Like a double shot of espresso or a B12 injection, here is a second booster dose of Books About Books to energize your literary spirit:
The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe
The title grabbed me right away. Will Schwalbe’s memoir begins when his mother is dying of pancreatic cancer. While they spend many hours together in waiting rooms and doctors’ offices, they discover the coincidence that they’re reading the same book, and thus their informal two-person book club is born. For the remaining two years of her life, Will and his mother share books that foster discussion of life, passions, philosophy, and faith.
It seemed initially like a comforting and thought-provoking memoir, and it’s been a while since I read this, but I do remember that while I was listening to the audiobook I looked at my Kindle quite often to see how many hours were left. This book was a tad too Oprah for my taste. The sentimentality and white-washing of Will’s mom’s motives and personality, especially in her endless selfless acts of chairing multiple charities, only caused her to be presented one-dimensionally. Mary Anne Schwalbe came across as a phlegmatic, inexhaustible saint of a woman who never complained, never felt scared, angry, or betrayed by her diagnosis. I wanted more humanization of Mary Anne. By writing her to be so accepting and patient, Will actually made her less appealing to the reader.
There was an impressive list of books that were included in the “book club,” and I was introduced to many books that I may not have discovered otherwise. Unfortunately, many of the books I was excited to read after learning about them in The End of Your Life Book Club left me underwhelmed (The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Suite Francaise, The Lizard Cage . . . I could go on). Perhaps Will and I just have different taste, and that’s fine . . . but damn. I was hoping for an uplifting memoir and great literary discussion. Not so much.
I applaud the author for taking this on, and for sharing his story, but this book seemed more like a cathartic journey for Will and I’m not sure we as readers really needed to come along.
The History of Love – Nicole Krauss
Hey, The History of Love, have you met The History of the Rain? These two books go together like Harold and Maude. The History of Love contains two interwoven stories.
The first is the story of Leo Gursky, who pines for his first love, Alma, and his novel, The History of Love, that he dedicated to her and was stolen and published by his friend. Leo is now in his later years and, nearing death, he sits on a bench and waits for his true love to return. The second story is of Alma, a young girl named after the main character in The History of Love, whose story becomes intertwined with Leo’s. This is a book about the magic of books and writing them, with the gut-wrenching ache of lost love.
My review here is falling far short of the lavish praise I wish to give this wondrous story. The ending is one you’ll never forget and this book has a special place on my shelf. Beautiful, beautiful.
The Anthologist – Nicholson Baker
Nicholson Baker is a difficult author to wrap my brain around. He is prolific, and captures a moment unlike any author I’ve read before. One of his other books, The Mezzanine, takes place during one man’s trip up an escalator. Baker somehow manages to fit an entire book in that two-minute span and absolutely captivates his reader.
In The Anthologist, Baker writes about Paul Chowder, a mediocre poet conscripted to compile an anthology of poetry and write the introduction. Abandoned by his girlfriend, Chowder sits in a barn suffering from the alcoholic-haze headache of writer’s block, and what comes out is a dissertation on the rationalization of poetry and the manipulation of words into rhythm, rhyme, and meaning. The Anthologist is complicated and pedagogical, but lyrical all the same. Baker includes analysis of the rhyming words of poems, stressing the imperative of the rests in between the words, and the use of enjambment, which is when one line of poetry doesn’t end where it’s supposed to and jams into the next line without that necessary rest. The pauses and silences are just as important as the words.
This is a quick, fascinating bit of prose. It’s like the one course you take in college from your favorite professor that has nothing to do with your major. Sit down by Baker’s knee and hear his tales of how rhyme isn’t obsolete or unsophisticated, but is an elevated form of the use of words. I enjoyed it so much that I took notes the entire time.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan
This is a fun book, and kind of skirts the “books about books” category, but I felt it should be included because it’s so unusual and also highlights the mystery and intrigue of bookstores. The protagonist, Clay Jannon, takes the late shift at the 24-hour bookstore (why would a bookstore need to be open at 3am? Ah HA! First clue!), and finds that things really are as weird as they seem.
Then, enter secondary female character, Kat, to assist Clay in his quest to discover the root cause of the bookstore’s weirdness through her connections at Google. She reminded me of Lisbeth Salander from those grossly over-hyped Girl Who Did Whatever books,
but she was not nearly as annoying and didn’t come with too much shtick. This book reminded me of National Treasure or The Da Vinci Code, blending mystery and secret societies and clues found in old manuscripts. It’s a lot of fun, and enough cerebral twists to keep you turning the pages. What I most appreciated was the fact that Sloan blends old and new technology – the Internet and coding play just as much a part here as the old ciphers in the ancient texts.
There are some eyebrow-raising coincidences in play, and often there seems to be just the right rescue at just the right time, but if you can overlook some tropes, it’s a fun romp. Suspend your disbelief a little and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.
Also, the book jacket glows in the dark. Touché, Sloan.
Are there any books I missed? Leave me recommendations in the comments.