Saturday, April 9, 2011

Book Review: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

I loved this book. The blurbs on the back likens this book to a Jane Austen novel (which publicists tend to do and they are always so far off the mark), but this time they actually got it right. Major Ernest Pettigrew lives in a small English village in Sussex. Retired, widowed, and in danger of fossilizing, he falls in love with a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper named Mrs Ali. That's pretty much the whole story. And yet what Helen Simonson does with this simple plot is really the stuff of Austen. What is so lovely about this book is that this author understands something so key: that a protagonist must move emotionally. She presents an unlikely scenario--this rather hidebound older man who falls in love with a woman who is profoundly divorced from his culture and his class--and makes this transition plausible. Like all satisfying novels, our Major must make some difficult choices, and yet by the end of this book he is more than willing to pay the price for these moral victories.

This novel isn't perfect. I found the ending a tad bit melodramatic. Then I thought of the endings of several Austen novels and damn if they weren't as melodramatic. Having said that, I don't think it works as well here, but it's a slight quibble. And his relationship with his son is, I think, overdone. We find ourselves rooting for the Major so vigorously that we can't imagine how he has produced such a selfish, immature lout of a son. That he also feels that way is immaterial, especially since the Major becomes the moral center of the book. It doesn't quite work that the son is so shallow.

These are tiny quibbles though in the overall wonder of this story. I don't say this about many novels--more's the pity--but I found it enchanting.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Thin Line

There's been an interesting discussion on DorothyL, the mystery lst srv, about some readers feeling that the presence of an author's website contains a tacit invitation to engage with the author, and why bother having a website if you don't have any intention of getting up close and personal with your readers, as in responding to their queries and/or emails.

I think that today's artists are caught between a rock and a hard place. There is a heightened degree of intimacy demanded by one's audience these days, and while I'm as addicted to celebrity gossip websites as the next person (I don't read People magazine but I sure scan the headlines), I think that a website is or should be nothing more than advertisement. Hey, I'm going to be here, reading from my book. Want to meet me? Or, my next book is going to be published on this date and it's about this. To me, that is the extent of what a web page should be about. It should inform. You may ask, well, there's usually an email address so isn't that an invitation? I see it more as a professional necessity for those in the industry. And while I answer every single piece of email I receive, I can't imagine if you're a popular author how inundated you'd be with fan-email. You'd have no time to write. Feeding the publicity machine would be your sole job.

Also, and no one talks about this, but you can know far too much about people. I've been to a number of mystery writing conventions and I've met my fair share of authors, and you know? Most of them are wonderful people. Some aren't. And it's colored how I feel about them forever. Some authors have lost me as a reader because now I know them as people and it impacts my enjoyment of their material. Of course, the same thing can happen in reverse. You meet someone who is mediocre on the page, but in person they are adorable, and that author now has a new reader. I'm not that into spy thrillers unless you're John le Carre, but I heard David Balducci speak at Bouchercon last fall and damn if he wasn't a fantastic interview and I think I'll pick up one of his books.

But it usually doesn't work out that way. Given how polarized people are these days, do you really want to know that I'm politically left of center? Probably not. Do I want to know that you're a member of the Tea Party? No, I don't. I'm increasingly feeling that my world of fiction or someone else's world of fiction should not be intruded on by reality. That all you need to know is what is between Chapter 1 and the end.

I think that if an author wants to be close and personal with people that's what Facebook and Twitter is for. I have a Facebook, but I rarely use it, but I do not have a Twitter (and have no intention of signing on). Neither do I have a problem with people contacting by email; in fact, I enjoy it. Email me anytime. But I do wonder about the how faint the lines between artist and audience are becoming. Would I have enjoyed, say, Hemingway's books if I'd known that he was a serial monogamist who became a narcissistic jerk later in life, or cherished every magnificent sentence F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote knowing that he liked to get tanked up and then pick fights with people? Maybe not.

I do know that I know won't support some authors (and artists) who I feel are morally bankrupt. Thirty years ago I wouldn't have known anything about them, and I could have gone on appreciating their art in the embrace of my naivete. Now, it very difficult and sometimes I find impossible to separate the artist from their art. It's really hard to ignore that man pretending to be Oz when the curtain's whipped back.