Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Good Bait by John Harvey

Good Bait

I have a lot of time for John Harvey.

Harvey writes British police procedurals with a deep intelligence and special flair. He does it all—the characterizations, the humanity, the procedure, the mystery--and then throws in a little music, a little talk about literature, food, wine…man, I just love this stuff. He is another of those authors whose books I save until I want a surefire weekend read-a-thon going on.

Harvey is certainly the equal of Ian Rankin or Kate Atkinson, so if you like those popular authors, prepare for something special with Harvey. It looks like several of his books are being reissued this year or shortly thereafter. He has a couple of series, one that features main character Charlie Resnick and one with Frank Elder. These series don't go on forever, though we might like it if they did. Harvey takes time crafting his books and we never get "full."

Definitely check him out if you haven’t already. He’s been writing a long time, and like Rankin and Atkinson, he just gets better as he goes along. Best of all, he provides us his influences at the end of this book, giving us some insight into his creative process. Harvey praises Ladder of Angels by Brian Thompson as one of the finest crime novels in recent decades. I have never heard of this author, and my guess is you haven't either. I am pleased to get a recommendation from an author I admire.

This stand-alone novel follows two separate investigations in different parts of England which end up circling the same house: the house of a drug and sex trafficker. We follow both threads which rarely overlap, one investigation led by a thirty-something black female homicide investigator based in London, and one led by an old copper close to retirement, shunted to a quiet out-of-the-way Cornwall precinct to finish off his duties. We like these folks. They don’t have their perceptions skewed, just sharpened, by their line of work.

“Good Bait” is a jazz song, recorded many times by different artists. You might want to snag one (or several) of those recordings to prepare for settling down with this fine novel.

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Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Dragon Man by Garry Disher

This first novel of the Hal Challis series by Garry Disher is disturbing. The setting is The Peninsula, a spit of land on the outskirts of Melbourne in Victoria Province. It is described as dry, even somewhat barren in places, and susceptible to drought and fire. Paradoxically it is surrounded by water on three sides--the kind of environs that gives us, in the age of global warming and extreme weather, immediate pause and a sense of foreboding. It is near a major city but removed from its hustle. It is populated by those with great wealth and those who can barely scrape together the wherewithal to make a meal. There is an annual influx of campers and holiday-goers escaping the even greater heat of the farther north. In this setting we meet the officers of a constabulary struggling, to a man, to stave off poverty, ennui, petty professional jealousies, inappropriate love, and finally, crime. None of them succeed with all of these.

As I struggled to express my unease with the underlying story in this “crime” series, I came across an essay written by Stepan Talty for the New York Times called "Stranger Than Fiction on the Cop Beat". Talty goes right to the heart of my unease by saying that the real cop stories are often funny and horrible at the same time: “how beautiful and sinister a thing the cop brotherhood can be” is how he puts it. Just so. By that standard, Disher must be writing something very close to the truth because his description of the men and women of law enforcement leaves us unsure of them, of the criminals among us, and even of ourselves (the curious, the gawkers, the next-door-neighbors). There is a serial killer on The Peninsula, but it is the police that hold our attention and engage our emotions. The sense of dread is amplified by watching them.

A reviewer for a different book once wrote that some readers must like the characters they read about, or approve of their choices, or sympathize with their point of view, but not all novels will give us that. Well, this one won't. But readers who pick up a crime novel should expect, in some small way, to come away unsettled. This series looks like it will deliver.

Garry Disher has a long string of novels to his name and has received honors, awards and prizes, but this series has only been published in the United States beginning in 2004. There are now six books in the Challis series and U.S. publication is coming now at only a slight remove from publication in Australia. Disher discusses his books and provides an extract of the sixth Challis novel on his website. His female character Sergeant Ellen Destry began to take on a life of her own as the series progressed, so now the series can reasonably be called the Challis/Destry series.

Check it out. Australia without the bush has a different feel. Be prepared to be disconcerted.

