Sunday, August 26, 2012

In the Woods

Tana French's police procedural set in Dublin won an Edgar and has genuine literary ambitions, not pretensions. It is a layered novel with a depth of characterization seldom found in mysteries and a rare descriptive power.

That said, I have several issues with it. In terms of style, I find it generally overwritten, with too many adjectives and adverbs and long, flowery sentences. Partly for this reason, it is at 429 pages at least 100 pages too long, if not more.

But that is not the only reason. The narrator/protagonist, Rob Ryan, spends an interminable amount of time ruminating on himself in an increasingly narcissistic fashion. These self-therapy sessions are too long and repetitive.

It is venturesome for a woman to write a first-person male character, and this male detective has noticeably feminine sensibilities. The result is to make this a chick-lit version of the hard-boiled detective novel, explaining why it is so popular with book clubs and why it came with such an enthusiastic recommendation from a woman friend. Just as a woman character written by a man is most often a fantasy version of how a man pictures what goes on in a woman's mind, this is something of a fantasy about how the male mind works. Ryan's thoughts and preoccupations simply do not ring true, nor do his reactions to developments in his relationship with his detective partner, Cassie Maddox.

That is just the prerequisite for a more serious criticism. A mirror image of this book -- one written by a man with a woman protagonist portrayed in the way French handles her male character -- would be attacked as misogynist. The men in this book are either super saps or simpletons and the reader ends up having very little sympathy for any of them. Ryan is the sappiest, but he's not the only one, while fellow detective Sam O'Neill is a simpleton. The women characters, as a rule, are much better drawn and more convincing.

French's literary ambition trumps her skill as a mystery writer because the plot is ultimately unsatisfying. The actual solution is fairly obvious from the beginning and most of the book is devoted to a red herring the size of a whale -- which is not the role of red herrings in a mystery. The whole premise of the book -- that Ryan and Maddox randomly catch a case that has such reverberations with his past -- is far-fetched and their approach to the case requires too much suspension of disbelief.

The Irish setting is interesting and the procedural details are mostly convincing. One jarring note for an American reader is French's Irish preoccupation with smoking. The characters live in the era of mobile phones but enjoy their smokes as though there was never any evidence that cigarettes cause cancer. It might well be realistic but it can be as off-putting for an American reader as someone lighting up in the living room.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Are my bookshelves obsolete?

Here is my new posting at the Washington Independent Review of Books:

I’ve accumulated hundreds of books over the years, and most of them are proudly displayed in bookcases adorning several rooms in my house. I’ve read most of these books; others are waiting for that moment when they will be just what I need or want to read.
Periodically, I cull the collection and give some of my books away for a library sale. Sometimes I regret it, when something comes up that makes me want to look at one of the  books again.
But in my last bout of book removal, a new question occurred to me: Do I really need to keep so many books in the age of e-books and print on demand? Increasingly, no book is really out of print. Even if I might someday want to look again at a book I’ve read, I could easily obtain a new copy.
The point was driven home to me as I mulled whether to give away my precious collection of Travis McGee books. I bought them in the U.K. mass paperback edition more than 30 years ago when I was living in Europe, and I’ve lovingly packed and unpacked them through several moves, along with other collections of mystery series.
In his new novel, Madman’s Thirst, Larry De Maria mentioned John D. MacDonald’s classy writing in the Travis McGee series, and I thought maybe I should pick up one of the old books and read it again. So I selected one at random and discovered, to my surprise and dismay, that the print was so small and the pages so yellowed it was virtually unreadable with my older eyes. Large print in mass paperbacks is a relatively new phenomenon, catering, I suppose, to the boomer audience.
But, it turns out, the Travis McGee series is readily available in a new mass paperback edition for $7.99 a novel — the price of two Starbucks cappuccinos. So I obtained a new copy of the first novel in the series, in much larger print and on much whiter paper, to see if I really did want to re-read these stories.
But what a disappointment that the book on my shelf was no good to me! It was like a wine aficionado discovering that a vintage bottle stored in the cellar for years had turned to vinegar.
My book collection consists of a lot of fiction, a large batch of nonfiction books, most of which I acquired in connection with my work as a journalist or for research on my own books, and a good many cookbooks.
Let’s say I keep the books I haven’t read yet and some of the cookbooks, but acknowledge the reality that I can let go of the rest, knowing that virtually any book is retrievable if I want to re-read or consult it again. I could empty my bookshelves and get rid of most of my bookcases.
But that would be a big change for me. My vision of an intellectual — an academic, a writer, any reader — is of bookcases stuffed with books, stacks of books on available flat spaces, books lining a wall and creating their own colorful patterns.
Now, however, my entire book collection could be easily held on a Kindle or an iPad, in a more accessible and often more readable format than the heavy, cumbersome print editions I’ve schlepped around for decades. Today’s intellectual has a sleek Mac on a bare desk.
Those shelves lined with books fulfill an additional function, though. In another sign of age, or perhaps just information overload, I have trouble sometimes remembering what books I’ve read. The passive knowledge is there. If someone mentions a book, I can usually remember whether I read it or not. But the active knowledge, the memory of knowing what titles I’ve read, which books I particularly liked or which, indeed, I may want to read again — that may or may not be there on any given day.
Then all I have to do is go to my bookcase, look along at the familiar titles, those volumes that I’ve packed, unpacked and shelved so often, and I remember that, yes, indeed, I liked those Travis McGee books  the vicarious thrill of living on a houseboat in Florida, taking  retirement in installments, fishing with a philosopher friend named Meyer, even though I don’t particularly like boats, Florida or fishing. It doesn’t matter if I don’t or can’t pick up that particular book and read it again. Just seeing it on the shelf is enough to bring it all back.
My bookshelves are an index to my life as a reader — something like an external hard drive, I guess. If they are obsolete, so am I.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Reader's block

Not sure if this is similar to writer's block or if it even really exists, but I'm having trouble finding a book that keeps my interest. I know that reading can be moody -- sometimes you're just in the mood for one kind of book or writing and not for others -- but I'm having more trouble keeping my interest in books that I'm happy to start.

For instance, I discovered the limits of my enthusiasm for Candice Proctor, after finishing the three books she co-authored with her husband Steve Harris under the pseudonym C.S. Graham, by plunging into the first of her historical novels featuring Sebastian St. Cyr, What Angels Fear, which she writes under the name C.S. Harris. As with the other series, this is well-written, with vivid descriptions and good sense of place, though perhaps a little richer with adjectives and adverbs. What I realized as I got further into the book, however, is that this is closer to the romance fiction the author writes under her own name than it is to the thrillers I like. While not exactly a bodice ripper, there's a bit too much focus on the characters' attractive attributes and the plot itself seems overladen with the interactions between people rather than the mystery lurking there somewhere. In short, the author fails to sustain any sense of real suspense as she gets caught up with St. Cyr's relations with his former lover. So I've abandoned it for now.

Because I really liked the four books by Jess Walter that I've read, I've had a fifth, Land of the Blind, sitting on my shelf for sometime. This is his second published novel and features the Spokane detective from his first novel, Over Tumbled Graves, Caroline Mabry. Or so I was led to believe. In fact, Mabry, at least in the first part of the book, is only the frame for what becomes a first-person coming of age story by a somewhat unsympathetic individual that is picked up as a homeless derelict. It still benefits from Walter's glittery prose, but I found myself developing a distaste for the character and the world he inhabits. This may be a tribute to the author's creative power, but the fact is I'm not in the mood to be in that world right now. It is a legitimate plot device -- though of course a stretch to accept that this derelict is actually writing out the narration on a legal pad -- but it's a bit of a bait and switch as far as I'm concerned. In addition, while it is accepted in detective fiction for the protagonist to the anguished and depressed, Mabry is a bit too downbeat considering we don't get to see much of her. Perhaps the book goes on to give her a greater role and a way out of her funk, but that will have to be for another time.

So now I've gone back to my iPad and my collection of indie e-books, returning to Red Right Return by John Cunningham, a first-person story about a discredited pilot based in Key West. So far, so good, so we'll see if he can get me over my reader's block.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Gore Vidal in memoriam

Gore Vidal seemed such a force of nature it was surprising to hear that he died at age 86. He has been in some respects a role model for me as a writer. I admired his graceful style, his trenchant analysis and wit, his versatility as a writer of satire, historical fiction, screenplays, and essays.

However, I often found his novels cold and soulless, more about style than feeling. Julian I liked for his irreverence, and Lincoln and Burr for making these historical figures so real. I liked the left-wing slant of his political and social criticism. His notion that the Establishment runs the country with the president as a front man has never been more apt as in this age of Citizens United and a candidate as robotic as Mitt Romney.

I also liked his epicurean lifestyle (though not his sexual libertinism) and his long sojourn in Ravello. How long will any of his work last? Does Gore Vidal have any sort of legacy, literary or otherwise? Hard to say. I don't think his books are great literature and he may be one of those larger than life characters that people will look back at and scratch their heads at why he seemed so prominent.

But he was a witty, intelligent renaissance man, a prodigious writer, and an important ingredient in the tempestuous cultural milieu of my generation. His time is past and he probably will not be greatly missed, but the qualities of skepticism, irony and irreverence he brought to both his fiction and nonfiction are more important than ever in these days of political polarization.