Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ego Integrity vs Despair: Moving Day a novel by Jonathan Stone

Moving Day by Jonathan Stone is an exciting action novel on one level and an interesting philosophical discussion on another. The main theme is the contrast of light and dark, good and evil, maturation and regression. The story concerns the retirement of a 72 year old Jewish survivor of the Holocaust in Poland and his decision with his wife to sell their lovely home in New England and move to a simpler life on the West Coast. Peke, Stanislaw Shmuel Pecoskowitz, is a fortunate survivor of Nazi atrocities who has repressed his memories of survival as a 7 year old hiding from the evil of a nation gone mad. Peke was able to travel to the United States after World War II and through hard work and willingness to assume financial risk, rise to upper class status and economic success. Valuable possessions were tangible symbols of his survival, achievement, and success. When his possessions are taken from him, Peke is forced to change his plans from movement to action in a 21st Century social context. Life appeared to be stable in America given his achievements, but his loss brings up strong repressed emotions related to his childhood survival in a context of the Holocaust. Although the elderly man never developed an association with Jewish religious beliefs, his identity as a member of a race of people targeted for annihilation persisted for his entire life. Now, as Peke seeks his stolen possessions, he is confronted by strong feelings of rage and fear that he thought were resolved by the hard work and accomplishments of his adult life. In terms of Erik Erikson, the 72 year old man is confronted with the task of reviewing his life in terms of a dichotomy: Ego Integrity (light, good, maturation) vs Despair (darkness, evil, regression). Peke is physically fit and, although forgetful in minor ways, fully functioning as an intelligent and thoughtful person. He takes action, in contrast to movement, and reworks his memories from a standpoint of elderly wisdom to attempt to gain a greater understanding of his lifetime motivations, decisions, and identity. Ultimately, as a Jewish man, Peke must choose to act on the basis of a unifying philosophy of Ego Integrity or the personal chaos of Despair.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel and identified with Peke in his experiences of vulnerability in our current society and the necessity of calling on survival strengths and resolving dilemmas of weaknesses carried over from past personal decisions. I give this novel my highest recommendation to all but particularly to elderly readers.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

True Grit: Pietr the Latvian, first novel in the classic mystery series by Georges Simenon

The novel Pietr the Latvian (1929) is Georges Simenon’s introduction of Maigret, the stoical French detective and inspector leader of the Paris police “Flying Squad.” The popularity of the character spanned many decades, and the writer published seventy-five novels and twenty-eight short stories about Maigret between 1931 and 1972. In this volume, there is a Simenon quote that gives the reader an idea of how the character was first developed. Simenon was sitting in a café one morning enjoying a glass of schnapps when he decided to write a mystery series focused on the activities of a unique character, a large powerfully built gentleman accessorized with a pipe, a bowler, a thick overcoat with a velvet collar, and a fondness for standing in front of a cast iron stove in his office. Like Simenon himself, Maigret loved smoking and drinking, the latter without overt drunkenness. Maigret was conceived to be a dogged procedural investigator with frequent actions determined by his intuitions regarding the motivations of criminals. Maigret is married, and his wife expects and endures frequent unannounced absences as the detective chases down criminals with the help of his squad.

There was a time when I read many mysteries because I thought writers in this genre focus more directly on the psychology of the characters than writers in other fiction categories. Simenon is a good example of this concentration since he deliberately selected a character dedicated to his career and to life’s small but daily personal pleasures tobacco, alcohol, physical warmth, and in particular active interaction with criminals from a position of power. The reader does not so much identify with the inspector but rather follows him around in a somewhat subservient fashion. Like the subordinates and criminals Maigret runs across in the stories, the reader does not want to get in the man’s way. In this novel and others, Maigret likes to use his large body to invade the space of others, intimidating them with his bulk and imperative language.

In Pietr the Latvian, it is apparent how Simenon hooked readers into following the somewhat overbearing detective, a hard man to like on the surface. In this case, Maigret investigates a murder on a train that occurs on a journey from northern Europe to Paris. The detective puffs on his pipe, stands in front of his cast iron stove, and follows the trail of suspects who after the murder are staying at a first class hotel in Paris. Maigret shows grit in his endurance as he travels and works for days without sleep in pursuit of evidence that will solve the perpetrator’s identity diversions. Considered a threat, the detective is targeted for elimination and suffers injury but plods on in his investigation, weakened but determined. In the course of exhausting events, Maigret takes time to enjoy his tobacco, alcohol, and comfort of heat in various locations during the cold and rainy conditions in France.

