By Steve Donoghue
For reasons that have always completely eluded me, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, author of such works as “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and “The Man in the High Castle,” garnered a devoted fan following during his career and has maintained that following since his death in 1982. One such die-hard fan I knew used to read through the whole of Dick’s body of work every single year. Sometimes it was literally all he read in a given year.
This gave a somewhat cramped feeling to our book-related conversations, as you might imagine. During those chats, I did my best to steer the conversation onto relatively shared areas, but it wasn’t easy. One day my patience slipped and I showed him a bit of my exasperation with what I freely admit I considered a waste of a reading life.
“For Pete’s sake, don’t you ever get tired of this one author?” I asked him. “I mean, don’t you ever want a break?”
“Oh sure, sometimes I do,” he said. “If I get tired of late Dick, for instance, and I need to take a break, I change things up. I read some early Dick.”
The weird concentration baffled me then and baffles me still, but at least one thing I understood completely: that need to switch things up. I read all day long every day, so I’m very familiar with the need for palate cleansers.
That’s the term some readers use for the interstitial books that reset your reading meter after some deep or major reading exertion, and the term intends no insults: it isn’t calling the deep or major books boring, and it’s not calling the palate cleansers cheap or shallow. The key is the difference, the radical difference in tone or matter.
Just recently, for instance, I read a slim but intensely detailed book by Biblical scholar Israel Knohl called “The Messiah Connection,” in which he argues that in the New Testament story of the trial and execution of Jesus, the heart of the story wasn’t Jews versus Jesus but actually Jews versus Jews. According to Knohl’s research, the crucial conflict was between the Pharisees, who held a traditional view of the coming Messiah as a grand figure of godlike power, and the Saducees, who held a radically different view – not of the Jewish law of their time or the ministry of Jesus, but of the Scriptural predictions of what the Messiah would be like. In Knohl’s telling, the Sadducees won this intrafaith wrangle, with one seemingly minor piece of collateral damage being a Jewish preacher named Jesus.
It’s a quietly brilliant book. I had a wonderful time wrestling with it and then pondering Knohl’s research. But it was a workout of a book, short as it was, and it left me very much in the mood for a palate cleanser. For me, there are certain common principles of all palate cleansers: they have to be short, they have to be relatively undemanding, and if it’s a re-read, so much the better. So I turned to one of my favorite type of palate cleansers: old-fashioned Regency Romances.
In this case, it was “The Plumed Bonnet” by Mary Balogh, a sweet old romance from 1996 in which a young woman named Stephanie is saved from highwaymen by the dashing Duke of Bridgewater. When she reflexively asks him how she can ever repay him, the Duke has a suggestion – a suggestion that’s unthinkable to a proper young lady! But slowly, over the course of the verbal fireworks that ensue in the novel, despite all her better instincts, Stephanie starts to warm to this seemingly monstrous man … and he naturally starts being less monstrous. Old-fashioned Regency romances always make me smile, especially when they’re written by somebody like Balogh, who went on from these early Regencies to a long career as a romance author. “The Plumed Bonnet” was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Then it was back to the trenches! For instance, I recently read “Traces in the Dark: The Global Hunt for the Crime Lords of Cryptocurrency” by Andy Greenberg. The crypto craze is by now well-known, but in these pages Greenberg explores the absolutely inevitable: if you devise a system of finance that’s tethered to neither currency nor regulation, you throw the door wide open to abuse, fraud, and crime. Greenberg tracks down the dark dealings of crypto criminals, the people who latched onto the whole medium in order to fill every kind of black market imaginable, from drug dealing to human trafficking. Of course, what’s done via computer whizzes can be detected and maybe countered by computer whizzes, and these counter-currents provide Greenberg with a fantastic story.
Fantastic, yes, but, the more I thought about how far this crypto-malevolence has infiltrated the real world, draining. I loved “Traces in the Dark,” but when I was finished with it, I very much wanted another palate cleanser, in this case Vonda McIntyre’s novelization of the movie “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” McIntyre is a terrific writer, so as many times as I’ve seen the movie, I always enjoy her retelling of it.
Up next? Well, a friend has finished his first serious draft of a new history of the siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas in 1993. My friend has worked on this project for ten years and done a large amount of what he refers to as original and ground-breaking research, and his manuscript is quite long. I know he’s a very good writer, but even a strong prose line can be ripped to shreds by dealing with such a somber subject for so long. I’m pledged to read this draft and also to annotate it, which means I’m going to be deep down in the weeds of a dark tragedy that took the lives of 76 people, including 25 children, and I’m going to stay there as long as it takes to mark up the whole manuscript.
After that, I’m going to need one heck of a palate-cleanser. I’m thinking of going to “Coroner’s Pidgin,” an utterly wonderful novel by Margery Allingham, in which her stoic hero, Albert Campion, comes home on leave from the war only to find a dead body in his bed. Maybe I’ll do two Campion novels this time.