Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Maureen Ogle

Maureen Ogle is a historian and the author of several books, including Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer.

Her new book is In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her about what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently finished reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. That book’s a perfect example of the way “mood” can affect one’s reading choices: When the book came out in 2012, I read maybe ten pages and put it down. I suspected, without digging too deep into my psyche, that I wasn’t in the mood for what Mitchell had to offer and mentally filed the book under “Try later.” I’m glad I did. This time, Mitchell instantly transported me to late 18th century Japan, and kept me there, hostage to his extraordinary ability to capture the moments that make up life. In tone and complexity, Thousand Autumns is akin to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies). As astonishing achievement and one of those books that makes me, a hack historian, want to stop sullying the English language with my own words.

I also just finished reading Elizabeth George’s new book, Just One Evil Act. I’m a life-long reader of mysteries, devouring Agatha Christie as a kid and Dorothy Sayers as a teenager. Both authors taught me that mysteries are literature (Gaudy Night is one of the best feminist novels of the twentieth century) and as an adult reader, I gravitate toward mysteries that are novels first and mysteries second. I’ve read all of George’s books and I admire her fearlessness. She’s first and foremost a “writer” and it’s been a pleasure over the years to watch as her style has changed and grown. An example: Barbara Havers started as a sidekick character and now commands a lead role in George’s novels. In a million years, I never expected Havers to become the complex, passionate person that George has created.

And on the subject of writers taking chances: J. K. Rowling. I trudged through two of the Harry Potter books before I gave up: Rowling’s clunky prose got in my way. So I had no interest in her first “adult” novel, The Casual Vacancy . But then I read an interview with Ann Padgett who said that she thought it was brilliant and couldn’t understand why the critics panned it. Intrigued by her comment, I gave it a try. Five thumbs up, folks. I never would have guessed this is the same writer whose characters mumbled and snarled, adverbially speaking, through the many pages of Potter and company. Rowling’s new book is barbed but witty, peopled with a complex cast of characters, and laced with rich insight and observation. Bonus: The plot is first rate. I’m now tempted to read the last Potter novel to see how Rowling’s writing style in that book compares to CV. If it’s more like the first HP book than CV, I wonder: Was Rowling edited in order to maintain a similar tone, voice, and style throughout that series? Because it’s hard to imagine that her writing changed that much from last HP to CV.

But reading both George and Rowling also prompted this thought: Why do readers and critics often object when an author reaches higher? I gather, for example, that over the years many of George’s readers have objected when her books don’t fit the standard detective-solving-case model. Her best book, What Came before He Shot Her, is a brilliantly grim dissection of urban life on the fringe; it’s anything but a conventional mystery. And then there was the brouhaha over Rowling’s new book, The Cuckoo's Calling, which she published under a pseudonym. Many people, especially writers, objected. Some argued that Rowling was slumming and when the book sales weren’t high, she outed herself. To which I say: Huh? I don’t blame Rowling for the pseudonym. She wanted to expand her reach. Good writers constantly reach for more.

Which is another way of saying that my three most recent reads have had the effect of both challenging me and wanting me to destroy my own books. It doesn’t get better than that.
Learn more about the book and author at Maureen Ogle's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: Ambitious Brew.

The Page 99 Test: In Meat We Trust.

--Marshal Zeringue