Friday, December 12, 2008

the good, the bad... the just plain witless

Bonus: more book reviews in the comments!

I've been doing a lot of reading lately. It's amazing what a good novel can do for a person. I've been attempting to write a novel lately myself, so I'm a bit more on the lookout for an author's structuring, her use of foreshadowing, whether the first person or the third person works...

As always, the ultimate craftsman is Donald Westlake writing at Richard Stark. The first sentence of "Firebreak" is, in my personal opinion, the best first sentence of a novel I've ever read: "When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man." Such a mix of the banal and the horrific, such an economic use of words.... and it sucks you in and has you prepared for the rest of the ride, right there in the first twelve words. I think that's a better first sentence than the famous first sentence of "Anna Karenina": "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Donald Westlake is the master, and I hope he lives forever.

I do not mean to content that "Firebreak" is a more important work than "Anna Karenina." "Firebreak" does not attempt to grapple with the big issues of infidelity, a woman's place in the world, social hypocrisies, etc.. I assert only that Donald Westlake/Richard Stark writes one hell of a sentence.

More along the lines of "Anna Karenina" (and covering much of the same ground regarding a woman's place in the world, marital infidelity, etc..) was "While I was Gone" by Sue Miller, a thought-provoking and serious novel spanning much of a complex and sometimes dislikeable heroine's life. This was a big bestseller back in 1999 but I just got around to reading it. I hated it for the first forty-five pages or so, stopping every now and then out of disgust to wonder, "Is this really the same Sue Miller who wrote 'The Good Mother'? How can this be so bad?" Then gradually the book became good, so very good I could not believe it, so gripping I could not put it down, and with twists and complexities which had me going back to reread various sections over and over again. Like Donald Westlake, Sue Miller is an astounding master of craftsmanship, and she's not afraid to make her characters deeply flawed. She doesn't play to your sentimentality.

Another surprisingly gifted writer, but writing in a comic vein, is Lisa Lutz, whose "The Spellman Files" is so funny and good that it had me laughing out loud on a filled-to-capacity 1 California bus... after I'd boarded the bus in tears after a traumatic marriage counseling appointment. Lisa Lutz seems to like the review which called her heroine, Isabel Spellman ,the love child of Harriet the Spy and Dirty Harry, and that description does fit, but it's not the character I was so crazy about, lovable as Izzy is. It was Ms. Lutz herself, who deploys the word "fuck" better than anyone this side of Elmore Leonard and builds an insane, but highly plausible, world. (Again, this was a bestseller a few years ago which I just got around to. Ms. Lutz has another book featuring the same characters just out in hardback, but I haven't read that yet and can't vouch for it. I hope she hasn't suffered that sophomore slump so unfortunately common in talented authors... e.g., Curtis Sittenfeld and Chelsea Cain).

"The Spellman Files" is set in San Francisco, and it is dead on. The characters eat where they should go to eat, they live where it makes sense for them to live, in neighborhood-appropriate homes at that. They inhabit the real city of San Francisco (and they don't get all gooey about it). I loved it when one character was sent on an crazy errand to Fisherman's Wharf and stopped for that quintessential tourist treat, a bowl of clam chowder where the bowl is actually constructed out of sourdough bread. The character wondered, given how much he loves this meal, why he never goes to Fisherman's Wharf, but then quickly concludes that even the chowder-in-the-bread-bowl isn't worth going there for. (That is us: people who actually live here avoid Fisherman's Wharf like the plague).

Another novel set in San Francisco that I recently read had it all wrong, wrong, wrong to the point of being maddening: the just-out "The Dirty Secrets Club" by Meg Gardiner. Do NOT waste your money or time on this book, not when there are treasures like "The Spellman Files" or "While I Was Gone" or anything by Richard Stark. Ms. Gardiner starts with an interesting concept: a mysterious organization of powerful or wealthy people who are joined together by criminal or scandalous pasts, who dare each other to do more and more dangerous things. However, Ms. Gardiner doesn't fulfill on the promise of that premise, and the book falls apart.

How many things did I hate about this book? Well, for one, she has her heroine, Jo Beckett, burdened by not just one huge, life-altering and made-for-TV trauma but two. As a child, Jo was trapped with her family in a car beneath the rubble of an Oakland freeway after the big 1989 earthquake... with her brave father singing to keep his children calm. If that's not enough for poor old Jo, later she became a doctor, and she failed to save her doctor husband's life in a helicopter crash due to an elementary error in basic triage principles. (If this isn't schmaltzy enough right there, the helicopter crash HAD to be during a medical emergency evacuation of a sick, angelic little girl with a warm, trusting personality who also dies).

So Jo limps through life (symbolically, not physically), scarred and traumatized and unable to try relationships again but making a fabulous living as a forensic psychiatrist. Her job is to investigate suspicious deaths and determine whether they were suicides or not by delving deeply into the suspects' lives. The San Francisco Police Department pays her very well and values her extremely. This basic concept right there would be highly painful to any of the families of murder victims whose deaths were ruled suicides by the SFPD. (The most notable of these is the case of Hugues de la Plaza. Police say that after an enjoyable night of clubbing, he stabbed himself to death. The problem: no bloody knife was found in de la Plaza's tiny apartment and there were traces of blood on the staircase. Answer: the police say Mr. de la Plaza obligingly washed and put away the knife after stabbing himself but before he fatally collapsed. The French authorities, disgusted by this, actually sent investigators over to do the work which should have been done by the SFPD). The SF Weekly did a cover story not long ago rounding up quite a few of these "suicides", an appalling, appalling history which should cause Chief Heather Fong much guilt.

Author Meg Gardiner was completely tone-deaf in her description of San Francisco. Her jacket bio said she now lives in London but used to live in Los Angeles. One wonders if she ever even visited SF. Among other ridiculous things in a book not meant to be a comedy: Ms. Gardiner said that everyone in San Francisco is in a state of nonstop rage due to the consistent parking problems, and therefore there are no anger management classes in our city because the people who teach anger management are so terrified of parking-enraged San Franciscans that they fear for their lives too much to venture into our city. Uh huh. I have noticed that at most events I attend, the people do not show up in rages. Many of us take mass transit or own bicycles, and taxis are also quite fashionable nowadays. It's also quite easy to park in many areas of the city.

Gardiner also had earthquakes occurring on a near-daily basis. You can actually go years without feeling one here. Her description of a little earthquake where everyone in a Mission taqueria hid under their tables was risible. I've lived here over twenty years, gone through many a quake (including the big one of 89), and I've never seen anyone hide under a flimsy table. When there is a quake, people usually hold still and stay silent, and then as soon as it's done, they all say the same things: "Didja feel that?" "How much do you think that was?" "I bet that was at least a four!" Et cetera, et cetera. It takes a lot to actually get us under a table or in a doorway (the only time I ever did that was during that actual 1989 quake. I was chatting with a classmate from New York at the law school when it hit. A few seconds into it, I realized, "This one is different" and got into a doorway, bracing myself against the frame. My classmate ran about nearby, unsure what to do, and I called to her, "Gina, Gina! Get in a doorway!" She came and took my same doorway with me, and we stared at each other until it was done).

On a regular day, poor old traumatized Jo sees the walls of her house bucking to and fro wildly. (I've never seen that in my own house. My life here is so much duller than Jo's). And of course, by the end of the book, old Jo is trapped once again by falling wreckage in a monster quake. How can regular people survive in San Francisco? You'd think they'd have as much sense as an anger management instructor and shun the city.

15 comments:

Freewheel said...

I always enjoy your reviews. And I look forward to your novel. You should definitely follow through on that. In addition to the first person v. third person issue, there's the question of tense. John Updike did pretty well using the present tense.

Green said...

I read The Dirty Secrets Club recently too. I love reading books set in places I've lived. The earthquake stuff distracted me from the story too, which always pisses me off.

Look into Marcus Sakey books. I'm tearing through them now.

Silliyak said...

2 out of three ain't bad

Kerry said...

Lutz's second book is a little darker and less charming but is still very good--it has the same humor and attention to detail. I'd save it for a while because reading the 2 back to back would make them less funny and more tragic (like reading too many Lemony Snicket novels in a row made me feel like slitting my wrists because I couldn't get into the world any longer).

Anette Moore said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
the Drunken Housewife said...

Dammit, Iris Uber Alles has got to stop using my computer and use the one in the study.

the Drunken Housewife said...

OMG, by following Iris's log-in I discovered that she wrote a review of a recent lunch I gave her online. The final verdict was "slightly sucky.'

Oh, how sharper than a serpent's tongue!

the Drunken Housewife said...

I actually read about 8 more books than the ones reviewed over the last 2 weeks, but I ran out of time to write (and where I was seemed like a good stopping place). Here's a real fast mini-review of a few others:

"Leather Maiden" by Joe Lansdale: starts out great, begins to suck, has irritating flaws. I think it is WRONG WRONG WRONG in a serial killer novel to have the serial killer end up to be someone who was a non-character, never really described or given a backstory. Could have been a good book if a merciless editor took him in hand. Nice cover art.

"Life After Genius" by M. Ann Jacoby: like "Leather Maiden", started out great but got highly irritating. A novel about a former child prodigy who has a breakdown of sorts. Terrible use of the unstable narrator device. Sparked a hideous fight between me & my husband when I asked him if he'd ever heard of "the Riemann hypothesis" but mispronounced "Riemann", and he corrected me in a condescending and snarky manner.

Six other Parker novels by Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark: brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, especially "Breakout" and "Ask the Parrot." The man is a genius. The very best of noir

Anonymous said...

I actually really liked Meg Gardner's book--they're not supposed to mimic your real life, anyway, that'd be boring (mine too--that's why I read fiction). You just have SF envy. Bet you live in Oakland.

the Drunken Housewife said...

San Francisco envy? Oh, please. Stick a pin in the middle of a map of San Francisco, and it'll be near my house.

I don't limit myself to reading books like my life (although I fogot to mention I just finally got around to reading "The Tender Bar" by J.R. Moehringer, and I was a barfly for a few years, so that a little lifelike). But when I read something, I would like it to be plausible in its own world. I read an excellent science fiction book lately set on Mars, which created a plausible society and heroine. Meg Gardiner's book failed, in my opinion, to be plausible, and she threw in too much schmaltz with her heroine.

M said...

thanks for the reviews! have you ever considered setting up an amazon affiliate page? you could link to things you review and if people clicked through and purchased you'd get a credit @ amazon. could be worthwhile...

M said...

ps: LOL "anonymous"!

I've been to the DH's place, in beautiful SF. say... you wouldn't happen to be Ms Gardner, by any chance, would you?

captain steve said...

That last one does indeed sound awful.

AnonymousGoatsePants said...

If I stuck a pin in a map in the middle of a map of SF, woldn't it be closer to my house. Why... If I did it right now, the pin would be INSIDE my house and nowhere near yours.

Just sayin'...

BTW, where's my cat? My door keeps swinging shut.

kaila said...

I can't believe you have people attempting to talk shit in your comments.

I appreciate your reviews and look forward to any novel that you may write.