Sunday, September 22, 2013

The bookish musings of Dr. bookeywookey

It has been a while, I know.  I had a small matter to attend to - the completion and defense of my dissertation.  Now that I am Dr. Bookeywookey, don't feel intimidated (smile) or obliged to take my posts too seriously.

Despite the preparations, I somehow managed to squeeze a few books in, but I didn't have it in me to write another word or visit many of my fellow bloggers. I don't imagine that I'm going to remember what I've read in any great detail, but let's see what emerges...

 Stephen King's Joyland (Hard Case Crime, 2013) - his take on pulp crime fiction set in the carny scene is firmly planted in time and place.
1973 was the year of the OPEC oil embargo, the year Richard Nixon announced he was not a crook, the year Edward G. Robinson and Noel Coward died.  It was Devin Jones's lost year.  I was a twenty-one year old virgin with literary aspirations.  I possessed three pairs of bluejeans, four pairs of Jockey shorts, a clunker Ford (with a good radio), occasional suicidal ideations, and a broken heart.

Sweet, huh?

The Heartbreaker was Wendy Keegan, and she didn't deserve me.
This quick piece of entertainment explicitly doesn't aspire to high literary art, but that doesn't mean it is not deftly, assuredly crafted.  The writing is clean, atmospheric, and nostalgic, but the time is less the 1970s that it is the narrator's youth.  Although the mystery plot yanks you through the pages with purpose, this is an excavation of innocence and its loss.  Why, the writer wants to know with a backward look from his 60s, wasn't he good enough for old Wendy?  Despite the vintage pulp book cover, the artistry here is the layering of the younger character's insecurity mixed with the narrator's mature persepctive - one that is both knowledgeable and yet still smarts with the legacy of that old wound.

I have not read Dr. Hosseini's other blockbusters.  I read And the Mountains Echoed (Riverhead, 2013) for book club and it really made me want to know what the fuss was all about. I found two strengths in this novel - the creation of memorable characters and a mission-driven impulse to present Afghani culture as hetererogeneous, humanizing it for the "Western" reader.  I respect that.  But I found the story telling, except for a few flashes of true inspiration, undisciplined, and the writing lazy.  There were anachronisms, confusing use of pronouns, and repetitiveness in descriptive phrasing that made me wonder how carefully the book had been edited.  More than  ten principle characters' were introduced in this novel, but in 300-odd pages, they could hardly be developed.  That left some to be summed up with cliche and others feeling like props that had been picked up by an actor, but never used.  Paragraphs describing one character's illness employed medical jargon and details about medication that seemed ripped directly from a clinical patient report.  Knowing absolutely nothing of Hosseini's bio, I stopped reading and thought - he must be a doctor.  I checked his bio out on Google and, sure enough, he is.  Despite the more richly drawn characters, whom I came to know deeply enough so that I can visualize them, I finished this book feeling the author should have taken more care.  Perhaps the publisher knew they could get a movie deal based on his previous sales and just didn't give a hoot. 

 I read Christopher Priest's The Adjacent (Gollancz, 2013) based on John Self's recommendation, and found it involving and clever. He mixes a dystopian future rendering of our world devastated by extreme weather and attacks using a weapon that scarily changes the physical structure of the world (the adjacency), a wonderful yarn set during World War II in England, and the story of an illusionist (well actually two illusionists), one living during World War I and the other in an imagined archipelago in some hard-to-be-determined, perhaps adjacent, time.
Another kind of misdirection is in the use of adjacency.  The magician places two objects close together, or connects them in some way, but one is made to be more interesting (or intriguing, or amusing) to the audience. It might have an odd or suggestive shape, or it appears to have something inside it, or it suddenly starts doing something the magician seems not to have noticed.  The actual set-up is unimportant - what matters is that the audience, however briefly, should become interested and look away in the wrong direction.

An adept conjuror knows exactly how to create an adjacet distraction, and also knows when to make use of the invisibility it temporarily creates.  
This engaging book is unselfconsciously written.  It mixes wartime romance and adventure, a scary imagining of our future, and a recognizable story of loss in the context of attack.  Its originality is that, by incorporating an idea that straddles modern physics and magic, it makes what could just be a clever sci-fi idea, a touching story.

Regrettably, I am not going to remember where I read in the last two months that Jo Ann Beard's autobiographical essay The Fourth State of Matter is a model of non fiction writing.  I'm thinking it might have been in a piece by Phillip Lopate. Anyway, the essay is in the collection The Boys of my Youth (Back Bay Books, 1999), but the book is full of one marvelous essay after another - about her poor father's drinking, about her mother and aunt fishing, about a terrible event Beard experienced while working at the University of Iowa.  Why should I care about this stranger's life, you may ask?  But her sentences lend the boredome, deep pleasures, longings, and misgivings of ordinary life true grace.  She fashions sentences so deft you want to live in them.
It is five A.M.  A duck stands up, shakes out its feathers, and peers above the still grass at the edge of the water.  The skin of the lake twitches suddenly and a fish springs loose into the air, drops back down with a flat splash.  Ripples move across the surface like radio waves.  The sun hoists itself up and gets busy, laying a sparkling rug across the water, burning the beads of dew off the reeds, baking the tops of our mothers' heads.  One puts on sunglasses and the other a plaid fishing cap with a wide brim.  
This is the kind of writing I envy.  It makes the reader feel that this person has lived these real moments in her life and is writing from them, and at the same time she is an artist working in a medium called language, and another medium called story, and she has created something with her will, and with experience of her tools, that has its own integrity.  She has made something more real and more true than just what happened. Something loving, unsentimental, whose resonance is eternal.  And you can watch her doing it, and, aware of the craft, you can believe the events all the more.  Damn, she's good.  If you love what good writing can do - read this.  I plan to come back to it several times.


Thomas Hogglestock said...

Congratulations. You must be feeling quite free right now. I love that feeling.

Ted said...

Thomas - Thank you. That is so right.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Congratulations! Glad to see you back! I will totally read that last one - wow - and I haven't gotten to Joyland yet, but I will.

Ted said...

You will LOVE Jo Ann Beard. Can't wait to see you later this week!

Criticlasm said...