Monday, April 21, 2014

M is for Mystery

now finished: quick re-reads of Sue Grafton's A, B, and C are for... mysteries
now reading: An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover by Richard Norton Smith
next up: a Project: Finally! entry, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

"Everything happens for a reason, but that doesn't mean there's a point."
-- from C Is for Corpse by Sue Grafton

What happened was, I was working at Borders and touching lots of books every day and somewhere in the back of my head getting attracted to the idea of reading projects, and I had read all of Sandra Scoppettone's Lauren Laurano books and Sandra wasn't writing anymore, and in them even Lauren, a fictional person, mentions Kinsey Millhone, and Sue Grafton's alphabet mystery series just seemed like something I should try. Right? At that time (early '00s) I think we were up to about O or P or so. AND not too long before that I had heard an interview on NPR's Morning Edition in which Bob Edwards asked Ms. Grafton if she already knew what 'Q' and 'X' and 'Z' were going to stand for, and she told him she sure did, and he kind of nudged her, asking for maybe a hint, to which she was all no-way-you-have-to-wait-along-with-everyone-else.

Suffice to say I was intrigued and had mentioned that maybe I'd delve into Sue's alphabet, and then my friend/former bookstore co-worker/partner in reading crime happened upon A Is for Alibi at a used bookstore for like fifty cents or a quarter or something and he bought it for me because it was a cosmic sign. So I plunged in.

I got as far as E Is for Evidence before trailing off. I always meant to pick back up with the alphabet! But of course, you know me -- ever busy reading War and Peace and inventing new reading projects and then moving to different countries where I inevitably invent even more reading projects and I still have projects that have been going on for years now, Pulitzer winners and Prez Bios and Modern Library's Top 100 being chief among them, but there are others, and, well, you know. It has always seemed to me that I have plenty of time to catch up with ol' Sue--one summer, I assured myself and anyone who cared (so, myself), I would just sit down and blaze through the letters and catch up and then resume reading them along with Grafton's adoring fans who rush out to buy each newly released letter in hardcover. (UGH! to the very notion of buying mysteries in hardcover, but that's another blog post for another day.)

Well, it's do-or-die time, because the series has reached W (which is for Wasted, in case you are curious), and there isn't much more time to procrastinate if I'm going to get on this alphabet train.

And I had been thinking about that, and thinking about which beach books I will breezily read this summer as I stick my toe hesitantly into the The Genres (also considering A Song of Ice and Fire, natch, plus there's my annual Nelson DeMille or two, and a few other mystery authors who are in contention to have me plow through their oeuvres) while never fully committing to reading too much mystery and sci-fi in any one year because: genre fiction overwhelms me. (The series pressure!! I've talked about this before!) But I have been disappointed in my total-number-of-books-read over the last two years and that is partly because I have been reading long, laborious, sometimes multi-volume prez bios that, while fascinating, take forever. And I figure if I read, like, twenty mysteries this summer, then I won't feel bad about my tally.

And then, we were just strolling along the street in my mom's neighborhood on our last Sunday in Phoenix on our way to go get a morning coffee at the local Dunkin' Donuts when we passed a garage sale and lo and behold! there in the books! F Is for Fugitive, J is for Judgment, L Is for Lawless. And F is totally where I'd have to pick back up! Another cosmic sign! I purchased them for $1.45.

Then I sat there thinking -- what the heck happened in A, B, C, D, and E, anyway? Really couldn't remember. I could picture Kinsey's little "apartment"  in Santa Barbara Teresa but no traces of memories of plots remained a decade+ later. So maybe, I thought, I should "review" really quick before continuing on with the alphabet. I grabbed Alibi, Burglar, and Corpse from the library. And in the last week or two, in between Almanac of the Dead (awesome) and Herbert Hoovering, I have quickly reread the first three Kinsey Millhones and totally not even remembered whodunnit and how-they-dun-it as I was reading, so I had to actually read the whole things. Gotta grab Deadbeat and Evidence to "review" now, since I'm sure I won't get any aha! moments of remembering the ending in those, either. Then, I can pick back up with F, onward.

But the question is: are these books any good?  And if not, is that why I trailed off in my alphabetting to begin with? And why, then, do I feel compelled to start back up and complete this project?

These mysteries are all right. I've read better. We're just getting started, so I have hopes that amid the ups and downs I will find some letters to enjoy more than B and C,  but to be honest, they were kind of implausible and left some loose ends/distractions hanging. It's as if she didn't quite know how to follow up A Is for Alibi. That first one was all right, if a bit insane of an ending, but the next two left me furrowing my brow and shaking my head at how it all went down in the big moments.

But then again, they do hold my attention, and I more or less like Kinsey's observations and -- as with most mysteries -- you can get through them pretty quickly (although I'm not counting these re-reads of A through E in my tally of books read this year, p.s.) and you can read them while the TV is on and stuff, which is good for me right now because we're temporarily in a place where I don't have my own space or many quiet reading spots. So I'm sure that I'm going to just do this thing, if nothing else to check off one of my many reading projects-in-progress.  And maybe I'll be all caught up when X Is for whatever X is for comes out.

