Where's the book?

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Go into the woods for #41

I bought this book because of the cover. I'm not kidding. It looked like such a cool cover that I just had to have it.

Luckily the book was cool too. The first book from Irish writer Tana French, it's a dual mystery story. The present-day mystery is of a 12-year-old girl who has turned up murdered on the site of an archeological dig in a Dublin suburb. The two investigating detectives are Cassie Maddox and Rob Ryan. And there's the second mystery. Twenty years earlier, three children disappeared in the woods in the same neighborhood. Only one was ever found, alive, clinging desperately to a tree, his shoes filled with blood, with no memory of what happened. That surviving child is Rob Ryan, then known as Adam.

The book is narrated by Ryan, who starts to crumble under the strain of investigating a murder in the same location as his childhood trauma. Memories from his haunted past begin to return, floating desperately outside his consciousness. There are wonderful characters, and both Ryan and Maddox are vivid and empathetic human beings. There are some flaws, particularly in the obvious lies of one of the people involved. They are telegraphed so broadly that it seems impossible that a supposedly intelligent detective like Ryan, even in his mentally addled state, would not see them as well as the readers do.

But there are some really gripping scenes and a few revelations that come as a huge surprise. And there were even a couple of moments where I found myself holding my breath. I would read more of French's work. Even if the covers are not as cool as this one.

But for now, I must face the other massive volume I promised to read this year: The Power Broker, all 1200 densely packed pages of it. I promised to read this book and War and Peace by year's end, and December 31st is coming at me fast. Better get back to reading...

Monday, December 19, 2016

Round the world with #39 and #40

#39, a slender volume, has been sitting in my to-read pile for ages. Mr. Gilfil's Love Story is by one of my favorite writers, George Eliot, but I'd never heard of it, so was fascinated. Turns out the book is actually one of the three long stories that make up Scenes of a Clerical Life, Eliot's first published work.

It concerns the life of a clergyman named Maynard Gilfil, and starts out with a long and rather dreary introduction to the Reverend Gilfil's lonely middle-aged life. I rarely find Victorian writing difficult to read, but this long opening passage (pages and pages long) made me understand why so many people find the Victorian novelists difficult.

George Eliot
One the story got underway it improved. Somewhat. Most of the tale flashes back to Mr. Gilfil's earlier life, when he was in love with a young woman named Caterina, the ward of a wealthy nobleman. But Catarina is in love with the nobleman's nephew and heir, who has made her love him but now plans to marry a more suitable woman. We already know from the dreary opening that things end badly for Catarina. She loses her love, marries Gilfil, but dies in childbirth, leaving Gilfil to live out his life a lonely, heartbroken man.

It's not a pick-me-up, and it never gets terribly interesting. I think in future I'll leave the other two "stories" from Scenes of a Clerical Life alone and stick to Eliot's novels instead.

#40 is not so slender, but equally uninteresting. Shipwreck, by Louis Begley, is a strange tale. It's told by the writer John North to an unnamed narrator he meets in a bar. We know nothing at all about the narrator who makes his appearance known only occasionally. The entire story is told by North. Since Begley does not use quotation marks, the few and far between moments when the actual narrator intervenes with a comment or thought can be startling and confusing, since you have almost completely forgotten about his existence.

The story North tells is of his moral disintegration (although I'm not convinced he ever had much in the way of morality to disintegrate). He has woken up one morning and decided that every word he has written is, basically, crap. In Paris for the publication of his latest novel he decides to be unfaithful--for the first time--to his wife, a wife, he says, that he absolutely adores. Since he claims to be fully satisfied in every way by his wife (who appears to be nothing less than a saint), the decision appears to be arbitrary and absurd. Of course, things don't go very well with the young woman he chooses for his fling. In fact, things get fairly out of hand. Along the way, we come to pretty much despise North, who is selfish, cold, calculating, nasty, and, perhaps, antisemitic.

The book has been sold as a sexual thriller, hot and heavy, but Begley's sex scenes are about as cold as North (just realized how well the name works). They are the farthest thing from erotica. In fact, it's really only North's evaluations of power and money, especially as it concerns his old-guard Protestant family versus his wife's wealthy Jewish bunch, that seem to pack any sort of punch. He is an amoral man who does so much wrong that he should be interesting, but unfortunately, he isn't. In a better author, one with some power in his pen, this could have been a roller-coaster ride of a story. Too bad.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

#38 Reading About Writing

He may not be the most brilliant writer, but he sure is prolific, and more than competent. In Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he has some smart, sensible words of advice to anyone who wants to write just about anything.

I had read the book about ten years ago, and was about to give it to a writer acquaintance of mine, so thought I should re-read it before sending it on its way. I am glad I did. I had completely forgotten that the first half of the book is a snapshot-y memoir of the events and people that influenced his development as a writer, beginning back in his early childhood. It's very entertaining, and vivid, and reads a lot like a King novel. The middle chunk of the book is his advice, which, like King himself (I like to think), is straightforward, unpretentious, and occasionally wise.

Writing is a craft, he says, hence the subtitle. King takes all the pomposity and pretentiousness out of writing. Work at it, he says, and you'll get better. Read a lot, write a lot. Don't stop writing for more than one day in a row. It disconnects you from your story and you lose the thread. Avoid adverbs. Close the door of your writing room (if you have one) and don't let yourself get interrupted. And use "said" in your dialogue tags, since readers don't really read that word anyway. Basically: be smart, work hard, and don't get all fancy-pants on us.

There's some good advice on finding an agent and getting published, although a lot of it is technically outdated in a world in which we send emails rather than letters. But conceptually, it works. And there's plenty of thanks to his mother and wife for his support of his writing over many years. I couldn't help thinking, when he says for the fifth time that you have to close the door and go to your desk and write every single day without allowing interruptions, that it's fine and dandy to do that if you have a wife who's taking the kids to school and doing the wash and going grocery shopping and making dinner. Otherwise, it's not so easy to get to the nice, quiet, solo space every day. Virginia Woolf sure had it right. Also Judy Brady.

The last section of the book is about his near-fatal accident in 1999, when he was hit by a van while walking along the road near his home in Maine. He thought it might be the end of his writing career. Luckily for all of his fans (me included), it was not.

Monday, December 12, 2016

#37 An modern immigration story

I love a good immigrant story. And I've read many about Indian immigrants, Italian immigrants, Jewish immigrants. But this may be the first I've read about an African immigrant: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Ifemelu, the narrator, is getting her hair braided in New Jersey, and telling us her story of her childhood in Nigeria, her arrival in America to go to college, and the years since. We also get excerpts from the blog she writes about life as a "Non-American Black" in which she explores Racial Disorder Syndrome (her term). The blog, and the book, are wonderfully written, finely observed, funny at times yet also sad, free of lectures and preaching, a truly individual story that is also universal. We also get the story of the man she left behind, Obinze, who has his own journey from Nigeria to London as an undocumented immigrant, and his eventual return to Lagos.

The story is beautifully written, with complex and fascinating characters, all of whom feel as real as the people you live with. My only complaint would be the back-and-forth to the hair braiding salon, which interrupts the flow of the very compelling story. I understand that Achebe wanted to contrast the narrators success in America with the difficult lives of the women in the hair salon--more stories of arrivals and their ability to adapt--but it felt distracting and unnecessary. But that's a minor quibble. Americanah is a marvelous, absorbing, and wonderful book that sticks with you for a long time.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

#36 A River Runs Through It

I knew it was a movie. And that it starred Brad Pitt. But I had no idea that the movie was based on a book--more a novella--by the author Norman Maclean, who I had never heard of. 

Maclean was a scholar, a revered professor at the University of Chicago who taught the Romantic poets and Shakespeare. When he retired in 1973, his children encouraged him to write the stories he liked to tell, many about growing up in Montana, his minister father, and fly fishing. This book, officially titled A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, was the first book of fiction published by the University of Chicago Press. 

The title story is beautifully written and completely absorbing, much of it about fly fishing and the relationships between two brothers and their minister father. The best way to describe it is to quote from an interview with Maclean in Esquire magazine from 1981:

Brad in the movie, young and gorgeous
"It is a story about Maclean and his brother, Paul, who was beaten to death with a gun butt in 1942. It is about not understanding what you love, about not being able to help. It is the truest story I ever read; it might be the best written. And to this day it won’t leave me alone."

In the same article, Maclean was quoted as saying:

"I thought for a while it was the writing that kept bringing it around. That’s the way it comes back to me: I hear the sound of the words, then I see them happen. I spent four hours one afternoon picking out three paragraphs to drop into a column I was writing about the book, and in the end they didn’t translate, because except for the first sentence—'In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing'—there isn’t anything in it that doesn’t depend on what comes before it for its meaning."