Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Salon Update: Feb. 17, 2013

Sunday Salon: Jan. 17, 2013 Update

Finished John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars on audio. Readers probably know that this wonderful YA book tells the love story of Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, who  meet at a support group for teens who have cancer.
As in Muriel Barbery’s  “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” the exchange of culture – in this case a book called  “The Imperial Affliction” has a magnetic effect on the relationship. Green captures that stage of falling in love that’s about sharing one’s obsessions for favorite things. An Imperial Affliction, the fiction within this fiction, is also about a young person dying of cancer; it ends ambiguously mid action. Hazel Grace wants desperately to know what happens to the other characters after the death. So desperately that her quest becomes the action that drives the plot.
One of the book’s motifs is the art of fiction, how it mirrors reality, is not reality, but can be so real in the mind’s eye. 
As I listened I couldn’t stop thinking about an essay I read last fall in the New Yorker.  I went online and read “The Box and the Keyhole” by Brad Leithauser again.
In it Leithauser has a discussion with his daughter who is so thoroughly taken by a story they listen to that she wants to know what her dad thinks a character is “really like.” 
In the essay, Leithauser reflects on how we read differently as we age and grow sophisticated and critical. When we read as children we read with belief:
Had I been still more articulate, I might have said that there’s a special readerly pleasure in approaching a book as you would a box. In its self-containment lies its ferocious magic; you can see everything it holds, and yet its meagre, often hackneyed contents have a way of engineering fresh, refined, resourceful patterns. And Emily might have replied that she comes to a book as to a keyhole: you observe some of the characters’ movements, you hear a little of their dialogue, but then they step outside your limited purview. They have a reality that outreaches the borders of the page.

Other reading:  I reviewed Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, which is likely soon to be all the rage. (You can read review below). According to its publisher, Europa Editions, it’s climbing the best-seller lists. Europa is launching Europa Noir and has a newish Facebook page for those who follow or want to  “like” it.  Search for Europa Noir on Facebook.
I am just about finished with The Kerrigan’s The Midnight Choir, which I will likely review some time next week. That will complete the three Kerrigan crime novels currently available from Europa Editions.
 Finally, I took a long car trip and began listening on audio books to Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson The Art of Power.

Sunday Salon is a Facebook page, where book bloggers share their thoughts.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Information has its costs in Gene Kerrigan's The Rage

