7.09.2010

Les livres de 2010, round 5

One of the most valuable things I took away from my novel class in Iowa was the importance of reading. "Your writing is only as good as the stuff you read," our teacher said. Some people in my class vowed not to write for the rest of the summer, but rather, to read and dissect a few strong novels.

"It is only by reading and taking apart the best novels that you can learn how to write one," our teacher said. This was the inspiration for reading two books by Ann Patchett over the past two weeks. Bel Canto was a re-read; Run was a new read. Both are brilliant in their construction and powerful in their language.

So here's another chunk of book reviews, some pre- and some post-Iowa. There are five this time, which brings me well past my goal for the year and should give you some indication of what I was doing all week among the corn fields.

13. Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
Skersh and Sneibs sent me this is a package last year but it wasn't until they were visiting again this summer that I finally got around to reading this book. It's a non-fiction piece about the woman who used to be the New York Times restaurant critic and it's really pretty compelling. To avoid being recognized, she develops a bunch of characters and dresses up in wigs and personalities to get the kind of service that most of us get, which is to say, shitty.

The book was published in 2005 and it's odd- I felt that it was that old. It might have been the types of restaurants she reviewed or the lack of emphasis on organic food (our fair city's latest obsession), but it doesn't feel like her reviews still hold up well against the kinds of conversations New York is currently having about food. Decent read though, for sure.

14. The Other Boelyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory
First off, let me say that I didn't read this book because of the movie that stars the two Hollywood actresses that every dude wants in bed. I confessed my recent obsession with English history to British Katie when she was here visiting in May and she gifted this to me.

It's the story of Anne Boelyn's sister, Mary, who was Henry VIII's mistress before he even knew Anne. For a while I thought I was reading the story of the woman who gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth but then as I was explaining it to Chris, a woman walking out of the subway corrected me. Thank you, helpful New York transit riders! I stand corrected!

If you're at all into English history, read this book. You're going to feel like you're carrying a giant romance novel around, and you are. But it's pretty spicy and historically informative. Nice one!

15. Run by Ann Patchett
Here's the weird thing: I went to hear Ann Patchett read from Run a few years ago when she was touring with the book. I always like hearing authors read their own work and I'd loved Bel Canto. But for whatever reason, the plot didn't appeal to me that night and I went home without a book.

Run is about a family, two adopted sons who live with their widowed father (and a biological son who comes around once in a while). It's also about a car accident, a teenage girl and her mother. Since I started this in Iowa, I was reading for structure. How does Ann Patchett write 300 pages centered around 48 hours? How does she stretch time (or slow it down) to pace the story well? Since I'm thinking about this for my novel, it was interesting to watch her at work.

In the end, it was a great story. I don't know how Patchett goes from being an expert on opera in Bel Canto to fish studies in Run, but she does it with grace and total authenticity. The way she opens and closes chapters with similar images is so amazing and reliable as clockwork. I recommend.

16. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
There are about five novels that I consistently recommend to people looking for a great read. This book is always on that list. I read it for the first time about 6 years ago and found myself craving it toward the end of the Iowa week. I got home late on Saturday night and was tired as hell, but the one thing I managed to do before falling asleep was to read the opening. And, like any good opening, it begins with a kiss. (OR DOES IT, YOU SNEAKY ANN PATCHETT?!)

"When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands. There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss. They did not see a kiss, that would have been impossible. The darkness that came on them was startling and complete."

This time through, I didn't read for plot (although I did find that I had forgotten much of the story). I read for the way she moves through point of view- now we're with Gen, now we're with Ms. Coss, now we're with Simon Thibault. It is deft and clear even though she changes views frequently. And though it appears effortless, I know that it required much effort on the back-end. Lots of thought and strategy and craft went into the seamless story we have in front of us.

17. The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
You know you're getting old when you start accidentally re-reading books you read before, especially those you didn't like.

For whatever reason, I had it in my head that I'd always seen this book in stores but had never read it. Oh, I'd pick it up for the first page or two, but I always put it down again. So when I saw it in the library before I left for the airport, I thought it might be time to read some Paul Auster.

Imagine my surprise when 40 pages in, I knew exactly what was going to happen in a scene. How weird, I thought! Had this been published as a short story elsewhere? Maybe I had read an article about the book? And then suddenly I remembered the whole damn thing.

I had some anxiety about declaring Paul Auster's book poorly-written until I looked on Amazon and saw that many people agree. Compared to Bel Canto, The Brooklyn Follies moves through space and time in such a clunky way that you don't know who you're following anymore- and, more importantly, why you're with them. It's a book about a cast of characters from Brooklyn (and Vermont and South Carolina and Chicago, etc.) and while there are some compelling moments, I suspect those have more to do with the fact that I live where the book takes place more than the way they are crafted.

So... skip this one. I say that to you and I say that to myself so that I don't go and reread this thing a third time. Sheesh.

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