Monday, August 15, 2011

The 27th Reading List

July 2011

I belong to a monthly book club that once was the Dim Sum Book Club because we met for Dim Sum, sat around a big round table, chose our little tidbits of pork or shrimp, and talked about the workings of one novel or another, to the grand total of ten bucks per person for plenty of food.  For January, we were to read The Imperfectionists by Thomas Rachman.  I saw that Amazon was offering it on the Kindle for $5.00.  I had just purchased a Kindle for April whose fibromyalgia makes holding a book an excessive burden on her wrists.

So what’s it like to read a novel on a Kindle?  First, the negatives.  You're not holding a book anymore.  You don't have the tactile sense of length (that a chapter has four more pages to go or that you’ve consumed one half of the book).   The book no longer has a design, no special font, no special symbols to mark a break in scene.  There's no art to the layout, no design to the font, only the words themselves.  You can't easily glance back to the last chapter to check if Ferdinand is married to Gertrude while have the affair with Broomilda or if it’s the other way around.  There’s a search function, but that can only tell you the 110 placed where you can find the word Ferdinand; it doesn’t have the memory of where in the geography of the novel is the key detail to remind you of Ferdinand’s relationships.  In a sense, you have words before your eyes, but you no longer have an entire book in your hands.

Now, the positives.  My friend and colleague, Nathan Burch, told me that you somehow read faster on a Kindle.  That proves to be true.  You just have the words, right in front of you, and you zip right through them.  And you get a true sense of how something works as a story.  You don’t know how long a chapter will be, and a plot complication can be building to something new or leading to the climax of the chapter.  Looking ahead on a Kindle is a pain, so you live in the moment as the story progresses.  In a certain way, the Kindle immerses you more directly into the text and the story.
I'm having trouble reading with glasses, and so the fact that I can find a text size I like makes Kindle great.  I read now without any kind of eyestrain, so this has been my most physically pleasant reading experience in months. For twice the cost of a Kindle I can get prescription reading glasses.

The Kindle comes with the Oxford American dictionary, so it’s a cinch to look up a word (no putting the book down, no grabbing a dictionary or a laptop), and so I’m more prone to double-checking the meaning of a word I know but can’t define (or sometimes looking up I word I just don’t know).  Plus, the Oxford doesn’t only give definitions; it gives the word in sample sentences to help you understand the variations of a word’s meanings.

Which brings me to why Kindle is really great.  I downloaded one of my favorite Spanish novels, Juan Marsé’s Últimas tardes con Teresa.  Last Afternoons with Teresa is an important Spanish novel that's never been translated into English.  But with a Spanish-English dictionary now set as my primary dictionary, I can read it with great ease.  A good thing, because this novel is more vocab heavy than I remember.  Currently, I'm reading the novel much faster than I would if I had an electronic dictionary at my side.  Two minutes per page (a guess) rather than four minutes.

I think if the task of reading wasn't growing in difficulty, I would be less interested in the Kindle.  I would rather support writers and publishers and book designers.  I love the feel of a book.  Fortunately, due to my CPAC grant, I went overboard buying books this year.  David Hartwell, in the pages of the New York Review of Science Fiction, urges readers to buy books.  That I've done, so much so that the only way to honor my investment is to read them.  But I also live in a house whose third floor has so many books that our second floor ceilings have cracks.

But what about The Imperfectionists?  I ate it up, in part thanks to the Kindle, in part thanks to Rachman’s storytelling skills.  The novel is actually a series of stories featuring the staff of a dying international paper located in Rome.  While some Dim Summers complained that there weren’t many details about Rome, Rachman is an efficient storyteller, and you got the feel of being in Rome (and in Paris and on a transatlantic flight).  Rachman has a great sense of place, which he conveys through action rather than through description.  The stories alternate between sad and funny as each character copes with his or her own individual problem.  Each of the stories interlocks in fascinating ways, so each character gains depth as you get to know them through other eyes in other situations.  Rachman worked for a while on the International Herald Tribune, and he does a fine job of capturing the sense of working on a newspaper as the internet age opens a chasm under the feet of those who walk the terrain of the print world. 

I closed the school year with another novel on Kindle for Dim Sum, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.  Like The Imperfectionists, the novel is a set of interrelated stories.  This set of stories effortlessly hops back and forth in time between stories, but the center of the story is Bennie Salazar, a second-rate punk rocker in the 1980’s who becomes a leading (for a while) record producer.  The novel has an A side, about people moving forward in life, and a B side, about people coping with various failures.  Egan has a masterful sense of storytelling, and she’s willing to break the standard issue rules, so one story is in first person, another in third, another in second.  Dim Summers who read the book over time found it be a fractured experience.  I read it over the course of a few days, and all the cross references between different characters resonated like a finely struck chord.    

Although I’m not a big fan of most book awards (the Booker is the only one that seems to come up with a list that sustains itself over the years), A Visit from the Good Squad won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and is currently being developed into a series for HBO. 

I’m not a faithful member of the Dim Sum Book Club.  I sometimes will pick up a book in the library because something about it attracts me.  I’ve heard of the name of the author, I like the cover, or I’ve read some review that had disappeared from my mind until the book was just sitting there on the shelf looking at me.  That’s how I picked up Fame by Daniel Kehlmann, which is, believe it or not, another set of overlapping stories.  It opens with a man returning home from work.  His brand new cell phone rings, and someone asks for “Ralf.”  Then someone else calls, a woman, wanting to make contact with her errant lover.  How he handles that small, everyday problem--plus the question, Who is Ralf?--drew in my attention.  And very subtly, Kehlmann starts to raise issues of fame and how it touches us as well as the people who live with it.  The nine stories in Fame move along at a clip.  European writers don’t always spend as much time as their American counterparts trying to get you deep into the lived experience of the characters, which makes certain European novels short and engaging in different ways than American fiction.  There are nine stories in 175 short pages (the book is smaller than most trade paperbacks).  The best two are the first one, and one about a famous writer traveling with a doctor who’s busying trying to help people in need.

Kehlmann’s most famous book is Measuring the World, a historical novel set in the early 19th century, the birth time of modern science and world revolution.  The novel was a great bestseller in Europe; 1.4 millions copies were purchased in Germany alone.  The novel follows two scientific explorers.  Alexander von Humboldt wants to measure the actual world, to find things and name them.   We follow him and an assistant as they meet peril after adventure while traveling unmapped South America.  On the other hand, the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss doesn’t want to travel much of anywhere, but his mind wants to understand the shape of things with the same passion that von Humboldt feels.  Measuring the World does captures the mindsets of the early 1800’s; these aren’t modern people transported back into period clothing. But something about capturing the certainties of another time reminds us how uncertain we should be about today’s verities.   If this sounds too portentous, then just read the book because it contains two great adventures, one out in the field, the other in the mind.

Another library pick up was Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass, which I first heard about when it was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  One day, it was sitting there in the library.  I take home lots of library books.  I read a page or two and think, One day or, Not for me.

I read the opening sentences of Broken Glass, was taken in by the voice, by the connective tissue of the long sentences, by the lovely puns that took the form of titles of famous (mostly French) novels (the nice thing about watching a lot of French film is that I’m familiar with a lot of French literature without having read it; there’s a great pun involving Amelie Nothomb’s Fear and Trembling, which I only know through the movie with Sylvie Testud, but, of course, it could also be a reference to Kierkegaard).

Broken Glass is the nickname of a local drunk who clearly had some literary past, and one day the bar owner gives him a journal to write down the stories of those who come to the bar.  I love the first half of the novel as Broken Glass tells those other people’s stories.  They’re sad and they’re funny.  I laughed out loud when I read about the pissing contest.

The second half almost feels old fashioned, as Broken Glass circles in on the events that transformed into him Broken Glass.  The past explains everything about the present, and I'm not sure that notion holds true.  However, I was taken in with the section about the wife, and the bits about the terrible river that seems to wind through all of African history.  I hated one chapter’s too many references to Salinger; this chapter was my least favorite.  I’m not sure I like the pre-determined ending, but I did like the way Broken Glass talks another character out of considering a similar fate.

Another great dark comic novel (and another library pick-up) is Senselessness by Horacio Castellano Moyas (who now lives in exile in Pittsburgh), about a copy-editor who goes crazy while he proofreads the Human Rights report that covers all the political murders in an El Salvador-like country.  Like Broken Glass it’s short; like Broken Glass it has these wonderful sentences that snake through space and swallow everything whole.

Sometimes I borrow from the library.  Sometimes I abduct books. One abduction took place when I walked into the Sherman Library in our middle school, saw a copy of Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi.  Bacigalupi is one of the great new voices in science fiction, and I’d heard good things about his first young adult novel.  I consumed it in an evening.  Andy came home to visit, announced during a discussion that YA novels weren’t serious books, and I handed him Ship Breaker.  He read it just as quickly and decided YA could indeed handle important issues.

The novel is set in a near future when climate change has caused global flooding, and the end of easy oil has caused the collapse of civilization.  Huge oil tankers, now useless, have been washed ashore on new terrain of the Gulf Coast.  Nailer is a young man, small and thin enough, to make his way through the open ducts of such ship, taking out copper wiring and anything else of value that can be sold on market.  Nailer is virtually an orphan.  His mother has died, and his father is a drug addict looking for any opportunity to get ahead.  Nailer himself is hoping for some lucky strike that will help him start a new life.

One day, a terrible hurricane blows a clipper ship ashore, a high tech yacht belonging to a rich girl Nailer and his best friend, Pima, find near dead.  If she doesn’t survive, the ship can be their claim.  If they let her live, she could help them out in other ways or cause them a world of trouble.  Nothing in the novel at this point is certain as Nailer tries to make choices in the hardscrabble society of third world America.

If you like Ship Breaker, you may want to try The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi’s first novel for adults, and winner of the 2010 Nebula Award.  This novel, too, is set in a world where our systems of energy have collapsed and the waters have risen, but it’s a more complex, devastating world.  Whole foodstuffs have been ruined by genetic diseases, and those who have control of the food supply wield great power.  The three main characters are a pirate, infamous for raiding foreign ships in search of illegal technology.  There’s the Wind-Up Girl of the title, an artificial person, created in Japan, and considered both an exotic toy and a despised creature in Thailand.  Finally, there’s the American business who’s purchases on day in a Bangkok market a new fruit with no sign of blister rust or any other genetic affectation.  This means there’s a storehouse somewhere of genetically safe foodstuff somewhere in the area and finding it could lead to a great treasure.

Just as Ship Breaker took me to The Windup Girl, so very often I come to novels because of books I’ve loved in the past.

In 1990, Karen Joy Fowler came to teach creative writing for a spring term at Cleveland Sate University.  They booked her into a small apartment room in the Alcazar, an old-style hotel that served mostly as housing for seniors.  Once a week, April would cook dinner for Karen.  I ended up reading the manuscript of Sarah Canary, a novel that was being rejected by publisher after publisher.  On one level, it didn’t make sense.  The novel was great.  It’s set in late 19th century America, not a mirror held up today, but a different place, almost an alien landscape. The story is about Sarah Canary, a strange woman who seems to sing rather than talk (hence her name), and in the novel we follow various characters who intersect with her wanderings across the Pacific Northwest.  We never find out exactly who Sarah Canary is, but many sf readers will become aware right away that Sarah is an alien visitor, that her birdsong is alien speech, but of course no one in 19873 would be able to conceive of such a notion.   Why had so many publishers rejected Sarah Canary?  Well, the publishers were all science fiction publishers, and the novel didn’t feel anything like a science fiction novel, even though at its heart is a science fiction idea (the mainstream publisher, Henry Holt, however, later published the novel with great enthusiasm).

Much of Karen’s short fiction works along a similar line.  There’s a science fiction or a fantasy idea at the heart of a number of her short works, but the story itself doesn’t feel like science fiction or fantasy.  But it doesn’t quite feel like a realistic fiction either.  Just as magic realism served as a magnifying glass to see reality in a different way, Karen’s approach offers a different kind of prism, a different take on reality, almost a reminder that realism may not be the best lens with which to get at the inner workings of things.  Her recent collection, What I Didn’t See, is all about how we see things.  Each story is riveting in different, often quiet way.  A teenager is taken from her home to be sent to a retraining camp in “The Pelican Brief,” a masterpiece that I handed out to a number of fellow teachers the year it came out in an anthology.  A D.C. boarding house is over-run by strange people in the days following the Civil War.  The title story is a powerful account of a strange safari in Africa, but it’s the 1920’s, they’re hunting a unique animal, and their local attitudes, about animals, about men and women, and about each other sets the stage for what will take place. 

Last year I strongly recommended Fifty Grand by Adrian McKinty, which is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in the last ten years.  It had a strong plot, an indelible protagonist, and a keen sense of place.  This year his new novel, Falling Glass, came out from England (but you can order it on Amazon from a third party for a reasonable price; I was lucky that a doting cousin was willing to pick up a few books for me this spring while she was in Brighton on business).

McKinty’s new novel features Killian, a former criminal taking university classes in Dublin and trying to set his light straight.  But a real estate investment has gone south, he’s on the edge of losing everything, and the opportunity to earn some quick cash by tracking down the missing ex-wife of an important businesses man is too much to resist.  The ex-wife, however, is a drug addict who’s kidnapped her two children and disappeared from the grid.  Killian will discover she’s taken something important with her, someone thing so important that her ex husband has decided to hire a brutal hitman to find her as well and to make sure all lose ends are neatly tied up.

Falling Glass is not a perfect novel, but it’s a great read.  The conspiracy and the climactic shoot out are both a little over the top, and the Irish equivalent of roving gypsies is idealized (we witness how small groups can support their members; we don’t witness how small groups can become incredibly oppressive).  None of these flaws are reasons to skip this novel.   McKinty’s sense of place is unerring as ever, and the pacing is addictive.  I started this Friday night, and no longer able to stay up to 4 am to finish a novel, I finished it first thing Saturday morning.  There are three great set pieces, with building tension and culminating action, and I kept turning the pages, not quite sure who might survive.  McKinty has a young adult thriller called Deviant, coming out October 1.  I can’t wait.

After reading the McKinty novel, I was in the mood for more thrillers.  Michael Connelly had a new novel out.  I have mixed feelings about Connelly as a writer.  He knows how to plot, and he can create engaging characters.  But his prose is workmanlike, at best, and he hates ambiguity.  I’m not sure you can write great crime novels without some sense of ambiguity, and Connelly is hailed as one of our current greats.  But several years ago, I really liked 90% of The Lincoln Lawyer.  The prose zipped along, and it captured the venue of the defense attorney scrambling for clients with great verve.  I could almost forgive the ending in which the bad guy turns out to be the incarnation of malevolent evil, someone who exists better in a novel meant to entertain rather than in a novel meant to last (plenty of novels that entertain do last, but those built on cultural clichés often die out within a few decades).

The fourth novel to feature Mickey Haller feels written for the present times.  Haller has found new, rewarding business defending people from predatory banks eager to foreclose.  He gets the news one day that a bank officer has been murdered, and that one of Haller’s own clients is the key suspect.  On the plus side there’s something very fishy about the case.  Has his client been set up?  On the negative, there’s very little to like about the client as a person.

Connelly hates it when critics complain that he writes too quickly, but his assembly line process is evident here.  The defendant is a fascinating character, but the fact that she’s a teacher with an attitude is barely dealt with except for a few paragraphs here and there.  We never get to know her or some of the other characters.  Haller is the only character truly fleshed out as a person.  The scenes where the prosecution takes over move along, but one gets a sense that that the pace could be quicker.  We have to wait until Haller presents his case for the novel to move at the pace one hopes for from a thriller. 

