Tuesday, July 18, 2017

No Colder Place (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #4)No Colder Place by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"There's no place colder than a construction site. [...] the chill that pulls the warmth from your bones while you're working, the wind that blows through steel and concrete carrying the ancient dampness of echoing caves."

I am livid. Until the last 35 pages I felt this was a great book, one of the best books in the PI genre that I can remember. At least a four-star rating. But then the author resorts to the tired, cliché, theatrical ending that reminds me of the badly dated noir movies of the 1950s. S.J. Rozan's No Colder Place (1997) won the Anthony Award for the best novel in 1998: I wholeheartedly agree provided we remove the last 35 pages of the book. Why is the author - who is clearly capable of speaking with an original voice - determined to end most of her novels with a stock style of denouement? Why is the author defacing her great work?

The action takes place mainly on a construction site in New York. Bill Smith is subcontracted by another PI to investigate problems on the site: tools have been stolen, construction equipment has vanished, and one of the crane operators has disappeared. The owners of the construction company suspect one of the foremen and want to catch him at wrongdoing. Mr. Smith, who had worked as a bricklayer in his past, gets hired as a mason to watch the crew and find out what is going on. The tension on the site escalates when the body of the crane operator is found. Lydia Chin, Smith's partner and undying target of his romantic interest, is hired as a secretary in the construction site office to help with the investigation.

The story is interesting, moves fast, and - what's most important - is logical and plausible. But the best thing about the novel is that the plot is firmly grounded in labor relations conflicts, and additionally complicated by racial issues. The passages about the assault on the construction site conducted by the "full employment coalition" and its ramifications are the high points of the novel. The whole thread featuring the "Strength Through Jobs/Jobs Through Strength" organization that arranges busloads of rioting people is superb. It is indeed rare to find a mystery so attuned to rhythms of social issues. Even better: the author does not find easy solutions in the superficial political correctness.

I find the construction site scenes and the conversations between the crew completely believable (disclaimer: my labor experience, dating to 49 years ago, is from a steel mill rather than construction site). I have also enjoyed various references to crew members who might be "connected" (wink, wink, Italians in New York, capisce?)

This is my fifth Bill Smith/Lydia Chin novel and once again it is Lydia's character which is superbly drawn. Once again I can fully believe she is a real person. Bill is more believable than usual - the author does not cheapen the plot with references to his traumatic past. Another highpoint of the novel is the scene on the ferry and Lydia's rescue of Bill. Clever, sweet and funny. And no guns are involved! No guns! If only the author could maintain this good form until the end...

Three and a half stars.

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

BluebeardBluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Why should a real man stay home when he could be raping a virgin continent?"

Until about the middle of Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard (1987) I was finding it a worthwhile yet unremarkable read. And then, about page 170 of the paperback edition, either the author finds his stride, or - more likely - I finally begin to "get" the book. In the powerful and memorable second half of the novel Vonnegut's trademark pessimism explodes from the pages and the despicable nature of the human species is again exposed via bitterly sarcastic prose.

The novel is a fictional autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, an American painter of Armenian origin, one of the leading artists of the Abstract Expressionist school that includes such artists as Jason Pollock and Mark Rothko (Vonnegut is skillful in mixing fictional and real characters). The story of Rabo's youth and middle age is interspersed with an account of the current (mid-1980s) events, when he is 71 years old; the two threads elegantly connect toward the end. There is even a clever mystery in the novel: we do not know - although we can suspect - what object is hidden in a securely locked potato barn; the secret is revealed in a stunning finale.

Vonnegut is crystal clear about which of the two halves of the human race is the more wretched. Men are a hopelessly flawed gender as they are good mainly for participating in violence:
"[she] was surely way ahead of her time, too, in believing that men were not only useless and idiotic, but downright dangerous. That idea wouldn't catch on big in her native country until the last three years of the Vietnam War."
The novel is more effectively feminist than any manifesto of feminist activism. It helps that Vonnegut offers vivid, compelling portrayals of two women: Marilee, in the past, and the widow Berman, in the present. I feel as if I have known both of them!

The art of painting is one of the main topics; for instance, we learn that Abstract Expressionists want their art to be about absolutely nothing but itself and they refuse to participate in anything that has any ideological bent. Much discussion is about the inferiority of representational art and the reason for that is quite clearly explained. In Rabo's words such art is "just too [...] easy," (I bowdlerized the quote removing a particularly fitting gerund serving as an adverb) thus not worthwhile practicing. Realist painters are called "taxidermists who mount and varnish great moments in time." How much of the artist is in their art is another interesting topic. And of course the eternal discussion subject:
"'How can you tell a good painting from a bad one?' he said. [...] 'All you have to do [...] is look at a million paintings, and then you can never be mistaken.'"
There is a great scene of lovemaking between Rabo and Marilee, one of the best I have read, as it is funny, sarcastic (duh!) and totally non-erotic. It leads to a cute concept of "non-epiphany" and to showing how much smarter women are about sex than men. The novel is very funny in the bitter, ironic way. Here's the probably funniest sentence in the novel (other than the one I used in the epigraph):
"Here is the solution to the American drug problem suggested a couple of years back by the wife of our President: 'Just say no.'"
Four stars.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Wild Kat (Kat Colorado, #5)Wild Kat by Karen Kijewski
My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Karen Kijewski's Wild Cat (1994) is my first encounter with Kat Colorado, the PI protagonist of the Kat series. I am afraid that it may also be my last contact with the author as I do not like the writing style and have not found the novel interesting at all.

The story begins with Kat's visit to a hospital where she talks to Jude, a man whose life she saved after a freeway accident. However, it soon becomes clear that it has not been an accident, but rather an attempt to kill Jude's wife, Amanda. She acted as a whistleblower in a medical equipment company that has knowingly been selling faulty heart valves. Since the righteously determined Amanda cannot be stopped in her zeal to prevent patients' deaths and bring the company to justice the harassment continues and she is no longer the only target: Jude and Kat are also subject to threats, assaults, and property damage. This escalates to murder staged as an accidental death. Obviously Kat's investigation is successful and she manages to find the killer whose identity many readers may find surprising.

The one thing I like in the novel is the relatively cogent discussion of issues related to companies' liability for defective products. That the companies face balancing between costs of correcting the product and costs of settlements is well known. Less known is the need of the victims to balance between their individual interest and the public good: signing confidential settlements as opposed to going public with the complaint is at the heart of the issue.

Sadly, everything else in the novel is rather substandard. First of all, the whole concept of the never-ending series of childish harassment pranks after a murder has occurred is ridiculous. Bird feeder tipped, hummingbird syrup splashed out, roses in full bloom cut and petals pulled off? Anonymous messages in the mail? Fecal matter on the lawn? Dead rat in the mailbox? All that after killing and heavy bodily assault that borders on rape! Why not painting mustaches on family portraits and placing whoopee cushions on the chairs? Why not making scary faces or yelling "Booo!" at Kat?

Neither do I like the author's manner of writing: dialogues and inner monologues are interspersed with remarks and asides to the reader. Yet another literary gripe relates to the pretentious habit of preceding each chapter with a sample question sent to Charity, Kat's friend and a newspaper advice columnist. It's not that the questions are totally silly - which is to be expected - it's that the whole thing has no connection to the plot. In addition to the characters having no depth - a weakness that is acceptable in an entertainment read - they also talk in inane platitudes, using "written" rather than spoken language.

Not a good book at all, but at least the author should be commended for raising the lesser-known aspects of health care product liability issues.

One and three quarter stars.

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Sunday, July 9, 2017

Life ItselfLife Itself by Roger Ebert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"'Kindness' covers all of my political beliefs. [...] I believe that if, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. [...] We must try to contribute joy to the world."

Roger Ebert's autobiography Life Itself (2011) came highly recommended by a real-life friend of mine (Paine on Goodreads) so I expected a lot. And indeed, totally enraptured by the book at its beginning I was envisioning literary delights of the highest caliber. Then, quite suddenly, the tone of the book changed and I realized I was not that interested in reading any more. I managed to finish, alas with a feeling of deep disappointment, despite the wonderful words of wisdom that Mr. Ebert offers in the closing passages of the book (and quoted in the epigraph above).

The autobiography begins with an affecting collage of memory snapshots from the author's childhood: the reader can identify with a little boy facing the big, real world of the 1940s and 1950s. Mr. Ebert's love of his parents is evident and the reminiscences of his extended family are touching as well. He mentions the names of his cousins, aunts and uncles to let all these people exist a little before time dissolves them into nothingness. The nun-run grade school, then the Urbana High School, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and finally postgraduate study at the University of Cape Town are vividly recounted. On the backdrop of waning years of "the last generation of innocence" before the advent of the turbulent late 1960s the author writes about his first contact with movies and his loss of religious faith.

To me, the worthwhile part of the book ends when Mr. Ebert recounts the poignant and almost mystical experience of suddenly finding himself in harmony with the Universe at a cafe in Cannes. This is a brief moment of transcendence, a fleeting glimpse into an alternative universe of consonance and clarity, free from everyday struggles of the real world. The book goes downhill from there. And fast.

The mind-numbingly boring name-dropping and - in Mr. Ebert's own words - "place-dropping" begins about page 140. The readers will not find any transcendent, luminous passages on the remaining 280 pages; instead they can find gossip and trivia about The Famous People, particularly about their romantic and sex lives. Russ Meyer might be a great director, but why on earth would the reader need to know which women he slept with? How could this knowledge affect the reception of his art?

Mr. Ebert writes about his interviews with Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, and other stars. Some of these interviews achieved almost a cult status in the movie world and yet their claim to fame is based solely on the fame of the actors. If exactly the same dialogue transpired between Mr. Ebert and a random person off the street, it would not be worth memorializing. The pieces about Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Werner Herzog, and Gene Siskel are not as gossipy yet they are about the people rather than about their art. Is the reader supposed to care what kind of people the great artists are in personal life? What difference does it make to their art?

On page 332 of my edition I find the following literary pearl:
"Although some strange stories have gone around, it is not true to say Oprah and I ever dated."
My God! Why should I care whom Mr. Ebert dates? The only reason for including this sentence is that Oprah is An Extremely Famous Person, and this - in a way unclear to me - is supposed to make the dating information important to the readers. And yet another momentous revelation, 35 pages later:
"At Cannes we bought a chicken sandwich for Quentin Tarantino in a beach restaurant [...]"
So what, might I ask? Mr. Ebert has amply demonstrated in the past that he can write about the art of movies like almost no one else, so why all the tabloid fluff?

Roger Ebert's last eleven years were filled with the unimaginable horror of a losing fight against cancer of thyroid and salivary glands. Three major facial surgeries failed and the loss of jaw rendered him unable to eat, drink, and speak. I do not believe there are many people who have suffered so much and went through so much hell in the waning years of their lives. Yet the author's clarity of mind, his optimism, and understanding what is important in life shine in this autobiography written during his last years and published two years before his death in 2013. His manifesto "We must try to contribute joy to the world" rings loud and true. I wish his autobiography did not cater so much to one of the lowest human instincts, the obsession with famous people. The celebrity cult that the book is drenched in cheapens its message and hides it behind the avalanche of trite and worthless gossip.

A five-star book followed by a one-star mess. Three stars. Sorry, Paine!

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Thursday, July 6, 2017

McNally's Risk (Archy McNally, #3)McNally's Risk by Lawrence Sanders
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"It would be indelicate to describe those gifts that qualified her for employment in a topless car wash. Suffice to say that she was well-qualified."

What an unexpectedly pleasant read! The third novel in Lawrence Sanders' Archy McNally series, McNally's Risk (1993) is a light, breezy, entertaining book. An unassuming trifle yet such an agreeable waste of time! The readers will not need to exercise their brains to enjoy the plot and the writing.

Mrs. Smythe-Hersforth, a rich Palm Beach matron with pretenses to class, hires Archy McNally to discreetly investigate the bona fides of a young woman whom her son is planning to marry. The client suspects that Miss Theodosia Johnson is not refined enough to be worthy of her son. Indeed, Archy quickly finds out that Theodosia is not quite what she claims to be, but then she is so beautiful that the detective immediately falls in love with her. The infatuation even reaches the level of physical consummation. However, this being a sort of crime novel, we soon have a murder, then another one, and the plot thickens to finally get untangled in an implausible, though not criminally so, denouement.

To me the best aspect of the book is the intentionally florid language which somehow manages to avoid sounding grandiloquent and instead comes through as subtly funny. For instance:
"I mournfully reflected that if mein papa was correct [...], I would be horribly disappointed and possibly take up the lute to express my weltschmerz in musical form."
The vividly drawn character of Theodosia provides another surprise. While all other characters, even including Archy, are closer to caricatures, the young woman seems real from the pages of the novel. Lawrence Sanders is not known for deep psychological insights or for mastery in conveying dialogue yet, for instance, the conversation between Archy, Theodosia, and her father sounds completely natural and convincingly contributes to the plot.

Of course, we have the usual plethora of clichés, the fictitious Palm Beach high society is depicted without much feeling, and the usual Archy McNally menagerie of characters (Consuela Garcia, Simon Pettibone, Lolly Spindrift, Sergeant Rogoff, Binky Watrous, and the one and only Prescott McNally, Archy's father, whom the son invariably addresses as "Sir") are annoyingly repetitive.

The novel is pure entertainment but after all one does need amusement and diversions from time to time. I am enclosing another funny quote after the rating.

Three and three quarter stars.

"I must inform you that anyone who attempts to make love on a sandy beach soon learns the meaning of true grit."

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Monday, July 3, 2017

The Rachel PapersThe Rachel Papers by Martin Amis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Thus I maintained a tripartite sexual application in contrapuntal patterns. This sort of thing: insert tongue, remove finger from ear; withdraw tongue, stroke neck, [...]"

Had I read Martin Amis' The Rachel Papers (1973) in my twenties I would have been extremely enthusiastic about the novel. Now, in my sixties, I certainly appreciate the author's phenomenally skillful prose, but I find the utter preoccupation with sex and focus on erotic techniques boring and the reading experience reminds me of a wonderful scene in Monty Python's Meaning of Life where a teacher and his wife demonstrate sexual intercourse to high-school students who are deadly bored and prefer to look out of the window.

Charles Highway is turning twenty. He is an aspiring writer, reads voraciously, and prides himself on skills of literary analysis. Charles is trying to get into Oxford and has to deal with preparatory courses and the entrance interview. Charles also despises his father: not only because hating one's father is an obviously fashionable thing to do, but also because the father is having an affair. But all this seems to be of secondary importance. Main motive of Charles's actions is sex and his entire being revolves around things sexual. Right now he is trying to seduce one Rachel Noyce, a girl he particularly fancies because she seems to be unavailable when they first meet.

Yes, I can vouch that this is how the disease of late adolescence manifests itself in a typical male of the human species who is in the final stages of building his persona to wear for life while at the same time dealing with the so-called "raging hormones." The "descent to manhood" - as the author aptly calls the phase - takes time (for many of us males a longer time than our lifespan) and manifests itself in self-obsession, self-centeredness, and frequent self-service in the bathroom or in bed. The accuracy of Mr. Amis' observations is top notch but I am unable to find much more than that in the novel. To use Charles' brilliant phrase I might ask
"Is that all it fucking is[?]"
The author's virtuoso writing reaches its apogee in a hilarious twelve-page passage that relates the consummation of Charles' lust: his first conquest of Rachel's charms. The reader may draw a rather obvious comparison to Nabokov's famous scene on the candy-striped davenport ( Lolita .) Well, also obviously, Nabokov's scene wins hands down! With equally skillful mechanics of writing, with the hilarious almost on par with the poetic, the literal is completely out of competition with the metaphorical. Another literary comparison the reader might make is between Charles Highway and Stephen Dedalus. While the latter searches for his soul the former finds his penis. Charles is an anti-Dedalus: not yet ready to look for real depth or meaning and fixated on reflecting on his feelings rather than on feeling them.

I suspect there is another reason why I do not much like this book - clever, hilarious, and extremely well-written as it is - it is probably because utterly shallow, callow, and egotistic Charles clearly reminds me of myself at that age. And this hurts.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Friday, June 30, 2017

Blind Descent (Anna Pigeon, #6)Blind Descent by Nevada Barr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Naked people of all shapes and sizes dangling from ropes over a pint-sized paradise; the picture so tickled Anna she had to think dark thoughts to keep from giggling."

Since I liked Nevada Barr's Blood Lure quite a lot I have reached for another book in the series, Blind Descent (1998). Each novel in Ms. Barr's Anna Pigeon series is set in a different national park in the U.S, which is music to the eyes of this ardent fan of the National Parks System. Descent is located in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but not in the developed and tourist-accessible part of the park, which - as Ms. Barr writes - feels like "a Disney creation," but in area of Lechuguilla Cave, the seventh-longest explored cave in the world (source: Wikipedia), open only to scientists and National Parks service personnel.

Anna Pigeon, currently employed in the Mesa Verde National Park, is called to Carlsbad Caverns National Park as a member of a rescue team to evacuate an injured caver. Ms. Pigeon suffers from a serious case of claustrophobia so she would not volunteer to participate in the rescue mission, but the seriously injured caver is Frieda, her friend from Mesa Verde, who insists that Ms. Pigeon be a part of the rescue. All this sounds rather implausible at first, but when we learn that Frieda suspects that her accident was in fact attempted murder, the setup of the plot becomes somewhat believable.

The reader follows Ms. Pigeon's laborious underground trip to reach Frieda, crawling through miles of narrow spaces that barely allow to squeeze one's body through, almost one thousand feet below the ground. The description of the traumatic underground escapade is by far the best part of the novel. I have no way of knowing how factual the map of the cave printed on the inside covers is, but it is helpful in tracking the events and accompanied by well-written prose compounds the claustrophobic feelings in the reader. In addition to the sense of being buried alive we are treated to an underground rock slide - a vivid and realistic scene - and an actual murder.

While the underground scenes are great - worth at least four stars - the rather amateurish detective work by Ms. Pigeon outside of the Lechuguilla Cave is not that interesting and I have to confess to having skimmed some pages. The denouement is quite clever if perhaps not the most plausible but - unfortunately for me - it includes a standard, totally cliché climactic scene that would work better in a movie than in a novel.

The author offers the reader a richness of caving detail: techniques, folklore, terminology and while I am unable to verify how accurately all these things are portrayed, it certainly reads realistic, including the juicy details of what the cavers do with their urine and feces when they have to spend many days entombed in underground corridors just a few feet wide.

A good read, definitely recommended, but mostly for non-mystery reasons. I will look for further National Park installments of Ms. Barr's series.

Three and a half stars.

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