Monday, January 30, 2012

Short Attention Span Book Reviews

In 1956, when I was in third grade, my father started ordering Landmark books, a historical fiction series from Random House. The first was "Daniel Boone." I can still see myself lying on the top bunk in the impossibly small bedroom my two-year-old brother and I shared in our Philadelphia brick row house, completely absorbed and thoroughly entertained. Many Landmark books followed, so many in fact that occasionally I still remember yet another title that has been buried in my subconscious for over 50 years. So began my love of reading and nothing has changed since. Eat, sleep, breathe, read. I have to do all four to survive. Like my SAS movie reviews, I'll be writing concise reviews of all the books I read that I think are worthy of commentary. "Good read" recommendations welcome.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
(Yes, Denis with one 'n')

"Granier himself lived more than eighty-years, well into the 1960's. In his time he'd traveled west to within a few dozen miles of the Pacific, though he'd never seen the ocean itself...He'd had one lover, owned one acre of property, two horses and a wagon. He'd never been drunk...or spoken into a telephone...He had no idea who his parents might have been, and he left no heirs behind him."

From a tradition that includes, Twain, London and Hemingway, Denis Johnson's novella (only 116 pages) is a spellbinding look at a vanishing America as witnessed through the experience of Robert Granier, a poorly educated, slightly crazy, Idaho country laborer. Most of the action is set between 1917 and 1935, and every page reveals something about American culture and the kind of marginal, lively, hilariously rough and innocent characters who inhabited the country during the years when industry and technology were slowly taking over. Johnson's language is spare, colorful and humorous, and some of the characters who make brief appearances are unforgettable. An elegiac, but not sentimental, longing for a simpler time is present on every page. There is no insistence that simpler is better, or any denial of the random tragedies that accompany life during any era, but there is no doubt that Robert Granier is meant to represent one of the last of his kind, and it's a sad loss indeed. I guarantee that you'll want to read this book again immediately after you finish it.

After Dark
by Haruki Murakami

Anyone who has spent time in restaurants and clubs, or on the streets of big cities, in the hours between midnight and dawn, will appreciate the strange physical and psychological environment created by Murakami in this novel.  Jazz seems to be the metaphor that best describes the scenes Murakami links together, jazz that starts with a familiar melody (a solitary young girl reading and drinking coffee in a Tokyo Denny's), and then drifts off into sometimes soothing, sometimes mysterious, sometimes violent improvisation. A call girl is roughed up in a "love hotel," a beautiful model is in a deep sleep that has lasted two months, a jazz band practices all night in a nearby basement. At times scenes are viewed from an objective camera in a way that makes the reader feel like a voyeur. A sense of menace grows as characters leave real time and cross over to a claustrophobic alternative reality, if only briefly. If we live our "real" lives during our busy days, then it's after dark that our dreams, fantasies, insecurities, fears become real, and often disturbing. Revealing conversations unlikely to occur during the day surface from the subconscious in the early hours when fatigue fueled by caffeine, music, hunger or some other stimulus loosens inhibitions. Nocturnal characters search for identity and understanding in the long hours when everyone else is resting in preparation for another mundane day. "After Dark" is not a conventional narrative, and you will not close the book and find it easy to identify a dominant theme or idea, but you will recognize those unsettling times and places in your experience when the center will not hold, those dreams that still seem real long after waking. A quick read, "After Dark" will haunt you long after you put it down.
Montana 1948
by Larry Watson

This book is already 20 years old, but I just reread it for my book group and it deserves praise. In the windswept northeast corner of Montana, Watson sets up a family drama that has elements of Greek tragedy. While family history is used to fill in important information, all of the actions takes place in Bentrock in a very short period of time. The lives of two brothers - one the county sheriff and the other a doctor and WWII hero - of a powerful rancher father, are set on an unalterably tragic course when one of them abuses his power in his relations with local American Indians. Told from the point of view of the sheriff's 12-year-old son with Montana sky clarity and beauty, Watson manages to address a wide variety of thematic ideas: bigotry, pride, family loyalty, abuse, both physical and emotional, the role of women in what is, in essence, still the Old West, moral ambiguity, etc. Told in only 175 pages, both the narrator, David Hayden, and the reader are placed in the difficult position of watching "average" adults struggle through a painful situation while at the same time trying to decide "What would I do under similar circumstances?" There are echoes of "To Kill a Mockingbird" in this book, only Watson's language is clear and crisp as a trout stream while Harper Lee's is thick as kudzu. Perhaps the most challenging question asked in the book is "Do the rules change when family is involved?" Read "Montana 1948" and learn the Hayden family's answer. You'll have a hard time putting this novel down once you start.

The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his latest novel, a compact 165 page first person narrative told by sixty-something Tony Webster, a retired middle class British man forced to recall his past when he unexpectedly receives a gift from a recently deceased woman he met only once over forty years ago. A shock awaits us at the end of  Tony's recollection, one filled with constant questions about the accuracy of memory, even in our own personal histories; the rapid passage of time; the subjectivity of identity; our real or imagined attachment to old friends and flames; and what it means to live an "average" life as opposed to one that chooses risk over safety. For American readers, we feel the past (and maybe present) strictures of British class life and compare it to our relative social freedom, especially among the middle class. Of the Woodstock generation, Tony only benefits from its looser social mores when he travels here and spends a blissful summer traveling and camping with Annie. Then it's back to reality, at least British reality for someone like him. Two additional characters dominate the novel, Adrian, Tony's intellectually rebellious public school friend, and Veronica, his first serious girlfriend. There is a lot of humor in "The Sense of an Ending," and some pithy social observation by Webster/Barnes. For example: "Back then, things were plainer: less money, no electronic devices, little fashion tyranny, no girlfriends. There was nothing to distract us from our human and filial duty, which was to study, pass exams, use those qualifications to find a job, and then put together a way of life unthreateningly fuller than that of our parents, who would approve, while privately comparing it to their own earlier lives, which had been simpler, and therefore superior." Reader beware, there is also frequent reference to wanking and "infra-sex," which means a lot of heat and little, if any, satisfaction. Of all the themes, I found myself most attracted to the accuracy of memory idea, especially since I'm roughly Tony's age. We tend to create our own personal mythology, and it's always interesting to talk to someone you haven't seen for a long time who shared a common experience and remembers events you don't, or remembers them differently.  In "The Sense of An Ending," Julian Barnes accurately captures the mysteries of our own lives, the opportunities lost, and the yearning that never seems to leave us, no matter how "safe" we think our lives may be.

The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick deWitt

It's 1851 and assassins Eli and Charlie Sisters, in the employ of the Commodore, are leaving Oregon City on horseback for the gold mining camps of Sacramento to dispatch another of the Commodore's enemies, Kermit Warm.  Eli, the more sensitive of the two killers, narrates this picaresque tale of the violent American west with colorful, humorous language and dialogue that somehow endears the characters to us as we proceed. We meet a gallery of desperate entrepreneurs, prostitutes, prospectors and thieves, all striving to survive in a Darwinian, dog-eat-dog world. Sudden violence, with no sign of the law to intervene, frequently erupts on these blood soaked pages. All of deWitt's characters live on the outskirts of civilization in a part of the country that has not yet developed a reliable social contract. Descriptions of crude forms of medicine like dentistry, make the reader more than grateful that he lives in a world of advanced technology, but also makes him wonder how he would have fared in a time where education and the handed-down comforts of middle class life weren't available to the average person. Is deWitt trying to say that today's world, where economic inequity seems to be increasing, may be mimicing a ruder, rougher, earlier time? Maybe not, but it's worth spending a few hours with the Sisters Brothers to give it some thought. In an early scene, the impulsive Charlie injects his cheek with some purloined anesthetic and then has Eli slap him in the face a few times to see if it works. In dialogue straight out of Twain, Charlie says, "A recoil from the blow, but no pain. A smart man could make use of this." Eli replies, "Perhaps you could go from one town to the next, inviting frustrated citizens to clobber your head for a fee." Combining violent shock with humor, "The Sisters Brothers" is good reading. And you'll be surprised by how things turn out for them in the end.


  1. I had some trouble with The Sense of an Ending. I enjoyed meeting the characters in the beginning -- school, intellectual awaking, friends, even the infra-sex. But as the narrative got into the present I just got more and more annoyed with the self-centered and self-indulgent musings. I wanted to be attracted to the accuracy of memory idea, but it all hinged on an event revealed at the end of the book that made me feel manipulated. I read Half Blood Blues (Man Booker Prize finalist the same year) just after and enjoyed it more. But it too relied on a reveal at the end to make sense of the middle. Maybe that's a Booker thing.

    1. I agree that the first part of the book was better and I also agree with your assessment of Tony. My book group is discussing the book tonight. Lots of questions about the ending. I like that even when he thinkd he "gets it," he's wrong one more time. I'll try Half Blood Blues. Thanks for writing.