Sunday, September 30, 2012

Reading Journal: Coronado, by Dennis Lehane (2006)

For a mystery/thriller writer, Lehane's chops pass for seriously literary in Coronado, and though he stays close to the subject matter we expect, he also strays into new settings and - perhaps more importantly - new styles. His clipped rhythms are even more successful when it comes to writing the somewhat elliptical short story, as in "Mushrooms," a postcard from some small-time crooks that offers no resolution: what you see is what you get. The collection's two money makers, I would say, are the first two stories, particularly the opener, "Running Out of Dog," in which a man tasked with controlling a small-town's pet population creeps ever closer to the edge. In "ICU," we join a particularly chilling chase in which a mysterious figure keeps turning up on our hero's tail - it made me think of A History of Violence, and because so little is explained, Kafka. The book's rounded out by "Until Gwen" and its adaptation for the stage, "Coronado," in which a son gets out of jail and has to face his father, who is obsessed with finding the proceeds of the son's last crime. The story was elliptical, almost too much so, and though the play left some things to be desired - the staging seemed almost too minimalist for the increased number of characters - I found that I liked the theatrical ending better, perhaps because a dramatic adaptation has to show you more, more obviously, and thus the final action's significance was much clearer. In all, for a paltry five stories and one play, Coronado provides a great introduction to one of today's more prolific bestsellers while also being a surprisingly literary accomplishment.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Reading Journal: Savages, by Don Winslow (2010)

Already trumpeting its upcoming film adaptation on its front cover, this book came to me by way of my flight attendant girlfriend. (Note to self: start hipster-chic Tumblr called Books People Deliberately Leave On Planes.) So what is it? To take Stephen King's blurb off the cover - one sourced to a reference in the text, which makes it one of those rare worthwhile blurbs - "This is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on autoload": two young pot growers, mild-mannered Ben and hot-headed, ex-military Chon, produce the best stuff in Cali and wile away their off-hours getting stoned and shagging Ophelia, sometimes one at a time, sometimes together. But when the Baja Cartel refuses to let them out of the racket and kidnaps "O" as collateral, our heroes are left to come up with either a ton of money or a much riskier plan for a head-on rescue. The book's written in short bursts - shorter "chapters" than even The Da Vinci Code - and though its machine-gun fire storytelling is a too self-aware and too self-consciously trying to be cool, no given element lasts long enough for you to really get bothered by it, and the pages practically turn themselves. Solid pulp, and a good choice of subject matter; if there's one place we should hear more stories of, it's the war zone the drug trade has created in Mexico, right under its (and the American) government's noses.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Reading Journal: The Tiger's Wife, by Téa Obreht (2011)

Every time I put this book down, I didn't want to... and I think I put off picking it up for a few days at a time because I didn't want it to end. In her debut novel, Obreht gives us a narrator - a doctor, now - who carries the seeming folktales her grandfather told her when she was a girl into her understanding of her new place in post-war (former) Yugoslavia. And using frequent references to Kipling's Jungle Book, the most gripping of the stories is of a deaf-mute woman who, (through events I won't spoil!), comes to be known as the title character... also, there's a deathless man who is an absolutely enchanting creation, rendered like the rest of the story in lyrical-but-not-too-lyrical language. A spell-binding read worthy of all the acclaim it received.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Reading Journal: Chew, Volume 1: Taster's Choice, by John Layman and Rob Guillory (2009)

The collected first five issues of this comic, about FDA agent Tony Chu, a cibopath - someone who, when he eats something formerly alive, (except beets, for no obvious reason), can see what they went through before becoming food. In the near future he inhabits, the FDA is the most powerful government agency in America, and after 23 million people are killed by Avian Flu, chicken has been outlawed and has consequently spawned a black market. Inventive and filled with betrayal, intrigue, love, and - of course - blood, this angularly-drawn world is original and uses lots of oranges and grays to its advantage. If it has a genre, I'd call it spec-noir, if such a thing exists - I suppose it does, i.e., Blade Runner - and though the writing's a little juvenile, the premise is interesting, the humour's cynical, and the arc it's building is full of promise... particularly in Issue 4, where some distant planet explodes without an explanation. It bodes well; I'll have to read on, now.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Reading Journal: Such Is My Beloved, by Morley Callaghan (1934)

A gesture near the near the end of Chapter 1 in (what's commonly called) Callaghan's best novel provides enough intrigue for the whole rest of the story. The protagonist, the young Father Dowling, takes it upon himself to help two prostitutes he meets on the street, and after conversing with them in their hotel room, as he leaves, the hotel proprietor, Mr. Baer, who let him in earlier, "saw the white priest's collar which Father Dowling thought was still hidden by the woollen muffler, and he grinned so broadly that the corners of his wide mouth seemed to shoot up to his skull, he glanced up the stairs, and he made a load sneering noise with his heavy wet lips." The reader stays in the same shoes as Baer, knowing that this can't help but bring scandal down on Dowling, and the church as well, and you spend the rest of the (short) book wondering how long it will take. But on the other hand, you get absolutely swept up in the love - charity: caritas, not cupiditas - that Dowling lavishes on these untouchables, and you escape all the minor characters' seeming fatalism about the matter and hope against hope for all to be redeemed. It's a book that's very economical with its language, and interesting, too, for showing us a time when being a Catholic in Toronto was a minority position, and one always vigilant against potential persecution. One of the better Canadian novels ever written.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Reading Journal: Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth (1959)

The titular novella and five short stories comprise Roth's debut, which snagged the National Book Award, way back when. My eyes were opened particularly by the story "The Conversion of the Jews," in which a young Jewish boy engages in literal brinkmanship - threatening to jump off a roof - in order to prove his point that other religions than Judaism are no more or less true. As for "Goodbye, Columbus," it's a story of young love had and lost, and particularly, about class, as the Rutgers-attending narrator from Newark falls in with Brenda of the affluent suburb, Short Hills, who is also a student at Radcliffe College, in Boston. "Eli the Fanatic" tells of attempts to assimilate a more traditional Jew into his more modern community, and "You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings" of general boyhood mischief: being tricked by older boys into taking the blame for the acts he joined them in. And "Defender of the Faith" is a rather hilarious account of a sympathetic army commander who gets three fellow Jews in his unit and exhaustingly concedes to their special requests not otherwise honoured by the army (e.g., religious holidays). It's a searing statement of identity, a book (and a writer) with a fire in his belly and one who writes almost savagely, brusquely, using short words and sentences where others might noodle. An indispensable American document; love him or hate him, your path with Roth begins here, and - if it's O.K. to say 50 years after the fact - it's an amazingly auspicions debut.