Where's the book?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Did it!

I said that I would do it and indeed I did. 

Says Henry Higgens and me.

Of course, he created a lady. I just read 52 books. Plus one extra for good measure. And there are still two days left. Who knows what I can do if I hurry (and do nothing else for 48 hours).

#52 Three Wishes, by Liane Moriarty

Another accomplishment this year -- I've read the complete oeuvre of Liane Moriarty, Australia's hot chick lit author. It's good chick lit (she protests), well written, often insightful, with interesting characters and compelling narratives that keep you turning pages. Her more recent books are much better than her earlier ones; you can actually see her learning from book to book. This is one of the earlier books, so it feels thinner than the later ones like Big Little Lies and The Husband's Secret (still my favorite). It's the story of three sisters, triplets in fact, who are celebrating their 33rd birthday against a rather tumultuous background. They fight, they suffer, they make up, they meet men, they lose men... the usual stuff. It's good entertainment, but not nearly as good as her later novels.

#53 Offcomer, by Jo Baker
I picked this up because I liked her latest, Longbourn, so much. This book was published here because of Longbourn's success, and it doesn't do Baker's reputation any good.
Offcomer is Baker's first novel, and it is also the Lancashire dialect's word for "newcomer." It's a slim story of a young woman who is lost in the world, caught in a sad, empty relationship with a pompous academic, nearly friendless, living in a strange city, working a dead-end job. To say that Claire suffers from low self-esteem would be putting it mildly. She cuts herself, bites her lips, pulls at her cuticles until they bleed, describes herself as ugly...she is so unkind to herself you want to call the cops to come take her away for cruelty.
The back-cover blurb says that it's set against the "backdrop of The Troubles in Northern Ireland." But there is literally not one mention of those Troubles. It also says she is "stunned by the recent emergence of secrets from her mother's past." The secrets are fairly lame, and in fact I had a hard time seeing why they were of any importance at all. It also says the book is "an honest and affecting work of real and quiet power." No way. It's rather dull and very depressing. There's a sense of repetition that becomes drone-like: "Claire knew she was a freak. She'd been born and grown up and lived her life so far without a skin. There didn't seem to be a line where she stopped and everything else began. Her surface was smudged and pulpy, too permeable." We get it. We get it.
Or check this out for unvarying sentence structure: "She heaved herself up off the bed, bent down again, slid her hand under a heap of clothes and crushed them up against her chest. She walked stiffly over to the chest of drawers. She opened each drawer in turn, then closed each of them again. Every one of them was full. Slowly, she turned to the wardrobe...She looked back across the room at the dark open mouth of her rucksack...She pushed the rucksack back into the corner. She picked up her mug..." I think I missed something because I was lulled to sleep.
Repetition can sometimes be powerful, it can build, it can ratchet up tension and emotion. In this case it's more like endless reportage. She did this, she did that, she did that again. Someone wake me up, please.
The book, like Claire, starts to seem trite. It feels like the same growing up all of us do, the same insecurities we conquer, the same low self worth we battle. Nothing pulls it out of the ordinary or makes it worth reading. Thank goodness Baker's talents grew.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The next-to-the-last-one four

I think I might actually make it. 52 books in 52 weeks. I’m on the last one now, and it’s a quickie (you’ll see why shortly). I might even get a head start on 2015, although I don’t think I’ll be trying for a book a week again (more about that later). In the meantime, before the grand finale, here’s a quick rundown of the latest:

#48 My Brilliant Friend, by Elana Ferrante
There’s been a lot of fuss about this book, the first in Ferrante’s Neopolitan trilogy. Critics love the books, which all came out in the US in the last couple of years. Part of the fascination is Ferrante’s anonymity. She uses a pen name, doesn’t give interviews, doesn’t promote her books. There is even some speculation that she’s not a she. The press just eats that up. But the book itself, for me, was not especially gripping. I found the stories of growing up in Naples in the 1950s – still  desperate postwar years in southern Italy – very interesting. But her writing style feels monochromatic, rhythmically bland, and the cast of characters is vast, too vast for me to connect with. She doesn’t give as much flavor or texture to her characters as she does to their living situations, and since I primarily read for interesting character, I found myself not caring a great deal about what happened. I don’t think I will read the second two books in the trilogy, but we’ll see. It’s hard to let go of the story of these two women’s lives when it’s ended so early. I might need to see how things turn out.

#49 The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald
Speaking of fuss, Penelope Fitzgerald, an author I never heard of until the last month, has been everywhere lately, even though she died in 2000. In fact, if you type the letters “p-e-n” into Google, she’s the first thing to come up – she's even ahead of Penelope Cruz! That’s some level of fame. It’s mostly due to the new autobiography by Hermione Lee that came out a couple of months ago and received all sorts of plaudits. But there also seems to be a resurgence of respect for an author who didn’t publish her first book until she was nearly 60 and then wrote one acclaimed book after another until she died at the age of 83. The Blue Flower is the fictionalized story of the poet Novalis, set in eighteenth-century Germany, and his love for Sophie, a twelve-year-old girl. He not only adores a child, she's a particularly dull, unattractive little girl. I didn’t find the delight in the story that so many readers and critics have; for me, it was as dull and unappealing as Sophie herself. I don’t think I’ll be visiting more of Ms. Fitzgerald’s work.

#50 The Last Anniversary, by Liane Moriarty
I guess that in addition to vowing to read a book a week, I should have also vowed to read the entire oeuvre of Australia’s Moriarty. Her books are perfect palate-cleansers after something more twisty and dense. This one centers on a long-ago mystery (a particularly easy one to unravel -- if I can solve it, you know it's easy) on a small island off of Sydney, and the family living there. It’s not as much fun as some of her others, but perfectly pleasant, like a nice light salad in between more elaborate feasts. 

#51 The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Apparently another vow I made this year, unbeknownst to myself, was to re-read the complete works of J.D. Salinger. It was a bit of a rollercoaster ride. Loved some (Franny and Zooey!), liked a few, not crazy about some, bored to tears by one (Seymour, an Introduction). Catcher in the Rye generated a middling response. I can certainly see why it was a groundbreaking novel. And I can also see why I loved it so when I first read it in high school. I remember feeling that Holden spoke for me – all that angst, all that anger, all that disaffection. But reading it again fortysomething years later generates a different reaction. Salinger brilliantly captures the tortured mind of an intelligent adolescent. But it’s so damn hard to hang out in the mind of that adolescent, who is, in addition to being intelligent, insufferable. Holden is me at 16. And maybe I just found out that, at 16, I was a prick.