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.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

What a writer's writer says about writing

James Salter got tagged a "writer's writer," i.e., a writer whose use of language, insights into the human condition, ability to create art but whose books don't become best sellers. Richard Ford, in an introduction to Salter's reissued novel Light Years, wrote: "It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today." Salter had been a combat fighter pilot in WWII and in the Korean War, and resigned from the Air Force after eleven years to write full time. He wrote screenplays, short stories, and novels and six months before he died at ninety in 2015 he gave three lectures at the University of Virginia, now published as The Art of Fiction with an introduction by John Casey. The lectures are titled, "The Art of Fiction," "Writing Novels," and "Life into Art."

Salter asks, Why write? For money? Recognition? A sense of importance? As the jacket writer notes, "Confronting a blank sheet that always offers too many choices, practicing a vocation that often demands one write instead of live, the answer for Salter was creating a style that captured experiences, in a world where anything not written down fades away."

Because Salter is so interesting—far more interesting than a review about him—let me simply quote from the lectures rather than attempt a precis of their contents:

"Over the years I've never found myself truly intimate or comfortable for a long period with people who don't read or have never read. For me, it's an essential. Something is missing in them otherwise, breadth of reference, sense of history, a common chord. Film is too simple . . . "

"I don't know where the urge to write comes from. I don't believe it's inborn, but it comes early. I had no daemon in me, as Faulkner said he had, nor D.H. Lawrence, but there are writers who have no daemon . . . In any case, genius is unto itself . . ."

"Actually, I don't think anyone can teach you how to write a novel, or if they can, not in an hour. It's difficult to write novels. You have to have the idea and the characters, although additional characters may appear to you as you go. You need the story. You need, if I can put it this way, the form . . . "

"I try to write regularly. I have difficulty beginning each day. If I can leave myself a line or a few words to help me take it up again, it goes much better. The day sometimes goes well. More often it doesn't. I'm reconciled to the certainty that I'll be disappointed in what I've written. I write when I don't feel like it, but not when it revulses me . . ."

You can read The Art of Fiction in an hour or so, but it is the distillation of a writer's life experiences. It is a book every writer of fiction should read, think about, look up the writers Salter admires, read them, reread Salter, and think about one's writing. And then reread Salter once again.

Friday, February 3, 2017

A perfectly adquate puzzle box

I've just read A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch, his first mystery published in 2007, a perfectly adequate puzzle box that many people enjoyed and sold well enough that Finch has been able to publish ten more mysteries in the series.

It is set in London in the winter 1865 and is told from the point of view of Charles Lenox, "a man of perhaps forty," a wealthy, aristocratic bachelor who has, we learn, assisted the newly-established Metropolitan Police in their inquiries in the past. That Lenox has solved their cases has not endured him to the Yard's Sergeant Exeter.

The blue death is that of Prudence Smith, an apparent suicide. She had been a maid in the household of  Lady Jane Grey, "a childless widow of just past thirty," Lenox's Mayfair neighbor, and good friend. Lady Jane asks Lenox to look into the death which had occurred in the home George Bernard, the director of the Royal Mint. Lenox and his friend Thomas McConnell, a doctor and amateur scientist, go to Bernard's London mansion and establish almost immediately that Prudence was murdered by drinking a rare, and expensive poison. The game's afoot.

By the time Lenox has untangled all the clues and followed all the threads, a story so complex that the author has to explain it twice, justice has been done. In the course of it, Lenox enlists his butler Graham in quiet investigation below the stairs in Bernard's house, tries unsuccessfully to keep Lady Jane out of it, works McConnell and with his older brother Edmund an MP and around Exeter (shades of Watson, Mycroft Holmes, and Lestrade).

Because the book has been so popular (it's still in print), I have been thinking about why I found it so unsatisfactory. First, I think, because as I intimated above, it is Sherlock Holmes lite. Second, because the 1865 London setting sounds as if it's based on a carefully study of "Upstairs Downstairs" rather than on lived experience. Third, because the author did not convince me that the murderer's motivation was convincing, let alone the elaborate plot behind the murder.

I have also been considering why so many readers find it satisfactory. Perhaps they like for the reasons I'm dissatisfied: Lenox is a more engaging character than Sherlock Holmes; they are persuaded by the historic setting; and they enjoy a puzzle's tangles. If you are a reader who enjoys historical mysteries and is not troubled by anachronisms, A Beautiful Blue Death may be for you.