Monday, May 17, 2010

Some Book Reviews

Rabbit at Rest by John Updike - It has been several years since I read the previous entries in the Rabbit series, but Updike sketched the character of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom so vividly that I remembered him quite well and was immediately absorbed by his final adventure. What can I say about Updike's writing, particularly in the Rabbit books, that hasn't been said already? Has any other character in the history of literature been brought more fully to life? None to my recollection. This book is a masterpiece unto itself as well as the final piece of a picture that is breathtaking in scope. Readers get to know even if not particularly like Harry to a greater degree than their own children, siblings, friends and parents thanks to the unwavering hand and immaculate skill of John Updike. Rabbit at Rest is what all literary fiction aspires to be.

New World Monkeys by Nancy Mauro - This fine debut novel, told in alternating narration, is in short about a married Manhattanite couple that has reached a rocky patch, one they're unwilling or unable to communicate about other than by allowing themselves to grow apart. When Lily inherits a house in upstate New York she uses this as an excuse to move there for the summer while working on her obscure dissertation, never mind that the small town's library is insufficient for her needs. Her husband Duncan is an ad man, balancing his eat or be eaten profession with taking the trip upstate once a week to spend weekends with his wife. So they're separated, but not really; married but no longer intimate in any sense of the word; perhaps still in love with each other but neither certain how to express it. The change of scenery brings various quirky characters into their unsettled lives and immediately puts blood on their hands, that of a not so wild boar which turns out to be the town mascot. Duncan has a jeans campaign that he's in charge of as distraction from the state of his marriage, Lily has an unlikely friendship with the local Peeping Tom willing to show her the ropes as her diversion, and together the couple find a mystery to literally unearth in the form of a scattered skeleton buried in their garden. But the various odd characters and events that populate this tale mainly function as backdrop to the story of a couple trying to determine if they've reached the end of their road, or merely a slippery turning point. Mauro's command of language is strong and her skillful prose moves the reader through the pages of her book swiftly. I look forward to more from her.

Night Fall by Nelson DeMille - It's been a little while since I last read a piece of conspiracy theory driven pop fiction. I took a break after reading Dan Brown's books to focus on my first love of literary fiction, but happened upon this book when ready to take on my next book and decided to give Mr. DeMille a shot. Night Fall begins with a tragic historical event [explosion of TWA Flight 800 shortly after take-off in 1996] and ends with another one that takes place 5 years later. Do the math and I'm sure you'll figure out which one. The narrative follows detective John Corey as he follows leads in a 5-year old case in which the most crucial piece of evidence he seeks was quite possibly covered up. Will he be able to uncover it? If so, what shocking revelation will the cover up lead to? Readers get the answer to the first question but (spoiler alert) not to the second. An enjoyable light and fast paced read. I'll probably leave the world of police procedurals, FBI & CIA operatives, and international intrigue behind and return to lit fiction for my next several reads, but Night Fall was an entertaining time out with the factual components involved lending to its charm.

A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson – I can’t say that I was overwhelmed by it, but the pages of this short noir novel raced by quickly enough. Thompson's prose didn't resonate with me as powerfully as say Raymond Chandler or Walter Mosley or Chester Himes. But he did a fine job putting the reader into the confused mind of a lead character trying to figure out the constantly shifting whirlwind going on around him, and slowly revealing the young man's true character and motivations.

Blind Man with a Pistol by Chester Himes -This novel by Chester Himes is basically an example of existentialism old school Harlem style. It may not be for everybody, certainly not for readers who want a clear cut answer at the end of their whodunnits, but I'm pretty sure Kafka and Camus would have approved of Blind Man with a Pistol. Who killed the pants-less man, why did that woman kill that guy, is any one person or organization behind the marches that quickly escalate into riots and looting? Questions such as these are asked, most are not answered definitively. Why not? Because Himes isn't really interested in providing a mystery to be solved. His goal is to make the point that most violence is like a blind man with a pistol, without aim, without strategy, without a point. Tragedies happen because people keep butting into each other. It's the way of the world. I especially liked the final chapter which stands apart from the rest of the book while also representing all that came before it. Personally I would have liked a little more cohesion to the plot, at least one case solved by deductive reasoning. That's a main reason one chooses to read a detective novel after all. But Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones are no ordinary detectives, or at least their situation as representatives of the law but also outsiders to it is unique for a crime novel. One could argue that it's actually a sociological and/or philosophical book masquerading as a cops and robbers tale. Coffin and Grave Digger walk the line between white and black worlds and sometimes you may wonder where their loyalty will lie, but the matter is never truly in doubt. They are honest men whose goal is to do their job as permitted to do it, and to keep alive. Sometimes this allows them to catch some bad guys. Other times the bad guys have too much pull to be troubled much by the lowest guys in the legal totem pole. No matter. There's always another case to work on, another corpse on their beat, another reason why someone has to die, but never a particularly reasonable one. A blind man with a pistol doesn't really aim, he just points and fires and whoever gets hit goes down.

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