What I really want to know is this: Is there going to be a big party when we get to Z or what?! In California or something? There should be. I hope someone has thought of this. Does anyone know any real Sue Grafton fans I can ask?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Pulitzer Day!

And what a fun Pulitzer day it was this year. Let's check out some highlights.

Fiction winner: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Like many, I was wowed by her first novel, The Secret History. I worked at Borders when her disappointing-to-many follow-up The Little Friend came out, so I touched it a lot every day for a year or two but it's never quite made it from my to-read stack to my currently reading stack. Last fall, whilst I was in China, The Goldfinch was released to reviews that called it everything from exhausting to the best book of the year. I noted it, hopefully, in my Book Sphere section of In The Red. We now see whose side the Pulitzer committee agrees with! I'm looking forward to the read.

Biography winner: Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall It's not that often that we get a biography winner whose author and subject are both women. It has happened, just not as often as at least one of those being male. In fact, the first Biography Pulitzer was awarded to two women (co-authors), Laura E. Richards and Maud Howe Elliott, for their book about their mother, Julia Ward Howe. Then it didn't happen again for decades, I believe not until Elizabeth Frank's Louise Bogan: A Portrait in 1986. Most recently was to Stacy Schiff for Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov). Anyway, Margaret Fuller is a fascinating figure and has always been someone I admire and aim to learn more about. I love me some transcendentalists and that whole era/place from which she emerged; I look forward to reading this one, too.

Poetry winner: 3 Sections  by Vijay Seshadri
Vijay Seshadri becomes the first Asian-American poet to win, it was repeatedly noted yesterday. He was born in India and came to the U.S. as a young child, later attending Oberlin and Columbia (I'm jealous!) His poems use delicate but full and smart language to capture tiny moments juxtaposed with big thoughts about the universe, from what I can see in the smattering that I've read.

Also exciting, in the journalism prizes, the Public Service prize went to The Washington Post and The Guardian U.S.  for their revelations of the NSA's widespread secret surveillance -- basically, for publishing Edward Snowden stuff. Here's to the free flow of information and truth!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Potpourri of February/March Reads

Some recent reads, in rough order of worthiness from best to worst:

These were good and/or great
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
August: Osage County by Tracy Letts
Lonely Planet's Phuket Encounter

These were meh/suspect
The Crazed by Ha Jin
Coolidge by Amity Shlaes

This one should be thrown across the room
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Yes, that's correct. Gone Girl is in dead last on the list. I'll get to that in a second. Oh wait, maybe I should say "I'll get to that in literally one second." Which is not true, because it's going to be more than one second, and the expression "I'll get to that in a second" is FIGURATIVE, but apparently the authors and editors in the publishing industry today (see also: The Hunger Games) don't actually have to know what "literally" means but they can use it over and over and over (literally dozens of times!) in these contemporary please-take-me-seriously novels, jarring the reader (but not literally jarring, because how could an author put me in a jar?) and making it so obvious it's the author's voice coming through. Not the literary voice or the writing voice, but the text message voice. That doesn't really work when you tell a story from the points of view of two different characters, but they both just sound like you replying to an email.

Contrast that with The Moonstone, a gem (see what I did there?) from Victorian England, but not your English teacher's Victorian England novel. It has been called "the first detective novel" (would Agatha Christie and the author of The Invention of Murder agree?) but what's so great about it is the narration. There are a few point of view shifts, and each character's distinct attributes are fun, but the snark of the old servant who tells the first half is an unbeatable delight. I love reading classics for numerous reasons, but the fact that they are better edited than most of the crap on front-of-bookstore tables is starting to become a main one. It's bad enough that we live in a memoir- and blog- and print-on-demand-glutted world where everyone who thinks they write can "publish" their words, but when the actual publishers allow sloppy, comma-spliced "voices" to infiltrate the bookstore shelves, it's the beginning of our decline and fall. And that doesn't mean reading can't be fun. I have found most mystery/thriller page turners to be generally well edited over the years, but I guess that is changing. If you want to read a classic that doesn't feel like slogging through a classic, hie thee to The Moonstone.

I read The Moonstone in Phuket, mostly while lazing by the pool and/or by the sea, and while we were there I also read Lonely Planet's Phuket Encounter. Obviously, I had skimmed that before (on our first trip to Phuket) and used it as a reference, but this time I read the whole thing. It just so happens that we also seriously considered moving to Phuket while we were there (I had a job offer, but didn't take it) and I was  enjoying thinking about getting to know the place more deeply as a resident, but still really enjoying it as a traveler, and the Encounter books are good for that: an enriching taste of a place, with where-to-go and what-to-do ideas plus tidbits and a real feel for the spot and its vibes.

