Sunday, August 7, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

What I knew (or thought I knew) about To Kill a Mockingbird:

1. It's about the trial of a wrongly accused black man.
2. It has strange named characters like Scout and Atticus.
3. Every female who has ever read the book has secretly (ok, not too secretly) longed to name their own daughter "Scout"
4. I am the only American born after this book's publication, who was not required to read this book at some point during his education.

It turns out that To Kill a Mockingbird isn't really 'about' the trial of a wrongly accused black man. The trial is part of the events of the book as is it's aftermath, but it really takes up very little of the story.  No,  To Kill a Mockingbird is really about a young girl, Scout, learning about tolerance through the incredibly wise teachings and actions of her father, Atticus.  I have a soft spot for stories about fatherhood...the one's that show it in a favorable light that is.  When I read "The Road", it is not the question of why we choose to carry on with the absence of hope that draws me is simply the love of the Father that engages me.  In Mockingbird, the character of Atticus comes across as pretty distant from his children at times, but it is when he implores Scout over and over again to "put yourself in the other's shoes" that his love for all of mankind shines through.

At the end of the book Scout says,"...he was real nice."

Atticus' simple response sums up the story's theme, "Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them."

To Kill a Mockingbird doesn't break much new ground as a novel.  Ms. Lee's prose isn't all that memorable.  But what it does well, it does astoundingly well.  And that is tell a story that emotionally captures the reader, and gives him/her one small, but important thing to ponder after he/she puts the book down.  It's not a book I will soon forget.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Back among the blogging

Ok...maybe not so much. But hopefully I'll find some time and inspiration to post about my current read (To Kill a Mockingbird).  I'm still reading...I've just gone through the unemployment, re-employed,  trying to get up to speed on a new job in an incredibly different work environment than I'm used to...I'm pretty drained most nights, hence the dormant blog.

But yeah, I'm back. Sort of.  To Kill a Mocking Bird.  Pretty damn good, so far.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist

Par Lagerkvist is a Swedish author, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961.  Barabbas is his novella examining the life of Barabbas, the man pardoned so that Christ would be crucified in his place.  In my opinion, it is a fascinated concept for a story.  Lagerkvist for the most part delivers on the promise of that concept.

Still, it is a difficult book to review.  Lagerkvist hits the reader with so much to ponder.  There is a lot to think about here, especially for such a small book, and it's often hard to nail down the message, if there is one.  Evidently, Lagerkvist struggled to understand his faith, and that comes through in his book to a degree.  For most of the book, I felt that the book would be equally accessible to non-believers and believers; and Christians and people of other faiths.  It is mostly the story of a man living with an incredible burden.  The story of a man who has never been loved, trying to understand a faith whose singular message is to "love one another."  In that regards, I'd say Barabbas is universal.  However, the conclusion is filled with religious symbolism.  And it left me wondering, how the non-believer would approach the subject.  Again, making the book somewhat difficult to review with the possible exception that I would say the Christian reader would probably enjoy Barabbas, as I did, despite the fact that Christians don't get a pass in the book.  In fact, it was surprising to me that Lagerkvist depicted many of the early Christians much as we see many of the modern Christians.  I was reminded of Gandhi's quote, "I like your Christ.  I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

At any rate, I'm going to recommend Barabbas, especially for Christians as it gave this Christian much to think about.  More tentatively to non-Christians, because at it's heart it is a compelling portrait of humanity.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

American Tabloid - James Ellroy (+)

James Ellroy is a bit of a mixed bag.  I came to read him via the excellent film adaptation of  L.A. Confidential (oddly it is the only of his L.A.Quartet novels I have never read). His The Big Nowhere is a masterpiece. His White Jazz is nearly unreadable.  What makes him a mixed bag is that he's just so Ellroy.  If you've never read him though, that doesn't really help.  He has his schtick. It is his style, language, attitude.  The whole deal.  In an Ellroy novel, you're going to get staccato prose.  You're going to get characters referring to women as 'cooze', and a lot of racial slurs.  And your going to get this "look at me, I'm so cool" attitude from the authorial voice, that reminds this reader of Quentin Tarantino as a director.  It's all so Ellroy.

American Tabloid is a book I've picked up and put down at least three times over the last decade-plus.  It took reading in short 10-minute bursts during break at my new night-shift job to see it to its conclusion.  This manner of reading seemed to suit Ellroy's staccato prose. The book is a fictional account of the American underworld and its ties to the Kennedy assassination.  I am always fascinated by stories/documentaries about the JFK assassination.  So it comes as no surprise that I ended up loving American Tabloid.

The story follows the exploits of three unlikable characters.

Pete Bondurant - a 6'5" French-Canadian "gorilla", former LAPD cop, current P.I. who begins the book employed as the guy who scores Howard Hughes his heroin.

Ward Littell - an idealistic FBI man, stuck investigating Commies, when he'd rather go after the Mob

Kemper Boyd- a narcissistic FBI man, who manages to wiggle his way into three government jobs (FBI, CIA, Bobby Kennedy's Justice Dept.)

The plot that Ellroy tosses these three into is dense and huge.  And like L.A. Confidential (and unlike The Black Dahlia), the beauty is how Ellroy is able to keep this complex ball of yarn from unraveling and make it seem plausible.  Ellroy's fictional history is as believable as any Kennedy story you've heard, and Ellroy's prose stylings suit this story perfectly. I shutter to think how long this book would have been in the hands of a more descriptive writer.  The book has the Cuban revolution of Fidel Castro, Bobby Kennedy's crusade against Jimmy Hoffa, the Kennedy election, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and, of course, the assassination of a President. All of it is coated with the grime of Ellroy's Underworld. All of it touched by the hands of his three anti-heroes.

It is a great book. Even has me considering The Cold Six Thousand next.  And I seldom read series books back to back. I still think Ellroy needs to ply his thesaurus and use "cooze" less often, though.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Veronika Decides to Die - Paolo Coelho

Oh, didactic fiction...

I've had this book for awhile.  I picked it up at the Big Ass Book Sale last year.  I've been interested in reading Coelho for sometime, but I kept reading mixed reviews.  Mostly people seemed to complain that he is too simple.  Not a problem for me.  I like, love even, simple stories.  I could probably spend a whole post on how simple stories are no easier to pull off then complex stories.  I also like simple, straight-forward tight prose.  I can't say that I've heard Coelho's prose called simple, but I can see it being labeled such. I had no problem with his prose.  The story, though?

It reads like a cheap self-help book disguised as fiction.  I like stories with a message, but I do want that message veiled by a good story.  In the case of Veronika Decides to Die, despite being billed a "Novel of Redemption", the theme is conformity/non-conformity.  It's really about learning to do your own thing without the restraint of societal norms.  I dig the message...not the delivery.  I suppose there's redemption, too.  But conformity rules the day.

Coelho was placed in a mental hospital when he was young, so he knows something of the workings of the setting in the novel -  Veronika is placed in a mental hospital after attempting suicide.  He also knows a great deal about struggling against conformity, as his own struggle with wanting to be a writer against his parents' wishes is what put him in the hospital.  I believe Coelho claims Veronika to be his most personal novel for those reasons.  And that may be why, despite its many shortcomings, the novel still managed to touch me.  Those places are few and far between, but they at least have me considering give Coelho another chance.  YEARS DOWN THE ROAD.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Bookish Pet Peeves

This week's Top Ten Tuesday wants me to list by Bookish Pet Peeves. If I sad here long enough I could probably come up with a hundred. I seem to be able to bitch pretty well. However, for whatever reason I'm coming up a little blank at the moment. But I'll sit here long enough...

1. Poor opposite sex characters. This really bothers me. I, of course, notice more in female authors, simply because I know something about the way men think. But really the problem manifests itself in the limited range these authors paint their oppo. sex characters. For the crappy male author, his women seem to be cut from two pieces of cloth - 1) the tough (more man like?), hard-as nails but sexy as hell female or 2) the nerdy, bookish, shy woman. For the crappy female author, she also relies on two stereotypes 1) the overly sensitive, possibly gay, guy who just begs to be the shoulder to cry on and 2) the overly hetero oaf that is a bumbling idiot.

