THE BELIEVERS by Zoë Heller

Audrey, a British chick, meets  American lawyer Joel Litvinoff at a party in London, and for a date, Audrey takes him to meet her Polish immigrant parents in their tiny, airless, awful apartment in some distant village.  When they arrive back in London, she invites him to bed, and after love-making, he proposes and she accepts, and off they go to America, NYC.

He becomes famous for his Socialism, defense of the poor and downtrodden, his activism in human and civil rights, and Audrey is right there at his side.

So far, so good, except that she, having adopted an attitude of British coolness and distance in order to distinguish herself from his hoard of fans and camp followers, finds that after a time, her persona facade has become who she is. And who she is is awful.  She is distant from her two daughters, and indifferent housekeeper and meal provider.

“Audrey had never evinced the slightest sentimentality about children.  Insofar as she had recognized them as independent category of personhood, she had tended to think of them as trainee humans.  Inadequate adults.”

She is a strong-mouthed pot smoker, and truly disdains her older daughter, a young woman who has struggled with her weight and self image all her life, becoming servile to her mother in an attempt to win her approval.  The younger is a rebel, spent four years in Cuba, and when we meet her, is working with an organization for disadvantaged teen girls, and is always on the outs with her mother.

After one case of Joel’s, who is called in to defend a mother who was involved in an armed bank robbery, the mother asks him to do something about her son, 7 years old (I think), waiting in her apartment for her return.  He and Audrey go there, and for some reason, Audrey falls in love with this kid.  They take him in as a foster,  and she cares so much more for him than for her own children.  So much so that she ignores, and enables his growing criminal behavior, as he becomes an addict.

The plot involves the older married sister trying to get pregnant with a man who admits he choose her to marry even though she was not particularly attractive  and obese because they shared the same ultra left political values.   It becomes clear that she never really loved him, but was grateful someone wanted to marry her, and he never really loved her.

The younger daughter, of this completely atheistic Jewish family, somehow becomes enamored of orthadox Jewish life, and begins exploring this lifestyle, which infuriates her mother.

The father, at age 72, has a massive stroke, and is in a coma for 8 or nine months, during which the older daughter meets someone who seems to have fallen in love with her for herself,  the younger daughter becomes deeper involved in Jewish orthodoxy,   the drug addict foster son attends a rehab for the nth time but this time it seems to take, and the wife discovers that all was not as it seem with the husband when a young woman comes forward to advise her of her long term affair with the husband which has produced a son, now four years old.

A book filled with characters for whom this jaded, cynical reader just really had no patience for, and situations for which one already can see the outcome, but which kept me turning pages anyway.  Kind of like a good gossip about which you have nothing to contribute and don’t know any of the gossipees, but are eager to hear more.

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LAND OF THE BLIND by Jess Walter

                               “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”  – Erasmus

I wonder how many books feature Spokane, Washington, as their setting?  Not many, I would venture to guess.  Well, this police procedural does.  I hesitate to call it a police procedural.  It does feature a homicide detective, — a female homicide detective, always a plus in my feminist book, — who is on swing shift at the Spokane Police Department, working nights, when a derelict is brought in having been pulled out of the abandoned Davenport Hotel for vagrancy, and claiming he wants to confess to a crime.

And so begins this story constructed on the ‘story within a story’ model.  The derelict wants to write his confession, and is furnished a legal pad and a pen, and begins to write.  He says that a confession is worthless, because the authorities already know who died and who killed the deceased.  But he wants to write context, to give his confession meaning.  He will not give his name, nor the name of the person he claims he has killed.

The bulk of the book is his confession, a linear story starting with his childhood experiences with a neighborhood bully and a neighborhood ubergeek, or nerd, or dweeb.    At one point, the bully forces him and another friend to join him in a beebee gun war against another neighborhood bully, during which our unnamed (so far confession writer) is shot in the eye and loses the eye.

As he continues his school career, he finds he is a joiner and a runner-for office, and eventually goes to law school in Seattle, and in order to impress his now grownup crush from high school whose husband is a venture capitalist in this heyday of .com startups, claims he can steer them to a video game of some  interest, which is being worked on by the old neighborhood dweeb.  The VC guy goes to Spokane to see what they have, our confession writer and the dweeb hire some coding guys to patch together some semblance of a game which impresses the VC guy, who then produces a wheelbarrow full of money for development of the game.    Our writer is hired by the VC people to drum up startups, which he does with some ease, he makes a ton of money, and is encouraged by the dweeb to run for state governor.  He loses.  Big surprise, yeah?

Meanwhile, as he is writing, the detective does some pretty snazzy detecting and learns who he is, his friends, and a bit of his story before having read any of the ‘confession’.  She is frantically looking for a body, because she is being told by her superiors that the writer is just another fruitloop and she needs to cut him loose, but she doesn’t agree.  She thinks there is something to this.

