Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Night Train to Jamalpur

Andrew Martin
Night Train to Jamalpur

Faber, 2013

India, 1923. The protagonist of the previous eight books in the series Englishman Captain Jim Stringer with his wife and teenage daughter is on secondment to the East Indian Railway. The main purpose of trip is investigating possible cases of corruption among top management of the East Indian Railway.

At the beginning of the novel Stringer takes the Night Mail train from Calcutta to Jamalpur in first class carriage with five companions, among them Major Fisher, who was set as a partner to Stringer to investigate corruption cases. Stringer does not trust Fisher, considering his dark personality, he is able to do anything behind Stringer’s back. Fisher behaves surly and despises all Indians.
In the car, our narrator meets with Jim Young, an Anglo-Indian, who is also working on the railway. At night during one of the stops someone kills Young, escaping in the desert. Everyone in the car have heard the shots, but no one has caught the killers. The lock on the door of Stringer’s compartment was broken and Stringer concludes that perhaps someone wanted to kill him, not Young. Someone calls the police, and Detective Inspector Khudayar Khan of the C.I.D. is assigned to the case.

Stringer takes an interest into this matter investigating available suspectes in his spare time. The third case, which Stringer also takes unofficially, becomes "snake killings" in the first class carriages on the Railway. Someone throws poisonous snakes, including king cobras, in first-class compartments. Snakes have killed more than four people and continue to kill. People become afraid to go first class, although trains are carefully checked. Stringer wonder who can do this, because only the master can control the snake and put it in the car without hurting himself.

In the main corruption case Stringer has two primary suspects, William Askwith, top brass in the traffic department, and Douglas Poole, his deputy. Both are Englishman, as other brass on the Railway.

Perhaps those who read the previous books in the series will have even more fun, but even as a stand-alone book Night Train to Jamalpur is quite a smart mystery. Martin throws the bait immediately, starting the book with murder, and then slowly spins all three (even four, if we take into account the matter with Stringer’s daughter) plotlines. The novel continues without haste, that in general it is quite clear. The detective has the three investigations at the time, one officially and two semi-officially, and he can not solve them all immediately. However, it turns out that the main plotline, corruption case, remains in the shadows.

The novel is written in the first person, the narrator Stringer generously shares with the reader the obtained information, and the detective and the reader are on an equal footing, having the same evidence and conjecture. Martin fills the book with suspects in all three investigations. Especially tickles the nerves that someone wants to set Stringer up for murder. All three cases are resolved quite logical and using deduction, although you have to admit that in the books of this kind everything is possible.

In addition to the suspense of plot, Martin delivers on the atmospheric front. Indian background is colorful and bright, details are believable, excursion in history is such that you feel the era, but do not feel that as if you read glossy booklet about India. Martin knows rails and sleepers, as his own ten fingers.

What's confusing is the main work activity of Stringer. He spends little time on his main job, driving around idly to and fro. You can see corruption behind this.

It is a good genre novel.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Life with Bread Crumbs

Anna Quindlen
Life with Bread Crumbs

Hutchinson, 2014

Rebecca Winter, once a successful photographer, a feminist icon, moved out of her apartment on Manhattan to a cottage in the upstate. Rebecca is 60, but she looks much younger. She divorced her English husband (he changes wives every decade), her son filmmaker Ben, who graduated from college, has not yet found his place in life and waits each month for the money from his mother, and Rebecca’s mother Bebe, once a successful pianist, is now in the Jewish nursing home. She does not recognize her relatives, and instead of playing the piano now she plays on everything else that looks like a piano.

Relocation must not only return Rebecca her self-confidence, but also reduce costs. The novel protagonist turns from the photographer into an accountant, whose numbers don’t leave her alone. Renting an apartment minus maintenance minus nursing home paymentminus car insurance minus the check for the son minus cottage rent minus medical insurance - every month Rebecca will be preoccupied with the idea of a possible poverty. Black and white photographs of Kitchen Counter series, among them the legendary " Life with Bread Crumbs", brought her fame and money, when she was under forty. Rebecca lived for many years on royalties. Her photographs allowed her to buy an apartment in Manhattan. But over the years the cash flow dried up, fame faded away (and Rebecca is not sure that she famous at all), and Rebecca couldn’t afford life in New York no more.

