Monday, November 30, 2009

The Lovely Bones / by Alice Sebold

One of the more interesting publishing stories of the decade was in 2002-2003 when The Lovely Bones by first-time novelist Alice Sebold staked a claim to the top spot. The book, in which a young girl's abduction and murder is retold by the victim (in spirit form), grabbed its fair share of attention and headlines from the more pedigreed works by Dan Brown (Da Vinci Code), James Patterson and Danielle Steel. Seven years later, the movie version starring Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz is set to debut, opening next month. Sebold is a former student of the University of Houston's M.F.A. program.

"The events my death brought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous lifeless body had been my life."
p. 363
Susie Salmon is 14 on December 6, 1973, the last day of her life. The oldest daughter of Jack and Abigail Salmon of Norristown, Pennsylvania, Susie meets her fate walking home alone from school after a confrontation with her peculiar neighbor George Harvey sees her raped, murdered and concealed, her corpse dismembered and boxed up. It's a while before the Salmons--both Jack and Abigail along with Lindsey, Susie's younger sister by a year, and Buckley, the toddler son--accept that Susie is really dead, not just missing. Questions linger until an elbow (Susie's), a remnant of the dead girl mistakenly left behind, is found giving finality to the case. The years following death of their beloved daughter and sister hold some ill after-effects, the family steadily becoming unhinged under the weight of their distress. Abigail's withdrawal of affection from her children and husband, her foray into adultery and ultimate flight from the home, Lindsey's alienation, Buckley's resentment, Jack's assurance of Harvey's guilt and self-destructive fixation over the inability to see him brought to justice all push things toward a near-irreparable disarray.

But Susie's mortal death hasn't totally suspended her from contact with her family. Susie, now an amorphous spirit in her own personal heaven, observes their world perceiving their collective grief, sensing each's pain, misery and despair. The spirit Susie actively "accommodate" each of her family members, witnessing her mother's betrayal and abandonment of the family unit, observing her sister Lindsey's bitterness finding some solace with a loyal boyfriend, relating to her brother's sense of being forgotten and, perhaps most poignantly, understanding her father's grief and how it's medicated through his unending obsession for revenge and justice. Susie is even able to "see" George Harvey, the boy he once was, the torturous childhood he endured, his pathological need to kill, his previous and subsequent victims (Susie was neither his first nor his only girl) and the utter remorseless indifference towards his crimes.

The Lovely Bones' popularity is well-merited. There's a sort of absorbing voyeurism to the characters, their lives evocatively illuminated through Sebold's superior prose, engaging hold on the reader and clever arrangement of the narrative. Susie's presence and cognition in relation to each of her family's lives--their innermost thoughts, their reactions and convictions, frustrations and revelations is profoundly entrancing, the attraction of the novel and pursuit through the chapters not so much about seeking a resolution as to be immersed in the almost ethereal atmosphere of the story.

London Boulevard / by Ken Bruen

Just out on parole after a three year stint in lockup, Mitchell (surname not given) once again resumes roaming the city streets, running amok with his hardscrabble lot of friends and petty criminals, shacking up in a dilapidated apartment with his favorite Irish call girl, his life resuming its playful but deviant pattern. But after an old friend uses him in a job in a loan sharking operation, Mitchell is soon involved in another assault, a brawl which gets the better of him and gets him thinking that his current lifestyle isn't working out. Deciding to pursue a more wholesome line of work, he takes a job as a live-in handyman for an old, once-famous movie actress named Lillian Palmer living alone in a creepy, steadily dilapidating manor house.
Mitchell's cushy new situation seems to be a great gig--good pay, clean place to sleep, nice clothes and fancy cars to drive around. But trouble seems bound to find Mitchell even if he's not actually looking for it. His old cronies from the syndicate have it in for him after a deal gone wrong and his crazy sister Bri keeps getting into her own messes and needing Mitchell to bail her out. Even when he finds what he thinks could be his soulmate--Aisling, a former call girl--Mitchell never can seem to escape the violent world of his past or the threatening loan sharks, druggies, and other bottomfeeders who only spell doom for his present and future. When a critical mistake threatens everything that's dear to Mitchell, he plots his own ghastly form of revenge on those who've made it their mission to ruin his life.
Irish mystery author Bruen combines hard-edged, intimidating yet intricate elements of the London underworld, its unmistakeable gritty and predatory landscape, with easily accessible prose. As a mystery, the book is a solid standalone story, effectively weaving a clever mix of characters and details which prolong the suspense and intrigue until an epic climax. Though the principle figures including Mitchell aren't particularly admirable or even marginally sympathetic--they're not supposed to be--they resonate a perfect quality which most readers of crime fiction will immediately recognize as necessary element for successful storytelling within the genre. The title London Boulevard is a reference to the 1951 film noir classic Sunset Boulevard in which William Holden's character becomes the caretaker/lodger at the home of a faded movie star.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

New World Monkeys / by Nancy Mauro

Canadian author Nancy Mauro has lived in both Toronto and Vancouver and has recently working in New York City as a copyrighter and creative director for several magazines. She is also fellow with the University of British Columbia's well-known creative writing program. New World Monkeys, her debut novel, follows a young couple who decide to spend the summer in upstate New York only to meet with a quirky jumble of setbacks, problems and difficulties.

Their careers languishing in mediocrity and their marriage needing a tune-up, city dwellers Duncan and Lily decide on a summer getaway upstate to the town of Osterhagen, NY. But trouble finds them even before they reach their destination when they accidentally hit and kill a pig, a wild boar to be precise, on the drive into town. This slightly more than trivial incident soon transpires into some far-reaching repurcussions when the discover that the victim of their little car accident is, oddly enough, the town's beloved mascot--known and revered as the "Sovereign Lord of the Deep Wood".

Doing their best to conceal the fact that they're the real killers, Duncan and Lily settle into their old rundown mansion house only to suddenly find a human skeleton in their backyard. With the tension and unexpected problems with their new living situation getting the better of them, the bickering spouses excavate the remains and ponder what could've happened only to run into more hassles from curious, irritatingly pestering townspeople. More quirky and absurd incidents seem to crop up at every turn and the question for Duncan and Lily soon becomes one of survival--concerning both their little trip as well as their marriage. Mauro's a delightful writer, blending authentic relationship drama in with inventive humor and realistic situations. Even as problems seem bent on tearing Duncan and Lily apart, despair is rarely featured and a satisfactory resolution is never abandoned. New World Monkeys is a good, manageable read for all readers. (FIC MAURO)

L'Avventura [The Adventure] (DVD) 1960 / a film by Michelangelo Antonioni starring Gabriele Ferzetti, Monica Vitti and Lea Massari

"Tell me you love me."

A weekend boating trip comprised of several bored, wealthy, overpriveleged Italian friends leads to a desert island where most of the party playfully swims ashore, all content to frolick in the sunshine. All seem happy except for young Anna who's seen heatedly quarreling with her fiance Sandro. Pleading with Sandro to leave her alone, Anna departs the scene presumably seeking solitude on the island. Hours later Anna is nowhere to be found. No logical explanation can explain where or how Anna might have gone missing (hiding?). The island is little more than a barren rock perhaps half a mile in diameter and only a few boats have been noticed in the vicinity. Everyone scowers the premises the remainder of the day only to come up empty.By evening the search is abandoned by all accept Sandro and Claudia, Anna's closest friend, who each continue their efforts on the mainland. The ongoing search for Anna quickly dissolves into an affair between the playboy Sandro and vapid Claudia, the well-being and general existence of their mutual friend more or less forgotten about as they hedonistically indulge their passions while navigating the towns and villages, haphazardly seeking news as to the whereabouts of their once-companion.

Needless to say, Anna is never found, nor is she ever heard of again. But it doesn't matter. All that really matters in the minds and hearts of the film's characters is the next break from the ennui; instant gratification in the form of sensuality and lasciviousness offering a minor reprieve from idleness and dissipation. Anna, Sandro, Claudia and their flighty friends are afforded the luxury of avoiding a lifestyle of work and responsibilities, objectives and purposes, liabilities and commitments. In this world, which Antonioni brilliantly caricatures, it is impossible to be happy simply because of the need to be ceaselessly entertained. Each person is in fact addicted to diversion, seeking adventure--"l'avventura"--despite the fact that "adventure" is merely an abstraction of the mind, an imagined thrill which will invariably manifest itself as a desert island. (DVD AVVENTUR)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dali: Master of Fantasies / by Jean-Louis Gaillemin

