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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sunday Sentence: 'The Woman Upstairs'

This week's Sunday Sentence, presented as David Abrams says at The Quivering Pen, because it's the best sentence I've read this week, out of context and without commentary:
It's the strangest thing about being human: to know so much, to communicate so much, and yet always to fall so drastically short of clarity, to be, in the end, so isolate and inadequate.

-- Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs

Review: 'Ghost Riders of Ordebec'

By Fred Vargas
Crime fiction (Commissaire Adamsberg)
June 2013
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0143123125                                                                                                         

Commissaire Adamsberg is a delight. He is unorthodox, loyal, and the kind of copper who goes by instinct. He's not always right the first time. But oh, his journey and the reader's while he gets there is always a trip.

Adamsberg returns in Fred Vargas's The Ghost Riders of Ordebec in a story about loyalty and ties to others that crosses generations. A pigeon is found with its feet tied together by a shoelace.

Adamsberg is visited by a little bird-like woman from the countryside who is worried about her eccentric brood. One of them claims to have seen the ghostly riders whose presence has foretold the death of local ne-er-do-wells for generations. And one of those named has died -- a cruel hunter whose death appears to have been a cowardly suicide in order to avoide the ghost riders.

Meanwhile, in Paris, car arsonist and anti-capitalist Momo is arrested after another Mercedes is torched. This time, there is an old man inside, a captain of industry whose two sons are neither one capable of taking over alone. The old man was ready to marry his housekeeper, who he had been sleeping with for 10 years, and who is the mother of his two younger children. Adamsberg doesn't think Momo killed the industralist any more than he thinks the cruel hunter killed himself. But proving himself right is going to be tricky at best, and may be impossible.

In the country, there is the bird-lady's family, who insist they are nice people. They are protected by the local comte, who is connected to a strong old woman, Leone. She is the one who found the hunter's body and who puts Adamsberg up for the night. The local cop, Emeri, is descended from one of Napoleon's marshalls and sets a table in homage to that era.

Adamsberg's squad resembles both a family that should be dysfunctional, but which works, and the unnruly, unmannerly squad of Commissario Salvo Montalbano in the novels by Italian Andrea Camilleri (which also are among my must-reads). In Vargas's earlier novels that were translated into English, his number two Danglard, he of the large brood of children and love of white wine and incredible grasp of pertinent trivia, was the main secondary character. He has not been replaced, but Adamsberg's crew is being featured more to become another worthy descendant of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct group of beloved characters.

But of all the family ties in this novel, the greatest one is Zerk. He is Adamsberg's son, who our commissaire first met in An Uncertain Place, and he and Adamsberg are getting to know each other and respect each other even as the two crime investigations take over their lives.

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec is a deceptively paced novel, as most of those by internationally renowned crime writer Vargas are. The story appears often to ramble as much as Adamsberg does. But it's all to a purpose. And, in this novel, the threads weave together in the end extraordinarily well. This is a novel worth reading not only for the whodunit aspect, which is handled with great care, but also for its characters who live and breathe beyond the pages of this story and for the tale they tell herein.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, June 17, 2013

Review: 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane'

June 2013
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0062255655

There are times when being a grown-up is not all it's cracked up to be. When to be able to take a step out of time to go back in time would be a gift. To see where it all went wrong, or could have gone wrong. To remember.

That's part of what happens in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the first novel for adults that Neil Gaiman has written in several years. Whether classified as fantasy, fable, horror, or magic realism, the slim novel (which, really, is a novella at 178 pages) is a literary look back to a time the narrator doesn't seem to recall. And then he does.

The middle-aged man, an unnamed narrator, takes a drive after a funeral in the part of England where he grew up. Seemingly without meaning to, he ends up at the end of the lane. It's where the Hempstock farm is. Where Old Mrs. Hempstock, her daughter Ginnie and her granddaughter Lettie lived. The place where, as a seven-year-old boy, the narrator nearly lost his world.

