Alive and Kicking

book by Michael Levin (out of print)

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Michael Levin has written an engaging farce drawing on his legal expertise as an attorney to tell the story of a contested will. The Gaines family has been suing each other for decades with the help of two contentious law firms, Shapolsky & Shapolsky versus Shapolsky and Shapolsky. The character names are provided in charts at the beginning of the book which is one of the first problems with the novel. While the charts are helpful, they would not have been necessary in a 347 page book had the author not resorted to cute and redundant names. There are several Sam Gaines and other characters have combinations like Woodrow Wilson Gaines and Charlie Chaplin Gaines that are more silly than useful. To add to the confusion are inconsistent abbreviations such as Sam C, Grover Sam and so on.

The prose itself is average and workmanlike, and although Levin knows how to ratchet up tension within a scene, he does not do so consistently and often undercuts his efforts with look-at-me cleverness. He has no consistent POV character or group of characters who might serve to ground the narrative. The result is that the reader is not aligned with any one particular person in each moment of the text and the narrative takes on the quality of forgettable pop music. The closest character to a grounding presence is Amelia Vanderbilt, the trust officer at the bank that oversees the case at the heart of the book, the $60 million estate of former vaudeville star 92 year old Harry Gaines. Harry left a will with the provision that his family will only inherit his $60 million fortune if they can get along for one month. This situation is full of opportunities for great dialogue, for characters saying no to each other until that no is final, but these opportunities are squandered for the most part. Amelia is not a fully realized female character, reacting out of character and superficially to cheating on her fiancé so that the act becomes just one more plot point rather than fully formed scene.

An authoritative narrator begins the book, but fades in and out of the narrative, mostly out. But the first paragraph is promising:

It is bad form to come right out and express one’s desire than an elderly relative should stop wasting everyone’s time already and pack it in. Those favored with elderly, wealthy relatives, especially if those relatives are perceived in the family as difficult or uncaring, might confess, if they were thoroughly honest, that such uncharitable thoughts have crossed their minds more than once….

Levin comes right out with what’s been going on in the minds of Gaines family members for generations, but his failure to use this voice regularly throughout or as bookends misses another opportunity for a cohesive and powerful story that makes the most of its farcical elements.

Levin’s other big problem is dialogue tags. He not only tells rather than shows throughout, he hits the reader over the head with such tags as ‘he told her matter-of-factly,’ ‘Morris exclaimed,’ and ‘Harry retorted.’

Levin structured the book into thirty-seven chapters in four sections. The sections are titled, Intimate Relations, Undue Influence, Lucid Intervals, and Absolute Dominion. Here again he misses an opportunity to either use consistent probate terms, legal jargon or most appropriately, vaudeville cards as a nod to his opening character and leading decedent. However, he does use a number of old Gaines family letters and many legal documents from decades of lawsuits as his device to reconstruct the family feuds and these are effective tools.

Reading “Alive and Kicking” helped with my current novel in that the legal approach is not appropriate to my material. There is the additional benefit of learning from negative example to beware of excesses in characters names, dialogue tags, and a thick underbrush of modifiers. Despite its flaws, the book has a breezy charm. It is fun and most of the humor comes out of long-standing family feuds and misunderstandings. The other valuable lesson here is that Levin knows when to retreat from acrimony and bitterness in order to allow the reader to enjoy his spoof in which the lawyers, refreshingly (to use one of his numerous adverbs), do not come out ahead.

East of Eden

book by John Steinbeck
annotation by Tina Rubin

If I ruled the world, East of Eden would be required reading in every creative writing curriculum. Yes, it’s that good, and no, I don’t know how I missed it. Steinbeck’s classic novel, which parallels the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, spans three generations and two families in California’s Salinas Valley.

