Feb 17, 2011
By Hugh Gilmore
By Hugh Gilmore
|One of the best so far this year|
Sometime between 11:59 p.m. and midnight this past New Year's Eve I decided on my reading challenge for this year: try to read all the books in the Europa Editions catalog. Europa Editions is a young press that publishes handsome, sleek books that in most cases were written in another language and translated into English. They'll be issuing their 100th title this May and are planning a big celebration. By then I'll have probably read close to 50 of their titles.
Since most Europa Editions books are fiction, I'm now taking a road I don't usually travel. Normally, two-thirds of what I read is non-fiction. In choosing titles I just follow my nose, reading whatever captures my interest at the moment. In a given year I'll read a lot of books, but most of them, in hindsight, are not memorable. The idea of having a programmed plan this year excited me. After all, sometimes the hardest part of being a reader is finding a good book to read.
By January 3, I had finished Europa's "The Jerusalem File," by Joel Stone -- a mischievous story spiced with delicious insights. On my night table sat "The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris," by an Algerian woman named Leila Maroune, "Sorry," by Gail Jones (set in Australia), "The Goodbye Kiss," (Italian crime noir) by Massimo Carlotto, "Broken Glass Park," (a young Russian woman living in Germany) by Alina Bronsky, and "Between Two Seas," (a multi-generational tale set in Calabria) by Carmine Abate.
Just to jump ahead for a second: I enjoyed all of these books, with "Broken Glass Park" being my favorite. It's inspiring and sad and the heroine/narrator's intelligence, pluck, and pain reminded me of Lisbeth Salender in the Stieg Larsson "Girl Who" trilogy. My least favorite was "The Goodbye Kiss," mostly because contemporary noir seems to be getting long on violence and short on character -- though the genre's saving grace is the deep vein of social criticism that usually runs through it.
But back on January 3, five Europa Editions at the ready, another half-dozen on order at the Philadelphia Free Library, I was in Pig Heaven. I was happy, determined, and confident I could get through the entire Europa Catalog before the year ended.
Then I went to the dentist.
I had just emerged from the land of Novocainia, mouth numbed and tongue thick, when I ran into Carol Michaels here in Chestnut Hill. Carol and I taught school together, in Abington, back in the day. If you know her, you know she is intelligent, friendly, effusive ... and persuasive! (partly thanks to a million-dollar smile our mutual friend/dentist, John Carabello, helps her maintain)
"Oh Hugh, I've got a terrific book for you that's just the kind of thing you like."
"Mu-umph," I replied, but a second later she was writing "'God's Funeral' by
A. N. Wilson" on my dental appointment card. A few more words from her and grunts from me and we parted.
One of the pleasures of writing a reading column is that people recommend books to me. I usually read them. As I drove home, however, I began reminding myself that I couldn't afford that luxury this year. Not if I seriously hoped to accomplish my publicly stated goal of reading all the Europa Editions catalog by December 31, at midnight. I began practicing my excuse for the next time I ran into Carol.
When I got home the mail had arrived. A check for a book I'd sold had bounced. I called my bank. The fellow who took my call was friendly and in the spaces between computer commands we talked a bit about books. He loved reading too. Mostly non-fiction. He'd just finished "The Kennedy Detail," a memoir by Gerald Blaine, one of the Secret Service agents who'd guarded JFK during his presidency. Very exciting, he said, lots of backstage stories and insights into the protocols of the Secret Service.
I wrote the title on a sticky as soon as we finished talking. Sounded like a good book, but "I had promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep." Tempted, I'll admit, but distraction is the enemy of achievement.
In the early afternoon I walked down to the Chestnut Grill to meet Greg Welsh, its owner, and more relevantly, the caporegime of the Chestnut Hill Book festival. We had a "sit down."
"What's up?" I asked, curious, since he'd called me -- my position with the Book Festival is nonpaying and non-status, but that doesn't mean I couldn't be fired for general stupidity and shiftlessness.
"Nothing," he said, "just wanted to say hello, see what's new...."
I sensed a trap. He lifted something from the seat beside his. Was he going to "whack" me? Would I be sleeping with the fishes tonight?
"Remember that author I was telling you about?" he said as he put a book on the table.
The book was "Ishmael," by Daniel Quinn. One of the most interesting and thought-provoking books Greg had read in a long time. The author's distillation of a lifetime of experience. Wise, profound, humorous and moving.
"I'd really like to know what you think of it," Greg said, as he handed it over for me to borrow. I opened it: a signed copy. Something he prized. I was touched. What could I do but accept? We talked amicably for a while and parted.
Walking back up the Hill, I thought, That's one of the remarkable things about good books: You want to share what you read with others. Good books are as powerful as any viral video meme. Even better, because they make you want to know what others think about the human lives portrayed in them. They provoke you to care what others think. And their beauty is too compelling to keep to yourself.
And so, of course, the camel's back was broken by the time I got home. I ordered "God's Funeral" and "The Kennedy Detail" from the library when I got home. "Ishmael” was already sitting with the Europa Editions.
How I'm going to manage, I don't know. I fear I'm a man with tons of hope but only ounces of will.
To be continued ...