Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Risk Pool by Richard Russso

The Risk Pool by Richard Russo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm about halfway through The Risk Pool, but I thought I'd make a few comments about it now because a couple of other books have leap frogged it on my reading list.

This book was a choice for my book club. Unfortunately it was picked during the Christmas season, so a number of the members didn't have time to finish it. One woman didn't like it at all, but most of us felt it was well written, but not captivating. I was in that group. I liked the characters and the descriptions were exciting. But for me it read more like a collection of short stories than a novel. That isn't a bad thing. There are lots of good books out there that have a similar feel. The Greer Agency by Harris Tobias is a wonderful example of one I enjoyed. In the case of The Risk Pool I felt that each individual anecdote was fun to read but had a beginning, middle, and end. I loved the story of how Ned was kidnapped by his father, Sam, and taken on a fishing adventure, especially when his mother, Jenny, greeted them by shooting up Sam's car. And the relationship between Father Michaels and Jenny is fascinating in another story.

What the book lacks for me is a strong thread to pull me to the next anecdote. There are the relationships between Ned, his father, and his mother. And there is also Tria, a girl he's started to take an interest in. But at this point those factors aren't enough to keep me involved.

A number of different writers have told me that there are only a few basic plots that cover all stories. (The number of plots seems to change depending on who is telling me this fact.) I believe that's a dangerous way to think. It's the subtleties of plots that pull readers forward. The same thing could be said for relationships or anything else that makes up good writing. There are, after all, only twenty-six letters. So haven't all stories been told by now?

My wife tells me the plot of The Risk Pool gets more interesting after Ned grows up. That might be true and I do intend to finish this novel. I enjoy Richard Russo’s writing. But I’ve heard that Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs are both much better.

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Holidays On Ice by David Sedaris

Holidays on IceHolidays on Ice by David Sedaris

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I had skipped the first story in this collection, I would be writing that I am not a David Sedaris fan. But SantaLand Diaries is fabulous. After that, the collection goes downhill quickly. There are some interesting subtleties in Dinah, the Christmas whore that have to do with observing the narrator learn that he doesn't know his family as well as he thought he did. But other stories such as Seasons Greetings to our Family and Friends and Front Row Center With Thaddeus Bristol use forced humor in a way I didn't find amusing. In both these cases he develops a narrator who is racist or culturally bigoted, then in his effort to portray that character as way over the top he gives the reader offensive behavior that is supposed to be funny. I didn't think it was.

But SantaLand Diaries alone is well worth the price of this book. (I listened to the audio version, which I would recommend. David Sedaris has a wonderful speaking voice and so does his sister, Amy.) In this piece the humor is largely self deprecating and in the cases when he turns his attention to other elves or adults waiting to see Santa, the people mostly deserve to be the subjects of our laughter. Some of the elves are aspiring dancers or actresses. He branches off to talk about an elf who once appeared as an flamingo dancer on One Life to Live. He also give us a Santa who take himself too seriously and an elf who fancies himself a ladies man. I was alone in my car when I was listening to this and I was laughing out loud.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Multitasking books and other things

I just finished one of the three books I was reading, The Help. People who know me know that multitasking is not one of my strengths, so reading more than one book at a time is unusual for me.

I’m on the road close to two hours a day. It used to be a burden until I started listening to audio books regularly. I download most of the novels I listen to from the library. North Carolina has a digital collection that is available to people with cards for the Greensboro library and the Forsyth County library and I use both those systems.

So last week I was in the middle of a print copy of The Risk Pool by Richard Russo, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. The Risk Pool was my book club’s selection for this month as well as the one I was enjoying during my actual reading time. The Help is the choice for next month. I borrowed a set of CD’s for that one. And Middlesex is the latest book I’ve downloaded from the library. Since that one isn’t on a schedule it is the one I’m starting and stopping along the way.

In addition to these three novels, I’m also halfway through writing my own book, a sequel to Motherless Soul that is coming along well, but is still at least a year away from completion.

I’m sure this won’t be the last time I try reading (and writing) multiple books simultaneously. It’s a process I’m enjoying.

One other note - Since this is the holiday season reading isn't my only multitasking. I've been helping Toni get ready for our family Christmas and preparing for our church choir's musical presentation which this year will include Pergolesi's The Magnificat, a difficult piece that has been a fun and satisfying challenge for our choir.

I love this time of year, but it can be exhausting.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I'm about halfway through the audio version of Kathryn Stockett's novel, The Help. The book has some of the strongest characters in any of the books I've read recently. I love that about it.

I grew up in East Orange, New Jersey and was in high school when the Newark riots occurred. I suppose coming of age in that environment is one reason why race relations has always been a subject of interest to me. Two of my short stories dealt with the subject: Clay in Alaska Quarterly Review (1989) and Child By Design in Eclipse (2006). But even now race is still a complex, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing subject. My children were in high school during the nineties, in Greensboro, NC and although things had come a long way some of the same issues still existed. And they still exist today, even with Barack Obama in the white house.

The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi during the Kennedy administration and it is about race relations. Skeeter is a young white woman from a wealthy farming family. She is part of the country club society, but she doesn't quite fit in. She is tall and hates her hair, among other things. Apparently this low opinion of her appearance has affected her confidence. She has rarely dated and has given up on that aspect of her life. She's decided to become a writer and to help her achieve this goal she has chosen to document what it is like to be a maid from the viewpoint of the local help.

I love the fact that Skeeter's goal is to be a writer. Adding to the civil rights discussion that is going on at the time is only a byproduct of what she wants. But she was raised by Constantine (an African American maid) and, in many ways, was closer to that woman than to her own mother. She seems to be a decent person with an open mind. At the same time she's turning her back on white friends who have been good to her over the years. I love the complexity of what Skeeter wants from life and I feel I know her.

There are other wonderfully developed characters in The Help, including two of the maids, Aibileen and Minny, who join in Skeeter's project for reason that are just as complex and fascinating as Skeeter's reasons. There's also a young white woman, Celia, who is from a poor background. She puts an entirely different spin on the subject of race relations and on the desires of women in general.

So far, the men in The Help are not as interesting as the women. They have been mostly secondary characters up to this point. But there is one in particular whom I think will become more important as I get further in the book. That's only one of the things I'm looking forward to finding out in the second half.