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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sunday Sentence: 'The Essex Serpent'

As inspired by Fobbit and Brave Deeds author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentences I've read this week, presented without context or commentary:

Had it always been here -- this marvelous black earth in which she sank to her ankles, this coral-colored fungus frilling the branches at her feet? Had birds always sung? Had the rain always this light touch, as if she might inhabit it?

... sometimes I think we must be walking on shoals of bodies without realizing it and all the earth's a graveyard.

-- Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Review: 'The Bitter Season'

The Bitter Season
By Tami Hoag
Crime fiction
May 2017 (paperback release)
ISBN: 978-0451470072

An old crime that won't be left alone, despite the wishes of family members, and a new assignment for a tenacious homicide detective are just one thread in Tami Hoag's latest Kovac and Liska novel, The Bitter Season. Add in a brutal double murder scene and the wish of a young woman who has overcome abuse, and the tangled web that has been woven for decades begins to unravel.

Nikki Liska, wanting to spend more time with her sons, has left the Minneapolis Police homicide squad and her longtime partner, Sam Kovac. She's working on a newly formed cold case squad, thinking she'll at least be home nights. Instead of a quiet office job, she's thrown into a political battle in which an old cop gets the OK for the squad to work on the case of a policeman who was murdered years ago. But instead of that cop getting the case, Liska is assigned.

And no one involved -- including the widow and the brother (who are now married to each other) -- want to talk.

Meanwhile, Kovac catches a double murder of a cranky professor and his wife. The murder weapons appear to be from the professor's extensive collection of samurai swords and other antique Asian weapons. Their children -- an emotionally volatile young woman who was Daddy's assistant and who was pursuing a grievance against him at the university, and a quiet, tightly wound young man working as a paralegal -- and the professor's rival for department head, are no more forthcoming than the people Liska is trying to interview.

While both detectives display their determination to see a case through, a young woman named Evi counts her blessings in a beautiful home with a real life Prince Charming firefighter of a husband and lovely child. The ghosts of the past won't let her live without fear though.

That there are times when it appears the detectives' cases will collide is inevitable. But it is skillfully handled and the pace of the plotting is first-rate. Hoag is not afraid to write about the depraved as well as the determined as she uses these characters' stories to explore the ties that bind people to each other.

As the threads weave in and out, the rich characterizations are revealed through what happens and the suspenseful pace continues to build. As Hoag has added to the Kovac and Liska series, the main characters and those they are involved with have become both better known and more intriguing. It matters how Nikki handles her home life just as much as it matters how she handles the men at work and her caseload. It matters how Sam can take a long, hard look at his life as clearly as he can look at a crime scene.

The books have a flavor of the old 87th Precinct series with the interworkings of a PD where familiar faces are seen, combined with the intensity of today's suspense novels. Readers can start the series here and may well be tempted to go to the earlier books. They'll find other strong, compelling page-turner mysteries if they do.

©2017 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted by permission

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review: 'Swing Time'

Swing Time
By Zadie Smith
Literary Fiction
November 2016
Penguin Press
ISBN: 978-1594203985

Fiction is useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day and as a way of seeing and hearing the voices, the multitudes of this world. It is a way to help us refine our definition of what matters.

Searching for something to matter may be what drives the nameless narrator of Zadie Smith's Swing Time, a novel just named to this year's Man Booker longlist. She is a girl who grew up in '80s London, loves old musicals and dance, and is intimidated by three forceful women in her life. Her mother is a fierce warrior for social justice, spending more time in books and speeches than raising her daughter. Her father, a postman, handles the domestic tasks.

The closest thing she has to a friend is another girl she meets in a community dance class. Tracey is a natural dancer. Her home life is a mess, living with her white mother and making up stories about her black father, who is rarely around. Tracy also is a natural storyteller and targets the men who mean something to our narrator, sometimes out of maliciousness, sometimes out of pettiness. After one such act, the narrator loses contact with Tracey for years.