Cottage, which Rebecca rents, is in complete wilderness. Among the local population stands the owner of English-style cafe Sarah and her husband Kevin, a former choir singer and now clown Tad and roofer Jim Bates and his bipolar sister Polly, which can not be left alone.

Anna Quindlen is not a debutante in the literature, and it feels. She avoids many of the mistakes made by first-time female novelists writing prose. Moreover, Quindlen even has her own style. And it already means something in a world where only three out of ten can say they have a style.

The author does not take her protagonist and her story too seriously. The novel is full of kind, gentle humor that probably even be called a rural humor. The protagonist of the novel Rebecca is very different from the average chicklit cliched heroine of the novel. She is not about forty but sixty - we can say that the stakes are higher and problems are more pressing. Despite her past (New York, moderate fame and fortune), the heroine is likable mostly because she lacks isterism. She is not angry at the whole world, she is not boiling with anger and envy. Her problem is her problem, not someone else's. In Rebecca’s life there has been a shift, she lost herself , and moving outside the city should significantly if not help her, then at least give a hint of where to go next. Personal and professional qualities are questioned. Unhappy marriage and faded fame let assume that Rebecca is doing something wrong - or even exhausted herself.

Problem world of Rebecca here has as a background a small town. Secondary characters in the novel are great fun. Everyone has their own life story, and by the end of the novel, in lives of each of them changes occur.

Life with Bread Crumbs draws closer to the big literature than to chicklit, having almost no plot, to the extent permissible in commercial literature. Quindlen knows how to tell a story. She does not need flashy, but implausible plots. If you want to talk about how a woman met the right man, there is no need to make a fuss with the aliens, fugitive Nazis or werewolves. Enough to tell how a man and a woman can sit on a tree in silence, eating sandwiches.

Quindlen leads leisurely narrative, sometimes going back to the past. It is important not to push the plot forward feverishly, but to give the characters a background. It is important not only what will happen, but with whom.

Of course, the novel’s end is soppy, but what else to expect from the book, where all essentially boils down to finding the Man? However, the happy ending does not spoil the overall picture. Everyone got what they deserved.

The novel gets to you with gentle humor and humanity. I wouldn’t call this chicklit. Good modern prose; raisins, white bread, not bread crumbs.

Friday, February 21, 2014

How A Gunman Says Goodbye

Malcolm Mackay
How A Gunman Says Goodbye

Mantle, 2013

How A Gunman Says Goodbye begins where the previous novel of the trilogy ended. Young gunman Calum MacLean heals his wounds and is not in a hurry to return to work: hitmen have sick leaves, too. But back from such leave is another hitman, working for a local crime boss Jamieson - Frank MacLeod, recovered after hip replacement. MacLeod is a veteran of killing business, who started as a freelancer and later came under Jamieson’s wing, regularly making hits for the boss. MacLeod is already in his sixties, but he has no plans to retire. He longs to work, and he gets it. Jamison should remove a small dealer, a young lad with big plans. MacLeod expects an easy job, but falls into a trap. Jamieson goes against the unwritten rules and calls Calum to help Frank. And the unwritten rule is that if a hitman makes a mistake, then organization will not help him, he is now on his own.

The first novel of the trilogy, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, was a solid story of the life of a hired killer, though somewhat predictable. This one is more interesting in terms of plot. Most often, we read about hitmen, who are healthy and working, their killings, but rarely we have a chance to see what happens when a gunman stumbles. How a gunman says goodbye - to the world. The set-up is really complex: the boss and gumnam employee are bound not only through business, but also long-term friendship.

Calum in this novel steps in the shade, while playing an important role. The young hitman has time to think, including what is it, to kill for money. Hired killers in books almost do not think about what they are, how they fit into today's society, what lies ahead of them. Most often, they don’t have time ti think, always something endanger their lives. In Mackay’s books hitmen realize their purpose, in a sense, even meditate on their profession.

Another interesting point, which can be seen in these books - Mackay almost don’t use words like hitman, gun for hire, hired killer, preferring them all gunman. This definition has seemingly neutral tone - a man with a gun, not a killer, just an armed man. Perhaps Mackay so moves away from cliches and tries to create his own mythology, one in which there are gunmen, but not hired killers.