He is a lonely child. The flashback that takes up most of the book begins with no one coming to his seventh birthday party. He doesn't feel all that bad about it because well, he's got something better. "Books were safer than other people anyway."

Fantastical things happen to the seven-year-old boy after he goes on a jaunt with Lettie, who seems to be about 11 years old. He tries to handle things himself but things soon get way out of hand. It takes the help of the Hempstocks to try to make the world right again after things come that should never have been let in. Sort of like when a child discovers things he believed in like Santa are not real, or things like his parents' marriage cannot last.

The boy's reactions, and the way the grown-up man looks back at how he felt as a boy, make this a far more serious work than an entertainment with fantastical elements. When things first begin to go wrong, the boy doesn't even think of going to his parents, who he loves, for help.

I do not know why I did not ask an adult about it. I do not remember asking adults about anything, except as a last resort. That was the year I dug out a wart from my knee with a penknife, discovering how deeply I could cut before it hurt, and what the roots of a wart looked like.

As with another passage later on, this statement works on both the surface level and as a comment on what the narrator will have to do when he tries to make things right. The later passage is a brilliant comment on what a once clear-eyed child sees as a grown-up:

If the shadows were still there I could no longer perceive them; or rather, the whole world had become shadows.

When the narrator grows up, he creates art of some kind (it's not detailed). When having to talk to strangers and he's asked about it, he says:

... (doing fine, thank you, I would say, never knowing how to talk about what I do. If I could talk about it, I would not have to do it. I make art, sometimes I make true art, and sometimes it fills the empty places in my life. Some of them. Not all.).

That's what creating art is like. It's certainly what any type of creative writing is like. And when anyone tries to create art, it should not be pigeonholed the way art so often is these days. Look at the occasional sniping between lovers of certain kinds of fiction. But that's not how Gaiman looks at it. In an interview with NPR, he said:

That's part of the job, I think ... when I was growing up, some of my favorite writers, the people I respected the most, were the ones who did everything, you know. A good writer should be able to write comedic work that made you laugh, and scary stuff that made you scared, and fantasy or science fiction that imbued you with a sense of wonder, and mainstream journalism that gave you clear and concise information in a way that you wanted it. It always seemed to me that that was what a writer should do. You have all these amazing tools; it's up to you what kinds of tunes you play on them, and you want to play all the tunes. As I grew older, I was fascinated to realize that actually, society to some extent frowns on those of us who like messing about in an awful lot of different sandboxes. From my perspective, I just love being able to do everything. I think a good writer should be able to do everything.

Gaiman uses his tools in The Ocean at the End of the Lane to tell a story that started with the real-life memory of a man who died in a car at the end of the lane where he grew up. The story has much in common with his brilliant children's novel, Coraline, in which the world is not always steady, creatures from older places want to come in to play and adults cannot be relied upon. Searching for home, or to make something else go home, are at the heart of both stories. And, like Murakami, there are trustworthy cats in both books. This story is one that won't be up for the Newbery children's literature award, which Gaiman won with The Graveyard Book (this is definitely a book for adults with horrific ideas about a father's power and weaknesses). But The Ocean at the End of the Lane should win everything it is eligible to win; it's that good.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Review: 'Sweet Tooth'

By Ian McEwan
Literary fiction
November 2012
Nan Talese
ISBN: 978-0385536820

The tale of Serena Frome, how she got along at university and afterward, the great enterprise in which she was surprised to find herself undertaking, the ending in which all that was important is validated, this is the surface of Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth.

But what the novel is also about is the love of books, of writing, of connecting. In a meta layer that honors literature lover and larger-than-life McEwan friend Christopher Hitchens, to whom the book is dedicated, Sweet Tooth is a homage to a perhaps more innocent belief that literature matters. It may not literally save a life, as it did in McEwan's Saturday, but literature sure does make life worth savoring.