The point of view is interesting and employs concepts I explored in grad school. The story is told by a first-person narrator, John Steinbeck (one and the same), who was a child as the action was unfolding. The narrator, looking back now as an adult, relates the story using an omniscient point of view. He comes back to the first person pov only now and then—to make an observation or express an opinion and thereby anchor the reader. The narrator clearly could not have been privy to each character’s thoughts and feelings, yet the omniscient point of view works—at least after the first occurrence, I stopped thinking, “Hey, how could he have known that?” I’m still trying to figure that one out, as I learned that a first-person narrator must have been present in order to use an omniscient pov. But that’s the power of Steinbeck.

The narrator editorializes as he opens many of the early chapters, and these were the chapters I really loved—ones where I got a clear sense of who the narrator was. A classic example is in chapter eight, which opens with “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents.” He goes on to set us up for the introduction of Cathy Ames (mother of the twins Caleb and Aron), who functions as a force of evil in the story. Another is in chapter thirteen, which opens with the narrator describing the feeling of “glory” that lights a man up now and then, as when he finds a good woman:

The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes . . . a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose….

One of the great moral lessons of the novel comes in its theme, which is the Hebrew word timshel. It translates as the idea that man has a choice, he can choose to commit evil or not (this stems, we are told, from varied translations of the story of Cain and Abel.) The narrator expresses his own opinion in a direct conversation with readers, telling us that we all have “a secret pond where evil and ugly things germinate and grow strong. . . it would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them.” Steinbeck created two heroic characters, Samuel Hamilton (based on his own grandfather) and Lee, the Chinese-American servant, around whom swirl discussions of this theme, and Steinbeck plays it out in remarkable symmetry among the generations and in repeated symbolism throughout the book.

I can’t claim knowledge of the Bible other than studying it as literature in college, so I’m sure some of the symbolism was lost on me. But it was easy to recognize Steinbeck’s use of the initials of Cain and Abel for the key characters (Charles and Adam, brothers; Cathy and Adam, husband and wife; Cal and Aron, twin boys) and his consistent subthemes of a parent seeming to love one son more than the other and, in turn, one brother feeling murderous towards the other; the marking of both Adam’s brother and wife with scars on their forehead (Cain’s protective marking by God as he wandered in exile east of Eden); and the philosophical question of whether Cal was destined to follow the dark tendencies inherited from his mother or could choose otherwise.

The novel was a lesson in characterization as well, with the personalities of each character being expressed not only through his or her actions but also through in-depth discussions in which each one’s point of view was unmistakably that person’s alone. And as honorable and complex as Samuel and Lee were, that’s how dark and complex Cathy (later “Kate”) and those in her world were. Steinbeck’s Alice in Wonderland references during Kate’s death were the perfect metaphor in what must come close to being a perfect novel. At least from this writer’s point of view.

Point Dume

book by Katie Arnoldi

annotation by Rob Roberge

Once, years ago, when my first book came out and I was enormously excited about said book coming out, a much more experienced writer told me, “One’s a good start, but it’s not a career until you have three out.”

“Really?” I said.

“Over fifty percent of first-time novelists never publish a second,” he said.
This scared me a bit, since it had taken me ten years to learn enough to write my first and I’d thrown away at least two bad novels before finishing my first (or, third, depending on how one looked at such things). “So why isn’t two a career, then?”

“Well, it’s like in math. One doesn’t mean anything. Two can be a coincidence. Three’s a pattern. Until it happens three times, it’s not a pattern. And a pattern is what constitutes a career. It means that’s what you do, for better or worse. You’re a writer.”

I’d never, at that time, heard of this fifty percent deal with first-time novelists, but it turns out, according to various studies in publishing, to be true. A lot, if not a clear majority of writers have only one book in them—which stunned me when I first heard it and still surprises me now. Why would you go through the effort and labor of learning the very difficult craft of putting a book together only to stop after the first? But I guess some writers only have one in them—one thing to say, and then they get on with the rest of their lives.

