Monday, March 30, 2015

Garfield's slow death

Four American presidents have died at the hands of assassins, but all the books seem to be written about just two of them, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.  Scores of books have been written about these tragic events, and more continue to be published each year. But when is the last time you've seen a book about the assassination of William F. McKinley?

Thanks to Candice Millard, one of our very best writers to focus on American history for a general audience, we have the 2011 book Destiny of the Republic about the murder of James Garfield. Her book is so good, perhaps we won't need 50 or 100 more books on the same subject.

Charles Guiteau, thoroughly mad, pulled the trigger and ultimately died for his crime, yet it was Garfeld's doctors, not Guiteau, who actually killed the president, Millard writes. The bullet wound was serious enough for that day (1881), but it was hardly fatal. It had missed all vital organs, and Garfield could have survived and lived a long life if the bullet had simply been ignored. Plenty of Civil War veterans were walking around with similar bullets in similar places in their bodies. But this was the president of the United States, and the doctors determined the bullet must come out. Cleaning their hands and instruments before poking around in his body was never a priority, however.

In 1881, the existence of bacteria remained a controversial idea in the medical world. A man with the unlikely name of Dr. Doctor Bliss appointed himself head of the medical team and, over a period of several weeks repeatedly assaulted Garfield's body, creating a bacteria-filled cavity to where he believed the bullet must surely rest. Later an autopsy found the bullet on the other side of Garfield's body. The infection killed the president.

The inventor Alexander Graham Bell plays a key role in Millard's story. Bell worked long hours to perfect his induction balance machine capable of finding a bullet in a body. Despite technical problems, the device would have worked, but Dr. Bliss would allow Bell to test only the side of Garfield's body where he was convinced the bullet was located, not the side where it actually was.

The president's slow death accomplished something other than inspiring Bell's invention. It united the  country more than anything that had happened since the Civil War. North and South, blacks and whites ... everyone loved James Garfield.

The long dying also gave Chester Arthur, Garfield's vice president, time to mature to the point he was ready for the presidency when it finally fell to him. As vice president, Arthur had been Roscoe Conkling's man, not Garfield's. Conkling favored the spoils system, handing out government jobs on the basis of connections rather than merit. Arthur had never gotten a job on the basis of merit in his life and doubted his ability to do just about anything, let alone the presidency. Millard tells how he rose to the task, thanks to advice from a woman he didn't even know.

Like Millard's previous book, The River of Doubt, about Theodore Roosevelt's nearly-fatal South American adventure, Destiny of the Republic makes compulsive reading. More books have been written about the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, but few of those books have been the equal of this one.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Real men, ugly jackets and chain bookstores

Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, a novel about lives built around books and reading, contains several lines worth a comment.

Her mother likes to say that novels have ruined Amelia for real men.

I once wrote a newspaper column, somewhat controversial, in which I suggested romantic novels serve a function for women similar to that which soft core porn or even the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue serves for men. They provide an idealized version of the opposite sex. In real life, women are rarely as beautiful as SI and Playboy models and men are rarely as dashing or heroic as the men in fiction. Amelia's mother may be on to something.

You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question, What is your favorite book?

I don't really believe this, at least not literally. Certainly a person's reading can be revealing. I like looking at the bookshelves in people's homes for clues about them. Book choices reveal a lot, but they hardly tell the whole story.

"Finally, a nice-looking jacket is important. I don't want to spend any length of time with an ugly jacket."

When reading a book, especially a good book, I usually close it at intervals simply to admire the cover. I don't know why that is, but it seems to say something about the importance of cover designs, not just when buying a book but also when reading. We like holding beautiful objects in our hands.

From his of view, the only thing worse than a world with big chain bookstores was a world with NO big chain bookstores.

These are the thoughts of the owner of a small bookstore. I agree. Large bookstores may be crowded and impersonal, staffed by people who know little about books. Yet they get a lot of books into the hands of readers, many of whom may never set foot in a small, private bookstore.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A life made of stories

Perhaps our lives aren't really novels, as we might suppose. Perhaps they are short story collections. That suggestion comes through Gabrielle Zevin's popular novel published last year, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

The title character runs a small bookshop on a small island in New England. Short story collections don't sell well in his store, as in most other bookshops, but he favors stories, so he stocks them anyway. Zevin cleverly uses famous short stories, like "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," as chapter titles, the theme of the stories relating somehow with what's going on in Fikry's life at the time.

The novel opens with Fikry at 39, recently widowed and in a foul mood. Amelia Loman, 31, a publisher's rep, chooses this day of all days to visit Fikry and try to get him to order some books from her company's new catalog. It does not go well.

Yet there are other stories in Fikry's life. A woman leaves her toddler in the bookshop, then commits suicide. Fikry, deciding that since he is good at gift-wrapping books he ought to be able handle diapers, elects to adopt the girl, called Maya. He owns a valuable first edition of a book by Edgar Allan Poe, which is stolen from his store. The island's police chief becomes a friend after these two incidents and also develops into one of Fikry's best customers. The bookseller eventually gets another chance with Amelia and this time makes a good impression, ultimately leading to marriage. Maya grows up and thinks of becoming a writer. Fikry develops a rare cancer likely to prove fatal.

Some of the stories in the life of A.J. Fikry may seem a bit manufactured or contrived. I seemed to enjoy the first half of the book more than the second half. Yet it is a hard book not to like, or even to love, especially if you love books as much as the characters in this novel love books.

Monday, March 23, 2015

No wordplay in 'Wordplay'

Amelia groans. "That is truly an awful wordplay."
Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Amelia isn't reviewing Glenn Bassett's book Wordplay, but she could be. It is truly awful.

Amelia, in fact, makes reference to what we usually think of when we hear the word wordplay, a pun. They are eating at a restaurant with a Moby Dick theme when A.J. Fikry suggests "a whale of a sundae" for dessert. It is not entirely clear what Bassett, a retired social psychology professor, means by the term, but it isn't puns. At one point he writes, "Advertising is word play." Later he mentions word play in reference to economists.

He begins his book by talking about how important language is simply for being human and for interacting with other humans. "Without words, we remain beasts," he says. Then he goes on to discuss the importance of language in various contexts, such as politics, science and philosophy. By wordplay (or word play, he doesn't seem sure which) he apparently means the use of language in general.

So language is vital to human culture. Bassett writes a difficult book, albeit with mostly simple sentences, to make that rather obvious point.

Not that the author doesn't have some interesting things to say. I liked when he describes baseball as "nothing more than vigorous activity as long as there are no words to describe it." I appreciate the line, "The written word sits patiently until it is discovered and read." I was intrigued by his sentence, "Much of what is accepted as knowledge and wisdom is invented reality." Yes, he does provoke some thought along the way, but readers must dig hard to find such gems. I'm not sure they're worth the effort.

Friday, March 20, 2015

So wise, so gentle

... the African lady detective who was so smart, so wise, so gentle, and so patient that she made Nelson Mandela look bad.
Ian Sansom, The Bad Book Affair

When Alexander McCall Smith appeared in Clearwater, Fla., several years ago, he hinted he was thinking of introducing Clovis Andersen as a character in a future installment in his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels. Andersen's name has appeared in every book in the series, but never as an actual character. He is the American author of The Principles of Private Detection, the book Precious Ramotswe uses as her bible in the detective agency she started in Botswana with the money left to her by her father. Whenever she finds herself at a loss as to what to do, she consults this book.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, published in 2012, is the novel Smith had in mind when I heard him speak in Clearwater to an overflow crowd. (I was a part of the overflow, sitting on the library floor.) Andersen, traveling as he mourns the loss of his wife, happens to wind up in Botswana, where he makes a courtesy call on the little detective agency with the unusual name. He has never dreamed that anyone, especially someone as far away from Indiana as Botswana, would be taking his guide, which has never sold many copies, so seriously.

Soon Clovis Andersen joins Mma Ramotswe as she probes two cases that strike close to home. Mma Potokwane, who has managed  the orphan farm so ably for so many years, has been dismissed from her job by a member of her board whose interests seem to be something other than the welfare of orphan children.

Then Fanwell, one of her husband's young apprentices at Speedy Motors, moonlights as a mechanic for a former classmate, then gets arrested and charged with being part of a stolen-car gang. Mma Potokwane and Fanwell may not be paying clients, but rescuing them, with a little help from Clovis Andersen, becomes her focus in this novel, another winner for the series.

The above Ian Sansom quotation is actually meant as a putdown. Sansom's main character, Israel Armstrong, is a literary snob who remembers with displeasure some of the audio books he has been forced to listen to as he travels about Northern Ireland in the mobile library driven by Ted, whose literary tastes are very different from his own. These include a Harry Potter book, Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong and an unnamed installment in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

Armstrong's description of Precious Ramotswe as being so smart, so wise, so gentle, so patient seems to be in the spirit of children who refer to one of their number as a goody-two-shoes. Many of us tend not to like those who seem morally superior to ourselves. We may prefer fictional detectives who drink too much, smoke too much, have sex with the wrong people and are too quick to use their fists. Their flaws make them seem more human.

Yet Mma Ramotswe strikes me as every bit as human as any of the tough guys. Hardly perfect, she drinks way too much tea and has allowed herself to become "traditionally built." Smith's books about her may not be great literature, but they are good literature that reminds us that kindness and caring can work wonders, even in the detective business.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The other side of the story

Imagine if Vladimir Nabokov, having already written one novel from the point of view of Humbert Humbert had written another from the point of view of Delores, the girl we know as Lolita. Or suppose Mark Twain, after giving Huck's version of the raft trip down the Mississippi, had followed that with Jim's version. Would these second novels have been simply retellings of the first or entirely different stories?

Rachel Joyce doesn't make us wonder. She has followed her successful novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry with The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, the story from the other perspective.

In the first novel, Harold Fry is a 65-year-old retiree who gets a letter from a woman he used to work with. Queenie Hennessy tells him she is dying of cancer in a hospice in the northern part of England. Harold immediately writes a note to her, tells his wife he is going out to mail it and sets out walking. Instead of mailing the letter, however, he keeps on walking, deciding that as long as he walks toward Queenie, she will continue to live.

The new novel finds Queenie, after hearing about Harold's odd pilgrimage, struggling to hang on because she thinks of Harold, though he doesn't know it, as the love of her life. While he walks, she composes her letter for him to read when he arrives, her confession of her love.

The earlier novel hints of a relationship between Queenie and David,  Harold's son. This novel provides the details. David, though a brilliant boy, is deeply troubled. He steals from Queenie, lies to her, humiliates her and imposes himself on her when she'd rather be alone, yet she puts up with him only because he is Harold's son. She has never, until now, told Harold about even knowing David.

While Queenie thinks back on her life and her unrequited love (although Harold's long walk suggests it is not entirely unrequited), she also tells about life and death in the hospice. There is a stirring passage where other patients vow to stay alive and, like Queenie, wait for Harold to arrive. Sadly, the others don't make it. Yet Queenie, the woman who loves him, does.

I liked the earlier novel better, but I'm glad Joyce gave us readers the other side of the story, for it turns out to be entirely different.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Inscribed by the author

At the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair in St. Petersburg last Saturday, I was admiring the array of signed first editions in one of the booths when I entered into a conversation with the dealer. She told of the difficulties faced in acquiring all those signed copies. The difficulties lie not in getting the books themselves but in getting the signatures by living authors. Whenever an author of note comes to their city, they strive to get as many signatures as they can. Sometimes they travel to other cities or make arrangements with booksellers in those cities to get the signatures they desire. On rare occasions, she said, they will mail a book to the author to get a signature, the problem being to know for sure the signature is actually that of the author.

As she was talking, the phrase "penny-wise, pound-foolish" came to mind. Are not book dealers, by building up inventories of so many signed books, deflating the value of the very books they are trying to sell at inflated prices?

A signature of the author can enhance the value of a book, yet other factors are also important. Is it a first edition? Does it still have a dust jacket? What kind of condition is it in? And then there is the matter of supply and demand. How many similar copies are out there and how many people want them? At the book fair Saturday I saw a three-volume first edition of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, with an asking prices of $30,000. Were it signed by Jane Austen, it might be priceless, but it is still worth a lot because of its rarity.

Over the past number of years, virtually every bookshop has brought in authors for book signings. Customers who buy the book can get it signed for free. Sometimes, if they buy a book, they can bring in copies of books they already own to have signed, too. (That's how dealers like the one mentioned above can get so many signed copies.) Popular authors may sign dozens, even hundreds, of their books each day on book tours. Literary festivals and book fairs are also places where many books get signed.

I have never counted how many signed books I own, but there must be scores of them. Are any of them worth more than I paid for them? Probably not. Few are first editions, and those that are are mostly books nobody collects by authors few people have heard of. I have two signed books in front of me, both paperbacks. On the title page of Emily, Alone, novelist Steward O'Nan wrote, "These quiet moments alone, with much hope." Inside Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter wrote to me, "One of my former tribe," a reference to the fact that we were both journalists in our former lives. These inscriptions mean something to me, but they aren't going to make my son rich when he inherits my books someday.

Were I famous, that might be different, however. Sometimes who owned the book can be more significant than who wrote it. A catalog I picked up Saturday includes a listing for a first edition of a book called Recollections of a Baseball Junkie by former sportscaster Art Rust Jr, signed by the  author. Why would this book be worth $850? Not because Rust signed it but because he inscribed it to Joe DiMaggio. The book comes with a letter from DiMaggio's granddaughters attesting that it was actually found in the slugger's library. That makes it one of a kind and worth something to baseball collectors and DiMaggio fans. Most of the many signed volumes at the fair last weekend are better books by better authors, but with so many other books out there, the same books signed by the same authors, they are, in most cases, worth much less. And many of them are going to be worth less and less all the time as their authors keep signing more books.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The books that shaped our lives

Most of us retain a certain nostalgic affection for our first books, those read to us when we were small children and those we read ourselves when we were a few years older. Roy Peter Clark of Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., took these warm feelings to the extreme. He decided to form a library of all the books he remembers as being important to him during his formative years, "from cradle to college." His collection, now complete, includes some 300 books.

Clark seems like the ideal choice to lead a discussion called "The Secrets of Formative Reading" yesterday afternoon at Poynter Institute. Thirty or 40 people gathered to listen to him talk about the important books from his youth and to share something about the books that influenced their own lives.

Among the books Clark spoke about were Mr. Blue by Myles Connolly, a book familiar to many Catholic school students of his generation; My Greatest Day in Baseball, a beloved book given to him by his uncle; Nuremberg Diaries by G.M. Gilbert, a book he thinks he may have stolen in his youth; Parnassus on Wheels, a classic by Christopher Morley; and Assignment in Space by Blake Savage, the pen name of Hal Goodwin. Clark said the most difficult book to find was one with the generic title of Children's Stories. Yet he tracked it down, recognizing it by the cover illustration he remembers from his childhood.

One woman, now a teacher, still has the worn copy of Bunnicula she read repeatedly as a child three decades ago. She told of getting the author, James Howe, to sign it for her in 2011 and how much that meant to her.

Two women had copies of A Wrinkle in Time with them. Other attendees spoke of The Velveteen Rabbit, Dan Frontier and Travels with Charley.

One of my most vivid memories of my youthful reading finds me stretched out on my bed glued to Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. As I remember that day, I just couldn't turn the pages fast enough. I reread the novel decades later and found the story hardly stirred me at all. I guess that illustrates what Clark said about books changing as we change. And sometimes it is the books themselves that change us.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Filling in the blanks

In an author's note at the end of The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, author Melanie Benjamin writes, "I believe that every novel is either a mystery, a tragedy, or a love story -- some are all three -- and it became clear to me that this is a love story."

