Reading List — June (Part 2)

July 7th, 2008

Okay, I’m back.  At least, physically.   My consciousness is still somewhere over the mid-Pacific, inching its way toward Pacific Time, which I guess is the zone I’m supposed to be in.  Until I go to New York tomorrow.

I did some more reading in the latter half of the month, although (you’ll be happy to know) not as much as in the early part.

Empress, Shan Sa, 4.5 stars:  Yes, I read two novels this month about a Chinese empress, this one the only woman ever in the empire’s 2,000-year history to claim the formal title of “emperor.”  It’s a dilly.  Shan Sa, who also wrote The Girl Who Played Go, is a formidable writer who has taken a scrap of biased history about a much-reviled woman — the dynasty she founded was rolled up and tossed away within weeks of her death — who rose from a Wife of the Seventh Rank to assume the Dragon Throne.  The language, translated from French by Adriana Hunter, is pitch-perfect.  It has a richly visual, almost poetic formality that creates precisely the right tone for the story, which is acted out in the midst of stifling ritual, arcane traditions, almost universal treachery, and the occasional inevitable outburst of violence.  Empress Wu ascended the throne in the 7th century, AD, after first passing through the steambath of lies, frustration, and lesbian love that livened up the Side Court, where the wives and the more favored concubines lived and where no men other than eunuchs were allowed.  As a young girl, she caught the eye of the young man who, improbably, became emperor, and the relationship was initially a love match on his part.  Ultimately, though, everything faded from his consciousness except the awareness that he was not equal to the overwhelming responsibilities of rule.  His slow decline and death, followed by some extraordinary strategic maneuvering for power, are for me the best parts of the book.  Shan Sa has been served well by her translator insofar as the language is concerned, but the bones of the book are strong and the characters complex and fully rounded.

How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster, 3 stars:  Sorry, this one didn’t do it for me.  I’m sure that Foster is a sparkler in the classroom, and God knows I spent too many years in classrooms, but these ideas didn’t translate to print in a way that engaged my attention — or, perhaps, it’s the ideas themselves that didn’t engage my attention.  This is probably my problem, not Professor Foster’s; I’m very opinionated about novels, and that makes me intolerant.  I’m especially intolerant of postmodernism, which seems to me, in retrospect, to have been a fifteen-minute flurry of useless academic revisionism in which various writers and scholarly theorists eliminated things like story, character, narrative, and everything else that was vulgar enough to attempt to engage the reader’s attention.  Really — imagine stooping low enough to want to engage (much less entertain) the reader.   Foster gives this harebrained movement, including the intolerable and unreadable Roland Barthes, much, much more space and weight than I think it deserves.  When all is said and done, postmodernism produced a handful of pretty awkward books, some really tortuous criticism, and probably gave a few ideas to some very good writers — John Barth, for example — who would have been just as good, if not better, if they’d never heard of any of it.  Foster’s good on things such as point of view, and he does a great riff on the cycle of adulation, criticism, obscurity, and rediscovery that so often follows the death of a fine writer.  But I was looking for something that would make light go on in my head, and this book didn’t hit the switches.

Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu, Simon Callow, 5 stars:  The American film director Orson Welles, as Callow writes in his introduction to this exemplary biography (the first of three projected volumes), “appears awesome but inexplicable, like an abandoned but world-famous monument in the middle of the jungle — the scale of it!  the confidence of the people who built this!  why was it abandoned? . . . Welles himself assumed a charming tone of mellow bemusement at the events of his life, as if they were mysteriously beyond analysis, a sort of cosmic aberration.”  What happened to Welles after the great years of the Mercury Theatre and the triumph of “Citizen Kane”?  How did the most brilliantly original theatrical and film talent in America become a grossly overweight raconteur-for-hire, a wine pitchman, a cautionary tale in the flesh who set a new standard for tragic decline?  You won’t find the direct answers to any of those questions in this book.  Callow (who is himself an extraordinary actor) sets out here to demonstrate that the seeds of decline were sowed in Welles’ childhood.  He was the half-abandoned offspring of alcoholics, a first-rate amateur magician who fell in love with the theatrical fireworks of magic, and a prodigiously self-confident sixteen year-old who made his way to Dublin, walked into the Gate Theatre, sold himself to the management as a vacationing Broadway star, and immediately landed a starring role that he turned into a personal triumph.  Imagine him, at sixteen, stepping onto the stage to audition, and the first thing he says is, “It this all the light you can give me?”  And when he’s informed that the lights haven’t been turned on yet. he takes the speech he has been handed and plays it to the rafters.  It was, says the great classical actor Micheal Mac Liammoir, who was present, “an astonishing performance, wrong from beginning to end, but with all the qualities of fine acting tearing their way through a chaos of inexperience.”  When he was finished, Welles sat on the edge of the stage and said, “Terrible, wasn’t it?”  He was hired on the spot.  This riveting book takes Welles through the production and box-office failure of “Citizen Kane.”  The story is a whopper in more ways than one: Welles’ life was so extravagantly unlikely as to be almost unbelievable, and Callow takes almost 580 crowded pages to tell it.  But this sets the bar, as far as I’m concerned, for biographies of artists, and I wish everyone who is interested in the creative process would read it.  The book also reinforces my conviction that artists have the most interesting insight into artists.

Relative Danger, Charles Benoit, 4.5 stars: Charles Benoit is completely new to me — he was picked out as a writer I’d like by Barbara Peters at Poisoned Pen Press, and I’m very happy she chose him.  What I don’t understand is how I could have been unaware of a thriller writer as good as Benoit is.  He can do everything: write clean, clear narrative; create engaging, wholly individual characters; transport you physically to settings as diverse as Cairo, Singapore, and Pottstown, Pennsylvania (it’s about as glamorous as it sounds); set a breakneck pace that makes perfect sense given the story and never once feels forced; and make the reader laugh out loud an unreasonable number of times.  The book’s young hero, Douglas Pearce, is on the verge of embarking on a Pottstown life so boring that he might just as well go straight to a taxidermist and have himself stuffed when he gets a call from a somewhat mysterious woman in Toronto.  She had a relationship, the nature of which she keeps somewhat murky, with Douglas’ black-sheep uncle, who was murdered in Singapore decades ago.  On the pretext of giving Douglas a box containing his uncle’s possessions, she engages him to go abroad to learn what he can about the murder.  He travels first to Casablanca, and from that point forward, his feet hardly touch the ground.  There are diamonds the size of a man’s thumb, mysterious and beautiful young women, and no one is what he seems, except that they all pretty much seem to be not what they seem, and that’s half the fun.  I don’t know anything about Benoit.  I don’t know where he lives or how old he is or whether he’s married — I probably know more about B. Traven than I do about Charles Benoit.  But I know he’s a kindred soul and a virtuoso writer, and I know that I’m going to read everything else he’s written and is going to write.  I hope there’s a lot of it, but if there isn’t, I’ll have to be patient.

The Devils of Bakersfield, John Shannon, 3.5 stars: I should begin by saying that I love John Shannon, that I’ve read every one of the ten books he’s written about the laid-off aerospace engineer and finder of lost children named Jack Liffey.  Shannon is absolutely dead center in the classic California private-eye tradition, except that Liffey’s heart is too deeply involved in his work for him to demonstrate the flip cynicism that has characterized most California detectives since Philip Marlowe.  I also relate to Liffey’s ongoing midlife crisis, which manifests as a sort of wistful awareness that his relationships with women are unlikely to expand the possibilities of romantic satisfaction.  And this anomie is compounded by the fact that Liffey is too aware, too much of the time, that the world is a dangerous place for a child.  Put all that together, and you’ve got a memorable character who does the best he can to make a small difference in a rough world, one kid at a time.  But The Devils of Bakersfield isn’t up to Shannon’s usual standard, at least from my perspective.  To buy the book’s premise, the reader has to accept that Bakersfield, a moderately rough-and-tumble town with a lot of good country music in it, is completely under the domination of a crackpot super-fundamentalist Christian sect.  The cops, the mayor — everyone knuckles under.  Dozens of kids are rounded up as suspected devil-worshippers and held illegally, no one says, “Umm, whaaat?”  Shannon seems to be enraged by the total disregard of the Bill of Rights demonstrated by the Patriot Act, and I’m with him all the way on that issue.  But I wish he’d found a more plausible set-up to explore it.

