Monday, May 27, 2013

Le Carre's A Delicate Truth recalls Smiley, Karla and the Circus

Book 65: A Delicate Truth by John le Carre

The tension is palpable in John le Carre's fine new thriller, A Delicate Truth. In his most recent novels, the story has been sacrificed to le Carre's anger. Here his anger -- at private security forces, wealthy Americans and Britain's inattentive national leaders -- drives the narrative and produces a high caliber thriller that recalls the author's best work.

Book 60: Red Planet Blues by Robert Sawyer

Sci fi author Robert Sawyer expands on his award-winning novella, Identity Theft, in Red Planet Blues. I wish he hadn't. This is a disappointing book. Sawyer's concept of a shamus on the red planet is more clever than convincing.

Book 67: In Plain Sight by C.J. Box

In Plain Sight is the sixth (2006) book in the Joe Pickett series by C.J. Box. It's a violent story in which Joe makes an unfortunate decision certain to reverberate in future stories. Unless you're committed to reading the entire series -- as I am -- I'd take a pass on this particular novel. It's not Box's best.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Non-fiction reading includes a memoir, literary criticism and natural history

Recent reading includes three works of non-fiction -- a memoir, literary criticism and natural history.

Book 68: The Books of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon's memoir -- his first work of non-fiction -- ranges from Sarajevo to Chicago. Surprisingly, the book doesn't become truly interesting until Hemon reaches America.

Hemon led a pleasant and largely uneventful life in Sarajevo. He left that city before the outbreak of war -- a war that ultimately led his parents and sister to flee to safety in Canada.

Hemon recounts his struggle to adjust to America and to Chicago, a uniquely Midwestern city. He slowly assimilates by engaging in chess matches in Rogers Park, pickup socceer games filled with immigrants all attracted to the pitch by the taste of home it offers and by walking through Chicago's many neighborhoods.

The most powerful passages are found in the book's final section in which Hemon recounts his youngest daughter's death due to a rare and virulent form of cancer.  The family's struggle is both heroic and heartbreaking.

The Book of My Lives is an interesting read, but feels premature. Hemon is a relatively young man -- still in the early stages of his writing career -- with many more lives to live.

Book: 58: Eminent Outlaws, The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram

In Eminent Outlaws, Bram contends that the gay revolution was first a literary revolution.  He believes that the outpouring of literature from writers such as Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote led the current status quo -- increased acceptance of homosexuality and single-sex marriage.

Bram overstates the case for a literary influence over current societal norms. Some of the works cited were never particuarly perceived as gay literature nor in the time period that some of these writers were best known was there a general awareness that they were homosexuals.

And there is always the sad truth that most literature is more talked about than read.

Bram's theory aside, Eminent Outlaws is an intriguing, but incomplete survey of more than a half-century of gay literature.

Book 64: Cooked by Michael Pollan

Cooked is a disappointing offering from Michael Poll, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma.

The Omnivore's Dilemma was a groundbreaking work with wise guidance, and the rationale behind that guidance, on better, healthier eating.

Cooked is nothing more than an author exercising the luxury of his indulgences -- and getting paid for it.

Pollan's interest in roasting whole hogs, baking bread and brewing beer are the meager ingredients in a thin serving of personal journalism, science and philosophical musings on natural history.

Keeping the methaphor in the kitchen, Cooked is a bland and insubstanial dish.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The dysfunctional dance of families featured in novels by Strout and O'Farrell

Recent reading includes two novels about dysfunctional families, life in a London neighborhood, the first detective novel in the English language and a collection of disturbing short stories.

Let's begin with those books about family life.

Book 56: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout   
Book 66: Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell 

Family secrets are at the heart of these two fine novels.

In The Burgess Boys, the secret revolves around a father's death. In Instructions for a Heatwave the secret lies at the heart of a father's disappearance.

Those secrets are less important to either story than the bonds of blood and shared history that ensare parent and child alike. Within the mysterious graviational pull of those forces long-simmering resentments, childhood hurts, parental favoritism, inter-dependence, guilt and elusive love pinball wickedly among fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. 

O'Farrell perfectly captures the family dynamic time and again. A dynamic that can quickly produce tears of frustration in an independent adult:

"Aoife has to resist the urge to grind her teeth, to throw something at the wall. Why is it that twenty-four hours in the company of your family is capable of reducing you to a teenager? Is this retogression cumulative? Will she continue to lose a decade a day."

Strout brings her family together when a nephew of the two Burgess boys hurls a pig's head into a mosque in their hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine.  While Strout keeps that storyline alive, it is merely a diversion. The real story here is not the clash between immigrants and long-time denizens of Shirley Falls, but the clash of emotions within the Burgess family.

O'Farrell's family assembles, for the first time in years, after recently retired banker Robert Riordan steps out to buy a newspaper and never returns. Conflicts among the siblings, and with their mother, must be resolved before the search for their missing father can begin.

