You can't argue too much with the premise of Martin Amis' new novel: ``Sexual intercourse, I should point out, has two unique characteristics. It is indescribable. And it peoples the world. We shouldn't find it surprising, then, that it is much on everyone's mind.''
True enough, but is anyone obsessed enough to follow patiently the tiresome carnal mystery around which Amis has built The Pregnant Widow? The novel opens with the promise of putting the shifts in sexual politics into some sort of comic perspective -- always a good idea, especially from as sharp a stylist as Amis -- but eventually bogs down in repetitive speculation about who will sleep with whom and when and how and why. It's often well written and sometimes provocative. But in other ways, it's more juvenile than Amis' first novel, The Rachel Papers, about almost-20-year-old Charles Highway, an Oxford hopeful obsessed with a girl. Somehow, reading about the sexual insecurities of an almost-teenager is less taxing than wading through the self-indulgent, impotent fears of a 50something man.
But Keith Nearing, the thrice-married, middle-aged hero of The Pregnant Widow, was also 20 once, back in 1970 when he spent a summer in an Italian castle. Amis reports slyly on the zeitgeist of that era, which so indelibly shaped Keith and his friends (and probably the 60-year-old Amis):
``The Me Decade wasn't called the Me Decade until 1976. In the summer of 1970 they were only six months into it; but they could all be pretty sure that the 1970s was going to be a me decade. This was because all decades were now me decades. There has never been anything that could possibly be called a you decade; technically speaking, you decades (back in the feudal night) would have been known as thou decades.''
In 1970, Keith -- clever, bookish, an aspiring writer who ``occupied that much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven'' -- has a girlfriend, Lily, but their bond is more suited to siblings than to lovers. A problem, then. Another: Lily's best friend Scheherazade, a formerly unprepossessing blonde, has blossomed into a stunner and much occupies Keith's mind.
Sometime during the summer at the castle -- which hosts a somewhat confusing cast of transient characters -- Keith will experience a sexual trauma, though not in the sense we tend to think of sexual traumas. ``He was by any definition an adult, and he consented -- he comprehensively consented,'' our unnamed narrator assures us. ``It was the opposite of torture, yet it twisted. It ruined him for twenty-five years.''
That set-up is intriguing, but the revelation as to who and what unhinged Keith for most of his adult life is a long time coming, and when it arrives it's somewhat disappointing. How could it not be? What is earth-shattering to a 20-year-old isn't particularly shocking when you're 50, although present-day segments of the book indicate that Keith still frets about the past. (His coy references to the ``sinister refinement,'' as he calls the highlight of the life-changing moment, grow tedious fast, especially since the sex act -- once you realize what he's talking about -- isn't particularly sinister.)
Amis is a terrific comic writer, and many of his observations are amusingly relevant. As he reads the great romantic works of English literature all summer, Keith realizes halfway through Jane Austen's Emma that the rules of love have altered considerably. Emma takes an awfully long time to realize that Mr. Knightley is her heart's desire, but ``in 1970, you could no longer love subliminally: the conscious mind worked full-time on love or what used to be love.'' Graduates of the me decade may think they love you, but they care most about themselves.
Amis' body of work is of such magnitude that anything he writes deserves investigation. In such masterful novels as London Fields, Time's Arrow, Money and The Information, he has demonstrated he's one of the world's best novelists. But The Pregnant Widow feels like an aberration, too slight to make an impact. It's not even as pointed as Amis' unfairly criticized satire Yellow Dog. He's covering well-saturated territory here. This book is enough to make one think: Badly done, Mr. Amis. Badly done.
The formula for Lee Child's compulsively addictive action thrillers is simple: With a few variations, former military cop Jack Reacher wanders into a town, finds himself in the middle of some ticking time bomb of a situation, chooses a side and kicks major ass.
In 61 Hours, Reacher is on a bus that breaks down in a small town in South Dakota, where he becomes embroiled in a battle between drug dealers and the sheriff's department. The cops are trying to protect an elderly witness to a drug sale, but their responsibility to the local prison impedes their efforts. Reacher being Reacher, he offers to guard the woman. Bad luck for the bad guys. But there's more going on than just a drug war, and Child deepens the mystery considerably, providing an explosive climax that will have you tearing out your hair until Reacher's next appearance.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the final installment of the late Larsson's Millennium trilogy, which arrives in bookstores Tuesday, is a bittersweet treat. Picking up precisely where The Girl Who Played With Fire ends, it wastes no time charging headlong into the electrifying story Larsson began in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The past is fully confronted; the bad guys are finally vanquished. And the book's perfect final pages are guaranteed to make your heart ache more than a little.
