I love books. I always have. They were my “drug of choice” before I knew what that was, and afterwards.
My family always read. My image of breakfast at our house was all of us with a section of newspaper. (Dinners were for real conversation.) My dad was never without a newspaper, magazine or book. And I became the same way. Before you could read things on your phone, I never left the house without something in my purse to read, just in case. Even my grandfather always had either a newspaper or the Bible in front of him, whenever he sat at his kitchen table.
So, as we say in the South, reading was something “I came by honestly.”
When recorded books showed up, I was on to those in a heartbeat. I listened to books on discs on my Walkman, as I walked. When I gave up drinking, I walked a lot. Then it got more sophisticated, and I could actually download books, which I continue to do to this day. So, I listened to books when I painted, and I listened to books when I drove my paintings around the country. Hundreds of books in the last 20 years.
A caveat here: I soon discovered that listening was not at all the same as reading, so while I might enjoy Bill Bryson’s “A History of Almost Everything” as a recorded book whose plethora of minutiae was entertaining on a long drive, I also found that for non-fiction books like that, I needed to actually read the words, as well, if I wanted to retain any of the knowledge.
So, I read non-fiction in actual print, listen to long, historical fiction while painting and driving, and enjoy reading mild-mannered mysteries and procedurals in bed. Nothing too gory or with too much suspense. Something interesting and character-driven before bed. In an actual book, that I can hold, and then put down on the bedside table. No blue screen or voice in my head before sleep. I have enough colorful dreams as it is.
All of 2020 I spent in Venice, with Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti. I wrote about that here, “My Year-Long Affair with Guido Brunetti.” They were recommended by a friend who knew I loved Venice, and they were so good that I read all 28 books twice. Afterwards, seeking something equally engaging, many reading sites recommended a Canadian author, who had also created a memorable police inspector and a continuing series of characters.
I took the plunge. The first book was good enough. I was a bit put off by the author’s habit of multiple characters’ points of view. That is usually a no-no, but this one did it throughout, often having several character’s insights on the same page. (Usually multiple points of view are at least defined by different chapters, or even named sections.) The author got better at toning that down, and by the second book I was growing fond of the main characters, and didn’t mind so much.
The other conceit was that all the crimes took place in the same little, mythical village. It seemed a bit much to accept. But I did, again, because the ongoing characters were amusing, intriguing and likeable. The handful who continue to show up become like old friends, as does the town itself. So, I ignored the fact that each new book would introduce a new person or persons who had just come to town, and I would know that the murder somehow revolved around them. Occasionally the action moved out of the town, but even then, a well-known character might be involved. Sometimes they were even culprits.
But I slogged along, enjoying the quirks, the local color, the character flaws and insights. And the allure of the magical little town, with its core of interesting eccentrics.
One recurring character is an artist, married to another artist. Theirs is a complex dance of egos. The woman is the better artist, but her husband is more successful — the description of the “why” is something I’ve seen repeated in the art world during my entire tenure: the “”technician” who comes up with a gimmick collectors can’t get enough of. And the artist with real talent and soul, whose work is largely ignored.
In one of the earlier books, the wife’s work is finally recognized and she gets a prestigious solo show. This leads to other problems, and other books about the husband, but in that first solo show it is revealed that what spoke the most to the gallerist who chose her, was a single painting in which the light in a portrait’s eye gave the entire painting its “feel.” In other words, a not-so-appealing portrait subject became utterly compelling because of the feeling conveyed by her eyes. Or as it was described, the single point of light in one eye.
I loved that. In the two decades I’ve been painting, representing and curating art, on the road and in my own gallery, I’ve seen a handful of artists who have created that sort of compelling image, something you might not ordinarily like, but couldn’t get out of your head. It’s a gift, and it’s not anything you can learn or even understand. In fact, often the artist doesn’t understand: he just does what he does and something very special emerges.
And while I have been successful as an artist myself, I have never created anything quite like that. I wish. My work appeals to people for reasons only they understand and I am glad of it, but it isn’t the sort of thing that stops you in your tracks and stays in your mind for days. It is good and interesting and colorful, and I am happy that people like it enough to keep me in business all these years. But I know exceptional art when I see it.
In the last mystery I read by this author, near the end, the woman artist was supposed to have another solo show at the same prestigious venue as before, but due to the dramatic circumstances in their mythical town, she hangs the work in the central pub they all call home. The portraits are of all the local characters, and most of them seem somewhat unfinished, to the casual observers. The clothes are haphazard, the hair isn’t defined.
But the crusty old drunk, an award-winning poet, whose salty observations become plot devices and whose bristly character grows on everyone — goes back to look at the portrait of her pet, and in that single point of light in the eye she sees a tiny portrait of herself. She moves around to each portrait in turn, and sees tiny reflections of the person that person loves. Or who loves them. Soon the others see what she is doing, and they follow suit, all marveling at this amazing detail.
I couldn’t get that out of my mind last night. It’s such a wonderful concept:each of us reflecting the image of the person who loves us.
We’ve seen police procedurals on TV and in movies, where they’ve isolated a still shot and seen something reflected in a window or some sunglasses, and solved the crime. But here was a painter who chose to make each tiny reflection hugely significant in conveying the person: a reflection of the person who loved them.
If I was any good at portraits I would be considering that right now. But I suck at painting people and couldn’t pull it off, so the concept is safe. But isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t that what we all are – a reflection of the people who love us?! Or on a more somber note, a reflection of emptiness. It’s an amazing metaphor and the characters loved it, too. They each went back around, studying each other and the reflections in their eyes.
You’d think that an author with this kind of insight would be a good judge of character, wouldn’t you? This is a person who started writing in mid-life, had enormous success, lost a partner to Alzheimer’s and yet continues to create compelling, intricate fictional people. You’d think that would bring a certain level of perception.
And yet, this author, whose characters are so intriguing and complex, a writer whose perception of human emotions is the source of such rich storytelling, has chosen to write a book with one of the greatest liars on the planet, a woman despised by half of America, whose personal delusions allow her to think she was cheated out of her last “job.” This author, who seems to understand the human spirit so well, is that liar’s “great good friend.”
How does that work? How do you see so many tiny elements so clearly, and something so huge so poorly?
I’ll never know the answer, because I will no longer read this author, nor will I read the book she will make millions from by co-authoring with her “good friend,” a grifter, scammer and liar extraordinaire. And down the road, that successful writer of character-driven mysteries, may even wonder who or what is shown in the single reflection of her own eye. At least I hope so.