Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What If?

Randall Munroe
What If?

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

Randall Munroe is the creator of the popular web comic xkcd, and a physicist with a degree, who once worked in NASA. I've never read his comics, and in general would never have guessed that Munroe the comics writer and Munroe the author of this book is the same person, if not the press release from the publisher.

Munroe writes quite unpretentious comics, we can say even amateur, and this simplicity is in many ways very suitable format for this book. Munroe the artist helps Munroe the physicist to illustrate the text blocks. Moreover, some fragments are generally similar to the graphic novel.

Munroe not out of the blue has written this non-fiction. He has for more than a year on his website received weird questions from readers and wrote detailed, reasoned answers to them. Weirdest and even worrying questions (like "How many nuclear missiles would have to be launched at the United States to turn it into a complete wasteland?") have gone unanswered, whether because to the fact that they are weird, or because Munroe could not answer to them, but they are included in the book in separate units, often with a humorous response in the comic form.

The questions that deserve an answer got the most detailed answers with calculations, proofs, experiments and sometimes help from scientists from the respective areas. At first glance, the questions themselves seem silly and unworthy of response. I’ll list some questions:

- What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?
- If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?
- What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?
- In the movie 300 they shoot arrows up into the sky and they seemingly blot out the sun. Is this possible, and how many arrows would it take?

Perhaps, any physicist with proper training can answer these questions,. The problem is that you will not find a solution in a textbook, and you will need to apply your erudition and imagination, to advance even a little closer to the answer.

Since the questions are usually from people who are far from physics, Munroe first sets out the conditions of the problem, and only then begins to consistently solve it. In some questions, you just need to strictly follow the logic, and the answer will come by itself, and in some cases you need to apply some erudition, as there isn’t the only correct answer. The questions themselves are asked by curious people and even geeks, and the book seems to be written just for geeks from science. This does not negate the fact that approximately 90 percent of questions and answers are written in a completely accessible way and will be understood by everyone, from children to senior people. Even if some formulas cause confusion, they can be compensated by pictures.

Not all questions are from the physics. There is a question on mathematics, logic, there are questions from mixed areas. It is important that any of them Munroe treats seriously. That means that the answer to the question will rely on scientific calculations, research, logical assumptions. At the same time, the author is not afraid to joke and even, where possible, jokes heavily, don’t forget that What If? is written for geeks, without humor any geek quickly will be tired.

Well, the most interesting questions are those where Munro in his answers dives into improvisation. The author deliberately think up additional conditions to the problem, expanding his answer, offers the alternative solutions. For example, the question about Lego "How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York? Have that many Lego bricks been manufactured?". The author obviously enjoys the answer. Initially, he comes up with a floating version of the bridge, then, as a protection against storms, makes the bridge more durable and stable, and then offers a bridge, resting on the sea ground, and finally calculates the cost of the bridge.

In conclusion, Munroe gives an unexpected alternative: why build a bridge when it is possible even for part of the cost to buy the entire real estate in London and ships it to New York?

It is difficult to say whether it is possible to grow wiser after reading this book. It is sure that strange questions start to appear in you head and you want to ask Munroe to answer them.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Violins of Hope

James Grymes
Violins of Hope

Harper Perennial, 2014

The history of the Holocaust in violins - you can describe the contents of this book with this sentence. In six chapters (with a prologue and epilogue) Grymes tells the stories of six violins, and, most importantly, their owners in the days when the Nazis came to power, and during the Second World War. Link between these stories is a violin collector, Amnon Weinstein, who originally made violins and became engaged in their repair, and then went over to collecting them. He created a program in the memory of the victims of the Holocaust called Violins of Hope.

All violins, which will be in the center of the book stories, were in his collection, he also later began collecting stories about these violins. Amnon’s parents in time fled Nazi Germany and escaped to Palestine. Amnon’s father Moshe was a violinist, repair master and music teacher. In Palestine, it was difficult to make a living playing music and giving musical lessons, and Moshe went into commerce, thinking that that thousands of Jews would flock to Palestine with their instruments, and it would be a profitable business, to repair violins.

He gave gis craft to his son, who carefully preserved hundreds of violins that waited for their owners, or at least relatives of the deceased owners.

Grymes starts the history of violins in Nazi Germany from the beginning of the thirties.

Violins of Hope is one of those non-fiction books about people that does not pretend to be fiction. Stories told here speak for themselves, in any language and need no preening. Author Grymes is concise and academically calm. All that happened happened, history has shown what’s what, all sides are known, and there is no need to put pressure on the reader with pity or preaching.

This book is especially good in that: you soak in the will to live, and the author does not even cries till the sore throat to achieve that the whole story come down to us. Grymes has a clean style, and the book even has footnotes.

Musical instruments from the book’s title are only mediums, not violins for the sake of violins. This book is about people, not about violins or music, unless it’s the music of pain and suffering. Violins saved lives and helped to survive and overcome the difficulties almost non-human. At the same time the violin is an an occasion to tell the stories of people, almost all of whom were not even professionals. The whole project "Violins of Hope" allows you to look at the Holocaust at unexpected angles.

The choice of characters in the book, probably, was not accidental. The author would like to give the widest range of victims of the Holocaust, and it worked. Grymes, of course, could not ignore the largest concentration camps with their orcestras, which are known to the public now, and at the same time, Auschwitz and Birkenau are given only one chapter. This is surprising, of course.
Grymes made a large geographic sample, this is another advantage of the book. Here are an almost unknown refugee camp in Mauritius, and the atrocities of the Romanians, and Ukrainian partisans, and Nazism in Norway. As they say, all the facets of fascism.

Grymes easily controls the general historical information. The book is rich in a variety of facts. In Germany during the war there were chemical plants, which produced condoms for the army, and they were called "Sanitary Articles." In Palestine, the Arab uprisings put pressure on the British government as to limit visas for Jews. Those Arabs even blew a ship with refugees, fortunately, the number of deaths was minimal. By the end of the war the heads of the concentration camps almost lost their minds and asked to play the "Internationale."

