Written by Various
Published by Various
Reviewed by Marc Mason
A few prose books from the major publishers have come through the inbox recently. Let’s take a look at them, shall we?
I’ve long been aware of Alexander McCall Smith’s work, but this was my first encounter with his Isabel Dalhousie series of novels. THE UNCOMMON APPEAL OF CLOUDS (Pantheon) is the ninth to feature the character, and that made me a bit nervous going into the book. However, to my surprise, McCall Smith does a fantastic job of introducing the character for new readers, setting up her life, her supporting cast, and her job in gentle, clear fashion. A philosopher by trade, she dabbles in being an amateur sleuth. In CLOUDS she is approached to help recover a stolen painting, mixing herself into the odd family dynamic of the victim. She also must deal with a number of small personal issues, as well. The prose here is absolutely lovely; McCall Smith has a gift for description that activates the senses and keeps them occupied. But the book is also rather light on actual story or plot. Nothing quite gets resolved as much as you would like it to. Perhaps that’s a nod to the open-endedness of Isabel’s chosen profession of philosopher, and if so that’s clever. That doesn’t make the ending any better or more satisfying, though.
Victoria Roberts is best known for her cartoons, as her work has been appearing in THE NEW YORKER for over twenty years. However, she branches out a bit with the illustrated novel AFTER THE FALL (W.W. Norton). The story is one of whimsy and wit; a family loses its entire fortune overnight, the next morning suddenly finding itself out of its penthouse and instead living scattered throughout Central Park, their belongings and their bodies relocated there overnight. Roberts embraces the absurdity of the instantaneous change in their lives and makes the most of it, weaving in multiple plotlines, crazier characters, and enough strange moments to launch a couple more books along the way. She executes the book in exquisite fashion, her illustrations and her words working together brilliantly, creating a crazy world that the reader can believe in and immediately develop an interest in. There never quite seems to be a point to it all, but suddenly, at the very end, Roberts hits you with the truth of her story and it sinks right down to your heart.
I still don’t quite know what to make of Mark Danielewski’s THE FIFTY YEAR SWORD (Pantheon). A story told by five different speakers, the book executes an unusual form of visual poetry. The plot deals with a mysterious storyteller who explains that he has a “fifty year sword” – a sword whose damage is not apparent until the 50th year of life of the person who has been cut by it. It won’t spoil things to say that the sword gets used and there are unfortunate results. But the tale is almost secondary, really; the star here is the presentation. The illustrations have actually been stitched, not drawn or painted. The tellers are set apart by the quotation marks that have been stitched in various colors. Their lines are intermingled with one another in a way that would do e.e. cummings proud. One of the struggles I had with the book was that the bells and whistles do tend to overwhelm the actual story at its core. It is an impressively ambitious work, no question about it. I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have had it given the reader more opportunity to put focus into it.