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?

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Reckoning

Rennie Airth
The Reckoning

Mantle, 2014

Sussex, 1947. Someone shoots a retired banker Oswald Gibson in the neck, after putting the victim on his knees. A shepherd sees the killer from afar, but can not give a distinct description. It is only known that the killer was wearing baggy clothes and moved quickly, with youthful gait. Shepherd immediately called the constable, police began to surround the area near the river, but the killer seemed to dissolve in the air.

Investigate the murder in Sussex comes Scotland Yard Inspector Styles. Attention of Chief Detective Bureau of the country is attracted by the fact that in Scotland a week earlier in a similar manner an elderly doctor was killed in the operating room. Styles suspects that the murders may be linked. Gibson was a widower, lived modestly, had no enemies. Of relatives he had only a lawyer brother. However, coming servants recall that a few days before the murder, someone visited Gibson. After this visit, Gibson walked thinking about something and even began to write a letter to the Chief Constable of England, inquiring about a former inspector named Madden.

Styles does not know whether this unfinished letter is connected to the murder, but summons Madden, former Yard inspector. Madden, now retired, is mostly engaged in gardening and happy to help, but he doesn’t recognizes Gibson on the photographs.

There are a serial killer, killing seemingly unrelated people, an insightful inspector (in this case, former inspector), scattered through the novel clues, and even chapters, written from the victims’ point of view. Similar novels are published probably by dozens per week in England alone, and this one stands out with bright style and tight plotting.

Rennie Airth avoids hackneyed device when chapters from the murderer’s POV are written in italics. In the novel, there are a few scenes that are written almost from the killer’s point of view, but they do not cause the slightest irritation. The novel’s plot is linear, the story is told clearly, without trying to be "High Literature", which usually ends badly. Here the author’s ability to build the plot is obvious: there is the work of thought, there is footwork. Clues appear gradually, logical, and the investigation is conducted professionally. Each clue is checked out, which again emphasizes the author's skill.

By the middle of the novel it is clear where the investigation will turn that somewhat frustrating. Then the book departs from its course of the classical detective story, floating away in the direction of the country thriller. The killer becomes known, all that’s left is catch him. Airth quite believable handles the scenes of chases and surveillance.

The Reckoning is a nice mystery, not pretending to be something more. It’s a fun read for a couple of evenings.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


Tim Winton

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014/ Picador UK, 2014

Perth, Australia, our days. Tom Keely lives alone in an apartment building in a poor neighborhood. He's almost 50, he is divorced, childless, he is out of work. Keely was once known environmental activist, he even appeared on TV screens, the newspapers and magazines wrote about him. But after a conflict with officials, he lost his job because he refused to cover the illegal actions of the authorities. Keely issued dirty linen in public, and now no private company wants to hire him, not to mention the state.

Keely lives on some savings and money from the sale of the house. All that he can afford is a small apartment in the seedy neighborhood. Keely worsens his problems with alcohol and regular antidepressants. Most of the novel we will be see Keely either drunk, or on pills, or hang-over.

Keely rarely comes from the apartment, speaks to no one, occasionally swims in the ocean. His mother Doris, a successful lawyer, and sister Faith, working in the financial sector, worries about Keely. He assures them that he's all right.

Everything changes in Keely’s life when he unexpectedly meets a woman, which resembles someone, in the building,. She is Gemma, a girl from the past. Now Gemma is in her forties, and she raises her grandson - a strange boy with no less strange name Kai. Keely is surprised by this meeting, he did not even know that Gemma lived in the same house with him just down the hall.

Despite its length, Eyrie reads in one breath. That’s not surprising considering that Winton has written 25 books already. The secret of success here is that the book equally attracts with its plot intrigue and an ability to write about everyday life.

Winton pushes his characters to an almost impossible situation, making the novel very dark and kind of depressing. Heroes fall into a trap, and all their actions and attempts are doomed. It is important not to lose the human face, not be on the same level with animals, those who prey on the main characters of the novel.

Despair largely even comes not from an external source, i.e. criminal elements, but from life itself. Keely after his fall from the top steps on the lowest rung of society, at his age left with nothing - except the conscience and moral attitudes. He largely looks up to his father, who was a priest and really saved people. Keely is also trying, but realizes that he lacks hardness. And his moral values are his own ruin. Because of them, he does not fit into society, can not keep in touch with other people.

Actually everyday life stifles Keely and Gemma and the like. They are honest, strong-willed people who simply can not cope with the system. Everything is against them. Toward the end of the novel Keely pawns his computer equipment to the shop to get a little cash. Clerk gives Keely a hundred dollars less than usual just because Keely looks, due to stress and alcohol, as if he were a junkie.
Crime story takes a turn in the second half of the book, and in the first Winton depicts Australian life of bottom. The novel is written in the third person, but such that it is similar to the first. And the voice of Keely is simultaneously resentful and angry at society (and himself), but also from bitter at his own impotence and unwillingness to change something. Such bitterness in his voice helps make the novel drive, when seemingly nothing happens, other than sitting in a stuffy room, swimming in the ocean, a short phone talk with the sister. Descriptions of hangover here are gorgeous, extremely realistic and somewhat painful. It is a rare thing.

“He peeled back the lids with a gospel gasp and levered himself upright and bipedal if not immediately ambulatory. Teetered a moment in the bad weather and shapeless mortification of something like waking consciousness. Which was heinous. Though in the scheme of things today’s discomfort was the least of his troubles. He should be glad of the distraction. This little malaise was only fleeting. Well, temporary. Just a bloody hangover. But for all that a pearler anyway, a real swine-choker. Even his feet hurt. And one leg was still intoxicated.”

In the novel there is no quotation marks at the dialogues, they are part of the main text, but the dialogues are actually Winton’s strong point. It’s difficult to write a believable dialogue between child and adult, and Winton makes it believable.

Eyrie’s action takes place in Australia, though the novel is rather a hybrid of literature of the three countries. From Australia there is destroying heat and large spaces, from English literature dialogues and britanisms and from the American prose the story itself.

Winton is a brilliant stylist, a good storyteller, and his novel is a great success.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Quick

Lauren Owen
The Quick

Jonathan Cape, 2014

Publisher’s blurb beats around the bush, promising a sea of secrets, the atmosphere of Victorian London, epic scope, but is shamefully silent that this novel is about vampires. Bloodsuckers here are the same as in other works of art. They drink blood, die from silver, but almost have no fear of daylight and garlic, hunt at night, and deprived of blood they hibernate. One can turn into vampire through bite, but only if the person gives consent. Without the consent one only dies from blood loss.

The center of vampires in London becomes a mysterious Aegolius club, which includes gentlemen in the exact amount of 52, rich and ambitious. It’s incredibly hard to become a member of the club, but no one knows what the club does and what purpose carries. Among the members there are several researchers who are engaged in a vampire body, strengths and weaknesses of a vampire. They make experiments on the club members and research the old books and try to write their own. Augustus Mould keeps a diary during these studies, and from his writings we learn the essence of the club.

The novel begins not with the Aegolius club, but with the county home, once owned by a wealthy family. Brother and sister, James and Charlotte, were raised almost without parents. Their mother died, their father is out somewhere and servants mostly watching the house, but not the children. Charlotte herself teaches the alphabet to the younger brother: he’s nine years old, and he can not read and write, and hasn’t never been to school. Soon their father, terminally ill, returns home, but quickly dies. One of governesses minds the brother and sister, sends them to school. James then leaves to study at Oxford, and Charlotte remains in Yorkshire with the governess, turning into an old maid.

Was all this publishing disguise (and the author’s, too) worth it? Unfortunately, no. Lauren Owen does everything to hide vampires and give instead of a vampire thriller something sublime. Bloodsuckers here practically are never called bloodsuckers, the word "vampire" is used about five times in the novel, scenes of bloodsucking there are even less. Frustrating, of course, is not the mere presence of vampires, but banal interpretation of the theme and the absence of at least some attempts to refresh the material.

The novel’s main intrigue, associated with vampires, flashes with fake flame and immediately dies out. The Aegolius club and its leadership intentions extension: turn into vampires English high society. But after failing to turn Christopher the plan somehow is aborted. A sound strategy is instantly forgotten, but half a club begins hunt for James, who holds no strategic value. It turns out that the central plot device is pathetic plot device to explain James’s turning.

Generally, all that is connected with the club, is not subject to any rationalization. What is the difference between the Aegolius and the Alia – Owen does not explain, how vampires get along with the rest of the world, despite the fact that the phenomenon of vampirism is widely discussed and, apparently, even accepted as something that really exists – it is not clear.