In addition to these small facts, Grymes is generous with the historical background. Each story is accompanied by a briskly written historical information about the country, a concentration camp atrocities of the Nazis and their allies - so the book becomes a treasure trove of information. In a concise and accessible way, we obtain all the necessary information, which helps to better understand the history of a hero.

The book became a pleasant surprise. Subtle, clear, on the point - and touching, of course.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Sibilant Fricative

Adam Roberts
Sibilant Fricative

NewCon Books, 2014

[The first draft if this review was titled Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia]

Not only books should entertain, but also book reviews. If the criticism is boring and dull, there is not much sense in reading it, even if it reveals any hidden meanings of reviewed work or points to the book’s strengths. Boring criticism can always be replaced with not so boring prose.

Brit Adam Roberts at first glance (in the literal sense - look at the cover) is far from what might be called an entertainer. Roberts has an academic background, he teaches at the university, and also writes science fiction. Overall, not a clown or a stand-up comedian. But Roberts-critic and Roberts-reviewer (perhaps it is this side of Roberts is responsible for this book) both entertain the reader with reviews populating this collection.

The collection could well use the title Punkadiddle, so was called now closed blog, where the reviewer over four years posted his reviews on books and movies. Best from this blog, as well as reviews from online venues, and became part of Sibilant Fricative, a collection which has taken the title of another, new, Roberts’ blog.

For me, who has been following Roberts’s publications on the Internet, Sibilant Fricative became an occasion to re-read and recall the most memorable reviews (it’s a pity that the book, as opposed to the internet, is limited in size, and the collection did not include much of the rest). Since the book was published by a genre publisher collected, reviews on books and movies have also been limited to one genre (in fact, the book is divided into two parts, «Science Fiction» and «Fantasy»). Limited print run (while the digital version is available) is unlikely to help the promotion of book and, most importantly, the author's name to the masses.

And that’ll be loss for the readers. Roberts is definitely among the top five British reviewers, stuck somewhere between the genres. He can read the dullest fantasy, and can casually review Booker short list in its entirety. He is always looking for something new in the literature, but not disgusted by musty space opera. Roberts is a heir to John Clute and a colleague of Paul Kincaid, but will compete with Adam Mars-Jones, with whom they shared Guardian pages, Roberts has not yet made it to London Books Review.

Speaking of newspapers. Roberts almost has not been published in the newspapers, only in his blog (blogs) and SF online venues. Was he rejected or just doesn’t want it himself? Rather, the latter. Newspaper frankly will be too tight for Roberts. It's not just the space. The book contains either very tiny reviews and detailed reviews in several parts. The critic will be constrained by the form but not the space. What other reviewer in his sane mind will review all parts of Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series, or will write a twitter review, or even choose to review not in the prosaic form, but poetic? Such liberties Guardian, or Locus (for example) would not stand.

Sometimes experiments with form have negative consequences. For example, from a review of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi written in the mocking form of a poem by Robert Browning you hardly will have an impression of the novel, just will applaud to Roberts’ creative abilities. And sometimes these experiments seem pampering and splurge: I can do this and that. And I can write a review with a glossary. Which, of course, does not negate the author’s talent.

If Roberts wrote only entertaining, he would have remained at the same level with a million Amazon reviewers. Roberts is well-read and educated. He can place any book in literary context, not just say is it good or bad, Roberts-academic gets in his reviews in the form of an abundance of quotations and references. Roberts is capable of almost chapter-by-chapter analysis of an unpublished Tolkien, with his heavy vocabulary, as well as lightweight or moronic thriller\space opera. Roberts can pick in a book, can dissect a book - and this is a quality that I value very high in the criticism.

Having written all this, I must now answer two questions. First, and whether you want to buy this book, given that the paper edition is not cheap (but digital one is)? My answer is positive. On paper these reviews are read more carefully than on the net, and has another advantage: while reading the rest of the Internet is not distracting you. In addition, the blog where reviews were posted from the collection, is now closed (and not everyone, as I have, at one time has saved the posts from the blog to his HDD).

The second question is what statement actually gives this book? Those who wanted, has long ago discovered, read and appreciated Roberts’ writing. And now still can read him on the Internet.

Sibilant Fricative release secured Adam Roberts’ status of an important British critic (ie, just critic, not just the genre critic) - that is the importance of this book. Prior to the release of the collection Roberts was one of, but not much more. Now, with the book of reviews under his belt, the world officially has to acknowledge Roberts-reviewer, as previously acknowledged Roberts-writer and Roberts-academic. Not every reviewer has published the collection of reviews. Even Adam Mars-Jones has not.

Given all this, you do have just not one reason to avoid reading this important and necessary book.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

David Shafer
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Mulholland Books, 2014

Three main characters of this novel have different ways of life and live at different places on the planet. With the development of the plot their destinies intertwine in unexpected ways, and it is worth noting that two of the three heroes already know each other.

Of these three characters is only one woman, young, exotic Asian working in a non-profit organization based in the United States Leila Majnoun. Leila arrives with humanitarian aid to Myanmar. Her mission is to scout out the situation, find out what help the state needs to provide the best. Regardless of gender, Leila is a brave, courageus woman, with the ability to overcome difficulties. And difficulties Leila has plenty. Her cargo was taken to the military customs. A local general who handles things avoids her. She has almost no allies in the country. In case of emergency no one will come to rescue her. The only help she has is a local taxi driver, but he is powerless against the army. In an attempt to find this general Leila and the taxi driver pulls into a kind of base near the jungle where Leila accidentally sees two mercenaries who speak English guarding something important and secret, otherwise no one would hire the elite troops for protection.

Two other characters of the novel, Mark Deveraux and Leo Crane, once were friends in college, but they parted ways after graduation. Mark settled in Brooklyn, thanks to the success of his debut book in the self help genre, which has sold a huge number of copies. Now Mark is writing his second book, and becomes something of a personal guru/mentor for the boss of a large corporation SineCo James Straw. The big boss was impressed with Mark’s book and as Mark has signed a contract with a subsidiary company of SineCo, that in fact Mark is already working on Straw.

Lifepath of Leo Crain is significantly different from Mark’s. Leo is a failure, with the possible psychological and mental health problems. The son of wealthy parents, he and his several sisters received an inheritance in the form of a company for the production of games and now live on that. Leo abundantly uses drugs, drinks in the morning, is not stable, does not stay long on one job.
David Shafer is a talented writer. He's a great stylist, he has the experience, the characters in his book are full-blooded people. And this talented writer has written not entirely successful novel. «Whiskey Tango Foxtrot» as a thriller is mediocre enough to forget its plot in a few weeks, as a drama, or High Literature, the novel is too uneven and subordinated to a thriller story, as near future SF , it is not cooked enough and with a bend in the theory.

The first half of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is wonderful. I especially liked how Shafer lets us wonder in the mist and is not in a hurry to open the cards. Under the cards I have in mind the theory of a larger conspiracy: the three central characters as if just live their lives, overcome their difficulties, each struggling with his or her loneliness. In the first third of the book there is no hint to science fiction at all, it's good-quality prose about young professionals. It would be better novel if it remained in this vein - a bitter statement on the harsh reality.

And the characters in fact are all close to the heart, the new American generation, no longer kidults, not yet formed adults, spitting on ideals. The most prominent is Leila, fragile Asian-American, rotating in the men's militarized society, but not even thinking that at any time she can be raped (such an idea only once visited the heroine). Mark of the trio of characters is least sympathetic to us, because of this he’ll get the main mission - to rehabilitate himself in front of friends, himself and humanity in general.

Once Shafer introduces his theory of digital conspiracy plot as the slender design of the novel begins to sag. The idea of a storage server for all the information about the people living on the planet is not new. Only in the last year I have read a few works with a similar idea. And every time the world conspiracy theory with an emphasis on the accumulation of digital information has no valid arguments. This idea usually is built on the arguments usually vague. How really ownership of all the digital information about people can lead to total control over the people? Shafer builds some shaky structure of the future, with no real backups. And since evil can not impress and scare enough, then the threat to peace seems phantom. All the arguments in this case are reduced to the commonplace "to spy on people is bad." This we already know.

Unable to build a potent image of the enemy, Shafer throws his heroes to fight against windmills. Both secret community are so smooth, they do not have any form at all. The mission of the trinity against mythical evil is also doubtful. As in the worst examples of literature of adventure, the world from destruction is necessarily saved by the amateurs. Secret organization entirely relies on the wild girl, alcoholic and plagiarist - apparently the situation inside the organization was quite bad, if it would need to use help of unbalanced people.

The second half of the novel is quite a burden to read. The first one slowly build a story, and that was a plus to the novel. We did in fact read a mainstream novel. The second part is already full thriller, shamelessly overlong, sweetened with melodrama between Leo and Leila, predictable and linear. Shafer writes in the second half still brilliantly, but the story buries stylistic clarity under itself.

Talented author Shafer stumbled with this debut. He writes charmingly, but the plot of this book is very much shaky like tango after whiskey. Or foxtrot after whiskey. There is probably no difference.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Saving Houdini

Michael Redhill
Saving Houdini

Harper Collins Canada, 2014

12-year-old Canadian Dashiel (Dash) Woolf with his parents goes to a special magical performance by Bloom the Beguiler, a special show to mark the 85th anniversary of the death of Harry Houdini. Terrified Dash is suddenly chosen by the magician to take part in the trick with the disappearance, and the boy can not refuse.

Dash gets into a special steel circle around him, the trick begins - and Dash is suddenly transported through time. The boy finds himself in the same circus hall, only with empty tribunes and the owner of the club which does not understand where the damn boy appeared from.

Dash examines the streets of Toronto, everything to him seems wonderful, yet he does not recognize his own city. In turn, Dash’s clothing and hairstyle seem strange to others. The saleswoman feeds him for free (nobody accept Dash’s new coins), barber offers him a free cut. Dash agrees to get rid of the eye-catching hairdo. There, in the barber shop, Dash accidentally meets with a boy of his age, Walter Gibson. Walter first bullies Dash, then tries to get rid of him. Dash comes to Walter’s house, pretending to be a friend of Walt and does not refuse to have breakfast with the family. Dash tells Walter that he has come from the future to 1926, and although Walter does not believe him at first, the seed of doubt settles somewhere in his head.

YA novels and SF about time travel is not something that mutually exclusive, more like the secret enemies. This subgenre of science fiction is pretty battered so that it is hard to come up with something original. YA books often require clarity and simplicity, and mix it with the time travel SF, and we will get only completely banality - simplicity, multiplied by the obviousness.
Author of historical novels Redhill is not trying to reinvent the wheel, or rather a time machine, just follow the rules and formulas. Result is if not spectacular, but well above the average. Saving Houdini uses SF as a genre as a plot device. Redhill needs to place his teenage hero to the past, familiar to Redhill surroundings, and at the same time to create a conflict. Thus with the the disappearance trick Redhill kills two birds with one stone. Canada of the Twenties gives the author a chance to write what he knows, and moving into the past becomes an occasion for protagonist to travel around.

Redhill does not abuse his knowledge of history. In the novel, the amount of so-called infodumping is kept to a minimum. The author focuses on the mission of the protagonist, not on the small historical references. There are enough of light touches, so Toronto appeares before our eyes as real.

At the beginning of the novel, when Dash only surfaces in the past, Redhill plays on the dichotomy of past and present. Clothing, hair, money, speech of Dash differ from these same things in the past. Redhill is seeking, for example, the comic element, when Dash uses youth or internet slang to talk with Walter, who, not understanding simple things, asks explanation. Or in the second half of the book Dash gives advise to Walter to collect comic books or cards with baseball players, then to make a fortune on them.

This method has a limited effect, and Redhill, knowing that you should not rely solely on verbal humor, almost gives it up in the second half of the novel. But even without slang you can find lots of interesting things there. Wild trip by train, the pursuit from police and social services, assistance in setting tricks, rich dialogues with Houdini - with all the ease of writing and predictable plot the book will top dozens of thrillers for adults.

Houdini's image in the novel deserves a separate discussion. The famous magician in the book is a good man, trusting, thoughtful, brave, easy with children. This is a bit naive portrait, of course, but Houdini seems sympathetic to the reader. He is such a superhero of an old era, when there was no Superman or Captain America.

The novel is highly recommended not only for children but also for adults.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Sweetness #9

Stephan Eirik Clark
Sweetness #9

Little, Brown, 2014

Summer 1973. Rutgers graduate David Leveraux gets a job in a lab of a large chemical giant. This is actually a dream job for David. In a group of researchers, he will be engaged in testing food sweeteners, which is the corporation’s specialty. The protagonist works as a Flavorist-in-Training testing sweeteners on rats. Every day he has to watch the group of experimental rats, add a special sweetener to their food and drink, record the results of the behavior of rats.

In the laboratory David’s colleague becomes an Englishman by birth, Charles Hithenbottom, not too friendly, single, childless and divorced. With David, they almost do not communicate. Hithenbottom works in a nearby lab with similar experiments on chimpanzees.

Time goes, and David begins to notice changes in rats under the influence of sweetener "Sweetness #9». Rats are starting to put on weight, they become lethargic, they reduce activity, lose the will to live, one of the rats trying to commit suicide. David is trying to attract the attention of colleagues to these rats, however, Hithenbottom ignores the young colleague. The boss advises not to bother him. For the compamy it is only important that the sweetener won’t cause cancer. David is trying to raise hell, the security throws hom off the territory of the laboratory. David is fired.

Despite the "sweet" title, the novel is not mawkishly sentimental at all, on the contrary – one that leaving a bitter aftertaste. Stephan Eirik Clark condemnes American (and partly international) society, but leaves an open verdict. Where is the cause of dissatisfaction with life, in us or outside of us, in external sources? Do the food additives control us, making us dependent and unhappy, or whether these additives only affect the taste of the food, but not anything else? Clark sows a seed of doubt in the minds of readers. What do we really know about our bodies and the process of thinking, when we can not even deal with relatively simple nutritional supplements.

Fine social satire are skillfully adapted to the family saga during one generation. Leveraux family is a little less typical than typical American family, but all the diseases are visible. Each family member has a disease in the literal and figurative sense, but as a social unit the Leveraux is too far from healthy existence, having a common ailment. Head of the family is suffering bad conscience, daughter worries about her sexual orientation, the youngest son almost closed in himself, wife is worried because of the excess weight and coldness of her husband. As a team, the family does not seem to have degrading ailments, but the general dissatisfaction with life does not live them in peace.

Family chronicle peacefully coexists with the views on science, and the plot is driven by anti-utopian elements (not that superfluous here, rather unexpected for the overall tone of the novel) and the thriller elements related to trade secrets. The book seems really to contain an addictive sweetener. You won’t take a break from Sweetness #9, though, that the book is hardly a page-turner.

Clark pays closest attention to detail, has broad outlook, the utmost certainty in many areas, from online shopping to work of filling station. Miraculously, the author weaves in a fairly realistic story a half-myth/half-fairytale about the Hitler’s chef.

Sweetness #9 is a clever and charming book, extensive and relevant. The novel grabs you also by the fact that actually does not open all the cards. What in the book is actually the truth about supplements and what was invented? Whether or not Hitler had a special chef? Hell knows. And it does not matter when the book is so good.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Butcher

Jennifer Hillier
The Butcher

Gallery, 2014

In 1985, in Seattle a serial killer hunted young, single girls. Chief of police Edward Shank accompanied by other armed police officers during raiding the house where the suspect lived killed this suspect, known pervert Rufus Wedge. The dead suspect by circumstantial evidence is recognized as the maniac nicknamed the Butcher and all 17 kills were blamed on him. Case was closed immediately because of the death of the suspect, Shank received the glory, the Butcher became the thing of the past.

The action moves to present times. Now Edward is already 80, he is a widower, not able to care for his Victorian house, and prepares to move into a retiring home. The house is passed on to Shank’s grandson Matt, a successful chef who became famous because of his Filipino recipes acquired from his grandmother. Matt has already moved into the house of his grandfather, and Matt’s girlfriend, Samantha, expects that she will move in with him. But Matt is going to focus on his business and does not want to be distracted by love affairs, offering to leave the relationship with Sam as they were. Jason, a friend of Samantha and Matt, does not understand such behavior of his friend, but Matt still stands on his own.

The action switches between all the characters of the book, one by one. All cards are laid on the table at the very beginning of the novel: the real Butcher wasn’t Wedge, but the chief of police Shank. From the flashbacks we learn how he chose the lonely girls, took them into the woods or to his home, raped them, cut off their left hands and a strand of hair. Shank also killed his wife by staging her death as an accident.

Only lazy are not writing books about serial killers, and usually the result is absolutely unreadable. The area, which was chosen by Hillier for her novel, is famous for its serial killers. Be that as it may, the author apparently was too lazy to learn all the features of maniacs and their captures. If The Butcher would have been written as a parody, it could have been readable, but Hillier remains serious throughout the book, and the novel itself moves down to the level of parody – it just is not funny.

Hillier made such a mess of the fact and fiction, that the novel can be disassembled chapter by chapter for factual and logical mistakes. Blame the negligence and carelessness of the author, too lazy to somehow link the story of the book with reality. I will say nothing about coincidences and annoying love angle.

Since the cards are open from the beginning of the novel, the criminals and their deeds are known, all that remains for the author is the plot device, its surprises and twists. And plot is not Hillier’s best side, even on the contrary - the book is predictable from exactly the moment when Hillier discloses the identity of the main characters. Every move is predictable on five steps ahead. Add to this the fact that of the three main characters in the book two are killers, then you can only sympathize with the female characters.

Predictable thriller is the worst punishment for the reader. This thriller breeds boredom. Hillier is trying to disperse boredom with gory details. Grandson finds grandfather's "trophies", and it is strange that the maniac would leave his treasures in the house, where he no longer lives. And if it comes to that, Shank left home at odd circumstances: he began to kill again, and to do so it would be easier at home.

In the parody, the bad one, the novel transforms with individual scenes. The bear appears from nowhere in the woods and scares the serial killer right at the time when the maniac prepares to kill the victim. 80-years-old Shank with erection in his pants hunts young victims. With special lust thr author describes sex between 80-year-old persons, and the maniac, of course, uses a condom. Stranger from the forum suddenly interrupts her story and leaves without naming the killer. The book will make you laugh out loud, though, it will be awkward laughter, as if laughing at a disabled person.

Even worse than plotting are Hillier’s descriptive abilities. Women in the book are perceived and described as sex objects, no matter from which point of view are written chapters, Sam’s or Shank’s. Love triangle is handled extremely rough and constantly distracts from the main action.

Dialogues are those as if taken out of the teenage horror movie. Shank in 1985 mentions DNA, although DNA was still known only to scientists in laboratories. Anyway, the police chief in the role of a serial killer is not even a bad taste, it’s elementary laziness and stupidity.

That’s an ugly book.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Goodbye, Columbus

Philip Roth
Goodbye, Columbus

Houghton Mifflin Company, 1959

If Philip Roth had been born half a century later, he easily could have become a singer of revolt and play in punk\hardcore bands. The action of the title novella of this collection takes place in a cozy suburb, in a lovely suburbia, where, as you know, gathered all the hated by the young rebel.

The hero of the novel at first glance is not a rebel. He is a Jewish young man who graduated from college, working in a library, living in the home of his aunt and uncle, himself almost hovering in the void of suburbs (the entire state of New Jersey, probably, can be considered a suburb of New York). The protagonist, Neil Klugerman, meets a nice girl from a wealthy, middle class family. Klugerman methodically courtes her until she does not give in to his courtship. This is followed by sex on the couch, meeting with the parents and brother of the girl, a visit to the girl’s father's firm.

The parents of this girl, Brenda, not so long ago escaped from the relatively poor suburb and moved to the relatively rich one. The Potimkins own company selling kitchen and bathroom sinks. Head of the family is doing business alone, but realizes that he will soon need an assistant. Son-in-law will suit fine.

And then the narrator’s protective reflex kicks. Gradually, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, the young hero imagines his future, if he marries Brenda Potimkin. The full life in the suburbs, cute, dying of boredom wife, hurrying loaders at the store room of his father-in-law firm, reliability throughout. Klugerman is a gentle man, well brought up, suave. He is sick of Potimkins and their nobility as well as of his own lack of confidence in his future. What's wrong with the solidity? What's wrong with the sweet Brenda? It is one step only, and you will cease to understand how you are different from Potimkins.

The narrator is a hidden rebel, and his hatred of suburbia is not openly manifested (do not forget that Neil is very polite), but latent remarks.

«Beside the freezer, incongruosly, was a tall old refrigerator; its ancient presence was a reminder to me of the Patimkin roots in Newark. This same refrigerator had once stood in the kitchen of an apartment in some four-family house, probably in the same neighborhood where I had lived all my life, first with my parents and then, when the two of them went wheezing off to Arizona, with my aunt and uncle. After Pearl Harbor the refrigerator had made the move up to Short Hills; Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks had gone to war: no new barracks was complete until it had a squad of Patimkin sinks lined up in its latrine.»

«Mrs. Patimkin continued to smile at me and Mr. Patimkin continued to think I ate like a bird. When invited to dinner I would, for his benefit, eat twice what I wanted, but the truth seemed to be that after he'd characterized my appetite that first time, he never really bothered to look again. I might have eaten ten times my normal amount, have finally killed myself with food, he would still have considered me not a man but a sparrow.»

«Ron left Mr. Patimkin's side and went back to directing the men. He thrashed his arms about a good deal, and though on the whole he seemed rather confused, he did not appear to be at all concerned about anybody dropping a sink. Suddenly I could see myself directing the Negroes-I would have an ulcer in an hour. I could almost hear the enamel surfaces shattering on the floor. And I could hear myself: "Watch it, you guys. Be careful, will you? Whoops! Oh, please be-watch itl Watch! Oh!" Suppose Mr. Patimkin should come up to me and say, "Okay, boy, you want to marry my daughter, let's see what you can do." Well, he would see: in a moment that floor would be a shattered mosaic, a crunchy path of enamel. "Klugman, what kind of worker are you? You work like you eat!" '"That's right that's right, I'm a sparrow, let me go." "Do not you even know how to load and unload?" "Mr Patimkin, even breathing gives me trouble, sleep tires me out, let me go, let me go ..."»

Another kind of protest Klugerman shows at work. In the library, where the narrator works, a black boy starts to come regularly, browsing through the contents of the same book every time - a collection of reproductions of Gauguin. Klugerman does everything so the boy could read this book in peace without worrying about how other librarians could chase him out or that the book will be taken home by some reader. This quiet fight against racism is worth more than a dozen protests.

Five stories in the collection are built around a Jewish theme, which gives reason to put a serious moral questions and even have a glimpse into the territory of the absurd.

Already with his debut at the 26, Philip Roth made people talk about him, and so far no one has thrown him off the pedestal.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Munich Airport

Greg Baxter
Munich Airport

Penguin UK, 2014

Three people expect a delayed due to fog flight from Munich Airport. The death of the fourth one unites them – it’s a young woman, Miriam, whose body should be delivered on a commercial flight for burial in London.

The unnamed narrator of this story is the brother of Miriam. The other two is the narrator's elderly father and Trish, a black woman, consular officer from the U.S. Embassy in Germany. Delay at the airport is the final stage of a three-week waiting in Germany. Because of the German bureaucracy and thoroughness the body of the deceased could not be released to relatives sooner.
Chronologically, the novel’s action fits in a day at the airport, but thanks to the flashbacks and memories of the narrator we follow the fates of all four characters, including Miriam, although her story remains a mystery.

The narrator is a divorced American expat living in London. After several years working for a corporation as a marketing manager the narrator resignes that coincides in time with his divorce. Given up on the search for a new job, he founded his own company, which includes only himself. He begins freelancing as a marketing specialist. Now, stuck in Germany, he is forced to postpone all his work.

Despite the location and the novel’s title (actually, Munich Airport), the book is not an airport or airplane reading. Baxter’s novel is not one of those that is read in a three-hour sitting to pass the time. Baxter writes physiological prose, can convey infirm feelings and moods, and who would want to read about, say, nausea before his or her flight?

The atmosphere in the novel is very heavy, there is a full feeling of hopelessness, and it even seems like the heroes in the end won’t fly away (finally) wherever they want, and break out of the local hell, but quite the opposite - will fly to hell. The narrator has no idea what he will do after Munich, he has no intentions to restore the normal course of his life. It seems that his weakness and nausea would stay with him until the end of his life. Sickness is caused, however, not by the airport itself or the people at the airport, rather by the entire life of the hero. He’s gnawed by the feeling that he did not help his sister, that he is not close with his father, that he’s lonely in life, and his existence is joyless throughout.

Hopelessness gradually spreads to people around the narrator. His father also seemed to lose the will to live, and Trish is lonely and unhappy (this also indicates that she completely gives herself fully to the two lost souls, rather than does her own things these three weeks).

Action of Munich Airport takes place in Germany not without a reason. Baxter is not commercial writer, of course, his prose is much more serious, and stylistically just goes to the German prose of the last century (Thomas Bernhard etc): the novel is written without division into chapters, as one continuous text, and paragraphs here are a rare thing. What looks like a dispassionate prose, it packed with a lot of feelings and passions, just the general mood of the narrator sets off everything else. Baxter plays with the form as a whole, but he doesn’t experiment with a sentence.

This is a well-written novel, well worth reading, and as for depression, you should understand the hero, his sister died, the future is quite dark, where is something to be happy about then?

Friday, July 25, 2014

In the Approaches

Nicola Barker
In the Approaches

Fourth Estate, 2014

The action of this novel with a truly foggy plot takes place in 1984, in a small town Pett Level, near Hastings. There on the beach a young woman Miss Carla Khan rent a cottage for tourists. One of these tourists is a journalist of sorts Mr. Franklin Huff, registered under an assumed name.

Huff actually arrived on the coast not for leisure but to conduct an investigation.

Huff once lived and worked in the U.S., carried out important trips to South America, covered the violence in Mexico in the 60s, received threats from the CIA. Eventually Huff flew to London, and was unable to return because Americans banned him from entering the country.

Huff had a wife, Kimberly, also a journalist, whom he had met long ago, lived with her for a while, and then they broke up, but weren’t officially divorced. Huff met another woman, and lived with her, and she also died. Kimberly after one accident suffered severe burns, lost almost all the skin on the face, with they kept in touch with Huff and even wanted to work together on a book. But then Kimberly died and Huff remained absolutely with no money, only with the job, which his wife asked him to do. Huff has some photos, though what on them in the beginning of the book is not entirely clear.

Huff and Carla slowly but surely fall in love.

This brief plot synopsis might give you the impression that the plot of the book is quite clear and simple. This, however, is not so. Despite the seeming simplicity – don’t you think we haven’t read enough sea side love stories? - the plot of the book is so vague and hidden behind Barker’s verbosity that even after reading it to the end, when seemingly all secrets must be revealed, half of what one has read only vaguely fits into the plot outline. In the course of reading you will be often puzzled.

Distilled from the author’s stylistic refinements, the bottom line of a plot would have been a banal romantic comedy, and the novel in that case, of course, would not represent any interest to the reader. In the Approaches in the form in which it now exists, is essentially a romantic comedy, as well as many more than just that. Barker remains true to herself: simple stories she tells with a difficult language, has the ability to prolong and overdo, for the protagonists she chooses eccentrics, necessarily changing narrators in each chapter. All characters in the book speak as if they were actors in amateur theater, rehearsing their roles. First person narrative is such an emotional stream of consciousness, with sighs, oohs, with italics and capital letters. People don’t speak like that, of course, and yet dialogues delivers certain pleasure.

Barker without shyness here is experimenting with language and characters, chapters written from the parrot’s point of view alone are worth reading. The author definitely mocks reader and enjoys writing, perhaps even to the detriment of the reader. While reading the book is important not to worry, that nothing is clear, get into a rhythm and do not rush things. Because the events themselves will not hurry: the book’s 500 pages read without a yawn or urges to sleep. Barker writes funny enough. Situational humor (particularly the scene in the sauna) here is fighting on equal terms with phililogical humor.

In the Approaches does not offer easy reading, even will make you sweat, but it brings great satisfaction.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Witness to Myself

Seymour Shubin
Witness to Myself

Hard Case Crime, 2006

As a teenager Alan Benning once spends a holiday with his parents in a mobile home at the ocean. Alan runs along the beach, steps into the woods and about a mile away from where his parents left off meets a little girl. Her kite is stuck in a tree, and Alan helps remove the kite. Sexually excited, Alan attempts to touch the girl, she begs him not to hurt her, Alan panics and strangles her first, and then throws her on the ground.

Returning to his parents, Alan lays down with a fever, until the family is going away forever from the small town where the beach was located. From that moment fifteen years passes, Alan graduates from university, becomes a successful lawyer, gets a promising job in the charity-specialized company, dates a sweet and sympathetic nurse. But the episode at the beach, the outbreak of violence, does not make the hero rest. He should go back to this town and try to find out whether he had killed an innocent girl or not.

The novel with such dubious hero (an attack on a little girl does not honor him) is not told by Alan himself, but by someone close to him, his cousin Colin, working as a true-crime journalist. Colin writes articles for several tru-crime magazines, knows many detectives, watches popular TV shows about unsolved murders. And as the story is told by journalist, whom Alan have never talked about his only crime to, you can at the very beginning of the book conclude that Alan will pay for his act - and repent before his cousin.

Witness to Myself is a fine example of modern noir, quick, chilling, appealing for sympathy towards the main character, but which does not overdo it with the psychological stuff. Alan could easily come off the pages of an early novel written by Highsmith, only Shubin is not burdened with psychological layouts, trying to move faster with his story. Alan is of that category of noir heroes, whose near-perfect existence marred by a single shameful act from the past. And this act is sitting like cancer in his brain. Sooner or later, it will still kill its host. And it seems the more ideal he is for those who surround him, and in the course of the novel Alan really in everyone's eyes will be almost a saint, the harder he gets along with his past.

Shubin is a veteran writer and Witness to Myself indicates that the writer is still in excellent shape.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Whole Lie

Steve Ulfelder
The Whole Lie

Minotaur, 2012

Conway Sax comes back, this time plunging right into political intrigue. Savannah Kane, Conway's former lover, also a member of Alcoholics Anonymous group who are calling themselves the Barnburners, asks him for help. Savannah has a relationship with a candidate of the upcoming elections for governor. Someone blackmails a candidate for Lieutenant Governor, and Savannah asks to find a blackmailer. Conway is not eager to help some rich politician, but can not refuse Savannah. The Barnburners are on the first place, helping each other, and then only everything and everyone else. Conway receives a check for a lump sum from the candidate, feels something’s wrong, but still takes the case - the money from the check can help Conway buy his business off his girlfiend Charlene. Then someone kills Savannah, staging her death as accident, and to reveal a chain of crimes for Conway becomes a matter of honor.

The first book about Sax offered a twisted plot and believable characters, but suffered from stylistic roughness. In The Whole Lie Steve Ulfelder polished the roughness without losing the suspence of plot and fullness of the characters. Conway Sax in this book has become even more sympathetic to the reader, thanks to the narrator’s talents in Ulfelder. Often crime fiction with an amateur sleuth (and Sax is somewhere in between an amateur and a professional sleuth for AA group) disappoints with its infantilism: the protagonist, having thrown all his usual routine, runs as a madcap, revealing a world conspiracy, putting his life at risk many times in the book as if forgetting the fear. Sax is also engaged in a dangerous game, nevertheless does not become irresponsible. He cares about his business, small problems of Charlene’s daughter, trying to find such middle ground, that his detective affairs doesn’t interfere in affairs of the heart. But it’s hard to carry through.

Ulfelder with this novel definitely will not bore you. The book not only entertains, and even gives practical advice, and it is always useful to read the book from which you learn something new:

«You wouldn't believe how hard it is to tail a guy. It's not like TV at all.

Barnburner duties had taught me the only way to follow a car was to stick your nose right up his back bumper, make sure you got through the same lights he did, and hope like hell he wasn't paying attention.»

Books about Conway Sax are the best there is in the genre today.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Memory Book

Rowan Coleman
The Memory Book

Ebury Press, 2014

Claire is the main protagonist of this novel. She is in her early forties, she is the mother of two daughters, married to a man younger than herself. Claire has everything to enjoy in life, if not for one major obstacle – her Alzheimer's disease transmitted genetically from her father and rapidly progressing.

Claire even before diagnosis knows that something is wrong. She could forget a word, put somewhere something and doesn’t find it later, could forget what she was doing a moment earlier. Claire knew that her chances of getting Alzheimer's is 50:50, but she hoped that the disease will pass, or at least postpone its arrival until the old age.

At the beginning of the novel we read the scene where Claire meets her future husband, Greg. He repaired the roof of Claire’s house, at the time a single woman with a teenager daughter, and when Claire could not remember where she put the money to give Greg for the job, Greg called her out on a date. Acquaintance grew into something more, the relationship became serious, and Claire, who before Greg rarely dated men, decided to get married. Marriage with Greg became for her also psychological prop: finding love in adulthood, Claire hoped that it will help her chances of fighting the disease that has not yet come.

But this does not happen.

This book can be criricized and can be praised, but it is intended for one target audience - women of a certain age. The Memory Book is not conceived to win the hearts of wide and disparate target audience, it just does not have the material. A person reading this novel who is not a target audience probably will finish reading after 40 pages and throw the book in the trash.

The novel definetely offers a comfortable reading, without any real life worries and with moderate intrigue. Coleman follows the trend: if novels about Alzheimer's are in trend, why not write another one like this? The author changes narrative angles, switching between four characters, but mostly it is first-person narration from POV of mother and daughter, Claire and Caitlin.

The idea of a memory book is not too new, and this idea is impleneted here so so. It gives us the opportunity to visit the characters’s past, but these excerpts from memory book are written too artificial, too artistic, as if all family members have graduated with degree in philology.

As such, there is no conflict in the book. But there are several semi-conflicts. For example, in the novel there is a small possibility that Claire will be sent to a special hospital, but relatives in the future do not even consider this option. Caitlin’s pregnancy is associated with the conflict "save or not the child?" But again everyone is happily together, and the conflict disappears. Throughout the novel something threatens Claire’s life because of her failing health, but each risk evaporates either by itself, or with Claire’s relatives’ will. We know Claire’s diagnosis from the beginning, so do not count on unexpected development of events.

The only surprise of the book, a personality of a stranger Ryan, holds on a very large assumption. And in general memory lapses happen to the main character's convenience, and only then when it is necessary to advance the plot in the right direction.

On the posotove side is that the book can be read in two sittings. The author’s style is purely serviceable, it helps to push forward an unpretentious story.

The Memory Book offers love at first sight, family love, sleek style and is conflict-free. The Memory Book will not remain in memory, but someone will enjoy it devouring within a couple of evenings.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

Francine Prose
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

Harper, 2014

This novel is woven from several fictional documentary sources, from letters to memoirs, and tells the story of a real person - Lou Villars, a professional athlete, autoracer, lesbian and a spy.
Before us are letters to parents written by famous photographer of Hungarian origin Gabor Tsenyi, the author of the photo, which gave the title to this novel. Gabor is trying to make a living with the camera, making pictures for newspapers, but mostly asking for money from his parents, calling them Mama and Papa. The photographer suffers because his work is not recognized as art.

«I cannot go on like this! My days in journalism are numbered! I must find another way of supplementing your stipend, another job that will let me have my nights free to wander the city, taking pictures. It’s demoralizing enough to be demoted—or promoted, according to my editors—to the sports pages. But when I actually find a subject worth writing an article about, they refuse to print it.
Last week I attended the event described above. This time I only made a few tiny improvements on the truth. That sparkle of saucy feminine beauty was my invention, as were the hurdles and the bike. And Paris is hardly abuzz about Mademoiselle Lou, though they should be buzzing about this young woman who, in our country, would probably be exhibited as a circus freak.

I would never have heard of this girl if not for my friend Lionel. With typical directness—excuse the language, his, not mine—my American pal remarked that the sight of a big, healthy, muscular girl in pants, running and chucking a spear, made him feel like a happy bumblebee was buzzing in his trousers.»

Unrecognized genius is tormented by his uselessness, until two women, both in love with him, appear in his life. One of them is Baroness de Rossignol, wife of Baron Didi, who can kiss women, but prefers men in bed. Baroness starts to sponsor Gabor so he could open his own studio. And there Gabor can do the most laid-back photos, including photos of naked men in masks. The second woman in love with a photographer is Suzanne Dunois, his future wife, and later widow. Suzanne can not support Gabor financially, but offers him moral support.

Biography of Lou Villars is written by Nathalie Dunois, Suzanne’s niece, an emancipated lady of feminist tendencies. Her book is based largely on speculation and her own interpretations.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 in nature is meditation on a single photograph; complex poem; a dance around a photo. Each documentary source, that build the novel, has its catch and is a parody on the source. The photographer Gabor has a prototype, writer Maine is quasi-Henry Miller, and Nathalie Dunois is a collective image of ladies with higher education and creative instincts, who see everything through the prism of feminism.

Each of these characters is certainly strange, but pleasant, and each has its own unique voice. The novel even to some extent can be called an exercise in style, but the stylistic heterogeneity here is not cutting the story. Each fictional document, underlying the book, looks like original.

What eventually happens to the main heroine Villars is clear from the beginning, but the spirit of the book is not really grim. Yes, there are bile, jealousy, contempt, but all the characters are unsophisticated and nobody will disgust you. That’s true, of course, and for Lou Villars, which made her way from the ridiculous athlete to an almost executioner. Dunois the biographer is trying to find an explanation in the behavior and motives of Villars. Like, she worked for the Nazis from good intentions. Villars caused harm to some, so hundreds could be saved. She believed that protects civilians. And among motives the main is France is to blame, which denied Villars in sports, racing, depriving her of the joy of life, not allowing her to be who she is. But Dunois is a dim biographer, and one shouldn’t believe her. Are the reasons so important why a person becomes what he is? And was it all that simple with Villars, with her revenge to the country and the baron, when he refused to fight for her, the best racer of the country? This novel is a powerful statement about why you can not judge others.

Francine Prose won’t let you take a break from reading once you start. The novel radiates benevolence so that even the chapter about meeting between Hitler and Villars gives warm feelings.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Your Fathers, Where Are They?

Dave Eggers
Your Fathers, Where Are They?

Knopf/McSweeney’s, 2014

The novel is written entirely in the form of dialogue and generally not very different from the play. A young troubled man named Thomas (he is slightly over 30) kidnaps an astronaut named Kevin, whom they once were in college together with. Kevin, of course, does not remember his kidnapper, but Thomas knows who Kevin is. Thomas brings the kidnapped astronaut on abandoned military base in California near the ocean and there he handcuffes Kevin to a pole. The kidnapper only wants to talk with former classmate, to get answers to his questions and promises Kevin to release him soon. The astronaut first swears, threatens, but quickly realizes that the threats are useless. He is completely at the mercy of his captor.

Thanks to leading questions, Kevin starts to remember Thomas vaguely. Back in college, Kevin has set a goal of becoming an astronaut and achieved his goal in a few years. Thomas always liked Kevin, saw him as his role model, the only man that can keep his word. Kevin played baseball for the college team, studied at 4.0, graduated from the NASA Academy, learned Urdu, was a fighter pilot, then became an astronaut, flew into space and planned to get on the Shuttle, when the government canceled the U.S. space program. Kevin is only the first in a chain of people abducted by Thomas.

Eggers always loved experimenting with the form. No less he was keen on politics: in his latest works there are increasing degrees of actuality. In Your Fathers, Where Are They? politics and prose enter into symbiosis, and the result is not the most impressive. For political expression the book is too one-sided and superficial, for the novel tiresome and predictable.

In his novel, Eggers addresses several topics of the day: useless wars, police brutality, budget cuts, pedophilia (along with pederasty, if you use Egger’s choice of words), inadequate parenting etc. The author seemed to be in a hurry and jumps on these topics as valiant steed, only engaging in a dialogue on one issue, as abruptly switches to another. Pressed (no other word for it) into the book are many different themes, only they are revealed too superficially. Eggers seems to be not a stupid man, and he does not know politics at all. He seemed to be grabbed an idea here and there, built his views and now passes them through his characters’s lips. Meaning of the dialogue is an exchange of views, which could change the point of view of another person. It is sad that no one in the novel has not changed his views. Thomas initially is frozen in his views on the world, and no strangers will not change him, and abducted people are less interested in what his kidnapper thinks. What a worldview, when you're chained to a pole. Thomas originally planned to find answers to the right questions, for this he has planned the kidnappings. But after the first quarter of the book, he loses interest in other people's answers, having to read lectures and blaming others for all the sorrows. Thus Eggers fails his original task. And if the main character already knows all the answers and will not change his point of view, then why bother with kidnapping of so many people? Thomas could easily tell his monologue, sitting in the kitchen.

Your Fathers, Where Are They? as a novel are too tedious reading. It’s starting intriguing (somebody steals an astronaut - it's just cool by any standards), and what follows diminishes the intrigue with each page. The reason lays in the main character, who, though an ill person, still pretty bad person. Nothing pleasant in listening to his self-righteous speeches, it's like to find yourself in an elevator with a stranger not happy with his life - the first two floors you sympathize with him, and you want to leave by the third.

After the first third, when it becomes clear that the main reason why Thomas committed the kidnappings, it becomes too boring. Eggers writes briskly, but the dialogue is still deprived of any spark. Perhaps the author did not have enough humor and self-irony. The story of the abduction to the finale becomes a grotesque parody, and the plot seemed to be written by some horror fan with a sick imagination, writing fanfic for some forum.

It's a shame that Eggers spent his talent on this one-sided, uninteresting novel. Fathers, where were you when you gave Dave the opportunity to publish this thing?