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Ode to Reading And Six Book Reviews

So many books, so little time. Frank Zappa 

Summer, fall, winter, spring, the season makes no difference: I read daily year round. If anything, more in the winter, when short days, long nights and weather help push back the world’s demands.

When asked why he kept his home stocked floor to ceiling with cases of liquor, W.C. Fields said, “Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.” Substitute books for booze, and you’ve got me. 

But I have it better than Fields. Because a drink— no matter how good— is used up once drunk.

While a book, if it’s great, just begins to dish up its treats on first read.  Alas, great books are rare; that’s why they’re great. I hoard those, not to collect, but to re-read, again and again and again.

Which do I love more, the first read, or a re-read? Are they comparable? Does it even matter? There’s so much to love about reading. 

The looking forward to. The sinking into. The R & R. The experiencing, of other places and times, through other eyes. The nourishment. The solace.  The laughs. The A-ha!s.  The shop talk with like-minded maniacs. The browsing of bookstores in search of.

As a writer, the noticing of: A play on words. A telling word. A turn of phrase. How much a few words can say. 

Which brings me to Several Short Sentences About Writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg.  I read this book expecting, of course, to learn something. And I did, if learn is what you call it.  More like, shattered. My assumptions broke open, about what reading is, what writing is.

Here’s the first page: 

Here, in short, is what I want to tell you.

Know what each sentence says,

What it doesn’t say,

And what it implies.

Of these, the hardest is knowing what each sentence

actually says.


At first, it will help to make short sentences,

Short enough to feel the variations in length.

Leave space between them for the things that words

can’t really say.


Pay attention to rhythm, first and last.


Imagine it this way:

One by one, each sentence takes the stage.

It says the very thing it comes into existence to say.

Then it leaves the stage.

It doesn’t help the next one up or the previous one


It doesn’t wave to its friends in the audience

Or pause to be acknowledged or applauded.

It doesn’t talk about what it’s saying.

It simply says its piece and leaves the stage.


This isn’t the whole art of writing well.

It isn’t even most of it.

But it’s a place to begin, and to begin from again and


So. I’ve been relearning how to. Time passes in gobs while you’re asking yourself: Is this what I want to say? Or, is this? Or, this?

Writing even one clear, balanced, rhythmic sentence is

an accomplishment. 

I knew that. I think. Now I really know it. I think. Oh, writing hurts. Hurts so good. 

Yet reading, Klink suggests (between the lines), shouldn’t. Yet, it can. The pain starts with an Oh no! dud; continues with feeling obliged to finish it; and cuts deep: No one is making me keep reading. I’m sticking that dagger in. If I pull it out— that’s guilty pleasure. 

All your life you’ve been reading books that trusted


Trusted your intelligence, your keenness,

Your ability to feel an invisible wink,

To follow any trail…


…Authority arises only from clarity of language and

clarity of perception.

Authority is how the reader’s trust is engaged.


“Authority” is another word for the implicit bond

between writer and reader,

The desire to keep reading.

The desire to follow the writer wherever she goes.

The question isn’t, can the reader follow you?

That’s a matter of grammar and syntax.

The question is, will the reader follow you? 

What a relief. Guilt gone. Pain gone. I’ve not finished three books this summer, and the reading’s been easy. Lush. Uninterrupted pleasure: word after word, sentence after sentence, book after great book. Here are a few you might like too. 

The Gardner Heist, The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft, Ulrich Boser.  

On March 18, 1990, two professional crooks heisted a dozen priceless masterpieces, including one Vermeer, three Rembrandts and five Degas, from the Gardner Museum in Boston. The paintings, worth as much as $500 million, remain at large today.  

The ease of the theft didn’t surprise me (Security is extremely expensive; museums can’t afford it.). Nor, that the thieves got away clean (They’re pros.). Nor, that the law failed to indentify who did it (Boser does.).  Nor, that the paintings are probably forever lost.

What did surprise me is why the paintings could have been recovered, but weren’t.  Prepare for federal agencies entwined with criminal enterprises; murder, cover-ups and cons; international machinations; incredible smarts and unbelievable stupidity, obsessional hunters (including the author) and wily hunteds. This “tale of fact” is a great read.

Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain.            

Deeply researched and a pleasure to read, this book is an A-ha! for us introverts, and respect generating for you extroverts.

Smile At Strangers, And Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly, Susan Schorn.            

An amusing and illuminating essay collection by a female black belt.           

Chapter titles include: If you want to feel safe, be prepared to feel uncomfortable; Paradise doesn’t count if it’s compulsory; You’re doing it all wrong. And that’s perfect; Sometimes the only way forward is to go back and start over.

Just Kids, Patti Smith.

A throat swelling memoir of the author’s relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. How do you write about love? It’s impossible, yet she does it. 

In the late 1960’s, these two teens independently left home for New York City to live art. They met and that was it. “As if it was the most natural thing in the world we stayed together, not leaving each other’s side save to go to work. Nothing was spoken; it was just mutually understood.”

They made art and history. That story alone is well worth reading.

But it is the love, illuminating every sentence, shimmering in the spaces between, that left me wordless, stroking the cover after I finished it. “No one could speak of these two young people nor tell with any truth of their days and nights together. Only Robert and I could tell it. Our story, he called it. And, having gone, he left the task to me to tell it to you.”

I will reread this book, probably more than once.

Three Stations, An Arkady Renko Novel, Martin Cruz Smith.

The seventh of an incredible crime series that transcends the genre, the standard set by the first, Gorky Park. Maybe I love Cruz Smith as much as I love Donald Westlake. Good thing I don’t have to choose.

Incredible writing: atmospheric, enigmatic, spare, Cruz Smith does his magic as much by what he doesn’t write as what he does.

Incredible protagonist: Moscow’s Chief Inspector Arkady Renko, intelligent, professional, fatalistic, laconic, a knife twisted between the ribs of his superiors. His refusal to conform to the authority he represents is the most obvious paradox of many that make Renko fascinating.

Incredible context: Russia, Renko’s co-protagonist. The series spans the dying days of communist USSR to present day proto-capitalist Russia.

Three Stations was so good, I immediately started re-reading the series from the beginning. (How many times have I read Gorky Park? Five?) How does Renko negotiate life’s double binds without sacrifice of personal integrity or loss of capacity to love? 

How does Cruz Smith weave his spell? If I could resist going under, I might figure it out.

Gorky Park

 Polar Star

 Red Square

Havana Bay

 Wolves Eat Dogs

 Stalin's Ghost

Three Stations

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    click here for the top 1959 corvette pictures anywhere

Reader Comments (2)

Guffaw at the illustration: perfect! To read, or not to read? That's never a question.

August 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNaomi

Welcome back! I've been an on again off again avid reader my whole life. I'll admit that modern technology has been a bit of a distraction the past few years as I explore other avenues of mental stimulation. I've taken to reading on my iPad and have a grand collection of downloaded favorites that I like to read over and over. Of the books mentioned in your post, I've only read Gorky Park after watching the film a long time ago. Thanks for sharing!

August 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

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