Progress in comparison with the first book is obvious, there is reason to hope that the final novel will be even better.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fur People

Vicki Hendricks
Fur People

Self-published, 2013

Sunny Lytle returns to the small town of DeLeon Springs, Florida, where she had once grown up. Sunny is broke, but she has a whole company of furry friends, from dogs to rabbits. Renting an apartment is not an option with so many animals, so Sunny settles in a converted school bus in a secluded spot in the park. Sunny knows all the places in the area and she chooses such a place for her camp so tourists and casual locals wouldn’t disturb her. Keeping animals inside the bus is prohibited, so Sunny should also hide from animal control service.

The novel protagonist for long can not find a job, almost starving, primarily caring for her furry family, but quickly acquires acquaintances. In animal shelter Rita, a veterinarian who has lost the license, sympathizes to the girl and her pets and in the supermarket local half bum, half-loonie Buck, fearing attacks of aliens – magnetoids, seeks Sunny’s friendship. Sunny will have to fight for her furry family.

Animals in literature have always been somewhere in the margin. People have always been on the first place, and if our smaller brothers became the protagonists of books, then mostly it was children books. Recently, the new trend started when dogs and cats in the mystery fiction began to restrict eccentric detectives and tough guys, but it was strictly genre fiction, not for a general audience.

Vicki Hendricks in her new novel gives animals the right to be on par with humans. The novel is written from the point of view of many characters, among them a dog. But the characters and the author herself avoid the word "animals", preferring fur people. In her stories Hendricks previously used animals (alligators, apes), but it was just plot elements, without a specific content. In Fur People dogs, cats, rabbits and ferrets make the plot already work for them.

Fur People has already been called animal lover noir, partly it’s accurate, there is an abundance of fallen and far from perfect people. But this novel at the same time is perhaps the calmest work from Hendricks (I’m judging other novels by synopsys, being familiar only with numerous short stories). Perhaps even the most humane, and this is despite the fact that the novel is not only about humans, but also about animals. And certainly Fur People is the most nonstandard author’s book. The novel is so distinctive that simply did not find a publisher.

Touching is the best definition for this book: fur people or animals, but the humans are responsible for them.

«"It's not fair to them-that's what you're saying, like people always say. You don't understand. They're family. You don't give up family when money gets short."»

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Kevin Egan

Forge Books, 2013

At The New York County Courthouse Judge Canter dies in his chambers early in the morning on New Year's Eve. His death from natural causes would have passed as something ordinary, if not the date of of the death. Under the rules of the New York courts if the judge dies, his staff has the right keep the jobs until the end of the calendar year. Death of this judge for his secretary, Carol, and clerk Tom means that the next day they will be out of work. And finding a new job with current economy will be difficult («Hard enough as it was to stay with the court system today, it was harder to find a decent job in the private sector. And for someone who had been in the court system as long as he had been, leaving was near impossible, even in a good economy »), and both heroes also have serious financial problems. Carol alone raises her disabled son and helps her sick mother, and Tom because of gambling got into a debt, borrowed money from a loan shark and must now return part of the debt every month. Loan shark muscle regularly reminds Tom what will happen if he stops paying.

Tom comes up with the idea how to hide the death of the judge at least for a day. If it succeeds, he and Carol, which he begins to feel affection to, will keep their jobs for at least another year. Judge and the last ruling in his life, in addition to the staff, will be of interest to a trade union leader. The situation gets complicated and rapidly is out of control.

We have become so demanding to reliability of books we read that began to forget: literature is fiction, fantasy. If you remove an element of allowable from it, make it too close to ground , it will take all the pleasure ouf of literature. Constrained writer has nowhere to turn, his plots are believable, but predictable. That's what refreshing in Kevin Egan and his novel Midnight - it has space for plot maneuver. The plot can be called impossible, but it is incredible not so much, if the book is not transferred to shelf with fantasy and science fiction. Egan seems to inherit the writers of the thirties and forties, who did not hesitate to look for loopholes for catchy, even the wild plots. The author found an interesting loophole and generously took advantage of
it. Plotwise Midnight is a vigorous mixture of judicial thriller and neo-noir. Tom and Carol are typical noirish characters, cornered desperate people who think that there is no escape. Rather, there is an escape, but not one that can be called legitimate. Characters actually do not cross the law as it is. The problem is that where there are amateurs, there are professionals. And criminals professionals usually are more experienced than amateurs.

The couple of heroes first takes his fate into their own hands, but as we progress through the novel, we see how their fate falls out of their hands. Invaders become hostages, and it is impossible not to empathize with the main protagonists.

Midnight is a tense read, an excellent example of modern noir.

