I can be made perfectly happy by long books in which almost nothing happens. In general, the longer and the nothinger, the better. After all, there’s quite enough drama in the chicken yard to satisfy my need for suspense. But every now and then, a book creeps in on the reading list that makes me skip a paragraph to see what happens next, or causes a shiver up my spine.Patricia Highsmith’s birthday, let’s begin with the impeccable psychological thriller, The Talented Mr. Ripley (276 pages, audiobook, narrated by Kevin Kenerly, published 1955) Yes, I’d seen the movie, thus I could only envision Jude Law and Matt Damon as Dickie Greenleaf and Tom Ripley. And they were perfectly cast. Gwyneth Paltrow seems just a tad too glamorous for the Marge Sherwood character but let’s not quibble. The pacing of the book is just as spectacular as the meticulous character development of the sociopath Tom Ripley. Why read the book? Well, to see an artist at work. And (remember my affection for long books in which nothing happens?) for the sly homage to Henry James’ The Ambassadors and Highsmith’s chilling sum-up of Ripley’s fatal flaw: “Possessions reminded him that he existed”. Highly recommended.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (347 pages, Kindle, published 2017) is almost too good a history book to list it in the genre of true crime. A New York Times bestseller and finalist for the 2017 National Book Award, it shines a harsh and glaring light on the consequences of greed and political corruption in 1920’s Oklahoma, where the Osage Indians have been made fabulously wealthy by their ownership of the mineral rights to their tribal lands and thus the oil discovered beneath. One by one, members of the tribe are found murdered, but they are under the thumb of an all-too convenient Federal government conservatorship that does anything but protect the Osage people. Enter J. Edgar Hoover, who sees an opportunity to make a name for himself and his nascent federal force that becomes the FBI. Truly a page turner. Highly recommended.
One of my book club friends grew up in post-WWII Paris and can always be depended upon to supply a good read. Last year it was the delicious name-dropping The Hotel on the Place Vendome ; and this year the entertaining Wine and War: the French, the Nazis and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure by Donald Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup (304 pages, Kindle, published 2002). The book opens with a dramatic scene of French soldiers liberating cases and cases of Château Lafite-Rothschild and Château d’Yquem from Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” in the Bavarian Alps. Hitler himself was not a connoisseur, but Göring was, and soon after France fell to the Nazis, it was decreed that French wine could only be sold to Germany. The vintners of Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy found ways great and small to resist their country’s captors, often at great personal risk. André Terrail, owner of famed Paris restaurant La Tour d’Argent got away with walling in 20,000 of his finest bottles of wine. But Maurice de Nonancourt, brother of Laurent-Perrier founder Bernard de Nonancourt, perished in a concentration camp after being arrested for resistance activities. François Taittinger and others displayed their contempt for the Germans by passing off their worst wine to them and went to jail for their transgressions. Every page was alternately a welcome primer on French wine and another ratchet of suspense as to what would happen to those who ferried resistance leaders in and out of the Occupied Zone in wine barrels. Nearly all the top management of Moët and Chandon ended up in prison or concentration camps – let’s drink a toast to them for their courage. Recommended.
Fast-forward a few years after World War II and General Charles de Gaulle’s triumphant return from exile. Alors, political fortunes must wax and wane, and de Gaulle was in the soupe oignon over his decision to support Algerian independence. A twenty-something journalist named Frederick Forsyth embroidered the details of an actual assassination attempt on de Gaulle and created a character that redefined the genre of the political thriller. I haven’t seen the movie so I have no idea if it holds up, but The Day of the Jackal (464 pages, audiobook narrated by Simon Prebble, originally published 1971) has all the requisite elements of danger and intrigue as long as one can manage without 21st century special effects. (Imagine – no cell phones!) A fun read and I actually learned a little bit about 20th century geopolitics.
“Let’s read a book together” texted my stepdaughter, Angie. Sure, why not? “You pick”, I texted back. Fateful decision! When you let Angie pick it will almost never end up being a Henry James novel where nothing happens. She was looking at a list of notable -books-you-never-heard-of and announced we would be reading Cherry by Nico Walker (337 pages, Kindle, published 2018). It reads like a memoir but is billed as a novel – surely some of these horrors had to be fictional, right? Nothing guarantees a page-turner like sex, drugs and IED’s. Walker’s story is definitely his own: going nowhere and doing too many drugs after high school, enlists in the army, decorated repeatedly for valor in Iraq, comes back, does too many drugs, escalates to heroin addiction and then starts robbing banks to support his habit. He’s a great salesman for heroin: “There was nothing better than to be young and on heroin…you could kill yourself real slow and feel like a million dollars.” The only time I put the book down was to look up terminology – remember, this is all sex and drugs – I’d never heard of (don’t ask – you don’t want to know and I will never be able to unsee any of it). Walker had a lot of help with this book, especially since he wrote it from prison, where he is currently serving an 11-year-term for those bank robberies he committed. He had so much help, as he makes clear in his acknowledgements, that I have to wonder if the lines between the author and the editor might be a bit blurred. No matter, this was one of the most memorable books I read this year. Recommended. Thanks Ang!