Monday, June 29, 2015

The Skeleton Road, by Val McDermid

I continue to read more mysteries than are good for me, but I don't generally write them on for this blog because there's just so little to say about them. However, I thought I would at least mention this new title from Val McDermid because it is not only a double mystery (who killed the person whose skeleton was found on the roof of an abandoned building in Edinburgh and who is the vigilante killing Balkan war criminals?), it is also a bit of a history lesson about the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. Although I was, of course, a full-fledged newspaper-reading adult in the 90s, it's surprising how little I knew about the conflicts--The Skeleton Road does begin to fill in some gaps and makes me want to learn more. The book has a complex structure with three main perspectives--that of the police woman Karen Pirie, a bungling lawyer detailed to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and scholar Maggie Blake, who lived in Dubrovnik during the siege and was the lover of a prominent Croatian general. In addition, excerpts from a memoir Maggie has started writing are also interspersed throughout, adding more information about the war.

The Skeleton Road is not the greatest mystery, but it's relatively entertaining while being educational as well. Readers should be warned that the ending is as dark as one might expect in a mystery about war and war criminals.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx

When The Shipping News was first published in the early 1990s, many of friends were raving about it and I tried to read it several times . . . but I just couldn't get through it. I recently decided to try listening to it and, to my surprise, enjoyed it.

The Shipping News is set primarily in the small town of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland, where protagonist Quoyle (who brings the word schlub to mind) retreats with his two young daughters after his marriage to the tarty Petal ends in abandonment and death.  Along with Quoyle's aunt Agnes Ham, a yacht upholsterer mourning the death of her long-time companion (Quoyle is not aware that this companion was a woman), they hope to live in the family's ancestral home; unfortunately, it needs serious rehabbing and is unsuitable for habitation in the winter months. Nonetheless, Quoyle gets a job at the local paper, Aunt (as she is generally referred to in the book) sets up her business, and the girls, Bunny and Sunshine, generally settle in to their new life.

The characters that populate Killick-Claw, especially the other members of the newspaper's staff (the paper specializes in photos of car wrecks, sexual abuse stories, and the shipping news of the title; when Quoyle suggests that boat wrecks might be as interesting to readers as car wrecks, it's a major innovation), are eccentric in a way that seems to be particular to Newfoundland; they are reminiscent of the characters in many Southern writers' work, but with their own local peculiarities. Most of the characters have suffered significant losses in their lives--death is truly ever-present in a fishing village. Yet, as the narrative progresses, Quoyle and his girls seem to grow within the close-knit community that takes them in, and the ending leaves the reader feeling optimistic about the human condition.

I'm not sure what kept me from succeeding when I first tried to read it; perhaps the slow-paced and rather bleak beginning simply bogged me down at a time in my life that wasn't the happiest. Whatever the reason, I recommend the book now for its strong evocation of place, its characters, and its theme of enduring in the face of loss.

Favorite passages:
One of the tragedies of real life is that there is no background music.

For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat's blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, and that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Vanity Fair, by William MakepeaceThackeray

Vanity Fair is one of the many classics I did not manage to read in my first 65 years. Unfortunately, it's not one of the classics that, when I finally read it, I thought, "Why didn't I read this sooner?" Instead, my main reaction was, "Why did Thackeray think this book needed to be 800 pages?"

Vanity Fair begins with two young women leaving school in early 19th-century England. Amelia Sedley is the daughter of a well-to-do businessman; she is preparing to marry the young man she has been engaged to for years. Becky Sharp is from a much sketchier background, and she is bound for a job as governess with the wealthy Crawley family. The two represent what seem to be the categories of people into which Thackeray divides the English: Amelia represents the good but simple-minded while Becky represents those out for the main chance (although she is actually considerably smarter than most of the people in this group, as depicted by Thackeray).

Over the course of 20+ years, both women enter into marriages that cause disruptions in their husbands' families; but Amelia is devoted to her husband while Becky seems to despise hers. Both have sons, but Amelia is besotted with her son while Becky barely shows any interest in hers.Thackeray details their stories--with very little apparent sympathy for either--and those of a substantial number of other of the wealthy British. The satire is at first amusing, but it becomes quite tedious no more than half way into the book.

I know from reading a Jane Smiley review of Vanity Fair that it is not "possible to understand Vanity Fair without acknowledging Thackeray's extensive familiarity with French literature." So perhaps my boredom is caused by my nonexistent familiarity with French literature. Nonetheless, I am thinking of proposing a page limit for all satirical novels--say, 300-350, less if possible.

Favorite passages:
I think I could be a good woman if I had 5000 a year.

If a man's character is to be abused, say what you will, there's nobody like a relative to do the business.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Citizen, by Claudia Rankine

Reading Claudia Rankine's Citizen the same week that the news and social media were full of the mass murder at the historic AME Church in Charleston, SC, was actually painful. While the SC attack demonstrated the most horrific racism we can imagine, Rankine forces our attention to the more mundane aspects of prejudice--the thoughtless remark, the refusal to sit next to an African American on the bus, the easy judgments about prominent African Americans who, for one moment, lose their equanimity. She also talks about a number of the recent police killings of African Americans, but for me, most devastating was the reminder of the manifestations of deeply engrained racism that African Americans must confront every single day. As a major Serena Williams fan, I also appreciated Rankine's insights into why Serena reacted as she did when a referee made an indefensible call at the U.S. Open in 2009--I had never understood how the usually composed Williams completely lost her cool--but Rankine's explanation--that Serena had reached a point of utter exhaustion with the weight of a lifetime of bad calls and unfriendly crowd--has the ring of truth.

 The form of the book is unusual.  It is not exactly poetry--and yet it is definitely poetic. One of the jacket blurbers called her writing prose poetry, which is a form I've never quite understood--but it seems like a good description here. Meditations was another word that came to mind. The sections about police killings are written as scripts for Situation videos, which she produces with a colleagues (search YouTube to find examples).

Citizen is a slim but powerful volume that I recommend  highly.

Favorite passages:
When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical term--John Henryism--for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure.

The world is wrong. You can't put the past behind you. It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you.

because white men can't
police their imagination
black men are dying

That time and that time and that time the outside blistered the inside of you, words outmaneuvered years, had you in a chokehold, every part roughed up, the eyes dripping. That's the bruise the ice in the heart was meant to ice.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, by Simon Garfield

When I told a friend I was reading a book about fonts, she responded that I must be hard up. But I found this book entertaining. As someone who chooses type for various projects with very little knowledge of the suitability of specific fonts for specific purposes, I found Garfield's discussion interesting (I still doubt it will really improve my selections--and to improve that I changed the font for this entry to Trebuchet). I also was fascinated by the controversies that font changes can cause, particularly when a company changes its signature type--evidently Ikea's switch from Futura to Verdana created a huge fontroversy (how did I not know?). I also loved the language used to describe fonts--"structural but sensual," "open and human," "irreverent and naive,"  "a nicely rounded semi-formal humanist font," "slightly space-age, rooted and implacable."  And who would have thought that, to type aficionados, "Done well, an '&' is not so much a character as a creature, an animal from the deep"? Really? Really. Just My Type is a look into a topic and a subculture most of us are unaware of and, as such, is sometimes fascinating . . . but also occasionally a bit tedious. 

Favorite passage:
. . .  the book typographer's job was building a window between the reader inside a room and that landscape which is the author's words. He may put up a stained glass window of marvelous beauty, but a failure as a window; that is, he may use some rich superb type like Text Gothic that is something to be looked at, not through.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Everything that Rises Must Converge, by Flannery O'Connor

I tried to read Flannery O'Connor about ten years ago (Wise Blood) and failed. I know the literati (English majors and such) love O'Connor, but I couldn't get into it. I did manage to finish Everything that Rises Must Converge--perhaps because it's a short story collection and didn't require the same degree of commitment. But what a collection of dismal and depressing stories populated by grotesque racist ne'er-do-well misanthropes, many of whom meet a violent death, few of whom experience any sort of redemption/growth. O'Connor certainly captures a certain Southern gothic flavor and is occasionally quite funny. But after the violent endings of the first two stories, I found it difficult to enjoy the humor.  Perhaps if I had majored in English . . . 

Favorite passages: 
. . . the more education they got, the less they could do. 

Thomas had inherited his father's reason without his ruthlessness and his mother's love of good without her tendency to pursue it. His plan for all practical action was to wait and see what developed.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Home Front, by Kristin Hannah

Home Front is the story of Jolene Zarkades, wife to attorney Mike, mother to 12-year-old Betsy and 4-year-old Lulu, and a Blackhawk pilot in the National Guard. Jolene, who had a tremendously difficult childhood with alcoholic parents, believes that being happy is a choice, an attitude that has become annoying to Mike, who has slid into depression after the death of his father (and law partner). Mike has never supported Jolene's military career, and when her unit is deployed, their marriage is in serious trouble. Mike is in trouble at home as well, since he has no idea how to deal with his two daughters' feelings about their mother's absence. Luckily, his mother lives nearby and is willing to help.

Meanwhile, the experience in Iraq is much more grueling and dangerous than Jolene, and she and her flying partner and best friend Tami are in constant peril. When their helicopter is shot down, Jolene must cope depression, PTSD, and constant physical pain from her injuries--all while observing that her family members who do not understand the person she has become. In what turns out to be a fortuitous coincidence, Mike is, at the same time, defending a veteran accused of murdering his wife; Mike sets out to prove that the killing took place while Mike was suffering a psychotic break as a result of PTSD. The case therefore provides a perspective on Jolene's experiences that helps Mike provide support for Jolene.

I know that Kristin Hannah is a very popular writer;  a friend of mine who likes her work recommended this book. I was not overly impressed with Home Front and doubt I'll try another of her books. She seems to be trying too hard--to educate the reader about the challenges facing veterans, especially returning female soldiers, and to create metaphors and other descriptive language that will move the reader. I'm not sure how to define the difference between an effective metaphor and one that feels overwritten, but for me, Kristin Hannah's writing falls on the overwritten side.

Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf

Imagine that you are 70-year-old widowed Louis Waters; one evening Addie Waters, a widow of a similiar age whom you do not know well, despite having lived in the same small town for years, comes  over to ask  if you would be interested in sleeping with her. She's not asking for a sexual relationship--she wants someone to talk to and provide company in the lonely hours of the night. Would you agree?  Kent Haruf's Louis does agree, and he starts strolling over to Addie's home nearly every evening, setting tongues wagging in Holt.

The two share with each other the sadness and failures of their pasts (he had an affair, one of her children died, essentially killing her marriage) and begin to develop a deep friendship. Then Addie's daughter-in-law leaves Addie's son Gene, who decides their son should spend the summer with his grandmother. Jamie is a sad little boy, but Louis seems to understand what the boy needs, and he becomes a surrogate grandfather, bringing Jamie out of his shell. Gene, however, is not happy about his mother's relationship with Louis and makes his displeasure known in several unpleasant ways.  

There's a funny conversation in which Addie and Louis discuss the Denver Center's productions of  Haruf's novels about Holt--they are not overly impressed, but still buy tickets to attend Benediction.

This novella was written as Kent Haruf was dying, a fact that provided a melancholy subtext as I read the book, despite most of it being an affirmation of our shared humanity and the sustaining power of friendship. When the story became sad near the end, I was weeping (on a plane--embarrassing).  Somehow, with his spare prose, Haruf still manages to make you feel deeply what the characters are experiencing--and what they're experiencing feels very close to home. I will miss Holt, Colorado, and its residents, and I will miss Kent Haruf.

Favorite passages:

I got up and left the house and drove out in the country, the stars were all shining and there were the  farmlights and yardlights all looking blue in the dark. Everything looked normal, except nothing was normal anymore, everything was at some kind of cliff's edge . . .

I like the friendship of it. I like the time together. Being here in the dark of the night. The talking. Hearing you breathe next to me if I wake up.

I do love this physical world. I love this physical life with you. And the air and the country. The backyard, the gravel in the back alley. The grass. The cool nights. Lying in bed talking with you in the dark.