Lately, I've been absolutely addicted to reading, more so than usual. I cannot get enough - I'm just devouring book after book after book. I'm hitting almost all new titles, too, and branching into "adult" fiction (books for grownups), two things that do not happen very often, not with this kind of frequency or intensity.
I find myself, lately, drawn to books for grown-ups about children, or about childhood. And books about books, which have been some of my favorites ever since the term "metafiction" entered my life circa 1998. In the grown-up books about books AND children category, two standouts: The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly, and The Boy Detective Fails, by Joe Meno. Connolly's book is a dreamy, WWII-era fantasy of a boy, David, who loses his mother to cancer, and - too soon after this loss - acquires a stepmother and half brother. David's love of stories - especially fairy-tales, fantasies of knights and steeds and deeds and half-seen monsters - leads him into (?) stories, books, a fantasy world itself. Pursued by the uncommonly creepy Crooked Man, David must cross this strange book-landscape to find the weak and dying king, whose Book of Lost Things will provide all the answers David seeks. It's a chilling, dreamy book - the Crooked Man is terrifying, the presence of archetypes - The Woodsman, the knight - are both reassuring and unsettling, and Connolly injects a few thoroughly crushing, fantastical details of his own (like the identity of the lost king) that make this book more than just a meditation on the Power of Story, or a reworking of old fairy stories.
The Boy Detective Fails is a horse of another color altogether.
I was attracted by its cover, with its retro-looking illustration of a Boy Detective. Meno has taken familiar tropes - the mid-century child sleuth story (there is an explicit reference to the Hardy Boys) - and mixed in a bit of 1960s comic-book flair, then twisted it all into a heartbreaking modern story of loss, isolation, love and madness. I loved the plot of this book; I loved the characters; I even loved the absolutely crushing final revelations that explain the unsolved mystery of the boy detective's sister's suicide at age 16. But above these, I loved Meno's prose. He writes beautifully, one notch above simply - he has turns of poetic language, a kind of dreaminess that matches the tone of a trope (the boy detective) displaced onto a 30-year-old man living in a contemporary city. Throughout, Billy Argo (the boy detective himself) is most often simply referred to as "the boy detective," despite his age and situation (age:30; situation: living in a kind of halfway home for those moving out of a mental institution, working a peculiar job as a telephone salesman of wigs and false hairpieces [including mustaches] for men and women). A small, seemingly plain little book, The Boy Detective Fails had far, far more in its story than I ever expected.
Not about children, but about books: Pandora in the Congo, by Albert Sanchez Pinol. This one is complex, funny, sad, perplexing - a multitude of books heaped upon itself, a palimpsest of ghost-written stories. The narrator, Tommy Thomson, has undertaken to ghostwrite the story of one Marcus Garvey, manservant, awaiting trial for murder of the two men, brothers, who employed him on their colonial adventure into the Congo. Garvey's story intertwines with Tommy's until - as Tommy himself notes - they are nearly inseparable. Garvey's tale - in that heart of darkness - is a hideous mix of British colonialist arrogance, cruelty, foolishness, native loyalty and fear, British heroism and - oddly - a thoroughly unlikely but wholly convincing science-fiction narrative of a species from under the earth. Set during the first world war, in the final glory years of the British Empire, the book excavates story upon story, coming up, finally, with both Tommy's book, and the book we are holding, and an earlier book, alluded to briefly early in the narrative, all of them Pandora in the Congo.
Finally, today, I tore through THE BOOK THIEF. I had a few reservations about this one, due primarily to its popularity and its prevalence on the summer reading tables in the bookstore. After reading Zusak's I AM THE MESSENGER, I felt reassured about The Book Thief, even though I am wary of world war two stories involving children.
Zusak's prose is unlike any other. He is masterful, able to keep the narrative moving fluidly while at the same time poking - stabbing, at times - the reader with short, sudden profundity. The Book Thief has the distinction of being narrated by Death, in the first person (and Death's voice, at times, reminded me distinctly of the voice of Bartimaeus, from Jonathan Stroud's trilogy of the same name). The importance of books, of words, is central to the book, but so too is simple love of many kinds, of many complexities. Interspersed with Death's narrative are a couple of short, hand-crafted stories, with illustrations, by one of the book's characters (a hidden Jew) - these gems are almost stand-alone quality, though they take on more resonance with contextualization from the book. Stylistically, Zusak does interesting, clever things; likewise structurally. It's clear he is a man who loves books and words, and moreover, knows how to use them to best advantage. Death interrupts his own narrative flow repeatedly, with short, asterisk-delineated "notes" that usually convey some sort of devastating revelation.
Though this is a book set during - and very concerned with - the second world war (it takes place in Germany, and a hidden Jew and Mein Kampf are two very important aspects of the plot), this is not a book *about* the holocaust. It's a book about love, really, but not smothering or incredibly romantic love. It is love for family, for friends, for kind neighbors, for odd assistance in unlikely places, love of danger and triumph, love of beauty, love of truth, love of words and stories and books - finally, really, love of life.