Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Without Fail by Lee Child

At the end of this thriller's first chapter a woman, who's been able to track down Jack Reacher, tells him, "I want you to assassinate the Vice President."

If you enjoy thrillers and have never read one of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels, I envy the pleasure you have ahead. Reacher is larger than life, almost unbelievable. Almost but not quite. He's big, strong, and smart. He's a former major in the US Army Military Police, so he knows weapons and investigative techniques, is a crack shot. He has no ties to anyone or anything (his brother dies in the first book in the series, The Killing Floor, a decision I suspect Child now regrets because the brother could have been useful in later books).

Jack has no permanent place of residence, carries no luggage except a toothbrush (when his clothes get dirty, he throws them away and buys new), wanders the country seeing the sights he missed when he was in the military. He's virtually always the smartest guy in the room. He's a remorseless killer, but he kills only in self-defense or villains who deserve it. He's The Lone Ranger without Tonto because he usually works—and prefers to work—alone. People come to him with insuperable problems. Jack solves their problems as bodies pile up along the way.

The woman who's asked Jack to assassinate the Vice President-Elect in Without Fail is the Secret Service agent in charge of the Vice President's protection detail. What she really wants is to see whether the protection is good enough; could an assassin slip through? For reasons I won't go into, but which make sense in the book's context, she knows that if her team could frustrate Jack Reacher, it could frustrate any assassin. Jack has a week to test the Secret Service's procedures.

At the end of the week, Jack shows the woman and her boss, the head of the Secret Service, an assassin could have killed the Vice President on three occasions. A fourth if the wind were right. The Secret Service will have to do better. Especially because the Vice President-Elect has been receiving credible death threats.

Who would want to kill a Vice President-Elect? How has someone been able to smuggle a threatening paper into the pristine office of the head of the Secret Service? Will Jack be able to eliminate the threat in a way that protects the reputation of the Secret Service? How many bodies are going to pile up before we find out? It's a lot of fun.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

I read The Samurai's Garden because it was recommended for its insights into Japanese culture. Gail Tsukiyama's father is Japanese from Hawaii, her mother Chinese from Hong Kong; she was born and raised in San Francisco. She's published seven novels; The Samurai's Garden in 1996. It was, I believe, a best-seller and the 151 reader reviews are overwhelmingly positive. For example, "A customer" writes, "Gail Tsukiyama is a masterful and wondrous storyweaver... This book helped me realize so many things about myself...."

A book club writes that the book "is a soothing, hypnotic, heartbreaking, evocative book we all enjoyed... The book explores cultural differences and similarities as it portrays the development of friendship and respect in disparate characters...."

The story: In the late 1930, as the Japanese are attacking China, Stephen, a young (17? 20?) Chinese boy, afflicted with tuberculosis, is sent by his wealthy family to recuperate at the family's summer home in a Japanese coastal village. Matsu, "a samurai of the soul," takes care of the home and its garden (thus the title). Stephen meets Matsu's soulmate, Sachi, a leper who lives in a village of lepers within a day's walk of the family home. Stephen's father, who apparently heads a successful trading company, lives in Tokyo and, we learn, has a mistress. Stephen is attracted to and eventually kisses a Japanese village girl.

This is one of those times when I wonder if the people who loved the book read the same novel I did.

First, I don't feel it gave me any useful insights into Japanese culture.

Second, I felt Tsukiyama was manipulating the characters for an effect; they were not, for the most part, acting out of their own wants, needs, desires.

Third, I thought she was too coy about the location of the village. On the Pacific Coast? The Inland Sea? Japan Sea? And she seemed cavalier about Stephen's TB. When he left Hong Kong at the beginning of the book, he seemed very sick; by the time he reached the village, not so sick. And that Stephen with TB—usually very infectious—would kiss a girl seemed almost hostile.

Finally, I'll quote Library Journal with which I concur: the book "is sunk by a flat, dull prose style, one-dimensional characters who fail to engage the reader's interest, and the author's tendency to tell rather than show."

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo is one of those writers I feel I ought to read more of. He's published 15 novels, won a National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and more. His novels are respectfully reviewed. That I've not read more than Underworld is a comment on my failure not on DeLillo's as a writer.

I thought the first 100 pages of Underworld—the final game of the 1951 pennant race between the Dodgers and the Giants as attended by J. Edgar Hoover, Jackie Gleason, and Frank Sinatra—incredibly powerful. So much so that the rest of the book seemed to be a slog. Indeed, the writing (and musings) seemed too rich for my taste. Again, my failure.

The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, however, while rich and thoughtful, can be read in short stretches. I mostly read one a night because more was, for me, too much. The stories, written over the last 32 years, are each very different, each affecting in a different way. It almost seems as if DeLillo is using the story form to experiment with different approaches, voices, characters.

The title story, which was published first in Esquire and was chosen for as one of The Best American Short Stories 1995, follows an elderly nun as she and a much younger nun as they distribute food in the wasteland of the South Bronx. Here's the beginning of Sister Edgar's day:

"She knelt in the folds of the white nightgown, fabric endlessly laundered, beaten with swirled soap, left gristled and stiff. And the body beneath, the spindly thing she carried through the world, chalk pale mostly, and speckled hands with high veins, and cropped hair that was fine and flaxy gray, and her bluesteel eyes—many a boy and girl of old saw those peepers in their dreams."

