Sunday, July 25, 2010

Book 62: Kate Atkinson's One Good Turn

Book 62: One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

Hi Kate! Remember me, it's your Number One Fan Boy. I just finished One Good Turn and here's a funny thing -- I hope you think it's a funny thing -- I read this book in 2008, but I didn't remember that until Goodreads told me so.

I checked the archives of my reading lists (yes, I really call it my archives) and Goodreads was right. It's not that I'm obsessive-compulsive or anything like that, but the book was on my reading pile (pile 3, the one comprised of books to read now) and I thought, "Well, do I put it back or read it again?" And I went ahead and read it again. It was on the pile. I mean it could have been, must have been, fate.

I'm glad I did. Since I had originally read it before Case Histories, which introduces Jackson Brodie, I was missing important perspective on Jackson and Julia. I'm glad you included her in this book. I wasn't expecting that, but it provided important insight into her relationship with Jackson. (Although I guess that's off now.)

I hope this won't mean a demotion -- from Number One Fan Boy -- but I didn't like One Good Turn quite as well as Case Histories or When Will There Be Good News? Still, an average book by Kate Atkinson is better than the best book by a lot of authors. I really believe that!

Many of the characteristics that I've begun to associate with you as a writer are present: your humor, your Dickensian use of minor characters and your ability to take a good many, seemingly discrete events and wrap them all together into a satisfying whole. (I especially like how you even make fun of that last characteristic near the end of this novel.)

So that's it. I know you have a book coming out this fall and I am SO EAGER to read it. Meantime, I can feed my addiction by reading a couple of your early books that I still haven't read. At least, I don't think I have! Ha! Ha! I'm just being funny too. Of course I haven't read them. (I think.)

With affection,

Still, and Always, Your Number One Fan Boy!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Coe plays games with the reader in The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim

Book 61: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Sebastian Coe

Seldom has an author undermined his own novel as successfully as Sebastian Coe undermines his most recent work, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim.

In the final eight pages of the novel, Coe, a British author, commits the literary equivalent of seppuku. In those pages, Coe delves into metafiction. He pulls back the curtain to expose the fraud perpetrated upon the reader in the book's first 332 pages.

Metafiction is when an author self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. I have no problem with metafiction as a literary device. Paul Auster uses it to good effect. The difference between Auster and Coe is that Auster ushers the reader behind the curtain in the early stages of the novel. That makes all the difference. With Auster we're in the joke. With Coe, Ha, Ha, silly wanker, the joke is on us.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is a story of alienation, of a man lonely and alone in the midst of a communications cornucopia. Sim, who is clinically depressed, has lost his job, his wife and child. He's estranged from his father and his best friend. And, Sim discovers, having 72 friends on Facebook doesn't count for all that much.

Sims talks to the sat-nav system in his rented car (he's seduced by its voice), applauds the proliferation of chain restaurants because he finds the sameness they offer comforting and he seems to be in deep denial about his sexuality. He's one messed up man.

Early in the novel, there is a reference to John Updike's Rabbit novels. With reason. Sim's middle class angst, alienation and depression echo the life of Updike's Rabbit Angstrom.

Here's a suggestion, pass up The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim and read the Rabbit novels. Updike isn't playing games with the reader.

Friday, July 16, 2010

An introduction to the writing of Louise Penny

A lot of my friends recommend books to me. It's something I welcome, and something I fear. Welcome, because through the years I have come to trust the judgment of many of my friends and family about books to read. Inevitably, I am introduced to a fine new author; an enjoyable new book. Fear, because my reading pile is growing at the rate of the national debt. It's difficult to keep up and there are times I simply don't want one more book that I've got to read.

So there was some trepidation, and a sigh or two, when a friend recently recommended the works of Louise Penny. Actually, my friend didn't merely recommend Penny's mysteries, he bludgeoned me with entreaties to read her. I received email after email explaining why I needed to read this Canadian writer.

So, I did . . .

One book. Her first, Still Life.

And exactly what I feared would happen happened. I liked it, a lot.

Book 59: Still Life by Louise Penny

Not surprisingly, Penny's books are set in Canada. They revolve around Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté. We learn a few things about Gamache in this introductory novel: He's a crack investigator; sensitive, observant, thoughtful and more than a little stubborn. His career has stalled. He and his wife are empty nesters.

Clearly, in future books, we will grow even more familiar with Gamache and his team.

Gamache is one of the reasons Penny's books are so appealing, but not the only one. In Still Life we are presented with a genuine mystery. Someone in the village of Three Pines has murdered a retired schoolteacher. Who? Why? So many books today that belong to the genre eschew the mystery, and it is the mystery that is often so exquisite. Penny has given us one to chew on.

And then there's Penny's writing. Given a rainy Saturday, this book would be a one-day read. That's not to slight Penny, but to praise her. She writes well, with clarity and pacing. She is as observant as Gamache, offering delightful insights and asides that contribute to the richness of the reading.

Humbert H. Humphrey once said, "My friends. My god damn friends." The context of H.H.H.'s remarks aside, I share his sentiments. Now I have four more books that I absolutely, positively need to read.

