Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Lacuna, The 5th Inning and Fledgling

Book 90: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

"Who be ye?" asks a voice at the conclusion of Barbara Kingsolver's novel, The Lacuna.

"People . . . might want to look back on those who labored and birthed the times they have inherited. But maybe that's wrong, and already we'll be a graveyard of weeds they won't want to visit. You, I mean to say. The times you have inherited. I wonder that: Who be ye?”

The voice belongs to Violet Brown, the conscience of The Lacuna and the stenographer of Harrison Shepherd, whose life story is at the heart of this sweeping novel.

Violet's question is posed to those men responsible for the Red Scare, the destruction of Shepherd's reputation and livelihood and, ultimately, his death through an apparent suicide. But Kingsolver is working on more than one level and Mrs. Brown's question is also aimed at those of us who inhabit today's fractious political landscape. A landscape marred by stridency and polarization and where half-truths and fabrications are presented by intelligent men and women as truths in order to gain political advantage.

The politics of fear reign today just as they did in the time period in which Kingsolver's novel is set.

Shepherd's life story, told largely through his dairies, which Mrs. Brown has saved from destruction, is all the more compelling because of the parallels with today. Shepherd is tainted by affiliations -- the painter Diego Rivera and Russian revolutionary Lev Trotsky -- that for him are about love and loyalty, rather than ideology.

It makes no difference. None of those guilty of Shepherd's destruction care about his guilt or innocence or his motives. He is an all to easy means to advance their shabby political ambitions. No more.

And today? People would do well to take Kingsolver's question to heart. Who be ye?

Book 91: The 5th Inning by E. Ethelbert Miller

The 5th Inning by E. Ethelbert Miller is a surprisingly powerful memoir for such a slender work. A few quiet hours on a Sunday afternoon is all is takes to dispatch this book. Yet, Miller's wisdom and insight linger longer.

The 5th Inning takes its title, and much of its essence, from baseball's fifth inning. After five, the game becomes official. Miller is saying his life is now in the books. It could end now. Or run the full nine innings. Or -- although Miller doesn't believe so -- go into extra innings.

Whatever the outcome, Miller, a D.C.-based poet, seems content with the outcome. Whether it's a game shortened by the vicissitudes of life or allowed to run its full course, Miller has played it well and is satisfied with the final score.

He writes about fatherhood, his lovers and wives. He is aware of how difficult it is simply to be a good father, a good husband, a good man. In a few brief pages, we read of a man, and poet, coming to terms with his life, and death.

What's rare about this book is that Miller approaches his mortality with satisfaction and a sense that he has does his best and can go to his rest with contentment and a measure of satisfaction.

Book 92: Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

One of the authors that Miller mentions in passing in The Fifth Inning is Butler, who, like Miller, is African American.

Fledgling is Butler's final book. She died, in a fall, soon after this novel was completed. Fledgling was clearly intended to be the first in a series of novels. It is just as clearly the work of an author at the top of her game.

It is an exquisite novel -- well-told and provocative. Butler has always skillfully used the science fiction genre to probe the human condition. Here she elevates the vampire novel to a level that is profound, yet filled with horror and mystery, too.

Shori, the young vampire of the novel's title, is a compelling, complex and sympathetic character who carries the novel with extraordinary vigor.

Butler's untimely death is sad, not only because we have lost an engaging and thoughtful presence, but because we have also lost her stories and the insights they provoked.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On Bob Dylan in America and Think of a Number

Book 88: Think of a Number by John Verdon

Think of a Number by John Verdon begins with a puzzle that could test the deductive skills of the great Sherlock Holmes and ends with the movie equivalent of a car chase.

Whether Verdon got lazy or is simply making a naked pitch to the Hollywood rainmakers, the disappointing finale to his debut novel derails a promising and intriguing beginning. It's as if Alfred Hitchcock directed three quarters of a film only to let Wes Craven finish it.

