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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Telegraph Avenue; Angels and Ages; Gentlemen and Players; The Hypnotist; and Sidetracked

Michael Chabon,  Telegraph Avenue.  Chabon tells readers of this novel almost as much about the used vinyl record business and its music as he tells us about the comic book business in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.  The novel is set in Oakland about 2005 and the main characters are two partners in Brokeland Records and their families.  One partner is black and the other is white, although his current wife is black and he has more or less assimilated into the black community in Oakland.  The partners’ wives are mid-wives.  The future of the record store is doubtful, because a billionaire former NFL star quarterback plans to build one of his big box media stores just a few blocks from Brokeland.  His stores are called “The Dog Pile” and include extensive used record sections.  The story is about the problems of marriage and fatherhood, midwifery and attitudes about childbirth in the black community, zoning and environment in fragile communities, and the conflicts between big business and family business.  Chabon handles it all brilliantly, as usual.  Words and ideas come at the reader so fast that one doesn’t realize how many hours he or she has been lost in this story.  April 2013

Adam Gopnik.  Angels and Ages.   Who knew that Lincoln and Darwin were born on the same day, February 12, 1809?  Gopnik uses this as a starting point for what are really two essays, one on Lincoln and the other on Darwin, and tries to draw some parallels between them.  He notes that both were great writers in their way and that both used their chosen disciplines, the law and biology, in ways that changed the world.  It works fairly well, but it doesn’t matter whether or not he has succeeded in pairing these two great men in a meaningful way, because his treatments of each could stand alone.  In the case of Lincoln, there is the unanswerable question of what Stanton said when Lincoln died.  Was it “Now he belongs to the angels” or “Now he belongs to the ages.” As for Darwin, I didn’t know a lot about him, but I came away an admirer not only of his work but also of the man.  April 2013
Joanne Harris.  Gentlemen and Players.   John Snide is the porter at St. Oswald’s, a prestigious private boy’s school in the UK.  Snide’s 12 year old attends the local public school but wants to be a part of St. Oswald’s.  Overtime the kid finds a way to pretend to be one of the school boys, takes the name Julian Pinchback and even develops a friendship with Leon Mitchell, a St. Oswald’s boy about 2 years older.  Julian knows everything about the school and has copied Snide’s keys.  Julian can go anywhere and even get into the students’ lockers and faculty’s offices.  One night Julian takes Leon up on the roof of the school and when they are seen Leon falls to his death as they try to escape without being identified.  Julian does escape but his father, who failed to rescue Leon, commits suicide.  Julian is taken to Paris by his mother.  She had divorced Snide years earlier and had been living in Paris with her new husband.  About ten years later, Julian returns to St. Oswald’s as a new teacher or “fresher.”  Julian’s credentials are counterfeit and Julian’s purpose in being there is to destroy the school in revenge for Leon’s death.  Julian plays on the arrogance and self-satisfaction of the faculty and nearly brings the whole thing crashing down.  It’s very hard to write about this without revealing key elements of the plot, so let me just say there are many surprises as we learn the story of Julian.  April 2013

Lars Kepler.  The Hypnotist.   Swedish detective Joona Linna is very different from Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander.  Joona has total confidence that he will succeed and takes great pleasure in saying to his superiors: “I told you so.”  There is a triple murder in Tumba, and Joona coerces a psychiatrist named Erik Maria Bark to hypnotize a 15 year old boy who survived but is gravely wounded.  In the interview under hypnosis it becomes clear that the boy has murdered his own family and he could be a danger to his older sister.  The boy also threatens Bark for revealing his guilt under hypnosis.  Then we start to get the back story from 10 years earlier when Bark was using hypnosis to conduct group therapy for seven severely damaged people.  When one of them attempted suicide and cited Bark as the reason, his funding was pulled and he started doubting his method and swore off hypnosis therapy forever.  Reports of Bark’s use of hypnosis on the boy setsoff a chain of events that involves several more murders, the kidnapping of Bark’s son and a final showdown on a frozen lake in Lapland.  A great read.  April 2013

Henning Mankell.  Sidetracked.  What intrigues me about a Mankell novel is that he keeps us readers ahead of Kurt Wallender and the other detectives and takes us through their thought processes as they methodically work toward solution of the crime or crimes and bring us to a conclusion.  There are always surprises for the police and for us readers, but we have a better idea of the direction things will go than Wallander does.  This one starts with Wallander unable to stop a girl of about 17 from burning herself to death.  Next three prominent individuals are murdered over the course of about a week; their heads are split open with an ax.  We meet the killer as he cuts down his first victim.  Wallander’s first problem is to find a connection among the three victims.  All the while he is trying to finish up so that he can go off on holiday with the Latvian woman he met in The Dogs of Riga.  In the course of the investigation, Wallander comes across a white slavery scheme which explains the suicide he witnessed and eventually leads to the killer and his motive for the killings.  The account of Wallender’s investigation is long and detailed, and it’s a pleasure to accompany him.  I do wish he would sleep more, change his shirt more often and eat more balanced meals.  April 2013

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