Saturday, April 23, 2011

Challenge Update

A quick update on one of my 2011 reading challenges: With the completion of The Welsh Girl I am halfway through the challenge, issued by The Roof Beam Reader.

The 2011 TBR (To Be Read) Pile Challenge is to read 12 books from your to-be-read pile in 12 months. The challenge began in February, so I am in good position after three months, although three of the largest books remain to be read.

This is where I stand:

1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
3. War and Peace by Mr. Tolstoy
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
5. The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
6. Under the Dome by Stephen King
7. White Noise by Don Delillo
8. Yogi Berra Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra
9. The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
10. Winter in the Blood by James Welch
11. Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson
12. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich

Thursday, April 21, 2011

On The Welsh Girl and Run!

Book 44: The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

Davies begins this World War II novel -- his first -- with one story, switches to another that takes up most of the book only to return to his original story in the closing pages.

The connection between the opening-closing story and that of the Welsh Girl, which takes up most of the book and from which its title is drawn, is slender and the creative reason for Davies' decision to merge them into one novel still eludes this reader.

The central story, that of 17-year-old Esther Evans, who helps her father on the family farm during the day and works at the local pub as a bar maid at night, is not terribly original.

Esther is pregnant.  That's the only spoiler I'll let escape me in this post. The father is either a). the earnest local boy who proposed before leaving for the war, b). an English soldier posted in Wales who frequents the pub where Esther works, or c). a German prisoner of war who briefly escapes his confinement.

The second story -- the one that opens and closes the book -- is about a German-Jew who fled Germany before the outbreak of war and is now aiding the Allied effort. His work leads him to interrogate a British prisoner -- the notorious Nazi Rudolf Hess.

Davies is a gifted writer, but the story -- makes that stories -- that populate The Welsh Girl are neither compelling nor particularly original.

Book 45:  Run! by Dean Karnazes 

As a runner of more than 30 years, I am of two minds about Dean Karnazes and his book Run!

My first is that Karnazes's writing is clearly inspirational and that it motivates people to take up a more active lifestyle. But not necessarily a healthier lifestyle, and that's my problem with Karnazes's book.

Karnazes is not simply an endurance athlete, but an extreme endurance athlete. Emphasis on the extreme. A marathon is a walk around the park for him. He doesn't really break a sweat until he's got 100 miles under his belt or run across the Gobi Desert or the Sahara or Antarctica.

I admire Karnazes for his undertakings, but they are beyond most people. I've run four marathons, finished each one and ended up in the med tent receiving an IV after three of the four. And I was hospitalized for heat prostration training for a fifth.

Karnazes encourages people to take up a more active lifestyle, but he also writes blithely of friends, who have never run before, jumping in and running nine, 10 or 11 miles with him. That's the way to injury and it's not the way most of us start a successful training program.

My thought is that Karnazes's books -- he's written two -- should have a large red warning sticker affixed to the coverage: Danger compelling tales of extreme endurance.  I recognize that such a warning is only likely to incite more people to blindly follow his lead, but it might cause a few more cautious souls to embark on a saner, safer fitness regimen.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Townie naked in its candor

Book 43: Townie by Andre Dubus III

It's not remarkable that Andre Dubus III became a successful writer.  It is remarkable that he ever lived to do so.

In Townie, Dubus charts his journey from an impoverished childhood filled with the constant threat of violence to his first tender efforts at writing to his successful career as an author and his marriage and the birth of his children.

A significant part of the memoir is devoted to his relationship with his father, the celebrated author Andre Dubus.  Dubus the elder was missing from large chunks of his children's lives. His role as a writer and teacher took precedence over that of father and husband.

Curiously, for such a perceptive writer, Dubus the elder seemed largely oblivious to the impact of his absence in his children's lives.  He is puzzled to learn that Dubus the younger has never thrown a baseball or does not know who the Red Sox are. He is also unaware that his children rarely have enough to eat, that they roam the neighborhood unattended, experimenting with alcohol and other drugs or that his two sons live in fear of beatings by older, stronger boys.

