5.) Another rereading, lighter this time: Bard? By Morgan Llywellyn? Almost, but no. There are scenes from this that have become indelible, too, instructively so, and I don’t want to ruin them yet by potentially rereading them as an adult and finding what I though I learned from them ludicrous. I learned this from Bard: even in the most supposedly understanding and perceptive people there can be terrible shallowness, all of a sudden. At one point Amergin, who has up until this point been a relatable, even admirable human being, striving so hard to record things—mentioning at some point how it is his job, he is realizing, to be a step back from everyone else, to record and not to take part, so that someone would know we were here—reflects on his wife’s (or just lover’s? I can’t remember) throat, saying essentially that even this most gorgeous lady on the planet has this patch of rough skin in the hollow of her throat and that with time he supposes we all work to view the failures of those near us as strengths or quirks or important indicators of uniqueness. Which is all fine and good, but—seriously, dude? Her neck isn’t soft enough for you? That he cared so much about this is what shocked me—not his drawn-out observation, which made sense enough at the time. But for real? The hollow of her neck is subpar for you? You just finished ravishing her on some beach and you’re complaining about the roughness of, what, a square inch? I think I read this when I was 12. It seemed pretty clear, upon hitting this, that spending puberty trying to get the attention of men would be a complete waste of my time. Her neck, for godsake. Forget it. If even the hottest princess in all Gaul can lose points due to imperfectly soft neckflesh—just forget it. …and if I were to reread it now, and realize I was a complete fool to take that passage that way, well, then I’d lose this good story, and I’d rather not. Next!
6.) The Riders, by Tim Winton. This I can do. Another reread but still. The first page. “In a moment fire roared like a mob in the hearth.” Yup. This was the first of Tim Winton’s books I read and my favorite; I have tried to get many other people to read it and they never do. I was very busy at the time but I stayed up late, spending a few days with little more than four hours’ sleep each night. I told people it was the plot that made me do it, though the first page tells me it was more than that. The scenes I remember from it aren’t teaching scenes—the aisle of a drugstore in Amsterdam and a girl he finds there; his daughter white as a sheet in the belly of a boat. In my head I confuse Tim Winton and Graham Swift, which makes little sense, because the former is raw in a way I wish I were, and the latter is sad in a way I hope never to be. But the version of TW trotting out in this book, anyway, is a suitable follow-up to CM. Less luminous, more like pressing your palms into your eyes till you see stars. A self-inflicted kind of awe.