Specifically, the plot concerns young Serena's coming of age. She has spent her life doing what others have expected -- majoring in maths at Cambridge when she would rather have studied literature at a less distinguished university up north, then falling under the influence of an older professor, getting a job for a government agency when she least expected it and then being assigned to take a major role in an espionage project -- when all she really wanted to do was inhale books.

My needs were simple. I didn't bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn't mind so much of they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say "Marry me" by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeles desert. ... Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and everything in between -- I gave them all the same rough treatment.

Some reviewers have used this quote as an indictment of the novel, as being a comment of McEwan thinking women are stupid and silly. It didn't strike me that way and I still don't see it. Perhaps it's because I'm a book omnivore and not a genre snob. I don't insist on a happy ending, as the young Serena does, but I remember those days when I was thrilled about the way Jane Eyre ended and surprised at the turns Vanity Fair and Middlemarch took. Just because life doesn't often have a happy ending doesn't mean a reader can't want her book to end well on occasion. Sometimes, a happy ending fits.

In the same way she reads books in a breezy, suck 'em up and move on manner, and goes along with what's presented to her for an academic route and on the job, her attitude about relationships with men is to indulge herself with whoever is in front of her. In both her reading life and in her love life, however, there is the unexpected one who changes her outlook and, at length, her destiny.

Just as she seriously falls for the work of a serious writer (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and she falls after reading his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) who turns her from being a breezy columnist on books with a growing following into a harsh, tormented diarist people are not interested in reading, Serena falls for the young writer who she chooses for the espionage program she is assigned to. Sweet Tooth is the name of the operation, but it's also the way she consumes books and each new love affair. She is in love with love and, as Louisa May Alcott says, is too fond of books.

Sweet Tooth was generally not well-received by the critics. Perhaps, because Serena wrotes from the viewpoint of looking back at her early years, and because of the ending, this novel is being compared to Atonement and found wanting. I also get the sense that critics haven't approved of McEwan at least since Saturday, which I liked despite not rooting with a whole heart for the protagonist, and a climax that defied my ability to suspend disbelief. McEwan's heart was still in the right place.

The same can be said for Sweet Tooth. For all of Serena's apparent blase outlook and lack of thinking before she leaps, Serena's story, and her ultimate decision, show that love and literature are worthwhile choices for living a full life.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Neil Gaiman

Inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, a blog overflowing with good reading, is my Sunday Sentence. Presented without further commentary, here it is:

In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, "Be whole," and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.

-- Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (to be published Tuesday by William Morrow)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Philipp Meyer's 'Son'

Without further commentary, today's Sunday Sentence is the best sentence I read this week, as inspired by David Abrams at The Quivering Pen:

There were deer, turkey, bear, squirrel, the occasional buffalo, turtles and fish from the river, ducks, plums and mustang grapes, bee tres and persimmons -- the country was rich with life the way it is rotten with people today.

-- The Son by Philipp Meyer

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Review: 'The Yellow Birds'

By Kevin Powers
Literary fiction
April 2013 (paperback edition)
Back Bay Books
ISBN: 978-0316219341

The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.

This is how The Yellow Birds, the debut novel of Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers, begins. It is breathtaking and brutal in its introduction of the story of a private, John Bartle, who is surviving and who will survive his tour of duty in the carnage of Al Tafar. For those who think in these tech-reliant days that war is not carnage should see what Powers and David Abrams, both novelists who were there, and others who served and came back, have seen. I believe them. It is carnage.

For those in the carnage, it also is nihilistic. Making one's mark, surviving, carrying on, making promises and keeping them -- they are all pointless in Bartle's world. It's the war that is in charge, not the people wrapped up in it. There is what would be foreshadowing in other novels early on, when Bartle and his buddy, the younger Private Murphy, keep track of whether 1,000 have been killed yet or not. It's a superstitious number that they think will mean they are safe if it is reached and they are still alive. But what looks like foreshadowing about 1,000 dead here is not the point. The point is that the numbers don't matter. The point is "the war would take what it could get".

