My New Year’s Resolution (and yeah I’m old enough to know: only do one per year) is to read more books. And since the blog runs almost my entire life these days, I’m going to try to post a book review the first of every month. Keep me honest, folks.
I’ve actually “finished” two books in the past few weeks, if books-on-tape count. On the drive home from school carpool, after listening to at least 45 minutes of Wiggles (on good days they’ll agree to They Might Be Giants) Mommy gets to listen to brain junk. Richard Hawke’s Speak of the Devil (you can read chapter one online) is the story of hard-boiled detective Fritz Malone (yeah) who gets caught up in a shooting, smack dab in the middle of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (yeah). No one really knows why the shooter winds up dead while in police custody, but Fritz knows somebody in New York, maybe the chief of police, maybe even the mayor, is lying. And what about the mayor’s Broadway actress girlfriend, who is in the parade and may have been the shooter’s actual target?
Okay enough of that. It’s good junk, and perfect for listening in traffic.
The book I enjoyed reading this fall (and thanks here to Mr. Blue Gal for recommending it) is Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety (1987). This was Stegner’s last book and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.
I’m actually glad I listened to the hard-boiled detective novel in between reading chapters of Crossing to Safety. It makes it easier to write about Stegner’s book because I can show you what it is not. While reviewing the detective novel I could spoil it, give away some crucial plot element and ruin the story. I would be hard pressed to do this with Stegner. Stegner is writing about two couples: the husbands are academics, and while the wives are bound by their time to be “not working” they are as much academics, well-read wits both of them, as anyone else.
To call this book a “character study,” however, would not do it justice. Things happen in this book, but they happen to people who are never involved in anything more dramatic than Not Getting Tenure. There’s a wonderful scene where a crisis involves whether or not the tea bags have been packed for a camping trip. Each husband, each wife, completely reveals him or herself around this elusive package of tea.
The narrator of this book, Larry, is not only an academic, he is a writer, and Stegner…I was going to say “cleverly” but that understates it…allows Larry to discuss aloud writing the very book we are holding. This excerpt is the book in a few sentences, but I strongly recommend reading the whole thing:
Hallie, you’ve got the wrong idea of what writers do. They don’t understand any more than other people. They invent only plots they can resolve. They ask the questions they can answer. Those aren’t people that you see in books, those are constructs. Novels or biographies, it makes no difference. I couldn’t reproduce the real Sid and Charity Lang, much less explain them; and if I invented them I’d be falsifying something I don’t want to falsify.
The people we are talking about are hangovers from a quieter time. They have been able to buy quiet, and distance themselves from industrial ugliness. They live behind university walls part of the year, and in a green garden the rest of it. Their intelligence and their civilized tradition protect them from most of the temptations, indiscretions, vulgarities, and passionate errors that pester and perturb most of us. They fascinate their children because they are so decent, so gracious, so compassionate and understanding and cultivated and well-meaning. They baffle their children because in spite of it all they have and are, in spite of being to most eyes an ideal couple, they are remote, unreliable, even harsh. And they have missed something, and show it. (240-1)
If Sid and Charity sound like fascinating, human characters, they are. Turns out this is a modern classic (I’d never heard of it or Stegner before this year) so Abebooks has 486 copies for sale for as cheap as a buck. That ought to cover the demand this review will generate, uh huh.