July 2010 - Posts
After I've invested time reading a book for group discussion, the conversation had better include more than just plot. That's why the La Frontera Barnes & Noble literary bunch (Round Rock New Neighbors) merits regular attendance.
Our latest meet centered on Jim Thompson's now-classic crime novels. Amid all the noir-ish activity, suspense, and gore, one topic highlighted the session for me--the unreliable narrator. This point of view can infuse more impact than any deed the character perpetrates.
The realization that this narrator can't be trusted--because he/she is biased, error-prone, ignorant, fronting an agenda (or some devilish mixture of these) sets up just the sort of challenge that lovers of character-driven fiction relish.
Take Thompson's The Killer Inside Me (which, by the way, you should read before you see the film, if only to determine whether it's really the movie for you. Obviously, the story is still haunting me). In Killer, your vantage point consists solely of the reporting and perceptions of Lou Ford, a small-town sheriff with big-time psychopathological issues. On the one hand, Lou holds back no detail, however incriminating. On the other hand, the mere fact that he appears to savor this blow-by-blow (literally) commentary calls his veracity into question. He's authentic, but is he truthful? He's certainly unforgettable.
All this is not to suggest that reliable narrators are less than engrossing. I just finished Karin Muller's Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa. Muller is a sympathetic, trustworthy reporter, and not just because Japanland is non-fiction. The author's self-confessed cultural missteps unwrap social complexities to thwart the sincerest of intentions. As Muller soldiered on, collecting documentary footage and delving into hidden realms of Japanese culture, I was both empowered by her emotional stamina and entertained by her wry observations.
Japanland invites comparison to Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling Eat, Pray, Love, but I preferred Japanland. If you're intrigued, come to one of the library's adult book club sessions on August 3 and share your thoughts. You'll also want to check out the library's copy of the Japanland DVD. You're too late for this role, Julia Roberts!
In my previous job, I never figured out how to suitably explain my duties. People understood the "reference librarian" part, but their eyes would narrow ever so slightly when I added that other responsibilities included "selecting adult DVDs". See? Whatever you just thought, they did, too.
Portraying that task as "choosing non-children's DVDs" was similarly unhelpful, but at least it didn't conjure visions of me lounging in a back room scarfing down popcorn and viewing films of questionable taste/morals. (Of course, librarians don't have time to watch the films we select; we rely on reviews.)
Lately, I'm working with Round Rock Public Library's grownup version of the summer reading program. Yes, we encourage adult reading! No lurid intentions; we just hope to parallel what our children's summer programs have so brilliantly achieved over the years by prompting patrons to capitalize on books from the library's adult fiction and nonfiction collections. Naturally, we're marketing our own no-cost-to-borrow wares, but we're so serious about rewarding our adult readers that we even count books that didn't come from the library. If you're one of our cardholders and aren't already submitting reading logs for the prize drawing, you still have until August 9 to join in.
This morning, I couldn't resist peeking at the reading logs we've already collected. Along with the great actual prizes, I mentally bestowed some theoretical awards. "Most Dedicated Parent" honors would go to the sort of entry listing (out of five required titles) four devoted to teaching/disciplining/encouraging children and one on training the new puppy. "Most Varied Fiction Reading" distinction would reward a log beginning with Henry V and ending with Leave it to Cleavage.
As you'd expect--particularly for summer reading-- many patrons indulge their preferences for a favorite author; they list three to five entries by the same writer (and I say to them, "Go for it!") The usual suspects are well represented: Sandra Brown, Janet Evanovich, J. R. Ward, Piers Anthony, James Rollins, Brodie & Brock Thoene, Charlaine Harris, M. C. Beaton, Francine Rivers, Anne Rice, Greg Iles, Frank Peretti, and so forth.
A few names who aren't as well known or who are relative newcomers to publishing also drew multiple- entry mention: Donna Andrews, Beth Kendrick, Carrie Bebris, Tori Spelling.
Library employees aren't eligible to enter the prize drawing. Our reward will be the smiles on the winners' faces. We'll be content with that, because we're mature (and by "mature", I don't mean R-rated...)
Belonging to four different book clubs isn't a sane lifestyle choice for everyone, but I find it empowering. Along with obvious socialization benefits comes the potential for quadruple rewards in the "wouldn't have picked it on my own" department. Completing all the assigned books and some personal selections enhances my sense of balance. When, in addition to the reading, I achieve a certain degree of house/garden maintenance (beyond minimal but short of Martha Stewart), I feel practically superhuman.
Of course, that means I'm susceptible to Literary Kryptonite. You are, too, and you probably know what that is: an element, passage, or scene that doesn't work for you at all, brings your mood waaaay down, ruins your day, prompts you to wish you'd spent that time in a more beneficial activity, say, eating M&Ms while watching Project Runway reruns.
For some, the debilitating effects of LK attack in the form of lengthy descriptive passages detailing what characters wear, what passers-by are doing, etc. The substance that enervates other readers may be inconclusive conclusions, endings that leave them to ponder what may or may not have happened to the characters, since the author isn't saying. I actually happen to enjoy that sort of thing.
But here's what knocked the wind out of my psyche this week: two skillfully composed passages in different books (perhaps too expertly conveyed) in which a killer has mortally wounded his prey and then remains beside the victim, entirely aware of that person's agony and wishing for his own convenience that the individual would go and ahead cease his/her efforts to survive. When I realized that I was encountering, in the space of three days, a second instance in which a dying character's quivering hand desperately stretched toward the only possible rescuer--the cold-blood killer--I felt victimized myself.
I won't ruin the first book for you by revealing the name; the second was a Jim Thompson title--The Killer Inside Me--so, no worries about spoiler alerts. Both feature masterful prose and riveting plots. Nevertheless, along with M&Ms, I immediately sought an unassigned novel to restore my equilibrium. Though Yukio Mishima never managed to achieve his own personal balance, his lovely The Sound of Waves proved the perfect antidote for the dreaded LK. The person who recommended it to me is decidedly a superhero.
Today is adult book club day for July (The White Tiger). We'll have to see how the 7:00 discussion at the library goes, but the 2:00 Star Co. session could be accurately rated as a love fest for Aravind Adiga's memorable story of modern India. I first encountered the Tiger back in 2008 and have been agitating for others to read it ever since--because I almost didn't.
When choosing novels by Indian authors, I gravitate toward gentler historical novels or family sagas (David Davidar's House of Blue Mangoes, Padma Viswanathan's The Toss of a Lemon, anything by Jhumpa Lahiri). White Tiger's edgy premise and violent protagonist should have landed it squarely in Not My Kind of Book territory. Actually, that's why I selected it, and rarely has a reader been so amply rewarded for venturing beyond the comfort zone.
Fellow librarian blogger Nick DiMartino's characterization of The White Tiger as "a banquet of moral complexity that keeps the reader laughing and thinking long after it's finished" neatly sums up the book's appeal for me. Add to that Adiga's sly turns of phrase, as when he juxtaposes dissimilar elements, thus layering commentary over narration: "Lots of dust and policemen came into the village next morning."
Its book club duty done, my library copy of The White Tiger will be delivered back home so my husband can finish it; he was a little disconcerted to find it missing from his nightstand. Place a request on one of the library's volumes (they're all checked out today) or treat yourself to a purchase, and you'll understand why. Though you probably don't possess an over-the-top chandelier like the one illuminating the Tiger's narrator, you'll still be most reluctant to turn out your light before his tale is finished.