Of course, the war gets Bartle, Murphy and their charismatic sergeant, Sterling, in different ways. Bartle survives, but he is dead inside when he returns. The emptiness, the pointlessness, is shown in what Murphy and Sterling experience as well.

Murphy is the stereotypical innocent, the doomed-to-be-sacrificed. Sterling, on the other hand, is John Wayne-certain of what he and his men have to do, Pilgrim. Here's how he inspires Bartle, in the narrator's introduction to this character:

I hated him. I hated the way he excelled in death and brutality and domination. But more than that, I hated the way he was necessary, how I needed him to jar me into action even when they were trying to kill me...

Then he and the others kill a shooter and civilians, including an old woman.

Midway through this short novel, Bartle is in Germany after Iraq, still in the Army. He runs into Sterling in a whorehouse (after he, of course, visits a church and can find salvation at neither location). Sterling is a mean, abusive and angry drunk. The war and what he has had to do, has chosen to do, have taken their toll on him. This section of the novel was difficult to read the first time through; it didn't flow. I thought that was one of the MFA weak points to the novel. But after reflection, perhaps it was written that way on purpose. It doesn't fit. It does jar. Perhaps that was its purpose.

When Bartle visits the cathedral before the whorehouse, he goes all-out "what does it matter?" It's one of those passages that seem significant at the time but which also seem written to make the grade in writer's workshop, the kind of storytelling in which all snowflakes look alike to Bartle and in which he keeps trying to wash away the blood by immersing himself in a river. He has been baptized by warfare and dipped in that blood, not the blood of the lamb, and the water does not wash his sins away. Sterling and Murphy also go through this baptism, but are they saved?

Even though Bartle notes "I had less and less control over my own history each day," he and Sterling try to make their marks. Back home, Bartle finds his initials carved on a tree. He doesn't remember making them but is certain he did so. On the battlefield, Sterling casts salt over the earth. It's from Judges 9:45:

Abimelech fought against the city all that day; and he took the city, and killed the people who were therein: and he beat down the city, and sowed it with salt.

It's so Hemingway and so MFA that this reader who fell in love with literature because of those whacky Victorians almost gave up on the novel at this point. But that opening paragraph. I couldn't give up because of that. And, because there was finally a plot, a mystery to solve, a reason to look for the narrative to pick up. It's a mystery that concerns Murphy and one that I won't give away. It's not very surprising in the end, except for what Bartle does because of it and what happens to him as Powers tries to have Bartle pay for the sins of war that he did not commit. But it does have a moment of great beauty that is worth discovering.

There is one other reason to keep reading for those who love the power of words. Powers writes a sentence that is more than a page long. It's harsh and glorious. It tells us more about Bartle before the war and what he should have been, and survivor's guilt, than the rest of the novel. It also is the best example of Powers's voice as a writer, outside that opening paragraph, than his terse prose. I don't feel it's right to quote the entire passage because of fair use. But here's the start:

Or should I have said that I wanted to die, not in the sense of wanting to throw myself off of that train bridge over there, but more like wanting to be asleep forever because there isn't any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually klll them and it was just like trying to kill everything you saw sometimes because it felt like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone and knowing from being taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you are doing, you're taught that your whole life, but then even your mother is so happy and proud because you lined up your sight posts and made people crumple and they were not getting up ever and yeah they might have been trying to kill you too, so you say, What are you gonna do?, but really it doesn't matter ...

A novel like this is worth spending time with not because of its own literary merits, but because what it makes you the reader think about its larger ideas. When I read The Yellow Birds, I think of Vietnam as much as Iraq. I think of the lives lost and destroyed, all the heartbroken mothers, all the justice that will never be served because what could make things right for these individuals? Regardless of the merits of The Yellow Birds in the writing prowess shown by its writer, the novel and its author deserve respect. Powers was there. He came back. He is trying to tell us something about what it was like.