There is a lot about her and her life, her thoughts, and the book cuts back and forth between the ‘confession’ and her investigative efforts.

At one point in his life, the writer’s brother says to him that he (the writer) doesn’t know who he is, and asks whether the true us is the persona that we see, or the personna that others see, and accuses his brother of being the person other people want to see, so much so that he doesn’t know who he really is inside anymore.

The title is wonderful,  multi-layered, from the loss of his eye (it’s always either a stick or a bee bee gun, various characters opine throughout the book) to the quote from Erasmus at the beginning of the book,  or the various musings, (“For the first time in my life, I could see. Or I was blinded.  Or there’s no difference.”,   “The less honest I was, the more famous I should be.  The very limit of human blindness is to glory in being blind.”  – St. Augustine, ), to the idea that most of the police force could not see him for what was really going on, and Detective Caroline could.

It was a good mystery, and at the very end, a bit of a thriller, but it was basically a kind of love story.

Turns out this is the second of the Detective Caroline mysteries, so I snagged the first, Over Tumbled Graves, and I sure hope it is as good is this one.

EVERYBODY DIES by Lawrence Block

The crime series that never ends.  haha  This is number 14 in the Matthew Scudder NYC PI series.

Our boy is getting older, NYC seems to be getting cleaner, spruced up, the tech world has finally forced him into computers and cell phones, his street buddy lives across the street in his old hotel room, and he is still friends with the old criminal, Mick “The Butcher” Ballou.   When his ‘assistant’, young TJ tells him, “Heard all about you. How you the baddest dude in the ‘hood, kicking’ ass and takin’ names.”,  Scudder replies, “At my age, it’s more a matter of kicking ass and forgetting names.”

Mick has a problem.  He takes Matt out to a storage unit in New Jersey, a space he uses to store his stolen cases of whiskey.  They open the door to find two of Mick’s guys assassinated and all the whiskey gone.  Mick has no idea who did this, and because of a couple of other lesser,  very lesser, incidents, ask Matt to see what he can uncover.  Of course, he can’t go to the police, so he, Matt, and his driver Andy take the bodies up to his farm in upstate New York and bury them there.

Over the course of the series, we have seen how Matt has somewhat flexible ethics, and a willingness to commit ‘justice’, when official justice does not seem to be forthcoming.

While walking on the street, Matt is accosted by two thugs and essentially beat up and told to drop the issue.  Matt had already decided before this there was nothing more he could do and had told Mick this.  So when these two showed up, he told them the same thing, but that did not deter them.  Matt apparently got the better of them, but it scared him enough to start carrying a gun.

Then one night at his weekly dinner with his longtime AA sponsor, he was using the men’s room when a shooter entered the almost empty restaurant and shot and killed his sponsor, and his accomplice threw a bomb into the premises.   Also in the restaurant was the woman Matt had been committing adultery with, seeming to be having a tense relationship conversation with a man wearing a wedding ring.  The bomb killed her, and almost everyone else in the place.

This put the heat on Scudder to do more to find out who was behind all this.

As the bodies pile up, some of them belong to employees of Mick, one was his driver.

What a mess.  It ends with a shootout at the OK corral (the farm), and Mick decides to go live with the Thessalonian Brothers monastery on Staten Island.

Yeah.  Everybody dies.  Almost.

Very dark.  Very good.

 

NO GREAT MISCHIEF by Alistair MacLeod

This is the story of the substantial branch of the MacDonald clan that settled on Cape Breton Island off Nova Scotia  It is not history, or historical fiction exactly, although there are numerous references to the past events in Scotland, battles and heroes, none of which I had heard of because American education is so parochial.

The MacDonalds see everything in terms of their ancestry. For them, Glencoe and Culloden occupy the historic present rather than the past tense. Even their Canadian forebears cast long shadows. The narrator’s great-great-great-grandfather, Calum Ruadh or Calum the Red, left Scotland in 1779, but he is a constant presence in modern conversations.

The first person narrator, Alexander MacDonald, tells a page-turning story of his childhood from the vantage point of his current day life as a successful orthodontist.   He now visits weekly or every other week his alcoholic oldest brother in his rooming house in Toronto, and as the plot moves along, we learn just why the brother, Calum, 11 years older than he, is where he is.

Alexander has a twin sister, and when they are three years old, their parents and younger brother fall through the ice and drown, leaving the twins in the care of their paternal grandparents to raise.  Their three much older brothers move out to a derelict family house on the shore and make their own way  living in a primitive style and fishing.