After floating through university, the narrator is hired by global pop star Aimee, who seems a lot like Madonna, as a personal assistant. With no life of her own, the narrator winds up in Africa when Aimee decides to open a school for girls there. The people that the narrator forms attachments with there do not provide any sense of homegoing, and she does not attempt to find any familial roots. Even going to the tourist trap that a former slave prison has become does not provide an epiphany. But in trying to do what she considers a just action, she finds herself cast out.

The narrator feels vague and rootless throughout the novel. That's often how she looks at life as well, not noticing the obvious until much later. The title, "Swing Time", is taken from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical. It's a film she adored growing up but did not realize until years later that one musical number, a number she thought she had memorized, is done in blackface. As a person of color, it seems obvious that she would notice this her entire life.

The earlier lack of noticing and the eventual noticing are the way the narrator has lived her life.

At the novel's conclusion, there is a sense that now the narrator has lost important people and discovered an essential aspect of another, that she may have finally noticed something that she can use in her own life and sense of self. It is oblique, but that's the way Smith tells her stories.

Swing Time feels like two distinct novels. There is the coming-of-age story with Tracey and their parents, with instances of Tracey's casual cruelty detailed with precision. There is an intimacy in this story within the overall book, and a sense that because things happened during childhood and early youth, those things matter deeply.

The other story, of the narrator's life with Aimee and the extended Africa storyline, is more a story that takes on global ideas rather than personal ones. The descriptions of the cruelty that comes from a celebrity taking up a cause and fundamentally changing a community are well-drawn with the author showing the reader, rather than telling.

The strongest tie between the two stories is the narrator's realization toward the beginnning of the book that she "had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow." After the flashbacks that make up the book, a colleague tells the narrator that being a fatalist "means something simple, like to say the future is already there, waiting for you. Why not wait, see what it brings?"

Perhaps the narrator has learned what she said earlier on: "The story was the price you paid for the rhythm." Perhaps she is ready to accept the rhythm and the price from here on out.

©2017 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted by permission

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Human Acts

As inspired by David Abrams, author of the upcoming Brave Deeds (August, Grove Atlantic), the best sentence(s) I read this week, without further comment or commentary:

My shadow's edges became aware of a quiet touch; the presence of another soul. ... Sad flames licking up against a smooth wall of glass, only to wordlessly slide away, outdone by whatever barrier was there.

-- Human Acts, Han Kang

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Paul Auster

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further context or commentary:

The word psyche means two things in Greek, his aunt said. Two very different but interesting things. Butterfly and soul. But when you stop and think about it carefully, butterfly and soul aren't so different, after all, are they? A butterfly starts out as a caterpillar, an ugly sort of earthbound, wormy nothing, and then one day the caterpillar builds a cocoon, and after a certain amount of time the cocoon opens and out comes the butterfly, the most beautiful creature in the world. That's what happens to souls as well, Archie. They struggle in the depths of darkness and ignorance, they suffer through trials and misfortunes, and bit by bit they become purified by those sufferings, strengthened by the hard things that happen to them, and one day, if the soul in question is a worthy soul, it will break out of its cocoon and soar through the air like a magnificent butterfly.

-- Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sunday Sentence: The Land of Dreams

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further comment or context:

A boy goes out fishing and has a lot of fun, and then suddenly one day his whole boring adult life starts up, with all its obligations. Fifty years later the interruption is finally over, and he can go back to fishing again.

-- The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstol (translated by Tiina Nunnally)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: 'The Wangs vs. the World'

The Wangs vs. the World
By Jade Chang
Literary fiction
October 2016
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0544734098

A man comes to America, makes a fortune, has three remarkable children and a second wife who has loved him since childhood, then loses his fortune. This is only the beginning of The Wangs vs. the World.

Jade Chang's novel is an odyssey for all of its characters. Charles Wang, upon losing his makeup fortune, has now decided he hates America. He now dreams of reclaiming his family's land in China, even though his family fled to Taiwan and he came to the States.

His oldest child, Saina, once was the toast of the New York artistic community. She and her fiance, Grayson, another luminary in that world, had it all. Then she put together a questionable third show that used the faces of Middle Eastern women killed in war, re-imaged into fashion photographs. Grayson slept with a beautiful blonde heiress and made a baby. Saina decamped to upstate New York, bought a farmhouse and fell for a sweet African American man who was adopted as a baby by a family of organic farmers.

Middle child Andrew is at a party university struggling to lose his virginity. He wants to fall in love first. The busty white girl he's with doesn't see things that way. Maybe he can make it as a comedian after all.

Youngest child Grace is at boarding school, whether she wants to be there or not, and is far more interested in her fashion blog and artistic selfies than anything academic.

Their stepmother, Barbra, was the child of cafeteria workers where Charles was at school in Taiwan. He was the one for her, the one most likely to be successful, but he went to America and never returned. His first wife died in a helicopter crash when Grace was a baby; Grace still has the photograph her father snapped of her mother just before she got on board. Barbra is usually just there in the background, neither beloved nor reviled. But she is steadily there, even if she is angry right now at their new financial circumstances.

Before Charles can go reclaim his Chinese land, he wants his family gathered. Having lost everything in sunny California, where he made a fortune manufacturing makeup instead of contacting the fertilizer manufacturers his father sent him to meet. There is a common ingredient -- urea -- which is itself a comment on the irony of financial greatness.

Charles's love and hate for America, what he thinks he did for it and what he thinks it did to him, form the reason for his overwhelming desire to reclaim his family and his ancestral land. At his deepest hate, he thinks:

America was a great deceptor. Land of Opportunity. Golden Mountain. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. But inside those pretty words, between the pretty coasts, was this: Miles and miles of narrow-minded know-nothings who wanted no more out of life than an excuse to cock their AK-47s and take arms against a sea of troubles. A Great Wall? Ha! This country could never build itself anything as epic as that. America wanted to think itself as a creator, but all it could do was destroy -- fortunes, families, lives. Even the railroads needed the Chinese to come and build them.

Charles and Barbra gather Andrew and Grace, then drive across America in the old car they still have (because he sold it to his old ama for $1 and then took it back after dropping her off with family).

On the road, what might turn into madcap zaniness episodes are instead looks at each individual in the family as they undertake their own inner journeys. Waiting for them in her refuge, Saina has her own emotional journey when her old lover and a former friend now looking to make her part of a big story of New York failures, appear.

In this meeting of family story, and the creation of art and wealth, observations such as ones Saina make are formed:

Your clubscapes don't really exists, she wanted to say. They're a bunch of things that are supposed to make a statement about another thing. Your collectors are buying a series of symbols because critics have conferred meaning upon them. It's the same thing as buying a piece of paper that the banks say represent a group of homeowners' individual promises to pay back their mortgages. Wasn't that abstraction the beautiful thing about what they did? ... The things we agree to call art are the shamanic totems of our time. We value them beyond all reason because we can't really understand them. They can mean everything or nothing, depending on what the people who look at them decide. ...
All I wanted, Saina thought, was to make someone feel something. Money can't do that. ... You can earn it, win it, lose it, save it, spend it, find it, but you can't sell it because you never really own it. On the other hand, you didn't have to possess a song or a sculpture for it to make you feel something -- you only had to experience it.

Chang has crafted a novel in which individuals and the group -- the family -- each have their story. And those stories work together. Each of them deals with love, whether they love too much or don't care enough. A novel in which love that characters feel -- whether it's for family, a person, a career, the land, a great country or a great idea -- is a novel worthy of time and attention. It doesn't have to be possessed to be experienced and appreciated. It's a novel in which a character decides that "loving too hard was the only option" and it rings true.

©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission