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.