Bill Bryson’s latest — summertime and the living is, well, something

The prolific Bill Bryson has another book out called One Summer: America, 1927 (Random51g1xBpU19L._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_ House Audio, 2013). Bryson performs the reading of the book itself, which, as I have mentioned in previous posts, I usually don’t like. It’s especially embarrassing when writers who narrate their own books for the audio version make mistakes. I think Bryson does make a few mistakes. But the combination of authority, wonder, joy and exuberance he brings to the reading more than makes up for any pronunciation errors he may have committed. It’s gotten so I can’t imagine anyone else narrating one of Bill Bryson’s books.

As the title suggests One Summer focuses upon activities going on in the United States (mainly) during the summer of 1927. Of course the book ranges far afield of that specific timeframe as well. For example it’s not clear to me what Henry Ford specifically did during 1927 that qualifies him for inclusion in the book. I think perhaps he stopped production of the model T. He also may have begun construction of a planned community/rubber plantation in Brazil called, preposterously enough, Fordlandia. I’m not exactly sure on that. The same is true of the Sacco and Vanzetti material. Sacco and Vanzetti committed their crime I believe in 1920 or 1921 so we get a lot of information about that period of time including the trial, the public reaction  to the crime (as Bryson points out this was a period of significant prejudice against radicals and immigrants) and the follow-up activities. On the other hand, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in 1927, so I guess they fit into that year.

Certainly the two most famous people in the book that do merit inclusion because of their activities in 1927 include Babe Ruth, and Charles Lindbergh. Of course as everyone knows Babe Ruth had his career year with the Yankees in 1927 when he hit his record (at the time) 60 home runs, and Lindbergh made his solo flight across the Atlantic in the same year. From these two cornerstone events the book proceeds to talk about a wide variety of other activities that take place during 1927 that make it a sort of pivotal year in the history of United States.

Along the way we get quite a bit of Bill Bryson’s trademark devotion to detail, statistics and background information. For example, did you know that Babe Ruth’s swing applied 8000 pounds of pressure to the ball when he connected? Did you know that it takes four tenths of a second for a baseball to reach home plate from the pitcher’s hand? Did you also know that Babe Ruth still holds the record for left-handed pitchers for shutouts in a season with nine. I didn’t know this stuff either, but I do now, after reading this book. I also know that Calvin Coolidge liked to wear cowboy outfits and that Herbert Hoover was a publicity hound.

All of this and much more is revealed in American Summer. In fact there is so much contained in this book, as is typical of a Bill Bryson account, that it is hard to summarize it in a review. In addition to the folks I have already mentioned, we learn a lot about Jack Dempsey, for example, whose career was actually winding down in 1927 when he lost to Gene Tunney in a heavyweight boxing match. We learn about the making of “The Jazz Singer,” the “official” first talking motion picture and the invention of television (yes, it goes back that far). We get a lot of information about prohibition, although how specifically 1927 is involved in prohibition is not clear to me. In addition to the people and events I’ve already mentioned we get accounts of various depth on Lou Gehrig, Bill Tilden, Al Capone, Charles Ponzi, Richard Byrd, Clara Bow, Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Ku Klux Klan, eugenics . . . even pole sitting (Bryson focuses on a gentleman called Shipwreck Kelly, who was apparently one of the more prominent flagpole sitters of the era and, presumably, of 1927).

We learn that the weather was very wet in 1927. In addition to the Sacco and Vanzetti controversy there is coverage of other crimes, especially sensational murders like wives killing their husbands so that they can run off with their lovers and a particularly gruesome incident in the city of Bath, Michigan, where a man blew up a school, killing 37 children and 44 people in all.

Today we are kind of inured to violence such as this but in 1927 these were spectacular events and, as Bryson points out, the public in 1927 had an appetite for spectacle (although at which period in human history didn’t people display an appetite for spectacle?). That’s why Lindbergh’s flight was such a huge draw. Bryson gives us a sense of this excitement (100,000 people greeted Lindbergh’s plane when it landed in Paris) and the extraordinary celebrity that Lindbergh enjoyed (although from Lindbergh’s point of view it was anything but enjoyable) following his successful flight.

Conspicuous by their absence in One Summer are people of color. I don’t think this is an omission by Bryson, intentional or otherwise so much as it is a reflection of American society in 1927, an indication of the lack of opportunity for and, well, downright suppression of minorities. In the midst of the frenzy of the summer of 1927, one of the more sinister undertones is the prevalence of intolerance. Of course, that’s probably another book altogether. Maybe Bill Bryson will take it on.

 

Posted in History, Nonfiction | Leave a comment

Little Danny Torrance grows up to become Doctor Sleep

51EqPU0V0vL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_I never read Stephen King’s The Shining. I tried to, but I just couldn’t get into it. Now, Stanley Kubrick’s movie version, that I got into. Still, the movie wasn’t so much scary as creepy. Unfortunately, King’s “sequel” to The Shining, Doctor Sleep Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013, narrated by Will Patton) is neither scary nor creepy.

