Latest Reacher book is, well, a reach

A Wanted Man (Random House Audio, 2012), Lee Child’s latest installment in the Jack Reacher line, is, well, sorry to have to report this, the most tedious of the series. However, before I get into how tedious it is (wow, bet you can’t wait for that!) I do have a couple of observations.

First, Lee Child once again makes a very emphatic point — in fact he makes it several times, starting on page one or page two at the most (it’s hard to precisely tell when you are listening to a book rather than reading it) — about Jack Reacher’s physical dimensions. He’s huge. He’s 6′ 5″ or so and about 250 pounds. We all know this, right? But still, Child chooses to make a big deal of it, so to speak.

So tell me again why Tom Cruise has been cast as Jack Reacher in the upcoming movie about the big guy? Cruise, is like, what, five-six or five-seven? Katie Holmes towered over him. A bulked-up Clint Eastwood in his prime could have played Reacher. That actor who starred in 300, Gerard Butler, could probably play Reacher (although according to all the celebrity websites, he’s closer to six-two; yes, it’s somewhat pathetic that my life has come down to this).

I don’t necessarily have anything against Cruise, that batshit stuff with Scientology nothwithstanding, but when it comes to his playing Reacher, the discrepancy in size is going to be hard for me to overlook.

On the other hand, think of this:  perhaps the casting of Cruise as Reacher reflects the diminishing quality of the Reacher series. That will take me back to the whole “tedium” theme I began with. But before we do that, I just want to say that Dick Hill, who once again narrates the story in A Wanted Man, not only does his usual very professional job, but in this book he has an additional challenge in that Reacher is suffering from a broken nose (a leftover trauma from his previous adventure) and Hill has to incorporate that into his reading. He seems to forget a couple of times, but for the most part he’s consistent in making Reacher sound like he has a severe head cold through the narrative. Is this the sign of a great voice talent, an audiobook hall of fame shoo-in? (Is there a hall of fame for audiobook readers? If not, there should be. I have some nominees, but I guess that’s a whole ‘nother topic. You can probably tell that I’m just avoiding getting to the discussion of the virtues (minimal) and defects (terminal) of A Wanted Man.

So, back to tedium. Well, to me, the plot was as flat as the Midwest terrain that forms the backdrop of this book. It starts out with Reacher hitchhiking somewhere in Nebraska. Or Maybe it was Kansas. Or Iowa. Reacher is apparently making his way to Virginia by thumbing rides in the general direction of Chicago, where he can catch a bus or a train to his ultimate destination. Two men and a woman driving together — claiming to be driving to Chicago — pick him up. The three also claim to be on a business trip, but you’d have to be a complete idiot not to see through that facade almost immediately. And, of course, Reacher isn’t an idiot. Not yet anyway. I would like to say at this point that I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but that would assume that it held my attention long enough for me to have identified it. People drive around a lot (I’d like to see the GPS tracking on that; it would look something like instructions on the lacing and tying of shoes); Reacher kills a few dozen people. There is something to do with terrorists and a nuclear waste warehouse and the FBI. And, presto! Before you know it, Reacher is standing on the side of the the road — maybe in almost the same spot he occupied at the start of the book (maybe not, but it might as well be; my point is, this book, like Reacher in it, goes nowhere).

Reacher fans will be happy to know that he still retains his command of more or less relevant data. He knows area codes and populations numbers, and he’s still got that internal alarm clock thing working. And I’m extremely happy to report that Reacher doesn’t have sex in this book. He does have an interesting exchange with the woman among the group of “business” people who pick him up. He realizes at one point that she is trying to communicate to him by blinking her eyes in some kind of complicated number/letter code (don’t even ask). Reacher watches this through the rearview mirror while he is driving the threesome’s car. It’s never precisely clear why this subterfuge has to happen. Then, again, maybe I just wasn’t interested enough to pay attention.

Maybe Tom Cruise can revive the flagging Jack Reacher franchise. I have my doubts about that, but it needs something. (Hmmm. Maybe casting Cruise as Reacher is an effort to attract more female readers/listeners?) I don’t want to say it’s time to retire Reacher. I like the big lug. Maybe it just needs a change of venue. Maybe we team up Reacher with Clete Purcel down in New Orleans. Now that’s a book I would listen to.

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Creole Belle — Ring up another triumph for James Lee Burke

I’m not even sure I know what a bayou is. Kind of a sluggish river, right? And I grew up and have lived much of my life in the Detroit area, which, at least at the surface level, is about as far atmosphere-wise from New Iberia, Louisiana, as it is geographically. But while there is certainly an abundance of local color in James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, it is their thematic universality that I find most compelling. That applies to the latest installment in the series, Creole Belle (Simon & Schuster Audio, 2012).

I’ve been to New Orleans on several occasions. I can’t claim Burke’s intimate sense of the place, but I can say it’s a wonderful experience. It reeks not of exotica (is that a word?), but more of nonconformity—a casual, even languid nonconformity. Not hostile or defiant, but persistent. It’s so deeply ingrained that, to me, New Orleans and environs is more like a foreign country within the confines of the United States than any place I’ve ever visited. Not that I’ve visited them all. Again, this goes deeper than local color. Sure, there are the bayous and the jambalaya and the beignets (which Clete Purcel, Robicheaux’s best friend and alter ego, seems to gobble by the dozen) and the Cajun dialect and the drive-thru daiquiri stands (well, okay, that last example may be one of the great expressions of independence left in the country).

And speaking of the Cajun sound, I may have pointed this out in a previous review, but I can’t imagine anyone being able to narrate a Dave Robicheaux novel after Will Patton. His work is singular, unique. He makes you actually see Clete Purcel, for example. Well, okay, not actually see. Visualize. You know what I mean. And though I’m no linguist, I can’t recall anyone doing a more authentic Cajun dialect than Patton. Matched with Burke’s rhythmic, almost elegiac prose, the effect is close to overhearing a conversation on Bayou Teche.

