Saturday, November 27, 2010

What I'm Reading

People are always asking me what's on my night stand.  They're not referring to the tin of Bag Balm that's parked next to my Big Ben alarm clock.  Or to the stray shirt buttons, ball point pens or note pads that are scattered there.  Or to Freddie's brush, Freddie's toenail pruners or to Freddie himself, who at this very moment is perched on the night stand glaring out the bedroom window at the skinny black cat who's had the nerve to wander into our herb garden.

They want to know what I'm reading.  I happen to be a restless reader. I often have a stack of four or five books that I'm reading at once on my night stand.  I'm also a major league re-reader.  I'm someone who comes back to my favorite authors again and again -- especially when I'm in the middle of writing a book of my own.  If I'm lost in a jungle of my own invention all day long with no trail, no map and only a dull pocket knife to hack through the dense undergrowth with, then I like to curl up in bed at night with someone who I know I can count on.  My favorites are like a form of comfort food to me.

Here's what is on my night stand this very morning:

On top is the latest Alan Furst novel, Spies of the Balkans.  Alan Furst is my favorite contemporary writer and whenever I start one of his books I can't put it down so I usually save it for a long holiday weekend.  If you aren't familiar with him he writes noirish, murky, incredibly good spy novels that are set in Europe in the early days of World War II.   My favorite is Red Gold, which I've read four times. I'm halfway through the new one and so far it's great.

Underneath the Alan Furst is The Black Ice Score, which is one of the Parker novels that Donald Westlake wrote under the name Richard Stark.  I probably re-read the entire Parker series from start to finish every three years or so.  They're lean, stripped-down criminal caper novels starring the most ruthless, asocial, unsentimental son of a bitch you'll ever meet.  The first Parker, The Hunter, was made into the Lee Marvin movie Point Blank.  I find them incredibly addictive.   I'm also a fan of Westlake's lighter spirited Dortmunder caper novels, but I don't come back to them nearly as often as the Parkers.

Let's see, under The Black Ice Score is The Seersucker Whipsaw, by the great Ross Thomas, who also wrote under the name Oliver Bleeck.  Like Don Westlake, Ross is one of the writers whom I started reading when I was college.  To this day he remains one of my favorites.  He was witty, sly, cynical, nimble and a great plotter. He could do it all -- hard-boiled detective novels, international spy novels, caper novels, Washington novels, you name it.  He did it with seemingly effortless grace.  He was also one of the nicest guys I've ever met.  The Seersucker Whipsaw is a typical Ross tale about warring factions of greedy Western capitalists and spooks who are all trying to rig the same African election.

Beneath the The Seersucker Whipsaw is an old 1960 John D. MacDonald paperback original called Slam the Big Door, which is a tight little crime novel about a messed up journalist who goes down to a small town in Florida to visit a well-off friend only to discover that the well-off friend is in even worse trouble than he is. I'm a huge MacDonald fan.  I almost always reach for one of his more famous Travis McGee novels as soon as the weather turns cold here in Connecticut.  But as the years have gone by I've come to love his huge output of non-McGees even more.  There's no recurring, larger than life hero in any of them.  Just average people trying to get out of the messes they've made of their lives.  You can almost always find one of his paperbacks on my night stand.

Anchoring the bottom of the stack is Assembly, which is one of the dozen or so short story collections by John O'Hara that I return to when I'm not in the mood to read a novel.  I love short stories and for me John O'Hara is the greatest short story writer of the 20th century.  His fabulous career took him from a small town newspaper in Western Pennsylvania to Broadway and to Hollywood.  He wrote hundreds of short stories along the way.  My favorite story of his, The Man With The Broken Arm, is found in Assembly.  I've probably read it a half-dozen times.  O'Hara was a famously unpleasant person to be around but he understood human nature better than just but any writer I've ever read.

And now, if you'll excuse me, time's a wasting. I want to finish reading that Alan Furst novel before this weekend slips away.

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