Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hidden Moon, an Inspector O mystery by James Church

The second in Church's Inspector O series. Although it's not a plot spoiler, very far along in this book I've found a key passage that I think explains Inspector O and Church's own stance on the fate of the people of North Korea. You can wait and read it in the book or read it here. It's not something it will hurt to read twice:

"This isn't about you, Inspector, it's about something bigger. The future of your country. Your people's future."

"You have no idea what you're talking about, do you? You're just reciting some crap they told you at a briefing. My country's future?  Forgive me... I don't know anything that flourishes when it's watered with blood. Let's not float away on visions of the future. Your man, whoever he is and whatever he's done, is not my problem. Am I clear? If you have a bone to pick with him, take care of it yourself, on your own turf. What happens here is not yours to worry about. It's for us, it's our business, our future, our fate."

"Surely you don't believe that."

"Don't tell me what I believe. I live here, you don't." 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Things Found in Books

Not quite done enough with anything to write it up, but in the meantime, how about  this cool site about things found in library books?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Freedom--the limerick reprise (Spoilerish)

There once was a nice guy named Walter
Who got a sweet girl to the altar.
When she fell for his friend
He went right round the bend,
In the end, though, Walt's love did not falter. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem

I've been told to read Motherless Brooklyn for awhile now. I'd read a couple of Lethem's books before--first Girl in Landscape, which is a literary scifi novel about a girl who's family moves to another planet and finds itself living alongside an alien life form, and Fortress of Solitude, an almost mainstream novel about growing up very near the color line in Brooklyn, with the added benefit of superhero powers.
Both were enjoyable, but this is my favorite Lethem so far. Lionel Essrog (and by the end of this book, you'll have a hard time forgetting this name too) is an orphan who grows up under the somewhat indifferent auspices of the St. Vincent Home for Boys. He's got a bigger problem than being an orphan, though. He's got Tourette's Syndrome and not a mild case.

As the story opens, he and another St. Vincent "graduate" are involved in a stakeout, in which they have their boss, Frank Minna wired. Minna has been the father they and the two other "Minna Men" never had, and if he isn't the ideal father figure, it's not like any of them have ever had any better options. Frank is a small time gangster and things do not go so well for him. This leads Lionel on a quest to find out what happened to him, which involves him with a Zendo and a fabulous Park Avenue apartment building, of whom someone tells Lionel, "These people are so rich, their other home is an island."

Lionel, despite or maybe because of his Tourettic mind, does eventually piece it all together. He does, after all, work in a detective agency/taxi company, even if the standard answer to the request for cabs is "No cars."

Lethem, as is his wont, is paying homage to a genre convention here, in this case the classic detective novel, with, if the text is any evidence, particular honors paid to Ross MacDonald. If my book group is any indication, the detective aspect maybe is wrapped up a trace abruptly. As a reader of the genre, though, I have often found that the wrapping up doesn't live up to the build up and you kind of have to live with that.

What's fascinating about the book, of course, is the character of Lionel. His first person account of what it's like to live with a Tourettic brain wins us over completely. It's a brilliant stroke to talk about his situation constantly, but always in the shadow of having to solve a "normal", if  not perhaps everyday problem. We empathize into this situation rather than sympathizing from a condescending distance. He's just a guy who's trying to figure out the hand he's been dealt, which happens to include a few, uh, tics.

I don't know if Lethem has succeeded in mimicking Tourettic speech or not. I assume that it was at least his attempt. The book is filled with a nonsensical-yet intriguing "word salad". I really don't know how he wrote it, but it's good. In fact, it reminds me a bit of Joyce. As maybe one or two readers here know, I am involved in a Finnegans Wake group, and at times, I saw a strong resemblance between Joyce's wordplay and Lethem's. Was Joyce Tourettic? I doubt it. Would he feel a strong sense of recognition if he came across someone with the syndrome? I don't know, but I'd like to think he would.  

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Luka and the Fire of Life, by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie's Luka and the Fire of Life - Book Trailer from Syrie Moskowitz on Vimeo.

Our Random House sales rep mentioned this trailer, so of course I had to seek it out...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Nine Dragons, by Michael Connelly

I hadn't read Connelly for awhile. Not that I had anything to complain about--I've always liked him. But as with any successful and fairly prolific writer you can tend to fall behind. Reviewing a book like this one has its challenges. Despite the fact that I know you can pick up plot descriptions practically anywhere, I really think this book works best when you pick it up without preconception and enter into its journey. So can I just say pick it up and start reading?

Well, its my blog. I guess I can.

What I will say here is that Connelly is a master of this form. He's got Harry Bosch picking up what seems to be a pretty standard hold up murder. He then takes this story at an absolutely relentless pace to places that follow logically but are very far afield from this South L.A. beginning. More incredibly, he weaves it all back.

Even that is probably saying too much. I'll stop.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Book Blog Holiday Swap

I just learned of this gift exchange program through the blog Page 247.
I may be fudging it a bit, because I don't think I've had eight posts here in the last two months, but it is an ongoing concern, and all the reviews and shelf talkers I write for the bookstore I work at should count for something. Anyway, this seems like a fun challenge to find something someone will really like.

Wanna try it too? Go here by November 14th. (In other words, don't dilly dally). And happy book swapping.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Corpse in the Koryo, by James Church

(Updated to say that I am happy to report that despite my own problems obtaining a copy a few weeks ago, A Corpse in the Koryo now seems to be readily available. Grab one while it's easy to get. These days, you never know.)

I don't know how it is for other people who work in bookstores. Sometimes it seems to me that they always read everything they plan to read in a timely way, and can recommend new titles in their chosen areas of interest with ease. I imagine that they get off work, grab a quick snack and then go home and plow through a couple hundred pages before the evening is over.

For me, it's more hit and miss. I know about a lot more books that I'd like to read than I am ever going to get around to, and although that's not necessarily a wholly bad thing, being a bookseller adds an extra pang to it. Here's an example of why.

I noticed James Church's first novel, A Corpse in the Koryo, as soon as it came in in paperback. It had a distinctive cover, and I saw that it was set in Korea. I don't think I noticed that it was about North Korea. Somehow, I got it into my head that this was one of those travelogue mysteries that can be quite fun to read from time to time, but really are in a way a form of cozy. So it fell down the "so many books, so little time" list. It wasn't until I saw an article on Slate about the series that I realized that these books were likely to be one of the more penetrating looks into North Korea that we are likely to have in the fictional world for awhile. After looking at the article, I thought, great, I'll read the first one and if I like it, I'll get some in for the store and start selling it.

Unfortunately, this was not to be. The book had become unavailable through the usual channels and I had to get it from a used book dealer. What's upsetting about this is that as the fourth Inspector O novel, The Man With the Baltic Stare,  comes out, the first in the series is not readily available to people. As any mystery reader knows, this matters in a series. (A commenter has since posted in to say that they found it on Minotaur's website, so please try that, if you are interested in the book) 

In case you think this is a fault of the first book, it isn't. Church (which is a psuedonym used by a former western intelligence officer) comes out of the gate strong. He's got a great character in Inspector O, and he conveys his setting beautifully. The mystery is well-plotted, and the pieces all come together. All that was missing was the publicity team that might have gotten it out there in a substantial way.

What was personally most important to me, though, was the shattering of my own images. We've all seen the perfectly choreographed mass displays and the stories of detentions of outsiders. Naively, I've assumed that the people have simply been brainwashed and know no other way. What Church is asserting is that this is far from the case, and that the North Koreans live under a totalitarian regime in much the same way you and I would live under that regime if we were so unfortunate as to have to do so. We would avoid what we could, endure what we couldn't and live an inner life that was, pardon the stereotype, inscrutable. If you want to know something of that inner life, read one of the beautiful poem fragments that Church starts his sections with. Here's one:

At dawn, the hills wake from the mist, 
One row, then another,
Beyond is loneliness
Endless as the distant peaks.

-O Sung Hui (1327-1358) 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Freedom Redux

Nice interview clip from Franzen.
And while we're on it, here's a review of the book I really liked.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Sea, by John Banville

It's been awhile since I've done one of these pre-bookgroup, post-bookgroup reviews. That's because, for various reasons I haven't been to the group in awhile. But this month I read the book and am going to the meeting.

I've read a couple of other Banville novels, as well as an interview with him. He is talked about on one or two of the blogs I read, though most often in his alterego persona of Benjamin Black, the name under which he writes his crime novels. Although it's simplifying things a bit, crime novelists seem to be a bit put out by his condescension about their genre. On the other hand, he does seem to continue to enjoy writing these books, so possibly for him it's just a matter of putting on different writerly hats.

I'm very curious what the other members of my book group will have to say about this one. As in the last one I read, Eclipse, I find his prose style to be excellent but his storytelling a bit too removed and rarified for the likes of me. "Exquisite" is the word that comes to mind, with the full range of its connotations.

The Sea is a story about grief and loss, and having recently experienced the death of my mother, obviously such subjects would be interesting to me. The main grief, or the most obvious one that  Max Morden character is experiencing is the recent loss of his wife to cancer. The narrator is obviously grieving deeply, but his detachment in telling of it never really let me in to the experience. He does give some hint of who his wife was, but there is oddly little about the experience of being married before the onset of illness, though this  final stage is described acutely.

The real subject of the book, and where all the narrative interest lies, is a family Max became involved with as a child on a seaside holiday. They belong to a different, higher social stratum than his family, and he is early fascinated by them. They are, in fact, odd and fascinating, though not what you would call likeable. The father is a kind of satyr, the mother an earth goddess, the twins oddly alienlike, and then there is the enigmatic Rose, who appears to be some kind of governess.

Unfortunately for me, this all felt a bit too much like an indie movie that I had seen one or two times before. I don't know that this is really fair to the book, and obviously it didn't mar the experience of the judges for the Man Booker prize, as they awarded Banville it in 2005.

I have to say that his early book  Kepler, which was a biographical novel about the early German astronomer, was much more interesting to me when I read it some years ago. It seems to me that Banville's aesthetic impulse is to grow quieter and quieter and more detached. It will be interesting to see tonight if this is more congenial to others than it was to me.        

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Mindjacker, by Sean Patrick Reardon

One thing should probably be stated from the get go. Mr. Reardon is a 'virtual' friend of mine, and I won this particular book by winning a contest on his blog. Furthermore,  my particular demographic is not the target audience for this book, as the author states himself in a recent interview:

"The audience I had in mind when I wrote it would be adults around ages of thirty to fifty, who enjoy pop culture and may not be avid readers. I think it is a known fact that men are not reading much overall. I wanted to write a story that a guy could read in a few sessions, be entertained, and maybe decide to start reading some of the great crime fiction that is out there today."

So let's start from the point that I think this is an absolutely terrific goal, and one that this book meets. If Mindjacker can be seen as a gateway drug to the world of fiction, then I think it's entirely successful.

But this begs the question a bit. What does Mindjacker have for me, not a man, and who am an avid reader? A lot of fun, that's what, though I may not have read the book exactly as the author had in mind.

I'd describe Mindjacker as "Swingers meets Michael Crichton" (in his sci fi thriller mode). There's a diabolical mastermind--a guy who the story says should have cut off his ponytail a long time ago (a sentiment I could relate to, particularly in the town I live in)--a device that messes with people's mind (literally), but more than that there are a bunch of guys wandering around trying to get ahead of this situation, but mostly meeting up, making friends, comparing their take on music and having a pretty damn good time fighting evil, flying around the country, and saving the day. Even though women are a bit in short supply in this story, the women who are there come across pretty well, though one or two may come to, uh, tragic ends.

Music is important to the author and it plays an important role in the book. If you are more playlist oriented than I am you will probably have fun checking out this post. I mean, I had fun checking it out, but I am not adept enough to have it playing while I was reading.

Sean Patrick Reardon says the  book he is working on is provisionally called "Sissy Murphy". Good title, and I'm looking forward to the results. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

This is simply a gorgeous book. I'm not actually a huge fan of the historical novel in general, as I find it something of a strain separating fact from fiction in them, but occasionally I read one that, as a friend recently said of this one, seems to be channeled.

I'm also not a huge devotee of the Tudor historical industry that others find endlessly fascinating. I watched "The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth" and then Glenda Jackson's "Elizabeth R." way back in my youth, and thought that was enough to be getting on with.

However, it turns out I was wrong. Turns out that I really did want to wade through five hundred plus pages on Thomas Cromwell, which is not even the whole life. Who knew? I mean, before I started this book, I thought Thomas Cromwell and Oliver Cromwell were the same person. (I guess I wasn't watching the TV series all that closely...)

The reason I wanted to read this book, the reason it won the Booker Prize last year, the reason more than one person has told me they want to live in its world (and this is the England of deathly fever and death of heretics by burning, remember, so that's saying something), is because of the beauty of the language and i's extraordinary, luminous style, and perhaps, above all because of Mantel's empathy toward her  subjects, and her greathearted compassion.

It does not give much away to say that this book begins with Cromwell's boyhood as a blacksmith's son and charts his rise to being the confidante of Henry Tudor himself, precisely when he is embroiled in the affair of trying to oust his first queen and replace her with Anne Boleyn.  Cromwell always saw what needed to be done, and did it. In Mantel's view, this did not make him ruthless, it made reasonable--and one of the few such around.

I expect few will love Thomas Cromwell as they start this book. I expect few will fail to at the other end.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Arctic Chill, by Arnaldur Indriðason

Looking back through my blog posts here, I'm surprised to see that I haven't written up anything on Icelandic crime writer Arnaldur Indriðason yet. This is the fourth book of his I've read, although fifth in the Detective Erlendur series as far as the ones that have reached America go. Oddly, the first two books in the series have not been published in the U.S. (I'm kind of baffled by how frequently books in translation reach us in the wrong sequence--it's okay with 'regular' novels, but it doesn't make much sense with series.)

Arctic Chill is the story of a murder investigation into the death of a young boy of Thai descent who is found frozen in the snow outside an apartment block. Arnuldur (last names aren't really used in Iceland, which is lucky for me, because his patronymic Indriðason is one I must resort to cut and paste to print) uses this situation to examine many different kinds of attitudes toward the steadily growing foreign population that has come to what previously has been a very insular, one race culture. I expect that in the time since this book was written many of the guest workers have gone home. But as this book makes clear, even when things don't work out, there are wives left stranded in the wrong hemisphere, children of one culture born in the homeland of another, and people caught between two worlds, who can't negotiate the gap. And I do have to say that all the way through the book, I felt a kind of shivering pity for all these Southeast Asian people having to endure a world of winter and snow. 

I liked this outing, though it wasn't my favorite. Part of this was probably due to a fairly clumsy and confusing translation, which I have since heard was due to the death of original translator Bernard Scudder midprocess and the attempt to finish the project by someone else. But I think some of it was just due to the fact that we have less of Erlendur and his doleful family drama than in the others. Erlendur left his wife with two young children early on, and due to the bitterness of that separation he lost contact with his children. They in turn have not fared so well without him. One of the continuing strengths of the series is the strained and in some cases terrible relation between Erlendur and his drug using daughter Eva Lind. The kind of hopeless yet somehow hopeful connection between them seems very real, and one of the uses of series books is that situations like this can go on without being resolved neatly at the end.

As a child Erlendur lost his little brother in a terrible snow storm. He was not at fault, but still feels perpetually guilty. How a tragic event can shape the life of a survivor, and how that in turn affects the lives of all who try to connect with him is also one the continuing themes Arnuldur explores in an aching, understated way.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is probably the big book of the fall, for more than one reason. For one thing it's a Very Big Deal in the publishing world, which has its own mysterious laws. For another, it's just a big book physically, at well over five hundred pages. And it's also big in its ambitions and ideas.

I've read it, but I'm not going to review it here. Partly it's because I don't feel quite up to the task, and partly because this book really doesn't need any further help from me. Of the several things I've read about it so far, I think this New York Times Book Review piece by Sam Tanenhaus was the most helpful, though I'd recommend reading it after you read the book rather than before.

Personally, I would and will read anything Jonathan Franzen cares to write, just to make my own position clear.

I thought instead of a book review, I'd mention something funny that happened a couple of nights after I finished the book. I was watching a performance on PBS and one of the characters gleefully said "Freedom for everyone!"

What's not to like, right?

Well... that character was Don Giovanni, surely one of the archetypal villains and libertines of Western Civilization. And as a matter of fact, there is a Don Giovanni type in Franzen's book, in the character of Richard Katz, punk rock star and seducer, though by no means as black and white or one dimensional a character as the Don. In any case, this particular vision of freedom is one of the many types that Freedom is written to illustrate and explore, so I watched the rest of the opera looking for parallels.

During an intermission, there was a brief interview with the conductor, Donald Runnicles. He said that at the end of the opera when Don Giovanni has met his just fate, it's interesting to see that the other characters are left with a kind of blank space or vacuum in their lives. And it's certainly true that Freedom would have been the poorer without Giovanni's latter day avatar. What this says about demonic energy, I really don't know.

Read the book.   

(The cartoon, by the way, is from a site called Head Injury

Sunday, August 22, 2010

It's a...trailer

I'm frankly not sure if this is the way to promote this or not. Yesterday our terrific children's book buyer at Bookshop Santa Cruz pressed this new book by Lane Smith upon me and I immediately pressed it upon a couple more of my coworkers. So I thought I'd go on and recommend it here too, thinking I wouldn't have much more to show than the cover image. However, Macmillan has made this cartoon of it available which gives some sense of the substance. Perhaps it undermines the central point, though, which is that a book is a book and not something else. I have to admit that I heard different voices in my head when I read it to myself, and you might want to go that route too. However, I offer you the choice...

Friday, August 13, 2010

Theroux on luxury

Although I have actually finished a very enjoyable book since my last post (Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane) the fact that it's not only a galley but an uncorrected proof leads me to decide not to quote from it just yet (it's good, though!). Instead, I will revert to my brief posts from other books I'm wending my way through more slowly. Today, it is Paul Theroux's Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, in which he revisits a trip he made some 33 years earlier in The Great Railway Bazaar. I always like Theroux, though he is probably the most curmudgeonly author I've read that still manages to retain my affection. What's great about this book is not only that it's done in the inimitable Theroux style, but it allows him to reflect on half a lifetime of such escapades and their meanings. Here's a brief bit on finding himself riding the Orient-Express--not the  famous Orient-Express we'd expect, but another of the same name on a neighboring track. Of the first he says:

"It was not my train because, one, it was too expensive: it would cost me around $9,000, one way, from Paris to Istanbul. Reason two: Luxury is the enemy of observation, a costly indulgence that induces such a good feeling that you notice nothing. Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world. That is its purpose, the reason why luxury cruises and the great hotels are full of fatheads who, when they express an opinion, seems as though they are from another planet. It was also my experience that one of the worst aspects of traveling with wealthy people, apart from the fact that the rich never listen, is that they constantly groused about the high cost of living--indeed, the rich usually complained of being poor." 

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Henry Miller on Water

Due both to some assigned reading and my own highly distractable nature, I am in the middle of quite a few books and not at the end of any of them. In the meantime, I thought I'd post an impression or two. Today's comes from Henry Miller's The Colossus of Maroussi.

Perhaps I came to Miller from the wrong angle in the past--namely some passages about him in the diary of Anais Nin--but I have never had a keen desire to read him. So it's somewhat inexplicable that I suddenly decided to pick up this book about his visit to Greece just as the Second World War is about to break everything to pieces. I don't know what I was expecting exactly, but certainly not this piece about his late night stroll in the park during a heat wave on his first night in Athens:

I sauntered slowly through the park towards the Temple of Jupiter. There were little tables along the dusty paths set out in an absent-minded way: couples were sitting there quietly in the dark, talking in low voices, over glasses of water. The glass of water... everywhere I saw the glass of water. It became obsessional. I began to think of water as a new thing, a new vital element of life. Earth, air, fire, water. Right now water had become the cardinal element. Seeing lovers sitting there in the dark drinking water, sitting there in peace and quiet and talking in low tones, gave me a wonderful feeling about the Greek character. The dust, the heat, the poverty, the bareness, the containedness of the people, and the water everywhere in little tumblers standing between the quiet, peaceful couples, gave me the feeling that there was something holy about this place, something nourishing and sustaining.   


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Zora's films

Although even to me it seems as though I'm bouncing back and forth between Irish crime authors, To Kill a Mockingbird and Zora Neale Hurston, I'm not going to break the trend just yet. Thanks to the new blog from the Library of America, I've learned about this very nice  release of some of her field work films. It's implied rather than stated that this is her voice, but having heard her sing a few other songs, I'm pretty sure it is. I love this.

Zora's films

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird, community style

These days, it takes a bit to drag me back to Bookshop Santa Cruz on my day off (it's kind of  a busman's holiday for me), but the fiftieth anniversary of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird tilted the balance. We have a monthly community book group facilitated by Julie Minnis, and though these groups have grown in size and popularity since inception, last night's draw of over 150 people was definitely a record.  Judge Ariadne Symons and public defender Larry Biggams graciously agreed to not only come and be part of the discussion but to read from the closing arguments of the trial scene. Symons said that she'd realized in the course of a reread that there was actually no place for her as a lawyer and a woman judge in the book. I suppose she could have played Scout, but she elected to come in the persona of Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch. She encouraged Biggam to do the same, but he advised her that he 'didn't do rumpled'. If you study the picture here, I think you'll agree.

It's very easy these days when you work in a bricks and mortar bookstore to lament the decline of the book and of bookstores as public spaces. So it was heartening to see a huge crowd turn out to talk about this novel, to hear heartfelt and intelligent comments, to see the public interact with their legal representatives in a way that must be rare enough for all parties. Such events, which celebrate the life of literature in a profound but not at all pretentious way, are the real reason to keep storefronts alive. At one point, Mr. Biggam said that in facing a recent confrontation with his teenager, he paused at the threshold and thought "What would Atticus do?"

The internet can do a lot of things well in terms of connecting people, but I still haven't heard 150 people laugh at the same moment on it.

It is, however, a pretty good place to say: Thank you, Harper Lee.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

I thought it might be fun to do a kind of running blog commentary on To Kill a Mockingbird, as we have come to the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. Theoretically, I am rereading this for  a big community book group we're going to have in about a week and a half, and I thought there would probably be plenty of grist for the mill here. For instance, I was surprised at the way the book starts, which I'll get to at the end of this post, just to give you time to test yourself on what you think it was.

I was still a child myself when I read TKaM, which probably explains why many of my impressions seem so sharp, when much that I've read since then seems vague. Of course, I saw the movie too, a few years later. It remains one of the few movies I can think of in which there seems no gap between the original text and the movie. The characters were exactly as I imagined them, or at least didn't violate any conception I had had of them. Scout, Jem, Dill, Atticus and even Boo Radley were just as I had read them. Even the light seemed right.

Here are a few things I've found odd in the intervening years:

For the longest time, and in fact till the recent movie, Capote, I had the idea that Harper Lee had written this book and then more or less vanished from the face of the earth. I was shocked to learn that she was not a recluse shut up in some southern mansion, but had had a more or less constant presence in the New York literary scene. I was equally shocked to realize that Dill grew up to become Truman Capote. I'm still shocked when I think about that. When you read fiction, you don't really expect that the model of the childhood next door neighbor will grow up to become one of the era's leading literary lights. What are the odds? I remember hearing some rumor that Capote actually wrote TKaM, and though I haven't heard much about that since, in some ways it seems a great deal more plausible than the reality of two writers this quality growing up next door to each other.

When I read To Kill a Mockingbird in fifth or sixth grade, even though I read it on my own,  I remember feeling as though I was reading a 'classic'. It already had a kind of canonical status, although of course at that time I wouldn't have known what a canon was if it shot me. It is surprising to me that it had probably only been out for ten years or so. Ten years later is usually a very wavering period in a novel's life. Most bestsellers have died off by then and most classics have not yet been born--or I suppose I should say, reborn. But TKaM seems to have just chugged merrily along. Needless to say, these are just my impressions, not well-researched facts.

I still wonder why Lee didn't try her hand at another. Perhaps during this anniverary, I'll find that out.

Okay--how does To Kill a Mockingbird begin? I had always remembered it as beginning with the arrival of Dill into the lives of Scout and Jem. And that's almost right. But before that happens we are treated to the ancestry of the Finches and how they came to be in the place they are. And before that happens, we have the opening line:

"When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."

The story is then ostensibly about how Jem came to break his elbow. Less ostensibly, it is also about how the lineage of the Finches, which has partaken in the primal sin of slavery in the past, comes to fulfill its destiny in the present.

Wonder how it's all going to work out?

*I'm editing this to add a link to Kathleen Kirk's current post, since, as seems to be often the case, we are once again on the same page. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The girl without a dragon tattoo--Fifty Grand, by Adrian McKinty

I thought I'd take a moment to mention that today is the street date for the American paperback edition of Fifty Grand, Adrian McKinty's action packed thriller about a Cuban detective who sneaks up into El Norte to track down her father's killer.

In the book biz, 'the street date' is the date a book is officially available for sale, which is an attempt to level the playing field for all sellers. For some reason lately Tuesday seems to have been designated as the day for new books to come out, so today for example we have the latest Diana Gabaldon for sale in paper and a new Janet Evanovich in hardback. (I'm not providing links--you're not getting away that easily.) But other books are also released that may not have gotten such promotion as either of these fine women have, and that's a little bit of what I wanted to talk about here today.

If you're reading this blog, you have almost certainly at least heard of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and quite possibly already devoured the whole trilogy. I have nothing against the books or there subsequent success, though it is a bit sad that Larsson isn't around to reap the benefits of it. I read the first one, and liked it pretty well, though was bothered that the mystery didn't really hold up, and found the graphic violence against women pretty tough going at times. And, although I didn't mind these so much myself, I heard others complain that it suffers from too much information syndrome and even that both prose and plot were terrible.

The reason people seem to be willing to overlook so much of this, though, is that Larsson created a tough, smart, resilient and utterly determined heroine. Also, she had a pretty nifty tattoo.

So is it really all about the tattoo, then? Because Fifty Grand has a tough, smart, resilient and utterly determined heroine as well. Mercado is just as independent as Salander is, and actually a lot more out there on her own than even she knows. They both come from what you might call 'bad home lives', though Mercado's is more cultural than domestic. Both suffer the attempt of some appalling sexual violence and the threat of it pretty much all the time.

True, Detective Mercado doesn't have a photographic memory. She isn't a genius hacker, with a hidden underground friend who can provide her with the latest equipment. And she doesn't have a tattoo of  a dragon on her body--at least I don't recall one.

But the story she dwells in is a better story. It's more tightly written and plotted. The author has lyric gifts that Larsson did not have, at least in translation. Larsson's first tale, anyway, is obsessed with Sweden's hidden Nazi past, while McKinty's is interested in the power structures and abuses of the present. I haven't come across anyone who brings more sociological awareness than he does to his fiction, though I'm aware that this is a title Larsson himself might have relished.

Now, I may not be playing fair with Larsson's books, as I've only read the first. I'm really just saying that there is obviously a market for good books with kickass heroines and Fifty Grand fits the bill. So where was the marketing campaign for this one?

I wrote a somewhat less serious piece on Fifty Grand when it came out in hardback, but that's a year ago, and though I doubt this blog has more readers now than it did then, it might at least have a few different ones.

By the way, for the few people in the world who are less aware of sporting events than I am (and yes, I'm aware that not a lot of toddlers will be reading this blog), the featured picture is not of the author or in any other way related to the book. It's just a nod to McKinty's Northern Irish origins, which he shares with Graeme McDowell, winner of the 2010 U.S. Open. The guy with him is his dad.

On the other hand, his strategy for achieving his underdog win might well mirror Mercado's on her own high stakes quest:

"I controlled my emotions; I felt calm all week. Probably the worst I'd been was Thursday when I got a little frustrated out there. I hit a few bad shots and got frustrated... I promised myself I was going to be calm, and I was going to hang tough."

And they do.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Part 2

Thought it might be nice to once again follow up my own thoughts on Mohsin Hamid's novella with the impressions of various members of my book group. We were fortunate to have a couple of new people in attendance, one of whom had been wanting to talk to a group about the book and one whom had only read it the night before.

The main thing that was fascinating to me was that there were two opposing views of what had happened between the narrator and his silent antagonist. Both groups had been so certain that they had the right interpretation that it had occurred to neither that there might be a different interpretation until they heard one at the meeting. Apparently the ambiguity was Hamid's intention, but I wonder how well this strategy works if you don't discuss it with others, as the story itself does not reveal to you that you might not have gotten its point.

I'm not sure that as a group we really got into the trajectory of the Changez's story. In retrospect, I think the group view that Changez was just a guy who never quite fit in, making it a personal problem or personality quirk failed to follow the real dilemmas of a character like Changez, which have to do more with a cultural situation than with his idiosyncracies. I believe I said in my first post that people became reintrigued with this book after the attempted Times Square bombing by Faisal Shahzad, as Changez seemed in some way to prefigure Shahzad. Changez does not explain Shahzad, but an American who reads this book will come away with at least a little more understanding of how America looks through Pakistani eyes. And that certainly is all to the good and a service that Hamid has provided us.

In my search for a photo for this post--the author, by the way, lest that remains unclear--I came across a nice review, which probably makes clear some points that I have unintentionally left vague.   

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Lighthouse Land by Adrian McKinty

As the school year ends and summer pleasure reading begins, it seems a fine time to suggest an action packed adventure story, especially one that is the first of a trilogy. This book has two likely but very different audiences. The first is composed of middle grade readers, looking forward to somewhat bigger adventures in the years ahead. The second comprises McKinty's adult fan base, who are either waiting for this summer's release of his latest crime fiction, Fifty Grand, to hit the shops in paperback, or simply have run through all the rest of his oeuvre.

For this last group, who may be thinking about gifts for the younger readers in their circle as well, fear not--there are no Belfast sixpacks to be seen in this book, although there is battle and there is also death. But like other able crime writers who moonlight in the realm of children's literature, McKinty is quite capable of writing a tale of derring do and adventure that is suited to younger readers. Personally, I think this trilogy is a perfect recommendation for middle graders who have run through the Percy Jackson and Alex Rider books. What stood out for me in this first book on the sheer excitement level was a certain kind of sea going vessel that McKinty has dreamt up along with a wholly plausible way to fight it. The story in fact, cries out to be animated. It could really be quite stunning in the right hands.

Another strong point of the story from my perspective is that though two of the main characters are boys, there is also a female lead who is independent, capable and not always in agreement with the others on the best course of action. In other words, it's not all just battles and there should be plenty of elements that girls will relate to too.

But enough about child readers and the child reader in all of us. What's in it for adults? Some things that stood out to me were the fact that it's a story that really begins three times, and in three very different settings. We start in Harlem, and then we start again in Northern Ireland. The third start I'll leave for you to discover.

The main character, Jamie O'Neill has recently had to come to terms with losing a large part of his arm to cancer. But he has not only lost an arm, he's lost a father to the process, and at least for the time being has lost his ability to speak. I found the connection between these things fascinating to contemplate, the more so as the author does not give any facile explanation as to why this should be so. Jamie's muteness simply is. It is not sullenness, as Jamie does manage to communicate by other means. But there is some implication that speech comes out of wholeness and as the novel starts, Jamie has by no means been made whole again after his various losses, despite the fact that he has suddenly come into a pretty grand inheritance.

Another thing that is a true pleasure for the American reader is to get a new view of Northern Ireland, as we have all been filled with certain kinds of image of the place, even when the time for that image is long since past. Thanks to fellow blogger Philip Robinson, who shares a background and fondness for this part of the world with McKinty, we have a couple of old photos of the Northern Irish setting of one part of the story.
According to Philip, the following photo is captioned:

Port Muck and Muck Island.
There are puzzling remnants of a castle keep, above McClelland's farm, overlooking the harbour. The jetty was built 1827 when almost 100 herring boats fished these waters. Horse's cave on the island kept smuggled animals hidden while awaiting shipment.

And of the following, Philip says: "The second photo is of Blackhead lighthouse which is just a few miles down the coast - at the bottom end of Islandmagee, where Adrian's sister lives. He cleverly puts the lighthouse on the island in the story. And there is a shingle causeway out to the island which is only visible at very low tides.

By the way, Islandmagee is not an island but a peninsula about 5 miles east of Carrickfergus."


Thank you, Philip.

As for the rest, I think I'll leave the book some of its secrets. The truth is, I've already finished the sequel, which is also terrific and am pacing myself on the third as, well,  that's the end, isn't it?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid

Another book group pick. I don't know for sure why the person who requested it chose it because she wasn't present at the last meeting, but I do know why this novel, or really, novella, has come to the forefront again. The Times Square attempted bomber, Faisal Shahzad, bears more than skin deep resemblance to the narrator of this book, and I imagine that people looking for clues have gravitated toward this one. I'm glad this Booker-Man Prize shortlisted work of fiction has had a second wave of interest, though I suspect people looking for conclusive answers will be disappointed. I think what they will find, though, is a penetrating look at American society about a character both outside it and inside it, and his progressive disenchantment is well worth considering. It is, in fact, open to interpretation.

The narrator, Changez, is a Pakistani, and the entire novel is narrated by him in one sitting in a cafe in Lahore. His willing, captive or hostile listener is an American stranger and he is only one of those whom Changez tries to find some sort of mirror or connection in. In a sense, the failed attempt in Times Square, which happened long after the novel went to print, raises the stakes and perhaps even changes the reading by a reader now. I don't think Hamid would mind that, as the book is all about our ambivalent interpretations of each other. I had originally thought to write that I don't get the ending, but having read an interview with him, I realize that's partly his intent.

This book is full of acute observations about the foreigner's position, and particularly the Muslim foreigner's position in America today. It's interesting to watch how far a liberal American is willing to go with him and where and if there is a point where the viewpoint diverges. We must of course always remember that Changez is not Hamid and though I'm sure their viewpoints overlap at many points, but they are not identical.

I had a funny feeling of a haunting in this book, although it is not about ghosts. Briefly, I can feel the ghosts of the books that Hamid has read before writing this. It is by no means derivative, but this story of an Asian man who falls for and is emotionally captured by a damaged Western woman feels like a story I've heard before.

Actually, it's a very Western story, come to think of it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Olive Kitteridge, redux

First of all, yes, I had to look up 'redux' to see if it actually meant what I thought it did...
Basically, I'm just reporting back as promised on my reading group's reactions to this book. Unfortunately, we were a bit thin on the ground due to some other commitments, so the person who loved it and the person who hated it and even the person who suggested it weren't actually there. Still, it was interesting, and perhaps more so to discuss between a few people who didn't have any huge axes to grind.

One thing that stood out for me about this group discussion was that there turned out to be quite a few "talking points". One thing that everyone seemed to agree on was that it was a bit misleading to call this a novel, and I believe the consensus was that it could have been edited without too much trouble into a more seamless whole. One member got very tired of the way that Olive seemed to be referred to in every story as a large woman, and wondered if that was really necessary. She was somewhat mollified by the idea that in the original stories, it might not have come across so much as being hammered with this information.

Beyond that, though, different stories seemed to have different resonances for different people. One member who had undergone her own hospital experiences was very struck by one in which Olive has to struggle for her own dignity in such a situation magnifed to a whole new level. Another member found echoes of some friends' experiences with being told off by adult children, who had felt stunned and silenced into merely listening to these complaints, as it can be argued Olive had to do on one occasion. And yet another member enjoyed some of the small,  unexpected moments, such as one in which Olive figures out what to do in response to a new daughter-in-law who turns out not to like her very much.

Sometimes I get frustrated with the whole notion of book groups. How did this become our preferred method of reading and why is it primarily a women's kind of thing, as it is primarily with ours? But this last evening was a prime example of the beauty of book groups when they're working right, which is that many facets of a book are reflected back to you in which you both remember and learn something new that you wouldn't have come to on your own.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Our May reading group pick. Winner of last year's Pulitizer prize, this has been selected for discussion by a lot of reading groups since, making me think of it as a kind of quintessential reading group book, the qualities of which I've been mulling over quite a bit as I've been reading.

As is a fairly common device these days, this novel is actually a series of linked stories, much like Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg,Ohio. In fact, it could as aptly have been titled "Crosby, Maine", as in all but one instance, the town and its environs are as much a character as Olive is, if not more so. In a few stories her actual presence is so slight that she merely makes an appearance at some sort of gathering the protagonist is attending. It cannot be said that these cameos actually add anything to the story they appear in or further our understanding of Olive herself, although they do often reinforce the sense of her formidability as a teacher. What they do serve to do is make Olive serve as a kind of glue for the book as a whole, though personally, I think it might have been a bit more intriguing to just leave her out of several stories all together. If, as seems likely, Olive and the town of Crosby are emanations of the same spirit, it is not really all that necessary to dot all your  "i"s and cross all your "t"s in quite this manner.

If you look over on a site like Good Reads, you will find that a great number of people have found this book to be worth a five star rating, and I've read a few commenters that call it life-changing or confess having been deeply moved by it. These kinds of testimonies have their own authority, I think. You can't just say, "you are wrong" to readers who have had this kind of experience. There are, however, a few reviews mixed in of what I would call the "Bleh!" variety. I find myself somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, and somewhat at odds with myself in my own response to the novel.

The truth is, I had no trouble reading this book. I enjoyed the stories, found them seamless in the telling, although as they are actually stories collected from over a long span of time, it's not surprising that there is some repetitiveness in the detail. I have heard a few people say that they do not care for Olive herself, and apart from the fact that the likeableness of a main character is not something I think an author is required to give, I did actually like her in all her ornariness.

Nor do I think the stories forgettable. I think some of them will stay with me for a long time, in fact. So what really is my bone to pick with this book? Why do I insist on having any bone to pick with it at all? I think it's because the stories of quiet, ordinary, lonely, sometimes desperate lives has about run it's course with me. Perhaps my resistance is so great because they remind me too much of a certain type of story I have written myself. (I'm not comparing the success of our different attempts at this, merely our subject matter.) But whatever the reason, more than once while reading this collection, I have thought, Where the hell is Charles Dickens when we need him? Where is the larger than life, outrageous character? And where is the writer who is going to tell me that life is about something more than I've figured out already?

Of course, it's unfair to make this demand of a book that never had any intention of being, say, Great Expectations. What I do think, though, is that when you award a Pulitzer to a book like this, you are setting a standard for what contemporary fiction should strive to be. And I'm finding more and more that I beg to differ to with that idea of success. As I believe I said in my own quick take in my Good Reads review, "wry" and "quietly absorbing" no longer seem to be quite enough for me.

I am not sure just what is.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Charlotte, Emily and Anne

While we all wait around for me to get my act together and post a new review of something, we could do worse than to check out this cool comic by Kate Beaton, entitled Dude Watchin' With the Brontes.

This came to me by way of a great website called Chicklit forums, which is not really about Chicklit at all, nor is it just for chicks. Yeah, it's a long story.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, by Valerie Boyd

I've lately been reading quite a bit by and about the writer Zora Neale Hurston for a rather mad project I've embarked on, and reading this book was probably my deepest venture yet into the story of her life. I have also read Hurston's own account, Dust Tracks on the Road, which has its strengths, but this only takes us so far, as there are certain things Hurston would like to pass over--and have us pass over as well. Also, as with all autobiography, it ends before the story is over, and in this case, quite a bit before it is over,  as Hurston was pressured by her publisher to attempt her memoir before she herself felt ready to do it. And still, we are lucky to have it.

I thought it might help me, if no one else, to gather some of my thoughts about Boyd's longer account. Although Hurston's trajectory through life is too unique and in some ways extraordinary to be much of a model for anyone else, from her birth and early life in an all black community in late 19th century and early 20th Florida, to her initiations into hoodoo and then voodoo, her life as a writer bears some common themes with the life of many other writers, and in that sense, though fraught with crisis and complexity, might make a person feel not so alone on that particular path.

One thing that seems very common to me is the struggle with vocation, with its companion theme of the struggle to discover one's material. I suppose there are people who have a kind of certitude about their gifts, but Hurston's relation to her own writerly gifts seems much more common. Her first desire was simply for education and to see some of the world. Few people who might happen upon this post will have faced anything like the kind of obstacles that lay before her. And with a gap of years in her life which she never spoke about, and which, to my knowledge, we have no remaining record of, we will probably never know all that she lived through before she became a writer and personality to be reckoned with.

As someone who lived at the center of the Harlem Renaissance, while at the same time attending the elite Barnard college, the first black woman to do so, it's understandable that she might have a little trouble fitting herself into typical roles. She tried to make the sensible decision of becoming an anthropologist and succeeded in this, though in an unconventional way. In this process, she added a lot to to what we know, both about African-American life in the American South of her era, and about that of the Bahamas, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. But though her books are an addition to our knowledge, a close reading of them reveals the stance of an artist and not a scientist. She doesn't always achieve the scientist's detached viewpoint, although I think her own 'semi-detached' viewpoint is instructive just in itself. I will hazard a guess that her anthropological works like Tell My Horse, and Of Men and Mules are really books by a novelist looking for her material. It's instructive, for instance, that it was while she ostensibly went on a trip to Haiti to understand the culture of voodoo, which, by the way, she treats with immense respect and becomes an initiate in, she also wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God--to my mind, one of the great American novels of the last century--in seven short weeks, apparently in her spare time.

The other aspect of her life that seems relevant to today's writers, and perhaps to writers at all times everywhere, is the utter contingency of her situation. Put more plainly, she was always scraping around for money--not because she lived an extravagant lifestyle, though she was generous with money, but because that is a writer's life, when not cushioned by a reliable job, a trust fund or something else more steady and predictable. She did try to find something like this--it's just that she never really managed it. There are some writers who can find or at least luck into one of these things, but I think the thing that struck me about Valerie Boyd's account is the idea that at root, Hurston's life is any artist's life. For the great majority of writers, and that doesn't by any means exclude the geniuses, there are plottings and negotiations, and maybe even a bit of kissing up, doing hack work and so on. People let you down. People have expectations that don't actually match up with what you are called to do. Even success doesn't provide future security. Hurston died in poverty. She was buried in an unmarked grave. (Which Alice Walker famously tracked down and bought a headstone for, so don't toss and turn at night about that part.)

When you are keyed into a life, for whatever reason, the biographer of that life holds a special place in your heart. So I would like to take this opportunity to thank Valerie Boyd for her steady, calm, exhaustive and highly readable research into the life of a singular American author. I am sure that with such an extraodinary energy at the center of her field of enquiry, it wasn't always easy.  

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tell My Horse, by Zora Neale Hurston

I'm very absorbed in the life of Zora Neale Hurston these days. Coincidentally, this book on Hurston's travels to Jamaica and Haiti was a book group choice, based on a group desire to learn a little more about Haiti in the aftermath of this year's devastating Haitian earthquake. Although for me, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God remains the benchmark, this book proves how engaging a writer Hurston is in more ordinary circumstances. (Though how I can use "ordinary" in a description of a book that includes wild boar hunts and zombies, I don't know.)

Hurston is known most famously as a novelist, but she also studied anthropology under Franz Boas, and spent countless hours collecting African-American folklore throughout the south. Her journey to the Caribbean was of an anthropological nature as well. What remains interesting are her intent to keep her findings accessible to the general public and her viewpoint, which was detached without being remote, and treated the cultures she studied with an uncondescending respect.

"Tell My Horse" or parlay cheval ou in Creole, refers to the time when a person is 'mounted' by the spirit or loa, Guede. Possession or assumed possession by the loa gives the person a kind of permission to speak in the voice of the god, often saying things that he or she would not dare to say in real life. It reminds me a bit of the tradition of the Holy Fool in Russian Orthodox Christianity. I hadn't thought till now that Hurston's choice of this title may be telling.

Although the book is not the tightest she ever wrote, it is full of fascination. The fact that fascinates me the most, though, is one that doesn't appear in it. While Hurston was in Haiti--"after hours" so to speak--she sat down and wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in six short weeks. Personally, I consider the novel one of the great books of the twentieth century. Hurston wrote it so quickly and mentioned so little about the travails of doing so, it makes me wonder if she had any idea of what a gift she bestowed upon us.

I hope so.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

J is For Judgment--or one good reason to read mystery novels.

This blog has lagged a bit of late. The main reason is that with multiple projects going, I don't seem to be getting done with any of them. For example, I'm a fair way into this tenth outing of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone series but that's not the same as done. Luckily for me, with mysteries, you shouldn't give too much away anyway. So, though I have at least gotten a bit further than this, here is a little quotation from pages 8 and 9 in the mass market edition:

"Wendell Jaffe and his partner, Carl Eckert, put together limited partnerships for real estate deals to develop raw land, build condominiums, office buildings, shopping centers, that kind of thing. They were promising investors a fifteen percent return, plus a return of their original investment within four years before the two partners would take a profit. Of course, they got in way over their heads, taking off big fees, paying huge 'overhead' expenses, rewarding themselves handsomely.

Alarm bells, anyone? No? Very well then, I'll continue:

When profits failed to materialize, they ended up paying old investors with the new investor's money, shifting cash from one shell company to the next, constantly soliciting new money to keep the game afloat."

"In other words, a Ponzi scheme," I inserted.

"Right. I think they started with good intentions, but that's how it ended up..."

And yes, this absolutely reeks of the whole Madoff scandal. There's just one slight problem. This was first published in 1993.

Sometimes people put down reading mysteries and crime fiction as a waste of time. But if a few more people had read these lines back in the nineties, they might have a bit more retirement money in the bank than they do now. Sadly.

Monday, February 8, 2010

This Night's Foul Work by Fred Vargas

This book will be the first reviewed for the 2010 Global Reading Challenge, set by Dorte Jakobsen. (Thanks, Dorte!)

I have to admit that the cover did not inspire me to read this one and in fact I would not have opened it if I hadn't heard good things about it over time, and if I hadn't set myself a small goal of tackling some of my shelf-sitters. The title is actually a tribute to the French poet Racine, who figures prominently in the book, due to one character's intimate familiarity with his style. The French title is actually quite different--Dans les bois éternels , which translates to something more along the lines of "In the eternal woods". I don't know if that would have drawn me in any faster, but at least it would be unlikely to have the picture of a dead stag on the cover.

Anyway, neither the author's name, nor the title, nor yet the cover image clued me in to the fact that this novel is in fact a Parisian police procedural, and a very delightful one at that. Vargas' detective squad is the closest I have come to the classic Amsterdam based Grijpstra and de Gier series of Janwillem van de Wetering. Led by the Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, a right-brained dreamer if ever there was one, the Paris Crime Squad holds as many idiosyncratic characters as anyone could ask for. This book comes fairly late in the series, but Vargas does a good job at delineating the characters again for new readers like me.

I fear that certain kinds of readers will throw up their hands at many of the more absurd situations and improbable plot twists in this one. But for readers who are willing to surrender and enjoy the ride there are many rewards. It's extremely well plotted and woven together, and the twists and turns of the central mystery, as well as a secondary one involving Adamsberg's past kept me guessing.

One of the great pleasures of Vargas' work is the way she describes all the detectives--with the exception perhaps of the formidable Retancourt, a woman of many talents--as flawed and somewhat hapless in their own lives, but how in collaboration their strengths come to the fore.

I do have a small problem with the translation, which is that whenever the story ventures into the realm of dialect, the translator's efforts to find some substitute in English slang fall flat. It's a shame, because her rendering of the speech of Adamsberg and the detective squad is subtlety itself.

I found that at the end of reading this one, and despite many other goals, I wanted to nothing so much as begin reading another. And so I have...

Monday, February 1, 2010

Winterland by Alan Glynn

I was tempted to throw in an imaginary subtitle: The Lost Language of Cranes, but that was already taken. Anyone who visited Ireland four or five years ago, as I did, could not have failed to get the reference. There were cranes everywhere--new schemes, new money, even all new people (another stolen literary reference). Attractive young Irish people flocked the streets in expensive new clothes--never have I felt so old and past the moment--and the small hotels and bars and pretty much everywhere were staffed by Asians and Eastern Europeans, most of whom did not seem at all happy.

That moment, for better or worse, is done--at least for the time being. Capital, and labor, has come and fled again, as it has so many other places. This is the setting of Alan Glynn's excellent new novel Winterland.

The initial setup is this: a young thug, Noel Rafferty, is murdered at a local pub. As he is revealed from the outset to be a very unpleasant character, we do not mourn him much. But his tightly knit Dublin family does, of course, and their grief is more than doubled when his uncle, his namesake, dies in a car accident that very night. Tragic coincidence, yes, but their common relative Gina Rafferty begins to doubt that all is exactly as it seems. Gina's company, a start-up, is having troubles in the new economic climate. And it's not the only thing that's suffering in the fallout of global recession.

I love the way the local and the global overlap and affect each other in this novel. I also love the acute depiction of the way government and business and law enforcement are all in each other's pockets. Gina Rafferty is a great and fearless character in this setting. Here's hoping we hear a bit more from her in the future.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell--first impressions

There's just about the right amount of time to get in a quick initial post on David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Hailed as one of the best books of the last decade on a variety of lists, and popular with the more literary minded of our staff when it first came out, it's one of those books that I long planned to read but never quite got around to. But last month I did manage to convince my book group to read it, which is my way of bumping a book right to the top of my To Be Read pile.

As we got a bit of a late start this time, one of our members asked if we might do this one as a two parter and everyone agreed. Don't read on if you don't like even the structure of a book to be revealed ahead of time, but in fact this is actually a perfect book to read in halves. The novel is actually six separate stories, which nest inside each other, so that the first half of the book is the first half of all stories and the second completes each of them. Concentric rings is one way of looking at it.

Having just finished the central story--central in a physical sense but not, I think in any sense of importance, I feel as baffled as ever about what the intent of the novel as a whole is. I trust that there is a whole, and I trust that Mitchell's structure is intentional, but I am not quite so convinced that I will figure out what those intentions are myself. Whether this is particularly important, I don't know.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I am not all that fond of linked or not so linked stories as a way of putting together a novel. I particularly have a hard time with stories or even series where you get invested in a set of characters and then find yourself jumping into the future where you suddenly are dealing with a whole new cast of characters. An example of the type would be Zoe Heller's The Believers, which begins with a scene in London where two characters meet and fall in love and jumps in very short order to a time near the end of their marriage, with the husband in a coma and life unraveling or at least changing for his wife and children. It's actually a very good novel, but I missed the development of those early days all through the book. This isn't a flaw in the writing, though. This is a shortcoming or at least a preference in me. Still, I might not be the only one.

The Cloud Atlas has been an interesting test for me in this regard. These are six very different strands of life and even genre and yet Mitchell was able to recapture my attention in all of them. He is obviously an extremely gifted writer, not just capable of mimicking any style he sets his mind to, but of at least seeming to have the expertise and breadth of knowledge to put across the backgrounds of these worlds without flaw. And even my problem will be addressed by bringing all these abruptly cut off stories to closure in the second half. But there is a risk that all this cleverness actually works against the reader's experience to some degree.

Because once you know that the writer is going to break the story off, isn't there just a little less engagement with it as a result? Isn't there some sense that the guy's just messing with your head? It's one thing when you have the rug pulled out from under you the first time. But when you can look ahead and see that it's going to happen at least four more times, doesn't that do something to the degree to which you immerse yourself?

Put another way, isn't it hard enough for any reader to sustain disbelief long enough to enter a story without having the author whispering in your ear all the way that it isn't real, I'm making it all up, don't get too comfortable? I know that some readers do like that experience--they want to share in the writer's experience of constructing fiction, they want to be in on the trick. Well, for better or worse, I am not really that reader.

I will add that Mitchell does not actually, in his heart of hearts, appear to be that kind of writer either. I don't know if he personally gets invested in his characters, but he certainly makes it possible for you to invest in them. The distancing does not come from the stories, it comes from the structure.

It will be interesting to see if anyone else in the group tonight has this problem with the book. Initial reports have been favorable.

I shall report back.