29 September 2007

Mount Appetite, by Bill Gaston

Raincoast Books, Vancouver BC, 2002. 221 pages. ISBN 1-55192-451-X.

This is a collection of short stories. Bill Gaston is a writer who lives in British Columbia. He teaches at the University of Victoria. I liked this book from the first few words. His prose is powerful, rhythmic, and effective without being excessive -- he sneaks up on you and clobbers you with a line.

"But when he was tired, like now, he felt closer to the shabby ground. He could feel in his bones how spring still hadn't come. He could smell mildew in the grey rug, which had to be fifteen years old. The floor of this old mobile creaked almost anywhere you put a foot down and the room he worked in was damn ridiculous... So much needed to be better."
--From "Where it Comes From, Where it Goes" page 14.
Desire is the source of all suffering, Gaston reminds me several times in these pages.

"Where it Comes From, Where it Goes."

What is the source, what is the justification, for a man to have the gift of healing? Why did he receive the gift, and what makes it keep working?

"The Angel's Share."

A mysteriously indigent woman traveling by kayak visits a campground group of urban folks on holiday sitting around a fire, drinking and talking.

"The Alcoholist."

A portrait of an intensely sensitive man with a talent for spirits.

"Driving Under the Influence."

A drunk driver finds himself attracted to a female police officer at a roadblock. He is charming, she lets him go. But he's tempted to go back and see her again, that very evening.

"Comedian Tire."

Two brothers who have not been particularly close are drawn together as the elder prematurely nears the end of his life. The younger has a complicated young-family life including a van that isn't running right and a child (and, perhaps, wife) with the flu. Somehow against his better judgement, he takes his van to "the red garage," a less-than-reputable retail auto repair chain store. The end of this story has a similar feeling to the end of "The Bronze Miracle," later in the book. The characters are, through the events in these stories, somehow released from their "normal" striving and find themselves weightless -- perhaps enlightened.

"The Little Drug Addict That Could."

Jack is a government bureaucrat who deals with fisheries. Tyson is his nephew, a problem child now no longer a child who's never been good at keeping a job. He comes to Jack with a surprising request for help resulting in an outcome worthy of an O. Henry story.

"The Hangover."

Three brothers go on a fishing trip. Keith, the "stuffy cellist," wary of their careless, macho behavior, is reluctant to go, but resigns himself to the outing. Horrified by the amount of beer and whiskey they've loaded into this "iffy tin boat," he protects his hands under his life jacket, and dreads the coming drinking and inevitable hangover. He's the only one wearing a life jacket, Phil and Raymond are using theirs for seat cushions.

In this unlikely story of modern Canadian siblings working vainly in middle age to frolic as youth, to change their brother, make him more ordinary; in this story's nine pages are sufficient hints to infer their three lives to date, as well as what is to come.

"He could remember his father once joking -- some joke -- that in a past life someone must have done something horrible to his hands."

"A Forest Path."

Begins with the disclaimer that it is not fiction, and expresses detestation for those who write fiction, for they are writers of lies. Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano, and once resident of Dollarton, a part of North Vancouver, BC, is one of such detested weavers of written misinformation, and the subject of the narrator's ire and spite.

As the story continues, we learn that the narrator was a little boy in Dollarton when Lowry lived there. He and his mother both knew Lowry somewhat, and the narrator gives us a new insight into Lowry's short story of the same name as this one.

Gaston more than once in this collection explores a theme of rebirth, reincarnation, the cycle of death and life, including but not limited to the Buddhist perspective. In this story he relates Lowry's fascination with Death, speculates that he had a hatred of life, and leaves us with the impression that perhaps Lowry's spirit continues on.

I knew nothing of Lowry when I read this story. A little research on the 'net was helpful.

Some information about Malcolm Lowry and Under the Volcano.

"Maria's Older Brother."

Tony is a little different, perhaps a little retarded, a child among children his own age. He loves to play baseball with the other kids but he is the absolute last choice for anyone's team, and only gets to play when no one else is available. When his sister dies, he seems to think that perhaps he will get some dispensation from the usual scorn his peers direct at him.

"The Bronze Miracle."

Having graduated from high school, Jim goes to work in a 7-Eleven store by night, and as a landscaper by day, in order to save money for his dream -- his desire -- to buy a large brick house on an Eastern lake. He is visited ten times by The Bronze Miracle, and is changed.

"The Northern Cod."

