28 December 2014

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

Yep. Another Stephen King. This one is pretty much a pure detective-adventure novel. It features a retired detective named Bill Hodges, who had investigated a bizarre mass murder committed by an unknown person who drove a large Mercedes Benz 12-cylinder sedan into a crowd of people waiting in line to get into a job fair. The murder was unsolved at the time of Hodges' retirement.

When we meet Hodges, he has settled into an uneasy routine of mostly doing nothing, watching afternoon TV (a show is described that sounds a lot like Jerry Springer), and  contemplating suicide with his father's .38 calibre revolver.

Hodges receives a letter from someone who claims to be "Mr. Mercedes," the murderer in question, and seems to be goading Hodges toward suicide by taunting him with his failure to identify and apprehend the killer.

The investigation and subsequent action build up to speed quickly. Several interesting characters come into the plot, including one Olivia Trelawney, the owner of the car (it was stolen from her, there is no doubt, but there is some belief that she may have left the key in its ignition, thereby making the murderer's job a little easier). Trelawney's sister Janey comes on the scene as well, and is an important part of the story.

One remarkable thing about this book: it is a detective novel, no more, no less. There are no aliens, no supernatural beings, no other dimensions of reality. There is no time travel, no element of weirdness or horror other than those found in real human beings. There is plenty of evil in the character of Mr. Mercedes (we find out who he really is before long), but it is the evil of real life: he is a psychopath.

New York Times review

26 December 2014

December 6, by Martin Cruz Smith

Harry Niles is an American by birth, brought to Japan by his missionary parents somewhere around 1920, perhaps a little before. His father's zeal left him largely unsupervised, living with his alcoholic Uncle Orin in Tokyo, and Harry, running in the streets with Japanese boys,  became more Japanese than gaijin.

In this book, we read of Harry's adventures on the title date. Niles, a self-professed con man, owner of a night club, successful gambler, has come into possession of information about the Japanese military's plans, and a peculiar point of view as regards them.

Harry's luck is legendary, and propels him through the amazing plot in the day and hours leading up to the invasion of Pearl Harbor. I'm sure that historians could argue over the accuracy of the time and place, but however fantastic the story might be, I read this from cover to cover in a short time. It is suspenseful and fascinating.

LA Times book review

22 December 2014

Seattle Times Best Books

Gleaned from the 14 December 2014 Seattle Times, books to read:

  • Let Me Be Frank With You, by Richard Ford
  • The Stories of Jane Gardam
  • The Peripheral, by William Gibson (requested from PCL)
  • The Museum of Extraordinary Things,  by Alice Hoffman
  • Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters (M. requested from PCL)
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson (non-fiction, by a lawyer who defends the most hopeless of criminals) 
From the Crime Fiction List: 

  • Destroyer Angel,  by Nevada Barr
  • Love Story, With Murders,  by Harry Bingham
  • Jack of Spies, by David Downing
  • Darkness, Darkness,by John Harvey (this is described as the last in a series about a detective named Charlie Resnick, in Nottingham -- might be good to read some of the earlier ones in the series)
  • Day of Atonement, by David Liss (author of Conspiracy of Paper,  read and entered recently in here. The main character is one Sebastian Fox, a young, Jewish "thief taker." This reminds me of things in Conspiracy.)
  • Red Joan, by Jennie Rooney

21 December 2014

The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, by Edgar Allen Poe

I probably read "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" when I was a teenager. I don't remember, but Auguste Dupin does seem to be someone I've met before. A friend inspired me to re-read this story yesterday. He emailed, saying that he was surprised to discover that A. Conan Doyle's concept of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson was less than original. My friend is a copious reader of Doyle's Holmes adventures--his email address includes a reference to the famous but fictional detective.

From my friend's email:

I never read The Murders in the Rue Morgue before, until now.  Edgar Allen Poe.  ...it is as if Arthur Conan Doyle simply lifted the structure of the work and made it his own.  The detective in the Poe story is a blueprint for Holmes.  His friend and sidekick is the model for Doctor Watson.  Having read all the Doyle books several times I could also pick out one or two details in the Poe story that [were] lifted...and used in the Holmes stories.

I was SHOCKED at how close it was.  All this time I thought ACD had come up with the greatest detective in fiction all on his own.  Doyle liked to talk about a professor he had in college that was the inspiration for Holmes...but if you've read Holmes half as much as I have--or not, just knowing Holmes and Watson would be enough--and then read The Murders in the Rue Morgue, then I think you would agree with me that ACD simply ripped off Poe.

I'm not sure if I've ever read anything from anyone else talking about this, but I'm guessing they have and I just haven't seen it.  To me the rip-off seems obvious.  On the other hand, LOTS of authors use the same structure; a brilliant, observational, logically thinking, detective, with a less brilliant side-kick/assistant who is astonished at how his friend can figure all these things out.  But in a way I wish I had never read The Murders in the Rue Morgue because it made me disappointed in Doyle...

...It might not be possible to be original.  There are only seven basic plots, according to Shakespeare.

My reply:

Well, you have inspired me to get out my "Complete Works" of Poe and re-read "Rue Morgue," which has led to me beginning to read the "Mystery of Mary Rogêt" as well. You have a good point. I am, however, inclined to let Doyle off the hook.

There is much imitation in art, and I think that modern reaction to plagiarism in various art forms is a bit exaggerated. John Fogerty was, after all, threatened with legal action when he produced a record album on which he sounded too much like John Fogerty to please his former record label. 

Doyle may well have gotten his idea for Holmes and Watson from Dupin and his (I think nameless?) companion. The idea that they roomed together and that both were somewhat removed from normal society, inclined to spend their time in eclectic pursuits, certainly does sound a bit like a description of the Sleuth of Baker Street and his friend. 

In my humble opinion, Doyle created enough original material on this framework that I cannot find him guilty. If there are only seven basic plots, how many basic plots can there be in the genre of murder mystery? There's certainly the basis for a term paper, if not a PhD thesis, here, and I'm not going to attempt the analysis.

Let's not forget some other Dupin-similar detectives, such as Hercule Poirot (and his sidekick, Captain Hastings). One of the paragraphs in "Rue Morgue" consisted of several questions, and in reading them I found that I had the voice of David Suchet as Poirot in my head. Another was Nero Wolfe, with Archie Goodwin. There are more, with varying degrees of Dupin-ness.

