Monday, August 6, 2012

Are you Ginger or Marianne? (or: the worst book I have ever read)

Let's get to it. I've been reviewing books for - jeez, now I don't want to say how long, nor do I want to say how many I've reviewed for fear of someone out there saying, or thinking, "Loser."

It's a few hundred and yes, I do get paid. When I tell people how much I get paid (because they always ask, just like you'd ask a surgeon or a teacher), they  have one of two responses:

(a) That much, eh?, or

(b) Is that all?

Anyway. Sifting through these hundreds of review copies, I can't help but think back to. . .(now my face gets all blurry and there are harp glissandos and stuff). So I won't give you a top ten or anything, or a bottom ten, but there are a few that definitely stand out.

There was one by Doris Lessing called Love, Again, and it was simply (but not at all simply) about a woman of 60 in love with a man of 20. It was dazzling and intimate at the same time, and it reminded me of why we write (oh OK - why she writes - she's on a whole 'nother planet from everyone else, even won the Nobel Prize a few years ago). At the same time, I was also reviewing an atrocity by Toni Morrison called How Stella Got her Groove Back, which was about a woman in her 40s in love with a man of 20. It amazed me how you could take the same subject matter and either lift it to the level of incandescent art, or throw it down into the gutter.

There was one by Daniel Richler called - what the hell was it called, anyway? Hated it. Just a huge waste of talent. One by Anna Murdoch, then-wife of Rupert, called Family Business, all about the McLeans, a newspaper family that had "printer's ink in their veins". Jesus. If they'd had that, they'd be dead, and perhaps that would be not such a bad thing.

I just want to quote one thing from that book, the only thing I really remember. The McLean family plays a weird twist on the Name Game ("Shirley, Shirley, bo-Birley", etc).

Paper Caper
Nicker-aper, Coo-faper,
That's how you spell paper!

But nothing prepared me for a slender volume called Ready to Fall by Claire Cook. This came out in 2000, when email was still considered strange and mystical, with messages coming out of the thin air, so the fact that the book is written as a series of emails must have been a selling point. These are mostly one-way emails that a frustrated suburban housewife writes to her would-be lover, a globetrotting/bestselling author who lives next door. The fact that he stops replying to her on page 27 should have clued her in that he was either dead, or completely uninterested.

The publishers, Bridge Works Publishing Company (which sounds more like a dental office to me) convinced a few authors of some repute to say nice things about the novel, so that next time another author from Bridge Works would say something nice about their novel. That's how it works, folks, just like on Open Salon.

"Ready to Fall is pure delight," burbles one Helen Fremont, author of After Long Silence (and I only wish that the silence had been a little bit longer). "A Bridget Jones's Diary for the post-twenties. Fresh and full of pizzazz (oops, I thought that said pizza)."

Mameve Medwed, yes, THAT Mameve Medwed, gushes, "In this stunning debut, Claire Cook creates a whole world through one character's one-way e-mails. . . Bells rang for me on each and every page." Bells?

But Alexandra Johnson sums it all up with: "In Ready to Fall, Claire Cook ingeniously shows us that e-mail is the modern diary beamed into cyberspace. Refracted at dizzying speed and"

Bluggghghg, bluggghhh - sorry, folks, I don't like to throw up in public, but in this case it was just getting too unpalatable.

In the acknowledgements, Cook gives "eternal thanks to my writing group", then names them all. One of them is Helen Fremont - you know, that Helen Fremont, the one who burbles away about Bridget Jones and pizza. "Writer's group" is an oxymoron anyway - writers hate other writers, if not all human beings, and do not run in packs, or run at all. We sit alone at our desks and eat Chee-tohs and get very sloppy. She then thanks her husband and children for "giving" her time to write. I don't know how you can do that, see. Give someone time. If you can give it, you can take it away. If anyone wanted to take away my time to write, they'd have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

But on to the novel!

Maybe it's not fair to make such fun of a technical marvel that is now so creaky. We've since dropped that cute little dash from "e-mail". Anyway. The story. Beth Riordan is trying her best to work up a good case of lubrication for a guy (somebody she doesn't actually know) called Thomas Marsh, a walking nom-de-plume who dangles her for a couple hundred pages before dropping her like a dead rat.

Actually, I see now that he does throw her a couple of crumbs at the start, just enough to get her hooked so she'll pick up his mail and newspapers.  "I stopped to get bagels on the way home from swim practice this morning. . . The whole time I was thinking how nice it would be to walk over to your house with some freshly brewed coffee and the rest of the bagels. Just to say hello and maybe have. . ." (etc. My fingers are getting tired, not to mention my brain.)

He's not home, surprisingly, so she feeds the bagels through the mail slot in his door. "I simply can't believe you're gone, Thomas," she says with a long, shivering intake of breath. "I almost dropped my sandwich when I saw the little bouquet of flowers you had left just inside the door. Were those from my garden?"

Such economy, a sure sign of a man of character! Why go to one of those pesky stores when the flowers are right there in her garden? The rest of the e-mails are sorta one-way and talk about Beth's life sitting in the parking lot waiting for her kids to come out of swim practice. (Claire Cook was quick to tell the media in the mad promotional whirl that she wrote this novel in 15-minute segments while sitting in the car waiting for her kids to come out of swim practice.)

The story, such as it is, comes out in half-page blurts with "e-mail" headings such as:

Date:   Sunday, August 20, 3:49 A. M. EDT
From:   Swimslave
To:     Wanderlust

I don't remember what, if anything, really happens between Beth and Wanderlust (I mean Thomas), but near the end of the book she waxes hopeful. "But the minute I got within smelling distance of you, I felt this strong, physical pull. A chemical response, something olfactory and beyond. You must have strong pheromones because all of my earlier reservations disappeared." Reservations for the hotel?

But this particular passage is the real reason my mind flashed back to this atrocity, because it left a little fishhook in my brain that will forever be there.

"Do you like hammocks, Thomas? This one IS comfortable. I try to keep my mind clear, but as soon as it empties, an image rushes in. I am in a rerun of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND. I try to decide if I am Ginger or Mary Ann. In the long run, is it better to be sultry and sexy or perky and peppy? Ginger looks good now, but Mary Ann will probably age better. Plus she will have developed her personality in a way that Ginger won't feel the need to. But Ginger DOES get all the men. (Reviewer's note: Cook seems not to have heard of italics.) And the good clothes. And you certainly never see her doing any real work. She'd never risk breaking a nail. I decide that women have just talked themselves into thinking they'd prefer to be Mary Ann. We'd all really rather be Ginger."

This passage is too putrid even to appear in Cosmopolitan magazine, but it passed muster in 2000. So long as it's in an e-mail. I vaguely remember, though I'd rather be hung upside down by my toenails than try to find my copy, a mystical novel where a woman was getting emails from a spectral presence, someone who existed only in the realm of Cyberspace. And that one passed, too.

Oh, don't join writer's groups, don't sit in cars scribbling! Why would writers support each other anyway? Do you know how precious and few are the opportunities to get published these days, how pointed the top of the pyramid? Don't hand the prize to your friend, just don't. You've worked hard and it's (to paraphrase Claire Cook) YOURS. To be too generous with your secrets is like a golf pro taking another golf pro aside and saying, "Here, let me show you my special swing, the one that won me the U. S. Open three years in a row."

Only in the writing field (and only among amateurs - take my word for it) are people expected to help each other improve their skills so that the other person can trounce the hell out of you and jerk away a fat contract that is rightfully yours. If you have to show your work to someone, show your mother. Or an agent. There's nothing in between.

But all is not lost! You might be asked by the publisher to write some effusive back-of-the-cover bumph for your friend's new novel, a little neon sign for your own pet project. You won't be paid for it, but hey, be grateful: it's exposure, isn't it? Maybe next time, SHE will write some nice juicy bumph for YOU.

But don't count on it.


Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book
    It took me years to write, will you take a look