Fat Books & Thin Women


Reading Journal!

Iris wrote this great post about reading journals and using our blogs to offer something besides straight reviews of novels. I don’t usually use this blog to do much other than review and post about short stories, but lately I haven’t been so much in the mood to review. To say, many thanks to Iris for reminding me that I can use Fat Books for whatever I like.

My reading lately has been a lot of Albanian history interspersed with comfort reading. I mean the Emily Giffin kick that I was on a few weeks ago, The Two Towers (which I just started rereading), and Sue Grafton. Plenty of Sue Grafton.

When I reread The Fellowship of the Ring last year, I had a hard time thinking of it in terms of anything other than comfort reading. It was such a great book to return to when I was sick (seriously, for like a month straight – that’s what happens when you should go to the doctor but don’t) and working on a huge project (a gazillion spelling bees). The Two Towers is just about the same. Reading the first chapter, I was surprised by how clumsy Tolkien’s writing seemed, but after a couple chapters I had slipped into the rhythm of it. I’d been debating starting on the second book of the George R.R. Martin series, but I’m glad I decided to stick with The Lord of the Rings. Gives me what I wanted out of Martin – that sense of a completely imagined and endless world – but with the added benefit of familiarity. Plus, this means that when I fly home (July 31st! [for good this time!]) I can buy A Clash of Kings in paper.

Reading this article on Nancy Drew’s “father” last week, one thing O’Rourke wrote really struck me – that no reader could ever solve one of the Nancy Drew mysteries. When you hit the end of the novel you could look back and say, “okay, I guess everything fits that solution” – but as you read, there was no way you could take the “clues” Nancy found and turn them into anything meaningful. The Nancy Drew books just aren’t the type of mystery designed so the reader can attempt to solve them as he or she goes along. While I was getting close to the end of Sue Grafton’s G is for Gumshoe, with no clue of what “solution” Kinsey was close to finding, or how the hell she had gotten there, I realized that Grafton’s mysteries have the same problem. I keep reading the Kinsey Millhone books because I’m getting fond of Kinsey’s character, but I’m more passive than I was when reading, say, one of Elizabeth George’s books (as frustrating as her books have become). What “clues” Kinsey deals with aren’t clues of the type that might lead the reader anywhere; we just end up waiting for Kinsey to have a flash of inspiration and tell us how she solved the mystery, going from clueless to closing the case in the last few pages of each novel. This is, actually, kind of frustrating for a reader.

In other news, I have a box of books on Albania and stuff relating to Albania on its way to Tirana. I’ll probably post about some of these things as I read them – expect a lot on Ismail Kadare’s novels – although it occurred to me, as I was looking at the nonexistent comments for my review of Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone and this longread on Albanian blood feuds, that exactly zero people, other than myself, are interested in this stuff.

Also, my Kindle had a baby. If I can pose this question to people who own one of the newest Kindles (which is so small I find myself tempted to buy one when I get home – imagine how easy it would be to use even with just one free hand!), how are you supposed to take notes on the thing? I appreciate how much smaller the Kindle got once Amazon dumped the tiny keyboard, but if I had to laboriously select the letters on the Kindle’s on-screen “keyboard”, one by one, using the up and down button, I would never, never take a note. It seems like giving up on the story that you can mark up an ebook just as easily as a real book. You can’t, which is why I coerced my parents into spending $50 to mail a box of books to me in Albania, rather than reading them on my Kindle.

In the same ereadery vein, The New York Times today ran a piece about digital distractions on tablet devices. The piece falls into the camp of NY Times pieces telling us things we already knew, using a small subject sample, but whatever – the idea of people struggling to read novels or other books on their tablets is both painful and obvious. One of the things I like about my kindle, especially since I’m in Europe and can’t access the internet on it (old timey kindle here), is that there are no distractions. I can’t go online, I can’t learn if I have a new email; I’m just reading. A tablet seems like an appealing thing to have for a subscription to the Times, and to play Angry Birds on, but I can’t imagine reading a novel on one. You?

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Mystery Showdown: Sue Grafton vs. Elizabeth George

A few days after reading this Book Bench piece about fiction that sells, I wound up in the Peace Corps office library waiting to see the doctor. In the best tradition of vowing not to take home any new books from the library I’d brought one with me, but I spotted a few Sue Grafton books and, curious about this “other world” of fiction that the author of The Book Bench piece refers to with such a doubtful tone, I picked up “A” is for Alibi and read the first hundred pages that day while wandering around Skopje.

I was surprised by how much I liked the book, and Grafton’s private detective Kinsey Millhone. “A” is for Alibi doesn’t land in the Dennis Lehane camp of crime fiction, but Grafton’s prose is tight and Millhone’s voice is clear and sharp and at times even reminded me of Mattie Ross from Charles Portis’s True Grit. Elements of the plot are far-fetched and the timing often seems too coincidental, as when Millhone is on the phone with a woman she’s going to interview when the woman is shot; or when Millhone goes to the woman’s house to see what happened and gets out just before the police arrive. But still, there’s the voice, which Grafton gets so absolutely right that I was willing to ignore plotting faults that otherwise would have stopped me finishing the novel, let alone looking forward to reading the next, “B” is for Burglar. (And the titles, god, the titles are lame – but again, I liked the first book enough that I can’t get worked up over this. Any shame I might have had to be seen reading Grafton vanished about a chapter into “A” is for Alibi, and I flaunted this book all over the city and in front of volunteers who will probably forever look down on me for my reading choices.)

The other mystery that I just finished, Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, was a long, hard slog, not comparable to the few days I spent reading Grafton’s novel. This is probably the fourth or fifth book I’ve read by George, and the second time I’ve felt let down by her writing. The mystery in Missing Joseph is peripheral, with George spending most of the novel’s 550 pages following Lynley and Helen, St. James and Deborah, a bunch of townsfolk and a bunch of tween girls around their personal lives. George’s interest here, as in What Came Before He Shot Her, slips from the mystery to the personal, to ways of parenting and the social services system, and it’s a mistake for her to shift her attention in this manner. For one, readers come to George expecting a mystery; for two, George’s skill doesn’t lie so much in character development as it does in plotting. As much as I praised the fullness of her characters in the first few of her mysteries, I can’t praise her now that she devotes so many more pages to them. What George did well before, what she fails to do here, is to show that her characters continue to have personal lives in spite of their work (with the exception of Barbara Havers, who has no personal life apart from caring for her parents and being described for her frumpiness and lack of sex appeal – a topic for another day) but to keep the focus on the work. The mystery in Missing Joseph is lame and cobbled together, and comes so late in the novel that I can’t even describe it to you, other than to say that a vicar dies of poisoning, the poisoning is declared accidental, and that this turns out to be subordinate to the bigger mystery George will toss in towards novel’s end, to be miraculously unraveled by Lynley and St. James while Havers mostly cleans out the refrigerator in her old house and makes a couple of phone calls.

Not that I’m in the habit of placing authors in competition with one another, but this round with George was so lackluster (it took me months to finish Missing Joseph, and only an intense desire to get the book out of my house finally pushed me through) that I’m going to give her a break in favor of more Grafton.

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