Monday, April 30, 2007

On Chesil Beach an intimate novel of stunning clarity and insight

Books now read in ’07: 38
Title: On Chesil Beach
Author: Ian McEwan
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 4-30
Pages: 166

In 12 previous novels, including Booker winner Amsterdam and the superlative Atonement, Ian McEwan secured a reputation as one of the finest writers of our generation. In On Chesil Beach, his newest novel, McEwan once more confirms that his lofty status is well earned.

On Chesil Beach is a small, intimate novel. It is the story of Edward and Florence, who we meet on their wedding night in 1962. They are “young, educated and both virgins” and, as McEwan observes, “they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was impossible.” Edward is eager -- too much so it turns out – but aware of all that he does not know. Florence, who believes Edward to be sexually experienced, knows only that the very idea of sex disgusts her.

Little wonder then that their honeymoon is anything but a night of marital bliss. All this, however, is merely a run up to McEwan’s central theme; simply put, it is that little things mean a lot within the scope of human relationships. Their first foray into sex goes awry, but Edward and Florence may still move beyond this moment. Indeed, it is likely that many long-married couples have looked back in laughter on such a night, shaking their heads in wonderment at all they did not know.

It takes only a word, a gesture, but Edward and Florence are too caught up in their anger, their pride, their dignity, to reach out in love. They have made the fatal error of putting their own self-interest before the other. And so it is that what takes place on Chesil Beach, more than the events in their bed chamber, is of vital importance to the course of their lives.

From the opening page, when we meet this couple engaged in an intimate honeymoon dinner, to the almost comic events of their bed chamber, to the tragic events on Chesil Beach, McEwan writes with consummate artistry. To almost cinematic effect, he takes us back in time to their first meeting in Oxford and, after Chesil Beach, we are given a brief, but all encompassing glimpse of how their lives have unfolded.

This is a superb novel of stunning clarity and insight.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Lewis' second book contains notable collection of stories

Books now read in ’07: 37
Title: I Got Somebody in Staunton
Author: William Henry Lewis
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 4-28
Pages: 202

It’s interesting to compare the short stories in William Henry Lewis’ collection I Got Somebody in Staunton to those in All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones. Both are the work of accomplished authors. Both the work of African Americans and, yet, admittedly this should come as a source of no particular surprise, the collections vary greatly in content and tone.

Jones’ writings include the mystical and supernatural – the devil is here and a Carolina witch effects a cure that eludes modern medicine – while Lewis’ stories are hard-edged, mining many of the fears that, even in such an enlightened time, daily accompany the American black.

I have previously recommended Jones’ book. Now, I do the same for Lewis, whose collection of stories, and only his second book, was short-listed for the National Book Award last year. This is an especially powerful and notable effort.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Rollback is Sawyer's best yet

Books now read in ’07: 36
Title: Rollback
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Genre: Speculative Fiction
Date Completed: 4-27
Pages: 313

Chatting recently with fans of Robert Sawyer and someone says, “He writes like Asimov.” “But with better characters,” says someone else.

Yeah, that’s about got it. Sawyer’s writing does evoke Isaac Asimov, a science fiction grandmaster, on a couple of levels. The prose is inviting. Comfortable. Begging to be read. Like Asimov, Sawyer is no stylist, but he does not know how to tell a story. And, like Asimov, the science is impeccable. You won’t find Rob Sawyer confusing a parsec with a unit of time – it is a unit of distance. And his characters jump off the page, they are so well drawn.

Rollback, Sawyer’s newest book, is also his best. It is the story of Sarah and Don Halifax. Years ago Sarah achieved a minor level of fame by decoding an alien radio transmission. Now, 38 years later, the aliens have responded again, but there are complications. The message is encrypted and Sarah is now in her late 80s. A rich benefactor offers to pay for an expensive medical procedure for Sarah that will “roll back” the effects of aging. Sarah agrees if Don also receives the procedure.

He does, but in an ironic twist the procedure is successful for Don, but not for Sarah. Thus, Sawyer quickly establishes two intriguing plot lines. Married for 60 years, Don and Sarah must now cope with a new reality; physically, Don is now 25 years old, while Sarah is 87. And, despite her age, Sarah struggles to de-code the alien message.

Rollback is an eminently readable, entertaining and provocative book, exactly what his fans have come to expect from Robert Sawyer.

Friday, April 27, 2007

From 1918 to today, retiree reads Pulitzer Prize winners

On Wednesday, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich devoted her column to Mona McNeese, who plans to read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. What makes McNeese's reading habits newsworthy?

Seven years ago, the 73-year-old McNeese, of Oak Park, Illinois, retired after a career as a teacher and school principal. At her retirement, McNeese decided to read all the novels that had won a Pulitzer Prize. She started with the 1918 winner – Ernest Poole’s His Family.

“McNeese had grown up feeling that non-fiction was the writing that mattered and fiction was just frivolous,” Schmich wrote. “Reading changed her mind, and she read everywhere. In the parked car. In bed every night for hours. At the dining table, scratching notes on ruled paper collected in a loose-leaf binder.

“She divided books into categories. Ones on modernization, ones on war or politics. True romance was rare. She puzzled over the merits of a dozen or so winners.”

McNeese didn’t finish the 1936 winner Honey in the Horn, deciding that life is too short to finish a bad book. She loved A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor, James Agee’s A Death in the Family and John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano. She also liked Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

McNeese, who accomplished her goal in 2003, now reads all sorts of books. Schmich reports that most nights, she reads aloud to her husband Jim, who has lost most of his sight. She takes notes on what she reads. This passage, from Reading Lolita in Tehran, caught her eye:

“A novel is not an allegory. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a book: you inhale the experience.”

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Sun Over Breda disappointing entry in Perez-Reverte series

Books now read in ’07: 35
Title: The Sun Over Breda
Author: Arturo Perez-Reverte
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 4-22
Pages: 261

The Sun Over Breda is a disappointing entry into what has been, until now, a highly enjoyable series by Arturo Perez-Reverte. The fun is missing from this novel. The previous books – Captain Alatriste and Purity of Blood – featured lots of court intrigue and sword play in dark alleys. There’s none of that here.

Instead, Captain Alatriste, the hero of this series, and his amanuensis, Íñigo Balboa, find themselves in Flanders, stoically engaged in the siege of Breda. A siege is not sword play in some dark alley; it lacks romance. The book is not completely free of action, there are a few bold stands and rash charges, a duel of honor, but all-in-all The Sun Over Breda is missing the playful quality of its predecessors.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Soul of Baseball: An extraordinary book about an extraordinary man

Books now read in ’07: 34
Title: The Soul of Baseball, A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America
Author: Joe Posnanski
Genre: Baseball
Date Completed: 4-21
Pages: 273

I had many reasons to be favorably inclined toward Joe Posnanski’s The Soul of Baseball, A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America. It was a gift from two dear friends in Kansas City, Jerry and Nancy Lonergan. It was about baseball, which “writes” like no other sport. And it was about the legendary Buck O’Neil.

Imagine my surprise then to discover that The Soul of Baseball, A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America not only met my expectations, it exceeded them. This book is filled with marvelous stories of negro league baseball as well as of O'Neil's experiences during his "tour" of America. Mostly, it is about O’Neil, who was a wise, kind man and whose personality shines forth in this book in unexpectedly powerful and poignant ways.

Posnanski, a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, spent a year literally traveling coast-to-coast with O’Neil; from San Diego to tiny Nicodemus, Kansas, founded by freed slaves after the Civil War, to Washington, D.C., and an appearance before a congressional committee. The book concludes in 2006 with a select committee’s inexplicable decision not to elect O’Neil to the baseball Hall of Fame.

O’Neil’s response to that decision reveals the true depth of his character. He was profoundly disappointed, but handled the rejection as he handled so many before – with grace and equanimity and class. O’Neil never played major league baseball. As with so many blacks, he was denied that opportunity by the overt racism of his time. He did play in the negro leagues and time and time again he told those who would listen to never feel sorry for him or his on-field companions because they were doing what they loved to do. O’Neil was not a great player, merely a very good one. He led the league in hitting once and almost did it again the next year.

He won pennants as manager of the Kansas City Monarchs. He coached in the majors and might have become the first black manager in the majors, except baseball wasn’t ready yet. He served as a major league scout, securing an opportunity for many young blacks that he had been denied. Those players form an impressive roster of talent.

More important, for a half century O’Neil was ambassador for baseball; in particular, he was ambassador for the negro leagues. He tirelessly campaigned for many black players’ induction into the Hall of Fame. He carried an envelope with him carrying the names of those he thought worthy of induction. Ultimately some of the names were crossed off because of O’Neil’s efforts. Sadly, most of those players were inducted posthumously.

Although he experienced racism first hand, O’Neil never displayed the bitterness and anger that rightfully claimed other men. Something deep within Buck O’Neil always let him see the best. It was not merely that he was free of rancor, but that he was always – always – a good and gracious man.

Buck O’Neil should certainly be in the baseball Hall of Fame. If there were such a thing as a human Hall of Fame he should be there too.

If you’re a fan of baseball, this book is for you. If you’re one of those people who always wonder why there’s never any “good” news on TV or in the newspaper, this book is for you. If you believe in good things and good people, if you want to laugh and cry, it’s also for you.

The Soul of Baseball, A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary man.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 33
Title: Winterton Blue
Author: Trezza Azzopardi
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 4-19
Pages: 271

I’ve been a fan of Welsh writer Trezza Azzopardi since her first book, The Hiding Place. Winterton Blue, her third novel, keeps me solidly in her camp.

Azzopardi writes small books about broken people. This is not too say that her writing is insignificant. Azzopardi is a skillful writer – one of those novelist who often cause you to pause to admire a turn of phrase or the way she has allowed a scene to unfold – and an insightful one. Small books, yes, but tender and finely wrought.

Winterton Blue is a love story, although the two lovers do not meet until more than 100 pages into the novel and because their relationship is not finally determined until . . . well, to say would constitute a spoiler and I won’t go there. The lovers, Lewis and Anna, are damaged people. Anna by the early death of her father and a manipulative, yet loving mother. Lewis is haunted by the death of his twin brother.

Winterton Blue is about the struggle to find love, and to keep it. At one point in the novel Anna is told of Lewis, “He’s dangerous to love.” I think that on some level that’s true of us all.

This is a fine book. Azzopardi is a superb writer.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The United States of Arugula not for the discerning palate

Books now read in ’07: 32
Title: The United States of Arugula
Author: David Kamp
Genre: Non-Fiction
Date Completed: 4-18
Pages: 364

In assembling The United States of Arugula author Dave Kamp has a great recipe – write a book about the men and women, the chefs, cooks, authors and TV personalities, who have influenced American eating habits over the last half-century. But bringing a great recipe to completion requires the right ingredients and the right execution and it’s on those two points that Kamp, a writer and editor for Vanity Fair and GQ, stumbles.

Keeping with the food analogy for just a little longer, all Kamp needed to produce a delicious repast was to assemble the finest ingredients – focus on say a half-dozen of the most influential men and women – and whip that into a pleasing, coherent whole that helps explain why sushi, baby greens and fancy fridges have become commonplace. It’s on exactly this point that he stumbles—Kamp throws too many ingredients into the pot and what should be an intoxicating stew is, well, an unsavory hash.

It seems every restaurant has a swinging door and Kamp wants to recount every man and woman who goes through those doors. The reader can’t keep up. Additionally there is his unfortunate inclination to fall back on breezy, unappetizing gossip – the sex life of James Beard or the recreational drug use of celebrity chefs. The United States of Arugula isn’t intended as a tell-all, but a serious examination of American dietary habits. Kamp should have remembered his thesis because in straying from it he undermines his work.

Still, it’s interesting enough. James Beard, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne are here. As is Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Emeril and Wolfgang Puck. And we do come to understand a little about how baby greens and sushi entered the American diet. Here’s the approach I recommend you take to The United States of Arugula. If you’re inclined to nibble on only one such book a year then devour Michael Pollan’s excellent, thoughtful The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But if you wolf down books on food like they were M&Ms then definitely add Kamp’s book to the menu.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Call it Sci Fi or Phi Fi it should be provocative

Science fiction is provocative fiction, says Canadian author Robert Sawyer. It’s fiction that explores current, relevant issues of importance, both today and tomorrow.

Sawyer is currently in the midst of a book tour, promoting his new novel, Rollback. Today he appeared at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. as part of the “What If ... Science Fiction and Fantasy Forum.” He spoke on "Science Fiction as a Mirror for Reality"

From its beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein through H.G. Wells to today’s writers science fiction has fearlessly delved into social commentary, Sawyer said, exploring topical issues of great importance. Frankenstein was an exploration of women’s reproductive rights. Wells exmained British imperialism (The War of the Worlds) and that country’s class system (The Time Machine) as well as variety of other pressing issue of the time.

Among hot button issues of our day, Sawyer has explored abortion rights and the existence of God. In Rollback, he looks an aging. The rollback refers to am expensive experimental procedure that “rolls back” the effects of aging – but it doesn’t work for everyone and everyone can’t afford it.

Even science fiction movies of the not too distant past had a social conscience, Sawyer said. There is, of course, The Day the Earth Stood Still (my all-time favorite movie), which wasn’t really about aliens from outer space, but the Cold War or Planet of the Apes, which waded into the dicey topic of race relations.

Sadly, science fiction drifted away from social commentary with the appearance of George Lucas’ Star Wars, Sawyer said. To be fair, space operas existed well before Lucas, but it was the rousing popular success of his movies that led science fiction away from its roots as the literature (and film) of provocation.

Sawyer noted that Lucas blatantly ignored some important issues that surfaced in his film. When we first meet Han Solo, for example, he’s a drug runner. There’s nothing said about the ethics of his actions. Nor are the ethics of Luke Skywalker examined. In the movie, Luke is a slave owner. Those two cute ‘droids aren’t free to follow the dictates of their own will, they’re slaves. Here’s assignment for you: compare and contrast the treatment of the ‘droids with that of their human (and alien) companions in the film.

