Sunday, August 29, 2010

On Fesperman, McMurtry and sportswriting in The New Yorker

Book 71: Layover in Dubai by Dan Fesperman

It's an entertaining book, but Dan Fesperman's Layover in Dubai is nonetheless a book that relies far too much on convention and cliche.

The recipe is a familiar one: take one innocent, drop him into a pot of boiling trouble and watch him not only escape the boiling pot, but succeed admirably by bringing a quintet of bad guys to justice.

You've read it before. We all have. In this case, the innocent is Sam Keller, an auditor for an international pharmaceutical company. Sam's asked to do a favor of the company's head of security; a favor that begins by extending a six-hour layover into a couple of days. Before you know it, Sam's on the lam, wanted by his company, the corrupt Emirati police and a couple of hulking Russian no-goodniks.

Sam's only ally is the one non-corrupt man on the Emirati police force who -- yes, it's true -- has a lovely daughter who defies Muslim convention, along with her mother and father.

What lifts Layover in Dubai above the run-of-the-mill thriller is Fesperman's detailed description of Dubai. It's not a place I want to visit, except from the safe confines of Fesperman's novel.

Book 72: The Only Game In Town, Sportswriting from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick

I suppose that if you weren't a sports fan you might make a case against The Only Game In Town. Then again, the writing is so crisp, so vivid and just so damn wonderful that I don't think a case can be made against the anthology at all. Instead, I'd argue that it shows once again how great writing can (and does) make any topic fascinating.

In compiling such an anthology, Remnick has had a rich treasure trove to plunder. Here's John Cheever, Calvin Trillin, Dan DeLillo, Susan Orlean (with an all too short article), John McPhee, Malcolm Gladwell and . . . that's only a fraction of the writers.

Shaq is here. Tiger Woods, too, and Lance Armstrong.

The Only Game in Town
shines because of both the writers and the written about.

My favorite piece, and one that I estimate I've read a dozen times, and would gladly read a dozen more, is The Web of the Game by Roger Angell. Angell sits in the stands with Smokey Joe Wood while watching a baseball game between Yale and St. John's. The game is notable because Wood is in the stands and Ron Darling and Frank Viola are on the mound for Yale and St. John's respectively.

My suggestion is buy this book now and set it in the shelf for the coming winter. When winter arrives, I prescribe a story a day.

Book 73: Hollywood by Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry's a clever man as evidenced by his multiple careers as rare book dealer, novelist and screenwriter.

He's written about each in a series of memoirs -- Books, Literary Life and now Hollywood. Yes, that's correct. Three memoirs when one would have done the trick.

All are rather light; each even given to the occasional one paragraph chapter. McMurtry notes, coyly I thought, in Hollywood that readers have complained about the brevity of the chapters in the previous two books.

My sense is that McMurtry believes he'll generate a little more coin for himself through the sale of three memoirs rather than one. Perhaps so. I certainly bought all three.

More power to him. There's the occasional entertaining anecdote, but no more than that. Really, Larry, you could have done better by yourself.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tepper's The Margarets a deeply moral work; Petterson's I Curse the River of Time falls flat

Book 68: The Margarets by Sheri Tepper

The Margarets by Sheri Tepper is a sprawling book featuring one protagonist who is really seven characters (or seven protagonists who are really one character), an assortment of minor characters, numerous alien races and equally numerous planetary settings.

Yet somehow -- well, we know how, Tepper is a vastly talented writer -- Tepper keeps all the plates spinning and delivers a thoroughly suspenseful, thoroughly satisfying read. The Margarets stands alongside some of her finest work -- Grass, The Gates to Women's Country and The Family Tree.

The Margarets is about the efforts of a shadowy collection of cat-like aliens, humans and minor god to save the human race by giving humankind a racial memory. The only way this can be done is by fulfilling an ancient prophecy that "one road is seven roads, walked simultaneously by one creature." Hence, the Margarets, seven individuals spawned from one young girl who begins her life on the Martian satellite, Phobos.

The Margarets
is a work of vast imagination. And, like the best of Tepper's writing, it is also a deeply moral work, exploring the boundaries between good and evil inhabited by the human race.

Book 69: A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

Listen closely. These are words I do not often use. I was wrong. In writing about Louise Penny's first book, Still Life, I indicated that this new series, set in Canada, would feature Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté. And that is true, some of the paperback editions of this series proclaim that it is A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel.

But . . . I did not go far enough, because these novels are also about the small Canadian village of Three Pines. (Other paperback editions of the series proclaim that the book is a Three Pines Mystery.) Each murder has occurred in Three Pines and at least a half dozen of its villagers have been recurring figures in the two mysteries I have read so far.

Now that the record is straight on to A Fatal Grace.

I liked Still Life quite a bit, but was disappointed with A Fatal Grace in its early pages. Or so I thought. Actually the book's murder victim, who is alive in the first 50-odd pages, is such an annoying and unlikeable person that I was reacting to her, not Penny's work. Once the murder takes place and Gamache enters the scene, we have a delightful and diverting mystery.

Book 70: I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson

Amazing, isn't it, how themes so often appear in our reading. I disliked a character in Louise Penny's mystery and it affected my entire outlook of the novel until she exited.

In much the same way, a character's personality has a negative influence on Per Petterson's I Curse the River of Time. If we're going to compare books, and that is inevitable, I think, then I Curse the River of Time is not in the same league as Out Stealing Horses, the superb novel that introduced most Americans to Petterson's writing.

The problem is Arvid Jansen, the book's narrator. Arvid is 37, but as his mother observes, "I wouldn't call him a grown-up. That would be an exaggeration."

Arvid is attempting to come to terms with the knowledge that his mother has cancer and little time to live. This is difficult for Arvid because there is a long-standing emotional distance between him and his mother, largely because Arvid is immature and self-centered. His fascination with Communism, his refusal to further his college education and his impending divorce all serve to make him a disappointment to his mother. Since being a disappointment to one's mother is something we've all experienced to one degree or another, this should make Arvid a sympathetic figure. It doesn't.

Petterson is a skillful and insightful writer, but in this book that seems to work against him. Arvid is such a vivid character and the tone that Petterson has built is so unrelentingly bleak that the reader feels compelled to keep the book at some distance. As with Arvid and his mother, the reader cannot make an emotional connection with the writer.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

F**K Me, Ray Bradbury, a literate pop video

You never know what's going to pop up on the Internet these days, do you?

Take, for example, Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury, a music video featuring a literate (truly), pop song about a school girl's love, and lust, for the celebrated science fiction author.

In your face, Nabokov.

Kings of the Earth a terrific companion volume to Finn

In March 2008, Jon Clinch made an appearance at a bookstore in northern Virginia. There were less than a dozen of us in attendance to hear Clinch read from and talk about his debut novel, Finn.

That must have been a disappointing night for Clinch, to appear before such a tiny crowd on the outskirts of Washington D.C., in a bookstore that would normally attract more than a hundred readers for well-known authors -- Elmore Leonard, for example, or Ian Rankin. I remember sharing his disappointment.

Finn had been received well critically, but obviously didn't attract many readers. I thought it was a smashing debut; inventive in telling the mythic story of Huck Finn through the eyes of his cruel, devious and drunken father, Pap.

Kings of the Earth, Clinch's second book, is just as inventive, just as powerful and just as well-written as his first novel. It's captured the attention of critics and, one would hope, has also attracted more readers for this deserving author.

Kings of the Earth is the story of three brothers who lives are largely confined to their dairy farm in upstate New York. The story is told through multiple points of view -- a well-meaning neighbor, the brother's sister and nephew, the brothers' mother and the brothers themselves -- and jumps back and forth through time.

The book's publishers (Random House) published a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle on the book jacket's inside flap that compares Clinch to William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy and Edward P. Jones. Those comparisons aren't wide of the mark, but one name is missing from that list -- E.L. Doctorow.

In its Gothic tone and sympathies that are stoutly in support of this trio of innocent, yet ignorant protagonists, Kings of the Earth greatly resembles Doctorow's 2009 novel, Homer & Langley. Both books delve into the eccentric, yet benign, side of man.

One can't help but wonder if the appeal of these two books -- beyond the excellent writing -- doesn't lie in the fascination we have for such eccentrics and in the realization that there, but for the grace of God go I. One only needs to watch a couple of episodes of American Picker to know that there are oddballs throughout the country and, if displaying a little self-awareness, understand that a love for books can all too easily become a mania.

