Completed: Gone Girl

Cover: Gone Girl by Gillian FlynnGone Girl
Gillian Flynn
2012, U.S.

Here expect mild spoilers…

Ah, Gone Girl. An ugly book populated by ugly characters. So, so, ugly.

In truth I was disappointed. Not because of any hype surrounding it. But because I really felt that it could have gone in so many interesting directions–it touched up against some of them–and still been a solid thriller. There was so much opportunity–within the framework of a missing wife/suspected husband–for a deeper look at the economics of the late 2000s and its impact on everyday people. (And I think even maintaining the responsible party for the disappearance.) Instead Flynn opted for the salacious, eschewing the realistic for the sensational. Yet it is reality that is truly more frightening.

I was disappointed, too, at how easy it was to see the story coming. I knew the first twist twenty pages in. The general outcome was basically expected. As for that last twist? Well, I don’t know if I would have predicted it (I read the end before I had finished the first part), but quite frankly I found it ridiculous. This is not to say I didn’t find the book well written. As far as I can tell (granted, sometimes I doubt my own judgement), it IS well written. Which makes it all the more disappointing.

I also think Flynn has the Midwest spot-on. I may have involuntarily shuddered at her descriptions of certain typical Midwestern potluck-style cuisine:

Most of them are out of work from the mall closings, or their husbands are out of work from the mall closings, so they all offer me recipes for “cheap and easy eats” that usually involved a casserole made from canned soup, butter, and a snack chip. (120)

…complimenting women on ambrosia salads and crab dibs and pickle slices wrapped in cream cheese wrapped in salami. (121)

Ambrosia salad! Shudder! So not my thing! Thank goodness not all of us cook that way.

Of course, getting back to those twists–the tendency towards the overly sensational does have a long literary history:

‘Are you, indeed? How delightful? Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are you not wild to know?’ (Northanger Abbey, ch. 6)

We do like our “sensations.” But perhaps my tastes run more to the parody–and social commentary–of Austen.

Completed: Inferno (Dan Brown)

Florence City Guides + Inferno

Inferno
Dan Brown
2013, U.S.

I wouldn’t particularly say I’m a Dan Brown fan. I’d only read Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, ages ago, back at the tail-end of the controversy over the latter. They were okay–nothing too exciting to me–not only is it difficult to get into a thriller when you pretty much know the end (as with Da Vinci Code), but I’m just not that into conspiracy theory stories. (In other words, I liked Angles and Demons the better of the two.) All that said, the moment I saw the cover of Inferno, his latest, I knew I was going to read it–if I have one bookish weakness, a la Book Riot’s “Genre Kryptonite,”  it is books, fiction or non-, set in Italy. Especially Florence.

Firenze

I was fortunate, when in college (university to non-Americans), to spend an entire semester in Florence, coming to know the streets of the old city nearly as well as my hometown–the sights, the smells, the textures. It is a map that remains well-imprinted in my memory, and with a little effort I can picture the paths I took from my apartment to the school or the market or various plazas or shops. (Which shops may or may not have included a number of bookstores. I may have kinda-sorta shipped home a box of winter clothes, some requests from my mom, and…books. Ahem.) Knowing the city so well, as well as a passing familiarity with other parts of central/northern Italy (I’ve been to Rome, Siena, Verona, San Gimignano, Fiesole, Como, Venice, Mantua, Vicenza, and Cinque Terre), I developed a fondness for books set in these locales. I can picture the settings, no effort required.

Dan Brown’s Inferno had an extra bonus–the reference’s to Dante’s Inferno, which was one of my top reads of 2010 (wow–has it been that long already!?). Sure, Brown provides enough information/background that knowing the Dante isn’t necessary but it is fun to pick out the references before they are explained by the text.

However, although the Dante is a fun side-note, it is really the break-neck adventure through Florence that made the book for me. Sure, the writing is so-so–Brown has a habit of turning from adventure novel to guidebook when describing the scene, an annoyance I at first assumed to be noticeable only because of my familiarity with Florence, but a change of scene made it obvious that his tone does change at these spots–and the plot implausible, and quite frankly I’ve read books that were harder to put down (come to think of it, Hunger Games is a recent example), but the armchair tourism was great. Actually, there were a couple of spots protagonist Robert Langdon visits in Florence that I haven’t been to (or rather, in–why, I’m not sure at this point, seeing that I hit just about every church and museum in town…), but that didn’t prevent me from knowing just what exactly the buildings and landscape look like. I was completely transported back to Italy. My Italy semester was the highlight of college, so a revisit is a good thing. Seeing as it’s an early scene, I don’t think it spoils anything too much to say I about squealed with delight when the action moved into the Boboli Gardens, one of my absolutely favorite spots in Florence. Later, there was a plot development I could see coming, not because Brown telegraphed it or in any way gave it away, but purely because of my familiarity with the city. Fun!

All in all, this was a purely fun read, something I don’t seem to have done too much of in a while. It seems with all the other library books I’ve checked out this year, I’ve bumped uncomfortably up against the due date, while this one I returned early. Sometimes, it’s nice not to work so much while reading. However, it does bring to mind that despite my weakness for books set in Italy, I think I’ve yet to read one that is really top-notch. Any recommendations?

Completed: The Haunted Hotel

The Haunted Hotel: A Mystery of Modern Venice
Wilkie Collins
1878

I seem to be running perpetually behind this year, despite all my best of plans. February was supposed to be dedicated to all books Venetian, but between running behind on Shakespeare and a library hold that came in quicker than I expected (and which was non-renewable), I’m only now getting to Venetian books.

I had somewhat hoped to find a book to read by an actual Venetian author, but those seem to be few. (Marco Polo and Casanova were the only two authors I found, do let me know if you know of any others who’ve been translated into English.) So I was limited to books set in Venice. What a hardship.

I’ve been to Venice and remember it fondly. It’s always more fun, I find, when I read a book set in a place I’ve been: the locales are easier to picture, for they’ve been seen.

Alas, the book I choose to read was only partially set in Venice. Collins’s novella, written in 1878 but set in 1860-61, begins in London (a city I’ve never been to). Interestingly, I felt that Collins’s Venice was more vivid than his London, and not just because I know the one and not the other. In The Haunted Hotel, Venice the place is also a character for it is in Venice, a city like no other, that the supernatural—events like no other—might just possibly happen.

I didn’t know much about The Haunted Hotel as I began it, so I hesitate to reveal too much here. It is more a thriller than a mystery; there are no detectives here. Lords and ladies, siblings and jilted lovers populate its pages. As the action moves from London to Venice, the tension ratchets up. We think something dreadful may happened there, or are we only the gullible dupes of a hysterical Mrs.? What dark secrets might the canals and palazzi conceal? Does the supernatural lurk, or is madness our villain?

I have never been disappointed in Collins, and this is no exception. Or rather, my only disappointment is that I didn’t save it for October, when it would be so perfectly seasonal. (And I am more excited than ever to read The Woman in White—in October.) A solid read, one I would enthusiastically recommend. Just save it for October.