27 December 2015

Travels With Charley, by John Steinbeck

"A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ." ~John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley
Steinbeck recounts (somewhat inaccurately, according to some critics) his trip "In Search of America" in 1960 in a pickup equipped with a "house," or what we'd call a pickup camper today.
I wrote to the head office of a great corporation which manufactures trucks. I specified my purpose and my needs. I wanted a three-quarter-ton pick-up truck, capable of going anywhere under possibly rigorous conditions, and on this truck I wanted a little house built like the cabin of a small boat. ...a tough, fast, comfortable vehicle, mounting a camper top--a little house with double bed, a four-burner stove, a heater, refrigerator and lights operating on butane, a chemical toilet, closet space, storage space, windows screened against insects...
...because my planned trip had aroused some satiric remarks among my friends, I named it Rocinante...
...I took one companion...an old French gentleman poodle known as Charley. ...he responds quickly only to commands in French...Charley is a born diplomat. He prefers negotiation to fighting... ...he is a good watch dog--has a roar like a lion, designed to conceal from night-wandering strangers the fact that he couldn't bite his way out of a cornet du papier...
 ...the best way to attract attention, help, and conversation is to be lost. A man ... will cheerfully devote several hours of his time giving wrong directions to a total stranger...
From page 81:
...I had avoided the great high-speed slashes of concrete and tar called "thruways" ... but I had dawdled...and I had visions of being snowbound in North Dakota. I sought out U.S. 90, a wide gash of a super-highway ... The minimum speed ... was greater than any I had previously driven... Instructions screamed at me from the road once: "Do not stop! No stopping. Maintain speed." Trucks as long as freighters went roaring by, delivering a wind like the blow of a fist. These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pass, and at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders. No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing...

This was the fall of 1960. What was the state of the Interstate Highway System at this point? President Eisenhower signed the law that began it in 1956. Here's a Federal Government history site: https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/interstate/history.cfm.

It's interesting (to me, anyway) to reflect on the fact that the System didn't really come into being for several years after Eisenhower's signing of the bill -- it wasn't really until the late 60s and early 70s that the System could be considered anything like complete. How many public officials today are willing to promote such long-term goals--projects that might not reach fruition until long after their political careers are over?

Toward the end of the book, Steinbeck crosses Texas and briefly visits New Orleans, the site of racial strife that year as Federal Marshalls were required to protect black children attending a desegregated school. His sadness is profound, his confusion noticeable. At least twice, he reports someone making a joke about Charley sitting in the front seat of his truck: "I thought you had a nigger in there."

There's a great deal about the racial strife of late 1960, and he describes a long conversation with a southerner outside of New Orleans, and a short one with an African-American man to whom he gives a ride, but I'll choose this bit to quote, from pages 237-238:

...Charley doesn't have our problems. He doesn't belong to a species clever enough to split the atom but not clever enough to live at peace with itself. He doesn't even know about race, nor is he concerned with his sister's marriage... Once Charley fell in love with a dachshund, a romance racially unsuitable, physically ridiculous, and mechanically impossible. But all these problems Charley ignored. He loved deeply and tried dogfully. It would be difficult to explain to a dog the good and moral purpose of a thousand humans gathered to curse one tiny human. I've seen a look in dog's eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.

And then there is the end, when he returns home, weary of his trip, which, as he describes, ended before it was over. All travelers, I think, have experienced this, the weariness of being on the road, the desire to get home now.


The Truth About "Travels With Charley" by Bill Steigerwald, a journalist who attempted to reproduce Steinbeck's trip, and in the process claims to have proven that the account is not accurate. Big deal. I'm thinking, way to miss the point, Bill. Nonetheless, Steigerwald's account looks worth reading.

28 October 2015

Finders Keepers, by Stephen King

A sequel to Mr. Mercedes.

This, like almost everything I've ever read by Mr. King, did not disappoint.

It's the story of a family that was affected by the tragedy central to the plot of Mr. Mercedes.  In particular, it's about a young man who literally finds buried treasure, and uses it to help his family. When the burier of the treasure is released from prison prematurely, the plot picks up speed.

To Read, and "Naked Cities," by Adam Gopnik (NYer 5 Oct 2015)

"Naked Cities" is a "Books" article by Adam Gopnik in the 5 October 2015 New Yorker magazine. In it, Gopnik discusses the past and current state of several American (and, in passing, British) cities, and mentions some books about them that might be worth reading.

I found the section of the article concerning Detroit to be of particular interest. Once In A Great City, (Simon and Schuster) by David Maraniss, is the main citation for this part. Several fascinating people are mentioned, including Smokey Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Ford II, and Walter Reuther.

On Reuther: "...he was a social democrat who worked in the Soviet Union and denounced Stalinism [who knew?]; a labor leader who survived attempts by the owners not just to intimidate but to assassinate him...He thought auto-workers needed not only higher wages but less stressful work, and proposed regular sabbaticals for them..."

 New York Times Review of Once In a Great City

20 October 2015

The Robber Bride, by Margaret Atwood

This book begins with the return of a dead woman, Zenia. We see her return from three points of view, that of Tony Fremont, Charis, and Roz.

