Monday, May 22, 2017

How to Get into the Twin PalmsHow to Get into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The fires were closer now. No longer in Simi Valley or the outskirts of the city. I could see rows of red and orange, fire lines down the hills in Burbank and moving closer to us, along the ridges of the mountains."

The Los Angeles county wildfires provide an unexpectedly fitting backdrop for a story of Anya, a 25-year-old woman who emigrated from Poland and settled in California having gone through refugee camps first in Austria then in Texas. Anya is struggling to find her place in Los Angeles: "a desperately sad study of loneliness and alienation" - this worn-out cliché best characterizes Karolina Waclawiak's How to get into the Twin Palms (2012).

Anya is currently unemployed and not particularly eager to look for job: she earns some money reading numbers for elderly ladies' bingo meetings and collects unemployment checks. She lives in an immigrant neighborhood near Fairfax predominantly occupied by Russians and Ukrainians. Twin Palms is a Russian night club next door from her rent-controlled apartment building. The only people with whom Anya has a semblance of human contact are a few of her neighbors and an 83-year-old woman from the bingo club.

Unable to find her place in the alien world Anya tries to reinvent herself and establish some sort of niche where she could exist. She desperately looks for human connection and clings to a somewhat shady Russian man, Lev, who is happy to sleep with her whenever it is convenient for him. Eventually Anya's Big Dream becomes reality: Lev takes her to the Twin Palms.

The real climax of the novel occurs a bit later and takes place in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. The dramatic, unexpected, and poignant scenes will linger in the reader's mind for a long time. On the backdrop of Simi Valley Fires, in the line of sight of the HOLLYWOOD sign Anya begins the final phase of reinventing herself and making her mark on the imperfect world.

The climactic scenes remind me of The Day of the Locust finale and if anything they are even more powerful. While Ms. Waclawiak makes a convincing point that a person cannot exist alone, the heavy-handed metaphor of the plot bothers me: trying to get into the Twin Palms signifies an attempt to assimilate with the alien society and the fierce fires that cleanse the desert provide a metaphor for rebirth. The molting, skin-changing metaphor is also too obvious. In addition I find it hard to be impressed with a choppy, first-person narration, a sort of staccato recitation of short affirmative sentences beginning with "I".

The immigrant's curse is portrayed convincingly. Being a Polish immigrant - although in completely different circumstances, ones of relative luxury - I can recognize in Anya parts of people of my ethnicity whom I know. I can recognize the guilt and the shame of Polishness. I understand the desperate struggle to escape the bigos and the pierogi. And I also recognize the fear of escaping the Polishness too far. Anya rejects the culture which she inherited but attempts to adopt one that is different but not different enough.

Three and a quarter stars.


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Friday, May 19, 2017

The Dawn Patrol (Boone Daniels #1)The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Like, the moana was epic tasty this sesh and I slid over the ax of this gnarler and just foffed, totally shredded it, and I'm still amped from the ocean hit, so my bad, brah."

The blurb on the cover of Don Winslow's The Dawn Patrol (2008) says "Ultimate surfing novel." False advertising! The book certainly fails to deliver on the promise of "ultimate" and - on the other hand - it is a bit more than a "surfing novel." All in all, it is nowhere close to the class of the four-star Savages , a really good book, and also not as good as three other novels of this author that I have reviewed here on Goodreads.

The Dawn Patrol is a group of five surfers hanging out on San Diego beaches, mostly Pacific Beach. This implausibly composed group includes an ex-policeman and a part-time P.I. Boone Daniels, three other colorful characters, but also an active San Diego PD homicide detective. Yeah, right! As if!

A stripper scheduled to testify in an important case is pushed out of a window to her death. Boone is hired by Petra, a beautiful attorney, to find the dead woman's workmate, and he begins a private investigation that parallels one conducted by the police. There are cliché references to traumas from the past, cliché matters of the heart, and utterly cliché treatment of male bonding and friendship. The original investigation mutates into something even more serious, which overshadows the original case. The morphed plot twist is completely implausible, in addition to being formulaic and naïve.

Several aspects redeem the novel a little bit: it provides an interesting panorama of the beach culture. Writing is pretty good, as usual with Mr. Winslow, and there are some cute language pearls as exemplified by the stunning:
But like ain't is,
Is is is.
The title is a double entendre, one of the best I've ever seen, and the quote from The Beatles' Strawberry Fields is painfully distressing. As an almost 35-year-resident of San Diego I like the passages that talk about history of some places in the area. Events happen in locations that I know well: in fact, my family and I used to live just a quarter of a mile away from one of the locations of the story on Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach.

My main complaint is about how infantile the book is. Large parts of the text seem to have been written for the under-16 crowd. Some fragments are suitable for junior-high audience, like the passage where supposedly grown-up men discuss "which cartoon characters they'd most like to have sex with" or the scene that presents overeating and consequent copious puking. Only Monty Python can make explosive vomiting funny for adults.

