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Posts Tagged ‘John Banville’

I always start a book with the intention of finishing it. Mostly, I do, although it may take awhile and I’ll be reading other books in between. That happened with Amanda Coplin’s first novel, The Orchardist (HarperCollins, purchased hardcover), which I bought back in August because it was getting such great reviews. It was slow going at first, the grave and graceful prose suited to to the subdued story of a reclusive man in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th century. William Talmadge is devoted to the land, his fruit trees, the memory of his lost sister. But when two pregnant runaways steal his fruit, he ends up sheltering the girls with unimagined consequences.  It’s a tale that’s in the telling, and I eventually was seduced by the narrative and the details of lives long ago.

I’m usually quite fond of unreliable narrators; I like the ambiguity, the play of memory and invention. But to fully appreciate John Banville’s Ancient Light (Knopf, digital galley via edelweiss), I need to go back and reread 2000’s Eclipse, which first introduces readers to actor Alex Cleave. And I think I better read Shroud, which I somehow missed, and which has some overlapping characters. One of these days. Meanwhile, Banville’s silky writing pulled me through Alex’s memories of  his teenage love affair with the mother of one of his friends, but not his present life of regret and woe. Perhaps I also should have first read Joan Acocella’s review, “Doubling Down,” in the Oct. 8 issue of The New Yorker. I appear to have missed a lot. I expect I’ll try again, one of these days…

The three novels in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy are among my favorites about World War I, bringing together imagined characters with historical ones, including famous poets and doctors. She used the same strategy in Life Class with artists and teachers, and now again in Toby’s Room (Knopf, digital galley via edelweiss), a sort of prequel-sequel. But I was put off by the too-closeness of young artist Elinor Brooke’s relationship with her brother Toby, who goes off to war and is listed as missing, presumed dead. Determined to know Toby’s fate, Elinor turns to fellow Slade students, Kit and Paul, who were both wounded on the battlefield. Kit’s grievous facial injuries tie into the true story of artists helping surgeons develop prosthetics. I get what Barker is trying to do — war disfigures all, inside and out — but I just didn’t care for the story.

I know I’m going to finish Mark Helprin’s big, bold In Sunlight and in Shadow (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley via NetGalley), because I was two-thirds through its 700 pages (in teeney galley type) before I was distracted by a couple of fast-paced crime novels. Set in post-World War II New York City with flashbacks to the war, the story centers on veteran Harry Copeland who falls in love at first sight of lovely Catherine Hale on the Staten Island ferry. His affections are returned, but repercussions ensue big-time when Catherine jilts her wealthy fiance. As in Winter’s Tale and A Soldier of the Great War, Helprin writes with lavish lyricism, burnished with nostalgia. I’m going to be upset if it doesn’t have a happy ending.

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I’ve had company from out of town and been hanging out with friends, which puts me behind on reading and writing. But there’s been lots of talking about books — who’s reading what, can’t stand this, what do you think of that. One question invariably arises: When do you give up on a book?

Several of my friends always finish what they start, trudging on to the bitter end. This book isn’t going to beat me, they declare, even as they put it down to read a magazine or turn on the TV. Others admit to skimming but vow to finish. Then there are those who feel no guilt about setting aside a book they don’t like or in which they’ve lost interest.

Over the years, I’ve finally become a setter-aside, believing that life is too short for bad books. I don’t necessarily mean “bad,” in that I’m sorry a poor tree gave its life for this tripe, although there are way too many of those non-starters around. No, I mean “bad,” as in wrong for me at this particular time for whatever reason. So I give a book 30 minutes or 30 pages, and if I’m not hooked, I’m outta there.

I never finished Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, even though people whose opinion I respect think it’s a masterpiece. I made it about halfway before deciding this was not the book for me, that I disliked all the characters and the plot was a downer. I had my own family dramas, thank you very much. I wanted escape, entertainment. I just wasn’t in the mood.

I may go back to it someday, but then again, there are way too many books I want to read, that are intellectually stimulating, wonderfully written and keep me turning pages. That’s the way I feel about John Banville’s new novel, The Infinities, in which several Greek gods insert themselves into human lives. It even sent me back to to Roberto Calasso’s splendid narrative meditation on the meaning of myth, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. I may even pick up Edith Hamilton’s Mythology before I’m finished with this tangent.

Not your cup of tea? Sip it, turn up your nose, move on.  Tastes vary. I admit to being disappointed when a longtime friend whose reading almost always matches mine disliked Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is one of my favorite novels of the last decade. Then again, I think she liked The Corrections. So there.

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