Between the Lines: Paging All Readers By David Pitt (April 2005)
Hey, guess what: summer's just around the corner. (That either makes me an optimist, or an idiot. Let me know which, will you?) What would summer be without travel, and what would travel be without misplaced luggage, inexplicably cancelled flights, and long lines at the ticket counters? While you're waiting for your pre-trip weirdness to get sorted out, why not pass the time with a good paperback?
Leave it to Psmith (Vintage), by P.G. Wodehouse, isn't a good book. It's a great one, a classic, which explains why it's been reprinted eight decades after it was first published. Psmith is your typical Wodehouse Englishman, by which I mean he is, in nearly every important respect, indistinguishable from an extraterrestrial visitor who's trying to fit into human culture after minimal preparation. Unlike Wodehouse's greatest creation, Bertie Wooster, Psmith has to work for a living, but that doesn't mean he has to do it well. Leave it to Psmith puts our hilarious hero in all sorts of comic situations, and I dare you to read it and keep a straight face.
First published in 1946, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (Simon & Schuster), by Eric Hodgins. It's the story of an advertising executive who decides to leave the hustle and bustle of the big city and build a house in the country. Naturally, he soon learns he has no idea how complicated this seemingly simple notion would become. The book is full of nimble wit and playful observation; it's a comic nightmare of contractors and architectural lunacy and sheer unending frustration, and you'll love it.
Serpico (Perennial), by Peter Maas, appeared in 1973. More than thirty years later, this true story of a New York City cop who risked his career and his life to expose corruption on the force is just as gripping, and just as shocking, as it was then. These days, everybody knows about Frank Serpico (Al Pacino played him brilliantly in the movie), but you don't really know his story unless you read the book. In the genre loosely and often unfairly called "true crime," it's a classic.
John Case's The Genesis Code (Ballantine) came out in 1997, so it's not very old. It's not a classic, either, not like the books we just talked about. But it is very good. Joe Lassiter learns that his sister and nephew perished in a house fire. Then, just to make matters worse, he finds out they were murdered, and the fire was a cover-up. More murders follow, and soon Joe is knee-deep in the kind of conspiracy that makes thriller writers, not to mention thriller readers, salivate. If you liked The Da Vinci Code, you'll really like The Genesis Code, because it's a much better book.
Speaking of conspiracies, and books that are better than The Da Vinci Code, here's The Intelligencer (Washington Square Press), by Leslie Silbert. It's pretty complicated, but here's the gist of it: while investigating a murder, a private investigator who used to be a Renaissance scholar finds that one of the case's key clues, an antique manuscript, may reveal a centuries-old plot involving the murder of a very famous Elizabethan playwright. I know that sounds vague, but Silbert does such a good job of spinning this web of adventure that I'd really rather let her tell it. Just read the book. You'll like it, I promise you.
While we're on the subject of antique manuscripts, let's talk about Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill's The Voynich Manuscript (Orion). Voynich was Wilfrid Voynich, an antiquarian book dealer who found a manuscript in a monastery in 1912. It's an enigmatic manuscript, written in a foreign language, or an impenetrable code, or ... something. That's what makes this story so darned intriguing: for nearly a century, now, some of the world's greatest scholars and code-breakers and linguists have tried, and failed, to figure out what the heck the thing says. I love this sort of thing, and, even if you're stifling a yawn right now, trust me, this book will perk you right up and make you love this sort of thing too.
From the past to the future: Star of Gypsies (Pyr), by Robert Silverberg. Now, this is not "vintage Silverberg," if (like me) you think he was doing his best work in the late sixties and early seventies, with brilliant stuff like Up the Line and The Second Trip and The Stochastic Man and Dying Inside and The Man in the Maze. But it is an excellent example of the kind of thing he was doing later in his career (the novel was first published in 1986 -- yes, another reprint), when he was writing epics on a grand, even intergalactic, scale. Star of Gypsies revolves around Yakoub, once a king and now a humble recluse, who discovers he is the only one who can bring peace to the galaxy. It's hugely ambitious, wonderfully written, and just a joy to read.
If you like science fiction, or even if you don't, I have to tell you about Eric Garcia's novels about Vincent Rubio, a private eye just like every noir private eye you've ever read about, except for one teensy little thing: he's a dinosaur. There are three novels about this unique creation. They're published by Ace Books; the first two, Anonymous Rex and Casual Rex, are bundled together in a single volume, and the third, last year's Hot and Sweaty Rex, is all by itself. The premise of the series is simple: dinosaurs didn't really die out sixty million years ago, they just kept evolving; and now they walk among us, dressed up as human beings, with their own secret culture, religion, legal system, and so forth. Garcia has put a lot of thought into this, and he builds the dinosaur society carefully, through small hints and larger revelations. It's all very subtly done, so subtly that the whole idea doesn't seem nearly as far-fetched as you'd expect it to.
