Wednesday, July 05, 2006

I read two books this holiday weekend. This is what happens when I actually sit down to read in earnest; I can’t stop.

The first was an exceptional book by a fantastic author, Joanne Harris. She’s perhaps best known for her novel Chocolat, which became a movie, but this book, Sleep, Pale Sister was just an astonishing piece of goodness that apparently went out of print after its first run but got so much demand from the public that it was re-printed, thankfully. It’s precisely the tone of book I need to infuse my writing these days. It’s a sort of Gothic Lolita in reverse with a far different result.

Henry Chester is the delightful villain, a mediocre painter, ruined by some sort of early childhood experience with his mother, he wants nothing more than to find some essence of purity in the world and capture it and preserve it. Ten year old Effie becomes the object of his muse and he paints no one but her in all manner of absurdly passion-less tableaus. When Effie turns 17, he marries her and fully intends to keep her pure. Naturally his prurient passions get the better of him and he gives into her ‘seduction’ and gets poor Effie pregnant. Her baby is stillborn, but something else wakes up in her after she recovers from the loss--her sexuality, to Henry’s chagrin.

The plot gets wickedly complicated as Effie comes alive, takes a lover and gets involved in a vengeful brothel-mother’s scheme to pay back the murderer of her dead daughter. Channeling Effie’s sexuality, and playing on Henry’s sordid desires, they conjure “Marta” a seductress compared to the Arabian princess Scheherezade, who keeps Henry in thrall with her stories and her body while the diabolical scheme unfolds.

It’s a brilliant, sexy, chilling tale that reminded me why I write.

The second book I read was Tess Gerritsen’s Vanish. I like her Maura Isles series. Isles is a medical examiner and each book gives a visceral description of bodies unpeeled, open and vulnerable in death in medical precision (Gerritsen herself is a former internist). Maura Isles is also the quintessential tough, independent woman who doesn’t allow anyone too close. She’s Scully or Lois Lane in her field. Gerritsen’s books are quick, easy reads that follow a formula, but I like that sometimes. This book also tackles the weighty topic of girls sold into sex slavery, which I applauded.

I’m trying to fill up on a certain quality of darkness for the next book I’m going to start writing probably in the fall. I’ve got some Oates, Gaitskill and my absolute favorite, Sarah Waters, on my to-read shelf next.

For a long time I wondered where all the great books I have read “went” after I read them. What do I retain of them, do they change me? I finally realized that they form a kind of texture in my psyche, a kind of design that influences what I write. Lest anyone out there read that as me plagiarizing work, stop right there. I mean that the work of other authors influences me the way music plays on my mood or the smell of lavender recalls certain memories. I can comfortably say that my novel The Night Oracle is wholly of me and no one else, but I can nod to Pullman and Kostova, Gaitskill and Fowles for their influences nonetheless.



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