Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an EndingI read this at the behest of my reading group, and then at the last minute didn't go, so I don't know what sort of reactions the group had to it, but I suspect that the group verdict was divided. I think this book probably appeals to certain kinds of readers more than others. I'd guess it appeals more to those who appreciate artful construction and stylistic gifts as much or more than they do character. After finishing the book, I've read a few people who have pointed out how well it is woven together, how the opening schoolboy class dialogue marks out the themes of sex and death throughout the book and so on.

Frankly, that's all a little above me. In some ways, I found the narrator too slight a character to be the center of even a short novella. In some ways, he represents the etiolated end of the line of a long, long line of British literature, a character turned in on himself even as he thinks he's investigating what happened to another. But I'm sure there are people who will give Barnes more credit for writing this than I do.

One thing that did not entirely ring true for me was the way that these memories of youth played out in the later years of the protagonist. Or perhaps people have different connections to the past, different senses of its importance. But having had one of those significant passages of my own life resurface in unexpected ways recently, I found that the similar reemergence of the unexpected in the book had an effect that I didn't quite buy. I think later in life, we tend to look at high moments of our past with interest and even nostalgia, but with more dispassion. Not without compassion for the people we all were then, but with a certain distance and understanding that life plays out differently than we think it will. I was a bit surprised really that then narrator had not been able to move beyond the past to any real degree.

That said, it is probably a book I should read again, as there were certain aspects of the timing and the significance of things I didn't really understand. Probably should, probably won't.

I came across this piece in the New York Times by Geoff Dyer that expresses my feelings a good bit better than I can.

For those who have read the book, and would like to delve into what it is all about, you might enjoy this piece over at Pechorin's Journal because the author enjoys the book, even while somewhat critical, and the bonus feature is that he links to a bunch of other people's blog reviews that he liked on the book in the last paragraph. I have to say that I didn't really find that I had missed anything major but I have a feeling that this is either a book that speaks to you or doesn't, and I wouldn't want to dissuade anyone from reading it who might get a bit more out of it than I did.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Slaughter's Hound, by Declan Burke

I think sometimes the form of the crime fiction series lulls us into thinking we know what to expect out of its novels. Indeed, this is usually half the intent. Drumming up a little business for the brand. Personally, I have nothing against this formulaic approach. When a series has gone on too long, I just stop reading it. No harm, no foul.

I suppose, then, I was looking forward to the second Harry Rigby book for the usual, but as it turns out, the wrong reasons. As anyone who read Eightball Boogie will know (and you really should read it first as this one has some spoilers for that earlier one), that story ends leaving Harry in some challenging straits, and a lot of time has passed since then as this book opens. So let's just say it's kind of the opposite of the Sue Grafton series, where Kinsey Millhone can remain the same age through several volumes of the alphabet series, or maybe even more.

Time, then, has passed, and it has not passed well for Harry Rigby. He is currently driving a cab and running various errands, not all of them on the licit side of the line. One of them involves bringing some grass to an old friend. It gives nothing away to say that that friend takes a fatal dive off a tall building, because it happens within the first two pages. The rest of the book concerns the whys and wherefores of this fateful fall. 

This is a dark tale, and it gets progressively darker as it goes along. In the middle, it reminded me a bit of Ross MacDonald, and also of his Irish literary descendent, Declan Hughes, with its tale of doomed families and the ruin that attends them. But there is a kind of go for broke quality to this book that I haven't really found in the aforementioned illustrious writers' work, and it took me till nearly the end of the book to realize that Burke has laid it all out for us in the very title of the work, and in a helpful author's epigram, in which he notes that the great warrior  Cú Chulainn's name really means Hound of Ulster and that he owned a number of war hounds called archú, who were known for their love of slaughter.  So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen--a quiet stroll by the river this is not. Instead, it is a tale steeped in the tradition of the Irish myth cycles, where deeds are great, but, well, bloody. So don't say I didn't give you fair warning.

But now that I have, don't be scared off. This is also a smart, and funny--yes, funny--tale of contemporary Ireland, and Harry is down and out partly because a lot of people are. It's just that he reaches a deeper level of loss than most, which propels him on a grim trajectory that in retrospect seems fated, as that of mythic heroes always do.

Burke is also a writer of gorgeous sentences, and just so I don't leave you the impression that the book is all havoc, let me end with the beginning...

(filched from his website)
"It was  a rare fine night for a stroll down by the docks, the moon plump as a new pillow in an old-fashioned hotel and the undertow in the turning tide swushing its ripples silvery-green and a bird you’ve never heard before chirring its homesick tale of a place you might once have known and most likely now will never see, mid-June and almost midnight and balmy yet, the kind of evening built for a long walk with a woman who likes to take long walks and not say very much, and that little in a murmur you have to strain to catch, her laughter low and throaty, her humour dry and favouring lewd, eyes like smoky mirrors of the vast night sky and in them twinkles that might be stars reflecting or the first sparks of intentions that you’d better fan with soft words and a gentle touch in just the right place or spend the rest of your life and maybe forever wondering what might have been, all for the want of a soft word and a touch gentle and true.
It was that kind of evening, alright. That kind of place.
You ever find yourself there, say something soft, and be gentle, and true.
Me, I found myself hunched over the charred dwarf that had once been Finn Hamilton, parts of him still sizzling in a marinade of oily flesh and melting tar, and all around the rank stench of singing hair and burnt petrol, seared pork.
Midnight, and balmy yet."

Now do yourself a favor and go out and find the rest.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Land of the Blind, by Jess Walter

I work in an indie bookstore, and we're always looking for ways to stay open and to change with the times simultaneously. So as of this month, we as well as a host of other indies will actually be selling ereaders, as well as offering ebooks, which was the last phase of this sort of transition.

At this point, I don't think there's much value in debating the presence of ereaders in our lives. As a reader and a writer, I mostly just hope that people will keep reading, rather than using their increasingly sophisticated devices for more distracting, alluring things.

But I do sometimes wonder if people understand what they might be losing in being willing to give over physical books entirely. Here's a small example. I'm already a fan of Jess Walter. I loved Citizen Vince, his interesting spin on what a gangster in witness protection would do when for the first time he tries to figure out how to vote in a presidential election (not this one, by the way), and thought The Zero was one of the more thoughtful novels to come in the aftermath of 9/11. I haven't gotten around to his later works yet, though I hear he moves from strength to strength and hope to get to them soon.

But it was an earlier work that called to me a couple of weeks ago. It was just spined in the used book box, and of course I got on to it partly because it was Walter, but there was something more to it than that. I don't know why an individual book can suddenly command our, or at least my attention. But I have found this to be the case many times over my life. There's just a sense that now is the moment.

Like I say, this is an early work of Walter's, and maybe it isn't even the best place to start if you haven't read him already. But maybe it is. The story revolves around several characters and is told through two lenses. One is a world weary police detective, a woman, who is going through something a little bit more than job burnout. A man, who she initially thinks is just another crazy, is taken in because he has been found wandering around in a derelict but soon to renovated hotel in downtown Spokane, Washington. Largely because she too is at a sort of crisis point in her life, she resists just sending him on his way, and allows him to stay at the station writing his confession. Not sure what this 'confession' is really about, she conducts her own investigation in the meantime.

