Friday, February 24, 2006

BOOKS: This Post Uses a Lot of Exclamation Points

So, I didn't get this post up this morning, as I'd intended.* But think of it this way: how many of your run-of-the-mill once-a-day bloggers give you a big, juicy, thiamine-enriched post to chew on over the weekend? Huh? Huh? Yeah.

Young Master Sam had only one nap today. One measly, thirty-minute nap. Do they make Sominex for babies? On the plus side (and isn't there always a plus side for us sunny, irritating, glass-is-half-full types?), Sam and I used all that extra play time to add two new games to our repertoire:

Hats! Gather every grown-up-sized hat in the house and sit in front of a mirror with your favourite small person. Proceed to plop each hat, one by one, on your small person's head. Watch their eyes bug out when they see themselves radically transformed. You can vary this game by trying on more than one hat at a time. Hilarity will ensue.

Bumps! Sit at the top of the stairs holding your small person in your lap, facing out. Scooch your butt forward so that you bump down to the next stair. (This is where your post-partum ass is finally a blessing.) Continue in this manner all the way down the stairs. Trust me, this game is WAY more exciting than it sounds. Sam almost lost his cool laughing, and that only happens once every few weeks. He's a tough customer.

But enough frivolity! Let's move right along to the post proper.

Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett
One of the first signs that 2006 was going to be the Year of Doppelganger was when Cap'n Ganch surprised me with a copy of Winner of the National Book Award, a book I've been wanting to read ever since... well, ever since the Cap'n told me to.

Now, I must admit to being intimidated by this book. For one thing, EVERYBODY kept saying how funny it is. The Cap'n (for whom I have enormous book respect, largely because he tends to like the same books I do). And, um, some other people. And all the blurbs on the cover. "Riotous... hugely funny," stated The New York Times. "Hilarious black comedy," exclaimed The Miami Herald. "Unnerving, scabrously funny, spectacularly toxic," declared The Onion. (I love The Onion's blurb, if only for introducing me to "scabrously," my new favourite word. Use it in a sentence five times today and it can be yours, too!)

As if that weren't pressure enough, the picture of writer Jincy Willett on the back of the book scared the bejeebus out of me. She looks like one of your classic no-nonsense, wickedly sardonic tough cookies -- in other words, everything I would like to be and am not -- and if I didn't like her writing, what would that say about me? More important, would Jincy come up here and kick my sorry ass? She looks more than capable. (I wanted to post an author photo but couldn't find one online, so you'll just have to get your own copy of the book and see for yourself.)

So what if I didn't find it funny? Would that mean there was something wrong with me? And given that I've committed to writing honestly about the books I've read, what if I wrote something negative here? How could I keep the Cap'n from reading it? I thought about creating a diversion, but it's really hard to streak naked across the internet.

Fortunately, it didn't come to that, because I loved this book. It was funny! And therefore I must be normal! (Shut up, you.)

Winner doesn't purport to be great literature that will live on through the ages, and I'm totally cool with that. Because what this novel does do exceedingly well is relentlessly and unsympathetically skewer ("skewer"-- how do you like that word? I sound like a real book critic! Whee!) the current state of writing and publishing. And in the post-Frey literary universe we all inhabit, where truth and fiction are more uncertain than ever, Willett's story couldn't be more timely.

Narrated by Dorcas Mather -- the sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued local librarian -- Winner tells the story of Dorcas's twin, Abigail, who is as slutty as Dorcas is virginal. (I say "slutty" in the non-pejorative sense. Some of my best friends are sluts. Just so you know.) Dorcas recalls the sequence of events that led to Abigail's current state of arrest for the murder of her almost comically diabolical husband, Conrad Lowe. The event that sparks Dorcas's recollections is the release of a tell-all book about Abigail and Conrad's relationship, which Dorcas's library has just released, and which she must classify and shelve. Nifty, huh?

Dorcas and Abigail are the only characters in this novel who are not writers of some persuasion. Conrad writes horror novels. The talented but strangely perverse local poet (and winner of a National Book Award)
Guy DeVilbiss (Geddit? DEVILbiss? Heh.) redefines the meaning of the phrase "objectifying women" when he places Abigail in the role of bizarre muse. And Guy's wife, Hilda, is the person who writes the tell-all book, couching it in asinine psychobabble that rings depressingly plausible.


You know, as much as I KNOW this sounds like a cheesy copout, I wrote some really insightful observations about this book... in my head, in the middle of the night, while I was rocking Sam back to sleep. I'm not even kidding. It was all about how Abigail and Dorcas go from being characters in other people's stories to subverting those people and, in their different ways, asserting their own stories. And there was some stuff in there about narrative honesty, and I think there was some other stuff about how even Dorcas, who you sort of think of as the most narratively pure person throughout most of the story, fools you when you realize that she's got her own hypocrisy and self-deception going on. And there were some other fairly decent observations, as well as some rather nifty turns of phrase, if I say so myself, but they're all gibbled up in my head and now I'm having a hard time writing down fresh stuff because vestiges of the old stuff are ricocheting around inside my noodle. Does this ever happen to you? Because man, it bugs. Why don't I write this shit down? You'd think I'd know better by now.

Apropos of nothing, there's also some great stuff in this novel on the sensual nature of reading, which pretty much sums up how and why I read. It's between pages 279 and 282, if you're interested.

Anyway. Don't let my half-assed post deter you from this book. It may not be destined for great books status, but it's pretty friggin' smart and funny. And that's saying a lot these days.

*Yes, I realize that I'm the only person who cares about my arbitrary schedule and deadlines. But if we don't have schedules and deadlines, what do we have? Anarchy! Chaos! Bad spelling! Weird smells!


Anonymous said...

I think Jincy Willett probably knows Kung Fu, too.

Here's a picture of Ms. Willett who looks like she might share ancestory with both Anne Rice and Ewoks.

There's also a cool interview with her with an amusing anecdote about how the book got its title. She's a smart ass. And a fan of SpikeTV's Most Extreme Elimination Challenge.

Anonymous said...

Well, I've added the book to my wish list, although I'm skeptical -- like you, I never find things half as funny as everyone else does.

I got to say "skewer" when I reviewed A Changed Man by Francine Prose. You ought to put that one on your list.

I also just noticed you read Bel Canto last year; Ann Patchett's The Magician's Apprentice was also wonderful -- but VERY different.

katiedid said...

Yay! I am so glad you finally read this one! It really is funny and great reading. I really love the way she handles the slight unreliability of Dorcas, too: it seems like a hard thing to pull off successfully to me. I loved the way she described Dorcas' feelings about the discarded neglected books in the library - there's such a wistfulness in her tone that the words are nearly audible.

(P.S. I'm still holding out hope that eventually you may wish to read Fraud someday, too, and write up your impressions of that.)

Veronica said...

Good to know someone whose literary taste I share liked this book. I saw it for sale at my regular bookstore a while ago and almost bought it, but knowing nothing about it other than one of the author's stories is in a collection that I have, I sacrificed it to purchase other books. Danged budget and all. But if I come across it again I'll have enough reason to pick it up now.