But what makes New Orleans great to me is that it doesn’t fit in. At least it doesn’t conform to the idea of America that proceeds from, say, Mitt Romney’s consciousness. Burke seems to acknowledge this when, in the Epilogue to Creole Belle, he allows Robicheaux to observe “Is there any worse curse than approval?” No, Dave, there isn’t. Unless it’s obedience, which, of course, often leads to approval—more often to suppression.

I know, I know — I should be moving on with the subject matter of Creole Belle. This is a review after all. Okay. It’s about inequality, the corruption of the rich and powerful, greed, victimization (especially of women, especially the daughters in this book – Robicheaux’s daughter Alafair, Clete’s daughter (and possible hitperson) Gretchen Horowitz, Tee Jolie Melton and her sister Blue (who is murdered at least partly by being encased in a block of ice—how appropriate), and even Varina Lebeouf,  the daughter of one of the book’s major bad guys, Jesse, a racist and misogynist former cop. Varina is married to Pierre Dupree, son of Alexis Dupree, who may be a former Nazi death camp honcho.

Big oil plays a major role in all this villainy; the BP oil “spill” is a pivotal event (we are also reminded several times that Robicheaux’s father died in the explosion of an oil rig).

Oil, in fact, becomes a symbol of the ubiquitous and destructive ooze of the corporate elite. Somehow, I don’t think James Lee Burke will be voting to elect Mr. “Corporations are people, my friend” to the presidency.

In a sort of transparent irony, Clete Purcel makes use of a petroleum product in the climactic scene of the book as he and Dave attempt to eradicate the evil that permeates Creole Belle. But Burke makes it pretty clear that the forces Dave and Clete are up against aren’t going to be so easily dismissed. They simply blend back into the camouflage of respectability. When one of the A-list heavies in the book is dispatched towards the end of the novel, it’s kind of like one of those scenes in The Matrix where an agent who has possessed the body of a human being manages to slip out of his host just before the body expires. Evil, Burke reminds us, will always find another host. Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel will have plenty of job security.

And you can just feel the final showdown, can’t you? At one point in the story, Robicheaux encounters a famous musician with whom he shared a dorm in college in 1958. The Bobbsey Twins of Homicide fought in Vietnam. They are old. Too old to continue absorbing the injuries they sustain and, in the case of Clete Purcel, way too old to support his monumentally self-destructive lifestyle. And intimations of mortality are sprinkled throughout Creole Belle. I actually thought the end had come in the previous book in the series, The Glass Rainbow. Not that I’m looking forward to the end of this run.

 

 

 

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All the King’s Men (and Women) — Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Sagas

 

So, in case you missed it, Great Britain, and probably much of the rest of the English-speaking world, this year celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, aka the 60th anniversary of her coronation. I know that I missed all of the ridiculous televised coverage of the hoopla on purpose, for the same reason that I skipped the Royal Wedding the year before and the Prince Charles/Princess Diana ceremony and years of their ensuing drama and any other pageantry involving the “royals:” I find the whole idea irrelevant, despicable, harmful and pathetic, not necessarily in that order.

I can already hear one or two of you out there saying, man, lighten up; they’re just figureheads anymore. They don’t have any real power. Just sit back and enjoy the show. My response is that this vestige of a more primitive time in our existence is, like the human fascination with many superstitions and discredited/discarded ideas, pernicious, in this case because it allows people to maintain the delusion of privilege. Obviously, regicide shouldn’t be condoned (unless of course you are a monarch yourself), but you can kind of understand why the Bolsheviks took out Czar Nicholas II’s entire family: the nostalgia for aristocracy is irrepressible. Transferred to 21st century American culture, for example, it expresses itself into a fascination with and subjugation to the wealthy elite of our society. Don’t think so? To paraphrase Mr. T, I pity the fool who doesn’t realize this.

I spent a significant portion of the Diamond Jubilee listening to the two most recent books from Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall (2009, Macmillan Audio, read by Simon Slater), which won the 2009 Man Booker Prize and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies (2012, Macmillan Audio, read by Simon Vance.). As almost everybody knows, these books deal with probably the most popular (at least to modern audiences) era in English history, the reign of King Henry VIII, although they focus on the life and political career of Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief advisor during the 1530s. Cromwell is treated here much more sympathetically than most chroniclers have treated him (think of the portrayal of Cromwell by the great Leo McKern in A Man for All Seasons).

Mantel’s Cromwell is supremely pragmatic, loyal and shrewd. He’s devoted to his household and his native country. He’s also occasionally vindictive and ruthless. Still, he comes off better than one of his great adversaries, Thomas More, whose self-righteousness and intolerance are captured perfectly in the reading of Simon Slater, who gives More’s voice a constricted oiliness that perfectly reflects his cramped morality.

Vance, as usual, does a superb job. These books are short on action, requiring strong character interpretations, and Vance is up to the task, notwithstanding a couple of minor quibbles. I think he mispronounces Medici (or maybe it was the other Simon who mispronounces it – it gets confusing), but, you know, these days that’s not a capital offense.

All the usual suspects are here. In addition to Henry, Cromwell and More, we have incisive portraits of Katherine of Aragon, Ann Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey, Jane Seymour, Thomas Wyatt and all the other clergy, courtiers, ambassadors, ladies-in-waiting, and miscellaneous nobles who contribute to the intrigue and drama that characterized Henry’s reign.

