Friday, December 31, 2010

The Difference Between Literary Novels And Genre: Martha Grimes JERUSALEM INN

One of my favorite blogs is that of Emerald Noir author Declan Burke, and this last week he discussed an Edward Docx newspaper article, which essentially replied to author Lee Childs' trashing of literary novels.  The link to that article is here and the link to Burke's discussion of it is here.  Burke is the author of Crime Always Pays, The Big O, Eight-Ball Boogie, and other crime novels yet to be published.

The comment section of that blog drew several novelists including Dr. John Connolly, author of, among many others,  Every Dead Thing and Nocturnes, two of my favorite reads of the past year.  I sent for his other works too, and they are on my to-be-read shelves now for the upcoming year.

We know that crime novels often rise above genre, offering social criticism and insights into the human condition, while maintaining that tension that comes with the thriller/detective novel format that makes them genre.  Whenever the best novels of the last century are listed, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and other elite genre novelists with staying power have always gotten their due while lower quality and fadish best-sellers, whether literary novels or genre, have fallen by the wayside. 

Which brings me to the book in front of me,  a seasonal read, Martha Grimes' Jerusalem Inn (Richard Jury Mystery).  This is certainly a genre novel, one of her long-running series published more than a quarter of a century ago back in 1984.  I love the way this book opens, the cinematic feel of it, the images which invite interpretation:

 "A meeting in a graveyard.  That was how it would always come back to him, and without any sense of irony at all - that a meeting in a graveyard did not foreshadow the permanence he was after.  Snow mounding the sundial.  Sparrows quarreling in the hedges.  The black cat sitting enthroned in the dry birdbath.  Slivers of memories.  A broken mirror.  Bad luck, Jury.

"It was on a windy December day, with only five of them left until Christmas, that Jury saw the sparrows quarreling in a nearby hedge as he stood looking through the gates of Washington Old Hall.  The sparrows--one attempting to escape, the other in hot pursuit--flew from hedge to tree to hedge.  The pecking of one had bloodied the breast of the other.  He was used to scenes of carnage; still he was shocked.  But didn't it go on everywhere?  He tracked their flight from tree to hedge and finally to the ground at his feet.  He moved to break up the fight, but they were off again, off and away.

"The place was closed, so he trudges about the old village of Washington in the snow now turning to rain.  After three o'clock, so the pubs were closed, worse luck.  Up one village lane, he found himself outside the Catholic church. Feeling sorry for yourself, Jury?  No kith, no kin, no wife, no . . .  Well, but it is Christmas, his kinder self answered.

"This depressing debate with himself continued, like the fighting sparrows, as he heaved upon the heavy door of the church, walked quietly into the vestibule, only to find he'd interrupted a christening in the nave.  The priest still intoned but the faces of the baby's parents turned toward the intruder and the baby cried.

"His nasty sparrow self cackled.  You nit.  Jury pretended to be in a brown study before the church bulletin board, as if it were important to convey to the people down there that the information posted here was absolutely necessary for his salvation.  Nodding curtly (as if they care, you clod!) at nothing, he turned and left.  Unborn again.

"That sparrow self was with him in the church cemetery, sitting on his shoulder, pecking his ear to a bloody pulp, telling him that no one had forced him to accept his cousin's whining invitation to come to them at Christmas ("But we never see you, Richard. . .").  Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  What a bloody awful place in the winter.  A nice walk among the gravestones, that's what you need, Jury.  And in the snow, too.  Peck, peck, peck, peck.

That was when he saw her."

His meeting with the woman in the graveyard is then beautifully described.  They talk casually for a long while, and she invites him for a drink at her place, which is nearby.  Grimes gives this an entirely natural feel as her characters become genuinely interested in each other, each with the growing prospect of a surprisingly wonderful holiday ahead of them.  The reader is rooting for them to get together, and indeed it looks as if they will.  But then the last sentence of the first chapter is,

"The next time he saw her she was dead."

Well, what did you expect?  This is genre fiction.  It follows a formula.  The perpetual loner, Richard Jury, now has personal reasons for investigating the case, even though he is away on vacation.  We know the theme, but each genre novelist gives us a different variation upon it, and hopefully a creative one. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


The author does not argue whether we have free will or not--she assumes that we do.  She examines, among other things, the question of how much choice we actually have in this so-called free society, when so much is the subject of corporate manipulation.

"The consumer who is going through circles of consumption and de-cluttering and who constantly seems to be failing in the self-mastery that is promoted by the ideology of choice can often be plagued by doubt, and the abundance of options leads to regret, which is why denial may help him or her to avoid these feelings..."

