22 April 2010

The good, the bad, and the best

If I don't watch the bad and mediocre movies or listen to the so-so music, how will I know good stuff when I see or hear it?

Same thing is true of books. Or as the princess said, "I've got to kiss a lot of frogs to find the magic prince." That is what she said, itsn't it?

I've read lots of good books and lots of so-so books. Most of the time that I tie into a bad one, I choose not to finish it.

Then I pick up a really good book, and it's suddenly obvious that it's good. Unless I want to sit back and enjoy it, I have to do the hard work of identifying what makes it good.

I picked up Walter Mosley's The Long Fall recently. It was obviously really good. After I read the first 2 pages, I stopped and interupted Nancy's reading to read her those 2 pages. That's how good it is. Nancy, who edits several semi-pro novels every year, listened intently. "It is so good to know that there are excellent writers out there." That's how good it is.

I've liked several of the books I've read recently. I liked a couple a great deal. The Long Fall stands out as excellent against the background of the books I've read during the past year.

Oh, and here's the opening:

"I'm sorry, Mr. um?..." the skinny receptionist said. Her baby-blue-on-white nameplate merely read JULIET.

She had short blond hair that was longer in the front than in the back and wore a violet T-shirt that I was sure would expose a pierced navel if she were to stand up. Behind her was a mostly open-air-boutique-like office space with ten or twelve brightly colored plastic desks that were interspersed by big, leafy, green plants. The eastern wall, to my right, was a series of ceiling-to-floor segmented windowpanes that were not intended to open.

All the secretaries and gofers that worked for Berg, Lewis & Takayama were young and pretty, regardless of gender. All except one.

There was a chubby woman who sat in a far corner to the left, under an exit sign. She had bad skin and a utilitarian fashion sense. She was looking down, working hard. I immediately identified with her.

I imagined sitting in that corner, hating everyone else in the room.

"Mr. Brown isn't in?" I asked, ignoring Juliet's request for a name.

"He can't be disturbed."

"Couldn't you just give him a note from me?"

Juliet, who hadn't smiled once, not even when I first walked in, actually sneered, looking at me as if I were a city trash collector walking right in from my garbage truck into the White House and asking for an audience with the president.

I was wearing a suit and tie. Maybe my shoe leather was dull, but there weren't any scuffs. There were no spots on my navy lapels, but, like that woman in the corner, I was obviously out of my depth: a vacuum-cleaner salesman among high-paid lawyers, a hausfrau thrown in with a bevy of Playboy bunnies...

It had been a long time since I read one of Mosley's books. He's stopped writing about Easy Rawlins and is writing about other characters. This book is about a guy named Leonid McGill, a shady character who says he's trying to go straight. That kind of ambiguity pervades the worlds that Mosley writes about, and the world most of us live in when we're really honest with ourselves. Our ambiguities might not be as dramatic as those that Mosley's characters face, but our stories aren't likely to make good novels.

Some of Mosley's books have been excellent. Others just good. This one is somewhere in between. But it was head and shoulders above most of what I've read recently.


Besides use of language? The story hangs together. The telling of the story took me along without provoking silly questions about why and how and who. The unwrapping of the complications and consequences are carefully done. The characters are humans I can comprehend even if they're not like people I know or would want to hang with.

There's a new Leonid McGill mystery out since this one was published, and a novel about Mosley's character Socrates Fortlow that I'm tempted to follow up on. It's like running into an old friend.

Anyone else have experience with Walter Mosley's books? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

Walter Mosley's web site

• Anna Mundow's review of The Long Fall in the Washington Post

Another in a long series (about Bad Boy Brawly Brown)

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (an earlier really good book about Socrates Fortlow)

Fearless Jones (from the old pre-blog site)

The Walter Mosley page at African American Literature

• Walter Mosley talks about The Long Fall:

Non-fiction as fiction

I was disappointed (or distracted) when I read Dan O'Brien's Brendan Prairie. But I did want to read about his buffalo ranching experiences, so I got Buffalo for the Broken Heart from the Northfield Library.

This book is pretty straight non-fiction. O'Brien tells the story of struggling to raise cattle on a South Dakota ranch (the Broken Heart) in the prairie between the Badlands and the Black Hills. He explains how he gradually became convinced that raising buffalo was the way the save the ranch and its environment. Then he describes how he (and his bankers) got buffalo for the ranch.

It's a good story, and it is told very well. And the story is told as if it were fiction. There's a beginning, middle, and an end. There are characters and drama. There is science and explanations. There are complete stories within the main story. And the the narrative concludes at the end of the book -- although there's another story implied by the ending. (I wish he'd done this with Brendan Prairie.)

I liked this book. I am looking forward to meeting O'Brien and seeing the Broken Heart next July.

Now, I may well go looking for another of O'Brien's novels next time I'm at the library.

Have you read Buffalo for the Broken Heart? How did you respond to it? Write, and tell this little bit of the world.

07 April 2010

Black Hills mystery

Well, I got an overdue notice from the Northfield library. It doesn't happen often.

You'd think I'd be able to read and comment on a 250-page book in less than 3 weeks. At least I think I ought to be able to do that. What happened?

The book that's now overdue is Brendan Prairie by Dan O'Brien. It's a mystery and more. Or maybe less.

O'Brien is one of the leaders of a geology/ecology seminar I'm attending next July in the Black Hills. I thought I'd read something he's written before heading west.

I had trouble starting the book. There's so much back story to be told and it takes a long time -- practically the whole book -- to get it told. There's very little that isn't back story.

Then there are the paeans to the beauty of Brendan Prairie, a bit of Black Hills beauty that is about to be developed as vacation housing for rich people attracted to the gambling mecca in the Black Hills. The prairie sounds like an environmental gem. But I was never convinced that it was priceless or unique.

There's also incredible detail about capturing and training hawks and falcons. Yawn. And somehow that seems contradictory to the adoration of nature when O'Brien writes about Brendan Prairie. How is the main character's semi-domesticating of a falcon different from the semi-domestication of a bit of meadow?

At the end, all the main characters are tied up in a nasty ball of string that leaves the survivors bound by secrets and guilt that will never leave them.

I guess this book is a short story, an essay about preservation of nature, a feature article about falconry, and another short story about youthful love and lust.

It never hung together for me. And that's my excuse why it took so long for me to read it and almost as long to get around to writing about it.

Have you read Brendan Prairie by Dan O'Brien? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

Meanwhile I'm headed back to the library with the overdue book and I'll look for O'Brien's non-fiction about stocking his Black Hills ranch with bison. That's more appropriate to the summer seminar. I'll let you know how the book and the seminar go.

03 April 2010

Why do you read fiction?

Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know
Now English professors and graduate students… say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?…

Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s — Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis — has faded. Since then a new generation of scholars have been casting about for The Next Big Thing.

The brain may be it. Getting to the root of people’s fascination with fiction and fantasy, Mr. Jonathan Gottschall, who has written extensively about using evolutionary theory to explain fiction, said, is like “mapping wonderland.”