Friday, September 30, 2011

A story started in Reservation Road concludes in Northwest Corner

Book 97: Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz

Book 104: Northwest Corner by John Burnham Schwartz

Guilt, not grief, is the emotion that runs through John Burnham Schwartz's story of a 10-year-old boy who is struck and killed by a hit and run driver.

It is not only the driver of the car who experiences guilt, but the dead boy's father and mother and little sister.  Each one is imprisoned by a mantra of "if only."

If only I had not had to pee. If only I had ordered him away from the highway. If only . . .  It is a sad and isolating refrain that rings true, yet is truly false. We cannot know if the smallest change in behavior by a member of Josh Learner's family on that summer evening could have saved him.  

That might have made an interesting story, but it is not the one Schwartz chose to write. Instead, equally engrossing, is his account of how guilt fractures the lives, marriages, careers and relationships of those near to Josh's unfortunate death; not only the Learner family, but Dwight Arno, who was driving the car that struck Josh.

We see the slow dissolution of the Learner marriage. The couple is buried so deeply in their individual grief and guilt that they are unable to find solace in one another. Already divorced when we meet him, Dwight Arno is a dissolute man whose life, already fraying at the edges, now unravels entirely.

Saddest of all is the impact on the Learner's daughter, Emily, and Dwight's son, Sam. It is as if three children died that night.  

Unable to comfort themselves, there is no chance that the Learners can comfort Emily. The reader hopes that she is the light that will lead them away from their despond. If you can't shake your grief on your own do it for Emily. Instead, they grow increasingly remote. 

Between his fear of losing his son and his violent responses, Dwight steadily pushes Sam away.

Some of the questions unanswered in Reservation Road are resolved in Northwest Corner, which revisits the characters 12 years later.  (Real time and fictional time are almost identical. Reservation Road was released in 1998. Northwest Corner appears in the bookstores 13 years later.)

The story focuses largely on the Arnos.  Sam, about to graduate college in Connecticut, unexpectedly shows up on his father's doorstep in California.  He has been involved in a bar fight. His assailant, another student, is near death in a local hospital.

Dwight's life is back on track, following a brief prison sentence. Sam's sudden reappearance in his life is welcome, yet threatens to undermine the shaky foundation on which Dwight's life rests.

Has the violence Dwight exhibited during Sam's childhood tainted the boy's entire life? How do Dwight and Sam bridge a gulf created by distance, lies, prison and violence? Will Sam be just another victim of that summer night when Josh Learner died and Dwight Arno fled in confusion and fear?

To answer these questions would be to deny the reader the pleasure of discovering the answers for himself. It is enough to say that the story which started in Reservation Road with a violent death concludes in Northwest Corner with promise and a kiss.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Homicide Survivors Picnic a noteworthy story collection

Two story collections; one I can recommend and one I cannot.

Book 94: Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson

The one I cannot recommend, and it pains me to say this, is by Kate Atkinson.  I'm something of a fanboy of Ms. Atkinson.  This collection of stories, released in 2002, comes almost exactly midway between several very fine novels.

Atkinson's skill with the long form does not translate to the short story. Oh, there's a couple of stories worth reading here, but only a couple.   

The exquisite work in miniature exhibited by the best practitioners of the short story (Alice Munro and William Trevor come to mind) is simply missing from the dozen stories assembled here.

Book 100: Homicide Survivors Picnic by Lorraine M. Lopez

This story collection from Lorraine Lopez was shortlisted for the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. 

Facing strong competition from Sherman Alexie (War Dances), Lorrie Moore (A Gate at the Stairs) and Barbara Kingsolver (The Lacuna), it didn't win. Alexie won the prize. He'd win about any competition that I juried. 

Still, I'd place Lopez's work squarely in the middle of the five shortlisted titles. Behind Alexie and Kingsolver, ahead of Moore and Colson Whitehead (Sag Harbor).

Lopez is an observant writer, who must have a stint as a social worker in her background.  Many of the stories, including the title piece, Batterers and Human Services, are drawn from that milieu.  

The stories are sympathetic and knowing, yet the characters' excuses and rationalizations don't give them a free pass. The reader is able to hold them to account as a result of Lopez's insight and intelligence. Through the candid lens of her writing we know the characters better than they know themselves.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Newest books by Pelecanos and Penny reflect care and craftsmanship

Little wonder that the mystery genre is so wildly popular. It's a big house with accommodations for a range of styles and approaches.  No better example exists than the two books below -- one a hard-boiled thriller, the other a classic mystery in the tradition of the English cozy. Both reflects the care and craftsmanship of their authors. Both are superb reads.

Book 96: The Cut by George Pelecanos

With a nod to noir, D.C. writer George Pelecanos returns to his roots in The Cut

Pelecanos's most recent novels foundered in a high-minded bid to attain a level of moral instruction. That's gone.  His new character, a veteran of "I-raq", is a man of action and moral relativism. He has no qualms about the bodies he leaves in his wake nor his mission to restore stolen drugs to a jailed dealer. Neither will the reader.

With its smooth, jazz-like dialogue, a narrative that sweeps along at breakneck pace and scenes of sudden, explosive violence, The Cut recalls Pelecanos's first four novels, commonly known as the D.C. quartet. It also demonstrates the degree that Pelecanos's work as a writer on HBO's The Wire now influences his novels through concision, focus and pace.

Pelecanos celebrates his return to hard-boiled thrillers and lays claim to his literary heritage. Within the course of the novel he gives a chin nod to Elmore Leonard (Spero's brother is teaching Leonard's Unknown Man #89 to his high school class), Daniel Woodrell and Willy Vlautin (Spero presents a love interest with copies of The Death of Sweet Mister and Lean on Pete. Are you sending a message, she asks. "Good clean writing," says Spero) and Donald Westlake (with a reference to The Hunter, written under Westlake's pseudonym Richard Stark).

He also acknowledges a couple of characters who have served him well in past thrillers -- Derek Strange and Nick Stefanos. Stefanos was the narrator of Pelecanos's first three novels. Strange was a lead character in a number of the novels that followed.  These two may reappear. For now, it's enough to know that Spero "had heard tell of the man, Derek Strange, and his latest partner, a middle-aged Greek whose name he could not recall."

The Cut contains many of the stylistic touches that distinguish a novel by Pelecanos -- the street-level tour through Washington, D.C. and references to food and music. In one sense, there's nothing new to The Cut. It's simply a welcome return to the mean streets Pelecanos has traveled so artfully in the past.

Book 99: A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny  

I don't know which is more absurd -- that the denouement of Louise Penny's new mystery comes on a dark and stormy night with the all the suspects assembled by a crackling fire or that it works.

Because it does work. Just as it has worked so well in her past novels. Penny embraces the elements of the traditional English cozy and then rises above those conventions with an intelligent plot and vivid characters to produce a compelling mystery.

Penny's greatest strength lies in her characters.  Despite the large number of characters that populate her novels by simple necessity -- there's the homicide investigation team, the inhabitants of Three Pines and those figures we meet because of the demands of the current story -- Penny manages to give them each distinct personalities.

I cannot recall another author of a continuing series who has been as successful as Penny in telling the stories of each of her recurring characters.  She works at an almost leisurely pace, introducing their back story, their passions and peccadilloes, over the course of several books. Each character gets their turn in the spotlight.

Penny's gift is to create characters the reader cares about. We cannot wait to know what happens next in their lives. What does the future hold? What events are soon to unfold in the village of Three Pines?

On several occasions in A Trick of the Light, characters observe that Three Pines isn't on any map. No matter. Any admirer of intelligent, well-written mysteries knows the way to this small Canadian village.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Closing in on TBR Pile Challenge

More progress this past week in the Internet reading challenge issued by The Roof Beam Reader. I dipped into the alternates list, reading John Burnham Schwartz's Reservation Road.

The 2011 TBR (To Be Read) Pile Challenge is to read 12 books from your to-be-read pile in 12 months. The challenge began in February, so I am in good position with several months remaining.

This is where I stand:

1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
3. War and Peace by Mr. Tolstoy
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
5. The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
6. Under the Dome by Stephen King
7. White Noise by Don Delillo
8. Yogi Berra Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra
9. The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
10. Winter in the Blood by James Welch
11. Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson
12. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich

Friday, September 09, 2011

Men dominate women in personal reading habits

I could do better.

Earlier today I stumbled on the website of VIDA Women in the Literary Arts. Founded in 2009, VIDA seeks “to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture.”

Recently, they’ve been pointing out the imbalance between the sexes in publication rates in “literary” periodicals such as The Best American Short Stories, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s and Granta

Surprise! Men dominate women across the board.

Which led me to wonder about my reading rate.  How many women authors to I read compared to men?

Surprise! Men dominate women across the board. 

More than two-thirds of my reading is by male authors.  In fiction, 50 books by men compared to 24 females. In non-fiction, 15 books by men and 7 by women. (A total of 96 books. Among my current reading -- two men and one woman.)

Frankly, I am surprised. I thought my reading would include more women.  I like female authors. Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood are among my favorite writers. I don't discriminate according to sex, at least consciously.

In my current reading, several authors, both male and female, were read more than once. In 2011, I’ve read four books by Louise Penny and two by Steve Hamilton because I’m working through their complete oeuvre.

The roster of female authors is solid. With works by Kate Atkinson (2) and Ann Patchett – again two of my favorite writers. Note – that's two of my favorite writers, not two of my favorite female writers. 

There’s also Jennifer Egan, Karen Russell, Siobhan Fallon and Lee Smith. Fallon’s short story collection currently ranks as the best collection of short stories I’ve read this year. Smith’s is close behind and has the distinction of penning the funniest story I believe I have ever read.

