F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” was released on this date (April 10) in 1925. It was a critical success, but not a big seller. The second printing left thousands of unsold copies in the warehouse. How this must have discouraged Fitzgerald, who was likely hoping for a commercial success to help with his mounting debt. Why wasn’t it popular in its own time, and what about this novel has earned it a place in American literature and on every High School’s mandatory reading list? I’m sure volumes have been written on the answers to these questions, but now I wonder about a new one. How would Fitzgerald fare in today’s publishing environment? If Gatsby failed to sell, would he have been dropped by his publisher as a commercial flop? Would he have turned to self-pub in order to find an audience? How many undiscovered Fitzgeralds are there out there now with a story that is not considered “commercially viable”?
In honor of all things Irish with St. Patrick’s day approaching, selected a book by John McGahern, hailed as “one of Ireland’s most stupendous prose stylists” (The Independent). McGahern has written a quite a number of books, but his work “By the Lake” was recommended as his very best. It is the tale of a contemporary Irish village, filled with characters who, over the course of year, journey through life’s trials of work and play, birth and death, joys and disappointments amidst an earthy, pastoral backdrop that looms so large as to be a character itself.
The action focuses around a displaced English couple, the Ruttledges, who came from London in search of a different sort of life. They are the outsiders against which we examine the villiage’s long-time inhabitants: Jamesie and his wife Mary, who know everything that goes on, Jimmy Joe McKiernan, head of the local IRA, Bill Evans, a vagrant who was a child laborer, John Quinn, a man so focused on conquest of women to the exclusion of all else, and Patrick Ryan, a builder incapable of finishing anything he begins, to name a few. The book opens at the home of the Ruttledges and carries on as people come in and out of their life, encountering them in their daily rounds. What it felt like to me was as if I were suddenly dropped into this Irish village as an invisible spirit, yet tied to the Ruttledges, and able to observe their day-to-day life over the year. Conversations start mid-stream with little context. The background on people is slowly revealed over the course of the story, so for the most part, I really felt lost and struggled to understand just what was going on. That may be the point. The reader is supposed to kick back and just go with the flow to truly appreciate the atmosphere. The novel also has no chapters, but is one, long tale broken up only by scene changes marked with a little wingding of special type.
Unfortunately, I was doubly hindered by the fact that I did not understand the lingo. Yes, it is written in English, but (confession: provincial American that I am) I still had trouble discerning the meaning of some expressions and words. So, on top of the feeling of being dropped suddenly into a life without any preparation or background, all the people around me were speaking in a manner a bit foreign to my complete understanding. I see this as my shortcoming (not the novel’s), and it reminds me somewhat of a similar shameful childhood experience. My paternal grandfather was from Connemara, Ireland, and as a child I recall I could never understand a word he said (and maybe a bit of the drink contributed to that, no doubt.) And I’m sorry to say that when I was very young I used to run away from him when he spoke to me. I haven’t run from “By the Lake,” but I must say, it has been hard going.
I have joined the “Maisie Dobbs” fanclub. Yes, that simple, hard-working and wildly intelligent girl sleuth of the 1920′s has captured my heart. Author Jacqueline Winspear has created a unique tale–a combination mystery, history, romance and psychological study of human nature. The story begins when Maisie, just having hung out her shingle as a private investigator, is hired by a client to find out where his wife is sneaking off to. This launches her into an investigation much broader than a straying spouse, and something much more sinister. She soon uncovers a “Retreat,” ostensibly set up as a refuge for soldiers who were hideously scarred during The Great War, but when some inmates start disappearing, it launches Maisie into an investigation that forces her to revisit the horrors she personally experienced and face up to her past. The interesting thing about the structure of the book is that it flies in the face of all “good story writing” advice. Just as we as readers are getting sucked into the mystery, the author digresses and fills the whole middle of the book with the story of Maisie–how she came to be an educated Cambridge gal from her humble beginnings as a house maid. We return to the mystery at the end of the book, and the background story is such a satisfying tale that we forgive the interruption. The novel is full of rich characters, from her inscrutable mentor, Maurice Blanche, to her working-class side kick, Billy Beale–some of which are a bit “over the top.” But we forgive and love them for it. Just so, Maisie herself is sometimes just too good, smart, and pretty to be true, but somehow Winspear makes it work. I’m delighted to see that this is just the first in a series of Maisie adventures. She’s just the cure for a long, dreary winter. (One minor note: I was dismayed to see how poorly my copy of the book was edited. Some helpful previous reader penciled in a lot of corrections. A shame!)
On Valentine’s Day I finished reading Anne Fortier’s novel “Juliet,” a story about a descendent of the real Juliet of Siena going back to Italy to find a long-lost treasure and break the famous curse–”a plague on both your houses”- for good measure. The book was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “a Da Vinci Code for the smart modern woman.” I would describe it more like a Dan Brown plot on steroids, mixed with a Sophie Kinsella-like silly romantic story with an even sillier main character, and a dash of Philippa Gregory historical fiction. The author does a great job describing the scenes and setting of Italy: the ancient buildings, the food, and people. Her strongest sections of the novel were the ones set in the 1340′s, telling the re-imagined tale of the original Romeo and Juliet. Also, she shows her knowledge of the influence the story had on Shakespeare, how the story morphed and eventually travelled to England. The weak part of the novel is, in my opinion, all of the main characters in the modern setting. Juliet (or Giulietta in the Italian) is a twenty-five year old ingenue, still crippled by the relationship with her bad-girl twin sister and easily duped by everyone around her. She is a nincompoop of the first order. Her sister, the exact opposite, is a cartoon-like bad girl. The main love interest, the modern-day Romeo, is a brooding lout who hardly inspires much more than the desire to give him a good slap. The dialogue between the two lovers is painful, stagnant, and downright dull. What kept me reading to the end despite all this was the resolution of the mystery–the finding of the treasure. Reader beware. To get to this point you have to endure ridiculous plot twists, numerous improbable secret identities, easy solution of codes, clues that fall from the sky….well, you get the idea. It would have been a much stronger work if Fortier had stuck to the original story set in Italy and the hunt for the tomb and treasure and totally left out the romance.
Jody Casella, first time author of “Thin Space,” has written an engaging YA novel that easily crosses the lines into mainstream. It is the story of a a teenaged twin who is consumed with guilt over the death of his brother. We are not told the circumstances of the car accident which took the life of one twin, and left the other alive, but severely injured. The story takes up with his recovery, and his all-consuming quest to find a “thin place,” a legendary spot where the boundaries between this world and the next are so thin, that a person can pass through. He is determined to find this place and make things right with his brother. Despite the paranormal premise of the novel, it is for the most part firmly grounded in reality. The author masterfully portrays the strained relationship between the teen and his grieving parents, struggling to find some normality in the situation. The author also is adept at creating teenagers who ring true, who, for the most part, act and speak like high schoolers. Despite the fact that the author is female, for the most part I did not read lines spoken from the teenaged boy and think, hmmm, that sounds more like a mature woman speaking. To her credit, Jody Casella has captured the angst and alienation of all teens, and especially one who has suffered an unbearable loss. A highly recommended read.
