Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A couple more books

Wasn't too enthralled with the books I finished this past week. Going to See the Elephant started off really strong. Rodes Fishburne looked like the kind of fiction writer I really like; someone who combines good writing with good storytelling. The book started off reminding me of a novel I'd enjoyed years ago, Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain by Jeffrey Moore. So much so that I put in a request for Moore's second book yesterday.

The similarities were a quirky main character driven by what Fishburne calls "synchronistic coincidences". He falls in love with a dark, intelligent quirky woman. The early part of the book is sort of funny with a touch of darkness. All traits shared with Moore's book. Fishburne's protagonist, Slater Brown, is an aspiring writer in his mid-twenties who goes to San Francisco to become the greatest writer ever. He lands a position with a weekly newspaper and is fired after his first article. In despair he turns to a fortune teller who gives him a transistor radio. Brown discovers that conditions in San Francisco have caused telephone lines to intermingle with trolley car lines and that the radio he has received is uniquely able to pick up those signals when he's riding the cars. By listening to people's phone conversations he becomes a city-renowned reporter, breaking news scoops by, in effect, tapping phone lines.

From here the book gets ridiculous. Brown's girlfriend is a top-level chess player with an over-protective father. There is also a mad scientist, Milo Magnet, arguably the most intelligent man in the world, who tries to create weather in an effort to combat boredom. Add the mayor, who thinks Brown is out to get him and who gorges himself on food to comfort himself even though it never seems like anything Brown reports is enough to prevent him from being re-elected for a thirteenth term, and you have a cast of characters that despite being put together, never fit. Magnet, especially, has no place in the book. Yet there are chapters devoted to him. Just a really odd book that disappointed me given how well it began.

The other book was equally disappointing. Stradivari's Genius is a really long paper for school. You've been there. Don't deny it. You have a paper due on some subject and you find a ton of material in a couple of sources that is the basis for the majority of your paper. But you don't feel comfortable handing it in and saying, "Well I read two books and that's it". So you look for some other "sources". Maybe take a quote from the one book that is cited and cite it yourself to flesh out that bibliography. You know what I'm talking about.

That's what Faber did with this book. Not counting the individual issues of The Strad, which are also contained in the bibliography, Faber cites an amazing 130 works for his 230 page book. Conveniently, he opts not to use footnotes or endnotes so you never know where the info comes from or how much is from which source. I can put forth a pretty good guess. I would venture that much of the actual reference material he uses is from Ernest Doring's How Many Strads? Our Heritage from the Master. Faber calls it "indispensable" in the bibliography and given how Faber tries to explain his book, I can see why.

Faber says in the beginning of the book that the reader will follow the history of five of Stradivari's violins and one cello. Doring's book is brief histories on all of Stradivari's instruments. See the connection? Unfortunately, Faber needs to flesh out his report in order to make it seem different from Doring's book. So he goes off and writes chapters about people who have owned those instruments. Add a chapter, add a couple more references. Never mind that it has nothing to do with Stradivari or his "genius".

The title itself bothers me because the life of Stradivari is so far back in history and so undocumented, that anytime Faber writes about him, the sentence contains one or more of the words "perhaps, possibly, probably". There is so much speculation involved, Faber's book could possibly be passed off as fiction. Well, if he didn't have 130 references to indicate otherwise.

OK, I'm being a little strong here. Faber certainly doesn't lie. He's just taking what other people have already written elsewhere and putting it in a different, convoluted form with no direction. And just like you thought you were pulling a fast one over on your teacher but really weren't, Faber also fails to pull it off.

No comments: