Where's the book?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Passing the time...

After the heft of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, I needed something a bit more light – in weight if not in content. So I tripped lightly over to re-read some of my favorite Edith Wharton short stories in Roman Fever and Other Stories (#30). “Roman Fever” itself is one of my favorite short stories ever – marvelous characters created in just a few sentences, a beautiful setting, delicate yet powerful emotional value, and even a gasp of surprise at the ending. I don’t adore all the stories in the book as much as the title one, but they are all great reading.

I followed Edith up with a murder mystery for #31, Ruth Rendell’s A Guilty Thing Surprised. I don’t think I’ve ever read one of hers before, at least not in the last few years during which I’ve kept my book list. It had a great setting – a wealthy couple in their grand country home – and even though the book is set in 1970, it feels remarkably like an Agatha Christie manor house mystery. It’s well written, definitely a cut above many mysteries I’ve read, and Chief Inspector Wexford, her recurring hero, is a decent enough fellow to spend a murder investigation with. Not sure I’ll read too many more of hers, but maybe just one to say I’ve given her a real chance. 
#32 was a not-very-good Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. The story is fairly interesting, set in Seattle in 1986 with flashbacks to the main story set in the years of World War II. The main character is a middle-aged Chinese-American man who is looking back on his first love, a Japanese-American girl he met in school when he was 12, in 1942. She and her family are interned during the war, and learning some more about the Japanese internment was interesting. But Ford’s writing is pedestrian and his characters are not compelling. They walk through emotions like puppets, and repeat the same words and actions. Henry, our main character, is emotionally constipated, formal and constrained. Keiko, his love, has almost no personality, just a collection of traits. Henry and his grown son Marty have the same stiff, formal relationship that Henry had with his own – surprise – distant father. It’s all pretty predictable and pretty dull, but easy enough to read. I wouldn’t pick up anything else by this author, though. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

So long, Anthony, so long

#29 definitely took longer than any book I've read for a while. I've been keeping fairly successfully to my book-a-week schedule, with the occasional one taking slightly less and the less occasional one taking slightly more. But book #29, The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope, was a monster, a massive, heavy, 825-page, 100-chaptered, tiny-type killer of a book. Fortunately it was also wonderfully entertaining, so I don't regret getting slightly off schedule because of it.

If you overlook the Victorian language and references, The Way We Live Now could have been published this year. It's the Victorian version of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, which in itself refers back to the serialized satirical novels of the Victorian era. (Round and round and round we go.) The book is a story of financial scandals, Madoff-like frauds, greedy society swells and social climbers, amid a general atmosphere of scandal, dishonesty, and moral decline. See what I mean about it being published yesterday?

Trollope wanted to make a moral point by satirizing what he saw as a society in moral ruin. He said, "If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel."

David Suchet as the great Augustus Melmotte
There are multiple plots and sub-plots, and while much of the action revolves around the great financial wizard Augustus Melmotte, the man himself doesn't make much of an appearance until the final third of the book. Melmotte has a shady background (he might be--horrors!--a Jew), lax moral behavior, and a very modern way of doing business. He invests in an American railway concern without actually putting any money into it, then sells the shares that increase rapidly in value simply because the great Melmotte has invested in it. He buys an elegant London home from a desperate and nearly penniless Lord, takes title, then turns around and mortgages it for more money than its worth. He's a powerful character, compellingly ugly and low. Unfortunately for Trollope, but lucky for the reader, it's a low characters in the book who are far more interesting. The moral points of view belong to only a few, and they are a rather dull bunch. I found Melmotte's daughter Marie, who he is assiduously trying to marry off to a future Marquis, a wonderful character. She goes from being in love with a simpleton, just because he's pretty, to standing her ground against her strong-willed, abusive father, and marrying finally, the man she chooses.

Trollope apparently agreed about his immoral characters being of greater appeal to the reader. "The interest of the story," he once wrote, "lies among the wicked and foolish people."

Melmotte is a low scoundrel, but he's an entertaining, vivid, low scoundrel. He's a man with juice, and I'd rather read a story about a juicy low scoundrel than a dull and proper man of morals.

I'm looking forward to watching the 2001 BBC mini-series made of the novel, with a great cast (David Suchet, Cillian Murphy, Matthew Macfayden (Mr. Darcy!), and Miranda Otto, among many others).

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour Q&A

Jackie Clark Mancuso, the uber-talented author and illustrator of Paris-Chien, Adventures of an Expat Dog and the upcoming Hudson’s French Vacation: Paris-Chien in Provence invited me to join the Writing Process Blog Tour. It’s my turn this week, next week you can check out another mega-talented friend and author Amy Kathleen Ryan (the Sky Chasers trilogy—Glow, Spark, and Flame—as well as Vibes, Zen and Xander Undone, and other books), on her blog, amykathleenryan.blogspot.com.

Since I’m still reading book #29 (it’s 800 pages, thank you very much, and I’ve had a lot of company lately) (thank goodness I built in some extra days), I’m glad to have something to write about in between booking and cooking posts. Stay tuned for the recipe for the super-simple and super-delicious clams with escarole and bacon that I made a couple of nights ago. And another book soon, I promise.

What am I currently working on?
I think it’s a jinx to talk about anything I’m working on, so I won’t be specific. Also, since it took me 10 years to get my first book written and published, I’ve got a rather loose definition of “upcoming.” Suffice it to say that I write occasional poetry (which no one but me reads), blog posts, and I’m working on a novel loosely based on real life.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Jessica Lost, my memoir, differs greatly from most of its genre because it is two stories, intertwined, by two authors. Written in alternating chapters by my birth mother and me, the book tells her story of how she found herself at 20, alone and frightened, pregnant with a baby she could not keep. It also tells my story of finding her four decades later, and what it meant to both of us to lose and then regain these missing pieces of ourselves.

Why do I write what I write?
I have to give an answer appropriate to a blog about books. I write what I write for the same reason I read what I read: to understand the world and learn how to live in it better. I choose books based mainly on strong, compelling, well-crafted characters, and that is what I hope to write. I also like to be moved—to laughter, tears, anger, any emotion, really—and look for vivid emotions in books I read and books I write.

How does my writing process work?
Slowly. There are always so many better, more interesting things to do, like reading, or Candy Crush, or washing my hair. I struggle with narrative, with character development, and with endings. Beginnings are easy, middles somewhat less so. But endings…endings are misery. I try to write every day, even if just a diary entry, but I don’t always achieve it. The world calls…I must answer. 

Remember to visit Amy's website next week for her responses to the questions at amykathleenryan.blogspot.com. And check out her terrifically entertaining books. 

The Sky Chasers trilogy by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

That’s one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature, the first sentence of book #28, Rebecca, by British author Daphne du Maurier. In fact, that great opening line (so rhythmic, so melodious, so pull-you-in creepy) is on this website’s list of the top 20 opening lines in literature, sandwiched between The Hobbit and 1984. But Rebecca is so much more than just an opening line. It’s deep and mysterious, dark and passionate, a tale of secrets and hauntings. The rich, handsome, and haunted estate of Manderley is as much a character as its owner, the rich, handsome, and haunted Maximillian de Winter. Manderley is filled with the ghost of its former mistress, the perfectly elegant, accomplished, stunningly beautiful Rebecca, a woman beloved by all, admired by all. She’s dead, but her spirit lives on in the house, its beautiful grounds, and, most of all, the memory of the hostile, evil housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. The unnamed second wife, the narrator of the tale, walks timidly into this dark, twisted world, and we walk with her, the tension building as we compulsively turn the pages. I’ve seen the movie many times (Hitchcock did a terrific job translating the spirit of the book into celluloid) but even though I knew every reveal, every surprise, and the ending, I couldn’t put the book down. What a story, what a writer. Read the book, see the movie.

Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in Rebecca

Judith Anderson as the creepy Mrs. Danvers