The newest Patricia Cornwell-Kay Scarpetta crime novel is better used as a doorst0p–weighing in at a hefty 495 pages–than a novel. I nearly gave up on it after the first thirty pages, but pressed on because I have enjoyed her forensic-based investigation/police procedural dramas in the past. The story takes place over the course of one day, when medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, recovering from the flu, is called to investigate a body left on the MIT campus. Together with her former employee, now police inspector Marino, they engage in solving who this woman is and whether she could be related to a series of murders taking place in Washington DC. The DC serial murders are being handled by Scarpetta’s crime profiler husband, Benton, who suspects a high-level conspiracy is afoot–one that involves falsifying evidence and crime records. Sounds promising, but instead of relying on the tried-and-true formula of the past, emphasizing the forensic science, the criminal profiling and police investigation, the majority of this novel is Scarpetta fretting over her relationship with her former parter, her relationship with her difficult yet brilliant niece, and her concern over her husband becoming too involved with getting into the heads of the serial killers. On top of which, Cornwell alludes to Scarpetta just having come from the atrocity at Newtown, Connecticut, and how it effected her. I found that aspect of the story distasteful–almost as if she were profiting from the tragedy there by using it so soon and in a not very well conceived novel. The story is dull, repetitive, and flush with errors. The whole book may have been improved with a strong, impartial editing. Within the context of Russian organized crime, she talked about drugs coming from the Soviet Union. That sent me scurrying back to check the copy write date. It just felt like a first draft, full of descriptions and ruminations by the main character that did not advance the plot in any way and should have been deleted. This makes me wonder how robust the editing is on a wildly successful author like Cornwell, or any popular author for that matter. Does the publisher give her more free rein, knowing that the book will sell just by virtue of Cornwell’s name on the cover? Besides the thin plot line, there were threads of the story that were never tied up, and the characters were all distasteful and self-absorbed, topped off by a very unsatisfying ending. Well, I believe I’ll pass on any future Cornwell novels, and judging by other Amazon reviews, so are many others.
I first discovered the insightful writing of Caroline Knapp through her book about her relationship with her dog, Pack of Two. What I didn’t know at the time was the story of her life leading up to that point: a story of her battle against alcoholism and anorexia that led to her recovery through a relationship with her dog. Everyone should read her books. That is a bold statement, but one I stand behind one hundred percent. I am saddened to learn that after Caroline Knapp beat her alcoholism and eating disorders, she did not have a lot of life left before died from lung cancer at the age of 42. I am heartened by the fact that she probably faced it sober and head-on, with the laser like focus and analysis she brought to bear on her previous problems. The book “Drinking: A Love Story” is a stellar work of self analysis, but more than that, it is a clear-headed view on the problem on alcoholism. The metaphor she works through the book is that of a love story, which is so appropriate and just right in its description. It begins: “It was love at first sight. The beads of moisture on a chilled bottle. The way the glasses clinked and the conversation flowed. Then it became an obsession. The way she hid her bottles behind her lover’s refrigerator. The way she slipped from the dinner table to the bathroom, from work to the bar. And then, like so may love stories, it all fell apart.” The uplifting part of this story is Knapp chronicles her descent with unflinching honesty, but then lifts us back up out of her abyss through AA, describing every detail of her struggle in such a way that anyone with any sort of compulsive behavior can identify with her struggle. Although I did not always understand the injuries she suffered from her family situation, I understood her isolation and self-destruction, because she described it so beautifully. Beautifully? That is hard to imagine, but her writing is so lucid, so honest, so spot-on that that is the only word that springs to mind. She was a writer before, during, and after her trials with alcoholism, and we should all be thankful for the gift she left behind to help anyone struggling through the same ordeal, or anyone who is living with a loved one in that situation. Thank you, Caroline. May you rest in peace. Finally.
Just finished Robert B Parker’s novel featuring private investigator Sunny Randall called “Melancholy Baby.” I wanted a fast-paced and engaging read without much heavy intellectual input on my part, and I got just that. The story opens with Sunny Randall, and attractive and young PI, mourning the fact that her ex-husband is marrying again. To help put aside her personal problems, she takes on the case of a college student, Sarah Markham, who is convinced that her parents are lying to her and are not her birth parents. Once Sunny starts looking into her case, thugs attack Sarah to scare her off and the bodies start piling up. Although the main attraction of this novel, like all Parker’s works, is the witty and razor sharp banter between characters (think Gilmore Girls with an R rating), the more subtle strength of the story was some real insights into the human condition. Alternating chapters deal with Sunny’s visit to her shrink to discover why she is having such a difficult time with her ex’s re-marriage, and not surprisingly, these visits reveal a complicated relationship with her own parents. It isn’t Freud, but the characterization of the therapist was engaging and the way the layers of her memory and self-realizations were unfolded were quite skillful. As a murder-mystery, cop procedural, thriller or whatever, it is a little weak. As a story about the relationships between parents and children, it is much more interesting.