My year in reading has been a lesson in letting go. It began with the physical: when my apartment building was sold in January, I began a series of culls of my unwieldy book collection, of a set of shelves I’d so carefully organized when I moved in, now obscured by random stacks of cheap paperbacks, uncorrected proofs, impulse purchases, unwanted offerings from friends — so many books I’d never read, would never read, and simply couldn’t bring myself to pack up and unpack again somewhere else. I’ve always tended towards nesting and collecting — this is the kindest possible way to describe my perpetual state of clutter — but for once, I did it, discarding without mercy, hauling big bags of books into the office and depositing them on our communal bench for the next unsuspecting hoarder. I found a new apartment, and I swore I’d do the same for all the other unwieldy piles of things in my life before moving day arrived, but in the end, I never did. They were unceremoniously dumped into boxes and trucked a few exits down the BQE, then shoved into closets and corners; I have yet to fully finish unpacking them all.
But there was more to the great book giveaway than simple space: I have been slowly learning to let go of books on another level — something less tangible, I guess, maybe intellectual, or emotional, or spiritual. I am learning (just now!) to shed the guilt that keeps me turning the pages of books I honestly cannot stand; I am working to tell the difference between a book that is worth the struggle and a book that simply isn’t for me. This is, I suppose, all part of growing older: establishing and developing taste, learning to define and hone it, and being careful not to let your mind narrow — or to snap shut — in the process. And even as I joined this site as a staff writer a few months back, I was busy practicing reading books not for work, brushing off a whole different subsection of guilt, where I read classics, or books that came out three years ago, or something trashy, or novels I’ve come back to more times than seems healthy, and that was all OK, because, after all, there was a reason I’d become an English major in the first place.
But here, at the end of all this, I’m left with an incredibly scattered year in reading — I’m scratching my head and looking back at the last 11 months and wondering what the hell I was thinking through all of this. In the spring, I took a course in literary theory, filling in a gap in my undergraduate education, I thought, which meant rereading Frankenstein and The Tempest and then sighing a lot through Jacques Derrida & Co. before picking my own book — A Passage to India — for the final paper. It was my third time around, and I found it so different to when I read it last — five years ago — that it was kind of astounding. Who knew there was so much nuance! (Most people.) When I later revisited Netherland, for an essay on cricket, my memory of it held up better. I read Cloud Atlas sitting at a sidewalk café, and marveled at the number of people who stopped in their tracks to talk to me about it. There was some great new stuff — Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen, for one, around which I built an argument about modern-day slacker literature for my first Millions piece of the year. There was some not-so-great new stuff — much of that gave me the chance to practice the whole “putting down and not feeling guilty” thing.
It mostly felt like I was reading a bunch of the not-particularly-new-but-largely-wonderful, like John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, followed by his earlier Blood Horses, part history, part mythology, part memoir, meandering and powerfully direct all at once. There was something slowly intoxicating about English, August, by Upamanyu Chatterjee, which I picked up for the aforementioned slacker lit piece and with which I easily fell in love. And then there was my favorite book this year, hands-down — Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, published elsewhere as Chinaman, a reference to the left-armed bowl for which Mathew, the elusive cricketer at the heart of the story, is known. It’s the sort of book that turns you into an evangelist, in an almost embarrassing way, like, reaching into your purse to wave a copy in peoples’ faces when someone casually mentions, “I hear you’re writing about cricket?”
But even as books come and go, loosened and removed from the physical and metaphorical shelves, the ones that stay get stickier, and I’ve got a very sticky shelf full of the collected works of Stephen Fry. I started the year with Fry’s new memoir, The Fry Chronicles, which I enjoyed, though not nearly as much as the first installment, Moab Is My Washpot. When he came to America to promote it, I waited for hours to ask him to sign a copy of his first book, The Liar, which I have read approximately one million times. As I handed him the world’s crappiest, most yellowed paperback, dog-eared and spine heavily creased, already shamefully beat-up probably a decade before I paid £3 for it at that permanent used book sale under the Waterloo Bridge, I blurted out how many times I’d read it and how much I loved it. He looked utterly exhausted, but he smiled brightly as he signed the title page, exclaiming, “Oh, well, thank you!”
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From the venerable halls of Cambridge University in the early 1980s, emerged two of the finest comedic minds in British Comedy. From their years as writers and performers in Cambridge’s Footlights troupe, through their acting stints in Jeeves and Wooster, various seasons of Blackadder, and especially their brilliant BBC sketch comedy series “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie have spent the better part of my life making me laugh, often uncontrollably, and (occasionally) like a blithering idiot.In the 1990s, Stephen Fry reached perhaps a wider audience with his pitch-perfect performance as Oscar Wilde in Wilde, and as for Mr. Laurie, well, unless you’ve been spending the last three years on Pluto, you’ve probably heard of a certain brilliant but tormented diagnostic genius named Gregory House.All of which leads me to this: For years I’ve been fully aware that both Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are also accomplished novelists. And despite my knowledge that they, separately and together, could seemingly write and perform anything, comedy or drama, brilliantly, in any medium, I still held off reading their critically acclaimed novels. When I eventually relented, I did so with enormous trepidation. Maybe I was worried that they wouldn’t reach the same heights, in my estimation, as they already had in other media.I needn’t have worried.Hugh Laurie’s first novel, The Gun Seller is a comical, first-person account by one Thomas Lang, former soldier, now a civilian, who finds himself drawn into a bit of intrigue involving state-of-the-art weaponry, international terrorism, and well, the love of a good woman (Or is she a femme fatale?). The story moves along at a fast clip, building tension, and saying a few things about human morality along the way. And as it was published in 1996, it reflects that now almost nostalgically quaint post-Cold War, pre-9/11 era.But it’s all recounted with a savage tongue planted firmly in cheek. Describing the facial features of one of the parade of brutes who for various reasons want to kill our hero:We find that Rayner’s ears had, long ago, been bitten off and spat back on to the side of his head, because the left one was definitely upside down, or inside out, or something that made you stare at it for a long time before thinking ‘oh, it’s an ear.’While Laurie’s The Gun Seller is a comic-thriller pure and simple, Stephen Fry’s 1991 debut novel, The Liar seems a bit more layered. It tells the story of Adrian Healey, and shifts back and forth through various stages of his life. We see his English ‘public school’ adolescence – a lovelorn time spent genuinely yearning for Hugo Cartwright, one of his fellow classmates, while trying on other personae for size – rebel, actor, schemer. We see him a few years later studying at Cambridge and later still traveling to Hungary in the employ of one Professor Trefusis. On A Mission. Adrian’s mendacity proving to be his most appealingly useful trait. The one thing others can count on.There’s a thriller bubbling underneath involving codes and ciphers, and a 70s update of the Enigma cipher machine. But all of the plot machinations serve to sharpen the focus on Adrian’s character. As Trefusis tells him:”I am a student of language, Mr. Healey. You write with fluency and conviction, you talk with authority and control. A complex idea here, an abstract proposition there, you juggle with them, play with them, seduce them… You recognize patterns, but you rearrange them when you should analyze them. In short, you do not think. You have never thought… You cheat, you short-cut, you lie. It’s too wonderful… You are a hound of hell and you know it.”As good as The Liar is, Stephen Fry’s second novel, The Hippopotamus, is even better. His Ted Wallace is a giant of a character – a sly, sarcastic, 60-something jaded poet and critic. Unfailingly polite when social or family circumstances dictate, he saves up his venom and unleashes it on us, the gentle reader.The story is this: Recently fired as a newspaper theatre critic, Wallace is retained by the terminally-ill niece of an old family friend to, essentially, pay an extended visit to that old friend and his family, and report “anything unusual” back to her. The jaded poet becomes a spy. We, and he, are left in the dark as to what, exactly, we should be looking for. But gradually the fog clears. In an astonishingly moving bit of back-story, we learn of Albert, the secular, spiritually disenchanted Austrian-Jewish grandfather, who returned to Vienna in the 1930s to try to bring his cousins back to England with him:In that awful little room with its imponderably hateful smell, a smell that took all the dignity and colour and strength away from him, his tweeds, his expensive luggage and his small blue passport, in that dreadful stinking room he swore a new loyalty, to his people – his stupid, moaning and cosmically irritating people, whose religion he scorned, whose culture he despised, whose mannerisms and prejudices he abominated.We also, in the present, get a sense of the unusual circumstances that Ted was dispatched to uncover. And what began as scathing social satire with a bit of a mystery gradually forming underneath, turns into a rich, stunningly written novel full of tension and eventual catharsis. It’s a fantastic read.There are several other novels and at least one memoir in the Fry and Laurie canon, and I’d be astonished if they all weren’t written with the same penetrating wit and fierce intelligence. The halls of Cambridge would expect nothing less.
Millions reader Lisa found Booker winner Line of Beauty to be “a more intellectualized, less satirical version of Stephen Fry’s The Liar.” I’m sure Lisa won’t mind if you borrow that line at the next cocktail party.The new Gabriel Garcia Marquez book (Memories of My Melancholy Whores, they’re calling it now) continues to generate headlines. This time Gabo foils the pirates. Go Gabo!At Amazon you can watch Jon Stewart make an ISBN joke whilst hawking his book America. Just click on the link and then check out the “Amazon.com Exclusives.”Spotted on the El: Truman Capote’s “unfinished novel” Answered Prayers.