Saturday, March 31, 2007

Hey Meester, Wanna See A Picture of My Seester?

She's the one on the left. Ain't she purty? The wimmin in our family are way better lookin' than the men. I don't know who the young woman is on the right. The picture was in a fund-raising flyer we got today from the institution where she works.

(She can't hit me because she lives many states away. And she shouldn't hit me because I didn't identify her. And anyway, if the place where she works can use her picture to raise money, I can use it to attract readers to my blog.)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Book Report: "The Liar's Diary," by Patry Francis

Patry Francis is one of my favorite contemporary writers. I have never met her, but I became acquainted with her on-line in January, 2006, when she left a perceptive comment on a blog entry I wrote about James Frey, the lying author who deceived Oprah Winfrey and others with his fictional autobiography. Her blog,Simply Wait is one of the few blogs to which I have links on the right side of this page because I have found it to be consistently well written, provocative and interesting. Her blog writing is personalized, without being simple navel-gazing.

The back story on Patry is inspiring, and deserves a book of its own. She met the famous author, Marilynne Robinson, when Patry was a college student. Marilynne was living in Massachusetts with her husband, spotted a short story that Patry had written in a literary magazine and sent her husband to invite Patry to dinner. Over the years, Patry had never stopped writing, getting the occasional short story and poem published in literary journals, but also working as a waitress to make ends meet.

And then E.F. Dutton bought Patry's novel, The Liar's Diary and a few months ago, Patry hung up her waitressing shoes for good. Not only did Dutton buy the book, they're bringing out an audio version and having it translated into German, French and Dutch. Patry, after all these years is finally making it big.

The book is billed as a "pyschological thriller," although I'm not sure it needs the "psychological" qualifier. The narrator is the wife of a prominent physician in a suburban community, who, despite her social position works as a school secretary. Her seemingly placid life is upset by the arrival of Ali, the attractive new music teacher, who casually breaks hearts as skillfully as she plays her violin.

The narrator, Jeanne, winds up becoming a friend of Ali, her only female friend, but then the friendship begins to crack as she suspects Ali's relationships with her son and her husband. At one point in the story, Jeanne, reflecting on her own marriage, wonders "When exactly had the romantic veneer begun to peel away, exposing the void that was at the heart of our marriage?" But the veneer over the heart of Jeanne's marriage is not the only veneer that peels away, exposing a rottenness that she would rather not notice.

The book is very well written, as I would expect anything by Patry Francis to be. (She would know how to write that sentence less awkwardly.) And, yet, it's not quite a perfect book, much as I would like it to be. The ending is not quite believable. It depends on something on a cell phone and I don't think cell phones work like that; at least mine doesn't. I'm impressed again with how hard it is to write fiction and how almost fiendishly impossible it is to write good endings -- at least ones that meet my weird tastes.

I realize that to get published, by definition the author needs to write something publishers will buy. Publishers, being rational, will buy books they think they can sell. My tastes, being idiosyncratic, are not generally satisfied by what's on the best seller lists, so it would be chancey for authors to write or publishers to publish based on what appeals to me. So, I should probably just keep my opinions to myself, but how can I, when, as the famous aphorism says, "Opinions are like assholes; everyone has one?"

If I were advising Patry on her next novel (and she would be a fool to take my advice,) I would counsel her to concentrate more on describing relationships, which she does so well in her blog, and less in creating action. I recently read what is as close to the perfect book as I have read in a long time, Eudora Welty's short novel, The Optimist's Daughter, which won a Pulitizer Prize. Nothing much happens in the novel, but the relationships between the characters are shown so richly that the book is, nevertheless, a page turner.

You don't have to be Eudora Welty to be a successful writer, and despite my picking, Patry has written a good book which I can recommend. I gave it four stars.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

And Now For A Word From Tolstoy

One of the books I am currently reading is the novel, Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy. Like Proust, Tolstoy sprinkles the story with observations about life and humans. I found the following quote from my bathroom reading (I have different books in different places -- a car book, a family room book, and a bathroom book) particularly meaningful this morning:
"One of the commonest and most generally accepted delusions is that every man can be qualified in some particular way -- said to be kind, wicked, stupid, energetic, apathetic and so on. People are not like that. We may say of a man that he is more often kind than cruel, more often wise than stupid, more often energetic than apathetic or vice versa; but it could never be true to say of one man that he is kind or wise, and of another that he is wicked or stupid. Yet we are always classifying mankind in this way. And it is wrong. Human beings are like rivers: the water is one and the same in all of them but every river is narrow in some places, flows swifter in others; here it is broad, there still, or clear, or cold, or muddy or warm. It is the same with men. Every man bears within him the germs of every human quality, and now manifests one, now another, and frequently is quite unlike himself, while still remaining the same man. In some people the volteface (turnabout) is particularly abrupt."

To which I can only say, "Yeah, Leo, but you didn't know George W. Bush."

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Third Day Book Report: "The Dead Fathers Club" by Matt Haig

I started out reading Matt Haig's The Dead Father's Club a little grumpily and skeptically. The back cover blurb advertised the book as one that will "appeal to fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time," the mystery told from the perspective of an autistic 15-year-old English boy. A book has to go some to bear comparison to The Curious Incident, a truly remarkable book, and I thought Dead Father's tried too hard to mimic in writing how an 11-year-old, not doing well in English composition, might write. I thought the elimination of apostrophes was gimmicky and didn't do much to advance the idea that this was being written from the perspective of an 11-year-old.

But the book grew on me as I got into it and by the end, while not quite ready to compare it with the incomparable Curious Incident, I was impressed. The book is based on Shakespeare's Hamlet and part of the fun is spotting the parallels, but it would be a good read even for someone who has never opened or heard of Hamlet.

The story is told from the perspective of Philip, a young boy in the English town of Newark, whose father was recently killed in an automobile accident. He is visited repeatedly by his father's ghost who tells him that the "accident" was set up by the father's brother, the boy's uncle Alan, a mechanic who cut the brake lines on the car, causing the father to lose control of it on a bridge. The father's ghost tells Philip that he has to kill Alan before the father's next birthday or his spirit would never be able to rest and he would always suffer the "Terrors."

Philip is Hamlet-like in his indecision about what to do, promising the ghost repeatedly that he will kill Alan, but then having second thoughts at the last minute. The ghost seems to have some powers of foretelling the future to Philip, but the powers, if they exist, are imperfect, at best, and some of what the ghost tells Philip is simply wrong. After getting Philip into one failed venture after another, the ghost finally gets Philip to make an assassination attempt with disastrous results. By the end, it is not clear at all that the ghost is the "good guy" (or is a spirit a "guy?") and Uncle Alan a bad guy.

Even though the reader may be very familiar with Hamlet, the ending is not predictable, either from Shakespeare's telling of the story or the structure of Haig's retelling of it. Previous readers of my book reports know that a frequent complaint of mine is that the ending does not hold up with the rest of the book. In this book, I'm happy to report, I found the ending was at least equal to, if not exceeded, the rest of the book.

I recommend this book, giving it four stars.