Friday, July 16, 2010

An introduction to the writing of Louise Penny

A lot of my friends recommend books to me. It's something I welcome, and something I fear. Welcome, because through the years I have come to trust the judgment of many of my friends and family about books to read. Inevitably, I am introduced to a fine new author; an enjoyable new book. Fear, because my reading pile is growing at the rate of the national debt. It's difficult to keep up and there are times I simply don't want one more book that I've got to read.

So there was some trepidation, and a sigh or two, when a friend recently recommended the works of Louise Penny. Actually, my friend didn't merely recommend Penny's mysteries, he bludgeoned me with entreaties to read her. I received email after email explaining why I needed to read this Canadian writer.

So, I did . . .

One book. Her first, Still Life.

And exactly what I feared would happen happened. I liked it, a lot.

Book 59: Still Life by Louise Penny

Not surprisingly, Penny's books are set in Canada. They revolve around Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté. We learn a few things about Gamache in this introductory novel: He's a crack investigator; sensitive, observant, thoughtful and more than a little stubborn. His career has stalled. He and his wife are empty nesters.

Clearly, in future books, we will grow even more familiar with Gamache and his team.

Gamache is one of the reasons Penny's books are so appealing, but not the only one. In Still Life we are presented with a genuine mystery. Someone in the village of Three Pines has murdered a retired schoolteacher. Who? Why? So many books today that belong to the genre eschew the mystery, and it is the mystery that is often so exquisite. Penny has given us one to chew on.

And then there's Penny's writing. Given a rainy Saturday, this book would be a one-day read. That's not to slight Penny, but to praise her. She writes well, with clarity and pacing. She is as observant as Gamache, offering delightful insights and asides that contribute to the richness of the reading.

Humbert H. Humphrey once said, "My friends. My god damn friends." The context of H.H.H.'s remarks aside, I share his sentiments. Now I have four more books that I absolutely, positively need to read.

Book 60: When That Rough God Goes Riding by Greil Marcus

Recently, I returned from a business trip to Seattle. I flew out early to spend time with my oldest son who lives there. We spent a couple of days haunting book stores, record stores and restaurants. And when I flew home, I carried along a vinyl copy of Van Morrison's Tupelo Honey. I have a CD verison of the album, but misplaced the actual record years ago.

Coincidentally, or maybe not coincidentally at all because I like Van Morrison, when I returned home there was a copy of Greil Marcus's When That Rough God Goes Riding waiting for me. I had thought Marcus's book was a biography of the Irish singer. It's not, and if I'd paid more attention to the sub-title, Listening to Van Morrison, I would know that.

When That Rough God Goes Riding is a work of musical criticism. Marcus provides his observations about Morrison's performances on specific songs . . . Tupelo Honey, Baby Please Don't Go and Caravan, for example.

It's an interesting book, but not one that I can entirely embrace. The fault is not with Marcus, but myself. I don't have the sonic chops that Marcus has. We don't hear the music in the same way. He hears with a depth of understanding, and appreciation, I will never have. For me, I either like a song or I don't. The same with performers. And I don't give it much thought beyond that.

And that's the other reason I'm not enthusiastic about the book. I have no difficulty applying this kind of criticism to literature (can someone tell me, would it be considered deconstruction?), but I can't bring myself to think of music in this way. So I am just going to put Tupelo Honey on the turntable and listen to it and not think about the music at all.


There's a Great Northwest theme to this post. I purchased Still Life at the Mystery Bookshop in Seattle. It's a marvelous little shop bursting with books. The staff is knowledgeable and there are some treasures to be found there. When That Rough God Goes Riding came from Powell's Books in Portland. It's as large and sprawling as the Mystery Bookshop is compact. There are treasures there too.

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