It is those beatings, and the fear of them, that initially shape Dubus the younger.  He begins to work out with free weights and learns to box.  Even as he learns to defend himself, he struggles with an interior rage born of fear, anger, a deep-rooted sense of injustice and -- one can only guess -- his father's absence. 

Townie is the story of how Dubus the younger comes to terms with his rage through writing. It is also a story of how he comes to term with a father who more of a pal than a dad.  Dubus's father was not there to teach his son baseball or to fill an amazing lacuna of knowledge that most of us simply take for granted.

But Dubus did bequeath his son talent as a writer and, more importantly, the confidence to explore that talent and to find his unique voice as an author.

Throughout the book, Dubus the younger talks of acquaintances imprisoned or dead.  Near the end of the memoir he stumbles on the graveyard of a teenage running mate who was stabbed to death in his twenties. A reader can't escape the sense that Dubus was spared such a fate because of the interior transformation he underwent through the act of writing. That was his father's ultimate gift. 

Townie is a powerful book, naked in its candor and self-awareness.  Unsparing in both anger and love.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a rich and haunting novel

Book 42: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

I put off reading David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet for almost a year.  I found his two previous works, number9dream and Cloud Atlas, which were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize, too experimental for my taste. 

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a more conventional, conservative work than those earlier novels.   A work of historical fiction, set at the turn of the 19thCentury, it is a beautifully written story that transports the reader to a Japan on the verge of vast cultural and social change.

The principal character is Jacob de Zoet, an earnest young clerk from the Netherlands, who is poised for rapid promotion only to learn that his lofty principles are not welcomed by his superiors. De Zoet and his colleagues live and work on Dejima, a man-made island in Nagasaki Harbor. The tiny, Dutch outpost was built by the Dutch East Indies Company for the sole purpose of trade with the Japanese, who vigorously limit their contact with the rest of the world. 

De Zoet falls in love with Orito, a Japanese midwife, the daughter of a venerated samurai, who is allowed on to Dejima to study with the outpost's resident physician. His courtship of Orito is hopeless.  All the more so when her father dies, leaving behind significant debt, and she is sold into service to a mountaintop shrine, where her skills as a midwife are coveted.

Efforts to free Orito from her fate are set against commercial intrigues that pit the Dutch against Dutch, Japanese against Japanese and, of course, the Dutch against the Japanese. Mitchell, too, plumbs the cultural tension that is a constant between the two nationalities to give his story an added inner tension that drives the narrative

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a rich and haunting novel of greed, ambition and love that is always just out of reach.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Challenge Update

With the completion of Yogi Berra Eternal Yankees I have read five of 12 books in a reading challenge issued by The Roof Beam Reader.

The 2011 TBR (To Be Read) Pile Challenge is to read 12 books from your to-be-read pile in 12 months. I have read four of my 12 since undertaking the challenge at the beginning of February.

This is where I stand:

1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
3. War and Peace by Mr. Tolstoy
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
5. The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
6. Under the Dome by Stephen King
7. White Noise by Don Delillo
8. Yogi Berra Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra
9. The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
10. Winter in the Blood by James Welch
11. Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson
12. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich

Barra touches all the bases in Berra bio

Book 41: Yogi Berra Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra

Let's trot out the compulsory sports metaphor early in our post on Allen Barra's biography of Yankee great Yogi Berra: Allen Barra touches all the bases in his biography of Yankee great Yogi Berra.

Barra touches those bases, not with a walk here and a base hit there, but in a single grand promenade. The chief strength of his biography is that he treats Berra, not -- as many view him -- as a loveable, word-twisting buffoon, a comic interlude, but as one of the greatest Yankee ballplayers of all time. 

And -- this from someone who is definitely not a Yankee fan -- to rank among the greatest Yankees ever is to rank among the greatest baseball players ever.

Larry Berra grew up in "the Hill," an Italian-American section of St. Louis, where he enjoyed a idyllic childhood and honed his athletic skills. Before he picked up the nickname "Yogi," he was known as "Lawdie" because his mother couldn't pronounce Larry.

In 1941, Berra and childhood friend, Joe Gargiola, tried out for the Cardinals at Sportsman's Park. General Manager Branch Rickey offered Gargiola a contract and a $500 signing bonus. He reluctantly offered Yogi a contract and a $250 bonus. Yogi, who figures he's as talented as Gargiola, turned Rickey down.

A year later Yogi signs with the Yankees.  Such are the fortunes of baseball made.

Yogi professional debut is with the Norfolk Tars in the Class B Piedmont League, but his career is slowed by World War II. After receiving his draft papers, Yogi joins the Navy. He goes on to become a decorated sailor who participated in the D-Day invasion.

By 1946, Berra is back in professional ball. Now with the Newark Bears. He makes his major league debut with the Yankees in September of that year and hits a home run in first game.

That home run speaks volumes about Berra's talents as a player.  Most people today know him for his odd nickname and all those Yogi-isms -- "Half the game is 90 percent mental." "It ain't over till it's over." "If you can't imitate him, don't copy him." "You can observe a lot just by watching."

Rightfully, Barra asks, "Do we take Yogi seriously enough?"

Barra builds the case that the Yankees should observe a "Yogi Berra Era" much as there is a DiMaggio Era and a Mantle Era and a Gehrig Era.  He also argues that Yogi must be considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, catchers in the game.

I won't devote this post to a recapitulation of Barra's arguments on Berra's behalf.  Sufficient to say, he's convinced me of Berra's stature as a player.  He hit with power and consistency, developed into a superb defensive catcher and handled a pitching staff with elegance and insight that left the pitchers with brimming with confidence and wins.

Barra provides us with a lively and insightful biography, even the appendices demand to be read. Like the battery of Ford and Berra, Barra and Berra are a match made in baseball heaven.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Lost Gate a mashup of Portal and American Gods

Book 40: The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card's new book, The Lost Gate, is mashup between Valve Software's award-winning video puzzler, Portal, and Neil Gaiman's American Gods novel.

Wholly unoriginal and written in Card's breathless prose, The Lost Gate, with its wink and a nod to sex, bathroom humor and high school hijinks, will appeal to a 13-year-old boy, but that's about the extent of the audience.

The Lost Gate is the story of Danny North, who grows up in a compound in northern Virginia.  His family are Norse gods -- emphasis on the small g. His father is Odin and his uncle, Thor. Everyone but Danny has some sort of magical powers.

Although as it turns out -- no surprise here -- Danny does have magical powers. He's a "gatemage," someone who is able to dissolve the boundaries of space. Create a tunnel opening here and another there and "voila" you are miles or worlds away. Plus, people who pass through such a gate are healed of any illness and their powers increase.

But, to channel Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, "oh, that's good, no that's bad."

Good because a gatemage is extremely powerful. Bad because the various families of gods scattered around the world -- Danny's included -- have vowed to kill all gatemages because of some mischief by that chief gatemage and Norse trickster, Loki, centuries earlier.

Once his powers are discovered Danny is forced to flee the family compound and Card's story begins with earnest. Danny soon forges an alliance with other magically-inclined individuals who don't belong to one of the families and who do want to put Danny's powers to use. The trouble is Danny doesn't know the first thing about being a gatemage and there's a little matter of the Gate Thief, who, for centuries, has been stealing the powers of every gatemage that surfaces.

There's a host of characters and another storyline involving a gatemage in another world.  The Lost Gate is meant to be part of another book or two or three so naturally it concludes with more questions than answers.

There's far great entertainment value between Portal 2 --due out later this month -- and Gaiman's two novels, American Gods and Anansi Boys. The Lost Gate is no Ender's Game.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Tomato Red a Woodrell classic

Book 39: Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

Writer Daniel Woodrell frightens me.  Not for the violence that is such a casual and accepted undercurrent in the lives of the characters who populate his novels, but for the accuracy of his observations. 

Tomato Red will be described as noir fiction, a hardboiled novel distinguished by its unsentimental portrayal of violence and sex. And it is that, but it is also a sociological study of class warfare in the tiny Ozark town of West Table, Missouri.

Americans like to believe that we are a classless society, but Woodrell knows that is far from true. He also knows that it is in the small towns that the distinctions of class are most closely felt and keenly observed. Everyone in West Table knows exactly who is above them and who is below them in society's pecking order.

And when you live in Venus Holler, like Jamalee Merridew, and your brother is country queer and your mother is the town whore, there is no one below you. It is Jamalee's desire to better herself that drives Woodrell's powerful story.

Our narrator, Sammy Barlach, an ex-con and classic loser, meets Jamalee and Jason in the course of a burglary. Fueled by drugs, Sammy clumsily breaks into a West Table mansion.  The brother and sister are already inside.  The pair break into rich folks' homes to learn their secrets, wear their clothes and to pretend they are something better.

Later, when Jamalee is ejected from the local country club where she has went to find a job, the three recruit a trio of pigs to vandalize the golf course.  In a town where the country club represents the pinnacle of social achievement, their actions trigger a series of tragic and violent events.

Woodrell is best known as the author of Winter's Bone, which was recently made into a superb film. He also wrote The Death of Sweet Mister, which is widely recognized as a noir classic. My copy of Tomato Red is a re-issue from Busted Flush Press, which was founded by the late David Thompson.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Smiley's The Georges and the Jewels is warm and wise

Book 37:  The Georges and the Jewels by Jane Smiley

I shouldn't be surprised that The Georges and the Jewels, a young adult novel by Jane Smiley, is a wonderful book.  Smiley is a terrific writer as she has demonstrated in the past with such reward-winning efforts as A Thousand Acres.

Yet, I wasn't prepared for just how much I liked this book, which is warm and tender and wise. It's the story of Abby Lovitt, a seventh-grade girl living with her parents on a California horse ranch.

Abby helps her father train the horses. The male horses are all called George and the females Jewel so that no one, especially Abby, becomes overly attached to the horses, which are quickly trained and sold. Abby's role is important because one of her father's sales tactics is to assure prospective buyers that even a little girl can ride this horse.

Smiley weaves together a complex story line. There are complications at home. Abby's parents are born again Christians and her father's intransigence has led Abby's 16-year-old brother to leave home. At school, another girl is competing for the favors of Abby's one friend and a clique of four girls also threatens her happiness.

Those stories may prove compelling to Smiley's younger readers, but it is the story lines -- and there are several -- involving horses that elevate this novel.  One of the story lines involves Ornery George, a horse that Abby declines to ride bringing her in conflict with her father, and another concerns the unexpected birth of a colt whose mothers dies soon after its birth.

Late in the novel a knowledgeable ranch hand, Jem Jarrow, strolls onto the scene.  Jem, whose approach to horse training differs greatly from Abby's father, becomes Abby's mentor and friend. The scenes involving these two, Ornery George and the colt, are evocative. A horse person, Smiley brings all her power and passion as a writer to these scenes.

My daughter, a fan of the genre, has taught me not to dismiss books merely because they have the young adult label.  With The Georges and the Jewels and, earlier this year, Mockingbird, I can only agree that this is a genre discriminating adult readers should not overlook. It is no coincidence that the genre has produced two of the finest books I have read in 2011.

Book 38: The Hangman by Louise Penny

At 87 pages, The Hangman by Louise Penny could be considered a short novella or a long short story.

Either way, it's a quick reader. Penny wrote The Hangman for Good Reads, a literacy program funded by the Canadian government.

The Hangman is a good introduction to Penny's Gamache series, although it is so brief that the full joy of a rousing Three Pines mystery is missing here.  Still, fans of the series will want to read the book, which serves as a tasty appetizer before the next Penny novel.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Winter in the Blood a spare and lyrical novel of Indian life

Book 36: Winter in the Blood by James Welch

Bookseller Ken Lopez describes James Welch as "one of the most important and accomplished Native American writers of the post-1968 generation."