Ruth Twirling is a British Columbian marine biologist in Newfoundland, working on a project that is apparently trying to find a way to restore the Cod population in the Atlantic in that region. She has left familiar academic circles to work in this remote and unfamiliar place and as the story begins it seems a quirky choice to have made, but as more about her life is revealed we begin to understand from what she is escaping, and for what she strives.

"Mount Appetite."

Felice is taken from her widower father by the Authorities, because he grows pot, and makes cannabis tea to relieve her from the tortures of mental illness. The story is told in a series of emails from the father to a psychiatrist to whom he is compelled (by the Authorities) to go.

The father's rage at what has been done to him and his daughter grows, builds, explodes in a calm fury of sarcasm, mock-patient explanations of how they have been living with Felice's illness since she was born, and how they have never benefited from or desired any help from doctors, or the government.

"...I feel surrounded by galaxies of insane pettiness. Each galaxy (read: government ministry) is spinning in on itself with its mad, mad, black hole in the middle, sucking in all common sense, and decency, and light. A black hole is the absence of a brain and, even more, a heart. The word "ministry" smacks of horror. It harkens back to when government was a religion, a churchy time when "ministry" meant kindness. That it flipped to its soul-sucking opposite is -- well, Orwell predicted it, didn't he?"
--page 194
Felice's disease, simply explained, is that she cannot decide what to do. For this, her father pities her, but also loves her intensely. She wants the perfect answer every time, she cannot stand to make the wrong decision, thus she is mad.

28 September 2007

Some Fall Books from the NY Review, and a Return to Summer via the Seattle Times

One of the stated purposes of this journal was to talk about things that I'm thinking about reading. I seldom remember to include this. Thanks to Dan for a copy of The New York Review of Books, September 27 2007, for the inspiration to make this list.

Inside the front cover is a two-page ad by the University of Chicago Press entitled "Fall Books." Among the books featured, I'm interested in these:
  • Marked. Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration. By Devah Pager.
  • Betrayals. The Unpredictability of Human Relations. By Gabriella Turnaturi, Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane.
  • The Middle Path. Avoiding Environmental Catastrophe. By Eric Lambin.
Dan handed me the magazine opened to an article entitled "Pandora's Click," by Janet Malcolm, a review of an interesting sounding book about email etiquette. This book is entitled Send: The Essential guide to Email for Office and Home. While it decries the gaffes and misunderstandings that can be and are generated all-too-often by the misuse and overuse of email, it ends on a hopeful note: perhaps email will bring back the popularity of written correspondence in the younger generation.

Another book advertised herein is Zuckerman Bound, a Library of America series edition which includes four novels (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, and The Prague Orgy and an "unproduced television screenplay" (of Prague) by Philip Roth, a writer to whom I'm always meaning to return (return? I'm not sure I've been there. I just looked at his bibliography on Wikipedia and maybe I've never read anything by him. Ah, memory, thou betrayer.) Roth was recently interviewed on the NPR show Fresh Air, and he talked about his latest novel, Exit Ghost. Exit Ghost is not included in this collection, but the advertisement says "Here is the perfect companion to ... Roth's latest novel ... which brings Zuckerman's story to a denouement."

And here's an ad for a new book by Annie Dillard, called The Maytrees. She's a formidable writer. The book I remember her for is The Living, a novel about the early days of Whatcom County in Washington State. I'm sure I've bored many people with my raving about that book. Dillard can be very spiritual, even religious, but somehow it doesn't bother me.

And here's an interesting review: "Citizen Gore," by Michael Tomasky, of The Assault on Reason, by Al Gore. And I thought I was the only person who'd noticed that.

Assault on Reason sounds like a good book. Tomasky says that Gore discusses the demise of reason in American discourse, and assigns a large role to the rise of TV, which for the last fifty years has been our main form of communication. He then takes apart the actions of the Bush administration, analyzed in this light, noting that the modern Right has become a political movement disguised as a religious one. Tomasky wonders whether Gore could run for President in 2008, whether he could or would be elected, whether he'd even welcome the chance. Perhaps Al plays a better citizen than politician.

An interesting work of fiction is discussed in "Ice Capades," by Christian Caryl. This is review of Ice, by Vladimir Sorokin, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell. This book, we are told, is part of a trilogy about a bizarre brotherhood of aliens who draw their power from an ice-like substance that fell from space to Earth in Siberia. Caryl sees it as a commentary on the totalitarian governments of modern history, from the Nazis, through Stalin, Kruschev, and Kim Il Sung. It sounds as though it might be enjoyable, I'm not sure, it could be a little ponderous. At least it's on my list.

