Saturday, January 25, 2014

Happy endings?

One of the greatest challenges of writing a novel (and one reason I've had so many false starts) is figuring out how to finish it. There's nothing more deflating for a reader than a novel that falls flat at the end. And, of course, a good finale doesn't mean it has to be a "happy ending." It can be uplifting, heartbreaking, tragic, or surprising, but the end has to feel satisfyingly complete and fit the tone of the story. I've been thinking about this lately after reading a novel by Geraldine Brooks called Caleb's Crossing. This is the only novel I've read by Brooks (she won the Pulitzer for People of the Book), and she is a fine writer.

The story is narrated by young Bethea Mayfield (completely fictional), the daughter of one of the original English colonizers of Martha's Vineyard in the 1600s, and it is very loosely based on a real Wampanoag man who was the first native to graduate from Harvard College. Bethea and Caleb meet clandestinely as children and become friends, but events conspire to bring Caleb into the Christian mission as a student of Bethea's father. The remarkable young scholar is trained to join the first class of natives at Harvard, a project of benefactors still living in England for the most part. That is the backbone of the story, which beautifully details the yearnings of a gifted young woman who craves learning for herself and the complications of a friendship between two people divided by their cultures.

This novel is right in my wheelhouse -- well-written historical fiction set in early colonial America. It is one of those novels that I was completely enamored by until the very end, when the painstakingly detailed journey of the characters flashes suddenly forward to their various ends. It was just a weird pacing for me, especially after having come to sympathize so  much with the main characters. Their stories were dispatched, I thought, with a rather cold brevity. Perhaps I'm nitpicking here, because there is so much to like. For me, a so-so book with a flat ending is all of a piece and soon forgotten; however, the better the novel is in the beginning and middle parts, the more disappointing it is when the ending goes splat.

This happens all the time (perhaps more frequently) in other mediums. Television is rife with them: Lost. Need I say more? Ditto, Twin Peaks. I can't count Deadwood, because they didn't get a chance to wrap it up before cancellation (for shame, HBO!). On the other hand, I thought Breaking Bad's finale was brilliant and so was MASH's. Getting the ending right is what distinguishes a classic from mere entertainment.

Have you had this experience with books -- when you liked everything about it except the end? I felt the same disappointment in Donna Tartt's otherwise terrifically creepy The Little Friend. I literally couldn't put it down; I read it until my head hurt. Perhaps nothing could sustain my level of intrigue at the finish. I'm not even sure what it was about it that made me feel let down. On the contrary, endings that I loved were Ann Patchett's Bel Canto and Meyer's The Son. What about you? I'd like to know which books jump out at you for having either very satisfying or bad ends.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

My year in books: 2013

As an English lit major, a bookseller, a writer, and an editor, I've spent my entire life among books. I occasionally see the dismal statistics on how little the general populace reads, a figure that continues to plummet. It baffles my understanding -- right up there with string theory, reality TV, and wine spritzers. I'm thankful to have been born into a vanishing community of readers, even before my education and professional life propelled me into it.

Maybe my family's reading mania was due to growing up in a rural area where opportunities for cheap entertainment weren't that numerous. Our tastes were catholic -- mouse-nibbled copies of Shakespeare lay cheek by jowl with Harlequin romances and Hardy Boys mysteries. We had those old books of fairy tales -- the most dark and twisted kind with terrifying illustrations. My early grounding in stories of witches tossing little kids into the fire and ogres grinding up the bones of other unfortunates prepared me for the grown-up horrors of George Orwell and Cormac McCarthy.

The foregoing is a long-winded explanation of what feels like an extremely old-fashioned thing to do: a retrospective of books read in the previous year. It's not exhaustive, but I'll mention some of the notable ones, which I would recommend to others.

While immersed in 19th century literature, I read the biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne by James Mellow and re-read Moby Dick. A novel that neatly fell into the midst of these interests was Joyce Carol Oates' The Accursed. A sprawling, Hawthorne-haunted tale of ghosts and demons in turn of the century New Jersey, Oates packed in maybe one too many plot threads, but overall the story was a fascinating mix of purely fictional and historic characters crossing paths during Woodrow Wilson's tenure as president of Princeton. The spine of the novel concerns an old New England family, the Slades, and the curse that afflicts them. Spooky weddings, murders, vampires, and all manner of supernatural disasters lie in wait for the unhappy Slades. If you can manage the layered plots (some more successful than others), you'll encounter not only Wilson, but Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, Jack London, and Grover Cleveland.

My "summer vacation" book had to wait until an October beach trip, but I picked a perfect one. Pure by Andrew Miller offers a slice of pre-revolutionary French history. A young engineer is handed the dubious challenge of "purifying" and dismantling the Cemetery of Les Innocents, a centuries-old burial ground in Paris (later the site of Les Halles market). The cemetery's walls are disintegrating, the charnel pits literally overflowing into the surrounding city, and in the interest of public health, Jean-Baptiste Baratte must direct the digging up of the bodies and their removal in the face of a disapproving public and a half-mad priest who still inhabits the derelict church that stands on the grounds. If your benchmark for good historical fiction is Hilary Mantel, then you won't be disappointed with Miller's richly detailed world and its cast of colorful characters, including, again, both the historical and the imagined.

Keeping with my theme of classic American literature, I read Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood and then got caught up in the collection of her letters edited by Sally Fitzgerald, Habit of Being. The letters are a revelation, if you are an O'Connor fan. The sharp-edged humor is expected, but the thoughtful explanation of her Catholic faith and stoic attitude to her declining health are truly engaging. It is also a wonderful testament to the craft of writing, which she never tried to disguise as anything other than a discipline that required sustained work and attention, and the confidence to insist on her own unique vision. She greatly valued the input of trusted editors, but stood firm when it came down to preserving the integrity of her original ideas. Her letters are instructive and inspirational for any would-be writer.

I ended the year very neatly where  I started out -- back in New England with one  of America's most influential and original poets, Emily Dickinson. Her biographer, Alfred Habegger, borrows the subtitle from a line of one of her poems, "My wars are laid away in books." I feel much better prepared to return to the poetry itself after getting a better idea of the formative relationships and significant events of her life. Habegger relies on more recent scholarship, original sources, and a clear-eyed interpretation of the many gaps and vague clues that remain from her life. While he punctures the myth of the white-clad hermit of Amherst, there still remains the essential, alluring mystery of Emily Dickinson's power as a writer -- a  great feat of scholarship and writing.

And in the dwindling days of the year, I returned to one of my favorite settings in American lit, the Old West. Going old school, I read Elmore Leonard's Hombre, the basis for the movie with Paul Newman. It's a classic Western, featuring Leonard's signature stripped-down prose and heroes who don't quite fit the standard heroic mode. Oh, just read it; it only takes a few hours!

My very last entry for the year took a bit longer, but is a great American novel. Thomas Berger's Little Big Man deserves a wider readership than it is probably getting these days. I suspect that it has been pegged as merely "Western" genre fiction, but it is far more than that. Narrated by it's 111-year-old narrator, it is the picaresque adventures of Jack Crabbe, kidnapped by the Cheyenne at age 10, he claims to be the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and in between, meets iconic Western figures -- Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickock, Wyatt Earp, and Custer himself. It is immediately engaging, humorous, moving and will make you think deeply about America's history with Native Americans. Published in 1964, it is the basis for the movie with Dustin Hoffman. It was especially interesting to me, having read this year's acclaimed novel, The Son, by Philipp Meyer. The protagonist's experience as a young boy, kidnapped by the Comanche in 1846, closely resembles that of old Jack Crabbe, but the two novels are as different as night and day in general tone and narrative style.

These are the books that most affected me in 2013, and I haven't quite decided how to begin 2014. I'm eager to get to Donna Tartt's Goldfinch, but there are always tremendous back logs of books that I've neglected.

What books do you have in mind for the new year? Tackling the classics or catching up with what's new?