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In which I bemoan the state of literature

In which I bemoan the state of literature

Lately, it feels my reading has become dilettantish. I read mysteries, historical novels. As always, I read plenty of trashy novels, my guilty pleasure (but increasingly put them down three pages in because of horrific writing). It’s been ages since I posted a book review. And part of it is that good books—really good books—seem to be harder and harder to come by.

I long for the leisurely sprawl of narrative. Instead of paragraph after paragraph of sentences with each word chosen like a gem, I want plot. Instead of prose that drives the attention downward into meaning (okay, naval-gazing), I want something that drives the attention forward. Gone is the overall chronicling of a character’s journey, the white space of their interior landscape. Gone is the idea of narrative, in which there is a point.

Here’s a narrative for you.

About a year and a half ago, I visited my dear friend Maureen in Atlanta. I saw nothing of Atlanta, except the inside of a brew pub and her neighborhood association’s pool, mainly because we stayed up until three and four in the morning bemoaning the state of the world.

Maureen is a fierce person and I mean that as a compliment. She is more savagely intelligent than anyone I know. Wiry and lean, a fast runner, her mind works the same way. She is gloriously prickly. I am fatter and slower—a lot fatter, not much slower. We are both literary curmudgeons; in between savaging Republicans, stupid people, lemmings, and all the people a liberal arts education has trained us to look down on, we whined about the modern novel.

“Therapy has killed the novel,” I said portentously. “Everything is acceptable. There’s no external conflict, or at least nothing overt. The landscape shifts from external to internal, and unless it’s well done, all you can think is that the protagonist needs therapy.”

“And what’s with all the dog novels and memoirs?” she asked. “There’s a whole genre of literature these days around people’s relationships with their pets. What does that say about our society?”

“And it’s so … ugh,” I shuddered. “I don’t know. Vapid.”

“No, you know what the problem is?” she asked. “The problem is that no one knows how to sustain a narrative anymore. “

All of a sudden, light bulbs started going off, even though it was something like two in the morning and we were sitting outside on the deck, everything dark around us except for the dim glow of lights in the kitchen. Crickets chirped. I had just finished reading Michael Cunningham’s latest, and what had struck me most was how old-fashioned the novel had felt. One character, his voice, his journey. The character arc of self-discovery.

“Seriously,” she continued. “Look at all these novels that shift POVs each chapter.”

I don’t know whether Maureen pointing this out was a blessing or a curse. She mentioned it; now I see it everywhere. So will you (blame Maureen). It drives the story forward, but in the most superficial of ways.

And it’s interesting, because the books that do sustain a narrative are almost all genre fiction. Romance, mysteries, historical novels (I’m including them as genre here because what I am talking about above is the novel set in our present), science fiction, fantasy. And oh, all the dystopian novels that are so popular these days.

(I need to insert a fast little rant here: What is with this new term “fiction book”?)

Here’s what I think: Technology has made writing the modern novel harder.

There’s the practical sense, in that technology is changing so rapidly and to insert the devices, sites, and so on that we use daily dates the book almost immediately. Do you have a character talk about a Facebook post? Does he whip out his iPhone? We have a fractious relationship with technology; on the one hand, we rely on it. On the other, we’re just waiting for it to get better. What part of this fast-moving trajectory do we immortalize on paper?

But there’s also a larger, more encompassing sense, too. I think technology is changing the way we think. I try to remind myself that this is not necessarily a bad thing—but the fact remains that there’s so much. So much information, so many voices. So much to wade through. It can be daunting. When we’re online, we don’t read as much as we skim. Friends are on Facebook; we communicate through Twitter. Every news article has a feedback section. There’s a glorious sense of being connected to the entire world, one in which anything is possible. Yet our relationship to all these things and people in the ether are, in many ways, more superficial. And because there’s so damn much of it to get through, those relationships are fractured.

That fracture is evident in the modern novel.

