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

Monday, January 31, 2011

"Doomsday Book" by Connie Willis

I think something is wrong with me. Here is a book that won several awards and is listed as one of "500 of the best books you'll ever read." It was given 9 1/2 caterpillars and I was promised I would luuuuuv eet. A quick google blog search reveals that others have described it as "wonderful" and "beloved" and "unique."

But . . . but . . . this book is just such a mess. There's so much padding that could have been cut out. Too many of the characters are one-dimensional and have a ridiculously one-track mind. (No, not that track. This book doesn't have dirty bits.) Some of the characters were mere placeholders, talked about but never actually present, and left as loose threads.

I could go on. In fact, I think I will. Moments that should have been exciting or suspenseful are just annoyingly frustrating due to contrived delays or obstacles. The "transcripts" between the chapters are insulting in their recap of important details from the preceding chapter, as if I might have overlooked them if I only read them once. Small things are mentioned repeatedly (a shopping bag full of Christmas gifts, an umbrella strap, gobstoppers, a brass-bound casket), so that I was sure there must be some significance attached to each, but . . . there wasn't.

At least the story was interesting (although I had my own ideas that would have made it so much better. A little bit of time travel paradox does much towards blowing the mind.) Here's the premise. It's the year 2054 at Oxford University, when history can be studied in the best way possible: by traveling back in time to experience it first-hand.

Kivrin Engle is well prepared for her trip to 1320. She has learned all of the practical skills needed in the Middle Ages and is vaccinated against any number of medieval diseases. The "drop" appears to go well, and as far as anyone knows, Kivrin has made it to where she'd planned to go . . . until the tech says, "Something's wrong," and then faints on his computer keyboard. And proceeds to spend the next 400 pages either delirious or unconscious--in any case, unable to tell anyone what went wrong. (Yeah, that's one of those contrived delays or obstacles I mentioned earlier). Much worry and many deaths ensue.

In spite of all my aggravation, I wouldn't say I *hated* the book. I really didn't even dislike it strongly. I never had to force myself to read it. It wasn't boring. It wasn't so horribly poorly written that I couldn't stand it. But . . . it was a mess. And it definitely wasn't one of the 500 best books I've ever read.

I did learn something interesting as a result of this book. It sounds like a bit of history I should have already known. The title of the book, and more specifically the name Kivrin gave to her record of the events she experienced, came from a property survey of England and Wales conducted in 1085 for William the Conqueror. The record of that survey was called the Domesday Book in reference to the Day of  Judgment "because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgment, are unalterable."

What about you? Have you read Willis's Doomsday Book, and did you love it? Am I the only person in the world who was not impressed?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Presenting Samuel Black . . . And don't miss the giveaway!

Tomorrow is the last day to sign up to win a copy of The Ground is Burning by Samuel Black. Don't miss out! In the meantime, here's your chance to "meet" the author.

Samuel Black is a debut historical fiction novelist who was born in London and raised in France. In The Ground is Burning, set in Renaissance Italy, Black weaves a gripping story out of the intertwining lives of Cesare Borgia, Niccolò Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci. I'm proud to announce that I've scored an interview with the author, so sit back and enjoy while I pick Mr. Black's brain.

Who wouldn't want to be this
scruffy-looking nerf-herder?
First, let's get to know you a little bit better. If you were a character in Star Wars, who would you be and why?

Han Solo, because he gets to be a hero without acting like a choirboy. And he gets Princess Leia, of course.

OK, I'll ignore the fact that you've just given the most common and un-original answer to that question, because I know you've written an uncommonly original book. What initially sparked your interest and led you to write The Ground is Burning?

Leonardo da Vinci:
The Original Renaissance Man
I was reading a biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Charles Nicholl. At the time I’d begun writing a different novel, but I was struggling with it. I was reading about Leonardo purely out of curiosity, but then I came upon a short chapter that described a little-known moment in the artist’s life when he shared a series of castles with, among others, Niccolo Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia. I remember being astounded by this – I hadn’t even known the three men were contemporaries. Better still, the story had a classic narrative arc, ending in two bloody climaxes on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. It even had a beautiful young noblewoman, who’d been kidnapped by Borgia. It was just like a novel! To my amazement, however, I discovered that nobody had written a novel on this subject. So I decided to do it myself. I gave up on the other novel I was writing that very day, and began this one instead.

