Thursday, February 28, 2013

Flat Crazy

by Ben Rehder

The third Blanco Country mystery.  In this episode of game warden John Marlin’s adventures in law enforcement, a corrupt hunting guide named Duke Waldrip kills an angry client who demands a refund after discovering his mounted head was faked; the country goes loco after a chupacabra sighting makes national news thanks to a less-than-dignified gossip show’s attention; loveable redneck crooks Billy Don and Red try to catch the goat-sucker with typically amateurish planning; a man specializing in Asian midget porn procures some deer antlers as an aphrodisiac for an unconfident star; and someone has been illegally shipping in and shooting exotic animals (which just might explain the chupacabra sightings).

It’s another strong entry in Rehder’s series – not actually a mystery, since the murderer is known from the beginning (except for a small twist at the end) and it’s pretty clear what the chupacabra actually is – but it’s a great amount of fun.  The criminal is both dumb and devious; the hillbillies are self-centered, goofy and endearing; Marlin is an everyman, unlucky in love but optimistic, who doesn’t want to solve homicides but deep down enjoys the thrill.  As Rehder brings the disparate plot lines together and apart and together again in brief, staccato flashes of drama and chaos (the porn plot thread impacts the case only tangentially but quite viscerally), the madcap energy keeps the pages turning.  Comic madness plus suspense equals enthralling.

four stars

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Something To Answer For

by P.H. Newby

The winner of the first Booker Prize, this novel takes place during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis and centers on Jack Townrow, a British man who makes his living as a corrupt Fund Distributor.  With nothing holding him to home, when he is asked to come to Egypt (called the UAR in the novel though that seems to be chronologically off) by Mrs. Khoury, the widow of a man he met ten years earlier in Cairo, he goes.  On the way, during a stopover in Rome, Townrow gets into an argument with two men over Britain’s knowledge or lack thereof of the Final Solution in 1942.  Townrow is incensed that anyone would believe the British government to be capable of colluding in genocide, while the Israeli and Greek are more cynical.   In Port Said, on the Canal, he goes to a bar he used to frequent, whose Greek proprietor spins him a yarn about Mrs K’s taking Elie’s body, along with a fortune in coins, to Lebanon though the Canal, which directly led to Nasser’s decision to nationalize it, precipitating the looming French and British invasion.  Townrow drinks until he blacks out – it seems likely to the reader that the bar owner drugged him – and awakens naked and bleeding in the desert, and is attacked by a startled camel driver, causing his head and eye to be bandaged for most of the rest of the novel.  After this incident, the novel becomes much more dream-like in its narrative, with Townrow a very unreliable narrator who gives false names, who cannot remember his nationality (though he asserts that he is Irish as part of a scam he tries to run on Mrs K), nor his age, nor whether his mother is alive. He imagines that Elie is still alive, or that he is watching the burial at sea.  He meets an Egyptian Jew, Leah Strauss, who is married to an American locked in an asylum back home.  She repels his attentions, though apparently she later becomes his lover, and she an obsession for him. Townrow walks though scenes of mob unrest (and kills a man, though apparently nothing comes of it), is arrested as a spy, and watches bloody gunfights between Egyptian and British troops with detachment.  At the end of the novel, Townrow comes to believe that a citizen is not responsible for the morality of his government and has only himself and his own actions to answer for.

I don’t usually write such a detailed plot summary in a review, but this book, with its scenes that seemed to go nowhere but had huge influence on what came after, seemed to call for it.  This is a somewhat bewildering novel, as it is difficult to tell how much of what was related actually took place or how much was a fever or drunken dream.  Did Townrow really dig up the body, or watch a burial?  Did he really kill a rioter accidentally?  The book is very much Graham Greene – efficient British man gets in way over his head in a post-colonial foreign country because he doesn’t understand the history and culture the way he thinks he does – but a Greene novel as co-directed by Christopher Nolan and David Lynch.  I understand that this is a story of self-discovery, and it’s written with skill and erudition, and its message that a person is responsible for his or her own morality is welcome enough, but there’s always a part of me that resents books which make no distinction between internal and external processes.  How can the reader judge whether Townrow’s choices are apt and his journey worth taking when we can’t even know what’s happened to him?

three stars

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Fixer

by Bernard Malamud

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this novel set during the end of Tsarist Russia concerns the titular handyman, Yakov Bok, an agnostic Jew who leaves his village where he’s had nothing but personal and financial failure and tries his luck in Kiev.  There in the big anti-Semitic city, Yakov poses as a goy Russian and becomes a brickyard foreman, not through deliberate machinations but a series of events and lies of omission which make this the easiest and safest course for him.  But after a young boy is brutally murdered in the region, the authorities seize on Yakov, a Jew living illegally under false pretenses, as their scapegoat and charge him with killing the boy for magical Jewish blood rituals.  He sits imprisoned with little hope, though one or two fair-minded officials sympathize with the injustice of his arrest. 

This is a powerful novel, and it is compelling reading because the eventual plight of Yakov is of such interest.  In Malamud’s setting, the system and its drivers are not clever or all-seeing, merely thuggish, ignorant, and hypocritical.  Though there are bits of circumstantial evidence that hurt Yakov’s credibility (he had previously chased the boy out of the brickyard for vandalism, he took in an old Jew who had been beaten and stanched his bloody head with his own shirt), basically the case against him is made up of whole cloth, invented baseless lies about him personally and the Jewish religion in general.  This is particularly ironic and brutal for Yakov because, as noted, he doesn’t consider himself a religious Jew: “From birth a black horse had followed him, a Jewish nightmare.  What was being a Jew but an everlasting curse?  He was sick of their history, destiny, blood guilt.”  One of the book’s most powerful and moving scenes is when Yakov is visited by his humble, God-fearing father-in-law, whom Yakov sends away, saying God is an invention and that he hates him in any case for killing Job’s children, “not to mention ten thousand pogroms.”  The book’s purpose, I believe is to expose injustice and to exhort all fair-minded people, especially Jews, to work against it: “there’s no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew,” Yakov thinks to himself near the end of the book.  “You can’t sit still and see yourself destroyed.”  And yet, because Malamud has shown that the system is not just weighted against the oppressed but completely unrestrained by any duty to truth or even credibility, that it can manufacture and disseminate inventions, I wonder whether this moral works.  What is there to fight, if facts don’t matter and lone voices are silenced?  The novel ends on an ambiguous note, but where this scintilla of hope may come from seems unfounded given the rest of Yakov’s experiences.

four stars

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now

by Jan Wong

The tale of the Chinese-Canadian author’s long path from a deluded, naïve red-to-the-core Maoist to a cynical reporter who sees just how wrong she was.  Wong’s life is enthralling in its sheer unlikeliness, even if Wong herself comes off as an unrepentant spoiled fool in the first half of the book.  Wong dismisses the concerns of her wealthy father (born in Canada, the son of an emigrant) to become one of only two Westerners allowed to attend Beijing University in 1972, in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, and demands to work in the fields, so she can be “purified” by labor.  She is far too stupid to understand that Mao’s policies were insane and destructive, and actually believed what millions of Chinese knew to be madness.  If Wong were Chinese, she’d be merely naïve, or a tool of the system – as an educated Canadian who should have known better, she comes off as dangerously stupid, and her book is full of excuses and alibis for her actions.  She takes pains to cite the turbulent political times, the anti-American sentiment, her youth… but those are not valid excuses.  Millions of Americans criticized their government in the ‘60s and ‘70s  without swallowing Mao’s gnomish madness, and tens of millions of teenagers may have impulsive tendencies but manage not to be raving absolutists about things which are obviously untrue.

So the first half of the book is infuriating, though still fascinating.  Very early into Wong’s first visit to China, she started noticing that the Cultural Revolution had trashed standards throughout China, that “some people seemed more equal than others,” that food stores were sparse; but still she remains deluded and committed to Maoism.  What kind of mind must she have had to be so blind?  At one point she is so brainwashed (not, it must be noted, by anyone but her own faulty reasoning and stupidity) she denounces students who want her help to escape China.  Wong realizes that this was a low point in her     development, but she maintains a defensive attitude about even this, comparing herself to other Chinese denouncers.  (She doesn’t seem to realize that they, who had to live there, may have had practical reasons to denounce others, such as to avoid more severe punishment for loved ones who may have been implicated.)  As with all brainwashed zealots, it is only after her personal desires or freedoms are impacted that she truly begins to question what she believes: “I was sick of the double standard… How dare he interfere in my life.  I had changed… I refused to endure the same kind of humiliation every Chinese endured,” she writes about the authorities’ attempts to prevent her from seeing her future husband.  Wong’s stupidity and self-interest is rather pathetic, and she is a highly unsympathetic narrator – but as I say, the book is fascinating, if only because her experiences are so unreal and rare.  After her apostasy, the book gets even more interesting, because of Wong’s unique ability to blend in with the Chinese people and get stories for the New York Times.  She writes about the lead-up to the Tiananmen reprisals, when students went on “hunger strikes” in turns (with snack breaks), and how it suddenly turned from a rather jovial sit-in to a massacre.  She gives in-depth reports on execution fields and the practicalities of summary executions; she visits entire villages made retarded and dwarfed by pollution; she investigates modern women trafficking; and she marvels at the breakneck pace of China’s embrace of capitalism, with its McDonald’s run by ex-cadre leaders, the new extravagance of penis and breast reconstruction (though the former has roots in China’s early rural economy, when boys had their penises bitten off by feral pigs as they defecated in fields at night).  “Even my maid had a maid,” she writes, bemused at the changes.  At this point Wong seems very clear-headed, but even late in the book, she claims that China was “an unrelentingly pure country” in 1980 because guards didn’t take bribes, compared to the pervasive bribery rampant in China today.  But surely she realizes that bribery sprouts from lawlessness, and the lack of bribery is more likely rooted in fear of a mad despot than some ideological “purity” that never existed?  It left me wondering if Wong ever really learned a lesson, or just got tired of being treated like a Chinese person.  That aside, it’s a fascinating look at Chinese written from a unique perspective. 

four stars

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Bedside Manners: One Doctor's Reflections on the Oddly Intimate Encounters Between Patient and Healer

by David Watts

The author, an internist and poet, writes brief vignettes about a variety of patients – the resigned, the anxious, the pathologically neurotic, the demanding and blustering.  With the longest at around ten pages and most of them no more than four, these are brief scenes, ruminations on what a patient’s words or actions may actually be saying about their inner feelings.

The last word in the subtitle – “healer” – is aptly chosen, as Dr. Watts attends to not only his patients’ colons and esophagi, but their fears and hopes and memories.  Using as his precept “So you’re a doctor, but don’t go around acting like one,” he does a masterful job of checking his ego, putting himself in his patients’ shoes, allowing them their moments of fear or bravado.  As the kind of doctor who sees himself as a healer, listener, counselor, and fount of compassion, he also has a few rather pointed and amusing things to say about insurance companies and red tape.  As a poet, he is a talented storyteller with a gift for evoking a scene of high emotion in a  few lines and ending it on the perfect, ambiguous, moving, or wryly humorous note.  I did not like the way in which he eschewed all quotation marks; Watts may be a poet, but this is not poetry, and it was a distracting affectation. 

four stars