Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Wrong Mother, by Sophie Hannah

I've been hearing about Sophie Hannah from a couple of different directions lately--first, hot ticket novelist Tana French has mentioned recently that she is on French's own shortlist, and secondly, Martin Edwards has written a good piece on her over on his blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name?. Then Penguin was kind enough to send me an unsolicited copy of The Wrong Mother and I was off and running.

I am not going to delve into the twists and turns of this complex and very absorbing crime novel, other than to say that it starts off in the voice of a mother of young children who has an upsetting encounter with her child minder, and not too long after, finds herself pushed into the path of a bus, apparently deliberately. What I will say is that it is no accident that the novel starts off with a dilemma about childcare, career and the mothering of young children. There is not just one mother facing this situation of trying to be a good mother and still holding on to an interesting career despite the demands, there are several.

In fact, you might say that The Wrong Mother is an exercise in refracting the same basic situation through several different lenses. The care of self versus the love of one's children plays out in various ways. One question that I was left with was more general, though. When we complain about the people and situations in our lives, how seriously do we mean this and how seriously do we expect others to take us?

Although ultimately I found some of the resolution of this story a little unsatisfying, it does fit within the conventions of crime fiction, and I have to say that I was reading compulsively all the way through and the main puzzle of the story was not one I saw through till quite close to the end. I'm eager to read more of Hannah's work, and though I think mothers with small children would find much to relate to here, I am not sure they could read this book with equanimity.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

I must admit a weakness for novels that use London as a strong and evocative setting. Vikram Seth's An Equal Music springs to mind as do several of the mysteries of P.D. James, maybe particularly Original Sin with it's venerable London publishing house set right on the Thames. I recall reading her early novel, Innocent Blood, before I ever visited the city, and I do know that a young woman being able to find a flat in London seemed one of the most glamorous things in the world--and this before I had the faintest idea of London prices.

William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms joins the ranks of those crime novels that use both London and the Thames to great effect. Here's the opening:

Let us start with the river--all things begin with the river, and we shall probably end there, no doubt--but let's wait and see how we go. Soon, in a minute or two, a young man will come and stand by the river's edge, here at Chelsea Bridge, in London.

And of course that was enough to hook me right in. I will not give away whether things do or do not end at the river, but the river is very much a part of the landscape through much of the book. It reveals itself in different aspects to different people, reflecting their inner lives as well as outer weather.

A chance encounter leads our hero, Adam Kindred, to become deeply implicated in a crime. His own decisions in response to this lead him further afield, until he finds himself looking at London from the lower strata, a view of the city that few tourists get to see. Meanwhile, there are some pretty major corporate shenanigans going on, and of course someone who's been sent to clean up untidy loose ends like, say, witnesses. Although at times this seems fairly standard stuff, the pacing keeps it lively.

What I find more interesting, and what I think most readers will, is not just the way Adam hides out in a vast and in many ways impersonal city, but the way in which he comes to accept that riding the river of chance, and being able to let go of the old life as necessary, is really all we have. There's a clever, ironic twist when another character has to make the same decision, but I'll leave that to you to find.

As it turns out, there are more than a few people in this book hiding from what they once were. But, as is pointed out in the novel, 600 people are reported missing in Britain every week. That a few of their fictional counterparts find their way between these pages does not in the end seem too improbable.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Parkour and Freerunning Handbook, by Dan Edwardes

Every once in awhile, this blog must be forgiven if it takes a break from writing up books of a high literary character and indulges in its author's odd private obsessions. This post is one of them.

What are parkour and freerunning? Well, fans of the recent film Casino Royale are probably already familiar with the opening sequence that made this gymnastic way of moving through the urban landscape famous. For those who haven't seen the film, you can think of this as a whole new way of getting around and relating to your city or town.

Okay--I am not really the ideal candidate to practice this discipline. I don't think I'll be doing backflips off three story buildings any time soon, for instance. But of course the primal place for all of us is always our imagination, and whether we can practice this in the urban landscape itself, or only in the far frontiers of our imaginations, this stuff is really cool. It's a shift in our thinking about city streets, city railings and city buildings to imagine owning these impersonal public structures with our personal stunts and feats. If you're young and athletic, you may be able to duplicate some of the moves demonstrated in this book. But even if you're not, and I believe this is actually the important part, you too can imagine the streets you live on in an entirely new way. Take a look at this book, or the movie Casino Royale for that matter, and try to picture yourself doing such stunts on the streets where you live. You will inhabit your own space on earth in an entirely new way if you do.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Dead Yard, by Adrian McKinty

I have just recently finished reading the Dead trilogy, with Belfast's Michael Forsythe as hero or anti-hero or something. I wouldn't recommend reading the series in the order I have, but as the first is out of print in the U.S. right now, do what you must.