Tony is an historian, especially interested in war. She has a habit of reversing words, "war" becomes "raw," "Fremont" "tnomerf," etc. Roz is the publisher of a large and successful women's  magazine. Charis is a sort of New Age person, perhaps she could be called an "earth mother" type, respectful of all forms of life, aware of auras, vegetarian.

All three of these women have lost men to Zenia. Tony got hers back, but now worries that he's threatened by Zenia's apparent resurrection. Roz and Charis were not so lucky.

New York Times Review.

19 October 2015

With Intent to Kill, by Nancy Kopp

Why I finished this book I can't really explain. At one point, early on, I decided that it wasn't very good, but since it is a mystery I wanted to see how it comes out. That is my excuse, I suppose, but in the end, the resolution is so contrived and weak that my persistence was not justified.

In this novel an assistant DA works with a sheriff's detective in suburban Wisconsin to discover and prosecute the murderer of a four-year-old boy.

I have now wasted sufficient words to describe a waste of words.

A brief review from Publisher's Weekly.

08 October 2015

Two Lives, by William Trevor

Two Lives is a volume of two novels. The first is Reading Turgenev, the second My House in Umbria.

After Rain NY Times review 

NPR review of Trevor's Selected Stories 

Paris Review interview with Trevor 

Reading Turgenev is the life of Mary Louise Quarry. My House in Umbria is the life of Emily Delahunty.

NY Times Review of Two Lives 

From the NYT review linked above:
"...Mary Louise...has spent the last 31 years in an asylum for the mentally impaired.... Emily Delahunty...has been on her own since her teens... has finally fetched up in the Italian countryside, presiding over a handsome villa...These two women are presented to us in the summer of 1987, when unexpected events will jolt each one, at least temporarily, out of her familiar patterns of behavior..."

To Read

Lucia Berlin: several titles, none available at PC Library as of 12 August 2015. An article in the NYer about her and her work.

Legal Limit, by Martin Clark

Let Me Be Frank With You, by Richard Ford

This is subtitled "A Frank Bascombe Book." It consists of four stories, loosely connected, in which Bascombe is the principle character and first-person narrator. Frank is 68 now, married again, and retired. The stories are set after Hurricane Sandy has devastated much of the New Jersey coastline from the previous Bascombe novels.

New York Times review

NPR review

The four stories are:
  • "I'm Here" 
  • "Everything Could Be Worse" 
  • "The New Normal" 
  • "The Deaths of Others"


13 September 2015

Noah' s Compass, by Anne Tyler

"In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennywell lost his job." is the first sentence of Noah's Compass. Anne Tyler has always had a knack for capturing me from the start, but I found this hook extraordinarily effective.

Pennywell experiences a second disaster almost right away, and with these events, Tyler introduces us to another of her very human--quirky, selfish, out-of-it--characters, and his family, which is also singular; yet, isn't there some platitude about all families being crazy when viewed up close?

Another terrific read from one of my very favorite authors.

The Jezebel Remedy, by Martin Clark

Joe and Lisa Stone are lawyers, married twenty years, and in practice together. They have an extremely eccentric client, Lettie VanSandt, who dies in a fire at her home in very strange circumstances.

As this legal mystery unfolds, we learn that there is a lot more to Lettie and her world than anyone expected.

The characters in this book are pretty good. Joe Stone may be just a little bit too manly and perfect to be believed, and Lisa smokes so much that reading this book I found myself having psychosomatic bronchitis.

The setting is rural Virginia, and there are a lot of pleasant home-town characters that support Lisa and Joe when things get rough. There is also an evil pharmaceutical corporation with an amoral leader who is very easy to despise. I never mind seeing that industry put in a bad light.

There are plot elements included that might have been done without. I don't want to spoil the enjoyment of the book for anyone by being specific here, but perhaps a more aggressive editor would be good for Mr. Clark.

The mystery itself is functional. I do think the resolution was just a little bit too facile, but I didn't mind. I enjoyed this book and read it in about a day.

Martin Clark is a Virginia circuit-court judge, according to the book jacket. This is interesting, as there is a very likable judge character in this book, named Klein. He has other books, one is Legal Limit, which I may look for.

07 September 2015

Truth Like the Sun, by Jim Lynch

This book is set in both 1962 and 2001. Roger Morgan is an important promoter of the Seattle World's Fair, the expo of 1962, the "Century 21" extravaganza that left its footprint on Seattle, a mark that may still be seen in many places, but none so obvious as the Space Needle, which has come to be the icon of Seattle.

Washington Post Review

New York Times Review

This is also about a young PI reporter, Helen Gulanos, in 2001, who takes on the story of Morgan and the corrupt network of illegal gambling businesses, real-estate traders, and law enforcement with whom he seems to have been involved during his ruthless promotion of the Expo, as well as the subsequent boom in Seattle as the I5 freeway was completed, changing the layout of the city and value of properties.

Many colorful fictional characters are in this story in both eras. Exactly who they represent would be an interesting study, but I doubt that anyone has the desire to fight the lawsuits--not to mention other consequences--that would result from an attempt to publish such a study.

The reviews are lukewarm, but I found this book impossible to put down, and read it in about a day.

05 September 2015

The Mayor of MacDougal Street, by Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald

With a foreword by Lawrence Block.

I saw Dave Van Ronk at Caffe Lena a long time ago. The memory is dim, but I remember his big, wheezy, wonderful voice and fabulous guitar. I think this was circa 1967, but I can't be sure. I also have a faded recollection of owning at least one Dave Van Ronk LP, but the only thing I really recall is that the record itself was bright red.

This book was a pure pleasure to read. Van Ronk recalls the late 50s and early 60s in Greenwich Village. He knew many of the luminaries of that period, including Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and Bob Dylan. In addition, he was friends with Mississippi John Hurt and other famous American root-musicians.

Van Ronk was a consummate musician. He put everything into his music. He began with jazz. He describes himself as a "mouldy fig," of the traditional New Orleans Jazz school -- as opposed to the be-bop revolutionaries like Charlie Parker -- but he loved it all. He listened to all kinds of music, including musical theatre and classical. As his personal style developed, he fell into the genres described as "blues," and "folk," but he devotes several paragraphs to the meaninglessness of said categories, specifically as useless barriers that do nothing to enhance or describe the art of music, and musical performance.

Reading this book was a pleasant visit to my teenage years, when I listened to every note played by Jack Elliot, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, or Joni Mitchell as if it contained the key to all understanding.

Elijah Wald did a loving and thorough job of co-authoring this memoir. Van Ronk died before it was completed, and Wald had to do his best to pick up the pieces. The result should make him very proud.

27 August 2015

Chasing the White Dog, by Max Whatman

I noticed this book when I was looking for something else, that bit of serendipity that used to occur when browsing the shelves of a good old-fashioned library like the one in Schenectady, New York, where I went as a young teenage reader.

New York Times Review

I found myself getting a little tired of the repeated descriptions of whiskey tastings, and the tiresomely colorful characters of microdistillery businessmen in Colorado and other places.

The first half or more of the book is actually about traditional moonshiners and the law-enforcement people who pursue them. This part was pretty interesting.

There's an obligatory section on NASCAR, and even a cameo appearance by Junior Johnson. At one point, Johnson takes the author to a remote location and shows him what we are to believe is an illegal still, but in light of Johnson's "Midnight Moon" product, which I think is quite on the up-and-up, and probably a source of revenue to the Feds, as well as whatever state in which it's sold, I am skeptical.

Near the end of the book is the description of the trial of Jody "Duck" and Margaret Smith, for moonshining, and for conspiracy. This is somewhat interesting, as trials provide their own drama.

Watman ends his book with what is, to me, a sensible plea to legalize home distilling of a limited amount.

02 August 2015

The Fifth Witness, by Michael Connelly

This is a Mickey Haller, The Lincoln Lawyer, novel.

In it, Haller takes the case of Lisa Trammel, a woman who is accused of murdering the banker that foreclosed on her house.

The plot is fascinating, as is the writing, and twists all the way to the end of a difficult court case for Haller.

The book features a terrific ending, and in no way disappoints. Connelly is a sure-fire writer of this type of fiction.

LA Times review

14 July 2015

And When She Was Good, by Laura Lippman

The story of Helen/Heloise Lewis, a rather secret person who leads a very complicated life. Helen is a young woman with an abusive father who leaves home with a young man who is no better. Later in life we find Heloise, nee Helen, running a successful "escort service." She has, along the way, made some questionable decisions and involved herself with some very dangerous people. All of this is beginning to come together as we enter this captivating novel. I read this in a weekend, it was just great.

Triburbia, by Karl Taro Greenfeld

This novel was written before The Subprimes. 

This is the rare book that I didn't finish. I got maybe 50 pages in, and just lost interest. Maybe it develops into something and I may have missed that, but so far I'm reading the problems of people wealthier than I have ever been even near to. Perhaps this is simple envy, but they just don't seem like actual problems to me.

10 July 2015

The Subprimes, by Karl Taro Greenfeld

New York Times review.

It's dystopian near-future fiction. America has become almost completely de-regulated, practically everything privatized. There's an enormous population of unemployed homeless, the "Subprimes" of the title, who wander the country, working as temporary labor--especially at fracking sites--and squatting in foreclosed, uninhabited housing developments. The environment has deteriorated quite a bit from the way it is now: summer has become a long, hellish season with temperatures routinely climbing into the 130s. A major character is a kind of Bernie Madoff who may be rehabilitated by a televangelist who characterizes him as a victim of progressives who wish to stymie the "job-creators." One of the skillful things that Greenfeld has done is to make this world very, very close to the one we are in. Many current cultural references are made: it's not that far in the future.

Unfortunately, I didn't much like the ending. It seemed contrived, a sort of deus ex machina thing that says, "I didn't know what to do with this plot so I did this." To me, anyway. The book was still worth reading for its dire predictions and the caution that it should raise.

