By Steve Donoghue
My bossy little Schnauzer and I were recently confronted with a torrentially rainy weekend, one of those two-day stretches when the sluicing sounds of water in the gutters, the pattering of water on the windows, and the low background murmur of rain blanketing the trees all around the house gradually becomes an unbroken carrier hum around the clock.
That carrier hum of pounding rain tends to produce one very strong reaction in me, and I know I’m not alone in the ranks of ardent bookworms: a rainy day prompts me to think about reading, and an entire rainy weekend? Pure reading bliss.
My own bliss on this recent weekend was very much enhanced by the fact that my bossy little Schnauzer is only six years old and can consequently wait for many hours between bathroom breaks. She’s small enough to make indoor matt-training a possibility, but I know if I even so much as proposed such a thing, she’d never speak to me again – so we have to go outside, but fortunately not so often. She hates the very idea of rain, hates the sound of it on the windows, so she’s perfectly content on such days to curl up on my lap and be petted for the stretch of a whole afternoon instead of fretting at the door every hour. It makes reading all day very easy (it’s just the bathroom breaks themselves that are nightmarish battles of will).
So on that recent rainy weekend, I made a little stack of books next to the reading couch, loaded my trusty iPad, cleared off all the day’s deadline writing tasks, and settled in for some long stretches of reading. There might be better feelings in this life, but there can’t be many.
Naturally, since I’m a book critic, some of the books on those stacks were new releases. I read Dr. Peter Attia’s new book “Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity,” for instance, which tackles the literally age-old problem of human mortality. Attia points out the familiar fact that aging, the fact that all human organs and biological systems wear out and run down, results in heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and a host of other ailments. He shares with his readers the medical science behind this state of affairs, and he’s very good at that kind of explaining. Most of the books written in the last decade are just so much pseudoscientific hooey, sales pitches designed to part readers from their spending cash on the slim-to-nonexistent hope of ‘hacking’ their biologies into bold new frontiers. Luckily for those readers, Dr. Attia is much more concerned with helping than hacking: he talks about maximizing the good elements of our current biological situation. He spends a good deal of time stressing the overwhelming importance of regular exercise, for example – he’s not looking to make couch potatoes into star athletes, but rather to remind people that even minimal amounts of physical activity goes a long, long way to improving long-term health. And he very refreshingly emphasizes an element often overlooked in books of this type: maintaining a healthy mind in a healthy body – he gives it the paramount importance it deserves. Read more. Learn a new language. Give your mind reasons to live as long as possible.
I certainly did my part that rainy weekend, when it comes to keeping my mental systems in good working order. Yes, I spent the whole time petting fur so a 10-pound little creature wouldn’t yell at me, but hey, at least I was reading!
I read Abraham Verghese’s big new novel “The Covenant of Water,” for instance. This is the author of the hugely bestselling “Cutting for Stone,” and it tells the sprawling story of three generations of an Indian family living through their country’s tumultuous 20th-century events. Verghese’s largely centers on one woman’s life from youth to full maturity, and this central focus sometimes tends to weaken his portrayals of his many supporting characters. But the sheer cumulative power of the story he’s telling overwhelms all such tiny weaknesses – this is a big, curiously old-fashioned multi-generational novel of a type that used to fill bookstores, and Verghese never misses an opportunity give his long, slow-moving narrative regular dramatic twists and tweaks.
I found more missed opportunities in David Grann’s new book “The Wager,” which is about the unlikely adventures of a British sailing vessel named the Wager. Grann rightly won millions of readers with his book “Killers of the Flower Moon,” and “The Wager,” full of great character studies and a wonderful narrative rendering of the footnote-details about what happened to the ship and her crew. But even this second time through the book, I felt like some element of the undeniable magic of “Killers of the Flower Moon” was missing from these pages. I’ll wait for the paperback this Christmas and give it another try.
Up next: a re-read of “American Prometheus,” the much-lauded biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer written by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. I wanted to get the whole thing meticulously re-read before I watch the upcoming Christopher Nolan biopic of the face of the atomic bomb. The rain lasted just long enough.