Monday, January 23, 2012

Contemporary Noir Done Right

Book Reviewed: Drive, by James Sallis

There's a lot of things that can go wrong in contemporary noir, and I'm not talking about the plot of the stories.  I'm talking about the writing itself.  Lazy characterization (often reverting to type); cutesy, overly-stylized writing; and too much reliance on mood or tone can all prove fatal to today's noir.  It's easy for this to happen when contemporary authors try too hard to show their love for an popular old style.  For all these reasons, I've never been a particularly big noir fan.  Too often, the high-conceptness of it gets to be too much for me.  But man, has James Sallis proved me wrong in my belief that all contemporary noir is overreaching. 

Drive is a ridiculous book.  Ridiculous in its great writing.  Ridiculous in its artful narrative construction.  Ridiculous in its surprisingly deep incite into the protagonist's mind.  You've probably seen posters or trailers for the new film version of Drive, starring the always-welcome Ryan Gosling.  Well, forget about the movie.  The book is its own thing, and it's pretty damn cool. 

At just over 150 pages, Sallis gets straight to the nitty-gritty, following a bad night had by our main character, a movie-stunt/get-away driver named...well, Driver, obviously.  The book begins right in the thick of things, with the fallout of a double-cross.  From there, Sallis goes back and forth in time, giving us not only the full story of this botched job, but the story of Driver, too.  Driver is fascinating in the way Sallis portrays him.  The book is told almost completely in action.  We see all of Driver's actions, but we almost never get all the way inside his head.  It's a master study of the whole "show, don't tell" advice writers get drilled into their heads.  In fact, this may be the single best example of that advice that I've ever seen.  I'm insanely jealous of the way Sallis handles his writing.

Admittedly, I had a hard time following the plot, even though it's relayed so tightly.  For some reason, in all forms of media - film, books, theater - I have trouble dealing with action plots, especially ones that involve double-crossings and whatnot.  Plot is not my strong point.  Luckily, that hardly mattered this time around.  Would I probably have been just that much more in love with the book if I had known what was going on?  Yeah, probably.  But overall, it didn't matter much to me.  Because I was too in awe of the way Sallis sets up the chronological narrative.  The book weaves forward and backwards in time, so that some chapters set up Driver's tragic backstory, then move right back into the current plot.  It's handled extremely well, and without confusion.  Also, Sallis uses all the potboiler language of the classic noir, but he does it in such a way that it seems artful rather than cheesy. 

I really enjoyed Drive.  I am currently recommending it to every other person I know, although no one seems particularly interested (I blame the movie for this, although I am excited to see it when it comes out on DVD next week).  Seriously, people, read Drive.  It's a lot of fun, but there's also some real meat to it. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Poetry Round-Up

Books Reviewed: A New Quarantine Will Take My Place, by Johannes Goransson; Shake, by Joshua Beckman; Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters

I read so many poetry books these days that I find it difficult to post a comment about each one to this blog. So every once in a while, I'll do one of these poetry round-ups to let you know what I've been reading and to give a few brief thoughts on what I thought of each book.

A New Quarantine Will Take My Place:  Goransson is actually one of the teachers in my MFA program, so it seemed important that I finally get around to reading one of his books.  My poet friend Drew loves this book and lent it to me with a fair amount of excitement.  When I texted him about it a few weeks ago, I told him that it was a strange reading experience.  Goransson's long, sequence-y poems about living in the modern world are firmly in the realm of "inhuman" poetry (which, I would argue, isn't a category that actually exists, despite all the proponents of this kind of style in my program).  Some of the lines are really amazing ("my ambulance good looks" being one I particularly love), but other lines I absolutely hated.  It's a whiplash of a book, and I'm glad I read it.  This isn't the kind of poetry that's for everyone, but it also looks different from anything else out there.  It'll be interesting to take workshop with Johannes next semester. 

Shake:  Again, another book recommended by Drew (obviously, he reads way more hip poetry than I do).  I really enjoyed this one.  Beckman's style is deceptively plain, and he layers flat-out statements and subtle images in interesting ways.  Shake is made up of three sequences.  The titular first sequence is my least favorite, although it's still quite good.  The second part, "Let the People Die," is made up of non-rhyming/non-metered sonnets that are a lot of fun.  The last and best section, "New Haven," is really lovely.  If Beckman uses the first two sequences to show off what he can do, than he uses this final section to show how that wonderful style of his can still be capable of emotional expression.  These expressions are done so subtly and with such stark beauty that you can't help but be hypnotized by the voice in them.  Beneath this book's deceptive surfaces, painful love poems shine. 

Spoon River Anthology:  I can't believe I've made it all the way to graduate school before finally reading Master's super-famous 1915 collection of first-person poems about people buried in the Spoon River cemetery.  The poems are heavy in irony, and admittedly, they get a little old after awhile.  But there's still some awesome lines scattered throughout this book, and it's easy to see why Spoon River has endured as long as it has.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

This Week in Trashy Reads 2012 #1

Trashy Read 2012 #1:  Unraveled, by Courtney Milan

My digital copy of Courtney Milan's Uncovered, my last trashy read, came with an excerpt from her latest book, Unraveled.  The excerpt was the length of the book's first chapter, and I was immediately hooked.  The hero had an actual job as a judge.  He's not a duke or a earl or in line to inherit anything!  This is not something you see very often in historical romance, so I was intrigued.  I bought a copy for my Kindle and read it in a matter of days.

Unraveled isn't particularly great, but what it does well it does very well.  The story of the hero and heroine's relationship stretches credibility at times, but I didn't find this to be particularly disconcerting.  Miranda works as a seamstress and wigmaker in a bad part of town, and she finds her life easier to live than many others in her position because she has the protection of a mysterious figure named the Patron.  The Patron controls the goings-on in the slums of Bristol, usually through super-illegal means.  The Patron's hand extends far, and Miranda uses her acting skills to serve as a  false witness in court when the Patron demands it.  Eventually, though, her scheme is figured out by the hardest magistrate in the local court, Smite Turner (which, by the way, is a great name for a cold-at-first romance hero).  Smite finds he can't stop thinking about Miranda once he first admonishes her, though, and eventually he proposes that she act as his mistress for one month in exchange for her ability to get herself and her ward, Robbie, out of the slums.  This works about as well as you can imagine, with the hero and heroine developing too strong feelings for each other and then angsting about it for 200 pages. 

Despite its business-as-usual romance plot, Milan does a great job of fitting in a more suspenseful plot about the Patron's identity and downfall.  Also, Smite's backstory is appropriately tragic without ever seeming overcooked.  Apparently, Milan has two books about Smite's very different brothers, which I will eventually have to look into (particularly the one featuring his older brother, Ash, who shows up in this one and seems pretty cool).  I didn't always understand the motivations of Miranda, but in general, I didn't find this particularly bothersome, especially as she turned into a more interesting character as the novel went forward.

Maybe the best thing about this book is something Miranda says to Smite at the very end, when they are declaring their love for each other.  "You anchor me without holding me down," she tells him.  Holy hell, if that's not exactly what the ideal turn-out should be in every romance.  I love that line, and I love Milan for writing it.  I am adding her to my list of romance writers to keep. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Art of Noveling

Book Reviewed: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach 

It might be uncool to say now, but back in the day, I used to be a huge John Irving fan.  Irving's novels are self-contained worlds; all the people you could possibly need to spend time with were right there in front of you, with nice and neat story arcs tied up in 500 pages.  It's been a while since I read a thick, meaty contemporary novel like that.  I didn't realize how much I missed those kinds of books until I picked up Chad Harbach's beloved 2011 novel, The Art of Fielding.

Harbach's book got a lot of press when it dropped at the end of the summer, and I had a friend who read it and liked it a lot, so I knew it existed.  But it didn't really land on my radar until it began making every single best-of book list at the end of the year.  Every critic had the same thing to say about why they chose it: that it was a book full of great characters that a reader genuinely could care about.  Damn, I thought, I guess I'm gonna have to give this book a try.

Oh, this book is so good.  So very, very good.  At the fictional liberal arts institution of Westish College in Wisconsin, football/baseball player Mike Schwartz recruits Henry Skrimshander, a super-talented shortstop who never thought he'd go to college.  Schwartz helps shape Henry into a dutiful student and athlete, but he can't stop fate from intervening in the form of a throw gone wrong.  After said throw, Henry finds himself in a downward spiral that seems to pull everyone in: Schwartz, Henry's preternaturally calm roommate Owen, school president Guert Affenlight, and Guert's daughter, Pella.  As these characters make increasingly erratic and often self-destructive decisions, the book just pulls the reader in more and more.

I really enjoyed the experience of reading this book.  The characters are put together so well, and with such love, that you can't help but want the best for them.  Of course, this means everything bad that happens to them makes you want to throw the book across the room (which was really a problem, considering I was reading it on a Kindle).  When I was trying to decide if reading this book would be worth my time, my friend who had read it months earlier told me it was rewarding but required an incredible amount of empathy.  Man, was he right.  The final 100 pages or so began to feel like the sweetest, slowest torture possible.  I managed to finish this 500+ page book in four days because I couldn't stop at chapter breaks.  I obsessed over this book to the point that it began to make my stomach hurt some nights.  I adored Mike Schwartz so much that every time he showed up on the page, my palms sweated.

I don't think The Art of Fielding is a perfect book.  The last few chapters edge awfully close to over-sentimentality at times (although the book's final lines are well-earned and poignant), and the only female character - Pella - seemed awfully underwritten compared to her male counterparts.  But what the book does well - its strong writing, its amazing characters, its bittersweetness - is done so well that these issues barely register.  In some ways, this book encapsulates a certain kind of small, liberal-arts college experience so well that I could barely distinguish itfrom my own said experience.  How many times did I feel like Henry during my career at DePauw?  More times than I care to count.  This book is full of so many realistic, even painful, details that it makes up for some of the book's more fanciful plot points. 

I cannot recommend The Art of Fielding enough, especially for those of you who went to small Midwestern colleges or who are really passionate about something that might not come as naturally as you might have once imagined.  Yes, I just described myself.  That's how good this book is.  It's about my least favorite sport in the world, baseball, and I still managed to find myself in it.  I almost never feel this way about novels anymore.  God, I loved this book.