February 25, 2011
Not enough time to read this week (frustrating), and I’m in the middle of a 500+ page novel I’d like to be done with. So here I’m sharing not a new book discovery, rather a blog discovery that made me laugh amidst the week’s craziness. A tweet lead me to it — Better Book Titles – which has been around since the fall, but I hadn’t seen it yet.
It’s got howlingly funny content, not too surprising since it’s hosted by a comedian. With tongue in cheek, he explains the blog’s raison d’être as being for those short on reading time. “I will cut through all the cryptic crap, and give you the meat of the story in one condensed image. Now you can read the greatest literary works of all time in mere seconds!”
That’s not true, of course, and Better Book Titles reinforces that truth: the humor doesn’t work if you haven’t read the books. There are exceptions, though. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson is one of my favorite Better Book Titles, and I haven’t read the book.
Larsson’s novel and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby are among those listed in a top 10 category, which also includes Lolita and Ulysses. Once you hit the top 10 page, scroll down to see the titles. From there you can access and get lost in the library of accumulating entries, but unless you recognize and single out the book covers, the library becomes a blur.
A new better book title is posted every weekday, and Friday’s are for reader submitted titles.
February 22, 2011
Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is up for this year’s Edgar Award for Best Novel, to be announced April 28, and there’s no doubt it’s a worthy contender. Offering a combined richness in mystery, crime and literary writing, Franklin spins extraordinary storytelling that involves us with the people as much as it does with the questions about what’s going on.
The setting is rural Mississippi in the late 1970s and then 25 years later, with its hot summers, kudzu-covered abandoned homes and uncomfortable moments between whites and blacks. It’s where children spell their state’s name M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I.
The crimes play out with intrigue and secrets on several levels, opening with a murdered drug dealer found in an isolated Mississippi creek bed and a teen-aged girl – the daughter of the Rutherford Lumber Mill family — gone missing. At the heart of the story are Larry Ott and Silas “32” Jones, the one a mechanic and the son of lower middle class parents and the other the town’s constable and the son of a poor, single black mother. As kids, they shared a brief friendship broken up by betrayal and pettiness. Later, in high school, Larry took his neighbor Cindy Walker on a date, and she was never heard from again. While Larry wasn’t convicted of a crime, he became Scary Larry the rest of his life, suspected of Cindy’s murder. Shortly after the incident, Silas left town to finish high school in Oxford. Now, 25 years later, Silas returns to the area to work on the police force, and everyone believes Larry has something to do with the missing Rutherford girl.
As the pages are turned, the creek murder and the missing Rutherford girl mysteries are solved. Also secrets and betrayals from long ago in Larry and Silas’s lives are revealed. Both are surprised and for us, as readers, there’s more than just relief and satisfaction from the closed loop of questions. This novel is so well written with flawless characters and richly evoked deep south atmosphere I felt like I’d walked through the fields and the kudzu-infested woods with Silas to find the body in the creek, or stood with Silas and Larry as kids playing a game among the thick trees between their houses. I also had a sense of having lived the conscience of Silas and the dumb-luck of Larry and struggling with their moral dilemmas, wondering what I would’ve done in their shoes.
February 17, 2011
In 1949, the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer Books wrote about his love for reading on the back cover of a Gladys Taber novel, where we’re used to seeing blurbs about a book’s phenomenal-ness. He posed the question, “Why do I like to read?” and then answered it, but with a final sigh of doubt saying, “But it is the kind of question one can never answer. It remains beyond the bounds of definition…”.
The Philly editor was David Appel, who joined the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1946 and started the paper’s stand-alone book review section. The novel, which I came across in a used bookshop the other day, is Especially Father. Author Gladys Taber was a prolific mid-20th century writer the New York Times compared to Martha Stewart. Taber wrote more than 50 books during her career, the most recognized being her Stillmeadow books. Stillmeadow was her 17th century farmhouse and surrounding land in Connecticut, where she lived and wrote. The setting and people figured into her fiction and non-fiction. Taber also wrote for Ladies Home Journal and Family Circle magazines.
There’s no earth moving new thought from Appel, nor a connection of his comment to the novel’s plot, that I can tell, only the wonder of its placement. Imagine something similar written by Ron Charles, book editor for The Washington Post, on the back of a Franzen novel. We’d be surprised enough, it just might sell the book.
I like what Appel says, especially the last line. You can click on the image to read it, or read it below.
Perhaps it would be easier to explain why I love books. I recall the answer I gave to an aunt of mine who once asked me: “Why do you like to go to the library?”
I was very young then and not too ready with a reply. After some thought I said:
“Because I like the smell of books.”
Years later my aunt often laughingly remarked about my liking the “smell of books,” but I have never been able to find a more apt description of the attraction that they hold for me.
Ever since I can remember there have been books in my home. They have been as much a part of it as the dishes, or the chairs, and the walls themselves.
I can still remember the first book I ever owned. It was Stevenson’s ‘Child’s Garden of Verses,’ and I treasured my copy for years. I remember marching around the edge of the front room rug reciting the poems in order. When I grew a little older and acquired a much coveted library card, I firmly resolved to read every book in the branch library from Altsheler to Zola. I didn’t get much farther than Irving Bacheller, but I still think it was an admirable goal.
I doubt that I have answered the question. But it is the kind of question one can never answer. It remains beyond the bounds of definition, a delight, a mystery, a challenge.
Asking me why I like to read is like asking me why I like to breathe. It would be hard to go on living without doing both.
February 13, 2011
Milena Agus is an up-and-coming Italian writer, who lives in Cagliari, Sardinia, the setting of her award-winning novel that takes place during the final and post years of World War II. At 108 pages, From the Land of the Moon is not only short enough but also intriguing enough to read in one sitting, thanks to the bold and beguiling storytelling voice. The narrator is an unnamed woman recalling the life of her eccentric grandmother, struck by the folly of love. We are lured into the story by the implication her grandmother’s desire for love equates to madness. When her grandmother is a young girl, the people of Cagliari believe she’s from the land of the moon.
Perhaps she is mad. We don’t really know if that’s clinically true or simply how her family and Cagliarians interpret her overwhelming desire for love. She believes love is “the principle thing,” that which alone makes life worth living. Her intense hopes and expectations lead her to believe handsome men who smile at her, love her. She sends them love letters and poems, anticipating their courtship, but they don’t respond. So at the age of 30, in 1943, she lives with her parents, considered an old maid.
And then, an elderly widower, bombed out of his house by the Americans in 1943, is taken in by the family. He marries their old-maid daughter to show his gratefulness. He is kind and undemanding, yet the narrator’s grandmother quietly despairs over the absence of “the principle thing.” After she suffers several miscarriages, she travels to a spa for a cure, and there finds her desired love with an injured Italian war veteran. Nine months after her return home, she gives birth to a son.
The idea of a good, respectful marriage without love versus a marriage with true love at the roots underlies the narrative tension and philosophies. It’s a universal theme uniquely and sensitively tackled by Agus without over-reaching emotions. One nit-pick — because the characters are nameless, I got confused occasionally about who was doing what early on, but that didn’t get in the way of the elegant hope for love the grandmother refuses to dismiss or compromise. Agus concludes her brief, moving story with a surprise ending that made me pause several minutes on the last page.
Update: WOSU Artzine posted TLC’s “An Italian Love Story” 2.14.2011.
February 8, 2011
Peter Robinson is the internationally best-selling author of the long-standing Inspector Banks crime mysteries. Gallows View is the first in the fiction series, published in 1987, and since then Robinson’s stories have hit bestseller lists around the world, including the UK, US, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Germany and Brazil. I read Gallows View to get started at the beginning of the series, and I’m hooked, more so on this inspector than Henning Mankell’s Inspector Kurt Wallander, whose first-in-the-series Faceless Killers I recently read. Both inspectors listen to opera to chill out and methodically clock through the crime at hand, but the atmosphere in the Banks series is more alive with a variety of characters — Robinson takes us through scenes focused from the viewpoint of characters outside his lead inspector, using these other viewpoints to create suspense and build a complex story, but not give too much away.
In Gallows View, we get the viewpoints of vandals who are breaking into houses plus neighbors of a slain, elderly woman. Chief Inspector Alan Banks is on both these cases, while he’s also trying to find a Peeping Tom. He has just relocated from London to the Yorkshire village of Eastvale, where all this crime is going on. The pace of the storytelling is brisk and colorful. Everything builds quickly into a conclusion that not only solves who’s peeping and who murdered the elderly woman, but also affects Banks’ personal life, creating a choice he must make where there’s no easy answer.
Gallows View is a highly entertaining, suspenseful story, and Banks is a regular guy you can’t help liking. Amidst all the crime he’s trying to figure out, he’s surprised to find himself attracted to a psychologist who’s helping him on the job, and yet he’s happily married. Definitely a good thread to weave into the follow-up book in the series, A Dedicated Man. That’s up next for me, as I explore this genre. Although, in between I plan to squeeze Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, nominated for an Edgar, and John Dunning’s Booked to Die.