I also sat in one of my favorite Phuket coffee shops and finally read Tracy Letts' play August: Osage County. I can't believe I haven't seen a stage production of it (yet) as it has been on my radar since I lived in New York, but it's gloriously funny and dark and I think it's wonderful. I love the wicked dysfunction when it is done so right. Once we returned to Phoenix, we saw the film, and I think Julia Roberts was robbed of a Supporting Actress Oscar.

On to the incredibly average! Our friends whom we met while teaching in Korea and who now live and teach in Shanghai came to Thailand while we were there so we could all hang out in our third country together, and one of them passed along to me Ha Jin's The Crazed, partly because she gave up on it out of boredom. She had heard quite a bit about it, which makes sense since it's about university grad students and professors in the north of China, kind of the exact life my friend is currently living only without the whole lead-up to Tiananmen Square uprising factor. I've still never got around to Waiting despite the many times I touched it at Borders, so this was my first Ha Jin. The story wasn't terrible -- the main character's emotional meandering was a little weird, as was his inability to focus, but it didn't really devolve into unbelievability until the end-- but the writing itself is, for me, filed under "What's all the fuss about?" The main thing about it is that it feels like reading a translation of Chinese language, even though Ha Jin writes in English. This tells you SO MUCH about language, and it is so interesting (for someone like me, who likes words and language) to contemplate the differences between what-we-call-Mandarin and English, and it opens up fascinating questions about translation of literature, our own personal translations of our inner voices, the neuro-linguistic processes of creating art, and so on -- but I really wanted a novel and not a case study. I don't see how people can fawn all over his writing if it all comes across like this, because it doesn't feel natural or like a native speaker at all. Should published writing have to feel like it was written by a native speaker of that language? Which is worse, that Ha Jin sense of prose detachement and not-quite-being-there in the language, or the Gillian Flynn feeling that someone is "literally breathlessly talking to my best friend!!!" as they jabber in a purposely casually unpolished first person?

Coolidge was "meh" for entirely different reasons. Amity Shlaes apparently has writing skills and editors, but her structural and philosophical problems outweigh mere questions of storytelling quality. It's exciting to move into the modern presidents in my Prez Bios project, but I didn't know Shlaes was going to usher us in with this In-Defense-of-Reaganomics screed. She is so eager to prove that if we had listened to Calvin Coolidge's thrifty New England budgeting advice (not that silent Cal was discoursing to many people) we wouldn't have ruined our nation/economy/lives that she makes great leaps in both logic and paragraph construction.

Her book feels like this: "So, Calvin and Grace, now a settled married couple on the political rise, gazed with wonderment at the Boston politics Calvin was dipping his carefully scrubbed toe into, and they set up their Northampton kitchen and ordered new drapes that Calvin cleverly found in a catalog sent from his Amherst classmate who now runs a railroad car and why can't you people see that Wilson ruined everything by allowing Democrats to hang things in the White House windows!?! Those Democrats were signalling to all the world our fear, hiding from the economic truths of cost-cutting and good, solid American materials.  Also, you should pray at night before bed. Let's skip now to Calvin becoming vice-president. Oh wait, you mean I'm actually supposed to connect his life's timeline together in this biography? I'd rather show how his son dying clearly reflects the impending doom of our nation, with Franklin Roosevelt lurking somewhere on the White House lawn, poisoning the Coolidge boy himself. Or was that just a fever dream I had?"

In other words, I learned a lot, including how to read a biography/political interpretation skeptically, a lesson Shlaes teaches rather well.

Last, and very certainly least, we have Gone Girl, the book that took bestseller lists by storm. As one of my clearly brilliant Goodreads friends put it, "It is a book for non-readers who 'read' and like to recommend the book they are 'reading.'" The first half is engaging, if not engrossing, although it's only eighty or so pages before the intern who was in charge of removing "literally" from every other page apparently had to go back to class or checking Instagram or something. Frankly, I related a ton to "Diary Amy," which as I'm sure your book group pointed out gives us so much to ponder about relationships, psychology, how well we know people, blah blah blah. That's all well and good, but then the book starts to veer way off course with its (ideologically) flipped-about second half, and seriously, the less said about the ending, the better. Not because I can't say anything more without majorly spoilering (which is true) but because it's so awful and so doesn't quite work, despite how well Flynn thinks she has stacked the deck against one of her characters (get out! get out! get out! yes, you can get out! and by the way, you suck, too!) .... This book is just a big sigh. Also, a deeply troubling symbol of the state of the U.S. publishing industry: Hold me, thrill me, kiss me, kill me, but don't waste time with silly things like editing, syntax, and vocabulary; what do you think we are, writers or something?

Ugh. I literally wanted to throw the book across the room when I literally  finished reading it, but I was literally reading it on a beach, so I literally had to drop it on the sand instead.

True or false: The word "literally" is used correctly in the previous sentence.

(I wouldn't suggest checking your answer with Gillian Flynn.)