Monday, February 22, 2010

"Shutter Island" and "A Gate at the Stairs"

I saw "Shutter Island" on Friday.

Sorry. I've told you too much already.

Anyway! I also finished a novel by Lorrie Moore called "A Gate at the Stairs." I don't know much about Ms. Moore beyond what the NY Times Book Review has told me, which is that she's an amazing writer and her last book was published more than ten years ago and ever since critics and literary types have been wringing their hands and drooling over the prospect of the next Lorrie Moore book. So in 2009, "The Gate at the Stairs" appeared and, based on the critical response, it exceeded already high expectations. So I had to pick it up.

The day after I started this book I was having a MSN chat with the owner and operator of the blog and told him I was reading this book. I gave a brief (and fairly lame) description of the premise -- "A college girl takes a babysitting job" -- and he came back with some quotes from the book (taken from the internet I assume) which, admittedly, made it sound like a pretty bad book. It was pretty funny. But, despite it's young adult genre premise, "Gate" is actually a brilliant, complex and adult novel. And the writing itself, Hinesy's choice quotes aside, is actually one of the best things about it. Warm, legitimately funny, and really really smart.

The plot, roughly, concerns a college freshman in Wisconsin named Tassie. Looking for a job to keep her finances afloat while "studying" (her class-load amounts to a damning comment on the state of higher education -- in addition to wine-tasting and an intro to sufism, there's a class on war movie scores), she takes a job with a restaurant-owner/chef named Sarah Brink who doesn't have children, but is in the final stages of adopting a child. Sure enough, Sarah adopts a mixed-race toddler girl and Tassie comes on as a full-time nanny.

Assuredly bad and tragic things happen, but one of the things I liked best about the book, the thing I'll probably remember most clearly happens late in the novel, when Sarah Brink tells Tassie a story about her past. In as straight-forward a book as this, where there's no grand historical setting to rely on for mood or atmospherics, and there are no otherworldly entities to contend with when the action slows down, Moore's creation of suspense building up to the telling of this story is masterful. And she does it by putting everything into creating real characters who you come to care about and she does it all without the reader feeling the strain of her effort. As much as I'd like to lay out the secret Brink shares with Tassie, (it is devastating and beautifully told), I won't, but I will say it was nice to set the book aside afterward, get some fresh air, and reassure myself that what she'd described hadn't actually happened.

I also liked Moore's quietly scathing depiction of the adoption industry, showing that in many instances it's simply a form of legalized child-buying. After years and years of seeing adoption held up as the regret-free option for women who find themselves pregnant, it was interesting to have an adoption presented that was as emotionally damaging to the mother as the anti-choice people say abortions always are. That is not to say Moore paints the adoption process as inherently traumatic or bad, but I think she takes pains to show it as it is: an imperfect system that often seems to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

Anyway, I'm on a good-book roll with this and "2666" just before it.

Here's the one I'm into now:

It's hardcore fantasy. Not normally what I'd pick up on my own without some strong word of mouth, but the New Yorker told me that it's one of the best fantasy books written so I thought I'd give it a shot.

I'm 50 pages into this one, and I'm not sure my good book readin' roll's going to continue. Time will tell and I'll let you know.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I finished reading "2666" this morning. The wife went to the Capitol Building this morning to lobby on behalf of Planned Parenthood and because we are a one-car household now (we sold the Crown Victoria a couple of weeks ago) and she had to be in downtown Atlanta early, I got dropped off at Panera at 7AM this morning. Two solid hours of reading time. So I lasered in, strapped on some headphones, pressed play on my "Prestige" soundtrack playlist and got to scraping paper with corneas.

"2666" is the last novel written by a man named Roberto Bolano. When he finished it, he was not well-known in the English-speaking world, but after he died and his translations started percolating through the literary world, his fame grew and he's now considered one of the best writers of the last 50 years. If I feel a vague sadness Bolano's not alive to enjoy this justly earned attention or, more selfishly, to talk more about this and his other books, then I can't imagine what his loss must be like for the critics and fellow artists who recognize without question how important Bolano is. Reading "2666" gives one the sense that a writer of Dosteovsky's stature managed to come in and go out of this world without anyone being the wiser. At least that is the sense I have less than 24 hours out after finishing it.

I don't know what I want to say about it. Much of the action is set in a Mexican border town called Santa Theresa, a stand-in for La Cuidad de Juarez, one of the most dangerous places on earth. Juarez is primarily dangerous because of the warring drug cartels. The murder rate in the city is unimaginably high. But the sense of menace in Bolano's Juarez stand-in, Santa Theresa, is of a completely different nature, and the dread he infuses his fictional city with makes it unlike anything I've encountered in my limited reading. He makes it a legitimately scary place. Maybe to some small degree the Venice of McEwan's "In the Company of Strangers" is comparable, but that book is small and its effects limited, an hors d'Ĺ“uvre to "2666"'s 9-course meal.

Much of that menace comes from what's going on in Santa Theresa. Women are being murdered. More than a hundred at least and all by the same killer or killers. In one of the five books that comprise the novel, the murders are the focus. So much so that they almost become... not a character but a fixture -- a certainty of that world so woven into the background that the constancy of the killings becomes almost darkly soothing, and when the murders temporarily stop the reader is unsettled. Each crime scene is explicated with the cold finality of police reports. The sadistic, savage brutality done to their bodies before and after the women expired is listed with that cruel phrasing common to documents of that kind. And because Bolano details the crime scene of every single murder so exhaustively -- and I didn't count but there must have been a hundred -- you can almost feel the threat of violence, particularly violence against women, hanging in the air. And if your faith in the goodness of man feels significantly degraded after finishing this book, I think Bolano's intention's been achieved. But you don't begrudge him because he's done it so masterfully. And also because you can't argue the point.

I just wrote yesterday that I was getting myself into trouble by writing long entries, thinking they all have to be long, and make some kind of point, and here I go writing and writing and eating up all of this evening time, and so far none of it's coming to anything, but I need to see if I can say a little of what I want to say about this book.

The first of the five books is about a group of literary scholars who've all become expert in the critical studies of one author: a reclusive German named Benno von Archimboldi. The second book follows a journalist in Santa Theresa who's covering a boxing match in the city, the third a professor n the city who meets with the scholars (maybe switch the last two), the fourth the murders, and the fifth is a short biography of the author Archimboldi, the writer the four scholars never locate though they search their whole lives.

There are moments during the fourth book (or "Parts" as they're called) where the thought crosses the mind that the author almost no one's seen might be the one killing these women. This idle wondering loses some of its potency as the numbers of dead women increase and then increase some more and we come to see that no one man, particularly a tall old white man who speaks only German, could do all of this killing in Mexico and not be caught after the second body's discovered. But as the fifth part unwinds, the biography of Archimboldi, the thought sneaks back in at certain points before drifting out of feasibility again, and then he shocks you by producing a legitimate connection between the old German writer and the killings in Santa Theresa and you realize that he's pulled it all off somehow. It's been a highwire act for hundreds of pages and he's made it work without our even realizing.

But really the whole book is like this. He's got this thing going where he gets the reader established into narrative patterns -- whether its the murders or the patterns of behavior the literary scholars fall into -- and the patterns lull the reader into a kind of boredom that's not really boredom. And with the reader safely lulled, Bolano's able to subtly suggest and hint at things that may or may not be relevant to the plot so that some of the same absent, purposeless thought patterns that characterize our way of thinking in everyday life are almost forcibly replicated by Bolano and confined inside the world of the story. So that while reading the reader is thinking in the same way about the events of the story as one of the characters in the novel might be. (Or maybe this is just something all great literature does or can do. Not sure.) This lulling also allows the author to drop allusions and clues to events detailed more fully later in the novel so subtly that as the reader presses forward, the story resonates without it being fully clear why it's resonating. It's almost as though Bolano is throughout this novel implanting a feeling of deja vu designed to blossom with visceral force 200 pages later.

There's more to write but I've gone on and on as it is. A fascinating, brilliant book and one I think will get better with time and re-reading.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Back from the Dead and, Apropo of Nothing, eBook Pricing!

I had a whole post going about what's been going on for most of the month of January (and the last week of December), but then I started to take too long to make some obscure point and that one's just not getting published.

So the long absence has been down to a few things. Primarily some surgeries in the family, one planned and one not so much. Everyone's fine now, but as neither went off cleanly, it was harrowing for a few weeks there.

I've also attempted to revive some good habits, and start some new ones. Writing regularly being the former, and regular physical activity the latter. Mixed results for both, but the time required for both eats into blog time.

So as I don't like this thing to be a red frog, I've decided I should blog more often, but I've also decided that I shouldn't have to think each post, or even every third post has to be well-written or thought out or even very interesting to put up on here. (I can hear some of you asking how that's different in any way than what's come before and, man, that stings.) If 'good enough' is the new 'great', 'not that good' is the new 'good enough'. Right?

Anyway, onto the aforementioned 'not that good'.

So for Christmas my mom got one of the new e-book readers. The Sony Reader. It's pretty good. She had Lorrie Moore's "A Gate at the Stairs" loaded up on there, which helps, and reading through the first pages of that went fine. The device is intuitive and simple. The surface technology, the way the user interfaces with the machine, doesn't appear to have changed that much since they first came out but I think it has wider-ranging capabilities now than it used to. The sorts of files it can display for example. But it's lighter than a heavy book and, like my mom said, it's easier to find a comfortable position to read in when all you have to worry about is this little screen. So definite advantages.

Leaving aside for a moment whether these things will kill paper-based books, or even whether it's okay if they do, what about the price per ebook? The consumer-friendly price that Amazon set back when they introduced the Kindle was $9.99 for most new bestsellers, much less for classics (which are often free).

That appears to be changing. From the NYTimes:
"In the battle over the pricing of electronic books, publishers appear to have won the first round. The price of many new releases and best sellers is about to go up, to as much as $14.99 from $9.99."
Is a digital file of, say, Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol" really worth $14.99? That price is essentially just $10 bucks off the price of an actual, holdable, lendable, throwable hardcover, and usually that discount comes out to a bit less when you consider how deeply some chain bookstores discount the stuff that really sells. To anyone reading who's got an e-reader, is the $14.99 per e-book a show-stopper or is it still fairly reasonable? Does anyone think this could be a feint, a trial balloon from the publisher and e-tailers to see how far buyers will go to load up their e-readers?

So how's the 'not that good' posting strategy going so far?