Friday, July 20, 2018

It Chooses YouIt Chooses You by Miranda July
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"The PennySaver sellers were so moving to me, so lifelike and realistic, that my script - the entire fiction [...] - now seemed totally boring by comparison."

My first contact with Miranda July's work was in 2006 when my wife and I watched her movie Me and You and Everyone We Know, which we both loved. A few years later, before my Goodreads days, I had read her collection of stories, No One Belongs Here More than You, and again liked it a lot. Alas someone borrowed the book from us and never returned it so I have read It Chooses You (2011) instead. Quite disappointing! Gone is the enchanting whimsy of the movie and the stories.

The book is narrated by a 35-year-old, recently married woman, an independent movie director who enjoyed a successful film debut a few years earlier. She is now trying to complete a screenplay for her second movie, but struggles with a bit of a writing block, or maybe with the "sophomore curse." Of course, the description fits Ms. July herself, who indeed spent quite some time working on her second movie The Future.

In order to justify her procrastination with the screenplay and - ostensibly to gather additional material for the movie - she undertakes a seemingly fascinating project. She studies Pennysaver, a pre-Internet equivalent of craigslist, selects interesting ads and interviews people who sell strange stuff. We meet a retired man in process of transitioning to a woman, who is selling a leather jacket. We also meet a young man selling bullfrog tadpoles at $2.50 each and a woman who offers baby leopards and various birds for sale. In what I find the most fascinating piece of merchandise, we are introduced to a woman who is selling photo albums of people who have died and whose albums have been rescued from trash. The sellers tell the narrator - Ms. July - their life stories and she implies that she uses these stories as inspiration in her work on the screenplay. The written pieces are accompanied by documentary-style pictures taken during the interviews by a well-known photographer, Ms. Sire.

This is a very pleasant and absorbing read yet I suspect that the author is a victim of a common fallacy: she believes that by describing actual, real-life people, the prose becomes more realistic and is more likely to convey transcendent truths about life. Quite the contrary, the specificity of situations of actual people makes generalizations more difficult: the "real-lifeness" of an actual person strips the vestiges of generality. Nothing can be more realistic than well-written fiction.

I do not believe It Chooses You is literature; it is instead a sort of reportage, a set of feature stories about strange people, yes, interesting and smooth, very readable, yet the book does not contribute in a significant way to enriching the portrayal of human condition, which seems to have been the author's objective. In this sense I consider this effort a failure. I still admire Ms. July's other work and will look for her set of stories to be able to assign a higher rating than just

Two stars.


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Monday, July 16, 2018

Shackles (Nameless Detective, #16)Shackles by Bill Pronzini
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"I have a burial spot all picked out for you. And you mustn't worry - I'll dig your grave deep so the animals won't disturb you.

My fourth Pronzini read - and another one in his famous series about a private detective whose name is never mentioned - is a conventional revenge story in the tradition of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. Instead of Château d'If in southern France, Central California provides interesting locations for the plot: the region roughly east of Stockton, Ca, and west of the Sierra Nevada range.

Shackles (1988) is the 17th installment in the series: it follows Deadfall that I have just reviewed here. The beginning of the novel evokes a happy and carefree atmosphere: the detective and Kerry, his love interest, meet Eberhardt's (he is the detective's partner) new girlfriend. The mood is so cheerful that it is obvious something bad is just about to happen.

It does. The detective is abducted, chloroformed, and driven to a mountain cabin in a remote area, where he is shackled with an iron chain to a wall. He is left to die there, but not quickly. So deep is the abductor's grudge that he has provided a lot of food for the detective: the idea is to extend his suffering and prolong the process of dying. Our hero even muses about sawing his leg off to escape but the lack of suitable tools makes the selfie surgery idea difficult to implement.

As stereotypical as the imprisonment part of the story is it made me think about it as a metaphor of human life: one is chained to a particular place, certain foods, radio stations, etc. for the remainder of one's given lifespan, with death the only thing to look forward to.