The Dead Yard is the second book in the series, although chronologically, this story actually fits in somewhere before the coda at the end of the first novel, Dead I Well May Be. Starting off on the island Spanish island of Tenerife, somewhere off the east coast of Africa, the action swiftly moves back to the east coast of America, which is a different clime entirely.

It doesn't give too much away, I think, to reveal that Michael becomes embedded in a disaffected Irish group who are hoping to make a big splash to gain favor back in the home country.

I've heard that some find this middle novel darker than the others, but frankly I'm surprised at that. Our introduction to Michael Forsythe in Dead I Well May Be very quickly throws us into the dark and violent world he lives in, and shows him to be if not a willing participant, at least a compliant and resigned one.

As a person who is not particularly drawn to violence as a selling point, I have had to think a bit about why this series works for me. True, the writing is tight and at times gorgeous, and the darkness of the series is relieved by the author's periodic wit. Still, we are left with the conundrum of the appeal of the central character. I must admit that I was a bit baffled by it, especially in reading this second, but for me, third of this very compelling series.

And then I thought of Odysseus.

Now let me say right out front that at its heart,this is an action series. If you liked Matt Damon in the Jason Bourne movies, then you should be saying your prayers that someone in Hollywood will see the commercial potential of this series. But it remains true that these books are more literary at their roots and so the Odysseus reference seems fair.

Michael Forsythe starts in Belfast, and though this may be a spoiler, ends in Belfast. He does, in effect, live out his own odyssey, and spends his time in various lands with various snares, just as Odysseus does. Although the third book, The Bloomsday Dead, actually models itself on the plan of Joyce's Ulysses, which in turn is also based on The Odyssey, I don't mean to imply that this is a deliberate pattern of the books. But I will say that thinking about the character of Odysseus may prove helpful in thinking about the character of Michael Forsythe. Because the chief word that springs to mind for both characters is "cunning". Not kind, not compassionate, although both characters do at times exhibit these traits, but cunning. Like Odysseus, Michael Forsythe makes survival his highest value. Odysseus does this because he intends to return home, no matter the pain, and no matter the cost. Forsythe never makes this goal plain, even to himself, but in fact, there is a Penelope, though not as Penelope ever imagined herself, and there is even a Telemachus of sorts, though the less I say about that the better.

I believe that Odysseus is a type of human consciousness and Michael Forsythe is a reflection of that type. Although we see Odysseus in a heroic light, Forsythe casts a different sort of light. In a way, he shows the limits of the heroic mold. Odysseus survives by embodying the heroic values of courage, resourcefulness, foresight, and yes, cunning. So does Michael. But in these, our latter times, the ending is not so neat. Michael Forsythe, at the end of the day, is not a Hero, but a human being. And human beings carry within them the history of all their actions--an anti-heroic tale indeed.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

All the Little Live Things, by Wallace Stegner

I have only a few minutes to revive a practice I kind of like which is to put in a word about the book that will shortly be under discussion at tonight's book group. Still let's give it a go.

Wallace Stegner published this book in 1967, and the story of Joe and Ruth Allston, in supposed retreat in what is presumably the Santa Cruz Mountains is a perfect picture of that historical moment, and of that geographical locality. Reminiscent of Andre Dubus II's The House of Sand and Fog, though strictly speaking, chronologically the reverse is true, as a portrait of a small cast of characters engaged in a conflict of types in a very individuated setting, it left me very nostalgic for an era close to me in time but which I was too late to participate in. As in Dubus' book, the conflict between different types of people escalates to logical if possibly greater than life conclusions.

Stegner taught a prestigious writing program at Stanford until shortly before he died, and his son Page taught at my own UC Santa Cruz; and his wife has had some success as a novelist in her own right. It is tempting to search for autobiographical elements, but the book is none the worse if you don't have any of these more personal connections.

To be continued...

...I'd hoped to post the group's responses a little earlier than this, while they were still fresh in my memory, but time has gotten away from me. I'm happy to report that this was the rare book that all our members seemed to enjoy, and probably for roughly the same reasons. The craftsmanship of the novel is very evident without calling attention to itself, and this appealed particularly for whom technical skill is one of the primary considerations. Stegner's gift for rendering setting and making it part of the plot itself was probably the thing we most appreciated as a group, and that is largely because we live in the area just south of where Stegner places it, and its natural elements are second nature to us. In other words, it made us savor our place in time and geography.

We are all old enough to have lived during the sixties, and some to have actually participated in that turbulent era. The fact is that the sixties are very much still alive in Santa Cruz, where we live, and the conflict between the hardened older man and the naive but somewhat arrogant younger one who worms his way into the narrator's life is something we face as a community as much as individually. Many Jim Pecks of our own day have made the downtown streets of Santa Cruz their home, and pose a similar problem for the upstanding citizenry as Jim Peck did for Joe Allston. Collectively, we find them an affront and yet no one quite has the heart or the good enough excuse to kick them off the land, which was Allston's dilemma as well. If I sometimes sense that one 'incident' would be all it would take to send them all packing, this also parallels the novel.

I tried out the point that none of us would probably like the saintly Marian much if we actually had to live with her, but the group didn't really buy that. I'm not sure I buy it myself. In some ways she is a model of what we should be. But it's interesting to note that she was certainly as naive as Jim Peck was, though all her faults are excused and all of his are excoriated. To me she remains to some extent a person whose philosophy not only won out over her own common sense but bent other people to her will as well, against their own best and probably better judgement.

No, I must stand by my own view of things.I probably wouldn't have liked her.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ravens, by George Dawes Green

It took me awhile to track down the title of the classic suspense film that this book got me thinking about, but I finally did. I saw The Desperate Hours more than once on television when I was a kid, and it freaked me out every time. A movie that talks about a suburban family being held hostage in their home in the quiet suburbs is going to have a special existential relevance for a kid growing up in a house in the, well, quiet suburbs. I'm kind of surprised my parents let me watch this, as I apparently wasn't even old enough to recognize Humphrey Bogart as one of the convicts.

George Dawes Green's recent suspense novel Ravens is perhaps more closely related to any number of home invasion movies since then. But I wouldn't know about that, as I still don't gravitate toward movies about hostage families to this day. However,Ravens sucked me right in.

Green's twist on what has now become almost a thriller sub-genre is decidedly his own, though. The villains of this tale, Shaw and Romeo, aren't convicts, but from the start you feel that it's only luck that's kept them out of trouble so far. As they head south on a Florida vacation, an opportunity to change all that is looming up before them.

"Winning the lottery" is usually trumpeted as a piece of great fortune, even though we've all read stories of how the lucky winners have frittered it all away, lost friends, or made false ones due to their changed circumstances. We don't usually think about how that very trumpeting makes them targets, though. And let's just say that after reading Ravens, you will never quite look at Facebook in the same way.

One difference I find between the "Desperate Hours" scenario and that of Ravens is that the Boatwrights are far from the generic, innocents of that 1950s setup. There's plenty of strife in this family before their ill-timed visitors ever cross the over the Georgia state line, and let's just say that winning the lottery was never destined to solve all their problems in the best of circumstances.

The dynamic between the hostage-takers--the charismatic Shaw and the baffled Romeo-- is in some ways the most interesting part of the book. Why does Romeo go along with Shaw in his scheme? Why do any of us ever "just go along" with the plans of those who, bitter experience has shown us, make poorer choices than we ourselves do? And what will happen to Tara, the daughter of the family and the most resourceful of them, who is also drawn by Shaw's charisma (and then some)?

The premise is, of course, in some ways far-fetched. It's not that simple holding a family hostage, especially when you are hiding the fact that you are holding them hostage. The Boatwrights are free to come and go, but psychologically, Shaw keeps everyone on one sort of leash or other. In fact, figuring out how to get others to comply may be as much why he's in it as the money.

It's certainly one of the reasons even someone generally averse to this kind of suspense--like me--is willing to go along for the ride.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fearless Fourteen, by Janet Evanovich

As I began this fourteenth tale of the adventures of Stephanie Plum, inadvertent New Jersey bounty hunter, I wondered a little at my own perseverance through a series that is in some ways all too predictable. But then I realized that the element of predictability in a Stephanie Plum novel is not a fault but one of its charms.

Evanovich sets up what might be called an eternal situation--The Burg, Lula, Ranger vs. Morelli, Grandma Mazur, and so on. Out of this stock context, she elaborates new themes. In this one, we've got griefers, we've got an aging celebrity, we've got a psychic stalker, and we've got a kid who goes by the name of Zook and who really likes to advertise himself.

I don't mean to write a dissertation on what Evanovich does, but I did really pay attention this time rather than just speeding on through, easy though it would have been to do so, because I wondered why her novels continue to jump to the top of my reading pile. Isn't it basically the same story told over and over again?

Yes, in some ways it is, and frankly I do get tired of some of the shtick. Ranger or Morelli--who cares? But Evanovich seems infinitely capable of finding comedy in every new thing that comes along, and if you read individual sentences instead just being swept along in the easy flow of the thing, you will be impressed by her comic perception of life, as well as the way she makes dialogue a servant of her humor.

Comedy looks easy, it almost has to to succeed, but it's not. There are not many people who could have gotten fifteen books worth of humor out of Trenton, New Jersey. (Yeah, there's one I haven't gotten to yet, close reader.)It seems obvious now that Trenton was rife with material. Let's just say that it didn't seem so much so before Evanovich came along. One of the most touching tributes that I ever read about Evanovich was when some on-line friends, I think visiting from another country, shared with wonder their glimpses of Trenton. This is not a conversation you would likely have heard before the advent of Stephanie Plum. Let's hope she's around for a long time to come.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Jar City, by Arnaldur Indridason

In a basement apartment in Reykjavik, an elderly man is found dead. He didn't die in his sleep, and it quickly becomes apparent that he was not nearly as good a person as he might have been. A cryptic note has been left with his body. For quite awhile, we only know that this short note ends with the word 'him'.

The detective in charge, Erlendur, is as mystified by this as we are. Of course, he's got other problems. He's got chest pains that he's not dealing with, and a drug-addicted daughter who shows up at his door. And you wouldn't be wrong to say that he has "anger management" issues, either.

In some ways, Indridason fits very neatly into the incredibly strong wave of Scandinavian writers who've crossed the Atlantic in translation these last few years. The writing is good, the detective is, shall we say, "gloomy", and the plotting very solid. But there are aspects of this story, and indeed of the mystery plot itself that have a definitely Icelandic tincture. I like a mystery that could only be set in one place and nowhere else. It adds to the air of inevitability.

This book was written before Iceland's economic meltdown. I read during that golden era that Reykjavik was supposed to be one of the most desirable cities in the world to live in. (I remember this because it came as something of a surprise.) Indridason didn't paint the city or the country in such glowing terms even then. I can't wait to see what fictional capital he'll make out of the current much more downbeat situation.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Persepolis, Cuban Style

I suppose this is more a follow-up to the last post than a new post proper, but in the midst of the Iran crisis, it has struck me more than once that Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis critique of Iran and Yoani Sanchez's Generation Y dissenting blog from within Cuba are sisters under the skin. Turns out Yoani thinks much the same thing. Check both out if you haven't yet.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi

I've had this on my bookshelf forever, having read and enjoyed Satrapi's Persepolis books ages ago, but for some reason, didn't get around to this one. However, Iran is in the news once again and after reading Adrian McKinty's blog posts here and here, which are a form of literary solidarity with the protesters' position, I noticed a copy of Embroideries in the store and had a sudden impulse to read it.

Let me start out by saying that I love graphic novels. I am so happy to have been reintroduced to the form again after many, many years, as I was never a comic book collector. And lord knows, I've never been hip enough to have caught on to all the great things people were doing with comics until, what, maybe ten years ago?, when everyone else had the same blinding insight.

I know a lot of people who get frustrated with the form--for them, it's over too quickly. But I really just love the marriage of word and image. I think it's one of the great sins of modern publishing that the divorce of these two has been so complete in all 'serious' modern fiction. Illustration is suspect. But for godssake, why? The most we can hope for these days is a decent cover.

I think one of the reasons I was slow to check out this particular Satrapi was that, in some half-conscious way, I thought of it as 'slight'. After the political work of Persepolis, I suppose I thought she was coasting when writing and illustrating this shorter tale of a group of women coming together to 'ventilate their hearts'--ie, gossip and tell tales. And of course, in this I betray my own subtle indoctrination into the idea of the importance of men's business, and the triviality of women's business.

As we read about what to all intents and purposes is an Iranian women's consciousness raising session, it's true that it's possible to feel that the subject matter is a little bit dated. Haven't we all been through this already? Well, yes and no. Perhaps women's predicaments are universal, but the way they are articulated are particular and local. The position of educated Iranian women must be one of the most delicate and excruciating of all. And let me just say that you will never view the word 'embroidery' in exactly the same way again.

Satrapi is sometimes criticized for the apparent artlessness of her images. There is a lot that is very, very simple in her drawing. But her use of the possibilities of the form are far from naive. She uses the space quite dramatically and effectively.

Check it out.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

In keeping with my, well, not tradition, since I've only done it once or twice before and then missed last month entirely, but let's just say premise, I am going to post about our latest book club selection before going to the meeting tonight. Sadly, I have not actually gotten very far with this one, but why let ignominy be an excuse for not writing? Maybe I haven't used the time so wisely, but hey, it's been a busy month.

The Sparrow is what I suppose might be called literary science fiction, maybe more in terms of its apparent aspiration rather than anything inherent in the story itself. We enter the tale after a space mission to reach another form of possibly humanlike life has somehow gone horribly wrong, and its sole survivor, a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz, has now returned to earth, and Rome, both scarred by and judged for the experience. As the book unfolds, we are taken into the backstory of this fateful mission, in which a small handful of people are driven by a seeming destiny to set forth together on it. Whether the hand of God is in it is an open question.

This book was published in 1996 and it made a big splash in certain circles at the time. A lot of our staff members read and recommended it, so I have been interested in its appeal for awhile now. I confess to being a little surprised that such a seemingly God-driven book, though hardly pious and definitely not orthodox, would have captured the interest of what by and large is a pretty secular demographic. I also find the date of the space launch, which involves light speed, a bit disconcerting, because by 2021, it has apparently been figured out and is available for use. The world has moved a long distance since 1996, but not, so far as I know, in this direction. There's no real harm done, but since all the chapters are dated, you can't help contrasting our reality to the book's a lot. It's a bit jarring.

So far, I am finding the story interesting enough, but perhaps a bit too leisurely. There is this foreboding about what really happened out there, but it hasn't yet become my foreboding, if you see the difference. I'm on about page 143 and they are only just now launching off into space. This is what I mean by sci-fi aspiring to be literary. In real genre fiction, the author would feel an obligation to get on with it.

Unfortunately for me, there will undoubtedly be some spoilers tonight about all that goes wrong, and though I'm planning to keep on with it, it will be interesting to see if in fact I still want to after what others say.

I should emphasize that this is not as far as I can tell any kind of Christian tract. Of course, I suppose a lot depends on the outcome...

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Fifty Grand, by Adrian Mckinty--a limerick synopsis

Said the Cuban detective Mercado
On a trip up to high Colorado,
"A hit-and-run cad
Has knocked off my dad--
To avenge him estoy obligado! "

(Yes, I will now move on to other titles...)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

10 Good Reasons to buy Adrian McKinty's Fifty Grand

Adrian McKinty's latest book, featuring a Cuban detective named Mercado who has come to Colorado on a single-minded mission, is coming out on April 28th. Here are a few reasons to plunk down your hard earned dollars for it.

1.You’re a fan of high octane, action-driven, well-plotted suspense novels that pull no punches.

2.You’re a huge fan of McKinty’s earlier novels and have been marking off the days on your calendar until you can get his next one.

3.You’d like to be a fan of McKinty’s earlier novels, but seeing as for some reason they’re not all in print, you’re willing to start with one you can actually get.

4.You don’t know much about Cuba, but wouldn’t mind learning a little if it was presented in entertaining tidbits.

5.You know a lot about Cuba, but are always interested in intelligent commentary from someone who’s been there, whether or not they agree with you. (Okay--this description corresponds to pretty much nobody. I'm still leaving it in.)

6.You’re going to Cuba now that the restrictions have been lifted and need a page turner to read on the plane.

7.You love well-crafted fiction with the occasional lyric passage.(Yeah, yeah--I can live in hope that this is going to persuade anyone, can't I?)

8.You are a starlet just making your way in the world, and, having been invited to the Colorado resort scene for the weekend by a minor celebrity, would like some tips on how best to fit in.

9.You are intent upon revenge and would like some ideas for the best way to go about planning it.(Starlet, this reason might be for you, too--post-weekend.)

10.You have this thing for hot, Latina maids.

I deplore the last two reasons, of course, but if it means you are going to go out and buy the book, well, who am I to stop you? I mean, heaven knows, I'm no Detective Mercado.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Dust Tracks On a Road, by Zora Neale Hurston

I'll start off by saying that Their Eyes Were Watching God by Ms. Hurston was a mind-blowing experience for me when I read it some years ago. I think it's a one off--not just in terms of Hurston's own works but in terms of all literary works anywhere. I have the deepest, most abiding respect for writers who not only know their material when they see it, but know what to do with it. No one else on earth could have written Their Eyes.... That was Zora's vocation. I have this kind of idea that writers who manage what she did with this book have reserved themselves a special place in heaven. Whether I believe in heaven or not is another matter.

Dust Tracks On a Road is not its peer. I cannot imagine how a memoir written by an imaginative writer really could be. Making this up as I go along, though with very little basis in fact whatsoever, I'd say that fiction writers resolve their pasts a little differently than memoirists--getting bogged down in 'mere facts' leads to trouble for them. Hurston's story is interesting enough as she describes the unique place where she was born--an all-black community in Florida--and the reasons that compel her to leave it behind her. But there are many moments in which she is not entirely candid with us--a strategy that probably had good reason to it at the time. However, this makes for a somewhat deceptive account of her adult life, and what is worse, in terms of the tale itself, it gets flatter and less insightful the further along she goes. My feeling about it, and about much autobiography quite frankly, is that the long ago past has been analyzed and distilled effectively, but the more recent past has not, and either can't or won't be.

I am not really trying to dissuade anyone from reading this book. It is lively and entertaining, and I doubt you'll be bored. But if you really want to find the voice of Zora, don't waste time. Go straight to Their Eyes Were Watching God and dive right in.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Kidnapped--The Limerick Reprise

For a reason that cannot now be reconstructed, I was discussing limericks about books with a friend who has a fondness for the form. We agreed to do one apiece. Life has been a little hairy for her of late, but not so much for me. Accordingly, I did one on the last book I had actually finished:

There once was a nice lad named Davie
Whose uncle would have him a slave be
But after high seas and Highlands
And desolate islands,
In the end, Davie's life was all gravy.

True, it doesn't begin to capture the friendship with Alan Breck Stewart, which is sort of the main point of the book in my opinion, but we do what we can. Also there are spoiler elements, but I think they are forgettable.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

I thought I would continue with last month's experiment of posting a brief well, not review, exactly, but more meandering rumination on the book I'll be discussing with my book group shortly. One of the pitfalls of book groups is that the consensus opinion of something may not shift your point of view, but it may profoundly color your unfiltered reaction.

As for tonight's book, Kidnapped,the two members reactions that I've heard so far make me think this may be a tough sell. One said that she was maybe just not in the right mood for buccaneering--which means she's still pretty early in the story as buccaneering isn't really the focus of the book for long. Actually, I don't know if technically there is any real buccaneering going on, but that's because I realize that I don't really know what a buccaneer is...

Another member said he found it depressing. Depressing? I asked, because frankly that response surprised me. But he said that the number of traps and perils our hero David Balfour falls into are so unrelenting that he didn't understand why David didn't just give up and end it all at some point.

Well, it's a point of view, and frankly, it's the path that I might have considered strongly myself. But in a way, I think that this is because, unlike so many of our action adventure stories today, which probably sport at least the same number of dangers, this book makes the costs seem physically, emotionally and spiritually real.

There are two story structures that have come to mind a few times as I read this book. One is the fairy tale. Not in the sense that this is fantasy, but in following a fairytale motif. In the beginning, David leaves his home and sets out on the road, little knowing where he is going, but eager to see a bit more of the world now that his parents have died. He immediately comes across an old friend of the family, who not only gives him three gifts, a classic fairytale motif, but also a letter that he is to carry somewhere to seek his fortune. He is told that he not the lowly swineherd (figuratively) that he thought he was at all, but in fact a member of a great house.

It's interesting to me, having reached the end of the book (and I promise to give nothing away that's worth saving, unlike Stevenson himself, who apparently gave away several major plot points in the subtitle) it is all really a simple trajectory of a young man seeking his rightful portion and how that all resolves. But there is a sense that the detour that his adventures represent also test his worthiness to be the recipient of that fortune. An inherited right also becomes an earned right, and the ordeals he goes through are again of a sort of mythic nature to reveal the one true king or whatever.

I've also kept thinking that this would make a great computer game. Not like one of those multiplayer games, but something simpler, like Pokemon on Gameboy, which, due to my nephew's childhood is the only one I really know anything about. You would by default be David Balfour and each level would be the next level he has to endure. It might even be good for literacy, as Kidnappedthe book could be a kind of cheat sheet for Kidnapped the game.

Of course these structures leave so much out. You could play the game and even learn to master it quickly and still not have the experience that we have of being with David Balfour as he leaves 'the comfort zone' and sets off on ever widening and ever more difficult adventures.

The thing that you could not hope to replicate in a computer game is his friendship with Alan Breck Stewart. It's interesting that Stevenson chose this historical person to befriend his entirely fictional David. And it is so interesting to watch what begins as relationship of braggadocio on Alan's part and bemusement on David's turn into something much more real and lasting.

I think what my friend got wrong in finding it so depressing,and what I too get wrong in thinking about it as a game, is that we're seeing this as just an endless series of ordeals, to no real purpose. But the ordeals reveal the character of the two men to each other, which binds them to each other in a real and not merely 'code of honor' sort of stylized way. The point of the book is not really the rightful inheritance at all, and because of that it has a curiously anti-climactic ending, which is apt, but not conventional.

Well, headed out now to see what other reactions there were. And will report on them if they're interesting.

Thanks to Adrian McKinty for suggesting this reread. The truth is, I never really care what the others think of the books I recommend us trying. It's just an incentive for me to get around to them myself.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Friends in High Places--a mystery by Donna Leon

Sometimes, in the case of a long running series, it can be intimidating to make a beginning. The Venetian mysteries of Donna Leon, featuring Detective Guido Brunetti, have been recommended to me for years and years, by more people than I care to say. But I could never get into what I think is the first one, A Death at La Fenice, so didn't start them. I was like a horse that balked time and again at the same jump.(Sorry--I was watching National Velvet with my four-year-old friend the other night, and I expect this is going to creep into my metaphors.)

A week or so ago, I happened to open a mystery that had been sitting on my desk at work for longer than I care to say. (If I tell you that I would have no problem admitting that it had been sitting there for a year, you may begin to have some sense of the layers of time we're talking about here.) It was the abovementioned Friends in High Places, and it begins with Detective Brunetti in his study, reading Xenophon as he lounges on the couch while he waits for his wife to come home with soft-shelled crabs for lunch. Apparently this image was all it took to woo me, even though I'm not a man, have never read Xenophon, and if I wait for a wife to come home with lunch fixings, I wait in vain. It doesn't matter--I share a similar enough vision of Edenic bliss for this to work for me.

Of course, being a mystery, this bliss is abruptly shattered by the arrival of a young man from the Ufficio Ustato, a bureaucrat named Rossi who has arrived to inform Brunetti of a slight problem, namely that, ahem, his apartment does not exist.

And that's all I'm going to tell you about the plot. Here's what I think is masterful about the book, though. Within a few pages, and despite Brunetti's astonishment and irritation, we get a feel for the quiet, earnest and yet essentially decent Rossi, which lends a kind of dignity or gravity to all that happens after. The title, too, has many 'levels', which is an unintentional pun on my part. Leon's pun, on the other hand, is relevant to the themes of the book as a whole. She gives, as I expect is her trademark, a penetrating dissection of Venetian society, not wholly favorable by any means. It perhaps is slightly askew from our normal tourist's perception of the city, yet not far off from Rebecca West's analysis of it in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, in which, many years ago, she described it as a city of traders and diplomats and dealmakers--beautiful but flawed by corruption.

I am already on to another, A Noble Radiance, and of course, as is the way with all good mystery series, I want to read them all. I'm sure that, given the time, I'll even read the one I couldn't manage to begin.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Holden Caufield, Revisited

For anyone looking to relive their high school or college days, I recommend that they join a book group, if they haven't done so already. It's a surefire cure for nostalgia. Not because I hate book groups--I don't. What I hate, and what I hated in my more academic life, was assigned reading. Yet once a month, I put myself through this required reading stuff. The pressure doesn't come from my group. I live in Santa Cruz, California after all, where any kind of requirement would feel too heavy. But the fact remains that I don't exactly feel right about showing up on a Tuesday night without having finished the book. Which has resulted in a lot of last day swatting up of the text over the years. I haven't quite gotten to the 'all nighter' phase ever. But my back end loading of the book selection makes me quite sure that I am not ready even now to go back to college for enrichment, career advancement, or anything else.

This month's selection is Catcher in the Rye, the famous J.D. Salinger work. I think all of us who are meeting tonight read this book 'back in the day', but in a way, I'm surprised by that, because I did not read this as required high school reading. It seems to be now, though. From my (very) slightly insider point of view as a bookseller, I know that the publisher, Hachette, formerly Warner, banks heavily on some kind of course book adoption of Salinger's books. Frankly, I can't think why. I mean, that I can't understand this book being taught in high schools. Not because it isn't brilliant. It is. But it is so antithetical to the high school experience, so in protest of it really, that I doubt very much that a high school classroom is the proper forum for this work. I don't doubt that teenagers can get quite a bit from it. I just think that discovering it on their own would make it much more resonant than it will be force fed to them.

As for the rereading--one thing that stands out to me is what a New York, specifically Manhattan, book this is. I realized that the first time I read this I had never been to Manhattan, and had no real conception of it, so I glossed over many of the details. I don't know that the details are so important to the message of it, but it stands out all over the place, once it is part of your mental geography.

I had expected that Caufield would appear a lot more strident to me now than he did back then. But he remains a pretty sympathetic, if somewhat deranged narrator. Many of the 'types' he runs across have more resonance to me now than they did on initial reading. I suspect that I didn't have quite enough experience of the human pool to see the accuracy of Salinger's skewering. I don't think most of Holden's expose of phoniness can really be refuted. And yet, he himself refutes total condemnation of anyone many a time.

I'm planning to report back here on what the book group thought of this reread.

One question I have, which of course must remain unanswered. What would have happened to Holden Caulfield? I wish Salinger would write a novel about the grown up Holden. And I would hope that he would not take the too easy route of making Caufield "a phony".

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Private Patient by P.D. James

There are some books that leap to the top of the pile when they arrive at my door. They aren't necessarily the best books. But there is something so compulsive about reading them that the usual quandaries I have about what should take precedence, and how I'm ever going to get around to such and such evaporate around certain titles, and I find that somehow there is time, ample time for me to read them whenever they appear.

The work of P.D. James is a case in point. I have just read her latest and, limited by honor not to give away too much of the plot, I find myself wondering why and how I have managed to read almost all her books over the years, and watched the PBS/BBC dramatizations too.

It isn't that I think that she is the greatest mystery writer qua mystery writer of all time. In fact, I don't usually care all that much about the mystery aspect of her books, although of course I find the way it drives the story along entertaining. But I tend to find the actual resolutions of her stories a tad disappointing. At least, I don't find them thrilling or 'fiendishly clever' or any of the usual descriptive things that usually pump up sales.

In fact, as I peel away at the onion, it becomes less certain what it is I do like about the books. The characters, i.e., the suspects, but sometimes the crime solvers too, are rendered in a cold and definitely unflattering light. They are almost always either unlikable people, or likable people who are for all intents and purposes idiots.

You might think it's the great detective himself, then, our Adam Dalgleish, who is so riveting. Perhaps once. But now I find him slightly tedious--his strains, his age, and especially his love life. A long time ago James wrote An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and it was clear to her fan base that Cordelia Grey was the right woman for the great detective. Dame James thought not. The dilemma of love, marriage, and all the attendant responsibilities that Dalgleish preoccupies himself with over his new love Emma in the more recent books is tedious and at times downright boring. I may be wrong--perhaps there is some contingent of Dalgleish worshippers who have just been pining for him to find the right woman and settle down. It seems unlikely.

So why the hell do I read these books, you ask? Okay, I ask. And I think the answer is, because of the beauty with which they unfold. Her books are aesthetically satisfying, even if emotionally, well, maybe not so much.

This book, and it's taken me a long time to even get to an aside about its details, has to do with the murder of an investigative reporter who has gone to a country facility to have an old scar removed. You will no that she's the victim early on, yet even she is given an inner life and compulsion. What James is so good at is in investing us all with the sense that this place, Cheverall Manor, has a life. As time after time she has done with similar settings in the past, she builds it up from the ground, first the physical architecture, but then the daily structure, the routine of such a place as well. You sense that she is meticulous in plotting all this--you are not going to catch her out on the floorplan--physical, emotional, spiritual of any of her books. It seems that if you could somehow walk into the world that James has invented, you would not come to an edge where there were gray bits, where the reality of it suddenly stopped.

And yet, for all that, there remain mysteries.On the way to her first visit to Cheverell Manor, Rhoda Gradwyn, designated murder victim, gets overwhelmed by a storm, and has to stop, sitting in her car till the rain subsides. The sequence that follows is about her past, her inner life, her reasons for having an old scar removed. None of that has much to do with her life as an investigative reporter-- which is the part of her life that may have something to do with her death.

Early on, she tells the surgeon who will do the necessary cosmetic work that she is having the scar removed now, because she no longer has need of it. What this means exactly, I, at least, never figured out. But it does remind you rather poignantly that this character did not in fact go to a country clinic to be a convenient plot device in a murder investigation. She went as someone involved in her own story, who wanted only to be healed.