A couple of months ago, I picked up Teju Cole’s Open City after reading stellar reviews. I just couldn’t do it. All I kept thinking was that this is Facebook and its status updates in literary form, self-aggrandizing—and yes, fractured. There are people I respect who loved it. But I, well, I just wanted a story.

It made me feel like a dilettante; apparently, I can’t hang with the big boys. I reread Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai to make myself feel better. Then I reread Norman Rush’s Mating to see if literature is just getting worse. God, that’s a fantastic book.

The other day, I checked out Mark Haddon’s latest. (Confession: Yes it was on my Kindle, which I love.) I didn’t think the curious night in the incident of the dog whatever book was all that great—but it wasn’t bad, and I needed something to read. I just about poked my eyeballs out with a fork 10 percent in. (Bad thing about the Kindle: Can no longer say 20 pages in.) It was paragraph after paragraph of verbless description and one had to guess which of about eight characters it was coming from. You want fractured? There you go. And there I am, just wanting a damn story.

So I reread The Age of Innocence, and then found Love Slave by Jennifer Spiegal, which I thought was really good—but of course it was set in the mid-90s, which in terms of technology was back in the dark ages.

One could, of course, make the argument that art imitates life and that the style of writing reflects the style of our thinking. Yeah, OK, I can go there. But reflecting it in the prose is different than reflecting it in the theme.
And this is what is really interesting to me. What are our themes? Disconnectedness despite on-steroids “connections”? Disillusion with consumerism as we place an order for the latest iPad? An increasing reliance on technology as we subconsciously wait for it to fail?

Yes, all of these things, these paradoxical jumblings, the threaded promise of more, better, faster that wind us to a place we cannot fathom. We do not know where we’re going. We cannot trust that we’ll be okay. Will we be living on a different planet because we’ve ravaged the earth and have too many people? Will machines be running our lives rendering humanity obsolete? No wonder all these dystopian novels are so popular. The only future that most of us can envision—from Margaret Atwood on down—is dire.

Knowing this, how can anyone possibly write about the present meaningfully?

Oh yeah, and we’re all getting dumber and we don’t teach kids how to write.

Is it any wonder that kids don’t like to read?

Is it any wonder that kids don’t like to read?

I’ve been doing Big Brothers Big Sisters for several months now. My “little” is in 7th grade; she’s told me some things about her school that make my hair stand on end. I won’t even get into the social aspects (like having a gun pointed in her face by a member of the SWAT team). But let me just say that the more I learn about the Seattle public school system, the more appalled I become.

Take this, the 6th grade level expectations for language arts (conveniently posted for ridicule at the Seattle Public Schools web site):

In sixth grade, students are aware of the author’s craft. They are able to adjust their purpose, pace and strategies according to difficulty and/or type of text. Students continue to reflect on their skills and adjust their comprehension and vocabulary strategies to become better readers. Students discuss, reflect, and respond, using evidence from text, to a wide variety of literary genres and informational text. Students read for pleasure and choose books based on personal preference, topic, genre, theme, or author.

Good lord. And the person who wrote this convoluted, awkward piece of crap is tasked with helping kids become better readers and writers?

Hoo boy. The blather continues for 7th grade:

In seventh grade, students are aware of their responsibilty as readers. They continue to reflect on their skills and adjust their comprehension and vocabulary strategies. Students refine their understanding of the author’s craft. Oral and written responses analyze and/or sythesize information from multiple sources to deepen understanding of the content. Studnets [sic] read for pleasure and choose books based on personal preference.

Can someone please tell me what a student’s responsibility as a reader is? And what, precisely, does “reflecting on skills” mean? Because I for one have never put down a book mid-chapter and said, “Let me reflect upon my reading skills now and adjust my comprehension strategies.”

And really, what are comprehension strategies anyway?

Argh.

Tomato Girl – Jayne Pupek

Tomato Girl – Jayne Pupek

“Get me a book, will you?” I asked Steve about a week ago, as he prepared for a jaunt to the library. “I’m running out of things to read.”

So he came home with Tomato Girl. “It looked like something you’d read,” he said by way of explanation. Actually, it didn’t really, but that’s fine. No complaints on my end. Sometimes one gets in a reading rut; sometimes one needs something a little more unsettling.

Which is what Publisher’s Weekly says about it on the back cover, saying that it’s an accomplished debut. And the author bio says she’s published in literary journals and has written a book of poetry.

The reason that I’m telling you all this is because I want you to know that I was absolutely fair. I was prepared to like this novel. I opened its covers with a completely open mind. And sadly, nothing prepared me for its sheer, unutterable terribleness. It was beyond bad. And the really sad thing was that it wasn’t like trashy novel bad, which is just bad writing plain and simple and you harrumph about the crap that gets published these days, but it was a mass market paperback so who really cares? No, it was more like college fiction workshop bad, where everyone thinks they are saying profound new things in beautiful new ways, but it would be more enojoyable to hear a tortured cat scream for three hours straight. (If you’re wondering where that piece of randomness came from, chalk it up to the feral cats on the prowl last night.)

Enough said.

*Update: I feel a little guilty for posting that review, so I feel the need to mention that she has samples of her poetry on her site; they are MUCH better than this novel.

The Toss of a Lemon – Padma Viswanathan

The Toss of a Lemon – Padma Viswanathan

Padma Viswanathan tells a ripping good yarn. The year is 1896; Sivakami is 10 and her family is looking for a husband. They visit the healer in her mother’s home town to have her star chart done; he begs the family to let him marry her. Though his own chart says that he might die in the ninth year of his marriage, the birth of a son might stop his death from coming to pass. When the son is finally born, he does the calculations and realizes that he will die. And because they are Brahmins, and because Sivakami will enter a world of virtual seclusion upon his death, he does everything he can to prepare her, including hiring a local man, Michumi (who also happens to be gay and therefore trustworthy) to oversee the properties.

And then the story wafts over the next three generations, with Savakami holding the family together with the help of Michumi. Ripping good yarn. One of the things that was fascinating to watch was the arc of superstition and magic. Sivakami believes in the superstitions of her tradition–tradition, of course, being one of the few things allowed her. But her son Vairun (who by the way has vitiligo, which is a great thing to see represented in fiction) wholeheartedly rejects the idea of Brahmins’ inherent superiority and of all superstition, including star charts–despite the fact that his and his sister’s both come true. And it’s interesting to see how the story starts in one place–a mythologized place of legend–and ends grounded in the modern world, with problems blamed on people, not on gods.

To be absolutely, completely honest, I lost interest in The Toss of a Lemon toward the end, and it felt like a bit of work to finish it. And I didn’t really like the ending–don’t worry, no actual spoilers–because the end of an era, which has taken the novel almost 600 pages covering sixty-odd years, feels too explicitly stated. Still, if you read one book this summer, make it this. In addition to being a gripping read, Viswanathan’s prose is gorgeous.

On book reviews, or my continued loserdom

On book reviews, or my continued loserdom

Here’s the cycle: I vow I will post reviews of every book I read again; I’m good for a week; the books pile up; I tell myself I’ll get on top of it; they languish some more; I start feeling daunted; they need to be returned to the library; I forget what I’ve read.

I don’t even know whether people even read the book reviews, but the simple truth is that I miss them. There’s something so evocative about them for me; I remember where I was reading the book itself, where I was when I was posting the review–and more importantly, where I was in my life, what was going on.

And so, I heretofore vow once again to start the book reviews. Moreover, I am just going to abandon the whole list of books that I SHOULD review, which is incomplete anyway. There’s nothing super memorable anyway. Even the books I thought were memorable have somehow faded into the background–with one exception: Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American. I didn’t like it as much as I liked What I Loved and full appreciation is marred by the fact that her male protagonist often speaks like a woman trying on a masculine voice; nonetheless, it was so well-written, and with such universally acute observations, that I would wholeheartedly recommend it nonethless. Siri Hustvedt is fascinating to me; she is, in my opinion, a better writer than her more famous husband Paul Auster–yet is not nearly as well known. It’s a shame.

The Hungry Caterpillar

The Hungry Caterpillar

Which was the only book I loved more than Pat the Bunny when I was a wee little thing. So imagine my delight when I opened up Google this morning to see this:

Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe – Jennie Shortridge

Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe – Jennie Shortridge

Mira Serafino seemingly lives a perfect life on the Oregon coast–until that is, she discovers another woman’s phone number on her husband’s cell phone bill, at which she has a meltdown and then packs up and heads to Seattle, where she takes a job as a barista in Fremont. I have to be honest: The only reason I read this was because it was set in two places that I’m familiar with. It was fine; it was frothy chick lit, but it wasn’t anything that memorable.

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos – R.L. LaFevers

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos – R.L. LaFevers

Ahh kiddie lit. We at Nom de Plume do like well-written kiddie lit. And we certainly like Theodosia, who spends most of her time at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in turn-of-the-19th century London. Her parents are obsessed with Egyptian antiquities. Theodosia is obsessed with removing the curses no one else can see from them. When her mother returns from Egypt with a famous amulet, Theodosia is kept busy making sure no one gets hurt. Delightful.

The Glass of Time – Michael Cox

The Glass of Time – Michael Cox

Esperanza Gorst is sent by her guardian to be a servant to the Baroness Tansor for a reason that I never learned because I lost all patience with the book and gave up. This was one of those books that I thought I would love–dark, gothic historical teeming with mystery–but alas. Abandoned.

I Want Candy – Kim Wong Keltner

I Want Candy – Kim Wong Keltner

14-year old Candace Ong wants to be something other than the “Eggroll Girl” in her parents’ San Francisco Chinese Restaurant. She wants her parents to speak better English. She wants to have the freedom of her brother Kenny, who by dint of being male is allowed to wander through his life chore-free. She wants to live somewhere other than the small apartment over the restaurant. But more than anything, she wants to be pretty and popular like her friend Ruby.

Never mind the fact that Ruby is a budding Lolita who seems to have a taste for pedophiles. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that pedophiles seem to have a taste for her. Nonetheless, Candace models herself after Ruby, and starts getting herself into mishap after mishap.

In one way, this was a fairly typical coming-of-age story of the child of an immigrant family, and it is also the story of a girl in a particular time. Set in 1983, Candace has a freedom that it doesn’t seem like the typical teenager has today. I can certainly remember that heady freedom of going off and doing what you wanted, when you wanted it. (It also brought back the memory of jelly shoes. Remember those? I had a pair when I was 11; they were translucent pink, and the only time I felt more hip was when I clattered around in my red Dr. Scholls when I was six.)

But on the other hand, there is something dark about I Want Candy that is at odds with the cheerful title and innocence of the moniker eggroll girl. Despite feeling trapped by her life, the freedom–arguably from parental neglect–that Candace does have is frightening and what she does with it even more so.

*Spoiler alert*

When Ruby dies in a freak accident, her ghost comes back to Candace along with the ghosts of other women from Chinatown. Candace sees them all. And this, to me, was one of the most amazing things about this novel. My first encounter with Chinese-American literature was through Maxine Hong Kingston, and the idea of the supernatural made a huge impression on me when I first read it. I Want Candy incorporates the same idea, but there’s a difference: Ruby’s ghost is always prosaic. But there is something about that very matter-of-factness that makes the whole idea even more creepy.

