Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Charles Palliser

W. W. Norton, 2013

Rustication is written in the form of a diary that a seventeen year old protagonist of the novel Richard Shenstone had written for a several weeks. He was expelled from the university and forced to return home to his mother and sister. However, not much left of home: in the four months that Richard was studying, his father died of a heart attack, and Richard had not even been invited to the funeral, his mother and sister Effie had lost their means of livelihood and moved to a dilapidated house in the south of England.

Richard arrives before Christmas of 1863, alone, without a cart that will come later, but his mother and sister do not welcome the return of the young man. In the novel, with each diary entry the amount of mysteries and oddities is growing exponentially and they are all important elements of the puzzle, and it is not possible to mention them all.

Richard hides the events that occurred to him at the university, and his mother and sister hide the events that took place during his absence. Richard notes that Effie, a little older than him, goes somewhere by nights, and his mother turns a blind eye to it. The mother is holding a secret of her husband's death: why now is the family forced to live in poverty, without any support? Richard gradually reveals secrets about himself to his family and learns the secrets of his relatives.

What a puzzling story this Rustication - and a first-class mystery, and a disturbing neo-Victorian novel. From the first chapter and almost to the very end Palliser throws and throws the puzzles to the reader. Avalanche of oddities rushes at you without stopping. Everyone has something to hide, and the farther the worse. Small sins overshadow the big sins, and that’s what almost all the characters are trying to hide.

Palliser's novel has combined the classic mystery and neo-noir. There are mysterious letters, maniac, murder, family secrets: something will be false clues, but something will work in the final. In any case, the author has played a fair game. At the same time, Palliser significantly updated the classic detective story. Sex, violence, cruelty – that is all here. Noose is tightening around the narrator’s throat, and we sympathize with him, despite his weaknesses and sins. Respectable ladies, earles, teachers, young brides and students - the author turns the established images upside down. Every character is a fallen creature.

Palliser updated the language of Victorian prose as well. There are almost no tedious passages, but the dirty letters are here in full. In addition to that, there are also fragments of the diary, that Richard encrypted (they are written in Greek), where he describes his sexual fantasies. These letters do not shock.

It is an exciting novel, with an amicable confusing plot, presenting a new look at the XIX century England.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Circle

Dave Eggers
The Circle

Knopf/McSweeneys, 2013

Mae Holland, a naive 24-year-old girl, with the help from her friend and fellow student Annie, is hired by The Circle, conquering the whole world company, some kind of corporation that combines Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, engaged in the implementation of social networks in everyday life. Mae grew up in a small unnamed town, and after graduation from thr university got a job at the factory to pay her student loans. But after two years Mae escapes from the factory and is happy to accept the job offer to work on the campus of The Circle.

The company was founded by the three Wise Men, as they call themselves, Stenton, Bailey and Gospodinov, the latter rarely appears in public. In The Circle transparency, openness and communication are valued. Working on The Circle a person must not only perform their duties, but also to actively socialize, preferably on the Web. All information from Mae’s gadgets is transfered into her account in The Circle, later to be synchronized - all the new gadgets are linked to her Circle account.

The Circle’s campus is a vast field, with numerous buildings, including dormitories for workers, hospitals, entertainment venues, shopping centres - in fact employees even don’t have to leave the campus, they can live and work here.

Mae’s girlfriend Annie works at the top of the company, developing new projects, and Mae is to work in Customer Experience. May should help clients with the emerging issues, and for this they rate her help from one to one hundred in special survey.

Eggers’ new novel had been called techno-thriller which is not true, of course. It's more tehnosatire, techno - because it’s technically accomplished, and because of new technologies. And the first quarter of the text reads as it is a serious thing , but after one scene where the main character gets punished by the boss and diligently corrects her own mistakes in the social network with the zeal of a madman - that's when you start to laugh, and at the same time realize that Eggers still show us his satirical talent.

In The Circle the author made his protagonist not a fighter with the system, and not an intellectual, on the contrary - too sweet girl, who sees paradise anywhere after that factory. The desire to please, hold on, do not let her friend down, help parents with money – Mae’s motives are not bad, but they blurred her vision of the world. With every new page it’s more difficult for us to empathize with Mae, but the situation becomes clearer with The Circle.

