Sunday, November 28, 2010

My Life, Starring Dara Falcon by Ann Beattie (1997)

I got a copy of Ann Beattie's My Life, Starring Dara Falcon (1997) when it came out in paperback while I was working at Barnes and Noble in college. We had some remaindered copies, so the covers were torn off and sent back to the distributors, and the books were put in a free box for employees. I've been carrying around this coverless copy of the book for a dozen years, and finally decided to read it. Now I'm happy that I can just recycle the thing.

The book is not bad or poorly written, it is just very dull. Very very very dull. It is the 1970s and our protagonist, Jean Warner, has been living in a small town in New Hampshire for a few years with her husband Bob, who she married at age 19, and near his large family. Jean has no family -- her parents died in a plane crash when she was young, and she is estranged from the aunt who raised her.

Jean and Bob's marriage isn't really working out. He spends a lot of time in Boston, where is is taking classes, and she spends a lot of time feeling resentful and overthinking her relationships with his family members. Then Dara moves back to town. Dara Falcon is an aspiring actress, a dramatic talker, and an unconventional person. At first Jean doesn't really like her. Then Dara pulls Jean into her orbit and Jean thinks she is just great.

Things sort of happen -- Jean leaves her husband, Dara leaves her boyfriend and moves to New York, there is a play, there is a fancy ring, someone dies, there are revelations, but none of the pieces fit together into any kind of moving whole. The book hinges on the changing intensities of the relationship between Jean and Dara, but not enough time is spent on building this critical relationship. It would have been better if Jean was one-sidedly obsessed with Dara, or if the two of them were mutually bad for each other, or if Dara held more sway over Jean's decisions. As it is written, it is sort of all of these things and sort of none of these things. Nothing is pushed to a dramatic point, or realistically described and character building either. Except for one scene where Jean spontaneously sleeps with the grown son of one of her husband's friends (which was a great scene, but ends up going nowhere), everything is quotidian, predictable, and unaffecting with a big scoop of predictable 1970s feminism on top.

But at least this poor coverless book won't be on my bookshelf anymore...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Fatal Bullet:: The Assassination of President James A. Garfield by Rick Geary (1999)

Yet another friend (the always awesome St. Murse) recently lent me yet another entry in Rick Geary's Treasury of Victorian Murder series, The Fatal Bullet: A True Account of the Assassination, Lingering Pain, Death, and Burial of James A. Garfield, Twentieth President of the United States. Also Including the Inglorious Life and Career of the Despised Assassin Guiteau (1999). Whew.

Much like The Borden Tragedy, Geary gives his reader a straightforward account of Guiteau's attack on Garfield, along with a description of what happened in their lives that brought them to that fatal point. Mixed in with the recitation of facts are Geary's amazing and detailed drawings and anecdotal asides that bring personality and a certain amount of sympathy to everyone involved.

In his delusions of grandeur, religious aspirations, and functional craziness, Guiteau is an extremely plausible and familiar type. As an archivist, I've read through correspondence to public figures (both historic and modern) that could have come straight from Guiteau's hand. He is mostly a pitiful figure, the only scariness about him comes from his actually acting on his idea of killing the president.

If you have any interest at all in Garfield, presidential assassinations, crazy dudes, or perfectly wonderful drawings, then The Fatal Bullet is the book for you.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

I've read a couple Dashiell Hammett books, and a really great collection of his short stories and novellas, and I always kind of thought that I'd already read Hammett's most famous book, The Maltese Falcon (1930). I mean, I owned it. It was right there on the shelf. And I remembered the story really well. When I suggested it as the next read for my book club (go DAFFODILS!), I thought I'd enjoy reading it again. And then once I started it, I realized I'd never read it before and that I was just remembering the extremely memorable 1941 film version. Finding an unread Hammett novel is always a nice surprise, so I wasn't disappointed with my memory at all...

The Maltese Falcon gives us the iconic Sam Spade, who laid the foundation for Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe and countless other fictional private investigators and detectives in books and on the screen. Spade is tough, smart, and has an instinct about people and situations that saves his neck over and over again. He is also rather irresistible to the ladies. When a mysterious and beautiful woman, Brigid O'Shaughnessy comes into his office with a suspicious sounding job, Spade's partner jumps on the chance to help her out. But then he ends up dead and Spade ends up being pulled into the orbit of O'Shaughnessy, the strange Joe Cairo (who is impossible to picture as anyone but Peter Lorre), and the wealthy and devious Mr. Gutman. All our characters are desperate to get their hands on an antique statue of a falcon from the isle of Malta -- each of them in it for themselves, and none of them with any regrets for the people who die along the way.

Hammett has an amazing sense of the bodies of his characters and how they move. His detailed descriptions of faces, skin, and the changing light in Spade's eyes, in combination with step-by-step descriptions of characters walking across the room, rolling a cigarette, or throwing a punch make this a book that you watch almost more than you read. This level of detail makes the book a little hard to get into at first (honestly a little harder for me than some of his other books), but the payoff in terms of the characters and the plot is completely worth it.

I'll save the rest for book club, but if you are interested in crime fiction, you really should read a bunch of Hammett, and The Maltese Falcon should be at the top of your list.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fatal Lady by Rae Foley (1964)

If you buy as many goofy mystery / sci-fi / suspense books as I do just because you like the cover, you learn to appreciate it when the books also turn out to be well written and entertaining. Fatal Lady by Rae Foley (1964) turns out to be just one of those books.

Rae Foley was the pseudonym of Elinor Denniston (1900-1978), who also published as Dennis Allan and Helen K. Maxwell. Rae Foley was her most prolific author-name, though, and this book is apparently part of a series of romance/mysteries featuring the sometimes-detective Mr. Potter.

In Fatal Lady, we come into the story after much of the action has taken place: Janet Grant is a wealthy socialite, and her playboy brother Cass married a beautiful woman with an unknown background named Eve. The sister, brother, wife, and father all live together in a fancy townhouse that is attached to the home of their neighbors and close friends, the Frederick's. When Mrs. Frederick confronts Janet and Cass with the news that Eve is having an affair with Mr. Frederick, a famous artist, Cass is enraged. He goes out to the art studio at the back of the property and comes back fifteen minutes later saying that he found Mr. Frederick strangled. Naturally everyone thinks he did the strangling, and it takes some fancy lawyering from Pete Russlin, the family lawyer (who is in love with Janet) to get Cass declared insane and set up in a posh asylum. As the novel begins, Janet is determined to set Cass free from the asylum, but when her plan succeeds, more people start dying and everyone becomes a suspect, including Janet herself.

The mystery is good, with a satisfying twist that can't quite be predicted before the end of the book. The writing is crisp and all the loose ends are nicely tied up by the end. There are some slightly goofy scenes of romance, but nothing too sappy. Definitely worth reading.

[I don't know if you can see it on the little picture of the cover on this book, but check out the larger version: Someone stamped a "30 c" on the woman's face, her dress, and on the curtain above her. Then in each case they put a line through the "c" (making it a cents sign) and changed the "0" to an "8". Apparently they wanted this book to cost exactly 38 cents, even if they had to totally fuck up the awesome cover for it. Honestly, I would be more irritated at this if it was just stamped "30 c" since I find the "8" kind of endearing. Also I think I paid a dollar for this... Finally, the back cover is pictured here.]

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Little Bee by Chris Cleave (2008)

A friend at work loaned me Chris Cleave's novel Little Bee (2008 -- published as The Other Hand in England), and I wish I could say I liked it more than I did.

To start with, there is the copy on the back of the book:

We don't want to tell you too much about this book!

It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it.

Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this:

It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific.

The story starts there, but the book doesn't.

And it's what happens afterward that is most important.

Once you have read it, you'll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.

Blech. First of all, I am not a fan of books (or movies, or TV shows, or anything) that try to enforce some kind of voluntary non-disclosure agreement for their readers, and it is a definite strike against your plot if you have to resort to this kind of "find out the secret!" sales technique. Secondly, the plot of the book doesn't rely on a twist or surprise or anything any more than any other book, so the warning is a little unnecessary.

The plot itself isn't bad at all -- the book is structured in alternating chapters narrated by Little Bee, a sixteen year old Nigerian refugee, and Sarah, a thirty-two year old British magazine editor with a journalist husband and a four year old son. The two women had a tragic and random encounter on a beach in Nigeria two years before, and during the course of the book their lives become even more intertwined.

The first few chapters from Little Bee are good. She has a unique voice and a sense of humor and lightness that is missing from the rest of the book. The Sarah chapters, on the other hand, are heavy-handed and feature some of the most horribly awkward and unbelievable dialogue I've ever read. And as soon as Little Bee enters Sarah's orbit, her chapters become leaden and clich├ęd as well.

Here's a little taste, complete with moral (from Sarah):

So, I realized -- life had finally broken through. How silly it looked now, my careful set of defenses against nature: my brazen magazine, my handsome husband, my Maginot Line of motherhood and affairs. The world, the real world, had found a way through. It had sat down on my sofa and it would not be denied any longer.

Now imagine reading 300 pages of that.

This book was a disappointment -- after a promising start with Little Bee's character, and what is ultimately an interesting and moving plot, the book falls into a whirlpool of predictable patterns, cardboard characters, and moralistic conclusions.

Saturday, November 06, 2010


Check out my crappy picture of the awesome button that my friend milk and cake made for me! It is one of my favorite buttons ever created. Yay!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior by Laura Kipnis (2010)

My latest LibraryThing Early Reviewers adventure was How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior by Laura Kipnis (2010). That's right: non-fiction! It doesn't happen all that often, but I do enjoy the occasional non-fiction read.

I really liked the premise of this book, which seeks to explore the nature of scandal in modern society: why we love to get on our high horses when a scandal comes out, how we can't get enough details on a high-profile scandal (the juicier the better), and why on earth these people do what they do when it is so obvious (in retrospect) that they would get caught and that we would heap scorn upon them.

Kipnis uses four case-studies in making her argument: Lisa Nowak (the be-diapered astronaut), Sol Wachtler (the respected New York judge who bizarrely blackmailed his socialite mistress), Linda Tripp (Monica Lewinsky's "friend" who taped their phone calls in order to expose Clinton), and James Frey (the author of A Million Little Pieces, the memoir that pissed Oprah off when it ended up being more of a novel).

The interest I had in re-reading (and in the case of Wachtler, reading for the first time) the details of these scandals pretty much proves Kipnis's point about the appeal of a downfall. In each case she was also able to broaden the focus and make connections between the individual media flurry and the larger social and cultural implications of our reactions to these events.

Where Kipnis lost me was in her somewhat rambling and dashed-off seeming introduction and conclusion, which lack the structure and focus of her chapters and include many irritating (to me) writing quirks. Actually, what irritated me about them was that they sounded like a blog post, which is an admittedly weird objection from a woman who writes on a blog, but I think books take a different writing style. [Plus no one is paying me for this, so you can suck it if it seems dashed off.]

Overall this is a somewhat slight but enjoyable look at contemporary culture that fairly judges its subjects and makes some intelligent comments on society. Totally worth a casual read.