Speaking of Will Patton (well, okay, I simply referred to him parenthetically up there), he does his usual excellent job. Here and there I think he may go a little over the top, probably in an effort to inject some terror into the narrative, but mostly he’s his reliable narrating self. Of course, for my money, Patton does his best work in James Lee Burke’s Dave Robichaeux series and I couldn’t help hearing Dave and Clete Purcell occasionally. But, really, are these complaints even worth reporting?

Getting back to the book itself, what it lacked in scare or creep factor, it made up for in comedy. There is something fairly humorous in camouflaging the True Knot (Not True?) clan (these are a brood of quasi-vampires—ageless and subsisting on the “steam” rather than the blood of their normal human victims) as upper middle-aged RV nomads. Does any demographic give off less of a menacing vibe? The only time we notice these people is when we get stuck behind their leisurely convoys.Caravan Picture

I know I’m in the minority here, but I have always found King to be a better humorist than a master of horror, and I think he himself knows this, because King is nothing if not intelligent. The humor may be dark – even of the gallows variety – but it’s undeniably there.

This is not to say that Doctor Sleep in merely campy. King does his typically fine job of integrating the macabre into the mundane fabric of everyday life. In the book, Dan Torrance has never really reconciled himself to the horrible events of the Overlook Hotel and suffers from the occasional flashback of the sort many posttraumatic stress victims are subject to. His are a bit more exotic and, therefore, threatening, to be sure. He has bounced around with his mother, Wendy, until she died and, completely on his own, he descends into a decades-long alcoholic death spiral. This is a book that is more about the terrors of addiction than any external horrors.

Dan eventually finds Alcoholics Anonymous and gets a colorful sponsor, and we the listeners get quite a lot of AA philosophy and aphorisms. (Those may be the same thing in AA.) I understand what King is trying to do (he said, presumptively), but I found the AA angle intrusive. I mean, I get that the True Knot have the more destructive habit in terms of its threat to humanity. We’re all just feeding off of each other to some extent in this life. The True Knot, under their leader, the somewhat vaudevillian Rose the Hat, just take it to the extreme. It’s an interesting idea for a book, but a little tedious as an AA morality play. The villains are cartoon characters. They even have cartoon names. And there is something desperate in the clownish escapades of the True Knot. They’re not so much scary as needy. Maybe that’s scary enough.

Indeed, within the context of their own community, the True Knot show compassion, trust, loyalty—even an emotion verging on love. You almost feel a little sorry for them, even the vicious and relentlessly famished Rose as she meets her somewhat pedestrian and predictable end. I won’t give it away. Just let me say I didn’t find it particularly creative or impactful, given the fact that it’s the climactic moment in a real doorstopper of a book. I expected more razzle-dazzle, which, I know, doesn’t exactly demonstrate my sophistication as a reader/listener. But this is, after all, Stephen Motherfucking King.

I will not, however, ever look at those RV enthusiasts the same way again.

 

 

Posted in Fiction | Leave a comment

Now you see it . . . Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations (and everybody’s)

51PYCmBxMzL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_For me, as perhaps for many people, the idea of hallucination has always been terrifying. It always seemed to signal that one had lost control, had stepped off some cliff and fallen, irretrievably, into the abyss of insanity. That had always been my worry years ago when I had taken LSD. In the half dozen or so times that I took the drug, I never actually experienced a true hallucination, at least not that I can recall. (Of course, as they say, if you can recall the 60s . . .) I remember distortions and intensifications; I remember elasticity of time and I remember becoming aware of the process of my body – blood sloshing through my arteries, forms of brief, yet terrifying paralysis that I can’t define even now. Mainly things slowed down significantly and time even started to drag on. The positive effect for me was a sense of integration with the world. I seemed to pulse along the rhythm of existence itself. These were fascinating moments, but they were also where the paralysis would set it. It was like I was so in tune with the universe that I could not operate independent of it.

Unlike a number of my contemporaries, I never really had a lot of fun on LSD, nor can I report that I had any profound revelations. Maybe I just wasn’t taking the right stuff. And, like I said, I had this absolute dread of hallucinations.

One of the more interesting facts I learned in listening to Hallucinations, by Oliver Sacks (Random House Audio, 2013, read by Dan Woren) was how much more common hallucinations actually are among the general population and how, relatively speaking, benign they are. It turns out that hallucinations don’t necessarily turn you into a person who seems to be constantly swatting imaginary flies away from his or her face nor does it necessarily signal descent into insanity through other manifestations. Of course, the batshit crowd experiences them (how else do you explain, say, Michelle Bachmann on basically any topic she chooses to opine), but so do lots of sane people – people who suffer from blindness and epilepsy and/or who have lost limbs or who are subject to migraines.

I myself experience migraines occasionally. I don’t get headaches proper; these are what are referred to as “ocular” migraines. They affect my vision. Sacks describes them better than I’ve ever heard them described before. (When I tell people that a sort of jagged bright, almost vibrant white light migrates across my visual field making it difficult to read or to drive a car, the expression on their faces usually indicates that I’m not explaining it very well, to say the least.)

Here is Sacks’ description of the experience, which exactly mirrors my experience: “It’s classic visual presentation is a scintillating zigzag-edged kidney shaped form… expanding and moving slowly across one half of my field of vision over the course of fifteen or twenty minutes. Inside the shimmering borders of this shape is often a blind area, a scotoma–thus the whole shape is called a scintillating scotoma.” (No, I did not remember this verbatim from the audio edition; I had to go to the print version to get the exact terms. Hey, it’s not like I’m totally anti-print. I mean, I am typing out these reviews.)

I’m almost looking forward to my next migraine so I can tell someone that I’m in the middle of a scintillating scotoma. It almost sounds erotic. But seriously, it turns out I’ve been hallucinating on a regular basis–inasmuch as Sacks considers migraines hallucinatory episodes–since I was eight or nine years old.

I mean, who knew so many different kinds of hallucination–induced or otherwise–existed? In addition to the section on migraine, I particularly enjoyed the chapter called “Doppelgängers: Hallucinating Oneself.” A number of years ago I wrote a novel–sort of in the Philip K. Dick vein, about punishment for crimes in the future being constant surveillance by a clone of yourself, sort of an external conscience.

Hey, maybe I should resurrect that idea. Let me ask this guy sitting next to me who seems to like to stare at me and looks very familiar.

Dan Woren does a fine job narrating Hallucinations, especially because much of the language is technical and many of the references and names/proper nouns are in foreign languages. Still, although I usually frown on authors narrating their own works, I think I would have made an exception in this case. Sacks does narrate the introduction, which he does a fine job with. I would like to have heard more from him.

Finally I think it’s interesting that, as Sacks points out, hallucinations over the millennia might have played such a central role in our collective imaginative lives. They may account for all our legends of things like leprechauns and fairies, as well as giants, ghosts and demons. They seem to almost certainly have influenced the history of pictorial art. And if Julian Jaynes was right, as he wrote so brilliantly in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, auditory hallucinations were most likely the voice of the gods themselves as man encountered new situations and responded to the authority of hallucinations generated by one half of his brain to negotiate the ever-increasing novelty of this life experience.

Not to get all philosophical on you, although to the extent that you currently even exist, I may be hallucinating you.

Posted in Nonfiction | Leave a comment

If a Cuckoo’s Calling, hang up

51MGP2dlH5L._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_Okay, so we all know that The Cuckoo’s Calling (Hachette Audio, 2013, read by Robert Glenister) wasn’t really written by the bogus Robert Galbraith, whose name graces the cover. The book was in fact written by J.K. Rowling, who created the Harry Potter franchise and who, at last count, has sold 32 gazillion books in that series. I happen to be one of the four sentient creatures on Planet Earth who doesn’t get it. I listened to the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and said, “Okay, that’ll do it for me.” I generally don’t like books about the supernatural (if you don’t count science fiction and some of Stephen King’s work). But if I ever again read or listen to a book about people who ride brooms it will be because someone is holding a large caliber weapon to my head and saying something about how it’s the most powerful handgun in all of Christendom and will blow my head clean off, etc. etc. etc.

I also doubt that I’ll be reading any more books about Cormoran Strike (assuming any more are written about him). Strike is the private detective who is involved in efforts to determine whether or not a supermodel named Lula Landry killed herself by jumping out of her apartment window (presumably located on one of the upper floors) or was pushed out. Or thrown out. To accomplish this task Strike interviews people. Lots of people. But wait, let me take a step back for a moment and talk about Mr. Strike. He is a former military cop (as I understand it) who has gone out on his own as a private detective. The back story on him is that he has had something of a chaotic childhood (his father is a famous rock star… need I say more about his upbringing?); he’s just broken up with his longtime girlfriend with whom he’s had a tumultuous relationship; he drinks a bit too much and is currently down on his luck client-wise; he is provisionally “living” in his office, which needs the attention of a perky new secretary named Robin to tidy things up. And also did I mention that she also turns out to be his amateur sleuthing partner? (Holy Namesake, Batman!)

Does any of this sound familiar? If it does, (and it should) it’s because Rowling doesn’t demonstrate much originality in terms of Strike’s character. I truly think that Rowling gave him such a distinctive name (Cormoran? Really?) because there is nothing else that distinguishes him from about 1000 similar characters. Maybe that was Rowling’s intention, but I can’t see why. I also can’t see why anyone would actually care whether Lula Landry jumped or was pushed. Lula is a Celebrity Supermodel; like most of the other celebrities in this novel —  fashionistas, actors, producers and similar dreadful types — she inhabits that rarefied and fickle dimension called Fame, prey to a roiling sea full of paparazzi in darting schools (to mix as many metaphors as possible). Rowling does a fair job of exposing the vacuity, narcissism, petulance and general weirdness of this crowd. For example consider the “marriage” of Lula and her significant other, Evan Duffield. They call it a “commitment ceremony” which I guess is the equivalent of a wedding ritual. They exchange bangles and recite poems to each other and they seem to be taking this all very seriously.

What comes through in the testimony of Lula’s friends is that she has no more personality than a Barbie doll. But don’t we already know that these people are pathologically inane? Self-absorbed to the point of toxicity? Do we learn anything new or different from Rowling?

I have no complaints about Robert Glenister’s reading. He is competent and convincing. Okay, well maybe just a couple of times he sounds like he’s doing a bad imitation of an imitation of Michael Caine.

