Windows into Other Worlds

To give a book is to give a window into another world. Do you only give – or recommend – books you know? In my case, I give ones I’ve enjoyed. Even if I like a particular author, I rarely give one of their books blindly, without first reading it.

Books are entirely subjective. You never know if a book will satisfy someone or, better yet, thrill them. You can’t say, “I love this, you better too.” But you can give what you’ve read and admired.

Here are some titles I recommend (most are recent):

NON-FICTION

Figures In A Landscape by Paul Theroux, 2018. Essays for all seasons, from travel pieces to literary criticism to profiles of Elizabeth Taylor, Oliver Sacks, and Robin Williams. Full disclosure: One, I skimmed a few non-travel essays that didn’t grab me. Two, I’m not a fan of any of Theroux’s fiction.

The Rub of Time by Martin Amis, 2018. Essays and Reportage, 1994-2017. A smorgasbord of Amis treats, mostly literary or political, with topics ranging from Saul Bellow to Donald Trump. Amis is regarded by some as the Bad Boy of Brit Lit. They say he’s crass. I say he’s entertaining. Full disclosure: One, I skimmed a few of the almost 50 essays; they weren’t in my wheelhouse. Two, I find Amis’s latest fiction unrewarding.

{As an aside, I feel no compunction to read everything that comes my way – even if it is supposed to be “good for me” or part of the canon.}

FICTION

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, 2019. 2019 Booker Prize Co-winner. Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Clear-eyed, sardonic, accessible. Atwood doesn’t aestheticize The Testaments. The narrative is straightforward. As with all good novels, the prose is subservient to the plot.

Last but not least, my crime pick:

Standing In Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin, 2012. One of my favourites from the King of Scottish Noir. Rankin delivers brilliant banter and black humour wrapped in a cracking whodunit.

The King of Scottish Noir

Who’s the King of Scottish Noir? Ian Rankin. Hands down. Some might say Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886, but I see him as the father. In any case, Rankin’s output far surpasses that of Stevenson.

This is not a review of a particular Ian Rankin novel. It’s a quick introduction to the author’s Rebus opus. The Rebus novels are mostly set in or near Edinburgh. Inspector John Rebus is a hard-edge, no-nonsense police detective with a philosopher’s head and heart. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He doesn’t always play by the rules. If I were murdered, he’s the kind of detective I’d like on my case.    

In the Rebus novels, Rankin deploys banter to counter the bleak reality of Scottish crime. He portrays tough criminals who are tougher men. The cops who hunt them are just as tough. Aye, but there’s humour too, of the Scottish ilk. Gruff, understated and, given the juxtaposition, funny as hell.  

At times, the plotting and crime MOs seem over-the-top. Some readers find the novels overly bleak and depressing. They are cut from the cloth of real life. When I read a Rebus novel, I get punched in the gut, I sometimes feel numb, I wonder how s**t like this happens. But I keep reading. That’s what I want from the King of Scottish Noir.

A few quotes from the Rebus opus ….

On John Rebus himself:

“Often he declined invitations, because to accept them meant that he had to dust off his brogues, iron a shirt, brush down his best suit, take a bath, and splash on some cologne. He also had to be affable, to drink and be merry, to talk to strangers with whom he had no inclination to talk and with whom he was not being paid to talk. In other words, he resented having to play the part of a normal human animal.”

“What would he do with a million pounds? Same as he’d do with fifty-thousand. Self destruct. Only faster.”

On Scottish life:

“Rebus hated the smiles and the manners of the Sunday-dressed Scottish Protestant, the emphasis on a communion not with God but with your neighbours. He had tried seven churches of varying denominations, and found none to be to his liking.”

Rebus on racism:

“It’s an emotive subject to be sure … and yet I have to deal with it every single day. I think Scotland was complacent for many years. We don’t have room for racism here, no way, we’re too busy with bigotry!”

On crimes:

“Men were childlike. But that was men for you. Simple pleasures and simple crimes. Male revenge was simple almost to the point of being infantile. You went up to the bastard and you stuck your fist into his face or kneed him in the nuts. But the revenge of the female. Ah, that was recondite stuff.”

“Rebus played with the jigsaw puzzle of the crime. It was coming together, though it was a slow business. Errors were made. And an error, once made, led to more pieces of the jigsaw being placed incorrectly, until the whole thing had to be broken up and started again.”