Friday, October 31, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin
4 stars - delightful
ALR Blue

Poor A.J. Fikry. He's a mess. The owner of the only bookstore on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, A.J. has retreated into the world of books completely. He doesn't much care for customers, he only buys books he likes (i.e. none of that popular crap) and most evenings he drinks himself into oblivion. 

Sure things were better before. Before his wife was killed in a car accident, leaving him alone to nurture his less savory character traits. 

Thus we find our hero. Then, a package is left for him at the bookstore. An unexpected package with no return address that compels him to shake off his malaise and begin, ever so slowly, to move himself slowly forward into the land of the living. 

This is a wonderful little volume which centers around Island Books and the transformative power of books. Well, what's not to like? 

Interspersed between the chapters are A.J.'s reviews of books, novellas, and short stories. I particularly enjoyed this one.

The Luck of Roaring Camp
1868 / Bret Harte

Overly sentimental tale of a mining camp that adopts an "Ingin baby" whom they dub Luck. I read it for the first time at Princeton in a seminar called the Literature of the American West and was not moved in the least. In my response paper (dated November 14, 1992), the only thing I found to recommend it were the colorful character names: Stumpy, Kentuck, French Pete, Cherokee Sal, etc. I chanced upon "The Luck of the Roaring Camp" again a couple of years ago and I cried so much you'll find that my Dover Thrift Edition is waterlogged. Methinks I have grown soft in my middle age. But me-also-thinks my latter-day reaction speaks to the necessity of encountering stories at the precisely right time in our lives. The things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life.

Please don't get the notion that the book itself is overly sentimental. It isn't. It's rich, touching, sometimes funny, and sometimes sad. It made me want to move to the fictitious Island of Alice and join one of the Island Books book clubs. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

The View from Pompey's Head by Hamilton Basso

The View from Pompey's Head
by Hamilton Basso
1955 National Book Award Runner Up
2 stars - um, hello?
ALR Blue - nope, no animals

*** WARNING ***

Well, ugh. Dated doesn't begin to describe this book. Let's start with the basics, shall we?

Anson Page is a New York City lawyer who specializes in the publishing industry. He's called upon to figure out if there is merit to a lawsuit brought by the wife of a prolific author alleging that the (now deceased) editor had siphoned off $20,000 (that's about $175,000 today) of royalties. Said author is now blind and living on a small island off the coast of Georgia. Said wife rules his world and allows no access to her husband. 

The publishing house calls on Anson to go to Georgia and get the real story and try and spare the publishing house from paying out and being scandalized by having a dead editor who was also a thief. Why Anson? Because he grew up in Pompey's Head and getting through to Mr. Big Author is going to require an insider who can negotiate the social waters of the south. 

Well, seems that our pal, Anson, hasn't returned to his home town in 15 years. Yup, got the heck out of Dodge and never looked back. Why is that? Hmmm... therein lies a tale.

Listen, I was all over this book for the first 200 pages or so. I liked the way it kind of meandered between past and present as Anson's arrival in Pompey's Head caused all sorts of memories to be stirred up. In fact, the big mystery of the money theft was pretty much sidelined as the author dedicated page after page to tales of the old south. No problem.

Where things started to fade was when Anson's musings entered into his young adulthood. Suddenly, he's hyper focused on meeting the right girl and observing the sensibilities and gentile manners of his hometown (which prohibit certain behaviors and even thoughts). 

So now you're thinking, "Hey, that's for real and a serious topic." Hey, I'm with you. However stylistically, what begin as a lyrical journey through life quickly succumbed to the sterile, stilted story telling that was so common in the 50's. Everything is so white washed that it becomes an agony for the reader. 

And it gets worse. Anson discovers that he is really in love with the hapless Dinah, who was just a teenager when he left town. Of course she is in a loveless marriage, has always loved him, blah, blah, blah, and, well, here, how about this dialog as Dinah and Anson (a.k.a. Sonny) discuss lunch plans?

"No, I won't. It wouldn't only be lunch, and you know it. If I should see you today, alone -- "
"Oh, Sonny, why -- "
"Let's not ask why, Dinah. It's too late for whys."

Queue swelling violin music, pan camera back to show hopeless couple under the shadow of Pompey's Head. Ugh, barf.

Once Dinah made her entrance, everything unraveled. 

Now then, how could this possibly have been shortlisted for the National Book Award? My guess is because of the themes of the book (however syrupy the exploration). Throughout, people are being hamstrung by class prejudice. Seems that where you live and who your ancestors were pretty much dictates your life. Um, yup, that's been true for a while and it really stinks. 

But, wait, what about that whole embezzlement thing? Oh, I almost forgot (as, I fear, did the author) because it isn't until the last 20 pages or so of this leaden 400+ page tome that the big reveal happens. Apparently Mr. Author's mother was black. Yup, albeit white enough to pass. The payments were to take care of her until she died. Well, well, well. 

I'm not trying to dismiss the import of this discovery nor the tragedy of knowing that if Mr. Author's parentage were revealed, all would be lost. However, Mr. Boss makes little of the whole thing. In fact it only gets as much attention as required to state the facts. Done and dusted. Meanwhile, we are bludgeoned with more smarmy stuff between Anson and Dinah. So much so that one is relieved when Anson finally boards the train home to NYC, yup, he leaves her to her hollow marriage and returns to his, because what is true love compared to honor after all?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

Grave Peril
by Jim Butcher
4 stars - a 3 star story, but 5 star action
ALR Blue - no animals (except a couple of Hell Hounds)

Here comes another adventure of Harry Dresden, the only professional wizard in the Chicago area phone book. Hey, somebody has to fight all the ghosts, goblins, and nightmare creatures that walk among us. 

This time he's struggling with some extraordinary ghost activity. They've gone way beyond the usual spooky stuff and are now causing real trouble in the mortal world. Some fairly yucky activities including chains of barbed wire, visible only with a bit of magic, that bind and torment their victims. Well, ew. And if that isn't bad enough, the local vampires are sniffing around and have even invited Harry to their annual vampire ball. Huh?

Bonus on the vampires in this book. They've got some extra features like slobber that causes their victims to go into a hypnotic state and bat bodies under their skin disguises. Oh, ew again.

As usual, Harry takes a beating and keeps on kicking. Sheesh. I think the entire book takes place during about a week of time and in that time Harry just keeps running into trouble and getting all banged about and robbed of his wizard mojo. 

From the dust cover:
Jim Butcher strikes just the right narrative balance between wizard and wise guy, mystic and mobster.

Yup. Because Harry isn't all "I must fight evil!" Actually, his sidekick, Michael the Good, is the straight arrow here. Harry? Well, he has no problem trading insults with demons and giving pretty young ghouls a good whopping. 

Mr. Butcher pens some of the best action scenes around. How good? Let's just say that I was mulling over one of the scenes from this book and momentarily forgot whether I had read it or seen it in a movie. It was that vivid. Somehow he is able to give just enough detail that the reader knows what's going on, who is there, the setting, but leaves the right amount out so that you fill in the blanks with your imagination. The result is fantastic. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Good House by Ann Leary

The Good House
by Ann Leary
4 stars - not the same book as the dust cover
ALR Green - some dogs make a few brief appearances

I'm fairly certain that somebody recommended this book to me. Thank you. It was awesome.

Nothing "darkly comic" that I can see here. The story is narrated by Hildy Good. She's a realtor, operating out of her hometown of Wendover (choke - see final paragraph) on the pricey north shore outside of Boston. At the age of sixty, or thereabouts, she's living a solitary life (divorced) with her two dogs. While she's familiar with all the inhabitants of the community, not many she would call friends. Why? Well, that brings us to what I believe is the central theme of the book. Alcoholism.

While Hildy as an alcoholic is given brief mention on the dust cover, it is really the driving force behind how events unfold for her. Kudos to Ms. Leary who really has the alcoholic mind down pat. 

So while Hildy struggles with her addiction, into town comes Rebecca McCallister. Hildy and Rebecca become friends of sorts, but unfortunately Rebecca has a few screws loose and isn't necessarily the person one should seek out as a buddy. 

The writing was great. Like stay up too late reading great. In retrospect, nothing particularly extraordinary happened, but perhaps that was part of the allure. As I've said before, the life one lives in one's own head is always of overwhelming import and so as rather mundane (in the bigger picture) things happen, they become as large to the reader as to the characters experiencing them. We've got adultery, lying, stealing, hurt between family members, and small town gossip. You can find that everywhere. 

Annoying nit... while the author uses the names of just about every town on the North Shore of Massachusetts, she sets the novel in a town that doesn't exist. I had to place the action in Winthrop, even though geographically it seems a bit removed from the other towns the characters frequent. I just kind of had a brain fart every time I saw the word "Wendover."

Thursday, October 9, 2014

What is the What by Dave Eggers

What is the What
by Dave Eggers
5 stars - hypnotic

What is the What is the fictionalized account of the life of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

Let's get the whole fictionalized part out of the way right up front because it's a major focus of most of the reviews I've read. The preface indicates that this is Valentino's story as told to Mr. Eggers and that some conversations have been recreated and characters combined. Hence fiction. From there one is left to speculate how much fiction, how much fact, if one chooses to do so. 

I found the book to be hypnotic, lyrical, exhausting, and difficult to put down. Events that cannot be fathomed pile up on top of each other. All presented in a style that does not seek to be overly dramatic or manipulative. There are heroes and villains, but throughout, the voice of the author is kept small, modest. "These things happened, this is how I felt, this is what I did."

Valentino survives the journey from Sudan to Kenya and ultimately settles in the refugee camp of Kakuma. Started in 1992, the camp survives to this day, now host to 138,000 men, women, and children. People housed in the most desolate place imaginable, totally dependent on aid for food, water, and all the other necessities of life. It's overwhelming.

In 2001, Valentino finally makes the journey to the United States and settles in Atlanta. 

It's a challenging book, because there are no answers. The resettlement of the Lost Boys in America was a mixed success, and possibly not a kindness. To move from one world to another so different, with limited resources seems more like an experiment in happenstance. Of course the United States offers opportunity, but it is also fraught with bedevilment and pitfalls and a culture that is confounding to many who have spent their lives fighting to survive in war torn Africa. 

If nothing else, though, I feel it is important to be aware of the world around us. The very small world that somehow contains an extraordinary variety of human experience, both good and bad. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Lucky Dog Matchmaking Service by Beth Kendrick

The Lucky Dog Matchmaking Service
by Beth Kendrick
3 stars - for dog lovers
ALR Green - see **SPOILER** at end for possible caveat

If you are mad about dogs, then it's likely you'll find this book fun. Otherwise, well, it's pretty light, as in Lifetime Happy Movie light.

The plot, as such, is straightforward. Lara Madigan and her best friend run an of off the books orphan dog matchmaking service. They take in as many orphan dogs as they can to foster in their homes and then they go to adoption events and try and find the perfect match between dog and human. That's really it.

Along the way, Lara has mommy issues and boyfriend issues which all resolve in happy, predictable ways. No worries, because hardly any pages go by without dogs. Dogs walking, dogs drooling, dogs being cute, dogs being naughty, you name it. As a bonus, Lara gets wrangled into showing a dog and so both purebred and mixed breed dogs get their fair shake. 

There are also some gentle tips about dog training as well as reminders about where to get a dog (not a pet store) and how to take care of dogs that might have had a difficult time of it.

It's a nice little piece of fluff to keep in mind when you need something uplifting without being overly smarmy. 

*** SPOILER ***

One puppy has to be euthanized due to parvo. It's sad, but doesn't spoil the overall feel of the book.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'Connor

The Edge of Sadness
by Edwin O'Connor
1962 Pulitzer Prize
4 stars - intense and moving
ALR Blue - just people

After skipping a few years of books by the likes of Hemingway and Faulkner, I'm back to the Pulitzer reading list. This was a great point of re-entry.

The Edge of Sadness is a dense, meditative volume. Being the same age, 55, as the narrator, I fit perfectly into the target audience. People who have definitively crested the halfway mark in life and tend to have ruminations involving looking forward and back in equal proportion.

Most of the book takes place in the span of a few months. The narrator is Father Hugh Kennedy, a priest in an unnamed New England city. A sudden invitation to the birthday party of an old family friend is the launch point. Charlie Carmody, now in his eighties, is not a nice guy. In fact, he's a slum lord. But Father Hugh grew up with Charlie's family and is anxious in ways both good and bad to attend the party and reconnect with his childhood pals (those being the children of Charlie). 

Events aren't really the focus of the novel. In fact, nothing much happens at all. What does happen is that Father Hugh reflects on his life and the lives of those around him... a lot. While it was a bit stifling at times, I never found it to be dull. Because here I am, in my fifties, with so much of the same thoughts going through my head. Not just thoughts about myself, but about those around me. Understanding my peers in a new light as I consider from the vantage of middle age, the decisions made along the years and the whys and wherefores. 

The writing is brilliantly timeless. Almost devoid of any historical references (fashion, technology, politics), one is left only with the musings of people being people which transcends all time. The human condition. There aren't any great tragedies, alarming reveals, or heroics, but the reminder that all of our lives are momentous, at least to us.

I confess to feeling some fatigue after about 300 pages. Not because I was tired of the story, but because the constant intimacy of Father Hugh's thoughts almost overwhelmed me. 

I don't think this book is for everybody, but for me it was pretty darn awesome. 

Here's a nifty quote that made me smile in which Father Hugh encounters a fellow New Englander who sums up New England weather rather nicely.

They say it's the tropics that destroy health, but have you ever stopped to consider who the 'they' are who say this? They all come from Bangor or Providence. Not one of them ever mentions the simple medical fact that the month of March in the Massachusetts bronchial belt is infinitely more debilitating than malaria time in Panama. It's no accident that all the country's best hospitals are in Boston, you know: they want to be close to the source of supply.