I’m not only surprised by the dominance of men over women in my reading, but disappointed. Some of the imbalance has to do with genre fiction. I’ve read a lot sci-fi this year, but only one book in that genre by a woman – Sherri Tepper. Yet she’s not the only female sci-fi writer.

I read a lot of mysteries too – Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, George Pelecanos, but there’s also Louise Penny, Laura Lippman and Jan Burke.  Still, more men than women.

My survey won’t change my reading habits immediately. The truth is I rarely consider whether a certain book is written by a man or woman.

Maybe it’s time that changed.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Four books yet to be read in reading challenge

In the final four months of 2011, I have only four books left to read in the Internet reading challenge issued by The Roof Beam Reader.

The 2011 TBR (To Be Read) Pile Challenge is to read 12 books from your to-be-read pile in 12 months. The challenge began in February, so I am in good position with several months remaining.

I start one of the alternates, John Burnham Schwartz's Reservation Road, tomorrow.

This is where I stand:

1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
3. War and Peace by Mr. Tolstoy
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
5. The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
6. Under the Dome by Stephen King
7. White Noise by Don Delillo
8. Yogi Berra Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra
9. The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
10. Winter in the Blood by James Welch
11. Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson
12. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich

Friday, September 02, 2011

Rowling's Harry Potter isn't all that magical

Book 93: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Book 95: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

I've done it. I've read them. Two books about that famous Potter boy. The one with the scar like a lightning bolt on his forehead. The one who had all those muzzy adolescents standing in line at midnight waiting for his next book to be issued. The one who starred in those movies.

O.K. Exactly what was all the excitement about?

Typical isn't it? Late to the party and now chippy about it.  Would I have been so snarky if I'd stumbled on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone when it first appeared on the shelves of the local bookstores. Admittedly, I have the benefit of hindsight, but the books aren't all that well written (there is hope that the writing improves with each successive book) and they aren't terribly original.

That lack of originality is part of the appeal. Rowling's genius is not in unveiling something entirely new, but in repackaging something old.  Just as Harry stumbled on the Chamber of Secrets, she's stumbled on an ancient formula that compels 12-year-olds to read voraciously. 

In these two books, and I assume throughout the series, Rowling appeals to the fantasy life of the typical adolescent. A fantasy life that has nothing to be with magic or basilisks, flying cars or Sorting Hats, but everything to do with the perception that NO ONE UNDERSTANDS ME, NO ONE APPRECIATES ME, and NO ONE KNOWS HOW REALLY, REALLY SPECIAL I AM. 

Here's two things I think Rowling got spot on:

1. Potter's an orphan. Brilliant. He lives with a family of Muggles -- the sobriquet for us non-magical sort -- who don't like him, who don't recognize there's anything special about him and who won't let him exercise his special gifts i.e. talking to snakes and other magical stuff.

Harry finds a new family, and friends, once's he packed off to Hogwarts. I cast Hagrid as the mother and Dumbledore as the father.

Think about it. What's the first thing Hagrid does after meeting Harry? He takes him shopping for school supplies. Bet, you did that with your mum. He's always quick to offer a refreshing cup of tea and bit of advice. Dumbledore is the stern, but supportive father. He know it's best if Harry learns for himself, but he's there in the background, with a vanishing cloak or a phoenix to hand, should Harry need help extricating himself from a spot of  bother.

2. Anyone can develop magical powers.  There are entire families with magical ability, true, but Harry's mother's parents were Muggles. The same is true for that Hermione Granger. My God! Her parents are dentists.  You can't get LESS magical than that, yet she's the star pupil of Hogwarts. (I won't add a third point and get into all that suppressed sexuality that the films tap into in such marvelous fashion.)

But if anyone can develop magical powers, if a genetic line of succession isn't necessary, why I could become a powerful sorcerer. You could as well.  It's all there, bubbling below the surface, especially for our typical 12-year-old who doesn't understand those strange feelings he/she is experiencing is called puberty and is not one damn bit magical.

I understand that down the line the books in the Potter series grow fatter and darker.  I suppose I'll read them, but I don't feel any rush (that might require a tidy little compulsion spell, I suppose) now that I've satisifed my curiousity.

One aisde: The Guardian (a Brit newspaper) recently conducted a poll to see who was the favorite Harry Potter character. The winner was Severus Snape. Hermione was second and Harry was fourth -- a distant fourth. 

Two thoughts on the poll: Harry is a rather innocuous character, which I think is by design.  The less well drawn he is, the easier it is for our 12-year-old audience to identify with him. He's an everyman. We can all wear Harry's cloak.

The second thought is that the vote was driven more by the movies than the book.  In the movies, with his sneer and upturned brow, Alan Rickman is superb as Snape.  He makes the character come alive. Snape's rather one dimensional in the books (at least these first two). He doesn't like Harry and he's the source of suspicious when anything nasty happens. Convenient that.