Monthly Archives: October 2008

Black and White and Dead All Over

First of all, the Slaves of Golconda reading group is picking its new book for the next go-round, so go take a look and consider joining in!  The group is open to anybody who wants to read along.  You can post about the book on your own blog if you want, or you can participate in the discussion board, or you can do both.  Or just post comments on other people’s blogs — whatever you like.  Litlove has some fabulous choices for the next group reading, so go check them out and cast your vote for what sounds good.

And now, on to John Darnton’s crime novel Black and White and Dead All Over.  In short, this book kind of sucks.  Sorry for the bluntness, but it’s incoherently plotted and badly written.  What saved it for me is that I went into it with low expectations and so appreciated what I could about the story and the context and let the rest wash over me.

The novel is set in New York City and describes a newspaper modeled on the New York Times.  The main character is a reporter, Jude Hurley, who is asked to write the story after a powerful, much-hated editor is murdered.  Working sort of alongside him, sort of against him, is detective Priscilla Bollingsworth.  These two share information when they think they have something to gain from it, and otherwise are involved in a competition/flirtation as they work toward solving the murder.  The murder soon turns into multiple murders, though, as reporter after reporter is killed off, each in a particularly gruesome way.

This sounds like a promising premise, which makes Darnton’s failure to do anything with it particularly disappointing.  But the book’s flaws are numerous.  The main one is that the characters aren’t interesting; most, really all, of them are stereotypes.  Jude is work-obsessed and ambivalent about the future of his relationship with his cardboard cut-out girlfriend, who does nothing but complain that Jude does nothing but work.  Their conversations are painful to read — painful not because there is any emotional pull to them but because they are horribly written.  The detective is similarly work-obsessed but also surprisingly attractive, capable of letting her hair down and belting out a blues tune when the moment is right.  The reporters and editors at the newspaper are a collection of nasty people, from plagiarists to malingerers to gossip-mongers — well, they are all gossip-mongers — and they might be interesting, if they weren’t very hard to distinguish from one another and very hard to care about.

Even the resolution of the mystery fails to be interesting; I was surprised when I learned who the murderer was, not because it was an exciting plot twist, but because I was given no reason to care.  The resolution seemed to come out of no where, and there was no way anyone could have figured it out ahead of time.  The explanation for the motive was full of information readers didn’t have access to ahead of time, and it felt haphazardly pulled together.

I did like reading about the world of newspapers and learning a little about how the process of story-writing and publishing goes on, but when I met with my book group to discuss the book, two of the members who have newspaper experience said even there he didn’t get all the facts right.  Our conversation turned to the mystery of how this book got such good reviews and why an editor didn’t shorten it drastically.  It could have been a much better book if it were shorter, with fewer characters and fewer incidents that didn’t add much to the plot.

It’s frustrating to think that in a time when it’s so hard for good writers to get published this sort of low-quality writing gets attention.  But this is his fifth novel, and he seems to have had success as a novelist, so something he’s doing is appealing to readers.  I just don’t get it, though.

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Too tired for anything but bullet points

  • But it’s a good kind of tired, an “I worked out very hard and now I’m ready for a good night’s sleep” tired.  I rode my bike for two hours this morning and swam for an hour this evening.  Can I just say that I love my teaching schedule this semester that allows me to do this?  Teaching online frees up just enough time to get in some nice long workouts during the day, and it’s wonderful.  I’m so spoiled and I’m going to hate it next semester when I’m back to a more normal routine.
  • But I pay for the long workouts when I have stacks of papers to grade on the weekend that I didn’t have time for during the week.
  • Yesterday I ran in the morning, taught class in the afternoon, and then went to a friend’s poetry reading in the evening.  A nice day, don’t you think?
  • Today I taught music in my Intro to the Arts class, and I didn’t mess it up!  Yay!
  • And now on to books.  I have three books on the way from Book Mooch: Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey, which I found out about through the excellent Richard Holmes’s Footsteps; and Elizabeth George’s A Great Deliverance, which was strongly recommended by a friend, and which I’m getting from fellow-blogger Charlotte.  (Thanks Charlotte!)  I also received a book from fellow-blogger Iliana: Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes.  (Thanks Iliana!)  It’s a novel about Anne Boleyn, and it looks perfect for when I want some historical fiction.
  • I just started two new books, Hermione Lee’s Viginia Woolf’s Nose, which looks at the ways biography gets written and particularly the relationship of biography and the body.  It’s short but good.  More on that later.  And I’ve read the first few pages of Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, which promises to be odd but good.
  • Today I began listening to Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know, which so far has been a fast-moving, exciting story, perfect for the car.  I recently finished listening to Colum McCann’s The Dancer, which wasn’t so good for the car.  More on that later.
  • And now I’m off to bed …

