Every reader has a soft spot, a genre or author or both that they gravitate towards without their usual scrutiny. Some people will read any book about dogs, others will grab anything written by John Grisham or Stephen King. For me, it’s books about books or books with the word book in the title. My brain disengages from critical thinking and switches to the blind belief that it HAS to be good if it is related to books in even the most remote way. By and large, I’ve been lucky in that the majority of fiction I’ve read about books has been marvelous (The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, The Moment of Everything) but today’s mini-reviews are two that were…not so much.
“Everybody knows that no healthy person would take up writing novels. Healthy people do healthy things. All this darned hoopla and hot air about literature—what is it really but mental derangement run through a printing press?”
The plot of Rabbit Back Literature Society and the quotation above landed it so squarely in my wheelhouse I knew it was a novel I needed to read. A small group of writers is mentored by a famous author in a sheltered and mysterious group but they hide a secret about their writing. When a local teacher is invited to join she learns that the authors’ success may be due less to their talent and more to a secret game they play. Sounds amazing, right?! Especially as the mystery builds, people disappear, and the contents of books in the library change. All of these things work in Rabbit Back but there is one small glitch. This is a Finnish book translated into English and my only thought is that something, well, lots of somethings, got lost in translation. The plot is not the problem but the prose is and because I’m not familiar with Finnish literature I can only approach this from an English speaking perspective. The characters speak in ways that do not align with their personalities as originally portrayed, the dialogue is clunky and stilted, and paragraphs are rife with non-sequiturs. There is no flow to the narrative, just the annoying stop-and-jerk feeling you get on a subway train stuck in a tunnel—every time you think its finally on its way, it stops again and the momentum is lost.
I kept hoping Rabbit Back would get back on track but instead, in the same way that old dubbed foreign movies show the characters mouths moving before the sound comes out, the humor in this novel is out-of-sync with American sensibilities. I get that the author is being funny but it’s a bit off and awkward without the flow needed to sustain really great sarcasm. This novel did not work for me at all but I would be thrilled to have someone read it in the original Finnish and tell me it is a masterpiece.
I was looking for something else in books. I could not really say what, but I think I can say why: a notion started in my own brain was probably wrong, but an answer read in a work of literature would be right.
Matthew Pearl’s The Last Bookaneer is told in the swashbuckling manner of an old-school adventure but with people who love books. I know, seems a bit incongruous but instead of buckaneers you have bookaneers, people who lead wildly adventurous lives in pursuit of books. Unfortunately, they’re only in it for the money so Pearl takes two real events and blends them to concoct what will be the last great heist in bookaneer history. Up until the end of 1800s copyright was national, meaning authors like Charles Dickens had to watch as people bought his work while in England, sailed home to America, reprinted it and kept all the profits without him getting a farthing. It isn’t until 1891 that the United States agrees to an international copyright act, which will go into effect on July 1, 1891. At around this time, the famous Robert Louis Stevenson has gone to live in
Samoa where it is believed that, given his ill-health, he is working on a final book before dying. Pearl takes these truths, adds Mr. E.C. Fergins, a bookseller and Pen Davenport, a bookaneer and sends them from Great Britain to the islands of the South Pacific in search of what will be the last great get in bookaneer history.
Pearl excels at plot and there is a lot of it in The Last Bookaneer. In an effort to win their prize Fergins and Davenport must compete against enemies of all kinds and work with the utmost stealth and Pearl feints and dodges with the best of them strewing the novel with clues, arcane details, and the kind of minutia that makes for non-stop reading. The only problem? When a novel is so dependent on plot then that plot had better work right up until the last sentence and this did not. We discussed this kind of thing at The Socratic Salon (How Important is the End of a Book?) last week so it is odd that I’m now faced with a specific instance of it. There is a spoiler but while that part works Pearl goes beyond it to a premise/plot twist that does not fit with the rest of the novel. Which bothered me. A lot.