Sunday, April 30, 2017

Whose writing tools should we use?

The New York Times Book Review has an interesting opinion piece by Viet Thanh Nguyen, "Your Writing Tools Aren't Mine." It begins by pointing out that American literature is being read around the world and that the American way of teaching writing is also spreading. "The writing workshop, with all its unexamined assumptions, has spread to Britain and Hong Kong, a model of pedagogy that is also an object lesson in how power propagates and conceals itself."

Nguyen touches on his own experience as a refugee from war, from an Asian country in a workshop that deliberately or otherwise, "produces a particular kind of writing." He says that workshops typically focus on "strategies of the writing 'art' that develop character, setting, time, description, theme, voice and, to a lesser extent, plot."

They generally do not have anything to say about politics, history, theory, philosophy, or ideology. Writing teachers avoid these subjects for fiction, not because they put off readers or because the teachers are unqualified to teach them, but because they threaten the workshop's origins.

As an institution, Nguyen writes, "the workshop reproduces its ideology, which pretends that 'Show, don't tell' is universal when it is, in fact the expression of a particular population, the white majority, typically at least middle-class and often, but not exclusively, male."

It's an interesting argument. (And it echoes themes in Minae Mizumura's The Fall of Language in the Age of English, which I discussed recently.) If nothing else, the piece is sending me to read Nguyen's novel The Sympathizer, which won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize and a ton of other awards. I am curious to see how his own fiction reflects his ideas. In any case, his fiction provokes strong feelings among readers as few minutes skimming through the 1,478 Amazon reviews suggests:

" . . . simply superb. Written with an unflinching eye and great humor . . ."

" . . . boring. Nothing actually happened, there was no plot . . ."

" . . . a fabulous book that brought so many memories of my two Viet Nam tours . . ."

" . . . overrated, predictable, no plot twist at all . . ."

" . . . a very serious story, but with wonderful humor interlaced with the tales of political intrigue."

" . . . a potentially interesting theme and plot ruined by the narrator's flippant attitude to everything . . ."

But you get the idea. And I wonder how far Nguyen is willing to go. 

Should writers not develop character, describe a scene, set a time, have a theme (in my experience, a work has a theme whether you want one or not), tell not show? Which is not to denigrate or dismiss politics, history, theory, philosophy, and ideology. It seems to me that the more tools a writer can employ effectively, the more engaging, the richer a work is likely to be. 

I'd be interested in hear other opinions. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Who writes incredible dialogue?

Here is Dave Barry on the author he thinks writes the best dialogue. To make this interesting, I've edited out the author's name; can you guess who Barry is talking about?

"When you read him and then read somebody else, you realize that everyone else is doing writing that's supposed to be the way people talk, whereas [he] is writing exactly the way people talk. Which is more difficult than anybody can imagine. He has this phenomenal ability to tear away all the thing we don't say, and leave out all the things people really leave out, so that much of the thoughts are poorly express or incomplete—writers have a lot of trouble doing that, they wan to tell you to make sure you get it. But [he] relies on your ear to fill in things that weren't there and thing that go unsaid, and to deal with the ambiguities that real life forces you to deal with. He does that so incredibly well and he does it very consciously; it's not effortless. He works really hard to get that feel and sound to his writing. I don't think anybody does it as well as he does . . . "
—Ronald B. Schwartz, For the Love of Books: 115 Celebrated Writers on the Books They Love Most, (Gosset/Putnam, 1999), p 12.

The author Dave Barry is talking about is:










Elmore Leonard

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A breathtakingly original and unsettling novel

Rachel Cusk is a British author I'd never heard of until I began reading rave reviews her new novel, Transit, so I immediately picked up a copy of her novel Outline. Reportedly, Transit is the second novel in a trilogy; Outline is the first. They join Cusk's seven other works of fiction and three works of nonfiction. How have I managed to miss her all this time?

Because Outline is extraordinary. I'll go with Julie Myerson, writing in The Observer because I cannot improve on the sentiment: "This has to be one of the oddest, most breathtakingly original and unsettling novels I've read in a long time."

