Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Splendora

This entry begins a sub-group of Project 84 – books that have sat on my bookshelf forever that I never got around to reading. As part of the project, I wanted to make sure those books got covered, either as part of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die or as one of the “other” books. This first book is an “other” book, but only technically. If I were making a list of books to read, this one would definitely make it.

With that in mind, the 9th book of Project 84 is:

Splendora

Splendora
by Edward Swift

I start a lot of my reviews with the phrase “I didn’t know what to expect,” but usually I have some idea of the content. I know a plot summary, or a genre, or have read something else by the author, so any surprise I may experience is somewhat calculated. But when I picked Splendora up off my shelf, I truly didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

I couldn’t even remember where I picked up the book over the years. My hunch is that it was an impulse 1 cent book on Amazon when I was already ordering from a seller. It might have been a recommendation, but I’m not sure who would have recommended a book like this to me. Or it may have been on some list…

Regardless of where the book came from, one thing’s for sure: I loved it. 

The book takes place in the East Texas town of Splendora. The year is ambiguous (unless I really missed something). It reads like the 1950s, but could easily have been as early as the 20s or as late as 1978, when the book was published. Miss Jessie Gatewood arrives in Splendora in the hot summer to run the new “library on wheels”. The town quickly becomes enamored by her classic looks and put together appearance, and she catches the eye of the town preacher, Brother Leggett, who is harboring a few secrets. 

Miss Jessie is harboring a big secret of her own: she is actually Timothy Coleridge, born and raised in Splendora. He had escaped to New Orleans from the little town once he reached adulthood, and after a few dabbles in relationships with men, he took on the persona of Miss Jessie. Moving “back” to town with an unrecognizable new persona, Miss Jessie is confronted with nosy neighbors, ladies who want nothing more than to imitate her style, and issues from the past that Timothy has kept hidden. 

Splendora was a page turner, but it had a traditional form that suggested more than just plot brewing under the surface.  The narrative was just complicated enough to keep me engaged, but also thought-provoking enough to keep my brain going. The book is almost like a Shakesperean farce, but with a psychological component. A traditional cross-dressing farce (Twelfth Night, for instance) stems from a character needing to hide out from issues caused by external circumstances. The drama stems from the cross-dressing character’s fear of being “found out” and facing consequences. For example, someone is pursuing the character, the character puts on a disguise to hide in broad daylight, but the fear is always that their true identity will be discovered and they will be held accountable.

And Timothy was able to make a seamless transition from himself to Miss Jessie. As he puts it:
“How gradual the transition from one color to the other.” - Page 91
I think I was expecting this book to be an anthem for the transgender community. But, it really isn’t. I expected it to be about someone growing up biologically male, but feeling female inside. But, it really isn’t. I expected it to have shades of gender identity commentary, to get an idea of whether Swift feels that transitioning is nature or nurture. But, it really doesn’t.

Splendora is about coming to terms with being gay.  

Timothy is a gay man. But he has been taught in this 1950s (20s, 70s...) town that being gay is not acceptable. Even in New Orleans, which was far more accepting than Splendora, Timothy still didn't feel comfortable being himself. So, he became Miss Jessie. Timothy didn't want to be a woman, he didn't feel that he was a woman. Timothy was just so terrified of being himself that he had to find some way to hide from that self.

I feel passionately about this novel. Yes, I have been a gay rights advocate for years, so I come from a different place than many - but I thought this was such a beautiful way to approach the struggle. It uses traditional literary elements to address a topic that is not in any way traditional, and creates characters that are compelling, interesting, hilarious...and that you can't help but root for.

There is a specific line in the book that caused me to stop and think for a good 5 minutes before continuing reading. I wrote it down in a few places to make sure I didn't forget it, and knew it was important to share. It sums up the point of the book, and also addresses why I find it so emotionally compelling:
“I guess everyone wants to be someone else. Only for some of us it’s much easier to be someone else than who we really are, or at least we think it’s easier until we try.” - Page 229
Splendora might be my favorite book I've read so far in Project 84, and it was the book that most surprised me. It sat on my shelf for so long, and I’ve been kicking myself since I finished it for not reading it sooner. I recommend this book to anyone, and I’m shocked it wasn’t more successful. If you read any of the first 9 books of Project 84, read this book. It’s not the easiest book to find – but it’s for sale on Amazon Kindle, so that should be the most direct way to get it!

***

So, glowing review number 2 is behind us ;). I think I like it better when I’m able to talk about all the ways I loved a book, so maybe I’m more prone to enjoy them than not enjoy them. You know that I’ll be up front when I don’t like something – but it’s more fun to recommend than not to!

Next Review: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist Rachel Cohn and David Levithan



**I could not find an Amazon link for the version I read of this particular book, but all annotations refer to the first edition of Splendora, published by Viking Adult in 1978*

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Black Dahlia

I feel like I owe you all a warning: the next three reviews are going to be a tad gushy. I’ve loved what I’ve been reading lately, which I see as a good thing. I went through a stretch there where I just wasn’t excited about Project 84. I was bored with what I was reading, couldn’t convince myself to pick anything up, and that is definitely not the case with these next three books.

With that being said, Book 8 of Project 84 is:


Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia
by James Ellroy

When I started reading this book, it was right after I’d finished Get Shorty, so I was expecting a similar reading experience. Both books are pulpy, mystery novels (of sorts), both were written in the late 80s, both are in 1001 Books to Read Before You Die…so I don’t think the parallel is completely invalid. Needless to say, the idea of reading another Get Shorty didn’t quite fill me with excited anticipation.

Fortunately, I could not have been more wrong in my characterization of The Black Dahlia.

The book takes place in 1940s, and centers on the real-life unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, dubbed by the media as “The Black Dahlia”. Boxer turned cop, “Bucky” Bleichert, is assigned to the case along with his partner – Lee Blanchard. (I admit, how they come to be involved with the case is more complicated than a simple assignment, but it would take half an entry to explain. Read the book if you want more specifics ;) ) From there, Bleichert becomes entwined with a litany of fellow cops, suspects, family members, witnesses, and a couple of women that Bucky can’t get out of his head.
The Black Dahlia a mystery novel, so, like Sharp Objects, I fear it would take away from the book if I gave too much else away or brought too many more characters into the summary. The gist is that Bleichert and Blanchard become obsessed with the Black Dahlia case, and it slowly but surely becomes their entire world. The case leads to the demise of some, the obsession of others, and the fascination of the entire country. 

I. Loved. This. Book. 

It wasn’t perfect. The first 90 pages, for example, could have been lopped off entirely and I wouldn’t have missed anything. But after that, I became immersed.  

I found the whole concept of The Black Dahlia appealing. Swift took a real event, a real mystery, and wrote a fictional story to explain it. And because it was fictional – because Swift didn’t bog himself down with trying to prove a theory, or dispel others – the narrative was less cluttered. The approach also allowed Swift more freedom in orchestrating his narrative. He didn’t have to write inside a world that already existed. Swift was able to create his own, which led to a good, compelling mystery.

In addition to making me want to turn the page, the novel was full of twists and turns, many of which I didn’t see coming – which is uncommon for me in a novel. I don’t want to give away any of these twists, as the book would be decidedly less enjoyable if I had known what was coming, but trust me when I say that the turns this book takes are what keeps it compelling, and kept me engaged. 

In addition, the novel seemed to have its own mood, of sorts. I saw the phrase “neo-noir” thrown around in reference to the book’s genre, and it seems to fit. The characters are compelling, but flawed. The story is compelling, but flawed. The case becomes clunky, you’re not sure who to root for, and it all feeds in to the mood of the book. The only character whose side I knew I was on was our tragic heroine, the Black Dahlia herself, Elizabeth Short.

It’s a mystery, so, of course, the plot and mood are going to be a big part of what make the novel great, but the area of the book that I responded to most was, unquestionably, the emotional lives of the characters. I cared about what happened to Bucky. I felt for Blanchard and how the obsession was ruining his life. And, most surprisingly, I felt for Elizabeth (Betty) Short. A big part of the novel was centered on how Bucky and Blanchard humanize Betty. They become so obsessed with the case because they make her into a real person, and it spills over into how I as a reader related to the story.

The end of the book gave me the quote I clung to, and the one that most sums up what I found so appealing about The Black Dahlia:
"I walked to the car thinking of Betty alive, happy, in love with some guy who'd never cheat on her. Passing through the park, I looked up at Mount Lee. The sign now read just Hollywood; the band was playing, 'There's No Business Like Show Business.'"
I would recommend The Black Dahlia to anyone, but I will include a few warnings. Like I mentioned before, it takes about 100 pages to even get into the story, and about 150 until you’re invested in what’s going on. In addition, the book is graphic. It’s sexually graphic, it’s violent, the language is aggressive. For me, those things don’t matter. In fact, they add to the noir mood of the book. But I know those graphic details would make some people’s reading experience unpleasant, so I wanted to mention it. If you’re okay with those things – read the book. It’s a good one. 

