Some stuff I've read recently, if you're interested:
FAT OLLIE'S BOOK by Ed McBain -- McBaind (aka Evan Hunter, who passed away earlier this year) is the master of the police procedural, and this is one of his last few books. Great dialogue, familiar characters, a murder to solve -- what's not to love?
I'LL TAKE YOU THERE by Joyce Carol Oates -- Oates is one of the few 'literary' writers who is also a first-rate storyteller. Most of the so-called stylists, in my opinion, score an 'a' on theme and character and prose and metaphor but flunk out completely on narrative momentum. This book tells a young woman's coming-of-age in the mid-fifties with that philosophical grace and storytelling trajectory that Oates seems to have patented. And it has a final sentence that explains the title and confuses me even more, but because it's Oates, I'll forgive her.
LOST BOY, LOST GIRL by Peter Straub -- Straub could be called 'the thinking man's horror writer', and this book, supernatural in tone (or is it?) only further solidifies that claim. It's spooky and creepy and moving and strange. Straub is also a very, very clever and sly, subtle writer; there are two, count 'em two sentences in here, carefully spaced out within the text, that make me reevaluate the entire book as a whole. The book is told through an omniscient third-person narrator, and also through the journals of its protagonist, novelist Timothy Underhill. And yet at one point, in the third-person section, Timothy Underhill pops up to make a personal comment. Which leads me to suspect that the book we're reading is actually the manuscript of Timothy Underhill as he uses his fictional prowess to understand and dissect, for himself and his own sanity, the disappearance of his nephew. The greatness of the book is that it can be read and enjoyed whether you buy my premise or not. (But I think my speculation is spot-on, because in another book, Mr.X, Straub slyly drops hints that his first-person narrator is actually African-American. I mean, really slyly. I missed the clues completely, only to feel like a numbskull after reading an interview with Straub where he fessed up as to his narrative trickiness.)
THE SWEET FOREVER by George Pelecanos -- A gritty crime book set in Washington, D.C. in the mid-1980's. I've read three other books by Pelecanos, all featuring African-American P.I. Derek Strange; this isn't a Strange book (although secondary characters from the later series pop up here), but it shows that Pelecanos' fascination with the urban underworld of his hometown, and how good people try to survive in a fucked-up environment, has been on his mind for quite some time. Read this book to see how to stretch out three days of narrative action to three hundred pages.
THE ALL TRUE ADVENTURES OF LIDIE NEWTON by Jane Smiley -- A fictional first-person memoir of a young woman roaming her way across American in the nineteenth century. Like so many books I've read by American writers recently, both 'popular' and 'literary' (god, I hate those terms), this one centres upon race, and the timebomb that slavery set off for whites and blacks alike. Smiley is a hell of a writer, and I had to keep reminding myself that it was fiction. She nails the dialect and tone and emotions of her central character perfectly. (I'm assuming, not having been around in the nineteenth century.)
PALE HORSE COMING by Stephen Hunter -- Hunter is the Pulitzer Prize winning film critic of The Washington Post who just happens to write crime novels on the side, many them of featuring Arkansas sherriff Earl Swagger. This book, too, centres around issues of race and respect, albeit in the fictionalized Arkansas of the 1950's. Gritty and grim with lots of guns. But a moral core at its centre, I think, that the best crime fiction always seems to possess. Thoughts on morality and conscience are often more palatable when squeezed between the gunshots and mysteries of a good thriller, in my opinion.
GENERALISSIMO: CHIANG KAI-SHEK AND THE CHINA HE LOST by Jonathan Fenby -- An account of the battle between the Communists led by Mao and the other side, the ones fighting against communism, led by Chiang Kai-Shek. Like most biographies of famous wartime people, it focuses less on the personality and more on the events in which that personality was formed. Fair enough. I learned a lot about the internal conflict of the time within China, the war with Japan, the divided nature of the Chinese state -- but there's a lot of 'this happened, and then this happened, and, oh, then this happened, too...'
STONE COLD by Robert Parker -- One of the things that ticked me off about my
WIDOW'S WALK Creative Writing classes was that they never allowed any 'genre' stories to be written for submission to the class -- no mystery, horror, sci-fi, romance, thrillers, comedies, etc. The dirty little secret of English departments is that few of the teachers have ever read outside of their own narrow clique of classics. The shame is that they miss out on fantastic, clean, concise examples of the kind of writing they're trying to teach -- writing exemplified by Parker, who has a minimalism that makes Hemingway look verbose, and a sense of pace and theme and tone that is haunting and wise and always, always fresh. And the story remains boss.
DISPATCHES FROM THE SPORTING LIFE by Mordecai Richler -- Richler was Canada's best-known novelist when he died a few years back, but, truth be told, I think he's a far, far better essayist and critic. (We all read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz back in high school, and it's a great book, but after that? I don't think his stuff is all that great.) Funny, savvy, sardonic, sarcastic writing here, but a sense of humanity runs throughout as he writes about hockey and baseball and fishing and African safaris.
On the shelf, waiting to be read:
RUN by Douglas E. Winter
SPEAKS THE NIGHTBIRD by Robert McCammon
HORSE HEAVEN by Jane Smiley
FIDDLERS by Ed McBain
THE PORTABLE FAULKNER by William Faulkner
HARD REVELATION by George Pelecanos
I read something in Esquire recently that stuck with me. Something about experience. About diving into life. And it mentioned the fact that you if you choose to go out and experience, well, experiences, then you can't complain about the kind that you find, or the kind that find you. Everybody always says things like 'Oh, that'll be such an experience!', usually accompanied by a wide grin. And yet the assumption is that this 'experience' will be magical and wonderful and akin to eating a yummy chocolate muffin. But once you exit the shallow end and enter the deep end, anything can happen, and probably will happen, and will most definitely fall under the bold-type heading of 'experience'. We have to accept that which happens, even the experiences that leave us shell-shocked and weary. Not because it's God's plan, or even our plan, but because it happened, period -- to think otherwise is to invite only further grief and confusion.
That's what I'm trying to convince myself of, anyway. Not sure if it's working. I prefer the 'yummy chocolate muffin' type of experience, myself...