Saturday, December 31, 2011

Finishing 2011 with The Drop and Alpha Better Juice

Here are the final two books of 2011.

Tomorrow we'll post the full 2011 reading list, the results of two Internet reading "challenges" and my thoughts on the best reads of 2011.

Book 135: The Drop by Michael Connelly

Detective Harry Bosch returns in Michael Connelly's The Drop. Fans of Connelly's novels, and I count myself among them, know what to expect -- a tightly written, riveting thriller that keeps the accelerator to the floor from the first page to the last.

Yeah, Connelly's that good. And although I'm also a fan of defense attorney Mickey Haller, another Connelly character, I think Bosch is his finest creation.

Bosch is hard-nosed and uncompromising, yet clings to a romantic view of his job as a detective.  "Everybody counts or nobody counts" is the maxim that motivates Bosch in his crusade to bring justice to the forgotten victims of brutal crimes. 

That motto ensnares Bosch in a political tug-of-war between the L.A. city council and the police commissioner.  Councilman Irvin Irving's son is found dead. Did he leap from the seventh floor of his posh hotel room or was he dropped? 

Irving, "scourge of the LAPD in general and one Detective Harry Bosch in particular," asks that Bosch be assigned the case because he believes Harry will tell him the truth about what happened to his son "no matter how it falls."

The death of Irving's son isn't Harry's only case.  A hit on a 20-year-old cold case -- a spot of blood on the victim's neck -- belongs to a convicted sex offender. Results of DNA testing are overwhelming, yet that sex offender couldn't have committed the brutal rape and murder because he was only eight years old when the crime was committed.

How'd his blood end up on the neck of a murder victim?  The answer to that question leads Harry and his partner to a horrific discovery.

Two crimes to investigate and along the way Connelly continues to explore Harry's relationship with his 15-year-old daughter, conflict with his partner and a new girlfriend.

The Drop? Connelly's editors at Little, Brown could have called it The Bomb.

Book 134: Alpha Better Juice by Roy Blount Jr.

Alpha Better Juice is Roy Blount Jr.'s second collection on words with an emphasis on the way words sound.

Blount has coined a word -- sonicky -- to describe both the way many words sound and their meaning.

"I needed a word that combined sonic and kinesthetic," he writes. "I needed . . . to describe an intrinsic significant value that . . . does evoke meaning by a combination of its sound and its movement."

Blount takes exception to theoretical linguistics, which contends that the relations between words and their meanings is arbitrary.

"Any huckster, any animal caller, any lover, any poet, anybody knows better than that," says Blount. "The sounds of letters and the words they constitute, and the kinetics involved in their oral utterance, and the rhythms of their combinations, have inherent signficiant value."

Sonicky words, to name only a few, include bubble, fuzz, knickknack, skimpy, gobble, smooch and ooze.

Blount is best known for his humorous writing.  In Alpha Better Juice, he strikes a perfect balance; he's serious about words and how words sound, but he's entertaining to the point of evoking an occassional guffaw -- another of those sonicky words.

Friday, December 30, 2011

On War and Peace and Tales of Burning Love

Book 132: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

What is there for me to say about a book many consider the greatest novel ever written?
I could say that 21st Century tastes don't agree with 19th Century writing, but that's far too broad an observation.  Besides, I'm a Dickens fan boy, which eliminates that argument.

It's not the length of War and Peace that troubles me.  Novels that I read this past year by Stephen King, Margaret Mitchell and Larry McMurtry all weighed in at more than 1,000 pages. And all those novels demonstrated that a 1,000-plus pages can read like 220 pages, which is also true -- at times -- of Tolstoy.

When he tells the story of Count Bezuhov, Rostov or Prince Bolkonsky -- their misfortunes in love, financial woes or valor in war -- he weaves a compelling story. But when he doesn't do that -- and he doesn't do it a lot -- Tolstoy loses me.

By today's standards, War and Peace isn't a pure novel.  It's as much a philosophical treatise on the vagaries of war, the existence of free will in man and a dozen other musings as well as a loose history of the Napoleonic Wars.  

I prefer a narrative uncluttered by philosophical observation.

Finally, War and Peace is often portrayed as a celebration of the Russian spirit. I struggle with that. All of the people portrayed here, in any depth, are Russian gentry -- counts, princes and princesses.  Thousands of servants and serfs are only shadowy background figures. It is difficult, if not impossible, to truly capture the spirit of the Russian people without telling their story. 

More than anything, I just want to say I've read it -- all 1,386 pages of this Modern Library paperback edition. That's enough for now.  It's quite a lot actually.

Book 133: Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich

Tales of Burning Love, Louise Erdrich's most erotic novel, is the story of Jack Mauser, a North Dakota building contractor, and his five wives. 

Jack's first marriage lasted only a few hours. That wife walked off into a North Dakota blizzard. Between that marriage and his current one, Jack was married three more times.  He still sees all three ex-wives and is still in love with one of them.

It's the second marriage for his current wife. She's still married to husband number one who is in prison for life.

There's a lot of moving parts of Tales of Burning Love.    Jack fakes his own death after his house burns to the ground. Someone kidnaps his infant son in the middle of a blizzard. The first husband of wife number five escapes from prison. And all that is secondary to the stories the wives tell.

After attending Jack's funeral, his four living wives are stranded in a car in the midst of a North Dakota blizzard. To stay alert, and alive, the wives agree to each tell a true story, a story "you've never told another soul, a story that would scorch paper, heat up the air!" 

The stories (Erdrich has always had a penchant for slipping whole stories, stories that can stand alone, into her novels) do heat up the air even as they serve to tell us more about Jack Mauser and the lives of his wives.

Erdrich is skillful at drawing all the separate strands of a convoluted plot into a coherent whole.  She demonstrates that skill here as she brings Tales of Burning Love to a satisfying, and steamy, conclusion. 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A fresh, original voice debuts in Pigeon English

Book 131:  Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English, short-listed for the 2011 Booker Prize, introduces a lively and original voice in author Stephen Kelman.

The novel is narrated by 11-year-old Harri Opoku, who, along with his mother and sister, recent emigrated from Ghana to England. They live in a flat on the ninth floor of an inner city housing estate.

Harri's voice is unique and captivating. Kelman captures his 11-year-old bravado; Harri is alternately timid and bold, boastful and modest.  (He assures us that he's among the fastest runner in Year 7).  

A particularly fine touch is the way Kelman reflects Harri's understanding of the English language. The meaning of some phrases and slang completely elude him, while he quickly embraces the complexities of other street lingo.

Kelman captures, too, the push and pull of societal pressures that places temptation in Harri's path. His desire to be a good boy and to please his hard-working mother is balanced against his desire for acceptance by the local ring of adolescent thugs.  

Harri is at once naive, yet wise.  Like most 11-year-olds he does not yet know what he doesn't know, a condition that makes him vulnerable to dangers he does not even suspect exist.

The novel draws its dramatic intensity from the discovery of a student's body early in the story. Harri and a classmate are determined to solve the murder.  Initially, their efforts are comic as they mimic the language and methods of television's CSI. But Harri's investigation has not gone unnoticed and the comic aspect soon takes a serious turn.

Kelman makes only one misstep in Pigeon English.  There are a few isolated passages when he breaks away from Harri's narration to tell the story through the voice of a pigeon.  It is an unfortunate decision on Kelman's part. Clumsy and ineffective, those brief passages only distract from the power of Harri's voice.

It's easy to forgive such a misstep -- Pigeon English is Kelman's first novel. All things considered, it is a strong debut by a fresh and original voice. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Stranger's Child lacks passion, purpose

Book 130: The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst is a simulacrum of a great novel -- exquistely written, yet curiously absent any passion or purpose.

Perhaps the novel fails because its central character, Cecil Valance, is on stage all too briefly. We meet Cecil in the opening section of the book, by section two he is already off stage, killed by a sniper in World War I.

In that opening section, Cecil, a promising young poet, arrives at Two Acres, the home of the Sawle family. Cecil and George, the second of three Sawle children, are students at Cambridge. They are lovers.

During the course of Cecil's visit, Daphne, the youngest of the Sawle children, asks him to sign her autograph book. After he has departed, it is discovered that Cecil has scrawled a poem across several of the books' pages. Daphne is convinced it was written for her. George knows he is its inspiration.

The poem, Two Acres, becomes Cecil Valance's best known work. It will be memorized by a couple of generations of British schoolchildren and then forgotten as Cecil is destined to be regarded as a "first-rate second-rate poet."

Section two jumps forward a decade or more. Cecil is dead as is Hubert, the oldest of the Sawle children. George has married a humorless woman. Daphne is married to Cecil's brother. They have two children.

The novel continues to leap forward in time, finally arriving in the present day. As the story advances, the Sawle family recedes into the background as does Cecil's reputation.  New characters are introduced, including one grows up to write a controversial biography of Cecil Valance.

Comparisons to Julian Barnes' Booker-prize winning Sense of An Ending are inevitable. Barnes gives his narrator, and the reader, an emotional jolt with a surprise revelation that casts a magnetic influence over his entire novella and that commands a reader's musings weeks after the books has been completed and set aside.

Hollinghurst's novels lacks such resonance and reverberation. The novel, like the fictional Cecil's poetry, is quickly forgotten. 

The Stranger's Child is like an elaborately painted eggshell. Beautiful on the exterior, but its interior entirely lacking in substance.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Unlikely protagonists undercut The Sojourn and Lost Memory of Skin

An Austro-Hungarian sniper in World War I and a convicted sex offender are the unlikely protagonists in two novels that promise more than they deliver.

Book 128: The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

Shortlisted for the 2011 National Book Award, The Sojourn is the sort of novel that contest judges love -- filled with weighty themes from the despoliation of innocence to the meaning of life and the horrors of war.

Jozef Vinich is an America who finds himself at war through a series of unfortunate events and misjudgments.  While an infant, in Colorado, Jozef's mother is killed after taking a stroll along a train trestle. 

Unsuccessful in America and mourning the loss of his wife, Jozef's father packs up his son and his trusty rifle and returns to his native Austria-Hungary. A cruel step-mother, two bullying step-brothers and an impoverished life as a shepherd await Jozef.

When war breaks out, Jozef lies about his age and enlists.  His skill with a rifle -- honed while hunting for food when not tending sheep -- leads to his assignment as a sniper.  

We follow Jozef through the war, his capture and subsequent imprisonment and his return home. During that return, Jozef befriends a pregnant woman. She dies giving birth and Jozef assumes responsibility for returning the infant to the woman's family. Clearly, it is opportunity for redemption for the death's bestowed at a remove during the war. 

The Sojourn breaks no new ground. Many of the scenes in the novel feel stale and predictable. Other war novels have told this story before, and told it better.

Book 129: Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

A far more promising and original novel is Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks.

It's the story of the Kid, a 22-year-old, sex offender living, with other sex offenders, beneath a highway overpass. The irony is that the Kid is a virgin who has yet to kiss a woman.

An egregious misstep in judgment led to his arrest and conviction.  The punishment imposed on the Kid is excessive and seems likely to follow him throughout his life. That's one of the points Banks seeks to make. The Kid isn't so bad, just unfortunate. He never knew his father and his mother abetted her son's addiction to pornography.

Had the novel remained focused on the Kid, it might have worked. Maybe.  The Kid is still a most unlikely protagonist. The trouble is that Banks introduces a second character, a college professor seeking to interview the Kid in support of his theory that sex offenders can reintegrated into society.

But in the course of the novel, the professor turns up dead. Either he killed himself, disconsolate that his wife has left him or because he was also a sex offender and the police were closing in or -- and this is where the novel really goes off the rails -- he was a spy who was killed because he knew to much. 

Really. A spy? Where'd that come from.

Banks never resolves the question of the professor's suicide/murder. And, after introducing the possibility of a shadowy espionage ring, I'm not sure he could.

Banks' dalliance with the professor also distracts and diminishes from the Kid's story, turning the entire novel into farce. What begins as a provocative and thoughtful novel, ends disappointingly.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Flavia stars once more in Bradley's enertaining I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

Book 127:  I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

Setting out to prove that Saint Nick exists, Flavia de Luce, Alan Bradley's delightfully implausible 11-year-old sleuth, captures a murderer instead.

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows is the fourth entry in Bradley's mystery series featuring Flavia, her father and sisters and the inhabitants of the village of Bishop's Lacey. It's as charming as the previous novels, which is to say very charming; very charming, indeed.

Christmas has come to Buckshaw, the de Luce estate, and with it a London film crew. Before filming can commence, a key member of the cast is murdered. Once again, Flavia must circumvent the local constabulary and her own distraction due to the imminent arrival of Saint Nick, to bring the murderer to justice.

With her flair for investigation, her love of poisons and her general knowledge of chemistry, as well as her skill as making her two older sisters' lives miserable, Flavia has quickly earned a place of prominence in English literature and in the hearts of Bradley's readers.

If you have yet to read a Flavia de Luce novel, any of the books will do. They are uniformly wonderful.

Book 126: Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Here's something original I've yet to say about a Kate Atkinson novel -- this book is awful.

It's Atkinson's third book and, as such, a dividing line between her first two books --  Behind the Scenes at the Museum, her splendid debut novel, and Human Croquet, which was good but not great -- and her recent novels featuring private investigator Jackson Brodie.

Those recent novels are truly fine books, well written and entertaining; everything, I'm afraid, that Emotionally Weird is not. I could say more, but there doesn't seem to be any reason for that. Pick up her first book, definitely pick up the Jackson Brodie novels, but give Emotionally Weird a wide, wide pass.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Night Circus wholly original, absolutely entrancing

Book 125: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern 

Love and magic, so inextricably linked in popular culture, are antagonists in The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern’s alluring first novel.

The Night Circus is the story of a man and woman locked in a decades-long magic competition. They do not know the rules of the competition or its consequences. For many years, they remain a mystery to one another, competing in a shadowy vacuum, wondering if each person they meet might be their opponent.

What they do know is that the venue for the competition is a mysterious circus. Its tents and performers dressed only in black and white or shades of gray, the circus appears without warning in locations throughout the world. It is open only between sundown and sunrise. Its performers and everyone affiliated with it never seem to age.

The competition is the creation of two aging magicians striving to settle a philosophical disagreement about the nature of magic. In creating the competition they have ensnared, and disrupted, hundreds of lives, including the daughter of one of the magicians.

And in bringing together that daughter and an orphan boy, raised and trained by the second magician, they have unintentionally woven a spell -- not of magic, but love. 

Morgenstern’s two protagonist must ultimately settle the question of which is greater – magic or love.

In doing so, Morgenstern weaves her own magical spell. 

The Night Circus is wholly original and absolutely entrancing, a formidable first novel. It leaves me with two great wishes: that I had written this book and that on some future occasion, after the sun has set, I may visit this magical circus.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

King of the Badgers a disappointing effort

Book 124: King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher

I still have not the slightest idea what Philip Hensher was trying to accomplish in the disappointing King of the Badgers.

The novel begins in one direction -- the faked kidnapping of a little girl -- switches directions rather abruptly -- gay lovers who run a cheese shop -- only to switch directions once more --an unhappy and overweight gay man who, to quote Mick Jagger, can't get no satisfaction.

Ostensibly, Hensher is trying to peel back the layers of Hanmouth, a small English town near the Bristol Channel.  Lots of authors have used the disconnected-yet-connected narrative format to much greater effect.  

King of Badgers never takes flight. The "connectedness" that Hensher seeks to develop never emerges and none of the individual stories prove interesting enough to elevate the novel. 

This is a disappointing effort by a writer vastly more talented than the material presented here.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Otsuka weaves a haunting, powerful tale in The Buddha in the Attic

Book 123: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Lyrical, yet muscular, Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic is an unconventional novel that relies on hundreds of voices to tell a single story

In less than 130 pages, Otsuka tells the compelling story of a generation of  Japanese women who travel to an unknown land to begin a new life with men who are strangers to them. The novel was short-listed for the 2011 National Book Award.

The unknown land is America. The strangers are Japanese bachelors, most years older than the young women, who labor at the bottom rung of American society -- itinerant laborers living in barns, shanties and tents. 

The women are a source of sex, an extra set of hands picking strawberries or plowing a field and, finally, the foundation of Japanese-American families. Families that are uprooted and relocated to remote desert or mountainous internment camps following Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II.

Typically, this story -- a sad chapter in American history -- would be told through the voice of a single narrator. The Buddha in the Attic draw its power -- and its haunting lyricism -- from Otsuka's decision to tell the story using hundreds of voices rather than one.

By doing so, she is is able to tap a wider range of experiences and to elevate the story from that of an individual to a people. This is an extraordinary novel whose story lingers long after the book has been put away.