Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"The Dinner" by Herman Koch

This book fixed me with its one great dark-rimmed eye weeks ago. Every time I walked by, it stared, watching me pass. I was enjoying The Goldfinch immensely, but I knew what I would be reading next. Even though this book technically belongs to my husband.

When Sam chose The Dinner, he thought it would be funny (though likely also very dark). He still won't believe me (and probably will continue in his disbelief until he reads it for himself), but he's very wrong. Well, OK, he was right about it being dark.

This novel tells a story within the confines of one fancy meal shared by two couples at an expensive restaurant. Our narrator, Paul, slowly dishes out tasty morsels of the plot . . . but no, that's not really true. The lines he feeds us more frequently turn out to be bitter, or sour, or even rancid. Events from the recent past are revealed as each new course is served, and further developments unfold as the evening wears on. A crisis takes shape, and conflict arises when those involved disagree on how to handle the situation. It all made for a rather depressing but ultimately compelling read. (And I can hear Chandler now: "Could you be more vague?")

This was also one of those books that really made me think (and not just in the usual "what is going on here?" way). I couldn't help but try to work out what I might have done when faced with some of the choices presented. In some ways, the narrator was so very different from me that I knew I would never react as he did (and it's quite a relief to be sure of that). But the issues of blame and sympathy and a parent's protectiveness left me ambivalent and conflicted.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon

Sometimes the books we read let us down, and sometimes, more rarely, we let down the books we read. I feel like I didn't do a very good job of reading this novel. I'm not going to kill myself over it - it happens sometimes. I kept having to break off to do speed-reads of books in French, and it got to the point where I would begin reading where I had left off two or three nights earlier and would have absolutely no clue what was going on.

As I said, this is mostly my fault, rather than the book's, I think, but it has to be said that this is a peculiarly demanding novel. I don't mean that in a bad way. I consider myself a Michael Chabon fan, having loved the previous two novels I read by him - Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - and even in spite of my erratic reading habits during this one, I still enjoyed it, still regard it as an original and beautifully written detective story with a speculative twist (what if the state of Israel had collapsed in 1948 and the world's Jews had moved to Alaska?). But I have a feeling I didn't get as much pleasure and satisfaction out of it as I should have. Tellingly, when I got to the end, I turned the page, expecting another chapter, and felt an odd mixture of disappointment and relief at realizing the book's remaining pages contained only interviews and biographical material.

So, what made it so demanding? Partly the style, which is similar to Chabon's other works (dense, poetic, witty, a startling blend of slang and lyricism) but with more compressed sentences and a fairly thick sprinkling of Yiddish (and made-up Yiddish) words. Partly the plot, which is extremely complex and (unless I'm just misunderstanding it) pretty improbable.

I also have to admit that the title was a bit of a turn-off. Maybe it's just me, but I can't help thinking that 'Yiddish', 'Policemen' and 'Union' are three of the least sexy words in the English language. (I have no problem with 'The', though. In fact, I'm a big fan of 'The'. Old-fashioned it might be, but a good 'The' at the beginning of a book title always makes me think I'm in for a real story, rather than just a clever collection of observations.)

Anyway, I'm not going to describe the plot, because it's too complicated and absurd, but I would just like to say that the bookjacket comparisons to Chandler and Hammett are way off the mark. This is much more literary than a simple noir thriller. Maybe there's a hint of homage to it in places, but it's a long way short of a pastiche. The characters are real, the emotions are real. It just happens to have a detective and a mystery (involving a murder).

I'll probably read it again one day (one day when my life is less busy), just to see if the problem really was me rather than the book.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

I received a copy of The Goldfinch from my lovely parents-in-law for my birthday last November, but both my husband and a sweet friend of mine borrowed it before I got around to reading it. That's really only part of my excuse for leaving it for so long before I picked it up myself, though. It was one of those books so hampered by great expectations (it was receiving rave reviews, and I'd read and loved Tartt's first novel, The Secret History) that I feared to pick it up lest it let me down. It didn't help when Sam's assessment was that it lost momentum halfway through--this brought my expectations down to a more realistic level, but didn't make me any more eager to read it.

Happily, when I recently overcame my fear enough to read it, I was not disappointed in the least. Far from losing momentum halfway through, somehow I was relentlessly propelled through the entire thing. Even during the times when (as Sam said) "nothing happened," I was suffused with an expectant tension. It certainly wasn't a thriller like Gone Girl, but there was a constant sense of needing to know what was going to happen next, even if I knew I was only waiting for one character to say something to another. And it's both satisfying and sad to have reached the end of the book--pleasantly fulfilling, yet I wish I was still in the midst of reading it.

The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker, thirteen years old at the beginning of the book, and the major influences in his life (as Theo is the sort of person who finds himself influenced much more often than he exerts influence on others): his mother, her death, various friends, and art. I was going to say something about the way one great and terrible day changes the trajectory of his life, but then I realized that's not really true: his direction doesn't really change. It's more as if that day speeds him along his way. Theo is deeply flawed, and as I watched him grow into an adult, I found I couldn't muster much respect for him--I was, instead, disappointed in who he was becoming. The reader is privy to all his failings which are hidden from those closest to him and only guessed at by others.

Despite Theo's disreputable choices, I was unwilling to give up on him. Not only did he have some interesting thoughts on good and bad and whether one can come from the other, but my interest was principally due to the golden thread running through his story: the title of the book refers to a painting (one which really exists! but which has probably had a much less eventful history than it receives at the hands of Tartt) and the visceral connection Theo feels with it. It was gratifying to read about Theo's reaction to the painting, because I understand how it feels to love--and own--a work of art.

The Goldfinch seems to be a really polarizing book: it has sold more than a million copies and won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (among other awards), and has amazed and entranced many readers, but it seems to have as many harsh critics as it has champions--so many that I don't believe all of them can be explained away by literary jealousy. The Goldfinch has received scathing pans from some very important sources, as well as from many of its readers with smaller spheres of influence.

This makes me want to examine my reaction to the book more closely. Am I just another one of the sheeple, appreciating the book due to its success? If its critics are correct and it's crap, what does that say about my literary tastes? If it's really so poorly written and full of cliché, why didn't I notice? And is the idea of literature as entertainment really a problem? I'm sure I'm glibly misinterpreting the viewpoint, but a book shouldn't have to be boring to be serious or important or great. I don't think the definition of a great book can be boiled down to one word, but I do think the majority--if not the entirety--of great books could be described as thought-provoking and well-written. And I see no reason why a book can't be entertaining as well as thought-provoking and well-written--in fact, so much the better if it is. If that makes me hopelessly inelegant in the eyes of world-renowned book reviewers, well then, so be it. I can only imagine how much more fully I am enjoying my life than someone who eschews literary entertainment.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"The Deptford Trilogy" by Robertson Davies

I'd never heard of this book until Sam mentioned it to me. Someone had once asked him if The Amnesiac was influenced by The Deptford Trilogy, but the title (and its author) was unfamiliar to him, so the answer was no. However, I can see how the two works are similar. They're both written in a sort of memoir-like style, each dancing back and forth in time rather than being laid out chronologically, each slowly revealing clues to a mystery. Not only that, but both can apparently be categorized as "slipstream fiction," which is a new term to me, and a great discovery--it's nice to finally be able to place Sam's books in a genre that is slightly more descriptive than "fiction". 

Each of the three parts of The Deptford Trilogy describes the lives of the same small handful of characters, but a different one becomes the main focus each time. The first and third books are actually narrated by the same character, though in the third book he is relating someone else's story. There are distinct voices between the first and second books, as there should be, but I didn't find that the voices of the narrator of the first and third books matched up. In the first book he sounds slightly pompous and fussy, while in the third he seems more content and quietly confident. I suppose it's forgivable as he is older and perhaps more mellow by the time the third book rolls around, but I couldn't help but view it as a flaw anyway. A minor flaw, though, despite which I was able to immensely enjoy reading.

Fifth Business

Swinging from childhood to present, encompassing secrets and mysteries and sainthood, Fifth Business tells the story of boyhood friends and the butterfly-effect-like consequences of one errant snowball. The narrator, Dunstable "Dunny" Ramsay, is "neither hero nor heroine, confidante nor villain," but he is linked to all of those and is an essential element of the story in his own way.

The Manticore

The grown son of the former snowball-thrower travels to Switzerland for Jungian therapy, through which we revisit much of what was revealed in Fifth Business, but from another perspective, Something his therapist said caught my attention: "Between thirty-five and forty-five everybody has to turn a corner in his life, or smash into a brick wall." Is this true? This sounds like a glorified description of midlife crisis, which I generally regard more as an excuse than a reality, belied by the fact that my life certainly turned a corner (an understatement, I think) at thirty-seven. 

World of Wonders

The indirect victim of the snowball, Paul Dempster, was swept away by a traveling carnival when he was a child. We learned this in the first two parts of the trilogy, but World of Wonders is where we hear the way he was transformed from Nobody into Magnus Eisengrim, magician extraordinaire. My favorite quote is from the final page: "Where there's a will, there are always two ways."

Did anyone else totally picture Edward Norton playing Eisengrim the entire way through this trilogy? The Illusionist is entirely to blame, I'm sure. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014


THIS is my last catch-up post! I could find no common category for the last lonely books on my Have Read, Must Blog list, so what links them is that they have no ties to one another. Hence, my orphans:

HHhH by Laurent Binet. This book was originally written in French, but I (of course) read my husband's brilliant English translation. It tells the true story of the 1942 assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich, high-ranking Nazi official, by two soldiers (Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík) who parachuted in to Prague for their mission. Did their mission succeed or not? If your history is as spotty as mine, do yourself a favor and don't look up their story before reading this book--not knowing the outcome added to the reading experience for me. As did the thing that makes this book unique when compared to other historical fiction: the author does not remain hidden, nor does he even attempt to convince his readers to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The story of Kubiš and Gabčík is shot through with the author's own experiences in researching and writing their story. (Meta-non-fiction?) I really don't like war books but this one was worth reading.

Bluebird, or The Invention of Happiness by Sheila Kohler. My memory of this book is (not surprisingly) not vivid; I suppose it didn't make much of an impression on me, whether positive or negative. It's the story of Lucy Dillon, French aristocrat, escaping the French Revolution by sailing across the Atlantic with her young family to start a new life on a dairy farm in upstate New York. I seem to remember the sea journey being fraught with trials and tribulations, and the new life being a bit bleak and barren, but through it all Lucy was strong and unwavering. I could be completely wrong, though.

Silk by Alessandro Baricco. I know for a fact that I read this novella more than three years ago. I can still remember, however, the simple and poetic form of its writing, and the way it disguised strong undercurrents of passion. At times it almost seems like a fable or a fairy tale. It's the story of a Frenchman in the late 19th century who travels to Japan in search of silkworm eggs and becomes enslaved by all-consuming love along the way (but it's not so gag-inducing as that makes it sound).

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. This novella is worthy of much more than the tiny blurb I'm about to give it, which may be why I avoided writing about it earlier--could I do it justice? I'd read it years before but, true to form, hardly remembered it. It's the story of a pair of itinerant workers, George and Lennie, during the Great Depression. Lennie is mentally deficient and dependent on George, and George is protective of Lennie. It's a powerful story, very short, and a satisfying read (or re-read).

And now my blog is up-to-date! I no longer have a Have Read, Must Blog list! Unfortunately there is a distinct possibility that I've completely forgotten about some books . . . just last week I realized that two of my (relatively) recent reads had not made it on to my HRMB list. Both were re-reads for me, one being Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and the other Lady Chatterley's Lover (which Sam has blogged about). Both of those books are special to me. I first read them during college (though for my own enjoyment rather than as assigned reading), and I remember why I chose each one. Tess first caught my eye at Blockbuster Video (!!)--the synopsis interested me, and when I saw it had originated as a classic novel, I wanted to start there. And LCL was on the reading list for my senior English class in high school, but my teacher wouldn't let me read it because he knew my mom would not approve! So, less than a year later and glorying in my new independence, I got to see what all the fuss was about. And I enjoyed re-reading both books, not least because I'd first read them during what were (for me) my formative years.

Any other forgotten books are destined to remain forgotten, but it feels great to be caught up on my blog again!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"Lady Chatterley's Lover" by D.H. Lawrence

This is a strange novel. It is famous, of course, for the controversy and censorship surrounding its publication (it was first printed in 1928 but not freely available in England until 1960), for its themes of class and adultery, and for the use of certain four-letter words. But reading it purely as a novel, it strikes me, more than anything, as bizarre.

Actually, it makes me think of the Sex Pistols: a band inextricably linked with the whirlwind of controversy that blew around them. Listen to their music now, though, and it just sounds odd, for the most part: there are inspired moments, and John Lydon’s sneer is distinctive, but many of the songs are clichéd, old-fashioned, poorly played and produced, almost boring. You’re left wondering what all the fuss was about. But the fuss, of course, was not about the music per se, but about the band’s impact on their times.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a similar case in point: there are lines, paragraphs, scenes that are striking and well-written, but others that just seem contrived or ludicrous or dull or plain embarrassing, and throughout the story, the author’s voice intrudes, not only as an omniscient narrator thundering from the clouds but as a sort of ventriloquist, making his characters think and spout what are clearly his own opinions, not even trying to conceal the movements of his mouth. The overall effect is just a weird hodge-podge of good and bad, brilliant and banal.

This is the first D.H. Lawrence novel I’ve read, although I did also read a collection of short stories (The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories) and a collection of his letters. I remember particularly enjoying the latter, as the non-narrative form gave him free rein to joke and declaim and hypothesize about life and the world without any need to invent characters or fit it all into a story. I found myself liking and admiring him as a person and even a writer (and I also felt some affinity, as we both grew up in what he calls, in Lady Chatterley, ‘the smoky Midlands’ – or, more specifically, Nottinghamshire), and I agreed (and still agree) with many of the points he makes in this novel about the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, the need for tenderness, the balance between mind and body, and so on. I just didn’t enjoy being lectured to, somewhat haphazardly (or so it seemed), as I was reading a novel – particularly as I was genuinely interested in the story.

So… the story. Upper-class woman meets lower-class man and falls in love, in a nutshell. However, the contrast between Lady Chatterley and her lover was less obvious and striking than I expected: she is not aristocratic, but upper-middle-class (back when such distinctions actually meant something) and she was brought up with fairly liberal views about sex too, while Mellors, the gamekeeper – although with a working-class background – is an educated man who has been an officer in the British Army in India. I was also surprised that everything was made so easy: Lady Chatterley’s husband is wounded in the war and consequently impotent; he even gives his wife permission to go off and have sex with another man so she can bear a child, and she has a casual affair before meeting Mellors anyway. So, in many ways, the tension and conflict and drama that you expect from the basic set-up are not there. As a novel of adultery, it seemed less satisfying and persuasive than, say, Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary. It was almost as if Lawrence found the theme too simple and melodramatic, so he felt the need to undercut it, blur the black and white to grey, as well as using it as a sort of platform from which to air his opinions.

As for the sex… well, there were a couple of erotic passages. There were also some very repetitive and purple ones, some amusingly clumsy and realistic ones, and others that were kind of embarrassing. And I suppose that in itself is an achievement: for an author to make a (pretty open-minded) reader squirm almost a hundred years later merely by writing about genitalia and orgasms. 

But I think what embarrassed me most – far more than any graphic detail – was Mellors’ use of Derbyshire vernacular. Mellors is capable of speaking ‘normally’, yet for some reason (a reason that baffles most of the characters in the novel) he occasionally reverts to ‘broad Derby’. And it is in this voice that he makes most of the obscene pronouncements that made Lady Chatterley’s Lover so infamous. Some of those passages are almost unreadably bad, though not ‘bad’ in the moral sense that led to the book being outlawed for thirty years – just bad in the sense of being excruciatingly awful.

Anyway, I’m glad I finally read it, but even gladder that I’ve finally finished it and can now move on to something else.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Dark and Light

I'm getting near the end of my Have Read, Must Blog list (hooray!), but it is becoming a stretch to find a theme between the remaining books. The best I can do for six of them is to highlight their contrast.

First, from the shadows.

The unquestionably dark: The Road by Cormack McCarthy, full of post-apocalyptic dirt and horror. It's the story of a father and son's grueling journey in search of safety in a world where they're not even sure it exists anymore. It's horrible and hopeless and sad, but also compelling and strong.

The dark and beautiful: Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett. I was first introduced to Patchett's excellent writing in her novel Run. T&B is non-fiction about her relationship with an amazing, larger-than-life, self-destructive friend. I bought it because I loved the cover and because I love Patchett's writing, even though the concept of the book was not overly appealing to me. Luckily for me it turned out to be quite engaging. And, as I expected, very well written.

The darkly humorous: Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. I really enjoyed reading this book, even if the protagonist--part small-time thug, part detective . . . with Tourette's--seemed so odd that I'm not sure I was ever really able to identify with him. He was certainly unique, anyway. And I'm excited about this!

And now, in the sunshine:

The Cat-Nappers by P G Wodehouse, which is nothing if not silly and tongue-in-cheek. Though if you've read any Jeeves and Wooster books, this is exactly what you might expect (along with a few high-jinks, many complications, and a misunderstanding or two). This is the sort of book to read in one rainy afternoon of house-sitting.

The Darling Buds of May by H E Bates. This book has a bright and cheerful tone with an undercurrent of earthiness. It tells the story of the carefree, easy-going Larkin family, eternal optimists and general free spirits, and the way they convert an uptight, timid tax clerk to their way of life. I'd never heard of this book (nor the early-90s TV series it sparked, which starred Catherine Zeta-Jones!) until Sam told me about it: he loves the family he grew up in, but if he were forced to choose a different one, he would have chosen the Larkins.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. This was a broad overview of science through the ages--kind of gossipy, and more about the scientists and their rivalries than about the science itself-- but I was really disappointed in my inability to retain information from this book. I mean, just after I'd finished reading the physics section I was asked to provide the answer to a crossword clue about the scientist who first proposed the currently understood atomic model, and I drew a complete blank. I want to remember EVERYTHING! But alas, that is not what fortune has in store for The Literary Amnesiac. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014


Or, You Can't Judge a Book By Your Preconceived Notions About It.

We all know you can't judge a book by its cover (though, if my own propensity is any indication, we all tend to do so occasionally). But, covers aside, there have certainly been times when I've read a book and found it was nothing like I expected it to be. I'll tell you about five such books from my past three years of reading.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Any book with the word "castle" in the title sounds good to me! There seems to be something so magical about castles. Not those that are sanitized and soulless like Neuschwanstein, but real, lived-in ones like Hohenschwangau, where you can almost feel the spirits of those who formerly resided there.

I came across I Capture the Castle when I was searching for this book, and I didn't know much about it beyond the title and the fact that readers spoke highly of it. My mistaken expectation stemmed from my interpretation of the word "capture". I imagined some sort of war would be involved, or at least a minor siege, so I was actually quite pleased to find out that the main character is "capturing" the castle in the sense that she is writing about it and capturing its ambiance and daily life on paper.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. This book and I did not get off to a good start. Have you ever been reading during an ordeal in your life and found yourself kind of hating an otherwise perfectly good book? That was the beginning of The Handmaid's Tale for me. I had to set it down for about a week, until I stopped hating it. But once I convinced myself that it wasn't the book's fault, I found it quite an intriguing read. I definitely plan to read more Atwood at some point. I've heard I ought to.

Ever since I was very young, I have soothed myself with the notion that most huge changes happen slowly. By the time an event that I feared has come to be, I'll have had time to adjust. That's not necessarily a good thing (as the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto may have been able to tell you on their way to Treblinka). But it was chilling to read Atwood's account of what it might be like if things changed virtually overnight. (It does happen in real life, though generally not on so large a scale. I just try to ignore that fact until it happens.)

Rebel Without a Cause by Robert M. Lindner. I was very mistaken in my assumption that this was the book form of the famous James Dean movie. The subtitle should have made that clear (The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath). Disclaimer: in the next paragraph, please keep in mind that I have no idea what I'm talking about, so if you are a trained psychiatrist/psychologist and this book is your bible, my apologies in advance.

I was very skeptical of this book. First, I've never seen any evidence to suggest that hypnosis isn't a load of crap, and Lindner's descriptions of his patient's statements and antics while under hypnosis made me very suspicious. I felt certain that Harold was telling Lindner what he wanted to hear, and Lindner fell for all of it. Second, I'm quite doubtful of the possibility that Harold's psychopathic tendencies could have stemmed from having seen his parents having sex when he was a toddler. I neither believed that this was a true memory, nor did I believe that the situation could have been as traumatic as Lindner suggested.

Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly. Daly was seventeen when she began writing this book (which always impresses me. Seventeen was more than half my life ago, and I still haven't written a book). It's about a teenage girl and her first love, and I kind of expected it to be a bit naughty--but it is not, at all. It's very chaste and sweet. Which I guess isn't too surprising, considering the fact that it was published in 1942.

Then there was Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell, which I have thrown into this blog post merely to show that sometimes WYSIWYG. Sigh. I had absolutely no interest in reading this book--it looked like a poorly-written, run-of-the-mill thriller--but I did it because I loved my book club. And unfortunately my expectations were met: it was a chore to read. I didn't like Kay Scarpetta (the main character). The writing was mediocre (it was the type where I was constantly distracted by thoughts of better ways to word each passage). I guess it wasn't a boring story, but I certainly didn't turn the last page thinking, Hey, that was worth my time!

I won't be reading anything else by Patricia Cornwell. I mean, if hers were the last books remaining on earth, I might read them for lack of anything else, but there are SO MANY books I'd rather read (many of them languishing unread on my very own shelves) that Cornwell won't be an author I seek out any time in the near future. Except for maybe her book about Jack the Ripper?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"The Luminaries" by Eleanor Catton

I finally got around to reading the second of the two books Sam gave to me for my birthday last November. I think I put it off for so long because it's quite monstrous in size, but I shouldn't have--once I actually began reading, its length was forgotten. As a well-deserving winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize, the writing is excellent and the story is absorbing and, had it been even longer, I wouldn't have minded a bit (except that it was already slightly ungainly for reading in comfortable positions).

I'm not sure I can describe the plot in a handful of sentences in a way that could do the book justice. There are 20 major characters, which seems like a lot to keep up with (especially considering the fact that you hear the story from the perspective of at least half of them at one point or another) but isn't, really. The story takes place during the New Zealand gold rushes of the 1860s, which probably wouldn't have made my list of Top Ten Most Interesting Settings, not least because I'm not sure I even knew there had been goldfields there--when I hear New Zealand, I think sheep. But--though it is integral to the plot--gold is not the focus of the story (thank goodness, because that would have been boring). The Luminaries is kind of an unconventional mystery, with thirteen amateur "detectives" trying to solve a death that may or may not be murder, the disappearance of a man who may or may not be dead, and the theft of a fortune in gold which--you guessed it!--may or may not have been stolen.

For me, the book started slightly slowly. Not that it was dull reading, but Catton zoomed in so closely on a room of thirteen men that time seemed to slow down. But it wasn't long before I was very intrigued. Mysteries and secrets kept stacking up. For every link that was exposed, two new questions arose. I found myself wanting to draw a diagram to keep track of all of the information as it was revealed, but I simultaneously feared it would be as elaborate and confusing as that of the obsessed, half-insane film detective who tacks photos and evidence all over his wall with strands of red yarn spiderwebbing all of the links.

I don't know why the entire book couldn't have been that exciting, but in the second half (I use the term "half" loosely--I didn't really notice exactly when the change occurred) Catton takes us back in time one year, and from there the story is told in a much more straightforward manner, explaining most (but not all!) of the mysteries by laying down the sequence of events that led up to the death, the disappearance, and the theft. It felt like a very long denouement, and it was a bit disappointing--kind of like a magician's secrets revealed--though I feel certain that it suffered more due to comparison with the excellent first half. I certainly did not lose interest, but it seemed less cleverly put together than I had come to expect.

Even so, I truly enjoyed the reading experience and came out of it with a very high opinion of the book and its author. You must read this book!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

And now for something completely different

I think I may have mentioned my awesome husband a time or two previously. He has just finished reading a new novel that is slated to be on bookstore shelves one month from today, and I was really pleased when he accepted my invitation to write a guest post about it for The Literary Amnesiac. In fact, he had an even better suggestion. This will be more than just a guest post. Take note of this historical moment, as it marks the beginning of a new chapter for us: we are now co-bloggers! Without further ado, here is my husband Sam:

I binge-read James Ellroy one summer a few years back. I began with The Black Dahlia and kept on going until the end of Blood’s A Rover, an epic journey of violence, betrayal and conspiracy spanning 26 years and several radically different prose styles. It was fantastic. I loved the brutality and horror of Ellroy’s America, the spring-loaded compression of his sentences, the way he puts you inside the heads of even the most depraved and amoral characters. Like many readers, though, I felt his novels became slightly less compelling when they moved away from postwar Los Angeles and into the rather colorless and repetitive milieu of 60s and 70s espionage.

So I was thrilled, as an Ellroy fan, to be given a copy of Perfidia a couple of months before its publication date, and doubly thrilled when I discovered that it was set in LA in December 1941, with a cast of characters whom I already knew from the previous seven books. Even more excitingly, Perfidia is the first installment of a new LA Quartet, focusing on events leading up to those described in The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Perfidia is a huge, sleazy, rocket-fuelled behemoth of a book. I would have no trouble hailing it as a return to the heights of LA Confidential – perhaps even surpassing them – were it not for one small problem: like Kathy, I am a literary amnesiac, and the years have dimmed my sureness about just how good each of those books in the first LA Quartet really was. I mean, I remember loving them at the time (less so The Black Dahlia, which was too much of a conventional serial-killer tale for my tastes), but I can’t recall exactly when and how Ellroy’s prose style began to mutate from classic modern noir to Hemingway-haikus-on-heroin.

So I now feel eager to reread those books, not only to compare them with Perfidia, but to see how the characters and backstories mesh. Because the four main characters of Perfidia have all appeared in previous novels: Kay Lake was in The Black Dahlia; William H. Parker was in LA Confidential and White Jazz; Hideo Ashida was apparently ‘referenced’ in The Black Dahlia, though I must admit I don’t remember that; and Dudley Smith, of course, was an important and unforgettable presence in The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz. And, remarkably, all four are compelling, fascinating, deeply odd yet strangely sympathetic people. (Well, all right, describing Dudley Smith as ‘sympathetic’ is perhaps pushing it, but he does have a kind of evil charisma.)

They’re not the only familiar names here either, as Perfidia features a grand total of 40 characters from previous Ellroy novels. And no, I didn’t count them myself: satisfyingly, the author provides a list of dramatis personae at the back of the book, a list that is also useful for distinguishing between invented characters and those based on real-life figures.

On that subject, there is something slightly disturbing about Ellroy’s use of ‘actual persons’ in his fiction. Obviously, the likes of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and William H. Parker are long dead and unlikely to sue, but I don’t know how their families would feel about the way they’re depicted here (getting droolingly drunk, beating the crap out of people, screwing murderers, etc – no spoilers there, because you don’t know who’s doing what to whom). Moral considerations aside, however, it is an amazing achievement on Ellroy’s part to meld the actual and the fictional in this way, so that we can be inside their heads, inside their beds, and both types of character feel equally ‘real’ to us.

As for the plot… well, it begins with the apparent ritual suicide of a Japanese family on the day before the Pearl Harbor bombing and spirals into a three-week tsunami of lies, frame-ups, racial tension and sociopathic killing, where the lines between good and evil are not so much blurred as smeared with blood and machine-gunned.

And that description makes me suddenly aware that this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, maybe it’s just a Boy Thing? I should ask Kathy, I suppose, but she claims she has read only one James Ellroy book: The Black Dahlia. I’m pretty sure she read The Big Nowhere too, because I remember her being underwhelmed by a scene that I absolutely loved, but she denied this. Then, the other day, she picked the book up and read the first few pages and said, ‘Hmm, this seems very familiar… maybe I did read it before?’ Anyway, my guess is she wouldn’t love Perfidia the way I do.

Oh, that’s another thing: if you’ve never read any Ellroy before, this is perhaps not the best place to start. Despite its high quality and the fact that it predates the other seven novels chronologically, it would probably just seem too weird to a first-timer. Ellroy has honed and boiled down his style over the years, to the point where it can appear offputtingly fragmented and staccato. Once you’re used to it, however, it’s actually hard to read other writers because they seem to waste so many words. But my point is that Ellroy breaks most of the so-called rules of good writing: he often tells, rather than showing, and he makes little attempt at verisimilitude in his descriptions of actions or portrayals of character. He doesn’t try to convince you that these people are real or that these things are really happening – because he doesn’t need to: he knows they are real. And his conviction is contagious.

It’s even more impressive when you consider that the likes of Lee Blanchard (The Black Dahlia), Scotty Bennett (Blood’s A Rover) and Pierce Patchett (LA Confidential) must have been fully conceived with their backstories in mind when Ellroy first wrote about them.

So, yes, I now desperately want to reread the first LA Quartet. The only annoying thing is that I’ll probably have to do it all over again (with Perfidia added on) when the next one in the series comes out. Because Ellroy took five years to write this novel and my memory is not good for more than about five weeks…


Saturday, August 2, 2014

Cause and Effect

Cause: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier was assigned reading during my freshman year of high school and it was awesome.

Effect: I read My Cousin Rachel, also by du Maurier. It was only slightly less awesome than Rebecca. (Not because there's anything wrong with it, but because Rebecca is that good.) MCR is the story of a woman (Rachel, obvs) told from the perspective of her cousin Philip, who falls in love with her. Is Rachel straightforward and honest, or is she only trying to get Philip's money? P.S.: I re-read Rebecca more recently and it was just as good as I remembered. The Hitchcock movie is great, too.

Cause: I read The Best American Short Stories of 2003 for book club way back when.

Effect: I read the 2001 and 2013 editions (the latter given to me by my wonderful husband for Christmas last year because he knew how much I enjoyed the other two and he's just awesome like that). I like short stories--they often have a memorable impact, and it's so easy to squeeze another story in at odd moments throughout the day--but I frequently find that short story collections (especially those all penned by one author) are a bit uneven. You'll find one or two great stories, a bunch of mediocre ones, and several that just suck. But the Best American series manages to avoid that pitfall. Out of these two collections, the one that still stands out in my mind is The Mourning Door by Elizabeth Graver, about a woman dealing with infertility. It really resonated with me even though it's something I've never experienced myself. (Hello, four kids . . . ) It's so mysterious and strange and bittersweet and I want you to read it.

Cause: I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn for my more recently deceased book club.

Effect: I read Flynn's other two books, Dark Places (a woman pieces together what really happened the night she was the only member of her family to survive) and Sharp Objects (a reporter is sent back to her hometown to investigate the murder of a local girl and the disappearance of another). Both are just as well-written, tightly plotted and startlingly intriguing as GG, and both are somewhat more disturbing. Neither is at all disappointing, though GG is my favorite of the three. The publication of each of these books was separated by three years . . . number four should be due in 2015, and I'm looking forward to it!

Cause: I read Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (as all good readers should, at some point in their lives).

Effect: I read The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, also by Adams. It's a tongue-in-cheek (what else would you expect?) detective story involving Norse gods. It was a lot of fun, but I can see why it's not as famous as Hitchhiker's Guide. Incidentally, Teatime is the sequel to a book I have not read.

Bam! That's five more books off my "Have Read, Must Blog" list. I'll be caught up before you know it!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The "Just Watch The Movie" Edition

Here's another great whack at the remaining books on my "Have Read, Must Blog" list. These are linked by virtue of my having watched the movie version prior to reading the source material, usually with years separating the two. And, really, though it pains me to say so as a book lover, the movies did each book justice, and I don't recall that reading them added immensely to the experience. (You should take this with a grain of salt, however, keeping in mind that the things I don't recall are many and varied.)

City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau. Ember was founded as a refuge countless years ago, but it is beginning to crumble, and Lina and Doon hope that they can discover a way to make it feel safe again. I ostensibly bought this for Bookworm Child, but I must confess I had my own curiosity about it--enough that I still wanted to read it even after seeing the movie. However, the main thing I remember about the book is that there is something about their city that Lina and Doon spend almost the entire book trying to figure out . . . when it seems so glaringly obvious to the reader from the beginning. I suppose I'll never know whether this was because I already knew the secret from watching the movie (in fact, I think I knew it from watching the preview), or whether it would have seemed just as obvious to me if I had read the book first.

Somewhere in Time by Richard Matheson. Yes, I know I have frequently claimed that romance makes me gag, but this story is different. It is so sad and sweet and mysterious, and no one's bodice gets ripped. It's the story of a 20th-century man who is so powerfully drawn to the photo of a young actress from the late 1800s that he actually wills himself back in time so that he can be with her. I was first introduced to the movie when I was in college, and it lodged itself in my psyche; the book did not affect me the same way.

Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard. What's that you say? You've never heard of a movie entitled Rum Punch? That's because Quentin Tarantino changed its name to Jackie Brown, the story of a down-at-the-heels flight attendant who sees an opportunity to come out on top and is smart enough to make it happen. The movie is stylish and clever and fun, and I think it improves on the book.

Single White Female by John Lutz. Allie advertises for a roommate and ends up with plain and harmless Hedra . . . until Hedra begins to form an unhealthy obsession. It's been twenty years since I saw this movie, and quite possibly more than two years since I read the book. I remember the movie as a creepy thriller and the book as a pulpy potboiler. I probably wouldn't mind watching the movie one more time; I don't think I'll read the book again.

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory focuses on the lesser-known Mary Boleyn, sister to Anne and mistress to Henry VIII before her sister succeeded her. I don't know what Gregory does to historical fiction, but somehow she makes it into an accessible, fun, and guilty read. Reading history shouldn't make me feel guilty! It should make me feel worthy and accomplished and intelligent! Watching the movie version, however, is welcome to feel like an escape.

So, there you have it. An inveterate reader votes for the movie version in all five cases (though I recommend some of these movies more highly than the others). Or maybe these examples just help make the case for reading the book first?