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

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Non-specific ramblings on The Best Books

I had a rare moment this afternoon to lie still and stare off into space for a bit and, surprisingly enough, I didn't fall asleep. Instead, I spent the moment contemplating the books I've read over the past two years--those I haven't blogged about, though I wish I had. (I can see a stack of 25 of them from where I sit, and I'm sure there are at least as many others stashed in various nooks and crannies throughout the house.) Usually this rekindles the Literary Amnesiac fire in me and I start mentally planning how I can catch up and get back into blogging regularly. But today's brief meditation had a unique effect. I began writing a new blog post in my mind, but instead of thinking of specific books that I've read, I considered the various attributes of books I've most enjoyed reading.

For me, there is a bottom line--a minimum requirement, if you will. Technically speaking, the writing must not have mistakes. I have recently been given reason to believe that I *don't* actually catch every grammatical and spelling error present in print, but I find it disruptive when glaring errors figuratively poke me in the eye.

Closely tied to this bottom line: the writing must flow, and must not suck. (For lack of a better term.) Not that I haven't managed to enjoy books with less-than-stellar writing, but I can't call to mind any true favorites that were poorly written. Wow, that sounds pompous . . . well, just keep in mind that I'm talking about my *opinion* of good or bad writing, and I do realize I don't have the last word on that. Also, my definition of "flow" is relatively relaxed and can encompass anything from Faulkner's unconventional stream-of-consciousness prose to Ishiguro's flawless writing. Above all, the writing must not distract me or keep me from losing myself in the story.

If the writing is decent and relatively mistake-free, my all-time favorite characteristic of a good book is the way I am propelled through it. I know I've written here before about my critical mass theory, but I don't mind mentioning it again: I LOVE reaching the point in a book where I am loath to lay it down, where if I have to stop reading I think of nothing but picking the book up again, and where I wish I could put life on hold, doing nothing but reading the book until I've reached the final page. This is kind of a vague trait and one that I'm sure is extremely subjective, but all of my favorite books reach critical mass at one point or another. (And the earlier, the better!)

It seems to me that everything else about a good book is minor compared to what I've already listed. Actually, that's probably the wrong perspective: everything else is the wasabi and pickled ginger to the sushi of good writing and critical mass. (A metaphor which only works if you like wasabi, pickled ginger and sushi. I do.) That doesn't mean the wasabi and pickled ginger aren't important, because they are. And here is what I see as the wasabi and pickled ginger of reading:

I enjoy interesting and unique characters (more so if they're believable), a twisting and engaging plot, and I would claim that the majority of books can only be improved by some suspense and a few secrets. Of course I don't mean that all books should be genre thrillers or murder mysteries; I just mean that I prefer books that raise questions for me to ponder as I read (whether smaller ones, merely about the plot of the book itself, or big ones about the Meaning of Life), especially if those questions aren't answered too quickly. I can even handle a few questions that are never answered . . . but not too many!

I like finding profound thoughts or wise quotes in my books, as long as those thoughts and quotes aren't just a bunch of crap. There may be nothing new under the sun, but it's always somehow fascinating to be shown an old idea in a new way.

And a throwback from my youth: I often found myself IN the book I was reading (not literally, of course). I was the main character. The events of the book were happening to me. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to happen to me as often anymore, but I loved it when I was young.

This list is nowhere near exhaustive, and I would certainly expect other readers to prize aspects of literature that didn't even cross my mind. What qualities do you find are common denominators in your favorite books?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

For the first time in who knows how long, I have actually finished my book club book before book club. (I used to be such an exemplary member! I always finished my book club books on time. Luckily, I also never gave the other members grief when they didn't finish--or didn't even start!--reading their book before our meeting, so everyone has karmically gone easy on me during these last few months . . . or, erm, possibly years? But that's not my point. My point is that this month I did it right. And anyway, I digress.)

Gaiman's new book is a fun and fast read, and quirky to say the least. I read the Kindle version, which I've always found difficult to equate to real books as far as determining length, but this book must be pretty short (as well as not boring) because I read it within 24 hours--actually less than that, if you subtract a full 8-hour shift at work and at least five hours of sleep (why oh why can I never go to bed early enough to get a good night's sleep? But I digress again).

This is the story of a friendless 7-year-old bookworm who meets an older neighbor girl. Lettie, at first, seems merely to be a teller of tall tales; she claims the pond on her property is an ocean. Though the narrator is skeptical of this (and rightly so), soon she opens his eyes to a reality that most people never see. Normal human events are interspersed with psychedelic weirdness.

