A well-formed plot is like a quality timepiece. Its movements are elegant and precise. It marries form to function. Blurs distinctions between craftwoA well-formed plot is like a quality timepiece. Its movements are elegant and precise. It marries form to function. Blurs distinctions between craftwork and artistry. Perhaps most significantly, it is built to last. "Serious" readers, who have the unfortunate habit of regarding plot-driven fiction as juvenile, will dismiss plot as a sop to those lacking the stomach for literature's more profound insights. But such a narrow view is unable to account for or acknowledge the structural perfection of a plot-driven masterpiece like Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None.
The premise is almost archetypal: Ten strangers get summoned to a deserted island by a mysterious host. Each of them has a secret. One by one they die. What's amazing about this situation is how Christie manages the mechanics of it all. All ten characters are firmly established in the space of a single chapter and what follows is a game of conceal-and-reveal wherein the more time we spend with a character the less we seem to really know them. Then there's the business of finding plausible ways to kill off ten characters in a confined space where each suspects all of the others. How magnificent that the whole thing turns like clockwork.
A final note on the text: there's something interesting happening with the publication history of this book and its thematic engagement with the concept of retributive justice and unpunished crimes. As a quick survey of Wikipedia will tell, the novel was originally published in the UK under the title Ten Little Niggers with the guests being summoned to Nigger Island and killed in ways that parallel the verses of a famous poem that was a staple of blackface minstrel shows in the late 1800s. For the U.S. release, the title was changed to And Then There Were None, the location and poem changed to Indian Island and "Ten Little Indians," respectively. In the most recent edition, it's Soldier Island and "Ten Little Soldiers." It seems ironic that a text so focused on concealing, exposing, and redressing crimes outside the province of law is itself bound to the effacement of broader injustices. Maybe it's because Christie trains us to suspect everyone's motives, but I have a hard time seeing that as a coincidence....more
I'm famous (er, famous among my friends anyway) for making the only slightly hyperbolic claim that David Simon's HBO series The Wire is the greatest aI'm famous (er, famous among my friends anyway) for making the only slightly hyperbolic claim that David Simon's HBO series The Wire is the greatest achievement of Western Civilization. It's not surprising then that I loved Simon's book chronicling the year he spent as a reporter embedded with the Baltimore Police Department's Homicide squad in 1988. Several characters and more than a few anecdotes here will be familiar to fans of The Wire. More importantly, the entire set bears traces of the Dickensian aspect (or is it the Simonian aspect?) that gave The Wire its poignancy and resonance. Homicide is less about the cases Simon bears witness to and more about the men he comes to know and love, men who confront America's worst on a daily basis. It's the story of their successes and failures, large and small, and the strategies that allow them to maintain their humanity in the face of the inhuman....more
I picked this up at the behest of my nine-year-old, who told me it was the best book she had ever read. And while I can't quite agree with her, I didI picked this up at the behest of my nine-year-old, who told me it was the best book she had ever read. And while I can't quite agree with her, I did enjoy The Invention of Hugo Cabret considerably.
Formally, the book resides somewhere between a graphic novel and an illustrated novel, and one of the things that struck me most about it is how Selznick lets his artwork carry the emotional weight of the story. In fact, if you take away the pictures, what remains is almost entirely devoid of sentiment (a surprising fact considering just how sentimental Scorsese's also-very-good film adaptation turned out).
I won't bother to summarize the plot since others have done it and better than I could, but I will say that Selznick's book goes a long way toward restoring mysteries too often neglected in contemporary life. And any book that can summon your sense of wonder as you contemplate a bit of clockwork or the pictures cast in a darkened moviehouse is worth your time....more
I'm not sure what to say about this one. The pleasures of a Stephen King novel are both immediate and transparent. The man will never be a great obserI'm not sure what to say about this one. The pleasures of a Stephen King novel are both immediate and transparent. The man will never be a great observer of human character. His scattered attempts to wax poetic often fall flat. But when he's on, as he is in 11/22/63, King is a tremendous storyteller with an expert sense of pacing, a narrative writer par excellence who keeps you turning pages, keeps you asking that fundamental question that drove most of us to become readers in the first place: "What happens next?"
Here King's narrative centers on a man sent back in time to save President Kennedy from his would-be assassin. (Or was there a second shooter?) This premise will seem instantly familiar to anyone who's read alternate histories or even just seen "Back to the Future," but what makes King's novel special is the way that the details of 50s and 60s America assume a sinister character when filtered through King's sensibilities. Sociological details like the casual sexism and racism of the era begin to look like co-conspirators in Kennedy's death. And yet King somehow finds room for nostalgia too. It's a delicate balance he strikes, a dance of sorts that breathes life into these 800 plus pages, but this dynamic wouldn't surprise the novel's hero any. As Jake Epping frequently observes, "Life is dancing."...more