In our monthly book club, we discuss whatever we happen to be reading and ask everyone in the comments to do the same. What Are You Reading This Month?
A GQ story that made the rounds a few years ago was both fascinating and perplexing: “The Strange & Curious Tale Of The Last True Hermit” detailed the life of Christopher Knight, who walked deep into the Maine woods in 1986 and didn’t emerge for nearly three decades. If Knight had simply lived that entire time alone in a cabin, hunting or foraging for survival, there wouldn’t have been much to detail. But Knight survived by committing over a thousand burglaries within a short distance of his makeshift camp, stealing only what he needed to survive outdoors and taking incredible measures to make sure that he never encountered anyone. In between his raids, Knight lived in a densely wooded area surrounded by some big rocks, though really not far from civilization. He spoke to no one, and he never slept under a roof the entire time. He survived by obsessively devising ways to keep warm and dry through brutal winters. Naturally, once he was caught—by an obsessive cop in the area—he didn’t really want to talk. Knight was truly sorry for stealing, but not so much that it stopped him: He wanted only to be alone, and he achieved that goal. Michael Finkel, who wrote the GQ piece, was able to crack Knight’s shell at least a little bit, and he expands the story for The Stranger In The Woods: The Extraordinary Story Of The Last True Hermit. Finkel is one of the only people outside his family that Knight has interacted with, allowing him to visit nine times in jail. The book goes into greater depth on Knight’s state of mind, and into the specifics of how he survived, and it also takes some slightly unnecessary detours into the history of hermits. But it’s a quick, fascinating read for those who left that GQ piece looking for more.
Up until this past winter, I’d never read a mystery novel. But in the space of about three weeks, I’d blown through both of T E Kinsey’s Lady Hardcastle mysteries and preordered the third story in the series, Death Around The Bend, which arrived June 8. My change of heart has to do with Murder On The Orient Express and a Kindle recommendation, but my transformation from rolling my eyes at my wife’s Agatha Christie novels to actually saying aloud, “When is my Lady Hardcastle book coming?” is complete.
The series is based on some previously self-published stories by Kinsey, which he arranged into two novels after Amazon expressed interest in them (A Quiet Life In The Country and In The Market For Murder, both released last year). Death Around The Bend is the first Hardcastle story conceived of and written as a complete novel, and I’ve had to pace myself from devouring it too quickly. Like its predecessor, Death Around The Bend picks up shortly after the events of the previous book: Lady Hardcastle and her best friend/servant, Florence Armstrong, leave their surprisingly homicidal town to venture even deeper into the British countryside, to the estate of a friend who’s taken up an interest in the new sport of race-car driving. (It is 1909, after all.) Anchored by the funny, unorthodox relationship between Lady Hardcastle and Flo, the book moves breezily along with cracking dialogue, memorable characters, and a similar lens on the British aristocracy of yesteryear that helped make Downton Abbey so popular. This is no soap, though, and Lady Hardcastle and Flo have a secret history of spying abroad for Her Majesty, which makes them far more cunning, intellectually and physically (Flo has a reputation roughing men up), than proper ladies were generally allowed to be at the time. Death Around The Bend transports the action outside of Lady Hardcastle and Flo’s new hometown, which means a new set of strangers that don’t yet know they should never underestimate these ladies. My only hope is that T E Kinsey can keep up his quick pace for the next story.
I am the owner of a regrettably short attention span, the type of person who has a few dozen books on my shelf with bookmarks permanently stuck in page 25. I’ve read exactly two books in life more than once, and both times because I was seduced by the author’s prose: Tim O’Brien’s stunning, tragic, and beautiful The Things They Carried, and Lost In The Funhouse: The Life And Mind Of Andy Kaufman by the famed magazine journalist Bill Zehme. I’m currently on my second read of the Kaufman biography, and beyond its fascinating insight into perhaps comedy’s most enigmatic mind, the pleasure comes in reading Zehme’s kinetic prose. Tom Wolfe-ian shades abound in the way Zehme constructs his sentences—(interjections with exclamation marks!), italics for emphasis, eschewing punctuations in certain passages in order to achieve literary momentum—and if ever a biographer’s voice could rival a subject as singularly exhilarating as Andrew Geoffrey Kaufman, Zehme is that writer. Consider this passage, and the many ways another writer could describe a boy who liked running away:
The boy had taken to truancy as means of escape.
Whereas previously he could disappear from reality without leaving the room, he had recently learned to disappear—quite physically—into mad shared adventure, into nocturnal unaccountability, into the gloamy parks of Great Neck and the sensual abyss of Manhattan. He perfected sneaking off as minor artform.
It’s an electric read by an electric profiler.