October 31, 2011

The Wayward Bus ***

*** The Wayward Bus, John Steinbeck, 1947

This off-schedule review comes to you courtesy of a last-minute visit to the home of Steinbeck, Salinas, California.

My first impression of Steinbeck was the result of a forced reading of The Red Pony in high school, and the result was not good. Over a decade later a cab driver in San Francisco persuaded me to give him another try, recommending Cannery Row, and much to my surprise my opinion was completely reversed. That novel was also responsible for my Guinness float experiment yet a decade later.

So, when I discovered that I would be near Monterey, California with a day to kill before my flight home, I realized I would finally have a chance to spend some time in Salinas rather than pass by on the 101 from one business meeting to another. I decided to visit the Steinbeck Museum and have lunch at the restaurant in his childhood home, and in preparation, I went to my to-be-read shelf, where there are always several Steinbeck novels to choose from, and selected The Wayward Bus, which I've been hauling around from state to state and house to house for several years, now. This is a first edition that is about to fall apart and I'm surprised it survived the plane trip and the driving around of the week in California.

I was a bit gun shy as my last Steinbeck read was In Dubious Battle, which I estimate to be nothing more than a well-written propaganda pamphlet for unionizing migrant workers. I was very pleasantly surprised to discover the Steinbeck I have come to know and love. Excellent writing and character development, although very little plot. The structure is more of a pilgrimage that a hero's journey, although the bus doesn't actually roll until around page 140. The Juan arc could bear some scrutiny to which I will not subject it at present.

I haven't read a novel with an omniscient POV for quite a while, and it was interesting to go there. Not as much a market for that these days, but this novel was published 64 years ago, after all.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts:

p. 65. She wanted to meet new and strange people and through such contacts become new and strange herself.

p. 67. Of her father's emotional life she knew nothing whatever, just as he knew nothing of hers. Indeed, she thought that a man in middle age had no emotional life. Mildred, who was twenty-one, felt that the saps and juices were all dried up at fifty, and rightfully so, since neither men nor women were attractive at that age. A man or a woman in love at fifty would have been an obscene spectacle to her.

p. 186. "Whatever side everybody else is on, Van Brunt is gonna be on the other side. There's a fellow wouldn't vote for the second coming of Christ if it was a popular measure."

I particularly enjoyed the character Bernice, who as soon as something happened, would narrate it to herself in her head in past tense as if writing about it to a friend. Very clever.

If you haven't read Steinbeck in a while, give him a whirl. One Steinbeck a year is a good habit to develop.

October 29, 2011

BBC World Book Club

The BBC World Book Club is a treasure trove of author interviews that I was exposed to by The Learned One. I listen to them over breakfast and lunch.

Here's a quote from Richard Ford's interview that interested me.

Being a writer is not a profession. Being a writer is a vocation. It runs on a line that is coterminous with your life. It covers your life. Your life covers it. You’re not promised that vocation to the end of your life. It can stop and your life can go on.
I hope I have the temerity, I hope I have the good sense to say to myself, “You’ve done this as well as you can do it. Go do something else while there is any time left for you.”
Any book you don’t write, that’s OK. It doesn’t get held against you.

October 27, 2011

The Moor ***

*** The Moor, Laurie R King, 1998

It's a return to Dartmoor for Holmes as the specter of the dreaded hound emerges again from the moor. One thing that attracts me to King's Mary Russell series, beyond the primary element of excellent writing, is the tie-in to elements from the canon, such as Baskerville Hall in this case. I also greatly enjoy references to or use of contemporaneous fictional and historical characters.

In The Moor, a historical figure, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, plays a major role. He is of interest to Holmes fans because he is the grandfather of William Stuart Baring-Gould, the author of what was probably the first attempt to create a full biography of Holmes, Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A life of the world's first consulting detective.

This book was not as action and thrill packed as some of the earlier Mary Russell books, but it made me want to see Dartmoor, which has never happened in any of the other books I've read or movies I've seen with that setting, so that is saying something.

I'm still digging the series. You should check it out.

October 21, 2011

Bad Chili ***

*** Bad Chili, Joe R Lansdale, 1997

Disclaimer: JRL is not for everybody.

After the rather traumatic and daunting experiences of Two-Bear Mambo, Hap and Leonard have regained most of their self-confidence and brio. You have to love a novel that opens with a rabid squirrel. And then things get worse. The storyline of this one takes some particularly gruesome and graphic paths. But the trademark JRLisms that keep me coming back abound.

One partner loses a main squeeze while the other gains one, with much gratuitous pillow talk, if you catch my drift.

An interesting side character helicopters in almost deus-ex-machina style to save some bacon and add local color, making me wonder if we'll see him in the future.

Like in Two-Bear Mambo, the final showdown takes place in the context of a cataclysm of nature, which definitely ups the tension, but perhaps somewhat artificially? Let me know what you think.

October 14, 2011

A Letter of Mary ***

*** A Letter of Mary, Laurie R King, 1997

Still rocking along in the Mary Russel series and still loving it. I wondered how the change in Mary's circumstances would change the atmosphere of the series. The answer is that it did nothing to hurt it, but in fact probably improved it. Can't be any more specific that that without spoilers.

I was delighted to encounter a certain gentleman sleuth of the era in Chapter 17. It took me a while to snap to the clues, but I had to smile at the deft way it was worked in without distracting from the story. I'll say nothing else so as not to spoil the discovery for others.

No more specific details to mention, other than that any Holmes enthusiast should definitely read this series, starting at the beginning.

October 7, 2011

The Two-Bear Mambo ***

*** The Two-Bear Mambo, Joe R Lansdale, 1995 Disclaimer

I skimmed through the second Hap and Leonard novel, Mucho Mojo, and then dove into The Two-Bear Mambo on the ellipitcal. Every time I read a Hap and Leonard novel I think it can't get any more crazy, then the next one goes off the charts.

Grovertown, where much of the action takes place, is based on Vidor, which was notorious as a hotbed of racism and Klan action. I've been to Vidor a few times, and my college roommate, Fred Smith, was from Vidor, although he had not a racist bone in his body and was nicer that most people I know.

According to wikipedia, Vidor has cleaned up its act in the last few decades. But at the time Lansdale wrote this book, it was unregenerate and Grovertown is unimaginably brutal, far beyond what I imagine happened in Vidor in at least the past 50 years or longer.

Once again Lansdale brings us fantastic images and extended scenes of violence, interspersed with smartass, sarcastic dialog and startling metaphor. There were a few places where I felt the dialog became a bit on-the-nose and expositional. Especially when Charlie turns into a redneck psychologist at the end.

Like with McConnelly, in a Lansdale novel, nobody is safe. In fact, there were moments when I wondered if the main characters would survive, even though I know there are a half-dozen more books in the series.