Wednesday, December 30, 2009

LUSH LIFE by Richard Price

I love the double-entendre in this title. "Lush" can be interpreted as describing the classy restaurants and shops of the Upper East Side of NYC, or it can refer to the alcohol and drug abuse that is rampant. One reviewer noted that the mystery in the novel is resolved in the first third of the book. However, what the reviewer called "mystery" struck me as frustrating, so that I was relieved by its early resolution. The author seemed to be sowing the seeds of doubt for the reader, and I thought it made for a rather beguiling beginning actually. In any case, this is not a mystery novel or a thriller. It's a novel about solving a crime from a police detective's point of view. The cop is Matty Clark, and the other main character is Eric Cash, a restaurant manager who flees the scene when Ike, one of the guys he's out partying with, is shot on the street. Ike's father is so disoriented by the death of this son that he avoids his family and even tries to solve the murder himself. Matty finally begins to examine his own family issues, as his sons are not exactly model citizens. More exasperating, though, to Matty, is the lack of cooperation on the part of his supervisors. When it becomes clear that their mistakes have been a major hindrance to the totally botched investigation, Matty has to take the blame and overcome the consequences—persuading an indignant witness to provide more clues.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


I know that life is a miracle and that life is full of miracles, but this book goes way beyond that. Jeremiah Land can walk on air and heal with his touch, but for some reason he has not healed his severely asthmatic son Reuben. There's also a loaves-and-fishes-type incident, and frankly, this is too much hocus-pocus for me; I'm reminded of Richard Bach's Illusions. When Jeremiah's older son Davy busts out of prison for murdering the town bullies, his father and siblings set out for the Badlands to look for Davy in an Airstream that was bequeathed to them. They encounter a Fed who's also on Davy's trail, and Roxanna, a widow who shelters the family during a snowstorm. It wasn't clear to me whether Jeremiah was divorced from his first wife, who abandoned him and the kids when Jeremiah chucked med school in favor of becoming a janitor, due to, you guessed it, a miracle. Anyway, it's no surprise that Roxanna becomes Jeremiah's love interest and a surrogate mother to his children. My favorite thing in the book, by far, is Jeremiah's daughter Swede's epic poem about a man named Sundown who is chasing a bandit named Valdez. It seemed to me to be a bit beyond the capability of a 9-year-old, but that's just a small miracle, compared to all the rest. Given that her brother becomes an outlaw himself, she starts to sympathize with Valdez. The poetry dwindles, though, as the book goes on, and I was disappointed about that. Several people had recommended this book to me, but it was just too predictable and mushy for my taste.
Amazon: 4.5 stars (448 reviews)
Barnes & Noble: 4 stars (146 reviews)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


As with many translations, the unfamiliar, unpronounceable proper names interrupt the flow of the prose. For example, the main character's name in this Swedish novel is Blomkvist, which doesn't exactly roll smoothly off my English-speaking tongue. His female business partner and frequent lover is often referred to by her last name of Berger, but there is also a male character whose first name is Birger. The names of places are even more inscrutable. Still, the storyline is quite addictive, although it becomes somewhat gruesome and less engrossing in the second half. It's a good, old-fashioned mystery that reads like it was inspired by Dashiell Hammett. It also reminded me of the game of Clue, because the crime was committed on an unreachable island with a limited group of suspects. Blomkvist is a journalist whose reputation has been tarnished by a conviction for libel. Eighty-something-year-old Henrik Vanger has hired Blomkvist during his self-imposed sabbatical to investigate the disappearance of Harriett, Vanger's brother's granddaughter. The plot also made me think of the movie Blow-Up, because a photo becomes key to the investigation. Blomkvist hires Lisbeth Salander, an anti-social computer hacker with a photographic memory, as his assistant. Lisbeth has skeletons in her own closet and a personal vendetta against men who abuse women. In my imagination, she looks like the main character in the movie Run Lola Run. Perhaps this is part of the reason that this book is so popular; it conjures up striking visuals of the characters and the chilly Nordic landscape. Plus, there are enough evildoers—Nazis, rapists, corporate sleazeballs, etc.—to fill several novels.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

THE 19TH WIFE by David Ebershoff

It doesn't take much to convince me that a religious sect is wacky, but Ebershoff does much more than that. He interleaves a fictionally-enhanced version of the life of Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young's last wives, with that of Jordan Scott, one of the many adolescent boys thrown out of modern-day Mesaland, which houses a Mormon spin-off group that still practices polygamy. What with the elders of the community snapping up all the young girls as wives, there just aren't enough women to go around, and the boys are evicted for the slightest transgression. Ironically, Jordan was left by the side of the road at 14 years old for holding a girl's hand, when he is, in fact, gay. Jordan's first person account of how he returns to Mesaland to solve the mystery of his father's murder has a much lighter tone than the overwhelmingly depressing story of the early Mormons in the 1800s. The author focuses on the subject of plural marriage in both storylines, which was not only encouraged but virtually required until the Mormons put out a manifesto banning the practice, partly because of the bad press Ann Eliza Young gave it and partly to ensure Utah's statehood. How the Latter-Day Saints justified the fact that something as fundamental to their faith as polygamy went from being sanctioned to being prohibited is a mystery to me, but it's even more puzzling why the women thought that allowing their husbands as many sex partners as they wanted was a ticket to heaven. Maybe the women felt they earned it with their suffering.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

THE LOST CITY OF Z by David Grann

What would possess a middle-aged, out-of-shape journalist to trek deep into one of the world's most unforgiving environments to search for an explorer who vanished 80+ years ago? When David Grann reviews Percy Fawcett's secret charts, it's as though he's consulting a treasure map, and his enthusiasm would be contagious if he hadn't already told us several horror stories from other quests into the Amazon valley. The author borrows a popular technique from fiction writers by pairing a current day storyline with one from the past. I think, too, that he wanted to see the Amazon region first-hand so that he could describe the jungle with clarity, although much had been denuded since Fawcett's disappearance. Fortunately, the author had the benefit of a satellite phone, a 4-wheel drive vehicle, and a boat with an outboard motor. In 1925, Percy Fawcett had none of these luxuries and set out on foot with his inexperienced team--son Jack and Jack's buddy Raleigh--on a quest to discover a possibly fictitious lost city. In fact, most anthropologists believed that the likelihood of a civilization being able to flourish in such a hostile environment was nil. Fawcett, however, was obsessed with finding it and convinced of his own invincibility—two factors that probably contributed to his demise and that of his young cohorts. Actually, one can only speculate as to what happened to them, but the most likely scenario is that they were killed by a violent native tribe. It's also possible that they succumbed to starvation, snake bite, infection, injury, or worst of all, infestation by any number of deadly creepy-crawly things. Grann himself has a day from hell in which he's been abandoned by his guide and forced to wade through waist-high water and tall reeds to reach a village, and he's not even sure if he's headed in the right direction. At least we know he survived to tell the tale.