Monday, February 11, 2008

Some First Chapter Reviews

I've been reading an awful lot of books lately, but not finishing many. I thought I'd spend this post chatting about just the beginnings of a few of them...

An Arsonist's Guide To Writers' Homes in New England starts marvelously. I borrowed a copy from my store and read it during two lunch breaks, and I found it funny and smart: the narrator, who somehow managed to burn down Emily Dickinson's house as a teenager, rebuilds his life, but his past comes back to haunt him. He's a little bit unreliable. I was enjoying it so much I actually bought it in hardcover. But when I brought it home and started reading again, the plot was suddenly implausible and the writing leaden: so many sentences about walking from one place to another. I had no interest in finishing! I gave it to John and he had the same experience. Dang! It was so good at first.

The Keep by Jennifer Egan -- I think Jennifer Egan has the perfect career, don't you? She's about my age (or looks it) and could win a prize OR end up on the bestseller list, either one! This novel is about some American men wandering in and around an eastern European castle with satellite phones. I never figured out why. I felt like I had to read an awful lot to get that far. It's true, I'm an undisciplined reader, but I do plan on getting back to The Keep some day. I'm sure it gets better.

The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant is really quite wonderful -- all of the writing is carefully brilliant. Sentence after sentence is marvelous: "The furniture was their own, yet the place looked like a furnished room. Even the family photograph on the dark, clubfooted table had the quality of a hotel-room reproduction. There were things that Norman did not want to know." The rhythms are a little odd and like that of a young writer still not totally confident, and it reminds me of that really early Roth novel, Letting Go, which was published at almost the same time. I only just started this one, and haven't yet found a solid two hours to sink into it and become fully engaged, but I will.

I scored a galley of All the Sad Young Literary Men (to be published in April) by Keith Gessen, apparently of the magazine n+1, which apparently hates bloggers. I say apparently because I get all this stuff from other blogs. What kind of craziness is this? There's a chapter or two about some New York writery types, then suddenly inserted is a chapter about Al Gore's daughter going to college with someone. I can't tell with whom, because the point of view changes from third to first -- who are you? It is all extraordinarily difficult to follow and also, possibly, the most claustrophobic thing I have ever read. It's a bit like listening to someone go on and on and on at a graduate student party. Do you want to read about Ivy Leagueish aspiring writers and their sex lives? I didn't think so.

5 comments:

5 Red Pandas said...

I agree with your assessment of Arsonist. I did finish it, but I can't remember how it ends. I felt like he was channeling Jonathan Ames but didn't go far enough, and wasn't as funny.

I suspect that there are people who want to read about Ivy League-ers sex lives. Myself not included.

Now Rhian, you know that we're patiently awaiting some word on the novel of the moment.

rmellis said...

Funny -- that book was the whole reason I started that post, and then I forgot to include it. Subconsciously I must have realized I probably ought to read the whole thing before opening my trap on that one.

zoe said...

I feel compelled to finish every book I start -- no matter how rubbish it is. I think it's a superstitious thing -- what if the ending is worth the trudge?

Interestingly, I have never perservered with a book and then been rewarded with an amazing ending and yet I sometimes waste hours of quality reading time with over-hyped pish.

rmellis said...

I wish I could finish every book I start -- I really respect that. But I'm just dreadful about finishing things unless someone is actually depending on me to do it. And even then... (sorry JRL, your Marshall McLuhan cross stitch will be finished before you retire, I promise).

jrlennon said...

Ah yes...there's still a space on my office wall for it...

...I wanted to like "Arsonists' Guide" very much...and I loved the voice-based comedy of the opening chapter...but then it turned into an episode of Three's Company. He's a funny writer, though--I will check out the next one.