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Open Letters Bestseller List Feature 2015

By (October 1, 2015) No Comment

stacksAirport bookstores, the front table of Barnes & Noble, among the decidedly non-bookish bins of the big box outlets, and quietly adorning a secret, shame-faced shelf at your favorite indie: they live and breed among us now as they have for a hundred years. “It’s a bestseller” is all you have to say when a woman on the bus gives your title an interested eye. “It wasn’t a bestseller” is all you have to say when it comes out that you’ve published a book yourself and your audience shifts from foot to foot, wondering how they’ll worm out of never having heard of it; you may say it laughing, but they’ll never laugh back: instead you’ll get a pat on the arm, a wan smile, a “better luck next time.” There is only, it turns out, one game in town. There only ever was.

They will never go away, and neither will OLM. As we did in 2008 and 2009, Open Letters Monthly reviews the bestseller list; in this case, we chose the New York Times hardcover fiction bestsellers as of September 1st, 2015

go set a watchman#1 Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman
Harper, 2015
By Lisa Peet

Has there ever, in the history of secular publishing, been another book that was as exhaustively hyped as Go Set a Watchman? This isn’t a rhetorical question; I’m genuinely wondering. Serials have always generated their own momentum—Charles Dickens’s readers crowding the New York and Boston harbors to meet the ship carrying the latest installation of The Old Curiosity Shop, or Harry Potter fans lining up at midnight—as have the formerly smuggled and banned. But the excitement around those books had nothing to do with their provenance; readers never doubted how they were written, or when, or why. The relentless flurry of gossip around the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has more in common, to tell the truth, with Snuff and The Blair Witch Project: medium-to-low budget films that drove ticket sales through cryptic hints that maybe, just maybe, some of that footage wasn’t actually staged—movies that were far more interesting to talk about than they were to watch.

From the moment Harper Lee’s manuscript was “discovered” in 2014, conjecture flew fast and furious. Was it meant as a sequel to Lee’s beloved 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, or an early draft? Had her lawyer, Tonja Carter, really been unaware of its existence until it suddenly and suspiciously surfaced after the death of Harper’s sister and guardian, Alice, who likely never would have agreed to its seeing the light of day? Was Harper—at the time of the manuscript’s discovery 88 years old, blind and deaf, in an assisted living facility—compos mentis enough to understand what the work’s publication would mean? Hadn’t she asserted for the past 55 years that she didn’t have another book in her?

The final question, of course—one that would make or break any other novel—was: Is it any good? (Everyone had to wait on that last point; HarperCollins declined to print advance readers’ copies. If you wanted get a look at Lee’s mysterious novel, you had to buy the finished copy like everyone else. And everyone did just that. It was the most pre-ordered book in HarperCollins’s history, and sold more than one million copies in the U.S. and Canada the first week it dropped.)

So: Is it any good?

Nope, not really. It is, as the publisher admitted early on, a rough draft. According to the most popular story of its genesis, this was the first draft Lee submitted to J.B. Lippincott & Co. in 1957. Editor Tay Hohoff saw a spark of literary greatness in the manuscript, and over the following few years helped Lee mold it into what would become her bestselling novel. If nothing else, Watchman should give the reader a healthy respect for what a good editor can do.

Lee’s beloved narrator Scout Finch is at the center of Watchman, along with her father Atticus. But here it’s the mid-1950s and she’s Jean Louise, in her 20s, returning to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, from New York. And Atticus, far from the sainted ur-father of Mockingbird, reveals himself as a racist and reactionary in the face of the encroaching civil rights movement. Again, the noise around the book drowned out the more salient points. Sure, a bigoted Atticus railing against the NAACP is a disappointment to pretty much everyone who loved Mockingbird’s fairy tale father—which is pretty much everyone, from Michiko Kakutani onward. But what’s missing in Watchman is the tight writing that made it all go down so smoothly in the first place.

The voice Lee gave Scout in Mockingbird—not that of an eight-year-old girl, as people always claim, but that of an adult remembering with deadpan clarity what it was like to be an eight-year-old girl—was masterful. Watchman, on the other hand, is just talky. Jean Louise talks at Atticus; Atticus talks at Jean Louise. Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack talks too, and her paramour Hank, and her Aunt Alexandra, and Jean Louise talks back at them. Lee had a lot of points she wanted to make in this book, and bless her heart, she made them—entirely at the expense of good narrative.

Her father’s voice was patient: “You were saying—?”

“Yes sir. I was saying that I—I don’t know much about government and economics and all that, and I don’t want to know much, but I do know that the Federal Government to me, to one small citizen, is mostly dreary hallways and waiting around. The more we have, the longer we wait and the tireder we get.”

To be sure, glimmers of Lee’s future novel shine through. She’s at her best describing people and places: Jem and Dill from Mockingbird put in appearances in some lovely childhood flashbacks, no doubt what caught Hohoff’s attention in the first place, and there are some brilliant descriptions of houses, landscapes, and folks. Aunt Alexandra, Jean Louise’s longtime sparring partner, gets some of Lee’s best portraiture:

That her son had developed all the latent characteristics of a three-dollar bill escaped her notice—all she knew was that she was glad he lived in Birmingham because he was oppressively devoted to her, which meant that she felt obliged to make an effort to reciprocate, which she cold not with any spontaneity do.

But there are also too many church jokes for anyone not raised Baptist, and too many clever 1950s cultural references that haven’t aged well, along the lines of: “His attitude was Asquithian, and he knew she appreciated him for his patience.” It’s an interesting mess of a manuscript, but a mess all the same.

So: Is it any good? Not really. In an annoyed post-publication piece in the New York Times, Joe Nocera argued that Watchman should never have been published, calling it “a phony literary event.” But I disagree. It was a real literary event. Go Set a Watchman accomplished what every book in the history of modern publishing has aimed for, especially in this era of interconnectedness. It brought an entire literary public—or at least a large portion of it—together in the virtual village green book club that lives at the sunny crossroads of blogs and book reviews, print and pixel, highbrow and pop culture. Like the book or hate it, we all got to take part in the discussion for a month or so this summer. Sometimes—once in awhile—that’s better than a good book.

girlonthetrain#2 Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train
Riverhead Books, 2015
by Rohan Maitzen

Years ago, during a terribly tense period of our lives when we were waiting anxiously, endlessly, for the phone to ring, my husband and I watched a lot of really bad movies — movies like Single White Female and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, movies that made no effort to develop complex characters or genuine human dilemmas but relied instead on cheap suspenseful tricks leading up to what we came to call “the jolt.” (The more of these movies you watch, the better you get at turning the volume down just in time.) Sometimes the plot twists were genuinely surprising, sometimes the acting was surprisingly good, but always these movies appealed (as a critic once said of the Victorian ‘sensation novel’) to our nerves, not our judgment.

Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train is the novelistic equivalent of this kind of mindless, atavistic thriller. It begins engagingly enough — with Rachel, troubled, drinking too much, mourning a broken relationship, spinning a fantasy out of the lives she glimpses as she takes the train:

I know that on warm summer evenings, the occupants of this house, Jason and Jess, sometimes climb out of the large sash window to sit on the makeshift terrace on top of the kitchen-extension roof. They are a perfect, golden couple. He is dark haired and well built, strong, protective, kind. He has a great laugh. She is one of those tiny bird-women, a beauty, pale-skinned with blonde hair cropped short. She has the bone structure to carry that kind of thing off, sharp cheekbones dappled with a sprinkling of freckles, a fine jaw. . . . Even if they’re not there, I think about what they might be up to. Maybe this morning they’ve both got the day off and she’s lying in bed while he makes breakfast, or maybe they’ve gone for a run together, because that’s the sort of thing they do. . . .

I can’t really see her, of course. I don’t know if she paints, or whether Jason has a great laugh, or whether Jess has beautiful cheekbones. . . . I’ve never seen them up close. . . . I don’t know their names, either, so I had to name them myself. Jason, because he’s handsome in a British film star kind of way, not a Depp or a Pitt, but a Firth, or a Jason Isaacs. And Jess just goes with Jason, and it goes with her. It fits her, pretty and carefree as she is. They’re a match, they’re a set. They’re happy, I can tell. They’re what I used to be, they’re Tom and me, five years ago. They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.

Then one day things aren’t right with Jason and Jess, and then Jess (actually Megan) has disappeared and Jason (actually Scott) is a suspect. Rachel can’t stay out of it any more than she can stay out of Tom’s new life with Anna, in the house that was once hers, just down the road from Megan and Scott’s.

As the mystery of Megan’s disappearance deepens, the stories of these three women — Rachel, Megan, and Anna — are woven together, first formally, as the narration moves between them, then through their converging plot lines. Questions multiply: who is the other man Rachel saw with Megan? what was Megan’s relationship with Tom? is Scott guilty? what is Anna’s story? and most important of all, what has drunken Rachel really seen, or done?

The Girl on the Train is cleverly constructed, but you realize early on that you aren’t meant to believe in it. For one thing, its three narrators sound exactly the same: there’s no artistry at all in Hawkins’s first-person narration beyond what each speaker reveals or conceals. “He do the Police in different voices,” says a character in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, and that’s what a different kind of novel, or a different quality of novelist, can do for everyone. In Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, for instance (“the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels,” as T. S. Eliot said) every narrator is unmistakably himself or herself: there’s no confusing the inimitable Miss Clack with Gabriel Betteredge. Put down The Girl on the Train for a few minutes then pick it up again, and odds are you’ll have to check the chapter heading to be sure who’s speaking to you.

Once we know one of the narrators is a murder victim, there’s also a fundamental illogic to her sections. It’s not supposed to matter, clearly, but again, a novelist who cared about more than stringing us along would come up with a device to explain this voice coming to us from beyond the grave — it’s hardly fair to play the Wilkie Collins card twice in one review, but here too he could teach Hawkins a thing or two about how to write suspense that both surprises and delights.

There are ways in which The Girl on the Train is very skilfully done. It’s impossible not to try to figure out what actually happened: in that respect, the novel is certainly a page-turner. The ploy of Rachel’s confused recollections, and the discovery of how her drinking has been turned against her, offers pathos, also, along with the requisite shocks, as do the gradual revelations about each woman’s prior history. I finished the novel full of frustrated disgust, however, at the generally low level of its ambitions — not just for itself, as a novel, but for us as its readers. It clearly aspires to nothing more interesting or subtle than arousing our prurient curiosity. It is possible to take human pettiness, spite, cruelty, even debasement, and make something both aesthetically and intellectually significant out of them (do I have any Collins cards left in my hand? why yes, I do! and beside him a long line of crime novelists, from Dorothy L. Sayers to P. D. James and Ian Rankin, who embrace the genre novelist’s mandate to entertain but don’t accept that as a license to be either sordid or trivial).

The Girl on the Train is slick, cunning, and temporarily distracting. “For those who like that sort of thing,” as Miss Jean Brodie pithily remarks, “that is the sort of thing they like.” As my husband and I found, in those dark days of our own suspense, there is a time and place when nothing else — nothing more — is really wanted. When a book has been on the bestseller list for 35 weeks, though, maybe it’s time to look more closely at ourselves, as well as at “that sort of thing.” There are so many better books, after all, ones that will try harder, reach higher, and repay our attention with more than a jolt. I’ll trade you ten Megans, Annas, or Rachels for one Marian Halcombe.

allthelightwecannotsee#3 Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
Scribner, 2014
By Rohan Maitzen

All the Light We Cannot See makes me resent the way our book reviewing culture has cheapened words like “luminous,” “lyrical,” “evocative,” “poignant” — because All the Light We Cannot See is all these things, and yet to describe it this way sounds like succumbing to cliches. Its story — which also risks sounding hackneyed — is simple in outline, and in conception: two young people on either side of an inhumane war, the counterpoint of their stories resisting its reductive cruelties by its tender attention to their humanity. Does that sound a little too easy, perhaps, a little too predictable? Do we need another novel telling us that war is horror, that people are capable of great evil but also of moments of transcendent courage or kindness, that literature is both an escape and an illumination — that listening can lead to either betrayal or love? Do we need to learn, again, the lesson that everyone has a story, and that in ways we cannot always see, those stories are always in some way connected?