06 July 2015

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

Haven't read anything by Anne Tyler in years. I'm looking forward to this.

And it was not a disappointment. The story of the Whitshank family, with special focus on Abby Whitshank and her son Daniel--though we feel very well acquainted with all other family members by the book's end, both the current and past members--is, in a way, nothing special, and at the same time it is devastatingly extraordinary, particular, and fascinating.

New York Times review.

The Hermit's Story, by Rick Bass

A collection of short stories.

These are gems, really. Some are set in Montana, of course. Others, such as "Eating," are set elsewhere.

An essay about "The Hermit's Story," (just that one short story, which provides the title for this collection).

A review of the collection in the Chicago Tribune.

28 June 2015

The Whites, by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt

New York Times review

This is a very good novel about the life and times of a New York City police detective. Sgt. Billy Graves runs the Night Watch, and the Night Watch runs him.

The Big Seven, by Jim Harrison

...People from his class never spent a hundred dollars an hour to toalk to a shrink.... it was thought to be a scam. Only lawyers got that much.

...One professor used to like to quote Faulkner as saying "Keats 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of broken-hearted old ladies." Hemingway was ruthless with his children but would head to bed with a case of sniffles. Sunderson always thought Hemingway wrote very well but if you peeked under the covers you saw one of the worst pricks in the history of literature. Faulkner stayed home and drank and wasn't into serial marriages...

...what could you do about a fourteen-year-old boy who would commit cold-blooded murder? The paper failed to mention whether he was a Boy Scout or a junior member of the NRA. There were no clues other than the implicit one that he was a member of a culture dying of dry rot...

Back in the fifth grade each student had received a packet of Audubon cards resembling baseball cards but with photos of birds rather than players, and they were let out into the woods to match them to what they saw. An oriole was a prize sighting. Some boys cheated and sat around in the woods smoking cigarettes. He told his dad about this and his dad had said, "Once a cheat, always a cheat." He had pondered what this meant and came up with not much because he had noticed that cheaters seemed to do well at everything and being one might well prepare you for a career in business.
Another rough, drunken Sundersen novel by Jim Harrison. This one is a sequel to the one I just read, Great Leader. In it, Sundersen acquires a hunting cabin with a nearby family of backwoods people who are vodka-swilling armed maniacs, to be generous. A merry series of events ensue.

Damon Runyon, by Jimmy Breslin

Damon Runyon was a journalist, poet, author, and playwright. He wrote of the Roaring Twenties, and brought Broadway and New York City and its characters of that era to life. Jimmy Breslin, a colorful and popular journalist and writer of the later twentieth century writes the life of his predecessor.

Runyon grew up in Pueblo, Colorado, and was apparently drinking like an alcoholic and smoking like a chimney before he was a teenager. His drinking became so bad that eventually he quit, and in later life wrote of his appreciation for AA, although his own sobriety predated the birth of that program by about 20 years.

In writing about Runyon's career, Breslin talks of graft and corruption in a very casual manner. His attitude seems to be that this stuff is everywhere, and pretty much always has been, and that we shouldn't be surprised by it. His own analysis of history would be one of theft and greed.

An interesting bit from the middle of the book (pp185-186) describes "[New York City's] drug panic of 1919." This was also the time when influenza was killing thousands all over the world, including in that city. Louis Harris, "a doctor who was chief of the city's Bureau of Preventable Diseases...found that groups of doctors and nurses were shoving aone another to enter houses where the sick inside had cash..." Harris said " 'The socialization of the medical and nursing professions to place them under government control should no longer be deferred."  Harris's opinion was not too welcome. " 'When he went to medical school, he failed stethoscope,' Esdail (Doc) Cohen of the New York World said."

"...on April 8, 1919, the first federal drug agents in the nation raided six physicians and four druggists who were prescribing opium, cocaine and heroin to people purportedly in need of hop as medicine. That weekend...two thousand addicts walked into Bellevue Hospital...and begged for help. By Monday, the hospital opened a drug treatment center, alarming doctors, who saw it as another attempt to establish socialized medicine..."

From page 187:

"...the state planned to open a long-term treatment center at Mount Lebanon Shaker Village... 'These people should get treatment all right,' a Bellevue doctor announced. 'They should get treated to jail.' "
"Dr. Royal Copeland, the New York City health commissioner, reported, 'Over 95 percent of all drug addicts have shown, by their acts, a non-appreciation of the service, and have repeatedly attempted to be discharged before the end of their treatment. It is, therefore, recommended that the Department of Health discontinue any sort of drug treatment program.' "
Runyon observed this through the point of view of Arnold Rothstein, a gangster. "[Rothstein] decided to provide an orderly distribution of drugs by a professional criminal, himself. He told Frank Costello, 'There can't be much wrong with them. Nobody cares.' "

From page 188:

"Rothstein was the nation's first major underworld distributor of drugs. The first federal drug agent in New York, Max Roder, always said the biggest name he had on his list as a dealer was Arnold Rothstein. 'Every time you mentioned his name in the office, five people on his payroll went to the phone to call him up.' "

Runyon's life was colorful, to say the least. He saw the first half of the twentieth century in all its iniquity and glory, and wrote about sports, gangsters, and his beloved Broadway.

Girl on a Train, by Paula Hawkins

This book contains pure evil. It's a very effective thriller, captivating, written in an innovative style that suits the subject matter very well.

Rachel is the girl on the train, a young woman who rides to London, passing the same houses every day. On the terrace of one of them, she frequently observes a young couple whose life seems idyllic. That changes.

Furthermore, we learn much more about Rachel, as well as the other principle characters in this book, and we are led expertly down the path of mystery and suspense to its amazing conclusion.

22 May 2015

Great Leader, by Jim Harrison


NY Times review

This is the first book I've read by Jim Harrison. His writing is unusual. There's a kind of economy to it that can be just a little confusing. He doesn't waste words on transition; a character will move from one place to another, one action to another, one time to another, with little or no explanation. Several times I had to stop and go back to see what I had missed, and usually discovered that I had missed nothing--I was simply being challenged to use my head to figure out what's going on. In general, I like this in an author; I don't enjoy reading unnecessary reams of exposition, but maybe Mr. Harrison overdoes it a little.

The story is pretty good. I like the Upper Peninsula Michigan setting, the cold and bleak images of Lake Superior, its role as a sort of symbol for evil in the book. Sunderson is a State Police detective who retires soon after the story begins, but who continues to hunt down his last suspect, a religious cult leader that he sometimes calls the Great Leader. The Great Leader's main transgression is statutory rape: he likes to have intercourse with underage girls who join the cult. He also welcomes adult women as long as they have lots of money to donate.

Sunderson is a complicated person, probably an alcoholic, although his personal brand of alcoholism doesn't exactly ring true, and I have a little expertise in this area. He is extremely sexually active for a 65-year-old man, and doesn't seem to have much in the way of moral compunction. Add to this his habit of spying on his 16-year-old female neighbor Mona, and it's a little difficult to see exactly from where his intense moral outrage against the Great Leader comes. Perhaps it's one of those instances where we hate others the most when they remind us of ourselves.

Nancy Pearl's book recommendations NPR 22 May 2015

Link to program

The books are

The Revolutions, by Felix Gilman
The Swimmer, by Joakim Zander
Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper
Unbecoming, by Rebecca Sherm
The Half Brother, by Holly LeCraw
The Strangler Vine, by M.J. Carter

11 May 2015

Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen

In trying to think of appropriate labels for this entry, I think I've just about summarized what I want to say. Isak Dinesen is a pseudonym for Karen Blixen, and is the author of the more-or-less-famous (at least the movie is) Out of Africa.

These seven stories were are very unusual (odd, quirky, weird, and strange also occur to me as adjectives) but all in all very good. I started reading this on a camping trip and thought after a few paragraphs that I'd put it down, but I didn't.

I'm not going to rehash all seven tales, or even one of them. I will say that the technique of story-within-story is well represented here. I may never have seen it done more, or better.

These stories tend to be set in the early 19th century, and have many references to the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars, a war between Denmark and England of which I was not aware (my command of history is, at best, dismal), and not a little to do with the supernatural--though I would not describe them as tales of the occult, even to the extent that Edgar Allan Poe's might be.

All in all, I'd highly recommend Seven Tales to those who crave a damned good read.

A New York Times review by John Updike.

Winter, by Rick Bass

A beautiful, even soothing, account of the author's first winter as a resident of the Yaak valley in Montana.

Biography from Rick Bass's web site.

Bleeding Hearts, by Ian Rankin

This is not an Inspector Rebus novel. It is, instead, a novel told partly in first person by a hired assassin, and partly in third person about the private detective who pursues him from England to America.

After a few Rebuses, I was disappointed to find myself noticing some cardboard-cutout characters, and not-so-great writing.

I did read the whole thing. It was well-plotted, even including a religious cult, and a fictional account of a real-time financial error made in the time of Manuel Noriega and the Iran-Contra scandal.

New York Times review.

04 May 2015

Joyland, by Stephen King

A Hard Case Crime Novel.

This is another Stephen King novel that could be described more as a mystery, or noir-crime novel, than a typical King supernatural thriller. There is, however, an element of the supernatural (maybe he just can't help that) contained in the story, but nevertheless, this is a valid and very entertaining mystery novel.

Set mostly in the vicinity of Wilmington, NC,  this is the story of young Devin Jones, who takes a summer job with a carnival.  Jones, after losing his college girlfriend, finds himself at loose ends, and begins to focus more on his life as a carnival employee. He learns that there is an unsolved mystery associated with the carnival, and here we go. There is a lot of nostalgia and terrific carnival atmosphere. The book cover harkens back to the days of pulp fiction.

King is practically criticism-proof. He hands you a story like this, what are you going to do? If you don't feel like reading it, don't. It's not to be taken as great literature -- but what is it? Merely an entertainment? Somehow, while putting on a great show, King manages always to sneak in a little commentary, a little observation of the human condition, and maybe a little criticism of his own.

I'm a fan.

LA Times Review

20 April 2015

The Colour of Magic, by Terry Pratchett

An audio book.

Having heard of Mr. Pratchett's recent death, and having read much praise and regret from his readers and friends, and having heard of him in the past, though dimly and filed somewhere in the outer reaches of my little brain, I thought I should perhaps find out what all the buzz is about.

The first hour of listening to this book has already answered that. I have a familiar happy and comfortable feeling with this text that reminds me of the days when I read the works of Douglas Adams, another sorely missed Englishman.

Here's an interesting Guardian article in which the question is asked, is The Colour of Magic a good introduction to Terry Pratchett?

Based on this novel, I don't know how much farther I'll go with Pratchett. His reputation is such that perhaps I should give him more of a try. The novel is not bad, but it is just a little bit silly.

08 April 2015

Tatiana, by Martin Cruz Smith

A novel in the Arkady Renko series. This is set in post-Soviet Russia. Renko begins an unauthorized investigation into the death of Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative reporter not loved by those in power, who died falling from a window. Her death is generally considered a suicide, but Renko has doubts.

At the beginning of the book, we witness the murder of a translator who has been working for a group of wealthy businessmen. The translator keeps a coded notebook, which was in the possession of Tatiana Petrovna before her death.

Set against a backdrop of cynical corruption, Renko's investigation requires a persistence that borders on insanity. Indeed, one of the characters describes him as "Sisyphean."

A New York Times review says "In “Tatiana,” his eighth crime novel dominated by the lawless landmass once known as the Soviet Union, Martin Cruz Smith sets his Slavic sleuth, Arkady Renko, on the case."

This Wheel's on Fire, by Levon Helm with Stephen Davis

Levon Helm and the story of The Band.

This is pretty obviously "co-written," and gets a little thin at times, but it is an interesting account of one of my very favorite musical groups. Levon Helm came from Arkansas, the rest of The Band came from Canada.

In this book we learn of the roots of The Band, from Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks, to the many jobs backing Bob Dylan, and the subsequent recording sessions and performances that made their place in history under their super-generic name.

Worth reading just for the biographies and anecdotes of the time.

New York Times review.

The Paying Guests by Susan Waters

Set in the years soon after World War I, this novel evokes a time when many aspects of life were still what we would consider primitive. For example, the home that is central to the plot does not have an indoor lavatory or commode; its residents visit an outhouse in the garden. The mother and daughter around whom the plot develops, Mrs. Wray and Frances, have lost much in the war, including Frances' two brothers. Her father died soon afterward, though not as a result of military action.

The Wrays, short on funds, do a bit of remodeling and advertise for boarders, "paying guests." The couple that move in provide an instant accelerant to the plot, which becomes very fascinating and tense when one of the paying guests is found murdered near the house.

This was thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining, and gave what I believe to be a good picture of what life in England might have been like at this period of time. Furthermore, the issue of homosexuality at this time is dealt with, and we are shown a plausible image of how it might have been to be gay or lesbian then.

Sarah Waters' website

Identical, by Scott Turow

Turow hasn't disappointed me yet. This is an involved, compact mystery that features identical twins, one of the great basic mystery mechanisms, in my opinion.

In this story, one twin confesses to murder, the other has a successful political career in Kindle County. As the political brother prepares for a major election, his brother is getting out of prison, and things begin to fall apart.

There is an interesting under-current of Greek-American culture in this novel that I don't recall finding in Turow's work before, though I may simply be forgetting.

Sandy Stern makes an appearance in this book as do other Kindle County characters that Turow has introduced in the past. What a fabulously entertaining and thoughtful body of work Turow has given us; I hope there will be much more.

Gods of Guilt, by Michael Connelly

This is a recent Mickey Haller (The "Lincoln Lawyer") novel, set some time after his appearance in Reversal. Apparently since that novel, Haller has run for election as DA, and lost, largely due to having defended an unpopular person. At the tail end of this political and personal (his first ex-wife and daughter will have almost nothing to do with him) disaster, he finds himself representing a "digital pimp" accused of murdering a prostitute.

In typical fashion, as this story unfolds, the plot becomes very complicated. There are suspicious characters in law enforcement, including a DEA agent named Marco, as well as organized crime figures. A lawyer in prison reaches out through his son, an apparently incompetent lawyer with the same name as his disgraced father.

The novel goes at full speed right up to the end. There are only a few pages of denouement.

Harry Bosch doesn't really figure in the plot, but makes a cameo appearance.

04 April 2015

Prudence, by David Treuer

This novel is set from about 1942 - 1952, mostly in northern Minnesota. The Washburns, Emma and Jonathan, own a summer house--"The Pines"--on a lake. Jonathan, a physician, spends only a little time there, but Emma goes for the whole summer. They employ a caretaker named Felix, who is a Native American. Several other Native Americans are among the characters, including Prudence, of the title.  (Mr. Treuer is a member of the Ojibwe tribe.)

The Washburn's only son, Frankie, comes to visit just before he is about to ship out with the Army Air Force as a bombardier. Just before his arrival, a prisoner escapes from the newly-constructed prison camp not far from The Pines. Local people have formed search parties, and Frankie is eager to search for "The German." 

The tragic accident that occurs at this point is the focus of the novel, which gives a good picture of what life might have been like in this area during World War II and the years right afterward. There is also an unavoidable comparison between the Holocaust and the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans by the European invaders of America.

Review and audio from NPR's Fresh Air

Washington Post Review

More than once it has occurred to me just how often the firing of a gun determines the course, outcome, or resolution of a piece of fiction. This novel is no exception.

11 March 2015

Someday, Someday Maybe, by Lauren Graham

This was an entertaining, engaging, well done novel. Lauren Graham is a well-known actress, but obviously has other talent.

The novel is a first-person account of a young woman in New York City trying to find work as an actress. It's written with humor as well as down-to-earth realism, but is not sentimental or overly cute. Characters were well-drawn and believable. I read this book quickly and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Here's a review from the Washington Post.

03 March 2015

Left for Dead, by J.A. Jance

An audio book.

I've read (and listened to) many novels by Jance, back to her old J. P. Beaumont series set in Seattle. I enjoyed the Beaumonts, and read some of the Joanna Brady series. I think this is the first one in the Ali Reynolds series, set in the Southwest.

This book isn't too great. There's far too much exposition into character's back-stories. I will put some of the blame on the narrator, who I found to be just a little annoying. The plot, however, is keeping me interested enough to (maybe) finish listening to it. [Update: I did finish listening.]

This is probably a book that I would not read. As a way to relieve commuter boredom, it's marginal. I have found myself punching the radio button more than once to relieve my frustration with it. This is an ironic contrast to Rushdie's Satanic Verses, which I recently finished listening to. That was a book that I probably would have given up on reading due to its complexity and inaccessibility, but having listened to the text, I now look forward to reading it in print some day.

Maybe Jance has just gone on too long. I don't know.

jajance.com is a frustrating web site. I was trying to find a bibliography there, but grew tired of 404 errors and Flash book advertisements. Sigh. I did actually find what I was looking for by searching from outside the web site, which led me to this page, contained within it.

The Confabulist, by Steven Galloway

In this novel, a principle character is Harry Houdini, the magician and escape artist of the early 20th century. There are other actual people in the cast, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. In his post-Holmes life, Doyle was very interested in spiritualism. Houdini was very interested in the debunking of spiritualism. He saw it as a tragic confidence game, taking advantage of bereaved people.

The narrator is Martin Strauss. Strauss is fictional, as far as I know.

There is a good review and plot summary here. [New York Times] I can do no better.

I understand that Galloway is a young writer. I look forward to reading more by him. This novel was particularly entertaining.

Memory Loss -- a couple of books to read, maybe....

This review is about two books that deal with memory loss.

Find Me, by Laura Van den Berg, is a novel. I haven't read Van den Berg before, as I recall. The review mentions a short-story collection written before this novel, Isle of Youth, that sounds worth reading as well.

I have read one book by Kazuo Ishiguro, and attempted another. This review announces the publication of The Buried Giant, by Mr. Ishiguro. The book that I read, and greatly enjoyed, was Remains of the Day. I don't think that book appears in this journal, I think I read it before I started this project. The book that I attempted was The Unconsoled.  A copy of this sits on a shelf at home. Every time I see it I wonder if I should try it again. Previous forays have been unsuccessful.

Hmm. This just in (4 March 2015). I noticed a Tweet from NPR Books about  The Buried Giant, which doesn't make it sound tempting. "Lost in its own fog" kinda reminds me of how I felt about The Unconsoled.  Some day maybe we should have a talk about who reads certain books. Here's the NPR Books Review.

11 February 2015

The Good The Bad and the Furry, by Tom Cox

An amusing collection of anecdotes about Cox's cats, family and life.

Cox has a Twitter feed @mysadcat.

In the Pond, by Ha Jin

Shao Bin is a frustrated artist, master calligrapher and cartoonist, who works in a factory in China. He feels mistreated, even abused, by the men who run the factory, and his attempts to get better housing for his family, and improve his life, are constantly frustrated.

This is an unusual novel, a picture of what life in China might be like, or at least what it was like in recent times. It can certainly be seen as a protest against the bureaucratic system there, but there is more going on than just that.

A very fast and enjoyable read.

This is a New York Times review.

10 February 2015

Innocent, by Scott Turow

An audio book.

Told from several points-of-view, this novel is the story of  "Rusty" Sabich, a judge in Turow's fictional Kindle County. As the story begins, Sabich's wife has died. For some reason, Sabich does nothing upon discovering that she is dead, and sits with her lifeless body for twenty-four hours before calling his son.

As the story unfolds, we learn about Sabich's life, and the suspicious things that have happened in his past. We hear the story from Tommy Molto, Sabich's old colleague and sometime enemy, who is now the prosecuting attorney, who comes to suspect that Sabich may have murdered his wife. Other bits are narrated by Sabich's son, and by Anna, his former lover.

The plot is complicated, and fascinating. Turow has spun another great Kindle County legal mystery, and I enjoyed every bit of it.

Washington Post Review

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore

William Moulton Marston invented the lie detector, and created Wonder Woman.

This wonderful book can be, among other things, read as a modern history of the feminist movement. It begins in the early 20th century, with the suffrage movement, and with Margaret Sanger's struggle to make birth control available for women in the USA. 

Reading this book will provide insight into the obstacles faced, and gains made, by women in America in the last hundred years or so. In addition, some will be learned about the comic book industry, and the genesis and development of the iconic Wonder Woman character who I remember being played by Lynda Carter on TV in the 80s.

The New York Times Book Review describes this book as a "long strange thing to chew on."

18 January 2015

The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie

An audio book.

Unintelligible beginning; stuck with it a while to see what all the fuss was about some years ago when Rushdie's life was threatened by some fanatics. This book is what some people like to call "less than accessible." In the end, I came to love it.

Found online: a complete pdf of the book at https://archive.org/details/TheSatanicVerses

Also, this very informative "Notes on Salman Rushdie The Satanic Verses (1988)" by Paul Brians, Emeritus Professor of English at Washington State University, from which I'll quote a bit:
To a secularized European, his critique of Islam in the novel
seems very mild and tentative; but there has never been anything
like it in the Muslim world. Scoffers and libertines there have
been; but they were fundamentally unserious. Rushdie seems to
have been trying to become the Muslim Voltaire; but Islam has
never undergone an equivalent to the European Enlightenment,
let alone the development of a “higher criticism” such as the West has subjected the Bible to for the past two centuries. ...
...In the secularized West his critique seems routine; in much of
the Islamic East, it is unspeakable. The modernist assumptions
it springs from are irrelevant, hardly understood. Many Muslim
critics have asserted that equivalent blasphemy against Christian
beliefs would never be tolerated, whereas in fact a wildly anti-
Catholic comedy like “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for
You” can have a long, profi table run without any encountering
any physical or even legal threat. Obscenity is taken much more
seriously in the West than blasphemy. Rushdie tried to bridge the
gulf between East and West and instead fell into the void. No one
can reconcile these two views with each other because they are
rooted in basically incompatible, even hostile world views.
And here is a quote attributed to Rushdie himself, from Professor Brians's "Notes:"
When criticism is placed off-limits as “disrepectful,” and therefore offensive, something strange is happening to the concept of respect.
I'm glad to have listened to this excellent reading. Sam Dastor, the narrator did a superb job. He managed to jump between appropriate accents and voice approximations without it being obtrusive or annoying, which often happens in audio books.

One day I hope to get a copy of this in print and read through it that way. I have referred to the pdf copy of it that I mentioned above several times during the audio sessions, just to see how things are spelled, and to remind myself of what I've been listening to. In spite of its difficult beginning -- and overall difficulty-- the book is quite entertaining, thoughtful, and inspiring, in an unusual way.

A String of Beads, by Thomas Perry

This is a well-plotted book, the latest (I think) in a series about Jane Whitefield, a woman who is an expert in helping people disappear.

Whitefield grew up (so the story goes) in the Tonawanda Seneca clan in Western New York State.

I will read more of these, most likely. I've read better prose, and Perry employs a great deal of exposition, but the characters were interesting, and to an expatriate New Yorker, so was the setting.

Kirkus Reviews review

06 January 2015

Peripheral, by William Gibson

This was a little hard to get into, but I'm glad I got there. Gibson tends to write sparingly, not bothering to explain what things are, or what (made up sci-fi) words mean (e.g. assemblers, cosplay, well, read the review I've linked below, that guy did a better job than I will of explaining this problem) and while frugality is generally a good policy when spraying words upon the page, sometimes I could use just a little bit of guidance, like, what the fuck was that?

All in all, this is a terrific book. Once I got past the abovementioned initiation phase, it was a page-turner, and I was sorry when I got to the end.

There is time travel, of a sort, and some thoughts about the paradoxes that come from that. When Gibson's future characters meddle with the events of the past (the future people are in London, the past people in America, maybe East Kentucky?), it creates a "stub" of time-continuum. That is, a new branch grows away from the future inhabited by the meddlers. A nod to the alternative universe concept.

A review in The Guardian

03 January 2015

To Read ... I hope

Joe Hill www.indiebound.org/book/9780062200570

Barbara Kingsolver Flight Behavior   (read 14 November 2013)

The Ring Road,  by Edward Weinman http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17222014-the-ring-road

To read

The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker  (recommended by RS)

Adios, Strunk and White, by Gary Hoffman (mentioned in S of S, mentioned by RS, but has this disturbing bit in its description: "Develop a distinct voice required by major university application forms..."

300,000,000 by Blake Butler, and the review mentions 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, and some other works. I'm not sure that any of this will be actually readable, but it all sounds interesting, and perhaps a peek at what the young people are writing?

Peripheral, by William Gibson, sounds fascinating, but I have found some of his stuff to be just too inaccessible. I enjoyed Pattern Recognition, and some others, though.