Friday, September 24, 2010

Love Triangle

The love triangle – we've all seen examples of it. Shakespeare used it in “Twelfth Night”, there's Tom, Daisy and Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby”, and the memorable Rick-Ilsa-Victor triangle in “Casablanca”. David Pinner, the central character in Nick Laird's Glover's Mistake, finds himself in this predicament. He is a thirty-three year old London college teacher who reconnects with Ruth Marks, a forty-five year old successful artist who had taught him years earlier in art school. Early on David believes that Ruth is attracted to him, but it soon becomes apparent that she is interested in his much younger, handsomer flatmate James Glover, a likable if somewhat dim bartender.

The novel is written in the third person, but it is told from David's point of view, and he initially seems to be decent if a little sad. But gradually it becomes clear that Glover's Mistake is innocently believing that David has his best interests at heart. David has the unreliable narrator's talent for self-justification as he persistently undermines the romance while pretending to be a devoted friend to both Ruth and James. It would be depressing if it weren't so funny and so cleverly written. Laird skewers the pretensions of the art world, explores the nastiness of anonymous blogs, rambles through London neighborhoods and ask questions about the meaning of love.

This is not a novel for readers who want their characters to be likable, or even admirable. Ruth is self-absorbed and insensitive, David a manipulating misanthrope, and although James is endearing he is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But it's a clever and fast moving cautionary tale about the dangers of love triangles.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Worth A Second Look

More than one person had warned me that David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas was a difficult read. But I had been given a copy by a reader I admire so I decided to tackle it. It was a roller coaster ride - parts were a little bumpy, parts were exhilarating - and I'm glad I hung on to the end.

The book's first section is a journal begun in 1849 by Adam Ewing, an American notary, as he travels by sea from New Zealand to Hawaii. But in the middle of the story (actually in mid-sentence) the story suddenly shifts to 1931 and “Letters from Zedelghem”, letters from aspiring composer Robert Frobisher, who has convinced a reclusive musical genius to take him on as an amanuensis in his remote Belgian chateau. When Frobisher isn't bedding the composer's wife, lusting after his daughter or stealing books from his library, he is working on his own composition – Cloud Atlas Sextet. This section seems to have no connection to the one that preceded it, until Frobisher discovers the torn first half of a book on the shelf of his room, and it's “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”. 

I'm sure my love of puzzles and problem solving helped keep me turning pages after that. The next four sections are once again about characters and time periods with no connection to the preceding ones, except there are little kernels – a birthmark, a manuscript, a movie title – which reference the previous section in an oblique way. The first five sections are written in different styles and each ends abruptly. The sixth - “Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After” is as hard to read as the title suggests. It's a post-apocalyptic tale told in a sort of pidgin English by Zachry, a goatherd in Hawaii who describes life after the fall of civilization. Hawaii? Didn't the book start with a journey to Hawaii?

The book then pivots and works it way backwards. Each of the five stories begun in the first half is completed in the second, until, in the last section, we are back on the ship with Adam Ewing. Along the way Mitchell plants additional clever clues and references that make the book feel much more like an integrated whole than just a series of unrelated stories.

The composer Robert Frobisher described his Cloud Atlas Sextet as "overlapping soloists: piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order." That's a perfect description of this interesting book.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Three Audio Books

During summer car travels, we listened to several audio books, with mixed results. The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi is the true tale of the authors shared obsession with an unsolved series of crimes. A serial killer in the 1970's ritually murdered fourteen young lovers around Florence, was never caught, and is known as the Monster of Florence. Preston moved with his family to Florence (he is a mystery writer), met Spezi and together they searched to uncover and confront the man they believe is that monster. Along with murder, mutilation, suicide and vengance, they themselves become targets of a bizarre police investigation. The tale itself if fascinating, providing an additional lesson in political corruption and the concealed and extensive corruption within the Italian legal system. The tale is long, quite interesting, well narrated (Dennis Boutsikaris) but might well have benefited from some editing, since the details sometimes bog down the progress of the story.

Richard Russo, whose writing I thoroughly enjoy, wrote That Old Cape Magic, about the long, painful, sometimes funny struggles of Jack Griffin, a man in mid-life whose marriage is crumbling despite all the trappings of success, wife, daughter, etc. He has truly hideous parents and Russo creates very real, sad but often funny, people. However, over time I tired of this clueless man who excludes his family, thinking they have no impact upon his behavior and life if they are not physically present in his world. His realizations come slowly over time and I somehow lost patience with him as damages pile up along the way. Competently narrated (Arthur Morey), I wanted more to "happen" in this rather slow, character driven work.

The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St. Germain, by Andrew Greeley, is a "locked room" mystery (unraveling a mystery without chases, locations, etc.). Bishop Blackie, an intelligent, balanced Catholic Bishop makes entertaining and wry observations about love, life, religious pretentions and rigidity, as he tries to track down and understand the motivations of a priest who has gone missing. The author includes multiple pieces of history and detailed locations in Paris that make the traveler smile in memory, and the Bishop is a very astute man. However well narrated by George Guidall, the writing suffers from being "too" clever, overusing words like "patently"and "arguably" which over time, grew annoying. I found the resolution of the story to exceed my suspension of disbelief, leaving me somewhat disappointed in the end.
That said, the pleasures of audio books cannot be denied.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Conflict of Interests

I've always had a soft spot for cop stories – I've blogged my appreciation for Richard Price's wonderful “Lush Life”(Neighborhood Crime), I've sung the praises of “The Wire”, and I still enjoy watching old “Law and Order” episodes. So Doug Dorst's Alive In Necropolis, a novel about cops whose beat includes the seventeen cemeteries of Colma, California, had obvious appeal for me. On the other hand I've never been fond of ghost stories – I'm just too skeptical. 

