Saturday, May 28, 2016

Homo Sovieticus

Cover image for Homo Sovieticus by Alexander Zinoviev, translated by Charles Janson, 206 pages

Homo Sovieticus is an unconventional novel - there is no plot, and the characters are caricatures with names like "Enthusiast" and "Writer".  The book is divided into small - half a page to two page long - anecdotes in which the narrator, a cynical Soviet emigre who describes himself as an Agent of the Soviet State, reflects on the life of an ASS in the Soviet Union and the life of an ASS in the West.

Zinoviev's perspective, driven home in one cynical, self-important vignette after another, is that something resembling the dialectic of Marxism is at work in history, but rather than a force for liberation, it is an idiot god fumbling about with human lives.  The individual is insignificant, rather, it is the masses that decide things, and the masses are venal, blind, and cruel.  The only meaningful difference between East and West is that in the USSR a desire to be free of the masses makes one an individual, while in the West such a desire only buries one deeper within the mass.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Being a Captain is Hard Work: A Captain No Beard Story by Carole P. Roman, Illustrated by Bonnie LeMaire   60 pages

In this 10th episode of the series, Captain No Beard is in a hurry to get to Dew Rite Volcano. He’s in such a hurry that he doesn’t listen to his crew.

Mongo warns the captain about the dark clouds on the horizon.

Zach is trying to raise the flag, but the wind is getting stronger. He’s not sure the flag should be hoisted in such bad weather.

Polly is sent to the galley to make but squawks about the impending storm.

The rest of the crew is hard at work, too.

But Captain No Beard doesn’t care. He doesn’t listen to his crew. And before long, the storm Mongo first warned about is tossed the Flying Dragon around like autumn leaves. There is almost a fire in the galley and he almost loses Zach.

The illustrations are gorgeous. I love the Cloud Key, which identified the various clouds. Who knew there 10 types of clouds? I found only one problem: lack of diversity. Oh yes there were animals and people, but Roman missed a teachable opportunity. The lack of color made the teamwork the crew demonstrated and the lesson the captain learned weak and constricting. That’s why I gave Being a Captain is Hard Work 4 out of 5 stars.

The Cardinal's Sin

The Cardinal’s Sin by Robert Lane             332 pages

The Cardinal’s Sin is the third book in the Jake Travis series. I have not read the other two, and except for two sentences that seemed to reference one of the other books, I didn’t need to as this is a perfect stand-alone.

Jake and his girlfriend, Kathleen, are wrapping up a four-week  European vacation. The last city they visit is London before they head home to Florida. Jake would like nothing more than to lose himself in Kathleen, but his duties as a Special Ops assassin call. It’s an easy hit: a Cardinal out for him morning stroll in Kensington Gardens. Jake carries out his duties and is back in their hotel room before Kathleen awakens. As the Cardinal lay dying, his last sentence is “Forgive me my sin.” Jake found this odd. Shouldn’t it have been “forgive me my sins.” Plural, not singular. Jake frets about this as he and Kathleen head home.

But…and readers know there has to be a but…Jake learns that he has killed the wrong man. He didn’t kill a bad guy dressed as a Cardinal, but he killed a real Roman Catholic Cardinal. Oh brother.

Back home in Tampa Bay, Jake teams up with his partner, Garrett Demarcus, and a guy named Morgan, that I’m not really sure who he is, other than Jake’s neighbor.

As the three try to figure out what happened to the real target, Alexander Partetsky, the regular formula for PI novels unfolds. I did especially enjoy the sprinkling of literary references.

The Cardinal’s Sin is a good read. I think Jake would make an excellent TV character (Imagine Travis, PI).  It fits well into the genre, but it’s not a great read. And for that reason, I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Don't You Cry

Don't You Cry by Mary Kubica.   320 pages.

Ok, I've been waiting for this one since I read a review of it weeks ago.  I've enjoyed Mary Kubica's other suspense novels (The Good Girl, Pretty Baby), and this one sounded like a winner.

There are two storylines here, which eventually intersect.   We have Quinn Collins, who lives in Chicago, and whose roommate, Esther Vaughan, has disappeared.  A strange letter addressed to "My Dearest" is found among her possessions, but Quinn has no idea who this could be . . . or if Esther is really who she thought she was.   At the same time, in a small Michigan town about an hour from Chicago, 18 year-old Alex Gallo is intrigued by the mysterious girl who has starting coming to the coffee shop where he works.  However, what starts out as an innocent crush soon spirals into something much darker than he expected.

So, just who is Esther?  Is she the person Quinn has been living with, or a complete stranger who may have killed her previous roommate?  And just who is the girl that Alex is intrigued by?  Mary Kubica weaves together these two storylines into a dark web where you start to see connections between people and events, but still aren't sure of what may be happening.   This is the kind of story where you're pretty sure you know what's going to happen, and then something takes a turn and you realize you're not sure at all.  Kubica's characters all have flaws and secrets, and for me, this makes for a compelling story.  Combined with a steadily increasing pace and underlying sense of unease, this makes for my kind of read.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The English Way

The English Way: Studies in English Sanctity from St Bede to Newman, edited by Maisie Ward, 328 pages

The English Way collects short biographical essays about English Catholics from St Bede and Alfred the Great to Bishop Challoner and Bl John Henry Newman, written by some of the finest English Catholic writers 1933 had to offer, including GK Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Christopher Dawson, and Fr Bede Jarrett.  The whole is meant to sketch an "English way" of sanctity.

The collection has all the diversity and unevenness to be expected of a compilation of biographies by different authors, many of them originally appearing elsewhere.  Fr Jarrett's reflection on St Aelred of Rievaulx takes the form of an exploration of the nature and importance of friendship as it is found in the life of the author of Spiritual Friendship, while Belloc's contribution uses the life of St Thomas Becket to launch a cannonade against error, and Dawson devotes most of his piece on William Langland to a detailed critical study of Piers Plowman.  Perhaps the unexpected highlight is E I Watkin's impassioned defence of Baroque art in his celebration of the life and poetry of Richard Crashaw.  Still, the individual pieces, however worthy by themselves, never do coalesce to form a greater whole.

The Maid's Version

The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell.   164 pages.

This book focuses on Alma Dunahew, the mother of three boys who works as a maid for a prominent family in West Table, Missouri.  In 1929, her beloved younger sister is one of the 42 people killed in an explosion at the local dance hall.   Who is to blame?  Alma thinks she knows, but her pursuit of justice makes her an outcast in the town and causes a rift with her own son.  However, by telling her story to her grandson, she finally gains some peace.

This is an introspective book where it's easy to get pulled in to the story, feeling like you are a witness to what is happening. Woodrell's prose is simple, but evocative and emotional.  While this is Alma's story, it's more about the community who is facing the unexplained loss of so many people, and the suspicions and doubts that linger long after the event.

Until I looked for more information about this book, I didn't realize that there was a community disaster in West Plains, Missouri in 1928.  Woodrell changed some of the details, but there was an explosion at a dance hall which killed 39 people.  Lawyer's review on Goodreads includes a link to news stories about the actual event.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Hop Alley

Hop Alley by Scott Phillips.   192 pages

This book is a follow-up to Cottonwood (2004) which featured a Kansas town in 1872 and saloon owner and photographer Bill Ogden.  Eventually, Bill turns up in San Francisco in 1980, but it's not clear what he's been doing in the interim.   Hop Alley answers those questions, and gives us Bill Ogden, now living as Bill Sadlaw, in the frontier town of Denver in 1878.  He's now running a photo studio near the Chinese part of town knows as Hop Alley, and carrying on an affair with Priscilla, a singer addicted to laudanum.  However, Bill's life isn't easy; he has to face the murder of his housekeeper's brother-in-law, Priscilla's increasing instability, and the riot that is simmering in Hop Alley.

Admittedly, I would not have picked this book up if it hadn't been part of a project I'm working on right now.   I don't usually read westerns (Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is the exception).  The fact that this is a western written by an author who is known for his noir writing does make it more interesting.  However, I never warmed up to Bill, or really cared about him too much.  The fact that he has a lively sex life (not romantic life; there is a distinction) didn't really add much to the story for me.   What I found more interesting was that he is a photographer, and I would have liked a bit more about that in the story.

I'm not sure what kind of reader I'd suggest this book to.  It's not noir, but I don't know if it has enough appeal to readers who really enjoy westerns.  My suggestion, if this sounds like an interesting story to you, would be to read about it on Goodreads and see if it sounds like your kind of book.