Saturday, November 12, 2011
Books, Good and Bad
I read a lot, too much perhaps, as I should be spending less time reading and more time writing. I read a bit of everything, though my preferred form is novels, and these are as often good as they are bad. I have a wealth of both, though lately the bad ones have ended up in the library donation cart, and I am making a concerted effort not to enter used bookstores or roam through the cut-rate racks at Books a Million.
Reading is nothing more—or less—than enjoying a brief relationship with the author’s imagination. In some cases, you get infatuated and have a fling; in others, you fall in love and over the months and years get to know the author’s mind more intimately; you return, you reread; you discover in the works discreet assets and quirks you may not have noticed the first occasion. You spend time together; you wonder what if. You hope for more and you hope you will not be disappointed by your next encounter.
I don’t know how many books I’ve read, but it’s in the thousands, yet only a handful of authors have truly moved me. I have reread John Updike’s Rabbit books at least five times and think no other American writer better describes the state of being common and quotidian. Harry Angstrom’s Everyman travails are so deeply felt and so well described that on more than one occasion, I have simply stopped reading to lengthen the enjoyment of what I’ve just read. Earl Thompson with his gritty Garden of Sand trilogy was a master at describing a life gone bad from its inception and the struggle to become average. His boy hero is so essentially all-American, an Okie Arkie Cracker with ambitions to greatness and a life that insures no gain will come without great suffering.
Among the classics, I’ve reread Dickens, Stevenson, Dumas, and Rafael Sabatini. As a kid, I went through three editions of Scaramouche. Slightly older, I thought long and hard about Camus’ hero, and stayed up late with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Much older, I recognized the genius of Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky and the overwhelmingly European attitudes of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
Then there are the books whose literary merits are dubious at best. These are the great-great-grandsons of the ‘penny dreadfuls’ that 150 years ago presaged the rise of the mass market paperback, words and basic plots available to all with no pretense at anything other than the most fundamental entertainment. Think DaVincy Code or Grisham and King, or in earlier times, Harold Robbins.
Sometimes—admittedly rarely—I read a book that infuriates me. This happened a while back when a film-making acquaintance asked me to consider writing the screenplay for a book he had optioned. The book had an island/beach title, Bahamas, or Malibu or some such, and it dealt with spies, lovers, jewel thieves, drug runners and a host of other villainous characters in precarious situation. By page 294, it became obvious that the author had no idea how to resolve the various plots twists. The book was some 300 pages long, and on the penultimate page, the author put all his characters in a beachside restaurant and….blew up the boiler, killing everyone. Possibly the most egregious use of deus ex machina in modern literature. I was so angry I tore both covers off the book and sent the remainder back to the publisher with a nasty note suggesting the returned pages might best find their way to an outhouse.
More recently, I finished a novel titled A Reliable Wife, the plot of which is simple—woman with a past lies about it to ensnare rich old man. Stylistically, the author has a way with words and images, but a proper editing would have knocked a hundred pages out and still the thing would have been over-written. This being said, A Reliable Wife received riotous reviews from mainstream critics, and this goes to show that one man’s good read is another’s Sominex. Luckily, I also began reading We, The Drowned, a spectacular epic of the sea by Danish author Carsten Jensen, so my faith in the written word is restored. Write on!