I suppose there are mathematicians out there “working on prime numbers.” I don’t know if there are. There probably are. They’re putting on coffee at eleven o’clock at night. They’re getting upset at each other on email, cussing. Or adopting “withering tones.” They’re working.
I myself don’t work on prime numbers. I work … on working on prime numbers. Not really. I’ve given the matter some thought. I did work on prime numbers for a few ecstatic days in the year 1999. That was the outcome of more than ten years of brooding. Intermittent brooding. And now it’s been almost twenty years since that. And now I brood over people who brood about prime numbers. I understand them.
The first time I stopped by the restaurant, I noticed that the dining room was splashed with quiet reminders of China — a framed image of the Great Wall, a Chinese fan hanging on the wall. The restaurant was usually empty in the afternoons, as customers seemed to prefer takeout to dining in. The kids were hard to miss. They sat at the counter with their homework and peppered me with questions about where I was from, if I was Chinese like them and what I was doing in Portage, PA. The restaurant is a place of business just as it is a shrine to the kids who spend their time there. The walls were covered with awards the children got from school, colorful drawings of family members, and art decorations.
A library is, at its most essential, a space that holds a collection of books. A dedicated room or building is not technically necessary. In his Book of Book Lists, recently released in the United States, author Alex Johnson offers examples of portable libraries—“sturdy wooden cases” of books and magazines that “were passed between lighthouses around the United States,” for instance. He includes the library Robert Falcon Scott took on board the Discovery in 1901, when the ship left for Antarctica, with a catalogue that specified which cabin a volume could be found in. Napoleon, he writes, had a traveling collection of French classics that was ported with him to war. It included five volumes of Voltaire’s plays and Montesquieu’s work on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline.
But whatever form a library takes, someone had to have chosen the books in it, which reveal the secrets of heart and mind—their cares, their greeds, their enthusiasms, their obsessions.
“Census,” Ball’s eighth and latest novel, may be his most emotionally affecting book to date. It is also his most transparent. In a candid preface, Ball explains that he wrote “Census” in memory of his brother, Abram Ball, who had Down syndrome. Ball sets out to write a book that captures “what it is like to know and love a Down syndrome boy or girl.”
There is a version of Cornwall we all know. It features pastel-coloured cottages, quaint fishing boats, hidden coves of golden sand and endless summer sunshine. The place that Lucy Wood describes in her second short story collection is different. When the tourists leave, the landscape remains but there are mysterious dishes that rotate on the clifftops, a tapestry of plastic floating on the waves, and empty holiday homes everywhere for bored teenagers to break into. It looks the same, but it feels alien.
To disclose too many details would be to spoil the book, since much of its momentum relies on the true crime at the center of it, and the mystery of how the many bewildering bits of information might all fit together. The racism and corruption King depicts were so embedded in Lake County that they perverted even perversions of justice; the argument is timely and important, even if one sometimes wishes it were more clearly made.