The Condition – Jennifer Haigh

The Condition – Jennifer Haigh

At first glance, this seemed like yet another novel about upper middle class Northeasterners who have Issues. And yes, it’s about upper middle class Northeasterners and yes, they have issues, but all the characters are so finely drawn and their stories so compelling that this was a read somewhat out of the ordinary. Basically, the story starts out like this: The McKotch family goes to the Cape for their usual summer vacation with siblings and nieces and nephews and cousins … a houseful of family. Pauline, the somewhat controlling mother, heads up the McKotch contingent during the week, and is joined by her needy (and she was say sex addict) husband Frank over the weekends. They have problems, but they muddle through. And then in one lightning moment, Frank looks at their daughter Gwen and realized something is wrong, that she is not nearly as developed as her cousin. And it turns out that she has Turner’s Syndrome. The discovery breaks apart the family–not because of the discovery itself but because of how everyone deals with it, including the fact that Paulette and Frank divorce. The rest of the novel follows their lives and the lives of all the children as they, in turn, muddle through. And that they do more than muddle through is the point. It is reductive to say that there are Happy Endings and there are Sad Endings (and of course, whether an ending is happy or sad depends on where in the story you stop). But all told, this was the best kind of happy ending because through it all, the best of Haigh’s characters come shining through in a very real, very human way. I liked this.

The Writing Class – Jincy Willett

The Writing Class – Jincy Willett

My last encounter with Jincy Willett led to this deep and insightful review. Fortunately, The Writing Class fared a little better; I enjoyed it. Amy Gallup, once a celebrated author, hasn’t written in years–that is, if you don’t count scribbling on the margins of really bad student writing from the workshop she teaches at the local community college or her lists of strange words that she posts to her blog late at night. Business is as usual: there’s a new crop of workshop attendees with varying degrees of talent, the woman who has taken her class five times already is back; and Amy settles into the comfort of teaching. Only all of a sudden, one person in the class is doing malevolent things to the others in a sneaky, underhand sort of way. And then there is a murder. It’s one of them. Who is it? Who is next to be murdered? And how does Amy and her students handle it?

Okay, I confess; I figured out who is was pretty early on; there was only one person it could be. Still, it didn’t detract from the story at all, which was mystery, writing advice, and the story of Amy who slowly lets herself be drawn into a community and writing again after a long, dark and very depressing existence.

River of Heaven – Lee Martin

River of Heaven – Lee Martin

Sammy Brady lives a quiet life in a small Illinois town. Sequestered from the rest of the world for reasons both of his making (a hinted-at tragedy in his past) and not of his making (his homosexuality), his basset hound Stump is really the only living thing he has–until his recently widowed neighbor barges into his loneliness with a loneliness of his own. Together, they build a dog house modeled after a ship, at which point Sammy is interviewed by a local newspaper writer–the great nephew of the young man he loved as a teenager, the person who died, the person whose death he hugs to him as his fault. His neighbor’s granddaughter appears, his long-lost brother with a mysterious connection to a militant organization resurfaces, and Sammy is drawn into a slow, inexorable descent into his past as his world widens enough to include other people.

This was a gorgeous, gorgeous book. It is lovingly written; we are drawn into characters that if real, we wouldn’t look at twice. I loved this. Highly recommend.

Julie and Julia – Julie Powell

Julie and Julia – Julie Powell

I’ve been meaning to read this for ages and ages, but just finally got around to putting it on hold at the library after a jaunt to Elliot Bay a couple weeks ago, where it was still being touted as as a staff pick. For those living under a rock the basic story is this: Woman teetering on the brink of 30 and stuck in a dead-end job decides to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year and blog about it. Woman gets huge blog following. Woman discover self while losing her mind trying to hit the deadline. Woman MAKES the deadline–and gets a book deal.

So you can see that of COURSE I wanted to read it, even though I don’t have a huge blog following and am never going to get a book deal out of the random, rambling mess that is Nom de Plume. I particularly wanted to read it because I am working my way through a Madhur Jaffray Indian food cookbook. (Slowly, that is.) Actually, I’ve been cooking a lot lately, and I’m getting to be a decent one. But anyway.

Julie and Julia was fun. It was a good book to read last night as Xanax wended its way through my system. (I won’t bore you with my anxiety issues, only to say that I was so relieved to learn that I am not about to have a heart attack and that pharmacology is a wonderful thing.) Her descriptions of food and cooking are wonderful; I particularly remember one passage musing about liver and how it’s something you have to give yourself over to. But her descriptions of her lack of a sex life, her wacky friends, her dead-end job, and so forth weren’t nearly as riveting. And this was the problem for me: The book was too much like a blog. Or rather, it was too much like a blog that was padded with personal details to make it into a book. The only thread of continuity was the food. Everything else seemed kind of random.

