Wednesday, June 29, 2016

THE HARDER THEY COME by T.C. Boyle


The opening of this book is a heart-stopper.  Sten Stenson and his wife Carolee are on a Costa Rican shore excursion that goes from bad to worse.  A couple of local criminals hold the cruise group at gunpoint, demanding their wallets and valuables, but Sten uses his skills as an ex-Marine to bring the ringleader down.  Back in the U.S.A., we find that Sten’s 25-year-old son Adam is a psychopathic survivalist who models his life after that of John Colter, a scout for the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Our third character is Sara, a lonely 40-something anti-government rebel who becomes romantically involved with Adam.  These two are the epitome of the lunatic fringe.  Sara doesn’t share Adam’s penchant for violence but neither does she try very hard to dissuade him.  In fact, she’s more concerned about the consequences of her possible guilt by association than she is about the horrendous things Adam has done.  Sten is no hero, either, as he allows a buddy to get him worked up about Mexicans buying food supplies in the grocery store.  In other words, all three of these people are a little hard to take and impossible to like, much less admire.  In fact, my only real complaint about this book is the lack of good guys.  The story takes place in northern California, and I know for a fact that not everyone up there is wacko.  As always, Boyle’s writing is superb, and he never shies away from controversial subject matter, such as a mentally ill person being armed to the teeth.  If the action and attitudes in this novel don’t raise your hackles and your blood pressure, I don’t know what will.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

WORLD'S END by T.C. Boyle

This novel is full of very wicked men of multiple generations.  The few good men are lost in the shuffle, and the women are pretty secondary throughout.  The Hatfields and McCoys have nothing on the Van Brunts and Van Warts of Peterskill, NY.  We pop back and forth between the 1690s and the 1960s, but nothing much changes during the intervening three centuries as far as these two families are concerned.  In the 17th century, the Van Brunts are tenant farmers on land owned by the Van Warts, and Jeremias Van Brunt balks each year when he has to pay his due.  In the 20th century, Walter Van Brunt manages to sever his feet in two separate motorcycle accidents.  And, yes, you can assume that alcohol was a factor.  Walter is basically a screw-up of epic proportions, haunted by the ghost of his long-gone father who may have betrayed Walter’s mother and godparents by skedaddling instead of going for help during a riot.  Some of these people are so vicious, the book becomes difficult to read at times.  Violence erupts over political differences, women, obligations to sadistic landlords, and bigotry, particularly toward Native Americans.  Probably the character who garners the most attention is Walter, whose lack of charisma is superseded only by that of his on-again, off-again employer, Depeyster Van Wart.  Depeyster, tortured by the fact that the Van Wart family line may end with him, follows in the footsteps of his ancestors, feeling that his wealth gives him the right to throw his weight around and crush anyone who stands in his way.  Two big questions loom:  Why exactly did Walter’s father abandon his wife and child, and what will Depeyster do if/when he discovers that his wife has been having an affair with a Native American?  The author fully addresses both questions, but that doesn’t mean you’ll like the answers.  My favorite thing about this book is that it mentions the snail darter, and I was a student at the University of Tennessee when this controversy brought the construction of TVA’s Tellico Dam to an abrupt halt.  I had no idea this endangered little fish had such a big fanbase.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

THE BOOK OF ILLUSIONS by Paul Auster

If the rest of this book were as fantastic as the first 50 pages, I would give it 5 stars.  David Zimmer has lost his entire family in a plane crash, and, after seeing a TV film clip of silent film star Hector Mann, he embarks on a quest.  David travels, with the help of Xanax, to museums around the world to view all of Mann’s silent films as research for a book.  Mann mysteriously disappeared shortly after the making of his last movie, but, after the book is published, David receives a letter indicating that Mann is alive.  Thus begins a new episode in David’s mission to uncover the truth about Hector Mann.  The downside is that I felt very detached from all of the characters in this book, including David, whose grief drives him to several suicide attempts.  Writing and some good old-fashioned slapstick comedy are his salvation.  The author’s vivid descriptions of Mann’s movies, two of them in particular, are the reason that the first part of the book is so good.  The plots are magical, sophisticated, and supremely clever, and I want to see those movies!  I imagined Mann, with his moustache and white suit, to resemble David Niven.  Zimmer and Mann both suffer tragic losses, but the silent movie plots are pure delight, and they save a dark novel from becoming maudlin.  I am also wondering to what degree, if any, this book inspired the movie The Artist.  John Goodman plays a man named Al Zimmer in the movie, so I figure his name is a nod to the narrator of this book.  There’s also at least one more similarity between the novel and the movie:  both are about a silent film star with a foreign accent, which makes the transition to talkies problematic.  In this book, the contrast between the man, “Mann,” and his enchanting film work is quite a feat for the author, but the real feat is the immense imagination that went into the construction of the movie plots and conveying those plots to the reader so brilliantly.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

TIMBUKTU by Paul Auster

Mr. Bones is a dog who understands spoken English.  His beloved master, Willy, is a homeless alcoholic with health problems, both physical and mental.  Mr. Bones doesn’t judge Willy for his shortcomings but rather judges everyone else by how clueless they are about a dog’s needs and wants.  When Willy passes on to “Timbuktu,” a euphemism for heaven, a weary and grieving Mr. Bones has to fend for himself.  Gone are the unplanned meanderings that Mr. Bones enjoyed with Willy.  He attaches himself to a new young human companion who has to hide Mr. Bones from his father.  Mr. Bones escapes this imperfect situation and moves on to a family that provides a doghouse and good eats but leaves him at a posh kennel during a family vacation.  Mr. Bones and Willy were inseparable, and now Mr. Bones is a different sort of lesser family member—a pet.  I’m not sure exactly how to interpret this story.  On the surface, this is a dog story or maybe even a buddy story, but deeper down I suppose it’s a story of unconditional love and loyalty between two individuals, regardless of species or gender.  It is obviously more than just an homage to our canine companions; it’s a statement about friendship and perhaps how life with a constant good friend, even if food and shelter are not always available, is more fulfilling than a life with creature comforts. For Mr. Bones, at least, the struggle to find love is a much more daunting task than scrounging for food and a warm, dry place to sleep.  I suppose we can apply this struggle to people as well, but that analogy only goes so far.  The ending, for example, was a disappointment for me, concluding with a whimper rather than a triumphant roar. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

THE NEST by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

Every dysfunctional family is different, and in this case, four siblings are awaiting the imminent release of their $2 million trust fund.  The oldest, Leo, who is simultaneously the talented star of the family and the black sheep, has run into a spot of trouble, seriously injuring his 19-year-old passenger in a car accident.  The family matriarch taps the trust fund for remunerations to the girl and for Leo’s stint in rehab.  This development is devastating to the other three, since the payout has now shrunk to a paltry $50,000 apiece.  Jack, unbeknownst to his husband, has secretly borrowed money on their summer home to keep his struggling business afloat.  Dubbed from childhood as “Leo Lite,” he is almost as despicable as his brother, without the substance abuse problems.  In his desperation to repay the loan, he tries to broker the sale of a stolen piece of art on the black market, compounding the ugly secrets he’s keeping from his partner. Melody wants to send her twin daughters to college, even though they have found a way to dodge her tracking of their cellphones so that they can skip out on their SAT tutoring sessions.  Bea, after a promising start to her literary career, has reached an impasse in the writing of her long-awaited first novel.  The crux of the matter and the question on everyone’s mind is whether or not Leo will turn over a new leaf and reimburse “The Nest.”  His track record is iffy, but he’s back with old girlfriend Stephanie, who shares with Bea my vote for most likeable character, despite her questionable taste in men.  Bea is a poignant character in many ways and makes the dubious decision to use her brother’s tragic mishap as fodder for her novel.   I enjoyed this book from start to finish, and I can’t complain about the ending, either, by which time I felt that I knew these characters inside and out.  They may not be people I’d want to hang out with, but certainly for the duration of this novel they provided some entertaining drama.  I’m just glad they’re not my family.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

THE HEART GOES LAST by Margaret Atwood

Dystopian novels tend to be pretty bleak, but here Margaret Atwood has injected a lot of humor, so that the tone is quite different.  Charmaine and Stan are a married couple living in their car after an economic collapse has devastated the eastern U.S.  Charmaine is working as a bartender so that they can buy food, but the car is their only defense against the crazed hoodlums who attack in the night.  Then Charmaine hears about a closed community (once in, you can never leave) called Consilience where everyone has a job and decent housing.  She convinces Stan to take the hook.  The premise of the community is that everyone lives as normal people every other month, but on alternate months they are prisoners, doing more menial jobs, while another couple occupies their house.  The two alternating couples are forbidden to meet as they swap places each month, but Charmaine soon finds herself in a reckless affair with Max, who lives in their house while Charmaine and Stan are in prison.  To me this seemed a bit like Cold War Communism, where everyone is working for the good of the community, but the community leaders are definitely reaping some sort of monetary benefits while keeping close tabs on what the citizens are up to.  The humor comes in the form of the funny business between Charmaine and Max and the ramifications for Stan, who finds a lusty note but misinterprets its authorship.  Charmaine and Stan are unwitting pawns in a complicated scheme that involves Elvis robots, blue knitted teddy bears, and a drug that will knock a person out and then cause them to imprint on the first thing they see with two eyes.  The gritty start belies the nutty stuff that happens later in the book, making it both chilling and somewhat absurd at the same time.  This combination appealed to me in a big way.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

LIFE BEFORE MAN by Margaret Atwood

Lesje and Elizabeth are competing for Nate’s affection, and, honestly, he’s not really worth it.  The two women work at the same natural history museum, and Nate is an attorney who now makes his living, such as it is, carving toys.  He and Elizabeth have a totally dysfunctional marriage, both engaging in affairs that they don’t bother to hide.  Elizabeth’s most recent spurned lover has committed suicide, and she’s depressed, though not exactly grieving.  Nate discards his current paramour, Martha, for Lesje, who lives with William but has no real investment in that relationship.  These characters are just as messed up as they sound, but Atwood wrote this book in the 1970s, and the novel takes place in the 1970s.  She may be making a statement about our culture during that time period, but I have a feeling that these people would be just as despicable today.  Still, I found these crazy relationships oddly appealing, in a voyeuristic kind of way.  Not that there’s anything kinky going on, except perhaps William’s startling reaction when he finds out about Lesje’s affair with Nate.  Elizabeth comes across as a skilled manipulator, laying a major guilt trip on Nate, when she’s just as much at fault for the demise of their marriage.  However, Nate seems to me to be passive-aggressive, stringing Lesje along while he drags out the severing of his ties with Elizabeth, ostensibly for the sake of their two daughters.  Lesje is the real enigma, and Atwood never really clues us in as to what she sees in Nate.  Does she love him because he sought her out as a lover?  He struck me as sort of a weasel.  She could do better.