Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wide gulf separates Vonnegut the author and Vonnegut the man

Book 44: And So It Goes by Charles J. Shields

He was angry and depressed for much of his life. He neglected his children, cheated on his wife and betrayed the trust of friends.

This was the same man who gave us Billy Pilgrim, who came unstuck in time; the Tralfamadorians, who resemble an upright toilet plunger, exist in all times simultaneously and who used the phrase “so it goes”; the writer Kilgore Trout; and Montana Wildhack, the buxom star of a pornographic film.

Kurt Vonnegut was a wildly inventive writer who gave us one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century in Slaughterhouse Five, which tells the story of the bombing of Dresden in World War II. A bombing that generated a firestorm that destroyed much of this beautiful German city and consigned its inhabitants to a gruesome death. As a German prisoner of war, a young Vonnegut lived through that bombing and witnessed firsthand its tragic aftermath.

The gulf between the reality of Vonnegut the man and Vonnegut the author was wide, and perhaps to be expected. Author Charles Shields shows how Vonnegut’s experiences – growing up in Indiana with a family determined to shape his career path, caught up in the horror of the Second World War, raising an extended family –- shaped Vonnegut and his writing.

Eager to become an established writer and to prove family member’s wrong, Vonnegut abandoned a well-paying job at General Electric to write full time. Cranking out short stories designed to appeal to a mass market, Vonnegut was driven by financial need, desperation and pain. The pain arising from his mother’s suicide, the horror he experienced in Dresden and his abiding sense of injustice in the world.

Shields had an unprecedented level of access to Vonnegut near the end of his life, access that he uses in And So It Goes to deliver a compelling, balanced and sobering biography of the author’s life.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

O'Malley's The Rook a poor imitation of Stross's Laundry novels

Book 51: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

Ya gotta hand to Daniel O’Malley.  What he lacks in skill as an author he makes up for in the size of his cojones.

The very idea of a secret government agency that protects England from the pillages of various things that go bump into the night, brandish an outlandish array of tentacles or are merely garden variety nasties is simply brazen.

Brazen because what O’Malley has attempted in his debut novel, The Rook, is the very thing Charlie Stross has been doing for almost a decade in his Laundry novels featuring the indomitable Bob Howard.

In that series, which began in 2004 with The Atrocity Archives, Stross crosses the classic British spy thriller with an assortment of Lovecraftian horrors. It’s delicious.

The same can’t be said of O’Malley efforts.  It’s decidedly derivative of Stross’s work -- the Checquy is the Laundry and his heroine Myfanwy Thomas is Bob Howard -- and dull in the bargain.   

Because his principal character has lost her memory much of the narrative context is supplied through a series of letters.  That epistolary approach brings the novel’s action – which comes far to late for my satisfaction – to an abrupt halt.

At one point, O’Malley even interrupts an interesting bit of action with another letter and another story. It’s not necessary – that particular segue could have been interjected later without harming the narrative.

The Rook’s not all bad, but it ain’t the Laundry novels. And O’Malley, he’s no Charlie Stross. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Comanche Moon, Reservation Blues not up to the best from McMurtry, Alexie

Book 43: Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry

Book 46: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

Book 50: Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie

There nothing’s wrong with Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry and Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie. Both are well written novels with engaging characters.

And yet . . .

Neither is quite up to the best work by McMurtry or Alexie. Consequently, both novels are vaguely disappointing.

Comanche Moon is a prequel to Lonesome Dove, which is a great American novel.  Comanche Moon introduces Gus and Call during their tenure as Texas Rangers, before they have left Austin for Lonesome Dove.

Comanche Moon lacks the energy present in Lonesome Dove.  Perhaps, McMurtry was weary of the characters by the time he sat down to write this novel or it may simply demonstrate the dangers of trying to write a prequel to a novel of such power and scope as Lonesome Dove.

Reservation Blues is the story of Coyote Springs, initially a trio of young Spokane Indians who are trying to make a go of it in the music business. Modestly talented at best, the band is aided by the mystical influence of Robert Johnson’s guitar.

At his best, Alexie depends on humor and irony to capture the modern-day plight of the reservation Indian. There are traces of both here, but in limited supply. The novel is weighed down by an overdose of earnestness.

As for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it’s the third book in Rowling’s tremendously popular series of young wizards. People keep telling me that the books “get better.” I’m still waiting.

It’s not that I dislike the books. I don’t. But I’m not overly impressed either.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Harrison shines, Tyler stumbles in valedictory novels

Book 42: The Great Leader by Jim Harrison

Book 48: The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

Valedictory novels from two of America’s great writers.

Valedictory for different reasons.  The Great Leader, in which an aging cop comes to grips with his mortality, clearly feels like a farewell from Harrison.

The Beginner’s Goodbye displays the waning of Tyler’s considerable literary gifts. The quirky characters whose stories added up to something meaningful and poignant are now just oddballs without depth whose stories are without interest or significance.

Set in Michigan’s U.P., The Great Leader is the story of Detective Sunderson. Despite being recently retired from the police force, Sunderson is in pursuit of the leader of a religious cult who is preying sexually on underage girls – the Great Leader of the novel’s title.

The story line is a McGuffin, incidental to what Harrison wants to accomplish.  The Great Leader isn’t a thriller or police procedural. Instead, Sunderson’s pursuit of the Great Leader provides a back drop for the story by a man confronted by his own mortality, consumed by the big questions of life as well as the loss of vitality and virility.

Sunderson is clearly a stand-in for Harrison, who is approaching 75. 