Now, weirdness is good. I've told you that before. But it can be much more enjoyable when it has a purpose. Unfortunately, this story seemed loose and aimless (I wanted to describe it with the word "meandering" instead, but the plot had too much tension for that to fit--though in an episodic way rather than in a suspense-building way). As I neared the end I realized I was waiting to find a string that would pull everything taut, one mind-blowing puzzle piece that would click into place and shift everything into a new and dazzling perspective, but alas . . . there was no miracle thread, no revelatory missing piece. There was a pleasing symmetry in the way the fantastic was book-ended with reality, but it didn't make the mess in the middle seem any less pointless. I wanted the fanciful events the narrator experienced in his childhood to be linked to the realistic things he saw and didn't understand--things that frightened and confused him--but (call me stupid) I never found those links.

I get the feeling that, had this book not been written by Neil Gaiman, it would not have found a publisher. Or, best case scenario, a good editor could have taken the raw material (because the layered, textured fabric of good strong storytelling was there), snipped it to bits, and stitched it back together into something that would have raised my eyebrows, dropped my jaw, and altogether satisfied me in the way only a great story can. Instead, I found myself sitting there staring at Mr Incredible in disappointment.

My parting shot: Neil Gaiman used too many commas in this book. Surely he understands correct comma usage (and, barring that, surely his editor does). I was half irritated by this and half dissolving in self-doubt (maybe I'm the one who is wrong!). But so many of his sentences would flow much more nicely without all the pauses.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Doom of the Haunted Opera by John Bellairs

I remember John Bellairs from my childhood. I'm sure I've even tried to tell people about him since then. This was made more difficult by the fact that I just couldn't remember his name.

Yesterday on a trip to the library I stumbled across a couple of Bellairs' books while sniffing out recommendations for Bookworm Child. I would say that finding these books caused a wealth of memories to come flooding back, but that wouldn't be true. Instead, I only had the same memories I've held on to for the past few decades: first, that Uncle Jonathan caused a lunar eclipse by magic; second, that Lewis summoned Selenna Izard from the dead and was then terrorized by her thick glasses with their pesky glowing glare which obscured her eyes; and third, that at age 8 (just guessing at the age, by the way, because I can't remember how old I was), I finally decided I'd been so creeped out by Mr Bellairs' books that I needed to make and enforce a rule for myself. No more reading books by John Bellairs!

Well, I've finally broken that rule, and happily I have not suffered for it. I just finished reading The Doom of the Haunted Opera. Though there were some creepy passages (most notably when Lewis and Rose Rita were being chased by the stone cemetery statue which would only move when they weren't looking), I'm pretty sure the story is not going to induce nightmares. Though it is well-written, it is much more Goosebumps than Stephen King. It's a slightly more sinister (and American) Harry Potter with a smaller cast of characters who are, sadly, lacking a Hogwarts. I can't help but wonder if the not-too-creepy aspect has anything to do with the fact that this book wasn't written by Bellairs in its entirety? It says right on the cover that it was "completed by Brad Strickland." I'm sure Strickland tried to adhere as closely as possible to Bellairs' style and ideas, but I have no basis for comparison as to whether he succeeded.

The Haunted Opera story follows Lewis and his friend Rose Rita as they explore an old opera house in their hometown of New Zebedee, Michigan. The two discover the score for an opera hidden in an old piano, only to belatedly realize the music is actually an evil incantation that their town is making plans to perform, bringing on the opera's title: The Day of Doom. The overall effect of the story is 2% creepy and 98% spunky and adventuresome. It was a fun and fast read, and an enjoyable way to relive part of my younger days.

There are a few more memories that I've now managed to unearth: First, the characters' names I've mentioned (Jonathan, Lewis, Rose Rita, Mrs Izard--I never would have remembered their names if I hadn't read about them again). Second, the fact that Edward Gorey illustrated many of Bellairs' earlier editions. (I love Gorey's drawings. You should check them out . . . especially his alphabet.) And third, that I surely must have read Bellairs' The House with a Clock in Its Walls--not only because the title sounds familiar, but also because it contains the lunar eclipse and the raising of Old Mrs Izard.

I can't wait to hear what Bookworm Child thinks of Bellairs. It will be interesting to see whether she has to make and enforce a rule for herself . . .

More Gorey for you . . .
the book's back cover