Reader's Exchange

July 2009 - Posts

Random acts of foolishness

Does this happen to you?  You choose a book or movie on a whim, then right away you encounter another one with oddly similar characteristics.  Suddenly, you're theme-reading when you just meant to be spontaneous.

I pounced on Christopher Moore's Fool as soon as it hit the library, because the premise (it's a send-up of King Lear) sounded amusing.  And it was.  Though perhaps too bawdy for some readers, the adventures of Pocket, the king's jester, and his accomplice Drool compelled me to laugh out loud.  Moore's allusion-ridden text also helps to justify anyone's ever wanting to be an English major.

A. J. Hartley's Act of Will beckoned from the New Fiction shelves soon afterward.  This fantasy-tinged escapade is narrated by recently unemployed teen actor Will Hawthorne.  The quasi-England, Shakespeare-ish setting allows plenty of scope for theatrical rivalries, a band of supernaturally evil raiders, and Will's amazing capacity for improvisation.

While it's true that the Shakespearean devices first attracted me, another factor underscored my delight in these tales.  If, like me, you are employed in a public service position requiring thoughtful and diplomatic behavior at all times, you will understand.  It's therapeutic to experience the vicarious thrill of being unjustifiably overconfident, not to mention a complete smart-aleck.

My fitness partner is a prizewinner

The digital age offers so many tempting reasons to hunker down in front of the computer.  Blogging and updating one's Facebook profile don't burn many calories, however, and neither does that equally fun and sedentary activity--reading.  

Enter the MP3 player with downloadable audiobooks, proof that 21st century devices promote virtue along with entertainment.  I'm a couch potato by nature, but the combined lure of a great book and a first-rate narrator motivates me to break out the walking shoes.  I can cover one or two chapters and two or three miles simultaneously.  The best part is that the book distracts me from the realization that I'm (ugh) exercising

My current choice is Polio: An American Story by UT professor David Oshinsky.  Intrigued by a library patron's enthusiastic review, I now agree that this winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for History falls into the reads-like-fiction category. 

Oshinsky's depiction of the decades-long campaign to discover causes, preventive measures, and rehabilitation techniques for polio is compelling.  Professional rivalries, politics, changing attitudes toward immigration, racial prejudice, Hollywood, and the emerging field of public relations all play major roles.  As with the best social histories, the subject offers a focus to help us better understand how American society is evolving.

How did the concept of "poster child" originate?  Why is FDR's face on the dime?  How were human subjects endangered by primitive vaccine tests?  These answers and other historical footnotes are revealing themselves to me as I log more miles, especially grateful just now to have the ability to do so.




Movies better than books? Not inconceivable

A couple of expert movie watchers have shared their views (see comments for If Film Viewing is Wrong...), even raising this question:  Are we allowed to believe that some movies are better than books?  I hope so, because a couple instantly came to mind.     

Surpassing the quality of an excellent book is a challenge, but, at least for this viewer, Gettysburg did that.  Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, the novel behind it, is a top-notch narrative.  However, the film version seemed even more effective in relating military decisions to the experiences and personalities of the leaders responsible for them.

To Kill a Mockingbird comes as close to perfect as a book gets, but the casting and sensory impressions of Southern culture in the movie trumped even that.  And then there was Gregory Peck, about whom no further comment is required.

Sound, movement, and costumes don't constitute an unfair advantage over print when you consider how many poor choices they make possible.  We've all seen productions so laden with inappropriate period details (think Western heroines sporting bouffant hairstyles and zippers, or World War I movies with equipment not invented until World War II) that even a masterful plot lost credibility early on.  And, given that we all picture the characters in precise detail while we read, the casting director's picks are guaranteed to alienate at least some viewers. 

So, book vs. movie is probably a fair fight.  One of the rules in that contest should be that a movie inspired by the book should retain the same title as the book.  Fans intrigued by a screen version and wishing to follow up with the novel could proceed so much more happily if they weren't presented with a riddle to solve on the way to the bookshelf.  

In some instances, a film actually flatters the book, either by taking a slight but interesting premise and developing it more fully or by editing the contents beautifully.  The Princess Bride comes to mind...


If film viewing is wrong, I don't wanna be right

Shannon's question (who is the better on-screen Sherlock Holmes:  Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett?) may prove controversial, but here's my vote: Jeremy Brett.

Rathbone's portrayal is intriguing and suggestive of hidden depths, but Brett's depiction offers even more of the arbitrariness (sometimes downright hostility) that hints at smoldering emotions and something repressed. 

