April 30, 2009

A Thousand Splendid Suns ***

*** A Thousand Splendid Suns, Kaled Hosseini, 2007

The Woman dragged this home last year and I finally got around to reading it. I read and enjoyed The Kite Runner, and saw the movie, which was well done and, amazingly, less graphic than the book. I started in on A Thousand Splendid Suns and for the first few chapters got to thinking that it didn't quite measure up to his first attempt.

After some reflection, I decided that it was the beginning that was the problem. Here's how The Kite Runner started out:

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near a frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it's wrong what they say about the past, I've learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

Wow. But there's more.

One day last summer, my friend Rahim Khan called from Pakistan. He asked me to come see him. Standing in the kitchen with the receiver to my ear, I knew it wasn't just Rahim Khan on the line. It was my past of unatoned sins. After I hung up, I went for a walk along Spreckels Lake on the northern edge of Golden Gate Park. The early-afternoon sun sparkled on the water where dozens of miniature boats sailed, propelled by a crisp breeze. Then I glanced up and saw a pair of kites, red with long blue tails, soaring in the sky. They danced high above the trees on the west end of the park, over the windmills, floating side by side like a pair of eyes looking down on San Francisco, the city I now call home. And suddenly Hassan's voice whispered in my head: For you, a thousand times over. Hassan the harelilpped kite runner.

I sat on a park bench near a willow tree. I thought about something Rahim Khan said just before he hung up, almost as an afterthought. There is a way to be good again. I looked up at those twin kites. I thought about Hassan. Thought about Baba. Ali. Kabul. I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of 1975 came along and changed everything. And made me what I am today.

Dang. In 5 sentences, 88 words, he's hooked us. What did he see in the alley?

With the next 232 words he sets another hook. What does Khan mean, There is a way to be good again? And buries the first hook deeper.

Just one of those is enough to keep you going through a slow spot or two. Both of them are like a one-two punch. No way you're going to set this book down before you know the answers to those two questions.

By comparison, A Thousand Splendid Suns doesn't set a hook. He just starts telling a story. It's a good story, but the attention can wane even in a good story, especially if you're on an elliptical trainer.

Eventually the story gains enough complexity, nuance and momentum that you're not likely to abandon it. But I loved The Kite Runner because from the first paragraph it was never in question. I was going to finish that book.

My take is that Hosseini's second book is as good as his first, but the opening of the first was better. This is still a great read and I recommend it.

April 23, 2009

The Passion of Mary-Margaret***

*** The Passion of Mary-Margaret, Lisa Samson, 2009

I finally got around to picking up Lisa's latest. And all I can say is:

Holy cow! Holy freaking cow!

Publisher's Weekly said "A talented novelist who isn't afraid to take risks." I'll say. In spades. With knobs on.

I'm not usually fond of religious protagonists, so when I saw the main character was a religious sister, (not a nun, as she reiterates occasionally) I wasn't that excited about diving in. Let's just say that the story gained momentum to the point that didn't matter to me. And about halfway through the holy cow moment came and it didn't matter after that.

Lisa's still got the knack for the well crafted phrase. Here are a couple of my favorites:

I'd sneak out of the dormitory, my bare white feet glowing against the stone floor of the corridor, my breath scraping the holy stillness.

Each night I prayed for him, not because I was holy but because I'd tacked a picture of him up by the bathroom sink so I could remember him when I brushed my teeth. I've always said the secret of the truly pious is a better memory than most of us.

I can't decide which I like better, this one or Embrace Me. Read them both and let me know what you think.

April 16, 2009

The Devil Went Down to Austin *****

**** The Devil Went Down to Austin, Rick Riordan, 2001

[Note: This review was written in 2003.]

The Devil Went Down to Austin, the fourth Tres Navarre story by Rick Riordan, continues a fine tradition of excellent writing, engaging characters and a compelling story. There are two things that draw me to Riordan, no three. First, he is a Texan, residing in San Antonio where he is a middle-school English teacher. Of course, that alone itself is not sufficient. There are many Texan writers who do not cause me to smile in the middle of a paragraph and grab the cell phone to call a friend just to read them a particularly well-crafted sentence. Riordan has caused me to use up cell phone minutes for that exact reason.

Which brings up the second thing that draws me to Riordan – he is one damn good writer. Yes, he writes whodunits, but I would read a shopping list if he wrote it, that’s just how good he is at his craft. He is good at putting a sentence together. And he’s good at fitting them all together into a great narrative. Many writers who can craft a good sentence can’t tell a compelling story. Things may get a bit slow here and there while you wade through something that probably made the writer feel proud, but leaves the reader a little bored. Riordan doesn’t lose the forest while crafting the individual trees.

The third thing that makes me grab every Riordan book I find is his talent for building characters, and not just the headliner characters. Even bit characters have substance, like Krystal the receptionist who shows up in one phone call and two single page appearances as he enters and leaves the building. His characters show up with a wealth of backstory hovering around the edges, which brings them to life. Building three-dimensional characters is a lot of work. It’s much easier to write the cliché for supporting characters, but they tend to resent it. A good writer detects this and makes the extra effort give them their due. For example, consider this conversation between Tres and Clyde Simms, a biker bodyguard for Ruby.

“You care for her.” His eyes got dangerously hot. “She’s a good boss.” “That’s not what I meant.” He finished his beer, crumpled the can, tossed it somewhere behind the pink sofa. “I got discharged from the Marines in ’82, Navarre. I spent a few years hanging with bikers, striking with the Diablos. Then I started bumming with dock rats at the lake. I met all kinds of people. You know what I figured out? Only friends worth having are the ones who can hurt you, man, hurt you worse than any random shithead in a barfight. I hang with Ruby because she stands by me; she tries to be good to me. Is she dangerous? Is she a little screwed up, all that shitty family history? Sure. But you want to boil it down to – hey, Clyde’s got the hots for her, well you go ahead, man. That’s how you think, you’d never understand anyway.” The Doberman was looking at me mournfully, chewing her pink bunny. “I apologize,” I told Clyde. He grunted.

That’s a supporting character. What he does with the main characters is magic.

I have yet to pick up a Riordan novel and regret it. My expectation is that this will never change. Which could explain why his first novel, Big Red Tequila, won the Shamus and Anthony Awards and his second novel, The Widower’s Two-Step, won the Edgar award.

I’ll give a quick plot summary and let you go to order your own copy. Tres discovers that his programmer brother Garrett hocked the family ranch in the Hill Country to finance a high-tech startup which does what most high-tech startups do, tank. However, the startup didn’t experience problems until after a buyout offer cum hostile takeover and Garrett suspects sabotage. The death of one of the principals plunges Tres into the thick of a murder investigation where Garrett is the primary suspect. Stir in an old love interest and you’ve got a compelling story that is a very enjoyable roller coaster ride. I fingered the murderer early on, but even that didn’t diminish the thrill of the ride. Which is a testament to Riordan’s formidable skill.

Get this one.

Other books by Rick Riordan:

April 9, 2009

Our Mutual Friend ***

*** Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens, 1865

I became a fan of Dickens as a teenager, reading Oliver Twist, Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield. But other things came along I didn't return to Dickens again until the 80s, when for some reason I picked up Great Expectations. I was reminded why I enjoyed Dickens so much in the previous decade.

For a while I read one Dickens novel a year, but again fell out of the habit, while still collecting copies from used book stores throughout the years. I finally decided to dust one off and read it, and picked up Our Mutual Friend.

This was the last complete novel Dickens wrote, coming after two greats, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, and just before the unifinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, all of which I've read. Either I'm getting forgetful, or this is quite different from the others I've read. The criticism I've read praises it as "in many ways one of his most sophisticated works, combining deep psychological insight with rich social analysis." However, to me it seems to be inconsistent in style, rife with author intrusion, and bloated with sentimentality and burdened with heavy-handed moralizing. Let's just say that Dickens would have not only supported a Rock the Vote for Obama, he probably would have organized it.

That being said, it is also full of the brilliance that draws so many to Dickens even after a century. Here are a few descriptions from early in the book.

  • with an immense obtuse drab oblong face, like a face in a tablespoon
  • Mrs Podsnap; quantity of bone, neck and nostrils like a rocking-horse
You know you're reading a Dickens novel when you have 100 pages left and you say, "I'm almost done."

April 6, 2009

Buzzy Linhart

From the Songs you won't hear on the radio files:

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of Buzzy Linhart on YouTube, and nothing from The Time To Live Is Now, which is what I really wanted to feature. Here's a couple of interesting 1969 videos (embedding disabled), one of Reputation, which gives you a feel for Buzzy's unorthodox look and music, including his insistence on singing scat solos, even when he has a monster guitar player handy, and the other an uplugged verison of That's The Bag I'm In.

How about the lyrics from The Time To Live Is Now.

The time to live is now / you could be riding on a big fat cow / I'm here to show you how / the time to live is now

The time for now is live / I'm going to pour you through a great big sieve / give all the love you can give / the time for now is live / the time for now is live / the time to live is now

Who buys the money when you pay the rent / did you think that money was the president

Who could convince you, who could even try / you might go on believing till the day you die

When you got troubles, worries on your mind / you should be glad that you don't look like Frankenstein

When you got troubles, I'll be on your side / I will try to catch you when your mind begins to slide.

The time to live is now / you could be riding on a big fat cow / I'm here to show you how / the time to live is now

Catchy, huh?

Here's a trailer for Famous: The Buzzy Linhart Story, an unreleased feature documentary made by Michele Toscano.

Warning: F-bomb in the last 3 seconds of the video.

April 2, 2009

Booked to Die ***

*** Booked to Die, John Dunning, 1992

[Note: This review was written in 2003.]

This is the perfect one-two punch for lovers of detective fiction. It hits home right in the things we love most: a good mystery and books. Winner of a Nero Wolfe Award, Booked To Die is the first book featuring Cliff Janeway, homicide cop and collector of modern first editions.

I came across this little jewel right after I moved to Denver. I had discovered the pleasure of reading regional detective fiction when Jody recommended Tony Hillerman back in the 80s. After a decade of soaking up every Hillerman I could find, I moved to Arizona. A few trips through the Four Corners region were rendered more enjoyable by having spent so much time there with Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito. It was a rare pleasure to actually see the places I had read about.

So when I moved to Denver, I figured what better way to get a feel for the city than to read some books set there. I happened to make the acquaintance of a Rocky Mountain News editor at the Friday schmooze-fest at Edward’s Pipe and Tobacco and asked him if he knew of any fiction set in Denver. He racked his considerable memory and came up with the name John Dunning. I surfed the used bookstores and found two titles, all that were available at the time. I was hooked before I had turned 3 pages.

The story opens with the murder of a book scout, which introduces us not only to the puzzle but also to the subtext of the story, Janeway’s love of books. Janeway is a fairly hard-boiled detective with an obsession to put away one particular bad guy. He does what lots of tough-guy protagonists do, takes the more confrontational path when dealing with people. I guess there are people who do that on a regular basis. I’m fortunate enough not to spend much time around them.

But Janeway isn’t all tough hide and prickles. He has a good relationship with his girlfriend, another cop, even if he is obsessively private. The story takes us through the used-book trade, from the Goodwill twenty-five cent stacks to the private-showing-only collections of signed firsts with special histories. For a book lover, it makes the story twice as enjoyable.

Dunning is a past master at characterization, plot and pacing. The only thing that I thought could have been edited out was Janeway’s occasional divergence into personal reflections on politics and social issues, although they were all in character. And while Janeway is sometimes reminiscent of Tres Navarre, which is a good thing, Dunning doesn’t have that startling turn of phrase that makes me sit up and smile and grab the cell phone like Rick Riordan. But then, how many do?

But these are minor quibbles. Not only is this book is worth reading, it’s worth re-reading, which is the measure of a keeper.

Other works by John Dunning: