Friday, August 18, 2006

Jeffrey Ford, I think I love you...

I've been having an incredibly satisfying literary love affair with Jeffrey Ford. So far, we've only had two dates - both literary mysteries: Girl in the Glass and The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, and I usually don't let myself get so hopeful so soon, but I just have a feeling that he may be The One.

His storytelling has everything I could possibly want in a novel: a sense of mystery at its core, quirky hooks, (by that I mean almost unbelievable happenings and plot twists), the perfect blend of commercial and literary writing, (which for me means an author who writes exceptionally well and with authority, but doesn't show off or engage in meta-fiction), fascinating and little-known historical detail, just a touch of the fantastic, and of course, likable and lively characters.

I'm not sure what to do next. Jeffrey Ford's latest book just came out in April - a story collection titled The Empire of Ice Cream, which happens to be the title of one of my favorite Wallace Stevens poems. Already, the combination of Jeffrey Ford, that wonderful title, (which always brings to mind an embelished past of unbridled hedonism), and some great reviews, have given me sky high hopes. I'm nervous. Will The Empire of Ice Cream live up to my astral expectations? And do I deserve such literary happiness? Will a story collection contain everything I love about his recent novels? Should I read another novel next? This is a truly tough decision, and will eventually test my devotion to Jeffrey Ford, who has written what appears to be a quest fantasy trilogy. I'm not a big fan of quest fantasy - in fact, the only type of fantasy that I get really excited about is urban fantasy - but maybe for Jeffrey Ford, just this once, I could pick up a quest fantasy trilogy for the first time in at least 10 years.

But isn't that what love is all about? Don't we all find ourselves doing ridiculous, and even embarrassing things that our cynical pre-love selves vowed with a laugh of condescension that we would never do?

I heard from Jeffrey Ford's editor that he's working on a new novel that's more in the vein of The Girl in the Glass and The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, but I don't think I can wait that long for my next Ford fix. So I'll keep y'all posted on whether or not The Empire of Ice Cream lives up to its title, and whether or not I love his fantasy trilogy as much as his mysteries.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay

Dexter Morgan is a blood-spatter specialist for the Miami cops by day, and a serial killer who only kills other serial killers by night. But when a serial killer starts killing hookers in an artistic way that mirrors Dexter's own murders, Dexter doesn't want to stop him. In fact, Dexter can't wait to see his next victim displayed. Is it just Dexter's imagination, or is the killer trying to communicate with him through his "art?" Or, could Dexter somehow be unconsciously committing these crimes himself? The end has a really good twist.

One of the many amazing things about this novel is that Lindsay gets us to sympathize with, and even admire Dexter, a serial killer. In this novel Dexter's urge to kill is treated like any other uncontrollable craving (like for chocolate or potato chips, say), in that Dexter can only keep from killing people by exerting superhuman self-restraint. (Dexter underwent a terrible trauma as a child that he can't remember - his need to kill is linked to this incident). Harry, Dexter's foster father, and a cop, recognizes these urges in Dexter as a teenager, when Dexter kills neighborhood cats in a ritualistic way. Instead of locking Dexter away in a psychiatric ward, the hardened cop gives him some very unconventional advice: there are people out there who deserve to be killed, and Dexter should find those people and use them to satisfy his needs. He teaches Dexter how to find and research bad people, track them, and kill them without leaving any forensic evidence. Though Harry has been dead for years before the beginning of this novel, Dexter has always followed his rules, and has never been caught. That is, until he sees this new killer's work...

Another unique aspect of this novel is Dexter's lack of emotions. He has none, but has become a master of faking them. This makes the scenes between Dexter and his girlfriend (who for other reasons is just as uninterested in sex as he is, making her the perfect cover), and LaGuerta, the lead homicide detective who has a crush on Dexter, extremely fresh and interesting. He's a more personable and comical Hannibal Lector, and some parts of this novel are a bit reminiscent of Red Dragon, but with a lighter tone. For example, Dexter's foster sister Deb is sick of dressing up like a hooker to work Miami's vice beat - she desperately wants into homicide. She gets her chance with the serial hooker killings, and Dexter gives her clues and insights into the killer to help her solve the crimes and impress her superiors (sort of like Lector and Graham). Of course, he can't give her too much information, lest she become suspicious of Dexter or actually catch the killer, whom Dexter isn't sure he wants caught.

Dexter's world is fully developed, (his job, his family and love life, and his murders), and there is truly never a dull moment. Lindsay writes with tension and humor, and perfectly sets the scene for the second in the series, Dearly Devoted Dexter, which I plan on reading as soon as it comes out in paperback.

Publishing Industry Gossip: Jeff Lindsay is not the debut novelist that his publisher (Doubleday) wants us to believe, but a veteran author who has written a number of novels under his full name, Jeffrey P. Lindsay. This use of a pseudonym raises questions about the value of touting a novel as a "debut novel" - or were Jeffery P. Lindsay's previous novels really that unremarkable? Here's an interesting tidbit:

"Darkly Dreaming Dexter was dropped from the Mystery Writers of America's Best First Novel category after the group learned that Lindsay had, according to MWA rep Margery Flax, "put out a few books under his full name in the mid '90's"

And more general remarks...

"Aside from the marketing advantage of becoming a debut author with the use of a pseudonym, David Montgomery, editor of the Web site, assumes some authors are forced into hiding their identity in order to get published. Publishers often turn away a previously published author with a less-than-compelling sales history because his book might stumble getting into the chains."

Montgomery later notes, "it's a disappointing trend (disguising veteran novelists as debut novelists) - and not a particularly honest one - but as long as the readers don't care, and I don't think they do, it's probably here to stay."

-Quotes taken from the March 13, 2006 issue of Publishers Weekly.

The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power, by Travis Hugh Culley

If I love bikes, and I love books, it then follows that I would fall recklessly in love with a book about bikes. Then why was The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power such a disappointment? I'll tell you why, in numbered paragraphs:

1)Sky High Expectations. Just so you know where I'm coming from, this is what I expected from a book titled The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power. First of all, if you're going to put the word “immortal” in your title, you should probably talk about bike messengers other than yourself and your peers. What was bike messengering like 20 years ago? 50 years ago? In cities before cars, where the bike messengers had to dodge horse-and-buggies and heaping piles of steaming dung? What will it be like in the future? What is it like in other cities, and other countries?

--But Culley did a great job of expressing how immortal he felt on a bike. I loved these passages, and completely related to how it feels to blast through a six-lane intersection and feel the cars whooshing all around you but miraculously not crash and die… that's a huge rush! That makes me feel immortal, at least until the next time I crash. So Culley didn't give us any historical context (or any context outside of his experience in Chicago), but he sure did make the bike scenes come alive.

2) Title Gripe Continued. When you put a phrase like “The Cult of Human Power” in your title, I expect you to address the politics of car culture in a lot more depth, and describe how choosing to bike is a political, social, and even cultural statement. Where is this “cult” in your book other than the very last chapter? You talk to no one outside of your immediate social circle, much less interview anyone qualified to weigh in on some of the key issues, like Critical Mass participants, the cops who arrest them, Transportation Alternative organizers, bicycle manufacturing companies, automobile companies, lobbyists on both sides, environmental groups, city planners, …etc. In a world where every other television commercial is a car commercial and every third American is overweight you could’t find a “cult of human power” that existed outside of your own head?

--But Culley does address these issues tangentially in the last three chapters of the book, though not in as much depth as I would have liked.

3)Too Memoir-ish. Travis, if I wanted to know about your life as a struggling artist and your Christmas break with the fam and your vacations with assorted relatives I would have bought, “Travis’ Random Thoughts and Musings with just a tad of Bike Messengering on the Side.” Wait, I think I did buy that book…

--Whoa, that was harsh. But what was that whole sit-by-the-lake-and-ponder-while-visiting-relatives bit all about?

4)Too much Purple Prose. There is a lot of writing in here that says, “I am trying too hard to be literary and/or lyrical and/or philosophical.” This stuff made me wince, and then skim. Why is there so much filler in these pages about the soul of the city, and the ghost who won’t show his eyes? Can we get back to the gritty biking scenes? That was really cool when you got doored and flew through the air and skidded on the asphalt and scraped off most of your shoulder, and how you said how it was kind of fun to fly through the air, and I've felt that way too, but that's about as much philosophical musing as I can take. Let’s skip the part where you ponder what it means that your skin is now one with the street.

I very strictly follow the philosophy that life is too short to read bad books, so it should count for something that I finished this one. There are some great parts - even some inspiring parts - you just have to be willing to slog through some heavy handed descriptions and self-indulgent writing to find them. But when you do, these paragraphs are truly like diamonds in the rough.

Here are some diamonds: Chapter 10: Ambush. This chapter is amazing. It has everything I look for in this kind of book: Legal and social issues highlighted by a compelling personal story, and a Critical Mass ride that provokes various confrontations - massers vs. police, messengers vs. commuters - and discusses different strategies of resistance. It has inflammatory stuff like this:

"The Illinois Supreme Court phrased it this way: "We do not believe that bicycle riders are, like drivers of vehicles, intended and permitted users of Illinois streets and highways."

And this:

"Today in the heartland of America, if a cyclist, a motorist, and a runner fall into the same five-foot ditch in any average intersection, the bicyclist alone will not have the right to sue."

Other than chapter 10, the other great parts of this book are interspersed throughout. The Alley Cat Race is pretty awesome (Chapter 9), and there's a cool scene where the author races this other messenger with a stripped down track bike (Chapter 6) and then says:

"In time, I too would learn that an experienced messenger can see anywhere from five to thirty seconds into the future. The traffic can be read so closely that he is rarely caught off guard. Most people think this comes from having good reflexes, but who needs reflexes when you can actually see the future?"

I also enjoyed the small details that Culley drops about messenger life, like how messengers use their U-Locks to threaten cabbies and other cars, and how during his first winter he used gardening gloves with the first two fingers cut off, and how your hands go numb after riding over torn up city streets all day, and how he can "skitch" a car's hub (grab the back of a car and get towed at high speeds). I've never tried that.

Overall, if you don't know anything about being a bike messenger I imagine this book would be illuminating. Even considering all the boring parts and the author's blatant self-absorption, I'm glad to have read it. But as a rabid biker and ex-messenger myself, I expected a broader scope, and a much more detailed look at the issues of biking in today's American cities.

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

Full disclosure: this is the first Raymond Chandler book I have ever read. Really. Ever. I've been meaning to read Chandler for years, and every time his name came up or popped into my head I would experience massive literary guilt. You manic readers and book lovers out there know what I'm talking about... I am brought low by literary guilt at least once a week. You know, when you're talking book and someone names an author that you haven't read but feel you should have? Say a book like Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead or the Harry Potter series, neither of which I've read, but have lied about reading at one time or another, and will probably continue to do so until my literary guilt peaks and I pick them up off the shelf. Hey, doesn't everyone do this?

Since it is my goal to establish myself as an expert in literary crime fiction and mysteries, I knew I had to pick up a Chandler novel. Actually, I picked up four (I have a friend at Vintage), but started with The Big Sleep. This novel is relentless. It takes place over the course of a week, and it is a week packed with action: blackmail, murder, sexy women, and the infamously unflappable Marlow, a thirty-eight-year-old private dick moving through the seamy side of 1930's Los Angeles. Unflappable is not an overstatement - I mean this guy is so smooth and so smart that he is never surprised. He is such a good detective that he almost doesn't seem human. Two incredibly rich and sexy women, sisters nonetheless, throw themselves at him and he coolly rebuffs them, even when they say things like, "Hold me close, you beast," or sneak into his apartment, climb into his bed naked, and wait for his return. This prompts Marlow to muse, "It's so hard for women - even nice women - to realize that their bodies are not irresistible." The only thing that Marlow finds irresistible is solving crimes; being a dedicated detective.Riding along with Marlow you know you're in good hands. You know he won't get himself in a situation that he can't escape from, and you have absolute confidence that he'll solve the crime with panache.

It's cool to be so intimate with such a bad ass, but for me Marlow's very invincibility was the one downside of this novel. I like my detectives to have flaws, tics, weaknesses, vulnerabilities. I like it when they get themselves into impossible situations that they can't see their way out of, but somehow miraculously and surprisingly escape. I was never scared for Marlow, and while this novel was a fast and gripping read, it didn't raise my pulse.Hmm, perhaps I just described the difference between a classic detective novel and a contemporary mystery/suspense/thriller? Holmes is unflappable in much the same way, but in his case we have Watson to identify with. I seem to remember Poe's Auguste Dupin had these same characteristics, but his genius is moderated by the narrator, who is of a more average intelligence.

Marlow works alone, or at least he does in this novel, and while I admired him greatly and was often in awe of his smooth talk and logic, I had a hard time identifying with him.Despite my one complaint, (which may be a complaint against the genre and not Chandler in particular), I have three more Chandler novels to read, and I'm looking forward to them.

Favorite quote: "I went upstairs and sat in my chair thinking about Harry Jones and his story. It seemed a little too pat. It had the austere simplicity of fiction rather than the tangled woof of fact."

The Butcher's Boy, by Thomas Perry

The Butcher's Boy is a hired assassin who commits two perfect murders and goes to Las Vegas to collect his fee, only to find that his employers are trying to kill him. He must first figure out who his employers are (most likely one of three organized crime bosses), and kill them.

Killing a mob boss is no easy feat, but the butcher's boy is really good. He is so smart and clever, and pulls so many awesome stunts during the novel that I never doubted he could succeed. And despite his being as assassin, I really wanted him to win.

The other main character is Elizabeth Waring, an analyst from the Justice Department who is out to solve the murders commited by the butcher's boy. She's really smart too, but not smart enough.The scenes are split between hers and his narratives, which occasionally is a jarring tactic. Or perhaps it is a testament to Perry's great scene writing that he seemed to switch it up just when I was feeling extremely invested in a particular scene and character. We get Elizabeth's point of view initially, and at first I was a bit put off by going inside the killer's head (this is a tactic so often used poorly that I've come to generally mistrust it), but over time the butcher's boy's scenes became so much more prominent and interesting than Elizabeth's that I didn't want to spend any time away from him.

Most of the fun in this novel is in watching the butcher's boy work, and trying to figure out why he's doing whatever he's doing; and he always has a perfectly plotted reason for his intriguing actions that left me wondering, "how did he ever hatch that plan so quickly?" In one scene he breaks into a backyard and starts clipping and moving hoses and wires and then gets in the pool with this rifle and just when I'm feeling really stumped this fire starts, and when a guy with a gun comes out to investigate, this hose is rigged to spray him in the face and distract him so the butcher's boy can shoot him from the pool, and beleive it or not this is just the beginning of a more complicated and brilliantly thought out plot to kill lots of people. At times like these, the butcher's boy reminded me of a deadly McGyver (yes, I had a huge crush on McGyver; I always fantasized that we'd run away to some deserted island where he'd construct us a five star hut using only the island's natural resources, some dental floss, and chewing gum).

One of my pet peeves in mystery novels is when the main characters keep secrets from the reader. However, I didn't mind at all when the butcher's boy didn't explain his intricate plots to me because watching them play out was always more satisfying than hearing them explained in advance.