The previous novels by Strout (Olive Kitteridge) and O'Farrell (The Hand That First Held Mine) were stellar works.

Both these novels shows the authors in top form, although I found Instructions for a Heatwave to be a richer, more satisfying read that seems certain to attract interest from Booker Prize judges.  O'Farrell has quickly become a novelist I respect and enjoy.  
Book 57: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

I thoroughly enjoyed The Moonstone, a 19th Century novel considered to be the first English language detective novel.  The Moonstone is an epistolary novel (it's told through a series of letters).

The various voices allows Collins to tap a rich vein of sly humor and fashion a complex novel from a seemingly simple event -- the theft of a rare Indian diamond.

Book 55: Capital by John Lancaster

In Capital, the personal stories of the residents of Pepys Road, London, are connected by a series of sinister postcards, photographs and videos.

The individual stories are not without interest, but the novel falls short of its sweeping ambition. It's never clear exactly what point Lancaster is attempting to make.

Book 59: Dark Lies The Island by Kevin Barry

This 13 short stories in this collection by Kevin Barry are similar to the work of George Saunders, but darker and more disturbing. Barry is a writer to watch.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Atkinson and Wolitzer deliver early entries for 2013's best books

Book 51: The Fruit of Stone by Mark Spragg
Book 52: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Book 53: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Book 54: The Paris Review, Spring, 2013

Head to the nearest independent bookstore and buy copies of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life and Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings

You're going to want to read these books, which are certain to make a good many 2013 top ten lists. Life After Life will be a nominee for the coveted Booker Prize and The Interestings will make the shortlist for the National Book Award.

That's how highly I regard these two novels.

Life After Life is the story of Ursula Todd who never draws a breath when she is first delivered in her family's home in February, 1910.  First delivered because Ursula is re-born and on this occasion the doctor arrives in time to cut the umbicial cord that's strangling her from around her neck.

Each time she dies -- a drowning, a fall from a roof, a savage beating, a bombing during the Blitz -- Ursula is re-born and her life subtly, imperectibly altered.

Atkinson has always been skillful at weaving together diverse plot lines into a satisfying and coherent whole.  Here, she is at her most inventive in this brilliant, compelling novel.   

Some have compared the book to the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. Yet unlike the movie, Ursula doesn't live the same life over and over again. She lives different lives.

(I think it's more like the Marvel Comics that asked "What If . . ." What If Doctor Doom became a hero? What If Wolverine battled Conan the Barbarian? It's a question we've all asked ourselves: What if I hadn't taken that job? Gone to the bar that night? Taken that class? Decided to walk rather than drive?)

Part of Atkinson's brilliance is in the simple recognition that one small change leads to many others; changes we can't anticipate and might like to take back. It's those little changes that lead Ursula's life into directions we can only consider absurd from the perspective of that snowy night she was born, but that now -- looking back -- seem altogether appropriate.

Ursula isn't aware of the changes in her life. Not exactly. There is a nagging sense of deja vu.  (In a clever bit of humor one family member quips that "deja vu" was probably the first French words Ursula learned.) She's also led by compulsions, seeminlgy irrational fears and unexplained impulses.

One thread that holds constant throughout Ursula's ever-changing lives is her family.  If the changing nature of her various lives unfolds with purpose and toward a single end, it is driven by a love for them.

(As a side note, I can't remember reading a book that so thoroughly documents the horrors of civilian life in London during the Blitz.  Ursula's various lives cast her in various roles during World War II, roles that allow us to experience the intermingling of fear and courage exhibited by the citizens of that city to the fullest.)

There are similarities to Life After Life in The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. Lives don't re-start in Wolitzer's novel, but we do see how uncertain the direction of our lives can be and how one act -- large or small -- can determine the path we go down.

The Interestings is the story of six teenagers who meet at a summer camp for the arts.  Without the least irony, they proclaim themselves the Interestings, so convinced are they that they are interesting and certain to live interesting lives.

Yet their lives unfold in unexpected ways.  One enjoys great professional success and the riches that success brings. Another, while still a teenager, must flee the country to evade prosecution for rape. The others' lives fall between those extremes.

The Interestings is about regret, about the road Frost evokes -- the one taken and the one not taken -- and it is about learning to accept the hand we're dealt, an acceptance that never comes easily, if at all.

With The Interestings, Wolitzer vaults into the upper ranks of American writers. Here is the book that Jonathan Franzen wanted to write.  Closely observed, wry and insightful, its characters treated with compassion and unsparing honesty, The Interestings is the most powerful, accurate and evocative commentary on American life to emerge in years.  


I found something jarring about Mark Spragg's prose in The Fruit of Stone. It felt too stately, too mannered, to tell this story of two long-time Wyoming friends in pursuit of the woman they love.  The story of loss and love needed a gritter tone than Spragg's supplies.

The Spring, 2013, edition of The Paris Review is a rich and rewarding read.