The king is rendered as a remarkably passive and preoccupied figure, although passive is perhaps not the right term. He is almost plaintive, manipulating by suggestion and complaint of the “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” variety. For him, as everyone knows, it is all about his legacy through male progeny. His frustration in this regard causes the rift with the Catholic Church. It also causes a lot of people to die via execution. And they all seem to submit so, what, meekly, especially Ann Boleyn and her alleged paramours (including her brother) who cop to non-specific guilt on the scaffold and go to their deaths with a resignation that borders on being complicit and which we in the modern world might find exasperating. Among the accounts of these doomed, only Ann’s beheading is narrated directly in the book, and it is a moving scene. Mantel tells us that Boleyn “exsanguinates,” when the executioner’s sword lops off her head, a term which you would think would render the passage almost clinically, but the opposite is the case. Even listeners who come to the story predisposed to believe the flimsy evidence for Boleyn’s unfaithfulness and “treason” are likely to come away from it at least acknowledging her stoicism in the face of death. Stoicism or prolonged shock. She probably didn’t believe, right up to the point that the blade’s edge made contact, that what was happening to her was actually happening. Mantel suggests that Boleyn expected a last minute reprieve, but she wasn’t about to make a scene over it.

But, of course, that’s the point. That’s what you get with absolute rule – a mentality among the ruled that understands that there truly is no recourse.

It almost goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, that among the female half of a population bound to allegiance and complete obeisance the situation is even more desperate. And Mantel captures this desperation perfectly in the character of Ann Boleyn. Despite her station in life, the relative stature and influence of her family and her own intelligence and determination, the king tires of her quickly after she manages to supplant Queen Katherine. After all, she cannot produce an heir and, in as much as her personality isn’t all that endearing when it comes to companionship on those long cold winter nights in England and she cements no alliances with other European monarchies, she is expendable.

She and lots of other people, including, as we know, Thomas Cromwell. But as the second book (Bring up the Bodies) ends, Cromwell is at the height of his power and influence with the king. It’s kind of all downhill from there, but I’m hoping Mantel has a trilogy in mind and will be treating us to the final act in the life of Cromwell as magnificently as she has prepared us for it.

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Dickens at 200: “Great Expectations” reconsidered

This year (2012 in case you haven’t been paying attention) in addition to promising to be one of the more hilarious presidential election years in recent memory – keep in mind that at some point Barack Obama will face off against Mitt Romney in a debate – the president must have one member of his staff assigned to monitor for any excessive salivation that might threaten to become a constant drool – is also the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’ birth. In honor of this occasion I decided to listen to one of his novels, even though I’ve never been a huge Dickens fan (I prefer his contemporary, Wilkie Collins). Still, I have read him over the years, largely because he was required reading and occasionally I found him diverting. I particularly enjoyed Bleak House. I remember not enjoying Great Expectations all that much, but thought that I could return to it with, well, minimal expectations. Maybe I’ve mellowed in the thirty or so years since I last read the book.

As the title suggests, Great Expectations (Tantor Audio, 2009) is one of the world’s foremost transparently ironic novels, second perhaps only to Don Quixote. Well, maybe not second, but, you know, ranking below. For those three people out there who don’t know the plot of Great Expectations, it’s a coming-of-age story about a boy/young man named Pip (the name alone should be a signal that he’s not destined for greatness) who, starting from modest circumstances manages to attract an anonymous benefactor whose generosity promises to set him up for life as a gentleman, which in Victorian England meant that he wouldn’t have to work for a living. (Kind of like Mitt Romney, although, to be fair, Romney did have to go through the trouble of cannibalizing a few dozen companies to achieve this status.)

Hence, Pip’s “great expectation.”

Of course, things don’t exactly go as planned. Let’s see . . . is a spoiler alert really necessary here? I mean, the book is like a century-and-a-half old. Or is it enough to say that Pip experiences some disillusionment, some re-evaluation of assumptions? Big time?

As with most of Dickens’ novels, Great Expectations was originally published serially in magazine installments. Here, however, the narrative momentum isn’t as compelling as in some other Dickens classics and I can’t help but suspect that it had something to do with Dickens manipulating his readers around the concept of “expectations” – as in disappointing them. The book is all about disappointment – in love, in success, in friendship, in justice, in people generally and in life. Dickens himself at this stage of his life and career was no doubt feeling some disappointment. His marriage had failed, his health was probably starting to decline, and his creative powers were probably not what they once were. Not that anyone would have noticed. A more industrious human being probably never existed. Dickens’ energy and, well, manic need for activity, are legendary.

Still, Great Expectations is not often considered one of Dickens’ better novels. Even contemporary readers were disappointed by the original ending, which, let’s say, isn’t upbeat. So, did Dickens stand his ground (yes, an unfortunate turn of phrase these days) in the face of his audience’s disapproval of the ending? Well, he did not, apparently. He wrote an alternative happy ending. Which is kind of like James Joyce changing the last word of Ulysses from “Yes” to “Maybe.”

So much for my not-altogether-original theory that the book is a sort of metafictional manipulation of audience expectation.

I chose to listen to this version of Great Expectations because of the narration of Simon Vance, whom I first encountered as the narrator of Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Shakespeare, which I enjoyed. Vance also read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and, I thought, did a great job, especially when you consider all the Swedish place names he had to deal with. He rarely makes a mistake and he never gets overly theatrical with the reading, a temptation with Dickens material, I would imagine. So I guess you could say that I had great expectations for Vance’s work here, and he does not disappoint.

I can’t end this post without relating a personal anecdote, my very own Miss Havisham moment. Readers/listeners will remember that Miss Havisham, having been jilted at the altar (is there another place to be truly jilted, BTW?), has been wearing the same wedding dress for years, as sort of a protest, I guess. As those familiar with the story will also remember, Miss Havisham’s dress bursts into flames one evening when she ventures too near to an open flame. She hangs on for a while, but eventually succumbs to her injuries (another irony here, of course, if you allow the flames to symbolize passion – “boinin’ luv” as it were). Well, a few years ago I attended a Christmas party (also BTW we have Dickens – via A Christmas Carol – to thank for the frenzied mass insanity that is the modern celebration of this holiday) at which the hostess had liberally planted burning candles around the rooms of the house. I was in the kitchen, I believe, standing there, listening to some interminable blather from one of the other guests when someone announced to me that I was on fire. The back of my shirt, blousing a bit too much at the waist, had encountered the flames of one of those candles and had ignited. Several guests came to my rescue and the flames were extinguished. I endured the rest of the party feeling like a complete asshole.

When I accompanied our host to his closet to find a replacement shirt for the rest of the evening, I remarked to him, trying to salvage through lame wit whatever was left of my dignity, “Now I know how Miss Havisham felt.” He looked at me funny. Not a Dickens fan, I guessed. Based on his reaction I decided not to share this fascinating tidbit with the other guests.

The man who was kind enough to lend me a shirt for the evening died suddenly a short time after this event, taking my secret with him to the grave.

The grave, of course, is where Great Expectations begins. Dickens was particularly good at opening scenes, the one in Great Expectations wherein Pip first encounters the convict Magwitch being no exception. And I’m sure I’m not the first to point out that Dickens was saying to his readers, “Here is the sum and fruition of all your great expectations.”

 

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Putting the “no” in nostalgia — Stephen King’s 11/22/63

What do you get when you combine “Somewhere in Time” (from the novel originally entitled Bid Time Return by the great Richard Matheson), with “Back to the Future” and perhaps throw in a dash of “Groundhog Day” and a smidgen of “It’s a Wonderful Life?”

Well, okay, you don’t exactly get 11/22/63, Stephen King’s latest novel (Simon & Schuster Audio, 2011, read by Craig Wasson). King’s book has more gravitas to it. We are talking about one of the pivotal moments in 20th century history (and I use the term “pivotal” advisedly given the subject matter of King’s book)—the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The novel relates one man’s efforts, through the magic of time travel, to stop that event from taking place. Yes, “taking place,” as though history was a lineup of occurrences based on the hierarchy of chronology.

I don’t pretend to know what history is, precisely. For King’s protagonist, Jake Epping (he uses the alias George Amberson throughout much of the book for reasons that become obvious to the reader/listener), history is “the Land of Ago” and, as he tells us repeatedly, it is obdurate, if not completely immutable. In fact, it changes, or “resets,” every time Jake makes the trip into the past, which he does several times. Initially, these are sort of test runs in which Jake tries to steer events into more positive outcomes. In the first “dry run” he attempts to prevent a woman from being paralyzed by a hunter’s errant bullet. In the second, he seeks to stop a man from killing most of his family in a drunken rage. What he learns in both of these cases is the lesson that anyone who has ever read a time travel book or watched a “Twilight Zone” episode already knew—the law unintended consequences, or, if you prefer, irony, rules.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, a bit of time travel in itself, I guess. Jake, a writer and schoolteacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, has been recruited into this project by a guy named Al Templeton who owns a diner called, well, “Al’s Diner” and who has discovered that back in one of the diner’s storerooms is a portal through which a person can be transported to 1958. Why 1958 is not exactly clear (I could have missed that explanation) except that it does give King time to develop the love story between Jack and the new librarian at the school in Jodie, Texas, where he lands a job. Her name is Sadie Dunhill a refugee from a bad marriage and something of a lummox, in an endearing sort of way.

As we all know, even if we haven’t read one stinkin’ Harlequin Romance (or, shudder, any of the drivel produced by Nicolas Sparks), love complicates things. While waiting around the five years between the portal’s ETA and that fateful moment in Dealy Plaza, Jake has plenty of time for an initially rocky courtship of Ms. Dunhill, who’s understandably mystified by Jake’s shady past—er, future. Oh, you now what I mean. This all gets ironed out eventually, after a harrowing experience for Sadie. The couple seems on the road to marital bliss, even if it will be chronologically displaced for Jake.

But . . . there’s still that pesky Date With Destiny in Dallas.

The length of the story (something like 30 hours worth of listening and close to 800 pages in the print edition) gives King plenty of time to do what he’s good at—creating atmosphere. Characterization has never been King’s strength and sometimes his plots do take some time to develop. But as someone who was actually alive during the period that 11/22/63 covers, I can vaguely attest to its authenticity (who am I kidding? . . . half the time I can’t remember why I walked from one room to the next). As traumatic and indelible as the Kennedy assassination was, it now seems like it occurred sometime in antiquity. It was an era of breathtaking casualness (especially relating to issues of security) and, what . . . nonchalance isn’t the right word. Innocence isn’t either, although you often hear people talking about it as a more innocent time. And it certainly wasn’t carefree, what with the menace of the Cold War, intimations of the quagmire of Vietnam, and lots of World War II and Korean War veterans with who-knows-how-many-undiagnosed cases of PTSD heading up corporations, police forces, families, governments and churches. You had civil rights clashes and the Cuban Missile Crisis and Marilyn Monroe dying. Trust me, it was as similar to Camelot as Baghdad is to Bedford Falls.

But I digress.

Alternative futures are always difficult to pull off because, well, we all know what happened. (Unless, who knows? – maybe some malignant version of Jake Epping actually did interfere with history to permit Kennedy’s assassination. Given the controversy that still swirls around it, the sheer implausibility of it and the persistence of all those wacky conspiracy theories, maybe this explains things. You see how twisted you can get when you start to let your imagination flirt with time travel?)

In the final analysis, as Kennedy used to say (and I always wondered what he meant . . . you mean there can’t be any more analyses? This is the last word on the subject? Forever? Barring the intervention of time travel, of course) the sheer mass of the narrative of 11/22/63 overwhelms the story, which I guess is just a fancy way of saying that it was longer than it had to be. (Like this review, perhaps.)

Take, for example, the “Yellow Card Man” (or Green Card Man or Black Card Man, depending on where in the story you find him). I got that he’s some sort of gatekeeper, a bit of a doomsday oracle, but he seems to be an extraneous feature to the narrative, a device employed without much sophistication or purpose. Again, maybe I missed it. But do these episodes with the Yellow Card Man seem to make the book longer than it needs to be? To quote Mr. King himself in his afterword to the book, “Do the Walton’s take too long to say goodnight?”

So, Craig Wasson, the narrator, had to cover a lot of ground, not only in terms of length but also in terms of dialects and accents in 11/22/63. He has to do New Englanders and Texans and Lee Harvey Oswald’s New Orleans and a Georgia drawl. He has to do a passable Russian and German. At one time or another I heard Burt Lancaster (a bookie, I think), Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a little bit of W.C. Fields/Jimmy Stewart (a Texas FBI agent?). Wait, did he do that Jimmy Stewart one on purpose?????

Given the length of this book, however, Wasson does an excellent job of keeping the characters varied enough to be easily identifiable on a consistent basis.

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The Swerve: deviating from oblivion

It occurs to me that I don’t often give enough credit to the voice talent of the books I review. After all, this is a site that reviews audiobooks, and while I’m not sure that a narrator’s performance can actually make or break a book, he or she can make the experience more enjoyable. Exactly how the narrator can do this is perhaps the topic of a separate post, but I believe an excellent example of it occurs in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (Recorded Books, 2011) read by Edoardo Ballerini.

I had to look Mr. Ballerini up on Wikipedia, where I learned that, among his acting credits was a role on “The Sopranos.” However, since I’ve seen about two total episodes of that program, I certainly didn’t remember him. In any event, he was a good choice to read The Swerve. Not only is his overall delivery excellent, he can pull off all the Italian references to people and place names with commendable authenticity, probably because he’s half Italian and bilingual. The book was a joy to listen to in large part because of Ballerini’s work.

Of course, the subject matter itself was fascinating. It involves the famous discovery (rediscovery?) of a poetic manuscript by Lucretius (ca. 99 BCE – ca. 55 BCE), De Rerum Natura (usually translated into English as On the Nature of Things) by the 15th century humanist, scholar, church employee and book hunter, Poggio Bracciolini. The story is less about that actual discovery—in fact, it’s not really clear to me where exactly Bracciolini found the Lucretius manuscript—than about the extraordinary unlikeness of that discovery when it happened (the book “hung by a thread” Greenblatt says in an interview, and faced threats to its re-emergence ranging from bookworms—that is, real worms that ate books—to volcanic eruptions) and the poem’s impact on culture, science, religion and our overall intellectual history. Did I mention that The Swerve won a 2011 National Book Award?

We get quite a bit in the book about Bracciolini’s life and career, much of which was spent as a papal secretary. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but apparently the position was highly coveted. This was the pre-Gutenberg era and guys (it was mostly guys) with good penmanship ruled, as much as any non-noble or cleric below the rank of, say, cardinal, could be said to rule. Fortunately, this position essentially allowed Bracciolini to pursue his true passion of hunting for Greek and Roman classics hidden away in monasteries.

While Bracciolini’s story is moderately interesting, the real story, of course, is how On The Nature of Things contributed to the igniting of the Renaissance. On The Nature of Things expounds the philosophy of Epicurus, which includes the theory of atoms earlier proposed by Democritus (okay, is that enough classical references for you?). The “swerve” Greenblatt refers to in his title represents the motion of atoms in their endless journey through the universe as they divert into other atoms and create the phenomenological world. Gee, I think I have that right.

As one can imagine, 15th century church fathers were not thrilled with the implications of “atomism.” Indeed, Lucretius goes beyond implications to affirm boldly that, since everything is composed of the same constituent material (materialism is the key here, obviously), there are essentially no qualitative differences between forms that atoms take. He rejects the concept of the soul and the afterlife and contends that, whereas gods may or may not exist, they are indifferent to the activities of humans.

The brains behind the Inquisition, unfortunately, were not indifferent. Nor were they amused. The Swerve discusses the Church’s efforts to suppress the ideas behind On the Nature of Things(with very unfortunate results for some, including the great Giordano Bruno, to whose monument on the site of his torching in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome I make a pilgrimage on at least an annual basis).

Statue of Giordano Bruno in the Campo de' Fiori in Rome

Ultimately, of course, these efforts were unsuccessful, although in the extremely unlikely event that someone like, say, Rick Santorum gets elected president, we could see Inquisition 2.0. That would definitely be a swerve in the wrong direction. In fact, that would be the equivalent of jumping the median with your basic semi. Gee, maybe Santorum could re-institute self-flagellation, too (one of the Church’s reactions to Lucretius’s assertion that the point of human existence was pleasure).

The Swerve is a tribute to one man’s ingenuity in snatching one of history’s great ideas from the obscurity partially imposed upon it by the terrorism of the Catholic Church. If for no other reason, it is worth listening to the book to celebrate that almost miraculous event.

 

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An Affair to forget — Jack Reacher hears that train a comin’

In the latest Jack Reacher adventure from Lee Child (The Affair, Random House Audio, 2011, read by Dick Hill) we are transported back to 1997 when Reacher was still in the army—not for long it turns out—and America had yet to be traumatized by the events of 9/11. Reacher, who relates the story from the vantage point of the present, makes a couple of references to the more innocent environment of those times. But he doesn’t dwell on it. As we all know, Reacher doesn’t really dwell on much of anything. He’s not overly introspective. That’s what we like about him, right? So please, let’s have no more mushy nostalgia (forgive the tautology) about some idyllic pre-9/11 homeland.

The plot of The Affair has to do with Reacher being ordered to the small town of Carter Crossing, Mississippi, which seems to have nothing specifically going for it other than it contains or borders on an army base called Fort Kelham. Reacher’s commanding officer has sent him to Carter Crossing to monitor the situation. The situation is this: a young woman has been murdered and suspicion has fallen on the powers that be at Fort Kelham as perhaps harboring the perpetrator of the crime. The brass (and their allies in Congress) fear that responsibility may somehow make its way to one of the company commanders at the base—a Capt. Reed Reilly—whose father, Carlton, just happens to be the Senate Armed Services Committee Chair. Well, you can see how this could get messy. I say that Reacher is assigned just to monitor because he’s sort of “Mr. Outside” on this assignment. Another officer, Major. Duncan Munro, takes on the role of “Mr. Inside,” investigating on-site at the fort. But, really, when has Reacher ever followed orders? So he gets involved in the investigation. This leads him to the discovery that there are actually a total of three murder victims whose cases suggest similar MOs. The army is in something of a hurry to wrap this up and assign blame elsewhere.

And in this corner, the Carter Crossing community is represented by Sheriff Elizabeth Devereaux, a former Marine and first-team all-American hottie, with whom Reacher becomes romantically involved. Did I say romantically? Silly me. How about “sexually involved?”

Which brings me to my first serious objection to this book. I don’t care to ever read (or, listen to) another sex scene involving Jack Reacher. I sympathize with writers who have to write sex scenes—and most authors should probably just skip them altogether. The sex scenes in The Affair really sound more like two-person military drills (okay, an unfortunate term in this context) in double time than lovemaking. Add to this the fact that the coincidence of the passing of a train and the twin orgasms of Reacher and Deveraux during a their first encounter seems to compel them to the ridiculous need to re-create the timing on subsequent occasions. I don’t know if the term “come like a freight train” is common anywhere in the world to express the power of an orgasm, and I’m not about to Google it. Someone might be keeping track. But that seems to be the idea here. And it’s complicated by the fact that this train, like most, has the potential for violent destruction. So, I give you Lee Child grappling with one (or is it two?) of the great themes of world literature: love and death.

(One apparently unintentionally funny moment occurs in one of these sexual episodes, when the Reacher reports that something or other—maybe the awareness on the parts of both contestants, er, participants that this might be the last time they have sex, at least with each other—lends a certain “poignancy” to the act. That is the actual word Reacher uses: poignancy. Fun challenge for all Reacher fans: find another use of “Reacher” and “poignancy” in the same sentence. Even in the same paragraph. The same book. In any of the Reacher sagas. Good luck.)

Dick Hill does his usual competent job of embodying Jack Reacher in the narration, although even he can’t save the sex scenes. They almost sound like a burlesque or parody. I get what Hill is trying for with the material (“faster, faster, harder, harder” faster and faster and harder and harder), and no one else is more likely to make it work. But I’m sorry, even the great Dick Hill can’t pull this off.

The second problem I have with this installment of the Reacher chronicles is that it takes forever to get going and—notwithstanding the whole freight train motif—never really builds the kind of momentum one expects from a Reacher novel. I mean, Reacher head-butts a couple of crackers relatively early in the book. But he doesn’t kick the asses of the obligatory six-pack of goons all at once until something like Chapter 41. And lest you think Reacher is going soft, I can report that the nonchalance with which he dispatches a few varmints in The Affair takes vigilantism to a whole new level. This is somewhat disturbing. These bad guys obviously deserve it, but Reacher’s self-appointment as judge, jury and executioner is troubling.

Wait! What am I saying? This is Jack Reacher were talking about. The reigning avenging angel of the genre. The god of retribution. “Rules? I don’t have to obey no stinking rules.”

A lot of these problems stem from deficiencies in the plot. This Reacher book just isn’t that interesting. Despite some anemic attempts at misdirection, there’s not much doubt about who the bad guys are and there is not a lot of urgency in the narrative. And, okay, we know that Reacher novels are not character-driven, so without some ingenuity in the plot, what do you have? Well, I’ll tell you what you have: a diminshed Reacher canon.

Oh, look at me! I just used Reacher and canon in the same sentence.

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No argument here . . .

I remember once, a few years ago, being accused by someone of being “opinionated.” At least it sounded like an accusation at the time. And while I didn’t say so then, I wondered later why that was intended and, I must confess, interpreted by me as a criticism. Isn’t everyone opinionated? Doesn’t everyone express or maintain more or less informed judgments and preferences?

And speaking of those, the guy who leveled this charge at me was, as you might expect, a self-absorbed, pompous, pedantic blowhard. At least in my opinion.

Anyway, these days if anything I’m even more opinionated than I ever was. Why, just last night while watching “60 Minutes” with my wife, I launched into a barrage of invective at the mere sight of Grover Norquist’s arrogant, smug, hi-def image on the screen. Where, I think I may have said, is one of those alien abductions when you really need one? And that was the most lenient fate I could imagine for him.

And don’t even get me started on Newt Gingrich (about whom the funniest—and most perceptive—line I’ve heard so far this campaign season came from Paul Krugman, maybe quoting some other source, who said that Gingrich was “a stupid man’s idea of what a smart person sounds like.”

For examples of what a really smart person sounds like—and for inspiration on being the best sort of opinionated writer—you won’t find a much better source than Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens (Hachette Audio, 2011,read by Simon Prebble), a collection of Hitchens’s essays over the past seven years or so. As everyone knows, Hitchens is prolific, in addition to being “opinionated,” and he covers a lot of ground here in his typically lucid, knowledgeable and persuasive fashion. I won’t try to summarize the content; let’s just say that Hitchen’s seems to have read everything, and the range of his opinions here on culture, politics, the arts (literary, primarily), language and religion is extraordinary.

We get a treatise on blowjobs, reflections of valley-girl-speak (specifically the use of the word “like” as in, “She’s gone out with, like, a million guys”) and the “inane absurdity” of Prince Charles, heir to the British throne (why do those last five words always make me want to puke?).

We are treated once again to the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) essays on water-boarding (yes, it’s torture), how funny women are or aren’t (they generally aren’t, but then, according to Hitchens, they don’t have to be) and emendation on the Ten Commandments (although, IMHO, George Carlin is better on this topic).

We also get commentary on writers from Dickens to Orwell to Wodehouse. Not to mention Graham Green, Rebecca West, Jessica Mitford, J G. Ballard, Gore Vidal, Ezra Pound, Stephen Spender, George MacDonald Fraser (of Flashman fame), Vladimir Nabokov (albeit connected to the blowjob thing), John Updike, and J.K. Rowling. And more. All twenty-eight or so hours of this—or at least most of it—is, to my mind, brilliant. (Hitchens was surprisingly critical of his good friend Martin Amis, and I have to wonder if he wasn’t going just a little overboard to demonstrate his impartiality. But that’s just a hunch. It doesn’t even rise to the level of opinion.)

The only way that the experience could have been improved upon would be if Hitchens, himself, had done the reading of the book. No doubt his medical situation precluded this. And, to his credit, Simon Prebble does his best to impersonate the great man—an impossible task, of course. The pronunciation of a few words hit me the wrong way, but those could have been no more than differences of British usage, which might not have changed had Hitchens done his own reading.

Of course, the dictionary definition of opinionated suggests some levels of obstinacy or inflexibility, and I have to acknowledge sensing some of this in Arguably. Mainly, it gets back to Hitchens’s support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As I recall, he doesn’t address it directly, but, for example, in one essay he speculates that those elusive WMD might have been there all along and were smuggled out by Ba’athist loyalists under the cover of the confusion during the early stages of the war. Okay, that could have happened. But it misses the point. The United States crossed some sort of line when we committed to pre-emptive war, WMD or no WMD. It set a very dangerous precedent, not to mention enabling a mindset that condoned torture, the abuse of individual freedoms and a loss of our prestige in the world community, Republican insistence on American exceptionalism notwithstanding. Worse, it killed nearly 4,500 of our soldiers, wounded thousands more and killed and/or displaced who-knows-how-many Iraqis, many of whom our incursion into their country was designed, presumably, to liberate. Well, they’re liberated now.

Sorry to finish on such a negative note. My objection refers to only a relatively meager percentage of the book’s overall wisdom and virtue. I absolutely loved 99.9 percent of this collection. Hitchens is a national treasure. Arguably gives us a sampling of his prodigious gifts and his essential voice in our intellectual discussion.

Of course, that’s just my opinion.

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The case for Case Histories

In conjunction with the impending U.S. release of the BBC TV version of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories (not that an occasion should be necessary — and I did mention in my review of Started Early, Took My Dog that I would be going back to earlier Atkinson works), let us consider the audiobook version of that title (read by Susan Jameson, Hatchette Audio, 2oo8). First, I should say that I was mightily tempted to immediately go back and listen to Case Histories a second time, as I had done with Started Early. What is it about this woman’s books that seems to provoke this impulse? No doubt the multiple intertwined plot lines have something to do with it. And then there is the odd character who seems to barge into the narrative gratuitously (see Howell, below), then hijack it to the extent that sometimes seems out of proportion to the character’s importance to the plot. Exhibit A: Binky Rain.

Ms. Rain is a somewhat loopy oldster who lives alone — well, except for a herd of cats. One or more cats has disappeared and she has hired the novel’s hero, private detective Jackson Brodie, to find it, or them. But wait, Rain also happens to have been the next door neighbor of the Land family when the youngest daughter of that clan, Olivia Land, disappeared (like the cats??) in 1970. This would be Case History #1. Thirty-four years or so later, two of Olivia’s surviving sisters, Amelia and Julia, also hire Brodie to find out what happened to their baby sister. The impetus for their renewed interest is the discovery of one of Olivia’s toys, a stuffed animal (Blue Mouse — cats and mouse? — no, too easy) among their father Victor’s effects after his death. Hmmm. Did Victor, a sociopath who, we learn, sexually abused his daughters (when he wasn’t ignoring them) have something to do with Olivia’s disappearance?

So, anyway, Binky’s got the proximity to the Land family and her relationship with Brodie going for her as it relates to the rationale for her presence as a character in the book. Oh, yeah, and some other stuff involving Brodie that I won’t get into so as not to be a spoiler. Okay, so maybe she does justify her existence. I’ll leave that up to other listeners.

Whatever Binky’s value as a character, Susan Jameson certainly does a great job with her voice. Jameson does a great job with all the voices, really. She makes no mistakes (at least none that I could detect); she is clear, articulate and her pacing is excellent. The book is almost worth listening to just for her narration. Unfortunately, even her excellent reading won’t likely help you follow the plot. Can you say “convoluted?”

Case History #2 involves the murder of a young woman named Laura Wyre by an apparent madman who, wielding a knife, invades the offices where Laura’s father, Theo, is a partner in a law firm and slices his daughter’s throat. She bleeds out right there in the conference room. The killer flees and is never caught. Ten years later, Theo hires Brodie to try to learn the killer’s identity.

Case History #3 has to do with the death of a husband, apparently at the hands of his wife, whose name is Michelle at the time of this event (1979?) but who has changed her name to Caroline, in addition to changing her life after serving time in prison or the psych ward for her husband’s murder. It is Michelle’s/Caroline’s sister, Shirley, who hires Brodie in this case. She wants to learn the whereabouts of Michelle’s daughter, Tanya, who witnessed the murder as a young child. Hmmm. Why?

Are you still with me? Well, it gets more complicated.

I hate to give too much away, but I have to mention that Tanya eventually shows up and manages to encounter nearly all of the characters I’ve mentioned. And my question is this:

Do all of these people live on the same fucking block???!!

It is a small world, indeed, that is inhabited by the characters of Atkinson’s fiction (we observed the same phenomenon in Started Early) and it makes for some coincidences that would send most authors to the penalty box for at least a five-minute major, if not to an early shower with a game misconduct. And I haven’t even mentioned the inclusion of some back story on Jackson Brodie having to do with the murder of his sister some thirty-three years earlier.

The theme here, of course, is how these traumas of violence and loss psychologically maim the survivors and degrade their subsequent existences until the chemical reaction of Brodie’s involvement with all of them transforms everyone’s life with some resolution or other.

And while I’ve given Atkinson some grief over things like, well, plausibility, I really do appreciate her ability to create the interior drama, the unique emotional atmosphere, that each of her characters projects through the narrative.

Well, okay. Not all of her characters. Take the character of Howell, for example. He’s Brodie’s best friend, according to Atkinson. But this is not the equivalent of Holmes’s Dr. Watson. (I don’t recall any Howell cameos in Started Early.) When Howell’s name came up towards the end of the novel, it came as an almost complete surprise to me. Who the fuck is Howell? I remember asking myself. Again, this could be part of the problem with listening to a book as intricately structured as Case Histories rather than actually reading it. You can’t just flip back through the pages scanning for “Howell.” In fact, I had to go to the library and pore over a printed version of the book to reacquaint myself with Howell’s appearance earlier in the book.

So, here’s my theory (which could be totally invalidated by the plots of One Good Turn or When Will There Be Good News?, neither of which I’ve gotten to yet): Howell turns up as a — or the — major character in a future Jackson Brodie novel.

Waddya think?

 

 

 

 

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The Leftovers — and we’re not talking tomorrow’s lunch

I find the concept of “The Rapture” and the whole “left behind” speculation to be hilarious, so I guess I was anticipating more humor in The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta (Macmillan Audio, 2011). I mean, the title is funny. I took that as some kind of sign. But The Leftovers is not that kind of funny. Not ha-ha funny. There is some humor in the irony of the premise. That premise offers a post-Rapture world wherein people who might have been expecting to be Hoovered up to their heavenly reward because of their righteousness in many cases remain behind while the less deserving (at least from someone’s perspective) ascend illegitimately. The selection process seems capricious. So the survivors, most of them anyway, walk around in varying states of bewilderment. Perrotta presents the microcosm of this condition in the family of Kevin and Laurie Garvey, residents of fictional Mapleton, who have survived with their nuclear family unit intact, but with their lives profoundly disrupted.

Laurie and her and Kevin’s son Tom experience the most severe reactions. Laurie abandons her family for a cult calling itself the Guilty Remnant. Members of this dreary congregation dress in white, practice asceticism, observe (more or less) a vow of silence and chain-smoke cigarettes as an expression of their view of the world’s imminent eradication. It’s kind of like those imbeciles who say “What’s the point of protecting the environment with the end times just around the corner?” There is also a disturbing trend among the Guilty Remnant (or “GR”) towards martyrdom to make their point more emphatically and, well, hurry things up a bit. (Given the nuisance quotient among the GR, I, for one, would be all for accelerating the martyrdom program.) Exactly why Laurie is drawn to this group is unclear. More on this shortly.

Laurie’s son Tom has also sought refuge in religion, having become a devotee of Holy Wayne, a man who lost his own son in the Sudden Departure, as it’s called, and who now claims to be able to absorb the pain and torment of other survivors by given them a big hug. Seriously. It’s called the Healing Hug Movement. There’s a possibility that Perrotta is saturated with Oprah. And while I’m pop-psychologizing, I’m wondering why the author gives the Tom Garvey character his own (the author’s) “Christian” name. I mean, who does that? Hello, calling Dr. Freud.

Holy Wayne, of course, lets all the attention go to his head, to the extent of recruiting a bevy of underage “brides,” one of whom, Christine (I mean, talk about your choice of names) becomes pregnant with what she and a lot of Holy Wayne’s followers assume will be the savior of mankind. When Wayne gets into legal trouble, Tom is assigned to escort Christine to a safe house, requiring a cross-country trip, with the couple assuming identities as Barefoot People (basically, hippies who have painted targets on their foreheads; don’t even ask). By this time, Tom is disenchanted with Holy Wayne, but the guy’s sense of duty (I’m guessing that’s the motivating factor) compels him to carry out this assignment even though Christine may be the most disagreeable traveling companion since, geez, I don’t know . . . maybe that female Terminator in whatever sequel that was?

Tom’s teenage sister Jill goes through some changes after the SD too, although, to me it seemed that these were pretty normal female adolescent transitions in the early 21st century: casual (almost depressing) sex; casual drug use; truancy and declining performance at school; dramatic hairstyle change; etc. Most of these changes seem to have more to do with the influence of her wild and crazy (and somewhat slutty) friend Aimee, who has taken up residence at the Garvey home, than with any sense of loss. Ironically, Jill has actually lost her childhood friend in the SD, the friend disappearing almost right before her eyes, which you might think would justify a more extreme reaction akin to those taken by her mother and brother.

The patriarch of this clan, Kevin, does his best to maintain equilibrium amidst this upheaval. After all, he is the mayor of Mapleton and he has to set an example of stability. Se he sits through interminable town hall meetings, officiates at parades and performs other mayoral duties. He also tries to carry on his paternal duties with a not-exactly-receptive Jill. In his free time he plays softball and hangs out at a bar called the Carpe Diem. I’m not making that up.

I suggested above that a number of characters in this book seem to act with perplexing motivation. But I think it may be that, in the prolonged trauma of the SD’s aftermath, motivation might be absent. It’s as if the population is suffering from the psychological equivalent of an atomic blast that has leveled the terrain. In this case, things like ambition, desire, hope—all those emotions that hinge on a future—have flatlined. Even the narration by Dennis Boutsikaris sounds a little, well, flat. This is not to say that the reading is substandard or inappropriate in some way. I’ve not encountered Mr. Boutsikaris’s work previously (at least not that I recall), but according to his Wikipedia entry he has narrated more than one hundred books and has won a couple of Audies for his voice work. So I don’t think the fault, if there is any fault, lies with him. But this flat quality creates problems of plot and characterization. I couldn’t detect much arc or development in either of these; they’ve been overwhelmed by the concept. After the SD, humdrum ensues; monotony reigns. Life goes on (a point that is made somewhat clumsily in the final pages of the book).

Maybe this is the point. Perrotta doesn’t offer the reflections of any Buddhists on the Sudden Departure, but I think they would be more unfazed by its occurrence than would adherents to the “hereafter” religions. To the Buddhist, as everyone knows, the past and the future exist only as distortions or delusions. The present moment is all that counts. The great Richard Ellmann in his biography of the even greater James Joyce says that Joyce’s illuminating discovery was that “the ordinary is the extraordinary.” By the end of  The Leftovers, at least a couple of the characters appear ready to absorb these epiphanies.

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