Through the confession, the story soon veers back to childhood. I resisted this a bit at first, because I wanted to stay in the present story, but such is Walter's skill that he can suck you into any story he wants to tell you. This backstory of  childhood hierarchies and friendships and betrayals is plotted perfectly to keep you reading. It is also and incidentally a portrait of what life is like in the other cities of our country. Spokane is always positioned in the minds of the characters as 'not Seattle', and in the midst of the nineties high tech boom, this is not insignificant. One of the many virtues of the book is the evocation of eastern Washington.

Looking through some reader reviews before I wrote this, I'm reminded that there are parts that are hard to take when it comes to scapegoating and bullying of children by their peers. I'll only say that there are people who forget their childhoods and people who reflect back on them. I'm willing to bet that Walter is one of the latter.       

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Cold Cold Ground, by Adrian McKinty--American style

Now that The Cold Cold Ground has finally arrived in California, I thought I'd repost the meandering review I wrote of the book when it came out in England at the beginning of the year. It really is one of my favorite crime novels and I encourage people to seek it out for any number of reasons. Plus, I can put up the American cover.

Let's cut to the chase here--I love this book. "Love" isn't usually a word I use in describing my reaction to a crime novel, although even an occasional reader here on this blog may have deduced that I am a mad fan of Adrian McKinty's writing. I'd tend to say exciting, well-written, fast paced--things like this. But for reasons both idiosyncratic and more universal I do love this book.

Let's get the subjective part over first. The events of this novel largely take place in Belfast and neighboring towns in the spring of 1981. McKinty was still a child during this historic, tragic moment of Northern Ireland's recent history--and lived through them as a child--but I was a youngish adult, traveling through England and Europe for the first time. I didn't get to Northern Ireland, of course--probably wouldn't have even dared if I'd thought of it. But the Hunger Strikes which form a part of the background of this story were much on the mind of everyone in England that we met, that and the Royal Wedding, as well as the assassination attempt on the Pope and other things that mark this novel as accurate to its specific moment. So, for me, there is an odd nostalgia that goes along with this story, and it had an almost uncanny ability to restore the memories of a long forgotten time. It helped, I suppose, that we visited our old professor in Yorkshire, and he had some very definite opinions about Ian Paisley and Margaret Thatcher and everyone who was involved in Northern Ireland at that time, so that I was not completely ignorant of events, as normally I very well might have been.

But beyond all this, the real reason I'm crazy about this book is that it's actually the one I've wanted McKinty to write since I first began reading him. In Dead I Well May Be, we get a tantalizing look at life in Northern Ireland as the story opens, where we meet Michael Forsythe signing up for some illegal work in Belfast. No sooner do we start to settle into that life, though, than Michael finds himself fleeing the country entirely. Dead I Well May Be is a wonderful book, but there was a part of me that felt when we abruptly find him again in Harlem in a whole new life that I had been a bit cheated of something. The Northern Ireland that Michael Forsythe slips out of is not quite the Northern Ireland of 1981, but they are older brother and younger brother to each other. There is a bomb at the beginning of Dead I Well May Be, there are more than one in The Cold Cold Ground. One thing that most of us in the world are fortunate enough not to have experience of is what its like to try and live a normal life alongside of such violence with such random victims. This book, despite being a story about a crime, begins to tell us that.

The hero of our tale is Sean Duffy, a Detective Sergeant who has recently been transferred to Carrickfergus, a small coastal largely Protestant town within close reach of bellicose Belfast, but still separated enough to have its own culture and concerns. The police station is small and would be more likely to focus on insurance fraud and bicycle theft if it had its druthers, but the police force isn't exempt from getting out in full riot gear if Belfast or some other hot spot calls for support.

Duffy is a Catholic in a community that is self-protectively Protestant and could and sometimes does become hostile toward him. He's also a university trained man who was set for an academic career when one of Belfast's more violent moments touches him too deeply to ignore and sets him on the course that leads him to join the police. In other words, he's more than one kind of outsider. His stance, therefore is somewhat distanced as compared to others, and and he refuses to lead from a knee jerk partisanship in his reaction to events. (Although this doesn't make him a stranger to flareups of anger in other circumstances.)

The plot is a tight police procedural, with a couple of crimes floating around and investigating these takes Duffy and his team into many neighborhoods of Belfast and environs. Places like the Falls Road will sound familiar to anyone with even a nodding acquaintance of The Troubles, but McKinty knows both what they are and what they have been better than most. Here's how Duffy describes Rathcool to a colleague as they walk its "drab tenements and crumbling 1960s tower blocks.":

Rathcool comes from the Irish Rath Cuile meaning 'in the centre of the fort'. Once this was a royal palace for the kings of the Ulaidh. Now look at it. Concrete towers and row upon row of soulless terraces.

Most people could look it up on Wikipedia and then tell you of the recent history of Rathcool. Some might even give you that Gaelic meaning. But not everyone will give you the deep history of a place as they are describing the site of a run down tenement. Its the book's depth as well as its breadth, geographic and otherwise, that sets it apart.

Although Duffy is investigating a possible serial killer and things occasionally blow up in the background, don't be misled into thinking this is a grim tale. There's always humor running through McKinty's work, sometimes quietly, sometimes a groan-making pun. His ironic stance on situations that others have invested heavily in positions on always makes you look at things a bit differently.

Carrickfergus is a little world. I'm glad McKinty came back to it, at least for awhile.

(If you'd like to get a sense of the opening paragraphs, here is a LINK.)


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

All Hallows Eve

Happy Halloween! It's a bit late for this kind of post, but what the heck. Here's Slate magazine's suggestions for All Hallows Read.

Sure, Halloween is pretty much over, but it's not like the days are getting any lighter right about now... 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Live By Night, by Dennis Lehane

I've been thinking a lot about writing this review for the few days since I read this book, and I seem to be feeling a bit tentative about what I want to say. I'm a big fan of Lehane's books, and have read pretty much everything he's written except Coronado, his book of short stories, and somewhat ironically, The Given Day. I say ironically, because I didn't learn that there was a connection between these two novels until I was well on my way in Live by Night, and though the hero of our present tale is only a minor character in that one, I still wonder if reading it first might have given me a slightly better understanding here of his drives and motivations.

Many if not most of Lehane's fans have come to him through his early Kensey Gennaro crime stories, which feature a very appealing couple working out of a Boston belfry in their fight against crime. Lehane has often characterized these as potboilers, which I think gave him the means to do what he really wanted to do, which was write novels with a little larger scope and a lot more clout.

It's funny how that goes, though, because though he did go on to write the highly praised Mystic River, which then became the equally highly praised movie of the same name, the fans kept on clamoring for Kensey and Gennaro. Lehane finally brought them back in Moonlight Mile in 2010, very much a sequel to Gone, Baby, Gone.

Many people liked that one a lot, but, though I was as eager to read it as the next person, I found the older, wiser and more comfortable pair less interesting. People's growing up isn't always their most attractive feature, especially when it comes to fiction. I think the second factor at work, though, may have been that Lehane's heart wasn't really in it anymore. What I presume he really wants to do is write historical fiction about the last century in America, because this is what he's done at this point in his career when he gets to call his own shots.

Live by Night traces the adult life of one Joseph Coughlin, though no one but his father ever calls him Joseph. As the emotionally neglected younger son of a police commissioner, Joe somewhat predictably (at least in novels) turns to a life of crime. Ostensibly a fast paced action tale about life during Prohibition as seen from the criminal side, this is actually an introspective novel about this one guy caught up on this often questionable path. Although a lot of the action revolves around how he slowly builds his Prohibition empire, the book in many ways is about limits. Joe is always looking for his own boundaries. He's a criminal, not a good guy falsely suspected of being one. And I think until possibly at the very end, he never really questions or repents of that choice. He knows or at any rate believes that he belongs with those who live by night, not the day workers of our world.

I think the introspective quality is what keeps us at a little remove from Joe, and perhaps from the book itself. We move through Lehane's meticulously researched 1920s Eastern Seaboard as in a dream. Most gangsters probably don't worry a lot whether good money can come out of bad, but Joe does. On the other hand, he's not a gangster. Or so he says. He's an outlaw. These aren't always distinctions the non-criminal can easily understand, however.

Live by Night is a very beautifully written book, and there are many scenes that seem almost cinematographic. Even this I find myself wondering a little about, though. Lehane has done very well with the movie industry, and as I've heard this book is already optioned (DiCaprio again?) it's not hard to think he may have been thinking in terms of film even as he wrote it.

I think Lehane's writing always retains a bit of the potboiler elements, sometimes deliberately so (Shutter Island, anyone?), and sometimes not. There are certainly some potboiler elements in this one, despite its greater ambitions. Some of the thuggish gangsters (because they're not all like Joe) seem pretty worn out. And don't even get me started on the prison sequence. I don't if anyone should even attempt prison scenes any more, they are so tired. But all the way through the book there are wonderful moments, like the getaway scene early on, or Joe's arrival in Tampa.

"Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin's feet were placed in a tub of cement."

That's the start. Now you go on and finish it.     

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Falling Glass--a reprise

The fall double header of Adrian McKinty's fiction began today in the U.S. (The second book, The Cold Cold Ground, is out in November.)Although many of his American fans may have gotten their hands on these books already after their British publication last year, for all intents and purposes, the U.S. is an untapped market. So I thought I'd repost this review from last year, as it seems possible that it might reach a few new readers.

In 2003, a new sort of crime fiction protagonist slipped into our midst, much as he had slipped illegally into the U.S. in the fictional realm. The book was Dead I Well May Be and the hero, or anti-hero, was Michael Forsythe, a young guy hailing from the environs of Belfast. A small, wiry guy, (at least the way I pictured him)  you probably wouldn't have noticed him on the streets of New York, where he did the dirty work for an Irish gang, but he turned out to be a figure to be reckoned with--as his enemies (and readers of the three Dead trilogy novels) would shortly come to know. Those who have been lucky enough to happen upon these books have been clamoring for more Michael Forsythe ever since. His tough, indeed ruthless way of achieving his ends was counterbalanced by his wit, his literary sensibilities, and his vulnerability, a kind of too open stance despite his bravado, which readers seem to have picked up on. When all's said and done, he's a thug, but readers do not love Michael Forsythe for this, but despite it. You may thrill to his acts of derring-do, but all the while understand that from the beginning his path is not so much a choice as a fate.

So, although McKinty has warned fans that his latest novel, Falling Glass, includes Forsythe, but without a starring role, he's still worth considering here as a background, a prime mover, or something more elemental, like the weather. This is Killian's book, not Michael's and I believe readers will be happy it is so. But it's still worth keeping Forsythe in mind, and possibly even read a Dead trilogy novel or two first if you haven't, because it's useful to have the Michael Forsythe frame of reference when you're considering Killian's alternatives. Let's just say that Forsythe is not incidental to the novel, but crucial to it.

Killian has traveled down much the same road as Forsythe. In fact, at a fateful meeting in an early novel, Killian failed to protect someone from Forsythe, which led to one man's death and allowed Forsythe to live to tell--or not tell--the tale. Killian has left his past in the Irish tinker culture to commit petty and not so petty crime for a number of years, but the advent of the Celtic Tiger prosperity had allowed him to dream of the straight life, just as the departure of prosperity is now leaving him little option but to do 'one more job' in order to sort out his own financial nightmares.

The successful dispatch of one job quickly leads to the offer of another even more lucrative task. And it's to be a good deed, isn't it? Rescue two wee bairns from their drug addicted mother, who has broken custody rights and fled with them. Although Killian halfheartedly asks a time or two why the police haven't been called in, the money is too good to really ask this question seriously.

The fact that Killian is a tinker is not incidental to the tale, nor just a bit of colorful lore, thrown in. To be a tinker is to take part in the nomadic life of the human race, which belongs to a different value system than the settled peoples of the world entirely. It is a last remnant of oral culture, and is tied, as McKinty does tie it, to Homeric times and Homeric values. I found this rumination on a non-capitalistic culture surviving within a capitalistic one very thought provoking, especially in the context of the bust that followed the Irish boom. Killian starts the novel with a bunch of useless apartments, a one time seemingly sound investment that, as for so many, has turned out to be at best a headache and at worst a nightmare. By the midpoint of the story, he has reconnected to his tinker past, and gradually finds his true identity among them. That identity includes songs, fairs, fests, but also true honor and true hospitality.

I found myself thinking a lot about Laurens Van der Post's work, both fiction and nonfiction, on the culture of the Bushmen. It was not only white settlers who were their enemies, he claimed, but settled black Africans as well. At the time, I thought that it was because these two culture's were antithetical, but something about McKinty's book made me understand that the tinkers and Bushmen and the Romany gypsies are not so much opposites of our culture, as simply a past that has been despised and repressed. It seems like it might be a good time for that repressed to return.

Lest I give you any impression that this is not a crime novel, it certainly is. It's a fast-paced tale featuring more than one foe for Killian and more than one decision to make about where he really stands. Killian is no pacifist, and he has occasion to take up a weapon or two before the course of the book has run. But the superb ending is a duel of another order, and one well worth waiting for.


Friday, September 28, 2012

Breathing Water, by Timothy Hallinan

Though it's been many years now, I've been to Bangkok. My sister was interested in Southeast Asian dance, and as I was free (ie, unemployed) and had a little cash, I went along. We traveled around Southeast Asia for about six weeks, but Bangkok was the first place we landed, and the place we came back to midway. I took to it right away, in all its golden gaudiness, and perhaps, given the right circumstances, might have stayed there longer.

Nevertheless, there were aspects of the city even then that I knew we, as young American women, were not participating in, and that we were skating right over the surface of an old and complicated culture and also the more recent American involvement there. I found a confirmation of this in Hallinan's description of the relation of the farang, or foreigners to Bangkok:

Most farang pass through the  gravitational Gordian knot of Bangkok unscathed, like long-haul comets for whom our solar system is just something else to shoulder their way past. Farang have no formal status here.  They come and go. They dimple the surface of the city's spacetime like water-striding insects, staying for a few months at a stretch and then flitting elsewhere. They don't have enough mass to draw the gaze of the individuals around whom the orbits wheel.

But Rafferty is being gazed at. And he knows all the way to the pit of his stomach that this is the worst thing thing that can happen to him.

Poke Rafferty is a journalist, living in Bangkok with his Thai wife and daughter. Breathing Water is several books into the series, and so possibly not the best place to start, but I have to say that I didn't find my comprehension suffering by coming late to the story, and Hallinan is good at communicating enough of what's gone before to fill in the blanks. The story opens with a high stakes poker game, which leads Rafferty into a curious bargain. He's to use his journalistic skills to tell the story of a Bangkok big wig, and immediately finds himself pincered between those who want the story told and those who want the story never, ever to get out. Trying to figure out who wants what is only part of Rafferty's problem.

The secondary story is that of a young girl who when given the choice, opts to be a beggar on Bangkok's hot streets rather than become a prostitute. Eventually, of course, her story and Rafferty's come together.

Hallinan treats dark subjects with a humorous touch, which serves his purposes better than a more downbeat voice. For the typical uninformed Westerner (such as myself) he is very good at elucidating the Thai power structure, in which ethnically Chinese Thais inhabit the rarified upper echelons, and the  native Thai Isaan from the northeastern part of the country are typically among the impoverished lower classes. Oh, yeah--skin color matters.

This is an entertaining suspenseful tale, but you will absorb quite a bit about the Thai culture without even really trying. I even learned a bit more about the previously incomprehensible riots in Bangkok a few years back, in which the red shirts and the yellow shirts were duking it out. Turns out it wasn't about the shirt color. It was about power--who had it, and who was going to have it in the fuure.

I think that after reading this book, you'll at least know a little bit more about who you'd like to win...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

NYRB podcast from The Mookse and the Gripes

As the occcasional reader here will have figured out, a fair percentage of the books I read these days are from the New York Review of Books imprint. This is partly because I'm the NYRB book group on Goodreads (an open group--join in!), and partly because I think it's one of the most intriguing imprints going these days.

Now Trevor and Brian Berrett over on The Mookse and the Gripes website are adding a whole new dimension to the discussion by doing a monthly podcast about some NYRB favorite. The first one is on Butcher's Crossing, by John Williams. I haven't read this one yet, but apparently it's a 'western' in the same way Cormac McCarthy's books sometimes are. Check it out HERE, or on ITunes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wee Rockets, by Gerard Brennan

I've been a bit remiss about getting around to reading Wee Rockets, mainly because it just takes me longer to get around to ebooks than their paper counterparts. What can I say? I'm old school. Also, I work in a bookstore.  But as I've very much enjoyed Mr. Brennans' work in the past, I have persisted and think it's high time I wrote a few thoughts on the matter.

When I first heard about Wee Rockets, which I learned would be about a bunch of young kids in hoodies in Belfast, I must say that I didn't know they would be such tough characters. I was maybe thinking more along the lines of the Artful Dodger and other beloved street urchins.

But these are not those kids. When we come into the story, Joe Phillips' crew is just setting out to mug an old lady, and this is not their first crime, even though, as the story tells us, none of them is over fourteen years old. (And some are a lot younger.) And the community has begun to notice.

For this reason, and not because of any crisis of conscience, Joe, who is the tallest of the bunch and therefore the most conspicuous, is looking to leave the gang behind him. But not before Stephen McVeigh, after trying to rally the Beechmount community behind him, decides to go after the gang as a kind of lone vigilante. In essence, these two fateful decisions propel the book. Well, that and the surprise visit of a long lost relative.

Never having been a pre-teen boy (and they are all boys, there is nary a girl in sight, though Joe seems to have a healthy enough interest in grown women), you might think that this violent and sometimes brutal tale about boys stealing to gain access to cheap cigarettes,booze and weed would hold little interest for me. But it's perhaps exactly the inside view that makes it so interesting. How many books have you read about what it's like to grow up in a working class Catholic neighborhood just as the Troubles are starting to recede? Yeah--same here.

Brennan has many strengths that makes this not just another crime story. He has a great gift for structuring a story, for one thing. There are a lot of characters in this short book, and a lot of plots to keep whirling in the air, but he manages this in a very understated sort of way. You don't really realize how difficult it is until you stop to think about it. The book has humor despite its darkness, and I must say that though I'm sure the author drew on some autobiographical details to write his characters, I have to hope that his obvious talent for thinking up criminal activity all went on to the page and wasn't tested in the real world at an earlier time...   

There are elements of the story that could be told here in Santa Cruz, which though affluent and mostly calm, does have its gang problems. But as I've stepped back from the story a little, I think there is a lot about its particular milieu that leaves these kids with too much time on their hands. It's not just absent fathers and working moms that are the problem. This story is set in the aftermath of a war, and the power vacuum that came in the wake of that is evident. Who does have authority? is one of the questions the book asks. The fact that young kids can rush around mugging people with impunity means that the social fabric is pretty tattered.

There is a telling sentence fairly far into the book. It's almost a throwaway. Joe is sitting in a car parked near Queens' University, though he doesn't know precisely where. "He'd never been in this part of the city. Hadn't thought he ever would."

Hadn't thought he ever would. It was fairly stunning to me to read that, but it made the over the top behavior of the kids seem more credible to me. It isn't just that these young Beechmont hoodlums don't expect to go to college. They don't even expect to visit its vicinity. It's not just transportation that's stopping them. It's that as much as they identify with their Beechmount neighborhood, they are also limited by it.

In one scene far into the book, one character takes another out to dinner. When the woman starts yelling at her date, he tells her that her Beechmount is showing. "This is a classy place, you know."

The woman has the pride to walk out on him, but, tellingly she doesn't have quite enough self-confidence to stare the other diners down and have her meal anyway.

Now frankly, most of this book's target readers aren't going to be reading it for these sorts of sociological reflections. They're going to be reading it for the fast paced, gritty and sometimes shocking little tale that it is . And I say, have at it!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

There's Just Something About Amara Lakhous--Divorce, Islamic Style

I read a lot of different kinds of books and I like a lot of authors, but for me the dead giveaway that someone has got my number is when I gasp as I come across a new work by them.

Such is the case with Amara Lakhous, the Algerian-born Italian who has written the work under discussion here. I first learned of Lakhous thanks to an Italian blog friend and for this, will be forever indebted to him.  Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio used the mystery format to introduce us to a highly diverse immigrant community on one Italian piazza. (I wrote about that book here if you're interested.)

So it should come as no surprise to us that Lakhous uses yet another time-honored genre, the spy novel, to form the basis of this one. I think, though, that there has probably never been a spy novel quite like this one.     

Christian, an Arabic speaking Sicilian, is approached to infiltrate a largely Arabic neighborhood called Viale Marconi. He takes on the Arabic name of Issa, which means Jesus. Meanwhile, Safia is a recent immigrant with aspirations of her own, and adopts the more Italian sounding name of Sofia. Everyone in the book has a double identity, which is not only a sly nod to the spy world and its cover identities, but also to the double nature of the immigrant/exile experience.

I've had a lot of interest in spy fiction for the last couple of years, partly because I have a very undeveloped manuscript in the genre which I'm constantly trying to figure out how to make better. But perhaps even more to the point here, it's opened me to a lot of thinking about the morality of espionage, its necessity, and so on. A lot of commercial spy fiction gives only a passing nod to the harm it causes, and I always like reading work that treats the effects on the lives that get caught up in it seriously.

One of the wonderful things about Lakhous is the way he is able to tackle serious questions in a disarming and even light-hearted way. An early example is when Issa is at a training retreat and says:

The absolutely first lesson was to use the English word "intelligence" rather than "espionage". Words are important.

I couldn't help thinking of this when a few days later I was reading the opinions of a former CIA operative, stressing the importance of intelligence. Like all euphemisms, it hides an uglier truth, which Lakhous knows and has Issa tell us as he weighs the pros and cons:

Spying is despicable work. You've got to meet a lot of requirements if you're going to be successful: don't look people in the face and have betrayal in your heart--as the Neopolitians would say. But I'm no fool, I can't pretend not to notice: Islamic terrorists do exist, they're not an invention of the media.

This deceptively simple speech is the whole situation--for the West, for democracy and for conscience. And Divorce, Islamic Style is laden with such contradictions and internal struggles.

To his very great credit, Lakhous does not set this up as a "The West against Islam" novel. For his other protagonist, Safia/Sofia is an Egyptian immigrant, an observant Muslim and a wife of an even stricter one. She struggles within herself to be a true follower of Islam, while craving some of the freedoms that the West has to offer her. But Islam itself is also about freedom and her internal conversation is about how stay faithful to this greater Islam and not to the sometimes very misogynistic practices that have been laid upon it.

As with his earlier book, Lakhous is very concerned to write about the immigrant mentality and what is behind it. In this he is talking about a much more universal mindset than that of any one country or immigrant group. The importance of what has been invested in one representative, the attitude of indifference to one's own personal comfort, the apprehensions and anxieties that fill the minds of those with both legal and illegal residency status--all are movingly shown and worth thinking about.

The book has a few flaws. The ending is a bit abrupt and somewhat disappointing, and particularly in Safia's speech there are some recurring phrases that may work better in Italian, but become fairly obtrusive in this story. These are, for me, minor things, though. The true gift of  Divorce, Islamic Style is its beautiful rendering of a tiny slice of the immigrant community in one specific neighborhood of Rome.    

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Shout Her Lovely Name, by Natalie Serber

Every once in awhile I see the complaint that writers and readers are now all part of one big mutual admiration society. Here's an example. For all I know this is true, although I certainly don't think you can blame the authors for any publicity schemes they might come up with, as, much more often than not, they are left high and dry by their publishers' marketing departments, who tend to be focussed, like everyone else in the publishing game, on the big fish and the big score.

Every once in awhile though, the opposite effect happens. You happen to know the author when they are still a struggling unpublished writer. Maybe they're your next door neighbor, or someone you work with or someone's spouse. You admire the gumption maybe, but you don't think it's going to take them very far. Or maybe that's just me, because I've worked in the book biz for a long time, and  I know a little bit about the odds.

I know a fair number of writers now, but so far only a couple have I known before their books came out. One was Laurie R. King, who chatted to me at my housemates' backyard barbecue about a mystery she was working on. I was polite and sympathetic, but I didn't think it would amount to much. That was before Grave Talent won the Edgar for Best First Novel in 1994, and much before her acclaimed Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell series took off like gangbusters. So much for my predictive powers.

I should have known better, then, when Natalie Serber's stories began appearing around town. I believe she actually won first place in a short story contest that the bookstore I work in started hosting while she still lived here.I know Natalie a little, mainly because she is a close friend of one of my long time friends. We very briefly shared a book group. So  I must stress that I never thought she wasn't any good--I think I just thought her semi-autobiographical stories would hold more local interest than national.

Well, I sure don't mind admitting I was wrong. Shout Her Lovely Name is a terrific collection. I'd place it right up there with another favorite, Melissa Bank's The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, which also exploits what I assume is autobiographical content to lovely effect. Natalie's collection mainly tracks the ups and downs of Ruby and her daughter Nora, but there are a few unrelated stories thrown in as well. Although I suppose these are a bit disruptive to our more pure involvement with this picaresque pair, I sure wouldn't sacrifice the powerful title story for the sake of purity. The collection is held together by a more universal vision of the lives of mothers and daughters, and the  incidental vagaries of men.

All these stories but particularly the second person Ruby/Nora stories are beautifully observed, with a writerly eye for the telling detail. Although there is a clear gap between the generations, there is none of the" revenge on the parents!" feeling that plagues many writers' stories when they are first granted permission to unleash them. Ruby isn't perfect, but neither is Nora. Neither is anybody else.

I really enjoyed this collection and very much look forward to seeing what Natalie Serber, writer-at-large, will do next.  

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

I've been a bit remiss about posting reviews here lately. Not that anybody minds. I have been reading, but the truth is that a couple of recent books have bogged me down in describing them and I haven't really had the time to do them justice.

The first of these books was ZeitounZeitoun probably got read more because of its famous author than because of the subject himself, and I'm afraid this probably had the opposite effect on me. Living in close proximity to San Francisco, with its renowned 826 Valencia Street writing center/pirate store, I've often wondered if the charismatic Eggers, who seems to have a kind of literary world version of the Midas Touch, isn't just a little too cool for school. And why do all his projects have to be so damned philanthropic and catchy?

Another excuse is that I'm just not much of a one for biography. I don't know why, I just don't gravitate toward it, even though I generally do like well-written ones if I happen to get around to them. Such was the case with this one, which I ended up reading as a bit of research for a project.

Eggers is a brilliant book designer and innovator, I think. His prose in longer pieces like this one, though, tends to be simple, solid and not flashy. He tells a good story in an understated, workmanlike way. And if ever a story needed a calm narrative voice, its this one.

Eggers would have had to search far and wide to find a better character around which to frame his telling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Abdulraman Zeitoun, universally known around New Orleans simply as Zeitoun is an American immigrant in the Horatio Alger mold. He is ambitious, hardworking and fair. He is also a Syrian-born Muslim. His wife Kathy is an American convert to the faith. Together they own a painting business and have slowly built up both wealth and friendship in the city.    

When the catastrophe that will be Katrina looms, Kathy evacuates with their children, but Zeitoun decides to stay and keep an eye on their various properties. He is able to help a variety of people and animals in the post-apocalyptic days that follow the storm, and also to be a witness to the incompetence and callousness that reigned in some parts of this situation. He is also to become a victim of it when he is wrongly arrested and incarcerated without due process in a makeshift prison that is thrown up overnight. Kathy too, now many miles away, is thrown into a terrible ordeal of not knowing what has happened to her husband.

Largely through Kathy's persistence, Zeitoun is eventually (emphasis on eventually) released. Their tale ends on a rather downbeat note. They are moving forward but the strain and suffering has affected them in many substantial ways. A more innocent belief in the American Dream has been ended.

However, this is not quite the end of the story. Because it is one thing to endure a tale of incredible and shocking hardship, but it's another to have that tale become the center of a book that is part of the McSweeney's empire. Zeitoun won the American Book Award in 2010. Eggers gave over all profits the book made to the Zeitoun foundation, which helps people still struggling to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of Katrina. The foundation is mentioned at the end of the paperback, and the book has been adopted in many schools as a course book. The Zeitoun family can't help but know that this is part of their story now too.

But this isn't the end of the story either, unfortunately. I was curious after reading the book where the family finds itself now. I thought time might have softened some of the traumatic impact of those days. Instead, I found the lesser known story that Zeitoun had been arrested in March of last year on charges of assaulting his wife. Though living next door to each other, they were estranged and the argument occurred when he came over to her house. Although he eventually pled guilty to a lesser charge of negligent injuring, this injurying was enough to send Kathy Zeitoun to the hospital.

You can draw many conclusions from this post-story story. Maybe the fabled life of the Zeitouns had never been what it seemed. Maybe it changed after Abdulraman's ordeal while imprisoned. Maybe even Egger's well-intentioned bringing their story into the spotlight had something to do with the unraveling of their marriage. Who knows?

I had some doubts about mentioning this last part. Zeitoun's story in the book is inspiring in itself and what happened to him an indictment of racial profiling. Who wants to be the one to point to the feet of clay in a story like that? Not me. There's a part of me that wishes I didn't even know it myself. I'm sure there will be someone reading this out there who will feel the same way.

But after what has actually been a rather long period of indecision, I felt that  I couldn't review the book without mentioning this other troubling side of things. It doesn't make the story told in the book untrue--it only makes the whole thing a lot more complicated.  The framing of biography is always somewhat subjective and incomplete, and endings in particular are largely arbitrary, unless they end with the grave. I'm sure there is still more story to be told in the Zeitoun saga.

For one thing, I hear there are plans for a movie.           

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Abroad, by Thomas Crane and Ellen E. Houghton

With the advent of the Espresso Book Machine in the store I work in, a whole treasure trove of public domain books has come into my purview. Something I discovered today was that there are all these beautifully illustrated old children's books that you can download and look at on your computer or presumably other devices. Abroad is the one I was looking at today while manning the information desk. Click on the link and hit 'Read online' in the left hand column. I have to admit that I only briefly scanned the verse, being more interested in the gorgeous nostalgic pictures.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Monstress, by Lisley Tenorio

I put up a post the other day on this book on my more story related blog, which you can find here. Nevertheless, I think I gave the stories short shrift in my discussion of reading and readings. If like me, you don't really know a whole lot about the life of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans, you will pick up a lot from these often poignant stories. Off the top of my head, we've got the Filipino film industry, the Phillipines leper colony, the day the Beatles got into a kerfuffle with their Filipino fan base, the lives of the immigrant community in San Francisco's I Hotel, and the immigrant experience in a California place which might be heard by some to be called L'Amour. Oh yeah, and faith healers. I like the way Tenorio takes these historically based events and spins his own quite unique stories out of them. Check them out.  

Sunday, July 1, 2012

O Canada!

In honor of Canada Day, which we Americans are sadly negligent about celebrating as a rule, I'm going to mention the Canadian Book Challenge 6, which I just learned about thanks to Page 242. I like the idea, because there is a lot of great, unsung Canadian fiction out there. I doubt very much that I could read and review 13 Canadian novels to fulfill the goal, but I hope it will spur me to read a few more than I would have. Read all about it HERE .

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, by G. B. Edwards

I've been thinking about this book for awhile now, without quite finding the time or the way to commit my thoughts to print. This was yet another of the books I read for the New York Review of Books book group over on GoodReads. We were enticed into reading it by the video down at the end.

Ebenezer Le Page is the longest book we've read for this group and it perhaps bogged us down a little. I don't think I was entirely prepared for its style by the video, although I understand the video better after reading the book. The book of the title is basically the book that the eponymous character decides to write at the end of his life--a kind of reckoning or accounting. Le Page lives on the isle of Guernsey for his entire life, with perhaps the exception of a trip to neighboring Jersey. Or maybe the Jersey team comes to Guernsey--I can't remember. Guernsey's position in being closer to the French coastline but a British Crown dependency gives it a complicated history and complex population for such a small place. It was also occupied by Germany during World War II, which caused other divisions and allegiances.

I was expecting this to be full of a lot of colorful island lore, and I didn't quite find that to be the case. As I found myself constantly thinking, the tale of Ebenezer's life on Guernsey reminded me of nothing so much as of the stories my dad used to tell us about his life in a small farming community in northern Illinois. There is an intense preoccupation with local concerns, and the same sense of small local events being stored up in memory for a lifetime. It's interesting, because in fact, it's not as insular a community as it might sound (nor was my dad's). People do take off for North America--mostly Canada, if I remember right, and of course the two great wars of the last century impact the story in all kinds of ways.

Early on, Ebenezer falls for a girl who is either very right for him, or very wrong, and without giving too much away, let's just say it doesn't work out. Although several people reading this in our group thought that Ebenezer's friendship with Jim Mahy had more than a little of the homoerotic to it, it's indisputable that Ebenezer spent a lot of time inviting the lasses to lie down with him under the bushes. What I found interesting was that Ebenezer himself considers Liza Queripel "the one", and he abandons hope of having her very early on. One of the things I found most intriguing about the book was to see how Ebenezer lives a life without hope for about forty or fifty years longer.

This book crept up on me a bit. I never found it hard to read or a slog, but I didn't find it to be quite as dynamic as I expected either. There is no true suspense in it, as the narrator gives away much of the story as he goes along. But suspense isn't everything. In the end, I've come to feel that it is a wisdom book, a "how are we to live" sort of book. Perhaps it is a book geared for the middle-aged more than the young, because in a way it addresses how to live once youth's hopes and illusions have faded. It is mysteriously "like life" in the way it conveys how life goes on with its own mysteries, rewards and consolations despite our disappointments in it. The ending is actually quite beautiful in its picture of how one man transcends his own individual life and marvels at the whole.

If  you are willing to take this book on its own terms, without preconception, then I highly recommend it.  

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling

We read this last month for my reading group, partly because it plays a role in Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, which everyone but me read the month before, and partly because at least one member had such fond childhood memories of it.

I didn't have a lot of time for the book so I only reread the Mowgli stories at the beginning. I have a fairly vivid memory of reading it as well as "Rikki Tike Tavvi" and to a lesser extent, "The Harbor Seal". It turned out that our various collections had a lot of non-overlap. Mine had some stories I don't remember, and others had a later tale of Mowgli, I think involving a wife.

I wouldn't necessarily have written about this here, but a couple of things seem worth mentioning. One is that I was struck by how Kipling turned the Law of the Jungle on its head. The real law of the jungle, I think is a Darwinian eat or be eaten kind of thing. But Kipling, being British, turns this into an actual code of law, with a tribal counsel and treaties and everything.  Far from the dog eat dog world which we think of in relation to it, Kipling even managed a little poem:

"Now this is the Law of the Jungle—as old and as true as the sky;
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk, the Law runneth forward and back;
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack."

It's still true to the theory of evolution, but I think the communal aspect is a significant twist.

Tonight after work I went and heard Jon Young speak about his book What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World at a little discussion group I go to. I was quite surprised to hear him speak about Kipling and how wonderfully he wrote about natural society. He even mentioned the Law of the Jungle, but he said it was really more the etiquette of the jungle. He told a great story of a herd of elephants in Africa. The leader almost stumbled upon a nesting bird of some sort or other, and she literally backed up, backing up the elephant behind her and so on, so that they then could all go around. I guess the etiquette of the jungle is that when you can give another creature space, you do.  

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The BBC podcasts of James Joyce's Ulysses

Apologies for not getting more posts up here recently. I'm reading but not finding the time to write up what I've read. But to accentuate the positive in my laxness, I thought I'd put up this great podcast link to some readings the BBC did for Bloomsday. You can download them for free, but you better hurry, because there is only a week or so left to do so.

If you've always thought Ulysses was inaccessible, listen to the one set at Barney Kiernan's pub, which is the one we listened to on the 16th, and you may think again.

Find them HERE.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

June is Novella month

Sure, I have things to write about--I just don't have time to write them. Meanwhile, it's Novella Month over at Emerging Writers Network, and here is a great list of novellas to read, posted by Kyle Minor.

Man, have I got some reading to do...

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The De Luca Trilogy, by Carlo Lucarelli

Fortunate the author who finds his material, and recognizes the find when he sees it. As Carlo Lucarelli tells us in an introduction that he includes with all three of these books, he was a student in Bologna writing a thesis on the police in the time of facist Italy, when he encountered a policeman who had lived and worked through the tumultuous years leading up to, through and beyond the second world war. In practice, this meant that he had worked for Mussolini, the partisans, and the nascent Italian Republic. In this man, Lucarelli knew he had the makings of the perfect protagonist to lead us through a very complicated and tragic chapter of Italian history.

When we first meet Comissario De Luca in Carte Blanche, he has just been transferred from the Political Police to the regular police and he plaintively but not entirely effectively must remind people of this fact--Commisario, not Commandante--throughout the novel. In fact, this becomes a recurring theme of the novels. People are always assigning De Luca a title which he is at pains to reject. By the third novel, Via delle Oche, people have moved on to calling him Dottore. I am not a dottore, I am not a dottore, he continues to assert. Out of context, this may sound finicky, but in fact, De Luca must for the sake of his own sanity and survival assert his precise identity. He is a policeman. Is, was, and always will be a policeman. But De Luca also had another identity. For a period of time, he was a Black Shirt, working for the fascist government. And this is the identity that he must at all times conceal. The fear that it will be revealed is the doom hanging over him through all three novels.

At least from what we can gather from De Luca himself, which we will have to judge based on our own assessment of him, he never took part in the brutal aspects of Mussolini's regime. His job, then and in the novels before us, was to investigate crime and pursue criminals. His honor rests on this assertion. Meanwhile, though, he is pretty much a wreck--he can't eat, he can't sleep, but then almost falls asleep where he stands in broad daylight. In the first novel, another character recognizes that his existential situation is fear.

The crime plots within the books work, and in some degree are connected with the political situtation of the moment. Above all, though, they attest to De Luca's conviction--that above all he is a policeman. He wants to solve crime. It drives him crazy when he can't close a case, or when he is thwarted from doing so by political powers above him. His zealousness takes him beyond his fear, although at crucial points, he is also paralyzed by it.

To us, perhaps, the idea that you could wrap yourself in the cloak of your profession and absolve yourself of complicity with corrupt powers may seem absurd. But I remember reading a passage in Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon some years ago, where she describes a man she met in Yugoslavia who for her represented an older ideology, and who  had this same idea of what a profession was. Things that we would find contradictory in one person were not so for him, because he undertook them under completely different roles.

"Excuse me, Maresciallo, but...who do you vote for?" Lucarelli asked his friend at one point, with our own kind of perplexity.

"What does that have to do with it? I'm a policeman."

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Berlin Stories, by Robert Walser

"Good Morning, Giantess!" So the first chapter of this collection opens as the newly arrived Swiss citizen takes stock of his subject, the  great city of Berlin. We were recently reading this over on GoodReads--me, at least, at what I hope was an appropriately leisurely pace, for Walser strolls through the city--he never runs. 

In an interview on BBC's Night Waves (it's about 30 minutes in) Susan Bernofsky, the translator of this collection, calls Walser the blogger of the early 20th century. I think there is something in that, although there is a humility in Walser, an ability to make his feuilletons about any number of small, easily missed things and not about himself, that is someitmes absent from the blogosphere. He often writes not of "I", but of "we", which is never a royal "we", but his way of including us more fully in the experience. Then again, his "I" often dissolves instead into a "you".

It is very kind of him to write so, because most of us will never on our own enjoy the pleasures and observations of urban living as he did. Read his piece "In the Electric Tram" if you'd like to learn more about how to get the most out of a simple ride on public transportation. Some modifications will have to be made, but it helps to know that Walser would have risen to that particular challenge.

Walser paints a very beautiful portrait, but all the same life was not easy for him, here in a foreign capital. His brother was a much sought after set designer, so Walser rode on his coattails a bit, and I think sometimes both brothers were thought of as a bit eccentric in Berlin society. He doesn't seem to have let it bother him much. Although he had a famous brother, he was not a famous person pretending to be humble and obscure, but actually obscure and struggling. I think it helps to know that he was able to write what are mostly incredibly joyful pieces despite this.

One of my favorite pieces, though, is an uncharacteristic one. It is later in the book, and Walser is no longer a recent arrival. It struck a chord with me when I read it--probably after a long day of retail-- and is called "Food for Thought":

How uncertain, how difficult people make one another's lives. How they belittle each other and are at pains to suspect and dishonor. How everything takes place merely for the sake of triumph. When they leave things undone, this occurs because of external exigencies, and when they err, it is never they who are at fault. Their fellow men always appear to them as obstacles, while their own person is always the highest and most noble of creatures...It's strange how quick people are to dismiss one another, to invoke a scornful tone, trifling with what is most noble, precious and meaningful. And how they never grow weary of finding fault, how it never occurs to them to hope there might be greatness, goodness and honesty on earth... 

Purely by chance, I seem to have read three pieces on Berlin in the twentieth century recently, and though only one century, all are completely different periods in the life of that city. Having earlier read In the Garden of Beasts, the title of which refers to the famous Tiergarten of Berlin and is set in the time of the rise of the Nazis, I have since read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, set in the period directly after the war when the Berlin Wall is being very firmly hammered into place. And now this lovely book which is made sad by the fact that it it set in the opening decades of that century, and we know all that will befall Berlin and Walser does not. Another sadness is that Walser's own life did not ultimately end well.

Here's a link to a lovely podcast of one of the stories, "Frau Wilke". The narrator, Sam Jones, keeps up blog called Wandering With Robert Walser , which is worth keeping track of if you fall for this stuff.

As I have.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John le Carré

I have a funny relation to this book. I have known the ending (don't worry, I shall not reveal it here) since I was nine years old, when I saw the copy one of my parents had checked out from the library lying on the table. I imagine there was a bit of a buzz about it at the time, which was shortly after it came out, or maybe just the title intrigued me. In any case, I did something that was totally uncharacteristic for me, then or since--I opened to the back and read the end. I have no idea why I did that. Suffice to say that the decades have come and gone and I have never had the slightest urge to discover what led up to that ending. Until now.

Recently, for reasons that are again unknown to me, I have suddenly been interested in spies. Yes, I've been working on a very bad spy novel and part of it is just research to make it marginally better, but the interest actually proceeded the writing so it's not just that. I think it's probably truer that the spy story came out of this earlier interest than the reverse.

Of course we're all reading le Carré again these days, what with the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy movie out recently, but though I fully expected that would be the le Carré I would pick up next, this was the one that I finally did gravitate toward. Reversing the usual readerly expectations, it wasn't that I wanted to know the end--I wanted to know the beginning.

It's best to just take the story on cold, so I won't ruin it for you with a lot of details. Basically, the Iron Curtain is up in full force and as the story opens our protagonist, Alec Leamas, comes back from Berlin after things have gone badly wrong there. Leamas has been a spy for a long time. He's got some pension issues, and he isn't really ready to take a desk job, though in spy terms he is already a little past it. How he decides to use his last good years in the game is what the novel is all about.

There has been so much spy fiction in the intervening years that perhaps the plot won't seem particularly novel to you. But le Carré is an assured and interesting writer to read in any case. The only other novel of his I have read so far is A Murder of Quality, which comes right before this one, and though it features George Smiley, le Carre's most famous character, it is really more of a detective novel. Smiley has a cameo appearance or two in this one as well, but the book is Leamas's.

Reading the Wikipedia article (I advise against this, until you've read the book, but I will keep spoilers out here), I learned that the book made at least part of its impact by revising our notions of what the world of espionage was all about. The amorality, and the mirror imaging of the opposing sides was exposed. It's interesting that though in one way, this is a lesson we learned long ago, in another, it seems to be one we are doomed to learn over and over.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura

I picked up this book in galley form purely by chance one afternoon at the bookstore I work in, and then couldn't put it down. Luckily for you, I was very late in reading it and it became available on March 20th in finished form.

Our nameless protagonist is a pickpocket--an excellent one. He roams Tokyo--its streets, its trains--smoothly lifting the wallets of the unsuspecting. Although he is not at all befuddled, there is a certain sense that he is operating in a fugue state, as though by concentrating on the details of these crimes, he is seeking to avoid awareness of his larger life. We have the sense that he has been doing this for awhile now, without any larger aims than keeping afloat, but life is about to come crashing in on him anyway. Without intending to, he becomes involved with a mother and son. The mother's the kind you'd call Child Protective Services on in the U.S. but  the Thief is probably not the sort of person who would call the authorities in any country. His relationship with the boy recalls many stories with an unlikely stranger being thrust into the role of guardian of a small child, but it's no  less compelling for that.

The past has come back to haunt the Thief in a big way, too. Through his connection to an earlier crime he is roped into a home robbery, and things spiral out of control from there. To be honest, the one element of the story that rang a bit untrue for me was the nihilistic darkness of the chief villain. But then I happened to read the beginning of a book called Tokyo Vice, which was written by an American journalist in Japan named Jake Adelstein. After his description of the gangster mentality there, I could be persuaded that the philosophical villain of this novel is, if anything, a little underwritten as far as ruthlessness goes.

The Thief reminded me in very different ways of both Barry Eisler's  first couple of John Rain novels, Rain Fall and Hard Rain  because of the Tokyo setting and the attentiveness to detail in the various criminal operations the Thief is involved in, and the sad but yearning tones of Banana Yoshimoto's latest novel (in English) The Lake. And that's not a combination you see everyday.

Oh, yeah--the ending is my kind of ending.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberly, by P.D. James

This one is something of a disappointment. I hesitated writing it up here, because I have nothing but respect for the Baroness James, and have read most of her work with appreciation and admiration. When this novel came out, more than one person I know questioned the value of this venture, and I have to say I found it all a bit irritating. Why shouldn't a master of the modern mystery set a crime at the fabled Pemberly. Why, at 92, and still sharp and curious about things, shouldn't she write about anything she likes?

I still defend that position, actually. The fact that the novel at hand doesn't quite measure up to my expectations doesn't actually mean it was a terrible idea. That said, though, there are some inherent problems in turning a Jane Austen novel into a P.D. James novel. Those of you are fans of James will understand this if you think about it for a moment. Although I think Phyllis Dorothy James has a fair amount of wit, judging from interviews I've seen, as a novelist, she takes on a more dour persona. People tend to be on the cooler, unlaughing side, and trouble, such as murder, tends to make them worse. The P. D. James universe is a pretty dark one, actually. People who are not selfish, self-absorbed or cruel tend to be either mired down in problems or naive ( read here, "lambs to the slaughter") or at the best extremely introspective (Dalgliesh, I'm looking at you).

Darcy, in fact, turns out to be a bit of a Dalgleish doppelganger in Death Comes to Pemberly. You know how Dalgleish is, uh, very, very tenative about whether he should progress in his later life romance with Cambridge lecturer Emma Lavenham? Well, Darcy is Dalgleish in this novel. Having married one of the most scintillating heroines of all time doesn't seem to have lightened his world very much. And this is before the murder.

I read this on an elaborate short trip a week ago, involving trains, planes and automobiles. And buses. And light rail. Despite not being totally happy with the situation of the novel--Pemberly had more problems than I would have foreseen, but this was no doubt much more likely, realistically speaking--I was very glad to have a James book be the thing I turned to to pass the time, because, as usual, she is able to build the world of the book very convincingly. It's an interesting place to go. But the very convincingness of the world she creates is part of the problem. Will I ever be able to think of Darcy and Elizabeth as not weighed down by the cares and responsibilities of their station in life again?

There may in fact be a title more appropriate, more true to Darcy's later role in the life of Elizabeth, although to be honest, I haven't read it. It is by one Amanda Grange and is called, Mr. Darcy, Vampyre. For certainly the Mr. Darcy of Death Comes to Pemberly will eventually suck all the life and liveliness out of poor Elizabeth Bennet. She doesn't stand a chance.   

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Post-Office Girl, by Stefan Zweig

I really enjoyed this bittersweet novella of Zweig's. I'd long heard of  him but this was my first plunge into his work. It's a bit of an anti-Cinderella story, I suppose, where the princess does get to go to the ball, but the prince doesn't bother to come find her later. Christine is working in a remote Austrian village in between the two Great Wars. Her mother is an invalid, they are poor and Christine works at the post office, without much hope of change. Out of the blue a wealthy aunt extends her an invitation to join her in a luxury hotel, and Christine begins to live, breathe and dream again. We've had a great discussion over on the New York Review of Books discussion forum over at GoodReads , which is an open group--feel free to join us--we're on to Berlin Stories by Robert Walser. 

There is a lot to say about this book, but as someone pointed out to me early on, Zweig was exquisite at rendering subtle psychological states. I was particularly struck by this one, because it shows the mind still remembering its cage:

In this new world even sleep is different: blacker, denser, more drugged, you're completely submerged in yourself. As she awakens Christine hauls her drowned senses out of these new depths, slowly, laboriously, bit by bit, as though from a bottomless well. First she has an uncertain sense of the time. Through her eyelids she sees brightness; the room must be light, it must be day. It's a vague, muffled feeling, followed by an anxious thought (even while she's still asleep): Dont' forget about work! Don't be late! The train of thought she's known for the last ten years begins automatically: The alarm clock will ring now... Don't go back to sleep... Responsibility, responsibility, responsibility... Get up now, work starts at eight, and before that I'll have to get the heat started, make coffee, get the milk, the rolls, tidy up, change mother's bandages, prepare for lunch, and what else? There's something else  I have to do today...Right, pay the grocer lady, she reminded me yesterday...No, don't doze off, stay alert, get up when the alarm goes off... But what's the problem today...What's keeping it...Is the alarm clock broken, did I forget to wind it...where's the alarm, it's light in the room...Goodness, maybe I overslept and it's already seven or eight or nine and people are cursing at the wicket the way they did that time when I wasn't feeling well, right away they wanted to complain to the head office...And so many employees are being let go these days... Dear God, I can't be late, I can't oversleep...The long-buried fear of being late is like a mole tunneling under the black soil of sleep. Abruptly the last of it falls away.

It seemed fitting that my blog friend PQ was talking about a similar supression of life over on his blog, A Building Roam , where he is currently much taken with Robert Anton Wilson, among others. Here, he is quoting Buckminster Fuller, a figure not unknown in Santa Cruz:

Let us regard wage-work---as most people do, in fact, regard it---as a curse, a drag, a nuisance, a barrier that stands between us and what we really want to do. In that case, your job is the disease, and unemployment is the cure.
"But without working for wages we'll all starve to death!?! Won't we?"
Not at all. Many farseeing social thinkers have suggested intelligent and plausible plans for adapting to a society of rising unemployment.
The mentality of the wage earner seems to be reported on from many angles in my life right now, and not usually in the most positive light. It makes me wonder what is coming...