07 June 2014

Where Will YOU Go Tomorrow?

One of the biggest things I get kidded about since I retired is how much I now enjoy staying at home. After a career at IBM and a four-year stint in the Air Force I've done more than my share of traveling (I still have enough Frequent Flyer miles in my account to circle the world a dozen times), and now, much to the dismay of my far-flung family members and the disbelief of my globetrotting friends, I am perfectly content to spend most of my time inside the bounds of my own zip code. I do attend the occasional Bouchercon and required booksignings and non-negotiable events like weddings and funerals, but--with the exception of those journeys and trips to visit my mother and our annual trek to see our oldest son and his family Up North--the only doors I darken are usually those in our own home.

Part of that is because I'm just tired of traveling. Airports are even more of a hassle than they used to be, I'm too tall to be comfortable in most plane seats and car seats, and with age I have become less tolerant of any disruption to my daily routine. Besides, I can go anywhere I want to go, anytime I want to go there, via books and movies--without having to put down my bowl of ice cream or change into more presentable attire.

I will admit this line of thinking is a little extreme, but I do sincerely enjoy kicking back in my recliner and losing myself in a mystery novel or an adventure movie. Or, for that matter, any other kind of novel or movie.

Ground control to Major Tom . . .

Over the past couple of months, my cinematic "trips" include Saving Mr. Banks, Catching Fire, Nebraska, Into the WhiteDallas Buyers ClubSands of the KalahariThe Book ThiefKiller JoeAll Is Lost, Mountains of the MoonCaptain Phillips, the second seasons of Longmire and House of CardsThe MistThe Narrow MarginOdd Thomas, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (adapted from the Thurber short story). These I enjoyed; others were less than thrilling. One of the strangest things to happen lately was that a film I thought I would love (Monuments Men) was a disappointment, while one that I thought I would hate (Walter Mitty) was delightful in every way. I mean, George Clooney was in a ho-hum movie and Ben Stiller was in a good one? Hey, nobody was more surprised than I was.

On the novel side of the playground, I have recently read and enjoyed Sycamore Row (John Grisham), The Quest (Nelson DeMille), Destroyer Angel (Nevada Barr), Bull River (Robert Knott), The Abominable (Dan Simmons), Lost Echoes (Joe Lansdale), Doctor Sleep (Stephen King), Never Go Back (Lee Child), and all three books in the Divergent trilogy (Veronica Roth). I'm currently reading Missing You (Harlan Coben), and my yet-to-be-read stockpile includes The Maze Runner (James Dashner), Fate Is the Hunter (Ernest K. Gann), Mr. Mercedes (Stephen King), Feast Day of Fools (James Lee Burke), and The Last Kind Words Saloon (Larry McMurtry).

Kinsmen and Klansmen

I'm pleased to report that the novel I've read most recently--Greg Iles's Natchez Burning--and the novel I plan to read next--Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which just won the Pulitzer Prize--were both written by authors from my home state of Mississippi. In fact, I consider Iles and Tartt to be two of the very best writers today, here or anyplace else. As I said, I've not yet started on Goldfinch, but I'll tell you, Natchez Burning was as suspenseful and well-written and satisfying as anything I've read in a long time. Members of the Ku Klux Klan are always ultravillainous, and in that book Iles serves up mystery and violence and justice in heaping helpings; Stephen King says, in a cover blurb, "Only a southern man could have written this book, and thank God Greg Iles was there to do the job." Speaking of traveling, that novel didn't require me to go far, even in literary miles: Natchez is less than two hours away. (As for The Goldfinch and the skyrocketing success of Donna Tartt, I'm seriously thinking about changing my last name to Floydd.)

Another intriguing point about Iles's and Tartt's two novels is that they are vastly different in terms of both style and subject matter. Natchez Burning, a fast read even at 800 pages, features nonstop action and packs the surprising consequences of a forty-year-old murder case into a time period of only a couple of days, while The Goldfinch is (said to be) literary to its core, an elegantly written and epic meaning-of-life story of love, sorrow, and obsession in the art world. Opposite poles. But one of the best things about the fascinating universe of writing and publishing, I think, is that both kinds of books and both kinds of authors can excel and succeed. Another is that the same reader can sometimes equally savor, or at least equally appreciate, commercial/popular/genre fiction as well as literary/depressing/mainstream fiction.

A French connection

A quick story. A little over a month ago, our second son was here at our house one night and mentioned that he and our daughter-in-law were planning to go to Paris for ten days, and asked if we'd keep their two kids (ages six and four) while they were gone. We happily agreed--extra time with grandchildren is something we love--and before he left to go home that night he noticed a novel I was currently reading, lying on our breakfast-room table. It was (coincidentally) Paris, by Edward Rutherford. We then talked a little about things I'd already learned from the book--facts about Notre Dame, Montmartre, the Louvre, the construction of the Eiffel Tower, etc.--and I offered to let him borrow it, to read and then take with him on their trip. He did, and said afterward that it added greatly to the experience of seeing the city. I know that my having read it made it more fun for me to watch the photos and movies they e-mailed to us during their time there, and the ones they showed us after returning home. It was as though I had made the trip also. 

A question to my fellow "travelers"

I'll close by asking you this: what novels have you read and enjoyed lately, and what's in your to-be-read stack or your Amazon wish list? And while we're on the subject, what recently-watched movies did you like, and what are some you might be looking forward to, either in your local theatre or in your Netflix queue? I'm always eager to find out about new destinations.

I also continue to make journeys to faraway places in the stories I'm writing. Most are set in locations I've visited in the past, but some are those that are just interesting to me, and that I've come to know better via books about them (and Google Maps).

For readers and writers, a person's imagination (like Walter Mitty's) can be an effective means of conveyance.

Who cares about the price of gas and airfare?


  1. John, I really related to the opening of this column. I, too, have Frequent Flyer miles and hotel points enough to go around the world, but I have no desire to travel except for signings. I do, however, plan to attend Bouchercom in North Carolina next year. I hope to see lots of SSers there.
    Re: Movies and books
    I always loved Thurber's Walter Middy and fully expected to enjoy the movie though loving the original frequently means a disappointment. I did enjoy the movie (but not as much as the story).
    I read MISSING YOU and liked it, though I seldom dislike anything by Harlan Coben or Jeffrey Deaver. I noticed Stephen King's DR. SLEEP in your list. I was very disappointed in this, but then, THE SHINING is such a masterpiece to me that it's a hard act to follow. I'm currently reading MR. MERCEDES and a collection of short stories called KINSEY AND ME.

  2. Fran, I finished Missing You late last night, and thought it was probably the best Coben I've read in a while. The guy is a great plotter, and the final fourth of that book was a rollercoaster ride, wasn't it? And I've decided to postpone starting The Goldfinch--King's Mr. Mercedes is up next for me instead.

    I too plan to make the North Carolina Bouchercon--looking forward to it already.

  3. I love certain kinds of foreign films precisely because it feels to me like they take me on an intimate visit to another place, another people, and sometimes even another time. The recent (2011) French film "The Well-Diggers Daughter" was on the time end of this spectrum, and "Himalaya" (1999) was on the culture end, as was "Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner" (2001).

  4. John,
    Your article made me think not of books I’m reading but one that I want to read and two that I would like to finish.

    I want to reread “War and Peace,” which would be the third time, but I can’t gather the energy to dive into it.

    I would like to finish “Ulysses.” The first time I tried reading it I got to page 10. The second time I made it to page 11. Maybe a third try would push me to page whatever.

    I also want to finish “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Surprisingly, the one time I attempted to read the novel, I made it to page 20 before my eyes felt as if they would pop out of my head, and my head felt like somebody was knocking on the back trying to get out.

