Friday, September 28, 2012

Guilt by Degrees by Marcia Clark

Guilt by Degrees
I see all the rave reviews for this title and I credit Clark for being able to create creditable characters in a thoroughly authentic law environment. That is the thing Clark does best: how does a special prosecutor's office sound, what do people actually do, and how do crimes actually get prosecuted successfully? What are the snags? I wouldn’t, however, call it “gritty.”

Clark is a rare creature, and so is her creation, Rachel Knight. Knight manages to get up (late) every day in her suite at fancy L.A. hotel where she lives with its closets of designer outfits that will hide a Glock. Knight retains close friends who can also help her with cases, keeps a sexy man-friend on a short leash, and maintains her figure by fantasizing about food more than she eats it. Much of the pleasure of the book is finding out what she will be eating or drinking, where, and with whom, and hearing her intimate chit-chat with friends. She’s clever, but not so much so that we feel jealous of her. Mostly we feel jealous of her friends, who get so much of her attention. We’d like to be them, knowing we could never be Knight herself. She’s an original.

But why then did I feel as though this was a slight downslide from her first in the series? Knight herself mentions that her heart bleeds for the poor victims of crimes that she prosecutes, but she doesn’t show it. In her job, I might be worse after a couple of years, but one wants to believe the best of those that prosecute serious crimes and those that make lots of (taxpayer) money. One doesn’t want to think they are, after all, lushes with the shells of success.

But this is a series, after all, and there is always variation in the mix. Let’s say this: Clark seems exceptional at a number of things, one of which is writing bestsellers. I wish her the best.

A word about January LaVoy's reading of the novel: LaVoy gets full points for sounding feminine and enthusiastic and interested all the time. She has a voice that keeps its cool no matter what the circumstance. She can be talking about designer clothes or a gruesome autopsy. It's all cool.

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin

This second in a series about the “Complaints” department of Scottish law enforcement is big. In the process of investigating a relatively straightforward sexual harassment claim against a sergeant and his colleagues, the person who made the initial accusation ends up dead. Investigating this new mystery uncovers the scent of corruption and death that extends back decades.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by the estimable Peter Forbes, who makes the Scottish accent understandable but also gives the reading unforgettable flair and flavor.

Rankin gave himself a lot to work with in this plot and scenario, but he managed to hold it all together, and ratcheted up the tension by having one of the three-man team of investigators always pressing to do less and close the case down without the bigger story. But Malcolm Fox, the lead investigator, has blood in the game and will not stop searching. Meaty.

If you haven't read this series, you are missing something special. The audio gives this Scottish tale its nip. Start from the beginning, with The Complaints.

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

NW by Zadie Smith


Author Smith says NW is about language, and I agree. Language is central to our understanding of the characters, and language defines their lives in many ways. I had the good fortune to listen to the audio of this title, brilliantly read by Karen Bryson and Don Gilet. Having access to a paper copy at the same time, I feel confident that the spoken version is an aid to clarity and understanding, and there was true enjoyment in hearing the range of vocal virtuosity by both readers. I did end up listening to it twice.

A clear example of how language can define one is the incident of a boneheaded young man with the posh accent, Tom, selling an old MG to the young man Felix, who had made great strides towards self-realization despite the tug of his background and the brake of his language. Any observer of that scene would immediately suspect Felix of putting the fix on when objectively that would be far from the case. And Keisha, or Natalie as she began calling herself, managed to change most things about her world when she changed her language. She became a barrister and even forgot what it was like to be poor.

But this novel is also about the process of becoming. To my way of thinking, there are only two central characters in the novel, Leah and Natalie. Both resist adulthood, but the choice is not really theirs to make. They become adults despite their attempts to hold back the process, and end up making decisions that demonstrate authorial control over their own lives, stopping their ears to very loud protestations from their inner selves. Therefore they land in adulthood awkwardly, splay-legged and wrong-footed, and must find a way to right themselves again before acknowledging they are older, wiser, and already there.

Several other minor characters, e.g., Annie and Nathan, manage to avoid true adulthood altogether by burying their options beneath addictions. Felix was the one that was most consciously “becoming.” He strove daily to be a better man--for his woman, for himself, for his future family. He made himself happy doing it. He got clean, “was conscious,” and made himself and his family proud. But demons chased him down. Maybe you can’t really ever get free.

In the last third of the book, a 50-something female barrister “role model” dressed in a gold satin shirt beneath the expected blazer, and a diamante trim to de rigueur black court shoes tells Natalie: '“Turn yourself down. One notch. Two. Because this is not neutral.” She passed a hand over her neat frame from her head to her lap, like a scanner. “This is never neutral.”'

Of course I’d heard of Zadie Smith, but I’d never read her early work. She was so popular when she first came into print that I decided to wait to form my own opinion when the clamour died down. Sometimes it is so noisy out there when a new, talented author is heralded that I can’t hear myself think.

I never had the feeling while reading this novel that Smith was haphazard in her choice of images or language. The novel is constructed and in the end one looks up to see graffiti covering a wall with violent scribbles of bright color. Overlaid, a couple words traced in black paint stand out over the rest: SEX RACE CLASS

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Monday, September 10, 2012

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

For readers interested in recent Chinese and Vietnamese history and culture, this novel is an intensive course. The tale begins with a young boy born to Chinese parents in Shantou, China during a period of change (the 1930s). The story takes on epic proportions when he relocates first to Hong Kong and then to Cholon (near Saigon) in Vietnam during the tumultuous period when a series of foreign powers (the Japanese, the French, the Americans) fought wars over Vietnam’s governance and managed to turn a home-grown, bottom-up revolution into a full scale civil war.

Lam succeeds in showing us Vietnam in its blisteringly hot lush beauty, its violent history, and its complicated lines of distinction between natives and non-natives and skin colors: white, brown, yellow. The time period is recent and familiar, but the angle is unique. Events in Vietnam in the 1960s and ‘70s already familiar to readers are imagined from the point of view of residents on the ground and give us an eerie dislocation. We begin to perceive the difficult sets of choices people had for living with war and occupation.

We are also treated to remarkable insights into Chinese mores and mindset when this culture can be maddeningly difficult for Westerners to grasp. The backdrop of what we call the Vietnam War makes the story cinematic, particularly one scene when the Tet offensive hits Saigon and spills into Cholon during a celebratory and drunken banquet hosted by Chen Pie Sou, the Headmaster of the title.

There was one area, however, that I thought Lam didn’t get quite right as a novelist. Lam created a complicated and flawed main character in Chen Pie Sou, which should add to the drama of the unfolding story, and does…eventually. But I had difficulty liking Chen (or any of the characters) through Part I and felt dragged into Part II only by obligation. By Part III, I started to marvel at what Lam had managed to construct, and relished the details of Vietnamese life, and Chinese habits.

Vincent Lam is a doctor as well as a novelist, and he has written a couple of nonfiction medical-related books already, one of which is an info-book for the public on a possible flu pandemic. A nonfiction book of stories, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures: Stories, won many awards and was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover New Authors title. This is his first novel.

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Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

It hardly seems possible this was first written in 1978. It has the feel of a much older book, for Carr has entered the past and settled in there as though it were his. This belongs to that class of novels that wear their truths lightly: nearly every page describes a look, a feeling, a moment that we recognize no matter that the characters precede us by one hundred years.

Shortly after WWI, a returned soldier comes to an old church in the north of England with the intention of uncovering an old mural concealed beneath lime wash centuries before. It is slow work, and it is summer. He is not well paid. There is something to be said for penury. When one has little, one has no shield to wield off experience. When one is hungry, nearly everything tastes good.

J.L. Carr says, in his introduction that his original intention was to write a rural idyll and “I wanted its narrator to look back regretfully across forty or fifty years but, recalling a time irrecoverably lost, still feel a tug at the heart.” (Intro, xxi) The mural, the quiet, steady effort of the work, the townspeople, the vicar and the vicar’s wife, the weather: all these were “lying about in memory and employ[ed]… to suit one’s ends.”

Though slight in size (just over one hundred pages from start to finish), this novel carries with it the stories of all time. It carries it’s knowledge lightly, carelessly even, and will make this book relevant and enjoyable reading for years to come. Thank goodness for The New York Review of Books. They are saving classic literature from oblivion.

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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Plain and Simple: A Woman's Journey to the Amish by Sue Bender

Plain and Simple: A Journey to the Amish

This book was given to me as a gift with the proviso that I return it to the giver when finished. I read it quickly and then read it again slowly, over a period of months. It has a simple, clear style: the short paragraphs remind one of a literally simple but intellectually dense Buddhist discussion on wakefulness and being. Author Bender makes a journey that many of us might make in a lifetime: from a cluttered, busy, “what am I missing?” lifestyle to one that is far less dense. “You are missing nothing important,” a Buddhist might say.

One day many years ago, Bender the artist saw some old Amish quilts used to showcase men’s tweed clothing in an artful display in a boutique on Long Island. She went back several times to view the quilts, and realized that there was something understated and truly unique in the style:
”Odd color combinations. Deep saturated solid colors: purple, mauve, green, brown, magenta, electric blue, red. Simple geometric forms: squares, diamonds, rectangles. A patina of use emanated from them…

The basic forms were tempered by tiny, intricate black quilting stitches. The patterns—tulips, feathers, wreaths, pineapples, and stars—softened and complemented the hard lines, and the contrast of simple pattern and complex stitchery gave the flat, austere surface an added dimension.

At first the colors looked somber, but then—looking closely at a large field of brown—I discovered that it was really made of small patches of many different shades and textures of color. Greys and shiny dark and dull light brown, dancing side by side, made the flat surface come alive. Lush greens lay beside vivid reds. An electric blue appeared as if from nowhere on the border.

The relationship of the individual parts to the whole, the proportion, the way the inner and outer borders reacted with each other was a balancing act between tension and harmony…How could a quilt be calm and intense at the same time?”
Bender the artist sought, and found, a way into the community that could produce such work. She lived with different groups of Amish for periods of weeks over a period of years in Iowa and Ohio. She learned that the larger group called “Amish” has different sects which live differently, but generally it is a group which focuses on living as a community, each producing what it can so that the whole functions harmoniously.

She did work on a quilt or two, but mostly she was involved in understanding the lifestyle in which one person might produce art but whose work is as prized as someone with lesser skills. This joy in the process, rather than the product or the glory, seemed profound to Bender. She developed an attachment for the nine-patch pattern, and in one of the last chapters, pulls her experiences together in nine observations that serve to calm and direct her when life threatens to subsume her once again.

2. Patch #2 LIVING IN TIME
4. Patch #4 HOME
5. Patch #5 COMMUNITY
6. Patch #6 LIFE AS ART
9. Patch #9 CHOICE

Bender worked to eliminate the clutter from the book, so it is calming to read and has many one-liners that make good daily fare for musing and developing one’s spiritual muscle. One of my favorites: “I learned there is nothing simple about the ninepatch.”

The line drawings decorating the book are just the right touch, and the color plates chosen for the removable dust jacket also leave one looking and thinking deeper. All in all, Bender has succeeded in creating something lasting that can help us get through the bad “patches” in our own lives, and seek the serenity of being at home in our own skins. “Miracles come after a lot of hard work.” A joy, and a classic.

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Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey

Wife of the Gods: A Novel

This first in a series about Detective Darko Dawson of Accra in Ghana made me change my mind. I wanted to read this book ever since I saw it in a bookstore a couple of years ago and was thrilled to be able to dip into it when I came across the audio version this summer. When I first listened to it, I was interrupted three-quarters of the way in and had to set the book aside. I didn’t really mind because midway through the novel I found myself wondering if I should trust Darko Dawson: he turned out to be a less disciplined police officer than makes me comfortable and he used physical force in a truly unsettling way—so that I thought he was unreliable and unsympathetic.

Later, I realized I couldn’t write a review. I was unhappy with the novel, but had taken no quotes to buttress my reaction, so I reread the hardcover, paying especial attention to those areas I thought the central character out of line. Shortly after the point at which I put the book down the first time, I discovered the main character’s activities were likewise disparaged by his boss, who also happened to be “the authorities.” Darko was suspended from work, and censored. That soothed my ruffled feathers and sense of justice, and I finished the book thinking it was a prime example of intercultural learning: the author had written a western-style police procedural set in Ghana, a country with very different cultural mores and habits. I thought it a great success.

The story is as follows: A female AIDS-worker who walks between villages is found strangled in the jungle. Suspected are young men who have shown interest in her single status, AIDS carriers who deny their own status, a local herbalist who suspects she seeks to steal his secrets. Life in Ghana is different, very different, from western life-styles, but murder has the usual suspects: greed, jealousy, sex, money, and resentment or vengeance.

One thing that surprised me was the shock and dismay of a Ghanaian discovering someone was having sex in the jungle. I would have thought that would be a logical place to go if one couldn’t use one’s own home. But no:
”Intimacy in the forest was all right with the gods provided it took place under a roof of some kind.”
Consequently, four poles and a tarp kept everyone happy.

When reading mystery novels set in a country other than one’s own, the reader may enjoy many details of everyday life that bring an unfamiliar region to life. Quartey was successful in introducing us to life in Ghana, but his writing had neither the gentle philosophical guidance of an author like Alexander McCall-Smith (writing about Botswana), nor the furious pace and insistent characterizations of an author like Deon Meyer (writing about South Africa). However, the cultural detail here is fascinating and authentic-sounding and I think the author has broken new ground. When one is not merely copying someone else’s style, one may legitimately be called “an original.”

The audio version of this novel was narrated by Simon Prebble. Simon Prebble is a five-star audiobook reader and I think he did a fabulous job reading the Dick Francis novels, my first real foray into audiobooks. For a long time afterward I only wanted books he read. However, in the case of this book, I didn’t think his plummy voice suited the characters of this novel, and wished the audio publishers had made a greater effort to find someone with an appropriate accent for the region.

The second book in the series, Children of the Street, is available in paperback, or ebook now. The third book in the series is due out in 2012.

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