Part of me feels churlish for not just adoring this book–as she puts it, Julia Child saved her life and it’s wonderful beyond measure that she was able to quit her temping jobs and write full time (and there’s no question the girl can write; she’s funny and articulate). Still, when all is said and done, and the book covers closed, and I have moved on to make two batches of soap (may chang and laurel for one; vetiver, ylang ylang, violet leaf absolute and clary sage for the other), my reaction is, “Eh.”

Emily of Deep Valley – Maud Hart Lovelace

Emily of Deep Valley – Maud Hart Lovelace

There’s something about the holidays that makes me want to reread old childhood favorites. The feeling was especially strong this year, probably because for the first time in YEARS, we actually had a real Christmas tree. A proper one, not like the pathetic little Charlie Brown Christmas tree that we had a few years ago (and that Mr. Demo subsequently planted in the Japanese garden and proceeded to bonsai). Anyway, this year it was Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books. I loved those as a child. LOVED them. So I reread them all, and lo and behold, the library had the final four books in the series (Betsy was a Junior, Betsy and Joe, Betsy and the Great World, and Betsy’s Wedding), which I had never read and enjoyed thoroughly.

The library also had Emily of Deep Valley, which I had never heard of. So I read that one as well. And I have to say that much as I loved the other books as a child, Emily felt a lot more real than the ever-popular Betsy Ray. She is a bit of an outsider, lives in the “old-fashioned” house with her grandfather. Unlike the other kids, she can’t go off to college. Still, she comes into her own, finding her place in the world–and it’s a charming story.

I don’t know any little girls to give these books to, but if you do, a boxed set would be a great gift. That’s how I got mine.

Whatever Makes You Happy – Lisa Grunwald

Whatever Makes You Happy – Lisa Grunwald

After writing histories of other emotions–anger, jealousy–the topic of happiness should be a snap for author Sally Farber. But of course, thinking about happiness (and whether you’re happy or not) is the surest way to succumbing to the deep, looming realization that of course you’re not. So she does what any self-respecting writer would do; that is, she procrastinates, rewrites, procrastinates some more, and has a wild affair with a self-absorbed artist. I liked this novel. Recommend.

Free Food for Millionaires – Min Jin Lee

Free Food for Millionaires – Min Jin Lee

Relaxing social strictures and therapy are doing wonders for us as a society–but I sometimes wonder if they’re ruining the contemporary novel. I mean, what is there to fight about these days? What provides the tension? Nothing. Instead, the focus turns inward; the protagonist fights against himself (or discovers something, or whatever). And if it’s not really well done, then all the reader (well, this reader anyway) can think is, “God, this person needs a shrink.”

Which is what was running through my head as I read the soap opera-like Free Food for Millionaires, the story of Korean-American Casey (along with her friends), who graduates from Princeton, fights with her family, goes 24k in debt on mainly clothes, takes a secretarial job because she only applied to one investment banking house, goes back to school, takes out massive student loans to go back to business school, gets an internship, works her ass off, and then ends the novel giving up on business school because she “just can’t.” I guess it was supposed to be that hopeful note at the end of the novel speaking of personal redemption through self-discovery. But I found it tragic because it just all seemed so stupid.

And this is the thing. I am down with the tragic heroine. Madame Bovary? I’d have an aperitif with her any day. Lily Bart? She is my PEEP, man. But while Madame B and Lily B do stupid things, we still understand, our hearts rip apart as we read, hoping that this time–finally–things will turn out better. With Casey? I just want to shake her. So is it 1. the writing (I confess, this was a riveting read with Casey and all her friends)?; 2. the fact that I never really LIKE Casey; or 3. that we have completely different expectations from the modern novel? I suspect there’s a little of 2 in there, but perhaps a whole lot of 3. And maybe it’s why I’ve really been into mysteries lately. (Just worked my way through all of Donna Leon and Martha Grimes.)

