Sunday, January 07, 2007

Again with the books!

I finished David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars just now. The style is courtroom drama mixed with introspective narrative. The trial aspect arises because a Japanese-American man is accused to murdering a fellow fisherman off an island in Puget Sound. The story takes place primarily in the 1950s, making WWII's events, particularly the internment camps loom large in the flashback scenes afforded to many characters. In some ways it's a provincial story about strawberry farmers, salmon fisherman, a sheriff presiding over his first murder investigation and their wives and friends. It's very small-town drama, and usually I get bored with that. It took me a while to want to read it at all (I bought it in August), and I think that's really why. I'm not one for the "quirky locals in Random Town, USA," yet I really enjoyed this book because the style enabled the characters' inner lives to find expression. There were some characters whom I loathed, but even they were imbued with motivations I could understand, with hints of humanity that made them genuine. Plus, the defense attorney's closing arguments nearly brought me to tears. When I searched Amazon, it appears my edition is on backorder or out of print (I bought it at used book store a while back), but it's well worth picking up. I think I finally read it because of another trial in the next book I've included in this post.

See, last Tuesday Hubster had a root canal. Pobrecito hombre thought he'd just saunter out of the procedure and ring me up to go get him, and I'd work through the afternoon. Not so much. I figured this out the day of, so I made a quick dash to the library for some engrossing material and walked out with Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace. I've mentioned having read and enjoyed both The Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake here before. I've also read her state-side breakout novel A Handmaid's Tale in college. Her prose is different here primarily because she employs the dialect and style of a Victorian novel and not her usual contemporary pacing and word choice (although some of her cuts between letters and story and articles remind me of The Blind Assassin). The central character is based on a real woman convicted of murder in Ontario in the mid 19th century. Grace is deeply sympathetic and yet very reserved, and thus mysterious. She discusses the indignities of servanthood, of prison life, of daily life in the countryside, or low social status and of relations between the sexes. At the same time we glimpse the life of the psychologist (who is interviewing her, the conceit of the novel) who comes from the servant-having upper classes and knows nothing of what her life was like before the murders and their aftermath. The tensions in the book run deep, and the style goes for broke in drawing them out.

Ultimately, it was her prose that won me over yet again. It's beautiful. Every time I pick one of her books up again, I realize how much I've missed it. The way she describes the most ordinary object makes me see differently for a while. The second quote below is more beautiful, but the first stops me in my tracks every time I read it. I can relate, and seeing a facet of life described so well is the point of my favorite prose.

"If I am good enough and quiet enough, perhaps after all they will let me go; but it's not easy being quiet and good, it's like hanging on to the edge of a bridge when you've already fallen over; you don't seem to be moving, just dangling there, and yet it is taking all your strength." (p5)

"When you are in the middle of a story, it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else." (p298)

I've been reading a lot lately. It helps to have some Atwood for the stats since she never fails to make me shun more important creatures like, oh, my husband in favor of the story and the words, the gorgeous words. Still, we'll see what I think of my next book, the famed Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire which I picked up after The Historian made me wonder about vampire lore and curious to see what all the fuss was about. Verdict to follow.

1 comment:

Yax said...

I loved Alias Grace. It was easily one of the best books I read last year.