Monday, October 04, 2004

What Are You Reading?

I've been a bookworm since grade school. A well written story has always been one of my greatest joys. Even when I was on the street, a paper back was always in my back pocket.

When I was about 19, I developed a friendship with a local cabbie. Roy had gone to college for a few years, and was also an avid reader. Upon reviewing my library, he declared it all "junk." Maybe he was right. I'd never taken a high school English class. When I hit the streets, I dropped out of school. He took it upon himself to remedy this flaw in my intellectual development by dropping off books; Vonnegut, Hesse, Thoreau, Dostoevsky, among others.

When I finally got around to working on an undergraduate degree, of course I majored in English. Getting credit for reading; a piece of cake. The problem was that my reading became limited to what is generally considered "good literature." To be honest, I found much of it, with the exception of a few poets I may have never met otherwise, to be just plain awful.

Seminary was even worse. There was much reading required, but no stories, and little time for free reading. I felt like I was starving. To survive, I took to stealing 90 minutes whenever possible to watch movies; boiled down stories that robbed the imagination of the freedom to form its own images, but better than nothing.

At this point in my life, 15 years after the final paper chase, I find myself with the freedom to once again read whatever I want during my time off. I'm sure Roy would not approve of some of my choices. But guess what; Roy's not here. Today my criteria is simple; if I like the author's way of weaving a story, I read everything they have written.

I am still required to read much non-fiction as a part of my vocation, but I still make space for reading stories every day. I'm told there are people who don't read in bed every night before they go to sleep. That's hard for me to imagine, but I suppose it might be true.

This particular discipline is one of the few things that has been constant throughout my life. Engaging with a well told tale creates a place that is familiar, comfortable and safe. Escapism? Maybe. Beyond that, however, I find that it is a story that has the potential to weave in and out of so many disciplines; psychology, philosophy, sociology, without getting stuck in one or the other. It seems to me that it is the story that has the potential to dance nearest truth.

All the above verbiage is intended to be a simple introduction (disclaimer?) to a discussion of books I've recently read. I hesitate to offer my list, as a list like this tells some people much more about you than you really wanted them to know. But, since Jake is a pseudonym, what the heck. So here's the list;

Smoke, by Donald Westlake - This guy is fantastic. I stumbled across him a few years ago. His wit keep you chuckling, while his character development makes you grieve when the last page is turned. Dortmunder, the philosopher-crook, and his inept but endearing gang, are the major players in most of his stories. Smoke introduces a new character, a burglar named Freddie Urban Noon, who accidentally robs the lab of two scientists who are financed by a tobacco company. Their charge is to prove that cigarettes are good for you. Instead, they stumble across a chemical agent that renders one invisible. I'll just leave it there, so as to not ruin the story.

The Heartbreaker, by Susan Howatch - I've been a fan of Howatch since her Starbridge series; novels set in England in which the prominent characters are Anglican clergy. This one is intended to be a continuation of that series. Nick Darrow, the charismatic priest, his sidekick Lewis, and the healing center of St. Benet's, do play an important role in the story, so I suppose that it could be considered an addition to her earlier work. Personally, I think this is the second of a new series which began with The High Flyer, in which we are introduced to a new character, a woman by the name of Carter Graham.

This story revolves around Gavin, a male prostitute whose clients are the "high flyers" of London. Carter, who is now involved in the ministry of St. Benet's, and Gavin become accidentally linked. As the dust jacket puts it, in this novel Howatch once again shows her skill in "deftly combining the sacred and profane." I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

Lamb; The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore - Moore is quite popular today. If you aren't familiar with him, he probably belongs in the same category as Doug Adams and Tom Robbins (although I think Robbins deserves his own category; Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climes is the best thing I've read in a long time; but I digress). I'd heard about this one enough to give it a read. It was enjoyable, and offered plenty of chuckles. It is sacrilegious in places, and he stretches for the laugh a bit. The premise is quite creative (Biff is brought back from the dead, and held captive in a motel by an angel until he writes a new Gospel), but I didn't find a lot of innovative thought in it. It's a quick read, and has its moments, but will never be among my personal favorites.

Just One Look by Harlen Coben - This is a spellbinder by an author I'd never heard of before. Great story; lots of plot twists, well developed characters, and suspense that might cause you to stay up much too late. The story is of a woman whose husband mysteriously disappears. As she looks for him, she discovers a killer is also stalking him. Sounds predictable? Don't underestimate this one. It's a real page turner.

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell - This is what I'm currently reading. I'm just getting into it, but it seems quite good. This is a new author for me, and I'm hoping that it is as good as it seems, because there is a second book to this series, with the possibility of more to follow. From the back;

Father Emilio Sandoz is the only survivor of a Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat, 'a soul...looking for God.' We first meet him in Italy...sullen and bitter...But he was not always this way, as we learn through flashbacks that tell the story of the ill-fated trip...
- San Francisco Chronicle
So there they are; the confessions of an incurable bookworm.

Now it's your turn. Anyone else want to fess up? What are you reading? Help out a fellow story addict; feed me some titles!


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