While I am skeptical that I can convey what makes the book so powerful (to start with, I cannot write as well as Cusk, nor can I think as deeply), let me say a little bit about it.

Outline is narrated by a writer who has been invited to teach a week-long workshop in Athens. She is divorced, has two young sons back in London. On the flight to Greece, she falls into conversation with her seatmate, a much older, much divorced man; in Greece she twice goes out on his boat with him; she leads her writing class; she spends an afternoon with a friend and a lesbian Greek writer; she talks the woman who is taking over the apartment in which she's been staying. That's it.

Cusk violates many of the "rules" of fiction. It is not clear what the narrator wants—and if we don't know what a character is trying to accomplish, how can we root for her? (If an author is as good as Cusk, we—or I—will follow her anywhere.) There is no story arc except that the narrator, whose name is used only once in the 249 pages, flies to Athens, spends a week there, and is about to return to London when the book ends. On the other hand, the book is full of stories; the people the narrator meets and her writing students tell her stories. Self-serving, sad, charming, off-putting and on-putting stories.

Meanwhile, the pages are studded with comments like this: "Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forgets one's own destiny by what one doesn't notice or feel compassion for; that what you don't know and don't make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of." Think about that for a few minutes and see where it takes you.

At the same time, Cusk is brilliant at description: "The woman who said this was of a glorious though eccentric appearance, somewhere in her fifties, with a demolished beauty she bore quite regally. The bones of her face were so impressively structured as to verge on the grotesque, an impression she had chosen to accentuate—in a way that struck me as distinctly and intentionally humorous—by surrounding her already enormous blue eyes in oceans of exotic blue and green shadow and then drawing, not carefully, around the lids with an even brighter blue; her sharp cheekbones wore slashes of pink blusher, and her mouth, which was unusually fleshy and pouting, was richly and inaccurately slathered in red lipstick."

One last quote and then I'll stop before I begin to flirt dangerously with the 'fair use' exception of the copyright law: "There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all." Something else to think on for a while.

As a writer, I am dazzled by Cusk's use of language. Consider what would happen to her second quote above if an idiot editor insisted—as idiot writing teachers have insisted—she excise all adverbs.

As a reader I waiting to immerse myself in Transit when my copy arrives. But start with Outline.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

What happens to literature when English dominates?

Minae Mizumura is a Japanese novelist I've written about in the past. I've discussed two of her novels, A True Novel and Inheritance from Mother in my blog that focuses on Japan and Japanese culture. Her new book—new for Western readers—is The Fall of Language in the Age of English. It was originally published in Japan as When the Japanese Language Falls: In the Age of English (Nihongo ga horobiru toki: Eigo no seiki no naka de) in 2008 where it became an enormous best-seller. The English version, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter, is somewhat different from the original which addressed Japanese readers. The Fall of Language in the Age of English makes a more general, more universal argument.

Mizumura was born in Tokyo in 1951, moved with her family to Long Island, New York, when she was twelve years old. She lived in the States for twenty years but never felt entirely at ease here. She studied French literature and literary criticism at Yale as both an undergraduate and graduate student. She has taught at Princeton, University of Michigan, and Stanford and in The Fall of Language she gives her account of her experience in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2003. She currently lives in Tokyo.

Her book makes a clear distinction between a local language, a national language, and a universal language. A local language is the one you grow up speaking; it may or may not have a writing system. As I understand her argument, a local language in Italy is something like Neapolitan, Calabrese, Sicilian, Venetian—more than a dialect or an accent—a language that outsiders cannot understand; the national language would be Italian. In Japan, local languages include Tohoku-ben, Kansai-ben, Hakata-ben, and more local; the national language is Japanese. A national language Mizumura says "is an elevated form of a local language" and a country like Belgium might have two national languages.

A universal language is one used internationally for science, business, diplomacy, and more. In the middle ages, Latin was a universal language. Today, thanks to British colonial efforts, trade and US strength after WWII, English has become the universal language. More Chinese may speak Mandarin, but "what makes a language 'universal' has nothing to do with how many native speakers there are, and everything to do with how many people use it as their second language . . . What matters is that English is already used and will continue to be used by the greatest number of nonnative speakers in the world." (Italics in the original.)

One of the things this means is that translation becomes far more important than most people realize. If an author writes in her local or national language, her readers are only those who can read it. If an author writes in English, her prospective readers are all over the world, not only in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Many more Japanese are able to read a novel in English than Americans are able to read a novel in Japanese. This suggests that if an ambitious author wants a wide audience, she ought to write in English even though her native language may be Hausa, Tagalog, Tswana, or Tigrinya.

Translation, however, is at best a limited answer to the challenge of literature written in languages other than English. As Mizumura points out "the works that are usually translated into English are those that are both thematically and linguistically the easiest to translate, that often only reinforce the worldview constructed by the English language, and preferably that entertain readers with just the right kind of exoticism." Readers therefore "are not condemned to know that there is thus a perpetual hermeneutic circle—that in interpreting the world, only 'truths' that can be perceived in English exist as 'truths.'"

And machine translating, while clearly improving almost weekly, has real problems with languages remote from English like Japanese and Chinese. In a news article or instruction manual where the meaning rests mostly on the surface, a machine version may be adequate. But in a work of literature where much of the meaning—and pleasure—is in the nuance, the implications, the way words can resonate against one another, machine translation, as I can testify from my own experience, has a long, long way to go. And—sudden thought—by the time it gets there, (which is not a sure thing), it may be useless because English has so overwhelmed all other languages that no one is bothering to write literature in her native language anyway.

Given her interest, Mizumura has much to say about Japanese literature, its remarkable florescence during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (i.e., during the Meiji and Taisho eras) and, in her opinion, its current low state. Indeed, when her book was published in Japan, she was attacked for her judgment: "She talks down about contemporary Japanese literature, when even Americans say it's great!" As if American opinion is the measure of quality.

I  found the book fascinating. Anyone interested in language, literature, Japan, or all three can read The Fall of Language in the Age of English profitably. Because most of us tend to think in our native language most of the time, we are usually no more aware of it than a fish is of the water in which it swims. Mizumura helps us consider the medium in which we think and write, what we're doing, and the effect the spread of English is having on the rest of humanity.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A counter view to life during Italy's "Years of Lead"

Edoardo Nesi's new novel, Infinite Summer (translated from the Italian by Alice Kilgarriff), takes place in Tuscany between August 1972 and August 1982, right in the middle of the period known in Italy as the "Years of Lead," a period of social and political turmoil marked by left-wing and right-wing killings and bombings. Knowing a bit of this history gives the novel a feeling of unfolding in an alternate Italy, an Italy of booming growth, expanding global markets for Italian goods, and limitless possibilities.

Nesi is a translator, writer, filmmaker, and politician. He has translated Bruce Chatwin, Malcolm Lowry, Stephen King, and David Foster Wallace among others. He's written a dozen books, one of which, Fughe da Fermo, was made into a film that he directed. In 2013 he was elected to the Italian Parliament's Chamber of Deputies.

Infinite Summer weaves together the stories of four characters: Ivo Barrocciai, the expansive, optimistic son of a modest Tuscan textile manufacturer; Cesare "The Beast" Vezzosi, a small-time building contractor; Vittorio, Cesare's young son; and Pasquale Citarella, "a hard-working foreman and house painter from the South." In other words, a representative of the upper, middle, and lower classes.

Ivo has a vision: Build a textile factory on the outskirts of Florence that will be "the envy of the Milanese." The factory must be huge, larger than any factory in the region. It must have two stories. Ivo's own office must be as large as a tennis court and a white Carrara marble staircase must lead to it. As frosting on this cake, an Olympic-size swimming pool must be built on the roof. Ivo's vision includes Vezzosi as the contractor and Citarella as site manager. Because Ivo's goals are so outrageous and because neither Caesare nor Pasquale have any experience in their assigned roles, I expected the enterprise to collapse in a heap of debt and recriminations.

But it doesn't. There are complications, but it won't spoil the book to know that at the end Ivo can enjoy his rooftop pool. Between the first chapter in which we meet eight-year-old Vittorio and the last, we follow Ivo, Cesare, Vittorio, and Pasquale change and grow, picking up insights into Italian life and culture along the way—one of the many pleasures of Infinite Summer.

The book is interestingly constructed. Some chapters are virtually all description, some are all dialogue. Some limit the point of view to a single character, some take an omniscient point. Early in the book, Nesi takes the time to describe in considerable detail a pickup soccer game that includes this:

" . . .The ball—a gnarled, rough, rubber sphere adorned with the word 'Yashin' in honor of the great Russian goalkeeper of the 1960s whom none of the boys had ever seen play—rises so high that Arianna [Vittorio's mother] sees it trace an arch through the sunset burning brightly below the low, distant hills. It's a brushstroke, a satellite, a signature that strokes the sky . . . "

And here is Ivo, persuading Cesare to build his beautiful factory:

" . . . Think about it, Cesare, I'm always abroad selling, and while I'm in Germany, or America, or Japan, or Cape Town in South Africa, my business needs loyal, honest, tireless workers, people who care about the business as much as I do. They're the ones who'll keep it going. I call the shots, of course, but they're the ones who do all the work, and if they aren't any good, if they don't give their hundred percent, if they don't want to stay that extra hour, the company won't go anywhere, you see?"

In one sense, Infinite Summer is a brief for capitalism and global trade. Ivo is able to obtain financing to build his factory, hire and motivate skilled workers, and sell his innovative fabrics around the world. The problems are personal; men—and women—are attracted to inappropriate sexual partners and complications ensue. All in all, a fascinating and convincing picture of a certain time in Italy and an engaging and persuasive portrait of characters who were living through it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

For anyone interested in literature, Iran, or another culture

Last fall, I talked about Azar Nafisi's book, The Republic of Imagination. I have finally caught up with her first book, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which was published in 2003. It was deservedly a best seller and deserves to be read fifteen years after it was published.

Azar Nafisi, says her website, "is a Visiting Professor and the executive director of Cultural Conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, where she is a professor of aesthetics, culture, and literature, and teaches courses on the relation between culture and politics. Azar Nafisi held a fellowship at Oxford University, teaching and conducting a series of lectures on culture and the important role of Western literature and culture in Iran after the revolution in 1979. She taught at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University, and Allameh Tabatabai before her return to the United States in 1997 . . . In 1981, she was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the mandatory Islamic veil and did not resume teaching until 1987."

Reading Lolita in Tehran fills out the picture of what happened to her and her family during and after the 1979 revolution, adds stories of her students and colleagues, and connects all this to works by Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Jane Austen, and more. She lived through—and describes in painful detail—the rise of the theocracy. (You don't want to live in one, not Muslim, not Christian.) She lived through the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, the one in which the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein. She held private classes in English literature for eight young women in her living room. She tried to open minds under a regime that—my impression—was doing its best to limit them.

For example, one of her senior colleagues in the university did not want her to teach The Great Gatsby. "The novel was immoral. It taught the youth the wrong stuff; it poisoned their minds—surely I could see. I could not. I reminded him that Gatsby was a work of fiction and not a how-to manual. Surely I could see, he insisted, that these novels and their characters became our models in real life? Maybe Mr. Gatsby was all right for the Americans, but not for our revolutionary youth . . ."

With the revolution, came new government regulations punishable by fines, lashings, and jail. Nafisi writes, "Now that I could not call myself a teacher, a writer, now that I could not wear what I would normally wear [new rules ordered women to wear only chador or long robe and scarf in public], walk in the streets to the beat of my own body, shout if I wanted to or pat a male colleague on the back on the spur of the moment, now that all this was illegal, I felt light and fictional, as if I were walking on air, as if I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe."

