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50th Big Book Sale

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Benefiting the San Francisco Public Library with its proceeds, the Big Book Sale turns 50 this year (Sep 23-28). The Fort Mason pier will turn into a book emporium with miles of books set on tables. As a proud member of the Friends of SF Public Library, I’ll help out set up the tables next week and get to preview the 500,000 books. Everything is $3 or less, with a 3-2-1 scale: $3-hard cover books; $2-paperback books; $1-DVDs, CDs, books on tape, vinyl and other forms of media. All items remaining on Sunday are $1.

It’s fun to shop, to pick and choose. I never have a list because everything is so random. Books are categorized by genres but within each genre they are in no particular order. I always browse to see if the blurb interests me. This giant book sale is almost a test to your book and author knowledge. That book recommended to you by your coworker. That book you read about in New York Times Book Review but never got around reading it. All the titles that have bombarded your head—they must all be there buried in the tables. It’s a literary déjà vu awaiting.

Anne Perry’s Hideous Past

Sandy brought to my attention novelist Anne Perry’s very dark past. In 1954, Perry, then a 15-year-old called Juliet Hulme, living in New Zealand, helped to bludgeon to death the mother of her friend, Pauline Parker. Both were convicted of murder and sent to prison. The grisly story was the subject of Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures, in which Hulme was played by Kate Winslet. She was released from prison in 1959 and set about reconstructing her life.

It’s no wonder books grapple with questions of sin and repentance, the price of redemption and forgiveness. In interview with the Guardian, Perry said “It is vital for me to go on exploring moral matters.” Notwithstanding the fact that she published over 50 novels and sold over 10 million copies, her real-life story is all the more shocking and engrossing. She served 5 years in an Auckland prison for complicity in the atrocious crime. For more than 30 years after her release, Perry lived quietly in Scotland—until a journalist in New Zealand revealed her past in 1994.

In 1954, the teen-age Hulme felt as if she had been pushed to the limit. Three days before she took part in the killing of Honora Parker on June 22, her parents announced that they were to divorce—triggered by Hulme having found her mother, Hilda, in bed with a lover. She turned to her close friend, Parker, a working-class girl from a humble background. Some felt it was a curious friendship for Hulme, whose family were well to do, her mother glamorous and clever. The two friends believed they could stay together if Pauline’s mother would let her leave New Zealand. Her refusal triggered Parker’s murderous rage and Hulme believed she owed it to her friend to help lure Mrs Parker to a Christchurch park and cosh her with a brick in a stocking.

First Impression of Anne Perry

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My very first impression of the prolific Anne Perry, who has over 50 mysteries under her belt, including the William Monk series and Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series, is that she writes like a man. Her contemplative but robust writing reminds me of Sir Arthur Conan, who evokes Victorian England with such relish for detail and mood. The first book and my current read, The Face of A Stranger, is a hybrid of murder mystery and identity crisis. This introduces us to William Monk, a detective with the police in London of 1856. After recovering from a serious accident in a carriage, he finds he has lost his memory. He is assigned to investigate the brutal murder of an aristocratic Crimean war hero and in the process finds out more of his own past—and is terrified of what he sees. Did he commit this crime himself? During his investigations he meets Hester Latterly, a forthright young woman of middle class, who nursed with Florence Nightingale in Crimea.

Monk’s amnesia is very selective: he has only lost memories about this adult life—especially the previous cases he investigated. Some of his childhood memories come back to him early on. He seems to be somewhat different person without his memories; he criticizes his own life and even his goals. The period details seep in as he visits the victim’s family, who are very condescending to him, to the extent that they tell Monk what and who he should investigate because the murderer has to be some insane lower class man.

So far so good. I really enjoy the mix of period details, personal crisis, and the murder mystery at hand. I’m reading a volume of her the first three William Monk mysteries.

“Your Recommendation”

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I checked in at the Booking Through Thursday blog, which is the host for a weekly book meme or blogging prompt. Here is this week’s prompt:

If a friend asks you to recommend a really good book—good writing, good characters, good story—but with no other qualifications … what would you recommend?

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To select one book is always a difficult task. To judge by writing, character, and story alone, I pick John Williams’s Stoner. It’s one of those quiet novels following a straight course of a protagonist who strives in silence. Stoner is a farm boy, initially studying agriculture and a requirement of his course is to take a class in English literature. Good things do happen in Stoner’s life, but they all end badly. He relishes teaching students, but his career is stymied by a malevolent head of department; he falls in love and marries, but knows within a month that the relationship is a failure; he adores his daughter, but she is turned against him; he is given sudden new life by an affair, but finds love vulnerable to outside interference, just as the academy is vulnerable to the world. Towards the end of his life, when he has endured many disappointments, he thinks of academe as “the only life that had not betrayed him”.

Stoner is a portrait of a man characterized by formidable determination. Every once in a while comes a novel that is so remarkable in its quality that it stands out not only as an example of what literature (well-written fiction) should be, but also as a satisfying reading experience all by itself.

[684] The Deer Park – Norman Mailer

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” I thought of courage and of cowardice, and how we are all brave and all terrified each in our own way and our private changing proportion, and I thought of honesty and deception, and the dance of life they make, for it is exactly when we come closest to another that we are turned away with a lie, and blunder forward on a misconception, moving to understand ourselves on the platitudes and lies of the past. ” (Ch.24, p.325)

First off, the title refers to the French 18th century and an aristocratic playground, where society elites explore their dark sides. In this novel, the deer park is reassessed for the 1950s in the cactus wild of Southern California, a desert oasis known as Desert D’Or (not Dior), that could very well be the Hollywood playground of Palm Springs.

The narrator is Sergius O’Shaugnessay, a brilliant and beautiful fake standing 6-1, all-American alpha-male blond with six planes under his belt. The young Korean War veteran won a sizable fortune in a poker game in Tokyo and he uses it to suggest he is from wealth and family, instead of an orphanage. Soon he’s a social figure—through Dorothea O’Faye, a onetime singer, a hostess who has an entourage of followers currying her favor. Her (bastard) son was brought up in the chaotic world of Hollywood. He’s so disgusted with the human race that he takes up procuring as a form of protest. He becomes a pimp who pulls string for the celebrated show-biz executives and producers.

I found myself remembering the pleasures of loneliness, thinking that if loneliness was difficult well then so was love, until I wish Lulu off to the capital in order to leave him at rest. (Ch.13, p.143)

The people are just as lonely and barren as the landscape they inhabit in. There’s Charles Eitel, a renowned film director with a leftist past who is being investigated by a Congressional committee. A humane and intelligent man, he continues to salvage his career, yet crippled by the inevitable need to stay successful. He takes up with a beautiful yet self-destructive and neurotic woman, Elena Esposito, who is raw with need. She has been former mistress of Collie Munshin, the son-in-law of the motion picture studio boss. Eitel has been married previously to Lulu Meyers, a young star of the day, a spoiled actress with teasing caprice, who quickly falls in love with Sergius as quickly as she gives him the brush and marries a homosexual actor. In short, everyone sleeps with each other.

What seemed most odious to him was that they had been tender to each other, they had forgiven one another, and yet he did not love her, she did not love him, no one ever loved anyone. (Ch.21, p.297)

The Deer Park is like day-time soap opera in print—with coupling and decoupling of the many interlacing affairs like revolving doors. What little story Mailer has to tell is a story of degradation, of decadence. In training his unforgiving eye on this socially privileged bunch and their illicit desires, Mailer stultifies his reader with misanthropy. In a way, Mailer has undertaken to write about the tormenting challenge to be free, American, and happy—by showing how the group of procurers, lushes, casual adulterers, thieves, hypocrites all miss the boat. It’s reminiscent of The Beautiful and the Damned, but all the more wearisome. I have no problem with promiscuous and immoral characters, but Mailer seems too indulgent and heavy-handed.

375 pp. Vintage International. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Ruth Rendell

Mystery browsing brought me to Ruth Rendell, a British novelist of over 50 mysteries and is still publishing. Rendell started by writing short stories in her 20s, but (quoting her words) they were not very good. She was not particularly drawn to crime fiction. She just started writing her first published novel, From Doon with Death, as an experiment, to see if she could write a detective story. Then the publisher John Long gave her an advance of £75 for it; and the following year, an American publisher came over, liked it, and offered her 15 times that.

I was drawn to Ruth Rendell because she has been recommended to me by trusted fellow reader-friends. I learned that we shared a common favorite book, John Williams’s Stoner, a wonderful book, set in a college in the midwest: simple, straightforward, and yet full of displaced, sad things. With Fatal Inversion, Portobello, The Vault, A Sight for Sore Eyes, and A Judgment in Stone, I’m ready for the coming fall weekends.

P.S. I only found out today Ruth Rendell wrote under the name Barbara Vine.

Booker Longlist

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Fall symbolizes getting back into the grind. Resuming normal mode. It means to get busy with reading some of the books on the Booker Prize long-list.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
J by Howard Jacobson
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
Us by David Nicholls
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill
Orfeo by Richard Powers
How to be Both by Ali Smith
History of the Rain by Niall Williams

This year’s longlist was the first for the expanded prize, as the Man Booker Prize for Fiction now welcomes authors of any nationality as long as they are published in the UK and written in English. Lots of familiar names here. I need to get on with it, at least with some of my endearing authors like Niall Williams, Howard jacobson, and Richard Powers.

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