Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Happy Highsmith and a Very Unhappy Flynn

Highsmithic books are enjoyable because rooting for people caught up in difficult circumstances and doing very bad things can be fun.  But if you read too many books in this vein, and start to think about it, it can become too grim.  Like the choppping up of bodies which I just read about, at length, in Natuso Kirino's Out. Now I'm reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. The New York Times Book Review summarizes Gone Girl as "A woman disappears on the day of her fifth anniversary; is her husband a killer?" Is it Highsmithic?  Maybe.  Many reviews have mentioned Highsmith.  To me it seems more Grand Guignol than Highsmithic.  And invariably (it now seems) we get to a section where two volunteers on a search campaign looking for Amy Dunne (the titular gone girl) casually discuss the most likely way the husband got rid of the body - dumping it in the Mississppi River.  But one argues that you'd have to chop it up first, but then one wonders if the body parts wouldn't get stuck and wash up or how far would they flow before washing up.  And I thought to myself, maybe this is all a bit too much.  We can't always be talk about disposing of bodies like this.  After the detailed and technical discussions of how to dismember a body in Natsuo Kirino's Out, I think I need to read lighter fare.  On the whole, Gone Girl is an amazingly thrilling and venomous book with, perhaps, the world's two most unreliable narrators.  I thought it was a tremendously en
tertaining read and I can see why it was the fourth best-selling book (in print and e-book formats) in the US in 2012.  (Any guesses what the number 1,2,&3 best-selling books were?  For bonus points, what was number 9 and how did it relate to numbers 1,2&3?)

Which brings me to Alys, Always by Harriet Lane.  I read it because I heard good things about it.  This is hard to say without potentially spoiling the book but Francis Thorpe is scheming to insert herself into the Kyte family.  Specifically into the arms and bed of Laurence Kyte, a prominent English literary novelist whose life she enters when she comes to the aide of Kyte's wife, Alys, after a terrible automobile accident.  Part of the suspense is that we don't know what Frances Thorpe will do to do it or to what end this is all for anyway - but Thorpe (stop reading - spoiler) uses her dark deeds for a relatively benign purpose, a sort of nice, mild suprise ending.  Alys, Always ends more like Jane Eyre/Charlotte Bronte than Patricia Highsmith.  Think, Reader, I Married Him instead of Reader, I Dismembered Him (which is where I was worried the story would go).  And you know, it was refreshing and different.  She just wanted a certain life and seized upon an unusual way of achieving it.  And they all lived happily ever after.  And the only death was the car accident which starts the book.  And I went and double-checked, Francis does not cause the accident that starts the books (a would be wicked twist that I had been on the lookout for all along).

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Kate Atkinson and Going to the Dogs Again

The last time I started a Kate Atkinson novel, I got a dog.  I just started reading her new novel, Life After Life, and once again, I'm thinking about dogs.  (And food. There is a lot about food in this book.  Strange food, I think: Egyptian pudding, beef collops, scrag-end, ham and pickles, beef tea, picalilli, sweat meats, meat pies, herring roe on toast, bloater paste sandwiches, lemon curd sandwiches, seed cake, pork pie, steak pie, Rose Madder, Jewish dietary restrictions, Hitler and pastries, and a lot of other stuff.  I guess I don't know much about what the English ate in 1910 but I have a hunch the food in this book is not normal.  Or that that way of eating has died out.  Or that it is supposed to tell us something.)

Early on, the Todd family get a dog to live with them at their house, Fox Corner, in the English countryside.  A French mastiff.  So I put down the book (Kindle in this case), and started Googling French mastiffs because I didn't know what they looked like.  Turns out, they are beautiful.
If I didn't live in downtown Washington, this would be the dog for me.  Instead, I will keep this guy:

In a bit of a coincidence, my dog and I watched the second night of the 2013 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show tonight.  We missed the toy dog category (the one with Shih Tzus) but got to see the working dog group and the terrier group.  The French mastiff in the competition - or the Dogue de Bordeaux - was a handsome fella but he did not win his category.  The Portuguese Water Dog did.  I also learned that the Great Pyrenees, another member of the working dog group, was declared the "Royal Dog of France" by Louis XIV in 1675.
I know just the person who could use one of these.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Homeland and Little America

Just as I have innumerable books waiting to be read, I also have several television series that I need to watch.  This past week, I finally started watching Homeland.  I know Homeland is a huge hit now and everyone has seen it so that I should watch it now and write about it is, I realize, well after all the horses have left the barn.  But I knew about the show before it premiered two seasons ago and thought it was going to be something worth watching.  Of course, I never got around to watching it.

What I can't believe was ten years ago, I read a great piece in the LA Weekly by John Powers on the novels of JG Farrell.  (Really - you should go read it.) (Side Note:  I have a bookshelf dedicated to writers with the initials J"X" - I have JG Farrell, JG Ballard, JM Coetzee, JR Ackerley JF Powers, and JF Federspiel.  It amuses me to no end.)  The thrust of the review is that Americans are not very good at writing about empire - which is unfortunate because there is so much material to be expolited.  One notable exception, according to Powers, was a new novel called Little America by Henry Bromell.  At the time I was more concerned with JG Farrell and didn't buy a copy of Little America for a few years and then let it sit unread for a several more years.  But I did start to read about Bromell and found out that he was also a TV writer/producer.  He was one of the producers of Homicide: Life on the Street (or the cop show in Baltimore that David Simon did before The Wire, greatest work of television ever) and a bunch of other shows.  So even though I had not read Little America, I was pretty impressed by Bromell.  And then I heard that he was producing a new series for Showtime called Homeland, and I thought, gee, that should be pretty good, I should watch it.  And with the way things work around here, two years later I am now watching Homeland.

Yes, Homeland is amazing.  So good that I decided to start reading Little America.  It, too, is amazing.  "A remarkably well written and highly original novel.  A thriller at the classiest level." - Los Angeles Times.  I agree.  Little America is the story of CIA involvement in a fictitious Middle Eastern country in the 1950s told through the attempt of the son of a CIA officer to understand what happened to the country (which has vanished) and his family (who were stationed there).  The jacket copy references Graham Greene and John Le Carre.  I would throw in the storytelling chops of William Boyd.  I can't believe this book isn't better known. I hope the success of Homeland spurs some interest in this novel.

I have no idea if it is possible to effective brainwash a person.  I know it is a popular subject in books and movies but I'm skeptical that it could really happen.  Part of Homeland concerns whether or not a captured and tortured US Marine could be turned into a terrorist who would then carry out a mission once back in the US.  So I was thinking about this when I pulled a copy of The Holland Suggestions by John Dunning off the shelf (where it has been patiently waiting for years for the right time to reveal itself to me) to determine whether or not it should go into storage.  John Dunning was a reporter and writer who became a used bookseller and then later wrote some mystery novels about a cop turned used bookseller turned private eye.  Okay, I know that sounds terrible.  Most vocational inspired mystery novels are terrible and completely implausible.  But his first book, Booked to Die, was fantastic.  It was a good crime novel and it was about the book world.  (Um, I can't remember the plot - it came out in 1992 - but I really loved it.  Because I love mystery novels and because I love book collecting.  It worked.)  And the book was a fairly big hit.  At some point I bought an ugly book club edition of one of Dunning's early novels because I wanted more Dunning.  That book was The Holland Suggestions, published in 1975.  Which, of course, I never read. Until now, that is.  Because I realized that the book is some sort of thriller about hypnosis and the power of post-hypnotic suggestion.  When Jim Ryan (Jack Ryan was apparently taken) was in college, he fell in with a rogue professor who experimented on his students.  Something happened and it shattered his life and cost him his wife, leaving him to raise their daughter on his own.  Now, some 15 years later, something is triggering strange actions in Jim Ryan and he is forced to dredge up the past again.  Not helping matters is that his daughter now looks exactly like his wife (and may be secretly communicating with her).  I can't say for sure if this book will be good - it has potential and reads like somewhat of a wordy P.M. Hubbard.  And I probably shouldn't let it distract me from Homeland and Little America, but for some reason I fell compelled to keep reading now.

UPDATE:  Henry Bromell just died.