Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm is the second Cormoran Strike mystery novel by Robert Galbraith (AKA J.K. Rowling). In this new adventure, private detective Strike and his assistant Robin investigate the disappearance and subsequent death of author Owen Quine. Hired by Quine's wife Leonora (with little hope of remuneration), Strike is drawn into the intrigues of London publishing--which are more twisted and violent than one might suspect. When Leonora is arrested for murdering her husband, the pressure on Strike picks up, just as his amputated leg is bothering him and his ex-fiancee is marrying someone else. Meanwhile, Robin's fiance continues to object to her career choice. Nonetheless, they solve the case when the police can or will not.

The Silkworm is not as enjoyable as the first book in the series, The Cuckoo's Calling. The crime is outlandish (and grisly) and the police incompetent. Strike's commitment to Leonora, who is neither sympathetic nor paying, seems unlikely; while this commitment might make one admire him, his willingness to sleep with a young woman in whom he has no interest simply to get information from her undercuts any such admiration. And the Moonlighting-style sexual tension between Robin and Cormoran isn't very compelling.

If there's a third Cormoran Strike novel, I'm not sure I'll read it. I'm actually struggling with the question of why I continue to read series mysteries when they are so unsatisfying--but at least most of them are quick reads. At 455 pages, that can't be said of The Silkworm.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson

Jun Do, the protagonist of Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son, grows up in an orphanage, a shameful heritage in North Korea. Despite being (or thinking he is--one cannot be sure) the son of the institution's director, Jun Do is not spared the hard labor that the orphans must do. And, when he reaches maturity, he is forced into low-level jobs: he is a tunnel fighter and is then "promoted" to being first a kidnapper who snatches Japanese people and takes them back to North Korea and then a "listener" who accompanies a fishing boat to listen to enemy (i.e., U.S.) radio transmissions. When things go bad on the boat, Jun Do is forced to endure a shark attack so that a false story of heroism can be constructed to cover up what really happened. As the hero, Jun Do is taken on a secret mission to the United States; this mission, too, goes poorly. Much is grim (and surreal) in this first section of the book, told entirely in the third person from Jun Do's perspective, but things get much worse, as Jun Do has been sent to a prison camp at the end of this section.

In the second part of the book, Jun Do is being interrogated. He has not been assigned to the "torture first" team but to a group that claims to be writing biographies of North Korean citizens, using subtler forms of coercion until greater force is required. This section of the book has three narrators. Jun Do, who tells of his time in the prison camp, as well as his escape and subsequent impersonation of the powerful Commander Ga, whose wife (a famous actress Sun Moon) and children have disappeared. Kim Jong-Il emerges as a character in Jun Do's story. The second narrator is the interrogator who is attempting to write the biography of Jun Do/Commander Ga; his first-person narration provides not only a description of his work and why he thinks it is important, but a description of his own severely circumscribed life. The final narrator is the voice of the loudspeaker, heard everywhere in North Korea; in the hands of propagandists, Jun Do and Sun Moon's story becomes a serialized fable.

While Kim Jong-Il is rendered as a comical figure, the lives of North Korean people are certainly not funny; indeed, the continual betrayals and cruelties that the government visits on its people make reading difficult. Yet Jun Do develops into a compelling character--as does his interrogator--and their intertwined fates keep you reading.

Johnson relied on information from defectors, scholarship on North Korea, and a brief and highly managed visit to the country. Obviously, however, he relied on his prodigious imagination. Thus, one cannot really assess the degree to which his depiction resembles reality, a fact that troubles me somewhat. I am quite sure that, in time, Johnson's descriptions will become reality in my mind. This may not be fair to the real North Korea, but it is a tribute to the author's construction of a grotesque but memorable world.

Favorite passage:
The hallway was lined with photographs of the Senator's family, always smiling. To move toward the kitchen was like going back in time: the graduation photos becoming sports photos, and then there were scouting clubs, pigtails, birthday parties. And finally there were pictures of babies.   Was this what a family was? How it grew? Straight as the children's teeth. Sure, there was an arm in a sling, and over time, the grandparents disappeared from the photos. The occasions changed, as did the dogs. But this was a family, start to finish, without wars or famines or political prisons. Without a stranger coming to town to drown your daughter.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Divorce Papers, by Susan Rieger

Budding criminal defense attorney Sophie Diehl has no interest in divorce law but, mostly by happenstance, gets roped into handling the divorce of Mia Durkheim, the daughter of an important client at Sophie's firm. Through what the author calls "epistolary 2.0"--a mix of letters, memos (and numerous attachments), and emails--we see not only the details of the process of divorcing but also the machinations of a law firm's operations as well as how both Sophie and Mia mature over the course of a year. And we laugh a lot while doing so--Rieger has given both Sophie and Mia a sharp wit.

Although I don't see the need to write a lot about the book, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks to my friend Colleen for recommending it.

. . . you may be thinking like a lawyer, but you're writing like a self-indulgent alternative-newspaper feature writer.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland

Lena is the last transcriptionist at the New York Record, a newspaper clearly modeled on The New York Times, where the author had that same job for several years. Lena, a grad school dropout, spends her days alone in a room, transcribing tapes of reporters' interviews as well as stories that have been phoned in to the paper. The one reporter who treats her like a human being calls her by the wrong name. She lives in what is essentially a women's hostel--no men are allowed in the women's rooms, but they are able to check out a key to Gramercy Park, where they can spend a quite hour (if they are late getting the key back, the "housemother" chastises them severely). She hasn't dated for years and relies on literary quotations as conversation. She seems totally disengaged from "real life."

On the bus one day, Lena has a brief encounter with a blind woman. When she reads in the paper that the woman, a court reporter, has been killed after climbing into the lions' cage at the zoo, she becomes obsessed with learning more about the woman, Arlene. Chasing down information about the woman, she uses many of the somewhat questionable reporting tricks that she has witnessed journalists on the paper use--yet the process and the similarities between her life and Arlene's begin to draw Lena out of her isolation.

The Transcriptionist has an almost dreamlike quality--or perhaps it is that Lena inhabits her life as though it were a dream. Some aspects of the work environment at The Record are surreal--the paper buys survival masks for employees in lieu of a holiday party, Lena gains admittance to the room in which an elderly man sorts through obituaries by singing lines from "Now the Day Is Over." Yet Lena's gradual steps toward reclaiming her life are moving, and I recommend this book.

Favorite passage:
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Light Women's Literature

Recently, I've been listening to audiobooks checked out from the Front Range Online Library, whose selection of available titles isn't always great. As a result, I've listened to several novels that I'd call light women's literature; I'd call it that to avoid the name "chick lit," which I know many authors and probably some readers find offensive. However, when you've read these books, you recognize that there is indeed a genre in which women's stories are told in a humorous or light-hearted fashion, even when the stories involve such serious issues as drug addiction, hoarding, bigamy, widowhood, and raising children under difficult circumstances. While relationships with family and friends are common to the books, so, quite often, is the search for a mate.

Examples: Family Pictures, by Jane Green, is the story of two women who discover--in a totally implausible way--that they are married to the same man, who has disappeared and ruined both of them financially. His first wife Maggie is an obnoxious social climber who pays little attention to her children; the second wife Sylvie seems more genuine and kind, but her daughter is anorexic. The women, again implausibly, become friends and help each other carve out new lives. Maggie is so transformed and Sylvia becomes successful in business so easily that the reader loses any sense that the story is real.

Objects of My Affection, by Jill Smolinski, has a more interesting premise. Lucy has sold everything to pay for drug rehab for her teenage son Ash. Dumped by her boyfriend and sharing a room with her best friend's toddler, Lucy jumps at a job helping a famous artist, a hoarder, organize her belongings. Unfortunately, Lucy is an idiot who is continually manipulated by her son and seems incapable of making good decisions. Only when she reunites with her old boyfriend does she find the ability to stand up to her son, which trivializes the difficulty of dealing with a child's addiction.

Bridget Jones: Mad about the Boy, by Helen Fielding (godmother of chick lit), is the worst of the three. Heroine Bridget is now 50 and has been tragically widowed (Mark Darcy was killed by an IED in Darfur); she has two young children, Billy and Mabel, that she is raising alone, with the help of the cast of friends well-known from the earlier books. Unfortunately, Bridget does not seem to have matured one whit--she continues to obsess about men and her weight. She now documents not only her weight and alcohol, tobacco, and food intake, she also writes in her diary about her twitter followers, texts received from potential admirers, and the like.  She cannot seem to get to school to pick up her children on time or to organize their homework. How does she emerge from this mess? She finds a man (and the reader can predict early on which man it will be)!! Ugh.

These three thumbnails highlight another deficit of light women's literature--many of the protagonists are annoying characters--not evil, but silly, incompetent, and/or so less than wise than it seems almost criminal.  I don't mind light reading--after all, I read dozens of mysteries. But unbelievable and/or predictable plots that trivialize serious issues and feature unsympathetic characters sap the enjoyment one might get from reading these books.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian

Emily Shepherd is a normal high-schooler--she loves poetry, especially that of Emily Dickinson (did you know that much of the work of Dickinson can be sung to the theme of Gilligan's Island?); her teachers chide her for underachieving; she occasionally gets into a modest amount of trouble; she worries about her parents' drinking. Then Reactor One at the Cape Abenaki Nuclear Power Plant in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom melts down; not only are her parents killed, but she soon realizes that her father, an engineer at the plant, is being blamed for the disaster. Afraid that the blame will extend to her, she takes off from the school where she and her classmates have been transported.

Over the next nine months, she lives the hard life of the streets. She stays for a time at a shelter, but when one of the other residents figures out who she is, she takes off. Next she lands at the apartment of an Iraq War vet who sells drugs and runs Emily and other girls as prostitutes; from Andrea, another girl in the apartment, she learns the fine art of cutting herself. When Andrea heads for Boston, Emily leaves the apartment and sleeps essentially on the street. Then she meets nine-year-old Cameron, on the run from an abusive foster family, and decides to take him under her wing. The two spend the Vermont winter in the library by day and in an igloo made of garbage bags by night. The connection with Cameron gives Emily a new human connection to keep her from suicide, but things are hardly rosy for the two.

Bohjalian has always had a gift for creating multidimensional and believable female characters, and Emily Shepherd is all of that and more. She is a combination of self-awareness and teenage insecurity. She recognizes that she is making bad decisions, but she cannot stop herself from making them. Given the opportunity to care for Cameron, she rises to meet the challenge, though the best mothering of a 15-year-old living on the street is certainly flawed. While some of Emily's responses seem extreme, the circumstances in which she finds herself are also extreme.

The title Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is taken from a direction given to children in Newtown, Connecticut, when they had to walk through the halls of their school past the bodies of their dead classmates. Emily recognizes that the words can be inspirational or dreadful, depending on the context--for her, they carry special weight because, once Cameron is lost to her, she believes she has no one's hand to hold. That pain makes the book ineffably sad, yet it also demonstrates the strength of the human spirit. I didn't care for the past couple Bohjalian books I read (or tried to read), but I definitely recommend Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.

Favorite passages:
But for most of the world--for most of Vermont--the Cape Abenaki meltdown is just another bit of old news. Tsunamis. School shootings. Syria. We watch it, we read about it, and then we move on. As a species, we're either very resilient or super callous. I don't know which.

The poetry of a nuclear disaster is weirdly beautiful. There is alliteration: rads and roentgens and rems. To a scientist, those are just units of measurement. To a poet? Lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

After the Quake, by Haruki Murakami

All the short stories in After the Quake are set in the month following the devastating Kobe earthquake in 1995. None of the stories involve people directly affected by the disaster; rather, the characters are among the many indirectly impacted--by watching too much news coverage, having nightmares, hoping an enemy was killed in the quake, or reexamining how they want to live their lives.

My favorite of the stories was "honey pie." The story opens with a man Junpei telling his friend's daughter Sala a story about a bear. The friend, Sayoko, has called Junpei in the middle of the night because Sala has awakened in a panic due to an earthquake-related nightmare; Junpei is the only person who can soothe her. The story then flashes back to the college friendship of Junpei, Sayoko, and Takatsuki. Takatsuki is a more aggressive personality than Junpei and he strikes up a romantic relationship with Sayoko (Junpei is also in love with her, but is too tentative to make a move). Sayoko and Takatsuki eventually marry, have Sala, and divorce--but the three remain friends. Takatsuki encourages Junpei to take his relationship with Sayoko to the next level, but Junpei still hesitates. Only after the earthquake does he decide to ask Sayoko to marry him; he also decides that he wants to write stories different from those he has previously written, focusing more on people who are hopeful.

In "ufo in kushiro,"  a woman spends five days watching earthquake coverage nonstop and then leaves her husband because he is essentially hollow. He decides to take a vacation and agrees to carry a mysterious package to Hokkaido for a colleague. In Hokkaido he meets two women; he tries to sleep with one but is impotent, an event that causes him to begin questioning whether he is indeed an empty man.  In "landscape with flatiron," a young woman and older man whose family lives in Kobe--he does not bother to check on them, however--build bonfires on the beach and talk. At the end of the story, they seem to be waiting to die, how we're not sure. "super-frog saves tokyo" has magical elements that are common in Murakami's work. In this case, a gigantic frog approaches a bank loan officer for help fighting a worm that will cause an earthquake that will destroy Tokyo.

I really don't know what to make of After the Quake as a collection. Murakami's stories offer an indictment of Japanese people as living rather empty lives lacking in meaning; while "honey pie" suggests that an event like the Kobe earthquake may shake people into action, "landscape with flatiron" offers a less positive perspective. And I really have no idea what a couple of the stories mean.

During the spring semester, I facilitated an online book group that focused on a collection of material written in response to the 3/11/2011 disasters in Japan. The stories in that book, titled March Was Made of Yarn (see my review at, dealt much more directly with the impact of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown; although some had fantastical elements, they had a greater impact on me than Murakami's! I should note that After the Quake was reviewed very positively and is often mentioned as an important title in the "literature of disaster"; for me, however, the collection did not work.

Favorite passage:
The short story is on the way out. Like the slide rule.