I will be following the detective in his many cases for many years to come, continuing by reading novel number 2 when the mood strikes me. If you like contemporary mysteries, the Maigret series will provide a good foundation for understanding the genre.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ascend: The Mountain Story a novel by Lori Lansens

The Mountain Story is an exciting tale of people with initially independent perceptions brought together by a common motivation, the desire for freedom from the past. Determined by a variety circumstances to search restlessly for escape from lives of reaction rather than meaningful action, Wolf, Byrd, Nora, Bridget, and Vonn are drawn by their need for peace to a mountain rising from a desert floor. Wolf, a teenager brought to California from Michigan by his ne’er-do-well father, narrates the story via a letter he is writing later in life to his son describing his magic mountain first as a physical challenge, then as a psychological dilemma. Like Hans Castorp writing in his journal in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Wolf, shows himself to be a naïve but sensitive and accurate observer of the mountain and the behavior of the 4 people who will share his fate.

When he first arrived in California, Wolf was passive, following and learning from his friend Byrd, a local California resident, who has developed a good knowledge of the mountain during his life. Then, the reader follows 18 year old Wolf as he rides up the face of the mountain in a sky tram in a state of depression. Alone because Byrd has had an “accident,” Wolf encounters Nora, Bridget, and Vonn riding up in the same tram. Not concerned about the afternoon start of their adventure, the four strangers find a common experience “off trail,” lost on the mountain with darkness closing in quickly. Wolf reluctantly takes a leadership role as the only male but with limited knowledge of the dangerous terrain. He is tested immediately as the party attempts to return to the tram terminal.

The story is one of survival during which the four lost hikers must take meaningful action with limited understanding of the mountain. That dilemma causes them to live intensely by the hour, minute, and moment fully owning the rewards and consequences of their behavior. The constricted time line paradoxically allows them more time for life reviews, reflection, and insight than they ever had in the flatlands of their normal lives.

The writing provides good descriptions of physical events, and the excitement of potentially deadly situations is high. The exploration of relationships between grandmother (Nora), mother (Bridget), and daughter (Vonn) shows how generational life experience sets the stage and affects reaction times for the characters in emergencies. The reader sees more intimately how Wolf shuffles off the trappings of his early life in Michigan and understands his changes in perceptions through adult relationships with the women. The boy to man changes require that Wolf (like Hans Castorp) tries everything possible to make a commitment to descend from the mountain and keep life close rather than at arm’s distance like his inadequate father.

One observation I have is that the voice of Wolf is feminine, as if Lansens is writing about the behaviors and thoughts of a young woman. I noticed this all though the letter Wolf is writing to his son describing the events on the magic mountain. I can see this as both deliberate and accidental as the writer slips in and out of character in the context of the letter.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Put It In Writing: The Silkworm a novel by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)

 The Silkworm is the second novel in the British detective series featuring Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott by Robert Galbraith. After critical acclaim for volume 1, J. K. Rowling acknowledged that she is the writer behind the Galbraith nom de plume. Rowling explained that she wanted the freedom to publish novels without being judged against her history of international success writing the Harry Potter books. This judgment was harsh, in my opinion, when Rowling published her Potter breakaway novel, The Casual Vacancy. That was an excellent stand-alone novel and I wondered what direction her writing would take. I hoped some of the criticism would not cause her to abandon writing fiction for adult readers.

Well, it did not. The Casual Vacancy, published in Rowling's own name, is a British village story with great character development and interaction that involves elements of mystery. The Cuckoo's Calling and The Silkworm are excellent beginnings of a detective/mystery series in the British tradition of Robert Barnard  and Simon Brett, two of my favorites. The plots are complicated but realistic in that Rowling uses Cormoran's perspective to reveal clues to murders, withholding information causing the reader to puzzle over the guilt of several suspects. Cormoran is a large, gruff, disabled British Army veteran of the current war in Afghanistan. He was a military detective, Special Investigation Division, and he now uses the systematic investigative skills he learned in the military in his private detective work. Cormoran has an interesting and challenging personal history that influences his current social relationships and work life. One fairly stable relationship is with Robin who has become a partner (at her insistence). She does not want to remain a secretary in his office. The pair make a good team, but it is a complicated situation; there is only one undisputed boss.

In The Silkworm, a well-known British writer is missing, and his widow seeks out the detective to find him even though the woman cannot pay him. Cormoran finds the author's mutilated body in a London mansion, and he and Robin make room in the office caseload to solve the crime. The "Bombyx Mori" (the Latin term for Silkworm) is the name of a novel written by the murdered author. It is a metaphor for a private cocoon of obsessive resentment, guilt, envy, and retribution enclosing the perpetrator of the murder. The novel starts with a recap of Cormoran and Robin's activities including the prior case described in The Cuckoo's Calling, so readers can begin the series at volume two with enough information to understand the general detective situation. Because the action takes place in the context of novel writing and publishing, it is interesting to hear Rowlings voice as she criticizes electronic self-publishing that may make anyone feel like a readable author.

I was happy to read that Rowling plans to write "many" more novels in the Cormoran Strike series, and she is half way through volume three with an idea for volume four. What makes this series so good is the wonderful writing style of J. K. Rowling and her ability to encourage readers to identify with and like the key people in her mystery stories. I am hooked for sure.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Borders: Colorless Tsukuru and his Years of Pilgrimage, a novel by Haruki Murakami

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a story about borders: conscious/unconscious, reality/wish fulfillment, perception/insight, logic/intuition, work/freedom, sex/love, making/creating, and action/existence. Tsukuru lives a comfortable, uneventful, and somewhat lonely bordered life in Tokyo. He works in a profession related to his boyhood fascination with trains and railroad systems. He enjoys his work for a company that builds well-structured train stations, and he is competent, conscientious, and dedicated in his work. He is a good law abiding man who likes his pleasures in moderation, eating out frequently and enjoying a glass of wine or spirits, most of the time by himself. He takes care of his body by swimming laps at a public pool and tension relief by having sex with women he meets without much effort and with no expectations of long term commitments. Tsukuru’s inner voice continuously evalutes himself and his environment in terms of his ideas about his contours of experience. 

Tsukuru’s focus for self-evaluation is his memory of a time in high school teenage life when he was part of a 5 person group. In his recollections, this period was a high point of his life because of the unique relationship each member of the informal group had with every other member. Tsukuru played his role as the steady purposeful student with long term goals related to an interest in trains. The others, 2 girls and 2 boys, did not look as much to the future as Tsukuru and seemed more free to enjoy the moments of youthful existence that all realized were so fleeting. Even at the time, Tsukuru understood that he had the unique staid status and accepted it without question. Each member of the group had a nickname related to a color suggested by their last names: “red pine” and “blue sea” for the boys and “white root” and “black field” for the girls. Only Tsukuru’s last name did not suggest a color and so he was “colorless.” 

An unspoken rule of the group was that no personal relationships were allowed independent of the group interaction. Tsukuru experienced severe anxiety and depression when he was rejected from the group after high school graduation. The other 4 members would not discuss why he was being shunned. Now comfortably moving along on his life path in his 30’s, Tsukuru realizes his current problem of finding an acceptable meaning of life requires that he revisits the time of the group’s existence. Then, all thoughts and emotions were enclosed in logical borders determined by the almost magical experiences of the group, and life had immediate meaning. Tsukuru discovers he must challenge the logic of the borders in order to reduce the anxiety and depression that has floated freely over his head without explanation for 15 years. He did not realize that his retrospective exploration of the group would include a deadly mystery, secret love, resentment, regret, and redemption. 

Murakami writes with simple declarative sentences creating a direct realism of Tsukuru’s daily life activities and continuous thoughts. As a result, the novel is a good story that appeals to readers of all levels of reading ability and age (teen and older). The complexity of Tsukuru’s “Pilgrimage” to view and challenge the hidden borders of his life is skillfully built upon Murakami’s careful, realistic descriptions of plot and narrative. I enjoyed the book as much as I did my past reading of two Murakami novels: 1Q84 and Norwegian Wood.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Golden Age of Pulp Magazines: The Slickers short stories by L. Ron Hubbard

The stories in The Slickers are presented in an artfully designed volume from the L. Ron Hubbard Fiction Collection published by Galaxy Press. The story was originally published in the September 1936 issue of Detective, one of the many “pulp” magazines that had their heyday in the 1930s and 1940s.  This is the 5th book in the collection I have read, and each one has colorful dramatic artwork on the cover and rough cut pulp pages to simulate the historical pulp magazines.

Unlike the novels I review on my blog that focus on the insightful Imagined Experiences of authors, the three short adventure fiction stories in The Slickers are no holds barred narratives of exciting action, in this book detailing the interactions of cops and miscreants. The title story, tells the tale of a hick Sheriff from “Arizony” who is called to New York City for a body guard gig protecting a rich man from “city slicker” assassins. The second story is “Murder Afloat” that follows the heroic activity of a U. S. Federal Agent attempting to bust a heroin smuggler on board a cruise ship. The third story, “Killer Ape,” describes the relationship between an orangutan accused of the murder of an abusive owner and a newspaper reporter who sets out to investigate the killing. All three stories are page turners that are just long enough for the reader to keep excitement going for an hour.

At first glance, would be writers may think that it is easy to write in the simple declarative sentences loaded with adjectives and adverbs. But, there was a great amount of competition to have work published in the pulps. Only a few writers were able to publish regularly in the market, and L. Ron Hubbard had a phenomenal 80% publication record. All of his stories in the Galaxy series are exciting adventures, and Hubbard explained his success in terms that are parallel to the novels I select for review in my blog. He stated that in writing good adventure stories, the writer has to be an adventurer himself. Hubbard's life, described in a final piece at the end of the volume was one of personal adventures on land and sea throughout the world.

I highly recommend The Slickers for fast reading any time readers get a break from work or other obligations and young people who could learn from the revived pulp stories to enjoy reading as one of life’s reliable pleasures.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Spoils of War: Haunted a novel by Randy Wayne White

Randy Wayne White continues his series with a new story about the South Florida fishing guide and part time private detective, Hannah Smith. The tough but feminine Hannah comes from a long line of Gulf Coast fishermen and adventurers and is savvy in the ways of native born residents of the area in and around Sanibel Island. Like the first two books in the series, Gone and Deceived, Haunted describes traditions and contemporary life in an area of Florida that relies heavily on ranch and ocean activities supporting the local population. Tourists come and go, but the locals feel a deep sense of ownership and protection of the land, sea, and wildlife. White is a resident of the area he writes about, and always gives his readers interesting historical information about the Gulf Coast people and places.

In this novel, readers learn about the part of American Civil War that was waged in Florida. Legacies and relics of perhaps the worst war in U. S. history, from the standpoint of its citizens, play a role in Hannah’s investigation of a large abandoned house in partial ruin with an interesting history of family wealth and tragedy. Hired by the wealthy socialite aunt of her best girlfriend Birdy (Hannah’s nickname for Liberty Grace), the two agree to spend a week in the “haunted” house to see if it is possessed by ghosts or visited by squatters/vandals.  “Dame Bunny” as Birdy refers to her aunt is trying to sell the land surrounding the house as part of a larger real estate deal, but state mandated archaeological work has revealed Civil War relics and possible graveyards with human skeletons. The deal is on hold.

The story has many interesting interactions involving Hannah and Birdy (a deputy sheriff with jurisdiction in the area) with characters who are interested in the land deal and finding lost relics including stashes of money and historical artifacts from the Civil War period. The characters include: an experimental drug using archeologist, carnival people wintering in Florida including gypsies, dwarfs, and psychics, and a kindly aging historian with his apparently mentally challenged hired hand. Wild life is prolific in the area (wild and captive) with poisonous snakes, raging monkeys, huge alligators, swarming mosquitos, and masses of scorpions.

Randy Wayne White continues his now established Hannah Smith series with perhaps his most exciting story so far,  Haunted. Meanwhile the writer continues his much longer series featuring marine biologist and “black ops” operative Doc Ford (21 novels in that series).  Hannah and Doc Ford have a relationship, but in this novel he is in South America on a black ops mission. For readers who enjoy thriller series,  Haunted delivers all the informative and exciting entertainment you are looking for.