The reader's relationship to the two main characters is perfectly done: the butcher's boy is much smarter than us and is constantly surprising and impressing us with his leaps in reasoning and action, while Elizabeth is not quite as saavy as us, and she makes two critical mistakes that I totally saw coming and tried to warn her about, but of course she didn't listen to me, and it was somewhat satisfying to see her get duped in an "I told you so" way.

The writing is smooth and commercial - Perry doesn't let anything get in the way of telling his story (and he's got a great story to tell). However, I enjoy a bit of literary flair here and there, and for that reason I don't think I'm going to read another book by Perry any time soon. But for readers looking for a no literary frills mystery with a truly fantastic plot this book is a must read. It won the Edgar Award for best first novel when it was first published over twenty years ago and is still in print today, so obviously I'm not the only one who thinks it's worth a read.

Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem

Lionel Essrog is an outstanding protagonist for this literary crime novel - he's a detective who has Tourettes Syndrome (I'm a total sucker for the honorable yet flawed detective type).Lionel's constant Tourettic impulses give the author an excuse to recklessly play with language and explore his character's relationship with words in a way that would seem really pedantic and self-indulgent in a novel with a less structured plot.

This novel is true and amazing "literary crime fiction" and in my opinion has the best of both of these worlds: Lethem's detective genre plotting saves this novel from being the literary slog of some of his other works (The Fortress of Solitude comes to mind), while the more cranial musings on the nature of Tourettes and the high quality of the writing elevate this to more than a mere who-dun-it. I feel like I have a greater understanding of what it's like to have Tourettes, and was even a bit jealous at times that I didn't have it. (I'm very susceptible to these kinds of feelings - sort of like a hypochondriac - I started shouting silly and lewd words and tapping my friends equally on both shoulders while I was reading this book). There are scenes where Lionel is hiding, or needs to be unassuming, and the tension is even higher than usual here because you just know he's going to tic and blow his cover.

The other aspect I really enjoyed about this novel was the setting. It's set in Brooklyn, and because I've biked all over the northern part of the borough I was familiar with many landmarks. For example, there's this great scene in the beginning of the novel where Lionel is tailing his boss, Frank Minna. Minna's in a car with a dangerous man, and he's wearing a wire so Lionel can hear what's going on while he's following them. However, Minna's car loses Lionel, so Minna tries to give Lional unsuspecting clues as to their location. The first one comes right after they've passed through the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and Minna mouths off about Polish pierogies. Lionel is stumped, and I'm practically jumping on the couch, shouting at the book, "the Polanski bridge! He's going across the Polanski! Get 'em Lionel!" (The Polanski is a small, rather unimpressive bridge connecting Long Island City to Greenpoint (Queens to Brooklyn) which I've biked across countless times on my way to Prospect Park from my old apartment in Astoria). There were a few more moments like these where the characters were stumped but I was not. As a reader, I cherish these small moments of victory.

One very small disappointment: the title, Motherless Brooklyn, refers to Lionel and his fellow detectives, all orphans that Frank Minna took under his wing and trained. In a short but touching dinner scene Frank tells his mother, "This is exciting for you Ma? I got all of motherless Brooklyn up here for you. Merry Christmas." Anyhow, throughout the novel Lionel calls the three different Essrogs in the Brooklyn phone book, flirting with the idea that one of them is his family. However, this thread is never flushed out.Overall, this was an entertaining and enlightening read - one that I highly recommend to those who like mysteries (especially Raymond Chandler fans - the novel gives The Big Sleep some shout outs), and readers with a more literary bend.

Self Made Man, by Norah Vincent

This book is about a lesbian who successfully impersonates a man and details her experiences, throwing light on the differences of the sexes. It's a good fast read and has moments of exceptional clarity, like when the author postulates that men embrace the concept of brotherhood much better than women and sisterhood: she argues that men have a greater tendency to be sincerely happy for each other, without those feelings being tinged with jealousy, as they are in women. I'm not sure if I agree with this statement, but it's certainly hard to launch an argument - has any other woman been taken for and treated like a man? I'd say Norah has a lock on this one.

For a feminist lesbian, Vincent is surprisingly (and I thought at times almost too) compassionate towards men. Her pity for them in the chapters titled "Sex" (her experiences at strip clubs) and "Love" (her experiences dating women) is sometimes a bit too cloying and condescending. (Ironically, it reminded me of the way my father feels about gays and lesbians - "I just feel so sorry for them, poor people, I'd never wish that on anyone...".)

The "Work" chapter illuminated the overwhelming pressure men feel to succeed in their jobs. Ned (the author's man name) goes to work as a door-to-door salesman, and this inevitably reminded me of a dark patch in my own employment history when I worked for Cutco one summer selling expensive cutlery sets door-to-door. Me and Ned's jobs shared the same cultish environment, the same overstated masculine carrot of "if you work hard you'll get to drive a Mercedes like me" aspect, (even though my boss was a young petite Indian girl and it was obvious to anyone who took their eyes off the script long enough to have independent thoughts that her Daddy had bought her the Benz). Even so, while I worked at Cutco it became an important part of my identity to prove my prowess as a salesman. Also, I've found that I used some of the same male genitalia themed figures of speech to psych myself up for intimidating office tasks that Vincent's prototypical men use in this chapter. "C'mon, show your balls," I tell myself before I phone someone I have a professional crush on. "No one has any balls!" I say when no offers come in on a short story collection or literary drug novella I'm shopping. "Don't shoot your load all at once," I advise a co-worker who, in my opinion, is sending a project out to too many places at once. I know these phrases are ridiculous when I say them, and that, in part, is why I say them. I suppose I'm being one of Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs trying to join the never ending frat party of the male experience (or at least the males who use these types of phrases without irony).

"Ned's" experiences in a monestary and a men's therapy group struck me as a bit cliched, but alas, cliches exist for a reason, and I never doubted the veracity of these experiences.

Low point #1: Norah's take on strip clubs struck me as a tad biased - she presents them as cesspools of masculine depression and shame. Perhaps this is because she's apparently only visited a few small dilapidated rural outposts with warehouse-like interiors, old beer gutted men with filthy fingernails, and washed up vericose veined stippers. Since she is billing herself as a strip club expert, and enlightening all us naive women who have never, ever been, couldn't she have gone somewhere where the strippers and clientell were somewhat attractive? Or at the very least somewhere that didn't so strongly channel the adjective "weathered?" I agree that strip clubs may not be as tittilating as their advertisements, (in my experience the men's interest is usually split 50/50 between the strippers and the sports channel), but Norah's take is just as misleading.

Low point #2: Norah's class conciousness eventually started to wear on me. I suppose she is just being honest, but she frequently reminds us that as a college educated New Yorker it's a real culture shock for her to go bowling or sell coupons door-to-door. I, too, consider myself a college educated New Yorker, but somehow I don't consider it such an imaginative leap to identify with the rest of the country.

Overall, Self Made Man is very smoothly and nicely written, . It's eye-opening, and saves most of the thoughtful introspection for the last chapter. I recommend it, but with limited enthusiasm.

Favorite excerpt: "I had thought that by being a guy I would get to do all the things I didn't get to do as a woman, things I'd always envied about boyhood when I was a child: the perceived freedoms of being unafraid in the world, stamping around loudly with my legs apart. But when it actually came to the business of being Ned I rarely felt free at all. For from being loose, I found myself clamping down instead.I curtailed everything: my laugh, my word choice, my gestures, my expressions. Spontaneity went out the window, replaced by terseness, dissimulation and control. I hardened and denied to the point of almost ossification."

Another good one: "I believe we are that different in agenda, in expression, in outlook, in nature, so much so that I can't help almost believing, after having been Ned, that we live in parallel worlds, that there is at bottom really no such thing as that mystical unifying creature we call a human being, but only male human beings and female human beings, as separate as sects."