Friday, December 19, 2008

Dead It Should Not Be

Sometimes we come to things in funny ways--the wrong way, so to speak, but it turns out to be the right way after all. I thought I didn't know how exactly I had come upon Adrian McKinty's work in the first place, because ordinarily, I am not someone lured in by blurbs like "Tough guy fiction at its gory, heart-stopping best." (The Miami Herald), or "peppered with enough violence to make Martin Scorsese wince" (Rocky Mountain News)

Such are the phrases on my paperback copy of The Bloomsday Dead, but of course now we come to the title and you have the answer to the mystery. Because of course a book that uses Bloomsday in the title means to have some traffic with James Joyce, and Ulysses, and having slogged my way through that fat tome, I feel entitled to all the Joycean reference perks I can get my hands on.

I'm not going to talk about The Bloomsday Dead, though. At least not right now. Or at least more than to say that after I started it, I realized that I was three books into a trilogy, which obviously isn't the best place to start, and yet I was already so sucked in that I decided to take my chances.

Well, you shouldn't follow my lead because you are going to get some major spoilers about the troubled saga of Michael Forsythe, immigrant/exile/fugitive from Northern Ireland if you do. So begin, as is usually wise, at the beginning. Find yourself a copy of Dead I Well May Be and hunker down with it.

That is if you can find it. I think you can, because there are used copies and library copies to be had, and it looks like you might be able to download it on Kindle, should you be so fortunate as to own one.But in print? No. Despite being the crucial first volume in a crime trilogy, the publishers have seen fit to take it out of print, which means you can't just walk into your local bookstore and pick up a copy, or even order it all that easily. I won't rant about that too much here, I'll only say persist. Find the book. It's worth the effort.

Despite warning you against this, I actually had a lot of enjoyment out of reading this book out of sequence. There is something to be said for reading the past while knowing what lies ahead. It allows you to be a bit more leisurely. You are not quite so swept along by the plot. (Though there are still plenty of surprises here even for one who, Cassandra-like, knows the future.)

Let's just say briefly, without giving anything away, that there is a kind of doom around young Michael Forsythe. Whether it's a Northern Irish doom, or a more personal one is hard to say. When, early on in the story, you get a glimpse of a real ruthlessness in him, and realize that this guy is not exactly like you and me (or at least he's not like me), you do actually have to find a way of reconciling that within yourself, because you've already identified with him and his situation. Still, there is some, what?--emptiness?--at the core of him that is never really explained, perhaps not really explainable, but which feels real, not cartoonlike. You see that he's been hardened, and yet you also see the cost.

There are many and various pleasures in this book. The action/adventure buff will certainly not go away disappointed. For me, though, two types of things stand out. There are the literary references, alluded to with a light and deft hand, which won't matter if you miss them, but will add to your pleasure if you spot them. And, more importantly, there is McKinty's power of observation in every setting, whether Belfast or New York or wherever, but especially of the nuances between different types of people and cultures. Let us just say he has not passed through the places on this earth that he's lived and visited with a veil drawn over his eyes.

So go track down a copy of this. You can probably find the copy I lost in Santa Cruz somewhere, for instance. Meantime, check out his always entertaining if highly opinionated blog. And then get yourself on some sort of waiting list for Fifty Grand, his forthcoming novel. It's a stand-alone, or at least the first in a series, and those in the know (which wouldn't be me, by the way) say it's his best yet.

Also, if you're interested in a slightly less meandering, more on point discussion of Michael Forsythe, check Brian O'Rourke's blog for his take on all this. And you can check out one of Peter Rozovsky's McKinty posts at the always scintillating Detectives Without Borders here, which will in turn lead you on to an interview with McKinty himself.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bad Blood?

I don't think of myself as much of a one for memoir, but I read Lorna Sage's Bad Blood for my book group and by and large enjoyed it. Her account of growing up in a northern Welsh vicarage, largely raised by her eccentric and embattled grandparents is probably the most striking part of the book. Her own early identification and preference for the man she sometimes refers to as 'The Old Devil' appears to be the issue she is still trying to illuminate for herself.
As a professor of English who taught in both England and the U.S., it perhaps goes without saying that she writes well and interestingly. But as sometimes happens with memoir, the reader may find her or himself arrested by parts of Sage's life that don't seem to strike her in the same way. 'Bad Blood', for instance, would seem to rate a much darker, more defective past than is really in evidence here. In fact, as the members of the group sought out this book, we learned that there were quite a few current books with the same title--a murder mystery, a romance novel(no doubt having something to do with fangs), a true crime account, and so on. The Sage family drama was by far the tamest of the lot.

Which isn't to say it's boring. I think the word I would use is 'inscrutable'. It is in some ways still hard to account for this family, even after all her description. I won't give too much away, as there is a certain level of suspense that comes into it all. I will say that I haven't heard her dismissal of the nuclear family described in quite the same way.

"The fact that I somehow belonged to them [her parents], and with them, had been obscured to me in my grandparents' divided dominion. For a husband and wife to get on together,to gang up with each other, seemed strange and unfair.(Perhaps this is why people dream back with nostalgia to the extended family? Not because you get more parenting, but because you get less? Who knows, perhaps we secretly long to avoid being eggs in just one basket, which is what you get if your parents build a nest on just one branch of the family tree.)"

Well, this doesn't seem to be a particularly secret longing on Lorna Sage's part.

The book isn't new. It fell out of print (I think) and has recently been reissued, but probably to the interest of a fairly small audience, at least here in the U.S. So it was with some surprise that I found myself approached in the laundromat by a young woman who asked me eagerly where I had gotten it. She and her mother formed a somewhat odd, not to say dysfunctional pair, and I was absolutely sure that she was really after the horror novel or whatever of the same name, which I ventured to her. "This one is about a girl growing up in Wales? In a vicarage?" To which she replied, "Yeah, yeah--I read the sequel. Well, not sequel it was more of an article in a collection."

Well, I am still not sure whether we were talking about the same book, or whether this 'sequel' exists, though it would make a certain sense, with Bad Blood ending where it does. (And a small failing of the book is that the ending does feel somewhat rushed and unexplored in comparison to the beginning--I'd say as a whole that Sage finds her own story less intriguing than that of her ancestors, even though the reader may not.) But I did learn that readers shouldn't be judged by their covers anymore than books should. In the book biz, you can get pretty jaded--thinking you can judge in advance what people are going to like--but every once in a while you're completely wrong.

This, by the way, is a good thing.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

Okay, this is either the third or fourth time I've tried to write about this novel by Algerian-born Italian resident Amara Lakhous. The book, put out in English translation by Europa Editions, first came to my attention in one of the threads over at Adrian McKinty's blog The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in a comment from Marco, who I am also indebted to for showing all of us how to make a link.

Marco started the ball rolling by saying:

We have mentioned big/plural/diverse cities,immigration,progressiveness vs insularity -one of my favorite novels of recent years,Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator on Piazza Vittorio deals with all these things,and has just been translated into English.

As an American, and maybe even more particularly as a Californian, my view of the vastness of Rome has to do with both its physical scale and its reach back into various layers of historic time. So I was not really prepared to encounter a European story of immigrants and exiles, which feels much more familiar here than the story of Romulus and Remus. Also, I think we tend to see Italy as far more 'unified' than it really is. The people in this book who figure as 'foreign' may be no further away than Naples. I want to say that Southern Californians would not prove so exotic to us in Santa Cruz, but in fact, much of the life of the Central Valley would seem very strange indeed.

This story revolves around a murder and a suspect. It spoils nothing to say that the suspect is one Amadeo, and that all the cast of characters have their own different take on him, often completely at odds with the others. A quote fairly far into the book, but again giving nothing away says: "Amadeo maintained that Italian-style comedy represents the highest level of Italian creativity because it emphasizes paradoxes, combines tragedy and comedy, humor and serious criticism." This is in fact the style of this book, and if that description sounds intriguing to you than you should enjoy this.

A personal note: Not too long after reading this novel I found myself shouting up the stairs at my fellow tenant, through the barrier/mediation of the property manager, a man covered in tattoos but also carrying a little lapdog. Our dilemmas and differences were as trivial as those of the characters in this book, and yet our lack of communication as profound. A little dog figures prominently in Clash of Civilizations as well. Perhaps there is always a little dog somewhere, emblematic of we know not what.

Don't know if anyone will even see this, but if so, let's state that spoilers are okay in the comments, so be forewarned.

I'm updating this to add a link from Peter Rosovsky's highly informative international crime blog, Detectives Without Borders, where he is also talking about this book, doubtless in a much more intelligent way.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

We Are Gathered Here

Today I finished Micah Perks We Are Gathered Here, just in time for our Community Book Group tomorrow night. Perks wrote this book some years ago, but she is a local author and thus the book gets a revisit. As you can see, it is extremely appropriate for this blog.

This reading will be taking place under the auspices of the bookstore I work for, Bookshop Santa Cruz. This blog is in no way a vehicle for that business, but it's easy enough to check out with Google should you be so inclined. This is the second Community Book Group I'll be attending. What I can say about them is that they are very different from author readings and signings because the audience has already read the book. From my brief observation, this is tremendously gratifying for the author, who is no longer in the position of selling the book, but of simply discussing their thoughts about it with people who have thought about it as well.

We Are Gathered Here is a fascinating book and well worth anyone's time. I had my doubts about this at first. I always understood it to be well written, but there was an uncomfortable quality to the early part of the book that made it difficult to go on. Let us just say that it is Little Women written, not as Louia Mae Alcott would have, but maybe as the subtext of that book might be written if it could be. I think on reflection that the reason the book has a rough beginning is that we want the nineteenth century to conform to our preconceptions. When it doesn't, we feel a little shaky. But this is such an interesting book that it wins us over by degrees.

I hope I'll get to the discussion tomorrow night. If I do, I'll try to post about others' reactions as well. I realize that I've said very little about the content of the book, but think I will let that stand for now.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Where is Arthur when we need him?

Well, this is definitely not new, but I will still post here about it. I am currently reading The Once and Future King by T.H. White for my book group. This is one of those books that, one way and another, I thought I'd already done. I haven't. I may have read The Sword and the Stone-- in fact I'm sure I did, because it's familiar, and not just from the Disney movie of the same name. But I don't think I went on to the rest of the saga, though of course I did see Camelot, as everyone else of my era did. I just didn't know that the musical/movie was based on the work of White. The book, or actually four books, start out lightly and get progressively darker. I am very curious about where White was in all this. It takes awhile to write a four volume work, and White was writing this as Hitler was steadily overwhelming Western Europe.

I was surprised and delighted to find that the members of my book group were all quite taken with this work. I thought its fantasy element, especially in the beginning, might work against it. But no--they've agreed to stretch it out over a two month period so that we can all finish it.

I was listening to a podcast of a Q and A with Salman Rushdie today. He mentioned how the Orpheus/Euridice myth, which can be summarized in a paragraph, has a kind of nuclear reaction intensity, which is set off in hundreds of volumes of subsequent exposition, and I think the Arthur/Guenivere/Lancelot triangle has a similar explosive capacity. It has not been fully mined by White nor can it be fully exploited by anyone. It is our material, we westerners. I'm wondering what angle a post millennial writer might look at...because the book clearly states that both Arthur and Merlin are supposed to come back.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Dead Father's Club--Hamlet and Others

Summer is the designated season for Shakespeare, at least in California, where we have a variety of festivals going on. In keeping with the season, I recently read Matt Haig's The Dead Father's Club, which is a modern day rendering of Hamlet, although mind you, Hamlet lives in an English suburb and is only eleven years old, which renders his take on the situation slightly more sympathetic.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and will look forward to more from Haig, who has a new one out called The Labrador Pact . I think I enjoyed his divergences from the plot as much as the strict attention to detail, but won't elaborate lest I give too much away.

In thinking about posting this, I was struck by the way I am drawn to Hamlet novels, and all things Hamlet in general. I had a professor and mentor, Mary Holmes, who had the theory that you should winnow down your undergraduate study to just one Shakespeare play, and mine would definitely be Hamlet. Although my sister and aunt were both riveted by the Olivier production, I found the Kenneth Branagh movie to be my own personal transformative experience. But I have read all sorts of things as well--not as a scholar or actor or anyone who would have some claim to expertise, but just because I love the play. Just in case there are any other Hamlet lovers reading this, I will offer a few more works that tend to illuminate the play.

First of all, there is Michael Innes Hamlet, Revenge!, a mystery set in a classic English country house, where the characters are busy staging a production of Hamlet. Michael Innes was a psuedonym for J.I.M. Stewart, a professor of English literature at places like Oxford. So the scholarship behind the funny but absorbing mystery is of a high level.

Another novel that was pointed in my direction is The Prince of West End Avenue by Alan Isler. This one is set in a Manhattan Jewish retirement community. Ostensibly a comic novel about an attempt to stage Hamlet, it strikes a deeper more melancholy chord as the narrator tries not to remember the fact that he is also a survivor of Auschwitz.

A recent novel, which I haven't read but which also has a Hamlet theme going, is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. It's already a bestseller, ,at least on the Indie lists, but I won't let that stop me from putting it on a to-be-read list of my own.
Of course,there are less obvious derivations from Hamlet, and it was only in writing this that I realized that I had in all likelihood read another recently--namely, Justin Evan's A Good and Happy Child. The Hamlet theme from this persepective goes something like this: Dad's dead, Mom has found a sustainer in someone who she knew all along but who is now getting a lot closer. The grieving son--and it's always a son, somehow--isn't happy about this development, and some aspect of the supernatural, very possibly demonic, enters the picture. I liked this novel a lot though I think in the end, it didn't quite work itself out in a way that satisfied me. Still, I'd definitely read Evans again.

I haven't even touched on critical works, or memoirs from an actor's point of view. I've read a couple, and will in all likelihood read a few more. I'd recommend Marjorie Garber's Shakespeare After All for anyone who would like to read a lucid, short essay on any of the plays.

But this is an almost too fertile field. Perhaps it would be best to revive this topic again later.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Bright Lights, Big Lonely City

New York City might not be the first place to go if you’re aiming to expand your social sphere, at least judging by two recent novels set there.
Charlie Weir, narrator of British author Patrick McGrath’s Trauma (Knopf), is a Manhattan psychiatrist specializing in post-traumatic stress syndrome. He’s the first to admit that his own troubled childhood is what led him to psychiatry in the first place.
His hot-tempered father abandoned them, and his mother wasn’t exactly a pillar of stability herself. In fact she might be considered Charlie’s first real patient.
Despite outward success, things haven’t really been going so well for Charlie in the intervening years. His marriage has fallen apart after he failed to prevent his Vietnam vet brother-in-law’s suicide.
Charlie’s social circle has dwindled down to occasional visits with his brother Walt’s family, which might be okay if Walt’s basic attitude toward Charlie wasn’t one of ill-concealed animosity.
Although Charlie knows an awful lot about trauma, the sobering assertion that McGrath makes here is that knowing how trauma works isn’t any help when the trauma you’re dealing with is your own.
Charlie has been traumatized. And his mother’s death is bringing it all to the surface again.
McGrath, famous for his modern Gothic style, uses it to great if restrained effect here, as Charlie’s feverish view of the city subtly reflects his own crumbling state of mind.
It’s fascinating to watch Charlie circle around his own dark truth, without being able to bring himself to close in on it. Inevitably, of course, it closes in on him.
The Twin Towers are still being built in Charlie Weir’s Manhattan, but they have already fallen by the time we meet Hans van den Broek in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (Pantheon). Like Charlie, Hans is also a professional, in his case a Dutch investment banker, whose material success masks a family life in tatters.
Trauma has set this story in motion as well—this time the collective catastrophe of 9/11. In its aftermath, Han’s wife has fled back to London with their small son, and Hans is very much afraid that she’s fled the marriage as well.
Hans hasn’t been in Manhattan long and doesn’t have a wide circle of friends. (Like Charlie Weir, he may not really be capable of it.) He drifts into an unusual relationship with a larger than life immigrant from Trinidad named Chuck Ramkissoon.
Chuck has a big dream—he’s going to put cricket on the map in New York. With any luck, he’ll get Hans, another cricket enthusiast, to help him.
But the novel opens with news of Chuck’s death, and Hans has been reunited with his family in London. I was puzzled by O’Neill’s decision to give away these two major plot points right up front.
Perhaps O’Neill, who lived through 9/11 in New York himself, decided that suspense was the last thing a novel about shell-shocked Manhattan needed.
The novel works despite this choice. O’Neill, Irish born, Dutch raised and Cambridge educated, is one those ‘global souls’ of whom Pico Iyer writes so eloquently. As with McGrath, it’s refreshing to get his outsider’s close-up look at a major American city.
But he’s never going to sell us on cricket.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Some thoughts about backlist

Originally, I'd hoped to call this blog something more straightforward, like Unfortunately, or possibly even fortunately, as it may signify another like-minded soul, it's been taken.

At any rate, I work in an independent bookstore, and I think a lot about things like backlist, midlist, frontlist. Frontlist just means very recently published books. Backlist is everything else. I'm a slow reader. By the time I'm ready to comment on something, it's inevitably lost it's shiny newness. Having enjoyed a brief stint as a frontlist reviewer before my local paper decided that it could largely do without such things, I thought,like everyone else in the universe, "Well, maybe I'll start a blog..."