***

I’ve decided to stop giving “expected posting dates” for upcoming entries. Since the first post, I have never once met an expected posting date, so I’m going to stop setting myself up for failure. However, this time the next two blog posts are already written and ready to go, so it’s not going to be long until books 9 and 10 make their way onto the web. My delay in posting is over, for the time being.

Happy reading!

Next Review: Splendora by Edward Swift




**All annotations refer to this version of The Black Dahlia, published by Mysterious Press in 1987**

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Get Shorty


Lots of reading, not a lot of posting. I’m blaming work and an unexpected stomach flu for this one, but I do have a few finished that are ready to be posted so this should be the start of an influx of posts…or so I hope.

With that in mind, Book 7 of Project 84 is:

Get Shorty

Get Shorty
by Elmore Leonard

I really, really wanted to like this book. I’d heard nothing but good things about Elmore Leonard novels, and have friends who swear by Get Shorty. Plus, Justified is one of my favorite TV shows, so I thought the original – which was listed in 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die – would be entertaining at the least.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of my favorites.

The story is…complex, but fast moving. I’m not even sure I can do it justice by summarizing, but I’ll give it a shot. Miami loan shark, Chili Palmer, follows a debt-jumper to Las Vegas in order to collect. While there, he gets tied up in a more interesting – and lucrative – collection arrangement, this time between the casino and B-movie producer, Harry Zimm. 

His connection with Harry goes from collecting to becoming involved with the production of Harry’s latest film. His involvement also stretches to Karen Flores, Harry’s on-again, off-again girlfriend and a B-movie starlet.
While developing Harry’s film, Chili starts putting forth an (almost inadvertent) movie pitch of his own, based on his own escapades through Miami, Vegas, and LA. The problem? His movie catches more industry attention than Harry’s! Meanwhile, an LA mobster, Bo Catlett, who was tied on to Harry’s last failed movie project, catches wind of the new one and decides that he wants to get involved as well, causing quite a bit of trouble for our hero, Chili.

While rereading that summary, I couldn’t help but notice that it’s a little jumpy and confusing. It has too many details, and too many characters, and it’s hard to latch onto the heart of the story…

…that’s exactly how I felt about Get Shorty.

It’s not that the book was bad, or that the story was uninteresting, it’s just that I didn’t at all feel connected to any of it. The narrative, the characters…I leapt through the book, read it quickly, but didn’t find anything to latch onto.

I think Leonard’s first misstep was the volume of characters he included in the narrative. While I usually take notes when reading, and write down quotes I want to include in my reviews – this time I found myself writing down character names, and shorthand to remember who was who. Bo and his lackeys whirled in my brain and got mixed up. He would mention a former girlfriend once…and then again, 10 chapters later, and I wouldn’t remember her name. I felt like I spent a lot of the book playing catch-up, which wasn’t conducive to connecting with the story.  

Another misstep, at least as far as I’m concerned, was not paying enough attention or devoting enough time to the emotional life of the characters. I don’t need a crime/action novel to be a character study, but it was tough to get a handle on Chili’s motivation, on Harry’s feelings, on why Bo was so angry. I couldn’t figure out if Karen, for example, was actually smart, or if she just thought she was. I couldn’t put together what Chili saw in her as a romantic, or even friendly, interest. If I don’t understand the motivation of the characters, or where they are coming from, I have issues caring.

And if I don’t care, I’m not going to connect. 

I almost want to be able to write a clever, funny review of this book. But Get Shorty wasn’t The Carrie Diaries. It wasn’t laughably bad. It just didn’t grab me the way it should – and a book like that isn’t enough of a literary masterpiece to get away with not grabbing me.

To conclude – I don’t recommend you read Get Shorty, but I also have to acknowledge that I might have a minority opinion. I know plenty of people who love all that is Leonard, and who love this book. I’m just not one of them.

***

I almost feel badly for writing this particular review, and I think that’s why it came out a little shorter than the others. Maybe it’s because I view other Leonard work (like Justified) as worthy of praise, and I don’t want it to seem like I’m bashing him because I didn’t enjoy the book.

But I take each book as they come – and I didn’t like this one. If you want a more rave review of a crime novel, check out my next entry. You won’t be disappointed.

Next Review: The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy (Expected posting date: Friday, February 14th)



**All annotations refer to this version of Get Shorty, published by The Delacorte Press in 1990**