I've been indulging in a bit of light reading of late. It started while the flooring was being installed, I needed a rather mindless escape from the hammering and sawing and general disruption, when I read James Patterson's The Postcard Killers. I know a lot of people who love Patterson but truthfully I have never really become a fan. The plots are predictable and I feel no connection with his characters. In fact, to my mind, the best Patterson books are the ones that move quickly from the get-go and keep moving without any attempt at character development. As this perfectly describes The Postcard Killers, I was perfectly happy reading it. It caught my interest and there was enough going on that I didn't really waste any time fretting over the plot or the lack of characterization; I just wanted to know what happens next. In short it was perfect escapist reading and just the thing for those times when you just want to pass the time and escape from reality and thought for a while.
Maggie Kozel's eloquent memoir, The Color of Atmosphere, was a much better book although it too was a very quick read. Dr. Kozel's accounting of how she found her calling in medicine, and her journey through medical school, residency, and into practice as a pediatrician, first in the military and later in private practice is poignant and at times heart-rending. It is also a not too subtle indictment of many of the problems with the health care system in this country. In my case Dr. Kozel was "preaching to the choir" because I already agreed with her on most issues. But her story touched my heart and forced me to think more clearly. The book is not fiction and yet it reads like a good story with the requisite happy ending, while still managing to make you think along the way. It deserves to be widely read.
Then, still feeling rather mentally unsettled, I opted for more mindless fiction. I honestly cannot say that Stuart Woods is a better writer than James Patterson, but I enjoy his books more. Or perhaps I just enjoy the Stone Barrington novels. They are easy enjoyable reads and Lucid Intervals was no exception. The books are not complex or heavy on plot. There tend to be a lot of dangling ends in the story, but they move quickly and are not particularly violent. I will also admit that I just like the character of Stone Barrington, not because I would necessarily like him in real life, but because he appreciates a good suit and understands the details of of fit and tailoring and I have a bit of a weakness for a man who likes a good suit and a good bourbon. Even though I certainly understand the appeal of a man who can be both a little polished and rough around the edges, and I am certainly no prude, the women in the novel continue to be mostly vehicles for sex, with very little development rather than their availability to jump into bed and although the sex scenes in this book are not graphic they seem to be increasingly a substitute for plot. Unfortunately the main character, like the book, has slipped into a kind of mid-life hollowness where he is still coasting by on looks and his delusions and pretensions, unaware that the promise of his youth has slipped away and failed to gain substance. I have a couple more of these books. They will be perfectly good for riding on the exercise bike, which I desperately need to resume, and where I prefer mindless entertainment that merely keeps me pedaling and turning the pages.
Lastly I read Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which was in a class far above those previous reads. Of course Chabon writes beautiful sentences. Even better he writes beautiful sentences that do not detract from the joy and magic of his stories. The book perfectly encapsulates its own little world and the reader feels and experiences all of it, words, thoughts, smells, desires. It is really perfect, and perfectly engaging. Joe and Sam are marvelously drawn, complex characters and Chabon manages to write a book about the holocaust, loss, survival, and love without becoming at all trite or sentimental. In fact this novel, set in the world of pulp fiction and comic book heroes, has all the characteristics of the pulps: incredible luck and happenstance, adventure, magic, nick-of-time rescues and characters saved from the brink of disaster. And yet the book moves beyond these conventions, making use of them to tackle serious subjects and complex human issues. It is literature thinly veiled as escapism, admitting that escapism is often exactly what we need to get through the tragedy of life.
Of course all these books end well. People move on with their lives, they find happiness or at least the road to happiness. This is exactly what escapism is all about, the happy endings, the magical unreality and simplicity, the hope that everything will be alright in the end if we just do the right thing. This is what comic books provided, as did movies in the golden age of Hollywood.
But movies have become darker and happy endings, when they occur are hard won. Sex and Violence more pervasive in escapist fiction, although the good guys still tend to come out ahead. Perhaps the resurgence of animated films is the modern answer to the pulps. But that is another post.