I had enough sense to stop reading “The Last Apocalypse: Europe at the Year 1000 A.D.” by James Reston, Jr., after about 30 pages. Not that I would say that this is a bad book (it may be very good), but in reading about a Danish invasion of England in the 10th century, I realized that I really didn’t care who won, and certainly wasn’t interested in all of the characters with the strange names about whom Reston was writing. (I chose to look at this book in the first place, because I really liked Reston’s “Warriors of God”, dealing with the Crusade of Richard the Lionhearted and the Muslim leader, Saladin – but this was just a topic I was more interested in.)
But there were two other books that I have recently finished reading that I could just as easily have, and probably should have, stopped reading well before the final page. I am not sure why I kept reading them.
First, was Martin Amis’ “Einstein’s Monsters”, a book containing five short stories loosely grouped around nuclear power and armament, and preceded by an essay on the possibility (probability?) of nuclear war and the lunacy of nuclear weapons. The book was published in 1987, when Amis was in his late 30s. His essay on nuclear war was, I thought, quite well written and quite clever. But the stories themselves, with one exception were not very good. And very forgettable. The one story that I think was worth reading is “Insight at Flame Lake”. It’s the story of a young teenager, suffering from schizophrenia, whose father (he was a nuclear engineer – this is the connection with the theme) dies and who goes to live, at least for the summer, with his uncle and their family. The story has alternating segments – excerpts from the diaries of the uncle and the teenager – which show the different perspectives that two people can have of the same occurrences, and how each can be misreading the feelings of the other. Reading the diaries of the uncle (how well the boy is doing) and the nephew (fighting his various demons) does open your eyes to shifting views of reality.
Second, was Robert Olen Butler’s novel, “They Whisper”. I had never read anything by Butler and because I saw that this book (or at least parts of the book) was set in metropolitan St. Louis (Butler’s home town), I thought I’d give it a try. It turned out to be a stream of consciousness memory of the narrator’s love life, from the girl he saw nude in high school but was too embarrassed to talk to, to his early loves (and he fell in love very easily) in college, the girls he met in Vietnam, and Fiona, whom he married but whose childhood experience of sexual molestation robbed her of mental stability and led to her [[SPOILER ALERT] presumed suicide. It’s an NR-17 rated book, well (but over-) written, and it just gets tiring. Why did I persevere? Perhaps because I did want to see what was going to happen to Fiona – I knew she was no longer around, but was not sure exactly why.