Maybe he’s doing it on purpose. To add some humor. Because this novel is almost devoid of humor. I realize it is a murder mystery but The Cuckoo’s Calling (by the way, did I mention that I don’t get the title—I know one of the characters calls Lula “Cuckoo,” but I still don’t get it) is dreary even for that genre. Rowling could learn a few things from Nelson DeMille whose concepts are every bit as serious–maybe even more so–as Cuckoo’s, but we still get a chuckle now and then. DeMille may overdo it at times, but a couple of laughs wouldn’t hurt.

I’m trying to think of something to recommend this book but I’m having some difficulty. Oh, hell there isn’t that much good to say about it. Maybe it is a bit of a joke. The Latin quotes that start each chapter would suggest that. Rowling can’t really be serious with those, can she?

The efforts at misdirection are weak – almost amateurish — the dialogue isn’t all that interesting and the story is not all that compelling. Ms. Rowling seems like a very reasonable and authentic person and writer and it’s certainly difficult to argue with her success, but IMHO her wizardry lies elsewhere.

Posted in Fiction | Leave a comment

Still Life, with mulligans

51zxJeJx6TL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_What writer of fiction wouldn’t love to be rescued from his or her own dead ends? You start a story arc with a character and, somewhere along the way you decide it isn’t working; there’s no future for the character and yet you’ve got a whole novel to fill out. So you start again with an alternative future.

Normally, of course, the novelist would discard the first “life” of the character. In Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson (Hachette Audio, 2013, read by Fenella Woolgar) however, the author gets to keep them all.

Okay, so this is profoundly unfair to Atkinson, even though it does often seem that her main character, Ursula Todd, has the most vivid and persistent case of déjà vu since human consciousness sparked into existence.  But it’s not really the story of the Greatest Do-over(s) Ever. First, Ursula has no control over the process (it’s not exactly a case of “If I had it to do all over again . . .”). Second, because of the limitation I just mentioned, she really doesn’t have any advantages over the rest of us, nor does she necessarily improve as a result of her experiences. She just gets reincarnated, sort of, back into the same identity. She dies a lot. You can tell she’s going to die when the darkness starts to enfold her, or when the huge black bat descends. She dies at birth (that old chestnut of the umbilical cord around the neck), as a young girl (drowning, falling from a roof, a victim of the 1918 flu epidemic), and as a mature woman (beaten to death by her husband, done in by a botched abortion, mortally concussed during the London Blitz). I think she is also shot to death by Hitler’s bodyguards in the novel’s early and late pages. She is married or not married, living in either London or Berlin during the run-up to World War II, gets raped at 16 or successfully fights off her attacker. Well, you get the idea. A lot can happen to a person who lives life after life.

It’s starting to sound as if I didn’t like this book, but that’s not the case at all. I enjoyed it very much. Atkinson develops some fascinating characters, notably (in addition to the main character) Ursula’s somewhat neurotic mother Sylvie, her extravagantly eccentric Aunt Izzie and her siblings, who range from assholes (Maurice) to heroes (Teddy, who, having been shot down over enemy territory, either survives or doesn’t). Atkinson is also extraordinarily good at evoking settings. This is especially true in her relating of events during World War II in London while the city is getting blasted to smithereens, and her portrayal of early 20th Century England in all its bourgeois glory. Of course, I can’t claim to be an expert in either of these time periods or places, but the seem so authentic in the context of Atkinson’s narrative.

This authenticity of atmosphere is helped immensely, I think, through the reading done by Fenella Woolgar (a name that seems to have jumped out of a Wodehouse novel).

I say, Jeeves . . .

I say, Jeeves . . .

I looked her up on Wikipedia and learned that she’s an actress with solid credentials, mainly on British TV. In Life After Life Woolgar’s pacing is excellent, her pronunciations are unerring and her accent is just about perfect. The narration also requires that she handle the occasional foreign language (French, German, a smattering of Italian) and she manages to deliver them with convincing expertise.

This is the first of Atkinson’s non-Jackson Brodie books that I’ve read. So far, I have to say that I prefer the JB novels, all their coincidences and other plot eccentricities notwithstanding (see reviews here and here).

On the other hand, Brodie and Ursula have a lot in common. Their personalities express a certain resignation about life – not necessarily pessimistic (at least not to the point of paralysis) – but certainly not sentimental. They seem to engage existence without aggrandizing it or themselves. I like that in my fictional characters. And in my actual living, breathing human beings, even if they only get to live once.

 

Posted in Fiction | Leave a comment

Best audio + best book = well, best audiobook

51d5BVCoGIL._SY346_

To get right to it, this unabridged recording of Ulysses (Recorded Books, 1995, read by Donal Donnelly and Miriam Healy-Louie) is one of the audiobook world’s greatest achievements.  The story of James Joyce’s masterpiece is well known. At least I hope it is, because I don’t intend to do a plot summary. (Hint: you can always read Homer’s Odyssey or check out Hollywood’s version with Kirk Douglas. I remember seeing it as a child and having nightmares about a raging and drunken Polyphemus for weeks afterwards.)

I have listened to this version of the book three times now (I’ve also read it three times; no, there is nothing heroic about this on my part. I was a Joyce scholar in graduate school and I had plenty of help). In fact Ulysses (not this version) is the first book I can remember listening to. In 1982 for the centennial of Joyce’s birth someone, I believe it was the BBC, broadcast a nonstop, uncut performance of the book, and, miraculously I caught that broadcast

As groundbreaking as that program was, I don’t remember that it had the impact of this version. Donal Donnelly, the late great Irish actor (he died in 2010) who reads most of the book, is simply astonishing. He has a lot to manage in this narration — a variety of languages and numerous accents (we often overlook the fact that even within the Irish brogue there is tremendous variety). He has to sing, tell jokes, convey the rarified consciousness and allusive internal monologue of Stephen Douglas (who is basically James Joyce). He also has to reliably deliver hundreds of place names and proper nouns. Most important, he must help the listener to comprehend a major component of Ulysses — Joyce’s techniques of varying points of view, unreliable narrators, and variations in style of each of the books 18 chapters. For example as those familiar with the book will know, one chapter, called the Oxen of the Sun, relates to a woman who is in extended labor at a hospital. As the hero of the story, Leopold Bloom, along with Stephen Dedalus and some of the other characters await the birth (well, really only Bloom is awaiting the delivery; the others are getting drunk), Joyce relates events by mimicking in literary style the gestation of a fetus. It starts out very Latiny (the equivalent of the female egg, a professor of mine once explained) moves to Old English, Middle English Chaucerian, etc., up progressively through Elizabethan, Miltonian, right into the late 19th century with Carlyle and MacCauley. (This is a much-abbreviated list.) Joyce even includes an, ahem, afterbirth of modern  gibberish, signaling the language’s decline into today’s hodgepodge of co-mingled languages. Anyway, you get the point. Donnelly has to convey this linguistic evolution and he pulls it off spectacularly. Then, just when you think you couldn’t exceed that performance he moves into the hallucinatory Circe episode, which prefigures Finnegans Wake in its resistance to meaning.

It’s a damn tour de force is what it is and it is nearly equaled by Miriam Healy-Louie’s effort in the Penelope chapter, which is basically a stream-of-consciousness monologue by Bloom’s wife Molly. She also is superb. Her feat probably only seems slightly inferior to Donnelly’s because she only has one chapter to interpret, even though it’s like 1600 lines and 40 or so pages of a single sentence-length paragraph. For perspective in count it is the approximate equivalent of reciting the entire text of, oh, say Much Ado About Nothing, which, by the way many think that Ulysses is.

But they are wrong. Ulysses is challenging material, but this performance by Donelly and

James Joyce

James Joyce

Healy-Louie makes it significantly more accessible. Thanks to these two great artists, Joyce’s comedy, inventiveness, intellectual vigor, and, most important, his humanity are on full display.

Posted in Fiction | 1 Comment

The attraction of Beautiful Ruins

The time span covered in Beautiful Ruins (by Jess Walter, Harper Audio, 2012, read by 61QIpLSFAHL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_Edoardo Ballerini) is significant – from roughly mid-World War II to the present. Of course, many novels skip back and forth through decades – centuries even. Multigenerational? Is that what they’re called? But time is important in this book because one of its major themes is how people, either through ambition or regret or intoxication or denial or in fact for lots of reasons, live in everything but the present moment. This is not a good thing because, to paraphrase one of the book’s characters, people spend their lives waiting for their lives to happen.

Okay, not all that insightful or profound. So, enough of the pompous Deeper Meaning interpretations. I liked this book for other reasons anyway. First, I love the guy who does the reading, Edoardo Ballerini. I have previously praised his narration of The Swerve, a totally different assignment, of course. It helps that Ballerini is Italian, as much of Beautiful Ruins takes place in Italy. So, he handles the occasional Italian phrase very well. But beyond that, his rendering of all of the characters is superb. He has a wide variety of voices to interpret and he delivers each with distinctiveness and consistency. You’re never confused about who is speaking. If he made any mistakes, I don’t remember them.

The same might be said for the author, Jess Walter. Beautiful Ruins is a well-told story, an achievement which becomes more impressive in light of the complicated and interwoven plot lines. And, actually the plot isn’t central to the enjoyment of this book. Nevertheless, here’s a summary:

In 1962, Pasquale Tursi, the young heir to a hotel called The Adequate View (seriously) in the very culturally low-profile coastal Italian town of Porto Vergogna, watches one day as a beautiful young woman disembarks to register in his hotel (which will make her the only guest for the time being). It turns out that this woman is an American actor who is playing an extra in the movie production of Cleopatra, at that time being filmed in Rome. Yes, that one – with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The actress’s name is Dee Moray and Pasquale falls for her immediately. He soon learns that she has come to Porto Vergogna for some R & R. She has been diagnosed with stomach cancer by a physician who works for the film studio.

Of course, we are already suspicious. It also turns out that Dee is one of Richard Burton’s sexual conquests and she may be seen as threat to Liz’s relationship with Burton, and, thus to the successful completion of an already troubled project. Michael Deane, a young PR flack for the studio (he figures prominently in other sections as a successful movie/TV producer), arranges for Dee’s “sojourn,” and, well, I hate to be a spoiler, but it should be pretty clear (and becomes clear relatively early in the novel) what’s going here. Let me just say that the studio-appointed doctor may have been a little overzealous in is diagnosis of Miss Moray’s condition. As the great Dr. Gregory House memorably reports to one of his female patients after examining her during one of his dreaded clinic hours, “You have a parasite.” And he was not talking about an alien species.

Another regular, though infrequent, American guest of The Adequate View is a writer named Alvis Bender, who provides a narrative bridge to World War II, having served in Italy during that conflict. He also figures in Dee Moray’s future. Okay, there, I did it. Sorry. Yes, Ms. Moray survives. So does her child, a son named Pat who is an almost-famous musician with substance abuse and relationship issues. Okay, so that situation is a bit of a cliché.

I should say that Alvis Bender is a frustrated writer. He actually only completes one chapter of his magnum opus on WWII. For the rest of his somewhat abbreviated life he’s a car salesman (lending some irony to his demise) and an alcoholic (lending even some more irony to his last name). In fact, one of the motifs running through Beautiful Ruins is that of artistic frustration coupled with or complicated by the allure of fame.

Which brings us back to Michael Deane, in the present day. More specifically it brings us to a young woman who works for Deane, basically as a script, what, screener? Her name is Claire Silver. Essentially she spends her time listening to writers make pitches for new movies and TV shows. She hates it. The pitches are preposterous, their wackiness exemplified in the offering of one Shane Wheeler, whose idea is to make a movie called Donner! which is about exactly what you think it’s about – people in a wagon train, headed west, stranded by snow in a mountain pass and eating children to stay alive.

Claire is appalled. But wait! Deane loves it! Or appears to. Or likes the fact that Wheeler speaks some Italian and can interpret for this old guy, Tursi, who has just shown up looking for Deane’s help in finding Dee Moray.

Okay, basta! with the plot summaries. Beautiful Ruins is worth listening to for the story, the handling of the thematic elements, the humor (the episodes with Richard Burton are hilarious), the cynicism, and the quality of the writing.

I think that’s enough.

Posted in Fiction | Leave a comment

Gone (but not forgotten) Girl

41m0gO52GwL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_As I write this review, Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (audiobook version read by Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne, Random House Audio, 2012) sits at or near the top of the New York Times Hardcover Fiction bestseller list. You can’t, as they say, argue with success. So, I won’t. I’ll just offer a few observations. I can’t actually get into much of the plot without immediately issuing a spoiler alert. That’s because Gone Girl is all about the plot, in more ways than one. The characters really have no dimension to them, perhaps by design, and none of them are sympathetic characters. (Well, maybe one, which I’ll get to.)

There are any number of stock characters, such as the Nancy Grace-like TV talk show personality with a taste for the sensational and the bottom-feeding lawyer who specializes in defending the world’s O. J. Simpson wannabes. Lots of other shallow, self-absorbed types, including the parents of one of the main characters and the mistress of another (a student-teacher thing . . . Geez!).

I think I can reveal this much of the plot:  Nick and Amy Dunne have been married for five years. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick gets a call at the bar that he runs with his sister Margo. It is his neighbor calling to report that the front door of Nick’s house has been left wide open for a significant period of time and the neighbor is suspicious. Nick returns home to find signs of a struggle and his wife not at home, where, being jobless, she usually spends her time. It soon becomes clear that she has gone missing. Has she been kidnapped? Fled into hiding to evade an attacker? Dead? And just who might be involved? Hmmm. (Please envision me stroking my stubbled chin between thumb and fingers, eyes narrowed, perhaps one eyebrow slightly raised. Ignore that yawn a few seconds later.)

(Also concerning the plot, Gone Girl may be the only mystery I’ve ever read that features both refrigerated vomit and refrigerated sperm — in the same refrigerator. If that isn’t enough to make you listen to this book, well, then, I don’t know what would be. Maybe nothing.)

"I swear, Your Honor, those really are dairy products in my refrigerator."

“I swear, Your Honor, those really are dairy products in my refrigerator.”

All of this is reported in a first person narrative by Nick. His narrative alternates with Amy’s, which is in the form of a diary or journal. (One of these days I’ll have to investigate just what the difference is between those two. Is it that, especially for females, once you reach the age of eighteen your diary just becomes a journal?) Anyway, I think what would really have been interesting would have been for these two narratives to have turned out to have been delivered by the same person. In terms of the characters’ respective personalities, they night as well have been. But this already might be giving too much away. And it’s Flynn’s book, after all, not mine.

Can I say that these narrators (I’m talking about the characters’ voices now, not the voice talents performing the reading, who do a competent, if not compelling, rendition) are unreliable? And here’s the thing about unreliable narrators. In the hands of some inferior writers, the technique relies on the naivete or maybe the trust of readers to make it easier to spring plot twists, surprises, sudden reversals and other less-than-sophisticated plot elements to make the story “interesting.” Of course, the unreliable narrator has a long tradition and some readers must really get a kick out of it. As I said, Gone Girl tops the bestseller list.

