Wednesday, January 5, 2011

An Inauspicious Beginning

A belated happy new year to everyone and my apologies for being slow on the uptake. What is today? The 5th already? My stepfamily has a nickname for me based on our years of gatherings and a delightful ten day cruise several years ago. It is "Sally Fun-Fun." I'm afraid I sorely let them down this new years eve when, fighting what I thought was just a bad cold, I slept through the run-up to midnight, only gamely arising for the countdown, hugs, good wishes and back to bed.

Don had been plying me with the wonderful juice garnered from  my backyard trees coupled with massive doses of vitamin C, but when I finally got to see a doctor (2 holiday weekends in a row got in the way) I was assured that none of that would have helped my "squeaky" lungs. Until the antibiotics took hold I didn't have the energy to even hold up a book but now that I'm back on track, boy do I have a good one to tell you about!

I wanted to begin the year with a few light weight novels to offset next week's book discussion of Henrietta Lacks, not to mention the swearing in of Florida's frightening new governor!
 Have you ever heard of Jincy Willett? She had a first novel with the very clever title Winner of the National Book Award which had caught my eye and which I will now definitely go back and read, but the one I've had home over the past weekend is a knockout murder mystery that builds slowly until, more than halfway in, it began to truly scare me in a creepy, look under the bed and in the closets kind of way.

The Writing Class is written in a modernized Agatha Christie mode - think Ten Little Indians. The action begins in Amy Gallup's writing class in a community college in the San Diego area. Ms. Gallup, once a literary wunderkind, first published at only 23 years old, is now a middle-aged spinster (how I hate that word) who holes up in her home with Alphonse the dog, writing her blog, editing bios for a reference book, eschewing society except for her writing classes. And even these she faces with a jaded reluctance, recognizing the same "types" each semester, preparing for more third rate writing from students reluctant to speak up or out. And yes, Willett's description of a good writing class is pretty terrifying. Thin skinned people need not apply!

Remarkably, this year's cadre of students begins to gel and the criticism is erudite and sophisticated, seemingly handled very well by the students, some of whom Amy begins to believe, have actual talent. Until, that is, they begin to die. Anonymous phone calls, hacked emails, vicious poems, pranks, and critiques, plague Amy and her students, perhaps made more ominous because of their brilliance. Amy's natural reaction would be to take to her bed, ignoring the mayhem, but her students - those still alive, that is -  refuse to be cowed, dragging her out of her agoraphobic habits kicking and screaming.

What I love about this book is that Ms. Willett actually teaches the reader a great deal about the art of writing almost as an indirect side effect of the mystery. Each student provides stories to be parsed in class so that samples of poor construction, mixed metaphors and weak characterization compete with examples of authenticity and beauty. As readers realize that one of these writing students must be a killer we marvel as Amy conducts what she delightfully calls "creative writing forensics."

I currently have three suspects in mind. Can't wait for Jincy Willett to prove me wrong!

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