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No stranger danger. The critic James Wood admires the essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan as a writer "interested in human stories, watching, remembering, and sticking around long enough to be generally hospitable to otherness." Aren't those the very things were all hoping to find when we read.
Take your pick, the good boy of the book’s title is 11 year-old Joel Murphy or his K9 companion Butchie, a 100-pound German shepherd-Belgian Malinois mix. Both are fully realized creations that grab your affection as much as your attention.
Strong characters portrayed with all the complexity of real people make “The Good Boy” your good read.
This is the story of Joel and his Chicago family, his police officer father Pete, who racks up a dubious history of bending the law as much as enforcing it. (Butch is Pete’s canine partner.) There is Joel’s mother Sarah, who is burdened by a too-heavy weight of grief, mistrust and self-doubt. Joel’s sister is McKenna. It’s her teenage rebelliousness that ignites the story. Joel is at the center of the story. He’s an observant kid who inhabits a world beyond his years, someone who inhales (and catalogues) information as if it were the breath of life. And Butchie, a furry fury when need be.
But of all the characters, the most sharply etched is an overripe pole dancer who has trouble keeping her balance named Elexus who dances, yaks and clamors her way right into your heart with her resolute individuality. None of what she says is quotable here but the oaths and expletives that fly out of her mouth ring true with logic and astonishing equanimity.
A story as gritty as Chicago’s underbelly gives the book its traction, its power to take hold and not let go. Joel with Butchie in tow follows McKenna to a teen bash where illegal substances and intruding gang members stir up a confrontation that explodes into violence. Butch, trained to be a canine enforcer lunges in with sudden, disastrous results. Boy and dog flee. They take to the streets of Chicago. It’s an act of courage, an odyssey that Joel understands will lead him and Butchie away from home and safety. Stuffed in Joel’s backpack is a dog-eared (Joel wonders about the term) copy of “White Fang.” The book becomes the boy’s touchstone.
A story about a boy and his dog, this is a thriller for adults only, intense and ultimately hugely satisfying in its narrative force. Joel and Butchie take a number of wrong turns in their journey through a Chicago wasteland. Schwegel never falters as she drives straight and true to the novel’s powerful conclusion.
In a word: Wow-wee
The Brits spell judgment with and extra “e” (judgement). We’re the ones who had to be different and probably for the sake of expediency, dropped what we figured was an extraneous vowel.
The point, you ask.
The point is that as with language, we Americans have a different view of the world than our British friends. The art of politics, too, is practiced differently on the two sides of the Atlantic. The British have flair and are better able to finesse. We’re crude and uncreative by contrast. Simon Carr gives us the British version in his prickly account of how things might go if former Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair were to pass into the afterlife and be asked to account for himself and his legacy.
Blair chronicles his achievements and (few) failures in a dialogue with this keeper at the gate, a being named Sir John. Far from contrite, a bit defensive but mostly immodest, Blair credits himself and his party with serving his country well, “everything we did was to help people.” It’s difficult to be meek, Blair says, when someone such as himself is possessed with high esteem. It’s hard to argue with that logic. Blair goes on to say that making the world a better place was his purpose, “That was the whole focus of what I gave my life to – in the service of the world.” To that Sir John replies, “Just checking.”
More than just account for himself, Blair can’t help but meddle with the heavenly status quo and suggest a grand reorganization, an effort the he would be eager to lead. There’s “so much to do up here,” he intones, and Sir John agrees. Suffice it to say that a key part of Blair’s planned reorg is to beef up strategic communications. “You had the Bible. We need modern methods,” he tells Sir John.
You get the gist of things; the dialogue is meant to be clever repartee between heavenly host and former earthly ruler seeking affirmation as well as admission – and it works. For the most part, "The Last Judgement of Tony Blair" is as witty as it is wise, costs less than a buck and is a fast read on a slow Saturday afternoon.
In a word: Acerbic
“Apex Predator,” reads like a fable for adults. It’s a short, straightforward morality tale that asks us to think about the nature of trust and loyalty. At its most basic, the story wants us to examine our responsibility to care for and protect the animals that we domesticate and make part of our lives.
The apex predator is the beast surviving at the top of the food chain. Existing “in a place alive with predators, the apex predator lived the longest.”
In this story, a five-week-old Siberian tiger cub symbolizes an animal predestined to become an apex predator. Cleveland crime boss Danius Belov has brought the tiger into his home as an amusement while he’s convalescing from cancer treatment. Asked why he has the cub, Belov, a Russian émigré says, “He’s one of us! From near our homeland, at least. And look at him, just sit and watch him. Better yet – feel his fur.”
As it’s portrayed in the story, Belov’s crime empire is a jungle and in this unsafe world the apex predator is a henchman named Thor, who has been Belov’s protector and enforcer for more than two decades. This is Thor’s story of survival in a treacherous world where morality and innocence don’t count as much as cunning and dominance.
Thor has appeared before as a bit player in two of Michael Kortya’s earlier books featuring the PI Lincoln Perry – “Tonight I said Goodbye” and “A Welcome Grave.” In this story Lincoln Perry has a walk-on and Thor takes over the main stage. Both Thor and Belov are characters without much nuance. Thor, for example, never speaks in contractions. That way, he says, he’s never misunderstood.
Thor is put in a position where he comes to question his own morality and test the nature of innocence. It’s a test with grim consequences.
In his tightly coiled story Kortya sets the stage and and gets to the final curtain fast, without meandering. He keeps things moving quickly toward an inevitable and honest resolution. He gives us a lesson in morality that’s as uncomplicated as it is entertaining.
In a word: Compelling
“Flabby” popped into my head when the guy to my right on the bus asked how I was liking “Doctor Sleep.”
Flabby. That’s what I thought, but I replied, “Sort of scary but not as scary as the Shinning. I liked it but I liked ‘Carrie’ a lot more. And nothing gave me the heebie-jeebies in quite the same way ‘The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” did.”
The guy next to me on the bus said, “If you ask me, the best thing he’s written so far is ‘On Writing.’ “
I think I agree with his choice for the best by King.
Then I started thinking what I really meant by flabby. “Doctor Sleep” is a long book. Too long, by a third, I think.
It didn’t exactly feel padded with a lot of excess. But it just seemed to be filled with too much that didn’t feel necessary; information and incidents that didn’t add any roll to the story.
Flabby in the sense that it at times “Doctor Sleep” seemed soft and overly familiar, in a couple instances almost hackneyed, with stuff we’ve all heard before – like the cat King names Azzie who hangs around in the nursing home and jumps onto the bed of someone who’s about to expire.
I really got thrown out of the story when – as a too-handy plot device that for me stretched plausibility a bit – King introduced “a powerful sedative” the government’s super-secret National Security Agency had just developed that members of the True Knot managed to snatch and use to put the good guys into a nice and deep slumber whenever convenient for purposes of the narrative. For me that stretched plausibility too far
Things like that are what caused me to call the book “flabby.” But that’s flabby by way of comparison to other of books King has written. He is a master storyteller and rating and ranking what he writes is like comparing novels written by Charles Dickens. “Great Expectations,” is probably a better piece of story-telling than “Bleak House,” but everything Dickens wrote is praise-worthy in some shape or fashion.
With all that said, I’ll bet you “Doctor Sleep” is still one of the best books you’re likely to read this year. It’s my opinion that it would have been an even better story had it been a little more tightly constructed, a little leaner perhaps. “Doctor Sleep” needed, it felt like to me, a ruthless editor.
In a word: Frightful
It struck me that William Boyd hits all the right cords in his 007 novel "Solo."
All the elements are there: fast cars, exotic locales and lots of undressing, plus an arch-villain twisted as much mentally as physically. There's also the customary epicurean taste in food and drink. Bond wants his char grilled filet mignon rare ("pink but not blue on the inside"), his wine a Chateau Lynch -Bages 1953. (In "Solo" we even get in a footnote the secret vinaigrette recipe for "James Bond's Salad Dressing").
Somehow, though, something was missing, at least for me. Bond seems to have lost some of the élan, the flair that made him so memorable in his original incarnation. I was looking for more of the knowing smirk, the constant wit and the easy way he had of tossing off danger including the threat of imminent death.
Boyd characterizes agent 007 as a hero more sensitive than I remember. Here, Bond has second thoughts about beating the pulp out of his assailants; his stomach turns in the face of violence, more than once he demonstrates real empathy, to the point he's diverted from his mission in order to help save starving children. I don't remember much of that type of humanity in the original series, but then maybe I missed something and it's simply a matter that at age 45 (by my calculation, the action takes place in 1969) Bond has mellowed into middle age.
For this covert operation, M sends Bond to Africa to single-handedly quell the civil war that is tearing apart the fictional country of Zanzarim and compromising British interests. On the ground, Bond turns military strategist and comes to the aid of the rebels, with unexpected consequences. The action shifts to Washington where Bond goes "solo" in an act of revenge that ties up the plot in a knotty bundle that needs some end-of-book explanation to clear up lingering confusion over what just happened.
"Solo" is a visceral book. Boyd gives us much to see, smell, hear and taste. The action is vivid. When he gives them his attention, Boyd breathes life into his characters. What sticks most in my mind are his descriptions. In Zanzarim, he sits on a veranda, drinking whisky, "watching the bats swoop and swerve in the brief African gloaming as the sun sets in its sudden blood-orange termination." Boyd must have had a good time writing this book. He sets out to give us an entertainment. And mostly, he succeeds. I just wish he'd have given me more of the Bond I grew up reading about, more of the panache I seem to remember.
In a word: Stirring
I learned a couple things from reading Jane Alexander's account of her contentious tenure leading the National Endowment for the Arts.
First and foremost is that the battle for freedom for the arts is never-ending and that among the toughest questions a society can ever face is how to support and sustain art and the freedom of artistic expression.
Second, and most surprising, is that Jessie Helms, the former powerful and pernicious senator from North Carolina is one heck of a letter writer - as wise in his correspondence as he is witty. In one of several letters to Alexander he is irked by specific pieces of taxpayer supported art he finds distasteful, "it only takes one cockroach to spoil a pot of soup, whether it falls into it accidentally or is gratuitously put there by someone who ought to know better."
Helms and others of his bent in both houses of Congress were intent on bringing the NEA to its knees during the four years (1993 through 1997) she served as its director, a Clinton appointee. Her book is a recap of her struggle to protect the first amendment and to preserve taxpayer funding for the arts agency.
Alexander, who has won an Oscar and an Emmy for her movie and stage work fought using her considerable talent as an actor, good at persuading her audience. Initially operating with "no intrinsic knowledge of how things get accomplished," she soon became really adept at the political game, winning support and achieving consensus senator by senator and congressman by congressman.
History says her perseverance fighting the good fight paid off. In her book she quotes Shakespeare's "Tempest" when Prospero exits with the line, "Now I want spirits to enforce, art to enchant."
Alexander organizes her book as a work of stagecraft with chapters titled "Audition," "Curtain Up" and "Curtain Down" and so forth. The story she tells fits her format, for the most part, and for me that represents a quibble. Occasionally events and information feel shoehorned into the framework of the book. The chapter titled "Intermission," for example, sort of invites us along on a rafting trip in Idaho but she takes up most of those pages ruminating about the status of the NEA's appropriation bill rather than telling us about natural wonders encountered paddling the remote Selway River.
Alexander characterizes herself as a storyteller. And that she is. To me, she's most accomplished working on the stage, relying more on the spoken word. She writes "Command Performance" to chronicle the struggle she waged to protect and preserve funding for the arts. It's a story that needed to be recorded and that's its merit. Alexander quotes Emerson when she says she struggled to hold back the "hobgoblins of little minds." In the end her story becomes a cautionary tale.
In a word: Spirited
I do believe that more than anything, the author wanted to jolt you with her mid-book reveal. And because of that you shouldn't be reading all these reviews and you shouldn't even look at the dust cover if you're intending to read "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" in the manner the author intended, or more aptly stated, hoped.
But the reality of things is that the book has gotten so much attention, the story enough hype, that the surprise is no longer a mystery. Rosemary reveals the nut of the novel when she says, "I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact: that I was raised with a chimpanzee" And then adds, "I'd scarcely known a moment alone. She was my twin, my funhouse mirror, my whirlwind other half, and I loved her as a sister."
This is a book about the relationship between Rosemary and Fern, her "sister," but more so, it is an examination of what it means to be a family. And in addition to Rosemary and Fern, the Cooke family makes up a sideshow of characters that includes dad, mom and brother Lowell. There's a lot of family wackiness (read humor) caring and tenderness, to drive Fowler's story. But what you remember is the heartbreak and longing that is what really defines the relationship members of this family have with each other.
Fern was removed from the family when both she and Rosemary were six. And there's the pivot of the story. Rosemary, in her circumspect way, goes on with her life as a child and then an adult and that's the arc of the story. Enrolled at the University of California - Davis, Rosemary hitches up with another crazy cast of characters, roomies who sit around together to play "whose family is the weirdest," a game that as it turns out even Rosemary has a tough time winning.
Fowler's way with words, her phrasing and her ability to handle dialogue to make talk sound like singing are what make this book feel fresh; I felt as if I was reading an author with a new voice. And that's refreshing, and makes the book such a rewarding read.
In a word: Piquant
Although not long at under 300 pages, "Eleven Days" is a heavy book, powerful with bold ideas about war and its warriors, a novel that has the narrative drive to keep you reading and to make you think about heroes and heroics of waging war, but also about the loss and futility of it all.
The media vans and crowds of onlookers are encamped outside Sara's farmhouse in suburban Pennsylvania. They're waiting for news of her son Jason, a member of the elite Special Operations Forces, who has been missing since the night the world learned of the Bin Laden raid, nine days ago. The story follows Sara for the two anguished days she endures until she learns what's happened to her only son.
While Sara waits, the story weaves in and out of the past. We learn about Jason's father, ostensibly a writer but someone politically connected who often seems to be operating in shadows somewhere in the world, and about Jason's decision on 9/11 to abandon plans go to Harvard in order to attend the Naval Academy and join the military.
During his years at the academy and several SOF tours of duty, Jason has kept in touch through a series of letters and emails, a correspondence that reveals his heart and motivation, his fears and his feelings about bravery, what it means in today's world to be a warrior for a cause. In one note to his mother, he quotes General Douglas MacArthur, "The soldier above all other people prays for peace, for they must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war."
For a first-time novelist, Carpenter has the narrative sense, pace and timing of a great storyteller, someone who can talk about big ideas and raise important issues without being ponderous. For me, "Eleven Days" gets five stars for just being a rip of a read.
In a word: gut-wrenching
Visiting Amsterdam is for most people experiencing something exotic. Russell Shorto travels the city and sifts through its glory and history to explain the nature of this unique appeal and allure as a place definitely not ordinary.
The one cultural aspect that more than any other defines Amsterdam is its liberalism, liberalism in its permissiveness for viewpoints and activities - sex and pot, for example - and for generally looking the other way amid outré behavior. An atmosphere of intellectual freedom (which led to Amsterdam's status as a dynamic center for publishing) is another hallmark.
Although Shorto writes a guide to the modern city, this isn't a travel book. In fact, one thing missing (at least from this edition) are maps of the city, old and new. The book is not exactly a cultural history either.
Shorto starts at the beginning when Amsterdam was an outpost, a bend in a river that led to the sea. He wanders around through history, telling us about the people - Willem of Orange, the events - the German occupation during WWII - and the economic engines - The East India Company - that gave rise to the city. And liberalism - tolerance as a cultural constant, a way of life and forbearance - is the narrative thread that weaves it all together.
Shorto puts forward the notion that this taste for tolerance arose from the sea. Two thirds of the country is below water line and if the Dutch had any hope of winning their never-ending battle against the sea, out of necessity they needed to cooperate, to get along in their fight against a common adversary. And as it was then, it remains now.
Shorto's mixing of history, biography and economics serves him well. The book is a good read and a comprehensive account of the makings of a city made great by its uniqueness. If you're planning a visit or simply have an interest in what it is exactly that gives Amsterdam its allure, this is your definitive guide. If at times it begins to feel as if Shorto is flogging his subject with excess, that to me is okay. Without question he's giving liberalism - and Amsterdam - its due.
In a word: essential