Friday, March 08, 2019

Golden State -- a book that could only have been written during the Trump presidency

It’s March, yet I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.

Two terrific books — Golden State by Ben H. Winters and Slowhand, The Life and Music of Eric Clapton by Philip Norman.

Golden State is a book that could have only been written during the Trump Presidency. It is a deeply disturbing book with echoes of Bradbury and Orwell.

The novel is set in the near future.  Golden State was — clearly —once the State of California, but society as we know it no longer exists. In a phrase the reader will encounter on numerous occasions, the past is “unknown and unknowable.”

In this new future, citizens embrace the Objectively So.  Lying is illegal and punishable by imprisonment or exile. Citizens greet each other by reciting objective truths — “A cow is a mammal,” one might say. The response, “So is a dog, but not a bee.” Or, “There are seven days in a week.” To which the response might be, “And twelve months in a year.”

Cameras and recording devices are everywhere, allowing the state to stitch together events into a single, accepted truth.  At the end of each day, citizens complete a record of the events of their day.  The record includes receipts from meals and a list of people met in the course of the day, duly stamped by each individual on the list. 

Everything, everything, is put into the record. 

There’s much more that could be said about society in this strange new world, but such discoveries are best left to the reader.  

Golden State revolves around Laszlo Ratesic, a veteran of the Speculative Service. Ratesic can detect lies, and is rigorous in his pursuit of threats to the Objectively So.  After being summoned by police to what appears to be the accidental death of a roofer, he stumbles upon a plot to undermine the state.

We live in a time when the appeal of a shared truth, a shared reality, has its appeal. Truth today is an elusive commodity 

In January it was reported that since taking office, President Trump has made 7,645 false or misleading claims.  “Since taking office, the president has lied about everything from immigration figures to the number of burgers he served to the Clemson football team at the White House last week,” reports The Guardian.  

Of course, the President is unlikely to agree with that news article by The Guardian and is more than likely to label it fake news. A charge he has brought against such exemplars of journalism as The New York Times and Washington Post. 

It’s intriguing to ponder what Trump would make of a Golden State.  Would he embrace a society without television or radio? Where there is no Internet? No newspapers, except that operated by the state? What would he make of a world where citizens share a belief in objective truth and challenges to the Objectively So are met with imprisonment and exile?

I believe he’d embrace such a world with undue haste.  Or to couch my argument in terms Winters and his readers would understand: Stipulated.

& & & & &

Philip Norman has been a prolific chronicler of the mop tops from Liverpool. He’s written eponymous biographies of Paul McCartney and John Lennon as well as a  biography of the Beatles, Shout!

He’s also written biographies of Elton John, Buddy Holly, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.

Which is to suggest that Norman is supremely equipped for his newest endeavor, Slowhand, in which he turns his attention to rock giant Eric Clapton.  

Norman explores Clapton’s rocky relationship with his mother.  For years, Clapton believed his grandmother was his mother and his mother was his sister.   (Take your time. Read that once more, I’ll wait.)

Norman duly charts Clapton’s the rise of Clapton’s music career, his battle with the demons of heroin and alcohol and his incessant philandering.  Clapton’s relationship with women seems to parallel his relationship with the bands he joined.  An ardent pursuer of women, he quickly lost interest in them once they yielded to his importuning.

As for bands, there were many — the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Blind Faith, Cream,  Derek and the Dominoes, and, finally, a solo career of stunning scope and virtuosity.  

The man’s has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times and, in 1992, took home Grammy awards for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Male Pop Vocal,(“Tears In Heaven”); Album of the Year and Best Male Rock Vocal, (Unplugged); and Best Rock Song, (“Layla” from Unplugged.)

Slowhand is an even-handed and entertaining look into the stormy life of a gifted musician. 

Books read -- January
1.   Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
2.   Voodoo River, Robert Crais
3.   Yossel, April 19, 1943, Joe Kubert
4.   Lie In The Dark, Dan Fesperman
5.   A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
6.   Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos
7.   Neptune's Brood, Charles Stross
8.   Perish Twice, Robert B. Parker
9.   The League of Regrettable Sidekicks, Jon Morris
10. Casino Royale, Ian Fleming
11. Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor

Books read -- February
12. The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Alan Bradley
13. The Problem of Susan and Other Stories, Neil Gaiman & P. Craig Russell
14. The Rhesus Chart, Charles Stross
15. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
16. Shrink Rap, Robert B. Parker
17. Wish You Were Here, Graham Swift
18. The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created, Jane Leavy
19. School Days, Robert B. Parker
20. The Boats of the Glen Carrig, William Hope Hodgson
21. The Professional, Robert B. Parker
22. Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson
23. Flannery O'Connor, The Cartoons, ed. Kelly Gerald
24. Comics & Sequential Art, Will Eisner
25. Sharpe's Escape, Bernard Cornwell
26. Thirteen Ways Of Looking, Colum McCann
27. Late In The Day, Tessa Hadley

Books read -- March
28. Still Life, Louise Penny
29. Golden State, Ben H. Winters
30. Slowhand, The Life and Music of Eric Clapton, Philip Norman

Currently  Reading --
Dreyer's English, An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, Benjamin Dreyer
The Best Cook in the World, Rick Bragg
The Border, Don Winslow 

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Penny's Still Life wobbles on second reading

This is the second time I’ve read Still Life by Louise Penny. It wasn’t intentional. When I moved the book onto the Books-To-Be-Read-Soon pile, I didn’t realize I’d read the book previously. I’ve read all of Penny’s recent books, but was certain that I’d had not read her first three or four.

It was only after I was a few chapters into the book that I began to experience déjà vu.  So I delved into my archives and, yes, I first read Still Life in July, 2010.  

I’ve read hundreds of books since then so I think my oversight is understandable.

Penny’s books fall within a sub-genre of the mystery genre. She writes cozies — mysteries in which the crime and its detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. (Sex and violence are downplayed, too, and often treated humorously.)

Penny’s books (with one exception) are set in the Canadian village of Three Pines. The village is a short distant from the U.S. border and doesn’t show up on any map.

Most, if not all, the familiar ingredients from Penny’s recent books surface in Still Life. There’s the murder of a townsman.  Inspector Armand Gamache, chief of homicide for Sûréte du Québec is called to the scene. (Eventually he just moves to Three Pines.)

The cast of characters — Penny’s villagers for the most part — appear from book to book. They are archetypes: the gay men who operate the local bistro, marvelous cooks who collect and sell antiques; the retired psychologist who runs a bookstore; the cranky, old woman poet; the artist who is superbly talent, but misunderstood.

The formula has propelled Penny into the front ranks of mystery writers. She’s a bestselling author with a loyal following.

But the formula is turning stale.  It’s odd such a feeling would surface after reading her first book, but it all feels recycled I thought, Oh, she’s doing it again, only to realize she was doing it for the first time. It’s only in the next book and the next that she does, indeed, do it again and again and again.

I also have a quibble with a particular incident in Still Life.  Gamache is imparting four rules, which guide his professional and personal life, to a fledgling agent of the Sûréte. He learned the rules from his supervisor at the beginning of his career.

In relaying the four rules, Gamache forgets the fourth. I forgot, he says.  The trainee misunderstands Gamache. She thinks when he says, I forgot, that this is the fourth rule.  Her misunderstanding is used against her later in the novel.

Here’s my problem: Gamache is not going to forget a single one of his four rules. He learned them early and has followed them throughout his career. He imparts them to each new agent he takes under his wing. He just isn’t going to forget something this meaningful to him. He’s not

It’s a cheap trick on Penny’s part, and I like the book less because of it.

Books read -- January
1.   Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
2.   Voodoo River, Robert Crais
3.   Yossel, April 19, 1943, Joe Kubert
4.   Lie In The Dark, Dan Fesperman
5.   A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
6.   Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos
7.   Neptune's Brood, Charles Stross
8.   Perish Twice, Robert B. Parker
9.   The League of Regrettable Sidekicks, Jon Morris
10. Casino Royale, Ian Fleming
11. Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor

Books read -- February
12. The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Alan Bradley
13. The Problem of Susan and Other Stories, Neil Gaiman & P. Craig Russell
14. The Rhesus Chart, Charles Stross
15. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
16. Shrink Rap, Robert B. Parker
17. Wish You Were Here, Graham Swift
18. The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created, Jane Leavy
19. School Days, Robert B. Parker
20. The Boats of the Glen Carrig, William Hope Hodgson
21. The Professional, Robert B. Parker
22. Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson
23. Flannery O'Connor, The Cartoons, ed. Kelly Gerald
24. Comics & Sequential Art, Will Eisner
25. Sharpe's Escape, Bernard Cornwell
26. Thirteen Ways Of Looking, Colum McCann
27. Late In The Day, Tessa Hadley

Books read -- March
28. Still Life, Louise Penny

Currently  Reading --
Slowhand, The Life and Music of Eric Clapton, Philip Norman
Dreyer's English, An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, Benjamin Dreyer
Golden State, Ben H. Winters

Friday, March 01, 2019

Best reads in February -- Cornwell and Hadley

The two married couples at the center of Tessa Hadley’s fine new novel, Late In The Day, are a complacent,  unlikable pair.   Complacent until the unexpected death of one them turns the survivors’s lives upside down. They remain unlikable.

Hadley’s greatest gift lies in her powers of observation. She plies that skill here as — jumping from present to past and back again — she reveals the hidden connections and complications that tie the four together so intimately.

Late In The Day is a somber book, offering only a passing glimpse of a brighter future for one of its characters.  But the tone of the book (or the fact I found the characters singularly unlikable) does nothing to detract from the pleasure of a new novel from this talented British author.

———

I promised a friend I would denote, each month, the one book I found most enjoyable. Two books emerged in February. If you enjoy an adventure yarn, laden with history, I highly recommend Sharpe’s Escape by Bernard Cornwell.  This recommendations comes with a caveat — Cornwell’s tales are addictive.  If literary fiction is more to your liking than seek out Tessa Hadley’s Late In The Day.  

Books read -- February
12. The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Alan Bradley
13. The Problem of Susan and Other Stories, Neil Gaiman & P. Craig Russell
14. The Rhesus Chart, Charles Stross
15. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
16. Shrink Rap, Robert B. Parker
17. Wish You Were Here, Graham Swift
18. The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created, Jane Leavy
19. School Days, Robert B. Parker
20. The Boats of the Glen Carrig, William Hope Hodgson
21. The Professional, Robert B. Parker
22. Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson
23. Flannery O'Connor, The Cartoons, ed. Kelly Gerald
24. Comics & Sequential Art, Will Eisner
25. Sharpe's Escape, Bernard Cornwell
26. Thirteen Ways Of Looking, Colum McCann
27. Late In The Day, Tessa Hadley

Books read -- January
1.   Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
2.   Voodoo River, Robert Crais
3.   Yossel, April 19, 1943, Joe Kubert
4.   Lie In The Dark, Dan Fesperman
5.   A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
6.   Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos
7.   Neptune's Brood, Charles Stross
8.   Perish Twice, Robert B. Parker
9.   The League of Regrettable Sidekicks, Jon Morris
10. Casino Royale, Ian Fleming
11. Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor

Currently  Reading --
Still Life, Louise Penny
Slowhand, The Life and Music of Eric Clapton, Philip Norman
Dreyer's English, An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, Benjamin Dreyer

Monday, February 25, 2019

Cornwell's artistry on full display in Sharpe's Escape

Bernard Cornwell is extraordinarily skillful at recounting a great battle.  He is especially adept at introducing a small detail (drums bouncing down a hillside) that suggests the broader scope and horror of war.

Those skills are on full display in Sharpe’s Escape as Cornwell guides the reader through the Bussaco Campaign.  In that campaign, which took place in Portugal in 1810, the Portuguese and their English allies administer a sound drubbing to the over-confident French. 

As stirring as this battle scene is (and it’s an excellent piece of work by the author), it is only a side show.  The main story concerns Cornwell’s hero of the book’s title, Richard Sharpe, an English soldier.

In the course of assiduously carrying out his duties, Sharp incurs the anger of a wealthy Portuguese thug. (An odd characterization, I know, but one which fits this unsavory brute.) Sharp wins one round. The thug wins another.  Their sparring escalates as each seeks revenge upon the other.  

From  the novel’s opening to its satisfying finish, Sharpe’s Escape is a delicious read. No one writing today can match Cornwell’s artistry in blending history with a rousing adventure story. 

I didn’t mean to read Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking, or to buy it.  I’d already bought it. Already read it. A discovery I didn’t make until well into the novella, which gives the book its name. 

This seems familiar, I thought.  I’ve read this before. At first, I wondered if, perhaps, I’d read a section of the novella in The New Yorker or some other magazine.  But, no, there was the book on my shelf.   There was nothing to do now, but forge ahead.

Thirteen Ways of Looking is composed of a novella and three short stories.  Elements of loss, brutality and man’s fragility inhabit these stories, which are steeped in a stark and sober atmosphere.

McCann is a talented writer. The best introduction to that talent is found in his novel Let The Great World Spin.

Will Eisner is widely considered the father of the graphic novel.  Works, best described as graphic novels, pre-date Eisner, certainly, but both the volume of his work and his efforts to codify the graphic novel establish his credentials as the one individual who has does the most to shape the combination of art and text into an art form.

Comics & Sequential Art is a handbook for anyone who wants to create comic strips, comic books or graphic novels, or just to understand them better.  It is highly technical and detailed; encompassing imagery, timing, the frame, expressive anatomy and more.

The casual reader is best served by perusing one of Eisner’s graphic novels.  A Contract With God, Life On Another Planet, or Dropsie Avenue are all excellent introductions to this brilliant creator. 

One sidebar: No one much likes the term graphic novel. Eisner preferred the term sequential art, but it never caught on, perhaps because it sounds so technical.  As a description of the genre, graphic novel is clumsy and inaccurate, because graphic novels encompass fiction and non-fiction. Under this broad category you will find adaptations of novels, tales of superheroes, science fiction and horror, as well as biography, autobiography, and history. As a term of art, it falls woefully short, but it seems we’re stuck with it until something better comes along. 

Books read -- January
1.   Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
2.   Voodoo River, Robert Crais
3.   Yossel, April 19, 1943, Joe Kubert
4.   Lie In The Dark, Dan Fesperman
5.   A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
6.   Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos
7.   Neptune's Brood, Charles Stross
8.   Perish Twice, Robert B. Parker
9.   The League of Regrettable Sidekicks, Jon Morris
10. Casino Royale, Ian Fleming
11. Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor

Books read -- February
12. The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Alan Bradley
13. The Problem of Susan and Other Stories, Neil Gaiman & P. Craig Russell
14. The Rhesus Chart, Charles Stross
15. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
16. Shrink Rap, Robert B. Parker
17. Wish You Were Here, Graham Swift
18. The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created, Jane Leavy
19. School Days, Robert B. Parker
20. The Boats of the Glen Carrig, William Hope Hodgson
21. The Professional, Robert B. Parker
22. Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson
23. Flannery O'Connor, The Cartoons, ed. Kelly Gerald
24. Comics & Sequential Art, Will Eisner
25. Sharpe's Escape, Bernard Cornwell
26. Thirteen Ways Of Looking, Colum McCann

Currently  Reading --
Late In The Day, Tessa Hadlley
Slowhand, The Life and Music of Eric Clapton, Philip Norman
Dreyer's English, An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, Benjamin Dreyer

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Parker, Gibson and O'Connor among most recent reads

Not much to see here.

The Professional was my fourth book by Robert B. Parker. It features Spenser, his wise ass P.I.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Spenser is his surname. I also learned he’s from the West, not a Boston native. Hawk is also in this novel. Hawk is to Spenser what Joe Pike is to Elvis Cole, but talkative.

In the beginning The Professional emerges as a case of blackmail.  But, naturally, blackmail leads to murder, and then another murder and still another.  

It’s an enjoyable yarn, which seems true of most novels by Parker. I particularly enjoy the pacing. This is a writer who likes to move things along. In that way he reminds me of Elmore Leonard, a compliment of the highest order.

Distrust That Particular Flavor is a collection of non-fiction by William Gibson, including works from Rolling Stone, Wired and The New York Times.  

I’m curious as to how, and why, books like this are published. Gibson is a ground-breaking science fiction novelist, not a non-fiction writer.   There’s just nothing much here, certainly nothing that warrants recommending this book.

Although I will pass on this quote from a brief article that appeared in The New York Times in 2006:

“It is becoming unprecedentedly difficult for anyone, anyone at all, to keep a secret. In the age of the leak and the blog, of evidence extraction and link discovery, truths will either out or be outed,  later if not sooner. This is something I would bring to the attention of every diplomat, politician, and corporate leader: The future, eventually, will find you out. The future, wielding unimaginable tools of transparency, will have its way with you. In the end, you will be seen to have done that which you did.”
Amen.

Flannery O’Connor The Cartoons from Fantagraphics Book is intriguing, but of limited appeal. Before taking up her illustrious career as a writer, O’Connor, while in college, was a cartoonist of some talent and proficiency, greatly in the style of James Thurber.

Fantagraphics reprints many of her cartoons, along with an essay, “The Habit of Art”, by the books editor, Kelly Gerald.  

Books read -- January
1.   Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
2.   Voodoo River, Robert Crais
3.   Yossel, April 19, 1943, Joe Kubert
4.   Lie In The Dark, Dan Fesperman
5.   A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
6.   Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos
7.   Neptune's Brood, Charles Stross
8.   Perish Twice, Robert B. Parker
9.   The League of Regrettable Sidekicks, Jon Morris
10. Casino Royale, Ian Fleming
11. Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor

Books read -- February
12. The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Alan Bradley
13. The Problem of Susan and Other Stories, Neil Gaiman & P. Craig Russell
14. The Rhesus Chart, Charles Stross
15. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
16. Shrink Rap, Robert B. Parker
17. Wish You Were Here, Graham Swift
18. The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created, Jane Leavy
19. School Days, Robert B. Parker
20. The Boats of the Glen Carrig, William Hope Hodgson
21. The Professional, Robert B. Parker
22. Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson
23. Flannery O'Connor, The Cartoons, ed. Kelly Gerald

Currently  Reading --
Comics & Sequential Art, Will Eisner
Sharpe's Escape, Bernard Cornwell

Sunday, February 17, 2019

A fast-paced P.I. yarn, and classic of fantastic literature

A quick summary of two recent reads.

School Days is the third book my Robert B. Parker on the 2019 reading list. I enjoy Parker’s work. He likes dogs, smart ass PIs and snappy dialogue.

This was my introduction to Spencer. Does the man have a surname? Or is Spencer his surname? 

School Days takes a nice twist on the standard mystery.  Two kids shoot up their high school. We know who did the shooting; one kid surrendered at the scene and the second later confessed. The mystery here isn’t who committed murder, but why.

Spencer isn’t stopping until he answers that question, despite the fact that no one else — not the local cops or the parents of the shooters — seem to care.  Attentive readers won’t have any trouble uncovering the motive.

As with the two Sunny Randall books I reader earlier this year, School Days is a fun, fast-paced read.

The Boats of the Glen Carrig by William Hope Hodgson was issued as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in February, 1971. I have a first printing of the paperback that I purchased and read in the spring of 1971, during my senior year of high school. I can pinpoint the time because I wrote my name on an inside page, along with my home address, which tells me that I was — for a few months more — living with my parents.

The Boats of the Glen Carrig delves more into horror, than fantasy. A group of castaways find themselves on a mysterious island with monstrous trees. They flee that horror only to stumble onto another island in a Sargasso Sea-like setting. The island is surrendered by enormous crabs and slug-like “weed men.”

The book is a splendid example of the fantasy-horror fiction of its time. The modern reader, with a taste for Stephen King, for example, might finding it slow-going, especially some of the more detailed passages concerning the castaways making a boat ship-shape before fleeing the second island.

If you are an aficionado of the genre, The Boats of the Glen Carrig, along with other novels by Hodgson, should find their way onto your reading pile.  

BTW, I’ve included a link to a recent New York Times obituary for Betty Ballantine. Betty and her husband were instrumental in shaping an audience for paperback books and were the drivers behind the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

Books read -- January
1.   Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
2.   Voodoo River, Robert Crais
3.   Yossel, April 19, 1943, Joe Kubert
4.   Lie In The Dark, Dan Fesperman
5.   A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
6.   Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos
7.   Neptune's Brood, Charles Stross
8.   Perish Twice, Robert B. Parker
9.   The League of Regrettable Sidekicks, Jon Morris
10. Casino Royale, Ian Fleming
11. Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor

Books read -- February
12. The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Alan Bradley
13. The Problem of Susan and Other Stories, Neil Gaiman & P. Craig Russell
14. The Rhesus Chart, Charles Stross
15. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
16. Shrink Rap, Robert B. Parker
17. Wish You Were Here, Graham Swift
18. The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created, Jane Leavy
19. School Days, Robert B. Parker
20. The Boats of the Glen Carrig, William Hope Hodgson

Currently  Reading --
Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson
Comics & Sequential Art, Will Eisner
The Professional, Robert B. Parker