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Brilliant Sri Lankan novelists, go home

By JOHN BLOOM   |   May 14, 2002 at 6:31 PM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, May 14 (UPI) -- Did you ever notice that the books in the airport reading rack -- the books that everyone actually

READS -- are never the books that are reviewed in the big Sunday book sections?

If they're even MENTIONED, like the occasional piece on Danielle Steele or Stephen King, it's always with a little bit of a sneer, with words like "potboiler," "formula fiction," "genre

fiction" or, the ultimate insult, "best-seller."

They don't do this in any OTHER section of the paper. The movie critic seems perfectly capable of praising "Spiderman" without thinking that it somehow demeans his critical reputation and makes him unfit for reviewing the next Merchant-Ivory saga

about old ladies in India. In fact, when a "Spiderman" or a Bruce Willis thriller or a George Lucas popular epic arrives, the critics CELEBRATE it, hype it, promote it, interview all the principals, treat it like a huge national event.

Compare that with the release of a John Grisham or a Tom Clancy book. "Here's the latest Grisham." "Here's the latest Clancy." That's about all you're going to get. And you can forget

entirely the guys at the next level, the mid-list mystery and thriller authors who sometimes have one book out of 10 reviewed by a major newspaper.

Instead, what have we got in the book review sections? Sri Lankan coming-of-age novels. Slice-of-life multi-generational family sagas about the Idaho back country. Painfully personal memoirs about single motherhood. Last week I read a review of a

book called "Notes from the Hyena's Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood" by Nega Mezlekia. It had everything a book review editor wants -- exotic to the point of obscurity, internationalist, multicultural (by virtue of the translation), with the promise of making us all Better People by condescending to understand the

agonies of a Third World situation that we don't really know diddly squat about.

But is it a GOOD STORY? You'll NEVER FIND OUT by reading The New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, or any of the other Sunday supplements. Some of the reviews don't even bother to DESCRIBE the book, much less tell us why we would want to read it in the first place. Instead they go on about "new voices in East African fiction." My question is, "I don't really care that much about East African fiction. It's not high on my list of priorities. Will I like this book IN SPITE OF THAT?"

Over time I've learned the secret code words of book reviewers who don't really want you to know what they're talking about. "Coming of age," for example, means "self-involved young person agonizes over sophomoric minutiae." "Internal odyssey"

means NOTHING HAPPENS. "Introspective" means psychobabble.

"Delicate" means you're going to have entire paragraphs describing the dew in the rose garden. The dread "Austenesque" means blabbermouth women are going to sit around the kitchen playing matchmaker. "Echoes of history" means you should run screaming out of Starbucks because somebody's going to tell you about his ancestors.

The strangest term the reviewers use is "unassuming prose." They say it in a GOOD way, as though the BEST prose is unassuming. So how come they never review a book with ASSUMING prose? I don't like my books unassuming. I want them to ASSUME something. I want the prose standing on its head like a Chinese acrobat and doing back flips.

But there's a very special place in the Ninth Circle of Hell for one kind of book in particular, the book I'll call "My 16th Century Farmhouse in Provence." This is a genre that flourished

in the 90s -- I think the first one was called "Under the Tuscan Sun" -- and it's universally praised by book reviewers everywhere. It's usually a first-person narrative of going to Europe and finding (a) an old house on the Scottish moors, (b) a

rundown apartment in the Marais neighborhood of Paris, (c) an Alpine villa in shambles, and then FIXING IT UP. End of story.

THAT'S IT. The rest of the book is just sappy musings about "the clash of the modern and the traditional," "the rhythm of provincial life," the color of the native vegetables, and the local peasant legends that no one quite remembers anymore because there are no longer any peasants.

Here's my question about these books. Why is it always Americans going to Europe? Why couldn't you write the same book about going to, say, the Catskills and remodeling a summer camp for Jewish teenagers? Why does a Frenchman never move to West

Texas and fix up a pig ranch? And all of those picturesquely colorful local guys who hang around the public market in Grasse?

We have those in Salina, Kansas, too. They're called Old Farts.

Of course, sometimes my code system fails me entirely, as in a recent New York Times review of a Portuguese novel called "The Return of the Caravels" by Antonio Lobo Antunes. Describing the author, the reviewer said, "He is profoundly Portuguese." I was on-line with Barnes & Noble within the hour, grateful to have finally found a writer who wasn't lying about his birthplace.

At other times, the reviewer seems to be daring you to endure as much psychic pain as possible, as in the review from Newsday that said, "This first novel treats family ties, erotic longing, small children and prolonged deaths from AIDS and cancer with a subtlety that grows from scrupulous unsentimentality."

Well, doesn't THAT sound like something to take to the beach this summer.

Did you know that there's a whole genre now called

"pregnancy narratives"? (Just go ahead and ram bamboo sticks under my fingernails. I'll enjoy it more.) Did you know, in fact, that there are entire libraries of titles that should be subtitled "Males Go Away"?

Take this blurb from "Crow Lake" by Mary Lawson: "Set against the wild terrain of northern Ontario, CROW LAKE is a triumphant story of a young woman coming to terms with her past, and the strength of family love." Can I just wait for the Lifetime movie? At least we'll have a scene with Treat

Williams as the creepy boyfriend who beats her up.

But why punish yourself? Just keep the following definitions in mind, and you too will be able to avoid long hours of mind-numbing, brain-deadening torpor: A book of "literary snapshots" means nothing happens.

"A lyrical small-town reminiscence" means nothing happens.

"Full of wry insight" means nothing happens.

A "rumination," a "pastiche," a "twinkling little jewel of a novel," "a quiet catharsis," "a journey through memory" or a "poetic elegy" all mean NOTHING EVER HAPPENS.

Beware of the "auspicious debut," the "promising first novel" and the "dazzling maiden performance." This means we're waiting for the SECOND novel to see if this turkey can write. Has there ever been a book reviewer in history who has said: "Let's hope this person doesn't ever write again -- once was ENOUGH"?

What's the deal with the "freebie" first-novel review? We don't cut any slack for filmmakers when they bomb right out of the box.

And what's with all the verbiage from India? The next time I see a work of fiction described as "an inquiry into the consequences of colonialism" invoking the "rich spiritual traditions of a mysterious sub-continent" with a "postmodern sensibility" I'm going to personally seek out the Berkeley apartment building where all these writers-in-residence sponge off the Rockefeller Foundation and assault it with a sound truck blaring Nine Inch Nails at 3 a.m. Please make a pilgrimage to New Delhi in search of a PLOT, people.

Anything called a "three-generation family saga" will have a scene in which the bastard child of a ruthless enterpreneur is delivered by a midwife in a slave cabin.

Anything that "deftly evokes"--take your pick: turn-of-the-century Scotland, medieval Bavaria, Paris in the 20s -- means the author read a book on period costumes and invented some adorably quirky dialects.

Anything involving "a woman's search" -- take your pick: for the love she never had, for the source of her emotional identity, for the ghosts that lurk in her past, for the meaning behind her grandmother's poems found in a dusty attic -- is going to include a

LOT of spontaneous weeping.

Beware of the word "anomie." The book will undoubtedly "resonate" with it. Even more ominous, it will probably be "Chekhovian."

Anything a professor does -- returning to his rural home, facing his mortality, suffering from "ennui," enduring a middle-age crisis -- should be banned by constitutional amendment.

Images will always "leap off the page" (usually in an attempt to escape). Families will always be "unconventional."

Expatriates will always be "disillusioned with their homeland."

Tenderness will always be found amid the devastation of war.

"Emotional transactions" will always be "genuine." And the "strange internal logic" of a narrative will always "take on a life of its own."

Collections of short stories, which NOBODY reads, will always display "a remarkable range." (News alert! All the stories are about DIFFERENT THINGS.) Poetry collections, which have press runs of a thousand copies, will always be "evocative" of something or other. (Yep, they don't call it poetry for nothing, do they?) And collections of correspondence will always reveal "a remarkable mind, grappling with everything from the ephemera of day-to-day life to the mysteries of the universe." (Come on, it's a bunch of LETTERS.)

Where is the book reviewing school where they learn all this stuff? Wherever it is, I'm sure it's a poignant and wise place, blending fact, memory and imagination in highly literary ways, so that the intensity of emotion can be revealed in finely crafted

prose that resounds with a welter of imagery, affirming that our only true subject -- yes! -- is the earth itself.

Then again, some books are just BAD.

*

Joe Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at joebob@upi.com or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, TX 75221.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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