Friday, July 28, 2006

Girl Beside Him by Cris Mazza

I'm three chapters into this and have a few things to say as I trot along:

1. The book is so much easier to read than the others I've read in this summer challenge that it's like eating yogurt after eating mueslix.

2. I think I've figured out Mazza's strength. I've read a few of her other books, most recently Indigenous which was about growing up as a Southern California native. That book is REALLY interesting, for the same reason I think I'm interested in this one: Mazza takes you into an unfamiliar world -- like the interior of an orchestra, or life in marching band, or working in a hospital, or in this case a ranching town in Wyoming. Instead of filling you in, in some patronizing irritating way, on the way things are, she just lets the way things are penetrate the text. So, you have this feeling of keeping up with the book, and figuring things out as you go. Like playing a game without a manual, and you know you'll just figure it out. the novel is very confidently, firmly written, so you don't have to think, well what's this lingo? What's going on? You just get immersed. It makes her books very memorable too, because you feel like you learned something -- that sounds so dumb -- but you feel like you learned something via experience, not via information.

3. All three of the novels I've read have to some degree been about filing in the lines of a mystery that's in the past. In this case it's something with the main character's sister and mother. It makes me very aware of the line being tread between giving the reader a mystery to unravel, and playing "What have I got behind my back" with the reader, rationing out clues and past scenes in just the right doses. This novel is coming from a lot of different directions -- it can kind of make you feel like skipping forward through the past sections. I suppose that's what it's like with any book where the past is a mystery.

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Reading a book by Cris Mazza is like being set down into someone else's life. This is what novels can do for you that non-fiction books can never do. It's what novels should always do, of course, but Mazza does it so expertly that picking up another of her books is like preparing to go on a trip. There's that same anticipation. Whether it's the world of dog shows, or inside a rehab hospital, or playing in a symphony, or in this case doing wildlife research in the badlands, the immersion is immediate, complete, and seamless. Instead of holding your hand and patronizingly explaining the details, Mazza just slides you in next to one of the characters, and the life you're living unfolds with the natural progression of the plot. Would I ever have known all the details of playing in a marching band, without reading Cris Mazza? Would I have ever thought it could be that interesting?

Another experience this book affords is the ability to like and understand someone that in your usual life you would either ignore or reject. Mazza's main character in _Girl Beside Him_ is rough, irritable, and unpredictable. He's violent and sometimes mean. By all indications, he should be the most unlikeable main character in the history of novels. Not only do you not like the guy, but reading along, you have no doubt that if he met *you* he would definitely *not* like you either. However, by the end of the novel, I was really cheering for this guy, really wanting him to have something resembling a normal, healthy interaction with another human being. I'm not sure, in the end, if I got that, and I'm not entirely sure I understood the ending. However, putting the book down, I felt like I'd been somewhere and had seen something that I never would have looked at before.

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