Summer Reading

It’s a holiday weekend so let’s keep this short. It’s summer, and a reader’s thoughts turn to that summertime read. Share with us, if you will, what book (or two) you are most looking forward to reading this summer.

 I have many on my list but there are two at the top. The first, which I am currently reading, is the wonderfully titled PETER PAN MUST DIE by John Verdon. It is the fourth in the Dave Gurney series and features another seemingly unsolvable mystery. I am not all of the way through it by any means but from what I have read so far it appears to be Verdon’s best effort to date. An aspiring politician is struck dead by an assassin’s bullet. His estranged wife is tried and convicted of the murder. Gurney, a retired NYPD detective who just can’t get away from the job, quickly discovers everything with the district attorney’s case is wrong. It’s a whodunit and a howdunit. The other is WAYFARING STRANGER by James Lee Burke. It is a historical novel in the Huckleberry Holland canon, set in the 1930s and 1940s and perhaps closer to Burke’s very early work than what has come afterward. I cheated a bit and read a few pages and decided I needed to delay gratification until I had nothing else on my plate. If the opening lines are any indication of what is to follow, however, the quality of Burke’s prose will bring tears to your eyes.

Enough of me. What say you? And have a safe and enjoyable weekend!

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Purging the Editor

I believe it is a given that those of us who aspire to write are also vociferous readers. A reader is a wonderful thing to be; however, I have come to the conclusion that sometimes this state of mind and being can be an impediment to an author aborning.  Reading a novel by James Lee Burke or Karin Slaughter or John Connolly or Chelsea Cain can inspire a reader to think, “I want to do that.”  Yet it can also be discouraging; one reads BLACK CHERRY BLUES by Burke and thinks, “I can never be that good; why bother?”  The fleeting dream is set aside, sometimes permanently. Part of the reason for this state of affairs is that in the case of a book (or a film, or a painting, or a music project) we rarely see what came before, the early stages that led to the final result.

Such does not hold true with respect to a construction project, to name but one example. We recently had the opportunity to watch an all but vacant shopping center in our area be transformed over a period of several months into a wholly done, over, remodeled, commercially successful unit. It was fun to watch. Readers generally do not get to watch the process by which their favorite author transforms a few hundred blank pages into a cohesive, occasionally unforgettable, experience. So it is that the novel, upon publication, seems to have sprung from whole cloth, seemingly effortlessly. We know better, of course. But it is difficult sometimes to fully appreciate it without seeing the ultrasound ourselves.

I hit an emotional low point this past week for a number or reasons that aren’t really important to this discussion; what is important is what brought me out of it, at least so far as creativity is concerned. I happened across an article in Slate entitled “Cormac McCarthy Cuts to the Bone.”  You can find the article here. It is an extremely interesting piece which, among other things, reveals that McCarthy’s classic novel BLOOD MERIDIAN was a far different book at publication than it was at conception. What really attracted me to the article, however, was the reproduction of two pages from McCarthy’s original draft.  They are instructive, even if you have never read a word that Mr. McCarthy has written or alternatively would not reflexively grab your copy of BLOOD MERIDIAN or THE ORCHARD  KEEPER if confronted with a fire and the resultant dilemma of what to save.  BLOOD MERIDIAN did not flow out of McCarthy’s mind without deep and dark consideration. If you’re having trouble getting your words out of you and onto the page, don’t let it be because you in your own mind aren’t “good enough” or “as good” as your favorite author. When your favorite author started writing, they weren’t good enough either. It takes several drafts, several cement pourings, if you will, before things solidify and become right. Don’t put your handprints and your initials into your work and ruin it before it is dry. Purge yourself of what playwright John Guare so brilliantly called “tiny obnoxious editor living in your head,” the one who tells you that you will never be as good as Stephen King or Elmore Leonard or whoever. Then let the construction begin. 

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Location, Location, Location

I fell in love with New Orleans before I ever stepped a foot into the city. James Lee Burke was the matchmaker, and all it took was THE NEON RAIN. Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January novels, as well as Burke’s subsequent Dave Robicheaux novels (Right up to and including CREOLE BELLE) sealed the deal. I lost my heart, probably forever. I had of course been exposed to New Orleans through literature and other media well before I read those books. When I was a wee tad there was a police drama entitled Bourbon Street Beat that I watched religiously; and I studied the plays of Tennessee Williams in high school. But it was that Burke book caused me to lose my heart, probably forever.
I was thinking about this today because I started reading Linwood Barclay’s new novel, TRUST YOUR EYES. This is a very different book for Linwood, one that I would strongly recommend to both old fans of his and new readers based just on the first few chapters which I’ve read so far. One of the primary characters is a gentleman who is obsessed with maps, to the extent that he spends hours and days and weeks visiting cities through the magic of a Google Street View- type tool. When offered the opportunity to actually physically visit one of the cities that he treads in cyberspace, he declines. There are reasons for this — read the book, please — but my reason for bringing this up is that there have been any number of novels that, unlike Linwood’s character, have made me want to trace the footsteps and tire tracks of the characters, to experience the sights and smells and sounds in real time and real place. I will be in Louisiana in a month or so and plan to make a quick trip to New Iberia to do just that — Burke and Robicheaux, once again — and on the way back I’m going to try to stop in Nashville just long enough to drive past some of the haunts which J.T. Ellison features in her novels. And who could read DRIVE or DRIVEN by James Sallis and not tempted to visit — with the windows rolled up, of course — some of the dustier sides of Phoenix?
So I’m curious. Have you read novels that have affected you in the manner? Has a particular book or author motivated you to visit a particular city or place and undertake a self-guided tour, using a story as a guide? Has a fictitious character or account actually prompted you to pull up stakes and move? And if you’ve had an experience such as this was it everything that you hoped it would be? Or were you disappointed?
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