Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens

The Elected Member
by Bernice Rubens
1970 Booker Prize
3 stars - take it or leave it

Not a bad book, but I wouldn't feel like I missed anything if I had skipped it.

Norman Zweck is a drug addict. He's also insane. 

The story revolves around Norman and his family and takes place over the span of a few weeks. I think the moral of the story is that all families are messed up and that keeping secrets makes it worse.

Poor Norman. Confined to a psychiatric facility in 1969. Meaning a warehouse where the patients are doped up and not much more. 

Over the course of the story, the author reveals pivotal moments in the lives of Norman and his family. It is all painfully real and depressing. Not exactly holiday fare.

For literary scholars, however, the writing style is worth examination. I wish the subject matter had been more uplifting because I admired how the author spun her tale. She reveals very little about the characters, yet just enough for the reader to feel that they know exactly what is going on and motivating them. Enough to feel the pain of Norman, his father, and his two sisters as they muddle along.

The flow of the writing is exquisite. Neither overwrought with elaborate sentences, nor simplistic, she finds the right balance to bring readers effortlessly along for the ride. 

Norman's mother, Sarah, is deceased during the time the novel takes place and only appears in flashbacks. She does seem to have been a bit, well, overbearing and possibly the source of much of the familial dysfunction. 

The writing is good enough for me to want to try another one of her works. I was delighted to discover that as the years passed, she veered into thrillers and dark comedies. Put a couple in the old queue. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Book and a Couple of Movies

Burn This
by Helen McCloy
1980 Nero Award
2 stars - just didn't grab me

Helen McCloy, an author I had not read before, was certainly prolific. I selected this volume from the Nero Award list for literary mysteries.

I'd classify it as a cozy mystery with warm, fuzzy characters and limited blood and gore.

Harriet Sutton, author, moves to Boston, buys a Beacon Hill fixer upper, fixes it up, rents the apartments out to other writers, goes about her life, until..... murder! Yup, dude is found right on her living room sofa with his throat torn out. Uh oh.

I can't fault the writing or the characters and I think that many (OK, both) of my followers might enjoy the book, but it just never really gripped me and had it been more than a scant 182 pages, I might not have finished it.

There is, however, a dog in the story. Ajax, the overly trained attack German Shepherd. Maybe I just finished to see what happened to him. I felt sorry for the poor chap, trained into total submission so that he wouldn't even eat a meatball without permission.

Let's move on to a couple of excellent, five star movies, shall we?

Hope Springs
starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones
5 stars - outstanding

I'm not sure that being middle aged in a marriage that has spanned more than one decade is a prerequisite for enjoying this movie, but it sure helps.

Where to begin? Short plot summary:

After thirty years of marriage, a middle-aged couple attends an intense, week-long counseling session to work on their relationship.

Blech. If not for Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones I would have taken a pass. But I really enjoy both of them so I figured, why not? 

This is no chick flick. The pain and longing attendant with complacency in a relationship are so real that my husband and I were both squirming in our seats. I found plenty to identify with in both characters. I really appreciated how totally and unashamedly middle-aged the actors looked. None of the eternal youth taught face and six pack abs crab. Real people with a little paunch and questionable fashion sense. 

The marriage started out fine and they remain devoted to each other, but life events have pushed each away from the most important person in his or her life. Plenty to think about here. 

Warning! After the movie finishes and the credits run there is a segment that is quite disarming. In fact when it concluded, my husband and I exclaimed almost simultaneously "phew, glad that's over, I was going to cry if it went on any longer." Trust me, we are *not* the cry during movies types. 

In Bruges
starring Colin Farrell, Brenden Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes
5 stars - will watch again

Guilt-stricken after a job gone wrong, hit man Ray and his partner await orders from their ruthless boss in Bruges, Belgium, the last place in the world Ray wants to be.

If you like dark "dramedies" like Fargo, this one is for you. Foul language, blood, but a very human story with characters one cares about. Colin Farrell is excellent as a conflicted man who is haunted by the act he has committed. His partner, Brenden Gleeson, gives us a believable portrait of a person who has reached the age where he is reconsidering his values and priorities. Ralph Fiennes is a total psycho.

The pacing is gentle and compelling, the scenery beautiful. Excellent dialog with supporting characters who come and go in curious ways to move things along.

Side note. Jordan Prentice really shows off his talent in a supporting role. Having just seen him in Game of Thrones on HBO, I was keen to see how stretchy his acting abilities are. Very stretchy. I look forward to seeing him in more movies.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

TRACON by Paul McElroy

Thank you one and all who have made recommendations for books I might enjoy. I have added a lot of books to my queue and will begin interspersing them with my usual fare (once I get through the stack of five I just got from the library).

I'll apologize in advance for no not always being able to match recommendation with recommender. But you'll know who you are. Oh, and please don't take offense if I don't enjoy your favorite authors. I will always enjoy the discovery of reading and isn't it grand that there are books for every taste?

by Paul McElroy
2001 Ippy Award
5 stars - highest recommendation 

This one is getting five stars (even though I have some reservations about the writing) because I consider it an important and overlooked book.

Let's start with why 5 stars.

The novel is about air traffic controllers. It is incredibly well researched and there are forwards and afterwards detailing the book's authenticity as well as the 1981 walk out of air traffic controllers.

To be honest, before reading this book, I hadn't given the job of air traffic controllers much thought. Not any more. Imagine a job where thousands of lives are at stake and the only time anybody will notice your work is if you screw up. We're jamming the air with more and more flights and yet our airports are woefully inadequate to handle the traffic. 

The author provides chilling descriptions of what goes in to managing planes at Chicago's O'Hare airport (one of the busiest hubs in the U.S.). 

The main character, Ryan Kelly, otherwise known as Rain Main, is one of the best controllers. He's got it down, sure, but it is an all consuming job.

"Let's run through them again. Number one on final is Delta 1172, then American 1650 behind him. From the northeast is Coastal 540. Or is it Continental 267? His stomach twisted a notch. Christ, that better be Coastal. Over there is Prairie... Oh yeah, Prairie 838. His eyes flicked back and forth between trips and scope, darting among the cluster of targets that blinked and danced with each sweep of the radar. Look away an instant too long and the whole house of cards would collapse."

The first half of the book deals with the challenges of managing traffic. Halfway through, there is a mid air collision and the second half focuses on the aftermath. At the center of the investigation is a software tool called TRAC which is intended to be faster and swifter than humans at avoiding collisions. Guess what? The software has bugs in it. Not only that, but awarding the TRAC contract to the government was so tied up in politics that the authoring company has little incentive to get the bugs out. Not very far fetched at all. 

TRACON is an acronym for Terminal Radar Approach Control. The TRACON team is housed in an underground bunker, out of visual contact with what it going on around them. Hour after hour, they manage the blips on the screen that represent aircraft. Trying to keep things moving despite weather, over booking of runways and faulty equipment.

Here's a TRACON photo I found on the Internet (just google TRACON if you want to learn more). Looks pretty scary to me. 

I noticed the book bore a "science fiction" stamp which means the library that sent it to me had it tucked away in the Sci Fi department and despite being over ten years old, it was in almost pristine condition. That indicated to me that the book wasn't getting a lot of circulation. I sent them an email inquiring why it was in Sci Fi and encouraging them to give it a try on the "must read" table. That's how important I believe this book to be.

I remember the air traffic controller walk out of 1981 and am embarrassed to say that in the naivete of youth, I cheered when President Reagan fired them all and restaffed with non-union workers. I would take a different stand now. There are some jobs that, sadly, require unions to protect the health and well being of their employees and to do as much as possible that their jobs are carried out in a safe, responsible way. Do you really want the person guiding your 747 onto the runway to have worked a staggered week (alternating night and day shifts - the easiest way to cloud the brain) or who is on day six of a six day work week?

Now, a bit of a caveat. The overarching plot and character writing is a bit thin. It was no effort to predict what would happen with each character as they were introduced, but don't let that deter you. If anything, it makes it easier to focus on the technical aspects.

Find it, read it, and if your library, like mine, has it in Science Fiction, make a fuss. Nothing futuristic or fantastical about this thriller (I wish that weren't the case, but it is all too real).

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Something to Answer For by P. H. Newby

Something to Answer For
by P. H. Newby
1969 Booker Prize
4 stars - highly recommend

Here's the abbreviated review:


Any attempt to summarize the plot is futile. I will quote from the dust cover (even though it doesn't really capture the essence of the novel)

"The story concerns itself with Jack Townrow, returned to Port Said as the 1956 Suez crisis is burgeoning. His intention is simply to help the widow of an old friend settle her affairs - and benefit as he might thereby. But nothing is simple: the widow now is uncertain what she wants to do; Townrow cannot find out how his friend died - or even where the body is.

"Subtly manipulating both his characters and his reader, the author removes the novel from the common stream of experience. Unsuspectingly, Townrow is thrust into a clockless world, one that has lost its accustomed dimensions - a world we all inhabit in sleep, in fantasy, in fever. Neither he nor the reader can distinguish the real and the unreal."

I'll say. What a total mind f&*k this book is. I oscillated between wanting to toss it aside to lusting after just a few more pages. Odd things start happening almost at once and the narration runs casually between past and present. "Reality" changes with every telling of an event. 

The writing is brilliant, but elusive. I always try to look for good quotes to provide my followers a flavor of the book, but, taken out of context, passages I selected seem to lay flat. There are bizarre sentences that somehow seem completely logical in the context of the story:

"Why Christou found it necessary to vilify Mrs. K was puzzling. He seemed to think this kind of wit so precious it had to be translated and tossed across the street to the other side."

Townrow experiences so many unusual events that one quickly loses all ability to distinguish reality from hyperbole, from pure fantasy.

"He remembered a number of naked men with long tubes in their mouths. That was the glass factory in Arab Town years ago, when he was in the army, where the workers kept going on hashish and water. [Townrow] had the same joy and excitement now as then. There was the same clear awareness of the possibility he could run about inside his own body. He could course between feet, bowels, breast, and brain, singing, laughing, making great speeches."

You'd think from these brief quotes that the book would perhaps be tough going, confusing, yet it is surprisingly linear (in a round about way). 

The book is written in the third person, but because the author focuses exclusively on Townrow, it comes across as some weird first / third, who's actually talking kind of thing.

Was the author on drugs or what? Total head case. 

If you are ready for a bit of a literary adventure, give it a go. Stick with it. Don't try to figure it out, just let it wash over you. To say I enjoyed the experience would be a bit of an exaggeration, but at the same time I am glad I read it. I tend to read a lot right before sleeping and I swear the book messed with my dreams. Wacky, nutty stuff.

Final note. I was getting so fed up with the swill the Pulitzer Prize committee was selecting that I decided to give the Mann Booker a try. I confess a fondness for British drama in literature and video. It's just a bit more edgy, more raw. Something to Answer For won the first Booker prize and it did not disappoint. I've got book number two all queued up.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Burglar who liked to Quote Kipling by Lawrence Block

The Burglar who like to Quote Kipling
by Lawrence Block
1979 Nero Award
4 stars - excellent, fun read

Oh delightful.

Given how prolific Lawrence Block is, I am surprised that I have never read any of his books.

I decided to branch out a bit and try a different award winning book list. There are a boatload of different awards for mystery novels, but I selected the Nero award which is presented for "literary excellence in the mystery genre."

I'm not sure about the literary part, but this sure was a great book and I found my fingers itching to pick it up and continue reading even when I was really supposed to be doing other activities.

Bernie Rhodenbarr is a burglar living in New York City. This is the third book in a series and we find him running a used book store (but still not ready to give up his old life). Not only does he run the store, but he really is a book junkie and there are great snippets about the love of books. In particular, towards the end of the story, Bernie can tell he is holding a copy (albeit a copy true to the original) of a rare book. How? Because he loves handling books, knowing them tactilely, and he can just "feel" that it is not the same volume as the original. That's a man after my own heart.

The breaking and entering descriptions are fascinating and it's hard not to like Bernie even though he is routinely stealing what is not his. He does have a conscious (as in thoughtfully topping off the gas tank on a car he "borrows" for transport before returning it to its parking spot).

The mystery itself centers around Bernie for hire to acquire a rare edition of Kipling for an avid collector. Well, things don't go as planned and before he knows it, Bernie is on the run, having been framed for murder, and his mission is to identify the real killer before the cops close in on him.

He picks up a sidekick, Carolyn, a dog groomer and good friend, who becomes quite enamored with Bernie's skills at breaking and entering. Carolyn is a lesbian, so no romantic interest, which suited me just fine. When I first meet a character, I'd rather get to know him or her before I have to deal with their love life.

The story is plausible, not overly complex (my poor brain) and the ending, while a bit rushed, is satisfying. 

Note that 1979 was longer ago than I care to think, so even though the writing has a contemporary feel, I had to keep reminding myself that there was no Internet, no cell phones, no laptops because there are some frustratingly low tech moments (who remembers Polaroid cameras).

Ten books in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series. I've gone ahead and ordered a copy of the first book, Burglars Can't Be Choosers, form the library. At least that way I'll have a sure thing to cleanse my reading pallet after I slog through the next Pulitzer winner.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Laughing Boy by Oliver LeFarge

I'm going to apologize up front for the curiously shrinking fonts in this review. When I cut and paste from Amazon I was sent into some HTML vortex that I am too damn lazy to figure out. Just bigify, OK?

Laughing Boy
by Oliver LeFarge
1930 Pulitzer Prize
2 stars - I read this book so you don't have to

Oh for crying out loud! I almost ditched this one after about thirty pages. The book is about Laughing Boy, a young Navajo living on a reservation somewhere in the US in the year 1915 (I got the year from the forward even though I don't recall it actually being mentioned in the book).

The writing was awful. What struck me immediately was the feeling that the author was writing in primitive, simplistic terms because he was writing about a strange and primitive people. OK, I decided to cut him some slack given the book was written in 1929. But with a Pulitzer Prize nod, I figured that there would be something hidden between the pages. Nope. Nothing.

Here's the summary of the plot from Amazon:

Capturing the essence of the Southwest in 1915, Oliver La Farge's Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel is an enduring American classic. At a ceremonial dance, the young, earnest silversmith Laughing Boy falls in love with Slim Girl, a beautiful but elusive "American"-educated Navajo. As they experience all of the joys and uncertainties of first love, the couple must face a changing way of life and its tragic consequences.

Promising. Right? Oh boy, I will maybe learn something about life for the Navajo during the early 20th century and it will be a beautiful love story. 

Oh yeah? Here's the story. Laughing Boy gets seduced by Slim Girl. He marries her against his family's wishes and they setup house just outside the local city. Slim Girl keeps Laughing Boy out of the city. Why? Because Slim Girl is a retired prostitute who now just hangs with one American guy who gives her big wads of money for sleeping with him. It's all part of her master plan. Laughing Boy finds out about her side job and gets totally PO'd and puts an arrow into her john and one into Slim Girl for good measure. But Slim Girl survives and all is forgiven and they decide to pack up and move back to the tribal community. Not so fast. On the way, Slim Girl is shot to death by some other dude that she threw over for Laughing Boy. Laughing Boy buries her and goes home and he's kind of sad. The end.

You know what else? This book was originally written as part of a Master's thesis by some twenty something dweeb college kid who went out into Indian territory to do a little anthropological research. Guess what? That kid couldn't write.

At one point (page 220 to be exact) Laughing Boy gets drunk and has some drunken moments of lucidity about what is really going on with that Slim Girl chick.

"We should have had children. I want children. I want to go home. What is happening to me? I am losing myself. She holds the reins and I am becoming a led horse."

Wow! That's deep, isn't it?

My first instinct was right. I'm thinking the reason this won the Pulitzer Prize is because it was, and I'm quoting from the dust jacket now, "... a daring experiment, triumphantly successful. To choose Navajo Indians as your material." Yeah, and write about them like they were simpletons. I shake my 21st century fist at the implication. A Navajo as an actual interesting human being! Wow! How revolutionary.

I have to share some of the reviews from the dust cover:

"La Farge has done for the Indians in this book what Porgy did for the Negro. His prose approaches the level of poetry. There is hardly a cliche in the entire volume. There isn't a trite situation in the plot"

Open your eyes Mr. New York World Telegram. The whole thing is trite and insulting. I missed the poetry part. Oh, here's one from the Philadelphia Public Ledger:

"The first thing of its kind. It is, as well, a prose poem of rare beauty, depth of feeling and emotional power. It is the finest American novel this reviewer has read in ten years."

I'm wondering what he read ten years ago, aren't you?

As a final note, rather than be left to obscurity, the book was made into a movie in 1934. In typical Hollywood style, Mexicans, rather than real live Native Americans were cast in the leads. Close enough, right? I love the one of the reviews on IMDB:

The combination of the two dynamic Mexican actors Ramon Novarro and Lupe Velez should have guaranteed a dynamite movie.

But someone at MGM, in their wisdom, cast them as Native Americans - a disastrous decision that doomed this film to failure even before it was begun.

Both struggle to make their characters even slightly believable, as they try to curb their Mexican passion into some sort of wise aboriginal spirituality. The spitfire in Lupe just can't help but surface, and all Ramon can do is try to maintain some dignity under that terrible wig. His singing is nice but anachronistic, and there is far too much of it.

Hard to believe this disaster was directed by Woody Van Dyke, who had made one of Ramon's best silent movies "The Pagan". Novarro was deeply ashamed of this film, and it's no wonder. What is saddest of all about it though is the way it wastes what could have been one of the most exciting star combinations of all time. Just imagine if Novarro and Velez were playing a pair of violently passionate Mexican lovers - what fireworks we would have seen!

Shame, MGM, Shame!

There. Happy? Yeah, I'm going to keep slogging through the Pulitzers. They have to get better, right? They started off so promising.

Friday, December 7, 2012

World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z
an oral history of the zombie war
by Max Brooks
5 stars - highly recommend, will read again

This book was a real surprise in a good way. Let's start by saying that I'm a big zombie movie fan, always have been. So of course I had to get this book, right? I was all set for a nice, campy zombie fest.

Nope, what this book really is about is how individuals and nations respond to a threat of unimaginable proportions. It's plausible and chilling.

The book is a series of interviews with survivors of the zombie war. Zombies, how to stop them? They are relentless, they never sleep, nothing kills them save the total destruction of their brains. Can't nuke 'em, can't poison 'em, can't outrun 'em.

Now, zombies are overrunning the world. What do you do? He's got stories of the early infestations, wrenching stories of government decisions to protect a few citizens and let others die, government conspiracies to keep people "calm," fruitless military attacks. You name it. There is even a chapter about zombie sniffing dogs. 

I read a book like this and I think "what would I do?" "In the event of a global crisis, would I make the call to get out of Dodge soon enough? Would I be able to survive even if I got out?" Nothing like the threat of total human destruction to bring out the worst in people. 

There are villains, politicians, military, regular people. Nobody is a hero. People just survive, at whatever cost. I'll quote from Wikipedia:

"Reviewers have noted that Brooks uses World War Z as a platform to criticize government ineptitude, corporate corruption and human short-sightedness."

Yup, all of that. You want a book that will really make you think? Look no further.

Hey, bonus, looks like they're making a movie based on the book and starring Brad Pitt. Watch the trailer here.