Much of science fiction literature and film drifted away from any serious exploration of social issues after Star Wars, Sawyer contends. And, as a result of the film, the public perception of science fiction is that the genre was only about entertainment. That, Sawyer makes clear, was unfortunate.

Even as he exmaines controversial social issues in his writing, Sawyer said, he isn’t interested in swaying readers to his point of view. He believes this is true of most sci fi writers as well. Instead, he said, writers of science fiction want people to think about an issue – perhaps in a way they haven’t thought about it before – and develop their own viewpoint.

At its best, Sawyer said science fiction is really philosophical fiction. Yes, that makes him a “phi fi” writer.


One other note: Sawyer had an intriguing (OK, provocative) take on why Canada boasts so many excellent writers. A quick shortlist includes Sawyer, William Gibson, Robert Charles Wilson, Alice Munro (arguably the greatest short story writer today) and Margaret Atwood. Sawyer believes Canada produces so many talented writers because of socialized medicine. It’s not that writers in Canada are healthier than Americans, but that they have more time to write; they begin earlier and can writer longer. It makes sense. Many American authors write only as a sideline. They have to have a real “job” to secure health insurance. It’s an intriguing idea. Exactly what you’d expect from Rob Sawyer.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

I've been blurbed!

What do I have in common with Michael Connelly, Jan Burke and Kirkus? I've been blurbed. In a recent post, I praised David Corbett's new novel, Blood of Paradise. Today, I see that a line from my post is displayed on Corbett's web site: Cool.

2007 Pulitzer Prize Winners

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Alfred A. Knopf)

Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire

The Race Beat by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff (Alfred A. Knopf)

The Most Famous Man in America by Debby Applegate (Doubleday)

Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey (Houghton Mifflin)

The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright (Alfred A. Knopf)

Sound Grammar by Ornette Coleman

Ray Bradbury
John Coltrane

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Pesthouse a companion to McCarthy's The Road

Books now read in ’07: 31
Title: The Pesthouse
Author: Jim Crace
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 4-11
Pages: 309
Something has happened in America. There are suggestions that a plague has swept the country. All we know for certain is that technology has vanished – metal is scorned by some as a tool of evil – along with any suggestion of organized government. Armed bands of men roam the countryside, preying on the weak, who flock east in an effort to flee the country.

Set aside for a moment any thoughts that Jim Crace’s powerful new book, The Pesthouse, is an allegorical work. Certainly, at some level it must be. Focus, instead, on the story. Crace is a powerful storyteller – inventive, imaginative – and this new book is a fitting companion to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. (Interesting, isn’t it that two such books have surfaced in recent months. Is the Bush Administration responsible for driving authors to write of future dystopias?)

Where McCarthy’s book was spare and unsparing and starkly poetic, Crace is lush, hopeful and poetic. In The Road the world has ended. All is grayness and cold and ashes. In The Pesthouse there is fear and ignorance, but kindness and dreams also survive -- perhaps, because the sun still shines; because there is rain and birds and wildlife and people willing to help one another.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Franklin biography, Atwood's newest

Books now read in ’07: 29
Title: Benjamin Franklin
Author: Walter Isaacson
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 4-7
Pages: 493

Books now read in ’07: 30
Title: Moral Disorder
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 4-7
Pages: 225

Snow. In April. On the Saturday before Easter. Thus, a good day to curl up and read. Two books completed.

Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson is a serviceable biography of Franklin. Isaacson is not a bad writer, but he is no stylist. There isn’t much new here; the outlines of Franklin’s life are relatively well known. I do admit that I had no idea that his contributions in the area of electricity were so significant. It’s an enjoyable read.

Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder is an odd book. It’s not a novel so much as a collection of interlinked vignettes that add up to a larger story. This is not Atwood’s best work, but she is such a lyrical writer, so deft with the off-hand phrase or passage, that it is a delight to read her even when the sum doesn’t add up to much.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 28
Title: Blood of Paradise
Author: David Corbett
Genre: Thriller
Date Completed: 4-1
Pages: 406

David Corbett is the best, least-appreciated writer in the thriller genre today. His newest, book, Blood of Paradise only serves to cement Corbett’s unfortunate status. The book is in paperback. After two fine, but largely unnoticed hardbound novels, Corbett is now living among the paperback originals.

Blood of Paradise is set in El Salvador and offers a brutal, unflinching look at the corruption in that country. Events unfold through the eyes of Jude McManus an “executive protection specialist” who like most Americans in El Salvador is on the run from something. In Jude’s case it’s his past – his father was a corrupt Chicago cop and Jude fled Chicago and eventually the country to forge a new life.

It’s a complex book and you may learn more about hydrology and Salvadoran politics than you care to know. To Corbett’s credit, he offers no easy answers in this story of greed and betrayal, in which even trying to do the right thing may be wrong.