Wednesday, September 29, 2010

More on Parkhurst

Now that I’m just the teeniest bit beginning to imagine/believe that I myself might write a novel, I’m starting to pay attention to what I read in a different way. I always envied the way writers read books. They don’t read like I do, to follow a plot, to learn about a locale or a time period, to get know characters. Or maybe they do that, but in addition, they’re looking at how the book is put together. They’re noticing how the author did things, and thinking about why the author might have made a particular choice, and they’re evaluating whether they like it or not, whether they would have made a similar choice. Writer/readers are studying things that I haven’t even begun to understand or know the terms for: point of view maybe, or… well I just don’t even know. I just know I can’t do that.

But I’m starting to try to learn and to teach myself, at least I hope I am. Here’s a simple thing I’ve noticed: how much logistical information the writer provides on what a character is doing – he parked the car, he got out of the car, he walked slowly to the hospital doors… I’m making that up, but it’s a question of how you get a character from here to there and how much of that info the reader needs, right? Parkhurst seems to think we need a lot of it, at least more than Ann Patchett thinks we need. IN the early parts of The Dogs of Babel, the reader gets quite a lot of information about how characters get from here to there, more than I really care to read. But then she starts to cut back a bit, like here on page 80: “Lexy took the phone book down from the top of the refrigerator, and she looked up veterinarians. When she brought her back home from the vet…” It goes on from there to discuss what the vet told Lexy, but we the reader didn’t have to actually get in the car and go to the vet with Lexy – what a relief!

However, the author is very stingy with other information, like anything about the two main characters in this book – how old are they, how long have they been married. You learn early on that Paul is 39 and Lexy is younger, but how much younger we don’t know until p. 187 when we finally learn that she’s eight years younger than he is. You also know that they got married when Paul was 39, but you don’t know how long they’ve been married for a while – it could be 2 years or twenty. On page 108, Paul, who is narrating this book (in his straightforward boring professorial voice – oh, but I guess that’s another thing a writer would evaluate in this book –is he a reliable narrator?) says he is 43, so now we know – 4 years of marriage. A relatively new relationship. Especially hard to lose a spouse so young and after such a short marriage.
(posted 9/29 – written 6/23)

Parkhurst ongoing

Am reading more Parkhurst and learning more—am thinking her books seem to have to do with murder – hence it’s that kind of book (what is that? mystery? literary mystery? what category/genre? must I pigeonhole it?) Also learning about her writing style – perhaps it is the voice she has given this character – very calm, analytical, professorial -- I suppose that is what she is going for – explains in details – a bit dull…
Got to the part where he talks about how his first wife bugged him because she always needed to talk everything out – uh oh, sounds like someone I know!
(posted 9/29 – written 6/22)

Moving on to Carolyn Parkhurst

Carolyn Parkhurst has a new book out, called The Nobodies Album. I read a review in the New York Times. I was interested in it because the main character is a writer working on getting her next novel published and I really enjoy novels about writing and publishing (for example, Olivia Goldsmith’s The Bestseller—and please recommend others to me if you know of them!). I requested the book from my local library (more on how much I love my local library at another time) but they don’t have it yet, so I decided I’d request her two earlier novels (as long as I’m attacking the canon of Ann Patchett and Jonathan Carroll I might as well try Parkhurst too!).

Today I started reading The Dogs of Babel. I know absolutely nothing about it— except the author’s name! – and I didn’t try to learn anything, just opened to page one and started to read.

I’m not a fan of back cover copy or flap copy – and I’ve certainly written my share of both in my career! The goal of back cover and flap copy is to catch the interest of someone who might happen to pick the book up knowing nothing about it – to capture their interest in the few fleeting moments they turn their attention to this book when they come across it in a store. As such, this copy, like a movie preview, needs to be sparky and compelling, needs to provide some quick info that will make the browser want more. As such, again like the movie trailer, it tends to give away too much. So I don’t read it. I sometimes read it after I’ve finished the book! Of course this sometimes causes challenges for me – like the novel I read not too long ago, in which I spent the whole time I was reading it looking for clues to figure out what city it took place in, and what decade it was, because both were unnamed in the book. I eventually did figure it out, and was proud of this – then I finished the book and glanced at the back cover where it quite plainly said “in Brooklyn in the 1970s.” Ah, well.

So I’m reading The Dogs of Babel with no clue what to expect. In the very first paragraph, the narrator’s wife dies by falling out of an apple tree. The police come and rule it a suicide. But then, a page later, the narrator mentions that in the days after her funeral he starts to find things that make he him think the day his wife died was not an ordinary day. Am I about to read a murder mystery? The book’s cover has a picture of a mask on it – could be a mystery. Well, I’ll find out (but not by reading the flap copy!)

One other thing before I delve further into the book. I’d like to present to you here a few parts of sentences from said the paragraph of the book:

“. . . it was a weekday afternoon, and none of our neighbors were at home. . . None of them were working in their yards…”

Ok, am I the only one who notices? Does anyone care anymore? None were? How about none was, as in “not one of them was”? Why can’t anyone be grammatically correct anymore and why doesn’t anyone care? Lynne Truss, where are you when I need you (see Eats, Shoots & Leaves if you don’t know what I’m talking about)?!
(posted 9/29 - actually written 6/21)

Ann Patchett's THE MAGICIAN'S ASSISTANT Continued

I finished The Magician’s Assistant – another notch on my Ann Patchett belt. I finished reading and writing about it long ago, in fact – as you can see, there’s a gap in my postings. Somehow summer did not turn out to be a time when I had much time to myself, alas! Boys home from school, needing Camp Mommy to keep them busy. I still stayed up late and didn’t sleep enough so I could get my reading in, but fell behind on posting. I try to rectify that and catch up with the books I read over the summer.

I enjoyed The Magician’s Assistant very much. Her books just flow by and I love her storytelling abilities. That, said, here are some details:

Things I like about Ann Patchett and The Magician’s Assistant:

The skillful way she goes off on seamless tangents and then weaves right back into the narrative.

The way she understands and describes the emotional lives of her characters.

When she describes to a “T” the way I feel about something or something from my own experience (see examples below).

Things I don’t like about Ann Patchett and The Magician’s Assistant:

Well, I’m just not so sure about the ending. I seem to have had the same problem with Bel Canto. In my opinion, Patchett tells these stories that are so good they could just go on and on forever. Maybe she just doesn’t know how to wrap up? Maybe she sees that she’s gone on long enough and the end must come and she starts looking around for ends to tie up? No, I highly doubt that. It’s just in these two books (Magician and Bel Canto) she seems to make last minute romantic connections between two characters and in both books I personally don’t feel that those connections would naturally have been made by the characters as I have come to know and understand them. In this instance, the connection even involves a change of sexual orientation. Not to say it couldn’t happen, and maybe that was her goal all along, but to me it’s the one part of the story that doesn’t feel smooth.

Things Ann Patchett clearly likes that are recurring themes:


Beautiful homes (In Jungian psychology, the house is a symbol of the self, so I think the literary houses Patchett builds are important.)
(posted 9/29 - written 6/19)