Friday, January 21, 2011

Finding Treasure

There are times when I, truly believe...I can compose a decent sentence or spin a clever yarn; but then I inevitably run head-on into an example of true mastery - mastery not just of words but mastery in the unfolding of a story. In short, I experience the brilliance of a gifted writer, and self-confidence in my own ability deflates like a sad balloon. As disconcerting as those moments are for the writer in me, they are pure Heaven to the reader in me.

First, a little background information might be useful to explain what I mean. Very recently I took another long road trip, this time to Virginia, the home of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and more importantly, my son and grandson. Although the weather collapsed a few days after I left to return home, paving the streets with sheets of ice that made them treacherous, it was crisp and clear and sunny during my stay with just the right bite of winter in the air. The town where this part of my little family lives is nestled at the foot of the Appalachian mountain range. Why do mountaintops lure us to them? Is it because we feel tall and mighty upon reaching their summits, or because they remind us how truly fragile we are? The visits themselves are always enjoyable and filled with family things to do. However, the solitary travel there and back can be gnawingly monotonous without a good book to keep one company.

As I usually do, I visited the library on the island for audio books before cruising out of Savannah. Golden Age mysteries are usually what I select for on-the-road reading, largely because they entertain without mesmerizing me to the point that I forget where I am or what I'm doing and drive off a cliff or into a cow pasture. This trip was no different. I started with Gambit by Rex Stout starring the detective Nero Wolfe. I had never read anything by Stout; however, he came highly recommended. I was able to name the murderer myself (always a disappointment) but not until the last disc. Not quite Dashiell Hammett, but readable.

The next book in the queue was Crocodile On The Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters. Peters, whose real name is Barbara Mertz, has a PhD from the University of Chicago in Egyptology and her Amelia Peabody mystery series recounts the adventures of Amelia and her husband, archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson, as they dig up ancient tombs, retrieve artifacts, and solve mysteries while fending off fiends and villains. Years ago I picked up The Hippopotamus Pool and enjoyed it very much. On my own library shelves it sits next to The Ape Who Guards The Balance, Falcon At The Portal, He Shall Thunder In The Sky, and Lord Of The Silent. I've never read any of these others, although I am forever meaning to do. By happy accident, it turned out Crocodile is the first of the series; it was nice to have the background. I liked it enough to give me incentive to press on with its neglected progeny one day.

On the heels of the Peters book came, A Place Of Hiding by Elizabeth George. One summer I was given Deception On His Mind and read it at the beach. Although I only remember small bits, I must have liked it well enough because I also have A Traitor To Memory, In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner and...well, one other I can't recall right at this moment, none of which I've read. A Place of Hiding was somewhere between a warm bottle of beer and flat champagne. I'll still drink it, but I could be having a lot more fun.

As I neared home, I had a choice between Through A Glass Darkly by Kareen Koen and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (author of The Remains Of The Day). I had no idea what possessed me to pick either of them up at the library. First, I didn't think they were mysteries, my favorite genre for audio. The cover on the latter didn't appeal to me at all, and the title sounded like a romance novel. Not my style. I tried to reach for Through A Glass Darkly (I liked the title much better than the other); but, it had slid out of reach on the passenger seat, and I couldn't pull over on the highway. By default, its geography determined that Never Let Me Go was next on the menu.

From the wet pavement I could tell it had rained earlier in the day; but, the clouds had moved on and the late afternoon shadows were long and deep, each second drawing me closer to home. It was a Monday and I very nearly had the road to myself as I slipped quietly through tall pines. I slid the first of the eight discs into the player and waited a moment. The lovely, soothing voice of Rosalyn Landor filled the silence, "Chapter One. My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years..." What I heard after that was calming and chilling and beautiful and sinister all at once.

I arrived home with only part of disc one completed, and anticipated resuming it on my way to work the next morning. My commute is only 20 minutes, which equates to approximately 15 pages covered each way. Not enough time for this book...not by a long shot. I've never simultaneously listened to an audio book while also reading it in its physical form. As I might have mentioned before, the island library is very small. I seldom find a particular book I'm wanting by walking in and searching the shelves. I usually have to order it from the system and then wait a few days before it's available. This book was special; I couldn't stop. Short of sitting in my car for hours on end with the motor idling, there was only one thing to be done. And so it was, I would at least give it a try and check the library stacks on my way home. I headed for the proper aisle and ran my hand over the spines...G...H...I. At first I was deflated. I could see there were only a handful of books in the "I" portion of the shelf. So when my hand stopped on Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, I exclaimed (shouted, really), "I can't believe my luck!!" This outburst caused the librarian to look up from her keyboard. She didn't frown or tell me to "Shuush." She peered above her glasses and smiled at me. She smiled the smile of a confederate book fiend; the "I know...I know" smile. We were in alliance; I was on friendly turf.

It is working quite well, this listening in part and then picking up the thread of the story and reading in part. Today is Friday. I can stay up all night to finish it if I chose. Since starting it, I've heard that it is best to approach Never Let Me Go without knowing anything about the story line. I quite agree, so I will say nothing about it. And as well, I will leave the reviews to those who are adept at such things...the academics and others with scholarly or literary attainments. I am simply a reader who - on particularly good days - fancies herself to be a writer as well. Besides, I can't even pretend I could ever do this book justice.


  1. I think we all recognize excellence when we see it. I wish there were an easy way to tell others about it when we find it.

  2. I have been meaning to read this book for the longest time! Thank you for reminding me of it, wrapped up in a beautiful story, as always. Tell the writer in you this isn't a zero sum game. Ishiguro can be brilliant in his way, you can be brilliant in yours and we will all be happier for enjoying both of you, :)

  3. I'll definitely look for it! And I completely agree with litlove; the fact that other writers are fabulous in their ways doesn't mean you aren't just as fabulous in yours.

  4. Deb, I'm not sure I could ever define art, but I think I know it when I see it. And then I bore my friends to death talking about it until they finally give in.

    Litlove, please do put this one at the top of your TBR pile. I would hate for you to miss it. What a writer!! I understand they've made a movie of it, but I would not wish to see it.

    Tinky, we're all Fab. Please check this one out. The last book that moved me as much was The Book Thief. I just finished Never Let Me Go today and will not stop thinking about it for a long time.

  5. Re Remains of the Day,I've always found it interesting when a Japanese book elides so seamlessly into an English movie: both islands, both very restrained cultures, both small places where even tiny gestures have resonance.

  6. Shelley, I didn't read Remains of the Day, but saw the film, which which was marvelous. Now, of course, I'm very keen to get my hands on it.

  7. I was just browsing for relevant blog posts for my project research and I happened to discover yours. Thanks for the useful information! :-)

  8. What a lovely joyful piece of writing, Grad! I'm so glad the librarian shared your enthusiasm over your find. That's exactly what a librarian should be like - not one of those stern, thin-lipped horn-rimmed glasses types.

    And you're so modest about your writing - you always do a great job of inspiring me to read just with the wonderful atmosphere you conjure up and your ability to be so immersed in the magic of a story...

  9. Euganath, okay, I'm going to have to polish up on my German, which I did take as an undergrad for a couple of years. I had to write I a short story one year for that class which, if my memory serves, I named "Liebe auf Erste Blick." What is your project research about?

    Bakersdaughter, I am so happy to see you back among us. I wish my writing was half as good and as clever as yours, but I'll take the compliments (whenever I can!).

  10. This is a book you either love or hate. I came down on the side of loved it and I am glad you found it so good too!

  11. Stefanie, I think I might not have liked it half so much if I hadn't started listening to it first. It was so well-read, that I continued to hear Landor's voice, which really does draw one into the story, even when I was reading the hard copy. Have you really heard that people hate it?? I'm happy I didn't read any reviews first.

  12. I was very interested to read on knowing you'd been drawn into Never Let Me Go - it completely divided my now disbanded book club, and I completely agree it's better to come at this novel blind. I loved its creepy strangeness.