Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Troubles by J.G. Farrell

by J.G. Farrell
1 star - Just not my thing

I'm sure this is a perfectly fine book. I even thought I was kind of enjoying it. But after about 130 pages I said to myself "what if you stopped reading" and the sense of relief was great, so there you go.

J.G. Farrell is a wonderful writer. I can't fault the writing or the creativity. I suppose I should have been warned when I couldn't get through the introduction by John Banville (another excellent author whose works, sadly,  just don't resonate with me). 

It is an odd feeling to be enjoying the author and simultaneously finding the actual book tedious.

Here's an example that I tagged early on to show how delightful the writing is.

These visits normally took a long time. The reason was that Dr. Ryan, however alert his mind, had to cope with a body so old and worn out as to be scarcely animate. Watching him climb the stairs towards his patient was like watching the hands of a clock; he moved so slowly that he might not have been moving at all. One day the Major saw him on his way upstairs, clinging to the banister as a snail clings to the bark of a tree. After he had smoked a cigarette and glanced through the newspaper he happened to pass through the foyer again and there was the doctor, still clinging to the banister and still apparently not moving, but nevertheless much nearer the top. The Major shook his head and hoped that it was not an emergency

That's really great, right? But not enough to sustain me for over 400 pages.

J.G. Farrell won the Booker prize. Not sure if it was for this volume or not (and I'm currently too lazy to check).

I'll give you the summary off the back.

1919. After surviving the Great War, Major Breendan Archer makes his way to Ireland, hoping to discover whether he is indeed betrothed to Angela Spencer, whose Anglo-Irish family owns the once aptly named Majestic Hotel in Kilnalough. But his fiancee is strangely altered and her family's fortunes have suffered a spectacular decline. The hotel's hundreds of rooms are disintegrating on a grand scale; its few remaining guests thrive on rumors and games of whist; herds of cats have taken over the Imperial Bar and the upper stories; bamboo shoots threaten the foundations; and piglets frolic in the squash court. Meanwhile, the Major is captivated by the beautiful and bitter Sarah Devlin. As housekeeping disasters force him from room to room, outside the order of the British Empire also totters; there is unrest in the East and in Ireland itself the mounting violence of "the Troubles."

The good news is that I did realize how ignorant I was of the history of Ireland, so I did a quick online search and now I know more about all of that, so not a total loss.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

The Cutting Season
by Attica Locke
3 stars - a fun read

Attica Locke is a really cool name. Yup.

I heard Ms. Locke interviewed on Morning Edition on my local NPR station. What an interesting person. Of course I put her novel in my queue.

The Cutting Season is a mystery set on a Louisiana plantation which has been converted into a tourist spot. The main character is Caren Grey who runs the plantation business. That business being comprised of tours, weddings, and other events. 

Caren starts each day with a tour of the grounds to make sure everything is in order. The schoolhouse, the gift shop and cottages, and, finally, the old slave shacks located on the very edge of the vast property. On the morning the book opens, she gets a creepy feeling when she goes to check on the slave quarters. 

Someone had been in here, she thought, inside this very cabin. It was the stillness that spooked her. Not the kind of emptiness that comes with actual vacancy, but rather a kind of strained quiet that was trying too hard, the tightness that comes when someone somewhere is trying very hard to be still, to restrain every twitch and wayward breath.

Spooky, eh? 

Meanwhile, the old plantation is ringed by sugar cane fields owned by a vast corporation which preys off of migrant workers. 

The scene is set and since this is a mystery, soon enough a body turns up. A partially buried body found right near those very same slave cabins. And we are underway.

I confess I liked the first half of the book better than the second. I feel like Ms. Locke lost some of that lyricism in her writing that grabbed me in the beginning. The first part of the book introduces many characters and sets the reader up for any one of a number of conclusions to the actual mystery.

But the mystery itself isn't the whole of the novel. The novel also raises questions about the divide that still exists between black and white. A divide based on very recent history to many of the characters in the book who can trace their lineage directly back to slave or owner. And as I read along I realized how very white most of the books I read are. Very white. I read along and assume that everybody is white unless otherwise noted, but then I realized, why should they be? Caren is black, but the race of other characters is sometimes mentioned and sometimes not and I was dismayed to find that it mattered to me. I didn't want to imagine the characters the wrong way. Weird. So kind of an eye opening experience for me. That's good.

Caren's ex-boyfriend and the father of her daughter, shows up and the complex history they share is very real and painful. Caren herself is pulled back and forth through time as the past life of the plantation (a life that is in her blood) creeps in to the possible reasons for the murder itself. 

I don't usually try too hard to figure out mysteries. I prefer a surprise (but do want it to be plausible). This one is quite plausible, but I thought the last third of the book was a bit rushed and it lost some of the intensity of the earlier parts. 

Not sure I would run out to read another of Ms. Locke's books (goodness, my queue is already full to overflowing), but I do recommend this one to mystery fans.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Thunder Dog by Michael Hingson and Susy Flory

Thunder Dog
by Michael Hingson with Susy Flory
1 star - I couldn't finish it, but you might want to read it anyway

I feel awful giving this book just one star, but I have to be honest. I couldn't finish it.

Here we have yet another example of an individual with an important and very interesting story to tell who is saddled with, dare I say, a dog of a co-author.

What's it about? The book is about Michael Hingson, blind from birth, and his guide dog, Roselle, who helps him escape from the 78th floor of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist attack. It is also about Mr. Hingson himself, his life, and his comments regarding the state of affairs for blind people in the US.

Let's get the criticism out of the way first and then I will go on to tell you why you might want to read the book anyway.