Book 60: When That Rough God Goes Riding by Greil Marcus

Recently, I returned from a business trip to Seattle. I flew out early to spend time with my oldest son who lives there. We spent a couple of days haunting book stores, record stores and restaurants. And when I flew home, I carried along a vinyl copy of Van Morrison's Tupelo Honey. I have a CD verison of the album, but misplaced the actual record years ago.

Coincidentally, or maybe not coincidentally at all because I like Van Morrison, when I returned home there was a copy of Greil Marcus's When That Rough God Goes Riding waiting for me. I had thought Marcus's book was a biography of the Irish singer. It's not, and if I'd paid more attention to the sub-title, Listening to Van Morrison, I would know that.

When That Rough God Goes Riding is a work of musical criticism. Marcus provides his observations about Morrison's performances on specific songs . . . Tupelo Honey, Baby Please Don't Go and Caravan, for example.

It's an interesting book, but not one that I can entirely embrace. The fault is not with Marcus, but myself. I don't have the sonic chops that Marcus has. We don't hear the music in the same way. He hears with a depth of understanding, and appreciation, I will never have. For me, I either like a song or I don't. The same with performers. And I don't give it much thought beyond that.

And that's the other reason I'm not enthusiastic about the book. I have no difficulty applying this kind of criticism to literature (can someone tell me, would it be considered deconstruction?), but I can't bring myself to think of music in this way. So I am just going to put Tupelo Honey on the turntable and listen to it and not think about the music at all.


There's a Great Northwest theme to this post. I purchased Still Life at the Mystery Bookshop in Seattle. It's a marvelous little shop bursting with books. The staff is knowledgeable and there are some treasures to be found there. When That Rough God Goes Riding came from Powell's Books in Portland. It's as large and sprawling as the Mystery Bookshop is compact. There are treasures there too.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A summary of recent reading

Book 55: Books Do Furnish A Room by Leslie Geddes-Brown

Books on books, one of my favorite literary genres, play a prominent role in my recent reading. (See below) This book by Geddes-Brown is a lovely entry. Short on text, long on photographs, Books Do Furnish a Room is a visual testament to its title.

I've kept this book close to hand for several months; leafing through a few pages at a time. I'm still reluctant to put it on the shelf. Gazing at photograph after photograph of book-lined rooms and inventive approaches to the shelving of books is, well, relaxing to me. Somewhat akin to my childhood practice of curling up with the Sears catalog as Christmas approached.

Book 56: Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke

Black Cherry Blues is the third book (1989) in Burke's series featuring Dave Robicheaux. All the ingredients found in Burke's later Robicheaux novels are present here, including the over-writing, florid descriptions and passages that simply don't make much sense. Which is to say that if you approach this book unfamiliar with Burke you may like it, but if you've read most of his oeuvre it's going to be deja vu all over again.

Why do I keep reading Burke's books when I feel as if it's the literary equivalent of the hiccups? I can only associate it with the same compulsion that causes me to probe a sore tooth with my tongue.

Book 57: The Case for Books by Robert Darnton

I was bitterly disappointed by The Case for Books, which leaves itself wide open to legal charges of willfully mis-titling a book. But then naming it, Boring Academic Essays That Are Largely Irrelevant to the Current State of Affairs in Publishing might not sell any books.

The essays are devoted to books, that much is true, but also e-books and the impact of e-books upon research libraries. Most of the essays were written early this century -- yes, as much as nine or 10 years ago -- and, thus, seems to have little or no relevance to the current state of affairs.

I like books about books, but not this one.

Book 58: The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross

I freely concede that most readers of this blog (all six of you) won't understand my affection for Charlie Stross's Laundry novels (this is the second and a third is due out soon), but I like them, Sam I Am. I do. I do.

As a reminder, the Laundry novels, which feature the cool, but nerdy Bob Howard, are a brilliant combination of Len Deighton's spy novels and the creepy other-worldly stylings of H.P. Lovecraft. Yeah, it's that weird.

In The Jennifer Morgue, Stross lovingly (actually he's a tad mean) spoofs the spy novels of Ian Fleming, creator of that most famous of spies, James Bond.

The super-villain is The Jennifer Morgue has cast a spell that makes it possible for only a certain archetype, a hero in the James Bond mold, to defeat him. Bob thinks he's the guy, but as it turns out he's not. I'll say no more, except that Bob is cast in another role very familiar to fans of Bond films.

It's all great fun. The soul-sucking, creepy crawlies from another dimension are cast back into the vasty deep and Bob Howard enjoys a well earned vacation. Sort of.

I Write Like . . .

Take note of The Book Bench's post on the I Write Like site. I dropped in some text and am told I write like Stephen King. I'm not sure how to take that. I've never read King so I know I'm not influenced by him. I felt an odd combination of amusement and gratification.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

A fanboy's assessment of Kate Atkinson's Case Histories

Book 54: Case Histories by Kate Akinson

Raise the white flag.

Throw in the towel.

I surrender. Any attempt at objectivity or fairness is not possible. I am a Kate Atkinson fanboy.

With the completion yesterday of Case Histories, I have now read three books by Kate. And I like her better as a writer with each subsequent book.

Other than the fact that she's a great writer and storyteller, I like Kate's work (forgive the overly familiar use of her first name, but that's how we fanboys are) because it's Dickensian. There were obvious comparisons between Great Expectations and Kate's first book, Behind the Scenes of the Museum. But the similarities don't stop there.

Like Dickens, Kate has the knack for creating vivid minor characters. Characters who are not mere cardboard cut-outs, but who wear the mantle of humanity in ways that illuminate and amuse and that cause the reader to pause and say, "I know that man." "I've met that woman." Her characters are quirky and vulnerable and real.

And, like Dickens, Kate has the amazing ability to leaven horror -- a toddler gone missing, a teen-age woman inexplicably and brutally murdered -- with humor. She understands that one of the basic truths of life is that it goes on and that laughter and hope often follow the most horrific events.

Those moments of horror -- the missing toddler, the murdered teen -- along with a rural ax murder (it would have to be rural, wouldn't it), form the case histories that are presented to Jackson Brodie, Kate's retired military police and erstwhile police inspector, who is now a private investigator.

Some of the humor in Case Histories derives from Brodie's private musings and misgivings-- he's horrified by the stirring of an erection while in a dentist chair and he has absolutely no tolerance for his ex-wife's new husband. This is, of course, part of the reason Brodie is such a wonderful protagonist. He's smart and competent and affectionate and as deeply screwed up as the rest of us. He wants to move to France. He dwells on his eight-year-old daughter's safety and he sometimes sleeps with the wrong woman.

What important here, aren't the cases -- although Brodie does solve two of them and the third is resolved entirely to the reader's satisfaction (this reader anyway) -- but the interaction between Brodie and his clients. It is in this interaction that Kate's characters are at their most human and Kate is at her most entertaining as a writer.

Monday, July 05, 2010

I've completed three highly entertaining books as June turns to July.

Book 51: Do They Know I'm Running? by David Corbett
This is Corbett's fourth book and his second paperback original. Allow me to linger on that concept for a sentence or two. Apparently Corbett's publishers have decided -- because of low sales, I suppose -- that he is worthy of publishing, but not in hardbound editions. Some day, this book will be in hardbound as will its predecessor and those that follow. Corbett is superb. Don't believe me? The cover blurb to this book, from George Pelecanos, compares him to Robert Stone and Graham Greene. Blurbs on the back are from John Lescroat, Daniel Woodrell and Ken Bruen. Lescroat compares Corbett to Greene and Hemingway.

Yeah, he's that good. And, if it's possible, Corbett raises his game in Do They Know I'm Running? It can be read as a simple thriller, but, like Pelecanos and Lehane, Corbett is attempting to write a serious book about a serious societal problem . . . illegal immigrants who make their way (or attempt to do so) from Mexico and Central America to this country.

I shouldn't say "is attempting" but Corbett succeeds at exactly what he sets out to do. He has given us a thoroughly entertaining work that lingers long after the final page has been read. Do They Know I'm Running? is a provocative exploration of the innocent men and women, young and old, who come to this country because they are trying to build a life, and a future, for their families.

Unfortunately, they are subject to predators on both sides of the boarder. In this country, they live in constant fear of deportation. They work the meanest jobs -- the jobs we won't work -- for low pay and ill-treatment. South of the border they are subject to the not-so-tender mercies of gangs, drug cartels and corrupt military and police.

Do They Know I'm Running? is a powerful and sobering work. It is Corbett's finest book to date and that's saying a lot.

Book 52: Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker

This is an epistolary novel, meaning it unfolds through a series of letters. The letters are ours to read because someone has broken into the postbox in the picturesque village of Burley Cross. The letters are recovered by the police and entered into evidence.

Through the letters, written by a variety of townspeople, we gain insight into Burley Cross as well as the letter writers. There's a lot going on in this English village, mostly behind the scenes.

Burley Cross Postbox Theft is an inventive, comic novel of rare insight.

Book 53: Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst

Tone, setting, vivid characters and splendid research -- from the nuances of European history to the proper brand of cigarettes -- are the hallmarks of Furst, who delivers another entertaining novel of intrigue, heroism and political reality.

This one is set in Greece in the early 1940s. France is under occupation and Nazi Germany is beginning to turn its attention to Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albanian and Greece. Furst's hero is Costas Zannis, a senior police official in the Greek city of Salonika, who is soon drawn into the war when he meets a Jewish woman from Berlin who is trying to help two young children flee the Nazis.

Spies of the Balkans has so many reasons to recommend it: a gripping narrative, tone and setting that are absolutely spot on and characters who emerge fully formed and whom the reader quickly comes to care about. This is a top-notch work by Furst.

Finally the July 5 New Yorker contains a short story, The Erkling, by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. She's one of the 20 under 40 authors spotlighted by the magazine. It's a good story, creepy and open-ended, and among the best put forward in the magazine's 20 under 40 campaign.