People often talk about the characters in books as if they were considering whom to invite to a dinner party. "Oh, I just hated her — she was so mean." "He's a bully; I didn't like how he treated his mother." There's something to be said for a likable character, but fiction has a way of upending our ordinary standards. In life we like tranquility; in books we love tension. And in these three books you'll find protagonists you'd hate to meet — you'd change train cars to get away from any of them — but you'll love on the page.
Lately, it seems as if my nightstand will collapse under the weight of all the bad news. There is endless war, parenting polemic and economic disaster in 50 pounds of hardback mood killers. "Not tonight, honey, I have an al-Qaida history."
But enough is enough. Aren't we all in the mood to slip into something a little more ... comfortable? Don't take this personally, Michael Lewis, but I'm kicking you out of my bed. Here are three good reasons:
The Game of Kings
By Dorothy Dunnett, paperback, 543 pages, Vintage Books, list price: $17
There is meticulous historical research and a graduate degree's worth of French, Latin and Greek poetry to thank for the fact that Scottish writer Dorothy Dunnett's heart-pounding, six-volume Lymond Chronicles is shelved with the literature and not with the bodice rippers.
But let's be honest: Dunnett's 16th-century mercenary hero Francis Crawford of Lymond is, for anyone reading with a pulse, Lust on Horseback. Built like a god with an intellect to match, Crawford moves across Europe, navigating intrigues with equal parts charm and swordsmanship, reciting poetry, rescuing maidens and outwitting the schemes of villains and queens. He also slays them with his lute playing. Next to this guy, James Bond is the 40-year-old virgin.
Even so, this is a romantic epic that can be read with intellectual pride intact, beginning with The Game of Kings, where we are introduced to Crawford, whom we will crawl after, panting and weak-kneed for the next 3,000 pages. Because it's history.
By Mary Roach, paperback, 336 pages, W. W. Norton & Company, list price: $14.95
But it's not all lutes and sonnets, is it?
Some of it, let's face it, is a complex mix of neurological impulses, circulatory traffic patterns and creatively aligned nerve endings. Not to mention secretions, but we don't want to give the ending away.
Bonk, Mary Roach's painstakingly researched survey of the "curious coupling" of science and, well, coupling, leaves little to the imagination.
With a journalist's obsessive curiosity and affection for sly puns, Roach both observes and offers herself up to the interests of Passion Under the Microscope, pursuing her subject in unrelenting detail across history and time zones. You will not want to thank her for everything you learn — the practice of boar milking comes to mind — but making your way through will pay off in a mother lode of conversation starters.
By Nicholson Baker, paperback, 303 pages, Vintage, list price: $15
Having done your homework and cast aside the comforts of romance and euphemism, there is, finally, Lust that Defies the Laws of Physics — Nicholson Baker's strange, compelling and unapologetically pornographic novel of sexual obsession, The Fermata.
Middle-age office temp Arnold Strine has neither poetry nor lute playing with which to seduce the women for whom he pines. He doesn't need it, thanks to an elaborately honed ability to freeze the world in midstep and wander around at his leisure learning their secrets — and their bra sizes. He stages elaborate carnal tableaus out of what he imagines to be a spirit of generosity and a connoisseur's appreciation; he writes searingly awful pornographic short stories for them to find.
This is not a book I recommend without some misgiving. But Baker's subversive humor and mastery of language is worth every cringe. His descriptions of sights, sounds, textures and the patter of stray thoughts are as polished as his character's impulses are crude. It is like finding a Penthouse centerfold reproduced in miniature inside a Faberge egg. You'd be crazy not to look.
Commentator Pat Dunnigan records her musings on suburban culture at her blog, SuburbanKamikaze.com. She lives in the Chicago area.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.