And the second book not making you a career writer? I suppose that’s open to debate, but it is true, in both math and in publishing and murder (you’re not a serial killer, after all, until you hit three, either, though I heard that is being challenged by certain FBI profilers, among others) that three is a pattern and it means that you’re probably in it (whatever your “it” happens to be) for the long haul.

So, enter Katie Arnoldi’s POINT DUME (Overlook Press, publication date, May 10th), which is as you may have guessed from this preamble, her third novel. Arnoldi, best known, perhaps, for her first novel CHEMICAL PINK (which was a long running LA Times bestseller) has returned, in many ways, to the overall feel, characters, structure and pace that made that first novel such a hit. In between, she published THE WENTWORTHS, a dysfunctional family drama/satire about a wealthy Westside LA family from 2008, which showed a growing confidence and ability in her craft.

POINT DUME is, in short, a combination of the best aspects of her earlier two books. It has the edge and grit and unconventional characters and unexpected scenes of CHEMICAL PINK along with the refined craft and narrative chops exhibited in THE WENTWORTHS.

The novel, while brief and breakneck paced, takes in a wide range of subject matter and characters. It is, in fact, one of the longer short novels you’re likely to read this year (in the best sense—the way THE GREAT GATSBY is a long short novel, surprising for all the ground it covers in a relatively few amount of pages). Arnoldi balances five major POV in the novel—from the memorable self-reliant surfer Ellis, the eccentric pot-dealer Pablo, Janice a bored and quietly despairing homemaker and one of Pablo’s main clients, Janice’s husband Frank (who’s mid-life crisis infatuation with Ellis he misreads for love), and the sad and trapped Felix, who’s been recruited (forcefully) by the Mexican drug cartel to grow pot in the public lands around Malibu in the hills around all of the other character’s homes.

This unlikely cast of characters is brought together in a series of events that always arise organically out of character desire—never because they’re forced into action by the author. Arnoldi writes in a manner that Flaubert talked about—the writer being invisible, filing her nails while the characters act of their own accord. There are two dominant schools of thought about the author’s job. Some believe the author, like a good baseball umpire, should remain unseen. That the only time he or she is noticed is if they’ve blown a call or made a bad move. Then, of course, you have the overt stylists, calling attention to themselves (either in obvious ways, such as in the metafiction of writers like Ray Federman, or the high-wire “look no hands” prose styling of someone like Lee. K. Abbot, who reminds you he’s there by showing off the conscious beauty of his own prose). Arnoldi falls into the former category—never showing the puppet master’s strings on the movements of the characters.

And it works very well. The book hits on a lot of major issues—obsessive love and desire, the death of surf culture invaded by materialistic trend seekers…people who used to be called yuppies (god knows what name they carry these days), illegal pot farms on public lands (an increasingly large issue in California), the savage, dangerous and thoughtless use of human trafficking, the increasing presence of Mexican drug cartels in California, and the environmental cost of it all.

In the end (without giving away the plot twist that brings all these character’s lives together), Arnoldi’s realistic novel takes a turn toward the Naturalistic novels of Zola and Frank Norris. The book’s climax, in many ways, is reminiscent of Norris’ amazing (and, sadly, largely forgotten) 1902 masterpiece THE OCTOPUS (a Naturalistic history of the building of California in the late 1800’s), with the earth re-establishing its dominance and its inevitable lack of concern for the petty desires of humans.

Along the way, you get a rollicking ride. The book is full of memorable characters, tight, lean prose, better sex scenes than most people seem to write these days (why is sex so awful in most books?) and filled with some downright funny and harrowing scenes. It’s, in the best sense, a well-paced, well written page-turner.

