Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Cranky Pants

In an effort to up my reading game, and possibly get some inspiration for my own writing, I have joined a book club. It's filled with a diverse group of intelligent, educated women, and I'm kinda grooving on that aspect of it. This book group has prompted me to start reading outside of book club suggestions. Which brings us to my problem. I have been more disappointed than not lately with the quality of the books I'm reading. These books are filled with a lot of beautiful language, but as a book they don't seem to work.

What do I mean by that? Well, characters follow a reasonable arc that dove-tails into a reasonable plot. Pretty much that's it. Lots of the books I'm reading have main characters doing things that don't make sense in terms of the characterization that has preceded them, and yet the author tells us (in so many words) that this is legitimate. I'm sorry. Writing doesn't work that way. You need to make the trajectory of the tension (which is the engine of ANY book) make sense. You can't just say you need A to happen because if it doesn't, then you don't have the set up for B. A and B need to work hand in hand.

Increasingly an author seems to have a deft hand with language but leaves me frustrated with either the character arc, the plot, or both. Many of these books are award winners and on best seller lists, and I'm basically stumped here. Why, I ask? They are not bad books, but they aren't, IMO, the best books they could be.

Listed below are a couple of books I've read lately that I liked a lot:

My Sunshine Away by M. O. Walsh. A coming of age story with some substantial triggers for those who are affected by those things. It says some profound things about teenagers and the suburbs and how the veneer in those communities is so thin. Also some interesting insight into the cruelty of teenagers. The author is from the south and there is a bit of gothic sensibility about it. At one point he sort of goes off on the deep end trying to explain the south, and if I had been his editor, I would have yanked him on the ear and said, um, no, you're telling not showing, and believe me, you've shown it so well that you don't need to repeat it here, but he quickly gets back on track. It's a beautiful book about ugly things.

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. This is set in Winnipeg, Canada, and is a story of two sisters. Again, there are triggers. One is a perennial fuck-up, and the other is a world famous concert pianist. Toews was raised as a Mennonite and it's a dominant theme in her books. I've read another one of her books and it was almost identical to this one in terms of the protagonist rejecting her Mennonite past: the classic story of the insider who becomes an outsider. Add lots of snow and cold. But the most fascinating aspect of this book is the larger question it raises about art and love. If you love someone, do you love them unconditionally and what does that demand? I liked this book a lot. There are some scenes in a hospital setting that I found ludicrous--unless the Canadian medical system is basically cruel and incompetent, which I strongly doubt--but it's a relatively minor quibble.

I guess what I'm saying here is that there were parts in both these books that had me rolling my eyes, but in neither case did it harm the integrity of the book. These books worked in the grander scheme of things. And it goes without saying that the writing was superb. By that I mean the language, the cadence, the "song" of the prose.

So there are two recommendations from me. Neither of these are easy reads, in that there is suffering and loss in both of them, but they are worth it. Four thumbs up.