There are no heroes in Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage.  And few purely bad guys.  Just people  – compromised, like the city of Dublin they live in.
People, in this crime novel, are flawed. The good lie, cave in to others and give up the principles they thought they lived by.  The bad have people who love them in spite of their acts, and they love them back. Most do things they never thought they’d do. Their morality is tested, and they change.
Set sometime post 2008 after the Celtic Tiger, Ireland’s period of rapid growth, ceased to roar, events take place in a time when as one character notes “Everything’s upside down in this country.”
Corruption has seeped through all society’s levels, into its profession beyond the sell-out politicians and dealmakers; Crooked bankers, slimy developers, dodgy lawyers, cops who cover up, and source-revealing reporters add their sins to those of aging pedophile priests and abusive nuns of an earlier era.
Two crimes thread through the novel and connect high fliers with low lifes. Detective Sergeant Bob Tidey is assigned to the first and gets a tip that changes the course of the second.
Emmett Sweetman, a crooked banker who was about to turn evidence on developers and dealmakers, is murdered when he answers the door of his luxury home. The weapon used connects him to the 18-month-old murder of Oliver Snead, a two-bit drug dealer who seemingly got offed by his own kind.  Finding out how two unconnected murders connect is the job Tidey gets assigned to do.
Paradoxes of character abound. Sweetman was up to his ears in dirty deals and cheated openly on his wife, but his mistress, when interviewed, calls him a nice guy.
The second crime is the brainchild of small-time gangster, Vincent Taylor, just out of a 2-year stint in “the Joy” aka Mountjoy Prison. In a very short time, he gets cash together, finds an empty apartment building to squat in and falls head over heels in love –the real thing.  The good life is within reach; he organizes a heist of Protectica, a security company that transports cash. He and his gang almost get away with the job.  Unbeknownst to Vincent, a retired nun, Maura Coady, does “the right thing” and calls Tidey to report seeing something amiss in her neighborhood, and Taylor’s plan goes awry. 
The mess left behind unleashes Vincent Taylor’s rage.  Part three of the novel recounts the revenge he seeks on a number of people he believes have wronged family.
But like Sweetman, Vincent’s not all bad. There’s something --well, sweet about his jaunty hopefulness The clothes he wears, the plans he shares with his new sweetheart, and the fervid love he has for his brother all make him somewhat endearing, a pretty amazing feat given his violence.  But, hey, he’s got principles –self-restraint and scruples as evidenced by a grudge he chooses not to avenge.
Tidey does his best to work the crimes, but is stymied along the way.  In the end, he finds his own way to tie up the two. He’s a good guy, with failures of his own.   Compromised but compassionate, he strives to make things better for those no one else is looking out for.
His relationship with his ex-wife, unlike Taylor’s with his new love, is what is currently referred to as “complicated.” What’s left out in this novel, what we don’t know– for example what led to their divorce  -- is often as intriguing as what we know.  We also only get glimpses of the behind the scenes power brokers. We don’t get all the answers. We’re not in on all the info. Not everything gets wrapped up. It’s a little like the way it is in real life.
In The Rage information, is corruption’s currency; almost every plot twist involves someone either giving it up freely, or being pressured to do so at a cost. A drunk tells too much about his job during a cab ride.  An off-duty cop has to testify in court about what he saw involving other officers. The retired nun tips Tidey off.  A nosy neighbor blabs.  And many characters tell all to save themselves or those they love.
Kerrigan’s writing is taut and punctuated.  Three sections break into short chapters that break into shorter bursts of plot.  Each burst carries action and mood.  The moods are many and range from joy to rage, exuberance to reflection, remorse to relief, frustration to high stakes gambling. The result is an easy-to-read, heavily modulated, variously themed, story that propels itself.
A journalist himself, Kerrigan knows the sins of his trade. He
doesn’t hold back on the portrait of the dogged but overzealous young reporter whose slogans “no harm in asking—if you’re not in, you can’t win” – prevent him from getting one message  -- that of a door slamming in his face.  As it turns out plenty of harm results from “just asking.”
            But the same training has served Kerrigan well. Characterizations are quick but detailed; dialogue is crisp.    He delivers both humor and character’s reflections on sin, penance and forgiveness with equal dexterity.
Setting supports theme. What Kerrigan shows us of Dublin’s abandoned big dreams is worth the read alone. In the first third, he exposes three views of the landscape the Tiger left behind. There’s the new Criminal Courts of Justice, which features a “smoking garden,” a tastefully designed place with wooden benches and plants where smokers can discreetly puff and pollute out of sight, a place already littered and fraying about its edges. The building also belies the Tiger’s imaginary money:
“The building was conceived in the exuberant period when money was plentiful. There was so much of the stuff that the right kind of people earned big bonuses sitting around all day just thinking up things to spend it on. The tables of the golden circles groaned with the weight of the feast. Their admirers piled into the property gambling game and sufficient crumbs fall to minimum-wage level to keep the skulls happy. Everyone knew the money-go-round would keep spinning as long as two or three bad things didn’t happen simultaneously--- then four or five bad things happened at once.”
            The second is an empty unfinished MacClenaghan building where Vincent squats.  “Just six floors, but all the emptiness around it gave it the impression of a majestic tower.” Foundations of buildings around it that never got built have started to crumble.
The third is the home and the nouveau-riche neighborhood Sweetman lives and dies in. Rose Cheney, Tidey’s partner describes the neighborhood houses: “Some of them look like Barbie grew up and became a footballer’s wife. No limit to the budget, all spent on a twelve-year –olds notion of taste.”
In short, Kerrigan’s writing’s to die for.  And he's even kind enough to provide the bodies.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sunday Salon Update: Feb. 10, 2013

We enjoyed the comfort of watching the great blizzard on television from the comfort of couches in Virginia. We missed the excitement of a great storm—waiting in line at the supermarket the night before the hyped big one, filling the bathtub with water, hunkering in, watching whirls of white blastagainst kitchen windows and hoping the electricity wouldn’t fail --  an excitement we felt when we lived for so many years near Portland, Maine. Snow fall records were broken in that great small city.  Snow we are glad we are not shoveling today.
Nevertheless, we acted a bit like Saturday was a snow day. We lounged for hours with books, coffee, computers and the TV remote.
Still reading. Still luxuriating in the afterthoughts of reading and composing those thoughts into words.
This week’s harvest: books read: Ian Rankin’s Bleeding Hearts, Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage; listening to audiobook I should finish in the next few days: The Fault in our Stars.
 I have thrown myself into the Europa challenge. I thought I might read 6 books this year. Already I have read 3 and have two more piled in the TBR pile. I am enthusiastic, like a kid wanting to ride a new bike as much as possible. The quality of the writing is remarkable even when I’m not particularly fond of a book as I wasn’t with The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I could certainly see why it garnered so much crtitical attention in Europe and here. I am currently writing review of The Rage.  I’m very drawn to Kerrigan’s writing and I only wish there was more of it. A lot more.   Looking forward to “The Midnight Choir,” one of those books in my TBR pile.
One goal I have not met, and maybe I should abandon is finishing half written reviews of books I read during the time I was not posting. Some are so close, it seems a pity not to post them if only for my own satisfaction.

