Thursday, August 30, 2007

Friend of the Devil is Robinson at his best -- and that is very good indeed

Books now read in ’07: 84
Title: Friend of the Devil
Author: Peter Robinson
Genre: Mystery
Date Completed: 8-24
Pages: 424

Books now read in ’07: 85
Title: Skeleton Man
Author: Tony Hillerman
Genre: Mystery
Date Completed: 8-26
Pages: 241

I once had the foolish idea that, as a writer, Peter Robinson was secondary to Ian Rankin. Any doubts as to Robinson’s ranking, firmly alongside Rankin, are put to rest in his thoroughly diverting new mystery, Friend of the Devil. What is secondary, or almost so, are the two murders that drive the narrative. The real feature of this and all of Robinson’s novels is the splendid development of his main characters, principally Inspector Banks and Annie Cabot. Robinson even manages to offer up a genuine surprise – it’s a shocker and I guarantee fans of this fine series won’t see it coming.

This is the second time I’ve read Hillerman’s Skeleton Man, and I liked it better this time. Since the first time, I’ve went back and read several of Hillerman’s books. Consequently, I now understand and care more about his characters – Leaphorn (who has only a small role here), Cowboy Dashee, Sgt. Chee and Bernie Manuelito. It’s not Hillerman’s best – but that still means it is better than most.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Gibson rocks in Spook Country

Books now read in ’07: 83
Title: Spook Country
Author: William Gibson
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 8-20
Pages: 371

Late in William Gibson’s new and entirely amazing new novel a character explains that he found himself engaged in a particular mission because someone was looking for a person with a “really odd skill set.” As it happens, just about everyone in Spook Country has a really odd skill set.

  • There’s Hollis Henry, a journalist who was the former lead singer in a now defunct alt-rock band.

  • There’s a mysterious old man with incredible connections, inside and outside the government.

  • An agile, young Cuban-Chinese man with acrobatic skills who channels a stable of small “g” gods and who can call on the resources of his family, which is both a family in the sense that they are all related and a family in the sense that are a way-below-the-radar crime family.

  • There’s a Russian-speaking, sedative-loving fellow who has been gang-pressed into aiding a cranky man, who is clearly the novel’s resident bad guy, trail the agile kid and translate messages passing between him and his family.

  • And, certainly neither last nor least, is the brilliant but geeky Bobby Chombo who does amazing things with locative art and GPS tracking.

Gibson takes all these disparate characters, combines a seemingly random and disparate assortment of elements – locative art, GPS tracking, pirates, container shipping and just a whiff of terrorists – into an engrossing and thoroughly entertaining novel. A thrill ride if you are given to blurbs.

How Gibson makes this all work is a testament to his skill as a novelist. Gibson made his reputation writing about a not-to-distant future. He’s abandoned the future recently for the present. One suspects it’s because the present is infinitely more interesting. Or, perhaps, Gibson simply tired of the burden of the predictive – he’s given to telling fans who gush about his futurescapes – “Did you notice there were no cell phones in the future?”

Spook Country is divided into three stories: the primary one features Hollis, who has been employed by the mysterious and wonderfully named Hubertus Bigend to write an article on locative art for a magazine that doesn’t yet exist. Bigend is really interested in what Hollis can learn about Bobby Chombo and his fixation on a particular container at sea. There’s a story line with the old man and the agile young man and his family, which eventually intersects with the final story line, that of our Russian-speaking drug user and his handler. Those story lines ultimately merge with that of Hollis and Bigend and Bobby Chombo.

Trust me, it works. And it works well. Late in the novel (where have we heard that phrase?) – just before the part about really odd skill sets – there’s a discussion about laundering massive, as in billions, amounts of cash. At about that point it becomes clear where the novel is headed. But what isn’t clear, until the end, is whether this ambitious and outrageous scheme will come to pass.

No spoilers here. You have to read Spook Country for the answer. I envy you. It’s huge fun.

Happy Birthday, Ray!

Ray Bradbury is 87 today. Here's a nice story on Bradbury in the New York Times.

Yesterday, published a story on American reading habits, or the lack thereof. It is not a pretty story.

Monday, August 20, 2007

My Girls take their back to school photos

Time out from books. This is Dolly -- she's almost four months old -- and her sister, Gracie, about 15 months old. They are Pembroke Welsh Corgis. Predominately black and white, with brown accents, they are technically tri-colors but more commonly known as black-top Corgis.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 78
Title: Black Dogs
Author: Ian McEwan
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 8-5
Pages: 149

Books now read in ’07: 79
Title: Enduring Love
Author: Ian McEwan
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 8-8
Pages: 262

Books now read in ’07: 80
Title: The Zero
Author: Jess Walter
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 8-12
Pages: 326

Books now read in ’07: 81
Title: Foreign Affairs
Author: Alison Lurie
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 8-16
Pages: 291

Books now read in ’07: 82
Title: Saving Daylight
Author: Jim Harrison
Genre: Poetry
Date Completed: 8-19
Pages: 121

Can you forgive me, dear reader? Will you? I have broken our pact – I write, you read. Understand, all six of you have not been far from my thoughts, but it would not been easy, or convenient, to post. I have been traveling. For work. 10 days on the road. (Isn’t that a song?)

Traveling is good and bad. It allows you to visit new bookstores, attend book sales, track down authors, but it does not allow you time to post. And, more importantly, it is time away from the comforts of home. From the wife and the puppies.

I was in Iowa and Illinois. Des Moines and Chicago. The State Fair. Republican candidates for president. The straw poll. Mrs. Romney and family in first class on the flight from Des Moines to Chicago. That sort of thing, if it makes any sense at all. If it doesn’t that may be a good thing for you.

Such travel means airports, and airports mean reading. First in Washington and then in Des Moines and, finally, waiting to return home, in Chicago, where the weather was blissfully cool and free of humidity. Unlike Iowa or Washington where it was (and has been) uncomfortably hot and damnably humid.

On to the books.

Two early works by Ian McEwan. Black Dogs appeared in 1992, it is his fifth novel. Enduring Love, his seventh, appeared in 1997. I find it instructive to read an author’s early works – themes appear, stylistic tendencies, interests. You can see the writer that you love beginning to emerge from these early efforts.

Black Dogs is a study of faith vs. rationalism. A couple, united by their belief in Communism, are pushed apart soon after their marriage by the wife’s near mystical experience when she fights off two vicious black dogs. Do the dogs truly exist? The wife believes so. The husband does not.

This novel begins as a “talky,” philosophical exercise until late in the book when the dogs appear (or not). In that scene, as the wife fights for her life, while her husband is distracted by an unusual caterpillar, we witness McEwan’s emergence as a writer in command of his craft. The novelist’s techniques, still transparent in Black Dogs, become palpable and powerful in Saturday.

Enduring Love might be a less interesting novel than Black Dogs, certainly that would be true in the hands of any other writer. The protagonist finds himself joining a group of men trying to rescue a young boy from a runaway hot air balloon. In the attempt, one of the men is killed.

It seems obvious where this novel might go – who let go first? Who failed? Was it our protagonist? – and McEwan seems to be headed in that direction when Enduring Love veers into wholly unexpected terrain. One of the men engaged in the rescue attempt falls in love with our protagonist, begins to stalk him. And, yet, no one believes our protagonist. Not his wife. Not the police. Not the reader.

Enduring Love becomes, like Black Dogs, an exploration of reality. Whose experience is genuine? By the time, McEwan unveils the answer there’s a contemporary horror sitting in the living room wielding a knife. And yet the novel still refuses to follow a conventional conclusion.

Neither Enduring Love nor Black Dogs is as skillfully wrought as Amsterdam, Atonement, Saturday or McChesil Beach, but they point, solidly, in the direction of these superb novels and to an accomplished author.

The Zero by Jess Walter was shortlisted for the 2006 National Book Award for fiction. It is a weird, paranoid, ironic exploration of a cop’s life in the days following 9-11. The Zero refers to Ground Zero, and is a horrifyingly magnetic reality in the life of the cop, Brian Remy, and his comrades.

Brian has gaps in his life. He seems to be working as a special agent for one of the myriad intelligence agencies that sprang into existence in the days following 9-11. Brian flits from one scene to the next like Billy Pilgrim popping in and out of time. In his saner moments, or perhaps his maddest, he seems horrified by the work he does. Yet there seems to be nothing he can do to stop it. He leaves notes to himself. Notes that he doesn’t remember answering, yet does.

As with Being There, the film featuring Peter Sellers, Brian is like some autistic savant. Everyone thinks he knows more than he does and mistakes him for a wise man. The reader truly isn’t sure whether Brian is a wise man or Forest Gump. Our deliberate confusion is part of Walter’s skill in walking us through a confusing new world.

The Zero is deliciously ironic, and what seemed like paranoia in 2006 seems like only the most recent news report of 2007. Among the books shortlisted for the 2006 National Book Award this is the best and most interesting I’ve read so far.

Alison Lurie’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Foreign Affairs, is the best example I can offer for wandering away from the bestseller list. Written more than 20 years ago, Lurie’s novel is still as humorous and incisive now as the day it was written.

Something of a comedy of manners, it is the story of the love affairs of two Americans, both professors of English from Cornith University, who are in London, ostensibly for purposes of research. Fred Turner, a handsome man still in his 20s, hates London until he embarks on a love affair with an older actress. Vinnie Miner has convinced herself that her English friends do not see her as American. She believes she has been thoroughly assimilated. Thus, Vinnie’s love affair with a large and loud Tulsa engineer is an uncomfortable as it is irresistible.

Lurie’s novel, too, is irresistible. Let’s put it this way, how can you not adore a book with the following line: “A person without inner resources who splits infinitives, Vinnie thinks.” Now that’s deliciously funny as is Lurie’s novel.

Finally, a small collection of poetry by Jim Harrison. Saving Daylight is sometimes humorous, sometimes opaque as poetry should be I suppose. Considering Harrison’s age it is not surprising to note that many of the poems are concerned with the approach of death or its aftermath. Fortunately, Harrison still waxes poetic about dogs, wild birds, women and food.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Mann Booker long list announced

Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach heads the 2007 Man Booker long list. McEwan is one of the few notable novelists to make the long list this year, which The Guardian described as “low key.”

It’s also briefer than in the past. There are 13 nominated books. Normally, 18 to 24 books make the long list.

Also on the long list are:

  • Darkmans, Nicola Barker
  • Self Help, Edward Docx
  • The Gift Of Rain, Tan Twan Eng
  • The Gathering, Anne Enright
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid
  • The Welsh Girl, Peter Ho Davies
  • Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones
  • Gifted, Nikita Lalwani
  • What Was Lost, Catherine O’Flynn
  • Consolation, Michael Redhill
  • Animal’s People, Indra Sinha
  • Winnie & Wolf by A.N. Wilson

The Man Booker shortlist will be announced September 6 and the winner will be announced October 16.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Felsenfeld Collection

The July 30 issue of The New Yorker has an interesting article about Brooklyn classical composer Danny Felsenfeld showing up as a character in several recent novels.

He’s Inspector Felsenfeld in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. He also appears in The Secondhand World by Katherine Min (as a youngish teacher), At the Feet of the Divine by Benjamin Anastas (a half-mad, pre-Anschluss Talmudic scholar), Every Visible Thing by Lisa Carey (a pipe-smoking high school principal) and in a forthcoming novel by Ellen Slezak as a University of Michigan student in the late seventies who works on the grounds crew at the school’s athletic complex.

Altogether Felsenfeld appears in seven books: three that have been published in the U.S. since 2006, one in an Austrian bestseller and three in works that are still in progress, according to The New Yorker.

Slezak started the movement after arriving at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. “I needed a Jewish name, and I didn’t have my usual sources to find one – I don’t know, looking through a phone book or taking a walk in a Jewish cemetery. I was sitting there in my little studio that day, and I started saying to myself, ‘Felsenfeld, Felsenfeld, Danny – that guy who’s always around.”

New Yorker writer Brian Thomas Gallagher describes Felsenfeld as “quirky and charismatic.” He also writes, “Felsenfeld is gregarious, bespectacled, and possessed of the uncanny ability to be present anytime someone was looking for conversation . . . Charmed by him, and by his memorable last name, they (the authors) began inserting namesakes into their manuscripts.”

Now here’s how I think: This is a great opportunity to assemble the Felsenfeld Collection, a small, but intriguing collection of novels featuring characters all based on the same individual. It would be an especially nice collection if all the books were signed by Felsenfeld.

Friday, August 03, 2007

James Lee Burke a little like the City of New Orleans

Books now read in ’07: 77
Title: The Tin Roof Blowdown
Author: James Lee Burke
Genre: Mystery
Date Completed: 8-2
Pages: 373

The anger and sadness that James Lee Burke feels as a result of the destruction of New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina, the subsequent graft and corruption that tainted efforts to rebuild that historic city and the wholesale abandonment of the city and its largely black inhabitants by politicians, the press and the public sweep through The Tin Roof Blowdown in a refreshing wave of indignation and righteousness.

Unfortunately, that is the only element of Burke’s new novel that one can recommend. It is tempting to satirize Burke’s style and to write about what one believes will be the fate of any writer who betrays their great talent. For it seems to me that is what Burke has done. His recent books are so unoriginal, so derivative of everything he has written before, that to read him now only generates disappointment and sadness.

It is not only the plots and the actions of the characters, but the predictability that we find in the narrative, the set pieces that he re-uses from book to book as well as the descriptions that begin to re-appear not only from book to book, but chapter to chapter.

Burke is a little like the city of New Orleans – something once great, but no longer.