The Last Night I Spent With You by Mayra Montero

The Last Night I Spent With You is a slim volume, only 115 pages. Translated from the Spanish, Montero’s novel tells the story of Celia and Fernando – a middle-aged couple on a cruise. Their only daughter has just been married and Fernando’s friend, Bermudez, has sagely offered this advice: “women lose their inhibitions on ships.”

Actually, it seems as though everyone does.

Both Fernando and Celia are trying to come to terms with suddenly being cut loose from the strings that tied them to their daughter and each other. Fernando, too, seems to be experiencing a bit of a midlife crisis: death is looming. As their ship sails and docks, Fernando falls into an affair with Julieta, a middle-aged passenger.  For her part, Celia reminisces about an affair she’d had several years ago, when she’d been taking care of her ailing father.

Everything about this voyage is sexually charged in a way, one gathers, things haven’t been for several years between this married couple.

At last we were alone, it was true, after almost twenty-three years of winters and vacations, springs and birthdays, when Elena had been the axis of our lives. Elena growing up, becoming pretty, becoming taller than Celia, much more slender, infinitely more flirtatious. Our daughter Elena.

The Last Night I Spent With You is graphic and the writing is – despite it being a translation – good. The characters are selfish and often  behave inappropriately. It’s hard to say what they are searching for. It’s even harder to say whether, by the novel’s end, they’ve found it.

To the Power of Three by Laura Lippman

To the Power of Three was my first novel by Laura Lippman. It’s hard to know what to say about it because while I didn’t love it, I certainly appreciated its merits.

To the Power of Three tells the story of Kat, Perri and Josie, childhood best friends. One June morning, one of the three  brings a gun to school, shoots two of the girls (one fatally) and then herself. The novel then begins to unravel the story of what would have caused this horrible act of violence.

Lippman is an accomplished writer. In some ways, her work reminds me of Carol Goodman. Lippman’s characters were complicated and well drawn – even minor characters have interior lives, hopes and fears. We come to understand these three girls and share their bond through the years of their friendship, but we only come to understand what caused one of the girls to take such drastic measures at the novel’s conclusion.

For me, that was the novel’s weakness. The book’s over 400 pages long – too long, perhaps, for such a mediocre resolution. As a reader, we’ve invested a great deal in these characters (and their parents and peripheral friends) that it’s a let down to discover what actually happened on that fateful day – and why it happened. (After giving this more thought, I think the reason why the ending didn’t work for me is because it gives one of the characters a moral compass that – while not exactly coming out of nowhere – doesn’t seem earned either.)

To the Power of Three wasn’t a page-turner in the way that some mysteries are. Perhaps that balancing act is hard to achieve: literature and suspense; a well-written story that you speed through because you can’t bear not to know whodunit. For my money, no one manages that sort of book better than Thomas H. Cook. Still, Lippman’s skills are apparent and I’d certainly read her again. In fact, I have What the Dead Know waiting on my tbr shelf.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This novel has been on my tbr list for a long time so I was thrilled when it was chosen as our book club pick.  Zafon’s  novel has been universally praised by famous writers (Stephen King called it “one gorgeous read”) critics  (Booklist said the book was “rich, lavish storytelling”) and everyone in my book club loved it. Except me. I didn’t hate the book; I enjoyed reading it.

Let me explain.

Ten-year-old Daniel, son of an antiquarian bookseller, is still suffering from the death of his mother – whose face he can no longer remember. His father decides to take him to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a labyrinth of passages and shelves – almost impossible to navigate.

This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.

Traditionally, when someone visits the Cemetery, he or she is allowed to choose one book and then they must promise to safeguard that book for all time. Daniel chooses The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax.

Daniel falls in love with the novel, a story about a man searching for his real father. He is so enchanted by the novel that he decides he must read everything by Carax and it is this quest that kick starts the novel.  Carax is something of a mystery himself and Daniel’s quest to learn more spans several years, introduces him a cast of broken and sinister characters and leads the reader on an adventure.

I think that’s what my problem was with this book.

I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart.

I think my expectations for the book and what the book was actually about didn’t actually jibe.  I had no trouble turning the pages, but ultimately The Shadow of the Wind was more of a stuffed-to-the-brim melodrama than a meditation on first books or even books in general.

As Daniel begins his quest to track down further Carax novels, a strange and somewhat threatening man offers to buy The Shadow of the Wind. Of course, this just redoubles Daniel’s efforts –  a quest that yields some surprises.

I guess, ultimately, my reservations about this book come from the hype. If I hadn’t heard so much, I might have been swept along. The writing is great (despite the fact that it’s a translation), the characters are sympathetic…but for me…the book was too long, and sometimes I felt that all the pieces just locked into place just a little too neatly. Daniel explained it best when he said:

the structure of the story began to remind me of one of those Russian dolls that contain innumerable ever-smaller dolls within.

Despite my own personal feelings, however, I would certainly encourage other readers to check this book out. It’s a lot of fun – the kind of book you can truly lose yourself in.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember. At first I typed my stories on a little portable Brothers typewriter. I remember that it was blue and that you had to really hit the keys hard. When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me an electric typewriter that weighed at least 50 pounds. At the time it was state-of-the-art, honest.

I have always wanted to be a writer, a published writer and I guess I am. I’ve written and had things published and even been paid for what I’ve written.

Of course the writer’s carrot is the novel and I’ve been slogging away at one – never with the dedication and determination to actually finish it, of course, just enough to say that I’m writing one – for over a decade.

Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird speaks to writers who care more about the craft and less about the imagined glory. This is not a how-to book. It’s not a book filled with prompts and practical advice about how to write pithy dialogue or set the scene. Still, it’s a wonderful book.

The very first thing I tell me new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth.

Bird by Bird offers  “some instructions on writing and life.” It’s Lamott’s love letter to the written word – and she clearly does love them – the words, I mean.  It  is laugh – out – loud funny and tender, too.  Lamott navigates the writer’s world with a great deal of affection and a healthy dose of tough love. She’s honest about her jealousy when faced with the success of writers she believes to be less talented than she is;  she discusses the pitfalls of the blank page;  she talks about how to negotiate with your characters. But mostly she talks about why we write (and why we read). She says:

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.

Writing, says Lamott, is important work. Writers should write, not for the notoriety which they assume comes with publication (and Lamott tells some funny stories about the so-called status of the published author) but because they have to. They want to. They must.