Between the1150's and the 1350's Aquitaine was an English territory. And it’s probably no coincidence then that Wallis, an English author, chose this...moreBetween the1150's and the 1350's Aquitaine was an English territory. And it’s probably no coincidence then that Wallis, an English author, chose this region as a background for his novel. A native of Bayonne, a Basque city located at the foot of the Pyrenees and next door to Biarritz—a town once mentioned in this work—I am well aware of this British historical presence.
Now, Basil Ackroyd is set in the twentieth century, in a small town in the vicinity of Toulouse that Wallis chooses to call Durac. The problem with that town? Well, it’s British invasion all over again, and even classes in the local school are taught in English. One day the gendarmerie burns down to ashes. French terrorists who want to reclaim their territory are the main suspects.
Basil Ackroyd, Durac’s British and pompous maire, is totally destabilized by this event, as everything in his life starts breaking loose. The population he thought he had under control mocks him. The trophy wife without a driver’s license ends up driving and, in this emancipation process, cheating her cheating husband as well. A loose canon, his sister’s boyfriend, when not busy with drugs, has fun using his firearms on human targets. The press, either eager to find out the truth about the gendarmerie immolation or to dig out even juicier scandals, never stops harassing the maire. In other words, the British invader is being invaded by what may be a more mucilaginous species—paparazzi. Monks and priests are trying to take advantage of real estate opportunities, and not necessarily to give the proceeds to charitable deeds. Ackroyd himself, with his shady insurance and real estate dealings, is a corrupt, manipulative man whose ridiculous mustache reminds one of a famously abominable dictator.
In this relentlessly rapid narrative, there is spoof and satire, but neither spoof nor satire knows where it really wants to go. Is the author mocking British colonialism or is he mocking the pride of the French when it comes to their culture? When it is revealed that Lecomte, Ackroyd’s enemy, is actually Irish, is he making fun of patriotism? How about Ackroyd who, albeit claiming high and loud his English identity, is actually the son of a French woman? And the Italian restaurant in the central plaza called “Stavros,” a Greek name?
There might be a lesson in all this: all nations have been invaded through history; there is no such a thing as a pure race; every culture, with its diverse influences, is a combo of multiple cultures. In other words, history has shown that, no matter where we live, we are all citizens of the world. Greed and corruption, not to mention stupidity, often depicted here, are part of this universal context, and we better laugh about all this.
But if it is indeed the lesson, it is hard to extract among this series of scattered episodes that want to be farcical and that sometimes hit, and often miss. Why? The comedy here hits several targets at once and thus lacks focus. Then there is the whipping pace of the novel. It’s more subway at rush hour that life in a French provincial town. The contrast between the pace of the narration and the pace of the action does not help, either. While there is trepidation in the telling, the action moves forward very slowly. My guess is that the author tries too hard to be witty or funny and gets lost in a goofy or satiric situation. There is an abundance of descriptive details—and of characters that seem to pop out of nowhere. It gives the impression that the author is improvising, adding text to the novel without really pushing the drama forward. This only barricades wit, movement, and interest in any of the characters, which come out underdeveloped. The less-is-more rule should be part of the novelist’s bible. As well as revise, revise. And then, revise. Which, obviously, Wallis has not done often enough. His Capitaine Bauclaire is sometimes called Baudelaire. I would have hoped for a little more of Baudelaire’s “ordre et beauté.” Ordre alone would have been nice.
As someone who enjoys reading as well as using humor in her own writing, I really wanted to have a good time with Basil Ackroyd. To my chagrin, I only liked small portions of it, the ones that involved quick dialogues and made me think that Wallis would be far better suited for short pieces, such as vignettes or short shorts. Unless he decides to take a deep yoga breath and alternate fast and slower paces, as well as do some serious trimming in his phrasing (and fix some punctuation). After all, there is no one better than the Brits when it comes to combine farce and satire, and they do shine when they laugh at the French. This owner of Blake Edwards The Pink Panther series knows it. (less)
I am not a historian but I did study the two great wars of the twentieth century —huge massacres in their own right. And there have been zillions of b...moreI am not a historian but I did study the two great wars of the twentieth century —huge massacres in their own right. And there have been zillions of books and documentaries about these topics. Do we really need another one? Probably not. Except perhaps for journals, like the one that is nested within this book. The war journal of soldier Fred Coxen, the author’s British grandfather who would eventually move up to captaincy.
I said, a journal nested amidst paragraphs of cold history, but nest is not the right word here. More often than not, it gets stifled amidst pages that can only appeal to military historians and strategists. Had the author chosen that route, this would be fine, but a good deal of his book takes an entirely different tone. There is a prologue, plus a preface, plus an introduction. A bit messy and scattered, I’d say. In the last third of the book, Coxen describes his endless search for the family of Fred’s battle friends. Although I admire his inquiring patience, he should know that the reader would have admired him just as much had he described his inquiry a little more concisely. When he narrates his trip to London, where he goes to donate his grandfather’s journal to the Imperial War Museum (certainly a beautiful gesture), I would have loved for him to dwell on his emotions about setting foot on the “motherland,” the country where Fred Coxen was once a naive youth before he met war horrors in France and probably lost most of his illusions about mankind. But I got very little of that. Instead, I got a superficial and detailed account of Coxen’s misadventures in the British capital, his meetings with new friends—and a little bit of self-indulgence about the writing of this very book.
And that’s too bad. For Coxen could have done so much better with the material he had in his hands. You get caught in Soldier Coxen’s narrative, not in spite but because of its ordinary awkwardness, of the reserve he uses to narrate these atrocious happenings. Brains popping out of heads during attacks, bodies sliced in two, grounds carpeted by cadavers of men and horses, or young girls raped and murdered, are defined as “unpleasant.” The same euphemistic (and so British) modifier is used when he evokes his sleeping while standing up or under wet blankets and in wet clothing, or in the mud. It’s only when the Germans start using asphyxiating gases that he speaks of a “mass of wreckage.” Most poignant of all is when he gets bored after resting a few days on a farm and wants to get back into action. Blood, battle and danger become the soldier’s raison de vivre. Death —irony of ironies— is his raison de vivre.
Despite the fact that the gathering of his grandfather’s war journal entries is in itself admirable as well as an act of love, this text wants more. Or less. It either wants to be published as is, or it wants to be encircled by something that will make it shine. And being surrounded by military history on the North and a history of the writing of the book on the South ain’t it, sorry. A description of life in England before 1914, which would have served as a biographical background for the life of Fred Coxen before he became a soldier, would have been lovely. Describing peace against war, adding emotions to analysis; in other words, establishing a contrast, always makes for a better picture. For that’s what a good writer does, paint with words.
Two girls disappear in 1975 and, as expected, their parents never recover from the atrocious experience. One survives, however. Doesn’t live, but sur...more Two girls disappear in 1975 and, as expected, their parents never recover from the atrocious experience. One survives, however. Doesn’t live, but survives and does it rather well. Now, Laura Lippman builds a puzzle around events, time, and psychology. It is an ambitious project, often successful, frequently hanging on to dear life. Going back and forth between mom and dad, daughters Sunny and Heather, the cops, the investigation, the suspicions, the love affair that happened, the love affair that could have happened; doing all that is quite a juggling act.
A juggling act filled with interruptions. And these interruptions kill pace and tension more often than not. I am tempted to give up on this novel. As soon as I am engaged in one aspect of the plot Lippman decides to take me elsewhere. Once, okay. Twice, mm. Beyond twice and thrice, grrr! There is no time to like or dislike the characters, or get properly involved in the investigation. What could be a fabulously interesting view becomes a broken window. Shattered glass glued together instead of stained glass re-creating a full picture.
But I hang on. The reason: Lippman is definitely a writer. Her prose can be impeccably appropriate. And when pace finally picks up, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle finally click. But that begins to happen in the second half of the novel, when What the Dead Know finally becomes a suspense novel.
And that’s why I can only give three stars to this piece of fiction, because only half of it really works. And it doesn’t even work up to the end. There are two or three strong moments when Lippman could have concluded her novel. Instead, she lingers and dilutes her sauce, and does it in Mexico—which is not supposed to be a flavorless background. Double-injury here. Did her publisher or agent ask her to produce a certain number of pages? I have read so many genre novels with insipid conclusions that I believe it is a possibility. If this is the case, this demand is not only childish and absurd, it is criminal in the literary sense. It could easily kill a masterpiece. And some still wonder why some decide to become Indie authors. (less)
It took me forever to finish this mystery that seemed to have promises, at least at the beginning. Was I seduced by the Paris evocations that seemed...more It took me forever to finish this mystery that seemed to have promises, at least at the beginning. Was I seduced by the Paris evocations that seemed to avoid cliches and went instead to narrower and darker streets? There might be that. There are also the French words and expressions, fairly current, which pop out here like mushrooms. French expressions in American novels are not always used wisely, or when they are, there is always that annoying spelling or grammar mistake. Cara Black appears more careful, at least in the first half of the novel. And the errors that come out later are minor. But that is all for the seduction part. The plot itself goes all over the place while the pace drags. Detective Aimée Leduc loses her sight, but my own sense of empathy gets paralyzed. I really don’t give a damn. And this, despite the fact that one very influential person in my life was a blind uncle with whom I used to take long walks when I was a child. As for the terrifying Beast of the Bastille, he seems plastered on the decor like some horror movie poster from the 1940's. The investigation is handled by a bunch of scattered investigators, either private detectives or cops (“les flics”), mostly ineffective. Too many flics spoil the soup. Finally, all these narrow passages and streets that had their charm in the beginning start to resemble each other in the end. I no longer recognize Paris. Where on earth is the City of Light? No abundance of gallic expressions, no simple enumeration of street names will recreate a Parisian atmosphere. There is a special rhythm in Paris, or a variety of rhythms, a mix of sass and poetry. After a high traffic boulevard your steps may land on some pocket of quiet. A little further, you may struggle in a walking crowd until the city airs itself again. The Seine, Paris’ main artery, is the city’s magic mirror. I get little of that here. I get names, listings. Even characters feel like listings. And the few who are fleshed out appear boneless. As for the ones with a skeleton in their closet, they are simply soporific. This is my first experience with a Cara Black novel, and probably my last. I don’t find her characters appealing, with the exception of little person René, a computer genius who is also Aimée’s colleague and best friend. Besides the few elements mentioned at the beginning of this review, he is about the only redeeming factor in this novel. (less)
Frankly, I don't know how to describe my feelings about this book. I knew how I felt at the beginning. I fell in love with the poetic and philosophica...moreFrankly, I don't know how to describe my feelings about this book. I knew how I felt at the beginning. I fell in love with the poetic and philosophical first steps, the empty pages reflecting the silence of the journals of the author's mother. How daring, how true, I thought. How whimsical. What an adventure this is going to be. And in a way, Williams does take me into some epopee. From one chapter to the next, I don't know where I am going to go or where I am going to land. While the language is always clean and simple--and when at its best, pure-- the author's mind travels from the abstract and complex to the tactile and familiar, and back. There are descriptions of nature, of difficult and/or colorful personalities as well as references to thinkers like Barthes and Cixous. It is a bit like a buffet of tastes and ideas. It reminds me somewhat of Rousseau and his mind wanderings, for When Women Were Birds is also impregnated with ecology. Unlike Rousseau, however, Williams puts her money where her mouth is.
Although it is presented with numbered chapters, its eclectic content reads like a journal. And I wish it had been called so. When Women Were Birds, A Journal by Terry Tempest Williams. Or: When Women Were Birds, A Mind Voyage by Terry Tempest Williams. When Women Were Birds, Fifty-Four Variations on Voice leads to confusion. I'll tell you why in a moment.
Here and there, Williams attempts to unify the book with two basic themes: giving women a voice; extracting the meaning of her mother's empty journals. In her attempts to give women a voice, she fails because that's not what the book is about. Furthermore, these returns, as in the recapitulations from the movements of a sonata (and she refers to music as well), are occasionally discordant. Her variations are not so much variations as they are separations.
This is a book not so much about giving a voice to others as it is about re-defining one's own. Her own. In her attempt to fill out her mother's blank pages, to give these pages a reason to be, she has spent time in the desert, somewhat lost. This is a book about seeking, not finding. We all face empty pages, existential pain. And Birds is ultimately a treaty about existential pain--albeit accompanied with a very real, brain related angst, as the author explains. Even the title reflects a wound, a damaged --or broken?--wing.
Although the prose is in itself highly pleasurable as well as profound for the most part, I wouldn't recommend this to the confused person trying to find her way and her voice, for this might confuse her further. Like the bird who skips here and there, flies from one tree to the next, sings now and stays quiet a minute later, the writing is graceful, beautiful scattering. But it is still scattering. (less)
I could have titled this collection “Dislocations.” Of course, an outer borough is a dislocation of sorts, a moving off center. And that’s what Spina...moreI could have titled this collection “Dislocations.” Of course, an outer borough is a dislocation of sorts, a moving off center. And that’s what Spina does, he dislocates and dismembers with elegant phrasing that blends sorrow with a slight dose of cruelty. It’s subtle, a small pine needle in your back, but you feel it. Think: cubism, the way an object is fragmented and then reinvented into a new structure that either resembles somewhat its original shape, or is so dismantled that the tableau becomes an abstract —no longer the object, but its essence. And then, no longer the essence, but the beginning of a disappearance. A disbelief. Spina is the poet of disbelief. Like the cubist who takes ordinary objects and breaks them, he takes ordinary situations, cuts them into pieces, and collages them with other ordinary situations. The result is kaleidoscopic. You don’t know what you are looking at anymore. Still, you go back, because it is not as unstructured as it looks, and the great unifier is language. Through inventive metaphors and comparisons, he softens the angles but sustains the despair. Like here, in “About Your Mother”: “...today’s blood / washed yesterday’s away, like petals / falling from flowers...” You find conflict in this poetry: existence and its counterpart, absence. You find the poet no longer waiting for Godot. And then, somewhere, as an antithesis to that subtle dose of cruelty mentioned earlier, you find light, here and there, the shadow of a hope. Not looking for Godot. But looking for someone looking for Godot. With the temptation, of course, to cut that looker apart and create a new dislocation, a new cubist tableau. Although there is a circular motion in this poetry, something beyond the Picasso or Gertrude Stein gesture. There is something like Sonia Delaunay’s orphism. A swirl. A tourbillon, when time and space simultaneously defy each other and unite. I must say that as an eclectic reader I felt elevated by this collection. As a crime fiction reader, I felt intrigued. I wanted to solve the mystery of Spina’s cryptic and playful phrasing. Both sides of the brain were engaged. In the end, my intellect and my intuition led me to the same conclusion: I had read something of beauty and brilliance. (less)
Much e-ink has been splashed over this novel, particularly its ending. So I won’t go into specifics. Although I will get to my view of the closure in...moreMuch e-ink has been splashed over this novel, particularly its ending. So I won’t go into specifics. Although I will get to my view of the closure in a moment. It is obvious that Flynn is a skillful, talented author. At some point, I even thought: borderline genius. She seemed to confirm what I predicted and shared with some friends some time ago, that if these were not literary ages, if literature was defunct, it would end up being reborn into genre fiction. And for a while, that’s exactly what happens in Gone Girl. Flynn takes this psychological thriller to an all new level; she elevates it. Realizing this, the reading experience becomes exhilarating. Flynn blends strength and subtlety, introduces analysis to this page turner. She takes the reader to the travel of the mind. Inviting us into the narcissism, the anger, the insecurities of characters is what this author does to perfection; it is a mirror—our painful mirror—after all. Intrinsic to this drama is the issue of identity. Who defines someone? Is the evildoer fundamentally a victim? Can one recover one’s own nature? Does pure, true identity really exist? Those are philosophical questions that this book incites to pose. Those are questions that could have transcended this genre novel into literature. Coulda. Shoulda. Didn’t in the end. Precisely because of the end. If I were to compare it to a structure, I would choose a spiraling staircase. It lands here; no, it lands there; wait, there are more twists and turns. In itself, it looks sophisticated. But compared to the rest of the novel, the structure is not as solid. The descent also corresponds to the abandonment of literature. While I enjoy being taken to a creative voyage, I don’t like being played. It is a dirty game that few authors use on their readers. In fact, this is a feeling I have never experienced with a book until I read the end of Gone Girl. From Jane Austen to Zola to Toni Morrison many authors have depicted cynicism and evil, never disrespecting their reader or literature. Unfortunately, by abandoning her elan as well as intellectual honesty, I feel that Flynn has done both. For such a talent, what a pity! (less)
How about Anais Nin? Or Colette? Or if you're really into s&m, why not try the master himself? I am talking about the Marquis de Sade himself, of...moreHow about Anais Nin? Or Colette? Or if you're really into s&m, why not try the master himself? I am talking about the Marquis de Sade himself, of course. But sex lit can be much better than this. Don't tell me you're reading this for the love story. Literature is full of wonderful, magical, love stories where authors actually make love to the words as well. Aaaahhhh, I am getting orgasmic thinking of it.
Even Madonna's "Hanky Panky" is better written. And it's got music. And a hell of a rhythm as well.(less)
Mysteries no longer seem mysterious. At least the ones that have fallen into my hands in the past few years.
What the hell do you mean? will be the r...moreMysteries no longer seem mysterious. At least the ones that have fallen into my hands in the past few years.
What the hell do you mean? will be the retort of the critical friend. A non-mysterious mystery? And then, a glance will follow with this implication, criticism now tinted with concern: Marie-Jo must have hit her head on a real hard surface. Main be it’s time for brain surgery.
Before I am being taken to the hospital, however, let me explain. I believe that what has been placed on the forefront this past decade or so is the technical novel. This type of crime fiction centered on police procedure, forensics, etc., chooses action over introspection. The prose is precise; the pace, never slow but always controlled. What’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing, except that, devoid of explorative psychology, these books are basically interchangeable. And, honestly, a bit cold. Brr...
For, more often than not, they also dismiss flesh and bones. Well, duh. The critical friend is back, I see. Isn’t that what a murderer does? Eliminate life — flesh and bones? Murderers are allowed, I want to say. I don’t know if authors should be given that permission. If an author is too vague about her characters’ physiognomies, she is also a murderer in some way: she kills an essential part of creativity —its backbone, in my opinion. For this descriptive part alone can take fiction to greater intricacies than the just mentioned cold, technical novel. Ah, yes, but we do live in a cold, technical society, and this affects writing. But writing can affect societies as well. Bring back the flesh, bring back the bones, bring back the colors. Think of the famous Hercules Poirot’s mustache, which underlines his vanity, and an arrogance that Agatha Christie ridicules, despite the fact that he is one of most brilliant fictional detectives of all times. Remember also Poirot’s oh-so-gentle voice, which makes him sneaky and just a bit snaky. Dangerous to his prey which, we are happy to know, will be a killer.
That’s where Elizabeth George, who writes in the tradition of the grande dame of crime, comes in. In A Great Deliverance, the character makes the mystery. Psychology, as much as the murder investigation itself, constructs the plot. Which basically goes like this: A man is beheaded with an axe, and his daughter admits to the crime. She is then placed into a psychiatric hospital where she refuses to say another word. The investigators have to rely on the testimonies of character witnesses who seem to contradict each other.
I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the crime is secondary to the plot. Not quite. But around its fragile center other mysteries unravel. More tranquil mysteries. Just as —or more— fascinating. That’s what a good mystery author does: make her mystery more mysterious until that final, emotional explosion. In the not-so-quiet British village where the murder occurred, there are bastioned doors that finally come unlocked: unrequited loves, sex addictions, unsustainable cruelties, unforgivable cowardice.
As if this complex plot were not enough to captivate the reader, George adds yet other layers with the detectives, torn with individual, as well as social issues. The angry female detective comes from the people; her male superior is mild-mannered and aristocratic. If they clash at the beginning, they end up finding some truce, in part because they are inhabited by personal demons that know no class difference. Suffering is the great equalizer.
A Great Deliverance is not the latest sensation. In fact, it was first published in 1988. But I think I am about to become an Elizabeth George addict. Because of flesh and bones. Color. All that. In a world that is cold, that all too often discourages passion, this narrative warmth is, well, refreshing. (less)
I am no fan of violence —no gratuitous violence that is; and this is an R-rated novel with nearly unbearable scenes. But there is nothing gratuitous a...moreI am no fan of violence —no gratuitous violence that is; and this is an R-rated novel with nearly unbearable scenes. But there is nothing gratuitous about it. Gage knows how far he can go and where to stop. That’s the mark of an author who knows his craft; how to make it a tool as efficient as possible to send a message without being didactic. Here, the blades are sharpened to the max. We are in Brazil, but certainly not at the Carnaval do Rio, for levity has no place here. In this thriller with many victims no one is really innocent; in some locales, innocence can be a dangerous luxury. Who killed a bishop and left a whole trail of bodies only contours the plot. The core lies in the social injustice of a system that tortures and, while doing so, is absurdly applying self-torture as well —that can only lead to the victim’s revolt whose response will emulate its torturer’s.
The Brazilian landowners who kill for more land while depriving the landless of their due are reminiscent of feudalism, as well as of the omnipotence of an overfed capitalism that exploits the workers and sends them home with hardly enough income to live with dignity. Countries like the US have smoothed out the system and basically legalized theft. Powers that be will deny this. But when a majority of workers produce the greatest amount of work and few at the top collect most of the benefits of that work, what do you call it?
The decor that Gage chooses to depict is in appearance cruder, rougher; yet based on similar principles. The wealthy buy the complicity of the police (this could never happen here; of course not) who are as greedy and power hungry as their payers. The massacres, body cutting and rapes authored by aforementioned police are not only unendurable because of the cruelty involved, but because the reader senses that such cruelty does not only occur four thousand miles away. Injustice, no matter how it manifests itself, is always a form of cruelty. Leaving the poor in a state where we know there will find no way out, what do we call that? ( In a crushing scene Gage depicts that poverty, where a room contains a bed for a whole family, a black and white TV, and little less. And outside the rickety door, a fifty-fifty live or die possibility, with gangs at every corner.)
It’s just in-your-face with Gage’s depiction of Brazilian landless workers who fight the owners of huge fazendas. The reader will side with the rebels, not necessarily with their ruthlessness, even if she sees some justification there. The whole panorama —or lack thereof— is an open wound. The victims lay deep within it; and the powerful think they can play with it. But all are blinded by blood, including Father Angelo (note his name here), one of Gage’s tragic figures and in my view his most successful character.
As effective as this novel is —sustained here by Gage’s incredibly strong prose— the novel could have benefited from one or two more developed characters. I must admit that in the huge tableau the author proposes this might have been a nearly impossible task. If the symmetry of the chapters contributes to the solidity of the plot, it occasionally slows it to the point of near immobility. Had Gage decided to let some chapters run in a more natural way, less evenly, with less control on his part, the problems mentioned above might have been resolved. Still, this is one important book, and Gage is an author who cannot be ignored. (less)
It has been a long, long time since I got into my hand fiction addressing social issues. Here, we have a mystery set among a world few authors today a...moreIt has been a long, long time since I got into my hand fiction addressing social issues. Here, we have a mystery set among a world few authors today attempt to describe: the world of the homeless. I said, a mystery. But the genre is more of an excuse for the literary exploration of a milieu, in my view, than a real mystery. And because of that, for daring and for talking about the forgotten, I am giving five stars to this book.
Mind you, I didn't know what I was getting into at first. I was not sure if I wanted to go on, but I did. Imagine Venice Beach, a place high in social contrasts. There you meet among the wealthiest and the poorest of the land living side by side. You find the palaces; you find the misery. And very little in between. (That's what struck me when I went in this and other L.A. areas years ago. That, and the fact that the presence of so many homeless people on beaches seemed to bother no one.) In these times of harsh economy and weakening middle-class, such decor makes for a metaphor in more ways than one.
Obviously, Coyote doesn't give a damn about the rich. All his heroes --well, his antiheroes-- wear dirty clothes and go to the bathroom al fresco. They collect their food from the garbage of the privileged, and remain consistently drunk in order to forget that there is no roof over their head, and that their mattress is made of cardboard. They may lack hygiene, but the really disgusting story is about the rich accumulating the superfluous as our antiheroes are in need of the essentials.
Murphy, The Long Drunk main character, has an old dog with cancer who needs an operation. The problem: The surgery costs fifteen thousand dollars. When he learns that the L.A. police, whose clues have grown cold on a murder, is offering a financial reward to anyone who may know the author of the crime, Murphy decides to play detective in order to save his four-legged best friend.
Things, as you can imagine, do not run smoothly, particularly when the help Murphy solicits comes mostly from companions who have not met a sober day for quite some time. There is something of the picaresque in what is at times a tragicomic adventure. And there is something of Zola, too, in the Naturalist (here simultaneously merciless and loving) way Coyote depicts the world of the homeless. Finally, there is something of Beckett in the theme of our tramp Murphy who, as he hopes to save his dear dog, is in his own way waiting for Godot. Up to the novel's poetic, absurdist ending with one lost man and the sea.
There is a bite, strong language, satire about art snobbery (and a delicious little moment when that snobbery is thrown into the ocean) in The Long Drunk. Something that makes it not just a book, not just fiction, not just words locked into a genre, but writing, writing that dares to go beyond. And in my view, writing that dares to go beyond is literature. (less)
Deepak Chopra is an endocrinologist who starts doubting the supremacy of the western approach to medicine. That doesn’t mean he denies his training a...more Deepak Chopra is an endocrinologist who starts doubting the supremacy of the western approach to medicine. That doesn’t mean he denies his training altogether. But he cannot forget his Indian roots, either. In fact, when he finds out that mind and body are able to cure a person if they work together, or kill her if they work against each other, he returns to the traditional Indian medical approach that they call Ayurveda.
Ayurveda means “the knowledge for long life” in Sanskrit. Because it combines science and philosophy / spirituality, the approach is holistic. Chopra insists that the universe is not a force that surrounds us. Not only is there a whole universe within our cellular body, but we are part of the universe, we are the universe. By accepting this fusion —more, embracing it— chances are we will be able to face disease, fight it, and eventually destroy it. Such is the premise of Quantum Healing.
What fascinates me first as I read the pages of this book is the man of science patiently explaining the intricacies of our physical entrails, so to speak, and telling his readers how intelligent the body is. How when, say, the common cold starts doing its nasty little act, a whole cellular system gets into action, with millions and millions of microscopic little workers transmitting messages to each other, and doing everything in their power to kill the invader. In other words, Chopra states that our organism contains everything that it needs to heal itself.
Then why do we die of cancer? Of AIDS? Of a heart attack? Why do we need medicine?
Perhaps because we are disconnected. Perhaps because western medicine with all its specialization has become disconnected from itself. Chopra has shown us that the body doesn’t understand that language, since cells all over the place never cease to communicate with each other. When a specialist treats a problem, she will look only at a specific area. A satirist could write a piece about a patient sending his eye to the eye doctor through the mail and asking for its return when it’s cured. It sounds absurd, but it’s basically what specialized medicine does these days. Fragmentation. Looking at details without looking at the whole picture. That’s part of the problem. The other part is also about division. We have been taught in western civilization to separate the body from the mind. And yet, last time I checked, I saw my head well attached to the rest of me. There is a reason for this. The mind and the body must listen to each other. We have heard cases of cancer patients who cured themselves with laughter. Scientists have talked about it. Casey, the greatest medium of all times, has talked about it. See? Science and spirit agree here.
Chopra gives examples of some of his own patients who were able to improve their health, or even return to a complete healthy state simply because they had decided they would get better. They changed their mood, their attitude. Pessimism, of course, had no part in this. (Optimism is a healer. Pessimism can be a killer.) Their mind had created antibodies, energized the system so it could fight better.
While deeply spiritual, Chopra doesn’t give up on western medicine, as mentioned earlier. There, too, is his sense of fusion. Denying the extraordinary discoveries of western science would be foolish. But just as foolish is the rejection of ancient practices such as ayurveda, acupuncture, yoga, meditation. East and west must get together here. In some cases, they have, but this fusion needs to be more systematic. Because out of fusion will come balance. And if there is balance, then the door can be locked on disease.
As far as the literary qualities of the book are concerned, I would say it is about eighty percent successful. Sometimes Chopra himself is the victim of that lack of fusion and balance and gets into a vagary of philosophy and spirituality. But the fog goes away as soon as he lets the man of science and the man of spirit within him join forces. And for that alone, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the topic of healing without reservation.(less)
I confess: I am a Grisham addict. And when I grabbed The Confession, there were withdrawal symptoms that I had to satisfy.
But am I ready I for more...more I confess: I am a Grisham addict. And when I grabbed The Confession, there were withdrawal symptoms that I had to satisfy.
But am I ready I for more when all is consumed? Have I really absorbed quality stuff? Or is there an aftertaste that makes me wonder if I should move on to higher substances?
Let’s see. The beginning, an intriguing paragraph, slightly atmospheric, with a quickly yet sharply drawn central character is signature Grisham. Pretty terrific, as it will soon take me right into the entrails of the plot.
Drama, conflict, temptation and redemption are part of Grisham’s template. He paints with a wide stroke but is highly efficient with his formula. Not a line is lost, and cinema loves him for it. The Client, The Pelican Brief, Runaway Jury, to mention just a few successful adaptations. And how about The Firm and all its legal and illegal intrigues, coming back to your living room as a series this winter? Now, how cool is that?
Hopefully cooler than The Confession, the book. With a hook that ends up in a messy nook. How? When all the elements for success are there. The sheltered pastor who risks everything in order to save an innocent’s life; the villain who wants redemption (Grisham’s leitmotiv if there is any); the theme itself: death penalty. I must admit, Grisham didn’t convert me to the cause; I have been opposed to the death penalty since François Mitterrand eloquently spoke against it on the French radio—years before he was elected President of France and abolished it. So when I open Grisham’s novel I am already sold to the cause. I’ll just have to concentrate on the writing. Ah, but there is that nagging voice within that reminds me of the unforgettable Dead Man Walking (Sister Helen Prejean’s book, Tom Robbin’s film) or Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. How to top that? Or even make some kind of equation?
Perhaps by telling a damn good story, period. And by avoiding a few things: brush strokes whose wideness can draw cliches instead of portraits; moralizing; describing racial conflicts as if they were still happening in the 1950's. Although still existent, these have evolved; dialogues have begun.
Grisham does start with a good story, one of his page turners, in fact, even if the topic is grim and he doesn’t quite follow his regular template here. Something happens. Or actually doesn’t happen. With the death of a character comes the death of Grisham’s prose. Following the tragic happening of the story, he drags on. And mixes the good tale with the pontificating and platitudes —and blacks so black, and whites so white, any self-respecting chessboard would grow pale with envy. That’s when he literally kills his novel. These are page fillers, along with football scenes, demonstration scenes, characters who lose their believability. The half-calculating, half-crazy mother of the victim makes no sense, specially when it comes to her reaction when she learns she was mistaken about the identity of her daughter’s murderer. The murderer himself, manipulative, weird, annoying, and yet with some kind of a conscience, has a complexity that Grisham ends up deflating with a couple of contradictory lines, transforming him into a nasty and ridiculous marionette.
Did Grisham’s editor ask him for a novel that would be so many words long, and so he felt obligated to spread what should have been a ten-page ending at most into a fifty-page one? If this is the case, what is it with people in the publishing world and the number of words? (Writers submitting their work know what I am talking about.) I don’t know any reader who will say: “Well, if the novel isn’t at least 100,000 words long, I am not going to bother reading it.” Or is this a refurbished novel —something found at the bottom of a drawer? As alluded before, the last fifty pages do not go with the rest of the novel. It isn’t a fit. What could have been an excellent read fell into a mediocre one. Because of a surplus of words that should have been thrown in the basket.
(A question to the ever puzzling publishing world: What ever happened to less is more? Just asking.)
A beautiful, powerful ending could have happened when Travis’s mother washes the body of her dead son. A great story in itself, which could have embraced so many themes and so many discussions, including the racial one Grisham so heavily and so awkwardly hammers on.
This past February, I quit smoking. And it looks like now, I am cured of my Grisham addiction. Damn, what else is there?
