Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Review: The Mad and the Bad

The Mad and the Bad The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Julie has lived the last several years in an insane asylum. Hartog is a rich man out to kill his nephew so he can tighten his grip on the family fortune. Thompson is a hired killer with an ulcer that may be psychosomatic. And Peter is a seriously spoiled brat. Every piece of this novel has an odd shape. Yeah, you know they’re all going to come together, but that doesn’t keep it from being a hell of a lot of fun.

The phrase I finally settled on for this one is “Dashiell Hammett meets It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” A la Hammett, there’s a decently plotted story that serves as the frame for odd characters to exercise their idiosyncratic takes on the world and the violence in it. Like “Sunny,” every character is more or less morally demented. I hope it’s not too much of a [SPOILER] to note that Julie, our titular heroine, has no compunction about bludgeoning to death a man who has considerately given her a ride. And Peter almost gleefully shoots his uncle in the eye with an arrow. Those are the good guys, and that means we’re playing in a pretty amoral, comically hardboiled universe.

Part of the fun here is the realization that Hartog has hired Julie as Peter’s nanny not in spite of her supposed insanity, but because of it. He wants her to be an obvious suspect in his kidnapping and death. She’s a sick woman, and she’s set up. That ought to be enough for a by-the-numbers thriller.

But Manchette goes farther. He gives us a Julie who is not merely supposed to be nuts, but who is indeed nuts. She’s a paranoid woman – and we get little to explain why – who has inadvertently picked up real enemies. He gives us a Thompson, someone who might have walked out of a mid-career Elmore Leonard novel, but he puts him in a different context. This may be the same universe that Leonard explored at the same time, but it’s a different corner of it. In Leonard, we’d likely see this Thompson as representative of some aspect of American pyscho-sickness. In Manchette, he just sort of is. We get no explanation, just a kind of readerly pleasure in his weirdness.

I encourage you to read the introduction/appreciation by James Sallis, whose Drive is one of the outstanding hardboiled works of this generation. He calls attention to Manchette’s minimalist ability to show that sick weirdness, and, as he does so, he makes clear how his own work is an extension of it.

Some parts of this do feel a bit dated, but they have the excuse of being a good generation old. Manchette was clearly ahead of his time. Thanks to this New York Review of Books Press reissue, we get the chance to catch up with him.

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Review: Flight

Flight Flight by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Most of the time I was reading this, I heard myself categorizing it as “Young Adult fiction on a serious theme.”

For a while I couldn’t figure out why it felt so “young adult,” and then I found myself arriving at a definition for the term: Young adult literature feels as it does because its aim is to frame questions rather than analyze them. It’s real act of insight for a 12-year-old to frame the core questions of life: how do we deal with disappointment, with the awareness that we are not as central to the universe as we might like? How, given that, should we treat others? And how do we keep from despairing as we live in the space between all we could want for ourselves and the comparatively little that we do get?

It’s less insightful for an adult to come to such a question, particularly an author who’s explored the same themes – complicated by the particular fact of Native-American life in late 20th, early 21st Century America – more thoughtfully elsewhere.

In other words, this isn’t a bad novel, but it sometimes feels condescending. Zits is a generally uninspired kid. We’re not supposed to like him because he hates himself so much. Props to Alexie for giving us a protagonist who is initially so unlikeable, but the shape of the novel gives the impression early on that we’re going to see him redeemed. We know it’s coming, so the heart of the novel – his spinning “flight” across time and identity as he experiences the world from different perspectives – loses some of its effectiveness. He inhabits other bodies in a series of experiences that seem as much like a class syllabus as a genuine adventure.

I don’t want to ‘spoil’ the conclusion, but, if you’ve read a decent amount in your life, then you know what’s happening with it. And, again, it’s young adults who haven’t read all that much, so the book is clearly aimed at them.

Alexie has the capacity to draw scenes well, and that’s a virtue. He also gives his character a deadpan set of reactions – claiming things like “she was very pretty” or “I must have been crazy to think…” – that work against it.

I’m glad to see Alexie plumbing the life of a kid who’s torn between his Indian and white identities. It may well do good things for its intended audience, but I guess I’m looking for more myself.

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Review: The Association of Small Bombs

The Association of Small Bombs The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Don Delillo’s Mao II proposes the troubling idea that terrorists have assumed the role of writers: they have become the individuals who, imagining in solitude, release their visions and reshape the world. The Association of Small Bombs answers that premise. It’s the story of two families responding to the fact of a terrorist’s bomb. They had ideas for how they wanted their lives to go. After the bomb, they find they can never fully escape its consequences.

This is a thoroughly depressing novel. The opening scene (and back cover copy) describe the explosion in which two young brothers are killed. Their friend survives, but he has to deal with injuries for the rest of his life. The parents of the children and many of the people they encounter spread a kind of contagion in the years that follow. Each tries to rebuild a life, but they find everything discolored by the fact of the violence they have endured.

Mahajan uses a striking narrative device in that the characters go their separate ways but find themselves reconnecting with one another and with the perpetrators. There is no escape. Nothing they do can undo the effects of the experience, and that leaves them perpetually diminished. It’s novelistic in the satisfying sense that we see a picture larger than anything the individual characters can see. There’s a haunting geometry to the way different people connect, yet they have no idea how their histories affect one another.

While I admire the essential premise here, I’m frustrated that we get it in total at the beginning and that nothing really alters it. Victims of violence suffer not just from their pain but from the lingering sense that some random force has changed the trajectory of their lives. They are forever marked, revealed to be cowards or ever unaware of the narrow limits of their capacity to shape their own lives. But we have that revealed in the opening pages. As Monsour staggers away from his dead friends, he already suspects everything he will ever learn.

There is, in other words, little development in the way the characters think about the world. As impressive as the novel is, it’s longer than it needs to be. Part of me wonders whether it would work as well as a short story, whether it would pack the same punch more efficiently in a smaller space.

That said, this is certainly compelling material. Even if the characters are essentially static, we get a glimpse of modern India, of a nation that seems to feel acted upon more than self-determining. Those elements, the ways in which we see tensions among Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, among urban and rural, and among the wealthy and the struggling, do justify its greater length. That material seems peripheral to the central insights here – peripheral to this novel, as I feel compelled to read it, as a response to Delillo – but it makes the whole worthwhile.

This is troubling material, given to us in bleak fashion. I’d like to close my eyes to much of it, but Mahajan makes me have to look.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review: Terminal Lance: The White Donkey

Terminal Lance: The White Donkey Terminal Lance: The White Donkey by Maximilian Uriarte
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Most of the good contemporary war fiction I read – Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, or Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds – makes it clear that much of the story is about boredom. It’s about the anxiety of waiting for something big and terrible to happen. There’s no story without those frightening events, but they’re anomalies. The real matter is the stultifying routine in the anticipation of them.

If you’re narrating and much of what you have to tell is anti-narration – if much of it is the opposite of story – then you have to figure out ways to show the nothing-happens part. Those strong novels find different ways of solving that narrative problem, and I recommend them all, but Uriarte has found a different and striking solution. This is a graphic novel, and the pictures carry much of that nothing.

There are pages here without words, and pages where the words are largely the noise of people filling the silence. And there are illustrations that move very little from one frame to the next, showing the rich detail of nothing happening. The end brings that forward in subtle and powerful ways. There is a 20- page wordless sequence in which we see only Abe lunging toward the bathroom to throw up. That sounds overdone, but trust me, it’s powerful.

Talking only about technique sells this short, however. Abe has gone to Iraq for reasons he forgets almost as soon as he arrives. He befriends Garcia, and the two of them navigate the uptight rule-boundedness of their wartime experience. We see elements in the Catch-22 vein – one officer, having misplaced his own rifle, creates a “drill” obligating the entire platoon to look for it before they can leave for a break – and we see the old Dear-John conflict of a young man feeling estranged from the woman he loves or thinks he loves.

And then there is the strange poetry of the white donkey of the title. In a work that’s this ambitious in terms of its emotional insight and geo-political range, it’s a real surprise to find such a layer of artistic insight. The donkey may mean nothing. In fact, I hardly noticed it when it first appeared. But it’s a kind of symbol that haunts Abe and that Uriarte brings into the story with surprising subtlety.

There’s a pointlessness to the experience of Iraq as Uriarte sees it, but the mission itself doesn’t seem to be pointless. We watch Abe grow from an awkward boy to a haunted man, and we really do ‘watch.’ Uriarte fills him out as the work progresses, and our final images show him with broader shoulders and a kind of hard-won wisdom.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Review: The Cold Cold Ground

The Cold Cold Ground The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sean Duffy is a Catholic police detective in a place and at a time when the IRA sees him as a traitor and his Protestant colleagues see him as an odd duck. It’s 1981, Prince Charles is about to marry Diana, Pope John Paul II is about to get shot, and Bobby Sands and other IRA big-timers are on hunger strike. Northern Ireland is a powder keg, and then things really get crazy: someone starts killing homosexuals, and a young woman may or may not have hung herself. Oh, and Sean falls an attractive doctor.

In a lesser writer’s hands, all that could have been a mess. In McKinty’s, it’s riveting. I realize everything I’ve just described sounds like the obvious elements of a generic hardboiled novel, but McKinty makes it feel as if he’s invented the form.

For starters, the moment is perfect. Maybe it’s because I was a young high school student when these events took place – these were the news stories of my near adulthood – but the era seems rich with characters and conflicts that stayed with us. Northern Ireland was at the heart of a great storm, and McKinty excavates it with real care. We get the hit songs of the moment (from Dolly Parton to late-career Lou Reed), quick but accurate descriptions of the phones and record players, and glimpses of the cars everyone was driving. He brings back an era, one that wasn’t frightening in its everyday details, and makes it a locus for the conflicts that would drive the following decades.

More than that, though, we get everything with rare skill. McKinty dispenses backstory and fresh clue with a terrific rhythm. I never felt he was slipping in something important that I’d have to slap my forehead later for not noticing, nor did I feel he was telegraphing what was important. Instead, his story really feels like the story of a mystery slowly unraveling.

I do think the end falls short of the excellence of the first 90 percent of this, though. [SPOILER] Until the assassination attempt by the IRA team he’s provoked, he’s an ordinary thoughtful cop. When he takes out a half dozen armed men who have the drop on him, well, it feels contrived. And then, when he travels to Italy to kill a double agent, it seems like too much. I accept that he’s a man of deep integrity. I don’t accept that he’d take ‘justice’ into his own hands and kill a man who, despite awful crimes, has the chance to end “the Troubles” years earlier than otherwise.

I suspect that end is connected to my bugaboo about series. I’m not saying that Duffy should have been killed at the end, but I do think it would have been more true to the story to have him fail, to have him have to eat crow despite knowing who ultimately did it. To me, it feels like twisting the story to set up a sequel and probably more books with the same characters.

Barring the last chapter, though, I very much enjoyed this. I’ll keep an eye out for more McKinty – one more in the line of star Celtic noirists – and I’m happy to recommend him to others.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Review: Young Once

Young Once Young Once by Patrick Modiano
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been looking to read something of Modiano’s ever since he won the Nobel Prize in 2014, but, knowing nothing about him, I haven’t known where to start. After talking with one of the reps from New York Review of Books Publishers at MLA, I went with this one.

It’s hard to know how much of my reaction is colored by knowing this is a “world-class writer,” but I did enjoy it a lot. Under other circumstances, I might not have forgiven its ever-so-thin voice, its persistent minimalism, but reading it now I very much admire the way Modiano accomplishes so much with so few brushstrokes.

This begins with a brief frame narrative that lets us see Louis and Odile as they turn 35 years old and reflect on their early lives together, a period that saw them separately working with and exploited by post-World War II criminals. They’ve built a happy life together, and it seems natural to look back, to realize all at once they were indeed “young once.”

The flashback scenes then take up the rest of the novel, and they move so quickly it’s hard to keep up. In short, one to two page bursts, we get one scene after another of the two meeting up with the men who encourage and exploit them. They’re each barely 20 years old, and they discover that others want to use their dreams against them. Odile wants to sing, so she attracts sleazy types. Louis, haunted and inspired by the memory of his bicycle-racing champion father, wants to be loyal to someone, so he attracts wannabe big-shots who let him take the risks for them.

What makes this memorable is the way Modiano accomplishes his story so economically. The whole book is only a little more than 150 pages, but it takes us through their separate highs and lows, introduces us to three or four of their would-be mentors, and still gives us a striking portrait of a Paris just reinventing itself after the war. And this isn’t just coldly quick. Some of the passages are deeply moving. Scenes where Louis spends time leafing through stacks of old magazines for glimpses of his father, or where Odile, humiliated by being fired from her singing job, invites further humiliation onto herself, really hit home. You get the persistent sense that these people, whom we meet in such short bursts, have rich lives beneath the surface we see.

Interestingly, we never get the end of the frame. [SPOILER] At the end, Louis decides to double-cross his final “patron,” and the two take off with a suitcase full of money, presumably the money they then used to purchase the remote home where they start the novel. It’s part of the minimalist approach that Modiano doesn’t spell that out, and it’s part of the tightness of the story that they seem to get away with it with so little difficulty or complication. Like Hemingway, but in a different tone and to a different effect, he gives us only scraps that stand in for the whole.

I do think there is something perhaps too modest here. This is heralded as a major novel by a Nobel laureate, yet it’s also a small work, one that doesn’t quite introduce us to a world-changing style. It’s just a beautiful and a subtle piece of work. So, just as I may have given this more attention for knowing Modiano’s reputation, I also think I might have demanded more of it for that same reason. I have another of his in the queue, and I’ll be curious to see how this style holds up.

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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Review: MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors

MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Throughout reading this, I found myself thinking of William Steig’s Shrek. If you haven’t read that, you can knock it out in about 10 minutes, reading slowly. The first time I came to it, I’d already seen the first movie, and I couldn’t believe how such a film could grow out of something so small. As I reflected on it, though, I came to admire that little book for inspiring others to such flights of creativity. I couldn’t have read Shrek as creatively as the filmmakers did, but I enjoyed the experiencing of looking back and seeing all I couldn’t see on my own.

I come to MASH the book after the film and after what, for many years, I regarded as the finest television series ever developed. (I confess it felt a bit dated the last time I saw it – still brilliant but somehow tamer than I remembered.) As such, I see things in it I know I’d have missed if I read the book first.

For starters, the first character we meet is Radar O’Reilly. I know the way Gary Burghoff subtly developed that character. I think still of the powerful innocence of his having his teddy bear with him in Korea, of his perpetual competence with the work and his perpetual uncertainty about the larger questions swirling around him. Here, he’s just a curiosity, a somewhat slow young man with a gift of near telepathy that makes him the best communications officer around. Without knowing what he became, I wouldn’t have reflected on him as much as I did. I see the shell that Burghoff and others filled in, and that makes me like this more than I would have.

There are other intriguing moments, too. Hawkeye remains at the center of everything, and you can see how Donald Sutherland and then, even more brilliantly, Alan Alda filled him out. But he is less central than the show eventually made him. Here, it’s Trapper John who is clearly the best surgeon, and there’s another sidekick named Duke who’s a Southern version of Hawkeye.

And you can see as well some of the weakest elements of the show. Frank Burns is a pure weasel from the start, and his two-dimensionality is softened only by his sudden dismissal by the better surgeons. Hot Lips Hoolihan never gets to develop into the dedicated professional that Loretta Swit made her into. Instead she remains an easy target throughout.

It’s easy to see where the novel comes from: Hooker must surely have read Catch-22 and then decided he had doctor war stories that would fit a similar, picaresque-in-one-setting formula. And there is a powerful original note here: the idea that doctors, pledged to save lives, have a ‘catch-22’ of their own in having to be part of the effort to take them from the enemy.

Much of this is dated, from references to 1940s sports heroes to the comfortable use of “Spearchucker” as a nickname for a minor African-American character. And, courtesy of the film and movie, the book’s central insight is both more familiar and better done.

Still, this one has some virtues of its own, as it explores a sardonic take on the question of how to stay sane in a fundamentally insane situation. Cross its basic competence with its historical insight, and this is one worth checking out if you remember MASH in any of its other forms.

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Review: The Cold Dish

The Cold Dish The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I try to avoid “series,” those mysteries that give us characters who, over the course of five or eight or 22 mysteries, develop. There are some good ones – James Lee Burke’s comes to mind as a solid example, perhaps a lot of Lawrence Block’s work too – and a couple very good ones (Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins is my gold standard), but I find I’m not much into the form. For one, the demands of genre tend to take over. The larger premise is that we’re meeting an interesting character (or set of characters); the smaller one is that there’s a mystery afoot and, once this character solves it, this chapter in his or life will end.