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Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction, Teaching, Triathlon

Stranger on a Train

I adored Jenny Diski’s book Stranger on a Train.  The book won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the J.R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography, and this sums up one of the things I liked about it, which is that it resists genre classification.  It’s a travel book, yes, but it’s probably not very much like what you think about when you think about travel books.  Diski, who is British, travels around America on Amtrak (and she also travels across the ocean on a freighter), but she sees no sights and goes to no tourist locations.  She is on the freighter, on the train, in or nearby a train station, and briefly in the house of some friends, but never does she see anything famous, except for the landscape viewed through the train window.

And the book is autobiography, or perhaps it’s better to call it memoir, and yet its focus is on her travel experiences with only some occasional trips back in time to tell stories from her earlier years.

What I loved about the book is summed up in its subtitle: “Daydreaming and Smoking Around America with Interruptions.”  She does an awful lot of daydreaming and even more smoking; in fact, as she says at one point, smoking, or the quest for a good place to smoke, soon becomes the entire point of the whole journey.  Most of the trains she travels on have a room set aside for smokers, and as far as Diski is concerned, the seedier these are the better.  Smoking for Diski is a form of rebellion, a highly satisfying fuck you to all the rule-followers around her, and she glories in the badness of it:

It was not simply a matter of physical addiction — nicotine-replacement products work quite well in that respect — which prevented me from giving up (even on a pragmatically temporary basis) when confronted with the difficulties of smoking in the face of North American puritanism, it was the puritanism itself.  I didn’t want to do as I was told, I didn’t want to be more comfortable by conforming, giving in, as I saw it, to the pressures of an anti-smoking policy that was reinforced by moral imperatives.  Very childish.  Yes, exactly.  I also didn’t want to become an ex-smoker, not if it meant that I became someone who tsked and sighed whenever I caught a whiff of smoke in the air.

So she hangs out in the dirty smoking rooms with her fellow smokers, talking and sharing stories with them, enjoying their company so much that the non-smokers start to get a little jealous.

The “interruptions” in the subtitle mean a number of things — they are the layovers at various train stations and the visits Diski makes with some friends, but they are also the times Diski gets caught up in the stories and lives of the people around her and loses her detachment and solitude.  She struggles –as I would too — with her interest in the stories of the people she meets (which are invariably suprising and bizarre so that she begins to wonder if there is anybody nice and normal and boring out there — which there probably isn’t) and her fatigue with them.  It’s exhausting to interact with people all the time, even if you will never see them again.

Mostly, though, what I loved about the book is the voice.  I fear that Diski is someone who wouldn’t like me if we were to meet (I’m too much of a rule-follower probably), but I enjoyed her company.  She’s a difficult, prickly kind of person, but one who expains herself so well and has such interesting things to say and has such a great degree of self-awareness that she makes a wonderful traveling companion.

She manages to capture something true about America as well, even though (or perhaps because) she doesn’t set out to “see America.”  Instead we learn something about Americans — or least Americans who ride the trains, which is its own distinct subset.  She captures the voices and the mannerisms and the essence of these people in an open, nonjudgmental way that can marvel at people’s oddities without laughing at or condemning them. I suspect this is because she knows she’s a bit of an oddity herself — and, in fact, she knows that we all are.

I got lucky and found a copy of her book Skating to Antarctica on Book Mooch and am hoping to read all her nonfiction at some point.  As much as I love novels and will always read them (Diski has published quite a few novels too), this kind of nonfiction is what I love best — the genre-bending, voice-driven, loose-association-following kind.

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Male Criticism on Ladies Books

My edition of Ruth Hall has a generous selection of Fanny Fern’s newspaper columns, which are exactly the sort of thing her character Ruth Hall becomes famous for.  I haven’t read many of them, but I did skim through them and read the ones that sounded interesting, and I thought I’d share an example.  I found that her journalistic voice is very lively and entertaining and funny; this is the voice I liked best in the novel — the comic rather than the tragic parts.