The Great Leader is the kind of novel we’ve come to expect from Harrison – wise and warm with an occasional observation on the state of current society that will produce a guffaw. 

It’s not his best work, but a fine addition to an impressive body of work.

I’d like to say the same for Tyler.  I’ve been a fan since the early ‘70s. Morgan’s Passing and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant are among my favorites novels. But those books are decades old. The Beginner’s Goodbye isn’t in the same class.

Crippled since childhood, Aaron works at his family’s vanity press, which has a modest reputation for itsr line of “Beginners” books (think the Dummies series), i.e. The Beginner’s Childbirth, The Beginner’s Legal Reference.

Aaron’s wife Dorothy is killed when a tree crashes into their house, yet days later Dorothy reappears – to Aaron.  No one else sees her. The reconstituted Dorothy is Aaron’s grief manifesting itself as a hallucination.

The question is how long will the illusory Dorothy haunt Aaron’s life? Will Aaron ultimately break free from the grip of grief and find a new love and a new life?

None of those questions matter much. This is a tepid novel, lacking the quirky inspiration and insight that made Tyler’s early novels such delightful reads.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Hamilton's U.P. thrillers are a great read

Book 41: The Border Lords by T. Jefferson Parker

Book 45: A Stolen Season by Steve Hamilton

Book 47: Night Work by Steve Hamilton

Book 49: Misery Bay by Steve Hamilton

Four thrillers. I liked two – a lot.

First, the two novels that were OK, but only that – T. Jefferson Parker’s The Border Lords and Night Work by Steve Hamilton.

I’ll accept partial responsibility for my lukewarm stance toward Parker’s book. It’s part of a series, featuring Charlie Hood, an L.A. sheriff’s deputy on loan to the ATF. 

It’s always best to start a series at the beginning. Entering into the series at any other point is unfair to writer and reader. There’s so much back story; events that make complete sense to a dedicated reader of the series only mystify someone jumping in midstream.

The Border Lords is less about Hood than one of his ATF colleagues who goes rogue. The explanation for the agent’s bizarre behavior is equally bizarre. I won’t say more except to indicate I’ve never encountered anything like it in any previous novel.

Parker’s a talented writer. I thoroughly enjoyed his California Girl. Perhaps in the future I’ll give him another go, loop back to the beginning, read his first Charlie Hood novel and tackle the series in the way it’s meant to be read.

That’s exactly what I’ve done with Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight series, which is set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I’ve now read the man’s entire oeuvre.

A Stolen Season and Misery Bay are both part of that series.  Night Work is a one-off.

Frankly, I didn’t like Night Work.  It’s the first book by Hamilton I haven’t liked.  It was slow developing and I never took to the character the way I’ve embraced McKnight.

A Stolen Season and Misery Bay are exactly what I’ve come to expect from Hamilton – great characters, a vivid setting and a plot that moves along briskly. 

My next “project” is too read the complete works of C.J. Box – in chronological order.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Three recent novels disappoint

Three books I had hoped to like, but didn’t:

Book 38: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Book 39: Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

Book 40: The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell

I admire the conceit behind Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.  North Korea is one of the most insular nations in the world, so the idea of setting a novel there is intriguing.  

The plot largely revolves around a man assuming the identity of a high ranking North Korean official. Everyone knows he isn’t who he claims to be, but they all go along with the deception.

Although he portrays a fictional reality, Johnson succeeds in helping the reader understand the vast gulf between our comprehension of life in North Korea and the reality of life there. The reverse is also true: North Koreans are simply incapable of comprehending life in America.

I couldn’t help but think about the video on the nightly news following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that showed a nation of mourners. I’d felt they were faking, spontaneously erupting in tears and wails and gnashing of teeth to convince a Western audience of their love for their dearly departed despot. 

After reading Johnson’s novel, I wonder if the outpouring of grief wasn’t more genuine. Can something be both genuine, yet deeply insincere?

I applaud Johnson’s courage in writing this literary high-wire act, but that’s as far as I can go. The novel never truly leaves the ground.  

In the opening pages of Carry the One by Carol Anshaw, a 10 (?13) year-old girl dies after being struck by a car. The novel’s premise is that the girl’s death has a lasting impact upon the lives of each of the inhabitants of the car.

But Anshaw never closes the deal.

The girl’s impact upon the novel is so transitory that the entire premise of the novel never stands up. The reader never has a sense of who this girl is – not only why she was wandering alone late at night, but her likes and dislikes, her smile, her interests. Would she have been a good mom? An inventive lover?

If the reader isn’t haunted by the memory of the girl – and the adult she might have become – it’s impossible to believe her death has any continuing and significant impact upon the characters. Oh sure, they remember the accident and are saddened by her death, but influenced in any meaningful way – I don’t see it.

And I don’t think the characters do either.

The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell is another novel with a promising premise that never takes off.
Robert Kennedy’s funeral train is making its way to Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C. There Kennedy will be buried alongside his brother.

Rowell tells the story of a handful of mourners and the merely curious who have come to watch the train pass by. The idea is both to illustrate the state of America in 196X and to show how Kennedy’s death brought the nation together.

At least, that’s what I think.  The problem here is that the lives of the characters Rowell has assembled are not in the least compelling.  There isn’t a single story that generates any real interest by the reader, or invokes any genuine emotion.

 Carry the One and The Train of Small Mercies demonstrate that it takes more than a promising premise to produce a good novel. These are disappointing books. The Orphan Master’s Son also begins with an inventive premise. It’s a bold effort and although it ultimately falls short, it’s not for lack of trying.