- The Miernik Dossier, Charles McCarry
- The Tears of Autumn, Charles McCarry
- The Last Supper, Charles McCarry
- Second Sight, Charles McCarry
- Old Boys, Charles McCarry
- Christopher’s Ghosts, Charles McCarry
- The Prince of the Marshes, Rory Stewart
- Maps & Legends, Michael Chabon
- How to Be Alone, Jonathan Franzen
- The Forgery of Venus, Michael Gruber
- After Dark, Haruki Murakami
- Publish and Perish, James Hynes
- The Havana Room, Colin Harrison
- Strange Itineraries, Tim Powers
- Arslan, M. J. Engh
I’d recommend every single book in this batch – except, perhaps, for Arslan, which I would only recommend to those who are willing to stick with an extremely tough, bruising read. It’s a post-apocalyptic book, but for “apocalypse” read “world conquest by a dictator named Arslan.” A lot of post-apocalyptic books are weirdly hopeful; the survivors just so happen to be capable of building a new and better world for themselves. This doesn’t happen here. The story ends with the characters finding a kind of peace for themselves, but one that’s shot through with violence, abuse, and terror. I had a hard time finishing this book; you might, too.
The other book I found hard to finish, actually, was The Havana Room. It’s not because the book wasn’t good – it had a wonderful, driving, can’t-stop-now energy to it. But it’s one of those Coen-brothers-esque stories where you can see the main character getting himself deeper and deeper, one thing after another going wrong, until things end up in a ridiculous mess that leaves a whole lot of people very unhappy (and some of them very dead). I felt like I was trying to read this book with one eye open (so I could see what would happen next!) and one eye closed (so that I wouldn’t have to look!). I also really enjoyed Harrison’s evocation of a secret New York of dirty deals and invisible people, right next to the world we live in every day. I’m going to go wander around Midtown and look for a Havana Room of my own, someday.
Publish and Perish also had a bit of that “oh god no you’re not doing that OH NO YOU ARE NOW I MUST SEE WHAT HAPPENS” quality. It’s a collection of three not-quite-horror novellas in academic settings. The third one was my favorite: a young history professor must cleverly fight the curse laid upon her by a jealous older colleague. It effectively skewers the rather vicious infighting that goes on in some academic departments – thankfully, not mine! – and updates M. R. James quite nicely. In fact, writing this has made me want to go read M. R. James right now!
I’m not an enormous fan of Jonathan Franzen’s novels (and no, I haven’t read Freedom), but I really enjoyed his book of essays. I particularly appreciated “Why Bother?”, which addresses the social role of fiction in our time. I found it slightly comic to read in light of the hoopla about Freedom, and I also found his mannered nostalgia irritating*. But he asks some very serious questions: why write? Who are you writing for? Can you judge yourself by popular reactions to your work? Should you, if you can? As a passionate reader, I liked his nuanced answers to those questions. And he introduced me to the work of Shirley Brice Heath, so he could have been ten times as snarky about modernity and I’d forgive him! The best essay in the book, though, may have been “Lost in the Mail,” which is about the woes of the Chicago postal system. It’s not so much a theoretical piece, except perhaps if read as an indictment of large bureaucratic systems, but it’s a totally compelling read, and a window into a world you probably don’t know much about.
Finally: you’ve probably never heard of Charles McCarry either, and that’s something you should remedy. I really enjoyed his Paul Christopher novels – witty, secret-history spy thrillers that aren’t afraid to be really freaking hardcore. I can’t say too much about them without ruining the twists and turns of McCarry’s plots, but I will note that the books can be rather different from each other in tone. The Miernik Dossier has elements of black comedy; The Tears of Autumn is straight-up high-octane political spy-thriller antics; Christopher’s Ghosts is a wonderful WWII historical novel in addition to being a story of espionage. My only critique is that Paul’s parents could have been named Mr. Gary Stu and Mrs. Mary Sue. Fortunately, they mostly appear in flashbacks or memories, so I’ve decided it’s a deliberate choice to make them golden representatives of a lost, more beautiful world.
* If I have to hear one more person bemoan the terrible things consumerism and technology are doing to our culture, I will whack them with a copy of the collected works of Henry James while firmly explaining that ours is not the first consumerist or technological culture ever to exist and this is not OH NOES THE END OF CIVILIZATION.