June 29, 2010

Book 38: The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye
Toni Morrison

From beginning to end, this is a story of misery, told beautifully in a series of stories from a variety of viewpoints. The Bluest Eye examines the concept of beauty as it was in 1940s Ohio, among blacks across various classes but concentrating mostly on the poor and their struggle to get by. An opening homage to the "See Spot Run" brand of children's books frames the story nicely, as does a summarizing passage from a part-time narrator and protagonist. This first glimpse of the fate about to befall poor Pecola gets the large mystery of what will happen out of the way and allows the book to, as the narrator herself suggests, explain why and how events unfold as they do. The opening suggests also the scope of the book, which looks beyond the main story to its constituent parts and to the lives that conspired to bring Pecola and her tragedy about. Shifting settings and characters root the story without providing undue distractions, and the book explores a much greater story than its initial scope suggests. Morrison's ear for dialogue and her skill in recreating it are evident, as is a fervent desire to provide all sides of the story. While the background pieces do contribute and add to the breadth and depth of the story, The Bluest Eye can at times get a bit off track. Morrison writes beautifully, but it seems that the narrative innovation never quite works to effectively explore the themes behind the novel. The Bluest Eye is undoubtedly an important inside look at African-American culture just before the great upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s, but its beautiful writing and thoughtful architecture don't quite work for either the story at hand or the themes that lie just beyond the book's reach.

Grade: B+

June 27, 2010

Book 37: The Blackwater Lightship

The Blackwater Lightship
Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is certainly aware of the assertion that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, and in The Blackwater Lightship he presents one that is marred by over fifteen years of resentment. This is a novel about understanding and forgiveness, a well-written book that explores the ways in which the past can haunt us and how it continually affects who we are at the present. One of the risks run in presenting a story populated (by definition) with people who harbor a deep sense of having been wronged is that such characters- and, indeed, such people- are often cold and unlikable, which is often the case in this novel. Main character Helen is vividly realistic, for example, and as her backstory is carefully revealed it becomes obvious that Tóibín has put a great deal of thought into creating his characters. She is not, however, terribly likable, and none of the characters who are stuck together for this long weekend can provide any real comic relief- or even a break from the resentment that comes to dominate the book. Some authors are able to create powerful narratives despite a lack of lighter moments (like Cormac McCarthy in The Road), but the characters in The Blackwater Lightship are often simply being rude and petty, perhaps simply for the sake of doing so; by the time the inevitable redemption begins to come around, readers may not care what happens to these petty people.

This is not to say that The Blackwater Lightship is without its merits, however. Any one of these characters could have sprung directly from real life, and the tangled web of the past has been slowly and deliberately constructed to make them who they are. And as cliché as the scenario (a group with a complicated history, plus newcomers from a different world, are forced to spend the weekend together) is, the undercurrents that run throughout the book make it unique and give it its own vibrant feeling. Tóibín's prose is simple and exact, relating what's there and not relying on fancy language to create or maintain assumptions: the characters and the situation speak for themselves. Though it's not always pleasant and can rely a bit heavily on well-tread literary ground, The Blackwater Lightship is a well-written glimpse into the lives of a group of realistic and thoroughly understood characters that provides insight on the power and consequences of unrepentant, raging resentment.

Grade: B+

June 22, 2010

Book 36: The Third Policeman

The Third Policeman
Flann O'Brien

Allowing one's story to slowly slide into the realm of the absurd opens up a world of possibilities, but if the world presented strays too far from any beaten path readers may be jettisoned left and right. It's a fine pancake, as the policemen in The Third Policeman might say, and one that this author manages, for the most part, to navigate successfully. The book begins normally enough, evoking a very straightforward story in the vein of nineteenth-century narration, complete with an overly academic narrator and delightful footnotes supporting his pursuit of the mad philosopher de Selby. Even here, however, O'Brien slips subtle hints that all might not be as it seems; and indeed, once things begin to get truly bizarre the firm establishment of this dry narration helps ground the narrative. This grounding is also accomplished when O'Brien begins each chapter by stepping outside of the main story and into often hilarious pseudoscientific asides, which balance the just barely plausible with the outright absurd in surprisingly thought-provoking ways. These asides and footnotes are, however, only distractions, and their humor only offers a temporary fix for the often wayward plot, which can sometimes send heads spinning in unpleasant directions.

This conflict between the charmingly odd and the outright insane marks The Third Policeman, and it is not only evident in its structure. Some pieces of the plot are truly original and thought-provoking, while others will produce deserved laughs. Some developments, however, are just baffling, seemingly absurd for their own sake and appearing to serve no greater purpose. It seems as though O'Brien has a tendency to get carried away by his own ideas, to the point where reading becomes laborious and all traces of the plot- and readers' interest- disappear. It is regrettable that the author allows himself to just carried away by his own ingenuity, as he possesses that particular characteristic in spades. From the elaborate set of commentaries he creates for the fictional de Selby to his deftly employed twisted logic, Flann O'Brien weaves a wandering story that becomes, with its last gasp, a poignant morality play. The path he charts in The Third Policeman is sharply written and often amusing, but it takes a few too many wayward steps to be entirely enjoyable.

Grade: B+

June 19, 2010

Book 35: Hitler's Canary

Hitler's Canary
Sandi Toksvig

The history of the Danish resistance to the Nazis during World War II is nothing short of extraordinary, with a significant portion of the country's ordinary citizens not only refusing to capitulate but also organizing the flight of most of the country's Jewish population to neutral Sweden. Hitler's Canary is a charming little book inspired by the memories of Danes who grew up in that trying period, focusing on a likeable schoolboy, Bamse, and his increasing awareness of the world around him. As a book primarily aimed at a younger audience, Hitler's Canary can oversimplify at times, and despite its promise to explore how not all Danes were good, nor Germans evil, nuance can be a bit difficult to come by in the book. This, however, does not detract excessively from the quality of the novel, which delivers an important story through Bamse's scared and simple eyes, which see things perhaps more clearly than do those of the adults around him. His narration is constructed carefully, divided into three acts to complement the Skovlund family's deep association with the theater. Indeed, acting is used to great effect in the novel both literally- in a surprisingly humorous moment of tension- and metaphorically- as Bamse and those around him learn how best to deal with troubled times. The book ends rather abruptly, but offers an intriguing and chronologically comprehensive view of wartime Denmark from the initial invasion to the country's massive Jewish exodus. Hitler's Canary is an excellently written, detailed, fun, and serious story of courage and growing up that will inform and entertain audiences of all ages.

Grade: A

June 17, 2010

Book 34: Bog Child

Bog Child
Siobhan Dowd

With the recent apology from Britain about the Bloody Sunday murders and with my internship finding me diving ever deeper into Ireland's tangled political divisions, it's difficult at times to understand the impact of the Troubles, which are of course not that long past. Bog Child is a coming of age story set against this difficult background, and it is all the more poignant because its story spans the border between the North and the Republic as well as the border between peace and war, ever porous in a politically charged, guerilla-style fight. Readers get the feeling that Fergus, who rests carefully on the edge of the opposing forces, is not placed there at the whim of the author but instead represents, in a way, a kind of majority strained between the personal and political and wishing, above anything, for peace. Very occasionally tending toward a firm, if not exactly heavy, moral sensibility, Bog Child firmly roots its philosophy in a story and a likeable and extremely realistic main character. Readers sympathize with Fergus and can fully understand the choices he makes, which seem to be the right ones but in which a hint of ambiguity lingers.

This ambiguity between right and wrong, and its clever deployment among morally sound choices, is embodied more strongly in the backstory carefully intertwined with Fergus's last childhood summer. It, too, follows themes of sacrifice, and despite a seeming clarity it offers, upon reflection, not moral platitudes but merely a satisfaction that the moral high ground was taken, with a hint of doubt hovering over the matter nonetheless. This trend toward certainty makes the novel powerful in that it echoes life in its managed complexity- morality in Bog Child is neither black and white, nor impossible to strive for; it is neither mandatory nor irrelevant. It's messy and complicated and, set against a chaotic background of both political and personal consequence, surprisingly tranquil. This book is at once compelling and meditative, full of insight yet incessantly driving its characters forward. The prose is clear and careful without drawing attention to itself, and the book is easy to read without being silly or empty. Dowd can become a little overly moralistic at times, but her exploration of sacrifice and the meaning of peace in Bog Child offers a contemplative and realistic view of the Troubles and of the importance of morality in morally ambiguous times.

Grade: A

June 14, 2010

Book 33: Marching Powder

Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America's Strangest Jail
Rusty Young

An admitted drug trafficker may not seem like the kind of character one would expect to feel great sympathy for, but that is just the beginning of the vast weirdness explored in Marching Powder and is, indeed, one of the book's most normal aspects. The book chronicles the experiences of Thomas McFadden, an English cocaine trafficker who had the misfortune to be caught in the act in Bolivia, tracing the path from his ill-fated endeavor to his release from the bizarre world of La Paz's San Pedro Prison. Though there is nothing earth-shattering in this well-written, straightforward account, it provides a series of linked anecdotes that together draw readers into the alternate reality within San Pedro, which includes a surprisingly robust economy and a thriving cocaine business. Young is not out to shock with traditional hard-times prison stories, and Thomas is constructed as a likable guy, himself shocked at the conditions inside the prison and far from a hardened criminal. Told from Thomas's first-person point of view, the book charts his journey from jet-setting businessman to influential prison tour guide and presents San Pedro from a perplexed outsider's perspective. This allows readers to adjust to conditions alongside Thomas and to learn, as he does, the rules of this incarcerated life. Compelling and refusing to resort to familiar gross-out stereotypes, Marching Powder is an enthralling book successfully evokes and embeds the reader within an entirely foreign, but surprisingly familiar, world.

Grade: A

June 11, 2010

Book 32: Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore
Haruki Murakami

Most fiction can be divided based on its priorities: some books try to yank readers out of dull lives, others just want to tell a good story, and a few attempt to answer the ultimate question, asking, "What is the meaning of life?" It is in this ambitious third category that Haruki Murakami and his often mystical Kafka on the Shore can be placed, though the novel is remarkable for its readability. Following the stories of two vastly different men, the book often moves effortlessly, pulled along in an unseen current like its characters and, indeed, the Greek tragedies to which it so often alludes. In these not quite parallel stories, Murakami explores the nature of fate and, accordingly, leaves much to be explained. Rather than resorting to obscure language and pretense, however, the author (and his vivid, excellent translator) provide a metaphysical exploration within what is first and foremost a pair of stories. The characters are never forgotten (save for one utterly baffling chapter near the end) and are crafted with care- one gets the feeling that they take priority over the questions raised through their existence, that they exist for their own sake rather than to drive the author's expression of a point of view.

This vivid realization of characters and a continually compelling plot threaten to overwhelm the philosophical musings that lie beyond the book, a pleasant reversal of my experiences with many Deep Books. The constant themes are woven throughout the narrative and an unexplained, but inexplicably appropriate, strand of the fantastic threatens to undermine the story at times, yet Kafka on the Shore remains readable. Murakami is incredibly deliberate, deploying subtle changes of tense and providing small details even for supporting cast members, but it nonetheless becomes easy for readers to get lost in the story even when alternating between two stories and styles. This, then, is a book that succeeds despite its ambitions. Just when the fantastic elements begin to seem overwrought, the story settles and dreams illuminate, rather than interrupt, the book's reality. Just when the potent narration threatens to overwhelm the action and the philosophy to interrupt the story, Murakami eases up and returns to the concrete, gradually inoculating readers in the meantime so the book's concluding journeys and (subtly presented) revelations can proceed as they must, with a hint of otherworldly magic. In the end, even skeptical readers won't require the intricacies of the book's mysteries to be concretely explained, lest the explanations detract from the experience. Kafka on the Shore is an odd success, at once meticulous and free-flowing, serious and silly. It is a book that will reward careful reading while providing entertainment, a rare case where subtlely, intelligence, and a knowledge of storytelling technique create a deep and intensely enjoyable novel. Ultimately, Kafka on the Shore is an exquisitely crafted and clear conundrum.

Grade: A

June 7, 2010

Book 31: The Dead Republic

The Dead Republic
Roddy Doyle

This book marks the conclusion of Doyle's The Last Roundup trilogy, which chronicles the life and times of sometimes (Irish) republican, always interesting Henry Smart and, along with him, many of Ireland's 20th century growing pains. By the time this novel opens, Henry has had enough adventures to fill a lifetime, and the youthful exuberance that began to fade in Oh, Play That Thing! has given way to a more reflective, sober tone and a much calmer pace as Henry, though still full of energy, begins to seriously reflect upon his life. The prose still moves with occasional fits and stutters, a combination of Doyle's frenetic pacing and Henry's memory lapses, but the action proceeds, for the most part, at a reasonable clip. Doyle returns his star character and his readers to an Ireland changed by 30-odd years of relative stability, on the eve of the Troubles, and Doyle searches for the reasons behind the fighting. Henry's position as one of the original republican heroes of the GPO puts him in a unique position to view and criticize his heirs as, yet again but with much greater believability, he is thrust into the middle of history's important events. The author, however, employs thoughtful restraint and strains credibility most when describing outside events (such as a secret, complicit peace process behind the current violence), still an improvement over implausibly placing Henry in their midst. There is, too, a subdued element of magical realism, but it adds to the mythos surrounding Henry and helps cement his status as Ireland's own eyewitness.

With its more relaxed pace, action in The Dead Republic occasionally slows to a grinding halt, but conversations are crisp and Doyle manages to make sense out of a historical whirlwind stretching from the 1950s to the present day. The hints and forward glimpses of coming action are again deployed here, alternately to intriguing and annoying effect. Also evident in both supportive and detrimental ways is that Doyle is incredibly deliberate, taking care in crafting his characters and narrative but not always to the benefit of his work. Occasionally, it seems as though he is too aware of the scope of his book which, when given the chance to stand on its strengths of character development and attention to historical detail, often speaks for itself. The Last Roundup trilogy is Roddy Doyle's attempt at a sort of Great Irish Novel, and he has created a worthy main character in defiant Henry Smart, a man who by the end of his story has seen the promise, successes, and failures of the Irish Republic both as a native and prodigal. The Dead Republic may at times be too deliberate and too overreaching, but it provides a careful and worthy end to the story of a wonderfully rounded and indeed unforgettable Irish hero.

Grade: A-

June 5, 2010

Book 30: Oh, Play That Thing!

Oh, Play That Thing!
Roddy Doyle

This book, the follow-up to A Star Called Henry and midpoint of Doyle's The Last Roundup trilogy, makes a worthy companion to its predecessor even if it lacks the same sense of verve that so successfully drives the preceding novel. Here, we see Henry on the run from, well, almost everyone, caught up in the glamour and glitz of Jazz Age New York and Chicago. It is interesting to see Henry outside of his homeland, and though he remains resourceful some of his youthful irreverence has faded into more sober reflection. The narrative here is packed with winks and hints, to varying success- at times, Henry's implication of outcomes has an emotional effect, drawing the reader into Henry's own "what if" mindset; at others, readers may just want to get on with the story. This effect, then, is slightly overused and is coupled with occasional whirlwind narration that may capture the era well but which nonetheless makes no sense. There are several parts of the novel that must be re-read to glean any sort of meaning, let alone the correct one; this is not a regular enough occurrence to assume that it's supposed to reflect Henry's own uncertainty and it instead falls in perfectly with Doyle's more reflective, self-referential style to varying degrees of success.

