Things have been awfully busy around here lately and I find I’ve been drifting away from what I like doing most — writing about the books I’m reading. By the time I’m done opining (or whining) about the news, updating the landing pages in Booklist Online, and bug-hunting in our new publishing system, it’s usually too late in the day to tap into the part of my brain that has any thoughts worth sharing.
But I’ve read some great books lately: Free Fire, by C. J. Box; The Book of Air and Shadows, by Michael Gruber; The Case of the Missing Books, by Ian Sansom; House of Meetings, by Martin Amis; What Is the What, by Dave Eggers — the list, as they say, goes on. When I get this many stellar reads in a row, I find myself wondering if I’m getting overenthusiastic. Am I awarding too many stars? People have limited reading time, and to praise too many books too highly would be a disservice.
(Then I think that my worrying is counterintuitive: if anything, reading more great books would seem to encourage parsimoniousness, because the merely excellent books would pale in comparison to the truly great ones. Then I worry that I’ve become a human smiley face, cheerfully bestowing honors because I want everyone to have a nice day.)
Anyway, I don’t want to revisit my past hand-wringing. My new guiding policy is this: don’t get jaded. Discriminating, always, but I don’t want to penalize a worthy book by withholding a star just because I starred a review the day before and I want to maintain my self-image as someone who’s hard to please.
For the upcoming March 1 issue, I wrote a starred review of Neil McMahon’s Lone Creek. McMahon belongs to the fine tradition of Montana writers who work with their hands in order to support their passion for words. My father, who lives in Missoula, met McMahon when he showed up — with another writer, Fred Haefele — to do some tree trimming in my father’s yard. McMahon’s Carroll Monks series was very good, but Lone Creek may just put him on the national map. I’m always hoping for Montana crime stories as good as the ones that got me hooked (by James Crumley, mainly) and McMahon shows he’s worthy of Crumley’s company.
I’d barely finished reading Lone Creek when I started Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore. Though Temple is apparently regarded by some aficionados as Australia’s best crime writer, I have to confess I’d never heard of him. Now I’ll never forget him. I was hardly expecting another great book so soon, but The Broken Shore, which racked up the awards in Australia, was well worth the rave that will run in the March 15 issue of Booklist. Interestingly, despite the Down Under location, this one has elements — land-use issues and racial discrimination — that make it feel like an American West crime story with Aussie accents. The devastating ending is worthy of the movie Chinatown, and protagonist Joe Cashin is a richly complicated character we’ll want to see again.
But the great books I’ve read lately haven’t only been about crime. Well, Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me is about a crime, sort of, but because it’s literary fiction and not crime fiction, it’s more about the crimes we commit against ourselves than the kind we commit against other people. Rich in both ideas and ambiguity, it’s the kind of book that’s hard to review, period — and extraordinarily hard to review within the brief confines of a Booklist review. Because I labored so hard over it there, I’ll just quote myself here:
“In gorgeous, melancholy prose, O’Hagan portrays a man who misapprehends both the community and himself, leading us on a thoughtful exploration of faith and of religion’s role in an increasingly un-Catholic world – and, eventually, of the simple need to love and be loved. The juxtaposition of Anderton’s memories of privileged life at Oxford with the cheerful ignorance of the Dalgarnock youth provides an open-eyed elegy – that is to say, cognizant of the contradictions of nostalgia – for a more beautiful way of life.”
Granted, I’m getting better books to review now that I toil as an editor than I did when I toiled as an editorial assistant, but still, this has been a remarkable run of books and I’m grateful. Now I have to make do with the likes of Lore Segal (Shakespeare’s Kitchen) and Henning Mankell (Depths). Sigh. Can’t a guy get a break?