Yes, is my answer after finishing this beautiful book. There are other things novels can do, but one of the things they do best is explore the infinite variety of human life, imagining its possibilities and shaping them into forms that will touch and surprise us. For me, Doerr’s novel did exactly this. I read it with rapt interest, and also with mounting suspense as the story moved forward through a series of short, delicately calibrated parts that might, in other hands, have seemed mannered in their very brevity. Doerr balances lyrical sensibility with restrained understatement that gives us room to feel for ourselves. We come to know the main characters — the blind, curious French girl Marie-Laure, and the young German radio engineer Werner Pfennig — by following them from their childhoods to the climactic siege of Saint-Malo, where the novel actually begins. The novel moves between that terrifying present and a past that helps us understand not just the literal movements that set up the final crisis but the subtler forces that have shaped them — Werner especially — into people who act as they finally do.
Marie-Laure is maybe a bit too good to be true, though there’s a deliberate fairy-tale dimension to the novel, which comes complete with ogres and piratical villains (in this case a monomaniacal German officer in pursuit of a fantastic jewel) that encourages us to read it outside the rules of strict realism. She does not change or grow but remains steadfast; while she does in the end need rescuing, it’s her courage and, ultimately, defiance that make her escape possible. Her quest is not for self-knowledge but for trust.

Werner is a more complex and thus interesting character. Doerr avoids the temptation to make him a hapless victim, an innocent cog in the Nazi war machine. Instead, as he gradually and almost belatedly realizes, Werner allows himself to repress the full implications of his actions as his passion for radios is perverted. He loves the technology because it connects him to other people; he ends up using it to calculate their destruction. He comforts himself with the refrain “It’s only numbers,” but of course it isn’t. Against his moral passivity we have the example of his school friend Frederick, nearsighted, unheroic, bird-loving, who said “I will not”; Werner “stood by as the consequences came raining down.”

As Marie-Laure’s literal blindness connects metaphorically to the novel’s exploration of what we see, Werner’s radio waves come to signify the possibilities of connections across distance, time, and enmity. Are these elements too pat? I didn’t think so: any lover of Bleak House is likely to appreciate, rather than disdain, a novel built around multiple refractions of the same idea, not to mention plots that turn on convergences that defy probability to insist on their symbolic and moral meaning. Dickens’s fog is visible, but as Doerr’s elegiac conclusion invites us to recognize, our world is united by invisible elements that we can use either for or against each other. Like Dickens, he commits wholeheartedly to fiction’s capacity for fancy as well as feeling. Though the story he tells is a sad and often painful one, the way he tells it seems to me not just artful but incorrigibly hopeful. What a readerly treat.

[Previously published in Novel Readings]

Book Review-Friction#4 Sandra Brown, Friction
Grand Central, 2015
By Justin Hickey

In the tradition of hooking readers early with a glimpse of climactic action, I’ll say this: there are about ten pages of expertly-crafted porn in the final third of this novel.

Friction, Brown’s latest thriller, rubs together Judge Holly Spencer and Texas Ranger Crawford Hunt, two classically-drawn romantic foils who tend to interpret the law differently. Brown opens with Holly driving past the active scene of a violent crime, presided over by Prentiss County Detective Neal Lester. As she’s about to drive away from the area, increasingly chaotic with emergency personnel and spectators, she’s startled by someone jumping into the car’s back seat. It’s Crawford, holding a gun and covered in blood. Not his blood, he tells her, but someone’s who “was dead before he hit the ground.”

“Sergeant Lester told me that you’d—”
“Shot the son of a bitch? That’s true. He’s dead. Now drive.”

If you don’t read them too often, page-turning bestsellers can be immensely refreshing. And like Patrick Swayze’s Road House (1989), or an Indian buffet, sometimes nothing else will do. Five days earlier, Crawford sits in court, where Holly prepares to hear evidence that the lawman’s five year old daughter, Georgia, is better off with him than with his deceased wife’s parents, Joe and Grace Gilroy. In their corner, the Gilroys have the fact that Crawford once precipitated a deadly shootout with the Fuentes drug cartel. Coupled with the death of Crawford’s wife Beth four years ago—and the drunken binges that followed—Holly seemingly has no reason to place the child in the Ranger’s reckless orbit.

The masked gunman who enters the courtroom doesn’t change Holly’s mind. Disguised in white as a painter, he shoots bailiff Chet Barker in the chest. Crawford, rugged man-of-action, dives for the bailiff’s gun before protecting Judge Spencer’s body with his own. When a chase leads to the courthouse roof, the Ranger finds a man named Jorge Rodriguez smoking a cigarette and holding a pistol. Crawford tries talking with Jorge, to defuse him, but police officers and snipers end up blowing him away.

Brown chops her narrative into short, addictive morsels more entertaining than most televised crime-drama featuring similar elements; page-turning thrillers put your adrenaline to use, but great television always moves at its own pace. After the shooting, Crawford and Holly speak with Detectives Lester and Nugent, also familiar foils: the smarmy sergeant and the naive rookie. Crawford ends up confronting Holly at her home, believing his chances of gaining custody of Georgia to be dashed, and demands to know how she would have ruled. The day’s tension, and their ethical breach of speaking outside of court, kicks off Holly’s sobbing. “Crawford looked down into her brimming green eyes and thought, Oh fuck.”

Slyly, Brown doesn’t describe the first sex scene as it happens. Her protagonists return to juicy memories of the “desperate, clutching, grinding” friction throughout the narrative’s opening and middle, all the while agreeing to deny that it happened. Then a few standard—though perfectly delivered—twists arrive, allowing Georgia’s grandad Joe to be an over-cooked hard-ass, and Detective Lester to be an irrepressible prick.

I’m not sure how many men find themselves choosing Brown’s novels over Lee Child’s, but she excels at keeping the plot swift on its feet, while also offering action and passages that are casually erotic to both male and female audiences, like so:

She was all buttoned up again in her judge’s clothes, proper suit and blouse, but he remembered the feel of the comfy t-shirt she’d been wearing last night, how crushable the fabric had been when he took a handful of it and pushed it out of his way. The skin of her inner thighs had been even softer than the cloth…

Brown does telegraph her villain toward the end, however. To any readers familiar with Batman comics or films—and McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men—any character with a coin-flipping habit may as well have “psychopath” scrawled on her forehead. Friction is nevertheless a satisfying done-in-one that’s got me ready to crack open the next Brown release I find.

pattersonalert#5 James Patterson, Alert
Random House, 2015
By Greg Waldmann

Last year James Patterson gave away one million dollars to dozens of independent bookstores. “Our bookstores in America are at risk,” he said. “Publishing and publishers as we’ve known them are at stake. To some extent the future of American literature is at stake.” It was undoubtedly a good thing he did, and it’s easy to snicker at the idea of James Patterson worrying about the state of literature.

But I think we should snicker. James Patterson writes very bad prose, yet it’s more than that. In fact, he may be guilty of more crimes against literature than anyone in the history of the world—approximately five hundred and twenty five billion counts, by my reckoning. The calculation is simple: Patterson has sold approximately 300 million books, each book is about 350 pages, and each page contains roughly 5 clichés, which are grievous felonies in the literary penal code. It’s true Patterson often works with co-authors, and the extent to which he is a writer or a brand is uncertain, but legal responsibility clearly rests with him.

The cliché figure I came up with after reading Alert, which on September 1st was hanging tough at number four on the bestseller list. Two Patterson-branded books have come out since, and three more are scheduled for release this year. Think about that for a minute, and you begin to sense the magnitude of his criminal industry. The defendant voluntarily incriminates himself: the “Also By” section at the beginning of his book takes up several pages and encompasses every schlock genre imaginable. (Alert was astonishingly bad, but I’m still morbidly curious about Robots Go Wild!)

Alert is number six in the Michael Bennett detective series (co-authored with Michael Ledwidge), but you don’t need to read the others because there’s a helpful bio note for the main character at the end of the book: “He will stop at nothing to get the job done and protect the city, even if this means disobeying orders and ignoring protocol. Despite these unorthodox methods, he is a relentless, determined and in many ways incomparable detective.” Actually, you didn’t need to read that either.

This episode pits Bennett against a duo of Russian terrorists, who, in order to avenge the death of one of their sons at the hands of the New York City authorities, plan to sow terror and chaos by blowing up a pair of subway stations, assassinating the mayor, detonating a pair of electromagnetic pulse weapons, and collapsing a volcano off the coast of Africa in order to produce a tsunami that will crash a 150-foot wall of water into the Eastern Seaboard. Meantime, Bennett must juggle responsibilities to his ten adopted children and a precarious long-distance relationship with their nanny, Mary Catherine, who is staying in Ireland while she tries to sell the family hotel.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Patterson might say. After the second terrorist attack, Bennett receives a letter from Mary Catherine:

…there was really nothing about us or our fabulous romantic week together on the windswept Cliffs of Moher. Or about her heart-wrenching note, which I had read on the plane.

What could that mean? I wondered. Cold feet? Buyer’s remorse? I didn’t know. All I knew was that I wanted her back here with me so hard it was starting to hurt.

But like I said, at least I was home, though I wasn’t in a real talkative mood after my truly insane day. I was more than content to just listen to the dull roar of the kids all around the table…. Their normalcy, their obliviousness to the horror of today’s events, was just what the doctor ordered.

The whole book is like this, the romance sequences, the action scenes, the detective work: it’s all snoozily conventional, and it never lets up, not for a single paragraph, no matter how hard the author tries. When Patterson is trying to be clever, he eschews stock clichés in favor of…. slightly modified clichés. “It was dark and nasty and raining cats and dogs the next morning.” “Up, up, and reluctantly away,” is how Bennett narrates his flight out of Ireland. “What’s a nice guy like you doing in a place like this,” the female FBI agent says to the male lead. (She is the third side of a generic love triangle, but like so much of America’s red-meat entertainment, Alert is both graphically violent and remarkably chaste: we never wonder if Bennett will give in to temptation, and of course he never does.) Patterson has no sense that his normal clichés are tired, or that a reformulated cliché only invites attention to something that should be passed over quickly. But crimes of negligence are still crimes.

If anything could save this book, it’s the sheer absurdity of the plot, but that’s paint-by-number, too: the tense foot chase, the bad guy’s incautious confession, the last-minute rescue. There was one moment, though, when I thought I might actually enjoy myself. Halfway through the book, Bennett and Emily Parker, the FBI agent, are chasing the wrong bad guys (“jihadist jerkwads,” Bennett dubs them) and our hero is in danger of being taken off the case. And then they receive an offer to help… from Ted Kaczynski. Here was a chance to do something truly, gloriously ridiculous.

“Interview the Unabomber?”

“Yes,” Emily said. “Why not? He’s completely brilliant and crazy. Just like the person we’re trying to catch. Maybe he can give us some insight.”

In the hands of a supremely un-gifted writer, the interview could have been gratifyingly awful. How deflating it was to learn that Kaczynski is as dull as every other character in the book:

“Unless you get a bead on this person in the next few days, I would recommend evacuating New York City… I think you’re up against a genius here, unfortunately. God help all of us if this guy knows nanotech. He could come up with an artificial virus that destroys the world’s vegetation or oxygen or water supply. You really have to catch this guy!”

I don’t know why I expected more, even for a moment. After all, the scene is just a lazy crib from Silence of the Lambs, another wan cliché, and clichés are simply all there is in Patterson’s work: a great mass of undifferentiated material, the foundation of a vast criminal empire. And James Patterson must pay for his crimes. One million seems a pittance.


The 2015 Bestseller Feature Continues