  5. I read The Goldfinch several months back -- an incredible read. After finishing it I thought for a while about what made it so great, so compelling. The plot is good but what really propels the book are the characters. They are so real -- some times you want to kick them, but you end up really caring about them. I'm half way through Mr. Mercedes and it is pretty darn good. I think next up for me is The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker which was a runaway hit in Europe and has finally been translated from the original French.

  6. Anon, those are three films I have not watched--thank you for that.

    Louis, I trudged through W&P several years ago (it seemed to take me several years to read it) and I have Ulysses here on my shelf and have not yet been able to finish it. Contrast those classics with the one Fran mentioned (Missing You), which moved so fast I hardly knew I was reading. Harlan Coben is a true master of the suspense novel.

    Dale, you have now made me want to read The Goldfinch even more, if only to learn what has made it so unforgettable to so many folks. And I'm truly looking forward to Mr. Mercedes. I'm rarely disappointed with anything King writes, although I think the best of his recent books remains 11/22/63. That one took my breath away.

  7. I only just noticed that I misspelled Rutherfurd. Sorry, Edward.

  8. John, Season 3 of Longmire has started on A&E, though I caught it a day later on Hulu Plus (but it only appears on my computer, not on the Hulu App. Keeping up with what you can see where is getting as complicated as traveling by air, though not quite as annoying. I'm looking forward to the new season of Orange Is the New Black on Netflix, and the new season of Endeavor on PBS on Sundays this month (and reruns of the first season on Fridays, according to an email I got). PBS is very stingy about replaying shows that have already aired. Recent reads include Jenny Milchman's Ruin Falls, Dana Stabenow's Everything Under the Heavens (the protagonist is Marco Polo's granddaughter), and a helluva lot of books about the Jews and the Ottoman Empire for my new novel. Looking forward to Jane Casey's latest Maeve Kerrigan mystery, JK Rowling's second Cormoran Strike book, and Diana Gabaldon's new entry in the Outlander saga.

  9. Liz, I understand the new season of Orange is the New Black is now available for streaming on Netflix, so I'll probably do an OITNB binge over the next few nights. As for catching the brand-new series releases (like Longmire) on regular TV, I often intentionally wait until they come out in streaming or DVD because I'm so used to the convenience of watching them straight through without having to wait for the next week's episodes. Ain't technology great?

  10. This summer, so far, I've been reading my way through Anna Zeroudi's Greek mysteries with the fat man detective; Patrick Taylor's novels about an Irish country doctor; Lady Gregory on Irish Country Folk Tales; a couple of Donna Leon's mysteries I hadn't read yet; and a new old Maigret. I think I'm going to have to read "The Goldfinch at some point."

    Re Netflix binges, we watched "Desperate Romantics" about the Pre-Raphaelites which sadly (you can tell I'm growing old) was more sex than art, but very athletic... and "Anglo-Saxon Attitudes", another British mini-series that was GREAT. Also, I can really recommend "The Great Beauty" about Rome and the last of the La Dolce Vita set. A very interesting movie called "Certified Copy" - French, with a mystery as to what really is going on in it. Anonymous, "The Fast Runner" is so good that we bought it.

  11. Eve -- Thanks for the recommendations. I have more books in my stockpile than I can manage right now, but I'm off to plug those movies into my Netflix queue.

  12. Want to see Wichita, Kansas? Gaylord Dold's first three novels about P.I. Mitch Roberts are set here in the '50's. I bummed through the books checking out the local color! By the way, Dold is a movie fan, and named his P.I. after Robert Mitchum.

  13. Okay, Jeff, I gotta check those out. Thanks! Mitch Roberts--I love the name.

    I can see it now--my secret agent should be Conn Seannery.

  14. How about "Sean Moore?" ("Lazenby Brosnan" probably wouldn't work!)

  15. I sort of like "Bake Jeffer."


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