Sunday Salon is a group on Facebook.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Muriel Barbery's "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" explores matters of taste

I don’t drink tea. I drink coffee. I like dogs, not cats; prefer the country to the city; newspapers to philosophical texts and irreverence to elegance.
That said, Hedgehog is an elegant little book bristling with ideas that almost won me over.
 Hedgehog is alternately told in the form of journal entries by Renee Michel and Paloma Josse, two residents of a building of luxury apartments at 7, rue de Grenelle, Paris.
            Renee, age 54, is the concierge for the eight families that live there.
She looks like a concierge.  Acts like a concierge.  Sounds like a concierge.  She even used to smell like a concierge.
She self describes as short, ugly and plump with bunions. She has a large lolling cat named Leo. She runs a television all day to conform to the resident’s’ expectations but seeks silence and solitude, books, music and movies in her back room.  She uses plain language when speaking to her employers, but high rhetoric when writing. She used to cook stinky dishes like cabbage soup until a first floor occupant complained, and she was relieved of the necessity of that deception. An autodidact and aesthete, she conceals intellectual passion and disdain for the rich by conforming to the stereotype of her profession. And she writes things like this:  
            “This afternoon Monsieur Arthens is wearing a large polka-dot lavaliere that is too loose on his patrician neck and does not suit him at all: the abundance of his leonine mane and the floppiness of the silk cloth conspire to create a sort of vaporous tutu, causing the gentleman to forfeit his customary virility. Confound it, that Lavaliere reminds me of something. I almost smile as it comes back to me. It’s Legrandin, and his lavaliere. In “Remembrance of Things Past,” the work of a certain Marcel, another notorious concierge, Legrandin is a snob who is torn between two worlds, his own and the one he would like to enter: he is a most pathetic snob whose lavaliere expresses his most secret vacillations between hope and bitterness, servility and disdain.”
            She may inhabit the loge, but Renee lives in her head – and has a great deal in common with Legrandin.
She’s not alone. Upstairs, Paloma, age 12, a spoiled but brilliant little rich girl at the height of adolescent cynicism raves on about the limitations of adults, the vulgarity of French cuisine, the nastiness of others, the limitations of psychoanalysis and how dreadful and annoying her older sister is. Like Renee, she also dumbs down so as not to attract too much attention. So pointless and terrible is the adult world that Paloma dramatically declares she never wants to enter it. On her 13th birthday, she plans to kill herself and set fire to the building. In the meantime she writes in her two journals: one titled “Profound Thoughts” and the second, “Journal of the Movement of the World.” In writing she seeks a reason for changing her mind about suicide.
            Separated by floors and social class, Renee and Paloma often observe the same scenes and comment on similar topics: social class, dogs and cats, the food critic, etc. Both drink tea and are attracted to Japanese culture.  While Renee privately swoons over the movies of arthouse director Ozu and the tea ceremony, Paloma reads manga and studies Japanese.
As if by magic, into their limited worlds steps a real Japanese man, a man of taste, who sees them for what they both really are and finally brings them together.
The new tenant, Kakuro Ozu, has the right name for and starts out on the right foot with the crotchety concierge when he displays a mutual love for the great literature of Tolstoy. He deciphers the origin of Renee’s cat’s name, Leo, as if it s a secret code; even better, he, too, has named his cats after characters in Tolstoy.
Paloma confirms his suspicions that the concierge is not what she seems; Paloma’s the one who describes Renee as the book’s title does: “Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quill, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary –and terribly elegant.”
Soon Renee and Kakuro discover they share a love for the same music – Mozart -- and finally this book takes a turn for the better. Their adventures in trading new cultural icons confirm their pact.
Labeled elsewhere as a philosophical fable or a novel with a series of essays, Hedgehog’s cross-genre writing is part of its appeal. I find it also has a lot in common with fairy tales. Renee’s metamorphosis is as transformative as that of any frog to prince.  Or one can look at it as an intellectual Cinderella featuring a middle-aged dumpy concierge.
I enjoyed the last third of the book -- the part in which that transformation happens. All the intellectual ruminating was too pretentious, too tedious for my taste. I could get my mind to go there – but it kept telling me it was time to take a walk. Hedgehog is one of those books I take more pleasure in having read and thinking about than reading.
Paloma’s philosophical quest may be simply to find what makes life worth living. Renee’s forays into problems of existence and aesthetics include Kant, Edmund Husserl, and William of Ockham. As appropriate to cross-genre writing, there are multiple lovely connections between philosophy explored and characters’ considerations.
For example, Ockham –the medieval Franciscan friar best known for his philosophical razor -- discusses metaphysical universals and specifics. Is a table just a table in its singularity or is there also an essence?  How do we know that a table is a table?  (Or a concierge is really a concierge?) You get the point. It’s just not enough to make up for the preciousness of Renee’s chauvinism.
What I will most fondly take away from this book is the confirmation of the magic that happens when you discover there’s someone out there who adores the same cultural touchstones you do. (In a snob’s case it’s even better if it’s esoteric enough that it isolates you.) When you discover your soul mates, you can form your own cult of cultural beings.
Anyone out there have suggestions for great, heavily plotted, irreverent novels with dogs and coffee that take place in the country?

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