~ Rob Roberge’s WORKING BACKWARDS FROM THE WORST MOMENT IN MY LIFE will be published Fall 2010 by Red Hen Press

Tinkers

Normally, I prefer coming into a new book cold, not knowing the particulars of the author or reviews (I also don’t like movie previews). However, I did hear a few things from a publishing insider before reading Paul Harding’s Tinkers. After many rejections, the book was published by Bellevue Literary Press, an imprint of the NYU School of Medicine. Word of mouth built through independent book sellers and the book just won the Pulitzer. Why mention this? Because we often write with an eye on the audience. Tinkers doesn’t. Of course a prominent literary mentor helps (see below). The best thing an author can do is to write and worry about the rest after the book is done. The other piece of information that perhaps made me a bit more tolerant of the structure was hearing that Harding sat down with the entire manuscript (not long at 191 small pages), cut it up and pieced it back together. When faced with some structural changes in the novel I recently completed, I sat down on the floor with the physical manuscript and moved things around, not to the degree Harding did (not appropriate for this book), but it was very helpful to work with the actual rather than virtual pages. In Tinkers, there is a certain patchwork quality that reinforces the jumble of memories that come to a man as he dies and I found it interesting to consider both of those processes as I read the book. There is not always such a clear opportunity for narrative and theme to mirror each other, but when there is as in this case, it’s an effective tool.

What I was not aware of ahead of time, but what is unmistakable, is the influence of Marilynne Robinson, particularly Gilead. The tone, mood, language choice, the son with a minister for a father are all similar. I found it less derivative, more inspired by Robinson, but that’s a fine line depending on whether one enjoys the book or not. Harding does have his own distinct poetic style and (also like Robinson), he puts it to use to observe the world in remarkable detail. There is no earth-shattering plot here, just a quiet finely tuned story about a dying man. Harding is a good example of keeping language simple in order to be effective.

His sentences are often long, “The weaver might have made one bad loop in the foliage of a sugar maple by the road and that one loop of whatever the thread might be wound from – light, gravity, dark from stars – had somehow been worked loose by the wind in its constant worrying of white buds and green leaves and blood-and-orange leaves and bare branches and two of the pieces of whatever it is that this world is knit from had come loose from each other and there was maybe just a finger width’s hole, which I was lucky enough to spot in the glittering leaves from this wagon of drawers and nimble enough to scale the silver trunk and brave enough to poke my finger into the tear, that might offer to the simple touch a measure of tranquillity or reassurance.” (54) I don’t always consider sentence length, particularly not very long sentences, as a way to control the pace of the narrative and it’s a device to keep in mind. More importantly, when I write, I tend to gallop ahead to the next conflict and then go back to fill in detail. Such a minutely observed narrative shows the power of slowing way down and as I begin the next novel, I will try to stay in the moment in order to mine all of the sensory detail before moving on.

The other striking thing in Tinkers is that Harding changes tense, moving from first to third to second person. This is not something to be undertaken without purpose. Here it serves the notion of the dying brain and a narrative that begins, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” There are quiet pleasures, from the building of a bird’s nest to the inner workings of watches and clocks, that can be read in a sitting. Harding is a solid example of the treasures found in a meticulous novel that has more to tell than the story of a man’s death.

Drive

book by Rob Roberge

annotation by Antonia Crane

Instead of a coaster, which is what I use many of my hardcover books for, I keep Drive by Rob Roberge open on my coffee table to use as a road map for great storytelling. It is a book that had a permanent impact on me, like a black and white Herman Leonard photograph. When you look again, you notice something strange and beautiful beneath the smoke, something that you missed before. I use Drive as a vehicle to improve my writing and keep me excited about literature, reading sections compulsively to study the dialogue and scenes on the page.

I’d be lying if I claimed that my adoration for the author had nothing to do with my devotion to the text. Sometimes you get a mentor whose mind and work speaks to you louder than anyone else’s and for me, Rob Roberge is definitely that guy.  Regardless of who the author is to me, Drive is an entertaining, smart story about a rogue basketball team lead by painter-turned coach, Ben Thompson. It takes structural and narrative risks that made me re-think the way that stories are told.  Drive helped me become a better writer by giving me clues about how to proceed. For instance, my punctuation tends to be sloppy, my dialogue can be elementary and I’m tense-lexic. Drive showed me how to stick with a tense and how play with it, how to vary my sentence structure as though it was music, as well as changing up chapter length. Some chapters in Drive are a paragraph long and they are just as satisfying as longer sections.

