The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean

The standard take on creative nonfiction, as promulgated by Lee Gutkind, et al., is that it is a factual narrative (that's the nonfiction part) told using creative writing techniques, a narrative that provides information about a subject while telling a story. This book provides lots of information about Florida's history, Florida's quirky inhabitants, the history of orchid collecting, and some of orchid experts. Where it falls down is that there is no story at the core of the book.

It starts out as a sketch of John Larouche, an odd character who goes from one obsession to another, a narcissist who in his orchid period persuaded two Seminole Native Americans to help him steal wild orchids from Fakahatchee Swamp. They were caught and, despite Larouche's argument that the Seminoles (and their employee) were exempt from laws protecting endangered species and public land, prosecuted.

The only other discernable narrative is the author's desire to see a particular species, a ghost orchid. She wades through swamps and talks to collectors and merchants alike, but always seems to arrive just before or just after her elusive prey has bloomed.

Neither story line is enough to sustain the book. There are too many tangents, chapters full of well-researched information that do not move either story forward. I admit that none of these subjects particularly interests me, but good writers are always able to jump start my curiosity. I just read—fascinated—a ten-page article about the recent history of Cyprus in the London Review of Books simply because Perry Anderson's prose sucked me in and wouldn't let me go.

That didn't happen here.

The book's flap promised that it would help me understand the passion that motivates people to collect things: orchids, whatever. I'd hoped this was true. I don't get collecting. I just don't get it. Sure, I'm as materialistic as the next person and there are sometimes things that I just have to have, whether it's a particular blue and green scarf or a book about Arts and Crafts gardens. But I don't have to have every kind of scarf in the world or every garden book. Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just not something that I can imagine wanting.

My mother left me an assortment of her tchotchkes. I confess I don't know what to do with them. I can't just give them to the Salvation Army because they are “family” pieces: a teacup made from clay from the family farm, crystal salt dishes handed down from my great-grandmother. I don't want to dust them for the rest of my life, and certainly my kids aren't interested in them. But I can't bring myself to toss them. Someone, generations from now perhaps, may want to touch and hold something of their history. At the same time, they're just stuff. And stuff has always weighed me down. I like emptiness, empty space around me. I'd hoped this book would take me briefly into the mind and heart of someone who wants one of every kind of something, a collector, someone obsessive about things.

That didn't happen either.

The book seems to me like a character study, an essay (the author alludes to an earlier article she wrote on the subject) that someone thought could be expanded into a book. It's well-written. Orlean does a good job of presenting information in a palatable form, and her transitions between sections are very well done. But without a story, the book is hollow at the center. I found it boring.

Inspecting Carol, by Daniel Sullivan

On Friday night, tired and a little discouraged by the results of the week's work, I went to see this production by the Reisterstown Theatre Project. Inspecting Carol is a comedy about a small, cash-strapped theater company rehearsing for their annual production of A Christmas Carol. With only four days for rehearsal, some of the characters repeatedly admonish everyone to get down to business, while others run rogue by trying to rewrite the story or create distractions by arguing about costumes or leading vocal exercises.

I don't know when I last laughed so hard. Within the first couple of minutes, a sardonic look from the actor playing M.J. McMann, the stage manager, had me chuckling. As the ridiculosity escalated, any residual self-consciousness vanished and my guffaws turned to helpless shouts of laughter, leaving me bent weakly over my knees wiping away tears.

I'm generally not a big fan of comedy, as it seems to be practiced today. Disparaging, hurtful jokes make me sad, and most physical comedy just seems painful. Stories where you can see from a mile away that a character is setting himself/herself up for an embarrassing if not distressing situation bore me.

However, this production found my sweet spot. The actors' facial expressions were priceless. Pratfalls and other physical comedy bits were used sparingly and always as part of the story. There was a bit with one of the ghosts—I don't want to give anything away—that had me laughing so hard I could barely hear the lines. There was plenty of wordplay and just the right amount of repetition, enough for the line to become like a family's in-joke without edging over into a boring anecdote you've heard too many times. And best of all, there were long cons, humor set up throughout the play that culminated in a surprising payoff at the end.

Afterwards, I talked with Paul, who plays Kevin Trent Emery, the long-suffering business manager. Paul mentioned that when he first read the play, he didn't think it was funny. It was supposed to be a comedy, but nothing in the script seemed humorous. It wasn't until he heard the other actors speak their lines that he began to realise how hilarious the production could be. His comment made sense to me; the humor was less in the words themselves than in what the actors and director did with them.

As a writer, I'm very conscious of the fact that all I can do is throw the words out there and hope that gentle readers will interpret them, if not necessarily in the way I intended, at least in a way that is meaningful to them. I know only too well from my own reading that coming off a spectacular book can doom an okay one, just as a tired or cranky mood can keep even a great novel from catching my interest. Playwrights, on the other hand, have the advantage of an intermediary: actors who interpret their words for the audience. As a writer of prose, I have to find ways to bring those cues—sardonic looks, pratfalls, etc.—into the text. Similarly, without set and costume designers to create the visual space, I have to incorporate those descriptions without slowing the story down too much. I once heard Timothy Findley—one of my favorite authors—talk about how his early acting career had taught him about dramatic structure and pacing. I need to think more about what the theater has to teach prose writers.

