24 March 2012

No expense but taxes

I made my way to the socialist Northfield Public Library. Once again I was taking advantage of the taxpayers of the city. Of course, in order to get there I took advantage of the taxpayers by driving on the completely subsidized streets and stopping at the taxpayer-funded stop signs and stop lights. Thank you to all of you who paid for all that. Including me, of course.

In any case, there's no fee for checking out books from the library. I checked out An Impartial Witness by Charles Todd.

Unlike Wings of Fire, that I read in January, this was "A Bess Crawford Mystery." The Ian Rutledge character and the voice in his head were a bit much, and the story telling was laborious. The earlier Bess Crawford story (A Duty to the Dead) was better.

An Impartial Witness was not.

I skimmmed the final two-thirds of the book. I don't think I missed anything important.

Bess Crawford's father is a retired Army general, Victorian style. Why he doesn't lock her in her room until stops her obsessive pursuit of murderers, I don't know. Somebody should lock her in her room. The mother-son duo who write as Charles Todd aren't likely to do it. Whatever their process for scripting and writing mysteries is, it's no longer functional from my point of view. I will no longer look for their books on library or bookstore shelves.

At least I didn't have to buy the book.

The authors' web page for An Impartial Witness
A summary of 622 ratings at Good Reads
Beth Crowley's review at Murder by Type
NomadReader's review at nomadreader

19 March 2012

Comfort food for thought (or non-thought, as the case may be)

When it comes to comfort food, I think of chocolate -- especially chocolate frosted chocolate cake. Cookies work too. Dark European-style candy bars are great as well.

Then there's comfort reading. Something easy to understand that tells a story. Mysteries are good for that. And for containing the story to a specific, small universe. Beginnings and ends are obvious. Good "guys" and bad "guys" are usually obvious, even if sometimes the good "guys" engage in legally or morally questionable behavior.

Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware novels fit into this category quite well. So, when I saw Evidence on the remainder pile at Barnes and Noble, I picked it up. (It was a better buy than the Margaret Coel paperback I bought, since I didn't realize until too late that I'd read the Coel book. Another volume to add to the stack going to the hospital auxiliary book sale.)

I wasn't disappointed with Evidence. Then again, my expectations weren't great. I just wanted some entertainment.

And I learned to take care of what generalizations I make. When writing about Tana French's The Likeness, I said that "Coversation is a slow way to tell a story..." Well, Kellerman proved me wrong. Then again, the dialogue in Evidence is quite different than the dialogue in The Likeness.

Evidence may be labeled an "Alex Delaware Novel," but Delaware is pretty much an observant yes man in this book. Detective Milo Sturgis is the active character. Instead of French's real time conversations, the dialogue in Evidence takes place between Delaware and Sturgis, between Sturgis and the people he interviews and questions, and between him and other investigators. Delaware as an observer adds observations and narration along the way. Kellerman is very good at creating dialogue and at moving the story along with a combination of conversations and narration.

This book was just what I wanted. A suitably complicated story, told in ways that kept me interested and intrigured. What was it that Annie Murphy Paul said? "Stories... stimulate the brain and... narratives activate many... parts of our brains..." My brain was stimulated and activated, but I had no trouble falling asleep after reading.

Have you read Evidence by Jonathan Kellerman? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

18 March 2012

Fiction as real life

I know, high school, college, and university literature teachers have claimed that reading fiction enhances our life experiences. But it took neuroscientists to offer empirical evidence. It seems that my penchant for story telling and dialogue has a biological component.

Your Brain on Fiction by Annie Murphy Paul, writing in The New York Times.

Amid the squawks and pings of our digital devices, the old-fashioned virtues of reading novels can seem faded, even futile. But new support for the value of fiction is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience.

Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life...

[S]cientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells...

Researchers have discovered that words describing motion also stimulate regions of the brain distinct from language-processing areas... The [brain] scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. What’s more, this activity was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex when the movement described was arm-related and in another part when the movement concerned the leg...

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters...

[I]ndividuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels. A 2010 study... found a similar result in preschool-age children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind — an effect that was also produced by watching movies but, curiously, not by watching television...

These findings will affirm the experience of readers who have felt illuminated and instructed by a novel... Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.

10 March 2012


There was this day when we had a couple things that required us to drive to the fringes of the suburbia. It's only about 25 miles, but since I stopped commutning 100 miles a day, this counts as a road trip. The editor-in-chief in our house had to have a manuscript printed for a client. kinko's (or whatever it's called these days) seemed like the logical choice, even it meant a road trip. There's a Barnes and Noble store across the parking lot from the copy center, so I knew I could keep myself amused.

While the photocopy machine was pumping out paper copies of a perfectly good digital file, I wandered the bookstore, bought a copy of Tana French's The Likeness, bought a coffee, and settled down to read.

Last August, I read a couple of Tana French's books (In the Woods and Faithful Place) and really liked them. Since the beginnings of her books were especially good, I looked forward to the beginning of The Likeness and the bookstore coffee.

I wasn't disappointed.

If French hooked me with gorgeous images and attractive characters at the beginning of her other books, she got me with a plot device at the beginning of this one. Imagine a couple of undercover cops creating a false identity so one of them could go undercover to investigate drug dealing at an Irish university. Making up a family and background that couldn't easily be traced and creating certificates, licenses, and diplomas in the name of the new, fictitious person, Lexie Madison. The investigation goes pretty well, but the undercover cop has to rescued after being stabbed by one of the druggies.

Fast forward a few years and the young cop who had gone undercover, gets a call about a murder, even though she's not working homicide. The victim is a university grad student named Lexie Madison. And the corpse is a dead ringer (pun resisted, but not avoided) for the former undercover cop. Because of the circumstances of the death, the young cop is asked to once again assume the identity of Lexie Madison and help find her murderer. (This seems like a very Shakespearean plot device.)

Ready for this? How do you learn enough about someone to successfully step into her life? Her habits? preferences? speech patterns? academics? love life? finances? And then move back into the house she shared with four other grad students?

Some of the details are glossed over and others ignored. French compensates by once again creating attractive characters and incredible dialogues. The story is told mostly in real time dialogue from the perspective of the undercover cop. That may be the flaw. Coversation is a slow way to tell a story, even when the story teller is as good as French. There's pretty steady high level of tension in the story telling (the undercover is continually tempted to become Lexie Madison), but little variation. A few crises might have helped. About two-thirds of the way through the book, the outlines of the conclusion were pretty clear, but there was still a lot of book to read (total 466 pages in my paperback copy). And knowing in general what was coming made approaching the climax laborious.

But, I couldn't bring myself to skip ahead. I wanted to "hear" those conversations and explanations. French kept dragging me back into relationships that made up the stories of Lexie Madison. In spite of having to slog through the swamp of the ending, I really liked this book.

Have you read The Likeness? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.