Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

The Litwits March selection was Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter which was bound to incite a fabulous discussion…and I missed the meetup due to sinus migraines.  SHAME.  I hated to miss the discussion since I’ve not missed a single, solitary meeting since we began in September 2010.  My husband was slightly appalled, but as I had been mostly living in a dark hole all week moaning and inviting dear, sweet death to take me away – he understood.  Was that dramatic enough for everyone?

The ladies assured me that the discussion was fabulous – aren’t they always though?  I can’t wait to catch up with everyone in April and get a rundown everyone’s general feelings towards the novel.  Or ladies, if you’re reading this – please leave your feelings in the comments!

Anyway, everyone will just have to suffer through my own opinions for the time being!  And a word of warning, THERE BE SPOILERS LATER IN THE PROGRAMMING.

So – Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter takes place in small town Mississippi 25 years after Larry Ott is believed to have murdered a local girl.  He’s not in prison and was never convicted because they never found a body or much evidence beyond the circumstantial.  All the town knows is that he was the last person seen with her.  Of course, like any good little blip on the map, the townsfolk ostracize him from society and he becomes the ultimate loner.  When another girl goes missing, everyone immediately suspects “Scary Larry” and onetime childhood friend turned town constable, Silas, is left to uncover the whole imperfect truth.

Franklin’s novel is well-written, atmospheric, and succeeds in creating some of the best character development of almost any ‘mystery’ novel (literary or otherwise) I’ve ever read.  He smartly and realistically tackles heavy themes such as racism with the respect and depth they deserve.  On the other hand, the plot is very slowly paced and the book took me a long time to get through – particularly the middle.

I’ve seen some readers cite the plot as a bit too predictable, and I both agree and disagree.  Nothing that happens within Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter surprised me.  I saw most everything coming well beforehand, but I don’t think Franklin intended to shock his readers with plot twists.  Instead, I believe he wants his readers to fall into the same biases, prejudices, and yes – even racism that the book’s characters find themselves victim to.  That way, you are just as complicit in condemning Larry or Silas or the stepfather or whoever else you believe might have done the crimes.  After all, we never actually know who killed Cindy or even if she was killed, but we sure do have our conspiracy theories and rash judgments to guide our way.  Well done, Mr. Franklin, well done.

As an aside, Tom Franklin notes that the title comes from how southern children are taught to spell Mississippi – ‘M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I’.  I loved that and thought it extremely apt as the novel’s title.  As a southern child, I absolutely knew this little way of spelling Mississippi and appreciate the trip down memory lane.

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February With the Litwits: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Another book club Sunday has come and gone.  And, as always, we had a marvelous time.  We had several new ladies this month who were wonderful to meet and I hope they had a good time and will continue to read along with us!

As for the book, most everyone enjoyed it on some level.  We praised Harbach for his ability to draw interestingly complex characters even though they often frustrated us to no end.  The writing is really on a higher level than many other contemporary authors – we learned new words, read some beautiful sentences, and found much to praise in Harbach’s technique.  I particularly appreciated how the novel was intelligent without being pretentious, although there are a couple of pretentious characters.

Some members loved the book’s pacing while others believed the narrative to wax and wane.  For me, the novel started off a bit slow because I had no clue what the point was or where the story was going, but about halfway through I could not put this book down.  The characters were just so engrossing even though most of them weren’t the kind of people you liked, but they felt honest in their waywardness and their utter lack of direction.  Each character deals with a search for identity, especially in the aftermath of having the person they thought they were ripped out from underneath them.  And everyone loved Owen – hands down our favorite character.

We discussed the implausibility of many situations our protagonists found themselves in – from how they deal with their mortality and death to their ideas about relationships and love.  The ending left some wondering what happens next and would we be willing to read a sequel.  Most of the characters are in their early twenties with so much life left ahead of them – we left the novel caring about where they’d end up in 20 or 30 years.

Harbach has created a moving novel about the quest for identity, the hunt for the American ideal, and the love for a book called Moby Dick.  He writes a story wrapped in baseball and all its superstitions where baseball transcends sport into a metaphor for life – an American life of hopes and dreams both fulfilled and unfulfilled, and those still in process.  And if I’m being honest, I might have cried just a bit at the end which hardly ever happens to me.  Something I can’t quite place my finger on captivated me in a way that genuinely surprised me and turned on the waterworks.  The Art of Fielding is the kind of book I know I’ll reread again and again, learning something new each time.  Highly recommended read.

Next month we’ll be reading Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin!

January Meetup: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Book club Sundays are absolutely my favorite days.  I look forward to the next one as soon as the current discussion ends.  It’s not just because of the books (even though as a huge book nerd they play a large part) – it’s also because we have the best members of any book club in the whole wide world since the dawn of time, Amen.

Today’s meeting was at my house (hence the cleaning post below) and our January selection was The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  I was nervous because I loved this book more than what some would consider a ‘normal’ amount – what if they didn’t like it?  What if they thought my book love was creepy?  But I decided to just be honest and let my freak flag fly – and yes, I do think some members thought I might have taken things a little too far (especially the newer ladies), but I’m not making any apologies.  Y’all should just be thankful we’ve never read any Harry Potter, trust me.

Speaking of new ladies, we had several first time attendees and I hope y’all felt welcome – we can be a bit overwhelming as a group because we get louder and louder as the evening progresses.  We’re also very opinionated without fear of expressing those opinions.  At the same time, we welcome any and all, love hearing what others think even (and maybe even especially) when it differs from our own, and most of us started out strangers at some point so we know how you feel!

“A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.” Oscar Wilde

Ok, on to the discussion.  On a whole, everyone enjoyed (some fell madly, deeply in love) The Night Circus.  Of course, there were a couple of members here and there who weren’t as thrilled primarily because this type of story just wasn’t their cup of tea.  Everyone agreed that this novel is a sensory experience – the midnight dinners, the circus sights and smells, the magical attractions hidden inside each tent, even the heat of the fire jumps straight off the page.  Reading this book is an experience – it feels like something new and exciting.  We are convinced it could make a fantastically enchanting visual experience when it finally comes out in theaters – Summit Entertainment has purchased the movie rights and David Heyman (Harry Potter!) has been in negotiations to produce the film.  We just hope the magic and whimsy isn’t lost in translation.

Some loved Marco and Celia; others loved Bailey, Poppet, and Widget.  We discussed whether the book and the competition had a true villain.  Are Hector and Alexander H. really evil or can their actions be excused or at least understood?  Have they lived for so long that they no longer value life or do they just not believe death is the worst thing that can happen to a person?  I think everyone enjoyed Herr Thiessen the clockmaker – for most he was the most beloved character.  We all felt sort of sorry for Isobel, but others were put off by her clinginess – how many people would essentially give up their life and follow a circus around to be with someone they don’t even actually ever see?  I love when a book’s secondary characters steal the show.

The ending left some members wanting – feeling more like a whimper than a bang.  But Kelly thought the quietness of Marco and Celia’s story went perfectly with the subtle ending.  Several ladies loved the Shakespeare allusions – The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, bits of Hamlet are all interwoven.  And we thoroughly questioned Bailey’s decision to join the Circus – fate or free will, what was the true driving factor of his ‘decision’?  And what about that email address on his card?

Side Note:  When you email Bailey you receive the following auto-response:

 

Thank you for your interest in Le Cirque des Rêves!

If you are inquiring as to the itinerary of the circus, we apologize,
but it is against our policy to disclose information about current or
upcoming locations.

Other inquiries will be responded to in as timely a manner as possible.

Cheers,
Erin

 

So if you like magic, illusion, quiet love stories, and a sense of place that is undeniable – go read The Night Circus if you haven’t already.  A little disclaimer: the novel isn’t about a high-action competition between two master magicians – in fact, as Jessica so succinctly pointed out, the competition is really only glorified interior decorating – but it’s the best interior decorating book I’ve ever read!

Second Side Note:  Courtney berated me for not having watched Downton Abbey yet.  SHAME!  I promise to watch (and maybe blog) about my experience with the show once it hits my mailbox.

Next month the Litwits are reading The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach where we finally discover the answer to the age-old question:  Do you really have to love baseball to love a book with baseball in it?

March Voting

It’s that time again, Litwits!  You’ll be receiving the voting link soon (if not, please email me or comment here) for our March selection.  This time around Jessica did the choosing and here’s her reasoning behind her fantastic selections:

I joined Litwits to change my reading habits: I love to read, but as a magazine editor, that’s what I do all day! When I come home after work, sometimes it’s just easier to reread a favorite than to put my energy into a new book. So when Brooke offered me the opportunity to choose this month’s selections, I knew I had to pick books I had never read. And since my husband and I are saving for a house, the books had to be on my bookshelf or readily available from the library. Those criteria still resulted in a pretty long list, but these are the titles that most spoke to me.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin. This book has been on my list for a year—ever since I read the first few pages on Amazon and was annoyed that the excerpt ended with a cliffhanger! The effusive reviews from Amazon readers added to my enthusiasm. The story of a mystery that spans decades and takes place in a small Southern town reminds me of one of my favorite Southern authors, Ron Rash. (Having grown up in the country, I’m a sucker for books that are set in the rural South.)

A Beautiful Place to Die, by Malla Nunn. I picked this book from a Borders bargain rack last year, and it jumps out at me every time I pass my bookshelf; I don’t know why I haven’t read it yet. Like Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, it’s a mystery, but this one’s set in South Africa. My favorite college class was on the history of Africa—it was my only 8 a.m. class in four years, which should tell you how good it was. Some of the best nonfiction I’ve ever read came from those assignments. But I’ve yet to find a novel that compares, so I’m hoping this will be it!

Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My introduction to Garcia Marquez was The Autumn of the Patriarch—not the best choice, since it consists of about ten sentences spread over 200 pages. A friend assures me that his other books are much easier to read and are worth the effort, and I’ve been meaning to give him another chance. This one’s her favorite, so it made my 2012 reading list.

True Grit, by Charles Portis. I added the Jeff Bridges movie to my Netflix queue and thought, I wonder if that’s based on a book? And it was! As a child, I did my homework in the living room while my father watched Westerns (well, those and horror movies), so the genre is very special to me. But I’ve only read Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) and would like to try something different.  Amazon describes Portis as “one of America’s foremost comic writers,” and Western plus comedy seems like an ideal pairing—not to mention, the John Wayne version of True Grit is one of those movies I watched during homework time.

I hope everyone is having a wonderful 2012 so far and don’t forget to vote!  Voting will end one week from today!

November Meetup: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Litwits Star Rating:  3.2 Stars!

Yesterday, nine Litwits met at my house to discuss Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  As you can see above with the 3.2 star rating, opinions were a mixed bag.  Some gave a resounding 5 stars while others opted for a less-impressed 2 star rating.  Most everyone agreed that the last third of the novel was the best part – easier to read, more actual plot movement and action.  Of course, the very ending was shocking and not necessarily in a pleasing way, but I won’t spoil the fun for those who haven’t read!

Hedgehog, we all agreed, can be a challenging read due to the philosophical digressions Barbery is so fond of imposing upon her readers.  She’s an author who definitely follows the old advice of writing what one knows – she herself being a philosophy professor who currently lives in Japan.  We also wondered if the translation perhaps hurt the enjoyability for readers who can’t read the novel in its original French.  Then, of course, there’s always the disconnect between cultures and societies – without having a thorough understanding of French class systems, familial structures, and education, the reader is left to impose their own experiences upon the story and characters.  How much does this affect our reading experience?

We discussed in depth the main characters of Paloma, our precocious 12-year-old, and Renee, our cranky concierge.  Some found Paloma amusing in her pompous rants, others felt she lacked a certain vulnerability that belongs to all children, no matter how smart.  We wondered if Renee was bringing her misery onto herself as we rarely saw anyone being openly cruel to her.  We laughed over Renee’s comical discussion of comma mis-usage and her episode with the singing toilet.  Many members bemoaned the dual narrative – citing a feeling of choppiness that kept the story from flowing properly, hating the switch in font.  Others believed the short 2-3 page chapters added to the readability – by the time you were sick of one character’s philosophical ranting it was already over.

If there’s one plus to Barbery’s writing that everyone seemed to agree on, it’s her ability to write some stunningly beautiful prose.  Some readers could even quote a few of her sentences word-for-word which is always a great compliment to any writer.  Of course, don’t take on this volume without a dictionary handy as you will definitely run across words and terms you’ve never heard before – a great vocabulary lesson with every chapter!

The Elegance of the Hedgehog has garnered great critical praise by the elite readers of the world – so I definitely think it’s worth checking out, even if only to convince yourself further than professional critics really don’t know what they’re talking about!  After reading reactions on Amazon, Goodreads, and amongst our own Litwits, I’m convinced this is a novel you will either loathe or love, but no matter what side of the fence you land on, I promise you will walk away appreciating at least one aspect of Barbery’s writing.

Special thanks to everyone who came yesterday!  I enjoyed meeting new members and catching up with regulars!  Next month we’ll be reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – a timeless Christmas classic – short, but sweet!  Fellow organizer, Katherine, has been gracious enough to host the meetup at her home in Grant Park so I hope to see y’all there!

Meetup: The Mistress’s Revenge by Tamar Cohen

Our mini-meetup for The Mistress’s Revenge took place at Panera Bread this past Sunday afternoon.  Bianca, Holly, Angela, and I found a nice little spot and dived into the discussion.  And trust me, there was a lot to discuss.  The novel centers around Sally and Clive who have recently ended a five year affair.  Clive is married and Sally has been in a long-term relationship with the same man – both have children.  Clive ends the affair abruptly which sends Sally spiraling into utter madness.

Cohen’s novel is written from a unique perspective – the journal of Sally.  You are along for the journey with our crazy (very seriously crazy) ‘heroine’ as she stalks Clive and his family, deludes herself into believing so many pathetic things, completely abandons her children, and plots her final revenge.  You know she’s crazy which makes her a somewhat unreliable narrator – you never know how truthful she’s being – what details she’s leaving out of her stories – it can make you feel a bit mad yourself.  Or entirely sane!

Our discussion flowed easily – we talked of pity for Sally, for Clive, but mostly for their respective families; we asked whether the genders could be switched – could a man have played Sally’s role?  The twist ending that no one saw coming was perhaps the highlight of the novel for most.  Is Sally vindicated in her revenge – are we satisfied with the outcome?  How would Hollywood portray the story?  Who is to blame?

The novel is by no means high literature.  Revenge is Cohen’s first fiction novel – she’s a journalist, but we all said we’d love to read anything else she writes which is always a great compliment.  And despite the fact that we sometimes found the pacing a bit off, the characters hardly likeable, the cheating utterly despicable – we still LOVED talking about those things.  This novel gets an A+ in the book club discussion wars – so much so that we’ve decided to extend an invitation to the rest of the group to read the novel and join us for another discussion.  That’s a first for the Litwits!

Here’s what some of the other ladies had to say:

Holly says:  Tamar Cohen writes with a knowledge of this type of obsession that is almost scary. While I felt for Sally and at times Clive, it just goes to show that infidelity does not always end without consequences. Quick read and wanted to know more. When I first started this book I noticed that there were no chapters. This book is written as one long journal, with pauses between entries – there are no dates, so the reader really has no idea when the entries are written. The journal is actually more like a letter from Sally to Clive; however, Clive doesn’t know it. The pacing is slower than I would have liked, but the hook and Sally’s witty, insane observations kept me reading. The ending though understated and insidious, as was the suspense, proved interesting with a smart twist at the end that made the reading worth-while.

Allie says:  I can’t think of any scenario in which a person is supposed to feel sorry for a mistress. I don’t know if that was the intent of the book. I hope not. Reading it felt like watching a car accident. You look but you know you shouldn’t. I kept waiting for the “big moment” to happen as far as her revenge but how it ended felt like something that’s been done before in movies and TV. This mistress had no right to seek revenge. She was just as wrong as the man. Actually, she was worse because she showed no regard for her children after the affair ended.

Bianca says:  Reading Revenge was like sitting next to the main character on an insane roller coaster. You see what she sees, you know what’s going to happen and you hear her screaming the whole way. You also want to scream at her. Repeatedly. Yes, cheating is despicable. Yes, you hate her. Yes, you hate him too. But the writing of this novel drags you kicking and screaming into the mind of a completely insane woman and forces you to experience the dark, twisty tunnels of her mind. You want so badly for her to snap out of it, even though her character is so unlovable. The writer forces you to feel so much, both for the various characters (except Clive. He remains a jerk for everyone.) and your own emotions, which come out pretty intensely. The kicker is the twist ending. Completely unexpected and completely perfect.

September Meetup: The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee

Our September novel was The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee.  This past Sunday several Litwits got together to discuss our thoughts and feelings on the story.   To be honest, we haven’t had such a quiet, almost confused meetup in awhile – perhaps ever.  Very odd considering how long we’ve been together, our first year anniversary meetup!  I think the befuddlement came from not fully knowing what to do with Lee’s story – especially the character of Claire.

My first question to everyone was whether or not they liked the book.  Most people quietly murmured or nodded their ascent – yet you could tell no one was really sure of themselves.  What we all pretty quickly agreed on was that no one liked Claire.  Whether the dislike was born from her compulsion to steal trinkets from the Chens or her affair with Will or an overall disdain for her entire personality was never pinned down.

We discussed several of the novel’s themes:  East meets West, class structure, race, war, the condition of pretty much all classes and cultures in human society to torture and oppress those they deem the ‘enemy’ or foreign.  And then, as a group, we struggled with what one member claimed was the most anti-climatic of climaxes ever.

After the meetup (and after watching the Emmys cause I’m kind of a dork), I got to thinking more about Lee’s novel and what she was attempting to do with her narrative.  Before the meetup, I was down the middle with this book – parts I loved, parts I hated.  Lee’s writing is very stark and concise and there were moments of literary genius sprinkled lightly throughout.  But sometime around 2 AM this morning, I finally decided that the story actually has a quiet sort of genius about as readers is to ascertain in what ways they are similar and how they ultimately differ.  Their connection is Will Truesdale – and if we view each woman through his eyes we’ll find the hidden truth of each (after all, I doubt Lee named her male lead Truesdale without meaning to).

Trudy sinks her claws into Will almost as soon as he plants foot in Hong Kong in 1941.  He, like most others, immediately succumbs to her overwhelming persona, her charisma, her Eurasian beauty.  Trudy is the type of woman who commands attention and even when being downright despicable makes friends.  She is a fully painted canvas (probably a Jackson Polluck) and over the war years we deconstruct her as a painting until the war strips her of everything, leaving her a blank canvas upon death.   Trudy is Will’s coming of age, his sexual awakening, and his loss of innocence.

Flash forward to 1952:  Here we meet Claire Pendleton who is not only new to Hong Kong, but new to marriage with a husband she barely knows – and more poignantly, new to life.  Whereas Trudy ends as a blank canvas, Claire begins as one.  Unlike many other British ex-pats Lee describes, Hong Kong becomes Claire, enhances her.  In the same way that Trudy owned Will upon his arrival, Hong Kong owns Claire.  She’d much rather be among the native Chinese than the high-class ex-pats and their expensive tea parties.  Lee goes so far as to sexualize Claire’s relationship with Hong Kong:

“[Claire] turned around but the woman had already disappeared.  She breathed deeply.  The smells of the wet market entered her, intense and earthy.  Around her, Hong Kong thrummed.”

In Claire’s Hong Kong, she struggles to find herself.  She takes those trinkets of Melody’s to try on the Chen’s lifestyle, to feel alive, to test her own boundaries and limits.  Will sees through her immediately – probably recognizes his pre-Trudy self in her.  He enters into his relationship with Claire in a role reversal – he is now in control and I believe he wants Claire to punish him so that he can finally absolve himself and pay penance for the guilt he still feels over abandoning Trudy.  And in the end, Claire does abandon Will, her husband, the life she has known to disappear among the locals as a fully matured woman on her own.

Trudy and Claire, on the surface, are stories that end on the same page.  Each woman dissolves from society, sort of fizzles away from the public eye with no one really knowing or understanding what has happened to her.  But whereas Trudy has gone from the grandest excess to the barest trace of her own humanity, Claire has blossomed into a fleshed-out, complicated picture of the female experience.

Next month’s book is Angela’s Ashes – the meetup is already scheduled on the site!  I look forward to seeing everyone then!