As is so often the case with autobiographical works penned with a co-author (see my review of Wallace), this one suffers from horrifically shoddy writing. The writing style is at about an 8th grade reading level. In fact it reads more like a book report than a compelling story. Even moments that are exciting become mundane with the simplistic sentence structure and lack of skill at weaving a tale. What could have been humorous moments fall flat as the author drones on with every sentence the same, every paragraph evenly spaced, and not a single stretch into using an SAT level vocabulary word. 

And that all pisses me off. 

A lot.

Why? Because Mr. Hingson is clearly a really neat, well educated guy with a lot of important things to say. Obviously, the link to 9/11 is the draw. The chapters alternate between the events of that day and a bit of Hingson's history. That could have been exciting, but the descriptions of his flight from the towers are penned with the same, just the facts, ma'am, style as the chapters outlining advances in technology for the blind community. Hard to believe, but, yes, I started skimming over the Trade Tower chapters even before I started skimming the other chapters and then, ultimately, giving up.

So why, oh why, would any of my many followers read this book? Well, because for whatever time you can stomach Ms. Flory's robotic delivery, there are a lot of thought provoking snippets to be pulled out and mulled over.

Mr. Hingson was born in 1950, a time when parents were told to sequester their blind children in schools for the blind (often far away from home). They opted to mainstream their child. Subsequently, young Hingson went to public school and learned how to do for himself. And do he did. He learned to ride a bike and tooled around the neighborhood (without any accidents). He helped his teachers learn how to teach him. He graduated high school, went on to college, got a degree in physics, and became a salesman for high tech equipment. He also did a lot of work with people developing better technology to assist blind people.

There is information in the book that bucks the prejudice of the sighted regarding what can be accomplished without the use of one's eyes. I am amazed. The back of the book contains an extensive list of resources for the blind.

Mr. Hingson established Roselle's Dream Foundation in honor of his beloved dog, Roselle. The goal of the foundation is to help blind people get the access to technology they need to to fulfill their potential in a sighted world. You can visit the foundation web site here

Michael Hingson is a cool guy. I'd love to meet him and talk to him. I'd love to hear his life story in his own words. Maybe someday he'll write his own book. 

A different book. A challenging book. 

I hope so. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes

Years of Grace
by Margaret Ayer Barnes
Pulitzer Prize
4 stars - outstanding

The volume I received from the library was almost exactly like the one pictured. Delightful!

I was about 100 pages shy of finishing this book when it came due at the library. I was so happy when my renewal request was denied because there was actually a waiting list. Nice to see old books getting circulation. The librarian graciously told me that I could return it the next day without penalty so I made haste to finish it.

Years of Grace follows the life of Jane Ward from the age of 14 into her early fifties. 

I loved it. This is the kind of book that one should read every ten years or so because it captures so well how one's perspective changes as the decades roll by.

There are no pivotal events or crisis beyond what the average person might experience. Great! Most of us will live out our days experiencing things of great import to us, but of passing interest to the real world. But those events DO matter to us and Ms. Barnes captured the struggles and joys of living a "normal" life beautifully.

The writing is neither pretentious (I didn't need a dictionary) nor simplistic. 

Compressing four decades into just under 600 pages is a challenge. Ms. Barnes carries it off well. Sometimes days go by between chapters, sometimes months or years. But isn't that how "real" life works? Years melt into one another, highlighted by moments of clarity when one realizes that one has changed almost overnight both physically and emotionally.

I like to think that life happens in large chunks which I call Optimism, Disenchantment, Resignation, and (if you are lucky) Contentment. 

Here is a passage which captures the Disenchantment phase:

At thirty-six life was terrible, she thought, as she pulled on her rubber shoes. It had no dignity. It wasn't at all what you expected when you were younger. Youth wasn't dignified, of course, but it was simple, it was joyous, it was expectant. The things you thought about were important, no matter how inadequately one thought about them. But later you found yourself involved in a labyrinth of trifles. Worrying, ridiculous trifles.

Ah yes, those in between years when you no longer enjoy a dizzying array of options and you are overwhelmed by the day to day treadmill of just getting on with things. 

Miss Thomas had claimed it was a man-made world. If so, men had certainly made it with a curious disregard of their own comfort and convenience. How terrible to have to be the first vice-president of a bank and work eight hours a day for forty years at a mahogany desk in the executive offices of the Midland Loan and Trust Company and never have more than a three weeks' holiday!

But Jane survives her thirties. She is married, has children, good times and bad. She deals with temptations to forgo her humdrum life and the conflicting feelings associated with watching the world change around her and trying to decide how best to evolve (if at all). 

And there are big changes. The story is set primarily in Chicago which grows from a neighborly city into a warren of apartments alternated with smoke spewing factories. Does one cling to the fanciful image of the city as it once was? Remove oneself from the environment? Or remain and change with the times? A little of each as it turns out.

Finally, as always, the reader observes that shock and dismay over the younger generation is a problem intrinsic to the human condition. I have often discussed the failings of our current crop of youth with my peers. But lately I curb my denunciations. Are their ways wrong or bad or just different? I tend to think "different" and strive to admit when I am choosing to cling to my familiar ways (and that's OK) rather than submerge myself in new things. But one must move forward, and sampling the gifts of the next generation is important. No, I don't need to buy those annoying low slung pants which are all the fashion, but I have found my adventures in social media (resisted for years) to be, for the most part, interesting.

I loved this remark towards the end of the book when Jane and her friend are despairing over the behavior Jane's adult children.

'I hate to think of what's before you, Jane,' said Agnes. 'But remember one thing - there can't be understanding between two generations. I'm convinced of that. Love, Jane, and sympathy, but never understanding. We must take our children's ideas on faith. We can never make them our own. Remember that and save yourself from unhappiness.'