Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides


The Marriage Plot I am happy to have read some of the longer and more appreciative reviews at GoodReads because it reminded me of some of the parts I most enjoyed, which were nearer the beginning. I would say the novel has a few different moods going on, or maybe it's just that the mood grows darker.

Eugenides is roughly of my era of college life and although the East Coast setting and the upper class Wasp nature of Madeleine and her family aren't really anything I'm familiar with, I did find Mitchell a very recognizable character, with his unrequited love and his spiritual investigations. My group of college friends were all about Mother Teresa and Merton too, though as far as I know, none of them made it as far as India.

One thing I really enjoyed about this book was the way it captures a certain time of life--not college so much as that period after college ends. Especially if you're not launched into your first big job or graduate school. A person can feel quite adrift and for quite awhile. I thought the graduation scene which begins the book was very well observed. For the parents and other family members, it's a rite of passage, a success story. But for the actual graduates, it's a complicated time where you're wrapping up loose ends and trying to feel your way into the future--the ceremony is almost incidental. There are probably other novels about this period, if only because so many writers starting out are of this age and that's what they know about. But I haven't read them. And this is not an early work of Eugenides. It's about a period that he's returning to and reconsidering.

And, although I didn't study semiotics, I find it heartening that this is a novel about people who actually read books, and think about them, and discuss them with each other. Of course, that's part of undergrad life in the humanities. But it's refreshing to have them described as having an influence.

I really admired the depiction of Mitchell's spiritual quest, because it so deftly describes its pitfalls. I don't think we really know where he will end up, but I think that he has at least discovered that he is going to have to be his own guru.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

The Rent Collector by Camron Wright

The Rent Collector
This novel was chosen for my book group by another member, which is why I came to read it. It took me quite a while to overcome my early resistance to it, because at first it strained my capacity for suspending disbelief. It's an odd combination of things. The author writes that he was impelled to do the project after seeing his son's documentary about the people who lived on the edges of the Stung Meachey dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and eked out their living by picking through it. I say 'lived' because the dump was closed in 2009, not because it existed in some ancient past. As the author says, this is a work of fiction, though from the photos in the back of the book, it appears to be based on real people, who have the same names as the fictional people, and some of the plot is not so fictional.

The part that was hardest for me to swallow was the part Wright added (apparently), which is the relationship of the protagonist to the rent collector of the title and the bargain they strike. The way events developed between them often struck me as unlikely.

Interestingly, though, the book grabbed hold of me in the second half. This was, I think , for two reasons. Partly it's because the more improbable part of the story is not so prominent anymore. But it's also because of precisely the point that Wright is trying to convey about literature. Stories pull you in. You want to find out what happens. You stay with it because you care. You are involved. In the beginning I could easily have given up and not thought any more about it. But by the end, I was quite happy to have read the book.

In reading, sometimes it can be good to just persist.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Every City is Every Other City by John McFetridge


Every City Is Every Other City: A Gordon Stewart Mystery I've been waiting for a new John McFetridge novel to come out for awhile now, and this one was definitely worth the wait. Just for starters, the main character Gord Stewart is a location scout for the booming Toronto movie industry (this is not set during the pandemic), who also happens to do a little unglamorous P.I. work on the side, both of which convincingly open doors into a couple of different worlds. A coworker, knowing that he has a private detective license, asks him to help figure out what happened to her missing uncle. Reluctantly, Gord takes on the challenge, knowing that he probably won't get anywhere. As is often the case with his more self-deprecating assumptions, he is wrong.

There is a sad statistic underlying the case of the missing uncle, which Gord learns early on. Single, middle-aged, white men without a college degree have the highest suicide rate of any group, followed by married middle-aged white men without a college degree. As this very much looks to be the case with the missing Kevin, Gord thinks he's on a wild goose chase, but little things aren't adding up.

In order to get some help from a big investigation firm with a lot of heft, especially with the police, Gord gets talked into doing a favor for them, a pretty sordid one. But Ethel, an actress who quickly becomes the new woman in his life, pushes him ethically on what he's doing and makes him rethink the gig.

Gord sees the whole world in terms of likely locations. This, along with a running refrain that things aren't really like how they are in the movies (except that sometimes they actually are, which McFetridge exploits to comic effect) and of course the title itself sets up a world where everything is also pretending to be something else. You can see how these middle-aged guys, who seem to have lost a certain sense of purpose and identity, could end up being suicidal. And suicide as a force in society comes up several times in the course of the story, including a litany of all the people in the entertainment industry who have taken their own lives.

Despite this, this isn't a bleak book. McFetridge's dry, understated humor counters that and Ethel, the love interest, is vibrant enough to inject whatever vitality is needed into Gord's life. And his dad, who he lives with out of inertia, is especially good at puncturing one-liners, often just as he's walking out of the room.

One of McFetridge's great gifts is just to notice things that other people haven't, often on a sociological level. As the rest of us hurry along and get caught up in things, it's nice to have his reflective voice reminding us that the world may not be exactly as we think it is.

I hope he's hard at work on the next one.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Safer by Sean Doolittle


I had this book on my shelf for quite a while without remembering why I had it. (Working at a bookstore as I did for a long time, you tend to accumulate a certain number of advanced reading copies of books rather impulsively. Or I did.) The title and cover, which on the ARC has a lot of publisher blurbs, made me think it was a public service kind of book, maybe talking about some public health hazard. It was only when I was straightening up around here one day that I looked at it more closely and realized that I had picked it up because it was by a mystery writer whose name I already knew.

"My wife Sara and I are hosting a faculty party at our home when the Clark Falls Police Department arrives to take me into custody."

That, my friends, is what's known as a hook.

I've been trying to think since I read it about what book or category of books it reminds me of. Today I realized that one story it shares a little in common with is the television version of Pretty Little Liars. There's the same kind of feeling of trouble brewing in a tight, somewhat isolated community. One thing that's brilliant about the book is that it takes place on a cul-de-sac. So the feeling of everybody being crammed together and watching each other is doubly reinforced.

I really enjoyed the escalating tension between Paul Callaway and his creepy, overbearing neighbor. As an outsider from an urban setting, our narrator is in a fine position to notice all the little power moves and enforcement of conformity going on in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, Paul is also his own worst enemy and there's a dark humor in the way that he actually assists in getting himself caught deeper in the web.

Doolittle is a talented writer and I will be reading more.

I'm really glad this book didn't turn out to be about the dangers in our drinking water.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Bangkok Gamble by Tom Crowley

Bangkok Gamble
Another enjoyable outing to Thailand in this third Matt Chance adventure. In this one, a gambling tycoon asks Matt's help in finding his missing daughter, who has disappeared while out nightclubbing with a friend. But Matt has extra incentive when he learns that his friend from Special Forces John Scales has already been on the case and has also disappeared. Matt's leads soon take him far out of Bangkok and on the trail of a nefarious cult leader.

I particularly enjoy a couple of different aspects of Crowley's writing. One is the detailed portrait of Bangkok, often of some of the more dangerous and seamier sides, but sometimes just impressions of what it's like to live in this busy, humid city. Another is the way he writes action adventure narratives out in the jungle and smaller towns of the country. A particularly effective scene occurs when he and John take part in a raid on the corrupt temple.

I'm liking the way Matt Chance's world grows as the series goes along. We already knew his girlfriend Noi and her devoted assistant Plato, genius hacker. John Scales and Matt's half brother Rick, CIA agent, return and now we have Jade Lee, the kickass ex-Army helicopter pilot who as a mixed race ex-military person has more in common with Matt--half American, half Thai--than Matt can first admit.

Looks very much like more exciting adventures await.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Coroner's Lunch (Dr. Siri Paiboun, #1)The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been meaning to read this series for a long time and have had a couple of volumes of Cotterill's lying around the house forever. This first in a series featuring the reluctant coroner Dr. Siri introduces us to a lot in Laotian culture and history that I hadn't even thought to ask about.

I am a little more ambivalent about the endeavor than I would have been at the time it was written. 2004 is not all that long ago, but it's still on the other side of a watershed moment when more of the general public began to look at things through the lens of critical thinking about cultural appropriation. It's not that I noticed or even think that Cotterill got anything in particular wrong. I'm not in a position to know. It's just that in our very 'woke' moment, a Western writer writing a Laotian character stands out in a different way and raises questions that wouldn't have come up so much when it came out.

Nevertheless, Dr. Siri is an engaging character and he turns out to have an even more interesting backstory, which is revealed in the later portion of the book. One thing that definitely wouldn't have caused a stir when Cotterill wrote the novel is that in Laotian society, a great deal of polite handshaking goes on. Reading this as I did just as we were all learning the etiquette of social distancing, this oft-mentioned ritual made me gasp a few times in a way the author definitely never intended.

View all my reviews

Friday, July 17, 2020

Murder at the Slaughterhouse by Tom Crowley

Murder in the Slaughterhouse
In most cities of the world, you could say as the dawn eases its way above the horizon that the city begins to stir. In Bangkok, that wouldn’t be precisely correct. The mystical mix of the city’s night beat continues through the verge of dawn and the pace of the city only hesitates. There is a somewhat perceptible pause in the city’s life movements as the often desperate human night activity slows to a crawl, around dawn, as the night people complete their retreat with the last of the seductively clad sex workers and transgender beauties scurrying out of the growing light into the back of taxis. But the beat is taken up virtually immediately with the morning traffic of the day people as they begin to reclaim the city.

So opens Chapter One of this second Matt Chance thriller, which, like the first, is set largely in Thailand. The first few paragraphs continue this almost lyric ode to Bangkok, which appreciates the city’s beauty but doesn’t shy away from describing the darker side. But before long, this wide pan of the city landscape homes in on the violated body of a teenage boy, found within the perimeters of a slaughterhouse for hogs.

Matt turns out to have known this boy as a student in a kickboxing class for at-risk youth at which he has helped out. Through his connections there, he is pressed into trying to find out what happened to the youth, but finds himself entangled in an ever widening circle of people involved in one way or another with this tragedy, reaching the highest levels of both crime syndicates and governmental agencies. And their range isn't confined to Thailand alone.

Crowley, who is a Vietnam vet who went on after the war to work in both governmental and business communities in Thailand and Washington, has a lot of knowledge to draw on from these quarters. But just as valuable is his observation of daily life in Bangkok, where he has volunteered at a center for Thai street children, which I’m sure helped him flesh out the the community that the murdered boy of the novel comes from.

I've been remiss in waiting so long to get to this story, but at least I'm not too late to be ready for the third Matt Chance book, which is rumored to be coming out in November.