Funny to call this dark and violent series moving. But Larsson's deft characterizations of crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander are so compelling that the realization that this book marks the end of their literary travels is crushing. Larsson, who died in 2004, created a mesmerizing series that not only tackled ugly subjects -- the sexual abuse of women, the dangers of fanatical secret factions within the government -- but also featured tangled and surprising plots that roar with life and imagination.
But Blomkvist and Salander make his books so popular, particularly Salander, surely one of the best and most riveting characters ever committed to the page. She barely survived the events of the last book and in Hornet's Nest, she spends much of her time in a hospital bed, which means she's forced to trust Blomkvist, to whom she still refuses to speak. (Amazingly, though she can't get around, the action never wavers.) Salander also contemplates her need for vengeance. Retaliation is as natural to her as hacking into your bank account; can she learn that she isn't necessarily always the right person to dispense justice?
The book slows down a bit during an early, lengthy passage about the Swedish secret service, but otherwise Larsson's story flows without a hitch. Saying goodbye to these characters we've come to love is hard. But this miraculous series is worth any sorrow we may feel at its end.
Mary Robison joins some fine company - Eudora Welty, Amy Hempel, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates - by winning the Rea Award for the Short Story. The 61-year-old author of books including Days, Believe Them, Why Did I Ever and most recently the novel One D.O.A., One on the Way - which was chosen for Oprah's Book Club in 2009 - will receive $30,000.
Judges Hempel, Andrea Barrett and Jayne Anne Phillips applauded Robison's stories for "their lean, cool ferocity and their wry takes on people in pivotal moments.''
Robison now teaches at the University of Florida. And so we say: Go, Gator.
``The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order by Joan Wickersham. . . . Stark and intense, the book reveals Wickersham's struggle to understand her father's suicide. The author gifts us with a read so present, so authentic, that I felt as though I walked beside Wickersham on her painful journey. It's a stark and haunting memoir.''
RANDY SUSAN MEYERS, author of The Murderer's Daughters
Meyers appears at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center, 11155 SW 112th Ave., Miami. Admission is $10.
This week Sebastian Junger's book about about his experiences embedded with a battalion in Afghanistan hits shelves, and though I'm not usually a big reader of war stories, this one has me intrigued. Junger, as I'm sure you recall, is the journalist who wrote the bestselling The Perfect Storm (and, along with Jon Krakauer and Into Thin Air, sparked a renewed interest in what you might call adventure nonfiction).
War, writes columnist Fred Grimm in his review, is "harrowing."
"The war of Junger's title isn't the war debated in Congress or strategized in the Pentagon," he writes. "Junger doesn't proffer geo-political ramifications, historic themes or policy critiques. His book gets at the harsh, sweaty, bloody, fearful essence of war experienced by infantrymen far down the chain of command."
Click here to read the review.
Still certain that ebooks aren't the wave of the future? Accept reality. Sony's Reader Store hit a milestone this week: It sold its 10 millionth book (Dan Brown's Digital Fortress was no. 10 million, if you must know).
And if you were lucky to have downloaded a book on May 5, you'll get a $10 credit for a future purchase.
Sony was also kind enough to send me a list of its top 10 downloaded books, which I appreciate, but honestly, no. 1 just gives me the heebie jeebies:
1. The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown
2. I, Alex Cross, James Patterson
3. Breaking Dawn, Stephenie Meyer
4. Eclipse, Stephenie Meyer
5. The Help, Katherine Stockett
6. Twilight, Stephenie Meyer
7. New Moon, Stephenie Meyer
8. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
9. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
10. The Last Song, Nicholas Sparks
If you haven't seen it yet, you might want to read this story from The Orlando Sentinel about a mom from Longwood, FL., who refused to return several Gossip Girl books to Lake Mary library because she objected to their "racy" content.
Tina Harden returned the books Thursday - she'd held them since 2008 - and says she made her point (now that she's fielding media requests, of course). She wants the library to waive the $85 fine. What, $85 is too much to spend for your principles? Follow the rules, Ms. Harden, and pay up. You'll look more committed (and like more of a fan of reading).
But parents, help me out here: You absolutely have the right to veto what your kids read. But why do you get to decide what other kids should read? Shouldn't that be up to their parents? I just will never understand this. (Also, on a side note, I am pretty sure reading Gossip Girl isn't what leads teenagers to smoke pot or have sex, though that's just a guess on my part. Perhaps based on the fact that I read The Exorcist at 12, and it didn't make me want to be possessed by Satan.)