Just before I was to enter the first grade, my parents decided that they needed a coffee table in the living room. That was back in the days when, in Los Angeles, there were two entry periods for the first grade: those children born nearest June started in September, and those whose birthdays occurred closer to December started in January. My birthday is January 12th, and so I matriculated at the top of 1958.
Somehow my parents decided that their table should also be my Christmas gift. They found an offer, from an encyclopedia company I think, that was a solid maple table with glass-covered bookshelves on either end. In these shelves resided, spine up, 12 red, clothbound volumes of fairy tales that were designed for young readers from 6 to 12 years in age. The first two books were for six-year-olds; the third and fourth volumes were for second graders, etc. It was, for me, an entire lifetime of reading there at the table where my parents entertained guests and watched the evening news.
I remember sitting on the floor next to that table reading those books I could and paging through the ones I didn’t fully understand. All the volumes were illustrated, and they felt big and fancy.
I don’t remember much about the stories, but that’s where I first met the elephant-king Babar and the little lost fairy named Poppy.
This Christmas gift was transformative for me because it was so beautiful, meant to last, and it was also a part of my parents, making the house we lived in a part of me. That’s what reading is — a way to socialize and civilize, the glue that holds us together.
Now in my later years, much older than my parents were when they gave me that exquisite present, all I have of those books is the nostalgia in my heart for the carpentry of my education and the love bound up in those big red books.
Rose Gold, By Walter Mosley
Doubleday, 309 pages, $30
Easy Rawlins, the black Los Angeles PI, is an inventive investigator and usually finds himself in intricate cases. But sometimes, reading the Rawlins books—this is the 13th—the plots seem excuses for Mosely to examine the psychological and linguistic complications that a black man with smarts experiences in interactions with the white world. The new book, set in 1974, offers such encounters in steady doses. Easy’s job is to run down a billionaire’s daughter who has either been kidnapped by a gang of radicals or, in the Patty Hearst model, has willingly joined them. On the way to the solution, the smooth, nervy Rawlins talks himself past countless varieties of nastiness.
In this terrific genre-defying work, Mosley (Rose Gold) uses an eons-old battle for control of existence as a backdrop for a character-driven novel of philosophy and social commentary. Ages ago, the Laz created the Silver Box to inflict torture on other life forms, but the Silver Box rebelled and imprisoned the Laz within itself. In the present day, black thug Ronnie Bottoms kills white Columbia student Lorraine Fell in Central Park, above the Box’s resting place. Lorraine’s spirit draws Ronnie back to her body and he resurrects her using the artifact’s power, but a sliver of the Laz escapes, so the Silver Box calls upon the unlikely duo to “try to save the Earth” and sends them on a journey to gain superpowers. Mosley really pulls out all the stops, managing with improbable success to combine a struggle for the fate of all existence with a story about two New Yorkers from very different backgrounds coming to understand each other and address the mistakes they’ve made in their own lives. Wild concepts and deep thoughts sit comfortably alongside the musings of ordinary people undergoing radical changes in this top-notch tale. Agent: Gloria Loomis, Watkins/Loomis Agency. (Jan.)
Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review