What’s worst, however, is that Connelly doesn’t like defense lawyers.  They use scummy tactics to defend scummy people. When you get to the end of a Haller novel, you feel like you’re reading about a nice guy doing the wrong thing.  You’d never know how difficult it is for poor people to get adequate defense in these days of budget cuts, nor would you know of trials where the most guilty seem to do the least time and the least guilty do the most.  Nor in Mickey Haller’s world does the fear of sending innocent people to jail seem to balance the need to properly defend guilty criminals.  Everyone in this novel who does bad stuff turns out be a bad person.  No such things as a banker who forecloses who might be a really nice guy when he’s not sending poor people to join the rank of the homeless.  In great novels, the commission of human evil is done by human beings; the great novels remind us that very often we can become those people.  In genre novels we are told something more comforting, bad people do bad things.  Connelly, as dark as he gets, is a comforting writer.  But if could cut his books down by 20%, make then truly move all the way through, I wouldn’t have time as a reader to think about what’s missing.

Some quick takes on books I’ve read in previous years but forgot to write about:

In the early 1960’s crime writer Donald Westlake wrote a non-crime novel that his agent wasn’t too thrilled to sell, so it wasn’t available until Hard Case Crime published it after Westlake’s death.  The novel starts out in a hotel bedroom.  Paul Cole, an actor is making love with his costar when her husband breaks into the room and attacks him.  He wakes in the hospital bed with no memory of his past and a short-term memory that keeps fading out on him.  You might think Jonathan Nolan’s fine film, Memento, had been influenced by this novel.   But Nolan never saw the novel.  It languished in Westlake’s attic for several decades, unread by anyone but a few close friends.  After Westlake’s death, his widow and his friend, the crime writer, Lawrence Block, brought it to Hard Case Crime, who now bring it to you.

Memory is written in the taught sentences Westlake employed early in his career.  We want to see what happens as Cole tries to resurrect his memory and reconstruct his life.  Westlake gives great thought to how it might be to lose control of your memory and how it would affect each action, from finding your way home, to returning to your old career as an actor, to maintaining old friendships.  The novel slows down a bit in the middle (we soon get the idea that the city is a meaner place than the country and that theater people can be pretty mean when insecurities take over), but Cole’s situation has great power.  Westlake is a straight-forward writer, and it would have probably come as a surprise to him to be told that Memory a great existential novel.

There was a time that I dedicated the beginning of Thanksgiving Break to reading a Stephen King novel. I read Pet Sematary my first year teaching, Salem’s Lot the next.  The year I read “The Langoliers” killed it for me.  A great opening, some interesting middle material, and absolute silliness at the end (pac man like creatures eating reality, presented in a way that robbed all suspense).  I gave another novel a try, but King was clearly no longer being edited, and he could repeat the same ideas several times over the course of ten pages.  But at the end of his most recent novel, in an afterward, he praises his editor for reminding him when to keep the story going.  Ah, King being edited.  That might be good.

So I opened Under the Dome and found the opening to be perhaps a bit too quick.  I remember how well he established small towns in his early fiction.  But once a small New England town finds itself under some dome, cut off from the rest of society and left to its own fears and limitations, the novel moves right along.  King is great at creating local people, and his popularity probably grows out of his ability to capture the attitudes and hopes and habits of every day people dealing with not so every day situations.  His bad guys are equally vivid, but unfortunately, King might never be a truly great writer because you’d never find his nice town people doing bad stuff (unless under malignant influence), and his bad people always seem to sprout from some malignancy in their hearts, a brand of visionary selfishness that grows as things get worse.  King will be a great writer when he can create a Macbeth or Lear, great good people who end up causing terrible evil.  Others will complain about the end of the novel.  I liked it.  Since King was required, due to genre, to have an explanation for the Dome, he had to come up with something.  The novel was a fine Thanksgiving read, all one thousand pages of it.

Years ago I made a big deal about Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, a superlative work of storytelling, which my son Andy went on to read at least four times.  Finally, a kind of sequel emerged, dealing with similar issues, but set in the Barcelona of the 1920’s.  Andy read it last summer.  I fell asleep in a roadside hotel between Madrid and Barcelona, and when I woke up, Andy hadn’t slept a wink because he wanted to finish the novel.  The story concerns David Martín, a writer of penny dreadfuls.  But one day he is offered the opportunity to write something important, something that will influence lives in remarkable ways.  And the decision to take on this book comes with terrible consequences.

I hope everyone is having a great summer and finding some great books to read.

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