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World

This delightful popular history is subtitled Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World and it is a fascinating account of the lives of two young female reporters in New York at the end of the nineteenth century. The story has much to recommend it: it could be read as a cautionary tale on the fleeting nature of celebrity, or a meditation on the twisting course of a life, or a history of women’s rights. It would be a great addition to the reading lists of teens since I feel sure that many students, both male and female, would be immediately captured with the concept of a race around the world.

While many of us have heard of Nellie Bly, but my guess is few of us could say why. This book explains that a young Pennsylvanian took the pen name Nellie Bly from a popular song of the time, and managed to talk her way into a job as an investigative reporter in Philadelphia first and then New York. She convinced her newspaper, owned by Joseph Pulitzer, into arranging a round-the world trip to beat the record set by the fictional character Phileas Fogg of the wildly bestselling science fiction novel, Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.

The idea of the race is galvanizing, but Goodman does a good job with the history as well, taking many opportunities to divert the story to highlight ill-remembered people, places, and practices of the time, the expansion of the railroads, the truth of ocean travel, the beauty and strangeness of Japan and China in the late nineteenth century. Nellie Bly became a sensation around the world, but certainly in the United States where news of her progress was charted by her newspaper, and estimates of her expected “time of touchdown” back in New York were gambled upon.

Elizabeth Bisland, Nellie’s competitor for the fastest time, was less promoted than Nellie certainly, but also sought the limelight less. The story of her journey, around the world and in life, is no less instructive and adds immeasurably to the work as a history of the period. The photos included added a great deal to the text, and I am grateful the publisher agreed to print them.

Matthew Goodman found a good story and wrote another. Just as the story riveted readers of the newspaper The World in the 1880s, so the revived story interests us now. I would not be surprised to learn that this book leads budding historians to seek out the original documents that came of this novel adventure. Likewise I would not be surprised to find aspiring writers divining new subjects in the historical record worthy of our interest again.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Climates by André Maurois

Was there ever a marriage that wasn’t unequal in love? Perhaps you can tell me, for this book would make it seem that there has never been such a thing. But if you have ever loved someone who didn’t love you back in quite the same way, you may discover here a voice that speaks to the pain of that.

At first we hear the voice of the young man Philippe, who becomes enamored of a very young, very pretty girl in a white dress. She may believe she loves him back, and marries him, but until she meets the dashing intellectual Fran├žois, depth of feeling is something she’s never really known. Philippe’s obsessive feelings for Odile turn to jealousy when he discovers the turn in her affection, and it tears him apart.

Isabelle writes the second half of the book, and Maurois outdoes himself in writing in the voice of a woman in love. The love of Isabelle for Philippe parallels that of Philippe for Odile, and we see how the unrequited love of another changes us. When he is the one most loved, Philippe takes on the very same coquettishness and sly diversion that Odile had displayed. But Isabelle, from her position of feminine helplessness in French society circa 1920’s, becomes the stronger for her position of weakness. Her love is stronger, longer, more all-encompassing, and more forgiving.

Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live or The Life of Montaigne and cataloger of rare books at the National Trust in London, wrote a piece on Maurois for The New Yorker magazine in 2012, just before this book was republished. In that piece she first quotes Maurois' Phillippe who could not feel at home with Odile's family: "'I seemed solemn, boring, and even though I loathed my own silences, I withdrew into them.' It was 'not my sort of climate,' he felt." Bakewell goes on to explain
This is why the novel is called “Climates”: in its examination of love, it also becomes an examination of the atmospheres we need to be fully ourselves. Philippe’s complaint about Odile’s family goes to the heart of the book. One can not just transfer one’s personality intact from one environment to the next. Relationships have different qualities of air, different barometric pressures. With Odile, Philippe is first expanded and enchanted, then he contracts and distorts into a jealous monster. With Isabelle, despite himself, he is himself.

Rush out and buy this new translation by Adriana Hunter of a 1928 masterpiece reprinted by Other Press. You will read it in a day, obsessively, for nearly every line has some truth that we recognize, and that makes us ache. It is nearly Valentine’s Day, and one wants to revisit those true things and share them, even if with a man long dead. His writing is polished and spare: he does not write too many words, but enough to tell us that he knows what man is, and how he loves, even against his better judgment.

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Tenth of December: Stories

It is quite something to come across a writer of versatility and skill who doesn’t figure (now that they have your ear—you bought the book, didn’t you?) they will add more than they need just because they can. This is a slim volume of stories that all of us should have--to read, to cherish, and to share. Saunders has a distinct voice that reveals us as we are now. We may say that his stories do not have the language of the old masters, but they have the language we use now, but with more kindness, generosity of spirit, and humor mixed in than most of us can rustle up on an ordinary day.

In the “Afterword” to Although Of Course You End up Becoming Yourself, an extended interview with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky writing for Rolling Stone magazine, Lipsky says of Wallace’s style that he wrote “the stuff you semi-thought, the background action you blinked through at supermarkets and commutes.” You heard it, you know it, but it doesn’t register enough for you to articulate and consider. Wallace was able to do that, and Saunders does it also. He reaches in and gets that real thing that you discarded, shines it, and shows you how it defines us.

If I could ask him, I would ask Saunders how he chose which stories to include in this volume. He spans the range of us, with these stories, starting out in the mind of suburban teenagers looking at each other with longing or appraisal (”Victory Lap”), and ends with a gentleman of great age descending the staircase of dementia to his grave (”Tenth of December”). In between we catch glimpses of ourselves as returning soldiers filled with anger and hope (”Home”), twenty-somethings undergoing moral and medical testing (”Escape from Spiderhead”), and middle-aged parents aching to give their children more than they themselves had growing up (”The Semplica Girl Diaries”).

Saunders is funny, kind, precise with his sword-thrusts which reach the heart but do not kill. I do not think we need ask “where do you get your inspiration?” since echoes of Mao Zedong ring through ”Exhortation,” and we also know the zany neighbor in ”Sticks”, or can imagine the source of the internal dialogue in ”My Chivalric Fiasco”. These people are us, and he treats us gently and allows us to laugh, with regret sometimes, with recognition at other times. But he doesn’t laugh at us and we don’t laugh with cynicism. We are grateful to Saunders because, despite his pointing out our failings and our shortcomings, we can sense he still likes us, and even celebrates our efforts in trying to make sense of, and make our way in, this crazy world.

I have too many favorite bits to single one out. But perhaps after all, my favorite bit is the fact that he doesn’t use too many words. It is honed and toned and polished and clear and gets to the heart of the matter. It isn’t a long book, so you can easily find your own favorite bit. It’s all good. Go out and buy it. This is one you will want to reread: you will read it when you are happy, and you will read it when you are sad, you will read to see how he did that.

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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie, Jr.

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles

I did not read any of Currie’s earlier works, so I did not know until now that his first novel, Everything Matters!, was so well received. But I could tell upon beginning this book that this was someone who bumped up hard against sudden celebrity—those moments when strangers seem to think they know you intimately. Not so fast, Currie seems to say.

The book tells of a character named Ron Currie who is perpetually “in recovery” over the love of a woman, Emma, who returns his love but marries another. The book’s narrator leads a life of dissipation on a Caribbean isle while ostensibly writing another book. The book he ends up writing is all about Emma.

This is a book about the nature of fiction. A novel, by its very definition, is fiction, or lies, or “not factual.” But Currie goes to some lengths to point out that it is not necessarily “untruth.” Fiction may be more truth than real truth, he seems to say.
“From the perspective of a novelist, there is a brand of lying that feels more honest than the actual facts of an event. Lying as a way to move closer to the truth, or to illuminate how something actually feels in a way that mere facts cannot.”
At its best, this novel could be read as a defense for James Frey, whose fictional memoir, A Million Little Pieces, about his time battling drug addiction, hit the world stage like a bomb. Frey was giving a better truth, a more real truth, and those truths were no less true than the truth.

Fiction, Currie tells us, does not tell us how much he loves his Emma. It tells us how much we readers love our own special person. It gives us words for things we cannot articulate, but that we feel none-the-less. The closeness we feel with an author is illusion, since they are lying and we are not. The feelings the author evokes are real. The author sets us up for connection, and if he succeeds, we do connect.

Anyway, to get to the end, we spend quite a lot of time navel-gazing…at Currie’s navel. This is self-conscious literature by someone who suggests that fiction succeeds when the author writes “honestly,” and allows readers to believe. If so, that bit about dissipation on the island felt too honest, and evoked in me the feeling that Currie knew a little too much about drinking, fighting, rough sex, and driving off piers with the intent to kill. True or not, it’s a l-i-t-t-l-e too close for comfort, and I want to tell him to knock it off. I want to tell him to have a look at Saunder's new book, Tenth of December: Stories. This is someone who came out on the other side of "what fiction is" with his sense of humor intact.

So, what are Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles? I’m not telling. You go find out for yourself. But I’m sort of scratching my head over the title still. I have no idea why they didn’t name it The Singularity.

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Monday, February 4, 2013

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, this slim novel reads like a play, the action centered on a small group of people gathered at a tourist villa in seaside France. Levy's history as a playwright and poet informs her work as a novelist. Description is given like stage direction: ”His daughter, Nina Jacobs, fourteen years old, standing at the edge of the pool in her new cherry-print bikini, glanced anxiously at her mother.” The spare quality of the language is as precise in places as poetry.

Consider the name Kitty Finch. Both predator and prey, she is our protagonist. Her eyes are the grey of the tinted windows of the Mercedes rental--harder to see into than out of. She is quite mad: “touched, barmy, bonkers, barking…” And she likes to be naked, which is where we first see her, floating as though dead in the pool of the tourist villa in the Alpes-Maritimes.

She is not dead when they find her, the family that takes her in. She is off her meds, and stalking the famous poet in the family, though they don’t know that at first. What they all seem to understand at a glance, and we readers also, is that this young woman is going to infect them all.

The truth is, in Deborah Levy’s hands, all of the characters are naked, even young Nina Ekaterina in her cherry-print bikini is naked at the end. Isabel, her mother, is a hyper-kinetic TV journalist who doesn't spend enough time with her daughter and dreams of leaving her famous poet husband, “JHJ, Joe, Jozef, the famous poet, the British poet, the arsehole poet, the Jewish poet, the atheist poet, the modernist poet, the post-Holocaust poet, the philandering poet,” after another of his trysts. The friends Laura and Mitchell wear their defeat at the closing of their store like an empty wallet or a fat-padded suit. Madeline, the doctor, is old and close to death: “her nails were crumbling, her bones weakening, her hair thinning, her waist gone forever. The smell of burnt sugar made her greedy for the nuts that would at last, she hoped, choke her to death.” For all of these characters, “ITS RAINING.”

But they all realize, eventually, that there really isn’t anything they would change about each other. Isabel wanted to tell Jozef that “she would have liked to feel his love fall upon her like rain. That was the kind of rain she most longed for in their long unconventional marriage.” And Nina finds herself talking to her father years later, on a bus when “rain is falling on the chimney of Tate Modern.” “Life must always win us back” from our dreams, especially when it rains.

My favorite passage, given to Joe, is quoted here at length:
”I can’t stand THE DEPRESSED. It’s like a job, it’s the only thing they work hard at. Oh good my depression is very well today. Oh good today I have another mysterious symptom and I will have another one tomorrow. The DEPRESSED are full of hate and bile and when they are not having panic attacks they are writing poems. What do they want their poems to DO? Their depression is the most VITAL thing about them. Their poems are threats. ALWAYS threats. There is no sensation that is keener or more active than their pain. They give nothing back except their depression. It’s just another utility. Like electricity or water and gas and democracy. They could not survive without it. GOD, I’M SO THIRSTY. WHERE’S CLAUDE?”

My guess is that this would be a great book to listen to on audio. Check it out and report back.

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