So how do I feel about this story of Michael Mercer, a rookie cop assigned to the night shift, patrolling the living and the dead in Colma? Well, I liked the 'living' part. Predictably, I loved the 'cop-talk'. Dorst does a great job of capturing that insult-laden banter. And in Mercer he creates a believable young man approaching thirty, uncertain of what he wants in life, bouncing between the circles of his more successful and established college friends and the grittier world of his cop buddies. He even has a sort of romantic interest in each of these worlds, but in his uncertainty he doesn't handle either relationship very well. One foggy night he saves the life of the teenage son of a powerful San Francisco movie kingpin, trussed and abandoned in the cemetery by friends he refuses to incriminate. The consequences for this confused and angry boy, and Mercer's attempts to help him, are for me the most interesting plot line.

But then there's the 'dead' part. Woven through the story of Mike Mercer is the story of Colma's ghostly residents. Among them are San Francisco heiress Lily Coit, ballplayer Lefty O'Doul, a daredevil aviator named Lincoln Beachey and bank robber Doc Barker, and for reasons I failed to grasp they are at each others throats. I know, I know...they're already dead so how can they hurt each other? See...this is why I hate ghost stories.

Eventually Mercer, suffering from sleep deprivation and anxiety, becomes involved in the ghosts' disputes, and I'll just say that I liked the story much better when he was dealing with the living.  Dorst has an enjoyable style, and I admire his risky choice of subject matter, but I hope that next time he'll skip the ghosts and stick to the cops.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sitting Shiva

Jonathan Tropper’s 2009 novel “This Is Where I Leave You” is described as “A magnificently funny family saga…”, and “often side splitting”. It is the story of the Foxman family. Judd Foxman, our narrator, is one of four children, the third born and the second son, in a basically dysfunctional Jewish family. The Foxman children, now adults, have been summoned to their childhood home to sit Shiva for their father, Mort Foxman. Shiva is the weeklong ritual of sitting in your home and welcoming the friends and family who want to pay respects to the person who has died. The kids find the idea somewhat strange because as far as they knew their father was an atheist. What is making it even harder is that the rabbi, who is directing the Shiva, is a childhood friend of the Foxmans who had a few strange behaviors as a boy and who they nicknamed Boner.

The Foxman clan is an interesting group. Judd, the morose narrator, has recently walked in on his wife and his obnoxious boss having sex in his bed. Paul, Judd’s older brother by sixteen months, and his wife are trying desperately to have a baby. One afternoon the family gets to listen to them having sex over the baby monitor which their sister, Wendy, had accidentally left turned on in the baby’s room. Wendy has three children and a husband who spends the entire week on his cell phone
orchestrating million dollar deals. The youngest Foxman brother, Phillip, is a lovable fellow, who is a mystery to his family, which is fine with them because he just lies whenever anyone questions him. He appears with his “life coach” who is also his girlfriend and fifteen years older than he is. But the best character is Mrs. Foxman, the outspoken celebrity author of, “Cradle and All: A Mother’s Guide To Enlightened Parenting”. She has silicone breasts, which she loves to display, and wears miniskirts and stiletto heels. Her children cannot understand why she just can’t dress appropriately for a 63 year old woman who has just lost her husband.

A week of sitting Shiva is more than this family can take as old wounds and grudges
resurface and irreverent wisecracks and put me downs are relentlessly thrown back and forth. But in spite of themselves and their wacky relationships with each other, they learn more about their father (and their mother) in this week than all the years growing up in that house on Knob’s End.

Jonathan Tropper’s characters are funny and endearing. His one liners can be hilarious and the story and the intricate family history make for a very good novel that seems to be heading toward a movie. I definitely agree that this is a book that will make you smile if not laugh out loud!

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Difficult Subject

It's not easy to read a book about torture. It's uncomfortable being confronted with cruelty and brutality, and in the wrong hands the story can make a reader feel exploited or dirty.

But in In The Company Of Angels Thomas Kennedy leaves the reader with feelings of respect and hope. His main character is Bernardo "Nardo" Greene, a Chilean teacher who was imprisoned and brutally tortured during the Pinochet regime for teaching political poetry, while his wife and children were”disappeared”. He now lives in Copenhagen where he is being treated by a psychiatrist at a torture rehabilitation center. Occasionally the novel, which is written in the third person, switches to first person as the psychiatrist, Dr. Kristensen, who has already helped Nardo regain the use of an arm paralyzed by psychic rather than physical injury, wonders how much more he can do to help this damaged man, but also questions whether he would be strong enough to endure torture, or whether he would be capable of inflicting it.  It is a question I ask myself as well.

One day Nardo sees a beautiful Danish women, and wonders if he will ever be capable of loving a woman again, either physically or emotionally. She is Michela Ibsen, and she too has been damaged. She has suffered through a marriage in which she was abused, and lost her teenage daughter to suicide. Her current boyfriend, ten years her junior, is immature and possessive. And to top it all off, she has two aging parents residing on separate floors of a nursing home, one suffering from dementia and the other from cancer, neither of them particularly grateful for the visits from their devoted daughter. Sounds pretty grim, doesn't it?

But eventually Nardo and Michela meet, and Kennedy does a masterful job of portraying the painstaking progress that each of them make toward healing and toward understanding. Both are survivors struggling to reclaim their lives, and Kennedy presents them with empathy but without sentimentality.

Note: Thomas Kennedy is a New Yorker who has lived in Copenhagen for many years. He has published more than 20 books, enjoys an international reputation and has received numerous literary awards and  honors.  But this is his first novel to be published in the United States.