It’s WWW Wednesday, when I answer three questions: What are you currently reading? What did you recently finish reading? What do you plan to read next?
Although it’s officially summer, I have yet to enjoy that quintessential summer pleasure: reading at the beach or the pool. It’s been cool and wet, so I’ve logged quite a few blissful reading hours on my screened porch, listening to the rain on the roof. Who needs those damaging UV rays, anyway, along with screaming children and biting flies?
I’m reading, as usual, several books at once. Yes, I understand it’s not really physically possible to read more than one book at a time. I like to have a novel, a nonfiction book, and an e-book (either fiction of nonfiction) going. A recent topic on one of my favorite podcasts, Books on the Nightstand, was how to squeeze more reading into the day. A suggestion, which I think is terrific, was to read nonfiction in the morning and fiction in the evening. Another idea — even better — is to change the screen saver on your phone to say “Read a book instead”. (Click here for a great screen saver you can download.)
I just started reading Robert Kurson’s Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship, the follow-up to Kurson’s terrific Shadow Divers (2004) — and I’m already hooked. Shadow Divers is one of my all-time favorite narrative nonfiction books; Kurson’s second book, Crashing Through, about a man who regains his sight after nearly a lifetime of blindness is a must-read as well. My friend and colleague Diane recommended Pirate Hunters to me, noting that one of the daring wreck divers in search of famous pirate Joseph Bannister’s ship. Golden Fleece, is John Chatterton — hero of Shadow Divers. The book is not as much about the actual diving as it is about the history of piracy and how Chatterton and his partner, John Mattera, needed to understand Bannister’s psychology in order to find his ship.
My current novel is Church of Marvels, by Leslie Parry, historical fiction set in turn-of-the-century New York City — mostly Coney Island and the Lower East Side. The stories of an abandoned infant, sideshow performers, a beautiful mute, and a young woman trapped in a mental hospital all converge (I’m not sure how, yet!) in this vivid and imaginative debut novel. A Chicago resident, debut novelist Parry recently appeared at the Printers Row Lit Fest with Matthew Thomas (We Are Not Ourselves). I wish I had been able to go — but I’ll be interviewing Parry later this summer.
I just finished two wonderful novels — Language Arts, by Stephanie Kallos, and Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. They are two very different books — Language Arts is over 400 pages, with a complicated plot, and Our Souls at Night (described by several reviewers as “spare”), is a short novel, focusing on just two characters.
Our Souls at Night is a beautiful and sad story, made sadder by the fact that Kent Haruf died shortly after completing his final edits on the novel. Haruf’s books are all set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado and focus on everyday people and their need for connection with each other. The New York Times says: “His great subject was the struggle of decency against small-mindedness, and his rare gift was to make sheer decency a moving subject.” Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both widowed and in their seventies, are long-time neighbors who seek respite from loneliness in an unusual way: through a platonic friendship that includes sleeping in the same bed. Addie says:
I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?
Kent Haruf gives more insight into the lives and longings of his characters in less than 200 pages than many authors do in books double that length. I read the book in one afternoon and had to slow myself down so I could appreciate the plain yet poetic language. My book group will be discussing Our Souls at Night next month, and I’m disappointed to miss the meeting.
Language Arts explores many of the same themes as Our Souls at Night, especially the themes of loss and human connection. How do you connect with someone you love who doesn’t have language? Charles Marlow, an English teacher and a lover of the written word, is the divorced father of an adult autistic son. His daughter has just left for college, and Charles is desperately lonely. He reflects on his unhappy childhood, particularly his traumatic fourth-grade year; his broken marriage, and his relationship with his son, Cody:
Language left him gradually, a bit at a time. One would expect words to depart predictably, in reverse order — the way a row of knitting disappears, stitch by stitch, when the strand of working yarn is tugged off the needle — but that was not to be . . . God was the last holdout . . .
I absolutely loved this book, but I don’t want to say too much about it because the plot is full of surprising twists. As a review in Paste magazine says, “Kallos can spin a reveal like nobody’s business. At her best, she compels you to recalibrate everything you thought you knew about the book.” The review goes on to point out that while Kallos is a talented storyteller, her real gift is her deep understanding of her characters:
One thing that separates a good novel from a great one is when empathy accompanies insight. The novels of Stephanie Kallos are filled with the sort of empathy that elevates not just the books but their readers. They convey the overarching sense that repairing the world is a real possibility, however remote—more than one absorbing read away, to be sure, but certainly closer at the last line than the first.
What’s next? I’m looking forward to reading The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I don’t know why I haven’t read it yet — it’s been sitting on my shelf for quite some time, several people whose opinions I trust have raved about it, and I’ve loved Ishiguro’s other books. After that . . . I can’t decide. Too many choices!