Roberge crams texture into his scenes, which reminds me that every section needs sound, dialogue, tension and physical sensation like this: “I can’t miss. It’s been years since I had this feeling. Just you, the ball and the rim. Nothing else exists in the world. It’s like those pictures of the Earth from outer space, only there’s you and a hoop and nothing else. I stop counting and just focus on the rhythm. I’ve got the touch and start shooting threes. The floor shines like a bowling alley, the bleachers rock and creak under the kid’s feet, and everything I throw up falls in like it had eyes.”

Drive showed me how to add layers of life to my pages so that my characters aren’t one-dimensional, silent, or seated – unless they need to be.

Roberge’s sentences buzz and sing with life. It’s the music of lonely, sad people striving to connect and succeed as well as the long road between where they are and where they’re trying to go. Thoughtful, snappy dialogue erupts from the page, but Roberge isn’t only occupied with being clever, he also fleshes out his characters in surprising ways. For example, the ‘man behind the curtain’ is The Chicken Man, aka Rube Parcel, a Hee-Haw suit on TV yapping at insomniacs with the IQ’s of doorknobs, but his logic makes sense. He’s the guy who owns the basketball team. He has corporate, selfish motives, but he’s so logical and true that  I couldn’t help but like him.  The topless cleaner, Sean who’s writing her dissertation on feminist theory is my cup of tea, but I often disagreed with her, just as I would a real person.

There’s nothing typical or simple about Roberge’s characters or scenes, but his sentences are sharp and clean. He makes basketball sound like Beethoven. Women are hot PhD-wielding topless house cleaners as well as brilliant basketball stars with wrenches who know how to jimmie a broken starter.  The action on the basketball court is exciting with a string of characters that the reader instantly cares about.

Drive has all of the humor and camp one expects from Roberge. The larger story he tells is about the subterranean struggles and irresistible urges that drive us to survive and succeed. Sometimes you feel can’t miss and you don’t. Sometimes you fail.

Coach Ben Thompson’s voice drives the plot, but the pages turn because of the quiet moments of tension that drive Roberge’s players. One by one, they get under the reader’s skin. Creepy, sexy and weird, Bone, Money and Hedda are in turns dignified and defiant as they play hard and discover their strengths.

Roberge has a knack for twisting the normal into the perverse and sad, as with a cow hitting the outside wall of Ben Thompson’s building making “a tortured and lonely sound.” He also knows joy, which comes through in searing moments of hope on the basketball court, like a dance in the sunlight: “It’s just me and the ball and the rim and the sun might burn out and the world might stop turning before I miss again.”

~ DRIVE, hardcover now available, softcover from Hollyridge Press this fall

Gilead

book by Marilynne Robinson

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Gilead is a novel about fathers and sons on many levels: God and Jesus, God and Ames, and Ames and the nearly seven year old son for whom he pens these ‘begats.’  Robinson echoes the clerical tradition of epistolary narration to complement Ames position as a minister.  Biblically, Gilead means ‘witness’ or ‘mound of testimony’ and was a place of healing, birthplace of the prophet Elijah, and in the New Testament, the source of large crowds who followed Jesus.  This Gilead is Ames’ testimony of his life and the name of the town where he grew up and had his ministry.

Robinson begins with the recounting of a conversation between Ames and his son, the end of which states his intention for this long letter to his son. (3)  Ames then delineates who he is, “I grew up in parsonages,” (4) and his medical condition, “angina pectoris” (4) which provides both the context and tension for the rest of his letter to his son.  This section concludes with foreshadowing “There’s a lot under the surface of life…. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.” (6) Ames maintains a confessional mode throughout most of the narration, initially confessing that what he has not learned “was to control his temper.” (6)

His first person meanderings turn poignant as it becomes clear that he is jealous of the son of his best friend, a far closer match in age to Ames’ young wife.  In this case, the first person narrative is more distant than intimate.  As a reader, I felt too removed from the others in his life, even though it was an intimate look inside his thoughts and opinions of not only those around him, but also his relationship to God and the larger questions of life.  Robinson uses this first person diary point of view to good effect in that Ames concern about his namesake reveals as much about himself as the younger man whom he finds by turns threatening and irritating.

There were a few points when the narrator seems inauthentic, his voice more the modern author than the characters (42), particularly for a character well versed in Greek and Hebrew, but these lapses were brief and rare.  Gilead is a meditative and beautifully written novel and gave me something to consider as far as a subtler revelation of the protagonist’s thoughts using the first person point of view.

The narrator states he has a ‘reputation for piety and probity’ (65), but the reader sees the darker thoughts and struggles throughout the letter of envy for his best friend who has not lost a wife and child (65) and his jealousy of his best friend, Boughton’s son (119) who is named for the narrator.  The quiet tragedy of Gilead is the his best friend’s son comes to him for counsel even as his writes a long letter of counsel to his own son, he is loathe to do it for Jack Boughton.  He finds the younger Boughton difficult and repeatedly admonishes himself for his attitude toward the younger man, “I am trying to be a little more cordial to him than I have been.” (123)  He keeps returning to the point, “I found that extremely irritating” (184)  The narrator makes the big assumption that the younger Boughton is hanging around because he fancies the narrator’s life and works himself up into a state where he can imagine the younger man stepping into his place or do his wife and child harm “How should I deal with these fears I have, that Jack Boughton will do you and your mother harm, just because he can, just for the sly, unanswerable meanness of it?” (190)

Toward the end of the book, the narrator doles out advice more freely, having recounted most of what he knew about their family history.  He advises his son, “…don’t look for proofs.  Don’t bother with them at all” (179) because, paraphrasing Coleridge, “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine” (179).  Despite this, the narrator still struggles with his negative feelings toward Jack until the revelation that Jack has a wife and child (217).

There is some lovely writing, nice construction with uncomfortable family secrets mirroring the narrator’s discomfort with Jack Boughton, but ultimately I found it unsatisfying for a myriad of small things that added up over the course of the book (and perhaps that is my primary takeaway for my own work). For example, it seemed odd that a preacher would conclude a letter that “hope deferred is still hope” (247) when the biblical passage he would know well is Proverbs 13:12: hope deferred makes the heart sick. At that point, perhaps it is supposed to tell us something of his character that he would still characterize heartsick as hope, but I was no longer engaged. The tone of the book is slow and prayerful and Ames concludes with a series of prayers for his son and the last act he chronicles is “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.” (247)

Guest Annotator: Mark Twain

We’re not kidding. Here’s a look at what one of America’s most famous writers thought of others’ writing, courtesy of the New York Times:

“A trove of books owned by Mark Twain, which you can browse here, shows that he could not resist leaving comments and corrections throughout the margins of the many books he read. Given the tartness of his criticism, one wonders why Twain read these books to the end, though his explanation of why he once sat through a room-clearing piano performance provides a hint. “The exquisitely bad is as satisfying to the soul as the exquisitely good,” he wrote. “Only the mediocre is unendurable.” All books were photographed with the permission of the The Mark Twain Library in Redding, Conn., which received the books from Twain when he moved to town.”

The Time Traveler’s Wife

book by Audrey Niffenegger

annotation by Tina Rubin

After reading so many glowing reviews of this book, I’m going to sound like a curmudgeon, but I learned more about what not to do than what to do reading Niffenegger’s breakout novel. But then I think: Can five million readers be wrong? Who do I think I am?

