Sunday, March 30, 2014

Priest, by Ken Bruen

 It's not always easy to review a book that's midway through a series. Priest is the fifth book in the excellent Jack Taylor series, and for once I read the books in order and advise you to also. As Priest opens, Jack is in a pretty dark place for reasons I won't divulge here. Suffice to say that he could well be the mascot for Beckett's famous line "I can't go on, I'll go on." Well, if he didn't go on, we wouldn't have a book, would we? But lesser men might have failed at this juncture.

It would be interesting for me to know what the majority of Americans think who read Bruen's novels. I've been to Galway, and I have to confess that I didn't encounter any of the dark heart of Ireland while I was there. But of course that means nothing--I was a tourist. It was perfectly easy for me to avoid the underworld of Bangkok when I visited as well. More than the crimes that form the plots of the Jack Taylor novels, though, it's the exposure of the darker side of the Irish psyche that I wonder what Americans will make of. Although Ken Bruen himself has a good bit of the famous Irish charm, his novels don't seem to play to Irish-American expectations of the Old Sod. The Magdalen Martyrs dealt with the notorious Magdalen Laundries scandal, and this fifth book doesn't tread lightly when it comes to abuse by priests of young boys. I don't give too much away to say that it pretty much starts with a priest's beheading.

But apart from these large issues, it's really more the Irish character that Bruen is so good at dissecting and skewering. He doesn't shy away from subjects like Irish alcoholism or the abuse of power by Catholicism in a country where the church and state are more firmly wedded than they ever were in ours.And yet Bruen writes as an insider to the culture, not as an anthropologist. And he still has a bit of respect for the old Galway as opposed to its modern manifestation for all that.

As always literature, figures into Jack Taylor's life, but this round he's at a place where books fail to sustain him. Nevertheless, the chapters often start out with short quotes from the one book that's attracted him, Pascal's Pensées, a memoir that I never thought I'd read, anymore than Jack Taylor thought he would (although I can't speak for Bruen himself here.) But as is often the case with  classics you haven't read, the book appears to be a stranger creature than I took it for, darker about humankind and its journey than I would have thought. I have a feeling I'm going to have to read it.

I've thought off and on about why Taylor is such a charismatic character, not just for his fellow characters (and love or hate him, none of them seem to be able to leave him alone), but for us. But Bruen himself  answered the question for me in this one. Early on, he has Jack say:

"Soren Kierkegaard talked about man's condition being caught between insoluble tensions.

Fucker nailed me."

It isn't I admit, a very California kind of attitude, but the longer I live, the more I see how this must be so, and Jack is the character who knows this within his bones. His integrity, what he has of it, comes from this knowledge. He can be cruel, destructive to people who might not have earned such brutality, but he'll give money to the alcoholic beggar on Eyre Square, or any of a number of other sad sacks that you know are never going to make good either.

He isn't, however, on the evidence of these last couple of books, someone it would be wise to become close friends with.

Here's an interesting article on Bruen that I ran across when I was looking for an image of the book.

You could do worse, too, than to check out the Jack Taylor television series, which is available on Netflix. The stories so far are close to but not quite the same as the books, and Taylor on the show is not as dark a character as the one Bruen wrote. But there is something in the show that remains true to the spirit of the books, and for that I'll keep watching them. Recently, I watched a writer's conference on the web where Bruen talked of being tapped on the shoulder as he walked down the street in Galway and turning around to find a man who said, "Hi, I'm Jack Taylor." The actor was there on location as they shot the show, large as life, in Taylor's disreputable old garda coat and all.

For an author, it must have been quite a moment.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Gilead at EIL

I forgot to mention here that I wrote up Gilead at Escape Into Life last Friday. Marilynne Robinison's novel, told in the form of a letter by a dying minister to his young son, may not sound like the most scintillating thing you're going to come across, but it is an astounding novel. To read more of my usual rambling on and on, check it out HERE. And feel free to have a look around the rest of the website. EIL is quite the hopping place these days. It's even got a sports columnist now... 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Interior Sculpture: poems in the voice of Camille Claudel, by Kathleen Kirk

We should get out of the way right away any idea that I am a poet, or am actually qualified to analyze poetry in any meaningful way. Nevertheless poetry is always in need of further advertisement, unlike all those things in the world that get far too much of it. As it happens, several of my friends and acquaintances are poets, and good ones, so I think the least I can do is add a blog post on poetry from time to time. Who knows? I might actually learn something.

Besides, in this age of everything digital, chapbooks are cool. We should all buy more of them and support the people who take the time and care to make them, rather than just being attuned to the think that the big marketers tell us to want, right? Chapbooks are nice little objects in themselves. Plus, they are fast reads.

Okay. As the subtitle tells us, these poems are a thematically related set of short poems based on the life of Camille Claudel. Remember her? I did, but vaguely. Her life speaks to our era in many ways, and it's no surprise that there have been a couple of big movies devoted to her life, not to mention books, an opera and so on. Many people will know the basic bio, but briefly, she was a woman who had been interested in earthy materials like soil and clay since childhood, but found a mentor in the sculptor Alfred Bouchet, and under his auspices set up a workshop with other young women sculptors. Not as easy as you might think back in 1882. When Bouchet eventually went off to live in Florence, he asked Rodin to continue teaching his students. This, you might say, is where the trouble began.

Camille Claudel became Rodin's muse and lover. Intuitively one feels that it would be hard to be both muse and artist in one's own right. In any case, it was a stormy relationship. As such things do, eventually it broke.

Claudel began to have some sort of mental trouble in the early years of the new century. As with many sorts of women's madness, there seems to have been a great deal else involved than the purely organic. Claudel did not have what you might call a lot of family support once her father died, and eventually she was institutionalized for a very long time and until her death. Her "voluntary commitment" was not exactly or at least entirely that.

The title of this chapbook comes from a description of her work by Claudel's brother Paul, the poet. Their relationship was also complicated.

There are many wonderful, if tragic lines in these poems. I won't pick out too many, as I should leave them for you to discover, but grant me a couple:

"I was working small
from poverty, not some decorative
impulse in myself." 


"I am a woman crouching
in a corner. I am a torso of a woman crouching."


"We don't know what will pierce us."

As the back of the chapbook tells us, the poem cycle was part of a larger collaboration of dance music theatre and poetry called Claudel, which was performed earlier this year. The poet thanks her sister, the actress Christina Kirk, for reading the poems aloud as Camille Claudel in the asylum at Montevergues. Even just hearing of this gives me goosebumps.

So where can you get a copy? You can get one right HERE .

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Off the Shelf does Irish Crime

I was directed to a website called Off the Shelf just now, after reading about it on Declan Burke's blog, Crime Always Pays. The list he was directing us to was of eight works of Irish crime fiction. As I tend to be a bit of a dabbler rather than a completest, in books as in everything else, I was rather shocked to realize that I had read and enjoyed all these authors but one, and even that one I own two books from. I have even read the exact books mentioned, with the exception of the Kerrigan. I was rather bemused by all this. My reading life is really more about things I mean to get around to reading rather than things I have actually read. So what is it about Irish crime fiction that leads me to get the job done?

In any case, here's the list. Rather than my rambling reviews here, you will find these professional editors short and to the point.

(And the author I haven't read yet, for no reason at all, is Tana French. Luckily, she doesn't really need my help.)

Friday, March 7, 2014

In the Morning I'll be Gone now published in U.S., and When the Killing's Done at EIL

I've been reminded to mention that the American publication of In the Morning I'll Be Gone by Adrian McKinty has finally gone live, and the Audible version of the book is available as well. I reviewed the book just last month for the British edition, but in case some lone soul who somehow is only attracted to American editions is checking in, here's an excerpt of that review and a link. And it can't hurt to put up the new cover.

"Whatever may happen to Duffy in the course of this book, and I'm not telling, there's a general atmosphere of exile and leavetaking permeating it. It begins at the tail end of 1983, and there's a sense that anyone with any possibility of doing so is getting out. There's America, of course, but why not just take the little hop to Scotland or England? Sean's old girlfriend has, and one of his fellow officers is hoping to. And even in the course of his investigations, Duffy will go back and forth a few times. So why shouldn't he make the move more permanent?"

In other news, my review of When the Killing's Done is live today at Escape Into Life. Although this may sound like one of those gritty murder mysteries I'm prone to read, it's actually a thoughtful novel on how best to manage the Channel Islands. Although I discuss several aspects of the book in the review, I neglected to say how pleasing T.C. Boyle is as stylist. I'm the kind of reader who tends to get a little bored by long descriptive passages, but Boyle has a knack for making the Southern California landscape constantly vivid and interesting.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Grind Joint, by Dana King

Although this is a picture of an ARC, the
book is out and available.
Regular readers here, if any such there be, are probably aware by now that my taste in mysteries and crime fiction run a pretty wide gamut, so if recent posts on books like Mist Over the Saltings or Buried for Pleasure lead you to think that I only read mysteries more toward the cozy end of the spectrum, you stand forewarned. Grind Joint is a book for people who like The Wire, if The Wire was transferred to western Pennsylvania.

If, like me, you're not a gambler, you may not know what a grind joint is. Although you will deduce it easily enough as you read, the Urban Dictionary in fact provides a perfect description of the grind joint that comes into play in this novel:

"a low-end, seedy casino that caters to the nickel slot clientele."

The actual grind joint of the title doesn't come much into play in this story--it's the dynamics set up by its presence that set the plot in motion. As the story opens, a nickel slot establishment which has become the great hope for an all but abandoned shopping mall is just about ready for its grand opening when the guy who opens up the building for the work crews finds a bag of garbage in front of the door. It's typical of the technique of this book that even though Kenny Czerniak is a somewhat incidental character in the story, we discover that he was once a master machinist and that he's doing what's essentially custodial work because it's the only job he can get in this depressed economy. His relations to his boss are such that he tries to lie about the time in a murder investigation, because his boss has said he'll sack him if he's late again.

Because of course the bag of garbage turns out to be a body, and why this particular body has been left at the door of this particular casino fuels the rest of the story.

Grind Joint isn't a long book, and its chapters are short. Nevertheless, it took me awhile to finish it, because there is quite a bit packed into this slim volume. There's a large cast of characters representing the rich immigrant community here, and there are also quite a lot of criminal factions with which to become acquainted. A remnant of the old Italian mafia is hanging on, but the Russian gangsters seem to be on the upswing, and you don't want to count the African-American drug dealers from Pittsburgh quite out of the picture. What's clear is that Penn River, a fictional community base on several outside of Pittsburgh, is in a weakened position after the closing of the mills and, without its former economic base, is ripe for predators and scavengers.

Ben "Doc" Dougherty is the lead investigator into this crime and if on one level he's a small town guy, he's also a small town guy who's been in the military police and seen some things he probably wishes he could erase from memory. Doc is our guide to how the power structure really works in Penn River, and it's through his point of view that we most often learn what is possible in the realm of criminal apprehension and what is not.

Although in many ways this is what you could call a guy's book, it's mainly because almost all of the active characters are men. When women do come into the picture, they tend to be treated sympathetically, which is not always true for books with such a masculine angle. Of course, a lot of the characters are criminals, and god knows what they get into in their spare time, but when it comes to the good guys, their attitude toward women could largely be summarized under the rubric 'rueful'. Although this may seem like a lack of the story, in fact it's rather refreshing to come across a story in this part of the crime writing world that doesn't regard the objectification of every female character as de rigueur. 

My only real regret in reading this novel is that it only gradually donned on me that there is a previous Penn River novel called Worst Enemies, featuring many of the same cast of characters. It doesn't really matter for the purposes of reading this novel itself, as anything you might need to know is explained, but if you are going to read Worst Enemies, which if you're like me, you well may want to, it is probably advisable to read it first.

I have, however, read King's standalone, Wild Bill, and if you would like to read a review of that, please go HERE.