My Book-Buffer for June and July

Form of: seven book reviews in one post!

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(Lev Grossman writes about books here on Wednesdays. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)

I originally imagined this column as a place where I could vent off reviews of all the books I read but don’t have the time/space to cover in the magazine, lest the internal pressure of all those unreviewed books results in some kind of internal literary warp-core breach.

But then—for reasons alluded to here and here—I started feeling like I didn’t want to write more book reviews. I wanted to write about books, but I didn’t especially want to review them. I know right? I mean, when you’re tired of book reviews, you’re tired of life.

But it’s almost the fourth of July, and I don’t have any other ideas, so I’m going to dump out most of my book buffer for June-July here, speed-dating style.

TRUE CRIME I actually met Richard Lloyd-Parry once, very briefly. We were at the same writer’s festival in Perth, Australia, also known as the end of the known universe. He’s tall and very funny and altogether affable, and I wouldn’t have pegged him at all to write People Who Eat Darkness, an eloquent, unstintingly graphic, painfully dark investigation of the disappearance of Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old woman who worked at a hostess bar in Tokyo. But he did. And I read it. There were moments when I wished I could stop, but I couldn’t.

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FICTIONAL CRIME I liked Tana French’s last book, Faithful Place, sure, but Broken Harbor is something special. Our hero, the unfortunately nicknamed “Scorcher” Kennedy, is an upstanding workaholic Dublin cop who runs into a complicated and genuinely scary crime: a father and two kids killed and a mother clinging to life in an otherwise squeaky-clean house where something went terribly terribly wrong. The crime occurs at Broken Harbor, a quick-and-dirty housing development on the coast north of Dublin, a drywall utopia built on the cheap for quick cash. You realize pretty early on who the real killer is: Ireland’s collapsed economy. It’s a risky premise, but French makes you feel every cent of the catastrophe, and she delivers a climactic scene of genuine, wrenching horror that I didn’t realize she was capable of. Seriously: it was so upsetting I had to read a P.G. Wodehouse novel to get over it.

THE ROMP Michael Frayn will probably always be the guy who wrote Noises Off and Copenhagen, but he’s got a respectable career as a comic novelist in the (Kingsley) Amis vein going on the side. His new book Skios is set on a Greek island of that name, where a Dr. Norman Wilfred is expected to give a lecture at a wealthy charitable foundation. Also arriving on Skios is Oliver Fox, a genial con-man, who spontaneously decides to adopt Dr. Wilfred’s identity. What follows is a pleasingly lightweight, antic, bed-hopping meditation on identity, in which nobody seems quite sure who anybody else is, including themselves.

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THE PERIOD THRILLER Mission to Paris is, I think, Furst’s 12th thriller, but it’s the first one of his I’ve read. It concerns a Hollywood leading man who’s sent to Paris by Warner Brothers in 1938 to star in a French film. Paris was, at this point, a silent, ugly political wrestling match between pro- and anti-Fascist activists. Or at least in Furst’s telling it was, and that’s good enough for me. Said wrestling match takes place within a deep, pleasantly atmospheric fog of interwar glamor that makes it actually rather pleasing: heiresses and bohemians, cigarettes and alcohol, fatalism and ennui, garrottes and sleek, deadly period handguns. It’s more fin-de-siècle than the fin-de-siècle. I’m damned if I can remember what happened in Mission to Paris, but whatever it was, I enjoyed it.

AND YET MORE WWII HISTORY Ben Macintyre has notched a nice literary niche for himself, disinterring the amazing stories buried in the archives of WWII espionage. Seriously, it turns out John le Carré was telling the truth about everything. Double Cross—which follows Operation Mincemeat and Agent Zigzag, both in the same vein—covers the campaign to keep the specifics of the D-Day landing secret from the Axis, and stars a bizarre cast of international drifters and sybarites and zealots with astonishing tolerances for alcohol and appetites for sex, who seem to be making up spycraft as they go along. I could absorb pretty much an infinite amount of this stuff. Fortunately Macintyre seems willing and able to provide it.

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AN ACTUAL LITERARY NOVEL! I haven’t been reading many of these lately. Nor has Dave Eggers been writing them: Eggers writes lots of novel-like and novel-esque things—What is the What, Zeitoun, The Wild Things—but A Hologram for the King is only his second outright from-scratch literary novel. Alan Clay, our hero, is a career salesman who’s at the end of his rope: broke, middle-aged, divorced, asking himself existential questions that a salesman really shouldn’t be asking himself. He’s in Saudi Arabia waiting for the chance to deliver the pitch of his life (it involves a hologram) to the king for a big IT contract that would settle his debts and get his career back on track. But the king is endlessly delayed, and Alan is condemned to a long melancholy wait (the spirit of Waiting for Godot presides over the action or lack thereof) in a strange land. It’s powerfully atmospheric (yes, I’ve used that word twice in this post; what of it?)—Eggers expertly sketches the bizarre tableaux of wealth and wasteland and the vertiginous cultural disjunctions between West and Middle East. It’s very moving, this book, but at the same time a tiny a bit airy—it’s a novel with the bones of a short story. It feels deliberately under-written, as if Eggers were actively tamping down his literary energies, or deliberately renouncing them as an act of penance. But for what?

ANOTHER ACTUAL LITERARY NOVEL! I just want to say something quickly about John Boyne’s The Absolutist, which I’ve only just begun, but which has wrong-footed me about eight times in the first 50 pages in that way that reminds you how unbelievably great novels can be. The book opens in 1919 with a 21-year-old publishing clerk visiting a small English city. He meets a famous mystery novelist on the train. His room at the hotel is delayed because the previous resident brought back a rent-boy who turned violent. He has a drink at a pub, where a stranger suggests that he—the clerk—hates himself, and we sense that that is true. From his reactions to these unconnected and otherwise meaningless events we sense that our hero is both painfully young and also a shattered veteran of the first World War. We still don’t know what he’s doing here, in this small English city, but I for one would do anything to find out. And all I have to do is keep reading. Ain’t literature grand?