Some stuff I've read recently, if anyone's interested:
The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton by Michael Mott -- Is it possible to write an engrossing biography about a man who spent the better part of his adult life trapped inside a Trappist monastery in Kentucky? Yes, it is, as this very readable biography of the famous religious writer attests. Leaving behind numerous volumes of diaries and essays on a variety of topics, Merton comes across as a man committed to authentically seeking a religious life simultaneously on his own terms and God's terms -- and the conflict that creates in his psyche makes for interesting reading, even for an agnostic like myself.
Hard Revolution by George Pelecanos-- Another excellent crime novel featuring African-American D.C. detective Derek Strange. Only this time, Pelecanos has taken a page out of Walter Mosley's stylebook and transported the action back to the sixties, so we can see, clearly, vividly and heartbreakingly, how racial violence drove Strange out of the police force and into the man he became.
The Old Boys by William Trevor -- Trevor is one of those writers who I always mean to get around to reading but never do, only this time I did. (His book Felicia's Journey was adapted for the silver screen a few years back by Canadian director Atom Egoyan.) An Irish writer who, this novel, takes a biting look at the effects of a private-school life on a group of old men who still, like it or not, remain intrinsically connected to their alma mater of fifty years ago. British writers often remind me of Japanese writers; they both are raised and reared and exist in an extremely conformist, ostensibly formulaic society, and yet their work reveals that they are all too aware of the fundamental human foibles that exist beneath the most placid of societal surfaces. Very funny, erudite and touching, this one is.
Table Money by Jimmy Breslin -- Breslin is the long-time reporter for the New York Post, and this novel from the early eighties is a wonderful, understated look at an ordinary couple from Queens, trying (and sometimes failing) to make their way through the world of fidelity and work and alcohol. The book starts two hundred years ago with the influx of Irish immigrants into New York, and delicately traces the ups and downs of life and living through the viewpoint of a working-class husband and wife. Realistic dialouge is difficult to write, but Breslin can write like the wind.
Death In White Bear Lake by Barry Siegel -- I'm a sucker for true-crime books, and this one is a good one. A crazy mother longing to adopt, a murdered baby found in her home, a birth mother reopening the closed case thirty-odd years later -- what's not to like? True-crime books often come across as lurid and exploitive, but the best of them use crime as a mirror to reflect the hopes and fears of an entire community. This one does that, painting a portrait of a family and a town and a society that has not quite figured out how to ensure the safety of those with whose care we are entrusted.
W: Revenge Of The Bush Dynasty by Elizabeth Mitchell -- This is the second biography of Bush I've read, and it does a good job of illustrating how clearly Dubya has followed in his father's footsteps throughout the course of his life, from Andover to Yale to the oil fields of Texas to the ultimate endpoint of the White House. Bush comes across through these pages not as an illiterate moron but as a personable, compassionate, highly-educated and extremely likeable guy who never really got going in life until he quit drinking and found Christ. Make of that what you will, but the book hints that even Bush himself has not been aware of how much influence his father and his friends had in greasing the wheels of his eventual success. How much are we ourselves, and how much are we the repositories of our parents' success and failures?
The Beatles: The Biography -- by Bob Spitz -- Ever wondered why Ringo's called 'Ringo'? Or how Paul McCartney and John Lennon hooked up? Or where the phrase 'a hard day's night' comes from? This mammoth new book about the Beatles explains at all. The first part of the book is the best part; reading, in exhaustive detail, about how the Beatles became the Beatles is riveting stuff -- you can almost smell the smoke and taste the beer. It's as much a portrait of twentieth-century England as it is of the Fab Four, and it pulls no punches. A great read.
A Certain Justice by P.D. James -- A confession: I never understand, ever, when the mystery is finally revealed and all is explained. I'm serious. The explanations are never enough, and I'm continously left puzzled. I watched Ocean's Twelve the first time and blamed my confusion on the fact that all the titles (dates, times) were written in French, as I caught it on a bootleg DVD. When I watched it again, English dates and times intact, I still didn't get it. (I'm also of the opinion that Ocean's Twelve is one of the most genius sequels ever, but that it's also fundamentally flawed -- it takes everything that was fun and stylish about the first film and inverts it, resulting in a strange, somewhat bland movie that is neither arthouse nor mainstream but something in between, which is not necessarily bad, but it is decidedly, well, muddy.) My inability to understand who killed the butcher in the laundry room, and why, is why I approach mysteries with a certain sense of trepidation, but P.D.James is one of the really, really good mystery storytellers, judging by this book, and I'm looking forward to reading more of the series featuring Inspector Dalgliesh, complete with the tight, crisp, eloquent prose that seems to be a trademark of any writer emanating out of Britain. (Oh, and, of course, I didn't quite get what happened at the end, but I'm blaming me, not her.)
Home Town by Tracy Kidder -- A wonderful, non-fiction evocation of small-town North Hampton, Massacheussets. I'm a sucker for any and every story set in a small town, and this real-life chronicle is a sober, warm-hearted doozy. We get into the lives and the loves of the mayor and the police chief, the town nut and the local druggies. It reminded me of my hometown, it made me feel nostalgic, it made me want to read it again, and it made me want to write a book just like it.
The Inner Circle by T.C.Boyle -- A fictional imagining of what it must have been like to have worked alongside famed sex researcher Dr.Kinsey during his groundbreaking investigations. If you've seen the movie Kinsey, this book makes a fascinating counterpoint; if you haven't, it's still an entertaining, eloquent look at the uncomfortable collision between the intellect, emotion, sex and societal convention.