7.23.2012

Supreme Courtship, by Christopher Buckley

Supreme Courtship
Supreme Courtship
There's a great quote in this book, just past the halfway point, that sums up the entire message. Roughly paraphrased, Americans seem to want things both ways. We want social programs but don't want to pay for them. We want our government powerful, but not too powerful, etc. etc. The main crux of this novel is a constitutional crisis that you can see a mile off, though its very hard to see how everyone is going to get out of it. Supreme Courtship isn't Christopher Buckley's best book, but it's still a fun read and it still does a great job of skewering our American absurdities.

Everyone who has paid any attention to politics in the last, oh, thirty years or so is well aware that supreme court nominations are contentions. Buckley takes them to new heights when one of the fictional president's nominees is dismissed because he didn't like To Kill a Mockingbird when he was young. The president, Donald Vandercamp gets so pissed off with the head of Senate Judicial Committee (who nixed two very good candidates) that he nominated the highly popular TV judge, Pepper Cartwright. After the nomination process, things cool off until later in the book when the constitutional crisis crops up.

The head of the Judicial Committee has dreams of being president himself and manages to get a Constitutional Amendment that limits the president to a single term. Vandercamp's habit of vetoing any legislation that proposes new spending has pissed off a lot of representatives and brought to a halt the entire pork barrel system. But Vandercamp runs* for president and wins. Of course it results on a lawsuit. And of course the case ends up in front of the Supreme Court. So what can the justices do? On the one hand, they have to uphold the Constitution. But on the other hand, might the will of the people in the form of an election (with a clear winner) actually be the higher law? And, of course, it comes down to the deciding vote of the newest Supreme Court justice.

Supreme Courtship doesn't hit as hard as the other Buckley novels I've read. It's almost as if Buckley pulled his punches toward the end because this book could have been a lot snarkier. I wish that he had spent more time examine the conflict between the Amendment and the election. It highlights the disconnect I see between what legislators get up to and what the actual will of the people is. (It's a little weird to call them the people. It sounds like it should be capitalized like the Communists used to do). I mean, most of the people I know don't think profiling is a good idea and don't support measures like Arizona passed last year. Most of the people I know think gay people should be allowed to get married. Most people I know think that women should have control of their own bodies when it comes to medical decisions. That's the sort of thing we need satire about because someone has to point out the stupidity of it all.

 * He does it on principle. But since he doesn't participate in debates or campaigning or any of that, it's hard to say he actually "runs" for president.

7.22.2012

They Eat Puppies, Don't They? By Christopher Buckley

They Eat Puppies, Don't They?
They Eat Puppies, Don't They?
If anything needs to have the mickey taken out of it, it's America's violent fear of being attacked and its love of new weaponry. Thankfully, Christopher Buckley stepped up to the task. I haven't read anyone else who has the ability to be cutting and still make stupid jokes to make his readers laugh hysterically. They Eat Puppies, Don't They? starts with a Congressional committee shooting down funding for a new kind of bomb. To try and get funding for a new project, the company charges their public relations person--Bird McIntyre--with whipping up anti-Chinese sentiment (apparently because people don't seem to get exercised about the Middle East anymore).

Bird teams up with an Anne Coulter-esque pundit named Angel Templeton (a truly terrifying character) to complete his task. They latch on to the Dalai Lama's health scare to try and make people think that the Chines government is trying to poison him. It doesn't go well, but when it turns out the Dalai Lama is actually dying of a rare form of cancer things actually escalate into a tense stand off between the Chinese government, Buddhists, and the American government. I love seeing when people's intractable position and beliefs end up getting them into sticky situations that just point out their hypocrisy. And I have to admire Buckley's chutzpah in actually using the current Dalai Lama as a character in his book.

No one comes out smelling very rosy in this book except, weirdly, the Chinese President. Fa Mengyao (not actually the Chinese President but entirely fictional) wants to move China forward socially, and maybe patch things up in Tibet. Years ago when he governed Tibet, he started to realize that repression was cruel and ineffective and, more importantly, wrong. Everyone else in the book is kind of a caricature to serve the purpose of the story.

I really enjoyed this book--so much so that I read it in a day. I was a little unsure when I realized that Buckley was really using the real Dalai Lama. I think everyone can agree that there are few men they have ever been as good as Tenzin Gyatso. I wondered what he would think of this book if he read it, and I think he would be all right with it--especially once he got to the rather amazing ending. I've heard he has a great sense of humor.

7.15.2012

Garment of Shadows, by Laurie R. King

Garment of Shadows
Garment of Shadows
Laurie R. King's Garment of Shadows contains the continuing adventures of Mary Russell and her husband, the famous Sherlock Holmes. It picks up immediately after the last book, Pirate King, left off. We're still in Morocco in 1924. But this time, instead of dealing with the murderous machinations of a film crew Russell and Holmes are dealing with a three sided war between French and Spanish colonials and Moroccan freedom fighters. And, to complicate matters, Russell has taken a blow to her head that has robbed her of her memories.

Even without her memories, Russell is resourceful. She manages quite well until her husband tracks her down. So well, in fact, that she takes him for an attacker and throws him into a wall before he can tell her who she is. Fortunately, her memories start to come back as she and Holmes begin to investigate what happened. All they know at the beginning is that Russell walked into the desert with their friend Mahmoud Hazr. Russell is hit by a car and Mahmoud is missing. Mahmoud's brother, Ali, turns up and reveals that he and Mahmoud were up to their eyeballs in diplomatic intrigue and setting up negotiations between the Moroccan freedom fighters and the French.

This book breezed by. Once I sorted out the rather confusing timeline at the beginning of the book, I was hooked by the intrigue. King spends a lot of time at the book dashing back and forth over the space of a week and it takes a bit of thought to work out when Russell and her friend Marsh disappeared, when Holmes visited Fez, when Russell and Holmes found each other again, etc. etc. I could chalk this up to this being an advance copy, but this goes beyond a few errors in the text--which I also found. At any rate, after the first few chapters, the book picks up speed and it's not long before we have hidden traitors, ancient dungeons, and ambushes. This is one of the better books in the series, for me, because Russell and Holmes are playing for big stakes.

In fact, what starts as a better than usual mystery turns into a story with deeper meaning by the end. I'm going to do my best to write about this without giving away too much in terms of plot details, since this book won't be out for more than a month. In the earlier books in the series, Russell and Holmes and their various allies have served the interests of Britian--and more particularly of Mycroft Holmes--without question. But in recent books, Russell has started to wonder if the Mycroft's version of what's right and what's actually right are the same thing. Russell has started to object to Mycroft's version of the greater good. In Garment of Shadows, this questioning has spread to other characters. This line of questioning has always interested me, because I am a reluctant patriot myself.

Fans of the Russell and Holmes series, you will absolutely want to read this one. I'm looking forward to the next book. And because I had an advance copy, I have even longer to wait for it than everyone else.

Shadow of Night, by Deborah Harkness

Shadow of Night
Shadow of Night
At long last, Deborah Harkness's second installment of her trilogy, Shadow of Night, is out. I enjoyed the characters and the story so much that I have been waiting impatiently for this one. We pick up the story immediately after the end of the first book, A Discovery of Witches, with Matthew and Diana seeking refuge in, of all places, Elizabethan England. Though you might not think it, 1590 is actually a bit safer for the pair of them than 2010.

In 2010, Matthew and Diana have three strikes against them. First, vampires and witches are not supposed to fraternized, let alone marry. Second, they're trying to track down Ashmole 782, a mysterious document that may contain all sorts of highly desired secret knowledge. And third, Diana has abilities that frighten the other witches. Her father had the same abilities and it lead to his death and his wife's. Since Diana is a timewalker, she brings Matthew along to 1590 to the house he has owned in Woodstock for centuries. But it becomes clear that they should have spent some more time of their plans. Twenty-first century Diana sticks out like a sore thumb with her modern ideas and modern English and sixteenth century Matthew was very different from the twenty-first century one that pops up in his place. Not only that, but sixteenth century Matthew was also one of Walsingham's spies and they have landed right back in the middle of a metric ton of intrigue.

It's a lot of plot to take in, but it keeps the book lively. Even though it's more than 500 pages long, it doesn't feel that long. There are schemes aplenty and secrets to be discovered and kept. I marveled at Harkness's ability to keep so many balls in the air. While Matthew is busy trying to remember what he did the first time (so as not to disrupt history), Diana searches for a teacher to help her harness her powers. Their friends also try to search for Ashmole 782, only to find out that it's in Prague. So we get a very good tour of late sixteenth century Europe.

And through it all, there's the wonderful relationship between Matthew and Diana that is blossoming as they learn more about each other and face their fears. There are all the historical cameos. Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Harriot, and John Dee all make appearances, along with over a dozen other historical figures. There's a dramatis personae at the end that marks them all out, for the curious. There are so many good things about this book, it's hard not to gush.

The end of the book makes it clear that a confrontation is coming. (It is a trilogy after all.) Diana and Matthew's allies are marshaling their forces as their enemies begin to close it. I don't know how it's all going to end, but I and very much looking forward to finding out.

7.09.2012

The Story of Beautiful Girl, by Rachel Simon

The Story of Beautiful Girl
The Story of Beautiful Girl
The Story of Beautiful Girl[/caption] For a book that's only about 350 pages long, there's quite a bit of story crammed into Rachel Simon's The Story of Beautiful Girl. I read the author's note at the end of the book once I'd finished it (for a change, I rarely read these), and I have to say it was really illuminating. The Story of Beautiful Girl takes its inspiration from the true story of God Knows His Name: The True Story of John Doe No. 24, about a deaf man who was incarcerated in a mental institution because no one understood his dialect of sign language. It also takes a significant part of its inspiration from the stories of mental institution inmates and the closing down of those institutions in the 1970s.

The Story of Beautiful Girl begins in 1968, when a deaf man and a girl with speech and intellectual impairments (and her daughter) arrive in a thunderstorm at a widow's isolated farmhouse. The institution staff are hot on their heels. When the eponymous girl asks the widow to hide her daughter, the widow agrees on impulse. When she sees how the staff treat the girl and her boyfriend, the widow knows she made the right decision. At that point, the story splits into three (later four) narratives. The widow, Martha, takes the infant on the road, looking for a safe place to raise up little Julia. The deaf man, Homan, gets separated from the girl, Lynnie, and ends up nearly drowning in a river. Lynnie gets caught and taken back to the institution.

Martha has her hands full with the precocious Julia, but she keeps her safe. The more interesting plot strands for me were Homan and Lynnie's stories. Homan is heaped with discrimination every where he goes, for being deaf and for being black. No one understands him, but he's smart enough to turn exploitation around. He uses other people just as much as he is used. For years, he struggles to get back to Lynnie and "Little One." Lynnie's story is, if possible, even more heartbreaking. Because its the 1960s and early 1970s, the mentally ill and intellectually disabled were still warehoused far away from their families in facilities that were often worse than prisons. Her life starts to improve as reporters and lawmakers investigate the conditions of the institutions. It gets even better when she starts to get the right kind of help for her selective mutism.

The plots parallel each other for decades. As the end of the book approached, I started to wonder if Simon really would bring all the characters back again. I don't mind telling you here that they do, because you can't really call it a spoiler when the ending is hinted at on the book jacket. But Simon has to resort to some Dickens-level coincidences to get the job done. Up to that point, I had no quibbles about the book or the author's choices. The characters are all finely drawn. The pacing is decent, if a little slow. I was hooked from the first chapter by the premise. So, apart from those phenomenally lucky breaks, I quite enjoyed this book.

The Keeper of Lost Causes, by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The Keeper of Lost Causes
The Keeper of Lost Causes
I am still puzzled by what Jussi Alder-Olsen was really up to with The Keeper of Lost Causes. On the one hand, it's a pretty good police procedural set in Copenhagen. On the other hand, it's a gut-wrenching captivity narrative. What puzzles me is what these two plots are doing between the same set of covers. They don't quite fit together for me.

The novel opens with Carl Mørck and his partners at the scene of a murder. The perpetrators are still there and kill one of Mørck's partners, paralyze another, and almost kill Mørck himself. When Mørck returns to duty a week or so later, he is shuffled down to the basement to head up Department Q, a department especially created for cold cases. Mørck gets the job because his bosses and most of his coworkers don't like him and because his supervisor wants to pocket the new department's budget for the homicide department. Mørck only has a recently immigrated Syrian mystery man to help him. And, at first, Mørck isn't interested in even reading the case files that have been sent down to him. The Syrian, Assad, pushes him into investigating the disappearance and presumed suicide of a Folketing politician, Merete Lynggaard. Mørck is morose, occasionally sarcastic, and a decent investigator. If Alder-Olsen had stuck to this plot, the book would have been a decent, if not outstanding, Scandinavian mystery.

The other plot is much more engaging, even terrifying at times. The book jumps back and forth in time. Mørck's plot takes place in 2007. Merete's story starts back in 2002. Instead of being lost at sea as everyone, even Mørck, believes, Merete is kidnapped on a ferry and imprisoned. As the novel develops, her timeline moves up until it becomes clear that she is still alive and very much in danger as Mørck makes frustratingly slow progress on her case. The plots converge, as they must. The ending was very, very good and packed with twists. It was worth waiting for.

As I got more of Merete's story I got more frustrated with Mørck. I wanted to reach into the book to shake his collar and shout that Merete was still alive. The juxtaposition of the two related plots leaves Mørck in a very unsympathetic and unflattering light. He's meant to be the star, or at least the protagonist, of a series. The second Mørck book is already out in English translation, but I don't think I'll bother. What draws me to the detective characters I like the most is the drive to see justice done. Until the end of The Keeper of Lost Causes, I don't get that at all from Mørck. I get the impression that he likes pissing people off more than anything else. While I appreciate snark and taking the piss out of the pompous, there has to be something deeper to a character in order for me to bond with them. So, with The Keeper of Lost Causes, I guess you can take it or leave it.

The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones
The Lovely Bones
  I've read a lot of mysteries, but I have never read a book told from the perspective of the murdered victim. Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones is, therefore, a curious mix of mystery and literary fiction about what happens after the narrator dies. We meet young Susie Salmon shortly before her murder at the hands of a serial killer. The narrative moves back and forth through time and perspectives as Susie recalls her past and visits the people she left behind. It starts much like the standard serial killer mystery, apart from the choice of narrator, in that you wonder if the killer will be caught. But by the end, it becomes a story about forgiveness and peace.

It's not hard to try and put yourself in Susie's shoes by wondering if you could be as accepting or forgiving of one's murder as she seems to be. As I read about Susie's version of heaven and her attempts to be heard and seen by her family, I imagined that I would be much more of a vengeful spirit. But perhaps that's part of what made Susie so special to her friends and family. There really is something special about her. But I wanted to see justice done for her sake, and I wondered if she would ever get that. I would think that you would need to have some kind of justice to have peace. And I would think that it would take someone who was close to being a saint to forgive what Susie's murderer did.

Don't expect a traditional mystery in The Lovely Bones. As I mentioned above, the book doesn't really fit into that genre. It shares more with the literary genre (except for the part about not much happening). It concentrates on the emotional lives of the characters rather than the chase to catch the killer. We learn how Susie's parents react--her father becomes obsessed with catching the killer and her mother runs away in an attempt to move on. Her sister grows hard. Her brother, who was very young when Susie died, tries to grow up in spite of his family's emotional minefield. And her killer carries on with his secret life. Her crush moves on. The weird girl who felt Susie's spirit flee after her death get stuck feeling ghosts everywhere she goes. It all seems to be about who has the ability to carry on with their life and those who can't. In the middle of it all is Susie. On the one hand, she's stuck in her version of heaven and can't move on to real peace. But on the other, she keeps growing and maturing. It's almost like the only part of her that died was the physical part.

The Lovely Bones was a very interesting read. I know pretty much what I'm supposed to make of it, but I am still unsettled by this book. I suspect I will be for quite some time.

7.01.2012

Bohemian Girl, by Therese Svoboda

Bohemian Girl
Bohemian Girl
Therese Svoboda's Bohemian Girl is a sparely written odyssey about self-reliance more than anything else, I think. Our heroine, who names herself Harriet, has nothing but bad luck when it comes to her relationships. Things only seem to go well for her when she forges her own path.

We first meet the erstwhile Harriet after her father has lost a bet with an Indian and, consequently, lost custody of Harriet. Harriet serves as a slave for two or three years before managing to get free. After various adventures with a liar, an abandoned infant, and a pair of balloonists from Europe, Harriet makes her way to the town of Red Cloud, Nebraska and finagles her way into running a general store. All this is set against the backdrop of the Civil War, which makes only occasional intrusions into the main story line.

Through it all, Harriet manages to keep, if not her spirits up, her determination going strong. At the end, it was as though Svoboda was writing about why you shouldn't trust others as much as she was writing about self-reliance and personal strength. I suppose I could sum up Bohemian Girl as one more of those depressing books that has that nubbin of "I Will Survive" kind of hope to it.

There was one thing about this book that disappointed me though. This book is billed (by the blurbs and the dust jacket) as aspiring to be like True Grit and My Antonia. But while it has some elements of those heroines' fortitude, it lacks a clear sense of place. This story could have taken place just about anywhere. There is so little description of the setting that I had a hard time picturing it (or even the characters) in my mind. I don't mind spare writing when it works (and I loved it in The Reapers are the Angels). But the tricky thing about this style is that you really have to make sure you choose the right words. The words you use have to be evocative and filled with layers of meaning. It don't mean just stripping out the adjectives and adverbs.

The Mirage, by Matt Ruff

The Mirage
The Mirage
Emily Dickinson wrote "Tell the truth, but tell it slant." Matt Ruff tells the truth inverted. In The Mirage we get to see 9/11 from the rabbit hole. It becomes 11/9 and the target was the Twin Towers in Baghdad in the United Arab States. The United States is, in version, a fractured collection of countries ruled by various religious ideologues. I have to say, I've been despairing of good satire for a long time. Matt Ruff's book makes up for a lot. This book was so good that I read it in an entire afternoon.

After a short prologue, we are introduced to our trio of protagonists, all agents of Homeland Security. They're chasing down American suicide bombers in Baghdad when they get the news of planes crashing into their Twin Towers. If Ruff had stopped here, I might still have been satisfied with the story anyway. But he goes further. Various main and supporting characters start getting flashes, in dreams or during spells of vertigo, of another reality, where the plane attacks took place in New York, where Saddam Hussein was the dictator of Iraq, where David Koresh died in Waco, where Osama bin Ladin was the head of al Qaeda. Our central lead, Mustafa al Baghdadi, starts to suspect that there's something wrong with his reality.

This book is packed with historical and cultural references. Ruff even brings in an alternate version of LOLcats. (And thereby brings in a Swiftian touch of humor to his cultural critique.) In between the chapters, we get bits of history from an alternate Wikipedia, which helps to fill in the blanks. I had to keep running to the real Wikipedia to brush up on the real history.

The thing about good satire is that it tells you a truth. It might make you laugh along the way (a great satire will, anyway). But it gets you to look at a situation in a different way. It strips away baggage and blinkers alike and helps you to see what the real problem is. In this case, it's that you can't just bomb people back to the stone age, set up a government, and walk away--especially not when it comes to the Middle East. It's just playing into a long tradition of an eye for an eye until everyone is blind. It also shows just how incompatible fanatical, fundamentalist religion is with peace.

As the story unfolds, Mustafa follows the clues of this other reality (our reality) to the Balkanized America and back. I hate to give away the solution to the mystery, but I will say that everything wraps up in a gloriously satisfying conclusion. I highly recommend this book. It blew my mind.

City of Bohane, by Kevin Barry

City of Bohane
City of Bohane
As the title might tell you, Kevin Barry's City of Bohane is really about a place rather than specific people. While you meet a whole range of interesting, wild characters, the "character" you really get to know is Bohane. Bohane (fictional, don't try to find it on a map) sits somewhere on the west coast of Ireland after something disrupted the government, the electricity, trade, and who knows what else. Bohane looks like it's pretty much left to take care of itself. This catastrophe is never mentioned and it doesn't really matter. What matters is that scrappy Bohane is still on its feet (except when its drunk) and fighting (especially when its drunk).

In order to keep things moving, Barry focuses on gang boss Logan Hartnett and his old rival Gant Broderick, and Hartnett's lieutenants Wolfie, Fucker, and Jenni Ching. Harnett's people are responsible for the death of a member of another gang, which starts a gang war brewing. And Gant is back in town, ostensibly to settle old scores, but he mostly seems content to be back in his old haunts. For all its violence, Bohane is actually a pretty well run place. The gangs and the Authority (remains of the police and local government) keep things from getting out of control. But as the gangs start their war, this tenuous control starts to break down.

But as I said before, this is really a book about a place. The gang war and old grudges is really just an excuse to explore the geography and history of Bohane. I don't mean this in a bad way, but Bohane reminds me a lot of some of the best American, Irish, and British noir movies. Everything is covered in cigarette smokey and hard liquor. The characters a volatile, laughing and then before you know it, out come the knives and straight razors. And it's a place none of the characters and leave no matter how hard they try.

City of Bohane is an atmospheric writing experience. Just don't fuss too much about the plot because you'll feel cheated