One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson

I'm a big fan of Kate Atkinson's writing (I've blogged about Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Case Histories), so my expectations were high when I picked up this new novel.

Since the action described in Case Histories, Jackson Brodie has used his inheritance to retire from his job as a private detective and purchase an estate in France. As this novel starts, he and his sometime girlfriend, Julia, are in Edinburgh where she has a part in one of the festival offerings. As Jackson leaves Julia's venue, he witnesses a fender-bender that escalates into road rage. Murder is narrowly avoided by the reluctant action of a bystander who, shocked out of his native timidity, throws his briefcase at the giant wielding a baseball bat.

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I am not a fan of novels where the point of view jumps around. Here, chapters alternate between Jackson, Martin (the bystander), Paul (the victim in the accident), Gloria (another bystander, wife of builder who puts up acres of shoddy homes), Louise (a recently promoted Detective Inspector), Archie (Louise's teenaged son), Richard (a friend of a friend of Martin), and Sophia (a maid who cleans Martin's home). There's a crazy Russian woman too, but I don't think there's a chapter from her point of view. I could be wrong.

At least we stay with one point of view for the entire chapter (and it's always a close third person, not first person), but the end result is almost as confusing as that list suggests. What saves it is that the core of the story sticks with Jackson, Louise, Gloria, and Martin. And, of course, Atkinson's writing skill. Still, I found this novel hard going, especially the first few chapters when we get biographies of each of the main characters. I never did get them all sorted out, but had to keep going back to remind myself of which family background went with which character.

Just to be clear, a poor Atkinson novel is still pretty darn good. I liked the way Atkinson explores Brodie's feelings, as an ex-policeman, when he finds himself on the wrong side of the interview table. On the other hand, the truly horrible excerpts from Martin's cozy crime novels bothered me. Impossible to believe novels so poorly written could be as successful as the story claimed, and this broad satire made it hard to take the story's crimes as seriously as we are clearly meant to. The occasionally satirical tone also jarred against the description of Louise's agonising struggles as the single mother of a 14-year-old boy.

It's easy to find fault. I admire Atkinson for trying a different form and for writing what, despite its defects, is still a good read.

Close to Home, by Peter Robinson

Another long drive, but I delayed starting on this audio book. Overcast as the day was, its October colors still thrilled me, orange and yellow leaves vying with the still-green grass, the dried-up cornfields. At first I listened to Kate Rusby and David Francey, but then turned off the music and listened to the shushing of tires on asphalt. I drove through countryside that rucked up close and then fell away, past farms tucked into dales and towns dwarfed by the high sweep of the valleys they hid in. As the mountains closed in around me, I felt comforted, though for what I do not know.

Sometimes I feel that I just can’t take another story, whether it’s a book or a song or a film. I don’t want to meet new characters or hear about their problems. I don’t want to make the emotional effort to enter their lives. I’ve heard Lynda Barry talk about how we need stories, need them for our emotional health. And I agree. I do. But sometimes I need a break. I just need to be in my own head for a while.

Finally, though, after about five hours and with another five to go, I was ready for the trip to be over and switched on this book to make the time go faster. It was a good choice. For many years I’ve enjoyed Robinson’s series of police procedurals featuring Alan Banks, a Yorkshire DCI. One of the advantages of a series, for me, is knowing some of the characters already, making it easier to slip into the story.

This book opens on a Greek island where Banks is on an extended leave, recovering from a traumatic case and an abortive love affair. I like Banks’s gruffness and his blend of practicality and knight errantry. I remember feeling his baffled distress in an earlier book when, their children grown and gone, his wife left him. That was two years before the time of this book, years whose ordeals have damaged him further. Now, he’s created a life of sorts for himself on the island and considers staying on, taking early retirement.

However, when bones are found in a field near where he grew up in Peterborough, he realises that he has to go back to England. The bones turn out to be the remains of his close friend, Graham, whose disappearance during the summer they were sixteen has cast a shadow over Banks’s adult life. Banks heads for his parents’ house as he tries to work out how to help with the investigation without stepping on the toes of the local constabulary.

At the same time, Annie Cabbot, Banks’s former inamorata, is working a missing persons case, a fifteen-year-old boy who has vanished after buying some books in town. The boy’s mother and stepfather are minor celebrities, a model and football star, and they are convinced that he has not simply run away. As the case accelerates, Banks is drawn in even as he continues to follow the investigation into the death of his boyhood friend.

Listening, perhaps not paying close enough attention, I sometimes got confused as to which case was being discussed. Usually this happened at the start of a chapter, when I had to stop and think which lost boy was which, but it was only for a minute. The various puzzles work themselves out in believable ways. I liked the pace of the incremental revelations and found the ending quite satisfactory. Some of the characters turn out to be unexpectedly complex. And Annie’s twists and turns, alternately questioning herself and moving out bravely, make me feel I know her. I hope to see more of her in future installments. Best of all, the book kept me so preoccupied that the time flew by, both the remainder of that day’s journey and most of the return journey a few days later.