Wednesday, January 30, 2013

As life passes by, some get sidelined in Gene Kerrigan's "Little Criminals"

     One evening in in my late 40s, having worked for a small newspaper in a small town for more than 15 years, I told my husband I was wondering what to do with my life.
     “Do,” he said. “You’re doing it. You’ve peaked.” 
     Feeling momentarily young and ready to move to something more adventurous and much grander, I was taken by surprise. His response made me feel like a has-been, or a could-have-been.
     That’s the feeling that’s evoked in several characters in Gene Kerrigan’s “Little Criminals,” a crime novel set in and around Dublin.  It’s a feeling that the crime, a kidnapping, mitigates for the short time from its conception to its conclusion for those who commit the crime as well as those who pursue them. Between the book’s covers two covers, each has a chance at becoming vividly alive, of being a player.
     In Kerrigan’s hands, they’ve got a really good chance.
     Following a bumbled minor burglary, Frankie Crowe, still in his 20s but already feeling sidelined, decides to go big time. He plans to kidnap someone who will have quick access to big money. He picks his prey, makes a plan, and assembles his gang.
     Problem is the prey, it turns out, isn’t quite what he imagined. The gang is less A-list than the cast of Ocean’s Eleven. More D-list or even flunkies, it’s a loose assemblage of low-lifes, little criminals, the gang that cannot kidnap straight. And the caper --- ill conceived and poorly researched is ever more dangerous because of how random and careless the bunglers are. Even worse Frankie’s got a temper on a hair trigger; say the wrong thing, cross him, and who knows what might happen?
     The only one who has a good guess is a middle-aged detective, John Grace. Called in “as a consultant” because he knows Frankie, he tells the assistant commissioner and the chief superintendent leading the investigation: “The thing about Frankie Crowe, he’s a small timer but he doesn’t know it. This kind of stuff, it’s out of Frankie’s league.”
     Frankie’s been told as much, by a mentor who advises him:
    “You start off Frankie, you want to do everything there is to do, ten times over. … You get to a certain age, Frankie, you have to know what you can do well. You have to live with that ….   “We all find our own level, Frankie. “
But Frankie being Frankie just gets pissed off.
      The plot is repeatedly complicated by characters that don’t know when to keep their mouths shut. Some are advising, some defending, and some just being smart-asses.
       It also veers because Frankie is so unreliable. He says one thing and does another, keeps changing the terms, not so much to keep others off balance, but because he’s guided by whim, by impulsivity. Stuff happens that Frankie dismisses as: “It just happened.”
      And finally there are mere mishaps, by the victim, by the kidnappers and by the police – or garda – as they are called in Ireland. It all makes up a great plot that hardly seems plotted.
     Similarly, Kerrigan’s prose is the kind of writing that doesn’t sound like writing.  It’s peppered with Irish idioms, products and street slang. How can you not smile at when Frankie looks at an old man and thinks: “Culchie gobshite on day release from the local home for the bewildered. The country’s full of them.”
      Kerrigan has mastered the telling detail:  hair dye to cover up aging gray on the head of the superintendent leading younger men, or “American teeth” to describe the perfection of the upper-class wife and kidnapping victim, Angela.
     Then too, Kerrigan’s got such skill he can take on the big themes without seeming to, merely glancing them: rich versus poor, young versus old, plodding along with the ordinary versus going for broke; blue versus white collar criminals.
     Tucked into this ordeal, the new Ireland is on display– a ruthless place where, as in the U.S., the rich and poor seem to live in different universes, where even cops are ambitious up-and-comers who dress in suits and work efficiently in neat offices, where all kinds of promotions – including those in the form of favors granted – come at a cost.
     Kerrigan gives the reader a tour of the victim’s house from the point of view of one of the little criminals, Martin Paxton:
“The house seemed to go on forever. It was like they thought of something they’d like to do, so they’d add on another room to do it in. …
A large room with two long sofa facing each other across a big coffee table opened to an even larger conservatory. The fuck these people do, use their mobile phones to talk from one end of the room to the other? …
In the dining room, Martin reckoned you might just manage a game of five-a-side football on the long table, though that would kind of take the shine off it.”
     In this Ireland where everyone finds his own level, along the spectrum of ambition, John Grace seems the one of those most comfortable in his skin, most accepting of the life he has chosen and the life that’s chosen him. It’s an ordinary one with plenty of routine boredom and simple valued moments like reading stories to his grandson before bed. He has passed up opportunities, shady and otherwise and has been passed up for promotions in turn.     
Even so, the kidnapping stirs his ambitions a little: he puts on a suit for it and his tangential suggestions help get it solved.  However, Kerrigan has appropriately made his role less substantial than the detective heroes readers commonly encounter.
     Then there’s another character, so seemingly minor, in both the book and the book’s world, he’s hardly noticed. While Frankie and his gang may have held us captive for 300 pages, it is this marginal man, Sean Willie, who vindicates our love for observing life from the comfort of our armchairs, and it’s for him that Frankie’s  crimes are revenged.
     Sean Willie quotes “a fella writing about parades. The greatest pleasure, he said, belongs not to him that marches in the parade, but to the one that watches the parade from afar.”
  Sean Willie, a stand-in for many readers, is  also the guy who explains what he did with his life this way: “I worked. I watched a lot of movies. And I read.”
     In the end, it seems enough, a good life.
     Especially good now that it’s got “Little Criminals” in it.

 This review also appears at I am participating in the Europa Challenge.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sunday Salon update: Jan. 27, 2013

A good reading week. A good writing week.  Wrote a review of Bring Up the Bodies and then quickly read a mystery by C.J. Box. Nowhere to Run was a random pick for me –what was available at the library.  Wrote a bit about that too – not quite a review, just my so-so reaction to the book. Despite the so-so reaction I tore through this book and I looked forward to returning to each time I had to put it down.  It held my interest, but not my thinking.
So happy to be interested in writing again.
The contrast in the way I read the two books got me thinking about the pace of reading. Bring Up the Bodies was a long slow read– a comfortable stroll, where I stopped and admired the sentences, checked and rechecked the characters and succession lists and even the googled images of the historical figures. I used Wikipedia like a field guide when I wanted to know a little more about the history.  The stroll took me to slightly familiar territory that I hadn’t visited in a long while, one I hadn’t seen quite this clearly before. I marveled at the deep literary and historical views.
 In Box’s book, I was frequently on horseback –like its hero, Warden Joe Pickett. But unlike Pickett, I was on an out-of-control gallop crashing through the woods, wanting to take in the beautiful scenery but more focused on the dangers and the violence that lay ahead.
Finally, I went alone to see Life of Pi, at the movies. It’s one of my favorite books, one I once taught and fell in love with as I took students through it ever so carefully, chapter by chapter. Perhaps that’s why I found myself a little disappointed. While I thought the movie was well done, ever deserving of the praise it’s garnering, I missed the depth of the reading experience.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Feeling trapped by C.J. Box's Nowhere to Run

Oh my.
 I didn’t know what I was getting into when I took on C.J. Box, as a new author – and I’m not sure, now that I have just closed the cover of my first, Nowhere to Run, that I know yet. How do I feel? I think tricked might be one word, or trapped perhaps – into feeling like I should somehow feel tolerant of extreme and shallow right-wing sentiments that made no sense to me before I began this book and make even less now.
The shallowest of those sentiments – come out of mouth of Diane Shober, a young woman who went out for a trail run while training for Olympic trials and never came back even after an extensive, and likely very expensive, government search.
This is the kind of tangential political pabulum that comes out of this girl’s mouth: “But when I was running, I went a lot to Europe. I got to experience socialism firsthand. At first, it’s seductive. Free health care, free college, all that. But nothing is free. And anything that’s free has no value.”
Game warden Joe Pickett discovers her living freely on government land near survivalist twin brothers who put Pickett through a harrowing near-death pursuit that begins when he tries to ticket them for fishing over the limit and without a license.
Her motivation: (spoiler alert): Demanding dad was pushing her so he could live through her the Olympic moment he lost out on-- the only way to rid herself of her overbearing father is to vanish.  Oh and she read Ayn Rand and bought into her Objectivist philosophy -- even her mother describes her as selfish and self-centered to begin with so this wasn’t difficult.  (Dear mom, who is genuinely grieving, does get a reassuring postcard thanks to her concerned daughter.)
Box builds the self-absorption into the character. I’m okay with that. How anyone thinks she could have made the Olympics given how little spine she displays is beyond me, but it’s the worst of many muddled inconsistences of character.
 I just don’t understand why Warden Pickett lets her ride off without explaining herself – and getting her to pay “the government” back for two or three major search and rescue missions. And wouldn't she want to vindicate the brothers?
I’m still looking for a character I can grab onto and like a little – someone who has at least one honorable trait or motivation I admire.
Where to turn?
Not the Brothers Grim, the survivalist twins, fleeing real injustice over eminent domain property rights, injustice perpetrated by a land-grabbing developer in cahoots with a corrupt Senator. That developer happens to be Brent Shober, Diane’s dad, a cut-throat capitalist who exploits bad laws and political connection to get whatever he wants. 
Box tries hard to neutralize negative reactions to the brothers and comes up short. Perhaps Pickett was overzealous in his pursuit, but they slaughter horses, assault and leave him for dead. I feel bad for those bullied by crooked politicians – who somehow get twisted into seeing all government as BIG BAD government, and I also feel bad for serial killers who were bullied as children, BUT . . ..
In Box’s world of I-can-do-whatever -I damn-well-please individuals, no one stands out as sympathetic.
Not outlaw Nate, a fugitive buddy of Joe’s that I don’t get enough info about to feel anything one way or another.
Not Pickett's overwhelmed wife Marybeth and girls– though I like all of them a little.
Not the many politicians.
Not the hired killer-contractors.
Not the bumbling opportunistic Farkus, though I do find him most amusing along with Joe’s overbearing mother-in-law.
For a while I think Pickett's okay, but his motivations are alternately I'm just doing my job, I took an oath,  Or I'll do it for the distraught mother.
Maybe I should admire the noble bow hunting poachers who started this whole mess when they turned themselves in to complain that the body of the elk they shot, disappeared.  But they don’t make sense to me either. Why would they do that?

 I could whine on, but more would be disingenuous.  While reading, I enjoyed this book and I’m likely to try another – from the library. Truth is Nowhere to Run was an entertaining page-turner for me – and as long as I didn’t think about the book and its muddled characters with their muddled motivations, I was highly engaged.  As long as I didn’t think it might offer me any insight on the issue of property rights, I could consume it the way I occasionally enjoy fast food. And I loved getting to ride through the Sierra Madre and see a new part of the country.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Mantel unshrouds the dead in Wolf Hall

Towards the end of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell recalls how as a child of six he made coffin nails as his blacksmith father’s apprentice. He wondered then why we nail down the dead and answered the question: “It’s so the horrible old buggers don’t spring out and chase us.”
Many years and many deaths later, Cromwell has another answer.
“He knows different now. It’s the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds and words like stone thrust into their rattling mouth; we rewrite their lives.”
It is an apt way of looking at what is happening in the book’s moment, but it also reflects on what Mantel has done to Cromwell’s life, to what all writers of historical fiction do.
And by this book’s end we might feel as if we are the very privileged reader ghosts, shadowing a vibrant, alive Cromwell, so palpable is Mantel’s unshrouding. She achieves this small miracle through vivid descriptions, a layered peopled world and an interesting narrative construction.
We suspend our lives and immerse into Cromwell’s world.  He becomes our focus. As the narrative unfolds in third person present, we chase him, following his moves, his sentiments, sometimes his thoughts. As Mantel uses the pronoun, he almost becomes Cromwell’s name; even as it reminds us of our literary and historical distance; the pronoun makes him intensely present. This could be, but is decidedly not, a first person present narrative.  It is a life relived as it’s retold – and read.
He starts sprawled and bloodied on the cobblestones, being told to get up by the brawling brute of a father who kicks him when he’s down.
A scrappy kid, he’s regularly beaten up by Walter, a man everyone, including local magistrates, fears. Tom’s crime this time:  ironically fighting, fighting he can only vaguely remember.  His solution: fighting.
Cromwell is less than 15 years old when he leaves his father’s abuse, his hometown and homeland, looking for a war somewhere, anywhere. His only regret – leaving his dog Bella behind, a sentiment that reveals the tender side of Cromwell the reader will come to admire.
The narrative jumps ahead 27 years to a Cromwell who is now a man of the world – one who has not only picked himself up but picked up several languages and business and legal skills as well.  Now conducting business in part as an assistant to Cardinal Wolsey, who mentors him further, the two work to promote the King’s interests whatever Henry VIII determines those interests to be. Chief among them is begetting a male heir – to ensure a smooth succession and prevent civil disruption. 
Wolsey, as a cardinal, will encounter difficulty and pay dearly for it.  He, however, has faith in his apprentice. Wolsey speculates:
I wonder,” Wolsey says, “would you have the patience with our sovereign lord? … If your chance comes to serve, you will have to take him as he is, a pleasure –loving prince. And he will have to take you as you are, which is rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes. Not that you are without a fitful, charm, Tom.”
 That combination of fighting and charm allows Cromwell to ultimately take his place as the King’s most loyal adviser, supervisor of his affairs. Mantel ably depicts a spectrum of characters, many engorged with self-interest.
The coy seductress Anne Boleyn is among the most powerful of these. She spends seven years tempting the king ---  gradually allowing more and more access – at one point he may undress her but not more.
While the king’s primary concerns are sating his appetite for pleasure and producing a male heir, religious heretics and foreign thinkers are undermining the England’s Catholic Church and Thomas More chases and persecutes them.
Ultimately Cromwell engineers what Wolsey could not -- annulment of the king’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon and the coronation of Anne Boleyn.
The king’s new marriage alone is not enough. He must get others to recognize the marriage and its effect on the succession by taking oaths of support. One who refuses: the now rejected More.
Thus the principled More emerges as practical Cromwell’s chief antagonist. The contrast has been carefully and subtlely developed since the book’s beginning.
While Cromwell has been humane and expedient, More has been ruthless and rigid both with himself and others. One is a man of God’s world; the other of this world. Early on:
“These are good days for him {Cromwell}: every day a fight he can win. “Still serving your Hebrew God, I see,” remarks Sir Thomas More. “ I mean your idol Usury.” But when More, a scholar revered through Europe, wakes up in Chelsea to the prospect of morning prayers in Latin, he wakes up to a creator who speaks the swift patois of the markets; when More is settling in for a session of self-scourging, he and Rafe are sprinting to Lombard Street to get the day’s exchange rate.”
While Cromwell’s political genius for doing what’s expedient is most challenged by More in this book, the fuller human portrait of Cromwell as a son, husband, father, apprentice and mentor anchors it. Henry VIII’s court may be where his mind solves the business of the day, but home at Austin Friars is where his heart is.
Austin Friars is where he picks up women’s gossip and cherishes his daughters, encourages his  gentle, intellectually average  son and  mentors another, Rafe the  young man who is most like a son to him. It is where he hears children play, women laugh, where he loves. It is where a succession of dogs, all named Bella, keep him company.
 At one time  “He thinks, I may not be rich, but I am lucky.” He has a house full of relatives and wards, and visitors everyday and a woman he loves. Later he delights in his wealth.   He revels in the things of this world – and also deeply feels his many losses. Plaque infects his world.
  He has long known how brutal the world is. He has seen a woman  burn to death when he was a young child; he knows live evisceration is the penalty for traitors.
Repeatedly his response to such brutality is kindness and mercy for those less fortunate or more stubborn than he  -- those who hold that beliefs on both sides are more valuable than life Itself. He asks for a merciful end for a protestant heretic John Frith. He seeks similar mercy for the Catholic More.
Home and extended family are his refuge, what he holds most dear. So it is fitting that when Cromwell tries to persuade More to embrace freedom he appeals to him with what he Cromwell values most – the pleasures of family and domestic life. That quality is what the reader admires him for – and alternately questions the sense of More’s principled sainthood.
If the world of Cromwell seems brutal in Wolf Hall, the first of a trilogy, the second book, Bring Up the Bodies,  promises more of the same.
 For Wolf Hall, is not where the action takes place, but rather where it leads, the home of the Seymours – including Jane who we know from history will be Henry VIII’s third wife.
Cromwell knows well the implications of a wolf. Towards book’s end as he faces a longtime adversary: “The saying comes to him, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man.” 
In Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell, fighting dog that he is, gets another chance to show his mettle. I hope to again shadow him as he does.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunday Salon: Update Jan. 20

I have spent the last 3 weeks in England. First London I in the ‘70s in Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth – working at MI6 in literary and romantic intrigue.
Then I’ve alternated between Thomas Cromwell’s England – at Henry VIII’s court, his own home at Austin Friar as well as others’ manors and homes – noble and otherwise in Wolf Hall.
Finally, Charles Dickens has led me through Victorian England’s layers of society in Bleak House while I’ve driven from Massachusetts to Virginia and on errands around home.

Sweet Tooth
Sweet Tooth is a literary spy novel—highbrow James Bond --featuring a beautiful young woman, Serena Frome and her secret literary mission – the promising writer Tom Haley.  Full with interesting complex short stories that act as clues to Haley’s personality and an ending that projects beyond the end of the book and leaves one savoring the sweetness of the romance within it. 

Wolf Hall
 I don’t read a lot of historical novels, but picked up Wolf Hall at a library sale for a dollar last year thinking I do well with most prize winners, and this one had won the Booker a few years back. Started it. Dropped it. It was too big, too thick, too many characters, too many locations.  And all that complicated succession background that I have to review each time I dip into English history. At the time I needed shorter, tighter plots.  Quick, but layered reads.
I picked Wolf Hall up again just after Christmas, thinking I have time now and Mantel has once again won the Booker for part two of this planned trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies. Must be good. 
So I tried again. Glad I did. I sunk deeply into this wonderful book, wandering with Cromwell in his world. Machiavellian expediency and a humane heart balance the book, the man.  While Cromwell’s interactions with Thomas More emerge as a central conflict in the book, the fuller human portrait of Cromwell as a son, husband, father, apprentice and  mentor anchors it. Henry VIII’s court may be where his mind solves the political business of the day, but home at Austin Friars is where his heart is.
I am working on a review and will post soon.
Bleak House (audiobook)
I am happy to be listening to a classic. It’s been a while since I have taken one on and I think that decision is a direct result of reading others’ blogs.  I had forgotten how much I like Dickens’ caricatured characters; how they so successfully hover between their exaggerated single traits and their detailed descriptions. As in Wolf Hall, I marvel at the breadth of society represented. There are so many people  that I need to repeatedly look them up as I listen/read. (In Wolf Hall – the cast of characters and Tudor and Yorkist charts at the beginning of the book are helpful – as is Wikipedia.  For Bleak Hall, I used the internet Spark Notes to review characters when I needed to.  I also found a nice Pinterest board on Wolf Hall that showed pictures of many of the characters in the book.) I have only a few more hours of listening left.
That’s an update on reading/listening. Where next? Back  to the USA – and mysteries. I have taken a few CJ Box mysteries out of the library as he will be visiting the Virginia Festival of the Book, and I am considering going to hear him. I have followed Paul Doiron’s Maine warden, Mike Bowditch and have long been aware that Box offers another warden series. I just begun with Nowhere to Run, but already the difference in the landscapes of Maine and Wyoming is striking. (Consider transportation alone horseback vs. snowmobiles).
Finally, inspired by blogs and others, I have chosen a challenge. I plan to follow the Europa editions challenge and commit to six books. I am beginning with mysteries again – those of Gene Kerrigan.