Friday, October 10, 2014

First Book in a Great New British Mystery Series: The Cuckoo's Calling a novel by Robert Galbraith

 The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling) is the first novel in a very entertaining British private detective series. The detective is a down and out ex-British Army disabled veteran of the current war in Afghanistan. His specialty in the service was military police detective, similar to the U. S. Army CID I was in during the Vietnam era. The portrayal of his background was realistic and certainly qualifies him to open his own PI detective agency. The problem is he has more debtors than clients. Sleeping on a cot in his office after the breakup with his wealthy girlfriend, Cormoran Strike hires a temporary secretary, Robin Ellacott, and tries to get his act together with a new client. Three months after the "suicide" of his sister Lula, his supermodel adopted sister, wealthy lawyer client John Bristow hires Strike to prove she was a murder victim rather than a suicide.

As with Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, this novel is more of a character study than a narrative of the characters' actions. The gruff somewhat burned out personality of Strike is contrasted with Robin's naïve excitement and interest in detective work. The two main characters establish a somewhat complicated relationship that readers hope will last even though Robin works for a temporary agency. The two travel to several London settings that are nicely described and cover a wide area of the large metropolis.

A host of other interesting characters are introduced largely via Strike and Robin's interviewing during the case: supermodels, a movie producer and his wife, a famous clothing designer, an active duty British soldier, an indigent hostel dweller, British police inspectors, a famous rapper, and lawyers in a staid and wealthy London solicitors firm.

"Galbraith" writes the story in in a third person voice, a great choice that avoids the limitations of the detective describing everything from his limited point of view. I thoroughly enjoyed the exciting story from beginning to end and certainly will buy the next novel in the series, The Silkworm (A Cormoran Strike Novel). I liked the quotations presented at the beginning of the book and the start of each chapter. There are book extras on the Kindle edition including Characters, Glossary, Themes, Memorable Quotes and other categories of interesting information. I hope the series continues with many volumes to come. I give The Cuckoo's Calling my highest recommendation.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Home to Eden: Full Measure a novel by T. Jefferson Parker

Full Measure is a great story of military and farming culture in contemporary Southern California. Patrick Norris returns from duty as a Marine in Afghanistan and musters out of service at Camp Pendleton. With very little time to make the transition to civilian life, Patrick returns home to his family’s avocado farm in Fallbrook that has been decimated by a fire. From warrior to farmer is a move eased somewhat by familiarity with surroundings and acquaintances. But, of course, Pat’s perspective has changed permanently because of war and he has plans for the future that do not include avocado farming.

In the early pages of the novel, this scenario looks the well-worn plot of many post war novels. Soon readers realize that familiar themes of readjusting and reviving old complicated family relationships take on an unmistakable post-911 chronic tension. Pat and his Marine buddies’ have had experiences in a war that at first glance seems like those of the Vietnam veterans in the 1970s. T. Jefferson Parker captures the difference in an excellent portrait of the strength of Pat’s character as he recalls the killing, death, loss, and haunting emotions of duty symbolized by the random destruction of improvised explosive devices. Patrolling the desert through ancient cultures wondering why some Marines were blown up and he survived, Pat has to conclude that coming home from Afghanistan is a matter of senseless luck. “Thank you for your service.” Right.

In addition to that wonderful description of contemporary war and its aftermath, Parker pays homage to Nobel Prize winning author, John Steinbeck by exploring themes of father and son legacies with designated favorite son and bad seed, generational separation from agricultural life, uneasy enculturation of racial groups, violent civilian factions gaining strength in periods of reconstruction, dreams lost by some and found by others, and the reaching of a separate peace for some and self-destruction by others. The full measure of a person is sufficient for some characters to find a place in the culture good or bad and for others to fall short on all accounts.

This is an excellent novel and you can see that it brings to mind Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and East of Eden. Like the Nobel Prize winner, the realism of the portrayal of Pat’s war experiences and adjustment to civilian life set the stage for the beautifully written scenes of the biblical/psychological interaction of the characters, meaning/acceptance in an apparently chaotic period of history.