TRAIN DREAMS By Denis Johnson

It is the story of Robert Grainier, a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century—an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Buffeted by the loss of his family, Grainer struggles to make sense of this strange new world. As his story unfolds, we witness both his shocking personal defeats and the radical changes that transform America in his lifetime. Suffused with the history and landscapes of the American West, this novella captures the disappearance of a distinctly American way of life.”

I always seem to get caught up with these turn of the century (1800s to 1900s — THAT turn of the century), early American west stories.  Something about that time appeals to me.  Maybe because a lot of the descriptions are about areas and a way of life that no longer exist.

Spanning the time from the turn of the 20th century up until the late 60s,  the reader is set to watch as the American west is transfigured by the technological growth of the nation, while ultimately exposing the hidden, untouched and nearly mythical qualities of the wild. Following with Robert Grainier, a common man living among extraordinary times, Johnson plays with the forces that shape a nations destiny while paying homage to the myths and legends of the wild world that continue to lurk in the dark recesses left untouched by the future.

A novella, almost poetic in its writing.

 

SNOW CRASH by Neal Stephenson

In reality, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s CosoNostra Pizza Inc., but in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new computer virus that’s striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the neon-lit streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy virtual villain threatening to bring about infocalypse. Snow Crash is a mind-altering romp through a future America.

This book has the pervasive air of nerdy geekiness (or, perhaps, geeky nerdiness), an unexpected take on linguistics, a kick-ass female character, a parallel (virtual) reality, a hefty helping of (admittedly, overexaggerated) satire, and just enough wacky improbable worldbuilding to make this complicated book a page turner, even when you don’t understand the pages you are turning.

Stephenson introduces a world where governments have collapsed and societies are held loosely together by anarcho-capitalism.  It is an intelligent, modern adventure that expertly weaves in elements of pre-history and archeological thrill seeking,  spiced up with a cacophony of sci-fi, techno-socio-economic observations, and a kaleidoscope of theological and philosophical concepts all thrown together.

 

THREE-WAYS By Mike Markel

Another in the Detectives Seagate and Miner mystery series.  Detective Seagate is a recovering alcoholic, and pretty much doing OK.  Dectectice Miner, her partner,  is a charming young man, a Mormon with strong convictions, recovering from a horrific shooting in the previous book, and now is walking around with a cane.

When grad student Austin Sulenka is found strangled, nude on his bed, the first question for Detectives Seagate and Miner is whether it was an auto-asphyxiation episode gone wrong. Evidence strewn around his small apartment suggests that he spent his last night with a number of different women. One was Tiffany, a former student who still resented the injustice of getting a C in the course when he promised her a B if she slept with him. Another was Austin’s beautiful girlfriend, May, who had never before encountered a man she could not totally beguile. Then there was his thesis adviser, Suzannah Montgomery, who might have inadvertently revealed to Austin some information about her past that could ruin her own career. These three women and their other partners had plenty of reasons to kill the philandering graduate student. Detective Karen Seagate and her partner try to unravel the complicated couplings. 

Another fine offering in this series.

 

THE ONES YOU DO by Daniel Woodrell

This is the third and final entry in Daniel Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy featuring St. Bruno, Louisiana police detective Rene Shade. In this book, though, Rene has been suspended from the department and appears only occasionally. The main protagonist is actually Rene’s father, John X. Shade, a pool hustler who had abandoned the family years earlier.

John is now well into his sixties and living in Mobile, Alabama. His vision is getting blurry; he’s got the shakes, and his days of making serious money as a pool sharp are well behind him. He’s reduced to working at a rib joint to support himself, his new much younger wife, and their very precocious ten-year-old daughter, Etta.

John’s wife, Randi, “The ‘Bama Butterfly,” is an aspiring singer, and as the book opens, she’s decided to pursue her destiny in Europe where she feels that her talent will be more appreciated. She leaves Etta behind to deliver a note to John informing him of the situation.

To make matters worse, Randi finances her trip by stealing $47,000 from the safe of John’s boss, a five-foot, six-inch psychopath named Lunch Pumphery. Lunch is totally nuts and Shade knows that Lunch will hold him responsible for the money. Shade figures that the only sensible thing to do, then, is to whack Lunch over the head a couple of times with a bottle of Maker’s Mark, gather up Etta and hit the road.