2. Shifting point of view mid-scene. This is jarring. It is like watching a film where the camera is jerking back and forth. I don't mind point of view shifts (even from 3rd to 1st person or vice versa), just do it at a scene break or better yet at a chapter break.

3. Pages and pages of italics text. It's hard to read.

4. The fact that an ebook cost just about the same (and often more) than a trade paperback book. This is just stupid. I must not be enough of a gadget person to stomach this nonsense. I like my Nook just fine. But given the choice I'll take thee real thing. When it's not cost effective to stray from the real get the point. Deep breaths, now.

5. Serial killer stories. Overdone. Generally, they remove the most compelling part of a crime book -- motive. Dude or dudette is a sick-o. End of story.

6. Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson. WTF?

7. Readers who fold the cover of their book ALL THE WAY BACK when reading. This ain't the Sunday paper! I refuse to lend books to my Stepdad again for this reason. Dude wrecked some really nice, really old John D. MacDonald paperbacks of mine.

8. People who ask what I'm reading and then say, "Oh, that's one of those brainy books". This is a weakness on my part. I should just say, "Yeah, I actually like to use my brain once in a while." Instead, I defend myself by explaining how the book isn't that "brainy". I don't know what I'll do if I ever do read "Ulysses."

9. People who ask your opinion about a book, and then want to debate the subject to prove you wrong. I like discussing books. I even like hearing dissenting opinions. It's interesting. But I'm not going to completely change my mind (this is so similar to political debate, What is the point?), and trying to do so is just going to piss me off.

10. Constant reporting of how "nobody reads anymore." To me this is right up with complaining about how much worse the generation coming up behind you is. Thanks to Ms. Rowling and Ms. Meyer (both whom I've never read) we just may have a new generation of readers. The glass is half full, people.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop

So, the literary blog hop question for this week is:

What literary work must you read before you die?

I'll answer, much like the original poster in two parts.

First, the literary work YOU must read before you die is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. There are a number of reasons, I'm recommending Lolita. It is a fantastic book in its own rights, but I suspect that many readers who have avoided it up to this point are avoiding it because the subject makes them uncomfortable. I think we all need to push through that resistance at times in our lives (and not just in reading), so I'm all for reading out of the comfort zone. I, also think, many readers will be surprised that Lolita really isn't all their minds have made it out to be. For one, it isn't all that graphic.

Lolita is a masterpiece of the unreliable narrator. We never really know when Humbert is feeding us the truth or not. He spends much of his time trying to convince us that he is not the monster that we think he where does the truth end, and the lies begin? And why as readers do we care? The guy's a pedophile for goodness sakes! And there lies Nabokov's genius. We end up caring about this sick, sick man.

Another reason to read Lolita for Americans/natural born English speakers is to feel small. Really small and insignificant. Because one cannot read Lolita without being overwhelmed with the beauty of the prose. English is Nabokov's second language...his book is taught in American Lit. classes. He is remarkable. Most of us will never write something so beautiful in our native language.

What book must I read before I die?

There are MANY. I've never cracked open a Jane Austen book, which just seems so male of me. I've never read War and Peace...or Crime and Punishment...or the Brother Karamazov...I've never read any Chekhov stories. I seem to be woefully lacking in reading Russian authors. (I have read some Turgenev short stories). But I'm going to go with Ulysses by James Joyce. It's one of those love or hate books...and people tend to either really, really love or hate those. And I think that says something about the artistic merit of a book. I believe that great art must evoke strong emotions in one direction or another. Very few works, evoke only great love or great chances are if someone HATES a book, someone else LOVES it. Books that popularly people like, but don't evoke a strong emotion, aren't great works of art IMO. So, yeah, a lot of people don't get Ulysses and hate it. I may be one of those. But the flip-side is, the people who like Ulysses...they swear by it. I may be one of those, too.