Her chapters are titled:

1. Why Choice Makes Us Anxious

2. Choosing Through Others' Eyes

3. Love Choices

4. Children: To Have Or Have Not?

5. Forced Choice

It is a interesting book, 184 pages including index, four "further reading" pages of sources, and some valuable endnotes.  My only complaint with it is that it is not comprehensive enough.  Too much territory is covered too briefly.

For instance, she details the credit card excesses but does not go in to how the credit card companies engineered this intentionally, with impromptu rate changes and a shared monopolization of policies.  Once in, the consumer had no choice to go elsewhere because there was nowhere better to turn.

This same elimination of choices is everywhere in American life, in every industry.  Corporate policies and prices are set industry wide through collusion and ad hoc monopolies.  Lip service is always given to "the free market" by politicians, but where is the free market in this?

The Tyranny of Choice (Big Ideas)The choice we have is a personal choice.  Glass half empty or glass half full; as Lincoln said, most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.  We can only make a seperate peace with the world and shed our addictions to stuff, to empty material things, as best as we can.  We can choose instead to value true love, the one intangible that makes life worthwhile.


The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of CancerJust where are we in the war on cancer?  You're hoping to find out the answer to that question when you read Siddhartha Mukherjee's highly acclaimed The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.  And you do, though the answer is not excactly what you're hoping to find.

Yet there is progress, and Mukherjee makes the history of that progress interesting and inspirational.  The historical narrative coarses naturally through all kinds of other issues, ethical and political.  Most of it was new to me, some of it was history I'd lived through but forgotten. 

I'd forgotten about the details of Nixon's war on cancer, about Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, about Brian's Song, about the movie of Love Story, about Bang the Drum Slowly, and about hundreds of books and movies like them.

I recall being stuck in an airport bar with some other stranded passengers, years ago, our planes grounded by the snowy weather.  We began discussing our favorite love stories in movies, and I tried to explain to them the plot of Sweet November (1968), the one starring Sandy Dennis.  A woman decides to spend the rest of her life rehibilatating one man at a time, living with each man a month, meeting strangers and taking them in, then picking up another for the next month, and the next, and so on.

The bar got quieter as several woman turned around on their bar stools so as to hear me too.  Apparently they had not seen this movie, and I had their interest so far.  But as soon as I said that it turns out that the character she plays has terminal cancer, the women frowned and turned away.  No, wait, I said.  I should have explained that this is a very old movie, from back when this story was not yet so commonplace.  Nowadays, cancer has become a cliche.  Sandy Dennis herself got it some years after she made this movie, and it killed her.

Hell, everybody's got it.  Or if you don't have it yet, you've known plenty of people, loved ones and friends, whose lives were transfigured by it.  It has indeed become the "emperor of all maladies."

Let's Talk: A Story of Cancer and LoveI read Mukherjee's fine work on the heels of finishing Let's Talk: A Story of Cancer and Love by author Evan Hunter a.k.a. mystery novelist Ed McBain.  McBain wrote some of his best books in the dozen years he battled his illness, which was eventually diagnosed as cancer, and which took his life about the time that this book was published.

It was only published in England, which makes me think that his long-time American publishers did not consider the book economically viable.  Too bad, for it is a sterling memoir also discussing his bookish lifestyle and the love of his life.  But as with the women back in that airport bar, people tend to turn away from cancer stories.

As if they know too much about it as it is.

Monday, December 27, 2010


THE MYSTERY GUEST has garnered some good reviews since it was first published in translation in 2006:

"After a few hours with this little book, one can't help but feel that every ordinary object and exchange is alive with meaning." -- Esquire

"The charm and the magic of THE MYSTERY GUEST is that by connecting the inner and outer worlds of its lovelorn author, it illuminates the countless hooks and loops of coincidence, miscommunication, and self-consciousness that form the strange Velcro that holds together the cosmos.'

"Bouillier is Proust in a bottle, his book a wonder of getting pretty much everything that matters into a minature transparent container.  Read it, then set it on your desk.  Pick it up again.  Gaze into it.  Be startled.  By your own scaled-down reflection most of all." -- GQ

In the thin trade paperback edition of The Mystery Guest now being sold at Amazon, there are four pages of such blurbs in the front of the book.  Every year it seems to appear on several best lists, at least since the Largehearted Boy aggregated lists have been on-line.  At Oprah's site, in People magazine, the New York Times, on and on.

I read it yesterday, while munching on Christmas left-overs, while Frank Sinatra's voice was still crooning holiday songs hauntingly, the kind that repeat and repeat in your ears.

"One gloomy Sunday afternoon, Gregoire Bouillier answers the phone only to hear the voice of the woman who left him, without warning, five years before.  She isn't calling to apologize or explain the way she abruptly vanished from his life, but to invite him to be the 'mystery guest' at a birthday party for a woman he's never met."

Brouillier has been mourning the loss of the relationship for five years, in a Woody Allen despair, and now he has mixed feelings about seeing this lady again.  Part of him wants to, is overjoyed at the chance, but part of him says, "Don't you know, little fool, you never can win.  Use your mentality.  Wake up to reality."

Which reminded me of what Tom Robbins said in an interview with JANUARY MAGAZINE,

"One of the influences on my work is a popular song by Frank Sinatra. "I've Got You Under My Skin." Because he sings from the point of view of a man who is absolutely, obsessively in love. I mean, in love to a point where it's probably psychologically dangerous to him. Yet every now and then he will just start to play with the words as if they were baubles. And he'll be really playful and noodle around with the words for a while and then right back into extreme emotional passion. When I heard that song and really listened to that song I realized what Sinatra was doing in it. I had a realization that this is the way that I view the world. This is the way that I view my work."

And with George Bouillier's memoir too.  His flights of fancy, the meanings he reads into her words, into the situation, are egotistical rationalizations, first one way, then the other.  But then he begins to noodle around with the nuances, to find patterns where none exist, except through natural synchronicity.

What he discovers at the party is that his lost lover exists in a similar fog, taking as her script the life of a character in a book she had long obsessed over when they were together, Mrs. Dolloway.  Broullier's loopy illusions have their own literary agenda and the ideas here are post-modern.

THE MYSTERY GUEST is a quick, playfully amusing read, well worth the small amount of time it takes to read it.  I finished it feeling sad for Brouillier, not because he lost that particular woman, nor the one after, but because his idea of love, throughout the memoir, is the materialistic, shallow idea of love that permeates our popular culture.  It is not love at all; it is an ego-driven sex-in-the-city kind of shopping for love, never satisfied, always on the make.

The real mystery here is that Brouillier never seems to catch on to himself, to judge by this book.  He has my sympathy.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


In Kentucky, we have a white Christmas this morning.  It is warm enough for kids to play in the snow, but not so warm as to melt it away.  Christmas is for gratitude, and I’m grateful for the day.

I’m grateful for the love of my family and friends, for world enough and time. And among the books I’m grateful to have read this year are:

How to Sell: A NovelClancy Martin's How to Sell: A Novel. A crime novel, a coming-of-age novel, an indictment of capitalism, a darkly humorous literary take on American materialism. Modern American noir.

Echoes of GloryRobert Flynn's Echoes of Glory. This year's Spur Award winner has yet to catch on and doesn't seem to appear on any other best list. A shame, that--it is an excellent novel on all levels, brilliant as a parable, as a satire, as a novel of flesh and blood.  Witty and insightful and literary.

Tony and SusanAustin Wright's Tony and Susan. This is a literary novel in the form of a genre novel, a novel within a novel.  Not originally published this year, but about to be reissued in hardcover.  I've reread it now and I see even more in it--much, much more. Its literary kin includes both Joseph Conrad’s VICTORY and Cormac McCarthy’s OUTER DARK.  A little-known gem that sent me in search of Wright's other obscure works.

Truth: A NovelPeter Temple’s Truth: A Novel, a splendid follow-up to his earlier novel, THE BROKEN SHORE. This author understands the evils of bureaucracy and he tells a story you can believe in.  Temple has garnered several awards now, and more will follow.

Lord of MisruleJaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule, the longshot winner of the National Book Award.  A literary novel set on the backstretch of a minor thoroughbred racetrack with engaging characters and a flair for pathos and dark humor.  I reviewed it at Amazon.

The most life-changing books I read this year, the ones which most affected my world-view, were Margaret Atwood's Payback, DEBT AND THE SHADOW SIDE OF WEALTH, David Loy's The World Is Made of Stories, and Ernest Becker's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Denial of Death (which I encountered earlier in David Loy's eye-opening Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism).  And my reading of Austin Wright's RECALCITRANCE: WILLIAM FAULKNER AND THE PROFESSORS changed forever the way I evaluate literary novels.

I've read several books on consciousness this year, the best of them being Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.  I also enjoyed Robert Lanza's Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe, and Antonio Damasio's Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain .  Damasio's earlier books are also fine and he is a frequent guest on Charlie Rose's series on brain science.

The best poetry I read this year was in The Etiquette of Freedom: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, and The Practice of the Wild.  The text is a transcript of the CD which comes with the book.  Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison candidly discuss their secular-buddhist philosophy of life and read from their works.  I also enjoyed Jane Hirshfield's essays on poetry in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry.

The best baseball book I read this year was John Wilker's Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards.  Part history, part coming-of-age story, warmly humorous.  A gem.  I also discovered Ron Faust's fine mystery,  Fugitive Moon, published back in 1995, about a high-strung baseball pitcher who becomes a fugitive after killings occur in whatever town he happens to be pitching in.

The best war novel I read this year was published back in 2005,
Bright Starry Banner: a novel of the Civil War by Alden R. Carter.  It follows the history of the Battle of Stones River very closely, mixing in some fictional Cormac McCarthy-like descriptions of historical events.  I've read nothing else quite like it.

Early in the year, I read David Eagleman's delightful Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, with different humorous takes on the cosmology of the universe and mankind's place in it.  It was published in 2009, and I was led to it by last year's best lists found at the LARGEHEARTED BOY BLOG.

I've read several excellent biographies this year including Frank McLynn's Marcus Aurelius: A Life, James E. Person's Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind, and Frederick Robert Karl's Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives- A Biography.  I also enjoyed Eric Williamson's autobiographical left-wing memoir Oakland, Jack London, and Me, Leslie Marmon Silko's work of personal heritage, THE TURQUOISE LEDGE, and Antonia Fraser's Must You Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter.

There were many holocaust-related novels published this year, and I read a very good one: Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil: A NovelThat it doesn't appear on many best lists is something I fail to understand in this, the year of Franzen's FREEDOM and Larsson's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.  I read those too, good ones but greatly overplayed in comparison.

I was touted onto Paul Harding's small gem, TINKERS, and to James Hynes' NEXT, which I read in an ARC thanks to Amazon's Vine Program.  Hynes writes an outstanding novel every time, but like Daniel Woodrell, he seems to be little read outside of a small cult of loyal fans.  Count me as one of them.  Michael Crummy's DAMAGES belongs on this list, as well as Joseph Boyden's brilliant THREE DAY ROAD, published back in 2005.

The Strange Case of Jonathan Swift and the Real Long John SilverThis was the year I studied Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island after reading Robert A. Prather's The Strange Case of Jonathan Swift and the Real Long John Silver.  I don't buy the DiVinci Code theories, but the history itself is awe-inspiring and well worth reading.

Early in the year, I read some fine westerns, most of them Spur Award winners including Thomas Cobb's superb SHAVETAIL, Johnny Boggs's HARD WINTER and KILLSTRAIGHT.  Then I started reading Craig Johnson's splendid series starting with THE COLD DISH.  I have several of them to go before I catch up to this year's Walt Longmire novel.  His characters make good company.

This was also the year I discovered Emerald Noir, Ken Bruen's THE GUARDS, John Connolly's EVERY DEAD THING, Adrian McKinty's DEAD I WELL MAY BE, Declan Burke's THE BIG O, and Eoin McManee's THE RESURRECTION MAN.  I have many more in their backlists to read, and Ken Bruen's well-read protagonist led me to some other interesting books.  What a treat!

 In October, I read several Halloween-related books including Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, then Peter Ackroyd's  A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Seances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters, then Norman Partridge's Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season and Dark Harvest.  I also read Mike Ashley's excellent Starlight Man: The Extraordinary Life of Algernon Blackwood which goes into the spiritualism of the fantasy/occult novelist.

In November, I went on a reading excursion into books that used the cat as a symbol for naturalism--books akin to such as Walter Van Tilburg Clark's
The Track Of The Cat (Western Literature Series) and Peter Matthiessen's THE SNOW LEOPARD:

Caught in Fading Light: Mountain Lions, Zen Masters, and Wild Nature by Gary Thorp. The author goes on a quest to see a cougar in the wild. He seems to be more of a formal Buddhist than either Jim Harrison or Gary Snyder.  A smaller book and a lighter read than the others here.

The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild by Craig Childs.  The strikingly beautiful picture of a cougar in the snow graces the dustjacket.  Childs is a great story-teller.

The Beast in the Garden: The True Story of a Predator's Deadly Return to Suburban America David Baron. This book is not new, but I'm glad to have finally read it.  On the first edition, it carries the same dustjacket picture as THE ANIMAL DIALOGUES but stylized and darker.

Shadow Cat: Encountering the American Mountain Lion, edited by Susan Ewing and Elizabeth Grossman. A treasure-chest of essays on the elusive lion/panther/puma quest, including Pam Houston's "Looking For Abbey's Lion."

Water Witches by Chris Bohjalian. A fine ghostly catamount quest novel (among other things) that I first read back when it first came out in 1995.  The epigraph is from Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." About the frozen leopard found high in the mythical house of God. "No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude."