Review: Noir by Christopher Moore

noirJust finished Christopher Moore’s Noir, which I borrowed from Barb after she bought it at Literati.  You can see her review here.  We think this is the first time we’ve both reviewed the same book, not counting our annual reading project.

First, until I read the afterword, I didn’t realize that Moore was born in Toledo–where we both live–and grew up in Mansfield, which is a couple hours from here.  So that’s a coincidence I didn’t expect.

It’s a really good book.  I have often said that it is far harder to be funny on purpose than it is to be serious.  Anyone who has tried to tell a joke to a live audience–even to lead off a presentation–has learned this fact.  It is far easier to make people cry and failure is far less obvious.  For that reason, I believe that funny writing is pretty rare.

Moore excels with smart-ass dialogue, which is only part of the job, but he also does something that I would contend is the quadruple axle of writing, which is to convey a sight gag entirely with words.

Moore also has a terrific ability to capture a milieu, something I have seen from him in numerous books.  In this one, he writes in the cadence of a noir movie–in fact, you could read most of it with the clipped tones of a fedora-wearing private eye or the streetwise growl of a dame.  Believe me, I tested this, to the annoyance of other people, and by that I mean Barb.

To annoy your own loved ones, read this quote aloud in Noirspeak and see if I’m not right:

“She had the kind of legs that kept her butt from resting on her shoes—a size-eight dame in a size-six dress and every mug in the joint was rooting for the two sizes to make a break for it as they watched her wiggle in the door and shimmy onto a barstool with her back to the door.”

Or from the dame.

“It’s French,” she said. “They designed it like a zoo—you know, keep ’em in, but give everyone a good look at ’em…”

Lastly, Moore has the most important ability of a novelist, which is that he never loses sight of the story.  In Noir, we’re talking a pretty crazy plot, but his job is to keep you reading and laughing at the same time, and he does it as well as anyone.  There’s no gratuity.  All the jokes arise organically from thes tory.

I love literary humor writing.  My two favorite books of all time are Catch-22 and A  Confederacy of Dunces.  And I am a big of Chris Moore’s, including, now, this book along with Sacre Bleu and Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (“sin is moist).  I may have to take some time to work through his back catalog.  It’s a cliche to say something is “laugh out loud funny” unless you were actually laughing out loud.  Which I was.

Fourth of July Reading

img_0316Happy 4th of July to everyone.  Or, happy Independence Day, though most people seem to just call it the 4th of July.

A few thoughts about our holiday, from a literary perspective.

First, these books represent only a fraction of the books I’ve read about the American Revolution.  There could be twenty-five more around here somewhere, if we had the energy to look.  (Including Chernow’s Hamilton, McCullough’s Adams…).

And these books represent only a portion of the total number of books that have been published.  Another note.  These are not academic treatises.  These are popular books written to be ready by laypeople or at least lay-adjacent people.

There are just so many.

The reason is that the American Revolution is our origin story and these books are our mythology.  If you’re reading this blog, I’m sure you know that the current use of the word mythology to mean “something that isn’t true” is not the full story.  Every society has a primal need to tell origin stories.  We want to understand and shape the idea of where we came from as a way to express who we are.  Ask Joseph Campbell if you don’t believe me.

Once you realize this, you see it everywhere.  As a PR practitioner, you realize this is an essential part of storytelling.  There’s Hewlett and Packard in the garage, those Google guys in that woman’s house, Woz and Steve hacking long distance calls…you get the idea.  “For Bobby Entrepreneur, the key moment came when he watched an ice cube fall into a glass of tonic.”

And the American Revolution is our culture’s mythology.  When I say our culture, I mean it in the most literal of ways.  No one else thinks this is a big deal.  My stepfather grew up in England and when he moved here (around the time of the Bicentennial), he told us that they had spent precisely zero seconds studying the American Revolution in school.

You can chalk that up to English arrogance if you want, but their history around that time is far more concerned with their wars with the French, of which the American Revolution (and the War of 1812) are considered extensions.  If the English don’t study it, you can be pretty sure no one else does either.

For my part, the most important part of reading the histories and biographies is to understand that our history was created by men and not Gods.  There is a tendency, particularly among those on the right, to deify our Founders.  To me, that’s a disservice.  When we view historic people with that lens and then our current leaders with a human lens, we end up thinking that we are less than they were.

That’s not the case.  Many of the founders were brilliant.  They had incredible courage and some of them had a true vision for a different way to found a society.  Many of them could also afford to think these great thoughts because slaves were performing all their labor.  They were also often bickering, small-minded, factional, jealous and even wrong.

But what they did was important and meaningful, especially to those of us who live here.  And the story is fascinating and compelling.

If you’re looking for something to start with, McCullough is always the answer.  1776 and the John Adams are both great books to understand how the whole thing unfolded.  Also, a Washington biography is essential.  His military leadership, in which he lost almost all the battles and won by never losing the war, and his unique ability to lead the nascent union are critical.  Had he died before 1789 and Adams, Madison or Jefferson ended up as Chief Executive, its possible things would have turned out differently.

Especially Jefferson.  Don’t get me started.

So enjoy the day.  Have a hot dog.  Watch some baseball.  Read a book.

Canada Day, US Version

IMG_0390Here’s the photo I took last year when Barb and I were in Toronto for the Canada Day celebration.  It was a special one because it was Canada’s 150th Birthday.  The fireworks above are coming out of the CN tower.

Anyway, I thought I would take this opportunity to give a stateside impression.  Today, our Canada Day has consisted of Barb pining for Swiss Chalet sauce and saying that a Tim Horton’s back home would never refer to a sandwich as a “hoagie.”  Apparently, they would call it a “sandwich.”

Also, she didn’t mention that there was a recipe for Roast Antelope in that Canadian cookbook.

Bookwise, I had a couple thoughts as it relates to Canada.  Everyone’s aware of some of the greats.  Alice Munro has a Nobel Prize and Margaret Atwood should have one.  There are others, of course.

For example, I’d point you to Wayne Grady’s Emancipation.  This book, set mostly in Windsor, is a terrific story of people involved in the African-Canadian experience directly across the river from Detroit, where the bloody and violent African-American experience was playing out.  (I also learned that Newfoundland was not part of Canada until 1949.)  It’s pretty timely for today–and I don’t mean Canada Day only–because it lends some understanding to how Canada is as diverse as it is and has still been immune to the global xenophobia trend, a statement I make even while noting the election of Doug Ford.

When you are in Windsor and you drive down the main drag, you see signs in English and then it transitions effortlessly to Arabic.  It has to mean something.

By the way, Richard Ford’s Canada also ends in Windsor and you might get the idea that Windsor is some kind of underappreciated literary capital, and if you had that idea you’d be wrong.

Another author that I don’t think most people know was Canadian is W.P. Kinsella, who wrote Shoeless Joe and other fictional works related to baseball.  Shoeless Joe is the book that Field of Dreams was based on.  Kinsella (who has since passed) was a brilliant writer.  He wrote like a painter.  He had the ability to describe colors in a way that set your brain on fire with images.  I’d recommend anyone check back on his works, which are really about how people try to find peace in the struggles of everyday life.  Also, he’s a natural-born storyteller, and you know how I value that.

I didn’t realize until now that Patrick DeWitt, the author of the transcendent Sisters Brothers is Canadian.  Also, the decidedly more immanent Yann Martel.

So, Happy Canada Day to all!  Put an antelope on the grill, pop open a cold one and enjoy a great book.

The End of Book One

contemplator-1876.jpg!LargeHad some quality hammock reading time and was able to move to the end of Book One with our favorite brothers.  The action since we last talked as still centered around the debaucherous brothers and Grushenka.  Dmitry has gotten himself into a “pickle” in Barb’s words, and has found himself owing someone money and then engaged to marry the woman he gave the money too, despite being still in love with Grushenka, to the point where he tells Alyosha that he would be willing to wait quietly in the other room while she has sex with other men.  He says:

I loved debauchery, I loved the stench of debauchery too. I loved cruelty: am I not a louse, an evil insect? I’m a Karamazov, don’t forget that!

Hilariously, Dmitry is sending Alyosha to break up with the first woman…a maneuver many others have tried over the years, without success.

‘Tell her that I shall never see her again and tell her that I send her my regards.’

‘You can’t do that!’

‘No, I can’t. That’s why I’m sending you in my stead. I couldn’t possibly do it myself.

Almost reads like Groucho Marx.

A significant part of this section consists of one of those Russian novel discussions on the nature of faith, which sound like dorm room bull sessions.  Woody Allen famously sent this up in “Love and Death.”  For example, in Matthew Jesus is supposed to have said that if you had faith as large as a mustard seed you could move a mountain.”  Why then, it is asked, is no one, anywhere on earth, moving mountains.  And how can there by martyrs when all you needed to do was move a mountain on them and crush them like “cockroaches.”

Enlightening stuff.

Like any author of a book written for a contemporary audience, Dostoevsky uses a lot of references that are current and familiar, and the footnotes in a book like this are often quite fun.

For example, the painting posted above is part of a discussion about one of the servants, who had a habit of just stopping and staring off into space.  Like the character in the painting, it is suggested, he is not thinking but “merely contemplating” and that he will file away these unconscious musings in a kind of primitive part of his brain until after many years “he might unexpectedly throw up everything and go off to Jerusalem as a wandering pilgrim, or perhaps he might suddenly set fire to his native village, or perhaps both.”

Which is kind of what they looks like he’s doing, even if that’s a fair amount of extrapolation.

There’s another reference to a poem by Nikolai Nekrasov.  It is titled “When from thine error” or “When from the darkness.”  Either way, it was probably important to Dostoevsky, because he referred to it in this book, inserted it into Notes from the Underground and doing a public reading of it.

It is worth a read.  It is also not surprising to see how it might have been appealing to our author.  It is about a person who has fallen and confessed and forgive, and yet carries around doubt because of how the world sees him/her.

Heed not the world, its lies dissembling,
Henceforth from all thy doubts be free;
Nor let thy soul, unduly trembling,
Still harbor thoughts that torture thee.
By grieving fruitlessly and vainly
Warm not the serpents in thy breast,

….advice that Dmitry has adopted under trademark false piety, something that would have been apparent to contemporary readers.

Through Book Two

The great reading project has advanced to the end of Book 2.  We have just finished the rather raucous visit of the Karamazov Brothers to the monastery, in which we find out, in my Mother’s words, “we can’t take [these people] anywhere.”  With the exception of the odd section where the starets is talking to some random supplicants outside the monastery, what we really have going on in this section is more exposition.  The narrator gave us the basic facts in the first section and in this part we get to see the whole family in action.

And it is pretty remarkable.  These are some very screwed up people–reality-show-screwed-up.  Jerry Springer screwed up.  If you don’t me…and the fracas at the Monastery wasn’t enough on its own…allow me to present you with the legendary Battle Grushenka.

grushenka
Dmiti, played here by Yul Brynner, uses guitar playing trick on Grushenka.

Grushenka is a woman who, we learn, shares her love.  Just to show how easy she is, she actually has Pyotr and Dmitri fighting over her, and doing it in front of the starets and any number of priests, monks, or acolytes, not to mention the other two kids and their cousin.

 

I checked on Goodreads and there was a poll and 53% of the people who voted said she wasn’t a prostitute, which is said to be the right answer.  Once it gets to be a question, you’re not in real good shape.

I did a little research and couldn’t find any examples of fathers and sons having sex with the same woman, except for Oedipus and some clips on PornHub where there’s reason to doubt that the people involved are even related.

So these guys are more depraved than that.

The end of the book is really well put together.  Alyosha is outside the room where the rest of the family is inside of lunch.  He is talking to the town gossip for the purposes of exposition, because Dostoevsky has made it clear that Alyosha is way too dense to figure out anything for himself.

Anyway, as they are talking, the door bursts open and the rest of the family comes storming out.  Then, Dostoevsky takes us back inside to find out what happened.

One last note.  Everything you read about the book talks about how dark it is.  Right now, it seems too farcical to be truly dark.  Perhaps my own dark view of humanity has made it impossible for anything else to be darker, but this just doesn’t seem like something you’d still be finding dark more than a century later.

Of course, there’s 900 more pages and (spoiler alert) (not really) no one is dead yet.

 

The NY Times Reviews a book I reviewed

optimistic decadeI have kind of been waiting for this to happen.  One of the things with Netgalley is you get the books early and then the grown-up critics weigh in later.  This happened recently with The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel.

First, one of the things about reading a book early is you get the book before any of the validators on board.  It could be a relatively obscure indy….or it could get reviewed in the New York Times Book Review.  You’re forced to read it on its merits, and not on whether other people found it important.

The book has been widely reviewed, in fact, in all the big places.   I gave it 3-stars, which is also the most common rating on Goodreads as well.

I had it in the “like but don’t love” category, like most readers on Goodreads.

I thought that the book did a great job of creating a sense of place and had well-done characters (with one exception).  I liked many of the themes, I just didn’t think it came together as a compelling, thrilling read.

So what did the New York Times think?

Their reviewer was Zoe Greenberg, whose day job is in the NYT Opinion section.  Of course, the Times doesn’t give stars, but I’d say their review is more positive than the unwashed Zeitgeist.

I thought the most interesting thing that Greenberg notes, that never occurred to me, is the parallel between the exodus into the camp and the Zionist exodus.

Is this a book about the failure of Zionism, an exploration of the limits of idealism or a literary coming-of-age novel? It’s a bit of all three. Most interestingly, it doesn’t just rehash the story of the Holy Land we already know, but imagines a new, subversive ending. Despite the emphasis on the land — its particular specialness and beauty — the devoted of Llamalo come to a radical conclusion: It’s not about the land at all.

Which is to note that there is a heavy influence of Judaism upon which the book draws.  Greenberg goes on to identify the book’s focus on mitzvah–which are actions (often routine) which develop sacred significance–as the true test of faith, as opposed to occupying a holy place.

I agreed with Greenberg that Abel is highly perceptive as well as the rather jaundiced eye that Abel turns toward the book’s liberal activists, teetering delicately on the line between gross over-drawing and winking sardonically.

Anyway, I guess the New York Times did OK.  HA!

Review: Angel

AngelNovelI mentioned a few weeks ago that I love to troll the re-introduced classic shelf and read really good books that have been forgotten over time.  Part of it is a chance to return to my modernist roots, and part of it is just a love of reading, whether the book is in the public eye or not.

I picked up Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (yes, the OTHER one) at Literati recently after hearing about it on the New York Times Books podcast. Having just finished it, I can report that it is an absolute delight.

I don’t like to do too much in the way of plot summaries, but suffice it to say that this is a book about a woman who is the worst successful writer in the world, but doesn’t know she’s the worst.

The most important thing I would say about this book is that it is funny.  It isn’t Catch-22 or Confederacy of Dunces funny, it is more of a very English dry wit, like a London gin, marked by the ability to keep an absolutely straight face when telling the story and assassin-grade command of observation and detail.

Even as dry as it is, though, the entire book is funny.  The situation is funny, the people are funny and the events are funny.  Even as the story draws out to its conclusion, the book doesn’t lose any of its energy and Taylor doesn’t spare her characters, who remain as obtuse in the end as they were in the beginning.

When you read fiction about writers, you can’t help but try to understand what it is that the meta-writer wants to say about the nature of writing an art.  In Angel’s childhood, we see a truly powerful imagination.  Her Aunt works in “Paradise House” as a servant, and Angel imagines what Paradise House must be like.  From that moment, the mind of a Romance author is born.

Sadly, nothing is done to cultivate those powers of imagination.  Angel brags to interviewers that she doesn’t read.  What results is pure mawkish romance fodder that finds an audience of people who long to imagine the insides of mansions and the lives of the rich.

Angel considers herself one of the great writers of her generation; critics bang their heads against the wall at the errors and contradictions embedded in a book set in Ancient Greece.

Taylor is a great writer, showing incredible ability and technique in this story.  She tells it with a deft touch.  If you overwrite this story, you end up with a farce.  If you lose that “straight face,” and act as if you know its funny, the joke disappears.  Taylor never wavers in her discipline to tell the events factually and let the humor arise organically.

So, this is a very good book, one I think people would enjoy reading and a reminder that we can never know the number of great books and great authors who are lost to obscurity.