I've recently returned from Jackson, Mississippi, where I lived for a year. Only it was actually only four days. A good book will do that to you.
I read a lot. In fact, I've curbed my reading over the last few years because once I begin a book, nothing much else gets done. I'm the kind of reader who can't let go of a story, no matter how poorly written or how ridiculous the story line. Because of this, I've experienced a lot of great literature, and a lot of baloney books, too. Last week I made a wild swing on the whiplash express between the two.
Now that my toddler is in a big-girl bed but is not the kind of person you'd want wandering free in the night, I've loaded several reading apps into my iPod Touch. I sit at the foot of her bed and read as she falls asleep. Because of my skinflint nature, I only read freebies, so I picked up a few free offerings from CBD's new ebook list and downloaded a title or two from the local library.
One of the first titles I read was Reinventing Leona, by Lynne Gentry. I liked the concept behind the story line: a pastor's wife, living in the church-owned parsonage, is abruptly widowed. Always dependent on her husband's strong personality and comfortable in her role as his helper, she now must become her own person and make her own life. This plot rang a bell with me, since I am the wife of a pastor and we live in the parsonage. As I read, I related more with the author of the book than with the story, however. In my mental fiction, Ms. Gentry has enjoyed reading since she was a small child. She probably won school awards for her writing. Maybe she has a blog and gets a lot of compliments on her imagery and writing style. She's toyed with an idea: she dreams of writing a book (don't we all?). Armed with a unique and interesting story line and the good wishes and encouragement of her friends, she begins to write. It goes in spurts. Sometimes the writing just flows; at other times, she agonizes over each phrase. She reads and rereads until her own words make her crazy. Finally she turns portions over to her friends and asks them for brutal honesty. They like it! She's affirmed! After sending her idea to a publisher, they ask for the manuscript, the deal is sealed, she works and sweats and strains, and one day she holds a book - HER book - in her hands!
Bad news: My story is better than hers. Her writing never quite invites you in. The plot is overly segmented and often difficult to follow. You never actually experience Leona reinvented, but only rehashed. Scriptures are placed carefully and predictably. But the worst part - the part that made me groan and roll my eyes, even though I empathized with Ms. Gentry - was the imagery. The imagery, in fact, was what clued me into my likeness with her. At points, her story moved along smoothly enough, but then I'd hit rocky pavement littered by sharp descriptions of every type and of every thing. My mind stumbled and stalled as I tried to follow the faint trail of her plot through the clutter. Some of her images bordered on the ridiculous (sorry, Ms. Gentry, if you ever read this, but it's true - please keep reading), like when she described the main character entering her overbearing mother's hospital room "like the Ty-D-Bol man." The fits and starts are where my mental self-critic inserted itself. "Just why," it asked bluntly, "do you think you could do a better job? Your words are much like hers. You rarely think of a unique phrase or untried description. If you weren't reading this right now, you'd never even see it."
It wasn't a horrible book, but it wasn't one I'd recommend. It had a unique story line and interesting characters. And her descriptions were vivid, though heavy-handed. I ended the book without the sad regret you feel when you've become a part of the literature. But I learned a lot from that book about great literature, and talent, and running with your dream. I hope Ms. Gentry writes again, and I hope she finds her way to clarity and definition. I hope her friends and editors do more than encourage. And I hope that I can make as much of my talent (when I find one!) as she has. The plot line sold me on the book because of my similarity to the main character; my take-away was my similarity with the author.
The ebook I read after that was borrowed from the library. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, doesn't require my review. I hope I get to visit Jackson, Mississippi (or New York, or Chicago...) with her again soon.