Gone Again

Doug Johnstone
Gone Again

Faber, 2013

Photographer of an Edinburgh newspaper Mark Douglas photographs whales on the beach in the coastal waters, when he gets a call from a teacher from his son Nathan’s school who says that Mark's wife, Lauren, hasn't turned up to collect their son. Mark takes his son home and tries ring his wife on her mobile phone. Her number is not available.

Mark has no idea where his wife could go, she had no friends, work is long over, the phone number is unavailable. Lauren also is pregnant. Mark rings to his friends, but no one has any idea where Lauren can be. Mark turns on his wife's laptop, checks her accounts in social networks, desktop - nothing.

Mark worries that Lauren may have a relapse. Six years ago, when Lauren after a difficult birth barely survived, she had disappeared for ten days. Mark was confused and did not know what to do. He was left alone to nurse the baby, wondering when his wife would return. Ten days later, she’d returned, but did not say where she was all this time, and Mark did not ask, fearing that it could adversely affect the wife.

After brilliant Smokeheads and disastrous Hit & Run we could expect anything from Doug Johnstone. Gone Again has turned out much better than Hit & Run, although not as good as Smokeheads.

Johnstone’s head is clogged with interesting ideas, but he did not always successfully implement them, not revealing his potential by 100 percent. Here, the first half of the book is brilliant. The author from the outset throws a hook, and it is impossible not to get caught at it. The book grabes you from the first pages, and gradually Johnstone begins to return to the past, giving the background on the characters, the history of the relationship between husband and wife, and that includes the secrets of the past. The book is written in the third person, and we can clearly hear Mark’s voice. He's a little short-tempered, but a caring family man, a loving husband, he seems to be a positive character, but by the middle of the novel Johnstone makes us to think otherwise. In the middle noir intonations start to sink through: there is a possibility that Mark is an unreliable narrator, and his mistakes play against him. And now Mark from the victim turns into a controversial character, even shady. Johnstone little by little raises tension.

In the second half the book loses its suspense, and the novel is slipping into a more or less linear thriller. There are coincidences like that Mark holds a gun at home (for what in Scotland you can get a real five-year prison term), and even when Lauren was depressed, he did not get rid of a gun. The transformation of Mark from a broken hearted photographer with emotional problems into an action hero, shooting with a gun at the villains and torturing people, look too unnatural. Yes, you can believe that Mark is short-tempered and sometimes loses control of himself, but I do not believe that he would use a few tricks from the arsenal of the professional thief Parker from Richard Stark’s novels. It is one thing to break a woman's nose, and another to breaking into homes, waving a gun, shooting people’s hands.

However, it's a quick read that can entertain and deliver a certain amount of pleasure. I just wish that the author worked on the characters better.

Monday, February 17, 2014

All the Beggars Riding

Lucy Caldwell
All the Beggars Riding

Faber, 2014

The novel is set in two time layers. In our days, the protagonist of the novel Lara recalls the events of her childhood in the early 1970s. Lara is now trying to write a memoir about her family while attending creative writing courses.

Lara's mother Jane died of a heart disease, and Lara feels like an orphan. To write her family story Lara felt after watching documentary about Chernobyl. In this film, the book protagonist (and narratoe) first saw the effect of a death of a loved one on his survived family members.

Lara's and her brother Alfie’ father Robert died in a helicopter crash in 1985. And it was the father's death, and not the mother’s, that quite devastated little Lara.

Lara begins her memoirs since that year, 1985, when she and her mother and brother went on holiday to Spain, where they had had to wait for their father, a military surgeon, working in Northern Ireland, where at that time the attacks occurred frequently, and therefore the best doctors were invited to work there, where it was often necessary to save the lives of the victims of explosions and injuries from firearms.

This charming story about lies and human weakness begins surprisingly too slow. The author's voice - Lara – seeks too long to right approach to tell her story, and the impatient reader can shut the book, exhausted after the first 30 pages. And he will be wrong, if he does not continue reading.

Lara, of course, is disingenuous when she says that she is not a writer, that she does not know the craft, that her story is awkwardly built and it does not explain a lot. In fact, the narrator, and thus Lucy Caldwell herself, writes professionally, showing events of the novel from different angles and from different layers of time. Lara the child could not know everything, and accordingly, in the book, some questions remain unanswered, that makes it more intriguing. Through child's eyes we see only the visible part of the family story that a child could see and understand. Questions tormenting later Lara the woman torment us too. What Robert and Jane felt, enveloped himself in a web of deception in the first part, we can only guess. The second part opens the curtain from one side. Lara the daughter constructs the story from the point of view of her mother. Lara worked out something herself, her mother told her another part before her death, but the story of Jane turned shrill and believable.

Caldwell did not lay out all the cards on the table, leaving us without a chapter from the POV of Lara's father. In the third part Lara and her brother, children of the deceased surgeon, only build their guesses about who actually their father was, what he felt. So we can either blame Robert or support him. Those chapters that are written from the present at first seem superfluous, but closer to the end we will realize their value. These chapters in detail paint how the children of a man who led a double life turned out.

All the Beggars Riding is also a story about the hard work of a writer. Story is story, it can be exciting, and it can not be, it can be for the mind, and it can be for the heart, but a story still needs to be transferred to paper. And just seeing the writing, you can appreciate the story. The narrator Lara overcame herrself to understand that the writer's voice can be found not at once, but gradually.

Caldwell writes with heart and wit, her book is an undoubted success.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Homesman

Glendon Swarthout
The Homesman

Simon & Schuster ebook, 2014

1850s, Oklahoma Territory. Away from civilization in the West of the continent settlers live in harsh conditions. They are entirely dependent on crop and weather and don’t even think about socialization. Men work in the fields, and women are seen as a pair of hands, which should serve a man, makes his life bearable, and bear children - the more, the better.

After a devastating winter four women near the town of Loup go mad. Naturally, each of them becomes a burden for men and their households. Experience of the previous year showed that these ill women are best load on wagon and escort them to a sanitarium in the East near the Missouri River, and there women will be taken care of. This scheme worked the year before and will be repeated this year, when novel events takes place.

The procedure is that husbands of crazy women draw lots and the loser becomes the carrier (homesman from the title), and the remaining husbands provide wagon, horses, mules and provisions. Then homesman for a few weeks carry the women to a sanitarium, hands patients and their documents over to a sanitarium, and then homesman can return home.

Nevertheless, the procedure is violated by one of the men, stubborn type, who just send his wife out of the house, and already has sheltered himself with another girl for a wife. He does not agree to participate in the draw. Then instead of him, a local teacher and spinster, 31-year-old Mary Bee Cuddy agrees to participate in the draw. This brave woman are very devout, rich (inherited from herfather), but lonely - a man whom she had once made a proposal, refused and went to look for his wife in the other region.

The Homesman won several awards for Best Western, but it is only nominally western. In fact it is historical fiction of high quality, with a solid amount of action. Story diversity in Westerns is very limited - if not about cowboys, then about Indians - so much depends in such cases on author’s originality. The Homesman is unforgettable because it contains few surprises, a small group of noncliched characters and entertaining beginning. Novels about the long journeys on the wild territory were plenty, but how many books have we read about the madwomen of mid-XIX century?

The first third of the book consists of intonation and training. In a few scattered scenes we meet the main characters of the novel. Briggs defends himself from small armed group of friends in a house and he shows the extraordinary courage and obstinacy. Mary Bee invites a local priest and discuss the problems of crazy women. And in an example of one of the four insane Swarthout paints a hard life of migrants. Disparate chapters later will weave in one knot, and so many different characters will turn out almost in the same cart.

On dissimilarity and incompatibility of Mary Bee and Briggs a large part of the novel is built. It is hard to find two more different people, but they need a few weeks to stay side by side with each other for a common goal. Not by words but by deeds - so both characters are revealed. Between them hardly a conversation occurs, but Briggs with each new chapter mans up, and Mary Bee on the contrary - all her masculine zeal is gradually eroding.

Dissimilarity of the two main characters also often causes laughter. For example, when Briggs gives one horse to the Indians, Mary Bee asks what the Indians will do with the horse (assuming that they will breed horses or use it at the farm), Briggs, noting excellent health and thick sides of the horse, says that the Indians simply will eat the horse.

Swarthout achieves a high degree of immersion in the world of the Wild West because of authenticity of details. From the novel you can learn dozens of curious and useful things, it is a pleasure to observe how, for example, Briggs treats mule, eliminates one of the female patients with fever or repairs wagon wheel.

Killing his protagonist in a quarter until the end Swarthout takes a risky step. All novel is written in the third person, but most of the action described from the point of view of Mary Bee, not Briggs’. The more surprising is such change of narrative perspective closer to the finale. But the world of The Homesman is that: people do not change, and Briggs has not brightened during several weeks of travel. He remains as he was.

The reader will definitely enjoy this trip on the Wild West.

The Sound of Things Falling

Juan Gabriel Vasquez
The Sound of Things Falling

Riverhead, 2013

Antonio Yammara, a law lecturer at a university in Bogota, recalls the events of the mid-1990s, when Colombia was torn by cartels, corruption, killings of innocent people. In 1996, Antonio was almost 30, he had just graduated from university and began to teach Law. He lives modestly, occasionally visiting cafes and bars, and in a billiard club he accidentally meets Ricardo Laverde. He is a shady type, with murky past, who is said that he just got out of prison after 20 years – and you don’t get 20 years for a minor offense.

Word for word, and Ricardo and Antonio become close, though Ricardo doesn’t tell much about himself. He only says that he is “a pilot of things that need piloting” and that he has a wife, Elena Fritts, an American, whom he had not seen for 20 years. He is to meet her soon, when she arrives from California.

When the next time the narrator meets Ricardo, the pilot shows Antonio a tape and tells that he needs to hear it. Antonio leads the pilot to a salon , where Ricardo listens to the tape through headphones, and then cries. Ricardo suddenly runs out of the salon, Antonio tries to catch up with him and when catching up on the corner of the house suddenly assassins on passing motorbike shoot Ricardo and Antonio. Ricardo dies, Antonio survives blaming Ricardo for the fact that he drew Antonio into something.

Antonio can only wonder why someone attacked Ricardo, a pilot, released from prison. Recovering from injuries is extremely difficult for the narrator. He damaged some nerves, he lives on pain medication, walks with a cane, he had fits of panic or fear. Antonio sleeps poorly, has nightmares, he begins to fear for his fate and the fate of his family.

South American Vasquez comes from the new generation of writers from this continent. In place of magical realism comes just realism, and a writer always tries to be social conscientious. Time of fairy tales and romance has passed, they were replaced by the cartels, murders and destruction of life.

Vasquez wrote a book about how the drug trade by ricochet kills and destroys those who has nothing to do with it. The narrator until the end of the book is almost in the dark of why pilot Ricardo was killed, only guessing that most likely Ricardo again became embroiled in a cocaine trade. Short communication with the pilot leads to devastating consequences, and nothing can be done, it's like being hit by lightning.

Protagonist of the novel recalls his childhood with a bloody background: drug wars, assassinations, corruption at the state level. That is what drew Antonio to a complete stranger Maya, both victims of a bloody past of Colombia. Two wounded souls have found each other, just for one day and night, but one pain does not help to heal another pain.

The novel is about a man and written by a man, but the fate of women can be traced in it. Almost half of the book is written in the third person from the perspective of Elena, a fragile woman, ready to do good. But the cruelty of the world does not know the good, and the story of Elena, and together with her Maya’s, is a sad story of a failed dream.

Vasquez, with his writer's position as the nation's conscience, is not a dirty realist. His prose is filled with melancholic memories (in a perfect translation), and sublime metaphors. Symbolism in the book balances the grim reality. The novel begins with the story of the escape of a large hippo from the zoo. Animal caused damage to the city and county, and it was eventually killed:

“He’d escaped two years before from Pablo Escobar’s old zoo in the Magdalena Valley, and during that time of freedom had destroyed crops, invaded drinking troughs, terrified fishermen and even attacked the breeding bulls at a cattle ranch. The marksmen who caught up with him shot him once in the head and again in the heart (with .375-calibre bullets, since hippopotamus skin is thick); they posed with the dead body, the great dark wrinkled mass, a recently fallen meteorite; and there, in front of the first cameras and onlookers, beneath a ceiba tree that protected them from the harsh sun, they explained that the weight of the animal would prevent them from transporting him whole, and immediately began carving him up.”

In this story of a hippo is recklessness and cruelty of ones and helplessness of the others.

In The Sound of Things Falling really everything falls: planes, tears, dreams and life. And nothing can be done, we can only listen.