On a scale of 1-10 in casting appropriateness (1 is "disastrous", e.g., Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind"; 10 is "ideal", e.g., Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Zachary Quinto as young Spock in Star Trek), I rate Basil Rathbone an 8 as Sherlock Holmes, compared to Jeremy Brett's 9.  The Holmes character is so difficult that both ratings are sincere compliments; a 10 may not be possible.  There, those opinions should stir up an argument or two!

At least we can agree that enjoying movies doesn't hinder our literacy and doesn't constitute cheating on the books.  I have finally gotten past feeling unprofessional whenever a great novel-related movie comes to mind and I'm compelled to mention it.  Surely it's OK to share that, for example, Gillian Anderson was wonderful as Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, or that Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is available on DVD.  After all, who's to say which literary format speaks more eloquently to the individual?

In praise of Watson, Bess & George, and the ghost of Elvis

Kimberly's July 17 comment reminds me what I can miss by not reading mysteries more frequently.

Well-crafted mystery novels are not just plot-driven; they also exhibit great character studies.  These stories portray the main character facing romantic upheaval/potential financial ruin/family issue du jour at the same time he or she investigates the crime.  Crisis-juggling not only imitates life, it also furnishes opportunities for the character to evolve--or crumble.  Hitherto undisclosed background or personality traits come to light, suggesting that the character may be just as much a riddle as the murder in question.  At least, that's what I like to see. 

As Kimberly observes, an investigator's spouse, otherworldly second banana, or other sort of companion does enhance the lead character.   The associate continually elicits some sort of response.   We enjoy the give-and-take and monitor those exchanges for clues about the relationship--also perhaps for encouragement or even insights.  Collaboration is a concept emphasized so frequently in the workplace these days.  It's heartening to witness scenarios in which patience and cooperation are rewarded with success.   It's also fun--nothing wrong with that!

I haven't seen that Sherlock Holmes film yet.  The action emphasis sounds risky, but sometimes those artistic gambles pay off.  Years ago, I was hooked by a mystery titled Henry James' Midnight Song by Carol DeChellis Hill.  Set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, it featured Sigmund Freud, Henry James, and Edith Wharton as primary characters.  And it worked!

Dynamic Duos

I'm not a mystery aficionado and in fact seldom read more than one or two books in any kind of series.  J. K. Rowling and Anthony Trollope are notable exceptions.  So, the best explanation for my extensive reading of Arthur Conan Doyle must be the Sherlock Holmes-Dr. Watson relationship dynamic. Anticipating Watson's take on Holmes' latest enigmatic pronouncement is nearly as suspenseful as tracking the hound on the moor. 

Most of us observed early in our reading careers (thank you, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew) that fictional life is just better with one or more sidekicks.  Either your associate will pick up on a clue that you missed, or he/she will behave in a manner denoting the appropriateness of your being the leader.  Consider Jeeves and Wooster, for example.  In Spencer Quinn's Dog On It: A Chet and Bernie Mystery, Chet plays the Jeeves role--more perceptive, generally more patient, and decidedly more instructive for the reader.  And Chet is a dog.  This is a new take on the duo franchise, but not the newest or most unusual.

The library doesn't own this book yet (it's on order) but I am very curious to read Judy Clemens' Embrace the Grim Reaper. Here's the scenario: Casey Maldonado, all but undone by recent tragic events, hits the road in search of comfort, direction, or whatever, accompanied by Death, who apparently guides her to a small town in Ohio and then assists her in solving a murder. 

I'm a sucker for a catchy title, but an inventive premise is almost as good.

A guilty pleasure

Reflecting on Ryan's June 30 Facebook comment--Readers' Exchange is also posted on the City of Round Rock's page--I wonder how many other readers feel vaguely apologetic about their reading habits.  Here's what Ryan said:

Unfortunately I primarily read non-fiction online and in trade magazine but I have been known to read a lot of autobiographies, mainly written by musicians.  "Scar Tissue" by Anthony Kiedis (Vocalist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers).  I've also read 3 of the Sword of Truth series books by Terry Goodkind.  I would like to read more poetry and narratives on the abstract side.  I should do that.

My initial response was that I should do that--read more nonfiction, science fiction, and trade magazines, that is.  I could blog for an entire year about all the titles that I won't get around to though they've been recommended by friends with admirable taste, not to mention the books that would balance out my reading repertoire (did I mention nonfiction, trade journals, and science fiction?)  I applaud Ryan's priorities and feel oddly comforted that others may suffer from reading guilt, as well.  I just read the blurb for Scar Tissue in the library catalog, and it's now my reading list.  It called to mind another music industry-related title that I read a few months ago and would highly recommend:  Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon--and the Journey of a Generation.  

In return for his autobiography mention, I can offer Ryan this excellent, slightly edgy short story collection by Wells Tower: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.  How about some poetry recommendations, fellow readers? 

In-stock characters

"You remember Ann Richards, right?"  This is how a gracious library-goer recently jostled my memory into gear.  I'd just sent in her interlibrary loan request for an Edwin Shrake book, and my expression must have signaled that Mr. Shrake's precise literary context was momentarily eluding me.

 "Edwin (Bud) Shrake was Governor Richards' frequent escort and part of that wonderful group of Texas literary characters,", she concluded, having offered the ideal hint.  No wonder a neat, caption-worthy phrase didn't present itself.  Pressed to invent a brief tagline, you could say that Edwin Shrake co-authored one of the best-selling golfing books of all time, or that he knew Jack Ruby, or that he hobnobbed with Dan Jenkins and Willie Nelson, and you'd still fail to credit the influence of this novelist, screenwriter, journalist, and sportswriter. 

If you're seeking intriguing characters, you can take your pick: fictional personas created by Texas authors, or the writers themselves.  This summer, one of the upstairs book towers at the library features novels set in Texas, and keeping that display stocked presents a challenge.   When I collect and slot in titles from the fiction stacks, alert readers are apt to spot a choice item and empty that space before I can admire the nicely stocked result. 

Genre-bending Lobster

Finishing a book just before work is not a performance-enhancing activity.  In addition to organizing myself for a punctual, presentable appearance, today I struggled to shift my concentration from one workplace to another.  I may be employed by the library, but this morning found me grilling shrimp, re-stocking the bar, and serving cheddar biscuits at Red Lobster.

Mentally, that is.  While reading book group selections is sometimes an act of duty, this time I was glad for the necessity of moving Stewart O'Nan's Last Night at the Lobster to #1 on my monumental "want to read" list.  Published in 2007, ...Lobster offers multiple attractions, including brevity (146 pages), author reputation, and unusually tight focus.  The premise--the last night before a seen-better-days Red Lobster franchise shuts down--works on multiple levels.  In the process of recounting just a few hours, this doomed-restaurant scenario sets up some intriguing questions.  Who will show up and who won't?  What opportuntities are provided for the potentially unemployed staff?  What weird interactions will the nothing-to-lose situation prompt among staff and customers?  And, by the way, what kind of workflow keeps a Red Lobster profitably dispensing seafood on a daily basis?

This last question is a real draw for me, as I am fascinated by the inner workings of business enterprises.  O'Nan's narration of the manager's opening routine, kitchen workflow, and seating strategies would have entertained me sufficiently.  However, his manager's-eye view of co-workers and customers, filtered through Manny's empathetic gaze, proves that the human element is O'Nan's real forte in this book.  

With its fully realized inner world, ...Lobster creates the sort of social laboratory that science fiction readers appreciate.  Character vignettes would interest serious fiction fans, and the social/economic context of the story has definite documentary appeal.

I couldn't possibly...

This is what the polite guest says to decline that second serving of something enjoyable--particularly if she/he suspects that supplies are limited.  Happily, this etiquette applies only to food. 

In the reading world, fiction fans are welcome and even encouraged to demand more, more, and still more of that favorite author or series.  And while authors shift into creative high gear to produce the next volume, someone has to offer delightful and engrossing alternatives.  Library and bookstore staffers are familiar with the "Who else should I read if I love ___?" question.  

Janet Evanovich is a frequent query.  Fans of the mystery series beginning with One for the Money admire Stephanie Plum's spirit and sassy dialogue and specifically request "something else that's just as funny."  Jennifer Crusie, Linda Barnes, Jane Heller, Lisa Scottoline are some appropriate leads for the Evanovich reader awaiting her next installment.    

Those names are frequently mentioned, but when the question came up earlier this week, these two also came to mind:  Mary Kay Andrews and Elinor Lipman.  Andrews is the pen name of a well-established writer of other successful mysteries.  Her Savannah Blues offers a murder with the bonus of lots of antiques and collectible lore, not to mention entertaining dialogue sprinkled with quirky Southern flavor.  Savannah Breeze would be a nice follow-up.

Elinor Lipman isn't a mystery author, but her characters do often have mysterious and enigmatic personalities.  Lipman's prose is first-rate, and she's a master of witty conversational exchanges.  I became a Lipman fan with The Pursuit of Alice Thrift.  Her latest, The Family Man, is also laced with dialogue that ranges from droll to laugh-out-loud funny.  The twenty-something Thalia definitely exhibits Plum-like bravado and spunk. 

We call these tips about similar authors "readalikes", but we admit that, when it comes to providing a 100% match for your unique favorite author, we couldn't possibly!