One sometimes finds oneself slightly off balance when approaching a topic that may have short-term and changeable elements. I’m experiencing that somewhat this morning; the changeable element is the weather, not often that changeable in San Diego. See, I’m writing this several weeks before it will appear online or in print. Still in May, in fact. Quite a bit of actual weather recently, back here on the timeline — May Gray, rain and wind, turbulent skies, that sort of thing. I’m relying on a kind of local wisdom having to do with May Gray segueing into June Gloom. Assuming that to hold up and further assuming that at least some readers are like me, the idea here is that reading habits change around this time of year (mine do), and winter’s heavier subject matter gives way to breezy, colorful, and fun stuff, the kind of thing one might read poolside or at the beach.
Before metaphorically shedding galoshes and overcoat at the end of spring, I will at least remove my mittens to more easily read a few books left over from my winter/spring to-be-read stack on my night table and dig into at least one or two of these this morning at the bus stop. Five books in the pile, and I take them all with me on my way to work. I’ll decide later. The titles: With Lawrence in Arabia, by Lowell Thomas; The Roots of Heaven, by Romain Gary; The Wall, by John Hersey; An Island Called Moreau, by Brian Aldiss; and Notes from Underground, by that madcap master of mirth and mischief Fyodor Dostoevsky.
I’ve read Notes before, and it was a favorite, too, of my former wife, Diane Clark, whose latest short fiction appears in San Diego Noir (there, I gave you a plug), edited by Mary Elizabeth Hart. It occurred to me that to reread Notes from Underground would be fun for me, and yet you run no risk of ingesting nutrition-/substance-free literary Jell-O.
Last week, after I had bought the book at Bluestocking, in Hillcrest, while interviewing one Sharif Ahmed as to how he spent his weekends (scuba diving), he asked me how I spent mine. Having read a new introduction to Notes by Ben Marcus, I told Ahmed I’d probably take to bed again, get under the covers, and celebrate “the nearly narcotic pleasures of desolation.” Ahmed only stared at me.
The Wall, by Hersey, is a hefty novel, maybe 150,000 words, about the Nazi resistors in Warsaw’s ghetto during WWII. It is a story I heard about growing up, or rather a steady stream of stories that emerged. Hersey published The Wall the year I was born, 1950, and I became aware of it as a boy but never got ahold of a copy until recently — at a library sale for 33 cents. The fascination for me is the enemy; the Nazis are very close to a pure representation of evil on Earth, the embodiment of everything worth resisting, fighting, and lashing out against — with cool machine guns and other neato, mid-20th-century weapons.
The Roots of Heaven, by Romain Gary, is another book that eluded me for years. Even the movie, directed by John Huston (a favorite) and starring Errol Flynn (another), has dodged all my attempts to view it. I’ll try Kensington Video again. Meanwhile, I have the 1958 paperback (another library find) that is falling into loose-leaf pages at every hefting. The book is about elephants in the way Moby Dick is about a whale; and Errol Flynn’s days were severely numbered when he played. “A joyous, amoral gun-runner.” This is another book that my former wife raved about, comparing Gary to Graham Greene. There can be no higher recommendation: Greene, Huston, Flynn.
With Lawrence in Arabia, when I spotted it at, I think, Fifth Avenue Books, clearly lay in wait for me and my fascination, since age ten, with all things Lawrence. Author Lowell Thomas seems surely to be the real-life counterpart of the American newspaperman, played by Arthur Kennedy in the David Lean epic.
Finally, I have An Island Called Moreau, Brian W. Aldiss’s 1981 science-fiction novel. Aldiss has done a tribute here to H.G. Wells, whom he calls “The Master” in his dedication. Wells is another lifelong fascination — The Island of Doctor Moreau, a favorite story. This is the one I’m easing into summer with at Coronado’s beach. A big toe in small waves as I read of Edward Prendick (Wells’s character) becoming Calvert Roberts in the Aldiss book and their shipwreck onto a scene of tropical terror.