Toward the end of the book, she writes that the dilemmas of the girls she taught "stemmed from the confiscation of their most intimate moments and private aspiration by the regime. This conflict lay at the heart of the paradox created by Islamic rule. Now that the mullahs ruled the land, religion was used as an instrument of power, an ideology. It was this ideological approach to faith that differentiated those in power from millions of ordinary citizens . . ." My opinion is that ideologues make terrible presidents, senators, representatives, judges, and mayors.

My selection of quotations may unfortunately give the impression that the memoir is a screed against the Islamic Republic. Nafisi certainly points out the difficulties of living in a theocracy even if one is a believer. What makes the book far more than war stories of living through a revolution, however, is Nafisi's and her students' thoughts and observations about the books they read. Anyone who is interested in literature, in Iran, in another culture, or in all three should find and read Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Skeleton God is more than a challenging puzzle

I asked to review Skeleton God, the ninth mystery in Eliot Pattison's Inspector Shan Tao Yun series, because I had just read The Skull Mantra, the first in the series.

At the beginning of The Skull Mantra, Shan, who is Chinese, is in a Tibetan prison camp having pursued an investigation too aggressively back in Beijing. When a prison work gang finds a headless corpse on a windy Tibetan mountainside, Colonel Tan, the district commander, springs Shan from the prison with the understanding that Shan will solve the murder before an American tourist delegation arrives and do it in a politically expedient manner, which may require executing an innocent monk—something Shan cannot permit.

As Pattison's website says, Shan is thrown into a maelstrom of political and religious intrigue involving American mining interest, Tibetan sorcerers, corrupt Party officials, a secret illegal monastery, and the Tibetan resistance movement.

I have some quibbles about The Skull Mantra. The maelstrom into which Shan is thrown is complex, and between the Chinese and Tibetan names and Pattison's efforts to convey the recent history of Chinese/Tibetan relations (not to mention Tibetan Buddhist customs and spirituality), it can be heavy sledding to follow the plot's twists. Nevertheless, The Skull Mantra is a superior and fascinating first effort.

Eight books later in Skeleton God, Shan is the constable of a remote Tibetan town. Colonel Tan, while not Shan's friend, recognizes his value and uses him as best he can. Shan's son, Ko, mentioned but not appearing in the first book, is now a prisoner in Shan's former prison. The story begins when Shan investigates a report that nun has been assaulted by ghosts. In an ancient tomb by the old nun, Shan finds the mummified and gilded remains of Buddhist saint buried centuries ago, the remains of a Chinese soldier murdered fifty years before, and an American man (!) murdered only hours earlier (!!). What is going on?

It is to Pattison's credit that what goes on is plausible and engaging. He is able to use historic events—an 1897 earthquake, the predations of the Red Guards, the Chinese looting of Tibetan shrines and monasteries—serve his again complex plot.

Shan is an interesting character. He speaks Tibetan and English as well his native Chinese. Because official China has been doing its best to eliminate Tibetan customs and culture for the last fifty years, the local people regard Shan warily when not actively hostile. Because Shan's beloved son is a prisoner and could be shipped to a much harsher prison (although the 404th Construction Brigade is hardly a Boy Scout camp), Shan has to be careful on whose toes he treads. Because the careful reader can figure out who the bad guy is about halfway through the book, we still want to know (I still wanted to know) exactly what he did and why he did it. It all makes for interesting tension.

Either because I had just read The Skull Mantra and was thereby familiar with the names and language or because after writing eight Inspector Shan mysteries Pattison made Skeleton God easier to follow. A friend felt that the first book should come with a Cast of Characters and a Glossary of Buddhist Terms. I disagree.

