Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Half-Blood Blues a gripping, compelling novel

Book 122: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Half-Blood Blues is a melancholy composition of envy and regret.

Written by Esi Edugyan, and short-listed for the 2011 Booker Prize, the novel focuses on a trio of jazz musicians. It ranges from Nazi Germany in 1936 to occupied France to Europe in the early '90s.

The trio is comprised of two Baltimore-born, African Americans -- Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones --- and Hieronymous Falk, a promising young trumpet-player. Falk is a mischling, a derogatory term used during the Third Reich to denote someone with only partial Aryan ancestry. 

Falk has a German mother and an African father. His mixed parentage places him a grave risk from zealous Nazis.

In the mid '30s, Falks, Griffiths and Jones are part of the Hot Time Swingers, a popular Berlin jazz band. After a run-in with Nazis, the three flee to Paris.  There two of the three – Jones and Falk -- begin recording with Louis Armstrong.

Shattered by his exclusion from the recording process, Griffiths resentment of Falk grows. He is envious of the young man’s talent, his opportunity and the praise that comes his way.  Griffith also feels threatened because he believes Falk is competition for an attractive woman who is briefly Griffith’s lover.

The war follows the men to Paris. Before the three can escape, Griffiths makes a decision that leads to Falk’s arrest. The young musician disappears and is not heard from again for decades.

When Falk does resurface, Sid must confront his actions and the emotions that drove them.

The treatment of blacks by the Nazis during World War II is a historical tragedy largely neglected by fiction writers. Edugyan is to be praised for her illuminating exploration of this important, but long-neglected subject. 

Her portrayal of Berlin and Paris in the hands of the Nazis -- and the ever present threat to Falk because of his parentage -- is gripping. 

Her portrayal of the musicians and their devotion to their craft is also spot on. 

Half-Blood Blues is a compelling novel from a gifted and insightful young writer.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Eugenides delivers old school novel with The Marriage Plot

Book 121: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

There's an element of old school to Jeffrey Eugenides long-awaited third novel, The Marriage Plot.

The plot is familiar -- Mitchell loves Madeleine, Madeleine loves Leonard and Leonard, well, we're not sure about Leonard.

To say why we're unsure about Leonard or other aspects of the plot would serve to undermine a reader's enjoyment of this novel. We've waited nine years for this book, so what's the harm is waiting a little longer to let its story unfold.

I can say this much -- when they first meet Mitchell, Madeleine and Leonard are all students at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Before it ends, Mitchell is traversing the world in search of spiritual enlightment. Madeleine and Leonard are setting up housekeeping, although that doesn't go as expected.

What separates The Marriage Plot from other novels with a similar plot is, of course, the book's author Jeffrey Eugenides.

The characters are finely drawn.  They are, at turns likeable and unlikeable; never so unbelievably good or irrdeemably bad as to be caricatures. Instead, they emerge as real people, someone we've known.

That's one of Eugenides' gifts as a writer, to bring characters to life. 

Another gift is that he is so closely observant of human nature.  The book is filled finely drawn passages that are beautiful -- not because of the language, although that's there -- but because those passages ring so true.

And there is a slyness to Eugenides' observation, a passing comment on life today that evokes empathy rather than mockery, understanding rather than contempt.

It's a wholly satisfying novel with an ending that is exactly right. The Marriage Plot was worth the wait.

Book 120: Death in the City of Light by David King

David King's Death in the City of Light was promoted as a non-fiction book akin to Erik Larson's The Devil in White City.

Superficially, the books are similar. The Devil in White City in the story of a serial killer in Chicago in 1983 when the World's Fair was attracting visitors by the thousands.

Death in the City of Light is the story of a serial killer in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II.

That's where the similarities end.  Larson's novelistic account is far and away the superior book.

King's account of Dr. Marcel Petiot never takes off.  All the ingredients are there, but the author isn't able to gin up any suspense.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Sisters Brothers wildly inventive; The Apothecary a satisfying tale for readers of every age

Two more books that I recommend:

Book 118: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers is an odd choice to be one of the six books short-listed for the 2011 Booker Prize.

Not that it isn't good, it's a hell of an entertaining read. It's just that The Sisters Brothers is this unusual mash-up. It's a picaresque Western, a thriller with a heavy dash of noir and a meditation on morality and the meaning of life.

It's the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, two 19th Century hitmen. They're bound to the gold fields outside Sacramento with a contract on gold miner Hermann Kermit Warm. Warm has gotten crosswise with the Sisters brothers' boss, the Commodore.

The Sisters Brothers reads like a Coen brother film. Think Blood Simple. It's dark and comic and wildly inventive.

(BTW, the cover of the English edition of The Sisters Brothers is absolutely cool.) 

Book 119: The Apothecary by Maile Meloy

In 2009, Maile Meloy published a short story collection, Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, that was nothing short of terrific.

Now she's written The Apothecary, a novel for young reader. It's terrific too.

The Apothecary is told by 14-year-old Janie Scott. It's 1952 and Janie and her parents have just moved from California to London. Janie's mom and dad are screen writers and they've fled Hollywood to avoid an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Little do they know that the move will plunge Janie into far more dangeorus circumstances.

Janie's schoolmate, Benjamin Burrows, is the son of the local apothecary. He's doing more than mixing elixirs to ease symptoms of the common cold. Benjamin's dad is part of an international network committed to using ancient transformative elixirs, compounds and tinctures to undermine tests of the nuclear weapons that are proliferating as Cold War tensions heighten.

The Apothecary is spell-binding with the right balance of evil teachers, young love, magical spells (or science masquerading as magic) and heroic acts by the youthful cast.

Young readers who are fans of Harry Potter will enjoy Meloy's first venture into juvenile literature.

That goes for older readers too.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

All Johnson's talents on display in Train Dreams, Cornwell soars in Death of Kings

Two terrific, and very different novels:

Book 116: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson captures the sweep of one man's life in the span of 116 pages.

This novella -- Train Dreams is so brief that it can't reasonably be called a novel -- is a remarkable performance and unlike almost any other book you care to name.

In telling the story of Robert Grainier, in the American West at the beginning of the 20th Century, Johnson ranges from the prosaic to the elegaic, from magical to dream-like to mundane.

It is a powerful and moving book that puts Johnson's considerable talents on full display.

Book 117: Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell

In Death of Kings we approach the end of Cornwell's Saxon Series.  There are one, perhaps two books, remaining at most. I will be sad to see it go.

King Alfred has died. Uhtred, Cornwell's hero, anticipates a invasion by the land-hungry Danes in the wake of his death. 

Yet the Danes are not the only obstacle confronting Uhtred. He must also overcome the suspicions of churchmen, who mistrust him because he is a pagan and because he embraces much of the Danish way of life.

But Uhtred's heart lies with Alfred's daughter and so he gives his loyalty to Alfred's son, Edward, who is now the king.

Uhtred must contrive to keep the Danes at bay until he convince Edwards of the merits of his arguments.

To do so, he relies on brains as well as brawn in Death of Kings. Cornwell writes as eloquently of political machinations as he does scenes of battle.

But it is the battle scenes in which Death of Kings soars.  Men are tested in the brutal confines of the shield wall. Even as Uhtred receives a glimpse of his mortality, his arm and his heart remain strong, vital, and England remains free.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

King's Under the Dome a riveting read

Book 115: Under the Dome by Stephen King

A virgin no more.

In late October, I completed by first novel, Under the Dome, by horrormeister Stephen King.

It's a fat book, a tome, yet despite weighing in at almost 1,100 pages, the book is an amazingly quick read. In the author's notes, King said, "I tried to write a book that would keep the pedal consistently to the metal."

And to his credit, King has done exactly that.  An exceptional storyteller, King is the kind of writer who keeps you reading for pages and pages after you think it's time to stop for the day.

Under the Dome
is the story of Chester's Mill, a small, unexceptional Maine village. Unexceptional, that is, until one morning when an impenetrable dome, in the exact shape of the village's dimensions, suddenly isolates the village from the rest of the world.  Although minute amounts of oxygen and water penetrate the dome, even a cruise missile can't break through. 

King combines Lord of the Flies with Babbit as Jim Rennie, the owner of local used car lot and the town's second selectman, sees the dome as an opportunity to consolidate his control of Chester's Mill and eliminate the traces of his criminal enterprise.  Rennie, who urges his stooges to fall to their knees and join him in prayer, has corrupted numerous townspeople, including his own pastor, through the wealth generated by what may well be the largest meth lab in America.

Rennie's rapacity is offset by the crusading publisher of the local weekly newspaper and a former military veteran, who is seconds from leaving town when the dome comes down.

All of this is fairly straight forward, until King adds his unique touch by mixing in his traditional brand of horror and science fiction.  The children of Chester's Mill emerge from convulsive spells with dire warnings concerning Halloween. And, as for the dome, it's not the product of any earthly science. That's all I say about it's sources. If you plan to read Under the Dome, you'll want to discover it's true nature for yourself. And if you aren't going to read it, you don't care.

King's no stylist, but, as mentioned earlier, he's a superb storyteller, mixing popular culture with elements of horror and sci fi to deliver a satisfying read.

(I was delighted to see King make reference to Lee Child's Jack Reacher in Under the Dome.  A nice tip of the cap to a terrific series.)

Book 114: Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser

Dangerous Laughter is a collection of bizarre stories: a high school boy who conducts a summer romance with a school friend's sister entirely within the confines of a darkened room; domes that fit entirely over houses, but soon grow larger and larger; a group of teenagers that virtually torture one another with laughter.

Millhauser is a stylish writer, but his stories will not be to everyone's taste. Certainly, they were not to mine.