It’s the end of the world as we know it, and ‘Countdown City’ feels fine

Countdown City, Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books, 2013)

Hank Palace is back in the second book in the “Last Policeman” series. Hank is no longer a cop, after his homicide unit was disbanded at the end of the first book, The Last Policeman. Indeed, the police aren’t doing much of anything anymore, just biding their time like everyone else until an asteroid strikes the earth and destroys civilization as we know it. As the time grows nearer, people become increasingly unnerved and unpredictable, most governmental services are just a memory, and informal barter sites have sprung up to help people get the things they need to survive until the end.

That’s the situation Palace is living in when he answers a plea from his former babysitter to find her missing husband. No one he talks to can understand why he’s bothering. It’s not his job anymore, and anyway people are going “Bucket List” all the time these days, as impending disaster causes them to rethink their lives and cut to the chase of what’s really important to them. But then again, what else is there for Palace to do while he waits with everyone else for the imminent end of the world?

Palace has a quality that reminds me of Lawrence Block’s great noir series character, Matthew Scudder. Neither of them are brilliant analytical minds or geniuses at reading clues. But each has a bulldog tenacity that will not allow them to give up until they find the answers they are looking for. That stubborness leads Palace — and his bichon frise, Houdini — to a possibly mob-connected pizza/bowling joint, a commune established on the former campus of the University of New Hampshire, and an abandoned fort on the Maine coast. Every time he thinks he’s getting closer to find the answer, he realizes he’s asking the wrong question.

I found Countdown City a reasonably compelling read. As I did with the first book, I found the psychological impact of an impending asteroid strike irritatingly underdeveloped. Winters’ characters are well-drawn and interesting, and I found much to admire in Hank and his dogged insistence on doing what’s right even when no one else seems to care anymore. This one ends not with a cliffhanger but with a plot development that promises some interesting possibilities for the third book, which I look forward to reading when it comes out.

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Overhype Syndrome claims ‘A.J. Fikry’

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin Books, 2014)

A.J. Fikry is in his late 30s, owner of a bookstore on an island that sounds similar to Martha’s Vineyard. He’s grumpy and bitter, partly because he’s a grumpy bitter person and partly because he is mourning the loss of his young wife just a couple of years earlier. So when publishing sales rep Amelia stops by the bookstore to try to sell him some books, he is startlingly rude to her and sends her on her way. Readers won’t want to spend much time with guy unless he changes his ways quick, and fortunately a plot device baby is abandoned in the bookstore to provide the catalyst he needs.

I may have been suffering a bit from Overhype Syndrome when I read this one. I can see why so many readers loved it, with its charming bookstore setting and its reverent attitude toward books. But I found the characters fairly undeveloped, to the extent that the bit I think was supposed to be a big emotional climax left me fairly unmoved. I also found the timeline to be a bit screwy, as the story unfolds over about 17 years. The stated lengths of time that were meant to have passed between certain events seem virtually impossible given the ages of the people involved at various points along the way.

Between each chapter the narrative is put on hold while we read an analysis of a short story. It’s clear that these are A.J.’s reviews of stories that he considers essential reading, but we learn only slowly who he’s writing them for and why. Many of the stories were familiar to me, but a few were not and I’m looking forward to checking those out. Regardless of my feelings about the rest of the book, I’m always happy to add to my already too-long to-be-read list.

I never expected that anything but time would help me get over my bitterness at losing this book in the Booktopia Boulder Yankee Swap, but now that I’ve read it I’m glad it went to someone else who with any luck will feel the same rapture so many of you did. That I didn’t is my loss, clearly.

Reading ‘The Shining’ at 19 and 49

the shining-newMy friend Mamie and I have embarked on a shared read of The Shining. I wanted to re-read it prior to starting the new sequel, Doctor Sleep, because it’s been so long since I read it. So far I have gotten to Chapter 20, which is about a third of the way through. I had forgotten how much stuff happens before the really really bad stuff happens, but that’s Stephen King for you. He builds the suspense with a plethora of quotidian detail and just a few hints of what’s to come, so that when the shit hits the fan you are totally invested in the characters and the situation.

I first read The Shining back in the mid-1980s. I was working part-time at the local newspaper as a sports stringer. Part of my job was hanging out in the office at night to take phone calls from coaches reporting their game results and box scores. The office was closed, of course, so I was alone in the building and usually didn’t bother turning on any extra lights other than the ones that burned all night and were more than adequate to see and read by.

I was 19, maybe 20 years old. I was already head-over-heels in love with newspapers and journalism, and I loved being alone in the building, where I could snoop around in the advertising department’s clip art library, play with the waxer (for page pasteup, not legs and eyebrows) and the old Linotype headline writer, and look at the pictures everyone kept on their desk. (Yes, I was a weird kid who grew up into a weird young adult and then … well, you can guess the rest.)

