Monday, August 10, 2009

Oh, thank goodness. For a minute there, it was all lost in a blur of Law and Order reruns.


















After a weekend that represents a personal best in slothfulness, I was beginning to despair of my character. After all—if a woman needs the threat of poverty and starvation to compel her to work—what good is she? I was starting to wonder if I can, in good conscience, hold my head high after spending fourteen straight days in my pajamas. Then I remembered that I had at least managed a couple of books this month. There might have been more, had I been able to find them. Sometimes, it’s hard to lay your hands on a good book, so I thought you might like to know what I thought of the ones I had found. There are no flesh-eating zombies, no parasitic viruses (flesh-eating or otherwise), and no Stephen King, so my little list doesn’t really qualify as vacation reading, as far as I’m concerned. But there’s no great lit-ra-chur here, either—so there’s that.

Gillian Flynn lets you know right away that there's almost nothing to like about Libby Day, the protagonist of her novel, Dark Places. In the very first paragraph, Libby opines that she was never a good little girl, and that she got worse after the murders. brrr.

I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.

Libby's all crusty on the outside and putrid on the inside. Flynn sets you up to hate this girl, and then manages to make you like her anyway. That's a pretty handy trick to have if you write books for a living.

Libby is the lone survivor of a murderous attack on her family, perpetuated by her older brother when she was but a tiny tot. She was there—she saw, or rather heard, it all. After living on the rotten fruits of that tragedy her entire life, Libby is running out of money with which to support her crappy life. With no other real options, she agrees to speak in front of a group of true-crime fans—many of whom believe her brother to be innocent. As she goes through innocuous bits of family mementos to sell to the group, she begins to piece together what happened that day—as opposed to what she remembers having happened. I liked it.

I'm not sure why it took me so long to get around to The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett. Everything I had heard about it had been positive. Sometimes books are like that though—the time has to be just right. Turns out, there's nothing quite like a little familicide to put you in the mood for a book about the Queen. Bennett's book is small, but wholly satisfying. In it, the Queen wonders into the bookmobile—parked outside the royal kitchen—while out walking her dogs. Much to the consternation of her husband and the royal staff, she becomes—horrors!—a reader. This is a lovely little book about the power of books.

Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed is the kind of novel I generally like getting my hands on—768 pages, written by an author with whom I had previously spent time. Meh. By the time I had finished this book, I was beginning to think of Lamb as a high-maintenance boyfriend. Stop talking, already, and let's get it on. The set-up and the plot are really quite compelling: Columbine High School teacher Caelum Quirk is called back to his family home in Connecticut when his aunt suffers a stroke. His wife Maureen, the school nurse, is trapped in the library when the shooters launch their killing spree. After the shooting, Caelum takes his wife back to the aunt's farm to heal.

Caelum is a well-written character, and there's plenty to the story before, during, and after the shootings to make for a worthwhile read. Caelum and Maureen's marriage is realistic—they have their issues already. But then Caelum discovers a cache of family letters in the farmhouse in which his family line intersects with virtually every notable personality in American history. Dude. Your wife just lived through one of the most horrific events of the century. This is not about you, okay?

I don't like this sort of Forrest Gump-inspired plot device anyway, and didn't find this one to be particularly compelling in the first place. The only enjoyment I derived from these portions of the book (and there are many) came from imagining the argument they must have sparked between Lamb and his editor.

There's a good story buried in The Hour I First Believed, but you're going to have to wade through a lot of mush to get to it. Frankly, it tried my patience. If you’re long-suffering, though, knock yourself out.

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