Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

An ex cop, a surfer, is haunted by an abducted child he couldn't save.

Each morning, Boone Daniels, carefree beach bum and flat broke private detective, surfs off the San Diego coast with five eccentric buddies. One morning is different -- a colossal set of waves will arrive soon, and the old friends are filled with anticipation. Ambitious attorney Petra Hall, however, waits at Boone’s office, needing him to take on an insurance fraud case. All he has to do is ensure that beautiful stripper Tammy makes it alive and in one piece to serve as a witness in court. Someone, however, is trying to kill Tammy.

Ok, I finally found a half decent genre novel. Besides this one. “The Dawn Patrol” was well plotted, at times gripping though the trope was the damsel in distress. The prose was serviceable, and the action was semi-believable, even though there weren't any real characters per se.  Part of the difference between a literary novel and a genre novel is that a literary novel is assumed to have well rounded interesting characters and a genre novel isn’t. A genre novel is all about the plot, therefore, instead of characters, you get three or four traits wrapped around a motivation. There were lots of “characters” here, the main ones (packed into beautiful highly sexualized bodies) and the sidekicks, distinguished by freaky cartoony tags, like tattoos or nicknames or weird hairstyles.

At times the dialogue and some description got cutesy which seemed odd in an environment where murders are happening right and left. The casualness of death is another genre novel element I have trouble accepting.  Also I find it hard to believe that hundreds of 8 year old girls would be sexually trafficked through San Diego without anyone saying a word. One or two girls perhaps but not boatloads. Or maybe I am na├»ve.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li

Teenage impulsivity ruins four lives

Ruyu, a laconic orphan, raised and philosophically molded by a pair of quasi-Catholic elderly women, arrives in Beijing to attend high school and board at the home of family friends. She shares a bed with Shaoai, whose first year at college has been marred by the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Shaoai has participated in the demonstrations, and the crushing of the dissent has meant the crushing of Shaoai’s future. This has made her cynical and she likes tormenting the silent unworldly Ruyu.  Ruyu is befriended by two classmates who also live in the compound, handsome Boyang, and caring Moran.   After Shaoai drinks a glass of poisoned Tang, however, leaving her severely brain damaged, eventually the three others fail in adulthood both at material achievement and emotional intimacy.

This book disappointed me, especially after I loved The Vagrants so much. Halfway through this one I didn’t care about any of these drips. The American sections where the two girls, now middle aged women, trudge around winter landscapes in sackcloth and ashes, go on far too long.  Could it be that my feelings are a function of well yes I enjoy your stories of spiritual desperation in totalitarian China but perhaps I cannot appreciate your stories of spiritual desperation in the affluent US. There are twelve different kinds of latte at Starbucks.  What then is the problem?  Here the truly compelling story is what exactly happened back in the bedroom in Beijing.  Also, the writing is far more vivid describing the compound with the lively neighbors, and the parts where the three kids bike around Beijing.

For me, the big "mystery" reveal was ho him and it is established way too late that Boyang’s mother has access to poison, although it’s clear enough that this novel is not structured as a traditional whodunit. The paragraphs get preachy at times, and there seemed to be too much showing instead of telling. However, I thought it was pretty cool that Ruyu played the accordion. More of that please.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Two families though only one can be the real family

Ever since she was little, Dana has known her father James was a secret bigamist, therefore Dana must be circumspect when planning her outings and her education and career goals lest she encounter her father’s other daughter. The legitimate one.  Dana only sees her father and Uncle Raleigh on Wednesday nights when they come for supper. Dana and her mother Gwen (the outside family) sometimes spy on the other daughter and wife, Chaurisse and her mother LaVerne (the inside family), and Dana understands that she must never approach, although Gwen is meticulously stubborn about making sure that James provides the same advantages to Dana that he provides to Chaurisse. However, insecure, beautiful and smart Dana cannot help herself and hides her identity, initiating a friendship with good natured, chunky and academic dud Chaurisse. Eventually, however, the secret comes out.

At first I thought 350 pages, uh oh, but story dragged me in. I don’t want to say that the pace was slow, but I will say that the pace was stately. Carried along by this stateliness, the reader gets an entertaining glimpse into the Atlanta African-American bourgeoisie. The first section is narrated by Dana, whose insecurity leaks through her story, and the second by Chaurisse, who is well loved and draws the reader in with her charm. The deft characterization also helped hold my interest. Numerous people, from the farm to the city, from the church to the beauty shop, populate these two alternating worlds, two worlds linked by James Witherspoon, the roly-poly bigamist, and James’s foster brother, the light skinned Raleigh.  

There are some great set pieces here, (the shotgun wedding of teenage James and Laverne, the grandmother’s death, the confrontation in the beauty shop), that’s why it was disappointing that the ending, which truly is devastating, is not dramatized but related years after the fact, robbing it of its emotional power. Also, I was reading away, perfectly content at the two stories going down two separate train tracks, then noticed there were only a few pages left. I wondered how the author was going to wrap things up. By force, it turns out.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Two smart people try to correct mistakes made at the outset of their relationship

Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters will have no inheritance.  They must land rich husbands, else -- well, the consequences are never quite spelled out, although the dreadful Lady Catherine de Bourgh has a sideline in placing desperate young women as subservient governesses. In Elizabeth’s entertaining search for a plausible mate, she keeps encountering the obnoxiously haughty (if not worse) Mr. Darcy, who is visibly annoyed by the loud vulgar Bennets. On the other hand, wealthy Mr. Darcy seems to find Elizabeth amusing, although once she surmises he was the one who ruined her beloved sister’s engagement to the kind Mr. Bingley, her heart fills with hatred. Unfortunately, about thirty minutes after this realization, Mr. Darcy arrives to condescendingly and insultingly ask for her hand in marriage. Just as insultingly she declines, though later, when Elizabeth is presented with epistolary evidence that perhaps Mr. Darcy is not so evil as presented, she starts to rethink the situation. When the Bennets have a family crisis, and Mr. Darcy comes to the rescue, secretly protecting the marriage prospects of all the Bennet girls, Elizabeth feels esteem, gratitude and love. A double wedding ensues.

As always, I deeply admired the perfect plotting, the pellucid prose, the concise and lively characterization of every single person, the dialogue which does double, triple duty, even though this time the novel felt the tiniest bit cold and mechanical. Austen is skilled at establishing Elizabeth’s emotional state so that what happens next doesn’t require excess explanation. Darcy’s first insult to her, right off the bat, resonates for the entire book, sets her against him from the get go. His first marriage proposal, in the exact middle of the book, is perfectly detonated. The key to plotting is the minor characters, and this book relies on them, especially the very busy Mr. Collins, who in addition to being the linchpin to several subplots, is also one of English literature's classic comic creations. Austen’s strength is the witty delineation of every minor character with just a few brush strokes. 

Darcy and Elizabeth are the smartest people in the room, bored perhaps. They’ve never encountered anyone like themselves and perhaps have not imagined that such a person could exist.  Most of the characters are universal -- I could see almost any one of them in the modern age, Wickham especially. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet certainly. Lydia, of course, and even Mr. Collins. But not Mr. Darcy. The gentleman of leisure does not exist and could not exist in our society. Much of the story is taken up with long walks, and coach rides and month long visits. This novel would make no sense after the invention of the motorcar. Elizabeth would just pop over for lunch and wouldn’t be forced to play the piano and make endless after dinner conversation. Therefore, no book.

I don’t want to say that it seems the end dragged on, but it seemed the book had a very long coda, after the sturm und drang of the middle. One motivation, which I hadn’t seen before, is Elizabeth’s desperation to get the hell out of Longbourn and the influence of her mother.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

Two refugees make their way in a strange land

David, a five year old boy, and Simon, an older man, disembark into a new country, memories washed clean. Simon has taken charge of David after he was separated from his mother. Simon’s mission is to find her, though neither Simon or the boy know her name or what she looks like. After a rough start, the two make their way in their new country, a strangely passionless place, with plenty of bread but little meat. Free soccer tickets but plodding conversations devoid of irony. Competence is not a priority in this land and frail Simon gets an unlikely job as a stevedore, though it doesn’t really matter how little grain he unloads – the grain sits and rots in the warehouse anyway. One day Simon encounters Ines, a spoiled young woman playing tennis with her spoiled brothers- he decides she is David’s real mother though perhaps not a biological one and after a day’s hesitation, she accepts her new role, taking the child and excessively babying him. When David runs into trouble learning at school, the government decrees he must be sent to a special institute/jail. To prevent this, the makeshift family goes on the lam.

This is a weird book, mysterious yet ultimately beautiful - a deadpan allegorical novel about people who have traded (involuntarily?) their messy human desires and passions for a calm benevolent boredom. Everyone is a refugee and no one can remember who they used to be.  People seem unconcerned about this although almost every character except Simon and David and Ines and Ines’s boyfriend, a quasi criminal, have a drippy personality. Eventually these incurious dogooders irritate Simon with their passivity. He wants to fuck a willing woman and eat a piece of bloody steak and nobody understands why. Or pretends not to understand. For a while the scenes get repetitive with a sort of badabump comic rhythm as Simon interrogates these noodleheads about their missing desires with the same maddening results. We get it. Everyone is a boring passionless drip but in this world there are no murders. Perhaps no evil.

The story is somewhat dull until David, the bright yet educationally delayed boy suddenly learns to read overnight. He causes problems at school by not conforming and as the authorities come to ship him off to reform school, the “parents” rebel. A concept unheard of in this land. It is here that the story gets interesting.

 In the novel, workaday problems somehow glow with meaning – the stopped up toilet, the child with the learning disability, the firecracker accident. I have no idea what the title was about although it tilted my mind to see every symbol as being associated with the New Testament. What is a parallel are the two adults who are charged with parenting a very unusual child, a magical child. And Der Erlkonig -- what’s that all about? And the deliberate mistakes about Der Erlkonig?

 Was this the Island of Death? It was a little frustrating reading this novel – you felt the clues abounding and the little threads you were supposed to pull – but will there be more clarity once the threads are pulled? Ultimately thought provoking.