I could go on and on about this, but I'll just quote John Hartford's lyrics from "Tryin' to do Somethin' (to get your attention)" 

I tried real hard to make this song not sound like some other song I've written before.
If I did it's because my style and style is based on limitations.
I tried real hard not to make this song sound like some other song some other singer-songwriter might have written before.
And if I did, that's 'cause it's music, and music is based on repetition.
 It wasn't hard to find this discussion [by Drew R. Thomas] of the subject, which points out Doyle's direct reference to Poe and Dupin (whose name, I read somewhere while searching the 'net, can be seen as very close to "dupe," or "duping") in "A Study in Scarlet." Now I've certainly read that story at least three or four times, yet I had no recollection of this passage:

"It is simple enough as you explain it," I said, smiling. "You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories."

Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. "No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin," he observed. "Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends' thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour's silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine."

~from "A Study in Scarlet," by A. Conan Doyle
Thomas's article is quite interesting and complete; there's no reason to repeat more of it here, but I do recommend it to the reader interested in this topic. It is most gratifying to find a nugget such as this in the midden-pile that is the Internet. Oh, and don't miss the second part of the article, either. Mr. Thomas has given us some good work here.

It is evident that Doyle "borrowed" quite a bit from Poe. In today's litigious environment, there might be more said about this than was in the late 19th century. Thomas points out that, though Doyle used a lot of Poe's material, he most certainly created a wonderfully well-written body of work. For example, Thomas cites Doyle's use of dialog:

Poe's writing often included long, narrative passages with little dialogue. Doyle's stories have a lot more dialogue and are much more memorable and dramatic because of it. His dialogue sparkles, and Sherlockians love to quote from passages, such as the following:
  • You consider that to be important?" he asked.

    "Exceedingly so."

    "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

    "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

    "The dog did nothing in the night-time."

    "That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
                                                               --from "Silver Blaze"

I did not find "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" to be as entertaining as "Rue Morgue." In fact, I had a hard time staying awake while reading it. There is a dense and complicated discussion of logic and reason as it applies to the case (which apparently is a fictionalization of a murder that actually did happen, though the real murder happened in New York City, and Poe's story is set in Paris), and at the end, instead of revealing the truth of the mystery, and telling us "whodunit," in the manner to which we modern mystery-readers are accustomed, we are merely assured that Dupin closed the case to the satisfaction of the police (and received payment from them), and then are treated to more of Dupin's lecture about logic and reason.

There is a third Dupin story, "The Purloined Letter." I will eventually get around to reading that one, I hope, but for the moment I think I'll put Poe aside.

All in all, I'd say that Doyle's stories are much more readable, as well as plentiful, and if he's guilty of a little borrowing, more power to him.

I read these stories in my copy of Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe,  which I've owned for years. This book is published by Doubleday, Copyright 1966, and numbers 821 pages, including a biographical note at the end.

Wikipedia Entry for C. Auguste Dupin

An item of minor interest occurred to me while reading Poe. I have noticed this before, but never gave it much thought. In fiction of a certain vintage, the authors often employ the device of seeming to protect names of people and places, and even the exact date, by giving only the first letter (or number) and following that with an em dash. In the Dupin stories, the Prefect of Police is named "G-.," for example. In addition, Poe will give a date such as "June the twenty-second, 18--."

It's not hard to understand the desire to make the exact date vague, as one's readers will not have to be distracted by knowledge of actual events in a specific year. Modern writers of fiction generally dance around this issue by simply not mentioning it, if that is the best way to handle it, or may hint at the exact year intended, or state it outright.

The masked names of people and places may come from a desire to make the fiction seem more like a report of actual events. In such a report, one would be constrained by the threat of a libel action against naming people specifically. In addition, perhaps writers in a former time were worried that they might offend someone if they gave a name coincident with that of a real person. The consequences of offense of that kind might have been fatal in Poe's era. I think they were still dueling back then.

15 December 2014

Lisey's Story, by Stephen King

Completely absorbing, entertaining, beautifully done, as only Mr. King can do it.

Lisey is Lisa Landon, widow of successful writer Scott Landon. We meet her about two years after Scott's death, as she begins the work of cleaning up his study and dealing with his books and papers. Quickly it becomes evident that the Landons have had both a singularly great marriage and an extremely unusual life -- as only Mr. King could imagine.

The story of their love and their closeness of mind and spirit is worth the trip. Yes, there's plenty of otherworldliness, alternative dimensions, fantastic beings, and the kind of reality that most of us don't experience when we're awake, but I don't think it takes away from what is a beautiful story about the love between an imaginative, creative man and his extraordinary wife.

No doubt there's a little autobiography in here. In the author's statement at the end of the book, King points out some similarities between the Landons and the Kings. Lisey's Story is, still, a work of fiction, and one of fantasy.'

New York Times Sunday Book Review

Legacy of Ashes, The History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner

An audio book. While I was "reading" this book, the so-called Senate Torture Report became a major news item. That was unintentional; I read the book on the recommendation of a friend.

Legacy of Ashes is, among other things, a good review of American History since World War II. It is also a sobering look at just how dishonest, desperate, and corrupt the political leaders of this country have been in that period of time, and how willing they were to quickly abandon principle to accomplish their ends -- even though, so very often, the projects of the CIA failed miserably.

An alternative title for this book might have been Why They Hate Us.

As an American citizen, all I can say to the people of the rest of the world is, most of us have no control over these things. Our system has gotten away from us. It isn't exactly our fault, but then, I suppose, it is...

A review on the CIA's website.

A NY Times review.

An article about the CIA in The Guardian. A snippet: "Even the agency’s most successful mission – slowly bleeding out the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s by arming the mujahideen – paved the way for the worst terrorist attack on the US in its history."

09 December 2014

The Black Book, by Ian Rankin

An Inspector Rebus novel, (copyright 1993) in which Rebus becomes involved in several mysteries at once, which he, in his inimitable fashion, ties together, during which process he offends and alienates much of the Edinburgh police force.

This is a great book, a great mystery, and full of colorful language. While reading this book I decided to keep a list of what I imagine are "Scottish" words. Some of these I know the meaning of, some I guessed from context, some I need to look up. Page numbers are from my St. Martin's / Minotaur paperback edition, ISBN 0-312-97675-5.

  • harr, n. Scot. and North Eng., a thick, wet fog along the seacoast.
    [1665–75; north var. of HOAR]*
  • polis -- police
  • ca' canny -- be careful?
  • snell, adj. [Appears on p. 18 "weak sunshine and a snell wind" and 247.] Chiefly Scot. 1.    active; lively: a snell lad.
    2.    witty: a snell remark.
    3.    severe: snell weather. [bef. 900; ME, OE; c. OHG snel (G schnell) quick, ON snjallr excellent]*
  •  stews -- I lost the page number for this one, but here's the quote I wrote down: "The Edinburgh establishment has never bided too far from the stews." (brothels)
  • guttered -- "is he guttered?" [p.96]
  • tadger -- penis [p.115]
  • bunnet -- some kind of headgear [p.131]
  • gey -- extremely? "...guide dogs are gey expensive these days..." [p.160]
  • skited -- slipped, skidded? " ...nearly skited on wet linoleum..." [p.172]
  • gardyloo -- "stepped under a gardyloo bucket..." [p.180] gardyloo, interj.
    (a cry formerly used in Scotland to warn pedestrians when slops were about to be thrown from an upstairs window.)
    [1760–70; Anglicized form of F gare (de) l'eau beware of the water]*
  • heid-the-ba -- henchman? [p.189]
  • keech -- shit? "They used to chuck all their keech out of the windows and onto the street ... the locals called it the Flowers of Edinburgh..." [p.190]
  • blether -- talk, conversation [p.193]
  • pulses -- beans? [p.241]
  • fly-halfs [p.251]
  • scoor-oot [p.263] -- a scattering, like throwing a handful of coins on the ground for children to scramble after -- search this page for "scoor-oot." Also, there's a rather expensive dictionary of Scottish words and phrases on Amazon.com with this word as its title.
  • thrawn [p.321]
  • teuchters [p.322]
  • donnert [p.325]
  • glaur -- mud? shit? [p. 333] 
*Thanks to my friend R.S. for these definitions

Another wonderful bit of color from the book: at one point, Rebus visits an elderly aunt that he hasn't seen since he was a child. She surprises him by grabbing his wrists and reciting the following grace before they eat:

     Some hae meat and cannae eat
     and some hae none that want it
     but we hae meat and we can eat
     so let the Lord be thankit

The Black Book is violent, funny, and beautifully written.

Rankin's favorite moments from his books, in The Guardian

Summary of The Black Book on Ian Rankin's website

07 December 2014

Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear

I don't think I've read anything by Greg Bear before. I'm happy to say that, as he has written quite a lot, and I will be looking forward to reading more of his work.

Darwin's Radio is science-fiction set ca. 2000. Notably absent from its technology and current events are ubiquitous "smart"  phones, the overwhelming presence of the Internet (it's there, just not as "there" as it is now) and the security-hysteria of the post-11 September 2001 age. The book has its own security-hysteria, though, which comes from the general misunderstanding of a biological phenomenon that is observed as a 48-hour virus which affects heterosexual couples (there aren't any gay people in this book, either, come to think of it) and their subsequent pregnancies.

I'll admit to being more or less snowed by most of the biology in this book, but I found that I could just kind of plow through it and accept that I didn't really understand it, and still follow the story, which has more to do with the lives of its characters, and with the political mess that ensues as this phenomenon begins to proliferate.

Due to a virus, I had little ambition to do much of anything except read this weekend, so I completed this book between Friday night and Sunday morning. It's well worth reading, entertaining, and provocative.

I'm a little uncertain about Bear's politics. He seems more or less OK by my standards, but there is a mention of "Fox News" that gave me pause.

One thing I'd like to mention about this book: toward the end there is a description of childbirth that is graphic and moving. I don' t know that I've ever read a better one. While I, like Mr. Bear, have the handicap of being unable to have this experience, and so I'm not really qualified to judge its authenticity, it certainly had me convinced. 

An Interview with Greg Bear.

This site numbers Darwin's Radio among "The most ludicrous depictions of evolution in science fiction."

SFReviews.net review

04 December 2014

Electric Reading

I just read a story called "Safety Tips for Living Alone," by Jim Shepard, which reminded me that I do read a fair amount of really excellent stuff online that never gets mentioned here.

"Safety Tips for Living Alone" can be found at this location.

Here's yet another great story from Electric Reading, entitled "Of The Fountain," by Kathleen Winter.

About a week ago I found myself reading stories at Pithead Chapel, "An online journal of gutsy narratives," and there are many worthwhile works there.

So, if you're bored, and sitting at a computer, there are some alternatives to Twitter and Craigslist out there.

03 December 2014

Dr. Sleep, by Stephen King

Wow. Just wow. This is the second book I've picked up lately that I nearly finished in one day. Sitting at home trying to recover from a cold, I read about 7/8 of this novel, the sequel to The Shining that has been fairly well publicized.

Yes, it's a fabulous bit of fantasy-horror, but I remain firm in my opinion that Mr. King's work will stand the test of time. His knack for portraying children, and the lives of children, if no other aspect of his work is worthy of admiration, is enough to make him great in my mind.

Fearless Jones, by Walter Mosley

This novel is narrated by a character named Paris Minton. When Paris gets into some serious trouble, he springs his friend Fearless Jones from jail. Jones helps Minton unravel the mystery. Set in LA, soon after World War II.

I haven't read anything by Mosley in a while. This novel was about a 3-1/2 on a scale of 1 to 5. 

Cell, by Stephen King

This is more or less a zombie apocalypse story. The zombies get that way by using cell phones, and only people who were not using cell phones at the time of the "Pulse" remain normal. This becomes the story of a handful of "normies" (King likes to use AA slang) as they travel north, trying to find a way to survive and perhaps re-create civilization.

Cell wasn't as good as the last King that I read (Dr. Sleep), but it wasn't bad, and I love it for making cell phones the root of Evil.

01 December 2014

A Conspiracy of Paper, by David Liss

The copy of this book that I have is an advance reader's edition, apparently prepared to send to reviewers before the book is released to the general public. There is a request on the back cover not to quote directly from this edition, but to refer to the official edition when it is released for exact quotes.

This is interesting, as the book I read contained many errors, mostly simple typographic errors, but also lapses of style. I noticed the phrase "I blush to own" used at least three times close enough together to be annoying. Perhaps the final edition was somewhat improved.

Conspiracy of Paper is a pretty good mystery, but I got bogged down in it toward the end and found myself wishing that the author had trimmed perhaps a hundred pages. It is set in London in 1719. The protagonist is Benjamin Weaver, a retired prize-fighter who has gone into the business of finding things and people for people, for a fee. The story begins with a request to discover the truth behind a suicide: the dead man's son believes his father was murdered--and further, believes that Weaver's own father, also thought to be a suicide, was murdered as well.

The book is written in a style that was probably intended to evoke the period in which the story is set. This is partially successful, but at times I was too aware of it.

An interesting aspect of the story is its discussion of the emergence of stock markets and paper money, and the intrigue and deception that those new inventions facilitated.