That is not to say, however, that the book is particularly onerous or even anything less than an excellent read. Doyle frequently recalls passages from A Star Called Henry, inserting them whole into the current narrative to elaborate and reflect, and also assist the reader's memory. This proves an effective method, used sparingly and illuminating the text as well as Henry's own inner thoughts. Historically, however, this novel also falls a bit short of (admittedly high) expectations set by the first book. Doyle often does powerfully evoke the sights and sounds of the Jazz Age (his descriptions of musical performances are outstanding and worth seeking out), but the plot leaves much to be desired. Following a tendency to simply insert Henry into important historical events, Doyle puts Henry through some believable motions (the immigrant arrival, the Mob, the Dust Bowl) but also launches him into simply outrageous heights of stardom and self-importance. It seems as though the author is stretching the historical record a bit too thin at times, though the centrality of Louis Armstrong does provide an interesting examination of race relations. Too often, Henry is bragging ("I was there!") and, unlike in his previous adventures, the swagger does nothing but raise skepticism and doubt.

This is, however, a book well worth reading for its moments of brilliance. Often, the plot seems to stand still or re-trace familiar steps, but suddenly Armstrong plays his trumpet (Doyle's ability to capture the inner effects of music is simply astounding) or Henry provides unforeseen insights or observations. The book can seem a bit uneven as a result, but the tricky and confusing passages are far from unbearable and it is obvious that Doyle rarely has Henry act without serious deliberation and purpose, clouded though it may be for the reader. Oh, Play That Thing! is an effort to provide a summation of 1920s and 1930s America that, despite a tendency toward the sensational, paints interesting portraits of this compelling (though fading) character and an inescapable era of change, corruption, and pioneering work in the world of music.

Grade: A-

June 2, 2010

Book 29: New Dubliners

New Dubliners
Edited by Oona Frawley

Commissioned to commemorate 100 years of James Joyce's own famous collection about Ireland's bustling capital, this collection presents stories from a number of current prominent writers, all about different experiences of Dublin. Like most short story collections, the quality in New Dubliners can get a bit dodgy, with several of its stories simply meandering along without much consideration for plot or, indeed, for making sense. These stories, and the characters within them, wander without purpose and fail to make many poignant observations, let alone entertain. There are, however, a few excellent stories in this slim volume, and perhaps it isn't a coincidence that they tend toward humor. "As If There Were Trees," by Colum McCann, is an exception to this suggested rule, looking head-on at the ethnic diversity in an economically disadvantaged area in a powerful, quick story. Other excellent pieces use humor, or the appearance thereof, to mask and even illuminate darker themes. Ivy Bannister's "Mrs. Hyde Frolics in the Eel Pit" displays, as its title may suggest, a solidly ironic tone, and the audience's mirth at deducing what poor Mrs. Hyde must fail to realize masks the inherent tragedy, as her house of cards is surely soon to topple.

There is a different, sad kind of irony in Bernard MacLaverty's "The Assessment," which brilliantly uses narration to convey the self-assuredness, and latent anxieties, of those with Alzheimer's. Repeated phrases may seem humorous, but in the end, as the reader understands the cause of the repetition, it turns out that MacLaverty is writing not a joke but a brilliantly, painfully resonant story about loss. Other stories are competent, neither particularly revelatory nor agonizingly aimless: Maeve Binchy's "All That Matters" is a amusing, if trite (just as, incidentally, one of her main characters is), and "Martha's Streets," by Dermot Bolger, provides the almost obligatory direct Joyce tribute, though it stands too as a testament to the power of literature. Then, too, there is the purely joyful "Benny Gets the Blame," by Clare Boylan, an amusingly narrated story of childhood shenanigans. New Dubliners does not touch on a wide array of facets of Dublin life, but it is a competent collection; its slow stories go quickly enough and the gems are indeed worth finding.

Grade: B+