With a life to match his far-reaching, spaced-out artwork, Spanish painter Salvador Dali was one of the twentieth century's most talked about artists, his surrealist pieces expanding the horizons the ever-blossoming Avant-garde movement. From his bourgeois Catalan upbringing to his Madrid art school days to his immersion in Freudian self-psychoanalysis, no part of his life was untouched by art; and, conversely no part of his art was uninfluenced by his deeply conflicted life.
This convenient yet richly illustrated pocket-size volume by art historian Gaillemin manages to frame not only Dali the man, but also reproduces much of the master painter's artwork (e.g., The Persistence of Memory, The Great Masturbator, The Lugubrious Game, First Days of Spring, etc.), and appraises his theoretical writings and essays. Also explored are Dali's relationships with the poet Lorca, filmmaker Andre Bunuel, and, above all, torrid love affair with his longtime wife and muse Gala. Everything relating to the artist's inner turmoil, his sexual confusion, happy though awkward childhood (his parents named him after his deceased older brother, proclaiming Dali as the reincarnation of the first son) and flamboyant behavior are addressed in this compact, manageable book.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Company of Liars / by Karen Maitland

By 1348, the strain of Bubonic plague known as The Black Death had ravaged much of western Europe, the pestilence wiping out entire towns and villages on its way to eliminating fully one-third of the continent's population. Still untouched, residents of the British Isles clung to the faint hope that the plague would die out before reaching them, that by some divine providence they would escape the clutches of the most deadly scourge ever to lay waste to Christendom. But it was not to be. Even the decreased the volume of ships passing across the channel--mercantile trade having been severely limited in the years 1346 & 1347--between England's coastal ports and western Europe could not keep the country quarantined. By midsummer, swarms of infected persons were reported in the south of the country, the outbreak striking first in coastal areas near Weymouth, Gloucester, Bristol and Dorset and steadily migrating north and east into the heart of the countryside and soon the major cities of London, Leicester, York and Newcastle.

Suspecting the imminent outbreak, Camelot, a one-eyed old peddler of religious trinkets promptly decides to journey north away from his present station near Weymouth, hoping to outrun the plague before it firmly establishes itself on the isle. He and a ragtag assortment of other travelers--two minstrels, a storyteller, Zophiel the magician, a newlywed couple expecting their first child and a strikingly astute young girl, Narigorm, who can see into the future--slowly but surely make their way along the rough-trodden (and frequently muddied) path, through dense forests and cragged rocks, from village to village, town to town, often sleeping for days out in the cold before finding a bed. Theirs is a peculiar lot, full of odd, seemingly misplaced characters all wielding some special talent (or curse) and yet all are hiding something particular from the rest. Each has a secret just as each is conscious that death is never far behind, a mysterious, perhaps sinister confidentiality of which, for purposes unknown, must remain hidden.

This is an exquisite book and a shining example of historical fiction at its best. A story conceived by a masterful storyteller and penned by a superior writer, it flows brilliantly off the page, immersing the reader into the mien of the oft-depicted, but seldom realized medieval period when life was truly delicate. Reminiscent of Canterbury Tales while reverberating the characteristics of Tolkien or Marion Zimmer Bradley, Maitland genuinely achieves a fascinating first novel, a "plague novel" in the truest sense. (FIC MAITLAND)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Celebrate Native American Heritage Month: New Native American Fiction

People of the Thunder / W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear
Three wanderers--the prophet Old White, a noble warrior named Trader and a mysterious shaman woman, Two Petals--travel across the North A
merican Southeast before it was ever America and long before it was ever civilized, striving to establish peace in a desparately savage land. The territory they cross is controlled by the Sky Hand tribe, ruled by the cunning and ruthless Chief Flying Hawk and his evil nephew Smoke Shield. Together this awkward, but curiously powerful trio must bring down Flying Hawk and Smoke Shield who themselves are bent on wiping out all but their own kind.

The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories, 1978-2008 / by Louise Erdrich

Erdrich, whose willowy novels and stories have mirrored her own Midwest-Native American heritage, has compiled a new collection of some of her most personal stories and essays. As expected, most of her protagonists are female and Indian, or Indian hybrids (Chipewa, Cherokee, Ottawa, etc. mixed with French & German ancestries) and their circumstances are embedded with varying degrees ambiguity over the fact. Some laugh, some cry and some simply ignore the constrasts present between their daily lives and the heritage of their ancestors, aspects of modern life overshadowing any semblance of customs and traditions their forefathers once shared even as Indian lore and mysticism crop up in the backs of their minds during things like thunderstorms, traffic jams, TV news and their children's gadgets.

The Reason For Crows: A Kateri Tekakwitha Story / by Diane Glancy
The real life Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680, birth-name Kahenta), daughter to a Mohawk warrior during the period when the Europeans were infil
trating the Native tribes of North America, is rehashed in this extraordinary tale of two cultures colliding and a young girl's passion in the midst of violence, pestilence and death. Nearly blind after the smallpox has wiped out most of her camp and nearly killed all of her family, a young, still-ailing Kateri is pitied by a Jesuit priest, Jacques de Lambervilles who cares for her at the mission. After nursing her back to health and reading the scripture to her, Kateri is converted to Christianity and begins a life of chastity and penitence, wholly devoted to her faith until her death at 24. Today, Kateri Tekakwitha has been venerated as a Saint among Jesuit catholics and several churches, even a summer camp in Maine, bear her name.

Runner / by Thomas Perry
Runner is Thomas Perry's sixth Jane Whitefield novel following Jane, a Native American female and skilled Indian guide with a knack for
"disappearing" who aids people who themselves need hiding. Currently Jane's living in upstate New York, married to a surgeon and keeping her own, other calling pretty much under wraps. Sure enough, though, action finds Jane in the form of Christine Monahan, a pregnant woman on the run from her abusive husband and another, more grisly assortment of shady characters seemingly bent on hunting her down. Soon both women are fleeing cross-country as Jane works fast, doing what she does best, pairing her neo-mystical Native American talents with her own tech-savvy, identity-falsifying skills to help Christine and her baby ultimately find safety.

War Dances / by Sherman Alexie
Alexie, himself a member of the Spokane tribe of the Pacific Northwest, is the award-winning author of Smoke Signals and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. Much of his fiction has been labeled as a com
edically scathing characterization of the plight of Native Americans, his penetrating voice expertly mixing humor with anger and tragedy with comedy. His newest collection of short stories, War Dances, confronts family life through various ordinary characters, each flawed in their own unique ways yet appealing in a quite real, naturalistic sense. In his title story "War Dances", a dying man reflects back on the death of his own alcoholic father while in "The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless", a married clothing salesman slowly falls out of love with his wife after she bears him three children. While all of his stories may not connect the same, the collection as a whole presents a "spiritedly provocative array of tragic comedies"*.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Jar City: A Reykavik Thriller / by Arnaldur Indridason; trans. by Bernard Scudder

Ten years ago, no one would have considered Scandinavia a hotbed of mystery and crime literature. Recently though, Nordic crime fiction writers from countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and even Iceland (a country of only 200,000 residents) have become a fixture on bestsellers lists. Icelandic crime novelist Arnaldur Indridason, winner of the 2005 Gold Dagger award, is the author of the bestselling Detective Erlendur series, which as of 2009 includes ten novels. His 2006 novel Jar City follows Erlendur as he investigates the murder of one of Reykavik's oldest residents.

Crime in general, but murder especially, is a rarity in the insular, self-contained island nation of Iceland, a country so small that everyone calls everyone else by their first name. So when one of the city's oldest residents, a man called Holberg, is found murdered in his Reykjavík apartment, everybody knows about it but few are talking when 50-year-old detective inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, a chain-smoking, divorced father of one, is called in to investigate. Holberg, it turns out, was no pleasant old man; Erlendur soon finds out about several vicious rapes likely perpetrated by him over the years, those crimes possibly being linked to two wrongful deaths and a suicide of the girls involved. The twisting search full of stubborn witnesses and crotchety old loners soon brings Erlendur to an abandoned forensic lab, "jar city". So named for housing an assortment of old research organs, the lab may have certain forgotten tissue samples which could hold some pivotal answers towards the case.

Meanwhile, Erlendur's personal life is fraught with its own problems. His daughter Eva, periodically on and off methamphetamines, is pregnant and never quite settled enough for Erlendur to find out where she's staying or what her exact situation is. Still paying alimony to his out-of-the-country, married again ex-wife, Eva is all Erlendur has for family and while she barely speaks to him, he's eager to make things right with her.

Like many popular mystery series, the character of Erlendur is rendered in the most familiar manner possible as a method of bridging the gap between reader and authority figure--in this case a detective who investigates murders. But Indridason's writing renders Erlendur not so much as obligatorily flawed as a character perfectly fitted to his situation. Iceland's not New York, LA or London; but it's also not small town USA or a cozy English country village. It's its own defamiliarized, isolated-unlike-any-other-place-on-earth locale with its own peculiar identity, customs, practices and secrets. No one but Erlendur could fit this scenario because no one else knows not only the city locals but the entire island. The story exposes Erlendur's familiarity with Icelandic culture, its atmosphere with its inclusive attitudes and colloquial customs which bind witnesses to their mistrust, indignation and obstinacy and makes for one well-conceived, expertly written mystery.