The puzzle is presented to Dave Gurney, a retired NYPD homicide detective, by a frightened college chum he hasn't seen in decades. Gurney's erstwhile pal has received a mysterious letter that invites him to "think of any number . . . and see how well I know your secret."

He thinks of a number, and when he opens a second envelope tucked inside the first, it appears the letter writer does know him well, because the number that came to mind also appears on the printed page.

The letter writer pulls off this bit of conjuration again and that mysterious ability, combined with some decidedly threatening poems, ratchets up the suspense.

Which only heightens when Gurney's college friend is brutally murdered. Gurney's investigation uncovers a series of murders that appear connected, yet no visible tie exists.

It's a creepy and altogether satisfying mystery -- how did the letter writer know that number? -- until Verdon brings the reader and Gurney and the letter writer together for a conclusion that does not do justice to the thriller he has fashioned so expertly to this point.

Book 89: Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz

Sean Wilentz's book on Bob Dylan caught me by surprise, pleasantly so. I was familiar with Wilentz's work as a historian, including his biography of Andrew Jackson that is part of the American Presidents series.

But I hesitated to buy this book. I wondered what Wilentz knew about Dylan and his music, or music at all for that matter. I was like a school child who doesn't realize that his teacher has a life outside the classroom.

My hesitation was unfounded. Wilentz has been a Dylan fan for decades. He has an impressive knowledge of Dylan's work based on many hours of listening and his understanding of music approaches that of a performer. Yet, ultimately, it is Wilentz's grounding in history that makes this book so special.

Bob Dylan in America explores the antecedents and influences upon Dylan, the performer and songwriter. He charts a journey that takes us from Aaron Copland to the murder behind the song Delia, from the shape note movement in 19th Century America to the life story of Blind Willie McTell.

Chock with footnotes and rich in research, Bob Dylan in America's greatest strength lies in Wilentz's gifts as a storyteller. Part biography, part musical criticism, part history, Bob Dylan in America is ultimately a perceptive and powerful argument of Bob Dylan as an gifted musician who defined America even as America defined the musician.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fan Boy on Kate Akinson's newest opus

Book 87: Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

Hey, Kate. Hope you are well. It’s me – fan boy #1.

About that. I’d like to give myself a promotion. I want to be Fan Boy #1².

Yeah, that it . . . Fan Boy to the Second Power!

You rock. I rock. We rock!

Where is this excess of enthusiasm coming from?, you ask. And I answer, Kate, I just finished your most recent opus, Started Early, Took My Dog.

How do you do it? Seriously, that’s not a rhetorical question.

How do you do it?

I am so, like, gob smacked. A nice little mystery, all these interwoven story lines, a riveting narrative and vivid characters. (That’s apparently not a sentence, but I will let it stand.)

About your characters: I liked Courtney the best in this novel. The four-year-old. She reminded me a little of Regina from When Will There Be Good News.

Seriously, Time Magazine is putting Jonathan Franzen on its cover and, well, Jonathan is an OK guy, but they should give out a pair of scissors with each book. (Because his characters are cardboard cut-outs. Ha Ha, just a little literary humor. LOL.)

A little exposition, a pinch of description, a run of dialogue and your characters pop – POP – off the page.

Great title, too.

And, Kate, one more thing. Keep this between us. Our little secret. Your books make me laugh (that’s not the secret), but they make me cry too. I know it’s all paper and ink and fairy dust, but there are times I’m crying and laughing at the same time. Compelling is what I'd call it.

So . . . loved the book. Love you. (I kept flipping to the back of the book to look at your picture on the dust jacket. Even I find that a little creepy.)

OK, Fan Boy #1² needs to close. If you’re reading this, you’re not writing and I want you writing. I'm giddy just thinking about your next book.

Politics & Prose co-founder dies

Carla Cohen, a co-owner of Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., died today. You can read her obituary in the Washington Post.

The Post describes Carla as "an exuberant force behind the evolution of Politics and Prose from a simple storefront into an institution that defined Washington's literary scene."

My condolences and my prayers to her many friends. Carla's passing is a great loss.