Saturday, March 03, 2007

Coincidental Circumstances

Life is so often filled with the strangest coincidences that for a skeptic like me, who believes that there is no such thing as a grand plan for any of us, the unexpected intersections that occur out of the infinite possibilities of life are endlessly amazing. For reasons which I fail to remember at the moment (and probably never will), about a month ago, I decided I wanted a collection of essays written by David Foster Wallace and added both A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster to my wish list on

Then a few days ago, while on a business trip to Baltimore (that sounds so sophisticated, doesn’t it – “business trip”, ha, ha) I went into the most beautiful Barnes & Noble bookstore I’ve ever seen. Initially, I went in to just look around but, since I can’t go into a bookstore without leaving with something in my hand, I decided that it would be a good time to get a few things from my wish list. After an hour or so of browsing (for such a large bookstore, its selection was fairly poor), I finally went in search of David Foster Wallace. With a little assistance from a Barnes & Noble saleswoman, I found the last copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing on the shelf, its edges wrinkled and looking rather pitiful.

In any case, as I often do, at the last minute I decided I just didn’t feel like spending $13.95 on Mr. Wallace. Instead, I bought a romance novel I don’t care to name, The Best American Science Writing 2006, and Don’t Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff.

Now, if you’ve been paying attention to my posts, and I’m wise enough to know that no one actually does, but if you have, you’d know that it was only a few weeks ago that I admitted to not being able to get though Mr. Rakoff’s previous book Fraud. In fact, I said some very disparaging things about him. I believe I may have called him something in the way of “an un-funny, less-talented David Sedaris rip-off.” But, if you remember that, you’ll also remember I said that, after having read Mr. Rakoff’s selection in TBA Nonrequired Reading, the excellent “Love It or Leave It”, I’d decided that perhaps Mr. Rakoff deserved a second chance. Since I was unaware that Mr. Rakoff had already come out with a new selection of essays, when I saw Don’t Get Too Comfortable on the shelf, I snatched it up and clutched it to my chest all the way to the check-out line.

That still, however, left me David Foster Wallace-less. But, wait! Unbeknownst to me, a coincidence was right around the corner. That coincidence happened today when, after an attack of cabin fever, I went on a wandering stroll around my neighborhood, vaguely in search of some food and some trouble to get into. Unfortunately, my radar for trouble always seems to lead me into bookstores, which I guess, if you’re my wallet, could actually be considered trouble. In any case, my feet inexplicably led me to Idle Time Books, a cute little used bookshop that, unfortunately, opened up a few years ago. I say unfortunately, because the last thing I need is a used bookstore within walking distance from my home.

As usual, I was drawn in by the sale books they always set outside on nice days like today. Browsing the .50 cent box of throw-away books found me a wonderfully ratty edition of five Euripides plays, three of which I don’t already have in my collection. And since I had to go in to purchase the book, well, I figured I might as well browse and see what else there was to see, right? Right.

So, I looked around, picked-up and put back down Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (I’m not really into Munro but I love the title of that book), found nothing in the travel literature section, picked up and put back down P.D. James’ The Lighthouse (eh, maybe another day), and then finally, I looked to my right, glancing over at a few books displayed at the top of a shelf and what do I see? Oh, come on, I’m sure you can guess – that’s right, David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing!

It appeared as if the book gods were smiling down on me with favor this day. Three days ago, I’d balked at paying $13.95 for a novel I wanted and now, here it was, in a used bookstore, as crisp and as clean as the day it rolled off the press, and half the price! Sure, I got a few odd glances when I let out of squeal of delight and danced a little jig right there in the store but I didn’t care (truthfully, no one else did either. I’m sure they all assumed I was a part of the odd Halloween grocery cart relay race that was taking place outside. I have no idea what it was or why it was happening, so don’t ask).

Naturally, I purchased the book ($7.50 - beat that Barnes & Noble! Ha, ha.) along with my Euripides, of course, and grinned all the way home. These days are the days when I love being alive. The clouds part, the sun shines, you leave in search of adventure, and return home with some good books, and an extra seven dollars in your pocket. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t get any better than that, I don’t care what anyone says.

Captain Alatriste, Final

By Arturo Perez-Reverte
pgs. 71-End

If a series’ first novel is meant to both satisfy and inspire curiosity within its readers, then Captain Alatriste fulfills its duty well. While I was satisfied with the novel’s conclusion, Mr. Perez-Reverte leaves just enough loose ends hanging so that my next order of business, as soon as I get the money to do it, is to buy Purity of Blood.

After finishing the book late last night, I lay back with the lights off and fell asleep in awe of Perez-Reverte’s artistry. This wasn’t due to any admiration on my behalf of his writing, though it deserves that too since the beauty of Perez-Reverte’s sentences lies in the simplicity of his words and the unadorned way he has of shaping a story. No, my admiration lay in the question that had nagged me since I turned the last page: How is that, in Captain Alatriste everything is resolved and yet…nothing is resolved?

I risk giving away too much of the story here, so I shall tread carefully. Captain Alatriste, who finds himself in a bit of trouble after saving the life of a very important person – a person whom he was hired to kill – gains more than a few enemies, who try to kill him several times. At the novel’s conclusion, Captain Alatriste manages to escape torture and death by the a very thin hair, but his adversaries remain at large and still strongly desire to put a few “sword-tailored buttonholes in his body.” At the novel’s conclusion, the only things Captain Alatriste has for defense is a small letter of protection and his Toledo steel.

But Captain Alatriste is about so much more than shady characters and sharp swords. It’s about seventeenth-century Spain. Spain makes so many descriptive appearances in the story that she becomes more of a character, rather than simply a setting. Coffers filled to over-flowing with gold from the New World, Spain is decadent, Spain is dying, Spain is “in the midst of all that corruption and madness, moving against the course of history, like a beautiful, terrifying animal that still slashed and clawed yet at the heart was eaten by a malignant tumor.”

Indeed, Captain Alatriste seems to be not only an action-adventure but also a tribute to the golden age of Spain when she was at the height of her beauty and power. It’s clear that the author loves his country as much as his narrator. In the hands of Arturo Perez-Reverte, seventeenth century Spain seems as real today as it did four hundred years ago. And, though she may be filled with characters willing to “put hand to sword, or to knife another being, merely to get into a theater performance”, Perez-Reverte's Spain is a country I plan to revisit as soon as I get some cash in my pocket and manage to carry my butt to the nearest bookstore.