Oh, that our sons and daughters and their children never again have to go through this hell of worthlessness for such worthless reasons.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission and additional material

Monday, June 3, 2013

Review: 'NOS4A2'

By Joe Hill
May 2013
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0-220057-0

Vic McQueen is a great kid who doesn't like conflict, especially when her parents fight, or Dad hits Mom. She wants to escape. And on her gorgeous bicycle, one that's too big for her but which her dad got her anyway, she can. The first time Vic gets across the Shorter Way Bridge, she magically finds herself miles away and retrieves her mother's lost bracelet.

But another time, as a rebellious, unhappy teenager, she goes looking for trouble. She finds it in the form of Charles Manx, a ghoulish figure who captures children he deems in jeopardy from parents whose conduct he doesn't like, and takes them to his version of paradise, Christmasland. Unlike the other children, Vic is the one who gets away.

The experience, and her other trips across the Shorter Way, cost Vic her sanity. She hooks up with Lou Carmody, a big, gentle soul who drove by on his motorcycle when she got away from Manx, and who fathers their child, Bruce Wayne Carmody. She draws elaborate, mazelike illustrations about a cartoon character that meets with success. Vic draws so she can't hear the phone ring. It's the children from Christmasland calling her.

After she spends years in asylums and rehab, she and her son plan to spend the summer together. Manx, whose antique Rolls Royce carries the vanity plate NOS4A2, is ready to take his revenge for Vic getting away. He's going to take Wayne to Christmasland.

This is the bare bones of what happens in the first half of Joe Hill's remarkable, fantastical and exuberant tour de force. This is a big book in more ways than its 700-plus pages. This is a full-bodied, heavy stout of a tale, with rich characters to care about and wry observations on families, society and pop culture. There are nods to the work of his father, Stephen King, and a wise and wonderful character named after his mother, Tabitha. There is knowledge of having a beloved parent and being a loving parent, and of being a kid.

Perhaps best of all is the voice, which is knowing and looks for the humor, but which is not sardonic. The action is brisk. If someone could ride a bicycle across a bridge to end up in an entirely different place, the rest of the story hangs together very well.

Adding to the entertaining reading experience is what happens after the climax of the story. Hill knows how to wrap things up so that the reader can sit back and know the hell of a ride that he presents was a complete journey.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Eduardo Galeano

Inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, here is this week's Sunday Sentence, presented without further comment:

Despite deafness and ignorance, the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is.

-- Eduardo Galeano, as quoted in the epigraph of Colum McCann's TransAtlantic

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Review: 'Poison'

By Bridget Zinn
March 2013
ISBN: 978-1423153412

Talk about starting a book off with a great hook. Sixteen-year-old Kyra is a fugitive, a master potion maker who failed in her attempt to assassinate the princess, her former best friend. Following an attempt to sneak into her old home, shared with two other master potioners, she decides that she has no choice but to seek out Arlo, the master of thieves for help in finding Princess Ariana, who is now in hiding. Arlo literally sells her a pig in a poke.

The story then switches into a teen version of “It Happened One Night”, with Kyra running into a handsome young man named Fred. Fred’s dog, a wolf-like creature, and Kyra’s pig, which Fred names Rosie, immediately bond. Kyra keeps getting distracted about her mission because of Fred’s green eyes.

Halfway through, it is disclosed that Kyra has visions, she is a witch who is trying to deny her power and it is because of a vision involving the princess that she is trying to kill her former friend. Other revelations come throughout the story, most of which are not surprises.

Despite the premise, the novel is sweet. The tone is completely different after Fred, a prince of a guy, strolls onto the scene. Both the more serious tone of the opening scenes and the subsequent romp that follows would entertain middle school girls, who are not as likely as a certain older reader to get irritated with the lengthy introduction to Fred that was supposed to be a “meet cute” scene. Older tweens may be entertained, but it's probably too young for high school, despite the heroine’s age.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission