26 October 2005

The Wasp Eater, by William Lychack

The Wasp Eater, by William Lychack. Houghton Mifflin 2004.

Principal Characters:

Daniel – son

Robert “Bob” Cussler -- Dad

Anna – Mom

Joelyn – cousin

Divorce ravages the “traditional family” in our culture today. Statistics are available to bear this out.

Once the stuff of scandal and whispers-behind-hands divorce is now commonplace. We are so used to being surrounded by broken families and broken promises that we forget that these phenomena have their consequences.

“She became a widow well before his father died.” Thus begins The Wasp Eater, by William Lychack. This little novel (164 pages in a 5” x 8” format) tells the story of a broken marriage in the later 20th Century, how the couple's one child understands his parents and their problems, and how he deals with all of it.

This book was a prize won browsing the “new books” display at the library. When I noticed that the author was a contributor to This American Life (Ira Glass, Public Radio International) I had to give it a try. I'm glad I did.

Daniel's father, “Bob,” is a strong yet unstable character; he's a window washer in a New England mill town. We hear Anna's complaint on page 7: “It wasn't the waitress in bed with him; it was the shit-eating grin that made her insane, the way he couldn't seem to wipe that smirk from his face.” As the story begins, Anna has thrown Bob out of the house, scattered his belongings on the front lawn, hung his clothes from tree branches. She is through with him, but he won't go away.

Daniel, ten years old, is visited at night by his father. Bob stands outside the boy's bedroom window, smoking, talking. He leaves money, and tries to convince Daniel to let him in.

Over time an uneasy truce between the separated partners develops. Daniel spends time during the day with Bob, helping him wash windows. He is taken along to bars with his father, given quarters to play pool, and returned home late.

Some of Anna's history is revealed. She is from New York, her family once well-to-do middle-class fallen on hard times (like the New England town in which she now lives), caught up in romantic love with Bob. Now her marriage is broken by his disloyalty and she seems profoundly depressed. She can hardly maintain her daily existence and care for her young son.

In the course of the story it is revealed that there was once a fight between Anna and her niece Joelyn regarding a ring, her mother's wedding ring, which has fallen into Joelyn's possession. This ring becomes the symbol of what once was Anna and Bob's marriage, and Daniel sees in its recovery the answer to fixing the breach in his family.

The story is so extremely well-written that it makes me despair trying to describe it with my own clumsy words. Lychack has a knack for a spare and precise turn of phrase. The portrayal of young Daniel and his parents is believable and heart-breaking, but Lychack ends his book with perspective and hope.

10 October 2005

The Broker, by John Grisham

I've finished the book. Now I find myself thinking about this project: What, exactly, am I trying to accomplish here?

One objective here is to begin a job I regret not beginning 40 years ago. I have read many books and many short stories. I've enjoyed most of them. Many have provided me with some of the greatest pleasures I've experienced in life. But I have no record of all of that reading. Here I can keep track of what I've read and enough information about it to remind me of it when I look back at this later.

Another thing I find myself thinking about is criticism. Should I include my judgement of the overall quality of the book, its strengths, shortcomings, etc.? Should I be comparing it to other works and placing it in its literary context?

I'm hardly qualified as a literary critic. I have no degree and no experience. My reading has been mostly guided by my own likes and dislikes. Sometimes I just wander the stacks of a library and pick up books that look interesting, other times I read or hear reviews of things that sound like they'd be good, so I go find them. So what' s the value of my opinion about any given work?

I'm not sure; I think I'll just hack at this for a while and see what it becomes.

So, what about The Broker?

A good entertaining read. The Last Juror was more thoughtful, had more to say about the nature of humanity. This one is mostly a thriller, sort of a Robert Ludlum book. Better than Ludlum, but that's not praise.

The main character is Joel Backman, the "Broker" of the title. He's a hotshot lobbyist in DC that's suddenly convicted of a serious crime and packed off to Federal prison. After serving 6 years, the President (President Morgan, an ineffectual moron) pardons him. He's spirited away to Italy by the CIA. The director of the CIA -- an old, unhealthy man -- orchestrates all this, including the pardon. Backman's crime is related to the attempt to sell control of a mysterious spy satellite system discovered by some Pakistani computer science students who hacked its control system. Now that Morgan's term of office is over, the CIA wants Backman pardoned among the customary pardons issued by an outgoing president. They hope to place him in a poorly hidden foreign location and watch to see who kills him. In this way, they hope to discover who is responsible for placing the satellite system in the first place, and other salient information about foreign intelligence operations around the world.

I'll try some criticism: The plot's good, I doubt I could have thought it up. The pace is uncertain, a bit slow at times. Details are a little sloppy. Character development is poor, and I had a hard time believing in most of the characters. The descriptions of Italy and its food were delightful, and made me want to go there. I read and enjoyed the whole thing, it was very entertaining. Did it change my life? I don't think so. Did I learn any basic truths about humanity or life from it? I don't think so.

The ending is disappointing; I expected more of a coup.

But I'll read the next thing John Grisham writes -- he's a dependable good writer.

Until next time. (0) Comments | Post Comment

06 October 2005

Coming Soon: Amy Tan and John Irving

I fell for an e-mail from Amazon: Amy Tan has a new book out, it's going to be published 18 October. The title is Saving Fish From Drowning.

While I was buying that, they hooked me (sorry) with a new John Irving: Until I Find You: A Novel.

So, we'll be reading those books as soon as they arrive. These are two of my favorite authors, and have never failed to please me in the past.

05 October 2005

The Broker, by John Grisham

In case you thought this was going to be a highbrow gig, I'll just set the tone. I just began reading The Broker, by John Grisham. This is a fairly new book, I think published this year or last. As a matter of fact, The Official John Grisham Websiteshows it as January 2005. I'm only in the first 40 or so pages but it's a good one.

Backman has been in Federal Prison on the Oklahoma prairie for 6 years, in solitary confinement, for what is at first a vaguely described crime. Once a powerful DC lawyer, Backman is now very nearly a broken man, lonely and wasting away. But the end of a weak President's term and the desires of a CIA official cause a sudden and unexpected pardon -- Backman is free, spirited away from the USA, to begin a new life in secret.

I love John Grisham. He's given me days of pleasure with his many great novels. My wife and I recently finished The Last Juror, his 2004 publication, and we both thoroughly enjoyed that novel of the South in the late 60s and 70s. I was particularly pleased with it as it reminded me of A Time to Kill, his first novel, which I often think might be his best, or one of his best.

I'll write more about The Broker,but I wanted to get this project under way.