I have a passion for books. A deep and enduring love of reading that began early in life, and which has not abated in the ensuing years. I’m sure that as a kid, many summer days when I should have been running around outdoors, I had my nose in a book.
In fact, I’ve written here many times about how much of my life I’ve spent with my nose in a book. I’ve written about books I love, and those I don’t love quite so much. And even about the fact that finding a new and captivating writer can be very much like falling in love. That’s what happened when Hubby and I were on our camping trip last month. I fell head over heels for a new writer.
A few weeks ago I pulled the book Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner, a writer who is new to me, off the shelf of our library, knowing nothing about her or her writing. I was infatuated after page two. Hubby is lucky that, on our camping trip in June, I put the book down long enough to bike or fish or swim. I even considered taking the book with me when we went on a day trip into Algonquin Park. I mean, I have been known in the past to hold my fishing rod in one hand and a book in the other. But I thought that the fishing might distract me too much, and I didn’t want to miss a single well-crafted sentence of this book. I loved it that much.
Missing, Presumed is Steiner’s first mystery/crime novel. She’s a fabulous writer, in my opinion. She writes with a witty, slightly sardonic, engaging style. Her plots are multi-layered with several lines of action taking place at the same time. She keeps what could become a confusing mess of events tidy by moving the point of view around, back and forth among three or four characters, unfurling each plot line using a different narrator, and in each section she gets well inside the head of her narrator. I love that. Thus we are privy to more information than any of the characters, almost as if we’re in a drone, getting a 360° view from above.
If I were still teaching I’d consider using Steiner’s novels as an example of how to structure plot. To use a fishing metaphor, I’d say that Steiner lets a little line out, then a little more, then puts the brake on the reel, casts a second line, lets that line out, and so on, all the time careful that the lines don’t tangle together. Of course when the fish is caught, all hell breaks loose, and the lines cross and tangle and become one. Ha. That metaphor is more apt than I realized.
|Fishing, not reading, in Algonquin Park in June.
Yesterday, I finished reading Persons Unknown, Steiner’s second novel in her crime series, and I loved it more than the first. The plot in this one is equally well drawn, complex, and compelling. But what really gives Steiner’s books the edge over so many other mystery and crime novels are her characters. She is brilliant at painting flawed, exasperating, yet sympathetic characters.
The main character in the series is Detective Manon Bradshaw, smart, irreverent, passionate about her work and about, well, everything, really. Manon is single and her personal life outside of work is a train wreck. In the first book she’s moving from one disastrous relationship to another, tries speed dating, and even falls for a witness she interviews. She’s a mess and she’s lonely, which is actually kind of a requirement for the protagonist in mystery novels. One reviewer compares her to Jane Tennison in the Prime Suspect
series, but she reminds me more of Barbara Havers in Elizabeth George’s books. You feel like shaking her, but still love her at the same time. Alida Becker in her review of Missing, Presumed in the NY Times
says Manon is “portrayed with an irresistible blend of sympathy and snark.”
I particularly love that Manon and, indeed, all the strong women in these books are flawed. They are smart, talented women trying to navigate what is still for the most part a man’s world, but they’re still women. I love the scene where Manon and her boss, Harriet, interview a male witness who is stunningly handsome, and unconsciously they both sit a bit straighter, and suck in their stomachs; Manon twirls her hair, then realizes what she’s doing. I almost laughed out loud at that. They’re not compromising their authority, but they can’t resist trying to appear more attractive. And the ironic part is that the really handsome guy turns out to be the most boring man either of them have ever met.
Bethanne Patrick, in her perceptive review for NPR
, says that Missing, Presumed
shows how everybody loses, both women and men, “in a malecentric society.”
I’d say this theme also contributes in a minor way to the second novel Persons Unknown. However, in my view, this second book is much more about love. Flawed, messy, sometimes hopeless, and yet utterly necessary love. And how our experiences with love make us who we eventually become. Manon’s mother died when she was fourteen, and she refers to the ensuing time as “the hug-less years.” But it’s this experience which helps her to understand and be able to comfort others: “Manon [recognizes] the look on Birdie’s face. She remembers those moments of coming up against death and having to shock yourself with the permanence of it. The hollow sensation of actively loving a person who cannot love you back because they are dead. And wondering who you are, if the you who was loved by them isn’t being loved by them any more.” That bit made me tear up.
Despite the touching scenes, Steiner’s books are neither smarmy nor sentimental. We love the characters, but we see them in the cold light of day: all messy-haired and runny-nosed, sometimes selfish, mostly well-meaning, often making disastrous decisions for all the right reasons. Gad. I can’t wait for the next one.
Over the years, my passion has held me riveted to my couch or chair with my nose deeply buried in a book for more hours than I would wish to count. But just for fun… let’s try to count them shall we?
I’m sixty-two years old. Let’s say, for interest’s sake that my habit started when I was eight. That’s fifty-four years of reading. I’m not talking about reading for school or for work, not talking about professional reading or marking student papers, or anything that is NOT reading for pleasure. And even if I’ve spent only a single hour a day reading, that’s 19,710 hours at the very least. Or 821 days of nothing but reading. And if I factor out 8 hours of sleeping each night, since I haven’t yet figured out how to read and sleep at the same time, then it becomes 1232 days. Over three years of my life… when I’ve not been sleeping, I’ve been reading.
You know, I still remember vividly my mum or my grandmother admonishing me to get my nose out of my book. To go outside, ride my bike, get some fresh air. I know they didn’t mean that reading was a waste of time. After all they were, and are, great readers themselves. But it was a question of balance. Passionate readers not being very balanced when it comes to putting their books down.
And I thought of this picture below, of the son of a good friend, reading on the dock at their cottage. He’s passionate about books too. As I said to her, she’s such a great mom, she’s managed to foster their love of reading and get her kids outside at the same time. It’s wonderful to see kids loving books, don’t you think?