I spent a very long time in the academic world – 25 years to be exact. Although I read a lot of fiction in high school (at the fault of Chamblin Bookmine in Jacksonville, Florida), once I got to university, that all but stopped as I delved into the “literature” of my discipline – history. That meant many, many historical monographs. Along the way in my two-and-a-half-decade foray into academia, I did do a bit of “promiscuous reading” of novels, but there was never enough time because of teaching and research. Fast forward from 1989 to 2014 when I left that world behind and took off for DC. It was time to start reading fiction again, so I went to Politics & Prose, the mothership of books. I was excited at first, but that excitement soon turned to an overwhelming sense of frustration because I didn’t know where to begin. I had sold my entire academic library just before I moved to DC, so I had no books at all. Should I go for the classics? Should I read the Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize winners. Or should I go back to my old favorite of mystery novels. It was just too much, so I left the store and went next door to Comet Ping Pong and got a pizza and a beer instead. I had to clear my head. What to do about this dilemma – a total book nerd not knowing how to jump back into the game of reading for fun. And then it hit me: library book sales. I would leave what I read up to the randomness of people donating the books they read to the library. And it worked. At fifty cents a pop, I have built up a nice little library of fiction books since that afternoon inoculation of pizza and beer.
I’ve read perhaps a hundred and fifty books since I arrived in DC in 2014, and all of them have been procured from library book sales or the Little Free Library on my block. Most of them have been fantastic, but there were a few duds. Surprisingly, one of these duds was Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Goldfinch. I got 13 pages in before I couldn’t take it anymore. The prose was just hideous. Anyway, I digress. The point is that the latest book that I’ve read – Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene – is one of the best that I’ve randomly found in my “let the universe decide” quest for books these days. I must admit that I knew of Graham Greene, but this is the first of his books that I’ve read. And what an introduction it was. And a humorous one to boot. It is the story of Henry Pulling, a retired bank worker who spends his days tending his dahlias until he reconnects with his long lost Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral, who tells him that his mother may not be his mother after all. From there, the adventures begin. Aunt Augusta, a crass and bold septuagenarian, has lived all over Europe for half a century, working in the theater world where she collected a group friends who have a penchant for breaking all kinds of rules. Aunt Augusta is enamored of Henry and persuades him leave his boring life of dahlia tending and travel to Brighton, Paris, Istanbul, Argentina, and Paraguay. Along the way he meets a disparate cast of characters that includes war criminals, CIA agents, hippies, con men, shady bankers, and an actor who is way past his prime in acting, but certainly not in the art of the flimflam. Ultimately, this is the story of a man who is reborn in middle age and comes to realize that the boring world of the bank and dahlias has not been at all fulfilling. In Greene’s version of planes, trains, and automobiles, Henry comes alive as he crisscrosses countries with Aunt Augusta, the both of them often running from the dodgy deals in which she and her friends engaged over the years.