(The Blogger spellcheck doesn't approve of "gristled," "flaxy," or "bluesteel." Tough.)

Here from "Hammer and Sickle," published in 2010, are the narrator's thoughts as he stands on a highway bridge outside the minimum security Federal prison in which he is an inmate:

"I watched and listened, unaware of passing time, thinking of the order and discipline of the traffic, taken for granted, drivers maintaining a distance, fallible men and women, cars ahead, behind, to the sides, night driving, thoughts drifting. Why weren't there accidents every few seconds on this one stretch of highway, even before morning rush? This is what I thought from my position on the bridge, the surging noise and sheer speed, the proximity of vehicles, the fundamental differences among drivers, sex, age, language, temperament, personal history, cars like animatronic toys, but that's flesh and blood down there, steel and glass, and it seemed a wonder to me that they moved safely toward the mystery of their destinations."

It seems a wonder to me that someone can create sentences like these. The most I can do is admire them and suggest you read the book.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Plum Wine by Angela Gardner-Davis

This best-selling novel, published in 2007, is another effort to explain Japan to the West. Angela Gardner-Davis taught for a year in a Tokyo college. Her point-of-view character, Barbara, is teaching at a Tokyo college, but I suspect that's where the similarities between author and character end.

Another teacher, who has killed herself before the story begins, has left Barbara her tansu, an antique chest, that contains bottles of plum wine, each wrapped in a sheet of paper covered with Japanese writing. These are the New Years accounts by the dead teacher who has willed the tansu to Barbara. In her effort to find a translator of these intriguing documents, Barbara connects with Seiji, an erratic and cold potter. Barbara and Seiji begin an affair although I could not understand what she saw in him. True, she is painfully lonely, but it was hard for me to see what she was getting out of the relationship.

Gardner-Davis, who reports she did a ton of research for this novel, tells us about the lives of Hiroshima survivors, legends of foxes (they can turn into beautiful women and lead men astray), the Vietnam War (the book is set in 1965 and a character repairs the mutilated faces of dead GIs), Japanese pottery, and much more.

While the book is easy to read, I am afraid I am out of sympathy with the characters. It may well be my failure that I cannot identify with the victim of the Hiroshima bombing, but I am also not sure that that excuses (or explains) unpleasant behavior. I am also not sure about a female character who wants what she cannot have, can never have, and apparently cannot understand she cannot have it. I would not recommend Plum Wine to a reader who wants to know about Japan and its culture.

Friday, August 3, 2012

My Book in Libraries

I've known for months that my Getting Oriented is available through bookstores and to libraries. But when an acquaintance asked how many libraries had bought it, I was at a loss.

Another friend pointed out that I could get a very rough idea of how many libraries have your book by doing a search at  I entered my title and clicked the listing to show the full list of libraries that have the book.

It turns out it's in 25 libraries around the country, from the Princeton University Library to the Santa Monica Public Library. The WorldCat listing includes a Goodreads review and a link to buy the book--although of course if you're right here, you can buy it by clicking the cover.

Who knew?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I have had a three-volume edition of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne's Essays on my bookshelf for more than 30 years, unopened since the day they arrived. The Essays are, after all, a classic of Western literature, something every educated reader should have read. And if there's one thing I want to pretend to be, it's an educated reader. Unfortunately, that usually means actually reading the books.

That's why I was taken by Sarah Bakewell's How to Live or A Life of Montaigne, subtitled "In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer." Sarah Bakewell was, the paperback's back jacket tells us, a curator of early printed books at the Wellcome Library in London, which (I had to look up) is "one of the world's major resources for the study of medical history." Bakewell has published two other biographies and currently teaches creative writing at City University.

The one question is: How to live? The twenty answers include: Don't worry about a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted....survive love and loss...question everything...wake from the sleep of habit...reflect on everything, regret nothing...give up ordinary and imperfect.

Bakewell uses the Montaigne's essays and what we know of his life and times to illustrate these twenty points. One Amazon reviewer was unhappy because she does not explicate the essays, but that's not her purpose. Her goal, as I read her, is to show how Montaigne addressed the question of how to live through his biography and, where relevant, the essays. Her book in other words is more a biography than a study of the the writings.

I found it fascinating. I'm not sure I know any better how to live than I knew before, but I do have an appreciation of Montaigne and his times that I did not have before. Bakewell quotes from Montaigne's writings and illustrates the book with etchings and pictures that add to our understanding. 

On the one hand, Montaigne's world—he was born in 1533, died in 1592—is so removed from ours that it seems in some ways totally alien. For example, "For a husband to behave as an impassioned lover to his wife was thought morally wrong because it might turn her into a nymphomaniac.... The physicians warned, too, that excessive pleasure could make sperm curdle inside the woman's body, rendering her unable to conceive."

On the other hand, many of Montaigne's ideas, observations, thoughts seem as fresh and relevant as this morning's opinion column. "Women are not wrong at all when they reject the rules of life that have been introduced into the world, inasmuch as it is the men who have made these without them." "It is more of a job to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the things, and there are more books about books than about any other subject: we do nothing but write glosses about each other."  

Now I guess I have to read the actual Essays.