Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Unnamed; these boots ain't made for walking

Timing counts for a lot. Tomorrow evening I fly off to England to spend eight days walking the 100-mile long South Downs Way. Yesterday, I finished The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris, a novel about a man who literally walks himself to death.

It's an odd novel and I'm not certain what to make of it. A novel of alienation and disaffection, perhaps; of modern man's need to constantly put distance between himself and the so-called good life he has fashioned for himself? You could say that.

At a minimum, it's a cautionary tale for me.

Tim Farnsworth is a successful man; he is a partner in a robust Manhattan law firm; he loves his wife and they seem to have a healthy sex life; he's a little distant from his chubby daughter, but loves her nonetheless. And then he starts walking.

Ultimately, Tim walks himself out of his job, away from his wife and daughter and his nice house and wherever his legs take him. Tim is baffled by this compulsion. Is he mentally ill or is it some disease of one? Is there a biological component? Whatever the root source of Tim's walking, by the novels end it has wrecked his mind and body, although he stills clings to love for his family and they for him.

His reunion with his dying wife and the meeting with his infant grandson are powerful and affecting scenes. Still, it is difficult (at least for me) to say what it all adds up to.

When it comes to Canadian science fiction writer Robert Sawyer, I'm a fan boy. Watch is the second in his trilogy on an emergent consciousness that resides on the World Wide Web. I especially admire, and appreciate, Sawyer's ability to take aspects of science and dumb it down. I understand most of what he's writing about.

Sawyer also has created a nice cast of characters in the trilogy and the story -- with Rob's usual assortment of heroes and villains -- makes an entertaining read.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Thomson's debut novel is one fun read

To continue to believe in the mystery and magic of the Wizard, it's important not to pull back the curtain.

The same is true of certain books. It's dangerous to explore the premise because it's likely to fall apart. Such is the case with Keith Thomson's debut novel, Once A Spy.

The conceit of Once A Spy is that retired CIA agent Drummond Clark has Alzheimer's and a whole lot of people are concerned what Clark, now highly vulnerable, might tell other people. Consquently, Drummond's life is in danger from his own colleagues. So far, so good.

But despite the Alzheimer's, which damages his memory-retrieval process, Drummond still reacts like a spy. As the author explains through one of the characters, "Alzheimer's caused minimal motor impairment. Ten years from onset, patients could tie a tie, bake a cake, even create a web site." Or, in Drummond's case, fly a helicopter, conceive various schemes of escape and fire a variety of weapons with deadly accuracy.

If you think about it too long, it strains the bonds of credibility that a 60-something retiree with Alzheimer's is staying ahead of the bad guys, or escaping their nefarious clutches, as long (and as often) as Drummond manages to do. So, don't think about it. Because Thomson has given us a fun little novel. This is one great read.

Drummond is aided by his estranged son, Charlie. Charlie's a good guy -- and good looking -- but his downfall is the ponies. When the novel opens, Charlie owes a good deal of money to a Russian mobster because of a horse that finished well, but not well enough.

Charlie turns out to be a natural and together he and his father lead their pursuers on a merry chase.

Here's my recommendation: Block off a few hours, settle in to a cozy chair, suspend disbelief, have a little notepad handy to keep track of the body count and enjoy. And one other thing: Once A Spy doesn't read like a screenplay, but it's ultimate destiny is on the big screen. Join me in casting the movie to be made from this delightful book.

* * *
I hate to express disappointment over Alberto Manguel's newest book, A Reader on Reading, but disappointed I was. Manguel's written some terrific books on reading, but -- despite the title's promise -- this isn't one of them.

A Reader on Reading is a series of essays that appeared in a variety of venues . . . the preface to books, magazine articles . . . that sort of thing. As such, some of the essays are very much about reading, but in others reading is a peripheral to the subject at hand.

There's some nice stuff here, but not enough to sustain a book. If you are unfamiliar with Manguel, I encourage you to pick up The Library at Night. It's a far more satisfying work.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Three novels, but not a single recommendation

Maile Meloy's short story collection, Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, was one of the best books that I read last year. A Family Daughter, a 2006 novel by Meloy, won't be among my favorites in 2010.

It's an odd little novel. Ostensibly about a young California woman and her family there's an odd interlude in South American involving a beautiful, wealthy and narcissistic woman, her mother and her mother's adopted child.

There is the merest suggestion of the muscular writing and powerful insight Meloy displays in her story collection, but its only echoes. Unless you are interested in tracing the arc of a writer's growth, take a pass on A Family Daughter.

+ + +

Franklin Pierce by Michael F. Holt is another biography in the sterling Americans Presidents series by Times Books. There are other biographies on Pierce, a one-term President known more for his handsome appearance than his leadership, but I'm not familiar with any.

Holt's work, like Pierce's presidency, is not among the best in the series, but it's worth a day or two, and a 150-odd pages, to read this biography simply to know something about one of our more obscure presidents.

+ + +

I feel doubly cheated by Connie Willis' time travel novel, Blackout. For one, there's not much science in the science fiction. Blackout is largely the story of three historians trapped in London in the early days of World War II. That's fine, but if I wanted to read a history of WW II that's what I would have turned to, rather than a science fiction novel.

Why the three are trapped in the past is the second reason that I feel cheated. After almost 500 pages I discovered that Blackout is the first of two novels. I might have read Blackout in any case, but I certainly would have set it aside until this fall when its companion novel is scheduled for release.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Ideal Reader

Per my post yesterday, I discovered the following quote today:

"The ideal reader is capable from falling in love with one of the book's characters."

The quote is from the essay, The Ideal Reader, from A Reader On Reading by Alberto Manguel.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Bradley's The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag is spot on

I have a colleague, a man in his early 60s, who confesses that he is in love with 10-year-old Flavia de Luce.

His passion for such a young girl might seem wrong, if not outright creepy, until you know that Flavia is a fictional character and that I, along with thousands of other readers, share his inordinate fondness for this coltish creature who seems to have escaped the boundaries of paper and ink.

Flavia is the creation of Alan Bradley and the star of his two mystery novels, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag. The novels, set in the idyllic English village of Bishop's Lacey, are as delightful and as clever as the titles suggest.

In the most recent book, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, Flavia sets out to solve the murder of a puppeteer. His death seems tangled up with a local farmer growing cannabis and the mysterious death of a five-year-old a few years earlier. There's also a former German prisoner of war lingering about the village for good measure.

The plots are engaging and Bradley's depiction of the residents of Bishop Lacey and its customs are spot on, but -- make no mistake -- Flavia is the star attraction. She is equally adept at detection and chemistry, as knowledgeable as she is fond of all manner of poisons, and dashes about Bishop Lacey's on her bicycle named Gladys.

She's precocious enough to enjoy dazzling the local police constable with her explanation of how she solved the murder and precious enough to doctor the chocolates given to her sister by an admirer with hydrogen sulfide, which will unleash the stink of rotten eggs when the candy is consumed.

Books don't come more enjoyable than Bradley's and characters more vivid than Flavia de Luce. We had are all cheered to know that the third book in the series, A Red Herring Without Mustard, can be expected in 2011.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

On Lee's The Surrendered and McEwan's Solar

It has been weeks since I posted to this blog. Sadly, in that time I have completed only two books. Reading before blogging. If reading does not take place, the blog goes neglected as well.

For the first time in quite a while the pace of my reading has slackened. In the first quarter of 2010 I have averaged less than 10 books a month. It took all of seven days in April to complete Ian McEwan's new book, Solar, and it is hardly a voluminous tome (the redundancy here is for effect).

There is nothing for it, but to forge on . . .

The first of the two books that have taken so much time is Chang-rae Lee's The Surrendered. I confess I have been hesitate to write about this book. Not because I didn't like it, I did, but because it deals with such a weighty subject.

The Surrendered is about the horrors of war, particularly its brutal effects upon the innocent who are caught up in its madness. Recently, when Lee read from the opening chapter of his novel at Politics & Prose (that lovely little D.C. bookstore) the audience paused for a beat, perhaps a beat and a half, before bursting into applause at the conclusion of his reading. It is that kind of book -- sober, horrific, vividly realistic.

It will give any serious reader pause. It is a book in which you admire the skill of the writer even as you wonder if you really want to read a book on such a grim topic.

The Surrendered will certainly rank as Lee's finest work (at least something new supplants it), although it is not without its flaws. The best of the book is set in a Korean orphanage where three victims of war come together: an American soldier who served in the Korean conflict; a Korean girl, orphaned by the war; and the wife of an American missionary, who is a survivor of the Chinese-Japanese conflict in Manchuria.

The novel loses its way during those passages involving what passes for present time in the book. The soldier and the orphan girl, now a grown woman dying of cancer, are brought together by the woman's desire to find their son (it gets complicated), who is somewhere in Europe. But the reader does not care for this missing son and his very presence in the book seems arbitrary and a mere device to bring these two damaged souls back together.

If Lee stumbles, it is only that . . . a stumble and not a fall. The final passage links to the opening chapter in a skillful, almost breathtaking display of authorial command. Ultimately, The Surrendered is a flawed, yet heart-breakingly beautiful book that demands we see war for the horror that it is and acknowledge the great damage its wreaks on the guilty and innocent alike.

Because Solar is written by Ian McEwan we must read it. And we must acknowledge that it is written with skill, that it is highly readable, at times slyly funny and insightful, but -- and this isn't easy to say -- it is a disappointing book.

Despite it's title and it's cover (an image of our sun), Solar is not about global warming. It is about Michael Beard, a frowzy Nobel Prize-winning physicist who seems determined to demonstrate all on his own the concept of entropy -- that nature tends from order to disorder.

When we meet him, Beard is overweight womanizer, well into the dissolution of his fifth marriage and living off the tidy crumbs that fall to a Nobel laureate. By the novel's conclusion, his health is failing. He is morbidly obese, constitutionally unable to bypass a meal or a drink. He's fathered a child by one woman (despite his age and protestations never to become a father) and asked an equally frowzy waitress to marry him, while in the throes of sexual passion. And that doesn't begin to describe the state of Beard's career, which is disintegrating at about the same pace as his body.

The trouble with Solar -- more correctly, my trouble with Solar -- is that Beard is such an unpleasant shit, I don't care. Within pages I'm ready for him to get his comeuppance and be done with it. The book is not so funny or clever or insightful to continue to spend time with this creep.
Solar is a well-written dud.