Monday, July 30, 2012

When You Are Engulfed In Flames

by David Sedaris

Another collection of humorous essays and ruminations by NPR’s most beloved gay expatriate memoirist.  He talks about his travels to Japan (covering previously beaten ground by taking language classes, as he did in France); his visit to a medical examiner’s office (at this point in his career, it’s understandable that Sedaris has to create his own material rather than relying on reminisces or the unexpected); some first fumbling sexual explorations; his irritable, nosy, elderly New York neighbor Helen; and domestic life in Normandy.

As always, Sedaris’ writing veers from startlingly hilarious to almost poignant, then back to the absurd again.  I loved “That’s Amore,” about Helen’s near-psychotic quirks, and some of the brief pieces like “Crybaby,” in which Sedaris muses on the man next to him in first class on a plane trip, who weeps the entire time for his dead mother.  His writing skewers both the off-kilter, irrational people he meets and what he presents as his own selfish, solipsistic view of them.  The two pieces I felt were the most powerful, “All the Beauty You Will Ever Need” and “Old Faithful,” are self-deprecating, adorable, and hilarious scenes of living and growing older with his partner, Hugh.  Sedaris is a masterful essayist, and can wring more pathos out of a simple boil on his ass than most novelists can out of any number of dramatic crises. 

[read twice: 9/4/10, 7/30/12]

four stars

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children

by Wendy Mogel

The author, a psychologist who came to believe that the power of spiritual assurance and community had more of a healing power than therapy, explains how the Talmud can help parents raise children sensibly.  She asserts that the three pillars of Jewish teaching – moderation, celebration, and sanctification – can be applied to areas such as chores, eating, self-control, and stress.  She starts with the premise that children do not belong to their parents, but are a gift on loan from God, born to leave their parents.  If you accept this, is logically follows that it is a parental duty to allow their children to be a little cold or a little hungry at times, to develop their ability to handle misfortune.  She also makes use of the principle “deed over creed” – that is, good works inform good thoughts.  It’s perfectly all right for children to feel irritated, or less than compassionate, but they should discipline themselves to act appropriately.

I was astounded at how similar this book is to Simplicity Parenting: subtract the admonition that God is commanding you to do these things, and Mogel’s book is an echo of Kim Payne’s: kids need to have good role models; kids need room to explore and fall and get up on their own; kids need less material goods so they learn to feel gratitude for what they do have; families need a day a week or an hour a day to have quiet reflection  and connection; kids should get less media overload; kids need to eat what their parents eat.  Mogel’s book does have quite a few nuggets of wisdom of her own beyond the basics, though, such as her advice to reframe children’s “bad” behavior as a strength (bossiness as assurance, complaining as discerning), her sensible tips on rebuking a child so the child keeps his dignity, or her precept that it is the certainty of a consequence, not the severity, that counts when teaching children.  Still, what this all boils down to, whether cloaked in the language of family counseling or rabbinical teaching, is the most common-sense, simplistic truths.  Be a parent, not a lawyer.  Say no and mean it.  Set boundaries.  Don’t bend over backwards for your child.  Let children see the consequences of their wrong actions.  Model good behavior yourself, obviously.  Take time to be together as a family.  It’s bizarre that so many parents don’t understand these things without needing an “expert” to tell them, but there it is. 

four stars

Friday, July 20, 2012

Hell To Pay

by George Pelecanos

The second Derek Strange novel.  While his hot-headed white partner, Terry Quinn, is hired to rescue a runaway girl from a pimp, Strange gets involved in a high-profile murder case after one of the young boys on his peewee football team is shot.  With the police closing in fast, Strange must decide whether he wants the arrogant gang bangers who did the shooting to be arrested, or suffer the rough justice of a vicious drug dealer who has a personal interest in the case.

It’s another solid crime story from Pelecanos, who delivers the seedy underbelly of DC without rose-colored glasses or glorification.  He knows that every person, even the most cruel and unthinking, is a product of his culture and upbringing, so imbues even the minor villains of his story with motivation, rationalizations, and dreams, which makes their condition all the more tragic.  Derek Strange continues to be a fascinating character, a man who is weak in the ways of the flesh but with a noble spirit, a tough guy who doesn’t carry a gun, a man who’s seen a lot of violence and doesn’t want to be the cause of more.  There’s the usual man-out-of-time idiosyncrasies from Pelecanos – both protagonist and antagonist independently muse that CDs don’t have that rich “bottom sound” that vinyl does – but this is a compelling, smart noir that examines hard questions of crime, culture, and consequences without flinching.

four stars

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Lifeboat

by Charlotte Rogan

On a transatlantic cruise to America in the summer of 1914, the Empress Alexandra sinks (under somewhat vague circumstances).  Grace Winter, an attractive young woman who has just escaped her fate as a governess by seducing an already-betrothed, very wealthy man, takes to a lifeboat that is already crowded, and even less capacious than it is meant to be, due to cost-cutting by the ship's owners.  With 38 others, mostly women, Grace drifts as storms rage and water supplies dwindle.  The passengers would have perished early on if it weren’t for the single seaman among them, Mr. Hardie, who takes control of the supplies and makes God-like decisions to keep them alive: he steers the boat away from a young boy clinging to wreckage and knocks swimmers trying to climb aboard back into the water.  There is evidence that Hardie is not exactly a saint, but Grace is grateful for his ability to keep them afloat and comes to admire him deeply.  Eventually, the passengers realize that some of them must die that others may live.  However, an older woman named Mrs. Grant resents Hardie’s callous manner and unpopular decisions, and leads a mutiny against him – which Grace also goes along with.  (She presents herself, alternately, as hypnotized by the charisma of Hardie and Grant, and then as someone quite determined to survive and willing to make hard decisions on her own.)  After their rescue, Grace and Mrs. Grant are charged with murder.

It’s a fascinating book that works as a thrilling adventure at sea, an examination of the staid Edwardian mores of the era and how they crumble under the unyielding reality of nature, and it also serves as a deeper rumination on the ethics of group survival.  This is Rogan’s first novel, but she writes with a very assured tone and rich imagery (on a storm: “the boat… climbed the foamy heights of the waves and then descended into hellish troughs so that we were surrounded on four sides by walls of black water;” on thirst: “my tongue sat in my mouth like a dead animal, no longer supple and quick, but parched and cracking, like a dried and hairless mouse”).  The rickety boat, the bailing, and tensions that run increasingly fraught all come to life.  I’m not sure that Rogan adequately conveys what would have been the deplorable over-crowded conditions on the boat (although demure, not altogether reliable Grace Winter, with her Edwardian proprieties, may be the one doing the skipping over in this area).  In any case, this is a terrific book, especially for a first novel, and its ambiguity allows the reader to make his own conclusions about Grace’s culpability, or what might have been the “moral” thing to do in such a situation.

four stars

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Hunter

by Richard Stark

Parker, a brutish, gorilla of a man and a small-time crook, reluctantly takes on a job with an ex-syndicate man named Mal, who betrays Parker by convincing his wife to shoot him and leave him for dead.  A year later, out of prison and penniless, Parker tracks his wife and Mal down, then goes after the syndicate itself to get his share of the money back.

I found this book thoroughly unpleasant, with no sympathetic characters and only laughably stupid straw men for Parker to prove his toughness against.  The book’s been praised to the skies by everyone from Elmore Leonard to the New York Times, but I just don’t understand the appeal, unless the reader just enjoys the adolescent fantasy that he’s the moronic Parker.  The prose is sparse and at times ridiculous: “women in passing cars looked at him and felt vibrations in their nylons.”  The juvenile slyness of this phrase aside, it assumes all intelligent, professional women are entranced by a wife-beating idiot in grubby clothes and shoes with holes in them.  And Parker is indeed an idiot.  I found the description of his making of a fake driver’s license (he just kind of draws one and crumples it up) to be unintentionally hilarious; he starts hitting a woman who gave him perfectly good information without stopping to think about why the information isn’t useful at that specific moment; his enemies are, to a man, brainless straw men who allow him (hulking, brutal, unsmiling Parker, remember) to approach them and ask them for change before taking a gun out of his lunchbox to get the drop on them!  Yes, this really happens.  Several times.  To tough syndicate gun men who are in fact prepared and waiting for him.  The entire second half of the book, Parker vs. syndicate, is utterly absurd, from the way Parker deals with the men to his ridiculous threats against them (“pay me or I’ll start telling my friends to start robbing your shipments!” – a non-problem, surely, that they’d have encountered many times before and dealt with).  Really, the whole thing is just ludicrous, and Parker is utterly unappealing.   Did I mention that he was planning to cross Mal before he himself got crossed?  Yeah.  Uh, go, Parker?

one star

[movie note: It's worth noting that the movie, Payback, starring Mel Gibson, is orders of magnitude better than the book. The film dispenses with the unintentionally hilarious, out of touch scenes; turns Porter/Parker into less of a stupid woman-beating thug and into a guy just as tough, but who can at least feel desire, sadness, and regret; makes Mal's betrayal of Parker a true outrage rather than what Parker was going to do to him first if he didn't; gives his wife a real motive for betraying him rather than, uh, just because she's dumb I guess?; and keeps Stark's good noir dialogue. Really, watching the movie just made me realize how stupid and unappealing the book is.]

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What It Was

by George Pelecanos

The fifth Derek Strange novel.  In this, he relates a tale from 1972, when the 1968 riots were still fresh in everyone’s minds.  Strange, just starting out in his PI business, is hired to find a stolen ring.  This puts him on the trail of a notorious killer known as “Red Fury” Jones and his madam girlfriend.  Strange works alongside a tenacious white detective, Vaughn (a relic of the old days of cop work, but hiding a heart of gold under that un-PC exterior), to track down Jones as he grows ever bolder; meanwhile two vicious Italian syndicate boys follow the same trail to get the money back that Jones stole.

I’m not quite as taken with this book as I was with the previous two Pelecanos crime books I’ve read.  It’s a decent police procedural, with a cast of cold killers, scared junkies, small-time hoods, and informers that add color to crime stories.  And I enjoyed the complexities of Vaughn’s character.  But the “masculine” tone of the prose chafed me a bit – like Pelecanos was trying a bit too hard to emulate Hemingway’s ‘simple declarative sentences.”  Someone would take out a pack of cigarettes, take out a cigarette, and light it.  Or get out a record, place it on the turntable, and drop the stylus in the groove.  That step-by-step narration grows thin easily.  Also, while Pelecanos is highly skilled in depicting the practicalities and realities of seedy underworlds, his main deficiency as a writer – the sameness of his heroes’ tastes – is on full display here.  Everything is mother worship, big tits and ass, manly “needs” and muscular, sexy funk music.  A preference for slender women is likened to pedophilia, a preference for non-spicy food is dismissed as sissy.  There’s nothing wrong with having a hero or two with specific tastes and habits, but not everyone worth knowing in the book should share them.   At bottom, an author’s true calling is to find empathy in all that is human: humani nil a me alienum puto. 

three stars