Friday, May 20, 2011

More Shepard; new novel reading

In the midst of various forays into fiction writing, I've also started work on a play. At this point, I'm just trying to see whether I can pull off the particular conceit that drives the narrative. It's tricky. More on this eventually.

More from You Think That's Bad, Jim Shepard
The strength and potential weakness of Shepard's fiction—in his most recent two collections, at least—is the depth of his research. The stories work when the research add illuminating details or enriches something deeper about the story; the stories don't work when the research overwhelms or unbalances the narrative. "In Cretaceous Seas" starts with a heap of information about Cretaceous critters; Shepard's use of language makes the details exciting, makes the lost era live. But after that first page, the four-page tale, a contemporary story of a sad sack of a man, loosens its narrative grip, and the opening never comes back to us as a necessary piece. "The Track of the Assassins" is much better, but the tale of a young English woman's journey to find the ancient cult (while simultaneously reflecting on the catastrophe that is her broken family) doesn't end satisfactorily, never paying off on the promise of all the historical and geographical detail that pushes the tale forward. In addition, whatever connection Shepard was after between the two narrative strands was lost on me.

Case Histories, Kate Atkinson
I believe I ordered this book from the library based on a reference somewhere to the author's talent. I had no idea what kind of book it was, and even now, I don't know where it's heading. It starts off (a bit languidly) as a family drama, but once the first chapter ends, you know that's not what you're dealing with. With each chapter, your sense of the book's intent shifts, as tragedy piles on tragedy. And then a detective is introduced, though so casually, it seems as if he's just another domino in the sequence. Apparently, the novel is "a mystery" (one in a series), and the novelist is renowned for her mystery novels, but this doesn't read like a mystery; not only is the book literary and finely constructed, it doesn't tip its hand to indicate that the author is working within a particular genre. So far, it's immensely enjoyable, and contains of the saddest passages I've ever encountered.

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