Part of the novels' pleasure is learning from context about Tibetan culture and its recent history. The mystery is interesting, but both The Skull Mantra and Skeleton God offer much more than challenging puzzle. Pattison tells me something about a world I know nothing about, and I trust his word.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

How Ove is saved in spite of himself

Ove is not an easy character to like or to sympathize with. Okay, he's fifty-nine years old, his wife has died recently (the only person who could have stood him), he has no children, he's out of work, and his world has changed in ways he neither understands nor wants to understand.

In Chapter 1 of Fredrik Backman's best-selling A Man Called Ove, Ove shops for a computer. He's both ignorant and impatient; he does not trust the store clerk, assuming the worst. For example, if a laptop does not come with a keyboard—and Ove knows computers need keyboards—it's "Because you have to buy it as an 'extra,' don't you?" he sputters (Ove has a very short fuse). The sale does not go well.

In Chapter 2 we watch Ove go through his inflexible morning routine: make coffee, inspect his housing development's garages, make sure as always (with three tugs) his garage door is properly locked, confirm that no cars in the guest parking area have been parked more than 24 hours (he jots down license numbers), separates a glass jar from its lid, dropping the former into the glass recycling bin, the latter into the metal recycling bin (muttering "incompetents"), and, back home, prepares to hang himself in his living room. The chapter ends when he's interrupted by "a long scraping sound. Not at all unlike the type of sound created by a big oaf backing up a Japanese car hooked up to a trailer and scraping it against the exterior wall of Ove's house."

Well, guess what. It is a big oaf backing up a Japanese car hooked up to a trailer and scraping it against the exterior wall of Ove's house. It's his new next door neighbors, a Swede like Ove, his very pregnant Iranian wife, and two small children. Here's how Backman describes the husband: "He's wearing a knitted cardigan and his posture seems to indicate a very obvious calcium deficiency. He must be close to six and a half feet tall. Ove feels an instinctive skepticism towards all people taller than six feet; the blood can't quite make it all the way up to the brain."

A couple examples of Backman's method of showing the reader Ove's views of—attitude toward?—the world: "He's wearing his navy suit . . . Ove's wife likes that suit. She always says he looks to handsome in it. Like any sensible person, Ove is obviously of the opinion that only posers wear their best suits on weekdays. But this morning he decided to make an exception. He even put on his black going-out shoes and polished them with a responsible amount of boot shine." Not too much polish, a responsible amount.

One more example: "Ove didn't dislike this cat in particular. It's just that he didn't much like cats in general. He'd always perceived them as untrustworthy. Especially, as in the case of Earnest [a cat Ove's wife loved], they were as big as mopeds. It was actually quite difficult to determine whether he was just an unusually large cat or an outstandingly small lion. And you should never befriend something if there's a possibility it may take a fancy to eating you in your sleep." Throughout the book, Backman (or his translator) employs interesting metaphors and adjectives.

Few readers, however, read a book for its metaphors and adjectives (or, for that matter, it adverbs). I thought A Man Called Ove is an interesting exercise in working out how a man could become a curmudgeon, so depressed he wants to join his wife in death (and is certain he will join her, although he'll be a suicide), and, through the goodness of other people and his inherent decency, is returned to life. With an uplifting message like that, a book deserves to be a best seller.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

John Rebus retired is still solving crime

You don't have to have read all of Ian Rankin's John Rebus mysteries (I haven't) to enjoy the latest, Rather Be the Devil, but it would help. For one thing, you would know something about Detective Inspector (Ret.) John Rebus, DI Siobban Clarke, DI Malcolm Fox, and Edinburgh crime boss (and Rebus nemesis) Big Ger Cafferty. Fortunately, while it may increase your pleasure in the book knowing all the past cases involving these characters, Rather Be the Devil stands on its own.

The plot is complex involving a 35-year-old cold case, international money laundering, a significant murder, competition between Edinburgh and Glasgow criminal gangs, and more. Adding to the mix is the fact that Rebus is no longer a DI and cannot flash a warrant card in suspect's face. He is also trying to give up cigarettes and has been diagnosed with a shadow on his lung.

