Recent Reads – November 2017

Smile – Roddy Doyle

This was my first Roddy Doyle and I liked it so much I finished it in two days. Now, this might not sound like much of an accomplishment for a 200-page book, but I have two young kids (ages 1 and 3) who wake up at 5 a.m. and go to bed at 8 p.m. So the fact that I get anything done is an accomplishment to me. I listened to the audiobook which is narrated by Doyle himself, whose wonderful Dublin accent really added to my enjoyment of this story that is both darkly comic and deeply disturbing.

The Woman in Black – Susan Hill

I’m a sucker for a good ghost story, especially one as deliciously British as this one. An old village full of secrets and resentments, a ruined mansion cut off from the world by treacherous tides, fog and rain and the wind howling across the marshes. Wonderful stuff.

Caesar’s Last Breath – Sam Kean

Who knew a history of air could be this good, even for someone who failed high school chemistry? Starting with the formation of our atmosphere, Kean takes the reader on a wide-ranging, fascinating, often very funny tour of how gases have shaped human civilization and may shape our future on Earth and among the stars. It’s a gas (har-har)!

Full Dark, No Stars – Stephen King

“1922,” the first of the four novellas collected here, is one of the best things King has written. It’s smooth, macabre, and suspenseful, and contains a nice nod to one of my favorite books of his, Dolores Claiborne. “A Good Marriage,” the last of these novellas (recently made into “A Bad Movie”) is another winner. What surprised me about this one was the pacing: what I suspected to be the big reveal was actually dealt with pretty quickly, and then the story took two more steps past that.

Unfortunately, the other two novellas, “Big Driver” and “Fair Extension,” are the kind of vapid drivel that King can probably write (and maybe actually does write) in his sleep. Like The Colorado Kid or Gwendy’s Button Box, these novellas are little more than ideas that fail to develop into full-blown concepts. A woman takes revenge on the truck driver who raped her. A man dying of cancer makes a deal with the devil. There you have it. Nothing else happens that you can’t already imagine from those two descriptions.

So for me this was an uneven collection, that opens and closes on a high note.

M Train – Patti Smith

Patti Smith existed on the periphery of my consciousness for years. She sang backup on one of my favorite R.E.M. songs (“E-Bow the Letter”), she did some things with Bob Dylan, and recently she had a cameo in Terrence Malick’s new movie Song to Song. I also knew her last book, Just Kids, had won the National Book Award. But as always, no amount of praise or positive exposure motivated me to pick up one of her books until one day, for reasons entirely mysterious to me, it became absolutely vital that I read M Train. And I’m glad I did. The book is gorgeously written: poetic, dreamy, melancholy. Smith makes you care about the art she cares about (Jean Genet, cop shows) by showing how art can both comfort and inspire. Both are sorely needed, because this is also a very sad book about lost things: lost loved ones, lost books, lost cameras, lost places. And it’s a book about coffee: searching for the best cup of coffee in the world, while often settling for a cheap cup of coffee in a hotel room. In short, this book spoke my language, it spoke to my soul, and I loved it wholeheartedly.