Friday, December 31, 2010

Ship Breaker the most fun outside a comic book

Book 114: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

And so, the final book of 2010: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Bacigalupi's award-winning The Windup Girl was a wonder. Ship Breaker, shortlisted for the 2010 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, is another dazzling effort by this talented young writer, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorites.

Ship Breaker is set in a not too-distance future; perhaps the world a few years removed from The Windup Girl. Nailer, a teenage boy, is part of a salvage crew, breaking up the massive ships that dot the Louisiana coast and selling the copper wiring and other remnants for salvage.

After a massive storm strikes the coast, Nailer finds a clipper ship destroyed by the storm. Salvage the remains and his fortune can be made. On board, everyone is dead, except a girl Nailer's age. She is the heir to a shipping fortune and a pawn in a struggle for control of the shipping business.

That quickly we're off on a breakneck adventure that takes Nailer and the girl, now dubbed Lucky Girl, to crumbling remains of Orleans and then to the high seas, where a climatic battle takes place between two clippers while a fierce storm rages.

Anyone not picking up the occasional work written for young adults is missing the most fun since comic books. This is good stuff.

My Reading Life a celebration of books and reading

Book 113: My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy and Larry McMurtry have this in common: I have never read a work of fiction by either of these notable novelists.

I have read, and greatly enjoyed, their non-fiction. McMurtry's biography of Crazy Horse is superb -- biography as narrative -- as is Conroy's My Losing Season.

I now add Conroy's My Reading Life to that list. Books on books, books about reading, are a special pleasure for any reader. Our need to read -- and it is a need -- is foreign to most people, they cannot come close to comprehending how reading is like oxygen, but Conroy knows.

My Reading Life is a celebration of reading, a joyous work in which Conroy pays tribute to his mother, another vociferous reader who believed that her son would one day be a Southern writer of note, and to a high school English teacher who played a deeply significant role in his development as a man and a writer.

Conroy celebrates those books and writers who were and are meaningful to him: War and Peace, James Dickey and Thomas Wolfe. He sometimes overwrites -- Conroy knows he is guilty of this authorial sin -- but his fellow readers forgive him this sin because we know that it is only an expression of joy that cannot, will not, be contained.

Conroy writes about how reading has shaped and influenced his work. And he shares, eloquently, what he seeks in a book:

"Now, when I pick up a book, the prayer that rises out of me is that it changes me utterly and that I am not the man who first selected that book from a well-stocked shelf. Here's what I love: when a great writer turns me into a Jew from Chicago, a lesbian out of South Carolina, or a black woman moving into a subway entrance in Harlem. Turn me into something else, writers of the world. Make me Muslim, heretic, hermaphrodite. Put me into a crusader's armor, a cardinal's vestments. Let me feel the pygmy's heartbeat, the queen's breast, the torturer's pleasure, the Nile's taste, or the nomad's thirst. Tell me everything I must know. Hold nothing back."

Above all, Conroy embraces the power of a story. He knows there are critics, even authors, who scorn of the emphasis on narrative. But for Conroy, and for me, "tell me a story" are among the most powerful words in the English language. They are words to conjure with, to fuel a dream, offer escape, to fill the lungs with fresh and vital air and the heart with hope.

"Reading and prayer are both acts of worship to me," Conroy writes. "Amen," Mr. Conroy. "Amen."

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Colonel Roosevelt a splendid conclusion to Morris's trilogy

Book 110: Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey

I never know what I will find when I open a Peter Carey novel. It may be something fine, on the order of True History of the Kelly Gang. Or something I find inexplicable such as The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.

Carey is at peak form in Parrot & Olivier in America, which was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the National Book Award. It is a sprawling, comic, picaresque novel loosely inspired by the life of Alexis de Tocqueville.

De Tocqueville, the Olivier of the novel, comes to America to write about its prison system for a French audience. Ultimately, he expands his book into a comprehensive study of America and Americans of the early 19th Century. Olivier is accompanied to America by an English servant, Parrot.

Sent to report on Olivier's actions in America, Parrot becomes his friend and confidant.

Carey alternates points of view, first a chapter told by Olivier and then by Parrot. And, it is here, that the book's central weakness is most apparent. Parrot, who journeys from England to Australia as a child, and later finds his way to France, is the novel's most interesting character than Olivier and those passages in his voice are more compelling than the story told by Olivier.

All in all, a worthy read. Not Carey's best, perhaps, but approaching it. If for no other reason, Parrot & Olivier in America is worth reading because it is a so-called comic novel that produces genuine laughs.

Book 111: Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

Colonel Roosevelt is the final book in Edmund Morris's trilogy on the life of Teddy Roosevelt. It is a fine and fitting conclusion to a body of work that has absorbed much of Morris's working life.

I think of few individuals who have led such a fascinating life -- cradle to grave -- as Roosevelt and Morris has done a splendid job in drawing a rich portrait of this complex and driven man.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
is the story of Teddy's pre-presidential life from his efforts to throw off debilitating childhood illnesses to become a hunter, cowboy, soldier, vice president and, unexpectedly, president. Theodore Rex, the second book in the trilogy, is the account of his presidency.

Colonel Roosevelt opens with Teddy and his son, Kermit, on an ambitious hunting expedition in Africa. There's also a lengthy passage on Roosevelt's journey to South America to explore an unknown tributary of the Amazon known as the River of Doubt. Roosevelt almost died in South America and, by all reports, never fully recovered from the rigors of that expedition. (Anyone wanting to read more about that trip should investigate the gripping The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.)

In between those two expeditions, of course, Roosevelt was the Progressive Party candidate for President. Unhappy with the Taft Administration, Roosevelt led a bolt from the Republican Party. He finished second to the Democrat candidate, Woodrow Wilson. Taft, once a Roosevelt confidant and member of the Roosevelt Administration, finished a distant third.

As World War I began, Roosevelt was a critic of Wilson's refusal to lead America in to war. Roosevelt, always the warrior, was less attuned to the will of the America people who were adamantly isolationist. Nor was there great clarity around who the U.S. should support -- Germany or the Allies -- until Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare left America's political leaders with no choice but to enter the war on the side of England, France and Russia.

All four of Roosevelt's sons enlisted. All were injured in the fighting and, Quentin, a pilot was shot down and killed in a fierce aerial battle. Roosevelt did not recover from that grievious loss and died soon after the war's end.

Roosevelt was a complex man, whose opinions and actions may not have always been correct, but were always certain. Colonel Roosevelt is required reading as are the first two books in this fine series.

Book 112: I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita

There are flashes of brilliance in Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel, a sprawling story of the Asian American civil rights movement of the late '60s and '70s, but it takes a patient reader to find them.

There are two signficiant problems with this novel that was shortlisted for the National Book Award. The first is that it encompasses ten years of stories sprawled across 600 pages. There is very little continuity from story to story, challenging the reader to remain engaged with the story line.

The second pitfall is that this is largely an experimental work. Mostly prose, but dipping into poetry, drama and the graphic novel, I Hotel tests the limits of a reader's good will.

I Hotel is like an extended jazz solo in which the performer goes on too long.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bryant's bio of Henry Aaron a HOF entry

Book 105: Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva

The mystery behind a series of arsons in a poor neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island, takes a back seat to author Bruce DeSilva's insider's portrayal of the newspaper business. DeSilva is a retired journalist and Associated Press writing coach and Rogue Island provides a vehicle for him to take some fond parting shots at his erstwhile profession.

Rogue Island is an entertaining first book, although it doesn't rise to the level of more established writers in the genre. We do learn that Rogue Island is an early name for Rhode Island. After completing the book, my only question is, "Is Rhode Island really that corrupt?" Anyone know?

Book 106: The Last Hero, A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant

Howard Bryant's biography of Braves slugger Henry Aaron transcends the sports genre. Yes, there's plenty of baseball here and Bryant demonstrates the validity of the truism that "baseball writes." And, yes, it's a well-researched, impeccably told life of the Alabama man who rose to the greatest heights attainable within the sport of baseball.

The book is a huge success solely on those levels -- baseball and biography. But is does author and subject, Bryant and Aaron, a mighty disservice not to embrace the book on one final level; one rarely achieved in sports biography -- sociological perspective.

Bryant's gift is that he sets Aaron's contributions and career -- as athlete and man -- against the social and cultural changes that enveloped Aaron, and America, from the time he left Mobile, determined to become a professional baseball player, to his surpassing Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.

Aaron is a man of great pride and dignity. Bryant's book is a fitting tribute to those qualities as well as to one of the finest players the game of baseball has ever seen. Aaron no longer holds the all-time home run record, giving way to Barry Bonds, but as one observer, quoted by Bryant, notes, he remains "the standard-bearer."

Book 107: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

The Finkler Question, 2010 winner of the prestigious Booker Prize, is a dreary comic novel on what it means to be a Jew.

I guess. Honestly, I didn't take much away from this novel, but I do have a recommendation: read something else.

Book 108: So Much For That by Lionel Shriver

It's Freedom without Franzen.

So Much For That -- short-listed for the National Book Award for fiction -- is an extended rant on all that's wrong with America's health care system. Characters are confronted with an especialy virulent form of cancer, a rare disease that inflicts only Jews, a drug resistant infection raging through a nursing home and an ill-chosen vanity surgery that goes terribly wrong.

Somehow author Lionel Shriver wrests a happy, yet depressingly bogus, ending from this unrelentingly bleak portrait of modern America.

Book 109: Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear

Hull Zero Three, the newest novel from the prolific Greg Bear, goes far to establishing Bear as a Science Fiction Grandmaster in the classic mold of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke.

As with many books in the genre, when the novel opens both narrator and reader are confronted with more questions than answers. It takes almost the entire novel to answer most of those questions and that's fine because it's an intriguing, thrilling journey.

Without serving up a spoiler, the narrator, who we come to know as Teacher, is on a massive spaceship. The destination is unknown, but it's clear that something has gone horribly wrong and that war has broken out on board. The reader is step-for-step with Bear's curious cast of characters as they manage to stay alive along enough to unravel the puzzle and set things right.

Ultimately, Bear makes it clear that in whatever shape it takes, humanity -- in the fullest meaning of the word -- can survive amid the cold depths of the stars.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

On Great House by Nicole Krauss

Book 104: Great House by Nicole Krauss

Great House by Nicole Krauss is like a savory bouillabaisse prepared by a promising, yet clumsy chef. You may first spoon up an exquisite text, but dip in a second time and you come away with a mystifying narrative that befuddles even the most attentive reader.

There are four narrators in Great House, three of the four have links to an imposing desk that carries the burden of a large, but elusive symbolic meaning. The fourth narrator, a Jewish man writing about his strained relationship with his son, seems to have no apparent connection with the other stories that comprise this novel.

Only seems to have no apparent connection. It's there, but it is all to easy to overlook. I owe Slate Magazine a debt of gratitude. Only after listening to a podcast on the novel did the connection become apparent to me.

That lack of clarity ruptures the pact between writer and reader, and is a serious flaw in such a serious work.

And Great House is flawed.

Many critics would not agree. In the New York Times, Rebecca Newberger Goldenstein found much to praise in Great House, and the book was shortlisted for the 2010 National Book Awards.

But the Slate podcast alone describes the book as: Fragmentary, mystifying, confusing and bleak, its characters imported from a European art house film and the writing, so distant and removed, that it feels as if it were "from behind a glass."

I list the criticism above because I find the observations valid and because it captures, accurately, much of my thinking on this book.

I also agree with Carlo Strenger, who wrote in his blog on, "While it is, no doubt a masterpiece of novelistic writing, it leaves the reader with a sense of emptiness."

It is difficult to understand what Krauss is trying to say, to parse the deeper meaning buried in her characters and the narrative. As a reader, I am impatient with writers who force us to gut a novel like a chicken and spill out the entrails in search of meaning.

Far from compelling, the Great House characters emerge as dark, brooding figures, unlikable, and bowed by the weight of the symbolic tonnage vested in them by the author.

Krauss is a gifted writer and she is poised to emerge as an important literary voice. There are glimpses of her genius in Great House, but the promise is not fully realized.

Great House is not too my taste.