Atonement — Ian McEwan
How Fiction Works — James Wood
Taming a Sea-Horse — Robert B. Parker
Bloody Confused! — Chuck Culpepper
Shakespeare Wrote for Money — Nick Hornby
My favorite magazine feature of the past few years was “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” by Nick Hornby in The Believer. Hornby writes about love and sports and music in the way I like to think I’d write about love and sports and music if I were British, and a tad older, and much better at the craft. If you haven’t read him, go find “High Fidelity” or “Fever Pitch” or the great book-CD combo “Songbook” and prepare to seethe with envy. Well, you would seethe, except that Hornby seems like one of the few writers in the world you’d want to drink a beer and watch a ballgame with. He wouldn’t tell you about his multimillion-dollar book deal unless you asked, and even then he would hem and haw about it.
“Stuff I’ve Been Reading” is the best book-review column I’ve ever read. Hornby writes about stuff he likes; if he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t waste your time with it. He doesn’t consider entertaining a dirty word. He freely admits to not having read whole shelves of the classics. And he reminds readers that, if a book is dense or boring or just not our cup of tea, we have the freedom to close it and move on.
The columns have been collected into three superb little books — spectacular bathroom reading, and I’m pretty sure Hornby would recognize that as a compliment. But he stopped writing the columns last fall. So, in a totally unofficial (and possibly copyright-violating) capacity, I’m going to pick up the ball, or grab the torch, or clear the puck, or whatever image might work for you.
This month of reading turned out extremely British, mostly because of the corrupting influence of James Wood, my English professor in the fall here at Harvard. (That last part still sounds weird.) Wood taught a class in the post-World War II novel, which might as well have been subtitled Let’s Read Some Damn Great Books. (Care for a treat you can finish in a long winter afternoon? Go get Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”) He didn’t assign his own book, but some of us bought it anyway, and “How Fiction Works” takes apart the novel in the same way your mechanically gifted friend might take apart a radio. He knows where all the pieces go, why this wire is red and that one green, and how to put it back together and have it play music.
This is one of those books that you might leaf through at random in the bookstore, your eye catching on words such as thisness and free indirect style, and think: Too deep for me. But it’s just the opposite — once Wood starts explaining everything, the deep parts of novels don’t look so terrifying anymore, they look like water you can swim in.
I’m cheating (already!) by pulling in “Atonement,” which we read for class in December, but struck me as not just the best book from the class (nipping Jean Brodie at the wire) but the fullest example of what Wood was teaching us about the possibilities of the novel. I haven’t seen the movie, except for a couple of Keira Knightley scenes on YouTube, but the basic idea is the same as the book: A young girl witnesses something between her older sister and a family friend; her misreading of what happened, and her telling of the story, changes all their lives. The book is not just about the characters and the story but about fiction itself; a fictional character tells a fictional story about fictional characters, and you find yourself wanting her to tell the true story, although of course that story is also a fictional story about fictional characters. McEwan had me off-balance the whole way — toward the end, just when I thought I was finally upright and steady, I turned the page and saw two lines at the bottom that just knocked me lopsided. And he still wasn’t done. By the end he has you not just deeply caring for the characters, but stepping outside the story, understanding exactly how fiction works and what it does to us… and deeply caring for those fictional characters anyway. We finished the book a month ago but I still think about it daily.
It will be a policy of this feature to disclose all friendships with authors, and so I’ll tell you right off that Chuck Culpepper is a friend — we’ve met only a few times, always at sporting events we were covering, but he has always struck me as caring more about the language and the story than the frequency of shuttle buses and the quality of food in the press room. (You would be amazed how often sportswriters — who not only get the best seats in the house at any big sporting event but GET PAID to sit in those seats — still find it within themselves to complain about, say, the lack of brown mustard to go on their free hot dogs.)
Chuck apparently wearied of preening athletes and frothing agents and the whole mess of covering sports, so he did something perfectly reasonable: He moved to London and decided to become a soccer fan. This led to some obstacles, such as arriving at a game where tickets were available but not being allowed to actually purchase said tickets. “Bloody Confused!” explains why, and takes you into the world of English soccer not from the press box, but from the stands — a much more enjoyable place. You’ll quaff quite a few pints, and meet a friendly blue bear, and two or three times a page you will just be charmed to death when Chuck presents you a sentence like this: “Meanwhile, Newcastle had maintained a keen, passionate following despite starting its fiftieth straight season without a major title — its eighty-first without a league title — and it’s amazing how you can travel one-quarter of the way around the world and still wind up among Cubs fans.”
I am hoping that by now Nick Hornby has read Chuck’s book, or that Chuck has run into Nick at a pub or something, because Nick is a huge soccer fan (Arsenal, if that matters to you) and they’d have plenty to talk about. “Shakespeare Wrote for Money” is the third and final “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” collection, and if I can extend the soccer talk a bit, he plays hard all the way through injury time — the last column of the last book is just as entertaining as the first of the first. He brings in writers ranging from George Orwell and William Kennedy to the late Mississippi legend Larry Brown and the rising Carolina star Ron Rash. He writes about collections of essays and books of poetry and nonfiction political tomes and young-adult novels and… well, if you get all the way through and you can’t find something in here to read, I don’t know what to tell you, except that there’s probably a “CSI” marathon on TV this weekend.
See, right there: That’s not something Hornby would have done. I don’t know if he likes or hates any of the 27 versions of “CSI” currently showing somewhere on cable 24 hours a day, but he wouldn’t trash “CSI” — he’d just leave the whole topic untouched and lead you toward something better. He didn’t touch on genre mysteries much for the Believer, so I’m thinking he enjoys other types of books more, but a brand-name mystery novelist will almost always leave you nothing less than entertained. And sometimes, if nothing else, diverted. I sat down a couple of Saturdays ago, ready to watch my Carolina Panthers destroy the Arizona Cardinals on their way to their inevitable Super Bowl (not to mention the inevitable Super Bowl advertising, which would fill the bank account of my newspaper back in Charlotte). The Panthers stopped Arizona, got the ball and scored in about 15 seconds to make it 7-0. I mentioned to my wife that, you know, Super Bowl tickets might not be that expensive.
Somewhere in the next half-hour or so, although this was not caught by the Fox cameras, the Panthers gathered as a team and voted to quit playing. The Cardinals made it 7-7, then 14-7, then 17-7, and about that time I picked up Robert B. Parker’s “Taming a Sea-Horse,” one of the books in his Spenser series. The Spenser books are set here in Boston, where Parker lives — a friend up here says Parker boasts that he never revises his books, he just fills up the pages and turns them in. I have no idea if that’s true. But I was thankful that Parker filled up these particular pages, no matter how, because Spenser and his sidekick Hawk went looking for a troubled prostitute (I realize that may be redundant) and beat the bad guys without having to kill anybody, and the whole thing was so diverting I barely glanced at the TV. Which was good, because every time I did a Cardinal was either intercepting a pass or dancing into the end zone. It ended 33-13, but I scored it 1-0 — a good book always counts as a win.