Incinerator, Timothy Hallinan, 3.5 stars:  What a long, strange trip it’s been.  Reading this again, for the first time since I wrote it, 15 years ago, is like looking at the hair in my high school yearbook photo and asking myself “What was I thinking?”.   It’s not a total disaster — some of what worked then still works now — but it is such an artifact of who I was then that reading it puts me right back in the skin I was wrapped in when I wrote it.  The setup still holds: someone is lighting fire to the homeless and not getting much attention from the cops until he pours his gasoline on a sleeping bum who turns out to be a multi-millionaire with advanced Alzheimer’s who escaped months earlier from the institution where he was housed.  Suddenly, millionaires being by definition interesting to the media, it’s a big story.  And then the killer writes a letter — and mails not to the police, but to my hero, Simeon Grist, who has no connection at all with the case.  It turns out that, somewhere in the past, Simeon knew this lunatic.  One of the things that works best is the relationship between the dead millionaire and his daughter, who hires Simeon because she’s not happy with the way the cops are handling things.  But when I picked the book up this time, all I could focus on was how hard I was trying.  Every line had to sparkle; there are approximately three times as many one-liners as the book actually needs, and the characters all talk pretty much alike, mainly so they could all deliver their share of one-liners.  What’s clearest to me is that some of the parts of the book I thought were strongest are actually the most imitative.  The little jolt of recognition I got when I wrote them wasn’t because they reflected real life, but because they reflected something I’d read and enjoyed.  But I still like one of the things I was trying to do, which was to suggest that we should live carefully because we often have no idea of the impact we have on others.  For the killer in this book, Simeon was part of an experience that he’s been stewing resentfully about for years, whereas Simeon barely recalls their meeting.  I might try to write that idea again sometime.

4 Responses to “Reading List — June (Part 2)”

  1. fairyhedgehog Says:

    I’m fascinated to read of your reactions to your own book after fifteen years. You are so clear about what you like and don’t like about it: mostly things that you didn’t see at the time. What a difference fifteen years makes.

  2. bets Says:

    That is interesting. I read my first novel, something I wrote in HS that more than vaguely resembles the Outsiders. There were some moments where I almost broke away amid all the other people’s ideas.

    I’m thinking of tapping into the thriller or mystery market after this next WIP is finished, so I’m going to start reading more in those genres. Thanks for the recommendation for Benoit.

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, fairyhedgehog: It was interesting to reread it, although I can’t say it made me itch to read the other five in the series. The funny thing is that INCINERATOR got the only actually bad review of my career, from a woman in Kirkus who hated every word, space, and punctuation mark in it. She didn’t even like the margins. So I picked it up with a certain amount of dread — what if she was right? Well, she wasn’t, so that was a relief.

    Bets, it takes a lot of nerve to go back and read one’s early work, but I’d NEVER have the nerve to read my actual first novel. It had a great title, though, “The Wrong End of the Rainbow,” and even that was cribbed, a paraphrase of a poem by the great Randall Jarrell. If you want to read a flip thriller, Benoit is your guy, and if you want someone who takes it more seriously and writes darker stories, I’d recommend Thomas Perry. He’s just remorselessly good.

  4. Andrea Mitchell Says:

    Re-reading my first published book is a slightly cringe-worthy process because I see so many places where I borrowed heavily from other people’s ideas. It’s really interesting to hear what you think about your book after 15 years – you are very honest and clear-eyed about it. That’s great!

    By the way, I have given you a blog award 🙂 (sadly it is just a badge and not a bottle of champagne or something more tangible). Stop by my blog to pick it up!

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