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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Slumberland, Three Day Road, Hold Tight, Atomic Lobster, Suffer the Little Children, The Moonshine War, The White Nile, That Old Cape Magic, Fooled by Randomness, Richard Wright, Black Boy

Paul Beatty.  Slumberland.  Funny, clever, irreverent, scatological.  If you can’t deal with toe jam, stop now.  A young black guy from LA who calls himself DJ Darkie is an accomplished DJ besides having an IQ  that varies between 89 and 174.  Although he had a perfect score of 800 on the SAT’s, counselors didn’t bother to direct him toward math and science in college, and he settled for an associate’s degree in library science and is making his living spinning.  When he puts together a “beat” that is nearly perfect, his friends tell him he can only perfect it if he gets the approval of Schwa or Charles Stone, a legendary jazz musician who hasn’t been seen in years.  In the mail he gets a pornographic video tape with a music track that was definitely laid done by Schwa.  The return address is a bar in Berlin, so he calls there and gets a job as a jukebox sommelier, and begins his search for Charles Stone.  He finds him just after the wall comes down and helps Stone rebuild the wall with music.  None of this makes any sense.  I had no idea what the author was talking about in long passages about music, but who cares.  What a fun ride!  June 2012

Joseph Boyden.  Three Day Road.  June 2012  The three day road is the journey a man takes after death on his way to join the Great Spirit.  Two Cree hunters, Xavier and Elijah, volunteer for service in the Canadian army in WW I.  Xavier and his aunt Niska, the woman who raised him and taught him the old ways, narrate the story.  Both young men are excellent marksmen and are used as scouts and snipers, often operating in no man’s land between the opposing trenches.  Elijah learned his skills from Xavier, but his English is much better and his nature is flamboyant so he becomes the leader of their small team.  He also becomes a morphine addict and adopts a totally amoral and self-promoting attitude.  With Xavier’s help he builds an amazing kill record.  Just days before the end of the war, Elijah is killed.  As Xavier puts Elijah’s documents in his own pockets and prepares to carry his body back to their lines, he is hit by a bursting shell and almost mortally wounded.  He wakes up weeks later in a hospital, where they assume he is the hero sniper Elijah.  Minus a leg, addicted to morphine and close to death, he is handed over to Niska, who takes him away in her canoe and tries to cure him by telling him stories of the old ways.  The story was inspired by a real life Canadian hero, Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibway who had 378 kills, received his medals and then was treated very badly by the Department of Indian Affairs.  The theme of disrespect for and discrimination against Indians runs throughout the novel.

Harlan Coben.  Hold Tight.  Coben keeps so many balls in the air that it doesn’t seem possible that he can bring all together at the end in a unified but multifaceted mystery story.  It’s suburban middle class New Jersey.  There are a couple of murders, a teen suicide, some good kids gone temporarily astray, strains between parents and teens, and a homicidal maniac unwittingly unleashed by a teacher in trouble for humiliating one of his students.  The most likeable character is the lady police detective who unravels most of the mystery.   June 2012

Tim Dorsey.  Atomic Lobster.   Serge is an insane criminal genius.  His constant companion is a clueless drugged out alcoholic named Coleman.   Serge is constantly engaged in nutty research projects, which inevitably clash in some way with some criminal enterprise.  His way out is to murder whatever criminal has gotten in his way and some that he just observes in passing like the purse snatcher, whom he knocks out with a crowbar he holds out the window as he drives by him.  That night he ties him to a chair in front of a baseball pitching machine and leaves him there with the machine on and well stocked with balls.  The thief is just a bloody lump by morning.  This was one of at least five murders, he arranged himself, as well as accidentally burning down two houses and setting a couple of gangs up to start killing each other and breaking up a ring that was smuggling Mayan antiquities and cocaine into Florida.  June 2012

Donna Leon.  Suffer the Little Children.  The recorded version of this book is a delightful performance.  We accompany Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice police force, who lives a beautiful life, despite having to deal with a daily diet of crime.  We start with an investigation a brutal assault against a local pediatrician by the Carabinieri, who entered the doctor’s flat in the middle of the night to take away the 18 month old boy he was accused of buying from an immigrant Albanian mother.  There are no murders in this story, but the investigation eventually leads Brunetti and his team to identify a self-righteous pharmacist, who uses the information he gleans from patients’ records to punish them for their sins.  It would be a better world if all policemen were like Brunetti and his team.  June 2012

Elmore Leonard.  The Moonshine War.   This one wasn’t very good.  A revenuer tries to horn in on the 150 barrels of bourbon his wartime buddy has hidden somewhere on his farm.  Some really nasty bootleggers also come after the whiskey and eventually the revenuer and his buddy team up and blow up the whiskey and the bootleggers.  I’m not shy about summarizing the plot because it’s all clear from about page 2.  June 2012

Alan Moorehead.  The White Nile.  This history of the exploration of the White Nile was published in 1960 and recounts the exploration of the river in the second half of the 19th C.  The story of exploration, the search for the source and the attempts by the British and the Egyptian government to hold the areas along the White Nile is told through the experiences of the principal explorers: Burton and Speke, Baker, Grant, Stanley, and Livingston and officials such as Emin and General Gordon.  The explorers did succeed in laying out the course of the river as it flowed through several lakes and an almost impassable swamp, but ironically, according to Wikipedia, no one is yet sure of the exact sourced of the White Nile.  July 2012 

Richard Russo.  That Old Cape Magic.   This is a novel about two marriages, the narrator Jack Griffin and that of his parents.   Jack’s parents were both university professors in Indiana, who regretted through their whole lives that they had not been able to get positions at a prestigious eastern university.  They were mean spirited, unpleasant and rather uninterested in their son.  Jack is 60 when the book opens and he tells his story in flashbacks.  He did hack work as a screen writer after he got his degrees and later moved east to a good school to a tenured position teaching screen writing.  His wife Joy comes from a very normal middle brow family.  They have a good marriage and a wonderful daughter, Laura.  Jack has always shielded Joy and Laura from his parents but he can’t shield himself.  It almost costs him his marriage until he makes one last effort to escape from the imprint his parents seem to have left on him.  Perhaps all of us sometimes feel that when we are acting badly, we are acting out some trait we noticed in one of our parents.  June 2012

Nassim Nicolas Taleb.  Fooled by Randomness.   Taleb gives endless examples of how people make decisions on the basis of faulty information.  He mentions his ideas about black swans, of course, but goes on to describe one trader after another crashing because he or she put too much faith in compilations of data that contained strong elements of unrecognized randomness.  By the time he’s finished, it’s hard to have confidence in anyone, and markets appear to be no more predictable than crap games.   June 2012

Richard Wright.  Black Boy.   This is Wright’s autobiography from his days growing up in Jackson Mississippi through his early adult years in Chicago in the 1930s.  One theme that runs through almost the whole book is hunger and the constant effort to find jobs to stave it off; another is the abominable treatment of blacks in Mississippi and later in Memphis before he moved to Chicago.  He only finished grammar school, but he educated himself by reading and writing and once he had done that he could tell us about the inability of blacks like himself to even imagine a better life for themselves.  In Chicago he joined the Communist Party, having found for the first time an organization that respected blacks and treated them equally.  After several years of trying to play a role in the party, he had to leave because they would not let him think for himself.  I wish I had read this book 50 years ago.  June 2012

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