I would usually be there until about 11 p.m. or midnight, and there was lots of waiting time between coaches’ phone calls. I always brought along whatever book I was reading at the time. I locked the doors while I was there alone even though this was a small town (about 9,000 people) and there was little chance of anything bad happening. I was never afraid to be there by myself. Except…

Except the night I brought along The Shining. It isn’t particularly scary at first, as you know if you’ve read it. I mean, now we know what to expect from a Stephen King book so even when you’re reading the opening chapters of Under the Dome or 11/22/63  you are already mentally on edge for the horror to start, but back then I hadn’t read much of his stuff (there really wasn’t much of his stuff yet to read) so I didn’t know that.

The night I’m thinking of, I had gotten to the chapter I just finished reading tonight, Chapter 19, when young Danny has an encounter in a hotel hallway with a fire extinguisher. I won’t say more, but if you’ve read it I know you remember. I sat there at my desk in the newsroom of that empty, quiet-but-not-silent building, and reading every paragraph of that chapter was an agony of terror and anticipation. I kept forgetting to breathe and then gasping more air into my lungs. When the phone rang, I yelped out loud.

As I started re-reading The Shining this past Monday, I mentally prepared myself not to be disappointed because it was unlikely the book would affect me the same way now. Not only am I older and have more experience of the world, I already know what happens in the end. I told myself it would still be interesting to re-read from a more analytical perspective, to see how King’s writing has developed over the years and how he structured the story, etc etc etc.

Well, forget all that. Chapter 19 scared the bejesus out of me at 49 just as surely as it did at 19. I could scarcely stand reading to the end of the chapter and when I finally got there, I had to put the book down and do something else. I will not be reading any more in this book tonight, or any night after dark. We can analyze and theorize and intellectualize all we want about books and writing. Stephen King still scares the pants off me, and I hope he always will.

Writers Feel an Amazon-Hachette Spat | NYTimes.com

This David Streitfeld article in the New York Times has been the subject of lots of chatter in the literary corners of the Web. People who are already wary of the immense power granted to Amazon by virtue of the fact that it sells roughly one-third of all books sold. The idea of a bookseller sabotaging one publisher’s books to force that publisher to agree to more favorable wholesale terms is disturbing on several levels:

  • Nobody like a bully, and Amazon appears to be taking advantage of its massive popularity to hold authors and readers hostage in a money grab.
  • Shoppers expect that if a product is available, they will be able to buy it. The idea that a seller would choose not to sell an available product to customers who want it seems nonsensical and could erode trust in online shopping (of course, there are people who would see that as a plus, not a negative).
  • Most readers have little idea of who published the book they are seeking. The average book shopper will likely not realize that the same book listed as out of stock at Amazon is probably available immediately at another site.
  • The people who are being most hurt are the authors, whose books are no longer readily available at the world’s largest bookseller. Fewer sales equals fewer royalties and fewer chances for emerging authors to build the elusive word-of-mouth that can spell the difference between a book’s success and its failure.

Among Amazon’s tactics against Hachette, some of which it has been employing for months, are charging more for its books and suggesting that readers might enjoy instead a book from another author. If customers for some reason persist and buy a Hachette book anyway, Amazon is saying it will take weeks to deliver it.

Ultimately, Streitfeld says, the tactic may backfire on Amazon:

If Amazon needs to improve its bottom line, it is a dangerous game to make things harder for its customers.

(via New York Times)

To Read Or Not To Read? (What A Ridiculous Question!)

Lynette tries to answer the eternal question: Why is reading so beautiful? I found myself nodding right along with her conclusions. Maybe you will, too.

Lynette Noni

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I have a confession to make: I read a lot. As in, heaps. It’s what I do. Some people watch movies, some go out with friends, some spend time with their families, some play sports… And sure, I do all of that, but when I really want to space-out on life for a while, what I truly love most is sinking into a book.

Reading allows me to journey to other worlds. And in those worlds I can wield swords, wave wands, fall in love with vampires, sail across the universe, travel to the past and to the future… I can do anything. I’m only limited by the confines of the story – and even then, my own imagination can fill in any gaps if needed.

So, why is reading so beautiful?

Well, I’m sure there are a number of reasons, but one that I believe to be fairly significant is the fact that

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Plenty of pride & even prejudice on display in ‘Longbourn’

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

book cover of Longbourn by Jo BakerThat’s the iconic opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a 19th-century comedy of manners that centers on the Bennett family of rural England. The Bennetts have five daughters and a fiscal situation that dictates each of them must marry to the best possible advantage, as the property laws of the time forbid any of them inheriting their father’s property when he dies. The lengths Mrs. Bennett goes to in pursuit of that goal, and the lengths her various daughters go to either in aid or opposition of her goals, make up the heart of this satirical romance. For all the time spent with the Bennetts, however, Austen gives us very few glimpses of quotidian life at Longbourn, the Bennett family home.

Enter Jo Baker, whose recent novel Longbourn goes “downstairs” to plunge us into the lives of the servants who keep the Bennett household humming. Baker tells us right away what she’s about, with a first line that could be just as iconic as the one Austen wrote:

If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.

Sarah is one of two housemaids who toils from dawn to dark at Longbourn, cleaning and laundering and sewing and laying fires and emptying chamber pots for five young ladies who scarcely seem to notice their existence, not to mention a mother prone to hysterics and a father who is not nearly as blandly benevolent in Baker’s telling as he was in Austen’s. There’s also a cook, her husband the butler, and a mysterious new footman who sets the servants’ buzzing. Fittingly, romantic intrigue and misdirection shows itself as prevalent belowstairs as it is above.

Each chapter of Longbourn begins with a brief quotation from P&P, which serves to orient the story in the original book’s timeline for readers like me who have read the original enough times to know exactly what passage each epigraph is referring to. Through the eyes of Sarah mostly, we get glimpses of the events of P&P as they would have been experienced by the household help. The arrival of the very rich and very eligible Mr. Bingley in the neighborhood, which sets the entire house aflutter in Austen’s tale, causes barely a ripple for Sarah and the others. In contrast, an event that was a mere throwaway line in P&P, the need to journey into town to buy shoe roses for the Bennett girls to wear to a ball at Bingley’s estate, is expanded into a epic quest for Sarah through a rainstorm, witnessing a flogging, and a chastely romantic encounter with a servant from a nearby estate.

That chapter serves as a perfect microcosm for what Longbourn adds to what is admittedly one of the most perfect novels ever written. Longbourn shines a light into the dark corners of 19th-century life, where the lower classes experienced hardship and dangers arising sometimes from necessity but more often from a mere whim of someone with the power to make them comply. I came away from Longbourn not liking Pride and Prejudice any less, but certainly having a new appreciation for things unsaid and people unseen in the Austen classic.

 

‘The Goldfinch’ soars high

Wow, what a sprawling, magnificent, compelling story Donna Tartt tells in this book that is about so much more than the painting referred to in the title. It’s about art, beauty, fear, abandonment, carelessness, remorse, redemption, sorrow and joy. It’s about the value of friendship, the pain of loss, the holes that life leaves in all of us and the ways we choose to fill them up.

Theo Decker is 13 years old when a tragedy leaves him without parents. He is taken in by the family of a school friend, and just when it seems his life has begun to stabilize he is uprooted and set on a path that leads him from New York City to Las Vegas to Amsterdam and back again. He bounces around between various sets of parents, surrogate and otherwise, some of whom are loving but all of whom seem incapable of giving him the sort of focused attention that could help anchor him in the world around him. Instead, he is forced to use an inanimate object — that painting pictured on the cover — to be his touchstone. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t enough to keep him safe in a world filled with so many easy ways to flirt with danger.

The story that Theo tells is long, involved, intricate, densely layered with events that seem loaded with meaning beyond what they or he can bear. The further into the story I ventured, the stronger was my feeling of constant low-level anxiety for what would become of Theo. It seemed impossible from the very beginning that he would live happily ever after — that anyone in his world would — and every page I turned ratcheted up the tension. I didn’t always like Theo. Often I disapproved of the choices he made and the things he did, but that didn’t stop me from desperately wanting him to find the sanctuary that he seemed to spend his whole life looking for. I didn’t always like the people he surrounded himself with. Or perhaps more accurately, I didn’t always like the things he did with and to the people who surrounded him, and I didn’t always like how even the most sympathetic of them still failed utterly at providing a safe harbor for a lost soul. And yet I still hoped, right up until the end, that each of them would be redeemed, that everything would work out, that everyone would — finally! — do the right thing for themselves and for Theo.

The Goldfinch isn’t a perfect book. It’s long, almost unbearably long, made bearable for me only by the fact of its being an ebook and thus not an intimidating physical chunk to remind me of just how much story was left to tell. There are sections that go on and on and don’t seem to do much to advance either the plot or the characters’ development. There are a few too many supporting characters who are sketchily drawn and serve mainly as a placeholder for a group stereotype. But always, there was some redeeming action or insight waiting on the other side, rewarding me for pushing on.

I finished reading The Goldfinch yesterday, and even as I’ve moved on to my next book I find myself thinking about Theo at random times during the day, as if he were someone I know. I recall particular passages or scenes and think about how often Tartt chooses to work against the expected tropes. The chilly upper-class woman whose family takes young Theo in turns out to genuinely like him and treat him as part of the family even long after he’s grown up. None of the most important characters are purely saints or sinners; just as in real life people turn out to be more complicated than that. Just as this book is more complicated than a story about a painting.

Godey jumps the tracks with ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’

pelham123What happens when four men hatch a daring plot to take a New York City subway train hostage, demanding one million dollars ransom for its passengers? Will the city agree to pay the ransom? Can the police figure out how to stop the criminals without risking the lives of the 17 passengers? Even if they receive the money, how on earth does the gang think it can escape from a subway tunnel that’s crawling with cops both above and below ground? John Godey’s 1973 novel offers up an original caper at the heart of a novel that captures very well the cultural vibe of its time and place. Unfortunately, there seems to be something essential missing from what should be a pulse-quickening suspense story that leaves the end result somewhat short of excellence.

Perhaps it’s Godey’s choice of telling the story from the points of view of a plethora of characters: each of the four criminals, an undercover cop who is on board the hijacked train, the flu-stricken mayor and his chief of staff, a half dozen or so cops and and equal numbers of Transit Authority officials and hostages. Godey switches the viewpoint rapidly among them in short little passages that were never really long enough to build tension. Even worse, the short vignettes don’t allow the reader to get to know each character. Several times I would read the subheading that was simply a name and have to stop and think about which character that actually was. Perhaps to compensate, Godey gave each of them one or more very distinctive characteristics that leave them seeming a bit cartoonish. (Part of this exaggerated sensation might also come from the very dated feel of the novel; it probably didn’t seem so over-the-top to a contemporary reader.)

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is not without its strong points, however. Godey effectively portrays the societal tensions of the time period between blacks and white, between squares and hippies, between elites and working class. In particular, the passages featuring the mayor, while almost entirely extraneous to the plot, give Godey a chance to wax cynical about politicians. Several of the characters exhibit the sort of casual racism that barely merited a raised eyebrow back then, which Godey does not overtly condone or condemn. Nor does he settle for stereotypes in his characterizations. There are black and white racists, there are black and white heroes, some of the racists are also heroes. And the gang’s plan for escaping the tunnel was both clever and plausible.

In the end, though, the story never developed the sort of suspense and tension that makes a reader compulsively keep going to find out what happens next. I found it all too easy to put the book down after reading a chapter or two, and while I remained interested in what would happen next I was never in much doubt about the general way things would end. There have been at least three film adaptations of the story, though it’s hard to imagine how the book’s extensive interior monologues were presented in a cinematic way. I suspect the films took significant liberties with Godey’s presentation if not his plot. I’d still like to watch the 1974 original (starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, and Martin Balsam), if not the 2009 version starring John Travolta and Denzel Washington (though I do love me some Denzel). In short, I’m glad I read this novel. Even if it fell considerably short of a classic suspense tale, it was reasonably entertaining and interesting for its depiction of early 1970s New York City.

‘Transatlantic’ has a wandering spirit

Reading this book was like riding a roller coaster of emotions. Prior to claiming it off the library hold list I was excited about tackling it, having read some very positive reviews. Then I started reading it. My excitement diminished page by page as I struggled to understand why the story jumped around in time and place, from Newfoundland after World War I to Ireland in the 1840s to Missouri in the late 19th century. Each stop seemed completely unrelated to the one that came before and the one that followed. I began to wonder how on earth this disjointed mess had earned such lavish praise.

Then, finally, I realized that what had seemed to be completely unrelated chapters were actually tied together through the family lines of Lily Duggan, who was a maid in a fancy Dublin home when former slave Frederick Douglass comes to Ireland to drum up support for the American abolition movement. Each chapter had somewhere at its heart a descendant of Lily, from the Civil War mother who helps her husband run an ice-cutting empire in the American Midwest to the journalist who chronicles one of the first transatlantic flights to the woman who loses everything in contemporary Ireland.

Once I found the common thread, my interest and appreciation for the book picked up. I enjoyed most the chapters devoted to Douglass’ sojourn in Ireland and a visit more than century later by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, trying desperately to bring Catholics and Protestants to a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. None of the stories end in triumph; the most we can hope for, McCann implies, is a sense of quiet satisfaction and no expectation of glory. Many of the characters do not achieve even that minor grace, and my heart ached for some of their stories and lives.

Although by the end I was appreciating McCann’s cleverness and deft interweaving of timelines and placelines, I just can’t give this book my highest recommendation. I don’t need or want to be hit over the head with an anvil by an author trying to convey the themes he will explore, but to read roughly a third of a book without having any idea where it’s going seemed a shade too opaque for any but the most dedicated English major used to parsing meaning from prose.