I’ll answer that by saying I’m a science fiction aficionado and, having tried my hand at writing it, I know the rules. The first is to clearly state the rules, so readers can get oriented. I believe that Niffenegger understood her rules, but they seemed so confusing to me, and unevenly applied, that it became a chore for me to continue. Why, for example, was Henry able to give Clare-the-child a list of dates when he would visit her in the future, but a future Henry could not give Clare-his-wife a list of dates when he’d be gone? Why apply the rules sometimes, but not others?

This issue also came up for me with their young time-traveling daughter, Alba. We assume that, like Henry, she arrives in another time naked. That condition is the bane of Henry’s existence—he has to find clothing, food, money, shelter, and avoid getting picked up by the authorities—but in Alba’s case, Niffenegger carefully avoids these scenarios. But how does a seven-year-old girl cope when she arrives naked and alone in a strange place and time? We get one gratuitous mention, during a rendezvous in time with her father, that she had grabbed a nightgown from an old lady’s clothesline. The author also never explains why, after Henry’s death, a Henry from the past would often visit with his daughter, but not with his wife (until she was 82). So the lesson for me is that if I write science fiction, make the rules clear and simple and apply them evenly.

The love between Clare and Henry is beautifully depicted throughout the book, but I’m left at the end with the question I had at the very beginning: why wasn’t six-year-old Clare afraid of this “old naked guy” who appeared in her meadow? The fact that she took to him right away wasn’t believable; I wanted to see their interaction and how he won her over. In remembering the episode later, Clare says Henry “spectacularly vanished.” If that’s what drew her to him at six, I’d like to have been in the scenes where she felt that and felt the emotion of it then and there.

Certain other elements seemed random to me, dropped in to make the story work. In the last third of the novel, for example, Clare suddenly is agonizing over the fact that she slept with Gomez (currently her best friend’s husband) when she was 18, after losing her virginity to a Henry of the future. The timing of this revelation seems too convenient, because just pages later, Henry learns from Gomez’s wife that Gomez is in love with Clare. That provides an interesting, if exceedingly brief, scene after Henry’s death. The subplot would have been stronger, I think, if it had been woven throughout the story.

Another element that didn’t sit right for me was the final incident with Henry’s frostbite, which seemed way too easy. Having no feet makes Henry conveniently unable to be seen in the bushes during hunting season and unable escape a hunter’s shot. (To Niffenegger’s credit, she makes the point throughout the book that Henry is a serious runner, but the ending is just too convenient.)

The structure of the book, with dates and identification of whose chapter it was, helped anchor me in time and character, but I often could not distinguish who was talking and had to look back at the chapter heading to see. They all sounded alike. Let’s make sure our characters have distinct patterns of speech, so distinct it could only be that person talking. And, pet peeve: characters who say “um” (as in “Um, Clare?” “Um, Henry?”) as if that makes it sound real.

I did like the fact that the author makes a solid scientific basis for Henry’s time traveling. That was quite clever. At some point, I may investigate Niffenegger’s next book, Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel, to see if she’s grown as a writer and built on her strengths, which include a terrific sense of time and its manipulations and an exquisite sense of place. The New York Times called the new book “mature, complex and convincing.” Publishers Weekly called it “beautifully written if incoherent.” So there you are.

Lolita

book by Vladimir Nabokov

annotation by Tina Rubin

Nabokov became a favorite of mine after I read The Real Life of Sebastian Knight in graduate school. I then devoured his masterpiece, Lolita, which cemented that conviction. His writing is such a joy to read that as soon as I finished the book I started it over again, hungry for more of Humbert Humbert’s (HH’s) world. Through gorgeous and clever use of language(s), remarkable pacing, fabulous detail, and astute character development, Nabokov pulled me into this fictional memoir as if I were entering a prism. I was never quite certain what was “real” and what was reflection as the scenes swirled around me.

Nabokov playfully engages us by giving us precedents and clues for every event in the book, ranging from his childhood love for twelve-year-old Annabel to his ex-wife Valeria’s death during childbirth. Even a random story HH recalls is a careful judgment on Nabokov’s part: the story, which occurred in Arles, is about the role that chance played when a jealous lover stabbed a woman to death while her new husband tried to stop him; the killer escaped when, “by a miraculous and beautiful coincidence,” an explosion occurred. These events of course foreshadow Humbert’s love of the nymphet Lolita, her later death in childbirth, and HH’s toying with the idea of drowning Lolita’s mother (but he didn’t have to, because she was hit by a car). Even Clare Quilty, who follows Humbert and Lolita across the country in an Aztec red convertible (as if they wouldn’t notice?), is Nabokov being playful, drawing us in to unravel the clues. Who knows, perhaps the entire Lolita  portion of the “memoir” was meant to be a figment of a madman’s (HH’s) imagination. What I took from all this—I think—is the magnificent possibilities of the novel, the moods and layers of consciousness that can be created on the page through masterful story-telling. I want to write like that. (Who wouldn’t?)

Nabokov’s use of pacing was instructive too. As Humbert’s insanity grows, his sentences become shorter, his imagery more concrete. From the last part of the story, when HH is determined to murder the man who took Dolly away from him, to the part where he has done the deed and decides to drive on the wrong side of the road (love that symbolism), the action is slowed way down. Every detail, from the ditch and the mud to the bullets and blood, is heightened.

In terms of character development, HH is absolutely convincing and, at the end of the story when he finds Lolita again, even empathetic. In his realization that he loves her completely—despite the fact that she is no longer a nymphet—and his awakening to the degree to which he has ruined her childhood, his pain is palpable. This part in particular moved me because of my interest in empathetic villains (I did a critical paper on their development in works by Capote, Stahl, and Highsmith). Humbert’s actions were despicable, but in his suffering, he became human and vulnerable. Someone like us.

Nabokov said in his note at the end of the book that he intended no message with this story, and I can buy that—I think it was a vehicle that enabled him to attain a level he could not have achieved with a tamer subject. He had to dig deep for this one. I’m aiming for something along those lines with my murderous main character. Years from now, I hope I can say my work was influenced by Vladimir Nabokov.

That Old Cape Magic

book by Richard Russo

annotation by Diane Sherlock

What a disappointment. That Old Cape Magic is not nearly as well crafted as Russo’s Straight Man, Empire Falls or Nobody’s Fool. It also lacks their heart and complexity, preferring to shorthand minor and tangential characters as uninteresting types (left wing professor, evangelical, Republican), rather than finding the telling detail. The humor, too, is off and there is way too much pop psychology about the parents’ intrusion and effect on the marriage at the center of the narrative.

The prose is workmanlike and does little to evoke a sense of place in either the Midwest, Cape Cod, or Maine. There is no lyricism here and, again, the finely observed details of, say, Nobody’s Fool are missing. The sense of place is fine, but that’s all it is. Fine. The worst of it comes with inane observations, “Fynch was a tall man, and his suit was well tailored and expensive looking. He seemed comfortable in it, as men who wear suits every day often are.” (189) Sigh. This is more of a problem if you’re familiar with the author because he’s capable of so much more.

There is a set piece late in the novel, built around an improbable event with an old man, a wheelchair and a tree. Hilarity does not ensue. It’s a piece of intended slapstick that feels like it is stuck in for comic effect. There is not the inevitable tension-building that the device of Occam’s Razor provides in Straight Man. There’s just an unfortunate accident coupled with overreactions and misunderstandings. Perhaps if Russo had honed in more on the parallels with the protagonist’s short story and his own parents or the weddings that bookend the narrative with the protagonist’s marriage, there would have been something more compelling here, but overall the narrative came across as unfocused and ineffective. In the last pages, Griffin, the main character observes, “Late middle age was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.” The same cannot be said of this novel: the reader will not fail to see any of it coming because That Old Cape Magic has none of its own.