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

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"White Oleander" by Janet Fitch

I don't know why I'm hesitating to say I loved this book. Maybe it's the fact that my copy was endorsed by Oprah's Book Club? I watched the movie more than four years ago and thought it was great, and I must admit I really enjoyed the reading experience. (Also, this may be one of those rare cases where the book and the movie are both equally amazing!)

White Oleander tells the story of a teenage girl's odyssey through the foster care system of southern California. Astrid Magnussen is a blank slate who is strongly influenced by her ever-changing environment. Chameleon-like, she adapts externally to fit in at each new foster home in the series she endures. It's not until the end, when Astrid has developed her own sense of self, that I realized she took a part of each home with her as she went; that little bits of all the disparate elements of her life can be seen in the person she has become. Which I suppose is true for everyone, but many people don't have such varied experiences.

Speaking of which . . . I had a thought at the end of the book that kind of ruined the experience for me just a little bit. After all the things that Astrid went through, I couldn't help but think it seemed more like a compilation of Foster Daughters' Incidents of Peril than the story of one girl. It almost defied belief that one person would have had such a run of bad luck. On the other hand, the story reminded me of The Glass Castle--though Astrid's life was actually slightly less horrifying--and I had no trouble believing that Jeannette Walls' childhood was real. But it's probably a good thing that I found Astrid's story to be a bit beyond belief.  Though it felt plausible (in parts if not as a whole) and immediate, I subconsciously retained the comfortable knowledge that it was safely in the realm of fiction.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"The Secret Keeper" by Kate Morton

You know that rule I made for myself in order to keep my blog current and avoid a backlog? The one where I can't start reading a new book until I blog about the previous one? That rule has been torture this past week. Blame it on bad timing. I didn't finish reading this book until the part of the week where so much is crammed into my days between waking and sleeping, I hardly have time to take an extra breath, let alone sit down and write a blog post. I mean, I could have squeezed in some reading here and there (if I'd allowed myself to break my rule), but there was certainly no time for writing. SO I have been bookless, reading nothing, for the first time in memory. And I have hated it.

Last night Sam convinced me it would be OK to break my rule just this once. It is my rule, after all. I suppose he was looking out for my best interests and helping to retain my sanity (and, by extension, his). It was such a relief to crack open a fresh book, even if I only had the time to dip in my little pinkie toe. (Addicted to books much?) And now I have a brief opportunity to write about the previous book, so my rule isn't too broken.

Once upon a time I expressed my opinion that Kate Morton's books are great, big, thick bundles of awesomeness. I now feel obligated to admit my assessment might have been premature. Yes, I loved The House at Riverton; I was sure I would love The Forgotten Garden, but unfortunately I had to settle for Liking It A Lot. Now, somehow, I haven't even read The Distant Hours yet. (What? I bought a hardcover copy because I couldn't wait for the paperback! Obviously I *could* have waited for the paperback, which came out in 2011.) And somehow I completely missed the publication of The Secret Keeper. It flew under my radar until I was Christmas shopping last month and found it at my home away from home, Target. It didn't take me long to decide that someone needed to give it to me for Christmas, and that someone needed to be me.

So, almost a month after Christmas, the story of The Secret Keepers is behind me rather than before me. The riddles are revealed, the mysteries made known, the secrets spilled. Laurel Nicolson, English character actress in her golden years, has unearthed all the answers to the question of who her aging mother was in the years before marrying and having children. And, in keeping with my awesomeness assessment adjustment, I enjoyed this book, but it did not rise above entertainment. Not that I have a problem with entertainment! Fun is one of my most favorite things to have! But it's always a bonus when a book offers something more. The Secret Keeper didn't amaze me or cause me to think new things. At least I didn't feel like I was killing off brain cells, I didn't want to re-write half of it or find any mistakes to correct (that I recall), and I didn't scoff at it. And I did appreciate a good twist towards the end (which I won't reveal, out of the kindness of my heart).

New Kate Morton assessment: bundles of fun. There are worse things!

Monday, January 12, 2015

"Strangers on a Train" by Patricia Highsmith

I saw the Hitchcock movie of this book (and loved it) years and years ago, without even realizing it was based on a novel. Then, much more recently, I saw two other movies based on Patricia Highsmith novels: The Two Faces of January and The Talented Mr Ripley. They were both really dark, tense and compelling, but also oddly funny, in a twisted way, which was also true of the Hitchcock movie. When I found out one writer was behind all these stories, I knew I had to read her.

So, Kathy bought me this novel plus three of the Ripley series for Christmas. I chose to read Strangers on a Train first because it was Highsmith's debut. I don't remember many details about the film version, but in my mind it is a lighter, cleaner, neater story than the one in the book.

Highsmith's prose is good - elegant without being overwritten, taut without being clichéd - but I think it's her psychology, rather than her sentence-making, that really lifts her above the average thriller/noir crowd. You inhabit the skulls and lives of two very different characters in this book - one of them a psychopath, the other not - and yet it's what happens to the non-psychopath that fills you with dread, that makes you think: 'there but for a twist of fate...'

Strangers on a Train reminded me of two of my favorite novels: Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Like both those books, it is essentially about the thousand tiny, banal pressures and fears and desires that might lead a sane, intelligent person to murder another human being, and - most of all - about the horrifying, life-staining guilt they feel afterwards.

Kathy asked me just now if I enjoyed it, and I said 'Maybe enjoy isn't the word I'd choose, but it's really good'. Perhaps it seemed even darker than it was due to my state of mind last week, in the wake of the Paris shootings, but I think even on a beach vacation this is a book that would worm its way into the depths of your mind, would unsettle and disturb you. It was never less than compelling, but I must admit I feel a certain relief at having come to the end of it. It was more twisted and less funny than any of those three

All the same, I am excited to have discovered a major writer with a huge body of work, almost all of which is new to me. This is similar to how I felt after reading my first Ellroy novel, or my first Philip K. Dick novel. With one difference: I am not going to plunge myself into a Highsmith binge - not right now, anyway. I think I'll wait till the days are longer and the air is warmer and the grass is greener. I need something less bleak to get me through the winter.

POSTSCRIPT: We watched the Hitchcock movie version of this a couple of nights ago, and it was not as good as I remembered. Either that, or it just suffered in comparison to the book. It certainly seemed far more dated than the book: a superficial melodrama, where the book was a naturalistic thought-experiment. And, crucially, it chickened out of the central question: why a normal, intelligent, 'good' person would murder an innocent stranger and how they would feel afterward. So, despite the fact that it was directed by one of the greatest directors of all time and the screenplay co-written by a noir legend (Raymond Chandler), if I were Patricia Highsmith, I would have been pretty upset by this adaptation (though, apparently, she praised it when it first came out). The good news, very recently announced, is that David Fincher is to make a movie version of the book - and I really hope that's what it will be, rather than a remake of the original movie - entitled simply Strangers. I have great expectations for that film, as Fincher did not flinch from screening the darkest, subtlest elements of Gone Girl. I can also totally imagine Ben Affleck as Guy Haines.