You enjoy reading. Is your choice of reading material reflected in what you've written?

Yes and no. I do love some historical fiction – Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety is one of my favourite novels of any kind – but a lot of it, as with most genres, is fairly clichéd and dull. So I certainly read a lot of fiction which appears to have nothing to do with what I’ve written in this book. Then again, appearances can be deceptive: the voice of Cesare Borgia, for instance, was partly influenced by James Ellroy’s prose in The Cold Six Thousand, while the overall feel of my story owes as much to Coppola’s Godfather movies as to anything more overtly historical.

Tell us about the research you did for The Ground is Burning.

Senigallia, Italy: Setting of the novel's climactic scene
Photo by Samuel Black
I spent a whole year reading every secondhand book I could find on the subject and the period – including the books that my heroes read themselves (Dante, Livy, Plutarch, Lucretius, Julius Caesar etc). In retrospect, I probably overdid this, although I figure it’ll come in useful one day. The best part of the research, by a long way, was a three-week trip round Italy that I took in October 2008, following in the footsteps of my characters: that really made the history come alive for me.

Of your three main characters, who do you identify with most strongly? (Keeping my fingers crossed that you don't say Cesare. He was awful. My guess is Machiavelli.) Did you have a favorite character?

Cesare Borgia: Not a nice guy
I wrote from the perspective of all three of the major characters, and to do that you obviously have to identify with them. This was admittedly easier with Leonardo and Machiavelli, who were both essentially decent human beings, than it was with Cesare Borgia. But I must confess I quite enjoyed inhabiting the Evil One. He was clearly a monster, but he had a certain style.

Machiavelli certainly seemed admiring of Cesare Borgia in spite of (sometimes even because of) Borgia's brutality, and yet you managed to make Machiavelli's admiration palatable. What was behind your decision to downplay Machaivelli's cold-bloodedness and enhance his appeal?

Machiavelli: Not the man you
know by reputation
I don’t think it’s a question of downplaying Machiavelli’s cold-bloodedness, but of writing about the man rather than extrapolating from his most famous work, The Prince. If you read his plays, his poetry and particularly his letters, it’s obvious that Machiavelli was not cold-blooded at all: he was very funny, he loved his family, he was loyal to his friends, and he fell in love easily and frequently. All of that is against his reputation, but that’s because his reputation is wrong.

How historically accurate is your book? Where did you take the greatest liberties?

All of the essential events and circumstances are true, all of the characters are real people, and many of the smaller details are based on historical fact as well. Obviously I have imagined/invented the characters’ thoughts and relationships and dialogue, but I have contradicted history only once in any notable way – and that was one of the central plot lines, which just fell flat when I wrote it in a historically accurate way. It is a work of fiction, so I make no apologies for changing that, but at the same time the original story was so dramatic and novel-like that it seemed perverse to make up more than I needed to. There’s a historical note at the end of the book explaining what is factual and what invented.

Do you have any future projects in the works?

The mysterious Marlowe
Yes, my next book will be about the life and death of the playwright Christopher Marlowe in London in 1593. I think it’s going to be a detective novel, although I haven’t begun writing it yet: I’m still at the research stage.

I can't wait to read it! No rush or anything, but hurry every chance you get. One last question for you: Would you rather be on the team that wins the 2014 World Cup but afterwards lose your eyesight for the rest of your life, OR be a famous detective who lives in the arctic every winter?

Ha, what a cruel question! Much as I’d love to be a famous detective, there is no way I could live in the Arctic every winter for the rest of my life. I really don’t like long, cold, dark winters. Give me blindness in a warm climate to an unending vision of bleak whiteness any day!

