Thursday, December 27, 2007

Toujours Provence

For unknown reasons, John Mayer wrote a scathing critique on his otherwise interesting blog about people who call others douchebags. Sure, it's not nice to call people names and whatnot, but, after a lot of thought, it seems pretty clear to me that some people out there are total douchebags, and they're going to be called out on it occasionally. There's nothing I or John Mayer can do to stop it. And who's a douchebag? I figure they're pompous jerks. Not "someone out of my comfort zone", John Mayer.

I only mention all this because while struggling through Toujours Provence (1991), all I could think was, "God, Peter Mayle is such a douche."

I read A Year in Provence (1989) a long time ago, and found it charming and interesting. I love reading about other cultures, and Mayle gave a lot of interesting details about what it's like to live and (especially) eat in the region. Toujours Provence is more about what it's like to be a famous novelist living in Provence with crazy fans knocking on your door all the time while you're trying to enjoy your fine French wine and make fun of your hillbilly French neighbor. I only made it about half-way through before I had to stop reading it.

Then We Came to the End

Then We Came to the End (2007) by Joshua Ferris is, for the most part, written in first-person plural (that's "we" if it's been a while since your last English class), and it's a really impressive piece of literature. He just wrote the HELL out of that book.

The story is about a group of people in an ad department in Chicago, whose office is going through the dreaded rolling layoffs of the late nineties. I went through those same layoffs in San Francisco so the book struck a particular chord with me. The images of people trying to "look busy", of scrambling to put down their coworkers in front of the boss, was so accurate. The threat of job loss is so terrifying to some that the idea takes over their lives. It's kind of bizarre to think that in the corporate office environment, the supposed bastion of professionalism and civilization, that the worst comes out in people, but experiencing those layoffs myself was something akin to personal torture.

As everyone knows, we spend most of our waking lives at work - so it's no surprise that our work families dominate our lives just as much as the families we choose. Ferris's characters' relationships are just as complex as any familial bond - sometimes sharing, sometimes hiding their secrets, illnesses, shames, misdeeds and triumphs.

What I found unfaltering fascinating about Ferris's (first) book was that he managed to write from this quite unusual point of view and still maintain a very warm, inclusive narrative. In The Virgin Suicides, also first-person plural, the narrative voice is so distant, you never have a feel for who the unknown neighbor boys are. Ferris, conversely, pulls the reader into the story, including them in the events.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Little Friend

I thought the beginning of The Little Friend by Donna Tartt had a real To Kill a Mockingbird quality. It takes place in a small, southern town, the lead character is a precocious young girl (Harriet) and she even has a goof-ball, show off friend like Dill. But it's not just the similarity of location and characterization that led me to that comparison - at times her writing is inspired, although, to tell the truth, sometimes it's not.

Tartt makes no small point of racial inequality in the south, and presents an uncompromising view of the young (wealthy, white) girl's insensitivity toward their (African American) maid. Unlike Scout, she's not the perfect image of a good-hearted kid, she's got flaws.

About half-way through, the similarities to To Kill a Mockingbird end. It becomes a decidedly more late 20th century story. In an effort to bring her brother's killer to justice, Harriet finds herself involved with characters much more terrifying than Boo Radley.

Ultimately I found the book a little frustrating. I lost some patience with the drawn out mystery and I thought the writing style was a bit uneven. I'd be interested in what other people thought of it, so let me know if you've read it.