Chaos reigns not only in the structure of the world of vampirism, but on an example of one vampire in particular, James. Withdrawn and self-taught poet suddenly turns into a sort of Batman, hiding under the cover of night, tearing the fetters, undending bars, breaking faces of nasty bloodsuckers. At the same time, it is not explained how a vampire abstinence works. How a vampire can refuse the call of the blood, why does he necessarily seek first his relatives? The flight and pursuit of James lack elaborate motivation. The club could easily kill James, finding him in a few hours - after all the club has 52 members. And if James promised revenge for the murder of his lover, why he went into hiding? It would be logical to see how he plans his attack.

It is sad that after the flight of James from the club and Charlotte’s coming to London, the novel loses its last remnants of Victorian charm, sinking to the level of a banal thriller. Philosophy gives way to smashing heads, torn feet, point blank shots, glasses full of blood. Even fragile Charlotte, rustic homebody, starts shooting with two hands and run faster than the wind. I'm afraid that the balance has not been met.

Yet the novel is worth reading - but only the first two chapters of childhood of the brother and sister (it’s like a separate story) and of the life of James with Christopher. This is a poignant prose about lost young people not accustomed to life in society. The first chapter explains wonderfully the special affection between the brother and sister and brother’s later fascination with literature.

Supporting characters in «The Quick» are flat, but even the main ones Owen clumsily handles. She has a habit of changing the name of the character, which confuses the reader. The author for entire chapter (or even a few chapters) calls the character by his last name, not mentioning at all his first name, and in the next chapter Owen suddenly begins to call him by first name. So, for a while it is not clear who is who.

The first chapter should’ve been published as a separate story, the rest is throw into the basket.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Whistling Past the Graveyard

Susan Crandall
Whistling Past the Graveyard

Gallery, 2013

Summer of 1963, Cayuga Springs, Mississippi. Nine year old Starla Claudelle lives at her grandma's house. Her father works at an oil rig and spends little time at home, and her mother had gone off to Nashville six years ago to become a singer, and now only sends rare postcards. Stubborn and independent, Starla is often punished by her grandmother Mamie for petty mischief. Despite Grandmother’s harsh words about her mother, Starla praises her mother and waits for the moment when she becomes famous and take Starla from her grandmother.

It seems like Starla doesn’t go to school. She studies a little at home, plays with the neighbor girl, kicks older boys, in the beginning even breaking the nose of one of them. For that Mamie grounds Starla on Independence Day, not allowing her to leave the house to watch the fireworks. Starla nevertheless is out of the house, plays on the playground, where a neighbor catches her. The neighbor threatens to complain to Starla’s grandmother, and then the girl, still in fear of harsher punishment, runs away from home and gets to the highway. Starla plans to walk to Nashville, finds her mother to live with her. Tired to walk, the girl changes her plan and takes a ride. A black woman named Eula on a truck picks up Starla, who are puzzled by a baby inside, a white baby. It begins to darken, and Eula offers Starla to spend the night at her ho,e, and in the morning Eula’s husband Wallace will take the girl where she wants to go. Starla agrees, but when he sees bear-like Wallace, the owner of bad temper and addiction to strong alcohol, the desire to spend the night at Eula’s house disappears. Wallace pulls his wife, baby James and Starla with force home and closes the door on all the bolts.

Whistling Past the Graveyard can be compared with fireworks: it’s, too, something noisy, incessant, kind to the eyes, catchy and colorful. The plot of the novel is as realistic as it is implausible in its fabulousness. I walked from my grandmother here is piling on rights of African Americans, dear, but distant Mother is a witch, and a nine-year girl giving battle to Ku Klux Klan.

Much of the credit that the novel was a success, belongs to the protagonist Starla. If she were not so independent, persistent and resourceful, all the adventures, sooner or later, would have turned sour, and would have made a moist cake of journalism and ordinary story of the runaway child. Crandall made Starla an insightful storyteller, but childishly naive, fair, but merciful. It's hard to write more than 300 pages from the POV of the nine year old child, so much so that it was authentic. Crandall gives Starla as much knowledge about the world as it is needed for the story. 300 pages look convincing, the final 30 are not quite. Actually, in the final pages, we read about the rights of blacks, Martin Luther King, protests, and here it turns into unconvincing journalism. Child will hardly understand this difficult matter.

The story of Starla’s wanderings is a story of splitting the world into black and white, literally. Child maybe for the first time sees an unfair balance between black and white, and begins to realize that the world is not black and white, and everything is mixed. Black can be white. White can be black.

The plot of the book is a whirlwind, flying swiftly, you do not want to be interrupted even for a second. But stylistically Crandall is more conservative and cautious. The novel is written in the southern dialect, but only to some degree. All the characters here, black and white, speak with dialect. And yet the author is afraid of losing literary style. Characters express themselves with something between a dialect and correct speech. So, illiterate people still express themselves not quite illiterately. Crandall gear ups on the dialect, then she reduces the pressure and the characters then almost completely switch to the literary language. We won’t find a complete authenticity there, but the novel reads without much effort.

Susan Crandall has written an excellent novel, which, if not placed in the annals of fiction of the South, then certainly delivers a lot of pleasure.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

My Salinger Year

Joanna Rakoff
My Salinger Year

Bloomsbury Circus, 2014

In the mid-90's 23-year-old Rakoff returnes from London, where she graduated from the university, to her native New York. Young graduate, she changes her plans to go to California, remains in New York, where she lives with her Marxist boyfriend Don in an inferior apartment, and gets a job in an old-fashioned literary agency which the book will be referred to simply The Agency.

Joanna was hired after one interview just before Christmas. She expects that her literary agent assistant duties will include reading manuscripts and search for literary talents, but mostly (at least in the early part of the book) she is doing what usually secretary does: return calls, typing documents, making decryption of recordings, answers to readers’ letters. The Agency, where Rakoff works, still does everything the way it was done in the 40s, when The Agency was established. All documentation is printed on a typewriter, a prehistoric dictophone with foot pedals is used, fax and xerox will appear in the office not soon, computer with internet access in the office will be put towards the end of the first year of Joanna’s work.

Rakoff’s boss, whose name we do not know, is an old woman who is antique as everything in the office. Besides Joanna’s boss, The Agency’s stuff includes several such old women, one of them resigns over the book course - lung cancer. The boss has several clients and talks on the phone with the same range of people, including a Jerry and another man, in which Joanna guesses her boss’s lover.
Joanna’s boss gives her some guidelines: not to give the address and phone number of Jerry to anyone, politely say generally everyone who calls about Jerry to stop calling, do not engage in conversation with Jerry, immediately switch him to the boss’ line. Rakoff does not immediately guess who Jerry in question is until she looks closer at the backs of books, standing in the office, and only then she realizes that Jerry is Salinger.

Rakoff’s memories partially can be attributed to the category of what is called "tangential memoirs." Writer of memories considers it his ot her duty to inform the world about his acquaintance, tangentially, pointing to some famous person. Accordingly, it often happens that the story of the memoirist has no value if it were not for this brief moment of crossing paths with the famous.
In this case, it is true, but not quite so. Salinger here really is included to attract attention. Rakoff did not read his books until she meets Salinger alive in The Agency office and essentially she had nothing to say about him as a writer. In the finale, the author begins an attempt to analyze the works Salinger, tells how they grabbed her soul, but it is not quite interesting to read and it gives a sense if not moralizing, the author’s just trying to impose her views.

Yet to dismiss My Salinger Year as a memoir of another writer trying to sunbath in the glory of someone else would be wrong. Because this book has its value and its charm, just from a different perspective. My Salinger Year is great memoires of the life of the literary agency, of bohemian life in New York of mid-90s. Rakoff's voice there has a passion, wisdom and measure. Her memoir is a sad notes with punching satire. If Salinger here had fictitious name, and you’d get a charming novel about a 20-year-olds. Rakoff has all the makings of the novelist. The book doesn’t have a pronounced plot (the intrigue with the publication of the book is not so clingy), but it is not a thriller, just a fragment of life of a young graduate.

Building up the image of Salinger and his readers (whose letters we read in the course of the book), Rakoff writes without snobbery, but with a bit of humor. Part of the humor stems from the fact that Rakoff first enters into adulthood and she doesn’t succeed at everything.

These failures, "moderate unhappiness", are rooted in the life style of the author. Her society is bohemian young people, with dreams of exhibitions and publications. Accordingly, the problems of the Brooklyn youth are quite peculiar. For these young bohemian people the book is designed primarily for, and that does not make it worse.

My Salinger Year is a voracious read, and its reading is accompanied by a healthy laugh.