Kings of the Earth is a terrific companion volume to Finn. Clinch has established himself as a first-rate novelist and an insightful chronicler of the loners and oddballs who populate the sidelines of American life.

Friday, August 13, 2010

An ear for dialogue distinguish Faithful Place and The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Two hits, two misses.

The misses first:

Book 63: Bicycle Days by John Burnham Schwartz

I have an affinity for the writing of John Burnham Schwartz. It's not simply that I like his writing, but his tone, the subject manner and his approach to it and, finally, his romantic sensibility all appeal to me.

Bicycle Days is Schwartz's second book. The problems inherent with most novelists' second books are present here. Schwartz loses control of his material near the end of the novel and that's disappointing. But to his credit, Schwartz deftly handles most of this story of a stranger in a strange land. It's closely observed. Schwartz gives us a sense of what it is like to live in a foreign land. He also approaches the Japanese with fondness and respect that foster genuine understanding.

I can't say that Bicycle Days is a great book, or even a very good one. If you like Schwartz, I think you will like this one, or parts of it anyway. If you're unfamiliar with Schwartz try Claire Marvel or The Commoner.

Book 65: Work Song by Ivan Doig

Let's get this out of the way. Work Song is a disappointment. I truly admire so much of Doig's work: This House of Sky, Winter Brothers, The Sea Runners, English Creek, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, but the magic that filled those books is missing here.

Work Song is set in Butte, Montana just after the end of World War I. It's a rough town. Violent, with conflicts constantly brewing between the owners of the Anaconda Copper Mine, the miners and the Wobblies (the I.W.W.) Yet Doig's tone is all wrong; it's almost light-hearted, blithe in a way that does not ring true with the tenor of the times.

Much of the problem is with Doig's characters. Morrie Morgan, who first appears in The Whistling Season. Morgan is too good to be true. He may have succeeded, marginally, in a one-room schoolhouse in the Marias Coulee, but in Butte, in a novel about a conflict between miners and miners owners, he isn't believable or appealing.

Doig also throws into the mix a pair of good-hearted, retired Welsh miners; a comely, yet good-hearted landlady; a skinny, but speedy waif improbably dubbed the Russian Famine; and a reformed rancher, who once hung rustlers with impunity, but now confines himself to collecting rare books; as well as reviving "Rabrab," one of Morgan's students in The Whistling Season, now grown into a comely, but good-hearted young woman, who is dating the head of the miner's union;

It's an unappetizing, unbelievable jumble by an author who has written so many better books.

Now on to the hits:

Book 66: The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins

We're approaching the 40th anniversary of this crime novel written in 1972 by Higgins who was an assistant U.S. Attorney in Boston at the time.

Much of Eddie is dialogue. In his work in the U.S. Attorney's Office, Higgins developed a ear for the way people talk and he was able to vividly capture it on paper.

It's a great novel, and an important one, providing a template for all the writers of crime novels and thrillers and mysteries that followed.

Eddie was made into a film in 1973 starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle.

Book 64: Faithful Place by Tana French

I read this book under the worst possible circumstances. I knocked off the first 200 pages in a couple of days, but then work and travel and vacation meant that it took more than a week to finish the remaining couple of hundred pages. There were days I didn't read it at all, and days where I was lucky to read 10 or 15 pages without interruption. Most novels can't survive that kind of inattention. Faithful Place not only survived my neglect, but established itself as one of the best books I've read this year.

Set in Dublin, the novel is a stew of family regrets and resentments and class warfare. Early in the book a character asks, "What are you willing to die for?", but a better question might be "what are you willing to kill for?" because murder -- two of them -- is at the heart of the lies and anger and violence that animate this story.

French is a powerful writer, who, like Higgins, has an ear for dialogue. Her characters are finely drawn and one cannot help but hope that she will write again about her central character, Frank Mackey, a Dublin cop, who hasn't seen his family in more than two decades.

Mackey is reluctantly drawn back into contact with his family and his old neighborhood when a suitcase that surfaces in an abandoned building leads to the discovery of a body. The mystery that Mackey sets out to unravel is sufficient to carry a book, but French has raised the bar by also weaving a compelling narrative of Mackey's efforts to delicately weave his two lives into one.