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.

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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 Best “Best Book” List

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“The New York Times'” list of the Ten Best Books of the Year is the best such list I’ve encountered thus far. Half of the list is composed of fiction, a category that has been notably, and increasingly, dwindling from book lists. The rest of the “Times'” list is made up by non-fiction works that are international and introspective in their reach.  Not a single book tries to explain the world in terms of money and its flow.

I’d only heard of two of the ten books on the list, one of which I am reading. My plan for 2016 is to read all ten. Can’t wait for January to begin.

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Crazy Wallpaper

  
I’d never heard of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (b. 1892) until I read her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Now I want to read everything about her, which I hope to share right here. But, for starters, above is an excerpt from her story, which is her most famous work. 

It’s about an intelligent woman’s descent into madness, apparently instigated by the disturbing wallpaper pasted in the bedroom of the house she’s renting with her husband and infant son. 

It turns out the story is highly autobiographical and that Perkins suffered postpartum psychosis.  Her then husband’s efforts to cure her consisted of locking her in a room to force her to rest. No doubt such an ill conceived “cure” only made things worse. 

The story is a quick read and readily available. Highly recommended for those who enjoy losing sight of reality at the hands of a twisted narrator puppeteered by a skilled writer. 

Credit Where Credit Is Due

 Just read the above book review on Milan Kundera’s latest novel “The Festival of Insignificance” and felt like chucking the paper itself across the room. Maybe Kundera’s last oeuvre isn’t up to par with his past works, but come on — show the man some respect!  

When a critic is drastic like this I lose all trust in their judgement and actually feel more inclined to go out and buy the book.