I learned from the latest Times Book Review what a number of celebrated writers have been reading lately, and thought I’d bare my own recent reads.

One of the young people who serves me cappuccino most afternoons asked if I’d read Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, adding: “It changed my life.” As an ex-Russian historian who’d long been aware of Bulgakov’s reputation, yet never read him, I resolved to correct this oversight immediately.

My reaction to the book was more lukewarm than I expected, which can perhaps be put down to the fact that I’m reading him now as a novelist, not a professor of Russian history. On page after page, I admired Bulgakov’s imaginative genius, his Gogolian talent for fantasy, his bringing into being and keeping track of myriad characters, how cleverly he juggled each of their trajectories. Yet somewhere in the back of my mind there was always a caveat, an undercurrent of dissatisfaction. For all their studied differentiation, his characters remained stick-figures, brilliantly painted marionettes, dancing to the master’s music. I knew this was allegory and satire, not social realism, but still I found it a drawback. Though tragedy and mayhem befell each of the characters, none of their misfortunes moved me. And since I believe neither in magic nor God nor the Devil, I found such artifices rather unsubtle as a way of dealing with the ambiguities of evil in the world. Despite its brilliance, in other words, it did not speak to me.

Of other books I’ve read recently, however, three stand out, each for a different reason. Kent Haruf’s Eventide was the most emotionally engaging. His characters are so real I feel I’ve known them all my life. I agonized over their predicaments, or anticipated with dread what I feared would happen next, or was poleaxed when something happened I did not expect. In short, I cared deeply. I’m in awe over the scene where the McPheron brothers share a simple meal in a diner with an acquaintance. Haruf piles on detail after detail of seemingly meaningless dialogue, yet you’re never bored! Above all, he creates an authentic sense of place, and lives that feel lived in. That I’m familiar with the trappings of country living and small towns from my boyhood may have added to my enjoyment, but who cares?

Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Elliot Perlman, provided not only emotional but intellectual stimulation of a rare magnitude. It’s the most brilliant book I’ve read in a long time, and I immediately ran out to buy Three Dollars, an earlier book. That proved a satisfying read in itself, engaging and never boring, but Ambiguity! If I could mimic the first-person voices of so many disparate characters, write chapter-long monologues that not only advanced plot and defined character but provided literary criticism, psychological insight and dead-on social commentary to boot, I would dissolve into a puddle of pure bliss! One wonders what’s to follow?

Let me wrap this up by mentioning a book that deserves to be much more widely read than I suspect it is, and is as brilliant in its own way as Ambiguity, but very different. That book is Mona Simpson’s Off Keck Road. Let me admit, first of all, that I found Off Keck Road not that easy to read. How fluidly Simpson moves between the present, the near past and the distant past makes it tricky, at first. But, once you get the hang of it, it begins to seem natural, the way characters’ thoughts really jump about in the real world. It’s a small book – a novella, really – yet it’s the story of three women characters – and particularly one – over a lifetime, in a small city in the Midwest. It’s a small book of small deeds and small events, and over long periods of time nothing much seems to happen at all. And yet it does. Life happens. And in a way the trajectory of the central character follows an unexpected course: she does not marry, she does not divorce, she does not have affairs. She experiences disappointments, has a few regrets, but is no more angst-ridden than the next person. She is college-educated but not intellectual. She finds a job in a real-estate office and stays with it. It is a very ordinary life. Yet Simpson seems to be saying: here is a life that is as worth recording, as worth paying attention to, as real and as valid as those which are marked by greater drama, tragedy, or laurels. And some of it is boring. So what? Get used to it. But most of all, it’s a story of and about women. The men in it are little more than foils, for it’s the women’s lives she’s chronicling. If Anton Chekhov had been born in late twentieth century Midwestern America, and particularly if he’d been born a woman, this is the kind of writing he would produce.

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