This is an essay called “Male Criticism on Ladies Books”; it starts off with a quotation from the New York Times (given below) and then proceeds to comment on it:

“Courtship and marriage, servants and children, these are the great objects of a woman’s thoughts, and they necessarily form the staple topics of their writings and their conversation.  We have no right to expect anything else in a woman’s book.” — N.Y. Times

Is it in feminine novels only that courtship, marriage, servants and children are the staple?  Is not this true of all novels? — of Dickens, of Thackery, of Bulwer and a host of others?  Is it peculiar to feminine pens, most astute and liberal of critics?  Would a novel be a novel if it did not treat of courtship and marriage?  And if it could be so recognized, would it find readers?  When I see such a narrow, snarling criticism as the above, I always say to myself, the writer is some unhappy man, who has come up without the refining influence of mother, or sister, or reputable female friends; who has divided his migratory life between boarding-houses, restaurants, and the outskirts of editorial sanctums; and who knows as much about reviewing a woman’s book, as I do about navigating a ship, or engineering an omnibus from the South Ferry, though Broadway, to Union Park.  I think I see him writing that paragraph in a fit of spleen — of male spleen — in his small boarding-house upper chamber, by the cheerful light of a solitary candle, flickering alternately on cobwebbed walls, dusty wash-stand, begrimed bowl and pitcher, refuse cigar stumps, boot-jacks, old hats, buttonless coats, muddy trousers, and all the wretched accompaniments of solitary, selfish male existence, not to speak of his own puckered, unkissable face; perhaps, in addition, his boots hurt, his cravat-bow persists in slipping under his ear for want of a pin, and a wife to pin it (poor wretch!) or he has been refused by some pretty girl, as he deserved to be (narrow-minded old vinegar-cruet!) or snubbed by some lady authoress; or, more trying than all to the male constitution, has had a weak cup of coffee for that morning’s breakfast.

But seriously — we have had quite enough of this shallow criticism (?) on lady-books.  Whether the book which called forth the remark above quoted, was a good book or a bad one, I know not; I should be inclined to think the former from the dispraise of such a pen.  Whether ladies can write novels or not, is a question I do not intend to discuss; but that some of them have no difficulty in finding either publishers or readers is a matter of history; and that gentlemen often write over feminine signatures would seem also to argue that feminine literature is, after all, in good odor with the reading public.  Granted that lady-novels are not all that they should be — is such shallow, unfair, wholesale, sneering criticism (?) the way to reform them?  Would it not be better and more manly to point out a better way kindly, justly, and above all, respectfully? or — what would be a much harder task for such critics — write a better book!

Take that, Mr. Critic!  What a satisfying revenge, and how great to point out that criticism which can seem objective and detached and passionless is often motivated by emotion, sometimes ugly emotions like jealousy and anger.  I love the way she twice puts a question mark after the word “criticism” to show her doubts that this sort of writing really qualifies.

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Low expectations

Do I watch the debate tonight or not??  Usually I don’t watch and catch up the next day instead, getting what information I need from the newspaper and NPR.  But I might not be able to drag myself away from this Palin/Biden debate tonight, although I’m afraid at the same time it will make me furious and leave me feeling slightly ill.  This whole election has left me feeling slightly ill … I’m desperately afraid Sarah Palin is going to “win” the debate because she will show she’s not a complete idiot.  What a way to win a debate … the magic of low expectations.  It reminds me of those horrible debates between George Bush and Al Gore where Gore was clearly so much smarter and more capable than Bush, but he still couldn’t manage to win the debate because all Bush had to do was not be an idiot (barely) and people seemed to love it.

Anyway, I’ve got low expectations working in my favor when it comes to reading.  I’m in the middle of John Darnton’s Black and White and Dead All Over, which is the latest pick for my mystery book club, and before picking it up I’d heard from a couple book club members that … well, that it’s not so good.  I was dreading reading it.  I’d heard that it’s got a lot of characters that are hard to keep track of, something I’m not particularly good at, and that it’s badly-written with lots of stupid insider jokes.

Now that I’ve read almost 150 pages of the book, I can see that all the criticisms are true, but I expected it to be so horribly awful that I’m pleasant surprised I’m not absolutely hating it.  I’m not hating it at all, actually; I’m just not taking it very seriously and not trying very hard to keep all those characters straight, and it’s going along fine.  If I’d had high hopes for the book, I’d be badly disappointed, but as it is, I’m just grateful it’s not God-awful.

But I do hope people don’t take that attitude toward Palin tonight … even if she’s not God-awful at the debate that still doesn’t mean she should be Vice President.

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