So despite the good writing, neat puns, the surfbonics, the San Diego landscape, the painful motif of the strawberry fields, I am unable to recommend the book. Of course this quite readable novel may suit the tastes of hardcore surfing fans.

Two and a quarter stars.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The ProcedureThe Procedure by Harry Mulisch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"You must not break anything that you yourself cannot make [...]"

I so much wanted to be swept off my feet by Harry Mulisch's The Procedure (1998). I rated his The Assault just a quarter of a star away from perfection, yet in this book - while admiring the author's intentions and the sheer audacity of his literary endeavor - I am unable to appreciate the end result. Yes, it is a masterpiece in terms of ambitious design and intent, but I find the execution much flawed. Of course, it is possible that I am just too obtuse or cynical to fully appreciate the author's skill.

The Procedure is not an easy book to read: it requires continuous attention and deep focus. The effort pays off well, but - in my uneducated view - not well enough. The elaborate structure of the novel is intimidating in its precision: three "deeds" - Speaking, The Spokesman, and The Conversation - are subdivided into the total of 10 "documents." The narration, often interrupted by philosophical asides and digressions, is non-linear, but roughly proceeds from the distant past (late 1500s) to the present (1990s).

We begin with analysis of texts from Scripture, particularly from The Book of Genesis, including the references to the 22 letters of Hebrew alphabet and the meaning of their various configurations. The author says that "words consist of letters, as molecules consist of atoms [...]", which sets forth one of the main motifs of the novel - parallels between the physical world and the world of texts. We continue with the well-told story of Rabbi Löw in the late 16th century Prague who - at the request of Emperor Rudolf II - works on creating a golem, a living man made from mud. We jump to the early 1950s and witness the conception and birth of Victor Werker whose life is told in the second "deed" in the form of letters to his daughter. This part is emotionally most resonant and contains a powerful passage on death before life and its influence upon the living. Then we move to the third "deed," full of action, some real and some imagined, that happens to Victor Werker in the 1990s.

Each "deed" has a dominating scene: in the first part the dinner scene in the chambers of Emperor Rudolf II, with distinguished guests such as Giordano Bruno, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler, is wonderfully vivid and phantasmagorical. I doubt that any reader will ever forget the extremely painful scene of Aurora's birth in the second "deed" - not a usual birth, which is all I can say without spoiling. Powerful! The highpoints in the third part are the imagined conversations between Victor and Clara. The triplet of Victor's milk brothers is also a memorable concept.

The novel is more or less about the process of creation. Similarities between making life and writing are illustrated, along with the discourse on God as a writer and writer as god. Victor, an eminent biologist, creates life from inorganic building blocks. We read a lot about DNA, and the amino acid language of genetics. The Procedure is an extremely serious book about the preciousness of life and the randomness of death, about the eternal embrace of creation and destruction.

Three and three quarter stars.

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Long Line of Dead Men (Matthew Scudder, #12)A Long Line of Dead Men by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Every man in this room, every man ever born, spends his life approaching his death. Every day he takes another step in death's direction. It is a hard road to walk alone, a much easier road to walk in good company."

From Lawrence Block's earlier novels, particularly the memorable duo of The Sins of the Fathers and Eight Million Ways to Die, I remember Matthew Scudder, an ex-cop turned unlicensed private investigator, as a "practising" alcoholic. In A Long Line of Dead Men (1994) Mr. Scudder has already been sober for a number of years: he religiously follows the AA philosophy, attends the meetings, sometimes more than one daily, and often talks to his sponsor.

The novel seems to endorse the point of view that there are only two kinds of people: people who know they are alcoholics and therefore they do not drink and people who don't yet know that they are alcoholics. While a tad extreme, this view is not far from an astute observation of human nature. Anyway, Mr. Scudder's struggles with the episodes of alcoholic cravings that still happen despite long years of sobriety are shown realistically, which adds to the value of the novel.

The setup of the "mystery" is also first-rate. Mr. Scudder is hired by a member of an exclusive and somewhat secret society - "the club of thirty-one" or "annual celebration of mortality club," as termed by Elaine, Mr. Scudder's partner. The club - which is supposed to have a tradition of many hundred years - works on the following principle: when there is only one man left of the thirty-one members, he invites thirty "ideal candidates for membership" and brings them together to an annual meeting. The members meet once a year, the list of members who died in the past year is read, and so on, until one member remains, where the cycle repeats. Cool setup, if one that would be termed sexist nowadays: aren't women mortal too?

One of the club members has noticed that too many of his clubmates have died in the recent years, many more than statistics would indicate; he hires the detective to investigate if someone might be contributing to increasing the death rates. As a mathematician I can confirm that the discussion of statistical aspects of the setup is on the level.

The denouement is clever and elegant but not at all plausible. The weaknesses of the novel include the tired cliché of TJ, the detective's youthful helper, who is a master of getting the "word on the street." There is an awkward thread that involves Lisa (maybe the author wants to "humanize" Mr. Scudder; which seems unnecessary - his alcoholism should make him fully human). I am unable to understand the inclusion of Mick Ballou thread with its completely incongruous stories: maybe the author deleted the text from another book and is unwilling to throw it away?

Still, a captivating read that appeals to the human fascination with secret societies and historical conspiracies, and a novel that accurately describes the life of a sober alcoholic.

Three stars.


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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd OdysseySaucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey by Nicholas Schaffner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"They weren't players - they were kind of concept artists, really."
(Pete Brown, British poet and lyricist, on Pink Floyd).

Nicholas Schaffner's Saucerful of Secrets. The Pink Floyd Odyssey (1991) is a well-told and insightful story of the famous British band, one of the brightest stars in the rock-music pantheon. They began playing together in 1965 and were active in recording studios or on tours until 1994. The group temporarily reunited for the Live 8 ("Live Aid") benefit concert in 2005. Mr. Schaffner's book covers the history of the band only until the late 1980s, the period of the band's most important creative activity.

I am a Pink Floyd fan, albeit not an usual one. I only like their earlier music, music that still carries the influence of Syd Barrett. Not for me is The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), one of the best-selling albums in the history of music, an album that was on the bestseller charts for unprecedented 741 weeks (yes, 15 years) and which I find a good piece of elevator music. Thus, I am very happy that Mr. Schaffner does not allocate his attention proportionally to the commercial "value" of the group's works: a significant portion of the book is dedicated to Pink Floyd's early years.

The band's origins are tied to the Spontaneous Underground, a 1965 community action project, connected with the London Free School, and carried on by the Indica Bookshop. This was an anarchic, intellectual, avant-garde movement: in some sense an alternative to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones commercialism. Syd Barrett was the heart and the soul of the early Pink Floyd, and it was his musical and artistic genius that allowed the band to emerge as a unique phenomenon. The author mentions the seminal concert in October of 1966, where Pink Floyd played along Soft Machine, another "alternative band" of the late 1960s that also stayed active for great many years, however on the art side of music rather than, like Pink Floyd, on the business side (see my review of Soft Machine's story here ).

Pink Floyd's first album, the wonderful Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released almost exactly 50 years ago, in August 1967. I doubt if many Pink Floyd fans would recognize the band's early sound, totally devoid of the overblown bombast, techno-overload, and fake pathos of their most famous music, but full of psychedelic charm and whimsy instead. I don't think the fans of The Dark Side of the Moon would like the first album at all.

In 1967 Pink Floyd were all about art, about being avant-garde, about being "far out". Starting in 1968 - 1969 they began to care about business and making money. Gradual disappearance of Syd Barrett and his descent into mental illness paralleled that process. Three further albums, Saucerful of Secrets, Ummagumma, and Atom Heart Mother still have some connections with their psychedelic avant-garde roots. Beginning with Meddle and peaking with The Dark Side and, in particular, The Wall, Pink Floyd went full blast into huge-scale commercial show-making.

The saddest part of the book, other than the testimony to the commercialization of art, is the account of the acrimonious split between Roger Waters and David Gilmour who replaced the irreplaceable Syd Barrett in 1968. The author of the book died many years before the two feuding musicians decided to play along each other at the Live 8 concert in 2005. I wish he were at that concert.

Very well written, informative, balanced, and extremely readable chronicle of (d)evolution of a famous band.

Four stars.

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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Concourse (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #2)Concourse by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"This sort of thing is done in the not-for-profit world all the time [...] There's a lot of money floating around, and it's not terribly well-tracked. For everyone in this business for my naive, bleeding-heart reasons, there are half a dozen people here because they make a good living."

My third Chin/Smith novel within one month: the very good Winter and Night whetted my appetite for more adventures of the unlikely duo of private detectives. I put a few of early installments of the series in my random rotation and after the adequate but unremarkable China Trade , I expected a lot from Concourse (1995) as it won the Shamus Award. Well, it has been an exasperating read: brilliant aspects obscured by clichés, bad characterizations, and cheap ending.

This is a "Smith novel": now I understand that in the consecutive novels of the series the leading roles alternate. Smith's friend owns a protection company business where one of his men has been killed on the job. Smith's task is to find the killer: he is hired by the company as a replacement for the victim - a guard at The Bronx Home for the Aged, a care house funded and managed by a non-profit organization. The police suspect the guard was killed by one of the Cobras, a gang that owns the neighborhood and extorts money from the businesses. However, Smith's investigation uncovers real-estate improprieties and shenanigans.

Corruption in ostensibly charitable non-profit organizations is one of my hot-button issues, so I was excited to see Ms. Rozan clearly explain how people can profit heavily and legally from huge amounts of money floating in the non-profit world. The white-collar parasites suck the bulk of funds generated through generosity of donors. An illuminating conversation between Smith and a borough president's employee illustrates the mechanisms of corruption and is, to me, the highpoint of the novel. I find it refreshing when a crime writer has an ability to offer serious social insights without proselytizing and moralizing.

I have a serious problem, though, with characterizations in Concourse. Snake, the leader of the Cobras is a paper character, a cliché with no depth. Detective Lindfors is a caricature as well, with only the "on/off" button: the conversation between him and Smith sounds like a burlesque skit. The scene between Snake and a hospital patient - probably aimed at "humanizing" the former - rings particularly false and is probably aimed at making the reader feel good. Ida Goldstein and Eddie Shawn are also drawn with the faintest of brushes, but at least their roles are only to provide comedic relief. Even Mr. Smith himself does not come across as a real enough person - just a template of an extremely well meaning, noir PI with a heavy baggage of the past. Only Lydia's character is well written - I can imagine myself knowing her. Some of my earlier interest in the Chin/Smith duo was based on the ambiguity of their relationship: this thread of the series is handled well and I hope the author will gradually tell us more about the odd couple.

It could have been a great book and now, while I recommend it, it is with serious reservations.

Two and three quarter stars.


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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Straight ManStraight Man by Richard Russo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The world is divided between kids who grow up wanting to be their parents and those like us, who grow up wanting to be anything but. Neither group ever succeeds."

Either senile dementia has already softened my brain or Richard Russo's Straight Man (1997) is really a very good novel. A friend has recommended it saying "Great story! And very funny!" I am a sucker for funny and will even tolerate a "great story" in a novel as long as the writing is good and funny. Mr. Russo's writing is hilarious and the story is just a wrapping in which the author serves the reader quite some bits of wisdom. Not only is the novel an entertaining read but also food for thought for days and weeks.

This is a "campus novel" whose protagonist, 49-year-old William Henry Devereux Jr. (WHDJ from now on) is a professor of English, an interim chair of a deeply divided and completely dysfunctional department at a backwater public school, West Central Pennsylvania University. The school is located in a small town affected by unemployment and general blight. The specter of imminent high-education spending cuts looms in the background and there are insistent rumors that even tenured faculty will be laid off. Of course, the author exaggerates all symptoms to almost a point of absurd, but - as a university professor, albeit in a different field and in a department whose members love each other dearly (just in case my chair and my dean are reading this) - I can vouch that everything described by the author MIGHT happen, under the right circumstances. The campus climate, the faculty language with its mandatory phrases (like the "orshee" bit), the groupthink behaviors, the delusions of grandeur intermingled with fear are accurately depicted.

The plot is centered on various problems plaguing Prof. WHDJ: in addition to having to deal with his department and his superiors, he is facing numerous personal problems that involve his father (WHD Sr., an English professor of national renown), his daughter, his colleagues, his students, and his health. And the only weapon he wields is the Occam razor. Climactic events in the plot include the now famous goose incident: the accompanying speech that will remind the geezers of the equally famous "I am not going to take it anymore" scene from the 1970s movie Network sounds natural and plausible. Later in the novel, a traumatic incident in the area of human physiology is a source of hilarity as well.

Hilarity is always good but deep down there Straight Man really is a serious book. Every reader will likely find something different, fitting their individual beliefs, foibles, and fears: to me the most thought-provoking issue is the relationship between parents and their grown-up children and its roots in childhood. So many people's lives are destroyed by parents who either cared too much or not enough or by children who either hated their parents or hated themselves for failing in replicate their successes. There is a tremendously moving passage where a narrow-minded, bigoted father laments that his educated daughter is so different from him: "Where did I go wrong, little girl?" says he. Indeed, where? He gave her all his love and she is ashamed of him.

Another strength of the novel is the precise observation and diagnosis of ritualized behaviors: in academia, in marriage, in child-parent relationships, and in everyday life. And the fakeness of this all where everybody is permanently play-acting and those who can best play-act sincerity and spontaneity are the winners.

Great title! Great novel! Why not five stars then? I am not exactly sure. Probably because the plot is custom-made to the reader's satisfaction. The ending is too neat, too traditional in tying up all loose ends.

Four and a half stars.

Four wise and witty quotes:

"[...] it's hard to remain distinguished among people who know you."

"[...] one of the deepest purposes of intellectual sophistication is to provide distance between us and our most disturbing personal truths and gnawing fears."

"My colleagues are academics. They indulge paranoid fantasies for the same reason dogs lick their own testicles."

"A liberal arts dean in a good mood is a potentially dangerous thing. It suggests a world different from the one we know. One where any damn thing can happen."


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