The best parts of John Updike, in my experience, total at least two.
Three things leap to mind –
- The Rabbit books.
- The word zoftig.
- The observation that some books, well-worth reading, can only be opened in bed (because they are so big and heavy).
Tahir Shah’s new book Timbuctoo at 526 pp. in hardcover is one such big and heavy book that is well-worth reading. I bought the hardcover special edition with six fold-out maps ($50 minus one penny). There also is a Kindle option costing $2.99.
I’m glad I went the extra mile. Love books with maps.
I also am a big fan of this writer.
I believe that I own each book of Shah’s available in hardcover. And one or two paperbacks, too. Since I buy many books and leave them in piles, waiting for shelf space to appear (sound familiar?), I am gong on memories that stretch back at least ten years. Five years anyway. At my age it would be as well to walk across the Niagara River gorge, just down from Horseshoe Falls, on a high wire. I could be there from home in less than 30 minutes, but my performance would be spotty at best.
My favorite for a long time was Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Incredible Journey into the World of India’s Godmen.
I would have described Shah, based on this and other titles, as a travel writer and one of my favorites. Even when he came out with Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca — about moving his family to Casablanca and buying a rundown compound complete with house and a few servants (loosely speaking) — I still considered Shah to be a travel writer, lately at home. At work on a novel, as it turned out. His first.
That Timbuctoo is Shah’s first published novel was another draw for me. I especially like to collect first novels.
The novel has some distinctive features –
- Shah has gone over to self-publishing. Not because he must, I believe, but because he can — and will, I suspect. Score one for us.
- The story, about an American man (Robert Adams of Hudson, New York) who is kidnapped and thrown on a departing ship and ends up as a slave in Timbuctoo, has been a touchstone for Shah for a long time. He writes a historical novel based on many years of study and dreaming. The book includes a bibliography.
I want to support a writer of standing who turns from big-house publishers.
I was not that interested, out front, in the fact of a historical novel.
However, Shah’s simple and clear style in telling a hair-raising tale, was pleasing to me as I hung in there. I quickly went from curiosity to commitment, finishing the book in a few days of enjoyable reading.
The narrative frame is simple and effective. Robert Adams suffers for love of a woman whom he marries in secret. When her evil father finds out, he sets up years and years of misery. Adams after bouts of escape and recapture ends up in London, all but dead, and is taken in by a wealthy man with ties to a subscription-supported attempt to grab the fabled gold of the North African desert city of Timbuctoo. Adams tells his story in daily public sessions as the gold plot unfolds.
I give Timbuctoo all possible stars.