Books! Wexford ain’t no Wallander #cbr4

It is so hard to write a review of a book I didn’t quite like. I’m still going strong for Cannonball Read though and should probably persevere. I picked up The Vault by Ruth Rendell randomly one day thinking it looked good from the cover and the jacket description. I know nothing about Ruth Rendell other than she writes popular mystery novels and is very British. From the sound of the descriptions her other novels might suit my tastes more (i.e., “dark and twisty”).

A rich, bratty couple renovating their fancy cottage in London discovers three bodies hidden in a small vault under their house. The “vault” is an unfinished basement that at some point was walled-over. Inspector Wexford is a retired detective who is asked to assist in figuring out this mystery. I was never entirely clear why he was involved as a civilian. Maybe because novelists seem to enjoy resurrecting their retired detectives for a final go. He helps by interviewing random people with minimal connections to the case and through his hard thinking and jaunts across London suddenly all becomes clear.

Wexford at one point describes his irritatingly immature daughter this way: “She made exasperation noises, sighs, and the kind of sound that accompanies the casting up of eyes.”  This could have easily described me as a reader unfortunately. Wexford uses strange leaps of logic to connect pieces of evidence that serve the goal of the book well (solve the mystery), but don’t ring true to this reader. For example, when they find a piece of paper with a French word and the name Francine they start looking for all the French-speaking women in London named Francine of a possible age range! Really?!? The London police have enough time on their hands to go after this random goose-chase, especially for people who have been dead for two or more years? At one point even Detective Superintendent Thomas Ede, the officer who reached out to Wexford, seems to tire of these random attempts to piece together a puzzle. In the end Wexford wins, but like his daughter, I just truly couldn’t care.

The only bright point for me was the description of London. Rendell goes to great lengths to describe the neighborhoods in which Wexford travels. A fan might find it fun to travel Wexford’s path.

Not my mystery novel. Might be yours. Check out Wallander first.

Books! Wanted a duck and got a swan #cbr4

The first Peter Carey novel I ever read ended up thrown against the wall in anger. That was Oscar and Lucinda. Actually it is the only book I’ve ever thrown against the wall. Not because it was bad, but because I cared so much for the characters. Funny then that the main character of his new novel, a woman name Catherine Gehrig, does the same with a nineteenth century manuscript. Unfortunately Catherine is not nearly as endearing as Oscar or Lucinda, but I was willing to overlook her faults considering the circumstances.

The Chemistry of Tears opens with the death of Catherine’s married lover, Matthew, and we watch as she mourns, cries, and generally self-destructs, which leads to the incident with the manuscript. She works as a conservator at the Swinburne museum and to assist with her healing, her boss gives her a new project, the re-creation of an automaton (we later find out a swan). Starting the project she unpacks the notebooks of Henry Brandling, the patron who commissioned a robot duck from some shady characters in the German Black Forest. In reading these notebooks, even after stealing them from the museum, Catherine begins the process of healing and recovery … for the most part.

I’ve read several of Carey’s books and this was definitely the most difficult to finish. Catherine’s actions in her grief and self-pity are sometimes distasteful. In addition Henry’s story is a bit convoluted and confusing. I had to re-read several passages to make sure I understood the plot. Overall Carey’s themes of the constitutive elements of life and death and the lingering impact of the Industrial Revolution give the novel its heart. The quote below is one of the most beautiful paragraphs in the book as it describes this imitation of life:

“Every eerie moment was smooth as a living thing, a snake, an eel, a swan of course. We stood in awe and, no matter how many hundred hours we had worked on it, this swan was never, not for a moment, familiar, but uncanny, sinuous, lithe, supple, winding, graceful. As it twisted to look into one’s eyes, its own stayed darkest ebony until, at that point when the sun caught the black wood, they blazed. It had no sense of touch. It had no brain. It was as glorious as God.”

We imagine this imitation of life while in the background is the indescribable horror of the Gulf oil spill that Catherine’s assistant watches unceasingly on a webcam. If the book has a failing it is that Carey is trying to do too much, prove too much, so that some of the story becomes muddled and confused. But then again, is that an imitation of life?

If you are using Nancy Pearl’s Rule of Four to find a new book (which I just read today), Carey’s doorway is most certainly language with plot, characters, and setting mixed somewhere in there.  It is a beautiful book, but it may take some dedication and perseverance. Good qualities in a conservator.

Books! The Lower River

Paul Theroux’s new novel, The Lower River, explores the difficult relationship between international aid, altruism, and the developing world. The main character, Ellis Hock, had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in his younger years. After his marriage falls apart, he decides to return to the small Malawian village that made him so happy. Nothing could have possibly changed there since the 1960s, right? The Malawians will be thrilled to see him and he can restart the small school he had created in his youth. Of course, as you can imagine, the village has changed drastically. Most of the novel chronicles his journey to the village and his desperate attempt to leave after he has been drained of money, resources, spirit, and, oh yeah, potentially sold into slavery.

I was very excited about this novel when I read a review and I love Theroux’s understanding of the challenges of international aid and altruism, which are embodied in these sentences:

“That seemed to be a feature of life in the country: to welcome strangers, let them live out their fantasy of philanthropy — a school, an orphanage, a clinic, a welfare center, a malaria eradication program, or a church; and then determine if in any of this effort and expense there was a side benefit — a kickback, a bribe, an easy job, a free vehicle. If the scheme didn’t work — and few of them did work — whose fault was that? Whose idea was it in the first place?”

It isn’t the easiest book to like though. Hock is a difficult character. He is emotionally distant in his relationships, obsessed with an idyllic Africa that never really existed, and unable to comprehend why the villagers might treat him with disrespect. The other characters aren’t well-fleshed out (it is Hock’s story). Zizi is most developed, but she serves mostly as an object to aid Hock’s return to civilization. I believe Theroux was intentional in creating these characters (i.e., we aren’t supposed to like Hock), but as a reader it can be at best daunting to stick with a character you don’t  like, or even abhor. At worst Hock becomes a stand-in for a sermon on the ills of international altruism. Another issue is the repetitiveness of the story, especially near the end. I feel like it would have been a great novella, but is too long as a novel. A few times I was rooting for Hock to die already.

Overall The Lower River is a good book, but it requires a committed reader. It is well-written and has thoughtful observations on the meaning of altruism in the developing world.

Books! Running with Murakami #cbr4

I have a hard time playing the favorites game. My absolute favorite book might depend on the genre or the time in my life I read it or my mood. However, I can say that Murakami is probably one author whose works I have enjoyed most consistently. I haven’t read everything, but Kafka on the Shore was my starting point and I’ve tried to slowly read through his works since then. I say slowly because I don’t want to binge read Murakami and suddenly have nothing left. Lately though I’ve started building up quite a pile of his books and have needed to work through them. What I Talk about When I Talk about Running is one I’ve had laying around for a while and I finally decided to tackle it.

I say tackle because I’m neither particularly interested in running nor keen on reading books abut running. I like running, but I’ve been stuck in the middle of a Couch to 2K for about 2 years (didn’t even know this state had a name until a month ago). I bought it because it is Murakami and he is a pretty interesting guy. Not many people just decide in their 20’s to open a jazz club and then when they turn 33 just as quickly decide to become a writer. Around his Jesus year he also decided to become a runner. And there you have it. Now he is a marathoner and triathelete who writes amazing books that deftly combine the mundane and the surreal.

What I Talk whose title is based on a Raymond Carver short story collection called What We Talk about When We Talk about Love chronicles Murakami’s path to becoming a runner and his preparation for the 2005 New York City marathon. He reflects somewhat on his writing, but for the most part he talks about running. This may disappoint some Murakami fans, but as he describes his obsession with running we see the familiar themes of alienation and independence, especially when he runs the mythological marathon route from Marathon to Athens and later during an ultramarathon in Hokkaido, Japan. I can’t even imagine the drive someone would need to push through so many solitary miles and so much blank time.

Expect a well-written memoir/travelogue about running from one of our contemporary treasures. Not my favorite Murakami ever but it would be difficult to choose just one anyway.