The key figures in the love story in her 2011 novel are not, as one might suppose, Lavinia Bump (or Vinnie Warren, as she called herself) and General Tom Thumb, one of the most famous couples in America during the Civil War and for a number of years afterward. No, the love of Vinnie's life, as Benjamin tells the story, is P.T. Barnum, the show business impresario of the period who discovered Tom Thumb and soon incorporated Vinnie, and later her even smaller sister, Minnie, into the act. Barnum, not the General, is the one man whom she can speak frankly with and pour her heart out to. Vinnie and her husband are never particularly close, except on the stage. He remains at heart ever a child, while she, despite her size, is very much a woman.

Tragedy haunts this story, as well, when Minnie dies in childbirth. Later Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) dies, from shame in Benjamin's telling, after a hotel fire..

Yet the novel also offers mystery, the mystery being how much of this tale is true and how much is fiction. As she did in Alice I Have Been, her novel about Alice Liddell (Lewis Carroll's inspiration for Alice in Wonderland), Benjamin fills in the blanks left by biographers. And there are always blanks, sometimes significant blanks.

Vinne really did write an autobiography, but it has little to say about her personal life, her motivations or her passions, and certainly nothing about her feelings for either her husband or Barnum. Benjamin has a gift for reading between the lines and inventing plausible explanations for what the biographers can tell us.

She has also written a novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, The Aviator's Wife, which I am eager to read to see how she fills in the blanks in that life.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Slow Motion

The New World, Andrew Motion's second sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, reminds me somehow of the chase scene near the end of Robert Altman's Popeye. I rather like the movie as a whole, but I have fallen asleep at least twice during that chase scene, which involves slow-moving boats. The frantic actions and speech of the characters on the boats are apparently supposed to provide the tension, but it just doesn't work. I fall asleep, or wish I could, whenever I watch the last 20 minutes of the movie.

Motion's novel is mostly one long chase, mostly in slow motion. Jim and Natty, offspring of the two key Treasure Island characters, survive the loss of their ship on the Gulf Coast of Texas, but they are soon captured by a band of Indians. Led back to the Indian village, they expect to be killed in the most painful way they can imagine. With a little help, they manage to escape, but not before stealing a silver necklace from Black Cloud, the chief.

Jim and Natty take off across the American frontier with Black Cloud in pursuit. They take refuge with a peaceful tribe, join a group of entertainers heading west (in 1805?) and eventually climb aboard a boat floating down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Black Cloud follows them all the way.

The novel has its moments, yet for an adventure tale it is surprisingly easy to put down. At least it didn't put me to sleep.

Friday, March 6, 2015

How to teach writing

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was a successful writing teacher before he became a successful writer. Usually it works the other way around. Writers gain critical success, but usually not financial success, so they supplement their incomes by teaching in creative writing programs. They teach relatively few classes, leaving themselves plenty of time to do their own writing.

When Vonnegut was offered a job as a writer-in-residence at the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1965, he was still considered mostly a hack writer of science fiction short stories. He had written some novels, but few people had read them. Novelist Nelson Algren, not Vonnegut, was considered the star of the workshop faculty. Yet Vonnegut soon became the more popular instructor, both because he was a good teacher and because he was simply a lot more fun than Algren and others on the faculty. Among his students at Iowa were future novelists John Irving, James Crumley, Nicholas Meyer and Gail Godwin.

Vonnegut developed some definite ideas about how to run a successful writing program, ideas that strike me as pretty good.

First, he favored weeding out those students who, however much they may wish to be writers, simply don't have what it takes. I myself was weeded out of the applicants for the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1966, while Vonnegut was teaching there. I must admit I deserved to be weeded out. Despite one published short story, I really didn't have the skills to be a successful writer of fiction.  Few applicants for creative writing programs do. Why waste their time and money?

Second, writing programs need to last at least two years for them to be of any use to developing writers.

Third, Vonnegut thought it vital that instructors not just focus on the short story. Short stories, although hardly easy to write, nevertheless can be written in a relatively brief amount of time so that a student might be able to produce several stories in a semester. They are short enough to be read and discussed in class, and they put less demand on the time of instructors, who must read and grade them all.

Yet today relatively few short stories get published and few people actually read them. Vonnegut thought writing programs should also encourage the writing of novels, poetry, essays, plays, scenarios for television and movies and other kinds of writing. Of course, not all writing teachers feel qualified to teach and grade all these forms. Vonnegut, who had written stories, novels, essays, plays and even news articles was probably more versatile than most of his colleagues.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Bad books

The plot of Ian Sansom's novel The Bad Book Affair revolves around librarian Israel Armstrong's loan of Philip Roth's American Pastoral to a 14-year-old girl, who disappears the next day. Roth's novel is the "bad book" of the title. It is one of the many books called the Unshelved, those kept under the counter only for adult readers who specifically ask for them. The girl's father, Israel's boss and even the local police wonder if Israel, by letting the girl check out the book, is somehow responsible for her disappearance.

Of course, that's just silly. The girl later admits she didn't even read the book. Still the furor gives Israel a reason to play detective and allows Sansom to have a little fun with what some people might consider to be "bad books." Among books kept under the counter by the library board are As I Lay Dying, Brave New World, Bridge to Terabithia, Carrie, Catch-22, The Chocolate War, The Handmaid's Tale, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Slaughterhouse-Five, most considered classics and a couple of them even intended for young readers. Israel thinks it's outrageous to keep such books out of the hands of teenagers.

Yet Sansom adds a subtle twist to the narrative about bad books when he has Israel himself make sarcastic comments about some of the books his library patrons and Ted, the driver of the mobile library, choose to read. A true literary snob, Israel has little use for the Harry Potter books, among many others. In the eyes of some, genre novels or anything else not meeting the highest standards are "bad books."

One side applies a high moral standard to books, the other a high artistic standard. In either case, those who designate something a "bad book" may not have even read it.

I would not argue that there is no such thing as a "bad book." If a book can be good, it can also be bad. Yet it can be a mistake to keep books under the counter, so to speak, for either reasons of morality or taste. Exceptions may be made where children are concerned, however. Schools, especially at the secondary and college levels, need to encourage the reading of quality literature. They also need to make choices about which books might be too offensive for young readers. Such choices are never easy, nor should they be.

I spoke with a former school librarian at a supermarket last week. When she noticed I was wearing a Sports Illustrated sweatshirt, she commented that she always hid the swimsuit edition when it arrived. If a brave boy asked about it, she said she would tell him it must have gotten lost in the mail. I would not condone the lie, but was she wrong to hide the swimsuit edition? Might it have caused undue commotion among the schoolboys? Would it have corrupted anyone? Would it have harmed the schoolgirls in any way? We might disagree on where to draw the line, but whether we are talking about American Pastoral or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, we should respect those librarians and educators entrusted to make the right call for their communities.

Monday, March 2, 2015

A mystery for book lovers

If The Bad Book Affair, published in 2009, turns out to be the last of Ian Sansom's Mobile Library mysteries, it makes a terrific conclusion to a terrific series. As Sansom began a new series with the publication of The Norfolk Mystery in 2013, this probably is the series finale.

Calling the four novels in the Mobile Library series mysteries seems a bit of an overstatement, for nobody is murdered in any of the books. Crimes, when there are any, prove minor. Still, Israel Armstrong, a book-loving young Jewish man from London stuck against his will in a job as a mobile librarian in Northern Ireland, gets a chance to play detective in each novel. In one, the library's books are missing. In another, the bookmobile itself is missing. In the other two, individuals go missing.

In The Bad Book Affair, it is a 14-year-old girl named Lyndsey Morris who disappears. Because this happens soon after Israel allows her to check out one of the Unshelved books, both the girl's father and Israel's boss blame him for the disappearance. The Unshelved are books, mostly respected works of literary fiction, considered too mature for young readers. Thus, they are kept under the counter until a patron asks to see them. Lyndsey borrows a novel by Philip Roth. Israel, who likes placing good books in the hands of young readers, sees nothing wrong with what he's done, but others do. He even gets pulled in for questioning by the police. Then he does some investigating on his own.

Sansom's books are more comic novels than mysteries. The conversations -- and the stories consist mostly of conversations -- are priceless. Yet these novels, at their core, are really about literature and about the reading life. Most mystery fans won't like them, but most bibliophiles will.