Good and bad books

During my first year at Point Loma, I felt compelled one day to hit the local Crown Books and see what I might see. I don’t remember having any specific intention to buy a book, but being a book addict, I just felt like sniffing the glue in some bindings.

Before this particular trip, I had never paid much attention to the bargain racks on bookstores. Back then, I think only Crown stores offered a few shelves of remainder hardbacks at 25-percent of the original cover price. I always figured remainder books were overrun stock for a reason — people didn’t buy them because they weren’t very good. But on this trip I found a book by William Golding. Even though I had not been among the legions of high school students assigned “Lord of the Flies” by an English teacher (we read, instead, “Black Like Me.”), I knew who Golding was, even in these, his pre-Nobel days. I was surprised to find his book “Rites of Passage” on the bargain table.

Curious about the book, I bought it.

The next day, I skipped class. Why? I was too caught up reading this book. I plowed through it in about 24 hours. It was, in my estimation, among the best novels I ever read. The story was compelling — it’s about a ship-board death on a voyage from England to Australia — with beautifully drawn characters and prose that flowed like honey. How such a book wound up with a $3 price tag, I’ll never know, but I instantly became a Golding fan (though I would have preferred to see Anthony Burgess win the Nobel in 1983).

The book also made me a little more willing to buy books off the bargain table.

Today, of course, the concept of selling remainder books has expanded to where you now have whole bookstores comprised entirely of overstock. These warehouse stores pop up in strip malls from time to time and usually disappear within a few months, only to reappear again in another location. I’m guessing they are a low-margin business run by big distributors.

Recently, I read two novels I picked up in such a store, and while neither was as wonderful as anything by Golding, they both were charming in their own ways.

The first book was “Lost Highway” by Richard Currey. It is the story of Sapper Reeves, a hillbilly banjo player who took a shot and stardom and fell short, which also left him with some holes in his personal life, but the one record he made became a cult classic and redeemed his life to some extent. The writing is crisp and clean and the story moves along nicely, but I never really found myself rooting for Reeves like I should have. I think Reeves is a little underdeveloped as a character. Still, fans of bluegrass and good stories should enjoy this novel.

The second book was “Battle Creek” by Scott Lasser. I was drawn to “Battle Creek” because it’s a baseball book. It’s about an amature baseball team in Michigan that never quite wins the big game. The manager, the main protagonist, has decided this will be his final season — win or lose the national championship, he has had enough of baseball, or so he thinks. Through a couple of deaths (one of them pivotal), Gil rediscovers the game he loves. The story kept my interest from beginning to end, but at times I found the characters a little stilted, a little obvious.

Which brings me to another point — both of these writers, and another I will mention shortly, have MFAs (Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing). I come across more and more MFA writers and I find that their writing has a generic quality to it — there is a formula that is followed, and a predictability about how characters and plot or orchestrated. Unlike Golding or Burgess, for example (or Ken Layne, for that matter), among MFAs I find few unique voices.

I mention MFAs just to ask — am I alone in this observation?

And for the last MFA I’ll write about — Richard Ford. Not only is Ford an MFA, he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner. He won for “Independence Day,” which is a sequel to “The Sports Writer.” A couple of friends recommended Ford, so I thought I would give him a try. And I thought I would start with “The Sports Writer.”

That was probably a mistake, because I doubt now that I will bother with “Independence Day.”

There is an element to Ford’s writing that is MFA-like, with its plain prose and it’s conventional plotting, but it is also very un-MFA like in its tempo. This is a very slow moving book. It is the story of one-man’s life over easter weekend. I quit reading the book at around page 200 and it was still Saturday. Maybe I’m just in too much of a mood for faster paced books (I’m reading “L.A. Confidential” now), but Ford’s long passages of interior dialog, the self-reflection of a rather insipid, uninspiring character just became too much too take. I also found some of the character’s actions improbable — such as his being a little too friendly with a bi-sexual man who obviously has the hots for him, even to the point of not being surprised when this man is in his house when he returns from Detroit a day early. That’s about where I put the book down.

So, that brings you up to date on my recent fiction reading.

As for writing, I’m going through the third draft of my story now, then I’ll probably have a couple of more people read it before “publishing” it here.

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