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OPINION

Read ’em and don’t weep

I’ve been making my way through the summer of COVID with the help of Australian crime fiction.

How am I not going to read a Cambridge memoir with a chapter heading: “Some of Us Try Infidelity”?
How am I not going to read a Cambridge memoir with a chapter heading: “Some of Us Try Infidelity”?IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP via Getty Images

Three weeks ago, I was standing on Coronado Beach in San Diego, watching jets screech out to sea from the nearby Naval Air Station North Island.

It was a Monday; the beach was lightly populated. I couldn’t help noticing the couple huddled under a sun umbrella next to us. He was reading Ibram X. Kendi’s “How To Be an Anti-Racist,” and she was making her way through Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”

Intense. I felt half-ashamed that I’ve been making my way through the summer of COVID with the help of Australian crime fiction.

One of several excellent books I’ve read was Peter Temple’s “The Broken Shore,” a beautifully written crime thriller set on the jagged coast of Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. Temple is best known for the Jack Irish detective series, which became a successful television show featuring Guy Pearce, but I think “The Broken Shore” may be his best book. The Melbourne Age reviewer seemed to agree, arguing that it “might just be a great Australian novel, irrespective of genre.”

I read Temple’s less-good novel “Truth” and then moved on to Jane Harper’s superbly desiccated outback whodunit “The Lost Man.” I also read Harper’s wonderful debut novel, “The Dry,” soon to be a major motion picture, as the saying goes. Both books are scorchers. Keep a tall glass of ice water on hand to forestall dehydration.

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In my soul, I’m a fiction guy. Every so often I run into someone who says, “I only read books about things that really happened.” OK, fine. If you think history “really happened,” then you might ask yourself why they call Herodotus the father of history as well as the father of lies. Sorry to puncture your cherished illusions.

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That said, perhaps the best book I’ve read this summer was a true/not-true hybrid, Emmanuel Carrère’s “biographical novel,” “Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures.” Eduard Limonov’s recent obituary reminded me of this “most peculiar book,” as Julian Barnes wrote in The Guardian, about the gigolo/poet/statesman Limonov, whose Other Russia political party, formed with chess champion Garry Kasparov, challenged Vladimir Putin’s political hegemony in the early 2000s.

Carrère falls into my reviled category of “Younger and (Much) More Talented Than I.” I’ve also read his book “The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception.” It’s a knockout.

To prepare for my visit to Southern California, I read Gary Krist’s popular history, “The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles.” Published in 2018, “Mirage” narrates L.A.‘s ascendancy through the lives of water engineer extraordinaire William Mulholland (think “Chinatown”), film pioneer D. W. Griffith, and soul saver Aimee Semple McPherson.

I learned a lot, most significantly that McPherson’s huge Angelus Temple in Echo Park, billed as “America’s First Megachurch,” still stands, and still saves souls. Like almost all churches, it’s closed now, but I intend to visit if and when the plague scourge abates.

Lastly: How am I not going to read a Cambridge memoir with a chapter heading “Some of Us Try Infidelity”? The book is Sayre Sheldon’s forthcoming “Berkeley Street Cambridge: Stories from the Sixties.” It’s a nicely crafted series of vignettes from a small slice of core Cambridge yesteryear, when everybody knew the Bundys, the kids went to Shady Hill, and you didn’t have to be criminally rich to summer on Martha’s Vineyard.

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The Sheldons’ Berkeley Street home features in the opening pages of Ryan Walsh’s “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968.” Ms. Sheldon’s musician son John recalls his friend Van Morrison playing the first songs from the breakthrough album “Astral Weeks” in his parents’ backyard: “He’s out in the sun, and they’re very melancholy. They’re mournful songs.”

Read ’em all, and they’ll keep you from weeping.


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.