Sunday, July 31, 2016

61 Books: #35

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–34 are below this post.

35. Henning Mankell, The Troubled Man (2012) (7/30/16)
Leave it to me to finally pick up a Kurt Wallander mystery, about which I've heard such good things, and learn that it's the last one in the series! Although in truth, I didn't really "pick it up": I inserted disks in my car CD player, and ejected them, over and over—sixteen times, I believe. It's a long book! And because I was listening to it, I didn't absorb it as well as if it had been a book I held in my hands. I am a good listener one on one with another person, but in the car with the world—and words—rushing past, I am a distracted listener at best.

I got the basic gist of this one: the disappearance of a naval commander (who happens to be Wallander's daughter's partner's father) kicks off the investigation, this shortly after the officer tells Wallander about some mysterious goings-on back in the 1980s. The commander's wife disappears—and then is found murdered, with evidence that suggests she is a Russian spy. Americans enter the picture. It's all very Cold War–like, and satisfying enough.

The other thread here is more poignant: Wallander is starting to have memory lapses, and he's generally morose about being past sixty, his life more or less over. Which, please! Sixty???? But then again, Mankell died at sixty-seven of cancer, so perhaps these musings were pretty personal.

I don't feel I can do this book justice, because listening and reading just aren't the same. I couldn't highlight! Or dog-ear! Or flag! I have no beautiful passages to share here—which is part of my MO. But . . . I did finish this book, so it counts. I just wish I had pithier comments to share.

It was a fine book. I was not convinced that I need to read any more of the series, however.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

61 Books: #34

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–33 are below this post.

34. Allen Eskens, The Life We Bury (2014) (7/26/16)
This is good genre fiction: a suspense thriller full of twists and turns, with a satisfying ending (if you don't mind things wrapped up with a bow). It's a first novel, which shows in the writing: perfectly competent, but not virtuosic, and the characters are occasionally flat and clich├ęd. They all have secrets of some sort or other— hence the title—which in turn drive the plot.

The story concerns a college student, Joe Talbert, who has been assigned to write a biography of an elderly stranger, and he figures a nursing home will be a good place to find such a person. He does: a man, Carl Iverson, convicted thirty years before of raping and killing a fourteen-year-old girl. Iverson has come to the nursing home from a life sentence in prison to die. He has only a few weeks left. He agrees to tell his story to Joe as his "dying declaration."

Joe becomes convinced that Iverson was wrongly convicted, partly because of heroic actions during the Vietnam War that belie his ability to commit the crime in question. Joe procures the case files and begins his own detective work, together with his neighbor across the hall (and love interest), Lila.

And so forth. There's plenty of action; lots of circumstantial evidence, leading to numerous detours and dead ends; various roadblocks appear; and the villain is a pretty bad dude, as it turns out.

But the guy gets his girl, he is able to overcome the adversity of an intolerable home situation with a sweet twist at the very end, and he manages to assuage some heavy guilt from his childhood —all while delivering good news to Iverson the very day before he dies.

It was a fine page turner, but now I'm ready for something a little meatier.


Friday, July 22, 2016

61 Books: #33

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–32 are below this post.

33. Fred Marcellino, I, Crocodile (1999) (7/21/16)
I am visiting my friend Trudy in hot, hot Tucson (108 degrees, yikes!), and in between brave bouts of heading out into the world—a beautiful walk in a botanical garden this morning before it got too hot, then the Center for Photographic Art and art museum on the University of Arizona campus—we have been retiring indoors and . . . reading. I mentioned my 61 books project to Trudy, including not being shy about making many of them picture books, if necessary, and she pulled out a few of her favorites from when her daughter (soon to be a sophomore at the U of A) was young.

One of them was I, Crocodile, which is narrated by a, yes, crocodile who used to happily "wallow around in slimy green water, snooze on mudbanks in the hot sun, and scare the life of anything that wandered by"—until Napoleon ("you know, that French guy who thought he owned the world") invades Egypt. In addition to the mummies, sphinx, obelisk, temple, and even palm trees that Napoleon orders be packed up and brought back to France, he decides that he must have a crocodile.

And so our hero's fortunes change. For good—or rather, for worse, i.e., for ever. Back in France, he is at first "an overnight sensation!," "the Toast of the Tuileries!" But then Napoleon loses interest in him ("fashions change quickly in Paris. In no time at all, Le Fantastique Crocodile Egyptien was old news"). Just as it appears he is about to be eaten for dinner, he is able to make his escape, into the sewers of Paris. Where he takes to dining on chic Frenchmen. The last we see of him, he's lounging in his sewer, wondering what's for dessert.

It's an odd little book for the 4-to-8-year-old set, especially considering this crocodile does a lot of killing—including a lady dressed daintily in pink—and eats his prey with relish, not to mention its basis in European history.
The dust jacket happened to mention that it was based on a nineteenth-century anonymous French satire. So I did a little poking around, and found a link through Brown University Library to Napoleonic Satires. It seems this was a lively genre back then—especially satires of Napoleon's Egyptian campaign (aha) and the Russian front. One of his orders was to "tame the 'crocodiles' "—thereby showing his might (and did the term here mean only the fierce reptiles, or did it refer also to the local inhabitants of the regions he swept through?)—but he also was quick to murder and abandon his own troops, and so he himself was also caricatured as a "crocodile."

Both the text and the illustrations in this book are by Marcellino, who began his career as a book-cover illustrator —The Handmaid's Tale, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Accidental Tourist are a few of the covers I know. He then ventured into picture-book illustration with a well-known version of Puss in Boots, and followed that up with many other children's books. The illustrations for I, Crocodile are beautiful, funny, very smart, and full of joie de vivre (ironically, because he was at the time undergoing chemotherapy treatments for colon cancer, of which he soon died).

I'm glad I got a new glimpse into the Napoleonic period through the eyes of this delightfully full-of-himself (and thankfully resourceful) crocodile, and the man who brought him to life. I wonder how many kids who got their first introduction to Napoleon through this book will now go on to become history scholars as a result.

P.S. I do not have enough energy for more book reports this evening, but I also today read Strega Nona: Her Story, as told to (and illustrated by) Tomie dePaola, and The Paper Bag Princess, story by Robert Munsch, art by Michael Marthenko. So if push comes to shove with this project, I may just have to use them on down the line as book #s 34 and 35, retroactively. But I'm optimistic, now that I'm (somewhat) back on track.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

61 Books: #32

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–31 are below this post.

32. Maira Kalman, What Pete Ate from A–Z, where we explore the English Alphabet (in its entirety) in which a certain DOG DEVOURS a MYRIAD of ITEMS which he should NOT (2001) (7/17/16)
If I'm going to meet my goal of 61 books by next December, I'm going to have to pick up the pace. Fortunately, picture books are quick and fun, and I've got a few tucked away for emergencies. I picked this one up a few years ago at an exhibit of Maira Kalman's work in San Francisco (but had shelved it unread). What a treat that show was! And what a treat this book is, too, I am happy to finally report.

The "certain DOG" is "the eternally peckish Pete" ("this is not a work of fiction," Kalman notes), and he doesn't devour your usual alphabetic items. For example, he ate cousin Rocky's accordion—all of it!. And a fez. And 25 jelly beans, which caused him to jump for joy.

But Maira Kalman is an artist, and the gouache illustrations are wonderful too. Here, for example, is the letter T (the only letter that doesn't involve Pete eating anything) ➺:

My favorite letter is Q: "Quick Question. Would you love a dog who ate your lucky quarter, the Q from your alphabet collection, your porcupine quill? Even if for the quadrillionth time you said, "Quit it. Don't EAT that," and he did, would you still love that dog? Quite a lot."

In the hands of Maira Kalman, whimsical alliteration is win-win-win.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

61 Books: #31

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–30 are below this post.

31. Rachel Cusk, Outline (2014) (7/12/16)
This book of ten chapters takes place over the course of a few days in Athens and consists largely of conversations, as reported by the narrator—whose name we learn only very late in the book: Faye. 

Faye, who lives in London, is in Athens to teach a writing workshop. Two chapters are devoted to her class. In the first, we meet the ten students, who—prompted by Faye—describe something they noticed on their way to class. The last student to speak considers this a ridiculous exercise, saying "she had obviously been mistaken: she had been told this was a class about learning to write, something that as far as she was aware involved using your imagination. She didn't know what I thought had been achieved here, and she wasn't all that interested in finding out." She declares Faye a "lousy teacher" and does not show up for the second class. That class presents students' stories that, variously, involve animals.

It doesn't sound like much, but Cusk is strangely able to find perfect details that accentuate the universal. The stories she reports in these two chapters are rich with imagination and humanity.

In two other chapters, Faye goes out on a sailboat with a man—identified only as "my neighbour"—whom she met on the flight to Athens. Over the course of their three meetings, she learns about this man's life, reinvented or reformulated in its details each time.

She has drinks or a light meal in turn with several acquaintances, again conversing, again learning deeply intimate hopes or fears or joys or—this perhaps mostly—rationalizations about the disappointments of life.

One chapter is given over to a description of the apartment she is staying in for the weekend, the apartment of a stranger—and yet by the end of the description, you feel you know both the stranger and Faye better. The apartment as character; Faye as interpreter.

It's a curiously compelling book, considering how little activity there is. But there is lots of psychology, and much consideration of themes we all grapple with: friendship, marriage, children, expectations, desires.

Here is but one example of the sort of thoughtfulness Cusk imparts to her characters, this in the words of Faye herself: "I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible. One could make almost anything happen, if one tried hard enough, but the trying—it seemed to me—was almost always a sign that one was crossing the currents, was forcing events in a direction they did not naturally want to go, and though you might argue that nothing could ever be accomplished without going against nature to some extent, the artificiality of that vision and its consequences had become—to put it bluntly—anathema to me. There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all."

I found myself rarely fully agreeing with the characters' thoughts and opinions, but always listening carefully, generally in great sympathy, and respecting those thoughts, trying to weigh them against my own truths. This book is very much about listening.