I can’t really account for its popularity in any other way. Any given episode of the first season of “Homeland” is far superior to Gone Girl. So my advice would be to pass on this book and settle in for a binge-viewing session with the Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin.

And, oh yeah, the one quasi-sympathetic character of the book is Nick’s sister Margo, whom Nick refers to as Go. A diminuitive, no doubt. But I also read it as an imperative, as in “get the fuck away from these people and this situation as fast as possible.” In other words, become another gone girl, in a good way.

Posted in Fiction | Leave a comment

John Corey faces off with another feline villain in The Panther

51W7RM9FkGL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_I often got the sense while listening to The Panther (by Nelson DeMille, Hachette Audio, 2012, read by Scott Brick), that the novel sounds like one long standup routine by the main character, John Corey. That’s not altogether bad for at least a couple of reasons. First, Corey is funny (unlike some real standup comics). As listeners of previous John Corey books know, he is smart, irreverent, and politically incorrect. Much of his humor comes at the expense of women, foreigners (especially Middle Eastern Arabs and Muslims), his superiors (whoever they are exactly–I’m never quite sure) and just about anyone else who pisses him off. Second, Scott Brick once again does the narration, and his timing, attitude, inflection and everything else that makes for an exemplary reading are on full display here. Brick, it seems to me, is at the very top of his game and John Corey is the perfect vehicle for showcasing his virtuosity. I don’t know if Mr. Brick is a wisecracking, puerile, and sarcastic, yet endearing, pain in the ass in real life. Probably not. But he’s a perfect John Corey. Brick is so good, in fact, that he actually makes DeMille’s Acknowledgments section sound interesting, although DeMille deserves some of the credit here for providing something more than just a list of names. But Brick has the kind of talent that would make his reading of a telephone book sound interesting. Let me see: do I need to explain what a telephone book is?

It’s a good thing Brick’s reading is so entertaining because The Panther isn’t all that satisfying as a novel. It may be a matter of proportion or maybe it’s the plotting. All I can say, without giving too much of the plot away, is that the payoff or climax doesn’t have a lot of impact. Basically, DeMille mailed it in. And because the middle takes a lot of time building up to the climax, that letdown was even more disappointing, like an underachieving punchline after an elaborate joke setup.

That setup is as follows: various antiterrorist authorities of the United States have determined that they want to capture (read “assassinate”) the Panther, who is actually an American citizen who has bought into the radical Islam of Al Qaeda big-time. The Panther, whose real name is Bulus ibn al-Darwish (pay attention, because I won’t be using his real name again) and who was one of those responsible for the attack on the USS Cole and who is still up to his evil ways in Yemen–murdering terrorists and such (why anyone who isn’t an Al Qaeda sympathizer would decide that Yemen might make a nice tourist destination is beyond me). But the Panther’s not complaining; if the infidels want to travel to him to make themselves available for slaughter, he’s all too happy to oblige.

The plan to apprehend that the Panther involves using Corey and his wife, Kate Mayfield, (but mainly Corey) as bait. The thinking is that the Panther and his Al Qaeda comrades want to avenge Corey’s killing of the Lion, another Middle Eastern baddie who figured prominently in two earlier John Corey books by DeMille: The Lions Game, which was superb and The Lion, which wasn’t. (See the Audiobook Junkie review here.) So, there seems to be a sort of a fatwa aimed at Corey and by displaying him in Yemen he will be such an irresistible target that the Panther will make his way to Corey faster than the Road Runner can cover cartoonish Western terrain. Okay I’m mixing my species here. But you get the idea. The problem is that the Panther doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to pounce. Or even stalk. He does set up a roadside ambush not too long after John and Kate arrive in Yemen (and it takes a while in narrative terms before that even happens), but a couple of Predator drones take care of that without too much trouble. Then we get lots of Corey and Kate and other military and CIA/FBI types hanging around hotels and Bedouin camps and driving around a lot. This allows plenty of time for the famous Corey humor to get a full airing, but it really doesn’t advance the story.

I’m trying to think of other major plot points. Hmmm. At the moment I can’t think of any.

SPOILER ALERT!!!

As you might imagine, we’re heading towards a showdown between Corey and the Panther. When it happens, it turns out to be a remarkably perfunctory affair. They basically get into a knife fight (Yes! Another knife fight!) using jambias, 800px-Jambiyathose curved blades that Yemen men carry. Unlike the complicated choreography that resembled something out of The Pirates of Penzance in The Lion, this one is mercifully quick. Corey slices the Panther’s throat, dusts off his hands and he and Kate head back to the good old U. S. of A.

But what I haven’t talked about is a subplot involving a CIA guy named Chet Morgan and another intelligence agency-type named Buckminster Harris. This subplot appears to involve a conspiracy among the agencies to eliminate Corey and his wife as part of the Panther destruction operation. It seems the CIA is unhappy with Kate, especially, for killing one of their agents in an earlier John Corey book. I can’t remember which one. But is it really that important? The point is, the Company fails in this attempt, but a guy like John Corey isn’t about to let it go. So, I’m thinking we can anticipate who Corey’s adversaries will be in the next book.

A final note. DeMille has a character named Paul Brenner, who is one of the good guys in the novel. He is a former military type who befriends Corey in Yemen and he’s a sympathetic character. But every time I heard Scott Brick say his full name, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Paul Bremer, the guy who was the Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq under George Bush and who basically fucked up the place even worse than we did invading it, if that was even possible. Of course, authors have the right to name their characters however they see fit. I just found this particular act of nomenclature a distraction. But, then, I am easily distracted. And, I guess, easily amused, which is why I will almost certainly listen to the next John Corey book with as much attention as I can muster.

Posted in Fiction | Leave a comment

Happy trails — Bill Bryson takes a hike

I first encountered Bill Bryson in his book A Short History of Nearly Everything (the print version), which I thought was magnificent. Bryson has a way of delivering facts with humor, authority and an almost childlike wonder. He also has a talent for weaving those facts into whatever context he happens to be focused on. He did this brilliantly in At Home.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (Random House Audio, 2012, narrated by Rob McQuay) isn’t quite as good as either of the two books I’ve just mentioned, but it’s still pretty good. The book relates Bryson’s sort of impetuous decision to hike the Appalachian Trail, or at least attempt to. As Bryson learns, it’s a daunting challenge. The trail stretches for more than 2,100 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia, to Mount Katahdin in Maine, much of it basically wilderness. He recruits an old friend of his, Stephen Katz (apparently a pseudonym) and the two out-of-shape middle-aged white guys start walking.

They never do make it all the way. Late in the account Bryson estimates that he covered less than 40% of the trail–39.5% to be exact (like I said, the guy is into facts)–but that’s mileage and time enough for some humorous adventures and a lot more information (facts). The more entertaining stuff involves the characters that Bryson and Katz meet along the trail. These include Mary Ellen, a nonstop talker, chronic Eustachian tube clearer and insufferable harpy; a guy named Chicken John, who has seriously dangerous limitations when it comes to his sense of direction; and various other obnoxious and/or companionable fellow hikers.

There are also some reflections on the dangers involved in hiking the AT, as it’s called. Bears, for example. Bryson and Katz have a perhaps phantom encounter with bears one night that sends Bryson into a panic, but which doesn’t seem to bother Katz too much, even though he’s armed only with a pair of nail clippers.

 

 

The relevant Bryson fact in this instance is that unprovoked black bear attacks along the AT are rare. Up until the time of the writing of A Walk, there had only been one confirmed human death at the hands – or, I guess, claws – of a bear throughout the two states of New Hampshire and Vermont since 1784. Interesting, huh?

Then there are your basic outdoor hazards such as hypothermia, various diseases transmitted by insects, and, well, death. Hikers have actually been murdered on the AT. In fact the year Bryson and Katz made their abortive effort, two women had their throats cut in their tent. All of these hazards are, as in the case of bear attacks, relatively rare but in the aggregate, well, they start to assume a kind of heft of risk.

There are also some more remote, but no less interesting, risks involving coal mines. Did you know that 50,000 miners died in American mines between 1870 and the start of World War I? Or that anthracite fires can burn for decades? (One got started in 1850 in Lehigh and didn’t peter out for 80 years.)

The book also shook whatever confidence I had in those venerable institutions, the National Park Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Bryson complains that the Park Service has not been a very effective ecological steward of the lands under its management. But the Corps’ performance is even more disturbing, especially its ineptitude in the construction of dams, not exactly encouraging to those who might live downstream from one of these structures.

Let’s see, what else?

There’s some interesting data on the records for various thru-hiker attempts (thru-hikers walk the entire trail nonstop – well, they stop for the night, but you know what I mean). The fastest effort was something like fifty-two days, but that was done by some sort of elite/extreme athlete. Normally it seems to take about four months to hike the complete trail. What I found even weirder was that there is actually a record for the longest time it took a section hiker (one who does the AT in smaller increments and at different times) to cover the full distance. This record is a ridiculous 46 years. Why ridiculous? Well, if you divide the length of the trail, say 2,100 miles, by 46, you get 45.65 miles per year. But if you then divide that total by, say, 180, which would be way at the outer edge of the number of days each year that you could walk the AT, you get .25 – that is to say, a quarter mile per day.

You could do the low crawl of the AT faster than that. Maybe that’s why the record holder in this case isn’t identified.

Rob McQuay does a decent job of narrating the book (although I must say I enjoyed Bryson’s own reading of his book, At Home). I really don’t have any complaints. Okay, maybe one. He makes a reference to the Grand Hotel at Mackinac Island in Michigan, making the last syllable of Mackinac rhyme with “hack.” We all, especially those of us from Michigan, know that it rhymes with “saw.” Just remember: “hacksaw.” Okay, I know, that’s terrible.

Just one more fact from the book. At one point, Bryson notes that the average American walks just 350 yards per day (so maybe that 46-year record isn’t so appalling after all). Of course, the book was originally published in 1998 – I don’t know why the Audible Edition was so late in becoming available – and the interest in physical fitness in America has grown significantly since then. So now, the average American walks 250 yards per day.

Just kidding.

I think.

Posted in Nonfiction | Leave a comment