Musings on books and the book business by an opinionated, somewhat cynical, yet optimistic bookseller.
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Book notes: McDermott & Boyd
Alice McDermott's After This and William Boyd's Restless were two novels that intrigued me at the Book Expo America earlier this year. I thought BEA was rather listless; the publishers seemed more interested in new technologies and new promotional programs than in their own books. When the show was focused on books, it was almost exclusively nonfiction titles that got the attention, with the exception of the hoopla surrounding Charles Frazier's follow up to Cold Mountain, Thirteen Moons.
I came away from the show, held in Washington D.C., with my fill of glad-handing politicians and glib political commentators, but barely a handful of valued advance reader's copies. Usually, I mail a box of books back home. This time I had no trouble carrying the scant collection of titles in my luggage.
McDermott and Boyd are two writers that don't get nearly the attention that they deserve. McDermott won the National Book Award for Charming Billy in 1998, but is rarely mentioned in the ranks of the top American novelists. Boyd, whose Any Human Heart is one of the two or three best works of fiction since 2000 as far as I'm concerned, won the Whitbread award for his first novel, but doesn't seem to even get noticed when it's time to name the Man Booker Prize in England.
Restless, due out on Oct. 10, was not what I expected from the highly literate Boyd, but it was a page-turning thriller that kept me guessing and had me perusing the internet to discover the history behind the story. The plot involves British spies operating in the United States at the beginning of World War II. Boyd goes into some detail about how the operation worked, including the manipulation of both the print and radio media. It was all in an effort to persuade Americans to enter the war as allies of the British. Of course, Pearl Harbor was a much more effective way to make that happen.
Boyd's novel focuses on Eva Delectorskaya who joins the British Secret Service after her brother dies. One narrative follows her actions during the war, while the other joins her in 1976 living as Sally Gilmartin in the English countryside. Sally believes someone is trying to kill her and enlists her incredulous daughter's help. The daughter, a single mother, is learning about her mother's true identity for the first time.
Boyd does a fantastic job of weaving these plots together into a coherent story filled with "a-ha" moments without ever resorting to spy novel conventions and cliches. True, it doesn't compare to his weightier novels, but it's worth checking out. After This, due out on Sept. 5, was a pure joy to read simply for McDermott's beautiful use of the language and her descriptive scenes. I don't think it really matters what McDermott writes about or what characters populate her stories. The woman could write a how-to manual and the words would swirl around in my head, creating an ethereal experience.
Luckily for most readers, McDermott spins her prose magic in a multi-layered story, set over several decades. We first meet Mary, a lonely office worker during World War II, coming out of a Catholic Church in Manhattan. Within a few pages she meets John Keane, the man she will marry, in a diner.
McDermott doesn't give us the courtship. She sets up the scene of John and Mary's meeting, and then we are thrust forward, first to their love-making and then to a scene with three of their children. Each episode is beautifully rendered and almost a short story by itself. We are asked to slowly connect the dots between the vignettes. This is how McDermott proceeds with the story all the way into the 1970s.
In many ways it works because it allows McDermott to do what she does best, which is to draw intimate moments and give them emotional weight beyond their obvious meaning. We know that we are seeing everything for a reason since so much is left out of the novel. Occasionally, a gap will be filled in by a memory or a snippet of a conversation, but often we are left to figure out the past.
One problem, however, is that the story shifts between John, Mary, their four children, their family friend and even complete strangers. It makes it difficult to really settle into the story in a satisfying way. Not only are we jumping in time from scene to scene, we are moving into someone else's head. I felt the Keane family would have been better served with interconnected short stories that could have stayed with the individual characters a bit longer.
It's really a small quibble, because the story of this Catholic family dealing with the social upheaval that occurred between 1950 and 1975 in suburban America is endlessly enthralling in the hands of one of our greatest stylists. But it's hard not to wish for perfection when it seems like McDermott just might be able to pull it off.
Top 10 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. 2000. White Teeth by Zadie Smith. 2000. Atonement by Ian McEwan. 2002. Any Human Heart by William Boyd. 2003. The Known World by Edward P. Jones. 2003. Snow by Orhan Pamuk. 2004. On Beauty by Zadie Smith. 2005. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. 2006. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. 2007. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. 2007.
Other Favorites The Inventory by Gila Lustiger. 2000. The Human Stain by Philip Roth. 2000. Erasure by Percival Everett. 2001. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. 2001. Spies by Michael Frayn. 2002. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. 2002. Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon. 2002. Roscoe by William Kennedy. 2002. American Woman by Susan Choi. 2003 The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. 2003. Sabbath Creek by Judson Mitcham. 2004. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. 2004. The In Between World of Vikram Lall by M.G. Vassanji. 2004. The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud. 2006. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. 2006. After This by Alice McDermott. 2006. Echo Maker by Richard Powers. 2006. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. 2007. Peace by Richard Bausch. 2008. Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. 2008. Border Songs by Jim Lynch. 2009. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. 2009. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. 2009. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. 2009. All Other Nights by Dara Horn. 2009.
My Favorite New Books
My Abandonment by Peter Rock. A girl and her father live off the land in Portland's Forest Park in this novel that is based on a true story. Told through the eyes of the young girl, it's a poetic work revealing our connection to the natural world. True Confections by Katharine Weber. Zip's Candy is the setting for this outstanding satire. Alice, who turns out to be an unreliable narrator, details the company's history and her own place in its scandalous past. New World Monkeys by Nancy Mauro. The death of a boar, a pervert trying to perfect his craft, and the unearthing of the bones of a murder victim are just a few of the plot elements in this comic debut.
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. Shortly after World War II, a young Irish girl is forced by her family to emigrate to Brooklyn. Cut off from all that she knows she finds love at Dodgers games and Coney Island in this subtle but suspenseful novel.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Phillippe Petit's remarkable 1974 tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers is the jumping off point (pun intended) of this novel of love, loss and beautiful convergences in a gritty New York City.
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. Nothing is as it seems in this brilliant bizarre novel set in an almost recognizable New York City. The revelations at the end left me reeling although I knew that surprises were lurking. Another novel with shades of Saul Bellow. Border Songs by Jim Lynch. Hilarious novel about a strange border agent on the Canadian border. Lynch effortlessly tells the story from several points of view including the criminal, the cops and everyone in between.
The Signal by Ron Carlson. An adventure and a love story set in the pristine mountains of Wyoming. A sense of both hope and foreboding hangs over the sparse narrative.
Wanting by Richard Flanagan. This historical novel featuring both Charles Dickens and the explorer John Franklin is really a meditation on desire and what was thought to separate the civilized from the barbarians.
Woodsburner by John Pipkin. Henry David Thoreau burned down the Concord Woods before he wrote Walden. This novel explores that incident from several different perspectives, including a bookseller who is forced to sell porn to stay in business.
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. A British Bellow with a West Indian cricket fiend cast as a Chicago University Professor. Humboldt plays cricket. Chicagoby Alaa Al Aswany. Egyptian students and their professors try to navigate America in this magnificent novel set in the heart of contemporary Chicago.
Gossip of the Starlings by Nina de Gramont. A haunting novel about the seductive power of friendship.
Wifeshoppingby Steven Wingate. Thirteen great short stories of men sabotaging their relationships.