There he is, folks. Samuel Black. His first novel, The Ground is Burning, will be released on February 3 (that's Thursday!) by Faber & Faber, and can be pre-ordered from now. Meanwhile, check out this related article Mr. Black wrote about the sort of fame that lasts for centuries.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"The Willows in Winter" by William Horwood

Did you know there was a sequel to The Wind in the Willows? As a matter of fact, there are four (that I know of), although I only learned this recently. The sequels somehow escaped my notice until my bookworm discovered The Willows in Winter at our local library.

For what seemed like an interminable number of nights this was one of our bedtime stories (along with the aptly named The Neverending Story, which we should finally be finishing within the week--I hope!) and I must say I'm really glad it's over. This is in large part because the kids have put in a request for a reread of the Narnia books next . . . and the Harry Potter series after that. Never mind that by the time we finish those fourteen books my grade-schoolers may have already left for college.

So, yes, I'm glad the weeks and weeks of The Willows in Winter have ended, but that's not to say we didn't enjoy reading it. The sequels were not written by Kenneth Grahame, but this story fits in very nicely with the original classic. All the old familiar friends were there: Badger, with his gruff exterior that hides a soft heart; Rat, who is somehow both businesslike and fun-loving; kindhearted and agreeable Mole; and Toad, who gets up to utterly Toad-like shenanigans, though he'd promised he was through with all that. Even the tradition of Using Big Words was upheld.

I bet this is the picture that inspired the sequel
It was interesting to read, in the Author's Note at the end of the book, what inspired William Horwood to attempt a sequel of The Wind in the Willows. He became the proud owner of some of Ernest H. Shepard's original illustrations for that book, one of which portrayed Mole trudging through a snowy wood in search of Badger's house. What happened next is best explained in the author's own words.

"The Mole alone in the Wild Wood in a book was one thing; on my study wall he was rather different. As the months went by Shepard's drawing became part of my own imaginative landscape and Mole's original errand to find Badger faded as the great trees of the Wild Wood loomed larger before me, and the blizzard winds of winter surged and blew . . . it seemed to me that Mole was off on a journey rather different from his original one . . . the story of The Willows in Winter had begun."

How do you feel about sequels of a beloved favorite--especially if the story is continued by a new author? I'll confess that in most cases I would be quite wary of such an animal. I have the feeling that, if the original author is not the source, any further stories just don't count because they're not quite real. Kind of like fanfiction. But I can make an exception for Horwood, who seems to have followed suit respectfully enough that Grahame should still be resting peacefully.

Monday, January 24, 2011

"The Metamorphosis" by Franz Kafka

Am I the only one who wakes up most mornings frantically trying to figure out what day it is and what I need to be doing? This morning began with a familiar inner monologue: What day is today? What day is today? Yesterday was Sunday. OK, today is Monday. You need to go run, and don't forget that doctor's appointment this morning like you forgot it last week. I can only imagine how that stressful feeling might be compounded if I were simultaneously trying to come to terms with the fact that I'd somehow been transformed into a giant bug.

That is, as I'm sure you all know, the pickle in which Gregor Samsa finds himself in Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis. (Yet another book that was assigned reading in high school for everyone but me.) As the book opens, Gregor's physical metamorphosis has already occurred. The narrative doesn't concern itself with the process of the change, or even the reason behind it. Normally that would drive me crazy because, gaaaah! I want to know why!! But my mind did not dwell on that as I read. It's only dwelling on that now.

So, why call this The Metamorphosis if it only deals with the aftermath? Because there are other changes that occur during the story. The true metamorphosis is in the family's attitude towards Gregor. Formerly the sole breadwinner, he is now their burden. Surely they used to have great respect for Gregor (although I wonder if they didn't quietly snicker behind his back at the naïve way he enabled their laziness). Gregor's transformation caused immediate fear and revulsion accompanied by pity, which slowly changed to anger and hatred. It also caused a reversal of roles. Gregor's parents and sisters were the parasites at first; upon waking on that fateful morning, suddenly the parasite was Gregor.

Kafka's language in this novella is deceptively simple, leaving me certain that it is disguising hidden depths, but I'm not sure what I'm supposed to read into the story. To me, it seems like more of an exercise in creative writing. "What would happen if, one day, a man woke up as a giant bug?" As a much-studied piece of literature, there are all sorts of symbols to be found, but like Nabokov said in his lecture about The Metamorphosis, we shouldn't study symbolism too closely. "I am very careful not to overwork the significance of symbols, for once you detach a symbol from the artistic core of the book, you lose all sense of enjoyment." He's hit upon the reason why so many great books are hated by students. Of course, that doesn't mean we shouldn't study symbolism at all, but when you're lazy efficient like me, Nabokov is as good an excuse as any.

And I did enjoy reading this novella, especially the ridiculousness of it all. After Gregor's initial surprise at his new body, he seems to be in denial. He's thinking about his morning as if nothing were different. I like the absurdity of that. Then, he begins to wonder if his metamorphosis will cause anything else to change in his life. What an optimistic outlook for a giant bug.

Initial optimism aside, I felt so sorry for Gregor through most of the book. He wasn't without faults (he seemed unable to see the bad in others, for one thing) but his utter alienation from humanity, which he accepted so humbly, was quite disheartening. I may cherish solitude, but it's always with the understanding that companionship is waiting in the wings. Not so for poor Gregor. I won't tell you whether things end well for him, in case you've not read this one yet, but I'm sure you can guess that life is pretty harsh when you're an oversized beetle.

Yeah, beetle. That's really just a guess. Kafka did not specify exactly what Gregor had become. My translation calls him a "horrible vermin" in the first sentence. The cleaning lady later calls him a dung beetle. I think his specific form was intentionally left ambiguous, which is made even more evident by the fact that Kafka didn't want a picture of Gregor the Bug at all. Regarding the cover of the first edition, Kafka said, "The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance." The unknown is frequently more horrifying than the known. I think Kafka knew that the "horrible vermin" of each individual reader's imagination would be worse than any he could describe. Personally, I tend to think of Gregor as a brand new species, kind of like a short fat millipede with lots of tiny legs and a set of sharp, fearsome-looking pincers.

Whatever kind of bug Gregor was, I'm pretty sure he wasn't a butterfly.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy" by Sarah Bradford

For years I have been both fascinated and repelled by what I thought I knew of Lucrezia Borgia. I saw her as a powerful and selfish murderess, on the slightest whim poisoning anyone who stood in her way, not concerning herself in the least with trifles such as morality. Topped off by the suggestion that she had an incestuous relationship with both her father and her brother, Lucrezia just about made my eyes pop out of my head.

As it turns out, my impression was completely wrong. It's understandable that I had such an unfavorable opinion of the poor girl, as the intervening years have been unkind to her; even some of her contemporaries painted her as a villainess and a whore. Though some of the malicious gossip was a result of jealousy, most can probably be attributed to guilt by association. Her father, Rodrigo Borgia--though he became the Pope--was not especially pious, to say the least; her brother, Cesare Borgia, apparently deserved every bit of his notoriety.

But Lucrezia herself really wasn't such a bad person. Those who knew her by more than reputation found her modest, astute and wise. Many who had at first believed the reports of poor character thought of her much more favorably after meeting her.

This book does not give a clear and vivid picture of Lucrezia Borgia, but rather a negative image created by the world that surrounded her. You can see her outline, but there's a Lucrezia-shaped hole in the story, especially in the years preceding her third and longest marriage.

I suppose that fault was unavoidable in a work of non-fiction. There's nothing in this book that was not derived from research. No filler, no fabrication, no embellishment. In my opinion, this is both good and bad. Good in the sense that the book relates pure history; bad in the sense that it doesn't bring Lucrezia's personality and motivations to life like I'd hoped.

Slight disappointment aside, I was impressed by the scope of the research that went into this book. And I was amazed by the amount of personal correspondence still in existence! Didn't these people have mothers to teach them that they should only put in writing what they wanted the whole world to read?

This book has dispelled the mystique surrounding Lucrezia Borgia in my mind. She was not vile, evil, or scandalously naughty. She had her share of extramarital affairs, but no more than any other person of nobility during the Italian Renaissance, and she handled them discreetly. While I'm left feeling like I don't have a complete picture of the woman, I'm also convinced I have as complete a picture as is possible after the passage of five centuries. Sarah Bradford has done a remarkably thorough job with the resources available.

Too bad my former conception of Lucrezia Borgia, though much more salacious than the reality, was also much more fun.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Reading in Retrospect: "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" by Kate Douglas Wiggin, or Why the Anne of Green Gables Series is Better

My middle child, the bookworm, was given a copy of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm for Christmas. I read it for the first time only a few years ago. It seems like I’d heard of this book all my life, and I thought surely I’d read it as a child. But absolutely none of it seemed familiar, so I guess I’d missed this one.

The novel encompasses five years in the life of Rebecca Rowena Randall. One of seven children whose father died around the time of her youngest sibling’s birth, at the age of twelve Rebecca is sent to live with rich spinster aunts for schooling and raising. One aunt is spineless and the other is very hard to live with, but Rebecca’s engaging personality and active imagination see her through.

This book was first published in 1903. Anne of Green Gables was first published in 1908. There are many similarities between the two books, but Lucy Maud Montgomery did a better job with Anne. It’s as if Montgomery read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, said, “I can improve upon this!” and did.

First, Montgomery did away with all of the unnecessary background (Rebecca might as well have been an orphan; Anne was an orphan). More importantly, Anne was a more believable and likeable character. Both Anne and Rebecca were wonderfully imaginative, but Anne was also head of her class at school (smart girls rule!), and the scrapes she got herself into were both more serious and more entertaining than Rebecca’s.

Rebecca’s story doesn't extend beyond the one book, but Montgomery wisely gave us more detail in several volumes for Anne’s story. And overall, somehow Wiggin’s book was sappy, sentimental and adolescent, whereas Montgomery’s books managed to get deep into my heart rather than simply skimming the surface. Comparing Rebecca to Anne all the way through kind of ruined it for me, but I couldn't avoid it. Not that I didn’t enjoy this book, but I knew it could have been better than it was.

One final complaint about Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (which is kind of a spoiler, by the way). Ever since the moment his character was introduced, I wanted Rebecca to marry Mr. Adam Ladd (Mr. Aladdin) at the end. At the rate she was growing up through the chapters I thought for sure we would reach that point, but we didn’t. With no marriage in this book, I had hoped it might take place in a sequel, but that doesn’t seem to be the case either. (Wiggins did write the New Chronicles of Rebecca, which I haven't read, but from what I've gathered it doesn't pick up where RoSF left off; instead, it tells more stories that occurred within the same time frame.) The fact that Mr. Aladdin was twice Rebecca's age might have made a wedding somewhat squicky, but a hundred years ago such a thing wouldn't have even been considered Lolita territory (once Rebecca was an older teenager, anyway).

Oh, and it also annoyed me that most of the story didn’t even take place at Sunnybrook Farm.

Am I the only American girl who didn't read this book when I was little? Maybe I would have appreciated it more if I had.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Rain Song" by Alice J. Wisler

I want a book to blow me away. I want a book to make me dig. I want flawless writing with surprising combinations of words and thoughts. I want something to mull over for days afterwards.

Rain Song was not what I wanted.

Ever read a book where you wish you could kick every single character in the head because they're so stupid or incredibly unrealistic or they have the annoying habit of unnecessarily stating the obvious? No? Well, I would say you should read this book so you can commiserate with me, but I know you have better things to do.

The main character is like a wire coat-hanger stretched into the shape of a stick figure with a few quirks hung on it: she eats pineapple chutney, drinks ginger tea, wipes her mouth on a linen napkin, has a few phobias, buries all her problems under ice cream and chews her thumbnails. There's nothing else to her. She's not even a weakly convincing semblance of a real human. What's there is just an empty shell.

I was annoyed with Coat-Hanger Girl from the very beginning. Nicole is supposed to be thirty-one years old, but she sounds more like twelve. "I know nothing about marriage, since I've never been married." Even unmarried people know things about marriage. At the very least, they think they do. "I would like to be married, I think. But . . . my fish and I are doing quite well without a human male mate." All I could think was, someone please kill me now! But no one did, and I still had 280 pages to go.

I may blaspheme by saying so, but this book's plot has vague similarities to Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans (a brief childhood in Asia, mysteries left behind, a return to uncover the truth). When I say vague I mean distant, miniscule and nearly unrecognizable. The execution of the two novels couldn't be more different. It's like comparing apples to oranges when apples are greatness and oranges are mediocrity.

The last time I saw Lydia, one of my Book Club girls, she told me she unintentionally finished this book early. (We usually like to read the book of the month close to the time of our meeting so it's fresh in our minds for discussion). She kept reading and waiting for something to happen, but nothing ever did, and then all of a sudden it was over. And now I know exactly what she meant.

Gosh, I'm awful. I really hope Ms. Wisler never reads this post. But, just in case, here is my disclaimer: I am a mean, mean person and I guess I'm just not in the right demographic for this book. And, hey, look on the bright side--everything in the book was spelled correctly!

So. Another Book Club selection bites the dust. Or just bites. The best part about this book was knowing we'll be discussing it over sushi. Good thing I have great expectations for next month's book.

Monday, January 10, 2011

"The Ground is Burning" by Samuel Black

Books like this are why I read.

I'm a sucker for a book about Italy, especially set during the Italian Renaissance, but there's so much more to love about The Ground is Burning. The characters are fascinating, though that's hardly surprising when we're talking about Cesare Borgia, Niccolò Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci. The plot is fast-paced and engrossing without sacrificing depth. And then there's the evocative beauty of sentences like this one: "I can smell dead leaves burning somewhere in the distance--that sweet, sad, summer's-end scent."

I must admit that before I started reading this book, I was a teensy bit afraid it might be somewhat dry and dull, mainly because I was (and still am) in the middle of reading a biography on Lucrezia Borgia (Cesare's sister) that has been slow going at times. But I shouldn't have worried. The day I started reading this book I burned my baby's toast and was late to my son's awards assembly. Good book or negligent mother? Well. Probably a little bit of both. But, setting aside my questionable parenting abilities, The Ground is Burning is bursting with life. Events of more than five centuries ago are as fresh as yesterday, and people long dead once again live and breathe within these pages.

One thing that brings the characters to life is the way their unique ambitions are laid bare for the reader. Cesare's motivation is power, wielded aggressively enough to elicit fear and dread in his supporters. Machiavelli, too, wants power, but he is willing to act with much more subtlety and diplomacy. Leonardo strives to create something that will stand the test of time and lead to immortal fame. All three men are similar in their drive to leave a lasting impression (and it's not hard to argue that they succeeded), yet they are written with distinct voices that highlight their very different personalities.

One complaint: I felt like I could detect a modern British voice at times. Would a fifteenth-century Italian teenager really say "sod it"? I could have bought affanculo or whatever the Italian equivalent is. On the other hand, that underlying contemporary feel is responsible in part for the vividly real characters. After all, the book begins with a quote from Machiavelli which says, "If the present be compared with the remote past, it is easily seen that in all cities and in all peoples there are the same desires and the same passions as there always were." I suppose that's a fancier and more verbose way of saying, "there's nothing new under the sun," but it also says the people in this book aren't so very different from YOU.

I want you to read this book, so I am doing a giveaway. You can't have my copy, but if you're the lucky winner I'll buy you your own. Anyone is eligible, unless you are my mom (mainly because Cesare Borgia was a potty mouth, among other slightly scandalous reasons). Leave a comment with your email address before the end of January if you would like a chance to win.

My thanks to Faber for providing me with a proof copy of The Ground is Burning, which will be released on February 3. If you don't win my giveaway, you can purchase your own copy from

Yum. Samuel Black, I WANT MORE!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

"The Black Dahlia" by James Ellroy

I first heard of The Black Dahlia when my freak of a friend posted horrifying pictures of Elizabeth Short's mutilated corpse on his facebook page. (Yeah, I have great friends.) If you have kinder, gentler friends who haven’t kept you in the loop, you may not know that the crime in this book is based on actual events, though much of the investigation is fictional.

After seeing those photos (which my lovely friend tagged as “road kill”), I decided I wasn't interested in watching the 2006 movie. I assumed it focused on the repulsive details of the poor girl’s torture and murder. My mind drew parallels to the movie Seven, which--while being a highly suspenseful thriller--left me with the thoroughly depressing feeling of "what is wrong with humanity?"

But I was curious enough to read the book, which I figured wouldn't be quite as bad as the movie in terms of sickening visual images that can be so difficult to expunge from my mind. And it was kind of nice to find that the novel didn’t dwell on the killing, but instead focused on the police work during the resulting investigation.

That’s not to say Ellroy pulls any punches. Nothing is glossed over or whitewashed or made pretty in this story. There is an element of “even the good guys are the bad guys,” but I didn’t end up disgusted with all of my fellow humans. Just some of them.

Even if it hadn’t been written all over the cover, I think I would have been able to guess that Ellroy also authored L.A. Confidential. I haven’t read that book, but I’ve seen the movie, and it has some similarities (namely cops and whores in mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles). Turns out the two books are part of what’s called Ellroy’s “L.A. Quartet,” which also includes The Big Nowhere and White Jazz.

My one complaint about the book: the family of crazies with a crazy friend kind of defied belief. One crazy person would have been enough, but Ellroy kept stacking up the insanity. As soon as we knew one mentally ill character was involved, we learned of another. And another. But, though I gripe, I must admit this did not diminish my ability to enjoy the book.

My favorite “noir” is of the Pinot variety, but Ellroy writes some pretty good crime fiction. I have added The Black Dahlia to my netflix queue (now that I think I can handle it) and will probably read The Big Nowhere at some point.

Monday, January 3, 2011

"The Collector" by John Fowles

I'd never heard of this title or author before I read about the book on Rachel's blog back in October, but she convinced me to read it. The story sounded awfully creepy and perfect for Halloween. So I'm a few months late (or a number of months early!) but I decided it would work just as well to read it as the year came to a close.

This is the story of a socially inept butterfly collector who is fascinated by a local girl to a disturbing degree. When he suddenly comes into an unexpected sum of money, he finds himself with the means to make Miranda notice him. In Fred Clegg's maladjusted mind, the best way to reach this goal is to abduct the girl and hold her prisoner in his cellar.

From the very beginning it is evident that something about the narrator is off. It's not a matter of low intelligence, because Clegg is sharp enough, but there is just something missing from him that keeps him from being a complete human. Fowles really very impressively (if unsettlingly) portrays the mind of the captor.

Cover of the first edition (1963)
I wouldn't say this in public if it weren't for the fact that the author is no longer living, but I think what creeped me out the most was how much thought the author put into the scenario. He planned this kidnapping and imprisonment out to an amazing level of detail. It makes me shiver to think how deeply he delved into the abductor's unbalanced mind. Clegg is not pure evil--Fowles doesn't take the situation to horrifying extremes, and any abuse is subtle and passive--but, even so, the stalking and obsession and their results are disturbing enough.

To be fair, though, Fowles also gave us the opposite perspective, as the second part of the book is narrated from the pages of the captive's diary. We follow Miranda through what, remarkably, can be compared to the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). It's interesting to find that, during her captivity, Miranda transforms into a more mature and thoughtful person. Almost like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis . . .

Fowles also wrote The French Lieutenant's Woman, which I've added to my wish list.