For another, the canvas is so implicitly large that authors can get away with sloppiness. Minor characters in the first installment – the desk clerk, the quirky neighbor, the insightful bartender – get brought back in later iterations, the outlines of their early selves filled in with the pretense that we’ve known them all along. They aren’t deeply drawn characters, they’ve just been around a long time. (In a different context The Simpsons has milked that for astonishing longevity. Name a background character who hasn’t had at least one episode dedicated to her or him.)

In effect, the challenge gets ever easier to a writer, and I feel it. There’s a comforting familiarity in seeing the old names and reimagining the faces and voices we’ve assigned them. But I don’t look to crime fiction for comfort. I look for it to be troubled, to find a new way into disturbing aspects of our lives as human animals.

All that out of the way, this is solid work. I wouldn’t have touched it if I hadn’t heard good things about Walt Longmire, and I do enjoy the character. He’s a savvy “older” Western sheriff (the quotes go around older because I think he’s only a few years older than I am), and his grief at his wife’s death seems real. He’s a good man without being two-dimensional. He cares for the people under his protection and under his direction in the sheriff’s department.

The mystery here is solid, too. Someone is killing the boys who were part of a horrific teen rape a few years earlier. Since the victim was a Native-American, lots of Indians come in for suspicion. Johnson isn’t especially insensitive to culture here, but he isn’t doing any memorable work either. We get some interesting references to Cheyenne and Crow practices – and we get a haunting artifact of the Cheyenne resistance – but it seems overdone when Walt has his life saved by ‘ancestral’ visions that come to him in the midst of a blinding snowstorm.

[SPOILER] The ending, where we learn that Walt’s new love interest is actually the killer, is satisfying from the perspective of a whodunit. She does make sense (after the explanation of her own victimhood) and there’s that fun feeling of after-the-fact recognition, the realization that Johnson has skillfully misdirected us from the obvious.

From the larger perspective of Longmire as character, though, it’s disappointing. I’d like to have seen how the old guy would have handled love, how he’d have handled not the pressures of a mystery but rather the quieter challenges of adapting himself to life with a new person. I’d like to see him shed the dubious comforts of his depression for life trying to understand a beautiful but needy woman.

Instead, the demands of the form give us the ultimately less interesting mystery. I’m sure we get to see Walt in new dimensions in later books. I’m sure Johnson continues with his clear skill as a writer and a plotter. And I am sure there are many who enjoy – thoughtfully enjoy – the work.

Still, this just isn’t quite for me. I like my mysteries less assured in their form. I like them discovering not just who did it, but how to tell it. Good luck and a tip of the misshapen hat to Johnson, but I think I’m parting ways after this one.

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Monday, January 9, 2017

Review: Middlesex

Middlesex Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first half of this picaresque novel is an absolute joy. Eugenides writes with loud, emphatic claims. One of my early favorite ones came in his description of the protagonist’s parents’ courtship, something along the lines of, “The Japanese surrendered in 1945. It took Tessie somewhat longer.”

That humor serves not just the tone of the novel, but the great ambition of its early part. This begins as a family epic, one dependent – scientifically and culturally – on three full generations. We learn how it came to pass that Cal/Calliope’s grandparents married despite being siblings and so how the gene for hermaphrodism got passed on, and we get a sense of the power of culture to shape who we are.

I love the great Greekness of the work here. There’s a broad good nature that runs throughout, and – like many of the Jewish-American novels I love – it draws on a stereotype that it makes fresh and even reinvents. couldn’t get enough of the parts that dealt with the generations leading up to Cal, and I wished the novel would keep going.

Then, somewhere before the two-thirds mark, this becomes increasingly about Calliope discovering her sexuality. What was a broad, expansive novel becomes a quiet and personal one. Where much of what drives the early parts is global – it’s the Turks at Smyrna, the press of World War II, the riots in 1967 Detroit – the parts about Calliope waiting for her period or developing crushes on girls feel quieter. They aren’t badly written; they’re just in a different tone. And for someone who loves the early tone as much as I do, that’s a disappointment.

The edition I read had a brief interview with Eugenides as an appendix, and in it he talks about the challenge of finding a first-person narrator who can also convey a sense of the deep history of the family. As much as I enjoy this overall, I think he fails to find the perfect device for answering that challenge.

It’s not merely a matter of that tone shift. (Though that’s part of it. I resented the light, almost lyrical descriptions of [SPOILER] Milton’s death in the car crash. If we’re getting family epic of the 100 Years of Solitude type, fine. But when we get a narrative that’s set only a decade or so later, it seems offensive to Milton’s memory to discuss it so breezily. Especially since he dies trying to find Cal, since Cal’s running away is very much the proximate cause of his death. I don’t see how the tone works at all.)

It’s also about the way the different stories – the familial and the personal – collide. This book ends with Desdemona confessing her relationship with Lefty. But it doesn’t feel climactic to be told something we learn much earlier in the book. There’s a release that answers the narrative tension of half the story, the personal half, but it doesn’t address the pressure of the larger family epic. We get hints, for instance, of the adult Cal’s relationships, but we end with a darkened room and an understanding woman. I’d like more. Cal’s future is his family’s future. In the epic sense of the novel, that’s where the pressure ought to be released. The two halves of the novel simply don’t fit together as cleanly as they might. Eugenides makes it work, more or less, by sleight of hand, but there’s something missing in the movement,

I’m complaining perhaps more than I should be. I do absolutely love most of this work, and I’ll certainly keep an eye out for Eugenides’s other work. Still, I think the end is the weakest part of this, and it’s the part I’m closest to now. Give me some time, and I’m sure I’ll fall back into the wonderful quirky rhythm of the substantial early parts here.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Review: Three Fourths of a Dream

Three Fourths of a Dream Three Fourths of a Dream by Siobhan Casey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am proudly biased in favor of this book. Siobhan was my student several years ago, and she wrote some brave and beautiful essays in our class. Still, I wouldn’t tout this chapbook as I am if I didn’t think it was terrific in its own right.

Siobhan has a gift here for confronting the difficult – whether it’s her speaker’s diabetes, the challenges of being a young woman in the ‘teens, or a child’s diagnosis of autism – and moving through it to the hope that lies on the other side. These are accessible, challenging, and inspiring all at the same time. They are rooted in our Northeast Pennsylvania geography, but they go in many directions.

The end of the first poem – few of these have titles other than their first lines – is a good example. As she writes:

You went diving

for the one with no bruise

--and in a dream

the stars make a gate
that finally opens

That sense of pushing through challenge (or sometimes adversity) and then finding hope sets the larger pattern that follows. The speaker pushes against what ought to be a limit and moves on.

Another of the examples I love is from “Miracle,” a meditation on taking care of a child labeled as “nonverbal autistic.” After reflecting on the way leaves die into beauty in the fall, the speaker concludes,

And as I lead him down the road
he says the word yes out loud
when all signs point to no.

I’ll settle for one more example among many that really got to me. “Albuquerque Dreams” is mostly about reflecting on a friend being far away. After meditating on what it might be like in a West with a different climate and a different world, the speaker concludes,

In my dream
There are no miles
Left to travel,

No sudden drops

Only the pair of us

Balanced like stuntmen
On the wing
Of a plane
This is a short, moving set of reflections. It’s a great tonic for what feels like a dark time. It can be a little tough to find – there’s a Venmo app that I didn’t quite master – but I urge you to look for it from Siobhan herself.

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Review: A Gambler's Anatomy

A Gambler's Anatomy A Gambler's Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I’m not Jonathan Lethem’s biggest admirer, I’m in the team photo. I maintain that his Chronic City is the novel of the decade. I admired his most recent, Dissident Gardens, enough to do some academic work on it. And I have read and loved most of his novels and a good chunk of his nonfiction. As far as I was concerned, he could do almost anything, with the possible exception of writing a bad novel.

I can’t call A Gambler’s Anatomy a bad novel, but I do find it the most disappointing Lethem I’ve ever read. I was excited about the exotic nature of its backdrop of professional backgammon playing, and it’s striking to see how the New-York-centered writer has responded to his move to the West Coast, but the interesting pieces don’t quite come together here. The quirky joy and the skill of making esoterica come to broader life are missing here. This is a novel pushing toward a point, but it’s a point I find depressing and – in the end – less original than I expect from Lethem.

Alexander Bruno is a professional backgammon player before he discovers he’s seriously ill with a tumor between his face and brain. Backgammon makes perfect sense for him because he is someone who recognizes the power of luck (represented by the dice) but believes that skill can overcome it (represented by the capacity to win even in the face of fickle dice). Healing the tumor necessitates radical surgery; he literally has his face removed and then replaced. His head is opened to the world (his surgeon speaks of “opening a door that’s never been opened”) and then it’s closed again.

That central operation seems both a metaphor and a literal statement. On the one hand, Bruno is exposed to the surgeon and to others. People think they can see into him after the surgery, and he becomes a kind of Rorschach figure for the would-be radicals of Berkeley. On the other hand, removing the tumor restores Bruno’s childhood capacity for reading minds. It gives him back a power he thinks he tried to get rid of, unconsciously, by forming the tumor in the first place.

All of that sounds interesting, and it certainly keeps the novel from being a disaster, but the cold, clinical quality of that equation permeates the whole novel. There are other interesting characters, most of all Keith Stolarsky, Bruno’s high school friend who’s gone on to establish himself as the “Darth Vader” of Berkeley’s hippest neighborhoods, but they all seem like types. They do striking things – Stolarsky pays hundreds of thousands of dollars for the surgery; Stolarsky’s girlfriend wants to sleep with Bruno while Stolarsky figuratively watches them; and the German prostitute Madchen happily crosses the Atlantic to be with Bruno after having met him only once months before. But it’s never clear why they do the things they do. This feels too much like a Bruno-centric universe, a story contrived to make a point rather than to explore how different perspectives clash.

And the point is pretty straightforward: it’s adolescent to imagine real agency, real revolution is possible. We may think our skill can push against the hand we’re dealt (or the rolls of the dice that come our way), but, in the end, inequity reigns. Stolarsky has all the money, and he – capable of reading minds as well – gets everything he wants. Some resist him with a sense of what his game is – Plybon establishes Kropotkin’s Burgers as a challenge to Stolarsky’s business empire, but Stolarsky owns it as well – and others push back only to find they’re still ‘following orders.’ That’s Bruno’s case; in the end, Stolarsky simply restores Bruno to the impregnable gambler he was to start. With the mind-reading it’s now poker rather than blackjack, but it amounts to the same thing. And it’s for the benefit of the same man, Edgar Falk, Bruno’s longtime handler. (I get the impression Stolarsky has orchestrated the whole thing to benefit Falk, another of the user/abuser of others, but that isn’t clear.)

This is ultimately a frightened book. It asserts that people with talent will always be subject to the machinations of those who understand the market better, those who publish, produce, or fund art. It has none of the staggering joy of Fortress of Solitude, when we see characters able suddenly to fly, or Motherless Brooklyn where Lionel Esrog’s impairment is simultaneously a source of inspiration and difference.

This is also a more mechanical-seeming book. Where Lethem’s New York novels give evidence of someone who knows the world of which he writes, this one feels researched. (We get a list of all the medical experts who helped with the surgical background, but it feels as if we could just as easily have gotten a list of who helped him with the history of Berkeley. It all feels studied, researched. It may be my imagination, but it reminds me of someone who’s been somewhere for a year and is quick to give a brand new arrival a scrupulous history of the place.)

As I read, I kept hoping a switch would flip, and I’d feel that Lethem feeling, that sense that I’m in the hands of someone really smart who’s set a literary trap for me. Instead, I find a novel where we see a smart protagonist trapped by forces larger than he is. A gambler ought to know: the house always wins. When that happens, as it does here, the capacity for creativity loses. There’s great skill here – I assume there always will be with Lethem – but the scheme and inspiration fall far short of the extraordinary work he’s given us over the last twenty-plus years.

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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Review: The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I knew I liked this one from the opening pages, but it took me a while to figure out why. Most of the time, when I find lingering digressions like these – when I’m staring at a book this long – I get irritated by descriptions that don’t seem to move the plot forward. I put on my editing hat and start to imagine what I would red pencil out.

Here, though, and strangely, I enjoyed the slow pace right away, and I especially enjoyed the eventual payoff. Tartt has a gift for making the seemingly peripheral interesting. She’s like a rare houseguest who, no matter what new topic she raises, has a way of making everything seem fresh. You expect to tire of her, but she surprises you at every turn in subtle ways.

After a time – but still very early – I decided there was something Dickensian about the book’s rhythm, about the way it seemed to have an intrinsic pace with quirky and colorful insights and strongly drawn characters. I didn’t know where it was going, but I trusted the voice, trusted that the seemingly insignificant would come back to mean something. I trusted that I was going to be led into a variety of interesting places that added up to an even larger picture.

Then, of course, I came to discover the even wider Dickensian sense of the book. We get, eventually, an orphan who’s raised with the high and the low. He knows real wealth and real poverty, characters and caricatures. There is the bright world of art and art collection – with all the insects and swindlers it draws. And there is the seedy world of Vegas and its two-bit gamblers, druggies, and mobsters. It really does cover the high and the low on a scale that few other than Dickens have been able to do.

And then, just as our Dickensian hero comes into focus, he finds a “Pippa” to love (reminiscent of both Great Expectation’s Pip and his great, quasi-sisterly love in Estella) and an Artful Dodger-like criminal pal in Boris.

So, that’s the frame in which I slowly came to understand what I so admired and enjoyed about this from the start. It wrestles with a span of American culture more fully than just about anything else in recent fiction. I liked The Secret History very much, too, but I liked it for almost the opposite reason. That one spends so much time in the claustrophobic world of its elite (and effete) small college – admittedly with a point-of-view character who is there under masquerade – that it assumes the dimensions of the whole world in dizzyingly seductive fashion. They can do what they do (SPOILER: kill someone) because they’ve so lost sight of everything outside their tiny circle.

What’s ultimately gripping here is the sense that there are two worlds – one of the Barbers’ wealth and privilege and one of Boris’s chicanery – and that both are grey-tinged. They have their different virtues and they have their different corruptions. In between lies the one fully good space of the novel, the profoundly decent, art-soaked world of Hobey and Pippa. Theo tries to stay in that middle ground, but he’s always pulled in both other directions. That, for me, accounts for the six or seven year gap in the middle of the novel: so long as Theo stays in Hobey’s world (which he does in that period) there’s no story. (It also accounts for the year-long gap near the very end.) The story comes in his sensing there’s a good place that’s closed or, more properly, closing to him.

Word of consumer warning: this is a long book, and it’s one that I think works best if you read it quickly. There are elements that ought to stay present for you. It helps, for instance, to have a sense of what the The Goldfinch painting looks like when it gets discussed in later scenes, but those come hundreds of pages after the last time we’ve gotten such a description. It also helps to be familiar with both Vegas and New York – with both the influence of Mrs. Barber and of Boris – even though those sections are both very long and otherwise seemingly disconnected.

If this novel has Dickensian rhytms, however, it is thematically – in this case like The Secret History – a meditation on timelessness versus the present. There it was philosophy crossed with religious ecstasy. Here it’s art, represented by the wonderfully imagined painting of the title.

There is an action climax here – one there’s no need to risk spoiling – but whether and how Theo gets through it is less compelling than what he comes to learn about his place (or anyone’s) in the face of eternal beauty. The closing pages are among the novel’s best – which is good since it takes so long to get to them – and they feature lyrical musings on what it means to spend a lifetime seduced by art.

Tartt doesn’t idealize that experience any more than she did in The Secret History. Art can be, as Hobey put it, like a seedy stranger calling you with a “pssst” from a darkened alley. It might not demand anything better of you than you were already likely to give. Good choices do not always lead to the greater good, nor do bad choices lead always to the bad. All of that is probably a gloss on Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on Earth and all ye need to know.”

I’ve heard there are some who remain troubled by this one long after reading it. I guess I am, in the hours after finishing it, having the opposite reaction. There’s something liberating in recalling how small our individual power is to affect the way a great work of art is loved and remembered by the world at large. My choices do not need to stand for others’, even if I am a teacher. Instead, I have no obligation other than to keep reading and seeing as long as I feel called to do so. Art may imply morality. It may give me a sense that I can be a better person. But morality (and truth and happiness and many other virtues) doesn’t depend upon it. Beauty and truth may be married, but like all spouses they need to spend some time apart.

This book, at its most compelling, explores that space – what it calls at times “the silence between the notes” of music. In its rhythm, it finds that structure on the scale of Great Expectations and David Copperfield. In its theme, it finds it in the empty space between the things we most desire.

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