Last month I had surgery on my eyelid. The bouncy young doctor kept up a stream of chatter, possibly to distract me from the scalpel hovering above my numbed eyeball.
“Your bio says you’re an editor and writer. I minored in English in college.”
“Really?” Barely moving my mouth. “Read any good books lately?”
“Oh, I don’t have time to read. I didn’t even like to read much back then. I took English because I wanted to learn how to write.”
I wanted to kick him. But that scalpel…
I also wanted to yell: why the hell would you want to write if you don’t like to read? Who would you be writing for? And how do you imagine you could learn to write well if not by reading the masters? Would you learn to become a surgeon if you couldn’t stand to watch people cutting open bodies? How did you become so good at it (as apparently he had, which is why I was there) if not by studying the techniques of the experts?
I’ve heard it before. My son James had a friend in college who took creative writing courses with him but rebelled at having to do the readings. He only wanted to “express himself”; to be required to read the work of others felt somehow unfair. Are there a lot of people with this disconnect between reading and writing?
The best possible way—really the only way—to learn good writing is to read it, read it, read it and keep reading it. And you have to want to read it, or else go hang wallpaper or cut off someone’s eyelid because otherwise why bother? You can’t write well or edit well unless you read well. Enough said; I’m no doubt preaching to the choir.
I read constantly and I’m always on the lookout for what to read next. So I plan to continue to offer brief reviews of books I’ve just read and enjoyed, like the ones that follow. I hope you’ll return the favor in the comments section.
Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey
Eighty-five-old Maud is losing her mind. She is also struggling to solve a mystery. But is it the recent disappearance of her friend Elizabeth down the street, or the possible murder of her sister Sukey seventy years ago? Set in present-day London, this novel, classified as a thriller, is really a genre-defying tour de force. Maud’s deterioration makes her sometimes quite annoying, to the reader as well as to her family, but she is a heartbreakingly convincing creation. As both literary feat and reading treat, Elizabeth Is Missing reminds me most of Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night.
California by Edan Lepucki
I was lucky enough to have started this novel without reading a word about it first. So I will say only that California is compelling on many levels—as a post-apocalyptic vision (or an apocalypse in progress, as one reviewer described it), as the subtle portrayal of a marriage, as a cynical take on idealism and power, and as pure tale of suspense. Don’t read anything else about it—just get it.
The Children Act by Ian McEwan
Ever since Enduring Love, I have loved Ian McEwan. (Well, I didn’t love On Chesil Beach, but I endured it.) He is the least chilly of his generation of chilly, brilliant British male authors and rarely writes a less than perfect sentence. His novels grapple with big issues, even when he is being funny (as in Solar, 2007). Sixty-year-old Fiona May, the protagonist of The Children Act, is a judge in the family division of London’s high court. Although her docket bristles with nasty divorce custody cases, she must also make life-or-death rulings. Since a recent sensational one involving whether to separate Siamese twins, she has lost her libido. Perhaps because of that, on the night the novel opens, Fiona’s husband announces that he is moving out to begin a grand affair with a young university colleague. An hour later she gets a phone call for an emergency hearing on a new case. A sixteen-year-old Jehovah’s Witness suffering from leukemia is near death, but he and his parents refuse a lifesaving blood transfusion for religious reasons. Will Fiona take action on the case immediately? What ensues as Fiona struggles to make the right decisions for the fate of the boy, Adam, and the fate of her long marriage to Jack held my interest until the very last word.
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
Set in the rugged lands of Eastern Washington state at the start of the twentieth century, The Orchardist is the sad tale of William Talmadge who, after being orphaned and then mysteriously losing his sister, manages to carve out a lonely but beautiful life growing apples and apricots on his land. Talmadge is shaken out of the security of his world by the appearance of two pregnant girls hiding among his trees. He decides to protect them and the series of events triggered by this decision drive the plot.
My problem is that the plot plods; it’s a mule ride, not a train trip, to put it as Talmadge would. Coplin’s prose is astonishingly accomplished; words like lyrical, evocative and elegiac come to mind. Most of her loveliest writing is descriptive. The sense of place is vivid, the people easy to picture. Plot and character development are more problematic; silent heroes who suffer terribly take brave, reckless actions and never crack a smile can get wearying. But the bones of the book are strong, the writing a marvel. The Orchardist could have benefited from a lot of tightening. But when I reached the end, I had tears in my eyes.
All that I Love and Know by Judith Frank. A remarkable novel about love and politics large and small. It will grab you from page one. Recommended by my good friend with impeccable taste, Cynthia Crossen, at http://dearbooklover.com/.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. What starts out as a finely observed study of class, character and forbidden love in 1922 London turns halfway through into quite a thriller.
Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg. A thriller that surpasses its genre. Funnier and wiser than Tod is in person, and that’s saying something.
Books, E-Books, Recorded Books
Of the seven novels I’ve just mentioned, I own physical copies of only two. I’ve already loaned them both to friends, which is the first, most obvious advantage to a “real” book. It has tangible, ongoing value. Besides sharing, selling or giving it away, you can reread it, display it artfully on the coffee table or flip through it to remind yourself of the characters’ names–handy when reviewing. For many of us bibliophiles a book has value just sitting there on the shelf, where it becomes a little piece of our world, a sliver of personal history.
More practically, I can’t skip the boring parts or easily go back to check something in an e-book; I can’t shamelessly fold down the corners or use my emery stick as a bookmark. The cutesy ways Nook has for highlighting and bookmarking just don’t do it for me. If I could, I would always buy hardcovers. Paperbacks, on the other hand, are sometimes so abysmally produced—tiny, smeary type with no margins on paper so thin you can see the type on the flip side–that they make e-books look glamorous.
Sometimes, often, e-books save the day. Or the night; they’re great in bed, especially if you’ve got a lousy lamp or a grumpy bedmate. Traveling, the eyelid doc’s office–I read at least a couple of novels a week on the Nook. But when I finish a book I really like, such as the Sarah Waters, I kick myself for not buying the actual book so I could loan it to someone else who would love it, too.
As for audiobooks, I’ve been hooked since they came in huge boxed sets of cassette tapes, back when I spent hours in the darkroom and more hours driving kids here and there. I’ve always believed that a well-performed audiobook is every bit as legitimate a reading experience as a read-it-yourself book. Over time, I can’t really distinguish most of those I’ve read from those I’ve listened to. Both types seem to be stored the same way in my memory banks.
Except for the truly great audiobook performances, that live on elsewhere in memory. A few years ago the writer Lynn Sharon Schwartz and I were talking about this question of whether listening to books was as genuine an experience as reading them. She was expressing the same squeamishness that other serious writers seemed to feel for a medium that isn’t reading in and of itself. But then she mentioned Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. As it happened, we’d both listened recently to the audiobook version. Geoffrey Cantor reads the book, which is narrated by a character with Tourette’s syndrome. The performance is extraordinary, hilarious, unforgettable, way beyond what we would have gotten by reading the book ourselves.
Another striking example is the Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I started reading this delicious time-travel series when it first came out. But when I stumbled on Davina Porter’s recordings of it, I had to go back and start again. Her voices (and particularly her pronunciations of the Scottish) were so far superior to the voices in my head that they improved the reading experience immeasurably.
A quick online search on audiobooks versus reading turns up a Forbes article, http://www.forbes.com/sites/olgakhazan/2011/09/12/is-listening-to-audio-books-really-the-same-as-reading/ discussing a study that concludes that listening to audiobooks has the same effect on the brain as reading. It also found that people are more likely to stick with a book they are listening to rather than reading. I’ve certainly found that to be true; in fact, at one point while I was listening to The Orchardist I was tempted to press the stop button. I didn’t, and I’m glad. But if it had been a book, I would have closed it.
I also turned up a May 2014 New Yorker Talk of the Town piece, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-pleasures-of-being-read-to, that argues that long before books came along our brains were programmed to listen rather than to read, and they are still well-suited to that form of storytelling. The article, by John Colapinto, then turns into a rather poignant history of Recorded Books and its star reader, Frank Muller, complete with a snippet of him reading from The Great Gatsby.
I’ll close with another doctor’s visit (the last, I promise), this to the plastic surgeon who made my new eyelid. “So I see you’re an editor,” Steven Covici said. “I don’t know anything about books. But my uncle, Pat Covici, he was John Steinbeck’s editor. You could look it up.”
Once my new eyelid healed, I looked it up. Pascal “Pat” Covici immigrated from Romania at age ten and went on to an impressive career in publishing, most of it at Viking, where Saul Bellow and Shirley Jackson dedicated books to him. And on the front page of Steinbeck’s East of Eden is this dedication: