Unpacked

So true this fallacy. From “Less” by Andrew Sean Greer

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Utmost Hapiness

I knew Jennifer Egan was speaking at Greenlight Bookstore on Fulton Street last night, but that’s not why I went. Sure, it was good to see what a Pulitzer Prize winning author looks like, but that’s not why I went.

I went to get a book I’d been waiting on for a year. It had come out in paperback a while ago, but last night was the night I needed it definitively in my hands.

There was a crowd packed right up to the door, which I had to both ignore and sift through to find my book, not on the alphabet shelves but stacked upon the table of valuable reads. I wonder if Jennifer thought me rude as I grabbed a book not hers from the big center table and mazed back to the cashier. Nah. Jennifer is cool.

Plus, book desperation is a legitimate cause of the uncouth.

The book in my hands is signed by its author, the reclusive Arundhati Roy, whose “God of Small Things” landed in my lap in Kerala, the place where its story is set. Circumstantially, Roy became my favorite. The more so because there was just the one, the Man Booker Prize-winning one.

Now, the book in my hands makes two. “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is not new. But of course it lasted a while in its three-pound-hardcover-version, prohibitive to the laptop-baby-water-bottle-carrying-mom-backs of the book-buying-world.

The book in my hands is signed by the hands of its author. It is no longer on the big wooden table in front of Jennifer Egan’s microphone. It is on the candlelit counter where I sit, alone, to begin to read.

Good Gore

Sometimes a story is so good it doesn’t matter how it’s told. The facts against a flat surface remain dense, flamboyant, no matter how simply they are thrown. Which is not to say that Paul French’s “Midnight in Peking” is a poorly told, simple read. Quite the contrary.

The Edgar Award-winning true-crime tale is the kind of book one stays up past midnight to finish. Indeed, creepy, quiet late night is the correct frame for French’s reconstruction of a young British girl’s vicious murder in 1937 Peking, a time when Beijing was barely still Peking. Barely because the Japanese had invaded the mainland and were fast approaching the as yet colonial city, barely because the Kuomintang was clumsily hunting the Red Army in caves, barely because the world was about to seize with war.

French solves the still-open murder mystery by being a better story-teller than the police were investigators. Hermaphrodites, brothels, opium, Russian oligarch refugees all play a part, tracked down by the author in relevant detail so fun one is tempted to forget the story’s sad end.

Fortunately , French doesn’t let us stray too far into Peking’s underworld. He leads the way out, back to the murdered girl’s home, where her father, in many ways the hero of the tale, is at his desk, stringing all the dim pieces for someone someday to tie.

The Universal Teat

If you have not read “Grapes of Wrath” and for some reason plan on doing so, stop reading this. If, on the other hand, you would like to be spared the load but are curious about its classical buzz, read on.

“Grapes of Wrath” is like a fat Oreo: delicious chocolate crunch on each end, white sappy soap mush in the middle. The last paragraph of the book, after four hundred pages of soapy sap, may be the best thing that’s happened to me in book form. In it, Rose of Sharon, once prodigal daughter, later pregnant abandoned wife, nurses a half-starved man. She has milk to give because hours before she gives birth to a stillborn during a devastating flood.

I would say that the image of this wrecked woman, who was probably hot, bringing a doomed man back from the brink of death by the power of her breasts is why the book endures the test of time. Also why they made a movie about it right away.

In all seriousness, I am glad I read it. The first hundred pages are breathtaking. The last fifty are sweepingly cinematic. The ending over-the-top — as was my joy at realizing I’d finally put it to bed.