Shade decides to return to his old home in St. Bruno where he was once the most handsome man in town, for a reunion with his three sons, Rene among them. Lunch Pumphrey is in hot pursuit, and things are bound to get dicey.

Dang.  I’m sorry to see this series end.

MUSCLE FOR THE WING by Daniel Woodrell

The second of the Bayou Trilogy.  In the parish of St. Bruno the local citizenry exists in an uneasy alliance with a gaggle of small-time mobsters who are headed by a local boss named Auguste Beaurain. A trio of ex-cons, members of a prison gang named The Wing, move in with intentions of taking over the town’s action. They begin by knocking over a high stakes poker game that is protected by Beaurain. In the process, they kill a cop who was playing in the game, rather than guarding it as he was supposed to do.

The surviving players and the mobsters are naturally upset and so are the cops. Even though the dead man was at least slightly bent, he was one of their own, and they can’t sit idly by and let the punks get away with this.

The mayor, who is in Beaurain’s pocket, orders Rene Shade, detective who grew up on the sleezy streets of St. Bruno,  to team up with one of the local mob figures to go after the interlopers. What follows is a  tale of crime, corruption, sex and betrayal. Woodrell creates a great cast of characters and places them in a deftly-drawn setting. Atmosphere is a strong character in this book, and the characters are definitely a treat.

Loved it.  On to the third.

UNDER THE BRIGHT LIGHTS by Daniel Woodrell

This is the first volume in Daneil Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy and focuses on vivid characters and colorful atmosphere that includes smoky pool rooms and swamps.

Jewell Cobb is a small town Louisiana boy who has come to the city with dreams of making it big in crime, and he gets hired to kill a crooked politician.   Detective Rene Shade grew up on the streets he now works, is a former boxer-turned-police detective with a complicated family situation. Shade lives above the pool hall owned by his mother; one slightly disreputable brother owns a bar frequented by local outlaws; Shade’s younger brother works for the city attorney and has loftier ambitions, and the boys’ father, a pool hustler, is long gone and hasn’t been seen in years.  As Shade tries to run down Cobb and figure out what’s behind the gang violence things get messy.

When a local black politician is shot to death, Shade is called to investigate. It’s immediately clear to Shade that this is a case of deliberate homicide and that the killing may have been politically motivated. But the mayor is anxious to avoid any possible political scandal and insists that the detectives investigate the crime as a burglary gone bad.

Shade will follow orders up to a point, but inevitably he will pursue the case in the direction that the evidence takes him. Soon he’s heading deep in the Bayou’s sordid underbelly, and a number of other murders follow.

Woodrell’s real strength is in his writing, which is lyrical, in the settings he describes, and in the characters he creates. I really enjoyed this book.  Now on to the second in the Trilogy.

TRUTH AND BEAUTY by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett and the late Lucy Grealy met in college in 1981, and, after enrolling in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, began a friendship that would be as defining to both of their lives as their work. In Grealy’s critically acclaimed memoir Autobiography of a Face, she wrote about losing part of her jaw to childhood cancer, years of chemotherapy and radiation, and endless reconstructive surgeries. In Truth and Beauty, the story isn’t Lucy’s life or Ann’s life but the parts of their lives they shared. This is a portrait of unwavering commitment that spans twenty years, from the long winters of the Midwest to surgical wards to book parties in New York. Through love, fame, drugs, and despair, this is what it means to be part of two lives that are intertwined–and what happens when one is left behind. 

This is a memoir of a friendship which seems to address the questions like when does unique closeness become dysfunctional and unhealthy?   uniquely intimate? codependent? almost physical? unhealthily close, or just unusually close?  I found it an odd book in parts, as it seems to push most of Patchett’s life and participation into the background, and feature the increasingly dysfunctional actions of her friend.  I found it hard to understand why they were friends in the first place, and why that friendship continued on Patchett’s end.

It was however a compelling read, and gave me a picture of a writer (Grealy) of whom I had never heard.