Vasquez’s novel is a bitter thing, but also a reminder that we should keep an eye on Latin American literature, it seems to offer a lot of masterpieces.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Apartment

Greg Baxter
The Apartment

Penguin, 2012

The unnamed narrator, a 40-something years old American, comes to unnamed European city. The narrator was born and lived in a hot city in the desert and now wants to live in a cold city. All events of the book take place in a single day in December before Christmas. European city is not named and it is a combination of several European capitals. There are a zoo, street cars and buses, there is a subway and markets selling hot wine and sausages, on the streets people are playing musical instruments.

The narrator lives in a hotel, where he remains in a state of anonymity. He had already spent several weeks in the city, walking aimlessly through the streets, visiting museums and galleries, buying newspapers, which he still can not read.

The narrator is doing nothing, but he does not need to worry about money. He is a veteran of the Iraq war in Iraq and made there a fortune. He served two terms, first as a Marine on a submarine, and then he returned as a reservist and worked in intelligence. Knowing the war in all its ways, the narrator sets up a business in Iraq, providing the Iraqi police with computer networks and a tracking devices.

«I was making so much money that it didn’t matter. I worked with various private military companies, engineering firms, the Iraqi police, and the US government. I made a thousand dollars an hour for a period of about four weeks, taking vast amounts of information across multiple systems and organizing them onto a database I built for the Army. The way I estimated my fees for the Army—I worked for the Army more than anybody else—was to dream up a figure that seemed unreal and add a zero. The Army didn’t trust you if your fees weren’t preposterous. I didn’t spend anything. When I wasn’t working, I sat in my room and smoked cigarettes, and I listened to the city.»

Now he is rich and can afford anything. He buys the most expensive winter boots, which turned out to be military boots, but this is not immediately noticeable.

The narrator meets a 25 -year-old girl named Saskia at a museum. She works as an economist, loves to party and is the only friend of the narrator. Between them there is no hint of a romantic relationship. They just know each other and live the moment without planning their future life.

Together with Saskia they will go to restaurants and shops, meet Saskia’s friends and actually search for apartment.

A blurb to the story could well be condensed to that one sentence. The novel features transparency and outward simplicity of the plot, although simplicity is deceptive, as in this case. Baxter slides on the "now", allowing himself to describe the most unnecessary things and actions. The narrator can describe a long walk to the bus stop, airing rooms, brewing tea, thus we better learn the inner world of the protagonist, his unwillingness to plan his life longer than a day.

With almost emotionless voice the unnamed narrator describes what he sees, but digresses, thinking on art or history. The veteran of this novel is not a simpleton, a gruff and fighter, he does not fit into this stereotype. He's smart, sensitive, observant. He cleverly hides his invisible scars, received in Iraq. The protagonist can suddenly interrupt the narrative and recall torture and violence he’s seen in Iraq. He is kind of conscience of America, he’s in fever on his own land. In Europe, he becomes invisible, a ghost that no one knows and who does not want to know anyone. Rapprochement with people bring memories of the war.

Baxter in one flashback scene leads the narrator to the lawn of a neighbor in the United States. Neighbor is also a former military man, who made money during the war. On the advice of a neighbor, our protagonist acts. The government is ready to invest any money into the war, and the contractor can ask a big price, the bigger the better. The narrator makes the state pay him for his services the big price. In this scene, it’s clearly revealed the absurdity and the pragmatism of any military action.

Baxter’s prose obviously is not everyone. He writes paragraphs on dozens of pages, avoids dialogues, can jump from one subject to another unexpectedly. Baxter purposely avoids invented story within the novel. Search for an apartment – isn’t it an everyday story? The Apartment is essentially plotless novel, but I can not say that nothing happens.

Brilliant prose.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Pure Gold Baby

Margaret Drabble
The Pure Gold Baby

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

London, early 1960s. Young anthropologist Jess has an affair with a married professor. The affair leads to pregnancy, childbirth of a pretty girl Anna, but the birth of the child in turn leads to a parting with the professor.

Jess keeps the child, explains the situation to the parents, and they generally understand their daughter. Jess in London is surrounded by intellectuals, scholars, poets, TV presenters, young professionals like herself. In her neighborhood Jess is getting acquainted to other young mothers, they walk together with children, take them into the kindergarten. The story is narrated by one of Jess’ friends, Eleanor, a lawyer, now retired. She recalls their youth and tries himself as a writer. Eleanor lived her whole life side by side with Jess. The narrator will notice the difference between 60s and 70s and 2000s.

About The Pure Gold Baby it can be said that this book is heartfelt, but not concentrated. Lying in the heart of the novel the story of a mother and daughter is very touching and humane. Fragile Jess is hardly a strong woman. Nevertheless, she took a strong decision to take care of a sweet but mentally retarded daughter, the pure gold baby from the title. Jess brought up Anna alone without relying on help from someone. All the men in her life were just lovers, romantic interests, flashes of passion, but not the breadwinners, fathers, defenders. Jess alone guarded Anna, making the daughter entirely dependent on her. But Jess herself, unwittingly, has become dependent on her daughter. Jess almost deprived herself of a life - career and possible lasting relationship with a man - for the sake of her daughter. But we can assume that Jess was just afraid to start over, afraid to alienate Anna, let into her life more fresh air.

On the background of relations between Jess and Anna, we read about the changes in England. Real estate prises have risen, manners softened, diet and nutrition appeared. The whole structure of psychiatric institutions changed. State and private investors began to create special schools for people with developmental problems. In place of a madhouse with notoriety came a fashionable clinic, where they began to treat nervous breakdowns and drug addictions. Money of higher classes, suffering from mental health problems, flowed into the clinic.

Drabble on behalf of the narrator then makes digressions from a central plot to insert a reference on Livingstone, television, science, art and so on. These are clever arguments, although they still remain digressions – adding almost nothing to the story.

In addition to the main group of characters the narrator Eleanor focuses on the fate of Jess’ friends, especially to those with whom she was familiar from the hospital. These disgressions are overrepetitious, and none of the supporting characters are really interesting to read about him or her a dozen pages. In fact the entire second half of the novel is more about old acquaintances of Jess, than about her. Anna’s and in some respects Jess’ lives remains static, respectively Eleanor tries to fill this static with the stories. The novel loses his focus, although the end is rather good.

Drabble writes lyrical prose (but without the usually amorphousness), I wish it were more focused. If we return to the title: this is not gold, rather silver.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

My Age of Anxiety

Scott Stossel
My Age of Anxiety

William Heinemann, 2014

Scott Stossel, author of this book, since childhood suffered from anxiety disorder. He was afraid to be alone, worrying that something happens to his parents. Over the years, Stossel lived with his disorders and phobias, whose number exceeded 20. The book opens with a scene of Stossel’s wedding, when he almost loses consciousness because of anxiety attacks and with great difficulty completes the whole wedding ceremony.

The author immediately warns us that he is not a doctor, not a specialist in mental disorders, not a psychologist. This book is not a medical investigation, it is half memoir, half journalistic investigation. Stossel is a journalist and editor, who took leave during the writing of the book. And we can say that it is a miracle it was finished, so many times the author suffered from panic attacks. He was afraid to miss a deadline, afraid that because of the leave he can be fired from his job, and during the writing ofthis book his family have been through many unpleasant moments. Nevertheless, My Age of Anxiety was completed, published, and it turned out quite successful.

The book turned out brave, though Stossel does not consider himself brave. He goes through his phobias, his dependence on drugs, his family tree. Anxiety disorder and other phobias run and determined life of the author. He was forced to adapt to his anxiety, has to carry a pack of pills, and in case of some important events to pump himself with medicines, often also drinking alcohol, to somehow control his fear.

Stossel elaborates on the development of drugs against psychological disorders, their implementation, and a change in general studies of their effects. Medicine against panic and anxiety existed early in the last century, but were used for general purpose. Gradually, with the determination of specific disorders in groups, with a clear differentiation, pills become more narrow-effected. The consumer environment also changed. At the beginning of the last century antidepressants were used only by rich people, actors, workers of stressful occupations. But later the pills become more affordable, and people everywhere grow an addiction of antidepressants. One antidepressant was replaced by another, then they were many and different, depending on the disorder.

Stossel, almost all his life taking pills, writes that pills help him personally. Yes, they are addictive, most likely cause damage to the brain, to cause side effects, but they smooth panic attacks. Antidepressants do not cure the disorder, but they allow to control it.

Stossel writes accessibly about not easiest material. He supports his own experience with research, and, starting from his own experiences, finds approach to the problem as a whole. The author doesn’t overcomplicate: not goes into the dense wilderness, full of terms and statistics. We throughout the book do not forget that this is not just an attempt to make sense of fear and anxiety in our time, but also a memoir.

The theme is covered on all sides, from the terminology to treatment. Author’s origin narrows the problem mainly to the United States, but this should not prevent plunging in this interesting book, doesn’t matter where you live.