The Case of the Missing Books: Where’s the plot?

Ian Sansom’s characters are quirky, irritating, and, for the most part, good-natured. However, his plot is dullsville.

I was intrigued when I saw The Case of the Missing Books on the shelf of Book Oasis (our local used bookstore). As a bibliophile and all around nerdy gal, I like books about books. Also, the cover art is pretty great (I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but let’s be honest: it matters).

The reader finds Israel, the protagonist, at the beginning of a fish-out-of water story in Ireland. Sansom’s tone seemed reminiscient of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, but then I realized it was only the font. The story is charming at first, with Israel’s frustrations with the local slang and lack of vegetarian fare (I can relate!) but the shtick grows tired after about a hundred pages. It’s fun, but not interesting.

The only rationalization for the wild-goose chase of a plot being so boring is that Sansom is mimicking the dreary, ho-hum Irish everyday life that’s described. But for me, it’s a stretch. This novel would have made a fantastic, lovable short story; funny, palpable characters and a story that could be all wrapped up in less than 20 pages. Here I can actually summarize it in one line: A lazy Londoner looks for books in the Irish countryside. The end.

I was more disappointed because the title, The Case of the Missing Books, sounds like a great literary mystery. However, there’s no excitement or intrigue whatsoever. I just ended up feeling embarrassed for Israel; he’s so out of touch he can’t even grasp at the mystery solving lingo some other characters try to impress upon him. This detail was funny on the surface, but left me asking, what self-respecting book-obsessed librian hasn’t read some Christie, Parker, or Doyle?

Now that I’ve exhausted how horribly boring the book is, I must say I did enjoy learning what NY Times bestsellers of the recent years that Sansom hates. I have to admit, these references to other novels made me smile, if only for remembering how much better they were than Sansom’s stale work. I leave you with a couple of references to these much more quality books.

Israel “instinctively thrust his hand into his duffle coat pocket and pulled out the first thing he found there and thrust it forwards into the dog’s slavering maw – a fine use for a copy of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi”

“He tried shooing the fat clucking chicken by flapping his hands, but it wasn’t until he wobbled his tired cold, beaten up body up out of bed and turned nasty, throwing stuff from his suitcase, books, mostly…In the end it was his paperback edition of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime that did the trick. He knew that’d come in useful one day.”

One other thought: To the average person a mobile library mystery probably sounds boring, this is the first time my English sensibilities have steered me wrong. I’m chalking it up to a fluke.

Published in: on September 12, 2007 at 1:09 am  Leave a Comment  

Art Book

Most folks probably associate Jonathan Harr with his acclaimed work, A Civil Action, but I’ve just finished his newer work, The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece. I picked up this book because, I’m always looking for nonfiction that tells an interesting story, instead of generically listing facts. And I’m also fascinated with the art world (FYI: my very favorite artist is Turner)

Harr does a superb job at weaving the recent uncovering of a once lost Baroque painting, The Taking of Christ into an entertaining read. It would be very easy for this book to turn into a snore fest, but Harr shapes these real life art-historians into well-developed characters. Even the “mystery” elements of the story are cleverly told and shape into an intriguing story.

What makes the book successful, is that it is apparent that Jonathan enjoyed researching and telling this story to the world. His excitement about the events over the recent past surrounding the discovery and arguments over the painting is clear through his tone. This makes the book, a book, rather than an extraordinarily long magazine or journal article. He wants the reader to enjoy reading about this story, as much as he loved learning about it himself. Overall, his writing is at arm’s length, very journalistic in temperment, but there are glimmers of excitement and even giddiness when he describes certain events. Most memorable is when the art restorer, Bennedetti considers that the painting he has been asked to restore could be the lost Caravaggio and will become the pinnacle of his career.

As much as I was entranced by Harr’s work, I was curious as to what my friend, a grad student an art history, would think about it. “It’s like what a romance novel is to literature,” he scoffed, “But if it gets people interested in art, then it’s worthwhile.” He added that it’s admirable that Harr did his homework, and was authentic with his facts. “It’s not like it’s The Da Vinci Code.” I know better than to bring up Dan Brown in his company. He hates that he hates it, because he always has to explain to people that he doesn’t hate it for religious reasons, but because it’s an insult to art scholars. So, I wasn’t completely embarrassed by telling him about reading The Lost Painting.

So maybe Harr’s work is a little more “The Joy of Sex” and a little less Harlequin romance? I think so.

Published in: on September 3, 2007 at 4:02 am  Leave a Comment  

Reading Motivation

Usually I read a book because I want to. Makes sense, right? There were of course those times when I read books in school because I HAD to (I’m looking at you Bleak House) but I suddenly find myself reading a book to earn some brownie points at work. The book is not my usual fare. The title requires background music: Vince Flynn’s The Third Option. Dun, dun, duhhhh…..

Okay, so this book is, in short, a book for middle age men who are trying to avoid a midlife crisis by vicariously living through an ill-conceived CIA assasin. It is the kind of book that appears in front of men travelling in business class of a 747 or waiting in a doctor’s office. It fits every horrible stereotype you may associate with the government spy thriller. When my boss offered it to me after I explained what an avid reader I was, I was a bit skeptical. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but seriously…there’s a red CIA logo and a pic of the Washington monument in the fiery sunset. C’MON! This beat-up paperback promptly got shoved in my bottom desk drawer.

About a week after ignoring the Vince Flynn thriller (seriously, who is named Vince Flynn??…oh yeah, someone who names their protagonist Mitch RAPP) my boss questioned how I liked the book. After responding that I hadn’t gotten around to it yet because another manager lent me a book (not a total lie- someone let me borrow The Dead Father’s Club which is another post entirely) he looked disappointed, and this is what made me actually read this piece of crap: He wanted a woman’s opinion of this guy’s writing. He said he had never known a woman who had read a Flynn novel and was interested in the female perception/reaction to the work.

This piqued my interest and got me reading. Yes it’s a piece of trash writing, but unfortunately it’s entertaining as hell. It’s sort of like a bad action movie, you are generally embarrassed to go see it, but you end up enjoying it. I don’t think Vince Flynn will make his way onto my regular reading list, but it’s a nice commercial break. Plus, I’m always interested in giving “the female perspective” to anyone who’s willing to listen. The nice part is, is that my boss will admit it’s crap writing, but I am looking forward to giving him my opinion as to how one-sided and underdeveloped every, single female character in the book is. Hey, he asked for the female perspeactive, this is certainly no time to hold back!

Oh, speaking of crap/trash do go see the Transformers movie. It’s great, dumb fun.

Published in: on August 16, 2007 at 1:04 am  Comments (1)  

Storm in June

The first novella in Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise revolves around the lives of several French citizens fleeing Paris during the German invasion of WWII. Although this isn’t a typical summertime fare, Nemirovsky’s character sketches are intriguing and an honest portrayal of human nature.

Nemirovsky’s writing vividly expresses the duality of the human race. While at first, she evokes sympathy for the Pericand family, once the details of their existence are revealed, they are no more noble than any of the other characters described. Phillipe, the missionary son reveals his true thoughts about the group of young boys he is leading through the exodus; although he later confesses it as a moment of evil weakness, his true feelings are revealed when he follows the two boys into the house, saying “Oh you little brats! Just wait till I sort you out.” The family’s most horrifying act, though, is leaving Monsieur Pericand senior behind. Madame Pericand does not even realize it until it is too late to go and find them.

The only hopeful and empathetic people, who do not give in to selfish needs and have a glimmer of selflessness are the Michauds. They both help those who are hurt in the train bombing, and worry about the well-being of their soldier son. However, in the end, even they must revert to selfish undermining of their boss to gain their money. It could be argued that they have no choice when facing someone as uncivil and abusive as their boss, Corbin. The couple is given strength and renewed hope only by the idea of getting back at Corbin for his animosity. Monsieur Michaud claims that if he sees Corbin, his only recourse would be to spit in his face.

Nemirovsky’s depictions of these French citizens are stark and realistic. Although there is some depiction of love and generosity, they are always stamped out in favor of one’s own self when survival is the matter at hand. I am not claiming that Nemirovsky portrays selfishness as the preliminary motivation of a person, but that it is easily given into during a time of disaster and panic. There is no clear division of good and evil, only the blur of an honest humanity.

Published in: on August 5, 2007 at 3:20 am  Leave a Comment