Friday, August 17, 2007

My Latest Read

Well, Friends and Romans, with my intense summer job over, my attention has finally been turning to other things. What with all the personal changes in my life creating a tsunami of a to-do list, I headed to the beautiful local library the other day looking to walk away with a fun, engrossing read, to substitute for the vacation I need. (Said library being a descendant of the first free children's library in the U.S., no less.)

On the way out of the house, I grabbed a worn scrap of paper on which, months ago, I’d scrawled the name of a book and its author. Somehow, it had survived the blizzard of papers crossing my desk in the intervening time. While I had no memory of who had recommended the book or why I thought it worthy of remembering, I usually have the devil’s own time finding a book I want to read (for reasons too lengthy to go into here, though perhaps I’ll post on this later and invite some suggestions.) So, I thought I’d look it up. What did I have to lose?

Now, I’m sure that, after that interminable introduction, you’re one step ahead of me, sweet reader, and are waiting for me to reveal the name of a book which, with barely a hitch in my step, I plucked from the burgeoning stacks of my local lending establishment, checked out with beads of anticipatory sweat dotting my fevered brow, and which I have been reading ever since, clawing my own shirt with pleasure at the astonishing plot twists and sparkling turns of phrase. That’s why I write this dotty blog in the first place, you see, is for people like you – yes, you -- who (heaven help you) think like I do, who keep me on my toes, who reward my humble, over-wrought efforts at cleverness with embarrassing heaps of indifference.

Well, now, if that’s what you’re thinking (about the book, that is), then, ha! That’s where I’ve got you.

Well, okay. Actually, you’re right.

If you’re looking for a bracing read, a ripping yarn, a wicked sense of humor, writing with the kind of style that’s just plain gone out of style in the last 30 years (with one or two shining exceptions), then, gentle subscriber -- oh, fair and loyal verbophile! -- make sure you read The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips.

(Talk about burying the lead.)

I guess it was the hot ticket a few years ago (published in ’04, it was), and, in fact, was Phillips’ sophomore jaunt, after the best-selling Prague, which you can bet your sweet little cell phone/PDA/text messaging/push-email-reader I’m going to check out next.

It’s clever and entertaining. It reveals the many (too many) secrets of its labyrinthine plot via two separate sets of letters, sent to two different people, 30 years apart. This device gives Phillips the chance to take his stylistic chops out on the open highway and unwind the engine to about 124 mph, because the two correspondents write very differently. Which is the kind of thing that could drive me batty and lead me to heave the book through a closed window, if Phillips were any less talented. As it is, I love the approach.

The only other author who pulls off this kind of dangerous nonsense with such verve and panache is my primary contemporary literary luminary: one Michael Chabon, my main man, my Karl Rove, the clean-up power hitter in my library line-up, who, even when he goes wrong, can do no wrong in my eyes. (Like most, I didn’t love Summerland, but didn’t I finish all 500-plus pages, now, and draw out the scarce drops of nectar from that half-wilted flower?)

Phillips – so far, and the chunk I’ve read so far seems fairly predictive – is no Chabon, though he clearly is aiming his Taw marble into the same artistic chalk-circle. He’s very good, and that’s saying a lot. But a very good cyclist can either choose a fairly off-beat event and work towards ruling it, or he can enter the Tour de France. If he does the latter, he just has to know up front that he’s going to lose every time to Lance Armstrong.

Coming in second in the Tour rocks pretty dang hard – and so does Phillips. So far. I’ll keep you posted.

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