24 April 2017

Library Limelights 130

Zaidie Smith. Swing Time. Toronto: Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Canada, 2016.
Not a crime book, but some mystery after all. Under the impression this bestseller was about dancers' lives, I eagerly delved. No, it's about the closeness of two little girls in a London council estate and how their friendship plays out in their adult years. Two little brown girls, as the author and cover blurb like to emphasize. Contrasting domestic situations seem to sow the seeds for future differences. Tracey achieves some of her theatre dreams but soon subsides into the welfare trap of her childhood. The unnamed friend lucks into the busy job of personal assistant to the self-absorbed rock star Aimee, a job requiring 24/7 attention. Aimee becomes her closest friend, ... her only friend.

When Aimee decides to gift a school to an impoverished village in West Africa (Togo?), it's the friend who spends considerable time there with a team to stick-handle logistics. Thinking of her roots, her mother's roots, is not far behind. Ironically, Aimee rarely appears there, never developing a rapport with the people nor an understanding of the country's political corruption. Aimee's next decision to adopt a baby from a distance climactically changes many lives around her. The novel is rich in reflecting mother-daughter themes as well as the reality of the third world ... many characters, all fresh from Smith's flowing mind. But I find Tracey's ultimate portrayal confusing.

One-liners:
She was so painfully grateful for the way he talked to her like a father, although sometimes he went too far in this direction, not understanding that what came after borrowing a father for a few minutes was the pain of having to give him back. (51)
At eighteen she was already expert at the older woman's art of fermenting rage, conserving it, for later use. (263)
Her greatest thing in life was to see a conflict resolved, any conflict, and so my mother was a great resource for her: everywhere she went she made conflict, which Miriam then had to resolve. (156)

Sticks and stones:
When we reached the road that ran between our estate and Tracey's my mother let go of Tracey's hand and delivered a brief but devastating lecture on the history of racial epithets. I hung my head and wept in the street. Tracey was unmoved. She lifted her chin and her little piggy nose, waited till it was over, then looked my mother straight in her eyes."It's just a word," she said. (82)

Mum the MP:
Our food arrived, my mother had ordered for me. Miriam set about squirreling hers away―she reminded me of a small mammal who expects to hibernate soon―but my mother let her knife and fork rest where they were and instead reached down to the empty chair beside her to bring up a copy of the Evening Standard, already open to a large picture of Aimee, on stage, juxtaposed with a stock photo of some destitute African children, from where exactly I couldn't tell. I hadn't seen the piece and it was held too far from me to read the text but I guessed the source: a recent press release, announcing Aimee's commitment to "global poverty reduction." My mother tapped a finger on Aimee's abdomen."Is she serious about it?"I considered the question. "She's very passionate about it."My mother frowned and picked up her cutlery."'Poverty reduction.' Well, fine, but what's the policy, specifically?""She's not a politician, Mum. She doesn't have policies. She has a foundation." (152)

Government-mandated English lessons:
I asked Hawa to sit where I sat, on a broken stool, so I could stand up before the class and ask them to write in their books: The pot is on the fire. They looked up at the empty board, and then expectantly at Hawa, awaiting the translation. I wouldn't let her speak. Two long minutes followed, as children stared blankly at their half-ruined exercise books, re-covered many times over in old wrapping paper. Then I went around the room collecting the books to show to Hawa. Some part of me enjoyed doing this. Three girls in forty had written the sentence correctly in English. The rest had one word or two, almost all of the boys had no written letters at all, just vague markings reminiscent of English vowels and consonants, the shadows of letters but not letters themselves. (225-6)

Denise Mina. The Field of Blood. UK: Charmwood/Bantam Press (large print edition), 2005.
A fan of Mina's Detective Alex Morrow series, I found this by accident. Girl working on the lowest rung of a Glasgow newspaper yearns to be a reporter. Love this naive but saucy Paddy Meehan!Overweight and self-conscious in a misogynistic workplace, Paddy nevertheless asserts her initiative to investigate a murder blamed on two young boys. Creepy danger hovers when she half-inadvertently breaks open the erroneous police conclusion of the case. Even worse, to her mind, is the ritual shunning by her hidebound Catholic family for a transgression she didn't even commit. As her job creds improve, her relationship with fiancé Sean deteriorates.

Interwoven is the true story of another Paddy Meehan ― a lowlife minor criminal falsely convicted of murder ― eventually released from prison by a royal pardon when planted police evidence was uncovered. Our Paddy sees an ambivalent life lesson there, as well as learning from her jaded colleagues. Aside from an awkward introduction by the main victim, Mina writes brilliantly and empathetically about the gritty life of Glasgow's working poor and their tensions. There's more ... two additional books follow Paddy's career. I'm hooked.

One-liners:
He sat dumbly with his jacket off, staring at a typewriter as if it had just insulted him. (86)
Soup was a watery precursor to a meal, a poor man's filter to stop the children eating all the potatoes. (283)
Pete's reckless excitement had spread and multiplied ― emotional loaves and fishes ― and the atmosphere in the Press Bar felt less like a damp Tuesday in February and more like a lonely sailor's millennial hogmanay shore leave. (462)

A difference:
"I might be ambitious but I'm not ruthless. That's a different thing.""Oh, now you are ambitious?""I'm not ruthless." Paddy petulantly kicked snow off the step "I've never done anything for you to say that about me."They stood on the step looking out, each silently continuing the argument."Why can't you be content to rub along like the rest of us?" He sounded so reasonable."I'm just interested in my job. Is that wrong?"She understood why it made him angry: Sean wanted them to stay in the same place near the same people for the rest of their lives, and her ambitions threatened that. Sometimes she wondered if he was going out with her, a dumpy girl half as attractive as himself, because he could count on her to be grateful and stay. (102)

Comfort ebbs away:
As the train pulled away from the platform she imagined herself, wearing smart clothes and a miraculous half foot taller, swaggering into glamorous rooms with a pan-scope stretched body, asking pertinent questions and writing important articles. All the fantasies felt hollow this evening. She had an ominous sense that a shadow had marked her, that everything was fated to go wrong from here on in. Luck could curdle, she knew. The train pulled out of the dark station, dragging her homeward, delivering her to her people. (149)

A veteran colleague:
It startled Paddy because she didn't know what it was: the skin near his eyes and mouth folded over and a bizarre noise gargled up from his throat. McVie was laughing, but his face wasn't used to it. "Can the police get it wrong?" he repeated, making the noise again. "Your name's Paddy Meehan, for fucksake.""I know it happened then, but could it still happen now?"McVie stopped doing the scary thing with his face and let it retract back to suicidal. "Most of them wouldn't fit a kid up. Although ..." His eyes dropped to the side and he looked skeptical. "Most of them wouldn't. If they were convinced they're really guilty but it's hard to prove, they might plant evidence. They see a lot of villains walk; you can kind of understand it." (204)

Robert Harris. Conclave. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2016.
A very popular bestseller and more than you ever expected to know about the inner mechanisms of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican. Harris' previous works have been stunning (Fatherland, Archangel, An Officer and a Spy, et al); this one meets and even exceeds his own bar. It's all about the election of a new Pope. If you think that sounds dull, you are mistaken. There's rarely a dull moment in this gripping novel. Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli is in charge of election procedures in the Sistine Chapel, managing the sequestration of the College of Cardinals, well over one hundred from around the world. Some represent liberal, progressive views; others want a return to conservative, traditional policies. The behaviour of the recently deceased Pope had raised some concern among his intimates.

Several frontrunners have been acknowledged among the cardinals from the beginning, most of them important office-holders ― Tedesco (Venice), Adeyemi (Nigeria), Bellini (Milan), Tremblay (French Canada). While all pious men, they and/or their supporters could give ambitious secular politicians a run for their money. Lomeli lives for moments when the Holy Spirit infuses unity among them. But random surprises await the gathering, each surprise affecting the voting outcome. Harris removes mystery from the arcane election process that culminates in puffs of white smoke from a stove in the Chapel to signal to the world "Habemus papam" (we have a Pope). On the other hand, he creates unbearable suspense leading to those election results. Reading Conclave is like taking a master class in constructing a novel ... and sublime entertainment.

One-liners:
And, as with sleep, the more one desired meaningful prayer, the more elusive it became. (5)
We are an Ark, he thought, surrounded by a rising flood of discord. (34)
If he wins, Lomeli promised himself as soon as the Canadian had passed, I shall be gone from Rome the very next day. (43)
"Celibacy has always been culturally alien in Africa – you know that." (163)

Two-liner:
"We are mortal men. We serve an ideal; we cannot always be ideal." (185)

Discretion rules:
It was also agreed that the Pope's body should be embalmed. Lomeli said, "But we must ensure it is done properly." He had never forgotten filing past Pope Paul VI's body in St Peter's in 1978: in the August heat, the face had turned greyish-green, the jaw had sagged, and there was a definite whiff of corruption. Yet even that ghoulish embarrassment wasn't as bad as the occasion twenty years previously, when Pope Pius XII's body had fermented in its coffin and exploded like a firecracker outside the church of St John Lateran. "And another thing," he added. "We must make sure no one takes any photographs of the body." (18)

The cranky reactionary:
"I bet you never expected to see me again!"He was the oldest member of the Conclave: another month and he would have reached eighty, the statutory age limit for voting. He also had Parkinson's disease, and there had been doubt until the very last minute whether he would be pronounced fit enough to travel. Well, thought Lomeli grimly, he had made it, and there was nothing that could be done about it."On the contrary, Your Eminence, we wouldn't have dared hold a Conclave without you."Krasinski squinted at the Casa Santa Marta. "So then! Where have you put me?""I've arranged for you to have a suite on the ground floor.""A suite! That's decent of you, Dean. I thought the rooms were distributed by lot?"Lomeli leaned in. "I fixed the ballot," he whispered."Ha!" Krasinski struck one of his sticks against the cobbles. "I wouldn't put it past you Italians to fix the others too!"He hobbled away. His companions hung back, embarrassed, as if they had been obliged to bring to a family wedding an elderly relative for whose behaviour they could not vouch. Santos shrugged. "Same old Paul, I'm afraid."(36-7)

Private doubts:
"You want me to vote for a man you regard as ambitious?" Benitez looked at Lomeli – a long, hard, appraising look that made him feel quite uncomfortable – and then, without speaking further, began putting on his shoes.Lomeli shifted in his seat. He didn't care for this lengthening silence. Eventually he said, "I am assuming, of course, because of your obviously close relationship with the Holy Father, that you don't want to see Cardinal Tedesco as Pope. But perhaps I'm wrong – perhaps you believe in the same things he does?"Benitez finished tying his shoelaces and placed his feet on the floor. He looked up again."I believe in God, Your Eminence. And in God alone. Which is why I don't share your alarm at the idea of a long Conclave – or even a schism, come to that. Who knows? Perhaps that is what God wants. It would explain why our Conclave is proving to be such a conundrum that even you can't solve it.""A schism would go against everything I have believed in and worked for throughout my entire life.""Which is what?""The divine gift of the single Universal Church."(190-1)

Heated tempers rising:
"Oh no!" He shook his head. "No, no, no!" He started waving his fat, short-fingered hands again, smiling desperately in his alarm. "Now, you see, this is exactly what I warned you against, gentlemen! God has been forgotten in the heat of the moment and we are reacting to the pressure of events as if we represented nothing more sacred than a political convention. The Holy Spirit is not biddable, to be summoned at will, like a waiter! Brothers, I beg you, remember that we swear an oath to God to elect the one we believe is best fitted to be Pope, not the one we can most easily push out on to the balcony of St Peter's this afternoon to calm the crowd!" (262)

15 April 2017

Library Limelights 129

Kevin Patterson. News from the Red Desert. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2016.
I don't think I've ever cried before at the end of a book; that's how unsettling this novel is ... plucked from recent bestseller lists. The characters are fictional but the setting in Afghanistan 2001-2007 is all too real. Patterson clearly drew on his own experiences with the Canadian army overseas in Taliban areas. The Red Desert is what surrounds the Kandahar Air Field (KAF), base of first-world operations in that country. Military acronyms litter the story and dialogue but only heighten the immediacy. In succinct strokes, Patterson leads us through the lens of main characters herein. News journalist Deirdre O'Malley is embedded with Special Forces (SF), a secretive near-cult in separate jurisdiction from what one man calls "the industrial army," yet both are stationed at the same place. Thus the base commanding general and the SF general are not always in synch.

Everyone does agree that a cafe run by Pakistani native Rami and civilian employees is a great addition for relaxation of the soldiers. Rami's enthusiasm initiates a chess tournament and a movie night. Meanwhile Deirdre, witnessing SF in action, struggles to reconcile in her own mind the morality of war, the ethics of what she writes, and the two generals' conflicting attitudes. The accidental release of "war porn" onto the Internet causes furious reaction in Washington's highest levels and in the press. Then an unexpected, horrendous event happens and what follows is even more shocking and brutal. It's a devastating read, but we should give thanks to Patterson for the education about a complex mess, a situation undoubtedly duplicated today, now, in how many military occupations around the world. Don't miss this dose of reality!

One-liners:
The pilots, headshorn and enormous in their green flight suits, stood around the entrance together and laughed like great braying camels and enjoyed being themselves, so muscular and so erect. (49)
It's the evil truth about wars: they're not all bad for everyone. (68)

Two-liner:
Being poor is one thing when you're just looking after yourself. It is much worse when someone needs your help. (173-4)

Deirdre's newspaper boss:
"ABC and NBC and the Guardian and Le Monde have all received huge leaks about the fighting there. Do you know anything about this?" 
"No. What are the leaks about, exactly?" 
"From what we hear, footage of helicopters gunning down civilians, footage of drone collaterals, incredible stuff. No-one's published anything yet, but the talk is deafening. Have you pissed someone off? Why are we excluded?" 
"I've pissed a million people off, Kenwood. But it doesn't sound like this could be a sanctioned leak. No-one I deal with would have done this." 
"But someone still did it. Find out who." 
"There will be a lot of people trying to do just that, I think. Most of them with sidearms." (84)

The case for Special Forces:
"It costs a million dollars per soldier per year to put them either here or in Iraq. Twenty billion dollars for an infantry division, with all its bottle washers and mechanics and clerks. Per year. And when regular army gets here it puts up wire and stays behind it mostly, except to go out from time to time and try to find the IEDs the locals planted the night before―by driving over them. No-one speaks the local languages. What they know really well is how to fight World War II over again. And if there were a Wehrmacht or a Red Army out there wanting to fight us, that would be fine. But our problems aren't like that anymore. There isn't a front line. Or if there is, it's the wire around the FOBs." 
"So the whole army should be SF?" 
"Should be multilingual and exceptionally fit and mobile and smart. And organized in much smaller independent units. Able to move and sustain itself anywhere." (146-7)

Call the walking blood bank:
But by the time they had come in and were giving blood, Matheson was in worse trouble than ever, the urine in his catheter bag was claret, the secretions coming from his endotracheal tube were pink and frothy, his oxygen requirements were climbing and still, and again, the acidosis was severe. The anaesthetist had heard he had seven kids. (215)

Passing the army buck:
For blame was in the air now, seeking out the people to whom it would attach itself. It moved like a black cloud, coiling around first one subject, then the next, tasting them with a view to feasting. Blame would be attached to whoever the joker in Ramstein was who couldn't send the movies that had been ordered. It would attach to the unfortunate Jordanian platoon commander who had brashly taken his men to see that movie. ... It could attach to Major Horner for facilitating the film club. ... But it would especially attach to General Jackson. He was the ranking commander in Afghanistan, and he had been on the base when it happened. (262)



Karin Slaughter. The Kept Woman. USA: HarperCollins, 2016.
Slaughter is so popular it was a long wait from TPL. Will Trent and his colleagues from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation are puzzling over an ex-cop's death in the soon-to-be-renovated warehouse of a consortium of high-profile basketball players. His car was torched and the blood everywhere is not his. Enter Will's nemesis: Angie Polaski, the wife who won't go away. Her gun was at the scene but that's not how the man died. Thus continues the entanglement between Angie and Will and Sara, his new love. Who just happens to be the Atlanta police medical examiner. Will's tiresome emotional immaturity is an ongoing issue to the extent one wonders why he is so appealing to Sara.

Sports entrepreneurs, abusive athletes, abused women, abandoned children, some bizarre relationships, all play a dark part. There's a very clever time shift about half way through; no question the novel is impeccably constructed. Typically, Slaughter's pace never slackens although the convoluted plot seems to exhaust itself ultimately, racing from one tangent to another. Can we really believe Angie's sociopathic malice is capable of love? Or that Dr. Sara wrote such insipid emails to her sister? Too much solitary exposition as characters review their own histories, always withholding from each other. And the sin: an author who repetitively writes "off of" distracts and annoys me. But that's me. Slaughter is hot.

One-liners:
She was the closest thing he'd ever had as a mother, if you were constantly afraid your mother would smother you in your sleep. (93)
They walked all the time, even in the summer heat, like cars had never been invented. (320)
There was always a boy waiting for her, expecting something from her, pining for her, hating her. (344)

A taste of retirees:
Faith said, "I knocked on some of the neighbours' doors. Doesn't seem like anybody is home today." 
"It's busier on the weekends." Violet tried to push a key into the lock. "No-one really retires anymore. They've all got part-time jobs. Some of the luckier ones volunteer. Come four o'clock, you'll find most of us down at the clubhouse for cocktail hour." 
Faith would pass out if she had a drink at four in the afternoon. She asked the woman, "Did you know Dale Harding?" 
"I knew him well enough." Violet didn't seem happy about it. "He was a pain in my posterior, let me tell you." 
Faith rolled her hand, letting the woman know she should do just that. (97-8)

Sara stalls her feelings:
There was no way to fix this. She couldn't stitch together their relationship like she could stitch together his leg. Talking around the problem was only delaying the inevitable. And yet she didn't have it in her to confront him. She was frozen in place, terrified of what might come if they really talked about what happened, what was coming next. Sara couldn't guess the future. There was just a blank expanse of unknown. All she could do was stand in the darkened office listening to the blood rushing through her ears. She counted to fifty, then one hundred, and then she made herself move. (193)

Martin Cruz Smith. The Girl from Venice. USA: Simon & Schuster, 2016.
What a beautiful book! A stand-alone from the author better known for his novels set in modern Russia with detective Arkady Renko, one of my everlasting heroes. Cenzo and Giulia meet during the last gasp of the Second World War in Italy. He is a fisherman in the marshes of the Venice Lagoon; she is a Jew hiding from the Germans. Finding a safe place for her becomes urgent. Meanwhile Cenzo's suave movie-star brother Giorgio is a favourite within Mussolini's ill-fated puppet government. When Cenzo loses track of Giulia, he skillfully slips his way to find her between remnants of the German army, local fascist diehards, and desperate communist partisans. They all want something from him and his encounters are not without humour.

Cenzo is an instinctive philosopher, a man of the best nature with one flaw. He hates brother Giorgio although they are forced to work together at one point. Each of them, and every character in the book, is revealed as only Cruz Smith can do in spare words. The crusty old boys in Nido's bar, the strutting young Son of the She-Wolf, the ambivalent Colonel Steiner, the lusty Celestina, the bravado of the Argentinian consul's wife ... and so many more. In the grim surroundings of war, a delicate love story is set against the timeless life of a fishing village. Cruz Smith does it again ― thoroughly absorbing with the lightest touch. It's great cause for celebration that Parkinson's has not diminished nor defeated him.

One-liners:
Enrico and Salvatore Albano were so creased and browned by the sun that they could have been tree stumps. (21-2)
Her father sounded like the kind of man who never made a mistake until he did. (64)
For all their running, they were back where they had started, in the devil's vest pocket. (256)
In general, the furniture had the sort of earnest, oppressive quality that drove men to their boats. (257)

Bristling brothers:
He knew as soon as he heard footsteps on the stairs. They were highly polished footsteps, Cenzo thought. Giorgio Vianello was a man constructed of expensive parts: an English suit, a French pomade, a signet ring that suggested a noble family, white teeth, and an Errol Flynn mustache. He had not so much lost his Pellestrina accent as traded it for one more vague and elegant. People compared him to Clark Gable. In fact, he was not much of an actor, but he was a hero and he usually played a version of himself: a submarine commander, a fighter pilot, a wounded officer in love with a beautiful nurse. Prince Charming, as Giulia had said. 
"What are you doing here?" Cenzo asked. 
"Visiting my family," Giorgio said. 
"Now that you've visited, you can go." 
Sofia Vianello put four glasses and a bottle of wine on the table. "Sit, sit. Giorgio brought this good wine. It's not every day I see both living sons." (54)

Dancing for fish:
Cenzo leapt and came down hard on his heels, kicking and gouging the sand until a shrimp with a green shell and red swimmers appeared in the hole he dug. Cenzo skipped and danced like a Cossack, capering to the beat of his feet while at the same time he ordered Giulia to fill the box. The SS officer aimed his pistol first at Cenzo, then at Giulia, and finally laughed at these crazy Italians, these crazy Italians who danced with their fish and even offered to share their catch with the soldiers, who said, "Nein, Nein," holstered their pistols, and, shaking their heads, climbed back onto their gunboat, which backed out and motored toward other fishing boats. They hadn't been after the Fatima; they were weary men drinking the dregs of war and ready to shoot anything that caught their eye. (67)

Instructions for a novice:
"Things you should know: A clean boat never makes money. A red moon makes the blood boil. Never fish the same ground two days in a row. At the market, cover your old fish with yiour fresh. A real fisherman doesn't need boots. Fish jump tp breathe. The captain of a fishing boat sleeps at the stern, the crew at the bow. Fishermen know how to wash dishes with sand. The best soup is at the bottom of the pot. When you're rowing, watch out for mines. Good luck will kiss you in bad weather." 
"What about women in boats?" 
"Definitely bad luck. Unless they're naked. That's good luck." (70-71)

Not what she seems:
Maria went into the reception room and came back with a passport. "The only problem is that I'm out of the passport business, In fact, I'm out of papers of identification altogether except for this one. Someone else's photograph is pasted in and she's not exactly Snow White." The picture was of a woman in her thirties who looked shrunken by grief, with gray hair and dark half-moons under her eyes. 
"Can you do it?" Giulia asked. 
"Can I turn a woman into a girl? It's easier to turn a fiddle into a priceless violin than to take the years off a woman's face. We'll see if I can perform a miracle." (227)

05 March 2017

Library Limelights 128

Ian Rankin. Blood Hunt. (1995) UK: Orion Paperback, 2002, 2012.
Wowser ... Rebus fans would hardly believe this is the same author. Gordon Reeve is an ex-SAS Brit commando teaching survival courses in Scotland. He has a penchant for reading Nietzsche. His journalist brother James dies mysteriously in La Jolla, California so Gordon unhesitatingly goes to probe why. A rogue employee of a huge chemical company hired a private investigation firm to help cover up damning product information. People are being killed to protect agribusiness secrets ― people who want to speak the truth. The combined resources of powerful companies are more than intimidating but a determined Reeve pits his ingenuity to connect the dots in his brother's last movements.

Not only that, an erstwhile SAS colleague appears in the mix. Jay was a fellow commando during the Falklands War, serving with Reeve on an expendable two-man mission. Their mutual hostility culminates in a manhunt for Reeve; their showdown on the Isle of Uist brings a breathtaking climax. The frequent action is very detailed and sometimes gory as befits specialized military training. Rankin wrote the book more than twenty years ago, yet the story's undercurrents still haunt us with BSE (mad cow disease) and GMOs (genetically modified foods).

One-liners:
He'd been taught well in Special Forces, taught lessons for a lifetime; and as old Nietszche said, if you remained a pupil, you served your teacher badly. (88)
"Well, the good old British public has another inalienable right: the right not to know, not to worry." (120)
The freeway system around Los Angeles was like a joke God was playing on the human brain. (296)

Wake up & smell the print:
She grabbed the newspaper and opened it to a full-page advertisement, placed by C-World Chemicals. "Don't bother reading it," she said, "it'll put you back to sleep. It's just one of those feelgood ads big corporations make up when they want to spend some money." 
Reeve glanced at the ad. "Or when their consciences are bothering them?" 
Fliss wrinkled her nose. "Grow up. Those people don't have consciences. They've had them surgically removed to make room for the cash-flow implants." She tapped the paper. "But as long as Co-World and companies like them are throwing money at advertising departments, publishers will love them, and the publishers will see to it that their editors never print anything that might upset Sugar Daddy. That's all I'm saying." 
"Thanks for the warning." (124-5)

Reeve's nickname, "the Philosopher":
He could feel defences inside him, barricades he'd hastily erected. They tottered for a moment, but held. He thought of Bakunin and Wagner again, side by side on the barricades of Dresden. The anarchist Bakunin, and Wagner – the friend of Nietzsche. Nietzsche: the self-proclaimed "first amoralist." When necessary, when events dictated, they had fought alongside one another. The anarchists would call that proof of the theory of mutual aid. They would say it repudiated Nietzsche's own theory, that the will to power was everything. Opposites reconciled, yes, but momentarily. (302)

Discoveries to haunt him:
That evening he ate at a roadside diner, his waitress not believing him when he asked for soup, a salad and some orange juice. 
"That all you want, sweetheart?" 
"That's all." 
Even then, he wondered about additives in the juice, chemicals in the soup stock, residues in the salad vegetables. He wondered if he'd ever enjoy a meal again. (326-7)


Peter C. Newman. Hostages to Fortune, The United Empire Loyalists and the Making of Canada. Toronto: Simon & Schuster Canada, 2016.
In the panoply of books on the United Empire Loyalists, one might say Newman's contribution is akin to a Historica Canada Heritage Minute. Covering ground familiar to Loyalist descendants, the veteran storyteller hangs his centrepiece on the extended Jarvis family of Connecticut, New Brunswick, and Upper Canada. Peter C. Newman is not an academic historian, he is a "popular" historian. His treatments of history are frequently infused with dramatic and verbose flourishes; this one lacks the footnote references of a more academic historian, relying largely on other authors as sources. Yet he succeeds again, in my opinion ... in a lightweight way.

How will Loyalist family researchers view his new book? Newman includes little on Aboriginal resettlement apart from the oft-told Brant family references. And curiously, in a very large bibliography, how could merely one of Gavin Watt's books be present? Newman is successful because as a good storyteller he knows how to stir sentiment and appreciation for his subject. He gets the job done, the tale told, in an easily digestible manner to capture popular imagination.

A few one-liners:
As a young man of nineteen in1775, all Stephen Jarvis desired was to marry his love, the tempting, tempestuous Amelia. (13)
The Loyalists meshed British traditions with American republicanism and were forced to live with this unholy contradiction between authority and liberty wherever they settled. (18)
Against all odds, the lacklustre American army eventually turned itself into a stormy river of determined men―proving that fighting for a cause, rather than defending the rights of an aristocracy, will always win the day. (69)
Having been evicted by political dictate from a society in ascendancy where they had enjoyed a certain standing, they now found themselves pushed to the margins, relegated to the vagrant status of refugees. (173)

Newman's take:
The firestorm of change ignited by the Revolutionary War was profound and unnatural. There was no middle ground. Either you were a daring revolutionary thug or a gutless bottle-washer for the foppish King of England. Both caricatures were accurate. (41)

And what does this really mean?
Canadians, then as now, were marked by an ability to endure―to survive a lousy climate and worse politicians. That ability to hang on with minimum complaints has always been our burden. Concentrating too much on survival too often deterred the application of imagination and creativity. It robbed the national will of following those intuitive leaps that allow individuals to reach for originality that creates a buzz. (172)

Joseph O'Neill. The Dog. USA: Pantheon Books/Random House, 2014.
An odd book: semi-existential crisis of an unnamed narrator who doesn't like his given name and goes by "X" among friends and colleagues. The man flees a claustrophobic relationship with Jenn in New York to take an opportunistic job in Dubai―a city always under construction. In between vignettes of daily managing the wealthy Batros family conglomerate, he ruminates on the downward spiral of his life with Jenn. In fact he habitually over-thinks much of the trivial minutiae of his life in streams of verbal diarrhea. Sometimes it's amusing; sometimes it's boring. No mystery here, really. The disappearance of a fellow scuba diver merely serves to broaden an outsider's paranoia in a restrictive world. This all takes place within the very recent past.

Borrowing the book was aimed at seeing a different viewpoint of living abroad. Ex-pat life in Dubai is predictably close-quarters and rather luxurious for the professional class. The only other ex-pat class is the huge pool of third world-imported manual and domestic labour, segregated and indigently paid. At times cynical or suspicious in his artificial surroundings, "X" veers from one tangent to another trying to be fair in his dealings. Who knows how accurate his approaching fate is? The book has its charms; among them, O'Neill is the winner of the longest sentence competition time and again (see examples below).

Words: timeous = timely. oneiric = dream-like

One-liners:
I had very few lamps in my luxury rental and very few items of furniture, and what with the long shadows and the darkness it was as if I had contrived to place us in one of those grim, I want to say Swedish, movies my poor parents often co-watched, duplicating in the arrangement of their respective chairs the arrangement of silence, gloom, and human separateness offered by the television. (23)
Normally I'm tolerant of my lot, but sometimes I am gloomy and cannot bear it and I question the rationality and desirability of personally sticking around for a further (all things being equal) three or four decades, and I find it calming that I have no dependents of any kind and am always at liberty to hang myself. (82)
They're a family of messenger shooters and cat kickers, the Batroses. (148)

Dubai vs. Mother Earth:
The city could not have more resembled a fata morgana―and that was the whole idea. If I might psychologize, the reliance on the mirage/wonder equation, which of course has an etymological basis, is not just a marketing ploy; it is a secret revenge on the mirage itself, and only one facet of the Dubaian counterattack on the natural. The crimes of nature against man, in this part of the world, are not restricted to the immemorial mockery of the visual sense. The slightest effort of reflection must yield an awareness of the suffering and lowliness that these barren and desolate sands have without cease inflicted on their human inhabitants, and it cannot be a surprise, now that the shoe is on the other foot, that the transformation of this place is characterized by attempts at domination directed not only against the heat and dust, but as is evident from the natives' somewhat irrational hostility to solar energy and their unusual dedication to the artificial settlement of marine areas, against the very sun and the very sea. This is what happens when you fuck with people for a long time. They fuck with you back. (77-8)

Typical X reactions:
"A man fell down from the building into the water," Ali explains. 
"What?" I say. "Fell down? When?" 
"Before I arrived. Maybe half an hour before. They were getting him out of the water." 
"What do you mean, getting him out? He died?" 
"I believe he was dead," Ali reports. He says, "He jumped. It happens a lot. Every week it happens. Every week, always one or two of the men jump from the buildings." 
I saw the jumper from my apartment. The dropping thing I saw out of the corner of my eye at lunchtime―that was the jumper. Or was not. I did not really catch sight of that which was dropping. I glimpsed, I should say I think I glimpsed, a shadow-like movement, and whatever it was was gone as soon as I turned to look. It could have been anything. It could have been a bird; it could have been something inanimate. That cannot be ruled out. Nor can it be ruled out that it was nothing. Nothing can be ruled out. (147)

Jenn's meltdown:
Later still, in tears, she said, "You can't do this to me. I want a baby―you give me a baby! You owe me. You owe me my baby!" At some other point she said, "You can't back out now. It's not right. What am I supposed to do? Start dating? Find someone else? I'm thirty-five years old!" She made further statements, including the statement that I was the murderer of our marriage. She said, "OK, look, just give me the sperm. I'll have the baby myself. I'll take care of the baby. I don't need you. I can do this. I'm strong." And, "I'm going to be a laughingstock." And, "You wait until I'm having fertility treatment, and then you quit? Oh, boy. It's like you've done this on purpose. Is that it? I'm right, aren't I? You've done this on purpose." And, "My God. You're a monster. A monster. A narcissistic psychopath. My God. That's it. That explains everything." (167-8)

24 February 2017

Library Limelights 127

Dennis Lehane. Prayers for Rain. USA: HarperCollins, 1999.
Here's a certain kind of comfort reading with Lehane's PI Patrick Kenzie, in the great tradition of Travis McGee, Virgil Flowers, Spenser, and so on. Lehane knows how to balance wicked plots with humour. Kenzie is narrating. First he solves a straightforward request from Karen Nichols to stop someone stalking her. Months later Kenzie feels obligated to investigate her suicide ― death by gravity the incident is sometimes called by the cops ― with the help of his foul-mouthed sidekick Bubba Rogowski; eventually his estranged partner Angie Gennaro joins them. The characters are comforting, the premise is not. Comforting, if you like strong-arm tactics with black humour.

Karen's background leads them to a psychiatrist and uncovers a series of planned harassment. A bit of Boston mafia crops up along with the unsurprising but creative dysfunctional family associations. Trying to determine the motive and identity of a criminal mind goes into murky territory whereby Kenzie gets beat up and shot up, apparently typical procedure for him. I'm not totally convinced about the entire scheme but as I said, it's both fun with the sleuths and bloody in the action, an easy enough read.

One-liners:
Being at the top of the police department's shit list was not where I'd planned to be at this point of my life. (14)
The office was done up in some kind of Laura Ashley meets the Spanish Inquisition decor. (184)
Where have you gone, Burt Lancaster, and why'd you take most of the cool shit with you? (285)

She's in:
She looked over at me. "How serious was Stevie?" 
"As the plague," I said. "He'll kill us both." I jerked a thumb at Bubba. 
"Him first." 
Bubba snorted. 
Angie stared at both of us for a long time and her face gradually softened. 
"Well, I don't have a job anymore. Which means I probably can't afford this apartment much longer. Can't hold onto a boyfriend, and I don't like pets. So, I guess you two morons are all I got." 
"Stop it," Bubba said. "I'm getting all choked up and shit." 
She dropped off the counter. "All right, who's driving me to a safe phone?" (285)

The cranberry bog:
The stand of trees seemed to whisper. They seemed to groan.Stay away, they said. Stay away. 
"He knew I'd find this place eventually. Maybe not as quickly as I did, but eventually." 
"So?" 
"So, he's gotta move. He's gotta move fast. Whatever he's planning, it's either about to happen, or it's already in motion."

She reached out and her palm found my lower back. 
"Patrick, don't let him in your head. He wants that." 
I stared at the trees, then the shed, then the bloody, misting bog."Too late," I said. (420)

Time for action:
He smiled. Angie smiled. I smiled. In the still of the bog and the dark of the night, I had the feeling it was the last time any of us would smile for a while. 
"All right," Bubba said. "It's all three of us, then. Just remember, the only sin in combat is hesitation. So don't fucking hesitate." (434)



John Sandford. Escape Clause. USA: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2016.
Virgil's back, more of the same genre as above but a touch more Carl Hiassen-ish. The craziness begins with the kidnapping of Minneapolis Zoo tigers, a species at risk of extinction. Then there's Bill, the part-time priest frolicking in the ol' swimming hole. Most of the kidnappers manage to fumble their jobs here and there, earning sudden (and un-funny) bizarre death from their leader. Using rare animal parts for questionable "organic" medical nostrums plays a significant part in the story. Masterminding the tiger capture is a Xanax-stoned sociopath beholden to a wealthy Chinese immigrant. Having to deviate from his original plan, he fails to hide the bodies well.

The plot careens along with Virgil's frustration, driving from one medical examiner to another, always one step and one murder behind. Meanwhile his girlfriend Frankie's sister Sparkle sets off a small storm in a local canning factory, investigating the employment of illegals. As a result, a collaborating worker and Frankie both end up in the hospital. Typical engaging Virgil; typical inventive Sandford.

One-liners: TV cameras liked him and he liked them back. (31)
After several friendly conversations, each recognized the innate criminality in the other, and an arrangement was made. (67-8)

Touching on the theological:
"Is this relationship with Sparkle ... a long-term thing?" Virgil asked. 
"No, no, it isn't. I've spent time with her the last two summers, but of course the other nine months I'm celibate and she doesn't put up with that." 
"That seems very strange to me," Virgil said. 
"It seems fairly strange to me, too, but I find both sides of the equation to be rewarding," Bill said. "Of course, I may go to hell." 
"No offense, but I don't think the Church gets to decide who goes to hell," Virgil said. 
"I'm not offended," Bill said cheerfully. "I fact, I agree. Don't tell the Church I said that." (17)

Accuracy of details:
"Why would you think anyone would wrap a cut with a hanky?" 
"Well ... to stop the bleeding." 
"But why with a hanky? Who do you know who carries a hanky?" Virgil asked. 
"It's just an expression, Virgil," Sawyer said. 
"You know who wraps wounds with a hanky? Virgil asked. "People on TV. Somebody gets cut on TV, they've got a hanky. In real life, no hanky. You need a different expression: wrapping the wound with toilet paper. Or Dunkin' Donuts napkins. Something more intelligent than a hanky." 
"Right. I'll put it on top of my list of things to do," Sawyer said. "Get new expression." (78-9)

Endangered:
"That sonofabitch." Her eyes grew wider and her face turned red. "You know what he does for a living?" 
"I think so ..." 
"If he's allowed to keep doing that, he'll kill off every bear in the state and in Wisconsin and the Dakotas, too. For their gallbladders! So some Chinese assholes can make a medicine that doesn't even work! People get all weepy about rhinoceroses, and they should, but who's crying for the black bear, that's what I want to know! Who's crying for the black bear?" (105)

More than one pickle:
Sparkle didn't answer, but stepped away, turned, and walked along the backside of the large stainless steel tanks. She was the only one back there, and she slipped through the factory, taking pictures of women sorting cucumbers before they went into a huge vat; other women pulling cucumbers off a moving track into separate bins to be seared, sliced, or discarded; a woman monitoring a machine that dumped brine into the jars. 
The place smelled like a huge wet cucumber, Sparkle thought, and so did she, after twenty minutes in the building. (226)


Lisa Gardner. The Next Accident. USA: A Bantam Book, 2001.
Ya gotta give Gardner due credit ― she spins complicated plots that sneak up on you, suspending disbelief sometimes. In this case, FBI hotshot Quincy Pierce is bedevilled by a fiendishly clever but unknown psychopath who is out to destroy the agent's entire family. And partially succeeds. Quincy hires Oregon PI Rainie Conner, with whom he has personal and professional history, to undertake a separate investigation into the car accident that killed his daughter Mandy. The novel's introduction gives us overt clues to the accident in unfortunately melodramatic tones. Here and later, Gardner can't resist adding some bodice-ripper scenes.

Flipping around from Portland to Washington and New York, Rainie makes some progress and keeps tabs on Quincy who is close to meltdown. Although they are "meant" for each other, but push each other away, their own banal ruminations (who am I, really?) give little insight into the relationship stand-off. The perpetrator, a true homme fatal, is a master of disguise; he cons Quincy's ex-wife to her death ― not the only murder that happens. This book was one of my "fillers" while awaiting more from TPL but it scored on merit. After an unpromising start it becomes more absorbing, hard to put down for the next twist to come.

One-liners:
Some nights he jerked awake, his heart hammering in his chest, with the frantic need to call Kimberly and make sure she was okay, that he still had one daughter left. (73)
He was standing in front of the empty refrigerator with the look of a man who'd opened it many times before and still kept expecting something different. (193)

Is he this trite?
Time had given Quincy regrets. It has also taught him honesty. He understood now that he no longer did what he did to save the world. He worked as an agent for the same reason people worked as accountants and lawyers and corporate clerks. Because he was good at it. Because he liked the challenge. Because when the job was done right, he felt good about himself. 
He had not been the husband he had wanted to be. He had not been the father he had hoped to be. Last year, however, he'd connected three mass murders that local officials had thought were one-off crimes. 
He was a damn good agent. And year by year, he was working on becoming a better person. (48-9)

Recalling the shooting range:
"I did it, I did it. I did it! Daddy, I did it!" 
And her father said, "Don't ever throw down your firearm like that! It could go off and hit someone. First put on the safety, then set down the gun and step away from the firing line. Remember, you must treat your pistol responsibly." 
She had been deflated. Maybe even tears flooded her eyes. She didn't remember anymore. She just recalled the curious change that came over her father's face. He looked at her crestfallen expression and perhaps he finally heard his own words, because his features suddenly shifted. 
He said quietly, "You know what, Kimmy? That was great shooting. You did a wonderful job. And sometimes ... sometimes your father is a real ass." 
She had never heard her father call himself an ass before. She was pretty sure that was one of the words she was never supposed to repeat. And she liked that. That made it special. Their first real father-daughter moment. She could shoot a gun. And sometimes Daddy was a real ass. (104-5)

Night recce:
"I can do fences," Rainie assured him. "Dobermans have me a little more concerned." 
"No dogs, I drove by earlier." 
"No dogs? What kind of self-respecting salvage-yard owner doesn't have a dog?" 
"The kind who's been turned in to the humane society twice and could no longer afford the cruelty-toward-animal fines. Now he has a security company that drives around in hourly intervals. You see headlights, duck." 
"Cool," Rainie said and started whistling "We're off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz." 
Five minutes later, they'd scaled the eight-foot-high fence and were making their way through the final resting place for thousands of cars. (149-50)


16 February 2017

Happiness is a bookstand ...

So I had to obtain a new bookstand for reading in bed. Which is where I read. You understand, for perfect comfort the book has to be at a certain level and angle. I have the backup cushions, the heating pad, the adjustable reading light, pencil & paper, water, any current medications, a few macadamia nuts ... at least enough nourishment to spend a week there if need be.

The old well-balanced bookstand was wooden, giving a certain confident stability. Placed just so on my lap was ideal. But one of the pegs for holding pages had give up the struggle to hold anything. Poor little peg went missing in the general midden. Then the ledge holding the book began to cave in ... delicate carpentry is not my forte.

Thank you, o excellent companion for years of service. I regret I did not photograph you before going to the recycling room.

The new bookstand ...
Well, first, the search. I could get a new one same as the old one. But such a fundamental, necessary item was sure to have been improved upon over the intervening years, right? Most models on offer seem to assume you want to put your tablet or laptop on it. Such engineering requirements do not accommodate a hefty book with special doohickeys to hold the pages in place. This stage took a lot of online squinting and deliberating. Because your average bookstore does not think to carry such an item.
The choice was made. New bookstand arrives. It is plastic which I already knew.

Feeling warily suspicious because plastic, I hesitate to unwrap it for several hours until the need to relax and read became urgent. It is encased in enough vacuum-wrapped clear plastic to cover the building I live in. Hard plastic. Ruin my scissors trying to release it, fearing a misplaced stab might damage the object itself.

But out it came, all in one piece, unblemished. No bits to sort out, insert, screw in, or stick on. Feather light. Clever page-holder that doesn't slip. Adjustable for choice of inclined angle. With the weight of a book on it, no wobble.
VoilĂ .
Win-win.