There are reasons one might not like a well-written book. The truth, seen up close and personally, can be quite discomfiting. But it can also be liberating. Your enjoyment of some works will depend on your willingness to suspend judgment, not disbelief. We all know how craven human beings can be, how willingly we'll sell our souls. Some readers find works written from the perspectives of those who are compromised unpalatable; others find them unforgettable. It depends, I suppose, on how much you've had to forget of your own life, how many bad choices you have made, knowing full well just where they would lead. Oh, you can say you thought it would turn out swell. You can pretend that you hoped your good intentions would yield good results. You can fool yourself, more easily than anyone else.
"I feel like I need to tell someone about Russia, even if it hurts," writes Nick Platt, the narrator of 'Snowdrops' (Doubleday / Random House ; February 22, 2011 ; $24.95). He's addressing his wife to be, and while he's implying that this is going to hurt him more than it is going to hurt her, an astute reader will suspect that is not the case. Or the intent.
"Snowdrop," we learn at the beginning of this novel, is the Russian term for corpses that are revealed when the snow begins to thaw. Charmingly, they're, "Drunks, most of them, and homeless people who just give up and lie down into the whiteness..." And that, of course, makes it OK, it makes the whole thing explainable. Just as Nick wants to explain how he really meant well, how he was blinded and blindsided. Of course, there's the sex, that had a lot to do with it.
Nick Platt is British lawyer, working in Moscow in the years just before the crash ... the crash of 2008, that is. He's a smart guy, and he should know that the twenty-something sisters, Maria ("Masha to her friends") and Katya are not the sort of women inclined to be attracted to a 40-something lawyer from the UK. But because Masha is young and sweet and delicious, Nick convinces himself otherwise. Strolling untouched through the surreal world of Moscow, Nick feels impervious to pain. But we, the readers, are not so impervious. Masha is doing Nick, not the reader. And Andrew Miller, who writes for The Economist is manipulating all of us.
'Snowdrops' finds Nick first getting in bed with Masha, then with those who surround her, figuratively at least. And that proves to be a bad decision, which seems to shock Nick, though the reader has twigged that this isn't going to end well. I mean, the book after all starts with the discovery of a snowdrop.
Platt's novel is s tense, easy read, a mere two-hundred-plus pages of maelstrom to suck you down into an abyss of inevitable depression. Miller is a very smart writer, who makes it quite clear that the pleasure, as it were, of the novel is watching Nick Platt blind himself to ill omens that are obvious to the reader. The favors start small and seem innocuous, but so does the plague — and it kills you just as indiscriminately. 'Snowdrops' is all coiled tension and intense success that sows only the seeds of ultimate failure. Nick never met the "too good to be true" truth that he didn't step up for with hands wide open.
Now some readers will have a sort of phobic reaction to Nick; oh ye who have led lives of virtue, ye may not here find solace, only regret. But Miller whips us through a smart, entertaining and scary tour of post 20th-century Russia and a solid bout of moral decay with crisp prose and the careful characterization of a man as adept at deceiving himself as he is at deceiving others. If you've ever fooled yourself, you'll find Nick as comprehensible as he is reprehensible. 'Snowdrops' features some fantastic Russian scenery, but it's more than a tour of Russian in decay; it's a tour of a soul in decay. Perhaps yours.
02-02-11:Andy Cox Sees 'Ghosts'
Talk about modesty! Here is the latest premiere crime fiction, anthology, 'Crimewave Eleven: Ghosts' (TTA Press ; January 2010 ; £9.99), gorgeous to look at, solid to hold, cover-to-cover great fiction at a bargain price, and I had to search, and search hard, to even find the name of the editor, anthologist, layout designer and typesetter. Buried in teeny-tiny type on the bottom of the contents page, which is right under the cover — not a page is wasted — is the name of the man of the hour, Andy Cox. You'll recall that he has more than a little to do with both Interzone and Black Static. In these days where shameless self-promotion is a catch phrase, this sort of under-the-hood approach is greatly welcomed. Cox lets his readers focus on the good stuff — great crime fiction stories in an attractive easy-to-read package.
I'll set aside my packaging considerations for a moment to briefly discuss what is really important here, which is simply that Cox consistently puts together a top-notch collection of crime fiction that is dark, slightly gnarly (but never ostentatiously gross), and tinged with the surreal. It's precisely the sort of crime fiction that readers of Interzone, Black Static, and literary fiction will be most likely to enjoy.
This edition is bookended by David Honig's "Plainview," a textured, intense story of shoes, girls and murder. Honig captures the tenor of an American suburb perfectly, and then populates it with just the sort of human you'd hope never to meet. The work is at once utterly realistic but subtle and evocative. Cody Goodfellow also inhabits the suburbs, at a creepy level dialed to eleven in "Neighborhood Watch." Chrisotpher Fowler, on the other hand, lives the high life in "The Conspirators," demonstrating once again that he is one of our most talented and versatile writers.
Richard Butner uses a staccato setup to grab you and drag you into "Holderhaven," a little miracle of juxtaposition and storytelling smarts. It's not a feel-good story. Steve Rasnic Tem, no stranger to strangeness, examines a "Living Arrangement" with a very sinister purpose. There's a strong Flannery O'Connor vibe to this story, with its sparse prose and the unpleasant old man Monte at its heart. It's enough to make you think a few times about kids; either having one or being one. No matter what the perspective, the view is bad.
As you read the stories in 'Ghosts,' and they are all pretty damn great, a certain vibe starts to form, a long dark echo in the reptile part of your reading brain. It's Andy Cox at work, readers, pulling together a collection of crime fiction like no other. He knows how to solicit the stories, and interestingly, a number of them are from authors who otherwise specialize in science fiction, dark fantasy and horror. You'll recognize lots of the name of Interzone and Black Static; Nina Allan, Mikal Trimm, Cheryl Wood Ruggerio, Isla J. Bick, O'Neil De Noux, Alison J. Littlewood, the ever intense Joel Lane and Luke Sholer, round out the list. While the collection is named "Ghosts," the kind of ghosts we meet here are unfortunate memories, unpleasant pasts, and unchecked bad intentions that manifest in this world, in our world as damage, as damnation. Cox knows how to put this sort of thing together in a manner that is ultimately powerful and affecting, not simply depressing.
Credit Cox as well with putting this in a very nice package. The cover art by Ben Baldwin is excellent. The layout and design are better than many New York trade paperbacks. 'Crimewave Eleven: Ghosts' had better show up in some award lists. But more importantly, here is something for readers of any genre, or any stripe, to celebrate.
02-01-11:Lisa Desrochers Graduates from 'Personal Demons' to 'Original Sin'
Teen lit is a delicate balance. On one hand, you have to acknowledge all the salacious fantasies and thoughts that are going through young minds. They're swimming in hormones and certain they know the world. Nobody can ever convince them otherwise. But they also need re-assurance, support, even love. They are easily bored. They are looking for the next big thing, or are certain that they have found it. Rarely, only rarely is it a book.
Lisa Desrochers decided that she wanted to boil it down, and keep it simple. One girl, two boys. Oh, but the girl has some unusual abilities. And the boys have an otherworldly heritage. And like everyone, they all have personal demons. Some more personal than others.
Desrochers is working on a trilogy, of course; the first installment is 'Personal Demons,' wherein we meet first Frannie, then the young man of her dreams, Luc ("Spell it with a 'c'!") Cain. Soon after that, we meet Luc's counterpart, Gabe. Of course, these kids are just tad more complex and challenged than the average teen — but probably not so far as any teen reader is concerned. Both of the boys want to "tag" her soul.
What makes or breaks books like these are the characters, and Desrochers, the mother of a teenage girl, writes characters who are complex and conflicted enough to seem real, even if they are all afflicted with the unreal. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Frannie and Luc. Frannie is not a dreamy, indecisive beauty, but a down-to-earth girl who spends time under cars, working on them as well as in them, um ... doing whatever it is that teenaged girl do in cars! Luc, a demon sent from hell to retrieve her soul, has existed for a long time, and taken many souls on this earth. But he's not run into one such as Frannie. He's not prepared for the depth of his own feelings, especially when Gabe shows up to avert Luc's mission. Two boys, one girl, the math is simple, but the characters are not.
While the novel runs on a love-triangle engine, the fantasy overlay of angels and demons is a cleverly-conceived theology that takes the whole story to a much more entertaining and enjoyable level. Desrochers is very smart, in that she keeps things strictly non-denominational. This book has no lectures and for a book about angels and demons, it's happily bereft of religiosity. What we have in its place is a smart supernatural setup that plays out like a game of chess with moves, counter-moves, powers and counter-powers. Run this through some interesting and unpredictable characters and you get a reasonably page-turning tale of teenagers who might mean more than they bargained for. Between Frannie and Luc, there's a lot of bargaining going on, and just between the two of them. They are both making deals with themselves, which prove to be more consequential than those they make with one another.
Desrochers has just finished the follow-up, 'Original Sin,' which from the get-go spoils the plot of 'Personal Demons.' Suffice it to say that the ante is upped and that you'll get access to another perspective in 'Original Sin.' Here's a novel where things literally go south, and not for a sunny vacation.
Of course, all of this is meant to play out to the admittedly vast audience of swooning gals who shelled out literally millions, probably verging on billions, of dollars for the latest vampire saga. That said, Desrochers knows the virtues of brevity. Instead of hulking tomes, we get compact novels. She also knows the virtues of humanity; instead of warring hunks, we have complicated souls, souls worth selling, which implies that souls have an intrinsic value. Even if they come with personal demons.
01-31-11: Teresa Strasser is 'Exploiting My Baby* *Because It's Exploiting Me'
Back to Reality
Reading is the great equalizer, and books are the most level of playing fields. Strip off the covers, tear away the blurbs, and you're staring at black letters on a white page. If the writing itself does not grab you, if the story does not compel you to keep reading, then that book is not going to get read. Conversely, the right words will keep the pages turning and immerse you in a writer's vision — no matter what that vision may be.
Teresa Strasser manages to write so well that her book 'Exploiting My Baby: A Memoir of Pregnancy and Childbirth' (New American Library / Penguin Putnam ; January 4, 2011 ; $15) got read in just about a day. Strasser's voice is smart and entertaining and her vision is refreshingly down-to-earth. Even if you're long past the stage in her life that she describes — settling down for your first kid — Strasser's story is funny, involving and informative. My kids are young adults, in and just out of college. But I found Strasser's book a refreshing change of pace from my usual oeuvre. Mostly, I found it pretty damn funny.
I suppose it really helps that though Strasser is a celebrity of sorts, she's pretty low on the totem pole. The net result of this is that because she's not rich and famous, she has to struggle pretty much as hard as any other middle-class American trying to make a go of having kids and a job and a house. This might not have been the case, had she got the gig on The View. But though she clicked with the other gals on the set, they thought she was too old, and being still single, too unlikely to have a kid while on the show. She ends up working in what she calls "deep cable," and buying a house in a dodgy neighborhood in LA.
Cut to Teresa married and deciding that she does want to have a child. First she has to conceive one, and while one might be tempted to say it was more difficult than she anticipated, that was not the case. But she takes us to the core of her somewhat neurotic, worry-o-vision, and as readers, you'll be glad she did. She researches fertility treatment options and talks frankly about pornography and constant pro-creational (as opposed to recreational) sex. She's in such a frenzy of worry that she doesn't even realize her own success.
What follows is a raw, often unsettling and always entertaining look at pregnancy and childbirth. Strasser flaunts her ability to worry about anything, her many documented imperfections (bad relationship with mother, edgy lifestyle, inability to suffer fools gladly) and brings it all down to some seriously funny prose. There's enough celebrity-envy snark in this book to please those who like celebrities and especially those who find the whole scene foolish and vapid. I'm in the latter camp, and I found her screeds about Nancy O'Dell quite entertaining.
As a memoir with a purpose, to talk about pregnancy and childbirth, Strasser's book achieves the perfect level of "too much information." She tells you about lots of things that you might not want to hear about; stretch marks, breast-feeding classes, miscarriages, C-sections — with just the right amount of graphic unpleasantness so that we feel her raw honesty, and enjoy the raunchy humor, but generally she manages to stop short of making her readers physically ill. And she's endlessly anti-sentimental, which proves to be quite endearing.
As a parent whose baby years are buried in the distant past, I found a lot of her updates on the process of becoming a parent pretty damn interesting. Things have a come a ways since I brought my kids home from the hospital. Every pitfall along the path to parenthood gets a nod, from naming your child to picking out a car seat. Strasser's the sort of writer who can bring enough attitude to the proceedings to make even the more mundane aspects of impending parenthood seem fresh and funny.
What sets this book apart from what is apparently a cottage industry of celebrity pregnancy memoirs is what is most important to any book — good prose. Strasser has a very dark vision, but she's bristling with neurotic energy. She can whip a sentence into shape, and make it tell the brutal truth in a way that will make her readers laugh. She has plenty of shame, and she's not afraid to write about it. Sure, this is a book about getting knocked up and having a kid, written from the mother's perspective. But it's also a frank look at the way we live. Either way, it's fun to read but makes you think. Mostly, in my case, that I should read outside my own blinkered taste more often.
New to the Agony Column
09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self
08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]