Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Reading as a Writer

As you know, I read a lot. And I read a lot of different kinds of stuff. Supine with the sniffles this week, I read, in one day, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Smiling Bears, and part of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. Why only part? Because I did not like his characters. That's not to say I did not like his writing. The style was dense, detailed, well paced. The main character, a wealthy, self-centered, elite New York bond trader, bored me with his needy, whining, his ME-ME-ME attitude toward his job, his child, his wife, his mistress. I skipped to the end of the 659 pages and got the story encapsulated in an epilogue, without suffering through the intervening 600 pages. It is interesting that this particular copy, which I found on a thrift-store shelf, may well be a first edition and worth more than the pocket change I paid for it, so the time was not all wasted. Nor was I totally denied insight into the human mind, my own, to be specific.

See, I loved the Guernsey book, co-authored by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It began like so many of the English cosies I have long loved and fled to for solace, like a comfy sofa, no hard lumps or numbing postures. However, the tea and toast atmosphere very gradually darkened to reveal a necessary lesson in how the islanders survived the Nazi occupation, and how some of them did not. The love interest between the protagonist and a quiet island man provided a parallel arc, one I could predict but savored anyway. And watching my own reaction to these two books highlighted my concentration on character as the motivation to write fiction or to read it. I liked the islanders who displayed, if not social polish, courage, community, and a sense of humility. They did not act, always, out of selfishness, did not want, like Wolfe's bond trader, to be "Masters of the Universe" by manipulating others, lying to their loved ones, spending time admiring their own reflections in society, tormenting a pet dog--the Master of the Universe in question forces his reluctant dog to walk in the rain in order to provide said master with an excuse to visit his mistress.

As for the Smiling Bears, well, no fiction, but beautiful language and grand characters, albeit ursine for the most part. Else Poulson knows and evokes each bear by name and by personality. Like human beings, each of them has an agenda, but none of them trades bonds on Wall Street.

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