Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Mentors, Muses, and Monsters, edited by Elizabeth Benedict

The subtitle of this book, 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, describes well its content--except that some of the chapters are about books or places rather than people. Still, most of the authors--some extremely well known (Jane Smiley, Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Gordon, Michael Cunningham, Denis Johnson, Anita Shreve, Julia Glass), others less so--do write about the people who most influenced them as writers.

Many of the authors write about teachers. For example, Alexander Chee writes about Annie Dillard, who taught him that "while I had spoken English all my life, there was actually very little I knew about it." He recounts her "fugues" on writing, as well as some of the exercises she assigned, the clothes she wore, and the way she smoked a cigarette and drank coffee from a thermos. By the time he had finished studying with Dillard, Chee "wanted to be her."

Julia Glass describes how she yearned for an editor who would be a taskmaster, someone along the lines of Maxwell Perkins. Yet, when her actual editor turns out to be a thoroughly nice poet named Deb, who "resists the easy cynicism that preys on most people involved in 'creative' pursuits" and is, in fact, the perfect collaborator for Glass.

Other writers pay tribute to writers or books who inspired them. Cheryl Strayed reflects on the importance Alice Munro held for her; Strayed studied "how she moved her characters in and out of a room, how she conveyed an emotion or a moment just so." When Strayed finally has the opportunity to meet Munro, she is unable to speak to her. Some inspirations are unexpected: Martha Southgate cites Harriet the Spy and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay as books that shaped her work.

Of course, not every influence was entirely positive. Lily Tuck's description of the tutelage of Gordon Lish puts him squarely in the monster category (at least in my view), where I also regretfully place Susan Sontag on the basis of Sigrid Nunez's essay. Even from "monsters," however, much was learned.

I found this a fascinating look into the sources of inspiration and the way in which writers read. After reading how these writers dissect a passage from a favorite writer makes me all too aware of how blind I generally am to the subtleties of the writing in the books I read. I'm inspired to read more closely (although perhaps lacking the skill to do so), be more aware of the author's work as I read.

Favorite passages:
You could think that your voice as a writer would just emerge naturally, all on its own, with no help whatsoever, but you'd be wrong. What I saw on the page was that hte voice is in fact trapped, nervous, lazy. Even, and in my case most especially, amnesiac. And that it had to be cut free.

Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, she said. Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time.

Alexander Chee, "Annie Dillard and the Writing Life"

...in the world's grays and sepias, in its shadows and lonely nights, a fine beauty is visible to the eye that stays open.

Denis Johnson, "On Fat City"

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Long Drive Home, by Will Allison

Driving home with his daughter in the back seat, Glen Bauer flips off a cop, has a confrontation with an armed man in an SUV, is nearly hit by a teenager in a Jaguar convertible, and then in a snit causes an accident that kills that same teenager and might well have killed himself and his daughter. Is it any wonder that he lies about the circumstances of the accident? Not at all.

Given Glen's impulsiveness, perhaps some of the ways in which his life steadily deteriorates after the accident are also not surprising. Yet they are painful, not only because they hurt him and his daughter, but because they are self-inflicted (with help from his wife).

Long Drive Home is a sad commentary on human nature. Unfortunately, the writing is not good enough or the insights compelling enough to make it worth subjecting yourself to this story.

End of the Mystery Binge

So I've finished the stack of mysteries on my nightstand and am moving on to more serious reading (maybe). The last three in the stack were all decent reads:

Betrayal of Trust, by J.A. Jance. Jance writes four different series (note to James Patterson: she writes them herself!), which seems to keep each series fresh. Betrayal of Trust is the latest entry in the J.P. Beaumont series, her first (and still my favorite). J.P. and his wife Mel are called in to investigate when the governor finds what appears to be a snuff film on her step-grandson's phone--and things quickly go from bad to worse in a story of cyberbullying, sexual abuse, and amorality.

The Silent Girl, by Tess Gerritsen. Gerritsen has a vivid and dark imagination, and in this entry in the Rizzoli and Isles series (which bears little resemblance to the tv series it has spawned), she gives that imagination full rein. The case opens with a Chinatown tour group's discovery of a severed hand. Soon Jane and Maura are investigating not only this murder but a 19-year-old murder-suicide (or so it appeared) at a restaurant in Chinatown. Chinese folk tales, a mysterious monkey-like being, and an martial arts master all play into the case.

Broken Prey, by John Sandford. Like J.A. Jance, Sandford writes more than one series and an occasional stand-alone book. Here, he returns to the Lucas Davenport series but with a twist. The bodies of two girls are found by a construction crew; the girls' disappearance was the first case Lucas investigated as a plainclothes cop (not officially promoted to detective yet). Half the book provides background on the investigation in the 1980s, introducing us to a younger and much less experienced Lucas than we have met before. The second half of the book describes the investigation following discovery of the girl's body--an investigation that proves deadly for one of Lucas's long-time friends. It's a sad story, with some foreshadowing that makes me wonder when Lucas's daughter Letty will implode!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Flash and Bones, by Kathy Reichs

Flash and Bones is something of a comeback for the Temperance Brennan series--a straightforward mystery with just one setting, Tempe's hometown of Charlotte, NC. In a Q&A at the end of the book, author Kathy Reichs talks about having an A story line, a B story line, and a C story line in her books. The A story line here is a body discovered at the landfill next to the NASCAR racetrack, covered in asphalt and sealed in a rusted barrel. The B story is a decade-old missing persons case that Tempe gets drawn into when the brother of one of the missing people comes into the medical examiner's office to ask if the victim found in the landfill might be his sister. The C story, according to Reichs, is Tempe's love life--while there's a new man (disgraced cop and head of racetrack security Cotton Galimore) to whom she's attracted in this book, not much really happens on that front, and her old love interests are mostly missing from the book. However, there is also a story line revolving around Tempe's almost-ex-husband Pete and his impending marriage to the ditzy Summer, which adds comic relief.

Another way of identifying the A, B, and C stories in Flash and Bones would be to look not at the cases, but the topics that are central to the story--here they are NASCAR, domestic extremism (in the form of militias), and biotoxins. As usual, Reichs weaves a lot of information into the narrative.

One of the things that distinguishes Reichs's books from some other mysteries is that the reader can actually figure out who the villain is; occasionally, this makes one wonder why Tempe has to be nearly killed before she figures it out, but at least there is no need for a long explanation of why the solution to the mystery came totally out of left field.

Overall, Flash and Bones is an enjoyable mystery.

Favorite passage:
"Ever hear of alienation of affectation?"

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

Many reviews of Cutting for Stone have described it as "sprawling," and it is certainly is a very long book with subject matter that covers a great deal of space and time. Action occurs in India, Ethiopia, and the United States and covers many decades.

The first 100+ pages of the book center on the day in 1954 when twins Marion and Shiva Stone are born in Ethiopia to an Indian nun and a British doctor. Their mother dies in childbirth and their father immediately disappears. The boys have the good fortune to be adopted by two loving doctors at the mission hospital (known as Missing, a mispronunciation of Mission), ob-gyn Hema and internist turned surgeon Ghosh. They are raised alongside Genet, the daughter of one of the household workers. Marion, who is the book's narrator, is from an early age enamored with Genet, an attraction that will cause him major problems over the course of his life.

Growing up essentially in a hospital, the twins see early on the fragility of life, the power of both medical knowledge and emotional support for the afflicted and their families. Ghosh begins teaching Marion his diagnostic skills from an early age, while Shiva takes a particular interest in the gynecological problem of fistulas, common in Africa. These interests shape their futures, as Marion goes to medical school, while Shiva, who is brilliant but not academically oriented, becomes something of an apprentice to Hema. When Genet is involved in a hijacking, her roommate implicates Marion (who is innocent), and he must flee the country. He ends up at a hospital in New York that serves the poor, where he eventually meets his father and learns the history that caused his father to abandon the twins. More ominously, Marion once again encounters Genet, who has just been released from prison and is suffering from tuberculosis. Marion finally loses his virginity (well into his 30s) to Genet, and a family crisis ensues.

This is the first time I have written about a book after we discussed it at Novel Conversations, and I must report that everyone in the group liked the book better than I did. While everyone reported having trouble getting into the book for the first 100 or more pages and found some of the details of medical procedures and conditions difficult to read, they all eventually came to appreciate the character development, the details about life in Ethiopia and the counterpoint of life in New York City, and the insight into Ethiopian history and politics. While these were strengths of the book, I felt it was too long, with too many details about the boys' childhood in Ethiopia; the themes of loss and exile could have been more powerfully conveyed if the book had "sprawled" less. Had I not been reading the book for book group, I'm not sure I would have finished it. But I didn't hate it--when we graded the book at the end of our discussion, I gave it a B- (it also got two As and three Bs).

Favorite passage:
Superorganism. A biologist coined that word for our giant African ant colonies, claiming that consciousness and intelligence resided not in the individual ant but in the collective ant mind. The trail of red taillights stretching to the horizon as day broke around us made me think of that term. Order and purpose must reside somewhere other than within each vehicle. That morning I heard the hum, the respiration, of the superorganism. It's a sound I believe that only the new immigrant hears, but not for long. By the time I learned to say "Six-inch number seven on rye with Swiss hold the lettuce," the sound, too, was gone. It became part of what the mind would label silence. You were now subsumed into the superorganism.

(I like the idea conveyed in this passage, which also illustrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of the writing. Measuring time in terms of how long it takes to learn to order at a deli--brilliant. Switching from first person to second in the last sentence--not so much.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness was recommended by my son who is currently working on a Ph.D. in Japanese literature. Although I rarely read science fiction, I took up his challenge and read this winner of multiple prizes, in which Le Guin asks readers to consider how culture and personal relations might be different if people were androgynous, sexually active for only a few days per month, and capable of both siring and bearing children.

Genly Ai is a native of earth serving as an envoy to the planet Gethen for the interplanetary coalition known as the Ekumen. Following a team of scouts who landed on the planet (known in the Ekumen as Winter due to its frigid climate) incognito, Ai is trying to convince the nations of Gethen to join the Ekumen. He begins his work in the nation Karhide, where shifgrethor (the quality of face or pride) underlies all social authority. He has been working with the Prime Minister, Estraven, who is soon banished from the kingdom by the monarch Argaven. The book traces the journeys of Ai and Estraven to the neighboring (and unfriendly) nation of Orgoreyn, with a markedly different structure of government and culture (bearing some resemblance to a socialist or communist state--the book was written in 1969), and back to Karhide. Orgoreyn's politics are equally treacherous, however, and Ai finds himself in serious difficulties, which only Estraven can help him understand and escape. As they travel the treacherous ice fields of Gethen, Ai explores the developing understanding between the androgynous Gethen and the male native of Earth.

While Ai's voice is dominant, the book also includes chapters from Estraven's perspective, as well as "ethnographic reports" from the scouts who studied Gethen before Ai's arrival. These reports do add to the reader's understanding of the cultures of Gethen. On the other hand, the chapters from Estraven's perspective, while providing insight not available elsewhere, undercut the conceit that the book is a report from Ai to the Ekumen.

On the positive side, Le Guin creates two complex Gethenian cultures and does cause readers to reflect on the role of gender and sexual desire/gamesmanship on culture and on personal relationships--worthwhile reflections. On the other hand, I found the section describing the journey across the ice to be too long and tedious. The book itself is a reasonable length, but I could have done with less of this trek.

For me, reading a novel set in a totally imagined world was challenging--I found myself spending so much time/energy trying to figure out the geography, the power relations, the language, etc., that I was not focusing on the ideas LeGuin was dealing with. While I tried to "let go" and read for the big picture rather than the small one, I was only partially successful. The book begins with a very interesting (and much cited, according to the aforementioned son) introduction in which Le Guin discusses her view of science fiction, stressing that it is descriptive rather than predictive, that the future in science fiction is a metaphor. Since I have never thought much about science fiction (other than to think it would never be my favorite genre), I feel challenged to test my understanding of her ideas by reading some other scifi.

Favorite passages:
I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end. (Okay, it's a bit aphoristic, but I still like it.)

Light is the left hand of darkness . . . how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow.