Wednesday, March 30, 2016

High Dive: A Book Review

When first we meet Dan, he is undergoing an initiation into the Irish Republican Army. Interesting enough start to a novel, and one that sets up a series of character studies that form the skeleton of a novel. As a short story, the first chapter of HIGH DIVE works so well that you start thinking maybe you should read more short stories after all.

That first chapter is more prologue, perhaps, than essential opening to what is a story about the IRA attempting to bomb a British hotel at the height of The Troubles. Author Jonathan Lee takes his readers into the heads of a few ordinary people whose lives will be changed by the event, ordinary people who are far from political operatives. The collateral damage, as it were, in an act of war.

Moose Finch hopes to become the manager of the hotel where Margaret Thatcher will be attending a conference, the same conference that the IRA sees as a golden opportunity to destroy their nemesis and bring in a new government that would do something about the oppression of Catholics in Northern Ireland. His daughter Freya, finished with secondary school but at loose ends, is working at the hotel for the summer.

Along with Dan, the novel revolves around these three characters who live in quiet desperation, seeking meaning in an uncaring world. The prose is so lyrical that you might not be aware of what you are reading, floating along on a breeze of words. There is not a great deal of action in this book, but the tension hangs over your head as you move along towards the fateful evening when the planted bomb is set to go off.

Even if you don't know the tangled history of the IRA and Margaret Thatcher, you likely know she was not killed in a bombing but you don't read on to confirm that fact. You turn the pages because you care about the characters, fully formed individuals that are well-crafted by Mr. Lee. Once Dan has planted his explosives you know something will happen to Dan or Freya or Moose, three ordinary types who are looking for love and wondering where they are headed. You want to go along on life's journey with them to see who comes out the other end a wiser person.

At times the writing gets a little wordy and you may find yourself skimming over passages to get on to the more interesting bits. In general, the novel feels a bit like a collection of short stories linked together, rather than a single story, and dwells too long sometimes on a character's inner thoughts that drag on occasion. Other than that, it is an enjoyable read.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

At The Edge Of The Orchard: A Book Review

James Goodenough is a hardscrabble pioneer who loves his apple trees. Those trees he lovingly tends are his last connection to the family farm back east while he tries to carve out a homestead in 1840's Ohio. His wife Sadie is a hardscrabble farmer's wife who also happens to be an alcoholic, shiftless and lazy, and fiercely jealous of those apple trees.

Tracy Chevalier paints a clear picture of a family on the brink, battling against nature and each other. The parental dysfunction drips down to the four Goodenough children as well, a pack of near-animals who are made to bear the brunt of the work while their mother sleeps it off.

Just when you get to feel some sympathy for this sad clan, and manage to plow through the author's decision to present Sadie's POV through a first person narrative that lacks punctuation because she's illiterate, you see, uneducated and that's showing not telling, right? So you're settled in to their story, waiting like the Goodenoughs for Johnny Appleseed to pay them another visit, when the narrative is taken over by their oldest son James.

The story is not told in a linear fashion, jumping ahead in time as James makes his way to California with his narrative compressing a few years into a series of letters that are never answered. You'll turn the pages to find out why he's on the move, and what he's running from after he puts Ohio behind him.

Like any Californian, he re-invents himself in a career as a tree man, collecting specimens for the wealthy elites of England who are avid collectors of exotic plant life. Lingering in the back of his tale, however, is his deep dark secret, one that will not be explained until his sister suddenly appears in California, long after James game up on ever hearing again from his family.

There is tragedy but then there is triumph, and an uplifiting ending that ties up all the loose strings.

All in all, the novel is a pleasant piece of fiction with a cohesive story.

If only the author had seen fit to show Sadie Goodenough's lack of book learning through a means easier for the literate to read. There's something about stumbling through a character's thoughts when you know that shed is a storage building but for Sadie it's her version of she'd. The technique proved to be a distraction that spoiled the otherwise smoothly flowing prose.

Fans of Tracy Chevalier will not be disappointed with this latest release of historical fiction.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Quiet Car

The rich people, the ones who commute to work on comfortable trains, they get quiet cars. They don't have to listen to people yammering on and on about nothing. The people with the deep pockets, they get peace and quiet in the morning. All Dennis Nicholl wanted was a little equality in the commuting world.

Chicago's public transit system does not provide quiet rail cars like the Union Pacific or the Burlington Northern. There are no comfortable padded seats, either, but you get what you pay for when you're getting to work on the cheap by riding the elevated or subway trains in the city. Why can't the poor, who rely on cheap transportation, have at least one of the pleasant amenities that the wealthy commuters take for granted?

Dennis Nicholl wanted a quiet car but did the transport system pay him any mind? Not for a minute. He could complain all he liked but they weren't listening. Too busy yacking on their cell phones probably, ignoring the mild-mannered financial analyst whose daily commute was a torment of dissonence. Voices, so many voices, disturbing his morning. He could no longer endure.

Making the world quiet, one rail car at a time
Surely others wished for a quiet car, like he did, but too many would be afraid to act. Afraid to ask that selfish bastard sitting next to him or her to shut the fuck up for twenty minutes out of fear that said selfish bastard would pull out a gun and start shooting.

A bold man took a stand. Dennis Nicholl purchased a device that blocked cell phone signals. He sat in his spot on the train and turned it on, and just like that, the car descended into relative peace. Once the riders jabbering away were cut off from cell service and got over the shock, that is. They were whining mightily while Mr. Nicholl relaxed to admire his handiwork, but once the shock wore off, it was an end to the chatter. Ah, heaven.

For well over a year he spared his fellow riders from the misery of mundane, one-sided conversations. His commute became as quiet as that of the well-heeled business executive who paid far more for his fare. Equality of treatment at last!

But alas, it could not continue in blissful silence. The device that ended every phone conversation was illegal, and using it is just as illegal. Mr. Nicholl was arrested and charged with a felony for interfering with a public utility.

All he did was bring equality to his morning commute.

Where's Bernie Sanders now, to speak out against this outrage, this class-based privilege?

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

City Of Secrets: A Book Review

A man with no ties to the world, the protagonist Brand drifts through the world like a dead leaf blown by the wind. He has landed in Jerusalem after the Second World War, a Latvian Jew who survived the concentration camps because he was handy.

We meet him as he goes about his business as a taxi driver with a false identity, and vehicle, provided by the Jewish underground that is fiercely battling against the British government of Palestine. He is a survivor, however, and author Stewart O'Nan does a fine job of showing a survivor's guilt as Brand cannot stop remembering his wife and parents and sibling who all perished. He is haunted by a camp mate whose life he did not save so that he might save his own. A bleak tale? It is indeed, but one that is well written.

The pace of the story is slow, given over largely to internal dialogue as Brand wrestles with the meaning of his survival. Also slow-moving is the development of his relationship with a prostitute (and survivor like himself) as he veers dangerously close to love. She is also his contact in the underground, also broken by the Holocaust, and drifting with a purpose that Brand fails to recognize until too late. Perhaps he is unwilling to fully abandon the memory of his late wife, for to lose memories is to lose his last link with his past. As for Eva, known as The Widow, she keeps herself to herself, but such reticence may have more to do with her dedication to the mission or a sense of fatalism. Why did one person survive a camp while others perished? It is the question that torments those who populate CITY OF SECRETS.

Detached, Brand goes where he is told and follows orders as an operative of the movement that sought to create a Jewish homeland in the Levant. His curiosity in a world of secrecy and paranoia takes him to dangerous places when he wonders too much about the identity of a very attractive woman who often appears with disguised members of the Jewish freedom faction. His timing could not be worse, but again, he is so focused on daily survival that he fails to recognize signals from Eva that are meant to warn him.

The tension builds towards the end as the guerrilla fighters increase their terrorist activities and Brand fears that he is under suspicion as an informer. Without giving away the ending, the conclusion follows all that goes before, and while it may be as bleak as the rest of the novel, you are left with the slightest tinge of hope emanating from a survivor who knows how to survive.

It is a grim bit of prose, and one that is easy to put down and pick up again. The story is depressing, with its unflinching look at the scars that remained after a war ended and entire communities were obliterated. In our modern era of Middle Eastern politics and wavering support for Israel, this is a timely read that would foster a great deal of discussion among the book group members.

As always, thanks to Penguin Random House for the chance to read the novel before it is released.