Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
After 9/11 I found it hard to read fiction. There were two reasons for this. One was a conviction that today's fiction writers simply weren't up to the task-- look at Updike's book about a terrorist in which he imagines him to be pretty much exactly like every other Updike protagonist, or John LeCarre's last ten unreadable anti-US screeds. The world was so much richer as revealed by non-fiction writers, from Bernard Lewis with his polymath understanding of the Arab world to books like Rise of the Vulcans or The Looming Tower, so full of complex real-life characters. Honestly, what novelist in the last 30 years has conjured up characters as compelling as The Looming Tower's main figures-- the philandering FBI goodfella John O'Neill, his should-be ally but bureaucratic archenemy the CIA terror geek Michael Scheuer, the pitiless intellectual Dr. Zawahiri, the aimless rich kid turned terror celebrity Osama Bin Laden? What a wonderful movie it would make, if Hollywood had the balls.Visit Michael Gebert's website to learn more about Sky Full of Bacon and links to his writing about food and media.
The other was much closer to home-- I had two young sons and I was reading to them all the time. So to a certain extent my fiction itch was scratched by kid lit, and to be honest, a lot of it-- especially if it was written after 1930 and before 1970-- was better than a great deal of adult fiction I'd read. In particular I'd mention Johnny Tremain, a first-rate coming-of-age novel in which the protagonist's progress from feudal apprentice to free man nicely parallels America's struggles in the Revolutionary War; any adult could read it without condescension. But there are many others I enjoyed sharing with them-- Walter Brooks' Freddy the Pig novels, less precious than E.B. White's animal books; droll Roald Dahl, of course; Sid Fleischman's Americana novels; Norman Lindsay's dada The Magic Pudding; and so on.
Eventually the urgent hunger to read current affairs books died down, and my professional life has taken me more toward food writing; there are many pleasures in food writing but they're rarely the same ones you get from a great novel, so I've been turning back to fiction, though I have to say it hasn't always been easy. One thing I have devoured with pleasure is the University of Chicago's series of reprinted Parker novels by the late Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark). The early ones capture in fine spare prose a drab, seedy America of the 60s which Parker, the hyperlogical sociopath, slices through like a knife; they're the epitome of the crime novel taken to abstraction.
For some reason I keep trying Victorian novels, but life today just isn't paced for them; I admire Trollope's satirical eye but it's hard when you've read 80 pages and it's still just breakfast at the first house. They wrote literary gas guzzlers for an age when time was cheap. One I did succeed with a couple of years ago, and have recommended widely since (so I might as well do so here too), is Willkie Collins' No Name. It's about two sisters who are screwed out of an inheritance by a quirk of the law, and how one of them uses every feminine wile there is to go after the fortune. This female cynic and conniver is such an unexpected and delightful character to spend time with that you aren't bothered too much that the book doesn't really reach a satisfactory conclusion. Hmm, thinking about it, she's sort of like Parker, slicing through the cant of her age like a knife. I guess that says something about what I like in fiction, or about me.