Monday, November 16, 2009

Black and White and Dead All Over by John Darnton

This was another book group selection.  Normally I wait until closer to the meeting so I won't forget anything, but we're low on copies so I decided to start it right away so I can return it for someone else on the wait list.  Plus, I was looking for another excuse to put off reading Jude the Obscure, the selection for one of my online groups, which I have been dreading.  I did vote for it, months ago, but now that it's time to actually make the committment to reading it, I'm worried.  But that's fodder for another blog.

I haven't been reading that many crime books or thrillers since I've been on my Literary Fiction/Classics obsession, but I was vaguely interested in this since Once Upon A Time I had aspirations of a career in journalism.  I even went so far as to select it as my college major, which included an internship at a small paper in a small city in Michigan -- though nothing nearly as complex or fascinating as The New York Globe in this novel [a thinly veiled version of the New York Times] but we did actually have presses and editors and deadlines and whatnot, though this was in the days before the Interwebs.

The premise of this is book is intriguing -- a much-disliked editor is killed in the newsroom, with an enormous cast of supporting characters with various motives, which provides the author with endless opportunities to create cliched characters and thinly veiled counterparts to the actual NYT times employees.  However, I think he was so busy making up clever names for them, and satirizing the decline of print journalism, he forgot how to write a coherent mystery. There are way too many supporting characters, most of them poorly developed, and they popped in and out of the story so fast I couldn't keep track of most of them. Some of them are so briefly introduced with so little explanation, that when they finally reappear at the end of the book that I had no idea who they were. I felt as if I should have taken notes -- and the book's not that long, only 350 pages!  It's not like a Charles Dickens novel -- Bleak House [one of my personal favorites] -- is almost 1000 pages long and was published serially over 18 months, and includes about 40 principal characters.  In that case, I feel that notes are justified.  Not so much with this book.

And the thing that bothered me the most is how sexist the characters were -- all the female reporters are sluts or bitches, or both, and apparently they can't possibly write anything but fluff pieces or get promoted unless they've slept their way to the top or both.  In the non-reporter female roles, the murder victim's assistant is a dried up old spinster, the protagonist's estranged girlfriend is a shrew. . . the only remotely likeable female character was the detective assigned to the case, because she's the love interest for our intrepid reporter Jude --who, naturally, solves the case. Because, obviously, women should just aren't smart enough to do that, and should stick to their assigned roles as the love interest. Annoying.

I'm not even going to attempt to describe the plot, but I will mention that there are various subplots which I suppose are satirizing/exposing the difficulty of putting out a newspaper, the good old days of journalism, plaigairism, the dumbing down of the media, tabloid journalism, corporate takeovers. . . shall I go on? I didn't think so. If you like convoluted mysteries, I won't spoil it for you, and if you don't, don't bother. On Goodreads, I gave it 1 1/2 stars.  At the time I was reading it, I didn't hate, but now I really wish I had those hours back.  Maybe Jude the Obscure would have been the better choice after all.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Portugese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith

Lately, I'm feeling really overwhelmed by my to-read lists.  And all the unread books sitting on my shelves, making me feel guilty by their mere presence.  And of course, all the thousands of books that tempt me every time I go volunteer at my local library branch.  I love helping out, but every time I go in the stacks to shelve or search for books, it's as if there are thousands of tiny little voices saying, "Pick me! Pick me!"  And of course, I can't help myself, sometimes I impulsively check out books that -- gasp! -- aren't on the list.

A couple of weeks ago I was searching in the audiobooks aisle and two ladies were discussing this book and how funny it was.  I've read quite a bit of McCall Smith's works, but never gotten around to these (I love the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, but I'm indifferent to the Isobel Dalhousie and 44 Scotland Street series). If nothing else, I've always been amused by McCall Smith's witty titles -- the other books in series are The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs and At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances; my favorite titles in his other series include Morality for Beautiful Girls and Tea Time for the Traditionally Built.

This book is a nice, light read, a welcome respite between weightier works.  There's not even a real plot, just a series of vignettes about the life of Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, a rather pretentious, self-absorbed professor of philology (I admit, I had to look that up -- it's another word for linguistics).  His claim to fame is the seminal work on Portugese irregular verbs, and one story about the book is a good example of Dr. von Igelfeld's ridiculousness.  Although almost a thousand copies of this tome have been printed, the publishers have sold only 200, and at the current rate they won't sell out for more than 100 years.  The publishers then contact Dr. von Igelfeld, suggesting that they sell the books to an interior decorating firm, who would like to use the books (with a slight change in the title) as fodder for their clients' bookshelves -- basically, turning this academic achievement into mere furniture.  He is of course outraged, and decides to suss out his friends to see if they've actually purchased his book.  The results are both amusing and a little touching. 

The book contains eight short stories (all numbered in German) about Dr. von Igelfeld and his slightly ridiculous colleagues, and it's illustrated with charming woodcuts which give it a vaguely European feel.  Some of the stories are funny (like when the three colleagues attempt to learn how to play tennis from an instruction book), and some I found a little pointless. The best thing about this book is McCall Smith's great sense of irony.  None of the stories are particularly related to one another, and this makes it easy to pick up now and then.  I wouldn't call it laugh out loud funny, but I smiled, I smirked, and I even snorted once or twice, so I would call it worth reading, if you need a little change from your usual books.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

There Will Never Be Another You by Carolyn See

This is an odd book.  Interesting, well-written, but odd.  I'm having a hard time figuring out how to describe it, much less review it.  Quite frankly, I don't think I would have ever chosen this book on my own, but it was the selection for my Real People book group.  (Where we meet and discuss -- face-to-face!!  Like in the olden days.)  But here goes: The book starts out with Edith, (first person narrator) a sixty-four year old woman, who is dealing with the immediate loss of her terminally ill husband, who had apparently died in their Los Angeles home the night before.  She wakes up early and starts cleaning the house of all the parephernalia of his illness, shocked and grieving, wondering what's to become of her.  Sounds like the beginning of a heartfelt domestic-type novel, right?  Wrong.  Meanwhile, the phone is ringing off the hook.  In her grief, she could care less about talking to anyone.  When she finally answers, it is her son telling her to turn on the television.  It is the morning of September 11, 2001. 

So then, I thought, okay, this is a book about how terrorism is changing our daily lives, with Edith as the main character.  Wrong again.  The action then cuts to Edith's son Philip (third person narrator), an unhappy dermatologist working at UCLA medical center.  He's kind of just coasting through life, not wanting anything too challenging either professionally or personally -- he chose dermatology because it was less messy and difficult than other specialties, and he puts up with his spoiled wife's whining because her brother's a divorce lawyer and he's not smart enough to hide his assets and ditch her.  (Seriously. It says so, page 52, second paragraph.)  Plus, they have two kids, a teenage girl who has nothing but contempt for her dad, and a ten-year-old son who is so seriously messed up, no private school wants him and he'll be forced to go to a public school.  Wow.  Phil's life sucks. 

Phil's not all bad though -- he really loved his stepfather (i.e., Edith's most recent husband) and did his best to help out through his terminal illness.  So there is a glimmer of hope for Phil.  But now, the book starts to feel like a literary domestic novel.  But wait!  There are hints and undertones of some serious medical problems on the horizon -- mysterious dead cats, intrigue at the lab, and a colleague who suddenly goes on a permanent vacation.  Is this book actually about some kind of bioterrorism or undiscovered plaugue.  I thought, okay, this book is now a medical horror/mystery/drama, i.e., Michael Crichton-esque or about some kind of nasty disease like Ebola as a metaphor for life.  Or maybe some kind of dystopia like a Margaret Atwood novel.  However, this book is only 256 pages, not a lot of time left to set up a whole alternative future.

Well, that wasn't it either.  Without giving away the rest of the book, I will say it did not turn out at all as I expected.  In retrospect, some events are cleverly foreshadowed, but there are some extraneous events and several loose ends that never seemed to resolve.  It's not a bad book, to say the least.   It's a pretty easy read, the writing is good, and Carolyn See does an excellent job at creating characters and scenes without a lot of silly fluffy descriptive writing.  As a contrast, I recently attempted to read the latest Dan Brown novel, The Lost Symbol.    I put it down in a snit after 80 pages, I just could not put up with the ridiculousness and bad writing. Dan Brown's idea of creating a character pretty much consists of describing their clothes and dropping in a lot of brand-names, which to me is a sign that the writer couldn't think of anything else.  Not so with Carolyn See.  She doesn't tell you so much as show you, without a lot of extra garbage. 

And somehow, I actually sympathized with poor Dr. Phil.  He's not a very interesting character, but Carolyn See made me care enough about him, and his mother, to find out what would happen, which I find admirable.  It's tough to make readers want to finish a book about annoying characters that they basically dislike. 

As I mentioned earlier, I read this book because it was the monthly selection of my book group, which met yesterday.  Nobody loved it, a few people (including the coordinator) really hated it, but if nothing else, we had a great discussion about it.  And we had seventeen people show up, which is the biggest book group I've ever attended.  This group is held at  the public library, so it's open to anyone, but never know how many people will show up.  And there weren't even enough copies for everyone.  So, hats off to our book group and our coordinator Wendy for her choice.   I may not have loved this book, but I certainly don't regret reading it. 

A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot

This book has been on my to-read list since I watched the DVD several years ago.  Lately, I've been trying really hard to be strong and only read books that are A) on my bookshelves, unread or B) for a book group. However, I was volunteering at the library last week, and I could not help myself, the book went into my book bag and I finally gave it the attention it deserves.

In a way, I really dislike seeing the movie adaptation of a novel first, because then I have a preconcieved notion of the characters, locations, etc.; however, I only very dimly remembered hearing about this book before I watched the movie, which is wonderful. It's actually tough to say which is better, since I watched it about four years ago, but it really stuck in my mind and I've been wanting to read the book ever since. But is it literary snobbery to only read books, and pooh-pooh film adaptations, especially if they're wonderful?  Discuss!

Anyway, back to the novel:  This is a historical fiction/mystery novel about a young Frenchwoman, Matilde, who is searching for answers about her fiance's death during WWI.  In 1919, two years after Matilde's fiance, Manech, supposedly died at the front, Matilde receives a letter from a dying soldier, who has information about the day Manech died.  Matilde, who's been unable to walk since she was three, visits the soldier, Esperanza, at the hospital, where he confesses that Manech, along with four other soldiers, didn't die in the line of duty -- they were court-martialed and convicted for self-inflicted injuries.  Instead of execution, the five convicts were sent to the front and pushed into the no-man's land between the trenches, where they died in the crossfire. Esperanza was the soldier who wrote out and mailed five farewell letters the condemned men sent to their loved ones. 

Esperanza gives Matilde copies of all the original letters, but she isn't satisfied, and begins digging deeper into the story.  She becomes convinced that Manech, and perhaps others, somehow survived.  She begins to investigate the mystery, writing letters to the families of the men and placing ads in newspapers.  Her family is wealthy and she uses their considerable resources to aid in her quest.

I found this to be a really intriguing mystery, as well as a romantic story.  Matilde is dogged in pursuit of the truth.  Much of the story is told in letters and interviews she has with other soldiers who witnessed the event and the lost soldiers' families and friends, so there are a lot of different viewpoints and opinions by different characters.  This approach really reminded me of how many different truths can exist, even if it's all the same event, especially amid the confusion and horror of war, and how narrators in books can sometimes be unreliable. 

The only difficulty I had with this book was that I did find it a little difficult keeping some of the characters straight -- besides the five soldiers, who have their given names, plus the nicknames given by their comrades, plus the other soldiers who were witnesses, plus family members. . . and they're all French, of course.  After a few chapters I began to wish that I had made a running list of all the characters and taken notes as I went along.  However, I can't say that I blame the author, it's probably my fault for not paying better attention at the beginning. 

I loved this book, and I was just as drawn in by the characters and the mystery while reading it as I did when I watched the movie. I really felt like I was right there, experiencing everything in France right along with Matilde and the soldiers.  I'm only sorry I took so long to finally read it, and I'm going to watch the movie again as soon as I go pick it up from the library.  After I watch it I'll report back and see if the movie holds up as well to the book.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Before I started reading classics, the idea of Victorian novels made we want to run screaming from the room -- I always thought they were long and boring and full of sentences that never end.  Well, I'd be lying if I said there weren't any Victorian novels like that, but The Woman in White is definitely NOT one of them. 

For a 600+ page book, this is a quick read.  I brought it with on my trip to Philadelphia, and found myself reading it every night with a flashlight (so as not to disturb my traveling companion).  It's a real page turner, and some nights I was up pretty late since I had to find out what happened next.  Between the late nights and the plane ride, I zipped through 300 pages of this book in less than a week -- pretty good considering I had other books and was busy with lots of convention activities.

A quick summary of the setup, without spoilers:  the hero, Walter Hartright, has been hired for several months as an art instructor for two sisters at a wealthy English estate in the country.  The night before he's scheduled to depart, he's out for a midnight walk, and encounters a mysterious woman in white who is desperate to escape someone or something, she won't say what.  He helps her find a carriage and then she mysteriously disappears, leaving him naturally curious.  After he arrives in Cumberland for his new post, he discovers that this mysterious woman is somehow connected to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, one of the two sisters, with whom he falls madly in love.  The story becomes a page turning thriller, with mystery, deceit, crime, and some excellent plot twists.  I don't want to say too much for fear of spoiling the story.  And if you decide to read this book, please, don't read the explanatory end notes, which include spoilers -- so irritating!  It's hard enough to avoid spoilers nowadays without having them included in the book itself!!

Anyway, one of the most interesting aspects of this book is the use of multiple narrators.  I don't know if Collins was the first novelist to use this technique, but he does it really well.  What I found particularly interesting is that the range of narrators includes not only the hero but minor characters like the housekeeper, and villainous characters as well, so you get everyone's side of the story.  It also made me wonder how reliable some of the narrators are.  Collins also uses this technique in another of his most famous works, The Moonstone, which I read several years ago for an online classics group.  At the time I liked it, but it didn't really make much of an impact, unlike The Woman in White, which I consider to be the superior book.

My only complaint about this book is that the love interest, Laura, is so underdeveloped -- a problem which I also have with Dickens.   The reader has absolutely no information about Laura and why Mr. Hartright (another punny name, much like those used by Dickens and Trollope) is so in love with her, except she's beautiful.  Was that all that was necessary for Victorian male authors?  In almost every Dickens work I've read, the female love interest is beautiful and boring, almost vapid.  By far the most interesting character in The Woman in White  is Laura's half sister Marian, who is quickly described as mannish and unattractive, if not downright ugly.  But she's smart, loyal, and resourceful, and she's one of the first private detectives in literature, if not the first female detective.  So is Collins implying that smart women are ugly?  That bothered me.  Maybe intelligence was considered an inherently masculine trait and therefore Marian couldn't possibly both be smart AND attractive.

The Woman in White is the selection for my library's classic book group this month (a face to face group! with real live people!).  Originally I was going to wait and publish this review as part of The Classics Circuit, but my review is supposed to appear in early December, and frankly, I just couldn't wait that long and I really want to read more Collins.  I was pleased to discover my public library has quite a few of his works available, including some that I'd never heard of (like The Evil Genius -- sounds intriguing!  So theres Collins aplenty coming up soon. New postings start tomorrow.