Eric says first, let me admit that one of the books by my bed has been there for more than a year. Indeed, I think I mentioned it months ago in my last update for Books by the Bed. It’s The War of the World by Niall Ferguson. The subtitle is “Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West.”
I think I bought it for that subtitle. I’m a sucker for anything about the descent of the West, and there have been a lot of similar books recently, which I take as a good sign that the West isn’t descending.
In the intro, Ferguson writes, “Three things seem to me necessary to explain the extreme violence of the twentieth century…. These may be summarized as ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline.” Just why I thought this book would make for some pleasant late-night reading is a mystery to me now. I do plan to finish it. Someday. But I think it’s the sort of book that one should read in the bright light of day.
What I’m reading now at night is Alan Furst’s Dark Star. It’s set in Europe in 1937, speaking of empires in decline, and involves the adventures of Andre Szara, a Russian journalist, survivor of pogroms in Poland and civil war in Russia, and now a correspondent for Pravda, based variously in Paris, Berlin, and Prague.
Szara is “recruited” by the NKVD, the Soviet secret service, to spy on the Nazis. Needless to say, he finds himself in some rather delicate situations. It’s never clear to Szara at any given moment which is the greater threat to his own health and sanity, the Nazis or his own country’s various factions and competing spy agencies.
You would think this would be a page-turner, especially suitable for late-night reading, but the story unfolds at a rather leisurely pace, with sentences that can go on a bit, such as: “Slowly, as May turned to June, and the sweat soaked through Kranov’s undershirt in the morning heat, Szara began to gain a sharper appreciation of the interplay between OPAL and its masters, the simply phrased requests for information and the terse responses now resolved to a dialogue from which the mood of the Directorate could be read.” And yet it occurs to me that what makes this book so engrossing is the slow pacing of a narrative about unimaginable horrors.
Also by the bed, to be read next, Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. I started reading this a while back; it was terrific, but Cheryl grabbed it away (OK, she’d started it first), and so I turned to Dark Star.