Eggers who does not use social media with striking accuracy caught in this novel our possession of pseudosocialization when activity in the social media substitutes activity in reality. The scenes of the novel, when Mae is brainwashed with a corporate culture are the strongest and most stunning.

«Denise smiled. “Fantastic. Now let’s talk about the rest of the weekend. On Friday, you find out that your dad’s okay. But the rest of the weekend, you basically go blank. It’s like you disappeared!” Her eyes grew wide. “This is when someone like you, with a low Participation Rank, might be able to improve that, if she wanted to. But yours actually dropped—two thousand points. Not to get all number-geeky, but you were on 8,625 on Friday and by late Sunday you were at 10,288.”

“I didn’t know it was that bad,” Mae said, hating herself, this self who couldn’t seem to get out of her own way. “I guess I was just recovering from the stress of my dad’s episode.”

“Can you talk about what you did on Saturday?”

“It’s embarrassing,” Mae said. “Nothing.”

“Nothing meaning what?”

“Well, most of the day I stayed at my parents’ house and just watched TV.”

Josiah brightened. “Anything good?”

“Just some women’s basketball.”

“There’s nothing wrong with women’s basketball!” Josiah gushed. “I love women’s basketball. Have you followed my WNBA zings?”

“No, do you have a Zing feed about the WNBA?”

Josiah nodded, looking hurt, even bewildered.»

The figures of the three founders of The Circle can not be taken into account without laughing - their monologues, their concepts , their management companies. The more painful to see that Mae does not understand all that. Even when faced with obvious absurd situations, Mae can not see the absurdity of some aspect of The Circle and is trying to find a way within the corporate culture.

The corporate part of the novel is succesful. But the general concept of warning is not quite complete. Eggers is trying to convince us about the global spread of The Circle, but the development of global social networks outside the United States are not well developed. It’s hardly possible to believe that people in third world countries or American vagrants would rush to buy electronic gadgets, cameras, and bracelets. Eggers also suffers crudity of some of his inventions: he tells about another novelty of The Circle, but then throws it away, forgetting to describe how it will work in the world and what changes it will bring.

Another drawback of the book is that the point of view of the author, expressed through novel’s antagonists Mercer and Kalden, is too roughly woven into the text. Mae’s position is presented to us in the form of a narrative, whereas the position of the author in the form of not too convincing lectures and sermons. If the author's purpose - to show, not to tell, then Eggers tells in antagonists’ monologues.

The Circle has turned out an uneven novel, but funny and entertaining. The author warns us about the danger of the influence of social media, but where will readers rush to share the warnings if not on Facebook and Twitter ? The Circle is completed?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Shroud for Jesso

Peter Rabe
A Shroud for Jesso

Gold Medal, 1955

A part of Friday Forgotten Books

Jack Jesso is doing work for the syndicate alone and fast. Jesso does not realize that such arbitrariness could cost him his job, and even his life. After another "business trip" to Vegas, where Jesso works out the situation with his fists, his boss Gluck gives Jesso a chance to improve – to do a job for a mysterious German Kator. Because of his obstinacy Jesso alone finds for Kator his escaped associate, but violates several Kator’s requirements. So Jesso signed his own death ticket.

As in the two previous novels, the main character of Peter Rabe books is self-confident mid-level hood, tough and overestimating his own strength. This hood invariably goes against the rules and against the bosses, but such attempts to protest rarely lead to targeted results.

In A Shroud for Jesso Rabe wanders into the territory of a spy novel, and one can not say that it turns out well. It seems that Rabe does not quite know about matters he writes. There are several memorable scenes, but the plot is largely based on coincidences.

This novel is interesting in how it shows where Donald Westlake as a writer came from. A hood on the instructions of the boss looking for an another missing hood - Westlake later used this scheme in his several earlier novels, in The Cutie and Busy Body. The scenes in the house of Kator resemble similar scenes from 361. Jesso, of course, is not Richard Stark's Parker, but in the dialogues, in my opinion, you can hear the Parker notes.