I should also point out that Lolita is the same kind of book. Some people just will not get over the subject matter and will hate it. I'm not one of those people, but you may be. Partly, this is IMO why it is a great piece of art.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke

Anyone who knows me, especially readers and even more so writers, is probably sick of hearing me talk about James Lee Burke. I admittedly have a man-crush on him. He is my favorite contemporary author. He, for the most part, writes crime fiction, and his themes are consistent. They are the corruptible qualities of wealth and political power. The flip-side of that theme is the helplessness of "the other America"

The Glass Rainbow is Burke's latest effort in the long running Dave Robicheaux series of novels. Robicheaux is a Cajun cop in New Iberia, Louisiana. The Glass Rainbow contains all the colorful characters, lush prose, and disturbing violence readers have come to expect of a Robicheaux novel. It centers on the murders of two young girls in Jefferson Davis Parish - one a poverty-stricken local honor student about to begin studies at LSU, the other a girl who had gone missing from Canada. Burke has mentioned in interviews that the book was his attempt to give a voice to a real problem in Jeff Davis Parish of eight unsolved homicides of young, poor women. Their cases have evidently gotten very little attention by neither the authorities nor the press. In the novel, Dave and his trouble-making, buddy Clete Purcel seem the only ones interested in the crimes...which happen outside Dave's jurisdiction.

The Glass Rainbow
, for the most part, is a pretty middling entry in the series. I've seen so much of this before that I almost know what is going to happen before Mr. Burke fills us in. Reading the series has become kind of like eating comfort food. I reach for a Robicheaux because I know it's not going to let me will be a good read and there are repeating characters that I love spending time with. The Glass Rainbow does those things...most of my reading was on autopilot. But there is this little piece of magic

----Major Spoiler Alert----

-----Seriously I Mean it---------

at the end. About ten pages from the end of the novel, Robicheaux starts narrating in a way that makes it clear that this is the end of the series. These last few pages are remarkable in that they read as a denouement despite the fact that all hell is breaking loose in a VERY violent scene. It's hard to explain what Burke pulled off here, but it was masterful...

Then, the closing passage had a touching, beautiful even, scene with Dave and Clete...almost perfect except for one thing. Mr. Burke used ambiguity to give himself an out.

I love the Robicheaux series, but I've come to enjoy the occasional standalone or when Burke strays from the expected in the series. I loved his depiction of the struggle of Louisianans during Katrina in The Tin Roof Blowdown, and felt letdown when he returned that story to more of the typical in the second half. I think that is what I found disappointing...the ending was so refreshing. Like I said, it's hard to explain it without quoting it verbatim, but it could have been (and I suppose still could be) such a poignant ending to the series, that I wish he wouldn't have given himself the opportunity to return to these characters. If it is indeed the end for Dave and Clete, it would free Burke to explore other stories. Something he has always excelled at, but with Dave's series his big seller, he has always returned to it. Whatever he decides, I'll be along for the ride...Burke is the only author I buy in Hardcover.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What I'm Reading...Roger Angell

I have once again learned my lesson about giving myself assignments...sigh. Black History month has to be deemed a reading failure for me. I'm about 2/3 of the way thru Uncle Tom's Cabin, but it has been that way for awhile. The thing is, it isn't a complex read. Beloved was infinitely more complex. Stowe's style, most early American lit. style it would seem, is just a little difficult to take. When I reviewed Dreiser last year, I mentioned how he tended to show up at the beginning of chapters to sort of give the reader a topic sentence for the chapter he/she was about to read. Even with Sister Carrie, I found this off putting, and I loved Sister Carrie. (In fairness, I believe Hugo did this some in Les Miserables, as well. So perhaps it isn't just Early American lit.) With Dreiser, though, he got his topic sentence out of the way, and then let the story prove his point. Not so with Stowe...she is constantly popping up to spoon feed the reader. It is irritating...especially when it's painfully obvious the point she is trying to make with her story. I am going to finish Uncle Tom's Cabin, because despite Stowe's exposition, I still find the story interest AND because I am of the mind that one of the best ways to understand a period of history is to read the fiction of its time.

Black history month wasn't a total failure for me all the dear readers know, I did read Beloved, which was another great Toni Morrison book. And I also purchased a copy of Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for my Nook. I didn't get to reading it, but it is waiting for me on Mt. TBR.

Right now...Spring Training games have started and that means it is time to dust off copies of my Roger Angell books. For the uninitiated, Angell is/was(?) a writer and editor for The New Yorker magazine. He is well known for his pieces of baseball, and rightfully so. Every half decade or so, a collection of these pieces are published in book form. He is my favorite writer of my passion - baseball.

I read a fair amount about baseball, and I once played the game (college and pro). So, I'm pretty well informed on the game. Most writers of the pastime attempt to uncover new ideas/statistical analysis/scandals etc. Angell does none of that. He writes as a fan. Reading Angell is about as close as you can get to sitting in the stands without actually doing so...moreso than even watching a game on TV IMO. His prose is beautiful and poetic. He writes romantically about a game that everyone else wants boil down to a few rows and columns on page 2 of your Sports section.

So, yep, every spring...Roger Angell. I'm ready for a beer and a dog.

(Oh and I've also started The Master by Colm Toibin.)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday - Literary Baby Names

The Broke and the Bookish this week asks us to list our Top Ten Literary figure/character names we'd give our children.

1. Dylan. As in Bob Dylan. I DID name my son this. I DID name him after Bob. The title of my blog comes courtesy of Mr. Dylan, too.

2. Samwise (Gamgee) from Lord of the Rings. Not Sam. Samwise.

3. Spenser like the poet with an 's'. From Spenser the poet with an 'S' or more truthfully the Robert B. Parker detective.

4. Mucho (first) Maas (middle) from The Crying of Lot 49. Ok, Mucho Maas isn't much of a character, but his name cracks me up. The fact that I have a Latino surname just makes this too good to pass up. The poor kid.

5. Toni, as in Toni Morrison. Ok, I'm struggling with girl names. I like Morrison, and I have thought about naming a daughter Toni - Antonia (Willa Cather, anyone) actually but Toni for short.

6. Ok...I'm stopping here. And leaving it on this note. I always wish I had named my dog Strider (Strider/Aragorn from Lord of the Rings)

Saturday, February 5, 2011


Book Blogger Hop

It's been forever since I particpated in the Hop over at Crazy for Books. And I'm bored right now, so I figured I'd answer the question and visit some blogs. This week's question is:

What are you reading and why?

I'm reading Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I'm reading as part of my Black History Month commitment. And because I've never read it. And because I had a copy of it on my Nook, that I downloaded free last summer. And because it seems like a book that I should have read by now.

I'm close to 100 pages into it, and I can't imagine what reading book must have been like in the mid-1800's, especially in the South. I'm not sure I like it, yet. The style is very dated...Stowe has an annoying habit of showing up and explaining things to me, rather than letting her story do it. Nonetheless, it's obvious this is a revolutionary novel, and took Stowe incredible courage to write.

So...that's what I'm reading... I'll hop around and see what everyone else is reading.

Beloved by Toni Morrison (+)

I am male. I am white. I like simple stories. I like simple, tight-to-the-bone, Heminwayesque prose.

I adore Toni Morrison.

Beloved is perhaps Ms. Morrison's most praised novel. It won her the Pulitzer Prize and was certainly instrumental in her becoming a Nobel Prize laureate, something no American author has managed since. On a more Pop level, it was the first Book of the Month Club selection written by an African-American author since Richard Wright's Native Son 40+ years prior. In addition, Ms. Morrison is to the Oprah Book Club, what the New York Yankees are to the World Series. On a personal level, it is the second Morrison book I've read (The Bluest Eye being the other), and the first book in my Black History Month reading exercise.

Beloved is the story of Sethe, a runaway slave, and her daughter Denver and their trials dealing with the spirit of Sethe's deceased daughter, who comes to be known as Beloved, because this is all Sethe could afford to inscribe on her gravestone. I pretty much knew this going in, but I wasn't prepared for there to be some "spookiness" involved. Yeah, I know what do you expect from a ghost story, right? Still, I guess I wasn't expecting it from this ghost story.

I also knew that there would be a fair amount of description of the conditions of slavery. It was, of course, unpleasant. I actually do tend to feel some guilt for the actions of my ancestors, so this stuff is never easy going. Possibly the most eye opening aspect to me was how Morrisons described the slaves' need to not "love too much"...not a mother, not a father, not a mate, and most certainly not one's children. How depressing.

Beloved is a difficult read. Some passages I had to re-read two or three times to understand. Some passages I have yet to completely understand. The structure is a bit of a mess. Morrison relies heavily on literary devices such as flashbacks (the novel is alternately set during the Civil War on a farm in Kentucky called Sweet Home, and years later after the way in Sethe's home in Cincinnati), and changing the point of view, and the TENSE. The point of view changes often happen mid-passage without a break, and often do not only involve changing from one character to another, but also changing from third to first person. Same thing with the flashbacks. It makes all of it a bit of a struggle to follow. However, the flipside is that when all of the pieces the reader is juggling start to slide into place the result is a more powerful experience. Not to mention, Morrison's prose is unarguably beautiful.

My favorite character in the book was Stamp Paid. A male character, who helped Sethe and several other slaves, runaway to safety in Ohio. He is a guy, who always tries to do the right it forward, and prides himself on the fact that every 'colored' door in town is open to him. He does find Sethe's door closed to him at one point...however, even when he wrongs someone, it is done with the right intentions. As someone who has experienced this type of man for untold years, I can attest to Ms. Morrison's ability to write believable, compelling male characters. She is understandably more known for her feminine characters (they are done well, too), but she writes men well too.

For me, Beloved was a slow, difficult read. And for this reason I understand when I hear/see other readers complain about it. It isn't easy. But, as mentioned above when everything is illuminated (apologies to Mr. Foer), the message is that much more powerful. It is worth the effort.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Black History Month

It's just a coincidence that I am reading Beloved by Toni Morrison now. I just saw that it is Black History Month. One of the things I've learned in my little read more widely exercise is that I like African-American literature. This really shouldn't have come as much of a surprise as in my genre of choice (crime) Chester Himes and Walter Mosley are two of my favorite authors. At any rate, since I'm already reading the Morrison AND it's February, I think I'm going to make this a month where I focus on books either written by African-Americans or written about the African-American experience. So, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which I'm considering reading, while not written by an African-American, would still work.

Anyone else interested in joining me? If not reading all African-American centric books, possibly at least one?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday - Debut Novels

A good topic this week brought to us by the Broke and the Bookish...though a tough one, as I don't really pay much attention of whether a book is a debut or not. No particular order here.

1. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. I haven't read about Bilbo's adventure since high school, which makes me sad.

2. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I adore Ms. Morrison's prose.

3. The Brass Cupcake by John D. MacDonald. I'm mostly a fan of his Travis McGee novels, and have had a hard time connecting with many of the standalones I've read...but this one certainly is an exception.

4. American Rust by Philipp Meyer. Yep, I still love this book...scroll down and you can read my review of it.

5. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. I have seen this panned quite a bit in the blogosphere. It has been forever since I've read it, but it turned me into a Hemingway fan.

6. Neuromancer by William Gibson. It reads like a futuristic-ultra punk Chandler novel.

7. Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. Easy Rawlins' desperation in holding on to that which is he is most proud - home ownership, makes him one of crime fiction's most empathetic characters.

8. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. The first book reviewed on this blog.

9. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathon Safron Foer. I didn't love this book, but I saw so much promise in Foer that I do think it is a strong debut. The way Foer is able to weave humor into such dark subject matter without you wanting to punch him in the face is astounding. At some point I will work Foer's second book into my reading plans.

10. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. I jest.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Eaten Ones

So, you know what sucks more than misplacing books? Having your dog eat one! Seriously, I don't think I'm supposed to read this book.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Lost Ones

I am currently reading The Guide by R.K. Narayan. It's a book I started sometime before Christmas, then I misplaced it. I found it a week or so ago, and now I'm starting it again. I know, not very interesting...

Here's the thing, there is no telling how many books I have done this with in the past. Usually when I find them, I don't bother with them again. It's mind boggling when this happens with a book I was enjoying (like The Guide)...what, the magic was lost or something?

My propensity for misplacing books is one of many reasons I put off buying an ereader - fear of misplacing my $200 'book'. So far I haven't misplaced my nook, but it does scare the same time it's harder to actually misplace the ebooks on it, so long as I don't lose the device. .

What this has me wondering is how many great books I've missed out on just because I'm an idiot. I've tried keeping one book at home and another at work just so I don't carry books to and fro, but inevitably I find I'm enjoying one book more than the other, so I end up carrying it to and fro...and, of course, risking misplacing the book. I often find the book months down the road...but these books are still Lost Ones, because I seldom start reading them again. Does anyone else do this odd behavior?

I hope The Guide turns out to be a great book...The Lost Ones deserve a winner.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

Having just finished American Rust, I figured it was about time to finally get around to reading Cain's classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. Like Redemption Street, this book was on my dying to read list.

Postman and Cain are often lumped in with the Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler school of crime writing. This is a false categorization. Cain actually writes in a more terse, hard-boiled style than either Hammett or Chandler but the comparisons really end there. Postman (and none of Cain's books that I'm aware of) isn't a mystery. It's all about the consequences of crime. Like any good/true noir it is more an exploration of existential themes than whodunnit. Cain does this so well that Camus cites Postman as the inspiration for his famous existential work "The Stranger."

The story centers on the "love" triangle between Nick and Cora Papadakis and Frank Chambers. Frank is a drifter who lands at Nick and Cora's roadside sandwich joint. Frank and Cora, of course, fall into an obsessive love affair that can only breathe if they are able to get rid of Nick. I'll stop there, because I think you know where this is headed, and I don't want to give away any of the particulars that really make Postman special.

The reading of this book was hurt somewhat for me by the fact that I've seen both the 1946 titular American film (I even own it) several times and the Italian neo-realist film "Ossessione" based on the book. (Hint: if you have to choose try Ossessione, it's a masterpiece) So, I knew the story well. Yet, I was still able to enjoy Cain's terse, clipped prose, and the ending is worth the price of the book alone.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday

From the Broke and the Bookish this weeks topic is Books I Wish I had read when I was a kid...

Hmm, I'm pretty sure I won't get to ten.

1. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll - this seems like one of those everyone knows the story, but few have read it books. That's my excuse at least.

2. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson - Pirates! Arrrgh!

3. The Hounds of the Baskervilles - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes is too light in my reading history.

4. Journey to the Center of the Earth - Jules Verne. I have this at home. It seems like the kind of adventure story I would have more enjoyed as a boy than an adult.

5. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Need to have a 'scary' book on the list.

6. Any of the Hardy Boys books. I like mysteries today, seems I would have liked these as a kid.

7. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. I read Huck Finn freshman year of college. It, too, should have been read when I was younger. What was wrong with my teachers?

I guess that will do it for now...

Monday, January 24, 2011

American Rust by Philipp Meyer (+)

American Rust by Philipp Meyer will likely be shelved with the Literary Fiction in your local Barn o' Novels. I came across it in the latest edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. This seems to give the book more credence on its Literary-label. It has been compared to Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, and McCarthy. I found it most resembled Faulkner (what I know of Faulkner). I also found it to be genre fiction...and literary fiction. But then I find noir to be very literary. Sue me.

The story is set in the dying Pennsylvania rust belt, and delves into the minds, in a stream of conscious Faulner-esque way, of six characters residing there:

Isaac English- a 20 year-old,genius trapped in town caring for his ailing father.
Billy Poe- a 20 year-old, former jock, whose fists are always getting him in trouble.
Bud Harris- the chief of police, who always stick his neck out for Poe, because he is in love with Poe's mother.
Grace Poe- Billy Poe's mother, who can't decide between Bud or Billy's father
Lee English- Isaac's sister, she escaped the valley to graduate from Yale, and is now married to money,though she loves Billy
Henry English- Lee and Isaac's crippled father

The story is simple. Isaac and Billy stumble into trouble with some derelicts as Isaac is heading out of town for good. Billy gets into one of his typical fisticuffs with the bums, and Isaac saves Billy from certain doom, when he accidentally kills one of the bums. The boys 'escape', but find themselves in a greater hell. And this is why American Rust is noir.

Isaac ends up on the road as he always planned. Billy ends up in jail and won't talk in an effort to protect Isaac. And Bud Harris becomes a main character in the narrative at this point as he wrestles with what to do about Billy in this case. All of the characters are corrupted and destroyed in one manner or another by their decisions. It is the psychology behind these decisions, and how each of the characters respond to their descent down this downward spiral that makes American Rust such a fascinating read. The stream of conscious style and narrative from six points of view worked spectacular in this regards.

If there is a weakness in the novel it's that sometimes with all characters narrating in a stream of conscious, there is a "sameness" to their voices. For me, this was mostly with the voices of Poe and Isaac. In my copy of the book, there is Q&A with the Author at the back and he claims that Isaac's and Poe's streams are distinct in that Isaac's mind works more linear, and Poe's more circular -- he goes round and round the issue before settling on a decision. I didn't catch this, but it might be interesting to consider if I ever re-read the book.

In the end, I loved American Rust. The plus sign in this review's title is a measure of its 'kick-assness'.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Literary Blog Hop

This week's theme at the Literary Blog Hop is:

Discuss a work of literary merit that you hated when you were made to read it in school or university. Why did you dislike it?

Believe it or not, this is a touch question. Why? Because I enjoyed most of the books I was assigned. There's a reason they're classics...they're great stories. I think the answer is going to have to be Moby Dick. I was assigned this in HS sophomore English honors. I think the main reason I disliked the book was that the sadistic teacher assigned this AND The Scarlet Letter in the same 6 week period. Moby Dick is just too long of a book to be crammed into that time frame for a HS student IMO, when he/she is studying six other subjects. Specifically, in the book, what I remember is:

1. I liked the beginning.
2. I liked the end.
3. I disliked all the exposition in the middle.

If that seems like a very sparse review, it is because it has been well over 20 years since I read the book. Moby Dick is on a long list of books I hope to re-read some day.

What book were you forced to read, and disliked? Have you since re-read the book? Has your opinion changed?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Redemption Street by Reed Farrel Coleman

Happy New Year blog. It's been awhile.

I just finished reading Redemption Street by Reed Farrel Coleman. It's not literary fiction. It's a private eye novel. It's not part of my effort to read more widely. It was on my list of novels I'm dying to read.

Redemption Street is the second in the Moe Prager series of novels. I've read the books out of order - partly, because I'm growing sick of the genre insistence on series characters; partly because the books are somewhat hard to find. The series is an exception in that there is a well defined story-arc throughout. Part of its appeal is this arc...that and how Coleman jumps around in time throughout the series. The arc is more about family dysfunction and secrets than crime genre minutiae. Another appeal.

So what about Redemption Street?

Well, the story arc isn't a big deal here. It's only alluded to. So, in some ways, this reads more as your straight forward private eye novel than any other novel (of the ones I've read) in the series. The plot involves Prager investigating the circumstances around a fire at a Catskills resort hotel sixteen years prior. This is a Coleman novel, so it can't just be a simple case for Moe. It has to touch him personally, so we have Andrea Cotter as one of the victims. She was one of Moe's high school crushes... Coleman often relies on Moe's soft, cushy side and it seems corny when I write about it, but he's much better at it than I. There also an exploration of Jewish cultural assimilation, which again is a pull on Moe's personal feelings. It is the high point of the novel.

The 'mystery' isn't especially spectacular. And the other more 'characterization' stuff I usually find in a Coleman book isn't quite as prevalent. In the end, it's good enough to keep me reading about Moe, but it falls short of every other Coleman book I've read.