I used to be an avid reader, devouring books by the truckload. Classic literature, chic-lit, crime novels, spy thrillers, historical fiction, creative non-fiction, traditional non-fiction – it didn’t matter, I read it all. But in recent years, my appetite has waned.
My problem is two-fold: 1) too much academic reading tends to diminish my desire to read for pleasure; and 2) as my own writing evolves, I find myself increasingly critical of the works I read, and incapable of suffering bad writing for the sake of a story.
That last part makes me feel like a pretentious jerk.
And perhaps I am. But more likely, its just that over the years, my taste in reading material has become more discriminate. I think it’s only natural. I mean, twenty years ago, I drank fruit flavored wine coolers because they tasted like punch and provided a nice little buzz. Today, I have learned to savor and appreciate the bouquet of a full-bodied Cabernet without devolving into a drunken train wreck – usually.
In 2013, I made a point to read more. I participated in author Patricia Burroughs’ Embarrassment of Riches – TBR Challenge. I did fairly well, though about halfway through, I began to turn away from the books I’d been meaning to read, and moved toward new titles. But I read, and that’s all that really matters.
I completed about a two dozen books. Not a huge amount, but it was a decent start. I finished working my way through Daniel Silva’s complete body of work. Some were good, some were not. Against my better judgment, I was suckered into reading Dan Brown’s latest – hated it. I also discovered that I’m not a fan of Tom Clancy’s written work, which was disappointing; and I found the classic Sherlock Holmes adventures to be a bit tedious – also a grave disappointment.
Despite this, there were a handful of titles that I did enjoy – very much, in fact. Here are four that left an impression (in no particular order):
The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith (a.k.a J.K. Rowling): At the risk of provoking the wrath of my limited readership, I have a confession: I am not a Potter fan.
I’ll give you a minute to digest that tidbit.
Are we good?
Cuckoo was an impulse buy, picked up at the last-minute while standing in a ridiculous line at my local big box booksellers. I brought it home and did with it what I usually do with such purchases – I put it on my nightstand and left it to collect dust. Two months later, after reading a couple of historical books on religion and ready for a change of pace, I plucked it off the nightstand, wiped away the dust bunnies, and prepared to be underwhelmed.
I confess. I never read the jacket blurb. If I had, I might have delved in sooner. Imagine my shock when I discovered that the main character was a down-on-his-luck gumshoe. I’m a big fan of the whodunit – Edgar Allan Poe, Carolyn Keene, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen (Dannay and Lee). I spent my formative years devouring every such novel I could dig up at my local library. While my friends were reading Sweet Valley High and Beverly Cleary, I was immersed in detective stories.
Needless to say, I was captivated by Galbraith’s (Rowling) Cormoran Strike. There was an old-school feel to him that called to mind Chandler’s Philip Marlowe – smart, capable, a little fucked up. The plot was compelling, the pace typically British – slow but persistent, the conclusion satisfying and not altogether obvious. I was at times irked by Rowling’s general writing style, but it was nothing too traumatic, and easily overlooked by my need to discover the killer.
I am not often surprised by a book, so to that I say: Bravo, J.K. Rowling. Bravo.
I hear there will be a follow-up. I look forward to it.
The English Girl – Daniel Silva: I did not intend to read this novel when it was released last July. As I said above, I’d just spent the better part of six months entrenched in Silva’s work, and was suffering from burnout. I pre-ordered a signed first edition, of course. How could I not? It’s Daniel Silva. Duh. But I did not set out to read it immediately.
Then it was delivered.
I read it over the course of two days and loved it. What struck me about this particular offering was Silva’s move away from the formulaic plot structure that seemed to dominate most of the Allon series. He brought back a key character from early on, Christopher Keller, who first appeared in The English Assassin as a former SIS officer turned contract killer hired to eliminate Gabriel. One of the great things about Silva is his knack for writing bad guys in a sympathetic light – he makes them human. I was intrigued by Keller from the outset, and knew there was a certain depth of character in him begging to be explored.
In The English Girl, Silva brings Keller into the fray by forcing Gabriel to illicit the assassin’s help in finding a missing woman for a well-connected friend. It’s a contentious arrangement, and one that rewards the reader with some witty and off the cuff banter. Moreover, he brings to life a certain professional rivalry that highlights their individual strengths by forcing them to work in conjunction with one another in order reach a common goal. It’s fascinating to watch, and really gives this thirteenth Allon novel some meat to go along with the usual potatoes.
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth – Reza Aslan: I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I am not an overtly religious individual. Sure, I was raised in the Catholic church, received all of the necessary education to achieve a certain standing within the Church, but at my core, I lack the deep sense of spirituality required for unconditional faith. That being said – I am drawn to religious history, particularly how it relates to the social, political, and economic development of civilizations.
I stumbled upon Zealot while listening to NPR during an afternoon commute. I was intrigued by the author and found some merit in the premise he presented. I picked up a copy during my next visit to my favorite booksellers – and if truth be told, I believe this to be the visit I also acquired The Cuckoo’s Calling.
There is a certain aura of controversy surrounding the book. The author’s Islamic faith has caused some in the media to question the legitimacy of his claim that Zealot is an unbiased biography of Jesus – the man as he was in first century Palestine, not the revered figure we know from Christianity and the Bible (for a bit of context and a good laugh click here). Given the author’s extensive education and employment history, I am apt to dismiss such questions as right-wing rhetoric. Though, I did have a professor who lectured that there is no such thing as an unbiased retelling of history. As humans our worldview is influenced by emotion, education, and experience, and thereby, naturally skewed.
It’s a valid view, and I think one that holds true with this book. Nonsense aside, I did enjoy the book very much. Vivid in its descriptions, it read like a novel, filled with all those things I love: murder, intrigue, and betrayal. It was well-researched with a clear point of view. If I were to have an issue at all, it would be with Aslan’s dismissal of the Apostle Paul’s importance to the evolution of early Christianity. He tends to lay most of the credit at the feet of James, brother of Jesus.
This would be the point where my own biases come into play.
Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State – Randolph Campbell: When I moved to Texas as a teenager in the late ’80s, I went through a period of culture shock. Texas was unlike anywhere I had ever lived. I often equated it to moving to a foreign country – you might reside within the borders of the United States, but it’s a whole other world down here.
I always wondered why. What gave Texas its tenacity, its iron will, its independent spirit, its unabashed balls of brass?
Last semester, I took a Texas history course, and Gone to Texas was the required reading. Unlike other course readings, this one didn’t have that textbook feel. Campbell’s writing style is easy and fluid, a bit tongue in cheek in places, and at times, ironic. He provided a fantastic survey of the state, spanning more than four and a half centuries – from the first ill-fated Spanish expeditions, to Coronado and La Salle, to the rise of Spanish occupation and the establishment of the first missions, to Mexican independence and Anglo infiltration, to Moses Austin, Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, and Santa Ana, to the battles of Gonzales, Goliad, the Alamo, and San Jacinto, to the rise of the Republic, Annexation, Secession, and the Civil War, to the age of cattle, the oil boom, and beyond.
Whew. That’s a lot of history.
It was great book, and even though I paid an exorbitant amount of money for it (that’s a blog for another day), I’m glad I read it.
As for Texas, I think John Steinbeck captures the essence of the state best:
“I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans.”
― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America