Thursday, February 14, 2008

My Back Pages, Vol. I

I'm sure it's not cool to be literate in the text-message age, but there it is - I can read! In fact, I love to read. I read alone, I read in groups, I read while eating, I read while driving sometimes (not recommended). Can't help it, I'm afraid. Taught myself to read before I went to kindergarten because I had to figure out what the hell was inside that big collection of Walt Disney encyclopedias sitting on the shelf in the upstairs hallway. (Seriously, this was a multi-volume hardcover set of all kinds of stuff Disney thought kids should know, from science to fairy tales. I learned a hell of a lot from them before I started attacking the World Book downstairs). I'd sit with my back up against the wall for hours, feet under the shelf, taking volume after volume down and devouring them. Their interpretations of classical mythology and the tales of the Brothers Grimm were especially good, enhanced by some excellent and quite frightening classic Disney-studios art.

Anyway, that has nothing to do with this post. Except that I've decided to pick up something I started more than ten years ago and then had to let go due to something I call parenthood. That's not over yet, but it's a little less 24-7. Every once in a while I'm going to write about a book I've recently read, whether you like it or not. Feel free to skip ahead to the tunes, because I'd be surprised if you read this far already. Just kidding. You stopped much earlier.

The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber

Once or twice a year I pick up and read a book that looks like a conventional best-seller type novel. This is a long habit started when I worked at a bookstore 20 years ago and wanted to be able to recommend something to our patrons besides science fiction or the latest book of surrealist poetry. That's how I started reading mysteries, too. A week ago at our local public library (support them, you bastards!) I grabbed one that didn't look too awful. Got very lucky this time, too.

The basic plot concerns the discovery of 16th century manuscripts that may or may not hold the clues to the recovery of a lost Shakespeare play, an original manuscript in Will's own hand. There's a wide-eyed young filmmaker as much in search of love as anything, a devious young lady on the run from her past, a bunch of well-drawn supporting characters including an ex-Polish spy/cryptographer (gotta have one of those!) and lots of Russian mobsters. All of them revolve around the wonderful Jake Mishkin, Olympic weight-lifting, womanizing, lawyering son-of-a-bitch son of a Jewish mobster and a Nazi-princess. Yowza! How can you go wrong, eh!

Well, in the wrong hands, very wrong. But Gruber layers story upon story, plot upon plot, taking us effortlessly back and forth from perspective to perspective, past to future, in prose that subtly changes as Jake changes, from the workmanlike to the poetics of the everyday and beyond. It's a treat to read Jake's confessions and to literally feel the language develop as he does. And, I'll admit, Gruber got me so into Jake and his heart that I was in tears at the end. Me and Jake.

I cannot and won't tell anymore about the book because it would be criminal to give away the plot, except to vent one little vent. I found it all remarkably plausible barring one little archaeological/geological moment in the book that gave away the ending to me. I'm a lifelong amateur armchair archaeologist and I married a geologist, so I pay attention to things that other folks might miss when such matters pop up in books. Still didn't ruin the book because this is far more about finding out what happens to Jake and friends than about finding any silly old Shakespeare manuscript.

Go, now, buy and read this shit! (Me, I'm going to the library to see what else they've got by Gruber!)

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