Monthly Archives: September 2009

Tough, Good Storytelling

The-MissingTim Gautreaux’s newest novel, The Missing (Knopf, 2009) is tough, spare, and lyrical.  I had been avoiding reading Gautreaux for years because I was under the mistaken impression that he was one of the southern gothic group of writers, like the late Larry Brown, whose books I found simply too tough to take.  (Ron Rash’s glowingly reviewed Serena is another novel I would put into the Brown category.)  Having gotten interested in New Orleans, though, and on the recommendation of a friend, I picked up The Missing and was immediately drawn into the story of Sam Simoneaux, a World War I veteran whose participation in the war was minimal (he was sent to the battlefields of France just as the war officially wound down) and yet profound:  his experiences there would shape the rest of his life.  When a three-year-old girl is kidnapped in the New Orleans department store where Sam works as a floorwalker, he is blamed — rightly or wrongly  — by himself and others for the crime.  After being fired from his job, he makes it his life work to locate Lily  and return her to her distraught parents.  Much of this section of the novel takes place on a riverboat  — a four-deck, 300-foot stern-wheeler, on which Lily’s parents work as musicians.  The stern-wheeler, complete with dance hall, casino, and tavern, and always in danger of bursting into flames, destroying itself in a fog, or simply sinking, travels as a party boat up and down the Mississippi River and its tributaries, from New Orleans up to small Ohio towns.  The scenes on the stern-wheeler are some of the books strongest: the backbreaking labor of keeping the boat moving, the segregated entertainers, the Negro musicians, the rowdy crowds, and the work of navigating the rivers.  As Sam’s life gets woven into the lives of Elsie and Ted Weller, their son August, and their missing child, he begins to look into his own life, the brutal murder of his parents when he was a child, and the death of his infant son.

I found this novel to be unlike most contemporary fiction.  First of all, the characters are unlike people most of us are familiar with.  Secondly, you have to consciously slow down to read it, much as you do with a 19th century novel.  The Missing just won’t let you rush through.  And you don’t really want to, because Gautreaux‘s writing engages all of our senses  — smells, tastes, sights, and sounds  — as we slowly turn the pages. Perhaps most importantly, though, it’s a novel that deals with big issues of love, revenge, war, death, morality, and blame.  It’s all there and Gautreaux makes us think about them; but they’re presented in such a subtle way that you don’t feel hit over the head by the issues the author has raised. 

Here’s a description of one of the minor characters  — you can see with what care Gautreaux has created him:

The man’s hands were in his lap, swollen and furry. The crotch of his overalls had split open and spilled out onto the caned set. His graying beard was braided and ran down onto his left thigh like a greasy snake. One overall strap was missing and he wore no shirt, his skin botched and sun cratered, his eyes running like sores.  The ground around the chair was littered with a mat of small bones as though he’d sat there for years eating chicken and squirrel.


Beat-the-ReaperI am also very pleased that Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper is in paperback from Back Bay Books– just the thing for plane trips and rainy weekends.  I loved this novel (my original review below) – adrenaline charged, clever writing, and a great, if gory (not for the weak of stomach) climax.  Don’t miss it.

Beat the Reaper, a first novel by Joshua Bazell, is funny, gross, violent, and profane (in almost equal measure).  And it has footnotes (which I loved).  If you’re not bothered by the violence and can overlook what some call – always with quotation marks – “language,” you’ll find a novel that is also touching and a little bit sad.  But don’t read it unless you have a strong stomach.  And don’t start it late in the afternoon (as I unfortunately did), because you won’t be able to put it down until you finish it, which doesn’t augur well for a productive work experience the next day.  One way of describing the plot is to think of it as House meets Dexter in the world of The Godfather.   At one point in the recent past, Peter Brown, born Pietro Brnwa, a young man with a checkered past, turned state’s evidence against his former friends, and was sent to college and med school as part of the Witness Protection Program.  Now he’s a resident at a hospital in Manhattan.  And he’s having a really, really bad day.  He discovers that one of his patients is a former, shall we say, colleague (now dying under an assumed name), who threatens to make Peter’s whereabouts known to all and sundry.  That “all and sundry” would include his former best friend, Skinflick, who Peter thought he’d disposed of back in the good old days when Peter was nicknamed “The Bearclaw” by that old gang of his.  Alas, no – Skinflick actually survived being thrown from an upper floor of an apartment building; he’s now known as Skingraft, and he’s got revenge on his mind.  Great fun, rather gruesome (Jaws, anyone?) and compulsively readable.


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Here are two books that are very different in format (one’s a graphic novel, one not) and approach (one is a memoir, one not).  What groups them together in my mind is that they both describe a coming-of-age: a realization of the ways of the world on the part of the narrator.  I loved both of them, as different as they were.

Stiches-(2)To that short list of great memoirs using the format of the graphic novel (Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, David B’s Epileptic, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, and Craig Thompson’s Blankets), we can now add David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir (Norton, 2009).  Readers with young children will likely recognize the name David Small as the illustrator of books such as The Gardener and The Library (both in collaboration with his wife, writer Sarah Stewart).  But Stitches is a whole new ballgame for Small: it’s a wrenching tale of his 1950s childhood, raised by uncaring, unloving, and indeed, seemingly deliberately malicious parents who never had his best interests in mind. It begins when David was six, and follows him into adulthood, highlighting various events along the way, including an encounter with his mother’s mother (she’s like a wicked grandmother in a particularly grim Grimm fairy tale), his bout of cancer when he was eleven (terribly mishandled by his parents, despite the fact that his father was a physician), his hospital stay at fourteen, and much more.  The pictures are all in shades of gray, which speak beautifully to the lack of color and happiness that marked Small’s childhood and adolescence.  For me, the stitches of the title refer not to the physical representations of his surgery, but rather the emotional stitching – the mending, if you will – of all the damage he suffered in his early years, and the choice he made to become as unlike his parents and grandmother as possible.  Heartbreaking and hopeful, all at the same time – this is a book that both teens and adults can read and appreciate.

When-You-Reach-MeSome extraordinary teen fiction has been published recently (E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, for one), and now we have an equally outstanding novel for middle grade readers:  Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me (Wendy Lamb Books, 2009).  If this doesn’t win the Newbery Award, which is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” and/or end up high on every critic’s best of the year list, I’ll be shocked.  It’s that good.  Stead’s book is one of those all-too-few-and-far-between novels that you want to reread as soon as you finish it, because you want to be able to see how the author so successfully accomplished all that she set out to do, which is write a fantasy that feels completely real. In 1979, twelve-year-old Miranda and her best friend Sal are savvy New York kids.  They know what’s safe to do, what places to avoid, and how to deal with the strange and bothersome homeless man on the corner of their street.  But when Sal gets attacked – for no discernible reason – by one of their classmates, it’s only the first in a series of disturbing events:  Miranda’s apartment key – carefully hidden – disappears, and she gets the first of a series of disturbing and mysterious notes, all of which have something to do with future events.  This first one includes these lines: “I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.”  Even as Miranda tries to figure out what’s going on, she has to deal with the realities of day-to-life – her crush on her classmate, Colin, her new friendship with Annemarie, and her dislike of Annemarie’s former best friend, Julie.  Then there’s helping her mother fulfill her dream of winning on the television show, “The $20,000.00 Pyramid.”  All these diverse plot lines come together in a most satisfactory way.  Somehow I missed Stead’s glowingly reviewed first novel, First Light, but I intend to remedy that situation shortly. Best of all, in addition to its thought-provoking plot and its realistic depiction of pre-teen experiences, When You Reach Me is a wonderful homage to Madeleine L’Engle’s, A Wrinkle in Time, which is Miranda’s favorite book.


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More than Mysteries

I am generally in favor of books that push boundaries and encourage readers to stretch their own notions of genres and types.  More often than not, I love those books that are simply impossible to characterize with any accuracy.  Here are two novels that do exactly that:  although they are probably going to be classified as mysteries, it seems clear to me that their authors had something more in mind than writing (good) genre fiction.

Manual-of-Detection-copyJedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection (Penguin, 2009) is a prime example of one of those peculiar and intriguing novels that are showing up with rather more frequency than they used to be. Somehow, Berry’s novel is neither this nor that:  the plot is not straightforward (to say the least); the setting is surreal yet oddly familiar; the characters are types (detective, girl Friday, villain) but so individualized that they’re difficult to forget.  When you’re talking about books like Berry’s, you find yourself mostly resorting to making comparisons with better-known titles and authors.  It’s also true that with books that push against the boundaries of any particular genre (be it literary fiction, fantasy, or mysteries), readers tend to either love them or hate them.  I certainly don’t love them all, but I sure enjoyed this one, enormously.  Berry’s novel is an amalgam of all of the above – literary fiction, fantasy, and mystery; its pages echo with tributes to the writing of Borges, of Calvino, of some of Paul Auster’s works, and of Kafka.   And yet, for all it may resemble, The Manual of Detection is entirely original.  In an unknown, somewhat eerie city, in a building known only (and ominously) as The Agency, a finicky, committed-to-following-his-daily-routine clerk named Charles Unwin works for a famous detective named Sivart, writing up Sivart’s cases from the notes he’s made. Then one day everything is thrown into disarray – Watcher Lamech, Sivart’s boss, is murdered, Sivart has disappeared, and Unwin is unwillingly promoted to detective from his lowly position as a clerk (a job he looks forward to every day).  The only way he can get his beloved clerkship back is to find Sivart; and while trying to do so, Unwin uncovers the existence of a dastardly plot to take over the world by an organization bent on infiltrating people’s dreams.  Can a simple clerk find his famous boss, prevent the worst from taking place, and retain his integrity and what sanity he has?  Into a mix that includes a cast of truly evil thugs, an attractive assistant with more than assisting on her mind, a puzzling woman in a plaid coat, and a ventriloquist who’s up to no good (among other one-of-a-kind characters), there’s also a carnival that no longer travels and many thousands of stolen alarm clocks.  Try The Manual of Detection.  It’s great fun and a marvelous achievement.

City-&-CityHere’s a scene I imagine might have gone through China Miéville’s mind as he was thinking about beginning his newest work of fiction, The City and the City (Del Rey, 2009). He’d just finished his wonderful novel for young people – Un Lun Dun, which posited a London that is quite like and unlike the one we know today.  Where to take that idea next, Miéville may have wondered.  Brilliant writer that he is, here’s what he came up with: a police procedural set in neighboring, nearly identical cities.  The catch is, these cities – Beszel and Ul Qoma – co-exist in the same physical space, and their separation ultimately depends on how well each city’s citizens do in ignoring the existence of the other.  Sound a little complicated?  Leave it to Miéville to make it work superbly. Police Inspector Tyador Borlú is assigned to find the murderer of student Mahalia Geary.  She was a member of an extremist group who believed that there is actually a third city – Orciny – that exists in the interstices of the first two.  As more murders occur, Borlú is reluctantly forced to consider that the outlandish views Geary held might actually contain some truth.  But with Miéville, weird as the plots of his novels might sound, it’s actually the setting that seems to matter most to him, and, ultimately, the reader.  While I was engrossed in this quite compelling mystery, I found myself thinking of the many parallels that Miéville’s notion of separate cities (each with a different currency, economic level, religion, governmental structure, and ways of life) that are separated only by a longstanding habit of belief, have in the modern world.  One could (and perhaps should) read this as a parable of segregation reduced to its most elemental form. But Miéville is also a splendid prose stylist – his characters talk the way people really do, with unfinished sentences, hesitations, and many stops and starts.  This novel is the sort I happen to really enjoy, in which the author immerses you in an unfamiliar world but makes references to events and people as though you knew exactly what he was talking about (and eventually it all comes together, and you do).  You might have to work a bit harder with a book like this – maybe read it more than once – but it’s totally worth it.


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The Right Stuff

Right-Stuff2by Tom Wolfe

I suspect that anyone over a certain age can probably recite the names of at least a few of the members of Astronaut Group 1, otherwise known as the Mercury Seven. I thought of three off the top of my head — John Glenn, Gus Grissom, and Alan B. Shepard, Jr. (The others were Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.)  These were the men chosen in 1959 to lead the nation into space, and the subject of  Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, The Right Stuff. The book itself is a leading example of the New Journalism. According to Wikipedia, Wolfe codified the label New Journalism in a 1973 collection entitled The New Journalism,  which included articles by himself, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Joan Didion and others. This type of writing is characterized by the use of techniques borrowed from literary fiction (while clearly intended to be read as non–fiction). Among its tenets are describing the action through the point of view of various characters as well as a reliance on showing events as they occurred, rather than recounting them in retrospect. Nowhere is this style of writing better displayed than in The Right Stuff, Wolfe’s now classic (even iconic) account that depicts the Mercury Seven astronauts in all their swagger, guts, and glory. It begins with their early years as pilots, describes the battery of tests they had to take before being accepted into the space program (and their reactions to those tests), as well as offering exciting descriptions of their first flights into space. Readers looking for evocative writing and a peep into the world of the best and the brightest of the space program will find it all here. 

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Love Stories in This Town

Love Storiesby Amanda Eyre Ward

The settings of the stories in Amanda Eyre Ward’s stellar collection, Love Stories in This Town, range all over the map of the United States — Austin, Georgia, Montana, San Francisco — but the main characters, all women, share one salient characteristic: they’re looking for something. For some it’s a sense of belonging somewhere, anywhere. For others it’s enduring love, or motherhood, or security or professional success. Each of Ward’s protagonists feels that there’s something basic missing in her life — a hole in her world. Whether it’s Kimmy, moving to Texas with her husband two days after a miscarriage (“The Stars are Bright in Texas”); Mimi (“”) working for a startup company aimed at bringing Shakespeare to the masses; or the six linked stories about ten years in the life of Lola Wilkerson, all these stories are moving and insightful; the dialogue is pitch perfect. I finished reading each of these stories wishing that Ward would expand every one into a novel, so I could spend more time with the characters.

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