Sunday, November 15, 2009

An Interminable Year with John Irving

John Irving takes longer to get to the point of his stories than any author I know. He is not a lazy writer. Brilliant. Infuriating. Frustrating. But not lazy.

I reread A Widow for One Year after trying to tell a friend and patron what it was about the book that had captured me. After slogging through it on a second read, now I'm not sure. Maybe what made this title stand out was the out-of-humor author. There is a tremendously funny scene early on when Ted Cole, the father of the heroine, is chased down by one of his many amours gone wrong, but this is the first book where I noticed that Irving himself seemed out of sorts. His quirky humor is missing.

It is a writers' book, the saga of Ruth Cole, novelist, from her childhood though a marriage, widowhood, and remarriage. Her father is a writer and illustrator of children's books. Marion, Ruth's mother, who leaves them, is a writer. Her mother's young lover, Eddie, who never stops loving this much older woman, is a writer. Her quirky best friend, Hannah, is a journalist. By the time we get to Harry, the Amsterdam policeman who tries to find Ruth after she witnesses the murder of a prostitute, we are as happy to see a reader as Ruth is attracted to him.

It is classic Irving. He takes us back before the beginning to tell the story of the mother who can never stop grieving for her dead sons, the lazy writer father who lures mothers in as models for his children's books then draws pornography, and the child Ruth, born to replace the two lost boys. The despondant Marion is planning to leave her husband and child, fearing that she will love the little girl and lose her, and spends her last summer in a sexual liason with Eddie, a teenage boy. This event frames the story. Both Eddie and Ruth live in anticipation of the return of Marion.

Fast forward. Ruth is a successful novelist with a history of bad boyfriends and a best friend, Hannah, with a history as the bad girlfriend. Eddie reenters Ruth's life and his undying love for her lost mother, provides a bond of friendship for the two which continues through the book. Ruth is considering marriage with her editor but is unsure and puts off any decision until after a book tour in Europe that will eventually lead her to Amsterdam, the pivotal destination of this long, convoluted story.

The part of the book that I remembered and reread to discover why it affected me so, takes place in the room of a prostitute in Amsterdam--a room all in red. The imagery is more vivid than usual in this section and, even after several years and forgetting most of the plot, the room remains in my memory. Irving does his usual roundabout tease, dropping hints about it, taking us elsewhere, coming back to let us see the outside, taking us away, returning to enter, taking us out again, and finally placing us in the closet with Ruth where she witnesses the murder. In writing about what she has experienced, Ruth leaves the crumb that will draw the hawk to her.

In part, this book is a fictional treatise on experiential writing. Irving takes us into the heads of his characters as they plot their books and we see how their experiences move through their writing, even as Ruth, at least, argues that it is all imagination. It is imagination, but it is imagination that feeds on the friends and family in the author's life. In weaving the tales these writers create, Irving lets us watch the creative process unfold from initial idea to final creation.

But I'm left with questions as I work my way through this tortuous review that seems to mirror the length of its subject. He is a formula writer. Why does he begin so far back in the lives of his protagonists? Why do we have to know about the mothers and fathers and grandparents of the hero or heroine? Why do we have to walk through several lives to get to the pivotal moment, the climax, of the story? Is he trying to show us that every event is the sum of the multiplicity of decisions that have gone before? Or does he just like to spin all the multi-colored strands into one final plot, tightly knotted? Or is he playing games with us?

He uses sexual metaphor freely in all his work--is his methodology an extension of that? The long, slow tease that leaves us begging for the denouement, and the deep satisfaction when it comes.

Even when I toss one of his books into a corner, vowing I'll not read another, I know. I'll come back for more. He is a master of the craft. I can't resist.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

On the Road with Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy's book, The Road, is number one on the AbeBooks' customers' list of the Top Ten Most Depressing Reads. We added it to the collection in April of 2007, and by the time I had time to read it, I was not in the frame of mind to survive it. Last weekend, my sis and I took our fall sister trip and the waves of laughter that rolled us home left a vast store of endorphines on the beach. I spent some of that euphoria the last two nights reading The Road.

