Les livres de 2010, round 7

Here we go, folks. Jumping right in:

23. Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Alright. It is seriously time to lay the smack-down on the marketing team behind this book. Here is the teaser text that appeared on the inside-front-cover:

We don't want to tell you WHAT HAPPENS in this book.
It is a truly SPECIAL STORY and we don't want to spoil it.
NEVERTHELESS, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this:
This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again- the story starts there…
Once you have read it, you'll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.

Doesn't that sound like a great mystery? Something kind of Harry Potter mixed with The Time Traveler's Wife? Magical and sweet and something you're going to giggle at when you're huddled happily on your couch eating grapes? There's a silhouette of a girl on the cover with a script font, for crying out loud!

How about immigration problems in England? How about African violence, vicious murders and a sad, sad, sad story? Didn't expect that, did ya?

It's not a bad story, but it's not the story they marketed and that pisses me off so much that I can't even recommend it. Maybe only if you tear off the cover and read from pages 1 to the end. Only then.

24. Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
One recent Sunday I found myself writing at McNally Jackson in Soho. For a break, I wandered the shelves and found this book propped up as a recommendation. "Every author I have ever gifted this to has always written me to thank me for this totally accurate book… EVERY ONE!" the note card said.

Well. That's a pretty good endorsement.

This book is such a fantastic study of the publishing industry. I found myself nodding constantly as Lerner described the fragility of a writer's project and the necessity of an editor's job. I was so upset to find out it was published 10 years ago; I fear that the industry has gone through a war since then, but as she points out, people will always want to connect with a text, no matter what device it's displayed on. Here are some of my favorite parts (oh, there were so many!):

The reader doesn't care what you went through to produce your work. he only cares if the piece succeeds, if it looks as if it arrived whole. If you aim to succeed with a book that's destined to last, one thing is certain: your work must bear your own stamp. You must be willing to hone your sentences until they are yours alone. You must have a belief in your vision and voice that is nothing short of fierce. In other words, you must turn your ambivalence into something unequivocal. (30)

Questions of how to handle the passage of time are easier to cope with once a structure has been decided on. Like the foundation of a house, a book's parameters, once set, dictate only so many ways to build. Usually within the first two or three chapters, all the major decisions of any consequence have been made, whether or not the writer is aware of his choices. Matters of tone, tense, point of view, time frame, syntax, style, and narration are like the pipes and electrical lines: you may not see them buried beneath floorboards and behind Sheetrock, but you can depend on them to bring you light and water. Books tend to be constructed either chronologically or thematically, with many variations on the theme. But even if you don't have a narrative per se, your book needs to find its inner logic so that the reader does not feel she is entering a hall of mirrors. Beginnings, middles, and ends, no matter how they are shuffled, are the ways in which we organize our lives. (222)

I'm going to do a separate post with her other insights because they ring so true to me. Also, I'll mention that this is definitely a book that I want to own at some point - it's not enough to have it from the library.

25. Nights at the Alexandra by William Trevor
One day I was having trouble with the music of my prose and I thought "hey, why don't I read some William Trevor, the most adorable old man and most gifted writer I have ever encountered on the page?" His novella did not disappoint. It's the quiet story of an Irish boy growing up during the war and some immigrant neighbors that are very kind to him. It's also a story about KILLER sentences:

The bumblebee was still in the room, darting between the two brass lamps that hung from the ceiling, settling on one glass globe and then the other, before again becoming restless. (26)

What! "Two brass lamps" followed a few words later with "One glass globe"! I love the way brass and glass rhyme, the alliteration of glass globe, and the the way the commas move you from object to object like the bumblebee's flight. Genius!

Also, in case you were wondering, here's the most succinct way to write about someone who habitually said the same thing every year:

"Forty-one years I've been at it," my father used to say, appropriately altering the reference as another year passed. (35)

That tight language is enviable. I read Trevor in hopes that an ounce of his talent will rub off on a humble American girl.

26. The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken
I read McCracken's memoir earlier this year and was eager to try her fiction. Part of my interest in her work comes from the fact that I read somewhere that she is the only person Ann Patchett shares her work with before it's published. Holy lucky, right?

According to wikipedia, this is her first novel and I'll say that there's something about reading an author's first novel: it is… not always great. The story is about a 13 year-old boy who is actually a giant. He just keeps growing and growing, which is not a terrible story. Kind of interesting, actually. But then the town library who is 10 years his senior falls in love with him. And things get kind of awkward.

Here's what I remember most vividly from the plot: the librarian walked back and forth from the library from the giant's cottage. There was a wedding scene and someone important dies and there's a terribly random sex scene thrown in about 6 pages from the end. As you might imagine, the sex causes some huge life repercussions, all of which need to be wrapped up in about 20 paragraphs. Yikes.

But here's the thing- it's GOOD for me to read first books. It is so instructional and I feel such sympathy for the writer, encouraging her to pick up the pace or stop telling me about a boring character. I can only really recommend this one to writers who are interested in doing the same, but I got something out of it.

27. Away by Amy Bloom
Oh wait, was I just talking about a book that didn't impress me but taught me something? Deja vu.

One night as I was getting ready for bed, I put 4 books out on the bed and said to Chris "ok, I have to pick a new book to read. Let's see what our options are."

I read the inside front flaps to him and when I got to this book, I said "blah blah, Yiddish woman in the 1920s, America, slums."

"Uggg," he said.

He would never join my book club.

I didn't love Away as I was reading it. I found some characters and passages totally ridiculous, but there was something intriguing about Lilian, the main character that we follow. What surprised me was how much I've thought about this book since I finished it last week.

I also had an "ah ha!" moment while reading this passage:

With her satchel, her pins, and her new gold watch, on the Alaska Steamship Company's worst steamship, Lillian has fallen among Christians. The captain meant to do her a good turn and put her in with the only other women, and now she's lying in one of three rope hammocks in a small room that stinks of fish, listening to Mary and Martha Hornsmith pray. (141)

As you can see, that's pretty far into the book. Suddenly I thought to myself "WHOAH. She's using present tense!" I hadn't noticed, but then I thought about that choice and realized that keeping us in current time with Lilian makes us feel like we're on the adventure with her. "Smart," I thought. "I should do that with Margaret."

(Pro tip: Margaret is the main character of my novel, based on this short story)

I went home and flipped through an old printed copy of my story and almost fell over dead. I WROTE IN PRESENT TENSE. If you had asked me what tense my book was in, I sure as hell would not have said present. Isn't that crazy?

Goes to show that much of a book is composed of constructed, conscious decisions the writer makes to get the timing right or the character believable or the words poetic. But there is something magical that happens beneath it all, something that writers aren't even aware of. I'm in awe of that, I really am… and I love that reading other people's books are informing me about my own.

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