I am not going to spoil the story by divulging whether there is the second part of the story, the part that portrays the vengeance. Lame joke, sorry. However, while in a facetious mood I will quote a short passage that made me smile:
"Retirement is hell, so to hell with retirement."
That's the spirit! Only people in wrong jobs may want to retire! Anyway, reading the novel - other than the mentions of many Central California locations that I find familiar - has not been a particularly memorable experience.

Two and a quarter stars.


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Friday, July 13, 2018

The Best American Science Writing 2006The Best American Science Writing 2006 by Atul Gawande
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Money and politics taint everything"
(A pearl of wisdom)

About a year ago I reviewed here on Goodreads The Best American Science Writing 2005 , a marginally recommended read that includes unquestionable jewels such as Frank Wilczek's essay Whence the Force of F = ma or Small Silences by Edward Hoagland, a wonderfully lyrical piece about the beauty of nature. Here I am reviewing the next issue in the set, which presents the presumably best science essays from 2006. I like this set better, because not only does it contain fewer "meh" pieces, but mainly because it conveys a powerful and very scary message about the many ways science is manipulated.

Three essays in particular show the mechanisms of manipulation. The best essay of the set, The Tangle by Jonathan Weiner, is about attempts to solve the mystery of a neurological "disease that once afflicted people living on Guam." An outsider in the field, a botanist, developed a hypothesis that the illness was a result of the Guam Chamorros eating bats that fed on cycad seeds. The hypothesis, likely because of its simplicity, brought its author instant fame. However, it also resulted in government-supplied research money disappearing from other research projects on related topics, which in turn caused many other researchers to work on debunking the cycad-bat hypothesis. As of the essay's writing date, they have largely succeeded.

Neil Swidey's essay What Makes People Gay? is almost equally fascinating. It presents the research on connection between genetics and sex orientation, but what really stands out is the clear illustration of the role of advocacy groups in influencing the flow of research money and even in determining which research projects should be condemned before any work has been done. Money and politics are at their ugliest again!

Politics, and specifically the politics of race, is also the backdrop of Jack Hitt's Mighty White of You, an essay that reflects on the theory about pre-Clovis people in North America. The abstract of the article states it bluntly:
"...these new theories have less to do with science than with a distressing and not-so-subtle racism."
What I probably like the most about the three essays is that their authors do not take sides in the argument (first two are more neutral than the third one). Science should not take any sides. One of the basic tenets of science is cultivating doubt. Expressing doubts about currently prevailing societal beliefs and attitudes should be an important goal of science.

Briefly about three other essays that I like a lot. H. Allen Orr's Devolution, about the so-called "intelligent design" theories nicely debunks the arguments used by the debunkers of theory of evolution. Paul Bloom's Is God an Accident? posits that religion may be a natural result of the way humans perceive the world. The author talks about the dualism inherent in human understanding of ourselves and our world, and it immediately reminded me of Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading

Finally, the essay that could have easily been the best in the entire collection, Richard Preston's Climbing the Redwoods about the world of redwood canopy, the mysterious world over thirty stories above ground. But the author completely spoils the fascinating topic by focusing on climbing the tallest trees and by his utterly insane fetish for numbers, especially big numbers. What a waste!

Three stars.

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Sunday, July 8, 2018

Deadfall (Nameless Detective, #15)Deadfall by Bill Pronzini
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"...crawling away, one hand clawing at the wood, the other crooked under him in a vain effort to stem the flow of bright arterial blood. Dragging sounds, crunching sounds: trying to crawl away from death."

Yet another item in my Pronzini mini-spree: Deadfall (1986), according to Wikipedia, is the sixteenth installment in the series that now spans almost half of a century. And yet again a quibble with the critics/reviewers who named the Pronzini protagonist "Nameless Detective." He uses credit cards so I strongly doubt he is nameless; he should rather be called "Unnamed Detective."

While on a stakeout for a deadbeat who buys stuff on credit and forgets to pay, the Unnamed Detective (UD from now on) hears two shots and sees a shooter escape. Then he finds a mortally wounded man who - in his dying words - utters "Deadfall." The victim's lover hires the detective to find the killer. In what seems too much of a coincidence it turns out that the victim's brother had died half a year earlier, apparently in a drunken fall from a cliff. Thanks to his contacts on the police force UD is permitted to conduct quite an extensive investigation of the case.

In a parallel and somewhat light-hearted thread UD faces trouble from his girlfriend's ex-husband. As a reverend in a cultish Church of Holy Mission the man does not believe in divorce and wants his woman back. The comedic motifs are welcome, but it is a pity that much of the fun is based on clichés. Also, while Kerry - the detective's girlfriend - is a vivid and well-drawn character, other female characters are quite one-dimensional and portrayed through the prism of pop psychology.

The denouement is logical and plausible and confirms the unfortunately banal observation that human weakness and potential for depravity have no bounds. Deadfall is not quite as good as Hardcase or The Vanished but it is a good read with an interesting story. I am still looking forward to more Pronzini.

Two-and-three-quarter stars.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2018

No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World's 14 Highest PeaksNo Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World's 14 Highest Peaks by Ed Viesturs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory."

Ed Viesturs' No Shortcuts to the Top begins dramatically with the account of the author's conquest - along with Scott Fischer - of K2, the second highest mountain on Earth, yet generally considered the most difficult one. In Mr. Viesturs's words that conquest remains "the biggest mistake of [his] climbing career," and throughout the book he continually reiterates the motto of his lifelong mountaineering adventure, so aptly expressed in his famous phrase shown in the epigraph above. I have reviewed here on Goodreads another book by Mr. Viesturs, K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain , dedicated in its entirety to the dramatic and tragic history of conquests of K2, the mountain which also claimed the life of the Polish climber and my friend, Dobroslawa Wolf, who perished on its slopes in 1986.

This book, also co-written with David Roberts, covers Mr. Viesturs' entire mountaineering career but also serves as a sort of an autobiography. Obviously, the focus is on climbing: the reader will learn about the author's fascination with Maurice Herzog's Annapurna - the book that, as he writes, "completely changed the direction of my life" - his years as a mountaineering guide in Washington State and in Alaska and his early mountaineering successes in Himalayas and Karakorum. But we also learn about the author's work with animals - he has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree - as well as about his personal life and his wife and children.

Mr. Viesturs is one of the very few climbers who summitted all fourteen "Eight-thousanders", mountains higher than 8000 meters, and one of the only five who achieved all these summits without the aid of supplementary oxygen. Yet he is adamant in insisting that he has never treated his climbing as a competition against other people:
"I don't think of myself as a competitive climber. Or if I am, I'm competitive only with myself."
Mr. Viesturs is modest about his phenomenal achievements: he stresses the role of intense preparation (for instance, running several miles every single day), team work, help of accomplished climbing partners, some luck with weather, and - perhaps most tellingly - the genetic basis of high-altitude abilities. From the pages of the book he comes across being a humble, affable, good-natured person. Unlike some other extraordinary high achievers he does not snipe at other climbers and makes sure not to criticize the dramatic decisions they often have to take, decisions that may mean life or death. I also like that the book is not too gossipy and almost completely devoid of titillating details, perhaps with one unfortunate exception in the case of a certain famous French climber - where the author provides "too much information."

A well-written book - probably due to Mr. Roberts' literary talent. Not exactly in the class of the same author's K2, mentioned above, or - say - Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air but certainly a good read and I recommend it without reservations.

Three-and-a-half stars.

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Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Vanished (Nameless Detective, #2)The Vanished by Bill Pronzini
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"With Cheryl it was her eyes, it would always be her eyes; I could see them once more, mentally, and all the things they had contained, and the reflection in them of what she had in turn discovered in my own eyes..."

Continuing the PIE (Pronzini Immersion Experiment) I have now read The Vanished (1973), one of the earliest novels in the acclaimed "Nameless Detective" series. And I quite like the novel, similarly to Hardcase that I have reviewed a week ago. Nothing particularly memorable but a nice, solid and mostly captivating read.

A young woman, Elaine Kavanaugh, hires the detective (ND henceforth) to find her fiancé, Roy Sands. Roy is a master sergeant and his 20 years in the Army are up. He had spent the last year in Germany and came back to the Presidio Army base in San Francisco from where he has disappeared. Elaine is much in love with Roy: they have been planning the wedding and their future life together. The case takes ND to Eugene, Oregon, and then - after he finds an address of a German art gallery on a piece of paper that could be traced to Roy - to Germany. Roy's three Army buddies are helping in the investigation.

I have been impressed by a very well written passage that describes ND falling in love with Cheryl, a woman he meets while investigating the case. But while the detective's feelings are portrayed eloquently and plausibly, Cheryl's character is not drawn realistically. On the other hand, Elaine, his client, comes through as a full-bodied and compelling character. I like the plausible and logical solution of the case where the denouement is preceded by a fairly graphic but well-written scene of a brutal fight.

As I mentioned in the review of Hardcase it is only natural to draw comparisons between Bill Pronzini's ND novels and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer series. Both authors try to "humanize" their private detectives. Of course, Macdonald succeeds to a much higher extent than Mr. Pronzini, and reading The Vanished revealed yet another reason for this difference of class. Both detectives are well-meaning, honest, and deeply decent. Yet while Pronzini's hero is just a guy, Macdonald's Archer is a Universal Human Being, embodying the common plight and pain of human existence.

Still, the novel is a true good read, and gets my recommendation. I have two more Pronzinis on my shelf.

Three stars.


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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Invitation to a BeheadingInvitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Accused of the most terrible of crimes, gnostical turpitude, so rare and so unutterable that it was necessary to use circumlocutions like 'impenetrability', 'opacity', 'occlusion'; sentenced for that crime to death by beheading; emprisoned in the fortress in expectation of the unknown but near and inexorable date [...] "

First book by Vladimir Nabokov that I do not like that much. Nowhere even close to the magnificent greatness of Lolita , and not as compulsively readable and memorable as Speak, Memory , Invitation to a Beheading (written in Russian in 1935, translated into English by the author's son in 1959) offers several unforgettable scenes and profound themes, yet - as a whole - it does not speak to me, though it is quite likely that my foggy geezer brain is simply unable to grasp much of the profundity.

Cincinnatus, convicted of gnostical turpitude, is awaiting execution. He has to endure many customary rituals preceding the beheading ceremony. Several people - his wife, the jail guard, the jail director, his lawyer, even the executioner himself - are trying to convince him to happily participate in the involved process of preparing for being decapitated. They are quite offended when he does not share their enthusiasm about the proceedings and doesn't want to play his role in what he terms their "idiotic production." The somewhat surprising ending of the story is divulged on the back cover. For what purpose, I am asking? To me, the publisher offends the intelligence of readers.

The misguided back cover blurb also attempts to "explain" the novel: supposedly it "embodies a vision of a bizarre and irrational world." I completely disagree: to me, the "message of the novel," if any, is clear: one person is nothing against the society. It is irrational to expect that the world will take any notice of one person. One human being is completely irrelevant for the society as a whole.

There are some fascinating themes in the novel: the dichotomy between the internal world of a person and the external world (their "so-called world"). I believe Nabokov wants the reader to consider which world is more "real." Another persistent motif is one of human opacity or impenetrability. To me, though, this motif is quite opaque and the author's intentions impenetrable.

Two magnificent passages need to be mentioned: a bravura piece on the tunneling work targeting Cincinnatus' cell and a fully Nabokovian fragment of magnificent prose that describes the convict's wife eating a peach:
"Or when you, with eyes closed tight, devoured a spurting peach and then, having finished, but still swallowing, with your mouth still full, you cannibal, your glazed eyes wandered, your fingers were spread, your inflamed lips were glossy, your chin trembled, all covered with drops of the cloudy juice, which trickled down onto your bared bosom, while the Priapus who had nourished you suddenly, with a convulsive oath, turned his bent back to me [...]"
And, of course, there is Emmie, who foreshadows the heroine of Lolita. The novel, although a worthwhile read, is less captivating than it might have been, because of its opacity and impenetrability.

Two and three quarter stars.

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