Let no one tell you it is depressing. It is the most hopeful of books, one in which there is nothing material upon which to base hope, no future, no brighter tomorrow, yet the light refuses to go out.

In the apocalyptic future, in a dead world of ash and burnt-out cities, in a world where only a tiny spark of life survives with nothing but itself to feed upon, a father and son travel the road from the cold north of what was America toward the southern coast, and warmth. The mother, understanding that there is no life left to be lived, has embraced death and left her two males to walk the bleak path alone.

The boy asks two questions of his father, again and again, whether for his own reassurance or for the father's remembrance. Are we the good guys? Do we carry the fire?

The bad guys are capturing and holding people to breed and eat. That 's all there is left of living sustenance. Those who refuse to cannibalize humanity forage for what remnant of canned goods others have overlooked, and it is obvious that as time continues to pass, the only hope of survival will finally lie in destroying one another. Ultimately, Death will not be cheated.

Yet, in this burnt-out world where man-directed flames have destroyed all that can sustain life, the fire the good guys carry takes on a poignant meaning. The boy carries the fire and the father carries the boy, though the father does not have the light. Once we, the readers, understand this painful truth, the author spins out the ending for us, honest and sad and correct. We are ready to accept it when it comes. It is both reassurance and warning.

I am in awe of this writer. He actually accomplishes what Hemingway and Joyce attempted. His writing is spare, stark in its simplicity, but like a poem that does not reveal that it is poetry. Fragmented. With only essential punctuation. He draws us in with the cadence of modern speech and opens our world to us using form as function.

And yet, he is kind. There is no point at which the reader finds himself on the brink of collapse or screaming for relief. McCarthy gives us vignettes of simplicity just a beat before we realize we need them. He tends us well. There are three moments in the book where the travelers are allowed the comfort of shelter and food--moments essential to the father who carries the corruption of the old culture, the need for the comforts of the corrupted culture that has been destroyed. The boy does not need them. He transcends the material. But we, the readers who are living in the culture that gives rise to this devastating end, we must have these moments to sustain our ability to follow the path to the end.

McCarthy tells us the truth. Like most of us, he carries the fire, but the fire is not in him.

He knows.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Say It Isn't So, Joe!

Oh no! Not a sequel! Please, say it isn't so!

It took me a while to get used to the writing style of Dr. Joe D. Dillsaver in These Bones Shall Rise, a mystery/adventure set in eastern Oklahoma, but I liked his hero, Doctor SK Ross, and followed the story to its non-conclusion. With all the loose ends left dangling, I thought--Well, he's a first time author; maybe he couldn't figure out how to rescue his characters from the danger he had put them in. Then the horrible thought came--A Sequel! Oh No! Another Series Writer! ...and this is a home town boy. Well, a home state fellow, anyway. That pretty much insures that I'll have to buy the next book--and the economic downturn has left us really short on cash. Sigh.

I enjoyed the book. The short, simple sentences insure grammatical correctness--near-abouts, anyway--but also give the book just the right flavor. It reads like a book written by a criminal justice professor (CJP), and it feels like a gentle excursion into a CJP's fantasy. It's formula all the way, from the bad guys holed up in the backwoods eastern Oklahoma cave cloning drones to take over the world to the desperate run for cover when the cave explodes. There's ancient Christian relics, a worldwide search for clues, the Cherokee elder, truly evil (but disconcertingly likeable) right-wing conspirators, and the amateur sleuth--all the elements of an adventure story aka movie set-up.

What makes the book work is Dr. Dillsaver himself as he draws his hero, SK, in his own image. As I read, it's like reading something one of my former students might have written--very personal, very intimate, very confessional. As the story spins out to its non-conclusion, I find myself enjoying the evening visit with the author. In this case, the story is nothing, and the characters exist just to provide words for the author, and the author is a pleasant companion for the cool Oklahoma evenings we are beginning to enjoy.

And, yes, I will purchase the sequel.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Buckley Makes the Whistle

I've been in a blue funk for over a week and tried Evanovich to raise my spirits. Nada. Took home a movie--erk! (see the review in Pics & Flix) Then one of my favorite people donated this off-beat little title by Christopher Buckley: Supreme Courtship. That's Christopher as in son to William F. (Mr. Conservative). The pressing question was whether a political novel would find a readership in Hennessey.

I googled the boy and came across an interview in which he describes life on the book signing circuit. Laughing out loud and reading passages to Karen, I decided he was funny, political or not. So the book came home with me for consideration and I have laughed my way through it, reading chapters to my determindedly apolitical spouse who shared the mirth. Oh, yeah. It's going in the collection.

President of the U.S., Donald Vandercamp is the ultimate Conservative, vetoing every spending bill that crosses his desk and incurring the wrath of both parties in Congress. In the ensuing war, his Supreme Court nominees are ripped to shreds and thrown aside. One night at Camp David, he tunes into the wildly popular reality-courtroom drama, Courtroom Six, where spunky Texas, down-home Judge Pepper Cartwright dispenses common-sense judgements. To the chagrin of all Washington insiders, the President chooses to put her forward as his next nominee.

What could have been a cute one-liner novella spins out from this original set-up into a convoluted, hilarious inside expose of Washington political maneuevering. Do not be deceived. This is not dry political humor. This is Saturday Night Live, Laugh-In, TV sit-com--all rendered with intelligence and affection by a man who lived in the shadow of one of the Founding Fathers of Conservatism.

Buckley pokes fun at all players--conservative, liberal, ethical and corrupt. But the fun of the book is in the characterizations. Pepper is so out of her element, the President is so wonderfully mid-western and genuine, and the plot twists that pull them along are so convoluted and surprising that the reader does not want the story to stop.

Follow this, if you can--Buckley makes it easy, I find it hard to condense: President Vandercamp does not intend to run for a second term, determined to do the very best he can for the country without the distraction of a campaign; however, corrupt and inept Dexter Mitchell (former Senator and highly popular star of TV drama POTUS in which he plays--the President Of The United States) decides to capitalize on his popularity and run for the office. The Congress, not realizing that Vandercamp does not intend to run for the second term, passes an amendment to the Constitution limiting the President to one term. Vandercamp decides to run after all, on principle and not willing to place the US in the hands of the inept Mitchell. The question arises, if the amendment is ratified before the President wins the election, which has precedence? the amendment ratified by the representatives of the people or the election won by the popular and electoral votes of the populace?

Of course, the Supreme Court will have to decide and Pepper Cartwright, his nominee, is crucial to the decision.

This author sees into his people, all the way down, and still loves them and hands us his microscope so that we can see what he sees. It is affectionate and full of light and refreshing in this day of poisoned pens and political broadsides. Maybe the sun WILL come out tomorrow...

Buckley tells us that "making the whistle" is a rodeo term for riding the bull all the way to the whistle. He not only makes the whistle, he rides the bull out of the pen.

Chris, your dad would be proud.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Not So Finger Lickin' Good

We women eagerly await Janet Evanovich's newest Stephanie Plum novels, but the excitement over Finger Lickin' Fifteen was somewhat less than times past. I think we're ready for Stephanie to settle down with Joe and let the series come to an end. At least, I'm ready for the series to come to an end.

All the usual characters are here, Grandma Mazur, Lula, Ranger, Morelli, but the action is a little flat, like Evanovich isn't really trying. I usually am laughing out loud by the 2nd page or thereabouts, but not this time. It is funny...just not laugh out loud funny.

Lula witnesses a decapitation and then becomes the target of maniacal murderers trying to remove her from the scene. She moves in with Stephanie and the obligitory mayhem begins. Meanwhile, Ranger is having problems with his security business, break-ins that he can't seem to get under control. In a move that is possibly unwise, Evanovich makes him less than perfect. Stephanie is called in to help him catch the perpetrator.

Ranger talks too much. Sounds too ordinary. Even that sexy, one liner, "Babe" loses it's punch--overused. The characterization of Morelli is still right on and fresh, but the relationship seems hopeless. We've come two books too far and, though we understand that Morelli is right for Stephanie, we've also realized that Stephanie isn't right for Joe.

There is one haunting passage in the book that is not funny at all, and the writing is a cut above the fluff genre. Stephanie is speaking of Ranger, and she says, "I've never been able to find the place he would call home. Maybe it doesn't exist. Maybe he carries it inside him. Or maybe it's a place he hasn't yet discovered." With those lines, she brings him out of the bat cave and makes him human. And she leaves us conflicted.

Fluff novels should never leave readers conflicted.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Shack

I am a firm believer that there is a time and place for everything, especially when it comes to certain books. Not any book can be read at anytime. Such as "The Great Gatsby". I have attempted to read that book a hundred times before and for a long time I was unable to finish it. Then one hot day sitting at the side of the road between Lahoma and Mino I just happened to find the book in my car. Those who really know me know that I never go anywhere for long periods of times without having a book. Those who know me also know that if there is a big todo about a book I will read it. Case in point the Harry Potter books. People start making a fuss and I am now addicted.

The same with "The Shack" by Wm. Paul Young. I have seen this book many times when I have ventured into the Christian book store, but never looked twice at it. The same when I have gone to Walmart. I am not a inspirational ficition reader. I am more of a read anything person other than westerns, scifi, horror, or inspirational ficition. The last set of books I have read like that are the "Left Behind" series, that I have, no pun intended, left behind due to boredum and a very whiny anti-christ. But "The Shack" is a book unto its own.

Not giving too much of it away; it is about a man name Mack who has had a great loss in his life. Which many of us has had. Until one day he receives a very odd letter in his mailbox. Not knowing if it is a horrible trick or if it could possibly be from God, he decides to return to the scene of his "great sadness". From here the story gets powerful, somtimes long winded. I have learned a lot from this book, fiction or no. If you have ever been in the place that this character has been, which I can honestly say I have been at least once in my life, then you really need to read this book.

I believe that this is one of those books that you have to be in a certain place in your life to read, but when you do, you will be transformed.

The Bus Stops Here

The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck is (I know, I know) not a new title--technically; nonetheless...

I pulled our old copy for replacement and discovered just how hard it is to replace this title. It's not one of Steinbeck's better known works. Being a fan of the man, I took our copy home to read while waiting on its replacement. It is classic Steinbeck.

With a few carefully chosen words, he creates a cast of characters that run to type: the gorgeous blonde, the manipulative wife and her uninspired businessman husband, the star-struck girl, the loser kid, fast-talking salesman, and troublesome old guy. But from his pen, they emerge fresh and real--little people with big troubles thrown together for a bus ride on an old vehicle that starts the book up on a lift for repairs.

The two characters who are Real in this menage of stereotypes are Juan, the bus driver and host at the bus stop, and Mildred, a college student attracted to Juan from their first meeting. Both seem to be observers of the others and their coming together is less a seduction and more the natural gravition of like to like.

Steinbeck is always loving with his characters and, though this is far from his best book, his characters live and breath and talk and change, discovering things about themselves on this short journey to nowhere. Juan in particular, who thought he was going to walk away from his wife and all responsibilities, discovers that he can't do it. He is a responsible man, after all.

We knew it all along.

There are echos of this book in the movie, Bus Stop, written by George Axelrod from the William Inge play. The obvious similarity is found in the blonde--Marilyn Monroe creates te role of the curvacious blonde. Now I've got to watch the movie to find the other parallels!