Thursday, August 2, 2007

The worst book in the world

Before we left the U.S., I shopped for books in thrift stores. I began to see myself as a kind of anthropologist gleaning insights into the reading habits of different communities. At the Goodwill in Tucson among the well-worn Jonathan Kellerman and James Patterson paperbacks I found what the back cover claimed to be the definitive English translation of Anna Karenina. In Santa Barbara I found Dancing Wu-Li Masters and a copy of Stephen King’s The Green Mile in French.

But I quickly realized that I was not going to spend all my time reading in foreign languages and enjoying classics I’d neglected. I was going to indulge my unseemly passion for crime. I found Murder at San Simeon in San Diego (along with a World War II pea coat that fit perfectly), and I couldn’t resist the pop culture appeal of a “novel of suspense” (co)written by Patty Hearst about a murder supposedly hushed up by her own grandfather. We had recently anchored off the pier depicted by the book designer at the bottom of the dust jacket. I was intrigued by the concept of a Biddle and a Hearst writing historical “fiction” about a world they presumably knew intimately. But this was the worst book I have ever read.

I turned to the Oxford Book of American Detective Stories, which includes Anna Katherine Green's "Missing: Page Thirteen" (1915), featuring a “fairy-like” young detective named Violet Strange who solves her case by crawling through hidden passageways wearing a ballgown, and the work of Clinton H. Stagg, whose hero is completely blind. It chronicles the rise of the hardboiled style, including a 1943 story by Robert Leslie Bellem called “Homicide Highball" that contains the line, “He must crave somebody cooled for this kind of geetus.”

Later, in marinas and the offices of hotels that we didn’t even stay in, I parsed the reading habits of gringo ex-pats. At the book exchange in the Ensenada marina, I found a whole new subgenre: romances featuring pregnant women and women with infants. These horrified me. I was forced to pick up a Patricia Cornwell thriller about maggots instead.

Here in Barra, abandoned books show up at Beer Bob’s Book Exchange, located a couple of blocks away in a converted garage. I browse alone in the overheated stillness. The books are covered in dust. The tastes of those who donate run to trashy romances, trashy thrillers, occasionally a decent work of modern fiction, and a lot of novels in German. Lately I’ve begun to keep a journal of the books I’m reading, and its intended result, in the short term, is simply shame. Gradually I am weaning myself from the rush of satisfaction that comes when someone else solves the problem. One day soon, maybe I’ll end my addiction to what they call closure. Maybe I won’t be waiting for a revelation.

[A few interesting books fortuitously found here and there: mysteries by Henning Mankell (set in Sweden—so stark and spare, and they’re always eating pizza. Could it be the pizza with tuna, bananas, mustard and mayonnaise that Adam and his dad discovered in Kungsviken?); The Last American Man (Elizabeth Gilbert’s chronicle of a man who lived in a tepee and killed his own food in late 20th-century North Carolina—aka “Davy Fucking Crockett”); Son of the Morning Star (Evan S. Connell poetically uncovers everything there is to know about Custer and his Last Stand); Random Family (Adrian LeBlanc’s gripping work of journalism about a Puerto Rican family from the Bronx), On Beauty (diverting Zadie Smith book about multiculturalism in the academy, sort of outdated and frustrating but absorbing), We Were the Mulvaneys (Joyce Carol Oates’ family saga set mostly in western New York—much better I think than The Corrections, which, National Book Award aside, was annoying, the author’s prose wasted on his characters); and, a recent find at Beer Bob’s, one of my favorites, The Day of the Locust (Nathanael West’s brilliant take on Hollywood in the 1930s).]

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