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf – Mohja Kahf

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf – Mohja Kahf

I read this while we were in Rockford over Thanksgiving, and to be honest, I can’t remember that much about it except for the fact that the protagonist’s aunt used laurel soap, which sounded lovely and refreshing, and reminds me that I want to order some laurel essential oil to make the soap for myself.

Now that I’ve refreshed my memory, I do remember this. It was your typical coming-of-age story, only it centers around a Syrian girl growing up in 1970s Indianapolis. She starts out as a strict Muslim, finds she needs to go outside her community and religion to find herself, and ends up striking a happy medium. Blah blah. Sections of the book were howlingly funny–I remember chuckling on the plane–but Kahf lost me on long passages of political and religious commentary. It was one of those books in which you ask yourself, “Okay, now that she’s written about herself, where does she go from here?”

Which is all to say that this was okay, but nothing spectacular.

An Absolute Gentleman–R.M. Kinder

An Absolute Gentleman–R.M. Kinder

Arthur Blume is a mediocre creative writing professor–and an accomplished serial murderer. The novel takes the form of his “true record” after he has been caught and is in prison; Blume is outraged that he is depicted as a monster even though he calmy states that he has killed 17 people and attempts to set the record straight. Alternating between his childhood with a psychotic mother and the story that precipitates his being arrested, it’s well-paced and thoroughly creepy. Blume is a cold, punctilious man, yet we still have sympathy for him. Ironically, it is Kinder’s success in depicting him that brings her into dangerous territory; it invites comparisons to that ultimate in sympathetic villainy, Humbert Humbert. And of course, one loses. His voice sometimes falters too, particularly when it comes to talking about women, and I couldn’t help but imagine the author sitting at a desk at a loss for words. Indeed, the footnote explaining the typical behaviors of serial killers shed a better light than his own explanation. But credit where credit is due: It must be hard to get into character, and 90 percent of the time, this is convincing.

Oh, England!

Oh, England!

I think this might be the year that I get back into blogging regularly. I kind of lost patience last year, for a variety of reasons. But now I have a new three-column template that I’m finally happy about (except for the fact that it has fixed columns)–and I’ve decided that I’m going to start posting book reviews again. And of course, I have this huge backlog that looms larger every week. So first, I need to play some catch up.

Last year, there was a plethora of books about England, starting with Edward Rutherford. He writes these long, sprawling tomes that span centuries. They’re a little like Valerie Anand’s Bridges of Time series , only in a single volume. I started with The Forest, continued with Sarum, plodded through London, and then lost all patience with The Princes of Ireland: The Dublin Saga (which I include here despite the fact that it’s not England). Reading these is fun and like a little history refresher–but they’re also disjointed because they consist of a story in this time period, then a story in the next, and so on. Some of the sections are really short, and I often felt that just as I was getting into them, they were over.

Anyway, I then read my way through a whole bunch more books set somewhere in the long span of English history. Philippa Gregory, Diane Norman, and so on and so forth. They were fun and entertaining, but not really much more than that.

Two stand out.

First, Tom Bedlam: A Novel (George Hagen), which tells the improbable, but no less compelling for it, story of a Victorian boy who starts out as the son of a factory worker who is plucked from obscurity by his grandfather, educated, sent to medical school, and eventually ends up in South Africa. I enjoyed this Dickensian story mainly because I really grew to like the characters. It didn’t even bother me that Tom’s later years aren’t nearly as informed by his early ones as they should have been.

Second, Mistress of the Art of Death (Ariana Franklin), which managed to be both a thriller and historical novel–as well as surprisingly literate for either genre because it starts off with a twist on the Canterbury Tales. When children are brutally murdered, people start accusing the Jews–auguring ill for the crown’s coffers. Henry II sends off the Salerno for the best coroner in order to determine who the murderer really is. And instead of a man, they get a woman. The 25-year old Adelia sets of for England under some duress, and she finds the place to be brutal. England is not sure what to make of her either. Of course, she solves the mystery, finds some love along the way, and pretty much every other plot point required–but this was very fun and truly a joy to read.