Thursday, November 12, 2009

Empire Falls and other strange places

True to this season of masochistic reading, I have decided it was time to finally get Richard Russo over with. I saw him several years ago reading excerpts from his then latest book, Empire Falls. He's a masterful reader, and had an entire auditorium in hysterics.

I have since bought the book at a much lower price, and it has been sitting on my stash shelf for several years. yesterday I took it down, resolved to finally see what all the shouting was about.

I got about a quarter of the way through before I realized that either he had failed to make me care about these people--or reading about Miles Roby and the assorted loons in Empire Falls was so well done, and the characters so finely and truly constructed, it was like reading about people I knew, grew up with, and was less than impressed with the lot of them. For me they are not the exotic species they might be to someone from, say, Duluth, or East Texas. In much the same way that the Beans of Egypt Maine weren't necessarily interesting, just sad and way too locally recognizable.

There is something about reading of the shenanigans of people so sharply familiar, that any humor there might actually be in all of it gets washed out by a faint embarrassment that you do indeed KNOW people like this, and they ain't funny a-tall. At least when you're standing that close to them. When you start picking apart the foibles of the neighbors, that's one thing. It's done with people who already know the outlines, you just fill in the details of what Susy Mae is up to THIS time...

I kept reading, and reading, looking for the funny bits, and then understood that if the funny bits were there, they were subtle, and it took Mr. Russo's masterful reading to bring them out.

I am also working my way through another Doris Lessing novel, "Summer Before the Dark" and it seems that Ms. Lessing is about to have her heroine overthink herself right into madness. It does seem that the heroines do that a lot in her books, just think things to death. Nothing comes easily for them, and if it seems to, they have to examine it under a microscope until the wings fall off. Classics, I keep telling myself. These are classics. Must Read Classics now and then. As a reward, I promise myself the next Robert Parker novel, or Sue Grafton, or the entire sweeep of Terry Pratchett, from one end of his series to the other.


  1. Both Stephen King's _Under the Dome_ and Terry Pratchett's _Unseen Academicals_ arrived today. Reading King first, because I want to take my time over the Pratchett, as there's a pretty good chance that it's his last.

  2. I was doubtful there would even be a next, last year when I read that he was planning yet another. I think that makes 36 in the series. It takes me 2-5 days to finish one of his, depending on content and size (they get thicker as you get further into the series), and I skip the Hollywood one entirely (not one of his best efforts, IMHO).

    Just hope this one is in paperback, otherwise Im gonna have to wait. One of his middleish ones was in hardcover for the longest timem, and I despaired of every seeing it, in any form.

    Question: do you ever work your way through the series, in order? It's a great way to chart the growth of a writer, and his creations...

  3. Talking of local characters, I just started the new John Irving which, so far at least, is set in your neck of the woods.

  4. I haven't been following Irving since he departed New Hampshire and went off into strange places (or stranger than normal, for him) and truly I had begun to weary of the eternal dwarf, the mercy killings (when you don't know what else to do with a character, kill 'em off), and the frog voiced short person who seemed to be so prevalent in most of his early work.

    Now Im curious as to what he might be up to again, and thank you for the heads up on this one. I may just take a flyer on it. (library edition, this time)

    The saving grace in his books is, at least the characters, while appearing to be local, aren't of the "Beans" variety, the kind that keep wringer washers at one end of the porch and an old studebaker at the other *s*

  5. Just remember, when you read Irving, beware of the bears.
    Every few years I do go back and read the Discworld in order, too. Other times, though, I just dip my toe in and read one of the sub-series contained within, or a linked book or two. Suprised you didn't care for MOving Pictures -- it is, after all, the introduction of one of my absolute favorite denizens of Ankh-Morpork!

    Side note: Last year, for Christmas, Bucky gave me a clay model of A-M he'd made in Art class, complete with the Tower of Art looming overhead. How cool is that?

  6. how very cool indeed. Just what you truly needed even if you didnt know it.
    I guess that's why the man wrote so many of these things, so everyone would have at least one utter favorite, and one utter not favorite. But just for you, I'm going to read ALL of them this time. Even Moving Pictures.

  7. ;)

    I read the Tales of the Ramtops Witches less than the others, which is strange, because I love Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg and whoever the Maiden is this week -- Maskerade is the one I'd tap as weakest, though. I can't possibly name my favorite Discworld novel. Last week it was probably Making Money, for obvious reasons. I think if I had to pick one I'd have to pick two:Jingo, because in many ways it represents Sam Vimes Finest Hour, and Nobby Nobbs in drag; and Thief of Time, because Susan and Lo Tse working together is a thing of beauty. And fighting the Auditors with chocolates is poetry in cocoa.

  8. Cohen the Barbarian and his band of loons, the book in which Sam (it may be the first one) falls in love, looks across the table to his future bride and says, "she's magnificent, she's a city" and I am undone.

    also "where's my cow", whichever novel that is, and a father's love traveling miles and miles on the wings of a bed time story...

    The barricades are magnificent architecture
    and yes the Ramtops witches as well. He writes deep, and on both sides of humor, which is not an easy thing to do. My favorite character has to be Death. He seems so puzzled by us all, and bewildered. As Santa Claus he's a delight.

    He mades Douglas Adams look like a one-note writer, frankly. There just is no comparison.

  9. D'accord.

    Adams, as wonderful as he was, lost something as the years went by. He grew cynical. Pratchett, you can tell, honestly loves his people.

    There are very few real villains on the Disc. Even the wonderful pair from The Truth and the Man Who Would Be Patrician in Making Money were more misguided than evil. Who needs human villains when you've got The Auditors?

    In fact, I can only think of one real human villain, on actual evil person on the Disc, and he is, as far as I am concerned, one of the most frightening and effective Evils I've ever encountered -- Mr. Teatime. He's a scary, scary little man.

    Pratchett's real enemy seems to be Conformism.

  10. I reread one of his books awhile back, and was struck by the huge difference in outlook between Adams and Pratchett--Douglas Adams seems to be a one dimensional writer, and there is almost nothing in his stuff beyond the snappy patter, the drawling commentary, and the lack of any emotion (beyond the ends of one's own fingertips) for anyone, anywhere. I think "oh well" probably sums it up about as good as anything.

    And when I reread Terry Pratchett, I am struck by how his characters evolve, and grow, and care about each other. Oh, I forgot. The Librarian. The perfect description, 'and he felt a small, soft, leathery little paw slide into his..."

    TeaTime is as close to a real villain as it gets, agreed, and of course the Auditors. But even they have their wondrous moments.

  11. I just finished "Unseen Academicals". I am sad.

    The Discworld is an amazing body of work, the sharpest commentary on human nature ever written, and an astounding act of narrative consistency. But it's clear that Pratchett's world is shrinking. Although wikipedia says there's another Tiffany Aching book in the works, and mentions the possibility of another Moist Von Lipwig book, somehow I doubt it. I didn't find anything on his website to indicate this.

    It will be a miracle, one that I would be overjoyed to see, but if "Unseen Academicals" had been the first Discworld novel, there probably would not have been any more, which is something that can't be said about any of the other ones.

    Fans of the Disc will buy this book, and read it, and enjoy it. It has some great bits. It just seems somehow disconnected and incomplete, as if the notes for the first half of two different books were jumbled together randomly, sorted into rough cronological order, and connected together by plugging them into the outline of the first half of a third.

    This still results in a better book than 90% of the stuff out there, don't get me wrong. It's just that I, and I am sure many many others, expect something more from Pratchett than we do from the latest techno-thriller or cookie cutter mystery novel.

    So read it. You'll be sad, but we'll always have Sto Lat...

  12. oh, honey, what a shame. you know, they say one of the signs of incipient alzheimer's (not always, but one of many) is the way one writes sentences. It's as if the brain is only able to compose simple sentences, one thought at a time, period, on to the next.
    Knowing that, I began to notice in a few books near the end of the series that many of his sentences were just that, in places where a complex sentence would have done as well if not better.

    The next time you read his later books, see if you pick up on that. It also makes me wonder if hemingway wasn't an alzheimer's person waiting to happen. It happened to be his trademark style, but it still makes me think about such things.

    and yes, sad. I will read it, when it comes out here, and hope it's the last one in the series. And as you say, we'll always have Sto Lat, and Ramtops, and Sam Vimes and Detritus.

  13. and now Sir Terry Pratchett has been gone nearly a year, and we read on and on, admiring, mourning the man but celebrating something that in its own way is as enduring and readable (perhaps moreso) as Dickens' books, and at the end you realize they aren't books as such, just very long chapters...