The first day of May always brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s fabulous dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, as that phrase is key to the development of the plot. On this slightly foggy, overcast May Day, however, I am not rereading Atwood’s novel, though I would be happy to revisit it just about any time. Instead, I have a book and audiobook to tell you about that had some surprising similarities, despite being such different stories.
Since I’ve been walking so much more in these days of self-isolation, I’ve been listening to so many more audiobooks than usual. I just finished one yesterday, John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky, and I must say that I’m thrilled to have reached the end. This novel follows Maurice Swift, a young man who wants two things: to be a famous writer and to have a child. He would do just about anything to satisfy these desires, so when he meets Erich Ackerman, a German author who, in his mid-60s, has found some recognition for his work and is in Berlin to receive a prize for his most recent novel, Maurice discovers ways to use his good looks to ingratiate himself with and then to wield power over this repressed man. We the reader know what Maurice is doing, but Erich either remains blind to Maurice’s intentions or convinces himself not to see. When he has all he wants from this man, he leaves him and moves. In the next section, Maurice has achieved some fame for his first book but his second doesn’t seem to be living up to audience or reviewer expectations. When he arrives at the home of Gore Vidal on the Amalfi Coast as a companion to second-rate American novelist Dash Hardy, his true nature is recognized, and Vidal warns him of the dangers of treating others in such callous ways. The next section concerns Maurice’s marriage to talented novelist Edith as they move to Norwich for a year, where Edith has secured a temporary position teaching creative writing at the University of East Anglia. During this time, his envy of both the young, aspiring writers in Edith's class and her own work on her second novel push him to acts of unbelievable selfishness. In the third section, Maurice has moved on once again, and after moving to New York, has begun a literary magazine that prides itself on promoting young, up-and-coming writers by showcasing their stories. He and his son, Daniel, live fairly solitary lives together, and one gets the sense that fatherhood has not lived up to Maurice’s expectation. He is, though, a well-respected author, having published several bestselling novels that span a range of plots and styles, and without giving anything away here, by this point in the novel the reader knows exactly what his “writing secrets” are. The last section is told directly from Maurice’s point of view, and sees him in later years, back in England and living the life of what he thinks of as a “functioning alcoholic”, although what he thinks his “function” is, we don't know. Along comes Theo, a student who is writing a thesis on Maurice’s life, a paper he hopes will turn into a biography with the help of his father, an editor at a large publishing house. Though mainly living as a recluse, Maurice can’t resist this opportunity to get his name out there again and possibly reignite a public interest in his books. But what he reveals to Theo may bring about not a renewed interest but a disastrous end. I have to say that this book was a bit of a disappointment for me, as I felt it lacked Boyne’s usual subtlety. I felt that Maurice was a thoroughly despicable character, and while I’ve always known how cut-throat the literary world was, I felt this character was over-the-top. Boyne, like Maurice, seems able to write different books with wildly differing themes and in different styles, but this one is probably the most “sensational” or “Canadian-Tire”-ish book I’ve read by this author. Granted, I’ve only ever read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and A History of Loneliness, and he’s written eleven adult novels, so I guess I can’t judge, but somehow I expected something a bit more… I want to say “literary”, but I don’t think that’s exactly it. Maybe Boyne, like Maruice, wants to both win prizes AND be read. Anyway, I felt like I needed to shower after finishing this novel, which was well-written but left a nasty taste in my mouth.
And I read a book last week that was also about a main character who was unlikeable, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: the true story of a thief, a detective, and a world of literary obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett. In this book, journalist Bartlett explores the world of rare book theft, and focuses in particular on John Gilkey, a man who steals rare books not for profit but just for the love of books. He doesn’t recognize what he is doing as wrong because somehow he has convinced himself that he deserves to have fine books just like other people, and it is not his fault that he can’t afford to collect them the way others do, by purchasing them. Bartlett follows Gilkey over a couple of years, interviewing him both while he is in prison and when he is released or out on bail awaiting trial. Through these interviews, she realizes that Gilkey, along with a desire for the books themselves, believes that having an impressive collection of rare books will garner for himself the respect and admiration of others, that possessing these books will turn him into the embodiment of gentlemanly culture which he so desires (but clearly not enough to work for it). She interviews rare book dealers to learn more about theft and recovery efforts. While the book is filled with descriptions of rare books, the beauty of the objects and the unique merits of the contents, I, like Bartlett, did not succumb to bibliomania - I believe the books on my shelves should be read, not admired. Gilkey’s selfish attitude, his belief that he should be able to have what others had without working for it, angered me, probably more so because my reading of this book coincided with listening to Boyne’s book. This non-fiction work, while easy to read and not terribly long, reminded me why I generally avoid non-fiction and instead stick to fiction; I like my books to have a beginning, middle and end. But it’s good to try reading something outside of my normal comfort zone every once in a while.
When I was selecting a new book to start reading yesterday, I realized that I needed a break from selfish, detestable characters. I was tired of reading about men who stole to appear better than they were, to impress and garner status, fame or respectability. I wanted to read something that featured a main character that was admirable, which made my selection challenging. I decided on In the Woods by Tana French, the first in the “Dublin Murder Squad” series. I have listened to other, later books in this series as audiobooks, but this is the one that sets the stage for all the others and I’m quite excited to dive into this police procedural. While it may or may not have an admirable main character, at least it will be the type of book I normally enjoy reading, a straightforward murder mystery.
That’s all for today. Get outside and get some exercise while it is not raining, but remember to make time to read.Bye for now…