If you're in the mood for something a little more (shall we say) grounded in reality, try this: One for My Baby (Touchstone), by Tony Parsons. Alfie Budd is married, and then all of a sudden he's a widower. For a while he wallows in his depression, indulging in a series of meaningless affairs, while his career and his dignity crumble around him. Then two people wander into his life, and all the things he thought he'd left behind -- love, self-respect, happiness -- come flooding back. A delicate and moving novel.
Also delicate and moving is A Distant Shore (Vintage), a novel about love and hope by Caryl Phillips. Dorothy is a retired schoolteacher; Solomon is a night watchman. They're both desperately lonely, but each of them has a secret that -- so they believe -- makes it impossible for them to find love. Some love stories are maudlin, or tacky, or so dripping in misery that you just want to scream. Others are poignant, charming, and uplifting. This is one of those.
And here's a different kind of love story: The Book of Joe (Delta), by Jonathan Tropper. After his father has a stroke, Joe returns to his home town, Bush Falls, which might not be so bad, except that a while back he wrote an unflattering novel called Bush Falls, and then the novel became a smash-hit movie, and now everybody in town hates him. But when he gets back there, an odd thing happens: he rediscovers the town and its people, relives the long-ago events that drove him away from Bush Falls ... and falls in love, not with another person, but with the town he thought he despised. Offbeat and quite moving.
Also offbeat, but more funny than moving, is Sophie Kinsella's Can You Keep a Secret? Kinsella, author of the excellent Shopaholic novels, introduces us to a new heroine: Emma Corrigan, a young woman who, at the beginning of the book, blurts out a lot of personal stuff to an attractive stranger on a plane. Later, of course, she finds out this stranger is the CEO of the company she works for, and that's just the beginning of Emma's odyssey of comic mishap. Kinsella writes the kind of thing that publishers call "chicklit" (such an infantile and insulting term), but she writes it so much better than almost all of her contemporaries that lumping her in with them seems drastically unfair.
In the mood for a little nonfiction? Aren't you lucky. The Real Thing: Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company (Random House), by Constance L. Hays, is one of the better business books to hit the shelves in quite a while. Hays charts the evolution the company from its inception, really gets right in there and talks about all the things that most companies prefer to keep to themselves. It's not a malicious book, and the author doesn't appear to have a hidden agenda, but be prepared for a few juicy surprises.
Reinventing the Wheel (HarperBusiness), by Steve Kemper, is a look at one of the more curious recent inventions, the Segway Human Transporter. You know, that platformy thing on two wheels, and you stand on it and hold on to the handlebars, and it was going to be so big that everyone would own one. Well, you don't see too many of them around, and that's just one of the things Kemper talks about in the book. He also talks about the Segway's inventor, Dean Kamen, a guy who (apparently) was so convinced of his own genius that the notion that people wouldn't actually want the darn thing was just plain inconceivable. An illuminating study in ingenuity and futility.
Ingenuity? You want ingenuity? Check out Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann, and America's Most Extraordinary House (Knopf), by Franklin Toker. It's something a little unusual, a biography of a house: Fallingwater, built by a great architect (Wright) for a department-store magnate (Kaufmann). What kind of biography can you write about a house, you ask? Well, if you're Toker, a noted architectural historian, you write a story full of life, intrigue, and intellectual exploration. There have been scads of biographies of famous people that were less interesting and less memorable than this one. (Just for fun, read this one and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House back to back. You'll never look at architecture in the same way again.)
It's possible, of course, that you've never heard of Fallingwater, which is (let's face it) not as famous as the man who designed it. But we've all heard of The Tower of Pisa. Tilt (Penguin), by Nicholas Shrady, tells the story of the famous Italian tower. This poor beleaguered edifice is better known for its physical attributes -- its tendency to lean to one side -- than for its history, which may explain why there are so many myths about the tower, such as the one that says Galileo performed revolutionary experiments by dropping things from the top of it. (He did teach there, but, according to Shrady, there is no evidence the experiments ever took place; we can blame a painter, Vincenzo Viviani, for that little fable.) Shrady tells us all the things about the tower we never knew, never even suspected, and it makes for a remarkably exciting tale.
That ought to hold you for a while. Anyway, my fingers are tired.
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