Saturday, August 29, 2015

Bones by Jan Burke

This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, so maybe there were unrealistic expectations.  I was also impressed with the Edgar Award for best mystery this book won, as well.  But I wasn't overly impressed by the end.  It left me underwhelmed.

The first third or half was solid.  Investigators in the mountains; a serial killer with them.  Bodies turn up and you know the killer will get away.

But there were so many missteps after that.  The dialogue is really, really terrible.  Very stilted, very unrealistic.  It talks down to the reader and overexplains really simple things, as if the author didn't think the readers could follow along.

Some scenes just backfired.  When the killer mails to the main character, a reporter, a pair of her own underwear, she and her co-workers break into inexplicable laughter.  The author tries to say that the hilarity is due to extreme tension, but it never comes across that way.  It's just an awkward scene.  There's a lot of those.

An example that blends both of these: a bomb is set up beneath one of the bodies in the mountains, and the killer gets away (after awhile) in the confusion.  The author/narrator (or the first-person main character) asks: How could have known that was going to happen?  I read that and immediately thought, I did.  You will, too, even if you're not a particularly astute reader.  Awkward.

And the end is unrealistic.  The killer, a genius, suddenly comes to her workplace, where there's an armed guard or two, plus co-workers, plus a helicopter that lands on the roof--and he doesn't know any of this, even though he has stalked all of his other victims to the point of knowing their lives better than they do.  The ending is really unfulfilling.  It hinges on the identity of the killer's helper, but you'll figure that out before too long.  You might even see it right away, not too far into the book.

These could be forgiven if the writing was good enough, but it's not.  It's awkward, the dialogue is just plain bad, and it mellows in a sentimentality and, at times, in suddenly jarring religious-speak (the main character suddenly says out loud to someone that they don't have to work on the Lord's day--even more confusing, since the narrator says she's mostly a non-believer)--and, well, the book's an award-winning mess.  I have nothing against a suddenly and unrealistically religious character, or occasionally bad dialogue, or scene and plot missteps--but not all at once in the same book.

This book is the 7th in the series, but you don't have to read any of the previous ones to read this one.  Unfortunately, I have no desire to do so, nor to read any of the next ones.  I see that I have written more negatively of this book than many have, but I don't see any way around it.  If you wish, someone please let me know if the previous ones, or the latter ones, were any better.  I've never seen the show based on these books, but the clips look good, and the show's been successful for some time now.  If you're watching that, please let me know if it's any better than the books.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Photo: from the book's Wikipedia page, here.

A very readable, funny and surprisingly informative book, great to read while you're sleeping on the couch in the living room every night so you don't have to put The Cone of Shame on your dog, which will make him (literally) cry, which will keep you awake.  It's also good to read any other time.

This book, about Bryson's attempt to walk all 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail, is a good read even if you don't like hiking.  It's not about hiking at all.  It's about doing something strenuous; it's about stepping out of your comfort zone; it's about chilling out overall, but especially with Nature; it's about disconnecting to all media and connecting to yourself, to Nature, to your inner being.  Or, like, whatever.

You get the idea.  But, really, stepping away from the cellphone and from the Internet and going for a walk is a really good, healthy idea.  You don't have to do so for many months, non-stop, as some people do when they walk the Trail--the whole Trail, from Georgia to Maine.  That sounds insane to me, and is just impractical.  I mean, we've got lives, right?

But I'll bet your state has its own trails.  Even mine does, and I live in the smallest one.  So why not just unplug and get out there, even for just a few hours?  Maybe there's a trail that traverses your state--and I don't mean Route 95, or even an actual road at all.  That's not legal, so don't hike those. But how about a bike path that goes across the state?  Walk it in steps, for three hours every Saturday (for example), until you walk the whole thing?  Drive to a spot, or, even better, get dropped off at a spot and then get picked up at a later spot.  Or take the bus home.  Who cares?  Just, for God's sake, get out there.

This is Bryson's overall message.  He knows it's not easy, but that's why challenges, challenging.  That's the point, isn't it?  To set a reachable goal for yourself, and then exert yourself to reach it?  So what if you don't know the name for every tree, plant or flower you come across?  You'll be out there, exercising, getting in shape, accruing better cardio-vascular health.  Maybe even shed a few pounds.  (I have to mention here that you should consult your physician first, so you can't sue me or Bryson.)

Take this book with you on those jaunts when you need to sit, drink water, eat a little, and rest.  It's a breeze to read, and you'll maybe find yourself agreeing with Bryson when he dryly attacks the Trail's administrators' ridiculousness.  The Forest Service and other government entities get their comeuppance as well--and they should, when you read what they've done to our natural resources over the years.  He takes a potshot at stupid people--I'm talking shockingly dumb here--which I'm all for, as well.  (Quick, extremely minor example: People who park their car at a spot on the Trail, walk ten minutes in, walk ten minutes back, and tell their friends that they've "walked the Trail."  They do so, on the Trail, while on their cellphones, of course, thereby bringing to the Trail that which the actual walkers are trying to escape from.)

Anyway, sever that technology cord and get on a trail or path near you.  And read this book, too, when you can.

P.S.--If you intend to see the upcoming movie, as I do, it's best to read the book first.  And see if you agree that casting Nick Nolte in the role of Stephen Katz is a no-brainer.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Comfort by Ann Hood

Photo: from Ann Hood's webpage, here.

When a 5-year old child dies...Well, I can't really even finish the sentence, much less write a book about it.  Such loss is inexplicable.  It is impossible to imagine, even by a person like Hood who makes her living from her literary imagination.  The talent to do so must be immense.

You have to do honor to yourself, your own emotions, the child, to the death, to the reality of how it happened.  The details.  The exact details.  Details so exact you have to live your own worst nightmare over and over and over and over just to get the details right.  Because to get them wrong--purposely wrong--is a sort of blasphemy.  Yet you also don't want to sound whiny, or maudlin, like you don't realize other people have lost their kids, too.  You have to write about the cold hard facts, and how do you describe emotions at all, especially as cold hard facts?

And you have to write it well, not like a diary or a journal.  You have to write it over and over, drafts innumerable, to get the tone of everything above, and everything I can't even think of, just right.  It is a high-wire act, a balancing act of art, and therapy, and confessional, and literature, and a sort of diary-journal in memoir form.

I'm a writer--hopefully a pretty good one--and I can't imagine ever being able to do this.  Ann Hood, a former (or current?) Rhode Island College professor [full disclosure: I attended RIC but did not have the good fortune to get Ms. Hood as a professor, though of course I did have some good ones] does the high-wire act and succeeds because her writing is that direct, that honest, that good.  This book will jab you with its simplicity and it's reality.  Not realism, which is a fakeness of literature that makes the unreal real.  This book is all real, all the time.  It is one of the heavier 186-page book you'll ever read, and read it you should.

It doesn't matter if you've never lost a child.  When you reach a certain age, as I guess I have, you've probably lost somebody, and no matter how old they were, I'll bet you thought they weren't old enough.  And you're right.  At least, I think you are, because that's how I've felt about my loved ones who've died.  In fact, I feel that way about everyone I know who've died, even those who were quite old.

More than the death of her child, that's really what Comfort is about: Death.  The death of anyone.  Anyone you've loved.  Anyone you thought died too young.  Weren't they all too young?

Of course, it's harder to explain when they are really that young.  How do you explain the death of a 5-year old girl?  Especially when it's your own daughter, how do you explain that?  Another thing this book tells you is that there is no explanation.  There's no Why.  How can there be?  How can we possibly understand why such a thing happens?  Hood makes it very clear right away, and reminds us throughout, that she doesn't know why it happened.  She doesn't have a belief about it, either.

It happened.  That's the source of the grief, and maybe of the comfort.

It happened.  And there is no why.

A remarkable work that deserves to be read.  When you're done you'll feel something, which is what good books are supposed to make you do.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Photo: from St. John Mandel's homepage, here.

Like St. John Mandel's other books, Station Eleven is a story told in different weaves of time and space, following a small handful of characters as they meander through each other's lives. Because it's written this way, the reader is able to see how everyone's paths are touched by what some call "The Butterfly Effect," a philosophy (?) which peaked maybe 10 years ago, but is still hanging around.  This is the magic, and sometimes the detriment, of her writing style.  Everything and everybody connects, sometimes a little too tidily so.

More than her other books (of which Last Night in Montreal is her best), Station Eleven threatens to be a little too tidy at the end.  Thankfully, it never quite gets there, and instead remains a great book with interlocking characters and their stories. 

It begins with a heart attack and it ends with a resolution that does not end with finality, since the main character does not stop long enough to end anything.  She just moves on, because in the post-apocalypse, there is no stopping.  You stop, you die, she seems to say.  The characters of The Walking Dead know this.  You stop, something inside you dies.  This is partly what Station Eleven's about.

One thing it's not about is The End of the World As We Know It.  Yes, there's been a very strong flu that wipes out much (but perhaps not most?) of the known world, and certainly there are problems because there aren't enough people alive anymore to take care of things.  (For example, a guy dies because he steps on a rusty nail and can't get antibiotics.)  But these things are not the story as much as they are the background, the props, the scenery. 

This is a good thing, because haven't we been there and done that?  If we want the Apocalypse, we watch TV.  If we want literature, we read.  Good writers get that distinction.  Good writers' writing focuses intensely on one thing and gets it right.  Station Eleven does that.  It gets its people right--so right that it deserves the National Book Award nomination it got.

And there are some images that'll stick with you.  The most memorable to me is the last view a main character gets: watching ships and barges in the distance as they drift away on a quiet sea.  The woman appreciates this, too, as she is also drifting away on a quiet sea.  This book gets moments like those right.  It is also very readable--a feat for such a literary work.  So if you're into the post-Apocalypse--but also especially if you're not--buy this one and give it a read.  For more information and accolades, see St. John Mandel's homepage here.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Catching Up

As you see, it's been quite a few weeks since the last post, a long hiatus for me.  The reasons are simple: I got my novel manuscript done, and the days have been mostly beautiful and sunny, and so I've been out and about.

The last few days, before yesterday, was different: a very rare macroburst during a powerful thunderstorm knocked down trees and telephone poles and knocked out power for me and thousands of others.  It's been almost as bad as Hurricane Sandy was around here, except this storm only lasted about 45 minutes.  Incredible amount of damage in such a short time.

In other news:

--The latest Mission Impossible is a good movie, even if you don't like Tom Cruise.  If you like action movies, check it out.

--Speaking of Tom Cruise: If you think back on his career, it's shocking that he has made so many good, quality movies, of lots of different types.  Regardless of how you feel about him, his marriages, Scientology, Oprah's couch, etc., the fact remains that he's been giving a thousand percent in a ton of movies, the vast majority of them very good, for the past 30 years.

--Yes.  Thirty.

--Donald Trump is leading by a lot in the latest GOP polls.  This says a ton about our present media-driven culture and society--none of it good.

--I said at the beginning of the baseball season (see my baseball blog) that the Sox would finish first or last, depending on their starting pitching.  I wasn't wrong, though I didn't expect the offense to be this bad, too.

--Speaking of which: The PawSox moving to Providence (the ProSox?) isn't unheard of.  Providence used to have a major league team (the Providence Greys, the first team to win a World Series) and a minor league team (also called the Providence Greys; Babe Ruth played for them for a very short time).  The major league Greys had a few Hall of Famers and played in what is now Downtown Olneyville, near Wes's Rib House.  The minor league team played a few blocks up Union Avenue, in what is now a residential neighborhood.  Easy to spot: a side-street becomes a highway ramp that empties onto Route 10.  This side-street is where the minor league park used to be.

--And Providence is a minor league ready city.  Plus, it's a minor league city to big league Boston, if you know what I mean.

--Having said that, Pawtucket's McCoy Stadium is not in danger of falling down, and you can't beat the ease of access and the free parking.  I go there 10-12 times a summer.  A stadium in Providence won't be faster to get to, as Providence is a small city and traffic is terrible.  Plus, the parking won't be free, unless the stadium is built with a free parking lot.  There otherwise is no place to park in Providence, for anything.  It's a park in a garage city, as I guess most cities now are.  What happened to all the parking lots?

--The Pawtucket Red Sox, by the way, are now owned by the guys who own the Boston Red Sox.  I don't know if this is common now, that the owners of the big league team also own the minor league team, but it's a bad situation.  The minors are 100% slaves to the majors already.

--But those guys do know how to make tons of money, and to do so with class.  But...

--And it says something that Fenway still sells out (or comes close) for a team that's been in last place (or close to it) for most of the season.  Many playoff-bound teams don't draw as well as that.  This says something good about what the ownership has done with Fenway.  Whatever it is, let's hope they do the same in Providence.

--Maybe a smaller Fenway for the Providence stadium?