Friday, June 4, 2010

The Empty Copper Sea

Before finishing The Bridge, I decided to dive into something less taxing. Having always liked John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee detective novels (I read a few of them decades ago), I took a look to see if any of those titles filled a challenge need. Body of water. Check.

MacDonald has been cited as an influence by a who's-who of modern writers, including fellow Floridian Carl Hiaasen. He was the first serial crime novelist to adopt the mnemonic device of linking the titles in a series (he used colors). This has been emulated with great success by Sue Grafton (letters) and Janet Evanovich (numbers). In addition to coming along first, I think MacDonald still has a lot over these modern imitators.

Though considered "hard boiled," MacDonald is soft core by today's standards. No explicit sex. No gory details. So if you're not that into that kind of thing, like me, these old page-turners deliver what you're looking for, a mindless escape, without the provocations and gross-outs.

If MacDonald were a rock star, he'd be Bruce Springsteen -- a reliable, hard-working and feel-good showman. Engaging, entertaining and enjoyable, if not insightful or particularly inspired. But a lot of the time you're too tired to work at John Coltrane or to endure anything "edgy."

I read a library-bound original edition of The Empty Copper Sea. It had that musty but antiseptic smell of something old but well preserved. After working through my last couple of books in e-form, I had forgotten some of the other things the ancient, dead-tree format provides. The book was checked into the university library in 1979 and was checked out once since, in 1984. Sounds about right. There may have been more people who checked it out since they went to electronic records (probably in the 1980s). But I doubt it. The information label on the inside back cover listed the author as 1916-[blank]. He died in 1986, but in the library he's still alive. Those pages had been turned only once before in the three decades since they were printed. Nonetheless, the book was neatly shelved and maintained in a temperature- and humidity-controlled atmosphere. Books in libraries are treated with respect because they are physical things. What's inside could be great or it could be crap, but that question is separate from the need to keep it dry and out of direct sunlight. The inherent value of the physical material is lost in digital form. We're not going to get that back. And it says something. I'm not sure exactly what. But it says something that won't be said any more. Oh well.

This particular book, the seventeenth in the McGee series, employed the standard formula to the usual effect. Travis heads to a new locale to help someone no one else will help, and, within the first 50 pages, beats up the toughest character and sleeps with sexiest available woman in town to establish dominance. He's just an average guy who happens to be taller, better looking, smarter, stronger and faster than anyone else on the scene. Oh, and don't forget the "deepwater" tan, happy-go-lucky smile and cat-like reflexes. Like I say. Average.

Then there is a mystery involving missing ill-gotten money blah blah blah and Travis finds the clues no one else could find blah blah blah then there is a woman worthy of his affections and they kind of have a thing but it can never last blah blah blah and then he beats up the biggest bad guy in the climatic solving of the mystery. Did I mention he has a really great tan?

The setting is "Timber Bay" Florida, which he places 50 miles north of Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast. The fictional location is clearly a cross between Cedar Key and Clearwater. Having spent many a fine day in Cedar Key when we lived in Gainesville, it was fun to read the descriptions of the people and places. They were pretty much spot on. Of course he makes it sound a bit more exotic than it really is, but not too much. That's one thing about MacDonald, he doesn't overdo it. Which I like. Yes. McGee is a bit too perfect, but you gotta have an attractive star. Most of the other characters walk right in off the street. No ridiculous comic-book-cut-out villains or idiotic comic-relief clowns. No phony never-gonna-happen excess. Believable characters and events = suspension of disbelief. Suspension of disbelief = mindless escape. Mindless escape = reason you read this kind of book. MacDonald figured that out and stopped.

It's a real book that makes a pleasing "chunk" sound when you finish it and plop it on the coffee table. The sound has the same feel as the slam of a door on a well-made car. Solid. Secure.

Please return it promptly. It's been 26 years and someone else is bound to be looking for it.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Next book: Musical Term in Title

I decided to go current with my next book, the Remnick biography of Obama called The Bridge. It could take a while to get through this one. It's a good read, but you know how it is with biographies. You can only take them in small bites. This is just as well, since I have a ton of work to do over the next couple weeks. I can find out how Obama became Obama a few pages at a time as I doze off to sleep.

Monday, May 3, 2010

First Book Read

So. My first book was among the free downloads of out-of-copyright classics: Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. This was kind of a cop-out because it's a kid's book, but hey, it was the last week of classes and I needed mindless entertainment! I don't think I'm the first adult to read it, either. It was kind of the Harry Potter of it's day, written for young readers but read by all.
Stevenson wrote it when he was in his early 30s, and it remained his most popular work (he only lived to 44). This book is full of cliches; but it is also the one that started them! Pirates with wooden legs and parrots on their shoulders (Long John Silver), treasure maps with X's on them, singing seamen, tropical islands, rum-swilling buccaneers, the Black Spot, etc. It's got it all. This is a must read if 1) you're a guy, and 2) you're into pirate stuff. (Come to think of it, those are kind of the same thing.)
The style is a bit dated, naturally. It was written over 100 years ago about a time 100 years before that. But there are also some hints of more modern narrative approaches. Some of these bad guys could have walked right our of McCarthy's The Road. It begins with a quick pretence for a first-person memoir (Jim Hawkins, the young man who comes of age during the adventure, has been asked to tell the story for the court), switches to the voice of the mentoring/father-figure Doctor Livesey for a couple of chapters (when Stevenson realizes he needs to recount something Jim is not around for), then switches back until the end of the book.
There is some moral ambiguity in the character Long John Silver, but overall the Christian morality is pretty over the top. At one point Jim Hawkins is pinned to the main-mast--literally nailed to the cross--by the soulless pirate Israel Hands. Hmmm...I wonder what that's supposed to symbolize.
If you want to get a taste of the one that started them all, this bite-sized story is certainly worth what it costs you--which is just the few short hours it will take to read it. Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

I'm in

Summer is coming and I'm looking forward to indulging in some non-academic review of literature. My plan is to fulfill as many of the titles as I can with free downloads! So far I have the COUNT of Monte Cristo (a title and a place, but I'll be using this as a title). TREASURE ISLAND is a place-titled classic I have never read. But I like the pirate stuff (O'Brien especially) so I am looking forward to this one. I may go with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the SEA, but I am looking for something better. For more recent texts I am thinking about The BRIDGE (musical term), the Obama biography, and The ORCHARD Keeper (plants), Cormac McCarthy's first book.