Compared to the previous two Rabe novels this is less successful, but you still can find a lot of fun here.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Mushroom Hunters

Langdon Cook
The Mushroom Hunters

Ballantine Books, 2013

This Langdon Cook book is not without reason called The Mushroom Hunters. It devoted largely to those who pick mushrooms and buys from pickers rather than the actual fungi. And this makes the book incredibly fascinating.

Commercial picking is prohibited in almost all the states of America. To pick mushrooms, you need a permission, and this leads to bureaucracy, payments and fees, and then the taxes. Professional mushroom pickers who live from mushrooms, substantially are illegals. They avoid strangers in the woods, hiding from the rangers and game wardens, and often share the forest areas between themselves. Cook compares mushroom pickers with drug dealers: the level a little bit different, but the activity of pickers remains illegal, and the habits of many pickers are quite like criminal’s. Cook spends time in the company of pickers, buyers, chefs, painting a complex picture of the fungus movement from the edge of the forest to the stomach of a restaurant visitor.

In conversations with Cook the heroes of the book do not hide any secrets of searching and picking mushrooms, on the contrary, Cook generously shares his advices describing in detail the entire process. The abundance of information will not harm the professionals: even after reading several encyclopedias, you still do not learn how to navigate in the woods, you can not determine the presence of the fungus by almost non-existent crack in the ground.

Cook divides his book into chapters by type of fungi and territories where the mushrooms grow. The main characters in the book move from chapter to chapter. Among them are Doug, a former logger and crabber, Jeremy, a former chef, now a businessman trying to create a network of mushroom delivery, and Matt, the chef cook. Cook until writing the book was not new to picking mushrooms, but after a few years spent in the company of professionals, he learned subculture up and down. In addition to contemporary stories, descriptions of life of pickers and buyers, the author makes historical digressions.

The Mushroom Hunters is the history of capitalism and the history of criminals, an amazing tour in the mysterious industry. This book is almost a novel, with the characters, suspense, lively dialogues, lacking only the plot, and you would not exactly distinguish it from fiction. Perhaps the most surprising of all described in the book is how The Mushroom Hunters found a publisher. And the theme seems to be not the most attractive, but the book is an obvious surprise.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Big City Girl

A part of Friday Forgotten Books

Charles Williams
Big City Girl

Gold Medal, 1951
(Open Road Media eBook, 2013)

On a dilapidated farm to her husband's family comes a big city girl from the title of the novel. Her name is Joy, she has no money, and the farm becomes her last refuge. Joy’s husband - Sewell Neely, the eldest son of the owner of the farm Cass Neely – was convicted for a series of armed robberies and murder, and while in jail laughed in the face of his wife, who had time to cheat on him. Relatives of the outlaw son take Joy in different ways: the father and youngest daughter kindly, but Sewell’s brother despises city girl. The situation on the farm gets darker and darker, and at this time Sewell, who was being escorted to prison, escapes, killing two policemen. Coincidentally, he escapes just in those places where their family farm is.

If in his debut Williams depicted family tragedy with a country background, then in his second novel, he adds to the country theme "escaped convict" type of noir. Fortunately for the reader, the convict is a psychopath, in fact even violent psychopath, and the story rushes ahead without a stop (especially in the second half ).

The book's title may be somewhat misleading: city girl Joy is not the central character here. Williams switches from one character to another in a single chapter, the point of view is constantly changing, and you can watch the family drama from all sides.

Noir story isspiced with black humor here - in the face of nutty Cass Neely: the old man has been led to madness, who would have thought, by the radio. A rarity in the village at the time, indeed.

One of the best Gold Medal books that I have read.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Lowland

Jhumpa Lahiri
The Lowland

Knopf, 2013

Two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, were born and raised in one of the districts of Calcutta near the lowland (the same one from the novel’s title). With the age difference in one year, the brothers were inseparable and very similar to each other. Both brothers were savvy and smart, but their characters eventually became different. Protest, disobedience, and challenge started growing in Udayan, but Subhash remained calm, considerate, obedient to his parents. In the early '60s, in the period of world revolutions and uprisings, Udayan joined the Naxalite movement, a terrorist organization operating illegally in India and advocating for equality and justice for all. While one brother rebels, the second one goes to the United States, Rhode Island in particular, where he studies the marine chemistry at the university. Studying is going steady, as is introduction to American life, even an affair with a married American woman and the first sex happen. After the break-up with an American woman Subhash suddenly receives a telegram about his brother's death.

Subhash rushes off to India, attends funeral and finds his brother's widow, eating food from the floor in the kitchen. It turns out that Udayan married secretly an intellectual without consent of parents, and now brother’ parents barely tolerate the presence in the house Gauri, a pregnant widow. Subhash can not find out anything about the death of his brother, and only Gauri tells how Udayan has been shot in the lowlands by the police in front of the family. His body was never given to the family.

Seeing that Gauri can not stay at parents’ home, Subhash asks her to marry him and be the father of the unborn child. Gauri obediently agrees, and the couple fly to the U.S. (of course, this marriage was also made without the approval of the parents).

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri in fact is low: there are only a few high points here, but plenty of low points. The beginning of the book promises much, though melodrama already is noticeable. The two brothers, who had gone separate ways and are split by the ocean, is not really original premise. The book is written in the third person, and the point of view changes from chapter to chapter. But the brother-revolutionary dies quickly, Lahiri does not have time to tell about his motives, and Udayan will remain a mystery to the reader until the very end. But the chapters written about another brother from his point of view in the novel are plenty. And that feel kind of unfair: one brother was given enough space to speak out, but the other died in silence.

But the surviving brother has very little to tell. That is one of the failures of the novel. Subhash’s life is empty, uneventful, a continuous lane of contrived sadness. About his marriage with Gauri it is clear from the very beginning that it won’t work out. The couple does not even quarrel (both of spouses are remarkably inert), and continue to live side by side. Their way of life does not hurt them and does not change them. Lahiri is forced almost a third of the novel to devote to this joyless coexistence. But you can not build a whole novel on sadness and decline of marital relationship. The author does not know how to write properly about everyday life, and the result is something like this: chapter begins, as spouses are sad, the next chapter also tells the story how the wife are sad, as if it were the only business that they can take themselves to - being sad.

Characters do not change throughout the book. It takes forty years, but Subhash and Gauri are still the same sad people, seemed to have not learned from life any single thing. Both had their degrees, but in reality they are at 20-year-olds level, however, severely depressed. Even Bela, their daughter, already adult, becomes something like her father: she lives like a ghost in the eventless world, and we do not really wonder what will happen to her.

But the final returns the tension of beginning of the book. Confrontation between the characters get even much tougher than expected. The Lowland reminds us that mercy is not only the good, but also to the detriment. Even the scene of the confrontation is written more furiously in style than most of the book.

Lahiri, apparently, wanted to broaden her audience and make her novel more accessible. Otherwise how do you explain the fact that the novel is written stylistically too straight. Lahiri "chews" everything here, so that the reader only is left to swallow, no secrets between the lines here. Those readers who love to think on the book will be disappointed.

As to the historical material which the book is based on, in particular, the Naxalite movement, there Lahiri failed. Into her lyrical prose Lahiri unceremoniously shoved pieces of historical material, not even bothering to edit them. Copy-paste does yet decorate no novel.

The author has the potential, but somehow it smeared – on the lowland.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Dark Times in the City

Gene Kerrigan
Dark Times in the City

Vintage UK, 2010

Danny Callaghan is just drinking in the pub owned by his friend and employer Novak, when two thugs wearing helmets burst in there with the intention to shoot a stool pigeon. knew Danny in prison and asks him for help. Thugs loiter, Danny knocks one of them down and saves the squealer.

Prior to this incident, Danny led quite peaceful and regular life for seven months. After a 12-year sentence for a manslaughter Danny works as a driver for his friend Novak, driving for managers and businessmen.

Danny’s intervention jeopardized plans of a Dublin crime boss Lar Mackendrik. Now Danny regrets that he didn’t let this stool pigeon die.

The novel’s plot tells about those dark times from the title: in the course of reading we learn that a young gang plans to take over and take control of all the illegal ways of making money in Dublin. This plot holds out interest only until such time as Kerrigan feeds us omissions and scraps of plans of the Mackendrik gang to confront young and ruthless thugs. Once Kerrigan moves from theory to practice, interest in reading fades. The corpses fall to the pavement, guts spilled, people burying alive, but in the plot’s turmoil the characters in the story lose all their humanity. It is becoming apparent that Kerrigan is not so good a storyteller: the characters begin to behave against logic, and point of view changes too often.

The first half of the novel, mostly dedicated to Danny's life after prison, is leaner and stronger than the second half. In a realistic manner Kerrigan describes life of an ex-con who, being free, not especially struggle: Danny does not plan to return to prison, and the fate of a simple driver doesn’t burden him. The reader's sympathies are definitely on the side of Callaghan, especially after the author will tell about how Danny had killed a man, what kind of man he was.

Dark Times in the City, despite all its flaws, delivers a lot of fun - but only in the first half.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Mrs. Poe

Lynn Cullen
Mrs. Poe

Gallery Books, 2013

New York, 1845. Frances Osgood is a known in narrow circles poetess and mother of two children. Her husband, Samuel, a portrait painter and a womanizer, left her with debts, and went to Europe to work on portraits of rich ladies, whom he invariably sleeps with. Just as he once seduced Frances, writing her portrait. Samuel had good money painting, but he squandered the money until his escape. His wife and children turned out on the street, and the Bartletts, family friends, let Franes live under their roof.

Now Frances, who wrote poems for children to make a living, is alone. Her cheerful poetry does not find a way into magazines, editors need darkness and hopelessness, something in the style of Edgar Allan Poe. "The Raven" at the time became the most discussed poem and received fame and money. His poems are reprinted in newspapers and magazines, editors ask for something new, and Poe gives lectures, criticizing other poets, as well as working in the magazine.

When Poe, who not so long ago moved with his wife to New York, appears on one of the readings, friends of the family invite Frances to a meeting with the poet. Never smiling and dark, Poe suddenly speaks highly of Frances’ poetry and makes it an enjoyable experience.

Frances wants to get to know Poe better to gain from him inspiration and efficiency. Poe sends his poems to Francis because he values her opinion of him as a poet. The protagonist finds his poetry disturbing, but pretends that she likes it. This is followed by an immediate invitation to the home of the Poes. The poet lives in the house with his sick wife Virginia, she is also his cousin, whom he married when she was only 13 years old, and her mother Mrs. Clemm. Gradually, Poe and Frances become friends, gradually friendship passing into flirtation. Friends of Frances warn her that she better not associate with the poet, it will not lead to no good.

Mrs. Poe, historical and mystical romance, is primarily interesting not because of its mysticism or melodrama, but because of history. The book reads like a fine fictionalized biography of an averge poet of XIX century. Had Lynn Cullen invented this literary world or she actually studied the subject, is not so important. Each chapter of the novel reveals new details of the lives of poets, writers, editors and publishers. The publication of "The Crow" has a great influence on the literary process in mid-nineteenth century. Fights between poets occured at that time, the tabloids were eager to publish scandals and rumors, and it was not easy to survive on literary work - almost nothing has changed. The changes are only that newspaper stopped publishing poetry, and poetry became a hobby, semi-professional activity that does not produce money, top.

The figure of Edgar Allan Poe in the novel is covered by fog: the novel is written from the point of view of Frances Osgood, and what happens in the mind and heart of the poet will remain a mystery. Mrs. Poe, the poet's wife, an uncreative person, is revealed better in the book. We see her in a relationship with her husband and with Frances.

Romance in the novel is quite sparse: Frances more than half of the book can not decide whether she wants to be with Poe or not, largely because she is highly moral person. She does not want to cause harm Mrs. Poe, and she does not want to plunge into trouble if her affair with Poe becomes known to her husband. Poems that poets write to each other is also quite innocent, it is hardly even love poems. Anyway Frances is a woman too cautious to ensure that it could erupt any passion.

The presence of Poe promises mysticism, but three separate episodes is hardly a mysticism. Cullen leads us to suspect Mrs. Poe to the atrocities against the protagonist, but by and large these attempts to break Frances away from Poe are quite commonplace, and certainly you can not believe in their otherworldly origins.

Despite the shortcomings, Mrs. Poe is good fiction, written with knowledge of the details. Cullen writes easily, with a touch of stylization in the language. In general, the novel can be described by a scene out of it when Osgood comes to the publisher and offers him her poems about flowers. Publisher says that he needs no literary tricks, and that catchy stuff is what is being sold. And Mrs. Poe is difficult to call the height of literature, but as a commercial fiction this book is above average.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

& Sons

David Gilbert
& Sons

Random House, 2013

The sons in the title of the novel are the children of the fictional writer A.N. Dyer, who has, in the novel, the status of Salinger. His debut «Ampersand», the same ampersand from the title, since its publication has sold more than 45 million copies, and Dyer for the rest of his life has been trying to write something that can outdo the success of the debut (tried but failed). Dyer has become a hermit, ceasing to talk to the media and even his own children.

The three children are two from his wife Isabella, and the third, the youngest, illegitimate, whose appearance destroyed the family of the writer. The eldest son, 45-year-old Richard, is a Hollywood screenwriter and former drug addict. The middle son - Jamie – is four years younger than Richard. He is more comfortable with the father. The youngest, 17-year-old Andy, is a consequence of a short affair between Dyer Sr. with the young Swede (Dyer was 62 at the time of birth of Andy). After the birth the mother died and the father had adopted his son. The wife almost immediately left the writer, later married a second time. Now, Andy attends to the same college, where his father and brothers did, and also writes fiction.

Father and sons get together for the first time after many years at the request of the father. The novel opens with the Dyer’s closest friend 's funeral - Charles Topping, a lawyer and a prototype of many heroes of Dyer’s novels. After speaking at the funeral of the friend (and the funeral gathered a lot of people just because of the fact that everyone knew that Dyer would be present). Having a feeling that the time has come to make peace with the whole family and make an important speech, Dyer invites the family come to New York.

Dyer invites to live with him a while the son of the dead friend (and Jamie’s college classmate) Philip Topping, the narrator of this story.

David Gilbert tried to write the Great American Novel. Theme of fathers and sons (a nod to Turgenev and Dostoevsky), a great reclusive writer, broken families, the power of literature - all the signs of a big novel are evident. This is a novel about writers, but is it for readers?

Gilbert writes baroque, with a flourish, sometimes rambling. No wonder I mentioned Dostoevsky: Gilbert simply can write a three-page sentence, just like the Russian classic did. Narrator Philip Topping, it seems, did not succeed as a writer because of that, he can’t say a word without overcomplications. One can cite as an example many scenes, when Gilbert begins some scene that branches and branches, as long as it becomes hard to remember what this was about. Emotional intensity of a scene disappears, and it remains only kind of praise Gilbert-stylist (“son of a gun can write!”) but chide Gilbert-narrator. Gilbert fills up his novel with fragments of Dyer’s novels, letters, drafts, but in all of this it is unlikely to see the talent of Dyer- writer. And these fragments obviously slow down the novel’s plot.

Gilbert tried to write a satire - on Hollywood, the literary scene, great writers, and & Sons does have a few funny scenes, but it will not make you laugh out loud. There are only two really funny and witty scenes here. The first scene is the interview of Richard in Hollywood with producer and actor, the second one is about Andy and his nephew Emmett search in a park for a seller of hot dogs, which for some reason is not on his usual place. These scenes have it all: originality, poignancy, subtle humor, lively dialogues - baroque style does them no harm.

But the key scene, the main twist of the novel, is frankly baffling. Dyer-writer gathered the whole family to make a confession, but the confession was nonsense, and the consequences of the confession is quite doubtful. Of course, the sci-fi twist can be attributed to the satirical device, narrator’s cruel joke, so be it. But why then so much noise, if this confession later led to nothing? Sons reacted poorly to the revelation of the father, and in the novel there was no shift, which could be hoped for. Even the final death has low impact.

& Sons looks smarter than it actually is. Too much to cram into it, and too much that leads nowhere. Gilbert had to either cut his novel 200 pages or to expand on the same 200 to complete all that was started and abandoned.