Thursday, March 26, 2015

I Can't Like 'Em All

Years ago, a local journalist in my hometown said that one should never write negative reviews of local community theater.  He believed it existed in another realm from Broadway, where picks and pans make or break.  Community theater only happens when amateurs--local dentists, teachers, mothers, choir directors, and yes--aspiring actors--spend their time to make a little magic.

If the audience bears the burden of the "willful suspension of disbelief," then the critic should go a step further and offer the benefit of the doubt.  I am a huge fan and patron of local theater, and I have rarely--almost never--thought a performance was so bad I wished I could slip out. Only once, in fact.  More times than not I have laughed and cried--sometimes at the same time.

I usually suspend similar generosity to book reviews, following the old dictum, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything."  I read enough excellent books that it seems a waste of time to spout off about the others.

But there's always that once. Our reading group decided to read Katherine Howe's The House of Velvet and Glass, particularly since the author was appearing locally for a reading.  The blurbs mentions that the book opens aboard the Titanic, another strong pull for me. I love those stories (though not the movie). 

On my tablet, the book was 581 pages. I'm not a speed reader, but I manager to get through a generous number of books each month. This one took me two months. Two months.

While the author moves readers on and off the Titanic (but not all the way through the final tragedy) as well as back decades before to Shanghai, where one of the characters appears as a young Boston sailor given his foreboding first experience with a crystal ball and addictive hallucinogenic drugs.

The main character Sibyl, the daughter and older sister of two of the ill-fated Titanic passengers, seems bound for spinsterhood, slipping off to seances when she's not trying get her brother--that ne'er-do'well rascal--out of trouble.  I found the characters difficult to like or to believe.  I highlighted some of the conversations because I wanted to know if anyone else found them as unlikely as I did.  When I reached the epilogue (and discovered a number of other documents in something of an appendix), I was both surprised and relieved to have reached the end, leaving Sibyl in the arms of her first love (now widowed and returned from war with a puckered but noble scar across his face).

The deus ex machina appeared in the form of a two-year-old boy--a "ball of fury," I believe he was called--four time in two pages. I'm not sure the gun fired in act five was actually on the mantle in act one.

I leave with this disclaimer:  I have so many other books I'm itching to read right now, so maybe the time wasn't right for this book--at least not for me right now.  But I finished it.  All 500-something pages.

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