New York Times review

17 November 2014

The Guardian's list of 100 Greatest Novels

The Guardian has posted a list of "The 100 greatest novels of all time." Of these, I have read, think maybe I've read, or attempted to read 38 of them. To wit:

A= attempted; R=read; ?=I'm not sure but I may have read, or attempted this

T=thanks to my high school education; *=one of my favorite books ever

Don Quixote A
Robinson Crusoe R
Gulliver's Travels R -- my elementary school library had a really beautiful edition of this, as I recall, with illustrations, such as one of Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians.
Tom Jones R
Frankenstein R*
David Copperfield R
Jane Eyre R
Scarlet Letter RT
Moby Dick A
Alice in Wonderland R*
The Brothers of Karamazov A
Huckleberry Finn A*
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde R
The Picture of Dorian Gray R
Jude the Obscure R
Call of the Wild ?
The Wind in the Willows R*
Ulysses R
The Trial A
Brave New World R* "a gram is better than a damn"
The Big Sleep R*
The Plague RT
Nineteen Eighty-Four R* "war is peace"
Catcher in the Rye RT--I recently re-read this, and it didn't really hold up.
Lord of the Rings R
Lord of the Flies RT
The Quiet American -- I think I only saw the movie made from this. Really should read it. Greene is always delightful.
On the Road R*--Capote said it wasn't writing, but typing, but I loved it when I read it.
Lolita R
To Kill a Mockingbird R*T--I always felt I wanted to see more from Harper Lee, but she felt that she had written all she needed to.
Catch 22 R
Herzog ?
One Hundred Years of Solitude A
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy R*--and the miniseries at least twice, and the recent movie.
Song of Solomon R
The BFG ?--not sure, but I have definitely read "The Twits."
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting ?
LA Confidential R

13 November 2014

The Falls, by Ian Rankin

An Inspector Rebus novel. And another great one.

Rebus is called in when a wealthy student at Edinburgh University disappears. In the course of this mystery, Rebus falls typically afoul of his commanding officers and winds up on suspension. This does not stop him from working on, and ultimately solving, the mystery.

This one is full of academics, quirky pathologists, strange artifacts, and Rebus's co-workers who, in varying degrees, either admire or despise him for his methods.

Ian Rankin's Website

Observer Review

06 November 2014

Bark, by Lorrie Moore

This is an audio book, a collection of short stories.

I'm almost done listening to it, and my conclusion is that I'm going to have to get the book in print, as I think these stories are too good for commuting. That is, they require more complete attention. 

03 November 2014

Poor White, by Sherwood Anderson

An electronic book, available online: http://www.fiction.us/anderson/porwhite/cover.html

Published in 1920. Covers the beginning of the industrial revolution while telling the story of young Hugh McVey, of Missouri, who moves to Ohio and begins to dream of making machines.


I don't know, I'll probably reveal my ignorance here, but I didn't think this book was very good. Boring, too full of exposition, lifeless characters, and a really strange plot. There's some good stuff on the industrial revolution and the oppression of workers, equity trading, financial corruption, etc., but all in all, my advice: don't bother.

The Other, by David Guterson

An audio book.

The narrator is an English teacher named Neil Countryman, who had a friend from high-school age named John William Barry. John William came from a very wealthy, if dysfunctional family.

Countryman and Barry shared a love for back country hiking. At one point, Barry arranges, with Countryman's help, to disappear into the Ho Rain Forest on the Olympic Peninsula.

According to the blurb on the CD case, there is a "revelation" near the end of the story, but I'm damned if I know what they mean. Perhaps this clip from the NYT review linked below covers it:

There’s a deus ex machina at the end of this new one that, a little disappointingly, plants guilt for John William’s struggles at the feet of a certain suspect. But the voice of Neil Countryman is that of a good, thoughtful man coming into middle-class, middle-aged fullness, and his recollections of life in Seattle have a wonderful richness and texture.

Set in Western Washington, as are other Guterson works, there is a lot of poetry in this book, but it does go on. And on.

New York Times review

20 October 2014

Ed King, by David Guterson

This book is more or less a modern version of the Oedipus Rex story. It begins with the story of the illegitimate birth and subsequent adoption of Ed King, who grows up to become a very wealthy and powerful man.

I nearly read this book in one day. I found it quite entertaining.

New York Times Review

19 October 2014

Ru, By Kim Thúy

Translated by Sheila Fischman

National Post review.

This novel is more like a long prose poem. It is moving, to say the least. While no one story could represent the millions of stories of modern Vietnamese people, this certainly provides some perspective.

This was an excellent book, that produced an oddly peaceful atmosphere while relating such distress, misery, and the long process of overcoming displacement.

13 October 2014

Long Division, by Kiese Laymon

This was an extremely unusual book.

What I liked about it: a seemingly authentic look through the eyes of a young African American living in Mississippi in contemporary times, and its skilled portrayal of the lives of young people in general. Laymon rivals Stephen King in this achievement, and coming from me that is high praise.

At first, the switching back and forth between the book and the book-within-the-book (and possibly a book-within-the-book-within-the-book, but I'm not sure) was confusing, even annoying. After a while I caught on. Perhaps the fault is mine, but I found the high-handedness of this a bit off-putting.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of this book  once I got a handle on what was happening. Unfortunately, I found the ending confusing and disappointing.

Maybe I need to read this again some day.

The Rule of Nine, by Steve Martini

An audio book. A Paul Madriani mystery/thriller.

I had forgotten that Martini seems to have taken a turn to the right, even towards teabaggery. This was distasteful enough, but all in all the writing in this book was bad enough to be noticeable even while listening and driving, and bonus points are earned by the ending: a classic, buy the next book, cliffhanger.


The Secrets of Harry Bright, by Joseph Wambaugh

Set in the Palm Springs area of California. I assume that Mineral Springs is a fictional city.

Another neglected draft I forgot to complete and publish.

The Complaints, by Ian Rankin

An audio book.

I just discovered this, sitting as a draft since last April. Oops. Well, it's a long time ago, but Ian Rankin is no slouch and I am looking forward to getting back to reading him.

30 September 2014

The Lonely Polygamist, by Brady Udall

So, this has to have some kind of praise for a catchy title. Brady Udall is the author of  The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, which I read recently. Having enjoyed Edgar quite a bit, I was looking forward to another book by Udall, and this was not disappointing.

One one level, this is the story of a man with four wives and twenty-eight children. On another, it may be about what it's like to be human, imperfect, and unlucky. There are a lot of people here that want to be loved. Instead of being a work of propaganda in favor of or against the practice of polygamy, Udall uses this unusual life, however we feel about it, to describe how people get along, in whatever situation they find themselves.

New York Times Book Review

Fives and Twenty-Fives, by Michael Pitre

I heard this author interviewed on NPR. One gets somewhat jaded to the tales of returning vets. Homeless, PTSD, misunderstood: my heart goes out to all of them, but there are so many, and it seems to be constantly in front of us, a horrible problem that won't go away. But there was something about Pitre when I heard him on the radio (Fresh Air?), and I managed to remember to get his book out of the Library.

NY Times Book Review

I found the book to be a non-stop read, the "can't put it down" type. The characters are excellently drawn and believable. Pitre's Marines have stayed with me, and I doubt I'll look at any service member quite the same having read this book.

A History of Future Cities, by Daniel Brook

Dubai, Mumbai, Shangai, and St. Petersburg: all Eastern, yet all Western in conception.

This was not an easy read, it took me a while to get through, and enhanced my library fines a bit, but I am glad I read it. These four cities share an unusual quality: they were all built in the East, but built to be as Western as possible.

I am no student of architecture, and a fair amount of architectural information is imparted here, but it didn't hurt me to read it. The history, on the other hand, was nothing less than fascinating. When Peter the Great desired to build St. Petersburg, he wanted Western architecture, art, and city planning -- but he did not want Western freedom of thought, speech, ideas, and religion. This theme exists to some extent in the other three cities of this book.

Daniel Brook's website

Washington Post review

Interview with Daniel Brook in the New Orleans Review

29 September 2014

Farewell My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler

I've read this book at least twice before, but I picked it up for fifty cents at a used book sale, and can't resist reading it once again. Moose Malloy is looking for Velma. Mr. Marriott has an easy job for Marlowe, just be there when he hands $8000 to a bunch of jewel thieves to retrieve a friend's necklace. What could go wrong?

Darkness More Than Night, by Michael Connelly

A Harry Bosch novel.

In this story, Bosch's unusual first name (Hieronymous) becomes an important element in the plot.

Another great entry in the Harry Bosch series.

05 September 2014

Reversal, by Michael Connelly

An audio book.

In this novel, Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, half-brothers (as we discovered in an earlier novel) are brought together again. Mickey Haller, the "Lincoln Lawyer," has always been a defense lawyer, and one who is particularly disliked by Los Angeles prosecutors, as he has an excellent track record of winning his cases. At the beginning of this story, however, Haller is approached by a representative of the DA's office and is asked to take a case -- for the people, as a special prosecutor.

Jason Jessup is the convicted murderer of a young girl, who has been in prison for the crime for 25 years. DNA evidence recently introduced has caused enough doubt about his conviction that he is to have a new trial. This is the case Haller is called to prosecute. Mickey is unsure exactly why the DA wants him, of all people, to take the case. There is an implication of sloppy or improper work on the original trial that may at least partially explain why Haller is a good choice -- or, is this a complicated political move wherein he will be used as a pawn?

Haller decides to take the case, but only if his ex-wife Maggie "McFierce" McPherson, a career prosecutor, will be assigned as his assistant. Furthermore, he insists on recruiting Harry Bosch as his investigator.

Good reviews and expositions exist.  I will only say that this is a terrific story, and a masterful use of the characters that Connelly has created in the Bosch and Haller series.

Wikipedia page

Official Michael Connelly page

NY Times review

12 August 2014

Elsewhere, by Richard Russo

This is a memoir, and Russo mentions early on that it will be mostly about his mother, and that is quite true. Nevertheless, being an Upstate New York expatriate myself, I found reading about Gloversville and Russo's relationship with the area and its people irresistible.

In fourth grade or thereabouts, we learned some basic area history, and we were taught about the "glove cities" of Fonda, Johnstown, and Gloversville. I don't believe that we were taught quite everything that Russo relates in his book: the horrible working conditions, the disregard for the employees' safety, the environmental destruction, and the overseas flight that the corporations took to avoid the inconvenience of providing a living wage and complying with legal requirements to destroy neither their employees' health nor the quality of the Mohawk River's water.

Russo's account of his life with his mother comprises most of this book. She was a profoundly disturbed individual, but at the same time committed to her son, and determined that he should be a success. His love for her is quite obvious in these pages.

Here's a much better review than I will write.

23 July 2014

MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

This is the third part of a trilogy that began with Oryx & Crake,  and continued with The Year of the Flood. I was pleased to find that the book began with a brief recap of the first two books, as it's been quite some time since I read them. In this one, we find the surviving humans along with some modified-humans (The Crakers), and many another interesting life-form in the post-chaos world.

A lot of the book is made up of flashbacks into Zeb's life, back to the time when he and Adam were half-brothers living with their father, "The Rev." This is pre-Flood, at the height of Corporate power in Atwood's future Earth.

Atwood's writing is, as always, unintrusive, economical, precise, and entertaining.

What could be a drab indictment of the present environmental atrocities committed all about us is kept alive as a very readable story by the interesting and sympathetic characters she has created in this trilogy.

Be advised: one is not left with a warm, fuzzy view of the future.

NY Times Sunday Book Review

Margaret Atwood's Web Site

Future Dramatization of the Trilogy

23 June 2014

The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene

An audio book.

Ah, Graham Greene again. What a pool of calm and good sense one enters into when reading one of his books.

This is the story of Major Scoby, a policeman in West Africa during World War II. The vicissitudes of war, the clash of cultures, the threats of disease and violence, are ever present, yet Scoby presents himself as a model of reason and rectitude.

Scoby is a Catholic, which is of course the heart of many of Greene's matters, but in the course of this novel he finds himself grimly at odds with his religion, and in danger of losing his soul. In the end, we are presented with an intensely sad and difficult paradox, which left me wondering how, exactly, Greene felt about his religion.

This is such a beautifully written piece of work that I hope to acquire it on paper and read it again.

Ghostwalk, by Rebecca Stott

I can't say that I'm crazy about this book, but I did read the whole thing. It is, in part, a ghost story that involves Isaac Newton and some interesting (I'm not at all sure how accurate) information about his personality, and his involvement with alchemy. The book takes place, almost completely, in the 21st century rather than the sixteenth, but Newton and shades of the past figure prominently.

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, by Barry Udall

Edgar Mint is a young boy living on an Indian reservation in Arizona. At the beginning of this book, his head is run over by the tire of a Postal Service Jeep. As a result, he spends quite a long time in a hospital, recovering (miraculously, it would seem) from his injuries. In the hospital, he meets some people who figure prominently in his life for many years.

This story is oddly captivating. I found the book one of those that I wished would go on when it was over. Edgar's naive view of the world, the lot of his fellow Native Americans, his disabilities, the Western characters who are both cruel and kind to him in this story, are all beautifully drawn. I cared about Edgar to the last period on the last page.

13 June 2014

The Black Box, by Michael Connelly

This was an audio book.

Another great Harry Bosch story, set in nearly contemporary time, ca. 2012. Harry investigates a cold case that dates to the Rodney King LA riots of 1992. At the time of the riots, Bosch and a partner responded to the murder of a woman, but in the thick of action and danger, with the National Guard deployed all around them, they were only able to do a very quick and preliminary investigation of the body and the crime scene, then were forced to rush to another murder. 20 years later, Bosch picks up the threads, and unravels an amazing fabric of conspiracy.

This is the stuff we go to Connelly for.

10 June 2014

Travels With My Aunt, by Graham Greene

I don't know why I didn't read this book many years ago. Greene never fails to satisfy. This is the story of Mr. Pulling, a retired banker, bachelor whose mother has recently died. His aunt comes into his life at his mother's funeral, reveals an alarming secret, and changes Pulling's life completely.

Some choice bits:

p. 79

[Pulling moves his lips when thinking. Once, in the bank...] "The habit betrayed me very badly with a woman who was stone deaf and a lip-reader. She was...very beautiful...couldn't help dwelling a little wistfully on her loveliness...One is more free in thought than in speech and when I looked up I saw that she was blushing..."

p. 146

"...as I lay in the...nursery with a night-light beside the bed to drive away the fears...I was afraid of burglars and Indian thugs and snakes and [illegible] and Jack the Ripper, when I should have been afraid of thirty years in a bank and a take-over bid and a premature retirement and the Deuil du Roy Albert."

This last item is the name of a dahlia. I should have mentioned that Pulling raises dahlias.

p. 179

[O'Toole to Pulling]

"...Have you any children, Henry?"


"You are a lucky man. People talk about the age of reason. There's no such thing. When you have a child you are condemned to be a father for life. They go away from you. You can't go away from them."

p. 218

[Visconti to O'Toole]

"...Champagne, if you are seeking the truth, is better than a lie detector. It encourages a man to be expansive, even reckless, while lie detectors are only a challenge to tell lies successfully."

05 June 2014

Little Demon in the City of Light, by Steven Levingston

Washington Post Review

Maureen read this book and recommended it to me.

It's interesting in many ways, and wasn't much of a chore to read. A glimpse of the 1890s, a time when civilization was in transition. Hypnotism and early neurology plays a part in this story, in which a young woman, Gabrielle Bompard,  has been an accomplice to murder, and the question arises, was she controlled by her lover, Michel Eyraud? Had he hypnotized her, instructing her to assist in the foul deed, effectively removing her will, and thereby making her innocent by reason of hypnosis? Had his post-hypnotic suggestions caused her to lie and fail to remember important details of the case?

For me, the entire story was overshadowed by the horror of the guillotine, which was still in use at the time. There is something especially evil about State-sanctioned murder, even when done in revenge for a crime as horrid as the one committed in this story.

20 May 2014

Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene

An audio book, from the PC Library.

I know that I must have read this book before, many years ago, but I had forgotten most of it, and was enchanted by the plot as well as Greene's wonderful prose.

An essay by Peter Hulme.

James Wormold is a vacuum-cleaner dealer in Havana, single father of a teenage daughter. Business is not very good in pre-revolutionary Cuba (ca. 1958), so when Wormold is approached by an agent of British Secret Service with an offer of money to gather and transmit intelligence to London, he is persuaded to cooperate.

Wormold is a hopeless secret agent, and he knows it. Instead of actually recruiting sub-agents or doing any real spying, he creates a fantasy list of people and bogus information -- and he is very successful at it. London is thoroughly taken in.

There is just enough humor to relieve pathos, and just enough romance to make it a nicely understated love story.

Fall on Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald

From the PC Library. MacDonald is a Canadian author. This is her first novel.

I must be on an unintentional first-novel gothic kick.

Another fabulous, escapist page-turner, also with a twin theme (I know!). I thoroughly enjoyed this very entertaining book.

Publisher's Weekly review.

The story just goes on and on. If it wasn't obvious by the number of pages remaining, a reader would think the novel had ended several times long before the end. This was not a bad thing, as I was happy to read more of MacDonald's terrific writing.

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

This could be described, in a way, as a book about books, or perhaps a story about stories. Another important theme in The Thirteenth Tale is the concept of twins. The protagonist is a young woman, unusually bookish and asocial, who lives with her parents, and helps her father run a rare book business.

Review at The Independent

Glancing at the above review, I was surprised to note that this was Setterfield's first novel. Perhaps I knew that already, but I hadn't remembered. It is masterfully written, and shows no signs of inexperience. It's a true gothic page-turner with plenty of Bad English Weather, mystery, cups of tea, ghosts, and scandalous intrigue. Jane Eyre is invoked and evoked throughout its pages, as are other similar books.

The review covers the plot very well, I won't bother to paraphrase that here. I wouldn't classify this book as great literature, but I would call it very good literature, and it provided many hours of terrific entertainment.

Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankel

An audio book.

One of the Kurt Wallander series of detective novels. Translated from Swedish.

I think I've noted before that I suspect translation hurts these novels a little. Wallander's life is so depressing that it starts to rub off when I read one of these. As a commuter's boredom relief it was okay. I wonder about the structure.

Real police work is probably something like what is related here. False leads, loose ends, periods of time during which nothing happens. Whether this makes good crime fiction is debatable. Perhaps Mankel is more interested in simply writing a novel about a character who experiences a great deal of adversity in his life, and how he deals with it.

This story begins with a gruesome and violent murder of an elderly couple in a remote farmhouse. As the plot progresses, we learn that the husband's life was a little more complicated than his neighbors thought. There is a clue that the perpetrators may have been "foreign." This leads to some public reaction to the large numbers of refugees living in the area. Hate crimes are committed.

As the plot progresses, Wallander's life is complicated by his father's dementia, which is beginning to get out of hand. As acting police chief during a time when more than one horrible crime has been committed, he is ill prepared to deal with this situation.

One of the issues that was never resolved to my satisfaction is the brutality of the murder, including the use of a certain eclectic knot in a cord used to strangle one of the victims. Why Mankel imagined the murder in this way, and added that detail, as well as others, is not clear to me. This is one area where I expect something did not come through the translation process -- or it may simply be my own sloppy reading.

29 April 2014

Gone Tomorrow, by Lee Child

An audio book.

This is one of the Jack Reacher novels. It is set in New York City, and begins with Reacher witnessing a suicide on a subway train.

While this is probably not great literature, it certainly was good entertainment while driving back and forth to work. The story is told clearly, with lots of suspense, and kept me involved through its entire length.

There is of course gratuitous violence in this book, typical of this series and genre.

The Maid's Version, by Daniel Woodrell

A beautifully written, small novel. One reviewer described Woodrell's prose as "Old Testament," and I don't disagree. Woodrell is the author of Winter's Bone.

In West Table, Missouri, many years ago, there was (according to this tale) a terrible explosion in a dance hall that killed several dozen people. This disaster overshadows and provides the focus for the plot of this unusual story, told from the point of view of a young man whose grandmother lost a sister in the blast.

In this story there is a strong element of class struggle, and the amazing strength of the truly poor.

NPR Review

03 April 2014

Godforsaken Idaho, by Shawn Vestal

A short story collection.

LA Times Review by William Boyle. 21 August 2013.

A quote from an email I sent to a friend about this book:

... I am almost done reading Godforsaken Idaho, a collection of short stories by Shawn Vestal. How good it is: I wish it were three times longer. There may be other chronicles of the lower-class victims of Joe Smith, et al, but I haven't read any. This stuff really needed writing.

Now that I think of it: be careful. I think that the book has done a little something to my mental state. If you're feeling fragile (long winter, all that), perhaps wait a while and pick it up in the dog days of August. Just sayin.

01 April 2014

Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin

This is the first novel in the Inspector Rebus series. I have previously read number three, Tooth and Nail.

Knots and Crosses is set in Edinburgh. Its copyright date is 1987, and the novel takes place in a time that is perhaps a few years earlier than that.

Rebus is called away from a busy desk to join a task force investigating a series of murders of young girls. As the investigation intensifies, the murders continue, and Rebus is drawn further into the mystery. His involvement becomes more and more personal as the plot unfolds.

We learn, in this book, that Rebus was in the SAS before joining the police. His experiences there, which were beyond horrible, have affected him, and color the events of this story--as well as being integral in its plot.

We are introduced to Rebus's ex-wife Rhona and their daughter Samantha in this book.

30 March 2014

The Choirboys, by Joseph Wambaugh

This book is sort of a sick farce. It has made me laugh aloud, and I will read the whole thing (I'm not quite done as I write this), but "redeeming social value?" No. I suppose there are some cops who fit Wambaugh's description, but I doubt that there are many, and I doubt that there are any who quite fill these caricaturizations.

Of course, the book is dated. Its copyright is 1975. Sexism, racism, and homophobia (especially the first and third) were not quite as objectionable then as now (and really, racism was--if not worse or more common--somehow different back then, perhaps more in the open? One could write a book on that subject, and I'm certainly not qualified.), and what was considered to be illegal and/or antisocial was actually a little bit different.

So, having not completed the book, I'll reserve some--not much--judgement for now.

The "Choirboys" are a group of LA cops who meet after work in MacArthur Park for drinking and debauchery. This is known as "choir practice." The book is made up of stories of their various adventures on and off duty.

Tooth and Nail, by Ian Rankin

An audio book.

This is the first Inspector Rebus mystery I've read. Rankin does a very good job here, creating some interesting characters and a great traditional mystery in which "whodunit" is the classic surprise.

This is not the first Rebus book in the series, which is prodigious, but it was the earliest in the series that I could get as an audio book from the library. I think I'll start reading the paper version of Rankin's "Knots and Crosses," which is the first in the series.

I wish there was a more reasonable service for renting audio books. So far what I've found has been a mandatory annual subscription at the rate of $15/month from Audible.com and other similar companies. I suppose perhaps that's not that bad, but I'd rather pay by the book than be committed to a month-by-month membership.

In this book, Rebus is called to London to aid Inspector George Flight in the investigation of a serial murderer who kills young women in a gory ritual. Plot complications include an attractive young female psychologist and Rebus's ex-wife and daughter (they live in London, and the daughter has become involved romantically with a young man of dubious reputation).

The solving of the mystery and denouement are well done.

06 March 2014

The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger

An audio book, and all.

I've read this book before, at least twice, but it's surprising (to me) how much of it I've forgotten. After seeing a documentary about Salinger on TV recently, in which the amazing success of this novel was reported, (Wikipedia says that 65 million copies have been sold) I acquired this recording and listened to the novel over the past few weeks.

Much has been said and written about Catcher, and I doubt that I can add much to the discussion, from the standpoint of literary criticism. What I will say is how strongly I am convinced that Salinger, whether wittingly or not, was describing a young person suffering from something that would today be diagnosed as some variety of mental illness. I am not saying that today's interpretation of Holden's behavior would be beneficial, but that the difference in how such behavior is perceived today is noteworthy.

Imagine a person under the age of 18 wandering freely in New York City, drinking in bars, staying in a hotel where he is offered the services of a prostitute, entering his own home in the middle of the night to visit his little sister, then leaving to seek refuge with a former teacher who seems very likely to be a pedophile.

In 2014, this would be a very different story, I think.

The Praises and Criticisms of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye

Catcher in the Rye author J. D. Salinger Dies (CBC)

July 16, 1951 review of Catcher in the New York Times

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Patty Berglund (nee Emerson)
Walter Berglund Patty's husband
Richard Katz Walter's friend, and at times Patty's lover, but that's complicated.

Joey Berglund
Janice Berglund ... son and daughter of Patty and Walter

From p.200 , on which Richard (a successful musician and songwriter currently broke due to his own behavior) is being "interviewed" by the son of a wealthy customer for whom he is building a rooftop deck in Manhattan:

Q. What do you think of the MP3 revolution?

A. Ah, revolution, wow. It's great to hear the word "revolution" again. It's great that a song now costs exactly the same as a pack of gum and lasts exactly the same amount of time before it loses its flavor and you have to spend another buck. That era which finally ended whenever, yesterday--you know, that era when we pretended rock was the scourge of conformity and consumerism, instead of its anointed handmaid--that era was really irritating to me. I think it's good for the honesty of rock and roll and good for the country in general that we can finally see Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop for what they really were: as manufacturers of wintergreen Chiclets.

Q. So you're saying that rock has lost its subversive edge?

A. I'm saying it never had any subversive edge. It was always wintergreen Chiclets, we just enjoyed pretending otherwise.

Q. What about when Dylan went electric?

A. If you're going to talk about ancient history, let's go back to the French Revolution. Remember when, I forget his name, but that rocker who wrote the "Marseillaise," Jean Jacques Whoever--remember when his song started getting all that airplay in 1792, and suddenly the peasantry rose up and overthrew the aristocracy? There was a song that changed the world. Attitude was what the peasants were missing. They already had everything else--humiliating servitude, grinding poverty, unpayable debts, horrific working conditions. But without a song, man, it added up to nothing. The sansculotte style was what really changed the world. 

I read this book slowly, from about the middle of January to yesterday (5 March 2014). It is, I think, a fairly decent characterization of our time. The characters are a little bit unbelievable, perhaps a little too cardboard-cutout for their own good, but nonetheless they all represent a bit of what makes up America in the early 21st century. The plot is well done, made up of the points of view of the main characters in a way that kept me interested -- because each of these people are quite intense, and they can begin to wear you out.

Should there be anyone here to read it, this book might be a good reference for future inhabitants of Earth.

27 February 2014

American Bloomsbury, by Susan Cheever

An audio book.

This book is an account of the lives and interactions of some of the denizens of Concord, Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century. These are none other than Margaret Fuller, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and various members of their respective families.

I had not realized how close together all of these worthies had lived, excepting possibly Thoreau and Emerson. Furthermore, I had known little or nothing of Alcott, except that she was the author of Little Women, and Fuller was only a familiar name.

Cheever has written an interesting and useful account here, which highlights a time of intellectual brilliance in the young United States, in the time leading up to the Civil War. The story continues through that war, in which Alcott worked as a battlefield nurse. (Whitman is also mentioned in this account, of which I am reminded, for he also nursed the wou8nded in that grisly theatre.)

This might have been a little heavy for the driving-and-listening environment. When piloting the car becomes a little thrilling, one's attention tends to wander. Nevertheless, I'm not sure I would have had the motivation to finish this book from paper (a judgement on me and my dismal attention span, not on Cheever or her book), so I'm glad to have gleaned what I did by listening.

10 January 2014

Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon

Copyright 2013, by Thomas Pynchon.

It took me until about page 77 before I decided that I could read this book. I almost gave it up. It's a mess of hip conversations, and it's set in 2001. But once I began to recognize the character Maxine as someone that I could actually care about, I wanted to keep reading, and find out what's going on. So I almost feel as if I skipped the first 77 pages.

This is from page 140:

"Madoff Securities. Hmm, maybe some industry scuttlebutt. Bernie Madoff, a legend on the street. Said to do quite well, I recall."
"One to two percent a month."
"Nice average return, so what's the problem?"
"Not average. Same every month."
"Uh-oh." She flips pages, has a look at the graph. "What the fuck. It's a perfect straight line, slanting up forever?'
"Seem a little abnormal to you?"
"...it's got to be a Ponzi scheme..."

And this from 143:

"Future of film, if you want to know--someday, more bandwidth, more video files up on the Internet, everybody'll be shootin everything, way too much to look at, nothin will mean shit. Think of me as the prophet of that."
From page 432:

"Look at it, every day more lusers than users, keyboards and screens turning into nothin but portals to web sites for what the Management wants everybody addicted to, shopping, gaming, jerking off, streaming endless garbage -- ... [this ellipsis is mine, as is the next. The ones in the following passage are from the text]
"...hashslingrz and them are all screaming louder and louder about 'Internet freedom,' while they go on handing more of it over to the bad guys ... They get us, all right, we're all lonely, needy, disrespected, desperate to believe in any sorry imitation of belonging they want to sell us... We're being played, Maxi, and the game is fixed, and it won't end till the Internet--the real one, the dream, the promise--is destroyed."

04 January 2014

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen

A novel. Copyright 2001 by Jonathan Franzen.

Among other things, this is the story of the Lambert Family, of St. Jude, a fictional place that may be intended to make us think of St. Paul, MN. Alfred and Enid are the parents of Gary, Chip, and Denise. This novel moves back and forth in time, seemingly without effort, and illuminates the corners of all their lives, from the time when Alfred and Enid were very young to when they are, in the end, rather old.

This is a thoughtful and well-written story of American culture and life, and a useful picture of the world and the USA at the beginning of the 21st century.

I look forward to reading more from Franzen.

Here's a review from the NY Times dated, ominously, 9 Sept. 2001.

02 January 2014

Saturday, by Ian McEwan

The entire plot of this novel takes place on a Saturday in February 2003. Neurosurgeon Henry Perowne wakes up early and has a very full day. In the course of this day he sees every member of his family, including his elderly (demented) mother and drunken poet father-in-law. In addition to the reunion, Perowne faces a serious and dangerous confrontation.

I was glad to find that this book was not like the last McEwan I read, which had a trick ending. Saturday was a thoroughly good read, with a great plot and plenty to think about. There is much debate in the book about the wisdom or folly of invading Iraq, and speculation about what the outcomes of such action--or, indeed, the outcomes of inaction--might be.

There is an issue toward the end that I don't want to be too specific about as it would spoil the book for another reader, but I do think there's an unrealistic representation of the professional behavior of a surgeon here. I doubt that the event described near the end of the story would or could have taken place in a British hospital, but I suppose I could be wrong.

McEwan includes an interesting American, Jay Strong, who has come to London to work as an anesthetist, thereby reducing his salary by a great deal, because he loves (1) socialized medicine, and (2) a British woman.

A Guardian / Observer review.

The Overlook, by Michael Connelly

This was an e-book from the PC Library.

This book was quite short, but still pretty entertaining. Harry Bosch solves a murder in spite of interference from the FBI, who seem determined to turn the incident into a national security issue. Bosch doesn't think it is.

As I've been reading a number of Wambaugh's LAPD novels lately, I was interested to note several details in common, for example, the mention of the Federal Consent Decree under which the LAPD was operating (still is? I don't know). Of course, most of these details are simply factual, so they would have to be identical.

01 January 2014

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood

So wonderful. Maggie can't miss, it seems.

This is a complex, multi-layered novel, but not a bit confusing. Atwood tells several stories here, not the least of which is the history of the decade before the outbreak of World War II, and the repression of unions and progressives.

The central characters are sisters, Laura and Iris. Their father is a minor industrialist with a factory near Toronto. Laura, we learn early on, does not live long, but becomes famous posthumously for writing a novel, the title of which is the title of this book. We get segments of the novel-within-a-novel throughout the work. Atwood also uses news clippings (fictional) among the chapters, which switch back and forth in time. All this is done with great skill; one has the impression that this is the way to tell these stories, that no other method would be as satisfying.

Among other lessons, The Blind Assassin teaches us that greed, a lust for power, and the forces of unbridled capitalism have human and individual consequences, some of which are quite specifically illustrated, others hinted at or implied.

Iris and Laura are women, though born into a wealthy family, they are still without power. We see them treated as children at best, and slaves at worst. Since they are both very intelligent and resourceful, they manage to wrest some freedom and self-determination from the world, but not without great cost, especially in Laura's case.

The Hollywood Crows, by Joseph Wambaugh

An audio book.

Community Relations Officers, CRO, pronounced "crow."

Good stuff. Made me feel like I knew Hollywood a little better.

Hollywood Moon, by Joseph Wambaugh

an audio book

Another of Wambaugh's novels about the LAPD, with characters that appear in other books. This was quite entertaining, and improved many a commuting trip.

There is an interesting bit of conversation that advocates very strongly for equal treatment and respect for female cops.