I guess you could read the book for the puzzle, and Rankin is a master of inventing plausible criminal puzzles. Edinburgh is large enough to have a substantial criminal underworld, small enough that a player in that would could reasonably have played a very minor part in the unsolved 1978 murder. Teasing apart all the threads along with Rebus, Clarke, and Fox is one of the book's pleasures.

Another pleasure comes from being in the hands of a crackerjack writer. Here are the book's first four sentences:

Rebus placed his knife and fork on the empty plate, then leaned back in his chair, studying the other diners in the restaurant.
"Somebody was murdered here, you know," he announced.
"And they say romance is dead." Deborah Quant paused over her steak.

One more example. Malcolm Fox has been left in the station house where he's been reading a book that may be relevant to the case. Rebus asks where the rest of the team working the case has gone. Fox says,

"They're also going through Chatham's house, seeing if there's anything on his computer or tucked away in a drawer somewhere . . ."
"While you're left her to read a library book?" said Rebus.
"Playing to one of my many strengths."
"What? Basic literacy?"

How many mysteries make you laugh out loud? 

Yet another pleasure, which may be based on an illusion, is seeing the way the Scottish police work, the bureaucracy, the mechanics of how the system works. I say it may be an illusion because I have no idea whether what Rankin describes is accurate or not. Suffice it to say, the procedures, the infighting, the limitations, and the eventual results sound spot on. I still sure to what Rather Be the Devil refers; that, however, did not diminish my pleasure at all.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

What would happen if you couldn't recognize faces?

I had never heard of Bone Gap, Laura Ruby's 2015 novel until a young friend pressed it on me as one of the best books she'd read all year. Shame on me because the book was a National Book Award Finalist, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, and wan a number of other Best Book of the Year awards.

Bone Gap is the name of a small Illinois farm town. Eighteen-year-old Finn lives with his EMT older brother Sean on the remains of the family farm. Their father is dead; their mother ran off to Oregon with an orthodontist. Some time before the story begins, a lovely young Polish woman named Roza had shown up in the corn field, fleeing something. She lived (chastely) with Finn and Sean long enough to demonstrate almost supernatural skill at growing vegetables, for Sean to fall in love with her, and because of her beauty and personality to become popular with the townspeople. She's been kidnapped. Finn saw the kidnapper, but he cannot for the life of him describe the man's face to the local cop. That he can not does not endure him to Sean, the cop, or the townspeople.

After a first chapter to introduce Finn and the situation in Bone Gap, Ruby shifts point of view. We are now with Roza in what could be another universe. One without another person with whom she can connect. The only other person is her kidnapper who asks repeatedly:"Are you in love with me yet?" Roza has become Rapunzel locked away in a tower (although at first it seems a suburban American house, but that's only at first).

Part One chapters alternate between Finn's and Roza's point of view as we learn about them and their situations. Finn grows attracted to Priscilla, a beekeeper about his age, who because of her looks has never attracted male attention. In Part Two, Ruby adds chapters from Sean's and Priscilla's point of views to those of Finn and Roza. Part Three resolves the questions the book has provoked.

So Bone Gap is an interesting amalgam of verisimilitude and fantasy, or realism and fairy tale. Ordinarily, I don't care for such a mixture; I like my realism to be realistic, my fantasy to be fantastic. Bone Gap is the exception, perhaps because Ruby has created such interesting characters. The story held my interest and there was not a point where I was jolted out of my willing suspension of my disbelief.

In addition, Ruby writes so well. Here's the first description of Roza's kidnapper: "But he would smile that bland, pleasant smile—the smile of an uncle, a teacher, a clerk, all those men with all those teeth—a smile that made him all the more terrifying." And here's a crowd watching Priscilla retrieve an escaped bee swarm: "Their voices washed over Finn the way they always did. Like a strange sort of choir music, one voice blending into the next, the refrains so familiar that he could have mouthed the words along with them." I also recommend studying her dialogue, which reveals character and advances the story.

For readers who have young friends, I suggest you introduce them to Bone Gap. But you might want to read it yourself first.