When Alexander graduates high school and is ready to go to college to become a dentist, his brothers, back from mining in far parts of the globe, take jobs in the Canadian uranium mines, and after an accident to one of their clan, persuade Alexander to come with them for the summer.  So we have the story of life in the mines.  When a cousin from California joins them in the mines, they soon find he does not share the same clan values and identity, and begins to steal from the workers.  The oldest brother, Calum, defends him in a huge free-for-all brawl, in which he kills the leader of the French contingent of the miners.

It is all about loyalty, clan loyalty, family, and one’s place in it, and the take-away quote is “All of us are better when we’re loved.”

The book has a number of sometimes overdone symbols, but that’s OK.  Sometimes we Gentle Readers need to be hit over the head before we get it.  One of the recurrent themes is that of the moon, “the lantern of the poor.”   From  an old song,

Glory forever to thee so bright
Thou moon so white of this very night;
Thouself forever thou dost endure
As the glorious lantern of the poor.

A beautiful book that speaks to the heart.

 

 

THE CROW ROAD by Iain Banks

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”   So opens this likable 1993 tale of an extended family in Argyll,  Scotland.  When a novel opens like this, I’m IN!

In Scotland, there is apparently a saying “away the Crow Road”  It meant dying, being dead.  “Aye, he’s away the crow road,” meant “He’s dead.”  The crow is such a heavily laden symbol in many cultures, and often symbolizes death.  This book is all about death.  And sex.  And cars.

It was the day my grandmother exploded.  I sat in the crematorium listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.

There is also a local road named Crow Road, and it figures, if not prominently, at least conspicuously, in the story. It is narrated in the first person by young Prentice McHoan as he navigates his last year at college, trying to come to terms with his various preoccupations: death, drink, sex, God, illegal substances, and whatever happened to Uncle Rory (who disappeared a decade earlier).   Uncle Rory’s disappearance is a thread woven throughout the story, and as life unfolds, and events happen, it slowly becomes a murder mystery, with Prentice being the terribly inept detective.

It is filled with lovely, quirky characters, and situations that are funny, yet believable.  His father is struck by lightning while climbing a steeple in the local church,  his grandmother died from falling through the celestial windows of their home as she was cleaning them,  his aunt died while a passenger in a car her husband was driving too fast,  and there was one more.  I forget.  It was Four Funerals and a Wedding.   He receives a substantial bequest from one of those who was away the Crow Road, and says

… suddenly I was, if not quite within range of the mountains of Rich, certainly well into the foothills of Comfortable.

Lovely writing style, good storyline, enough unknowns to keep you interested, and some great quotes:

While dancing with Aunt Ilsa at a wedding:

Aunt Ilsa — even larger than I remembered her, and dressed in something which looked like a cross between a Persian rug and a multi-occupancy poncho – moved with the determined grace of an elephant, and a curious stiffness that made the experience a little like dancing with a garden shed.

At the funeral of his grandmother:

My Aunt Antonia — a ball of pink-rinse hair above the bulk of her black coat, like candy floss stuck upon a hearse.

The family lawyer:

Mr. Blawke was dressed somewhere in the high nines, sporting a dark grey double-breasted suit over a memorable purple waistcoat that took its inspiration from what looked like Mandelbrot but might more charitably have been Paisley.  A glittering gold fob watch the size of a small frying pan was anchored in the shallows of one waistcoat pocket by a bulk-carrier grade chain.

Mr. Blawke always reminded me of a heron;  I’m not sure why.  Something to do with a sense of rapacious stillness perhaps, and also the aura of one who knows that time is on his side.  I thought he had looked oddly comfortable int he presence of the undertakers.

All in all, a fine read.  One of those that when you are done reading, you say, ‘Gee, that was good.’

 

 

 

EVEN THE WICKED by Lawrence Block

The Lord hath made all things for Himself, yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.  –  PROVERBS 16:4

I do like Block’s titles.  This thirteenth in the Matthew Scudder NYC P.I. series might just be my favorite of the lot so far.

It centers around a self-anointed “Will of the People”, a serial killer with a difference. His targets are all people you might yourself wish were dead, from child rapist-murderer Richie Vollmer to mafioso Patsy Salerno to rabid anti-abortion activist Roswell Berry to anti-Semitic black professor Julian Rashid.

“Will of the People” writes gravely threatening letters to popular Daily News columnist Marty McGraw, naming his next target. He got started on his illustrious career of murder because McGraw, after a child rapist and murderer got released on a technicality, wrote a piece openly wishing for the man’s death. So “Will” made it happen. And then decided to carry on his good work.

Will’s latest target, all-too-successful criminal defender Adrian Whitfield, calls up Scudder to help protect him, and look into the serial killer. Scudder is sure he can’t do much about the investigation that a city full of police on the case can’t do, but does set in place top notch security for the lawyer.

Meanwhile, a friend from AA asks him to look into the unrelated shooting of AIDS-stricken Byron Leopold as he sits reading his paper in a public park.

These were both cleverly constructed cases, and the park murder was based on “viatical transactions.”

Fortunately, viatical transactions are explained very well in the book because I had never heard of them. Basically, it has to do with life insurance. If a person has life insurance, he/she can transfer the ownership of that insurance to someone else, by eliminating any named beneficiaries. (Such beneficiaries have to agree to being removed as a beneficiary). Then usually a middleman brokers the policy to someone who wishes to buy it. So someone with a terminal illness, who essentially has no money to live on for the rest of their short life, can sell the policy to get money to live on, and the buyer pays the premiums until the seller dies. Since the buyer would not want a policy on a healthy young person, they usually buy from an elderly or terminally ill person with no surviving partner they wish to take care of. So you could buy a policy for what it is worth, say $50,000, pay the premiums for a few months to a couple of years, then collect the payout value of the policy, say $75,000 and earn a big interest on your investment in a very short time. If it is a double indemnity policy, and the person dies from what is deemed accidental death, the buyer (policyholder) receives double the amount. And did you know murder is considered accidental death and the policies pay the double?

A number of aids sufferers and cancer patients take advantage of this option.

In this book, Scudder finally got his PI license, and PJ, the street kid whom Scudder befriended and hires to do scut work occasionally, has been bugging Matt to buy a computer, insisting that so much of their work could be done on a computer, Scudder does NOT give in to temptation to call and visit that other widow woman, and finally decides that since he hardly even goes in to his rent controlled room in the hotel across the street which he has had for twenty years, installs PJ in it as his on, with Scudder still the tenant of record, because Elaine and Scudder are sure the kid is homeless. And buys a computer and gives it to the kid for Christmas. Sniffle sniffle. Nice ending.

THE GADFLY by Ethel Lillian Voynich

Ethel Lillian Voynich was an Irish novelist and musician, born in 1864, and a supporter of several revolutionary causes. She was born in Cork, but grew up in England. Voynich was a significant figure, not only on the late Victorian literary scene, but also in Russian émigré circles. She is best known for her novel The Gadfly, which became hugely popular in her lifetime, especially in Russia.

Ethel Lilian Voynich was married to Habdank-Wojnicz, a revolutionary who had escaped from Siberia. In 1904 he anglicised his name to Voynich and became an antiquarian book dealer, giving his name eventually to the Voynich manuscript. Yeah, THAT Voynich.

Written in 1897, the story is about Arthur Burton, an English Catholic, who travels to Italy to study to be a priest. He discovers radical ideas, renounces Catholicism, is thrown into prison for a while, and after his release, learns that his beloved mentor, Father Montanelli, who evenutally becomes a Cardinal in the church, was actually his biological father.  His girlfriend believes false rumors about him, and tosses him over as he is returning home from prison.  In despair, he fakes his death and leaves Italy. While away he suffers great hardship, but returns with renewed revolutionary fervor. He becomes a journalist, expounding radical ideas in brilliant satirical tracts published under the pseudonym “the gadfly”.

The story examines the emotions Arthur experiences as a revolutionary, particularly drawing on the relationship between religious and revolutionary feelings. This is especially explicit at the climax of the book, where sacred descriptions intertwine with reflections on the Gadfly’s fate. Eventually Arthur is captured by the authorities and executed by a firing squad. Montanelli also dies, having lost his faith and his sanity.

The central theme of the book is the nature of a true revolutionary,and throughout we read the reflections on religion and rebellion.  The Gadfly was exceptionally popular in the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and Iran exerting a large cultural influence.  It was made into a opera, and George Bernard Shaw wrote the theatrical version.   Dmitri Shostakovich wrote a suite for orchestra which he named The Gadfly.

It was certainly a page-turner, set in a time when the peninsula of Italy had finally been brought under one flag, but the land and the people were by no means unified. Decades of internal strife had left a legacy of violence, social chaos, and widespread poverty.  The Church was a major political player, and there were a number of political revolutionary groups fighting against the authorities in attempts to bring better conditions to the average citizen.

Oh, yeah.  The Voynich Manuscript.  It is an illustrated codex hand-written in an unknown writing system. The vellum on which it is written has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century (1404–1438), and it may have been composed in Northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance. The manuscript is named after Lillian’s husband, as I mentioned above.  It has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from both World War I and World War II.  No one has yet demonstrably deciphered the text, and it has become a famous case in the history of cryptography. The mystery of the meaning and origin of the manuscript has excited the popular imagination, making the manuscript the subject of novels and speculation. None of the many hypotheses proposed over the last hundred years has yet been independently verified.  None of this has anything to do with The Gadfly.  I just thought it was an interest side note.