Book Jones Books

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Book Review: The Mountain Man

The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle


The explorer John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition and widely considered the first Mountain Man in America, famously once escaped a murderous mob of Blackfoot Indians through a series of maneuvers which is known now as Colter's Run. This legendary gauntlet, outlined in T.C. Boyle's novel, The Harder They Come, is just one the heroic feats which guide one of its main character, Adam Stensen, through his cracked existence. Adam identifies so much with the mountain man, he christens himself with his  champion's surname; Colter: evocative not only of the explorer himself but of guns or horses or of the plow wheel it describes; an instrument used to cut through the earth. It seems the real John Colter lived his life in a far different environment, in a more brutal, less sensitive world; one which celebrated violence and aggression as much as it is misplaced today.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Column: The Interrogatory Mood

Do authors tend to become less satirical and more serious, with regard to their writing, as they get older?


Columnist Jones
The spark of this question ignited this morning as I was reading a review of T.C. Boyle's The Harder They Come by Dana Spiotta in the Sunday New York Times Book Review section. "This could easily have been an opportunity for a writer of Boyle's comic gifts to go full-tilt satirical, Boyle takes a darker and more restrained approach." she writes. This got me thinking about how many authors , not just Boyle, have grown away from the satirical or comic novel and have embraced or perhaps began to trust sincerity in their writing. Maybe as they mature they become more confident of their craft because, let's admit it, it's a lot easier to convey a strong message through satire, though it does require more flexing of the writing muscles (but by that I mean being ostentatious) than does serious, straightforward, or a restrained technique. Subtlety and nuance come with experience.

Some examples which should support my view include: 
  • Philip Roth whose early novels include Goodbye Columbus (1959) and Portnoy's Complaint (1969) both comic and satirical portrayals of Jewish morals and attitudes of the time. His later work turned quite serious with novels like Sabbath's Theater, American Pastoral and The Human Stain.
  • Thomas McGuane with early work like The Sporting Club (1969), The Buswhacked Piano (1971), and Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973), all darkly comic took a sharp turn after his 1978 autobiographical novel Panama to a more restrained tone in work like Nobody's Angel (1981) Nothing But Blue Skies and the short story collection Gallatin Canyon.
  • John Irving's early novels The Water Method Man, the 158 pound Wedding, and The World According to Garp were all darkly comic though later The Ciderhouse Rules marked a change in tone to the more straightforward and politically driven work that would come to be his trademark style. 
This of course is not to say all satirists grow more sincere as they age. Think of Swift, Vonnegut, Nabokov; all employing humorous parody to the end. But I do feel many writers begin their career with caricature and slowly hone their craft to either more realistic or subtle impressionistic prose.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Book Review: Eau, Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi


ARC cover art

What happens in the near future when, in the face of Global Warming and impending permanent drought, the infertile lands of the American Southwest lose the use of  water pipelines from Lakes Meade and Havasu, and the Colorado River? I'm not too sure, but the novelist Paolo Bacigalupi has a handle on that harrowing question and has written a new Sci-Fi Thriller around it. The Water Knife, his latest, is a speculative semi-apocalyptic tale for adults (he has written a number of books for young adults and kids) in which the planet's carbon boot has tread all over its already dry regions leaving a permanent footprint of drought. In this new world water equals power and the powerful will not hesitate to carve their own arterial conduits, when necessary, to feed the heart of their influence.

Three main characters drive the narrative throughout the book: Angel Velasquez, the water knife of the title, whose boss, Catherine Case, quenches Las Vegas with her "arcologies", or water independent residential towers, unafraid of wetting her far reaching talons; Lucy Monroe, a "Journo", who reports on the corruption and machinations surrounding the Taiyang, a Chinese funded arcology in the middle of Arizona; and Maria Villarosa, a teenager refugee from Texas, who, along with her room-mate Sarah, struggles to survive on the incendiary streets of Phoenix (the symbolism of which is not lost on this reader). Bacigalupi eventually tosses the three together, stirs and turns up the heat. The recipe is tried and true; It's delicious to consume, but still, a burrito is just a burrito (refried beans and all).

Friday, March 27, 2015

Nachman, Is That You? *

The Short Stories of Leonard Michaels 


There has been a slight resurgence of the short stories of Leonard Michaels who passed away back in 2003. What do I consider a slight resurgence? Well, it is quite a subjective statement, based solely on the podcasts I consume. The New Yorker Fiction July 2014 podcast features Rebecca Curtis reading The Penultimate Conjecture, one of a septet of stories dubbed the Nachman Stories written by Leonard Michaels near the end of his life. Another podcast, Selected Shorts from PRI recently presented a program in honor of the late David Rakoff where Mr. Rakoff performs Cryptology, the last story in the Nachman septet, at Symphony Space in New York City.
Leonard Michaels
Leonard Michaels' writing has been compared to that of Isaac Babel, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth. His protagonist, Nachman, is a world-class mathematician originally from Cracow, living in Los Angeles. He hates to travel, doesn't particularly get along with too many people, he ironically seems more suited to New York than to L.A. The Penultimate Conjecture follows Nachman to San Francisco where he is attending the annual meeting of the Pythagoras Society. There, a young Scandinavian Mathematics colleague, Bjorn Lindquist, is expected to layout his solution for the infamously difficult math proof, the Penultimate Conjecture, which British cryptographers formulated during the second world war. At the upstart's presentation, Nachman meet's another math wizard, a Russian by the name of Chertoff (which means something diabolical in the Slavic language) , who urges Nachman to reveal what he knows is true in his heart: that Lindquist's solution is flawed.

In Cryptology, we find Nachman out of his comfort zone again, this time in NYC to attend the annual cryptology conference. He meets an old friend ("I'm Helen Ferris now") on Fifth Avenue, a woman whom he simply cannot place. After handing over her address and apartment keys to Nachman, she invites him to dinner with her and her husband: “If you arrive before us, just wait in the apartment,” she tells him. But when Nachman arrives at the posh Chelsea flat he finds it deserted; until he perceives the faint hiss of a shower and voices carrying from the next room. Cryptology is a story infused with mystery, both outward and inward. By the end Nachman is musing on not just who Helen Ferris could be, but who he, the enigmatic Nachman, really is.

All of the Nachman stories can  be found in: The Collected Stories by Leonard Michaels

* This post was originally published on the Echidna blog in July 2014 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

TBR: Spring Reading

There is an impressive stack of new books premiering this Spring. Everything from a fresh retelling of the sinking of the Lusitania, to a memoir blending bereavement with falconry, to an intense tale of three violent and rebellious individuals hurtling toward disaster. The snow is slowly melting revealing the lamented color green. Soon we will shrug off our parkas, throw open our windows and whiff the redolent cat's paw of spring. It's time for my perennial list of books to be read:

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larsen: Through the use of a treasure trove of archival material, Larsen breathes new life into the tragic stories leading up to and surrounding the sinking of the luxury liner, Lusitania. Published on the 100th anniversary (nearly to the day) of the harrowing event, the author employs first hand accounts and the actual German U-boat logs to create a atmosphere of suspense amid the historical incident which led to American military engagement in the Great War.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: Under the gauzy guise of a fantasy novel, the author of the modern classics The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go expends the universal themes of love, memory, and loss in this, his first work in a decade. Ishiguro is a writer unafraid to augment the boundaries of his art. His followers have come to expect fresh and inventive material from him with each new release. From all the early scuttle, The Buried Giant delivers on their prospectus.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: Following the death of her beloved father, the bereaved author Macdonald, a naturalist and falconer, decides to train Mabel, a feral goshawk, one of the most difficult and deadly raptors to prowl the skies. Macdonald's prose transcends the typical nature manual as the book becomes a metaphorical treatise on the journey from despair to salvation.

The Whites by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt: The "Whites" as Richard Price explains, is a nickname- alluding to Moby Dick, Ahab's elusive white whale- for those unsolved cases which haunt retired police detectives to their grave. The book was intended as straight-forward detective pulp, hence the pseudonym Harry Brandt, but as Price wrote, he realized he couldn't simply dash off a quick read between serious novels, he isn't wired that way. So The Whites became a full fledged Richard Price novel, in other words: a mandatory read.

The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle: From the prolific pen of one of today's more topical and incisive novelists comes a tale of three disturbed individuals: An aging Vietnam veteran, an unwilling hero of sorts: his psychologically distressed son; and his son's much older overly protective girlfriend, a card-carrying anarchist. Based on true events culminating in the largest manhunt in California's history, the novel delves deep to reveal the genuine nature of anger, violence and rebellion in America.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi: Here is one that I'm currently reading. Bacigalupi, author of The Windup Girl, has written a semi-apocalyptic cautionary tale set in the American Southwest. It seems global warming has devastated the water supply to the arid lands, think Texas, Arizona and California, and now the clear wet stuff is as valuable and volatile as that black viscous stuff once was. The author follows three main character's whose lives are brought to the brink as those with the power struggle to control the flow of life's barest of necessities.

Book Review: The Ogre's Cave

The entrance to the Birkenau death camp

Commentary on In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen's latest and regrettably last book of fiction relates the experience of one Polish-American professor at a so-called "Death Camp" retreat in 1996. Clements Olin travels to Poland ostensibly on a research gathering quest for a book about a survivor who later committed suicide. But his more important purpose is only slowly revealed, to the reader and to himself, by novel's end.

Once in Auschwitz, he joins a varied crew of 'witnesses', each with their own reason for being there. Among them are relatives of the victims, says Ben Lama, the retreat's guide, "...others are stricken descendants of the 'perpetrators.'" Though Olin admires Lama's lack of pretension, he is dubious of the sentimental New Age language being bandied about amid the participants. "Words like 'closure' and 'healing' and 'confronting the Nazi within.'" make him wince. "As for 'bearing witness,' the term strikes his ear as anachronistic and over-earnest." "Witness to what, exactly?", Olin ponders. "The emptiness? The silence?"

Monday, March 9, 2015

Book Review: On The Self

Commentary on All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu


Helen and Isaac, the alternating narrators of Dinaw Mengestu's latest novel, All Our Names, have something in common. They are both searching for a self; a sense of who they really are. As Isaac tells us, at age twenty-five on the bus from his home town to the university in Kampala, Uganda, he has shed all the names his parents had given him. He compares himself at that age to "the capital" itself. "Like me it belonged to no one, and anyone could claim it." Jump ahead a chapter to meet Helen, a white social worker still living with her mother in a quaint Midwestern college town in the U.S. We soon learn of her relationship to Issac: as he is a recent emigré to the states she is assigned to show him around and acquaint him with both the routine and vagaries of rural American life.

Dinaw Mengestu
Mengestu, proclaimed by the New Yorker magazine as one of the so-called "20 under 40" prospective new writers, aims with this novel to further his themes of self renewal during times of great upheaval, which he had advanced in his earlier work, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and  How to Read the Air. Both of those novels dealt with the assimilation of post-war Ethiopian families in America. In this book the author presents an additional perspective, that of the insider looking out. Helen sees Isaac as her way out of a banal, lonely existence.


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