Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Other Side of SilenceThe Other Side of Silence by Bill Pronzini

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"You could stay in one place all day, from dawn to dusk - Zabriskie Point, say, or the sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells - and with each ten-degree rise and fall of the sun, the colors of rocks and sand hills changed from dark rose to burnished gold, from chocolate brown to indigo and gray-black, with a spectrum of subtler shades in between."

Bill Pronzini, winner of a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, is mostly known for his "Nameless Detective" series. The Other Side of Silence (2008) is a non-series book, classified on the cover as "a novel of suspense." I find it a good read, if not remarkable. The clichéd plot and uninspired writing are balanced by the choice of Death Valley, one of the most magnificent places on Earth, as the locale of a significant portion of the plot.

Rick Fallon, an ex-Army MP and a security specialist, spends vacations in his beloved Death Valley, far from the noise and madness of civilization. His wife left him after their little son had died in an accident. Traveling in the Warm Springs Canyon area he turns off the main road and in a secluded canyon comes across an empty passenger car. In the car there is a woman's suicide note, which mentions her missing son. Mr. Fallon locates the woman, close to death, and thanks to his military experience saves her life. It appears that her ex-husband kidnapped their son and his accomplice assaulted and raped her. Mr. Fallon, thinking about his dead son, decides to help the woman find her child.

The case gets much more complicated and a murder occurs. The pursuit of the boy's captor takes Mr. Fallon from Death Valley to Las Vegas, then to Laughlin, San Diego, and finally Indio. A dramatic ending brings a major plot twist. Yet for me the locales of the plot are the most interesting aspect of the novel: my family and I have lived in San Diego for 35 years, and Death Valley is one of our most favorite locations: it is the place where we used to camp each spring for many, many years. The author manages to convey the sense of locations that I know so well.

While the events happen fast the story is structured along predictable patterns and the reader will certainly anticipate some plot turns. One can find many cliché passages like:
"The explosion rocked them both. Shock is one of the hardest things to fake; the open mouths and staring eyes were genuine."
(How does the author know that they were genuine?) One will also find inexplicably numerous references to powerful Carl Zeiss 7X50 binoculars. I wonder why the website address where to buy the product is not provided. On the other hand, the beautiful cover picture showing the desolate yet magnificent stretch of California Highway 127 is worth mentioning.

A good read despite clichés and commercials.

Three stars.

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Friday, February 9, 2018

The Sense of an EndingThe Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around us to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but - mainly - to ourselves."

The Sense of an Ending is my first novel by Julian Barnes and it looks like I have found another favorite author. I agree with the critical acclaim and the prestigious Man Booker Prize the book received in 2011. Sense is a literary masterpiece: an extremely well written, serious, mature novel by an author who knows people and understands human nature. I am exhilarated by the fact that the book is so short and yet so deep and complete. On mere 170 pages of simple, lucid prose the author manages to say everything that he wants to say and does not waste even a single word for any extraneous stuff.

Tony, the narrator, now in his 60s, describes his youth in the 1960s. During his university studies Tony dates Veronica: he spends one weekend at her parents' house and the account of that humiliating weekend is one of narrative high points of the novel. Tony and Veronica eventually break with each other. The narrator quickly goes over the intervening years of Tony's life and brings us to the 2000s. A letter from a firm of solicitors sharply brings into the present the 40-year-old past that Tony has now to confront: the time warp experience deeply affects him. The dramatic scene of the near-denouement is unforgettable and - along with the "weekend in the 1960s" - forms an extraordinary narrative axis of the story.

Ostensibly the novel tells a cleverly constructed and compellingly interesting story, but the book really is about vagaries and unreliability of human memory. We think we remember the past but we really only remember our memories of the past, memories that we have perhaps unconsciously created. In this sense Mr. Barnes' novel is a wonderful complement to J.M. Coetzee's The Good Story (which I have just reviewed here), where Mr. Coetzee explains how we create our past rather than actually remember it, how our memories are reconstructions rather than reproductions. Moreover, I love the Mr. Barnes' insights about the elusiveness of psychological truth and - even more so - about the elusiveness of reality whose perception is always filtered through the story of ourselves that we have created.

And the wonderful ambiguity of the title! One could argue for three completely different interpretations of the word 'sense' in the title: Sense as in 'making sense'? Or sense as perception or feeling? Or sense as the 'meaning of'. If the latter, then the author is playfully self-referential, in the best post-modern style. I sincerely hope that the ambiguity was the author's goal and that we will never know what he "really meant."

Why am I rounding the 4.5-rating down for this extraordinary book? My criticism relates to the sense of the ending. I find the ending too 'neat', too 'reader-friendly', too 'perfect'. To me, the ending makes too much sense. I love not to be told everything at the end of a novel because I prefer to live with my vision of the sense of the book and I do not need an "official version"! Also, I find it ironic that the author seems to negate his own message: he who tells us that we do not really know our past eventually tells us what the past really was. Or does he?

Regardless of my picky criticisms, I enthusiastically recommend this adult, mature novel. Another wonderful quote that will strongly resonate with people of certain age follows the rating.

Four and a half stars.

"What did I know of life, I who lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realized? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival? Who paid his bills, stayed on good terms with everyone as far as possible, for whom ecstasy and despair soon became just words once read in novels?"

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Monday, February 5, 2018

Fer-de-Lance (Nero Wolfe, #1)Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"No, Archie. It is always wiser, where there is a choice, to trust to inertia. It is the greatest force in the world."

Just a few days ago I re-read and reviewed here A Family Affair , the last book in the Nero Wolfe series, published in 1975. It seemed interesting to re-read the very first installment in the series Fer-de-Lance (1933). The time now is quite appropriate as the series that includes 46 novels and sets of novellas spans 42 years in the middle of the 20th century, and it is now exactly 42 years since the last novel was published in 1975.

May 1933. Prohibition has just been effectively repealed and Nero Wolfe decides to give up the bootleg beer and is looking into the legal 3.2 beer trying to find something potable. Fred Durkin, one of Wolfe's men, comes to ask the detective for help as the brother of his wife's friend has disappeared. The obese genius of crime solving is goaded into taking the case when the connection between the missing man and the murder of Mr. Barstow, the president of Holland University, is discovered. Mrs. Barstow offers a $50,000 reward for information leading to discovery and punishment of her husband's murderer (the amount would be equivalent to almost $1 million currently). No wonder that Wolfe and of course the narrator, the intrepid Archie Goodwin try very hard to find the guilty party.

Aided by Goodwin and others, Wolfe succeeds in solving the crime, and the ingenious plot involves several interesting and uncommon elements, like offering a bet to a law enforcement official about results of an autopsy, the biomechanics of golf, the Bothrops atrox species, and some aviation-related passages. While both Mr. Wolfe and Archie already exhibit most of their characteristic personas, they are not exactly the same as in the later novels. Yes, Mr. Wolfe is unbearably condescending, but much less pompous. Archie is rather crude, not as refined and debonair as in the later books. Well, people do change. Of course, actual people would change much more over the period of 42 years, but in the Nero Wolfe world "literary time" only a few years have passed between 1933 and 1975. I like the character of Sarah Barstow - the most colorful and well-drawn in this novel.

My experiment with comparing the 1933 Nero Wolfe time with that of 1975 has been rather inconclusive, but I definitely feel that more time elapsed between 1933 and 1975 than between 1975 and 2017. It is probably related to the fact that I was born closer to the first than the second date. On the other hand it is so satisfying to read about the world not only without Internet but also without TV. It was so much more difficult to enslave minds of millions of people in the olden days! Radio was virtually the only tool of mind control.

Fer-de-Lance is very far from the excellence of Murder by the Book but it is quite readable and feels much less dated than its mature age of 84 years would suggest.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłychProwadź swój pług przez kości umarłych by Olga Tokarczuk

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] I think that the purpose of human mind is to defend us from seeing the truth. [...] The mind is our defense system [... otherwise] we would not be able to bear the knowledge. Because every particle of the world, even the smallest one, consists of suffering." (my own translation)

Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych (Run Your Plow Through the Bones of the Dead, as Google translates the title) is a 2009 novel by one of the most prominent Polish writers, Olga Tokarczuk. Although Ms. Tokarczuk's books have been widely translated into many languages, English version of this novel has not yet appeared; I am sure it is just a matter of time. I am writing this review in English as a recommendation for future readers.

This is a unique work in Ms. Tokarczuk's literary opus generally perceived as "serious and heavy" as it usually deals with topics such as the cultural and national identity. This novel is written in a detective story convention and can be considered a murder mystery: a "morality thriller," screams a blurb on the cover. Of course the mystery is the least important aspect of the novel.

Janina, a retired civil engineer and teacher, lives in a mountain valley in southwestern Poland. She fills her retirement taking care of neighbors houses in their absence and has two major hobbies: astrology with which her preoccupation borders on insanity (e.g., she ruminates how the configuration of planets influences schedule of TV programs) and translating poems by William Blake, where she is more mainstream, and successful too.

But her main trait is the respect and care for our "lesser brothers and sisters" - the animals. In a touching stylistic device the author uses capitalization when talking about the Animals so we have Hares, Badgers, and Deer. Janina greatly suffers when she sees the Animals suffering and dying. When several mysterious deaths occur among local hunters and poachers she is convinced that the Animals are exacting their revenge on people who torment, torture, and kill them.

To me killing animals for fun and entertainment is also an outrage and I find the fascination with guns and killing one of the basest (hu)man instincts; in the so-called grown-up men it is a relic of infantile mentality and a sign of insecurity. What fun do these men - and sometimes even women, the givers of life - find in killing defenseless animals with high-precision rifles and sophisticated mechanical traps? I share the author's repulsion at killing animals as a social ritual, a barbaric relic of the past. The author viciously ridicules the participation of Catholic clergy in blessing of hunters. I would like to remind the words of Pope Francis from Laudato Si':
"[...] we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”
A wonderful book but certainly not for everybody. Despite the dark and heavy themes the novel contains some hilarious passages: after the rating I am enclosing two quotes - in Polish as I do not have the talent to provide an adequate translation - that illustrate the author's sense of humor.

Four and a quarter stars.

"W nazwie 'myśliwy' jest zawarte słowo myśl, co oznacza, że swoje powołanie dbania o ten dar boży, jakim jest przyroda, myśliwi realizują świadomie, rozumnie i roztropnie."

"Zwierzęta powinny rozpierdolić to wszystko w piździec.
- Właśnie tak. Rozjebać w pierdoloną nicość - podchwyciłam, a mężczyźni spojrzeli na mnie ze ździwieniem i szacunkiem."

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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A Family Affair (Nero Wolfe, #46)A Family Affair by Rex Stout

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"'Warrants to take Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. You're Goodwin. You're under arrest'"

Rex Stout's A Family Affair (1975) is the last of his 47 Nero Wolfe novels and collections of shorter pieces. It was published just three months before the author's death. I had read all Wolfe books in the 1970's - 1990's and am returning now to a selected few of them curious about how the passage of time - both my chronological time and the fictional time of the novels - has influenced my reception of Mr. Stout's prose.

Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe's secretary and right-hand man, the only person able to cajole and tame the obese genius of detection, is woken up at night by a waiter from Wolfe's favorite restaurant. The man believes someone is trying to kill him. Reluctantly, Archie offers him a guest room to stay overnight. But then an explosion happens, the waiter is killed, and Wolfe's old brownstone seriously damaged. Wolfe is enraged by the violation of his precious physical space and commences an investigation, of course through always reliable and intrepid Archie. There is no client this time. "It's a family affair." By the way, the reader will certainly appreciate the cleverly double meaning of the title.

Soon the investigation becomes enmeshed in another case: a wealthy industrialist has recently been murdered and Archie discovers a connection between the waiter and the victim. Of course in the end, despite the efforts of the police and despite getting arrested, Wolfe and Goodwin manage to unmask the guilty person - here the readers will likely enjoy a really major plot twist.

The entire story has the Watergate affair in the background and the author is not shy to demonstrate his outrage at the President's malfeasance. Isn't the following passage cool:
"Five men being tried now in Washington for conspiracy to obstruct justice - Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Mardian, and Parkinson. Five being charged here with conspiracy to obstruct justice - Wolfe, Goodwin, Panzer, Durkin, and Cather."
Certainly far from the best of Nero Wolfe novels A Family Affair is quite readable, and the Watergate connection helps.

Two and a half stars.

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Saturday, January 27, 2018

Rabbit, Run (Rabbit Angstrom #1)Rabbit, Run by John Updike

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The clangour of the body shop comes up softly. Its noise comforts him, tells him he is hidden and safe, that while he hides men are busy nailing the world down, and toward the disembodied sounds his heart makes in darkness a motion of love."

John Updike's Rabbit, Run" (1960), considered a classic of American literature of the mid-twentieth century, has enjoyed wide popularity among readers for over 50 years and the author has published four sequels. It is embarrassing to admit that it is the first novel by Mr. Updike that I have read and even more so that I do not find it remarkable.

The outline of plot is well known. Henry 'Rabbit' Angstrom is a 26-year-old salesman who used to be a high-school basketball star. We meet Rabbit as he watches kids playing basketball. He joins the game and yes, he is still very good. But his marriage to Janice, who is pregnant again, is deteriorating and he loathes his wife both physically and emotionally. He runs away from home driving his car far from the town in an illusion of freedom. He moves in with Ruth, for whom the affair with Rabbit is certainly not the first. He also befriends Reverend Eccles who attempts to straighten Rabbit's ways. Then Janice is in labor and... The story may indeed be interesting for readers who care about the plot.

Alas I can barely stand the author's logorrhea, the flood of words of which much less than half would be enough. The verbosity is particularly disastrous in the sex episode with Ruth: the literalness and sheer physicality may make some readers renounce sex forever. The author's tendency of going on tangents is also infuriating.

On the positive side, there are some beautiful passages in the novel: I love Ruth's second "stream of consciousness monologue" (beginning on page 156 in the Penguin paperback). When focused and economical with words Mr. Updike is indeed a master of prose and his literary technique is flawless. Perhaps we have a case of an author who is unable to delete the words he liked writing so much?

Another strong feature of the novel is the portrayal of the late Fifties. When reading the book I almost felt I recognized these times even though I lived then in a completely different environment, geographically and socio-culturally.

Despite the author's loquacity and love of tangents this is still a serious novel. Literary critics will offer various interpretations based on socio-economic, cultural, or psychological analysis. Rabbit is a boy thrown into an adult world, mentally and emotionally a teenager: a pregnant wife, a two-year-old son, and a job are responsibilities that he is unable to handle. The only thing he does well is running. So he runs. Always away from something.

People say that high-school and college sports form students' characters. I think that sports, with the emphasis on winning, offer an insufficient support structure for people who outgrow it. I am afraid there are thousands and thousands of twenty- or maybe even thirty-something teenager boys out there, trying to cope with actual life, when the crutch of sports is taken away from them. Winning or losing are hardly applicable when one is an adult.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Streets on Fire (Jack Liffey, #5)Streets on Fire by John Shannon

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"A voice spoke out of the sky, louder than any voice had a right to be.'Get indoors, now! All of you boys! This area is under curfew!'
There was an insistent dull
pop-pop-pop from overhead [...]"

Streets of Fire (2002) is the tenth book by John Shannon that I am reviewing here. Sadly, the quality of his work has steadily been on the downward trajectory. I rated the wonderful The Orange Curtain with four stars and could confidently recommend all his early works. But then something happened to the author and after several weak books he produced one of the most idiotic mystery/thriller novels I have read in my life, the ridiculous Devils of Bakersfield . So I was understandably apprehensive about Streets and indeed, it is not a good novel at all.

Jack Liffey is a sort of private detective in Los Angeles, who specializes in finding missing children. He takes a job for the Davises - an elderly African-American couple who have been active in the civil rights movement since the 1960s. Their adopted son and his Caucasian wife, college juniors, disappeared several weeks earlier and the police have not found any promising clues. Their car has turned up empty so the worst is expected. In the course of his inquiry Mr. Liffey zeros in on several racist groups involved in fight against multiculturalism. Particularly troubling is a network of youth clubs promoting racism and advocating white supremacy under the guise of fostering moral growth.

Just as Mr. Liffey begins the investigation his 14-year-old precocious daughter Maeve comes to live with him for a while. When Maeve reads the paperwork of the Davis' case in her father's study, she begins the investigation on her own. Maeve soon befriends Ornetta, a niece of the missing young man, and recruits her to the investigation. They begin watching a biker gang and get into serious trouble. All this happens on the backdrop of riots in Los Angeles caused by police misconduct and brutality. The minority neighborhoods are erupting: people demand justice. Mr. Shannon's images of the riots, looting, and chaos are vivid and convincing. This is the best part of the novel.

Streets of Fire is really a thriller: the extended ending is a rollercoaster of events that I am unable to summarize without spoiling. Let me just mention that Mr. Liffey finds himself in grave danger and that Maeve and Ornetta play a prominent role in the later part of the plot. The portrayal of the girls is another good thing about the novel. All other characters including Mr. Liffey are paper-thin, without any depth. Mr. Shannon had shown that he could write characters in his earlier novels; here he is just coasting.

Now about the worst aspect of the novel. It is supposed to carry an inspirational and worthy message of condemnation of racism and prejudice. Mr. Shannon obliterates that message by using "in-your-face", stereotypical, and superficial literary means. The situations are cliché and the presentation is totally nuance-free. Basically every minority character - whether in the sense of race, gender or sexual orientation - is a wonderful person while any non-minority person is automatically suspect of prejudice. This crude approach to promoting a worthy cause is misguided. If not for the images of LA riots and the Maeve/Ornetta thread this book would not have escaped the lowest rating.

Two stars.

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