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

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!