Tell you what, Grisham: If you tell it straight again, I’ll take it straight, too.(less)
In his article “In the Mind of Others” (shared on Facebook by a friend; and now —surprise, surprise!— on sale online for six bucks or so; sorry I ain...more In his article “In the Mind of Others” (shared on Facebook by a friend; and now —surprise, surprise!— on sale online for six bucks or so; sorry I ain’t buyin’) Keith Oatley addresses the fact that psychologists, who for a long time scorned fiction, have recently revised their judgement and declared it beneficial to one’s social skills. The reason for the initial derision was that fiction was “made up.” Not real. In other words, an act of imagination. That Sigmund Freud dug out the expression “Oedipus Complex” right out of mythology (an ancient form of fiction) was totally ignored in that judgement, apparently. Some eastern philosophies affirm that it is all a dream, that nothing is real. What I know is that, be it dream or reality, without imagination, nothing could happen. I wouldn’t be hitting keys of my laptop under a cozy roof with good heating, for example. Imagination is the act that allows other happenings, fiction being one of its most gripping manifestations.
As well as the cheapest, and possibly most engaging traveling mode. It will take you places you will recognize, even if you have never been there. You will meet characters who resemble Cousin Ernie or Aunt Lucille. Or, if you are a fantasy reader, you will want to be that hero. And if you dig within, you will find that part of you is that hero, at least potentially. In a novel, you will discover poetry within descriptions, emotions. The characters’ reflections on the human condition will make you ponder upon important questions, engage in a dialogue with such characters as if they existed. If the author is talented, characters will become your friends or personal enemies. (Faulkner talked to his personages as if they were made of flesh and bones, and as a fiction writer, I can totally comprehend that.) Scarlet O’Hara? Emma Bovary? Didn’t you cry with them, for them? Get mad at them? Most importantly, identify with them?
Fiction has the capacity to embrace it all: a vision of reality, of dream, of philosophy. And, yes, psychology.
And what would be a mystery without psychology?
Crais’ L.A. Requiem noir whodunit is full of it. An author who obviously loves his craft, he avoids cliches and oversimplifications no matter how secondary the characters. Good crime fiction never draws clean, parallel roads where you can find your way in a jiffy. Its geography is filled with detours. Crais follows that map, with a twisted plot and tormented souls. His lovable characters can be annoying, and the despicable ones have their moments.
And then there are the peculiar ones.
How he manages to make a feminist-pacifist like me root for taciturn, macho, and, if not trigger-happy, trigger-fluent detective Joe Pike is quite remarkable. Psychologists might argue that it may be because I identify with Pike. Which may be true: I have my bouts of withdrawal and unreasonable pride now and then. I seldom use guns, though; and when I do, it’s only in my mind. But I can tell them: See the power of a novel?
The plot: Karen Garcia, a former lover of Joe Pike’s, has been brutally murdered, and her father hires two private detectives, narrator Elvis Cole and his partner, former cop Joe Pike, to find the murderer. But the L.A.P.D. get in their way. Are the city cops in to solve this murder? Or do they have an agenda of their own? One thing is sure, they don’t like Pike, as they are convinced he is responsible for the death of one of their colleagues.
Samantha Dolan, the only cop collaborating with the two private detectives is brilliant, beautiful, but also a profoundly troubled soul with a penchant for tequila.
The background of these circumvolute happenings is Los Angeles, with its valleys and beaches and infinite highways. It might also be Crais’ most beautiful character. I have driven through the six lane L.A. freeways, sped North and South of Hollywood; I have contemplated the illuminated expanses of land at night; and felt sorry for the palm trees eaten up by drought and pollution; for the homeless agglutinated on the Santa Monica Beach just miles away from affluence. And with the exception of semi-bohemian Venice Beach, I have felt no affinity for the town. Yet, Crais’s atmospheric description rose some vague nostalgia within. Here, he paints a place I knew but have not seen. He manages to print poetry on the asphalt of its freeways. They become instruments of meditation. It’s not that they lead nowhere, but that they lead you don’t know where. They’re full of existential melancholy, as are the San Fernando Valley and the Santa Monica Mountains and the Sunset Boulevard dying into the beach. Flashy Rodeo Drive doesn’t manage to kill that sense of impermanence. But in all these lights and spaciousness Crais, through the eyes of Elvis Cole, finds beauty. He is in love with his city. He declares it plainly. As a reader, you get it. A place you love is part of you. Crais’s writing is so powerful that I almost feel that L.A. is part of me as well.
And amidst all this, he never forgets humor. Humor, as a sense of measure to prevent grandiloquence.
Now, about the ending. So many writers today write a good plot and then abandon the reader with an unremarkable, even rushed conclusion. The finish here is doctored, and certainly not formulaic. Ambiguity is one of the guests, along with new roads, new possibilities. But the all-is-well-that-ends-well is avoided, thank God! Nothing indigestible, i.e. so filled with sweetness and easy tears you feel like going on bread and water for a month. No, our narrator faces tough decisions while aware life will make some of them for him and he will have to go with the flow. It’s very much in harmony with the often desertic mountains and valleys of the decor. So when I finished L.A. Requiem, I kissed the book. For being real. Or at least as close to real as psychologists and the rest of us think real is.