John Updike has a moving short story titled My Father’s Tears in February’s New Yorker. Here is how it begins:
Come to think of it, I saw my father cry only once. It was at the Alton train station, back when the trains still ran. I was on my way to Philadelphia to catch the train that would return me to Boston and college. I was eager to go, for already my home and my parents had become somewhat unreal to me, and college, with its courses and the hopes for my future they inspired and the girlfriend I had acquired in my sophomore year, had become more real every semester; it shocked me—threw me off track, as it were—to see that my father’s eyes, as he shook my hand goodbye, glittered with tears.
Elsewhere in the same issue, John Lanchester writes in a review piece called Pursuing Happiness:
Risk-taking Ig and worried Og both would have regarded our easy, long, riskless lives with incredulous envy. They would have regarded us as so lucky that questions about our state of mind wouldn’t be worth asking. It is a perverse consequence of our fortunate condition that the question of our happiness, or lack of it, presses unhappily hard on us.
I am half-way through Menno Schilthuizen's Frogs, Flies, and Dandelions, a funny and engrossing little book about speciation. Among the many gems, this, at the very beginning:
[After describing a very weird mammal] It might seem odd that these remarkable animals never figure in Sunday-evening wildlife documentaries on television. There are good reasons why they don't. First of all, the Hi-Iay islands are remote, inaccessible, and the Rhinogradentia elusive. Another complicating factor is the complete annihilation of the islands, the Darwin Institute there, and the World Congress of Rhinogradologists by a nuclear disaster in the 1950s. And then, of course, there is the fact that they never existed in the first place. – From the Prologue.
I picked up Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero-Tolerance Approach to Punctuation after listening to Lynne Truss on the City Arts and Lectures program on NPR. This is a delightful book if you are obsessive about grammar and punctuation, and feel a self-righteous irritation at the examples of maimed punctuation that you see around you. I even picked up a few things that I wasn't sure about, such as:
1. In a sentence containing a quote, should the period be inside the quotes or outside? It turns out that the answer is different depending upon which side of the Atlantic you are on.
2. Can a semicolon be used instead of a comma in a list of items? There are some good examples of this in the book, although I have to say that the paragraphs by G. B. Shaw are hideous.
In explaining the rules for using the apostrophe, the comma, the semicolon and the exclamation mark, the book is wonderfully and wittily written but it is very small; I was left begging for more. (Is a semicolon appropriate there?)
It was a strange and wonderful experience reading The Name Of The Rose, Umberto Eco's extraordinarily lush story of intrigue and death in a powerful Benedictine abbey in the 14th century. For someone who has never read Eco before, the style was difficult but compulsively engaging, especially when Eco describes the thoughts of Adso, the narrator of this tale of seven sinister murders, as he confronts his own passions and tries desparately to reconcile the austerity enforced by his order with the images of physical depravity that surround him in the monastery. At many stages in the novel, the stark and austere lives of the monks are juxtaposed with some of the unapologetically titillating architecture of the abbey, and often men who have enforced celibacy and poverty upon themselves are forced to think about wanton sexual exploits. As a reader, one beings to harbor uneasy thoughts of forbidden things, somewhat akin to the experience of reading The Picture of Dorian Gray.
At its heart, this is a mystery with the role of the detective being played by Adso's master, Brother William of Baskerville, a Benedictine monk who seems to have found the great middle path between the constricting dictates of his religion and the liberating rationality of Roger Bacon. Without spoiling the novel, it can be divulged that William, during his task of unearthing the murders, realizes that they pertain to a secret which has, thus far been viciously guarded in the complicated labyrinth of the monastery's library. To get to the secret, William and Adso must first decipher the structure of the great labyrinth, and it is just a joy to find out how they do it. Many other issues crowd the novel – the duel between the Papacy and the Emperor, issues about the poverty of Christ, and the terrible fate of heretics – and in combination with the dangerous secrets that fester in the abbey, they make for a startling and brilliantly conceived experience for the reader.
The book seems to be written especially for someone who will read for the sake of the joy of reading, and in that aspect is reminiscent of A Suitable Boy, with one important difference. For all its endearingly rambling style, Vikram Seth's prose is simple to read, and Seth made it a point not to encumber his readers with difficult sentences. Eco's is a lot more difficult, and it is possible that this difficulty may prevent readers from going further. This impulse, of course, ought to be resisted for much more is to be gained in the bargain.