I dove into an article about Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg was a lot of things, among them an icon of the last half of the twentieth century, of the post-World War II cultural revolution embodied in the Beat movement, the Hippies, the music, writing, and art that has developed in the last sixty years or so -- kind of a spiritual grandfather to all of us born in the fifties. "Howl," his (in)famous long poem of 1956 hit the American culture with a neo-Whitmanesque free verse sledgehammer:

...who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality,

who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer,

who sang out of their windows in despair, fell out of the subway window, jumped in the filthy Passaic, leaped on negroes, cried all over the street, danced on broken wineglasses barefoot smashed phonograph records of nostalgic European 1930s German jazz finished the whiskey and threw up groaning into the bloody toilet, moans in their ears and the blast of colossal steamwhistles...

Allen, we hardly knew ye.

News Flash: Seattle Times Starts Fire

It's getting colder and wetter here now, and we've had a few fires in the woodstove. I start my fires with newspaper; we save it in a basket. My father always had a problem when he tried to start a fire with newspaper: he'd stop crumpling the pages because he'd start reading them. I have the same problem. In the midst of some recent crumpling I noticed a page from the 29 June 2007 Seattle Times "Readings" feature, page 44H, with the headline "Terror thriller is frightening in its plausibility." This introduces a review by Nisi Shawl of a book entitled Quantico, by Greg Bear. This sounds like a great read, it's a techno-adventure set in the near future, which allows for a few yet-to-be-invented gadgets:
"Bear does the hard work of extrapolating from current engineering to shiny new tech-toys ... portable ... holograph projectors; sparrow-sized winged surveillance cameras; ID-activated handguns ..."

I'll probably read this book, it sounds like the kind of thing that I like: pure entertainment, lowbrow, no redeeming social value.

The reading of kindling is always a mixed pleasure. On the one hand, I am pleased to find interesting things to read in my old newspapers, but this is tempered by discomfort (I am usually kneeling on the floor, and the room is cold, else I wouldn't be doing this.), and a vague guilt-like emotion about not really reading newspapers. What is it about newspapers? Sometimes I read an entire article and have no idea what I just read, sort of like what happens if I try to read when the TV is on in the same room. It must be me; plenty of people read newspapers and get stuff out of them. This doesn't always happen, I often read columns, letters (I like letters to the Editor in any publication; I'll usually read them first if I pick up a strange magazine, as in a waiting room.), articles, etc. with normal retention.

But so many things elude me, and I find them later in the kindling basket.

25 September 2007

Death Comes for the Fat Man, by Reginald Hill

Harper Collins New York 2007. 404 pages.

This is my first Reginald Hill, I doubt it will be my last. What a great mystery and crime novel, and good to the last words on the last page! This story is masterfully done, tightly raveled so that it unravels throughout every inch of the book.

The novel begins with a horrendous explosion where Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel is seriously injured. He is not expected to live, but he is taken to a hospital and put on life support. This is how we are introduced to one of the most important characters in the book who, although completely out of the picture, affects everything and everybody in the story from beginning to end.

We are left with Chief Inspector Peter Pascoe, his close friend and colleague, who is also injured in the explosion although not quite as seriously. Pascoe spends the rest of the book getting to the bottom of the cause of the explosion and what is really going on in Manchester. The mystery involves a range of strange characters, including British secret counter-terrorism agents, self-styled "Templar" vigilantes (see also The Da Vinci Code and The Templar Legacy though I recommend neither one, they both reference this legendary group of Crusade-era knights), quirky Yorkshire cops, a paralyzed veteran of the war in Iraq, a talent agent named Ffion, and much and many more.

The plot is intricate, we are skillfully hoodwinked, this is a very satisfying read with nary a wasted page.

High Five, by Janet Evanovich

1999 St. Martin's Press. 317 pages. ISBN 0-312-97134-6.

This book was a lot of fun, total escape, took about four hours to read. I've never read one of Ms. Evanovich's works before, but I will read more.

Stephanie Plum is the heroine; she's a bounty hunter in New Jersey. She's quite unlikely, very feminine, but very tough. The story is funny, and the mystery is quite valid. This is great entertainment.

The depiction of an old middle-class neighborhood in Trenton is extremely well-done. I grew up in the Northeast and felt right at home amongst the little houses in "The Burg."

"You can relocate in Antarctica, but if you were born and raised in the Burg you're a Burger for life. Houses are small and obsessively neat. Televisions are large and loud. Lots are narrow. Families are extended. There are no pooper-scooper laws in the Burg. If your dog does his business on somebody else's lawn, the next morning the doo-doo will be on your front porch. Life is simple in the Burg."
Aside from the poignantly accurate description of American life in Trenton, we have the story. Stephanie spends most of this book looking for her missing uncle Fred. In the process, there's a lot of action, including attempts on her life, explosions, an ex-con who has pledged revenge against her (and he is a first-class creep, too), a very small man whom she's obliged to board in her apartment (long story), a job working for a very dangerous sort of guy, doing things like scaring drug dealers away from an apartment building, and -- you get it. It's loaded, get it. Read it. Enjoy it.

I'm going to get another one soon.

20 September 2007

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo

Scribner, New York 2007. 246 pages. ISBN 1-4165-4602-2.

Don DeLillo wrote this book about a few people living in New York City at the time of the September 11, 2001 hijacked airliner attack on the World Trade Center. One of the characters, Keith, is a survivor of the Towers who walked out with his life, barely ahead of the collapse.

Keith, his wife Lianne, their son Justin, and many other New Yorkers are portrayed in this novel in a kind of shock-dulled atmosphere where the horror and bizarre intensity of so many sudden deaths has rendered normal life practically impossible, and at the same time so very valuable, so very dear.

The prose reads to me like ocean waves lapping at the shore. In and out, quiet but overwhelming in their persistent sound. (An earlier DeLillo novel is entitled White Noise. I don't believe I've read it, but I may have.) DeLillo is a master, I've not been disappointed by a word of his choosing.

Nothing is the same now. Whether it's our fault, or the fault of forces and persons beyond our control, we are indelibly changed, no longer innocent or naive.

A European (German?) man in the story declares that America's fate is to become irrelevant.

"...Soon the day is coming when nobody has to think about America except for the danger it brings..."

And later:

"...There's an empty space where America used to be."

The Falling Man of the title is a performance artist whose repeated work is to fall from high places, jerked to a stop by "... an arrangement of straps under the dress shirt and blue suit with one strand emerging from a trouser leg ..."

16 September 2007

Bangkok Tattoo, by John Burdett

Alfred A. Knopf New York 2005. 302 pages. ISBN 1-4000-4045-0.

This is the second book I've read by John Burdett, the first being Bangkok 8. The protagonist is again Sonchai Jitpleecheep, detective in the Royal Thai Police, serving under the notorious Colonel Vikorn. Again, the book starts with a murdered American, and takes off at a wild pace into a bizarre mystery set in Bangkok and its surrounds.

While this novel has much in common with the other, I didn't find it the least bit distracting or detracting. Instead, I felt at home in Sonchai's world, having been initiated into the unique atmosphere of Thailand, and having from that other book absorbed some of Burdett's philosophy regarding what we in the West would probably term corruption.

The mystery is excellent, the action never lets up. The characters are well and completely drawn, and I found myself involved with nearly every one.

Mitch Turner, the murdered American, has apparently been killed by a prostitute named Chanya, who is in the employ of a house known as the "Old Man's Club." This institution is owned by Sonchai, his mother, and the Colonel. It becomes evident that Turner is in the employ of the CIA. His murder is particularly grisly, and involves some very particular mutilation.

As the story unfolds, we learn about the Muslim culture in Thailand, and how it feels threatened by the USA's irrational quest to find and destroy all remnants of its arch-enemy, Al Qaeda. There is a fair amount of interesting insight into what might be the attitudes of Muslims in Southeast Asia, as well as their coexistence with the Buddhists who dominate Thailand. There are some interesting discussions of the effects of these two religions, and how they compare to Christianity as manifested in the USA.

Agents of the CIA arrive and become involved. There is in the background a war going on between Colonel Vikorn of the Police and General Zinna of the Army. Incredible dirty tricks are used in this conflict, which weaves in and out of the plot and mystery concerning the death of Mitch Turner.

Turner, who was obsessed with Chanya, was also obsessed with tattoos, and tattoos become an interesting element in this story, as well as a peculiar tattoo artist from Japan. We are introduced to underground characters from both Japan and China as well in this story.

In the end, when most of the mystery is unravelled and some of it is resolved, Sonchai reminds us: "We are distracted from distraction by distraction. Nothing is happening... Says the Buddha: All meaning is realized, the universe is nirvanic."

I very much look forward to my next opportunity to read a book by John Burdett.