"Welch was considered, along with Leslie Silko, one of the key writers of the first generation of the renaissance in Native American literature," said Lopez.

In the introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of Welch's first book, Winter in the Blood,  author Louise Erdrich describes the book as "a central and inspiring text to a generation of western regional and Native American writers, including me."

The novel, Erdrich writes is "a quiet American masterpiece."

A masterpiece, perhaps, but a neglected one.  Few people today are talking or writing about the work of Welch, who died in 2003. And that is unfortunate for Welch, of Blackfoot-Gros Ventre heritage, is both an important writer, and a gifted one.

Winter in the Blood is a spare and lyrical novel narrated by an unnamed 32-year-old Blackfeet Indian living on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana. It is a story of alienation and the search for personal meaning and identity, which draws its poetry and power from Welch's powers of close observation and gift for the telling detail. 

Readers familiar with the works of popular contemporary Indian authors such as Erdrich or Sherman Alexie would do well to explore Welch's writing. His work was valuable to this current generation of Indian writers both because it provided assurances that their stories of modern Indian life were worth telling and because he set the bar so high.

A reader doesn't necessarily need to know of Welch's importance in the Indian literary canon. He should know that Welch's is a skillful writer and masterful storyteller and that his novels, Winter in the Blood among them, make for a rewarding read.

+  +  +

The completion of Winter in the Blood advances me in a reading challenge that I have taken up in 2011.

The challenge was issued by The Roof Beam Reader. The 2011 TBR (To Be Read) Pile Challenge is to read 12 books from your to-be-read pile in 12 months. I have read four of my 12 since undertaking the challenge. This is where I stand:

1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
3. War and Peace by Mr. Tolstoy
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
5. The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
6. Under the Dome by Stephen King
7. White Noise by Don Delillo
8. Yogi Berra Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra
9. The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
10. Winter in the Blood by James Welch
11. Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson
12. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Boyd's The Bricklayer recalls Lee Child's The Killing Floor

Book 34: The Bricklayer by Noah Boyd

Reading Noah Boyd's debut thriller, The Bricklayer, stirred memories of 1997 and Lee Child's first Jack Reacher novel, The Killing Floor.

There are similarities between Reacher and Boyd's main character, Steve Vail. Reacher worked for the military police. Vail is a former FBI agent. Both are loners, who distrust authority. Both are have keen, analytic minds, yet are also capable of extraordinary physical feats. Both get the girl.

Which is not to suggest that Boyd's work is a mere copy of Child's. It's not, but it is in a similar vein and readers who enjoy Child's writing are certain to like Boyd's work as well.

The Bricklayer is an exceptional first novel for Boyd, a former FBI agent. While improbable (as most of these novels are), the plot is sound, the pacing strong and the characters well drawn.  Boyd displays a particularly nimble touch in the relationship between Vail and FBI Deputy Assistant Director Kate Bannon. The sexual tension, emerging in a lively banter between the two, is reminiscent of Moonlighting

He's also a fine hand at humor, which surfaces throughout the thriller.  

The second Steve Vail novel is now on the shelves and will soon make its way to the top of my reading list. I am eager to see if Boyd's second act is a good as his debut.

Book 35: The Girl in the Green Raincoat by Laura Lippman

The Girl in the Green Raincoat was originally serialized in the New York Times, which means it is both brief -- a novella, really -- and has the lovely pacing necessary for a literary work that must keep the reader returning day after day until the story's end.

It features Tess Monaghan, the Baltimore P.I., who appears in about half the novels Lippman writes. Tess is pregnant and confined to bed, setting up a Rear Window-type mystery.

Yet the mystery is incidental here. What's more important is that we learn about Tess's baby, her relationship with her boyfriend Crow and a little history of how her parents met.  Such information is critical to anyone who follows an on-going series and there's plenty here for Tess Monaghan fans until the next full-length novel.

While this slender volume is a must-read, at a mere 158 pages, it does leave readers wanting more. Much more.