Sunday, November 23, 2008

What I got from Ireland basically....

Our trip to Ireland generated me two books – one a gift from my cousin, the other a tip from same cousin that my husband, upon our return, went out and bought for me as a surprise. I am very pleased with this result and total number of two, albeit a little surprised, since I had assumed I was going to wander into a second-hand bookshop and find 13 Ngaio Marsh novels that I hadn’t read and the elusive E.C. Bentley I’m sort of actively looking for. Sadly such shops were thin on the ground – a quick peek into Wexford Oxfam revealed nothing but some John Le Carré and Danielle Steel and the like. Oh, and don’t remember if those were the precise authors, I just remember an impression of large-ish hardbacks with big bold (slightly raised) lettering. Anyway, it’s just as well, since our packing was FULL – the less said about the disaster that was our packing on the way home, the better. Just a little tip from me to you: even a small box of cereals is quite bulky. Why cereals, you ask…. but don’t. Just don’t. They do make much less sense than the three boxes of fig rolls.

Back to the books. My cousin gave me An Interpretation of Murder by Jeb Rubenfeld, a book she herself had read and thought I’d like – which is a bit wonderful in itself, since we’d lost touch a bit these past ohmygod fifteen years! yet she still managed to know me and get me something I would definitely have gone for myself, if not in the book shop at least in the library. An Interpretation of Murder attempts to solve the riddle of why Freud hated the US so much despite the fact that his visit in 1909 was so immensely successful. What could have caused such strong feelings of antipathy? The author has drawn upon real historical characters, invented a few fictional ones and stage-set the whole story in New York society. Does this remind us of the recently read The Blackest Bird? Why yes it does. Historical – check, criminal – check, New York – check and so on. As a matter of fact, the authors use the same trick of drawing upon actual quotes from their famous historical figures (Edgar Allan Poe and Freud, respectively) to make up their dialogue in the novels. However, Rubenfeld manages much better than Joel Rose in my opinion. In The Blackest Bird Poe’s lines felt disjointed from the rest of the book, while here it all flows rather well. That said, the novel has other problems. It shifts between different perspectives, the third-person spectator and the first-person diary-like account, but the result isn’t brilliant. The trouble is, in my view, that the writing is a little flat. This is no great problem in the first-person account, since I think it adds credibility to the diary-style. People don’t write florid and/or well-balanced prose in their diaries, generally. Not even authors. In the third-person narrative this becomes a bit slow and disappointing however. Another problem is that the author appears to have gotten carried away imagining how much money he could make from selling the film rights to his novel – or possibly he was watching too many historical action films (a genre to itself, and probably one that actually has a different name, but I trust you understand me) while writing it. Towards the end the main characters start cracking one-liners while facing imminent death. I found it distracting and annoying. And on the whole I suppose I just wasn’t taken with any of the characters in a deeper sense. None of them were sketched well enough for me to feel like they were real people, and so I didn’t care what happened to them. Which is a shame, because it’s quite a good story, with a fun premise, and Freud himself is not badly done. It just needed a better editor maybe, or a séjour inside a locked drawer for a few years, as Zadie Smith would recommend. Summary: alright, but not very memorable. Memorable enough for me to maybe read the author’s next one though.

The recommended novel then was The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist. I had, of course, not heard of this at all, despite there apparently being quite some hype over it and a not insubstantial bit of buzz. The reason for my ignorance is probably the limited time I can spend online these days – news of a book like this would normally have reached me via one of the forums I frequent. (Note to self: do a search on one and see if there is indeed a discussion in progress…) Always on the lookout for good, new, original fantasy I immediately got my hopes up when I saw the book – not only is the title wonderfully evocative, but so is the cover. Very promising! (Note to self II: start putting pictures in your blog. Really.) The story is set in a large city, sort of London but not quite. We are thrown right into the middle of the action when our heroine Miss Temple, an island colonial sent “home” to make a good match, follows the fiancé who jilted her. Much to her surprise she ends up in an enormous house in the country, where a huge fancy dress party appears to be taking place, and where none of the guests seem to know one another. She brazens herself in by pretending she belongs, and is assumed to be one of the women scheduled to undergo some odd and sinister procedure that is the centre of the whole arrangement. She narrowly escapes death, and in the next two parts we make the acquaintance of the two heroes, one after the other: Dr. Svenson, care-taker of a dim and lecherous German prince, and Cardinal Chang, an assassin. Both these men were also at the house when Miss Temple was there. The first part of the novel then is told from these three perspectives, all leading up to the moment when we know they must meet and work together. It’s packed with action right from the start, one of the blurbs on the cover says something about a rollicking ride, and it very much is. It’s also full of sex and silk, Victorian emotion and violence and an awful lot of villains and secondary characters.... for a good while I go for it and feel well entertained, until two things start to grate at me: one, the over-use of the verb “to scoff”. There are limits to how much people can scoff in one chapter, and Dahlquist ignores them. Grave mistake, possibly the editor's fault. Two, again we have the “I want this to be a film” problem. Or rather, after one third I started getting that same feeling I get when I read graphic novels. I don’t understand graphic novels, you see. I must just not be visual enough to “read” the pictures, and added to that is the annoying habit graphic novelists have of emphasising words by bolding them. “How I wish that Wolverine/Spiderman/Morpheus could find happiness… [new frame, sound effect swisch as character jumps over wall/building/tree] …. But I suppose a hero has to be alone… [new frame, close-up of eye of person thinking the lines] … so he won’t get hurt [final frame, character lands with a thunk].” It drives me around the bend. I read those bolded words with very heavy emphasis, as though someone was SHOUTING THEM and it completely breaks my reading flow. Anyway, Dahlquist slips into this habit of inverting certain words or phrases, and when you add to this the extremely detailed description of the surroundings and clothes and looks I suddenly realised I was reading a graphic novel in text, or... OR... one of those cartoon-like plans film directors make when planning a film. So I Wikipedia Dahlquist, and confirm my suspicions: he is indeed a playwright and filmmaker. Experimental filmmaker. Ha. Well, he needs to change his style a bit of he wants to write really good books, let me tell you. Towards the end I was tired and skimming the pages to reach the end, my eyes just glancing off the bloodbath unfolding on the paper in front of me.

Naturally, I'm going to read the next one. I'm hoping there's stricter editing, and that the plots will be less convoluted and confusing, but I'd definitely give The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters a ten for effort, not many writers have the imagination to create something that feels as new as this. Fingers crossed for improvement!

No comments: