"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Monday, April 15, 2019

French Exit: Maybe a Turn-off to Miss....

Patrick deWitt's French Exit a strange book! Thankfully, it's not as gruesome as his The Sisters Brothers, but at least there he addresses some interesting things, among them the mythology of the West and the damage done by mining. Here we've got a mother and son couple who've gone through billions and now find themselves reduced to retreating to a borrowed apartment in Paris.

Poor them!

DeWitt's novel reminded me a little of Boris Vian's cult favourite L'Écume des jours (called, improbably, Froth on the Daydream in its English translation) in that the characters move through a number of adventures in a dreamlike Paris, heading toward an irrevocable ending. If deWitt were inspired by Vian, he is not alone: En attendant Bojangles (Waiting for Bojangles in English) by Olivier Bourdeau also shares an uncanny resemblance with Vian's book.

But playing the game of literary sleuthing is not enough to give deWitt's book more than a passable rating. Maybe better to read Vian and be done with it. Or better yet, go to Paris and live your own quirky adventure.

(This French Exit, is not to be confused with Brexit, by the way, and I'm looking forward to some sharp-tongued Brit writing a satire about what's happening in the UK at the moment.)

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Raging Storms, Raging Hormones in a Very Dark Tale

Once again the library discussion group where I'm filling in for the leader this spring turned up a very interesting book.  I would never have picked this up, since I don't read mysteries very much, but I've very glad I was introduced to Peter May and his characters on the Isle of Lewis, one of the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland.

We are plunged into the mystery with a gory scene of two teenage lovers seeking a quiet place who discover a disemboweled corpse swinging from the rafters of an abandoned boat house.  Within one short chapter, May gives us a taste of the main themes of the book: hormones and fundamentalist religion, wild weather and wild men, fathers and sons. Then the story itself opens as Fin Macleod, a detective based in Edinburgh, is called to investigate the murder on the island where he was born and from which he could not wait to escape when he turned 18. 

Alternating between Fin's first person memories of his childhood and adolesence and a third person recounting of the investigation, May does a masterful job of maintaining suspense, giving us an intimate look into life on the Isle of Lewis which is like many other places on the edges of 21st century society (I was reminded of Appalachia), and conveying the anguish of a man who has lost a son.

The weather and the sea play an enormous role in the story, and here May's writing is compelling.   Ultimately, though, it becomes almost tedious, since May, like many other mystery writers, succumbs to the temptation to fill pages with detail that are only somewhat related to the yarn they're telling.  (And here I'm thinking of Louise Penny, whose delightful Armand Gamache stories contain too much about the good food eaten in Three Pines!)

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Widow by Fiona Barton: Journalism as Sensationalism or Sociology?

I probably wouldn't have read Fiona Barton's The Widow, had not one of the women in a book discussion group I lead found herself faced with it shortly after the death of her husband four years ago. She was visiting her daughter in the aftermath, and the young woman suggested she check out the reading group in the library nearest her home. My friend did, only to discover that The Widow was the reading for that month. She apparently was a little shaken but went to the discussion anyway, and came away pleased: the widow in the story was completely different from herself, and, it seems, her terms of reference were shaken a bit, in a good way

Not that the story is an easy one. Jean's husband has recently died, and Kate, an aggressive reporter for a London newspaper, wants to get her to tell the inside story on the man's involvement in the disappearance of a toddler a few years before. Glen, who clearly is a child-pornography addict, has been cleared of the crime because the case was thrown out of court on a technicality. He even wins a settlement for wrongful arrest. But both Kate and the detective investigating the case are still suspicious, and so they close in on Jean after Glen's death, ready to get the real story.

Barton, a former reporter who probably has a lot in common with Kate, tells the tale skillfully, keeping us off balance until the end. She also shows a face of sensational journalism that is both very interesting and repugnant. Paying people for exclusive interviews is common in the UK, although not in North America. (Here paying for a story is more likely a way to kill it, as witness the way the National Inquirer bought Stormy Daniels' tale of her tryst with Donald Trump and then sat on it.) Kate may want to bring to light the truth about the crime in hopes that it will protect other children, but she also wants to make a media splash for her newspaper.

That kind of dogged reporting can be valuable for a society: The Globe and Mail's incessant harping on the SNC-Lavalin case is a Canadian case in point. So is the continued surveillance of the Trump administration by The New York Times and the Washington Post. The question is: would resources expended in pursuing sensational interviews be better spent going after corruption and systemic wrong-doing?

Probably, although I'm reminded of a story one of my profs in J School told about a celebrated murder case in the 1950s. The New York Daily News covered it for weeks with front page stories and many photos that were dubbed too sensational. The New York Times also carried news about it, but didn't receive the same criticism. When the actual number of column inches of coverage in the two papers were compared, however, he found that the NYTimes actually carried more. The difference, he told us, was that what the Daily News carried was considered over-the-top, but the NYTimes was "sociology."