The Last King, Ulysses, Nero, Joe and More

A couple of years ago one of my kids gave me Andrew Roberts’ biography of Napoleon for Christmas. I read it, not too long after, and thought was terrific. I wrote about it on this site, and Andrew twitted me on Twitter for reviewing the book five years after it came out.

So when another of my kids gave me Andrew’s new biography of George III for Christmas last year, I thought I’d better get cracking and read it. Which takes a while, since it is around 700 pages long. I started The Last King of America in February, but we were traveling a lot then, and since the book weighs in at 10 or 15 pounds it can’t readily be stuffed into a briefcase. Also, you can’t take it to the gym. So along with George III, I interspersed books that I could download on my E-reader.

When I was a kid, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books were everywhere. But they seemed déclassé to me, probably because my parents didn’t read them, so I had never tried one. In the last few years I have read a lot of Agatha Christie mysteries, which are generally good and offer a wonderful window into English life over a period of several decades, so I thought Stout could be a good change of pace. I went back and forth between George III and five or six Nero Wolfe books, which I enjoyed. Along with their crime plots, the Stout books offer a nice glimpse of life in New York during that city’s golden age.

When I was much younger I enjoyed Joseph Conrad, and thought I would try him again. So, along with George III and Nero, I read Victory, which I remembered as a favorite from long ago, and liked very much again. I never did read some of Conrad’s most famous works, like Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, so I downloaded Lord Jim. It was good, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as Victory.

A couple of weeks ago I had an Achilles tendon reconstructed, which means I have been mostly laid up. Trying to make the best of the situation, I decided to read something that, without this unique opportunity, I would never get to. (At this point I was halfway through George III.) So I decided to re-read Ulysses. I know what you are thinking: reading it once is a mistake, reading it twice is wanton folly.

But, being now around 60 percent of the way through, I am actually enjoying Ulysses. Two observations strike me. First, one should read it quickly. Don’t worry about the fact that half the time you don’t understand what is going on. It doesn’t matter. The parts that are important to pick up are clearly flagged. Read it for fun. Second, I first read Ulysses when I was 18 or 19 years old. That is too young. There are many references, not to mention experiential resonances, that I understand today but couldn’t have gotten as a teenager. I think there is something to be said for focusing on objective studies that you can memorize when you are young, like math and physics, and saving literature and the arts for when you are older.

Of course, I can’t go for long on an exclusive diet of Joyce. So, as with George III, I need to digress occasionally. C.J. Box–Chuck to his friends–is the author of two of the best thriller series now in progress. He is best known for the Joe Pickett books, but his Cody Hoyt/Cassie Dewell series is also excellent. As it happens, the 22nd book in the Pickett series, Shadows Reel, was published a month or so ago, so I downloaded it and, as usual with Box’s books, finished it in less than 24 hours.

For those who are not aware, Joe Pickett is a Wyoming game warden. As with all thrillers, violence is not uncommon: Wyoming is seemingly in the midst of a long-term crime wave. The Pickett books, which always rocket to the top of the best-seller lists, are excellent thrillers with a couple of nice twists. Joe and his wife Marybeth and their three daughters age in real time (unlike, say, Nero Wolfe). So if you have been following from the beginning, you have seen them get close to 20 years older. And Box likes to work current issues into the Pickett books. Often the issues are environmental, but in Shadows Reel Antifa plays a significant (and appropriately villainous) part.

If you don’t know the Pickett books and are interested in checking them out, don’t start with #22. You should start at or close to the beginning. If you keep reading, you will come to the book (I forget the title) where Chuck introduced a character named Hinderaker. He is a used car dealer, a totally honorable profession if you ask me, and Box swears that he meant nothing derogatory. Unfortunately, this fascinating character has not reappeared in any subsequent volume. Maybe he will pop up again one of these days in a more significant role.

So now it is back to Ulysses, and when that book is done it will be back to The Last King of America, with, no doubt, some further frolics and detours. And don’t worry, Andrew: I like Last King a lot, and my review, such as it is, will appear way sooner than five years post-publication.

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