An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

On Comfort Reads and Rex Stout

There are some books that you turn to when your nerves are jangled, when worries press heavily on you or when everything suddenly seems too hard. I think of them as “comfort reads.” No doubt everyone has a different book, but for me it’s the collected Sherlock Holmes. I’m not sure whether it is the orderliness and logic of the solutions, the sense that Holmes and Watson exist in their own little time bubble on Baker Street where nothing ever changes, or the fact that I have been reading and rereading them for years – whatever it is, it works like nothing else to soothe and calm me.

But to my surprise, I recently found another author who has the same effect. Rex Stout is an amazingly prolific and amazingly successful author of the past who has now faded into near-obscurity. His mysteries featuring the obese Nero Wolfe and the wisecracking Archie are my new addiction, and I now take every opportunity to visit that New York brownstone filled with familiar characters, from Fritz the chef to Theodore the orchid man. Happily, as Stout wrote 72 in the series, there are plenty of opportunities.

Let me be clear – the plots are varied, occasionally verging on silly (the special golf club devised to fire a splinter into the wielder’s heart was something of a lowlight). It’s not about the plot. Like all comfort reads, it’s fundamentally about the characters. Both Wolfe and Archie are a product of their time in having quite appalling attitudes towards women, but otherwise they are both fascinating nuanced characters. Wolfe in particular is a study in contradictions, so obese he can barely move but possessed of huge mental agility, wise but at the same time sometimes petty, and generally inclined to favour orchids over people. In contrast, Archie is charming, fun, and owes a lot of his “jaundiced private detective” shtick to Philip Marlowe. The other thing which anchors the books is the relationship between these two. Their mutual attitude verges on dislike much of the time, but Stout makes clear that both harbour a deep affection towards the other (if both would probably die rather than admit it).

But they key to a comfort read is predictability. You know that the characters are not going to grow, they are not going to evolve, they will never move out of that comfortable brownstone. Loose ends will always be tied up neatly. Archie will have fun along the way, and drink large amounts of milk (something I’ve never quite understood). Wolfe will be irritable then finally solve the case, with help from Archie. It’s like visiting a place you’ve been many times before, but always enjoy, and enjoy more because you know what to expect.

Ultimately, a comfort read doesn’t have to be great literature. There is a place for books which make you feel warm and cosy inside and convince you that the world isn’t such a bad place after all. And that is what both Conan Doyle and Stout do.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

AWW BOOK REVIEW: True Stories: Selected Non-Fiction, by Helen Garner

I’ve just had one of those moments. You know the ones, where you close the final pages of a book and immediately have the urge to write fan letters to the author. Or, in my case, shout their name from the hilltops (or in my blog). It feels rather redundant in the case of Helen Garner, who hardly qualifies as undiscovered, but I can’t help myself. I’ve just finished True Stories, and the final story is such an indescribably beautiful piece of work that it made me cry.
It’s true, not all the pieces in the collection approach the level of the last piece. Some seem rather slight, and one extended piece devoted to a country landscape had me flicking inmpatiently over pages of description of paddocks. But it’s a collection both easy to read and entertaining, and Garner’s wry postscripts at the end are characteristically amusing. The pieces are arranged roughly chronologically to form a kind of incidental memoir, with Garner as naïve teacher growing into seasoned journalist and then accomplished writer.  But between these there is literary criticism, comments on writing scripts for films, and many other interesting diversions.
The final piece that moved me so much is a description of the maternity ward of a hospital, and events taking place there over a couple of days. While it’s true that the setting is already rich in drama, it’s Garner’s understatement that lets the beauty shine through without seeming overdone. The obstetrician who has worked herself to exhaustion has a coldsore on her lip, daubed with cream.  Like the best of Garner’s work, she creates a window we peer through to see a world just like our own.
When I grow up I want to write like Helen Garner. Enough said.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James

Logically, if you take two things you like and combine them, you should end up with something you like even more. You only need to look at the stratospheric popularity of YouTube mashups to see this rationale being played out.  The “literary mashup” genre has also taken off recently, from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Laurie R King’s Mary Russell series and others. From what I can see, the key ingredient is an enduring literary classic colliding with an unexpected genre.
So two of my favourite things – PD James crime and Pride and Prejudice – should add up to something even more fabulous, right? Unfortunately, I have to report that this theory doesn’t always work. I don’t have any problem with someone playing with a literary classic (in fact, I was quite enthusiastic about the idea) but it seems that adapting someone else’s work is a fraught and troublesome exercise. A balance needs to be struck between being faithful to the original and building upon it, and the modification that will invariably follow from that exercise. To my disappointment, it’s a line that Death Comes To Pemberley seems to fail to walk with any degree of success.
To start with the positive – the short recap of the events of Pride and Prejudice at the start is an unmitigated delight. James does have a few pithy comments to make on the original, such as Elizabeth musing on whether she would have married Darcy if he was not rich. These were the parts of the book that I enjoyed the most.
The plot itself starts out well but quickly descends into implausibility. This wouldn’t be such an issue if the characters themselves weren’t so wooden. James has a fair head start by dealing with characters that readers already know and love, but unfortunately, she has failed to make them her own. At best, they give the impression of actors in a bad movie reading aloud their lines with little conviction. By the end – death for a crime novel – we don’t really care whodunit at all. The court case at the end goes on for far too long and we spend too much time in the head of Darcy, who is so honourable as to be completely uninteresting (I believe the scientific term is “stuffed shirt”). If nothing else, the book proves Austen’s sense in telling the story from Elizabeth’s perspective!  
The Sunday Times quote on the cover describes PD James as “The greatest contemporary writer of classic crime” and it’s hard to argue with that assessment. But ultimately, as James herself admits in her introduction,  mixing a crime story with Ms Austen’s world was always going to be a big ask. Perhaps there’s a fundamental incompatibility or perhaps the problem is that James was simply too respectful of the original and not bold enough. Whatever the cause, it’s hard to deny that Death at Pemberley is one of the less successful examples of the mashup genre.