Friday, May 11, 2018

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

Posted from my Good Reads review

The Good Earth
This was a book that I never would have read if it hadn't been a selection of my book group. It came laden with associations from my childhood of a work carrying the Book-of-the-Month-Club seal of approval, and I thought it would be old-fashioned and sentimental. The fact that it became an Oprah pick seemed like just a modern day version of that old model. Moral uplift and edification.

I just read Celeste Ng's review of the book, which I happened upon here at Good Reads. She hates the book and has good reasons for doing so. Her complete diatribe (and I say that in praise, not condemnation) can be found at The Huffington Post. But she admits that her critique is really of the way the West embraced the book and took it as a sort of one volume encyclopedia on all things Chinese. As Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her Ted Talk The Danger of a Single Story, we get into trouble when we infer too much from one person's story, making them stand for a much more complex whole.

But I don't think Buck was attempting to interpret the whole of China for us. I don't even know that she was trying to write a realistic novel. The Good Earth came across to me as more of a fable. Her storytelling style struck me not so much as literary than as biblical or saga-like, and as someone who came from a missionary family, she was probably more formed by that book's way of speaking than many of us are.

Wang Lung, her protagonist, is not interesting because he is Chinese. He is an everyman figure. He could be a peasant farmer in any culture where most people live at a subsistence level. Buck is more interested, I think, in showing us his drive to succeed and the inherent pitfalls in that sort of monomania. In the end it is more of a morality tale than an anthropological study. To her credit, there is no missionary proselytizing in her story. At perhaps the only point that Christianity overtly enters the story, it comes across as incomprehensible to Wang Lung.

Perhaps Buck's greatest accomplishment in this story was not to 'explain China' to the West, but to get her readers to empathize with Wang Lung as a human being with ambitions and faults (or if not with him, with his long suffering wife, O-lan) but also virtues, similar to our own. At the time of its publication in 1931, anti-Chinese sentiments were still alive and well in America, which is not to say they have died off even now.

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Monday, February 26, 2018

Posting this on from my Good Reads review.

The Last Straw (Pigeon-Blood Red Book 2)The Last Straw by Ed Duncan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was offered a review copy of The Last Straw after reviewing the first book in this series, Pigeon-Blood Red. I enjoyed this book for some of the same reasons I did that one, including its fast paced, easy to read storyline. Although this second book involves several of the characters from the first, I think Duncan has upped his game a bit with this one. There is more introspection on the part of the two main characters, hitman Rico and lawyer Paul Elliott, and a relationship between them is slowly evolving. In fact, you might say that the characters are becoming more like each other, although since they come very different places, they still have a long way to go before you could call them anything like the same.

There are several compelling women in the book, and one of the interesting things about the story is that the women all question the men's actions and motivations, getting into some interesting conversations about whether what they are contemplating doing is right. True, the men usually just go ahead and do what they were planning to do anyway, but even the most violent of them seem to hold a respect for the woman in their life's viewpoint. And it changes his outlook a little, even if it doesn't change his actions.

Most of what you need to know from the first book is retold in this one, but I would recommend starting with Pigeon-Blood Red to really appreciate the arc of the story. I am assuming this isn't the last time we'll be hearing about Rico and Paul Elliott.

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Saturday, November 4, 2017

A Case of Noir, by Paul D. Brazill

I've had this short book on my shelf for far too long to come up with any plausible excuses for not reading it sooner. Five interlocking stories take us around what I suppose I can still call the E.U., at least for now. Each story takes us deeper into the adventures of the struggling journalist Luke Case and on to a new city. The reasons for this will be explained as we go along. Let's just say for now that in every city he visits, Case winds up in a new bar (or three), and there is usually an attractive woman who shows up somewhere along the way.

Paul D. Brazill, who was born in Britain and has ended up in Poland as an English teacher has marked out his own niche in the crime writing world, and it's a seamy, salty one, so you stand forewarned. Although I've read many of his stories over time, with this volume I was struck by how at home he is with the expat life on the edge, where small time schemers and hustlers live after their dreams and schemes have failed to completely work out. Those with illusions of grandeur mix with those who have no illusions left, often coming together in odd orbits, since they all seem to be traveling the same circuit, where sooner or later, everybody knows everybody. Drugs, alcohol and prostitutes are a very common feature.

If perhaps this all seems a little too sordid for you, well, I might once have thought the same. However, what I've learned about Brazill is that he knows how to tell a good story and to put a twist in where you aren't expecting it.

And after all, it's not called noir for nothing.

(I've posted the image of the edition I have, but if you're looking for a copy, it may look more like this.This is the newer, Near to the Knuckle edition)

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Serpent Pool by Martin Edwards

Many years ago, on our travels around England,  a friend and I eventually arrived in the Lake District. We stayed overnight at a youth hostel on Lake Windermere. It was probably mid-March, but we woke up the next morning to discover it had snowed. Up till then--and after--we had only rain. But now there was a light blanket of snow on the ground and the sun had come out. So we went on a little boat tour on Lake Windermere, which I still remember fondly.

Our time in the Lake District wasn't long, but it was enjoyable. So I don't know why it's taken so long for me to get around to the Lake District series by Martin Edwards, even if only from pure nostalgia. Nor do I know how I at some point acquired a book from somewhere in the middle of the series. I have followed Martin Edwards' excellent mystery blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name? for some years and even read one of the books in his Harry Devlin series, which features a rather scampish Liverpudlian solicitor. So I'm really not sure what the holdup was.

In The Serpent Pool, the series regular DCI Hannah Scarlett has been demoted to the cold case squad and finds that an unexplained death has occurred at an unsettling place called the Serpent Pool, which happens to be very near where she and her boyfriend have recently bought and are remodeling a house. Meanwhile, art historian Daniel Kind, a man whom Hannah has become attracted to in earlier books of the series, has returned from abroad and is also in the area. The cold case soon becomes connected to a rather warmer one when a rare books dealer dies in a mysterious fire, and it gradually becomes clear that someone has a fetish for knocking off antiquarian booksellers.

Edwards' erudition about the mystery genre is obvious from his blog and indeed he scored a major coup last year with his nonfiction offering The Golden Age of Murder, walking off with the Edgar, Agatha, H.R.F Keating and Macavity awards for nonfiction as well as being shortlisted for the Anthony and the Crime Writers of America Gold Dagger. It's something of a mystery to me, then, no pun intended, that his fiction isn't better known, i.e., promoted, over here in the States. The Devlin series features a charming rogue as main character, and is good on Liverpool, and the Lake District series has the close observation of setting of Ann Cleeves' Shetland Island series. Midsomer Murders fans would enjoy it for the social commentary on its small community setting. There are apparently also some of the dynamics between characters building through the books that left readers of Elizabeth George's Inspector Linley series hungry for the next installment.

It's not necessary to have read earlier books in the series to enjoy this one, but I think your pleasure will probably be even greater if you do. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a mini bookstore in the library foyer here. They have a random assortment of things on some side shelves for 50 cents or so, and then they have this little shop where they have culled out some more coveted things and sell them for a bit more. And it's funny what you can get if you are just willing to wait for it to show up here. I had heard the buzz about The Girl in the Train when it came out, but I'm never that interested to read what everyone else is reading while they are reading it. I mean, I just might get around to reading Harry Potter soon.

But here was this nice hardback of Hawkins' book displayed face out for four bucks, and I grabbed it. Not only that, it jumped to the top of my quite high TBR pile. And it's proved one of the more enjoyable reads of recent days, partly because it was a guilty pleasure when I was supposed to be reading other things, which always adds an aura, I find.

I probably liked this book for the same reasons some others might dislike it. For most of the book, the protagonist is drunk, or recovering, or relapsing. She can't get over her ex-husband, who left her for another, except he didn't leave her, he forced her to leave him and took up residence in their former home, which she just happens to pass every day on the commuter train. Galling, no?

I thoroughly enjoyed how hapless and yet somehow sympathetic Rachel was, even while everyone in her vicinity is scandalized by her inability to just get a hold of herself. Everyone else in the book is more or less appalling too--it's just that most of them don't have the self-awareness to grasp that.

It's a great concept novel, that maybe goes on a little too long, but certainly I can see a girl on a train reading The Girl on the Train and finding that it helps the long commute go by, especially if, every once in a while, she takes a cue from the book and looks out the window at the passing houses...

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

A couple of chaps

By sheer coincidence, I've both recently reviewed a chapbook and put one together myself. The review is for the  somber but timely work The Muddy Season by Matthew Raymond and can be found at Escape Into Life.

The shameless self-promotion is for a little Christmas story I just put between two covers. I thought this up last year, but didn't get around to it then. And even this year I remembered a little too late. How good the story is, I can't say, but I'm pretty pleased with myself for seeing the project through to the end. Inadvertently, and through no fault of mine (if only you knew how true this was), I think the cover turned out pretty well, or at least is something close to what I envisioned. I've made it as close to free as CreateSpace will allow me. If you want the actual chapbook you can order it HERE. If you want to read it on Kindle you can order it HERE. If you don't want to order it and just want to look at the cover, that's fine too.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Paradime by Alan Glynn

I am sure Declan Burke is right about "the recurring theme of paranoid conspiracy that has run like a seam through Alan Glynn’s work" and I will direct you to his excellent review of Paradime for a more nuanced look at the book and Glynn's work as a whole than I will attempt to give here. But what struck me in particular was its relationship to The Dark Fields, which was published here as Limitless and spawned both a movie and the recent TV series of the same name. I was surprised to learn or perhaps remember that The Dark Fields is actually an earlier work and the three books of the Globalization Trilogy (Winterland, Bloodland, and Graveland--read them) were written in between it and Paradime. This is because the protagonists of both The Dark Fields and Paradime seem to be kindred spirits.

Paradime is not a reworking of the earlier story. Danny Lynch faces a different situation than Eddie Spinola. Spinola's catalyst for self-exploration was a performance enhancing drug, while Lynch's is having a chance to 'become' his doppelgänger. What is similar and striking, though, are both the conditions from which these characters emerge and those to which they aspire. Both  books tell of modern day rites of passage for men who for reasons both personal and political have previously failed to complete them.

In his review of The Dark Fields, Burke describes Eddie Spinola as someone who goes from being a "dysfunctional bottom-feeder to master of the financial universe in just a few months." This holds equally true for Danny Lynch. Both novels are set largely in New York City, which Glynn, an Irishman, had the opportunity to observe for a period of several years. Perhaps as a non-native, he can view Gotham with greater perspicacity, while we Americans simply take its way of operating for granted. In any case, things have grown grimmer since The Dark Fields--the kind of bottom feeding available to Danny is even less nourishing than it was for  Eddie. While Eddie worked in a nongratifying area of copyediting, Danny is suffering from PTSD and, on the outs with the very dicey Gideon Logisitics, he's very soon going to have no money at all. Both men respond to a siren call and quickly find themselves alone in extremely dubious moral circumstances.

What's interesting to me is  not so much that both men fall for the lure, but that they fall for it so easily. At the start of their stories, they are already on shaky moral ground. What they lack most specifically, I think, is any real capacity for discernment. I'm not someone who'd be likely to sing "Give Me That Old Time Religion" or promote a return to family values, but these are essentially deracinated young men, more than ripe for any suggestion that seems to give them access to the powerful world they see all around them but have  almost no hope of gaining. One of the more disturbing things about these books is that neither Danny or Eddie seem all that unusual. In fact either one might be a kind of everyman of our times.

My review of The Dark Fields is HERE. I seem to have had more to say about it than I remembered.