Tag Archives: confusion

Good Times, Bad Times

Good Times, Bad Times in the Book Trade

The New York Times created a dust-up recently by posting an article about what was said to be the current glut of memoirs.   The writer seemed to think that everyone and his dog and cat were writing their book of memories, and that there should be some type of pre-publication test of worthiness.   Most did not meet his standards.   Of course, that was but one person’s opinion, one which I happen not to share.   If there’s one area in which the publishing industry seems to have shone brightly in 2010-2011, it’s in the publication of some fine memoirs.

Five memoirs are on my recommended list:  The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok (nothing short of brilliant), The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley (a cancer survivor), Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (another cancer survivor), No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (about being nearly homeless in New York City), and Perfection by Julie Metz (sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying).   It also appears that new and worthwhile releases are on the way, including The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke (about a daughter’s crushing grief following her mother’s death) and History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky (an examination into the causes of a sister’s self-destruction).

But then there are a couple of negative trends that I will touch upon here.   When it comes to popular fiction, tight editing seems to have been relegated to the sidelines.   More and more I run across novels that seem to have no beginning; they meander on and ramble for dozens of seemingly unstructured pages.   And some make things worse by incorporating non-chronological structures that veer back and forth between the present and past, past and present until it becomes dizzying.   Every now and then I’m reminded of the frustrating quick-cut and overly trendy music videos of the 70s.

Are there no longer any editors who will tell a writer, “Look, you need to be very clear about the storyline at the start and quickly hook the reader.   Confusion has its costs!”   Who has the patience to read a hundred or two hundred pages just to figure out what story is being told?   Sigh…  Well, I guess some people do.

Then there’s the release of what I call the non-biographical biography.   These are the ones that decide to be clever by telling us everything about the subject except precisely what it is they’re supposed to be known for!   If the subject is an actor, we’re told about his sex life, his animals, his apartments and homes, marriages and divorces, where he went on vacations, what he liked to eat, and how much he tipped the servers.   Yes, we come to learn about everything in his life except his acting and the films he made.

The same rule seems to apply to politicians – the cool author writing a bio of Ronald Reagan using this style would cover everything except Reagan’s acting career and his terms as governor of California and president of the U.S.   If you prefer, substitute the name Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy or Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy and the same strange rule will apply – there are sideways bios on them out there on the book store shelves.   I won’t name names but they’re not that hard to find.

So, despite the view from Manhattan when it comes to memoirs the state of the publishing industry seems to be strong.   When it comes to editing today’s novels, improvements may be in order.   And when it comes to biographies, readers should hold out for the old-fashioned substantive kind, even if it requires a journey over to Powell’s Books to find a used one.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke, which will be released by Riverhead Books on April 14, 2011.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

With a Little Help From My Friends

The Island: A Novel by Elin Hilderbrand (Unabridged Hachette audio book on 13 CDs; $34.98)

When the going gets tough for Chess Cousins, she and three other East Coast ladies retreat to Tuckernuck Island off the coast of Nantucket.   These ladies are not just anyone; they are Chess’s mother Birdie Cousins, aunt Ida Bishop and sister Tate Cousins.   Tough doesn’t begin to describe Chess’s situation as her recently dumped fiance has died in a rock climbing incident and she has walked out on her editorial job at a prestigious culinary magazine.   To make matters worse, Chess decides to cut her shining golden hair and shave her head.

Birdie masterminds their trip to the family vacation home on Tuckernuck.   The house lacks hot water, electricity, and television and cell phone reception.   After a 13-year family hiatus from vacationing on the property, the ladies come together for the month of July.   The plan is to allow Chess the solitude and support she needs to get beyond her depression.

Author Hilderbrand present a masterfully simple story that expands as the days on the island are counted off, one by one.   The cadence of the story, narrated by Denice Hicks, is one of calm repetition that includes descriptions of the locale, conversations, meal preparation and the introspective thoughts of the ladies.   The activities they perform daily become part of the story line.   There are bursts of emotion that erupt from the interactions of the characters.   The narrator balances the dulcet tones of Birdie with the harsh outbursts from Tate and Chess.   India’s throaty voice is a sharp contrast to those of her sister and nieces.   This is only right as she is a worldly woman who is herself the widow.

The key male character is Barrett Lee, a golden hunk of a man in his thirties, who is the caretaker of the house.   He brings the food, wine, ice and clean laundry daily from Nantucket.   Although Nantucket is only a half-mile away by boat, it might as well be on another continent.   Both Barrett and his father Chuck before him have captured the hearts and imaginations of the respective generations of sisters.

The sense of isolation felt by Birdie, India and Tate serves to prompt them to deal with their own issues even though they are supposed to be assisting Chess.   There is a sense of dancing around each one’s life situation, avoiding the whole truth, shying away and then revisiting them again and again.   Each revisit brings more of the backstories to the fore.   The complexity of the emotions and fears brought on by the need for someone to love is flavored with loving kindness, frustration, self-awareness and anxiety.

In a sense, the book is a confessional.   The four points of view on love and loss, sibling rivalry and what it means to be loved are beautifully portrayed in this multi-generational saga.

Highly recommended, and, yes, it’s a fine example of chick lit.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A copy of the audio book was provided by Hachette Audio.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized