Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen

My main reading guilty pleasure includes several former (or current) newspaper journalists turned novelists.  Pete Dexter, Jennifer Weiner, and Carl Hiaasen tops the list.  According to the author's bio in his latest novel, Bad Monkey, Hiaasen was born and raised in Florida and has authored 12 novels.  He also has four children's books, four works of non fiction, and four co-authored novels.  Carl still writes a column for The Miami Herald.  While I am not a big fan of murder mysteries, something about Hiaasen's style draws me in again and again.  I have now read five of his novels and enjoyed everyone.

Andrew Yancy is a skinny homicide detective who assaults his lover’s husband when he abuses her.  The wealthy man threatens a law suit, and Yancy is demoted to “roach patrol,” or restaurant inspector as punishment.  When a fishing boat lands a human arm, Yancy is asked to take it to the Miami Medical Examiner.  The police chief of sleepy, quiet Big Pine Key hopes the case will go away.  He has no desire to take on a homicide investigation.  The ME examines the limb but refuses to keep it.  Against instructions from the chief, Yancy takes it home and stores it in his freezer.  The incident is labeled a “boating accident.”  A couple of shootings occur and they seem to be unrelated, but the detective in Yancy is not so sure.  He begins accumulating clues.

A sub-plot involves the construction of a monstrous summer home, which provides some comic relief – although Yancy himself is pretty comical.  Throw in the Dragon Queen – a voodoo priestess -- a man angered by the destruction of his family home, and a nasty little monkey, and the reader is in for a rollicking ride.

Hiaasen always draws interesting and eccentric characters.  He writes, “The phone kept ringing, but Yancy didn’t answer it.  He was drinking rum, sitting in a plastic lawn chair.  From next door came the offensive buzz of wood saws and the metallic pops of a nail gun.  The absentee owner of the property was erecting an enormous spec house that had no spiritual place on Big Pine Key, and furthermore interfered with Yancy’s modest view of the sunset.  It was Yancy’s fantasy to burn the place down as soon as the roof framing was finished. // He heard a car stop in his driveway but didn’t rise from the chair.  His visitor was a fellow detective, Rogelio Burton.  // ‘Why don’t you pick up your phone?’ Burton said. // ‘You believe that monstrosity? It’s like a [damn] mausoleum.’ // Burton sat down beside him. // [The Police Chief] wants you to take a road trip.’ // ‘Miami?’” 

Like most heroes asked to embark on an adventure, Yancy at first declines, but he then decides he better go north in the hope getting his badge back.

Like all good mystery writers, Carl Hiaasen’s latest novel slowly reveals the truth of the wayward arm.  Bad Monkey will satisfy anyone’s thirst for a good old whodunit.  5 stars

--Chiron, 8/13/15

Friday, August 07, 2015

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

My faithful readers are well-aware of my love for the Man Booker Prize collection of novels.  I first discovered this treasure trove of literary works when I came across Anita Brookner’s prize-winner, Hotel du Lac.  On this, the sixth anniversary of Likely Stories, I return to the author of the first novel I reviewed. 

Anita Brookner was born in Herne Hill, a suburb of London.  She was the only child of Newson Bruckner, a Polish immigrant to Britain, and Maude Schiska, a singer whose father had emigrated from and founded a tobacco factory.  Maude changed the family's surname to Brookner because of anti-German sentiment in Britain.  Anita Brookner had a lonely childhood, although her grandmother and uncle lived with the family, and her parents, secular Jews, opened their house to Jewish refugees escaping Nazi persecution during the 1930s and World War II .  Brookner was educated at the private James Allen's Girls' School.  In 1949 she received a BA in History from King's College London, and in 1953 a doctorate in Art History from the Courtland Institute of Art, University of London.  Brookner has not married, but took care of her parents as they aged.

This wonderfully introspective novel traces the journey of “Edith Hope, a writer of romantic fiction under a more thrusting name,” -- as Brookner labels her -- has committed a social faux pas of immense proportions.  Her friend Penelope bundles her off for a month at the end-of-season to Hotel du Lac in Switzerland.  There she wanders around the lake, works on her latest novel, and makes the acquaintance of several denizens of the sparsely occupied hotel. 

Hotel du Lac, Vevey, Switzerland
Brookner writes, “The result of all this was to re-open in Edith’s mind the question of what behavior most becomes a woman, the question around which she had written most of her novels, the question she had attempted to argue with Harold Web [her publisher], the question she had failed to answer and which she now saw to be of the most vital importance.  The excitement she thus experienced at being provided with an opportunity to study the question at first hand was if anything heightened by the fact that everything Mrs. Pusey had said so far was of the utmost triviality.  Clearly there were depths here that deserved her prolonged attention” (40).

Edith immersed herself in her novel, and garnered endless thoughts and comments by the somewhat eccentric guests living out the last days of the fall season at Hotel du Lac.  She slowly begins folding the experiences of others into her current novel.  Slowly, she comes to a rational solution to her exile, and returns to London – wiser, more confidant, and fully in charge of her future.

This pleasant, short novel slowly reveals the peculiar reason for Edith’s exile to Switzerland, which has some significant effect on her outlook -- past, present, and future.  I also recommend Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac as a great introduction to the amazingly entertaining series of Booker Prize winners.  A wonderful summer, autumn, winter or spring read.  5 stars

--Chiron, 8/7/15

The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

While straightening out my shelves, I came across a book I read when I was in about 7th grade.  Thanks to Sister Stella Marie, who alone encouraged me to read books I enjoyed even if they verged on adult titles.  The book I recently pulled from the shelf was The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.  The dust jacket is long gone, and it has several stains on the cover, but I immediately became overcome with memories and emotions from those days. 

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was born August 8, 1896 in Washington, D.C.  She lived in rural Florida and wrote of rural themes and settings.  Her most beloved novel was The Yearling.  She lived in numerous places around the country working as a journalist.  By 1928, they settled in rural Florida after buying a 72-acre farm in Frontier Florida in the Ocala National Forest, southeast of Gainesville.  The Rawlings Society quoted Marjorie, when she described the wilds of her new home.  She wrote, "This was not the Gold coast of Florida.  It was a primitive section off the beaten path, where men hunted and fished and worked small groves and farms for a meager living.  And the country was beautiful, with its mysterious swamps, its palms, its great live oaks, dripping gray Spanish moss, its deer and bear and raccoons and panthers and reptiles." Marjorie died December 14, 1953 in St. Augustine, Florida. 

Back in seventh grade, I never knew any of this, as I sat immersed in the delightful story of Jody, his father Penny, and Ma Baxter as they desperately tried to scratch out a meager existence.  They competed for food and a safe place to raise offspring with raccoons, foxes, bears, deer, wolves, coyotes, rattle snakes, and the Florida panther, which was one of the first species added to the U.S. Endangered Species List in 1973.  Today, there are less than 100 Florida panthers left in the wild.

I noticed two curious things about the booked I so loved then – which may have been the first novel I read twice.  First is the dialect spoken by the settlers in the early nineteenth century.  Although a bit strange at first, I quickly adapted to the local tongue; however, this time I had a dictionary of American Slang close to hand all the while I read.  The second was the wonderfully astute cracker barrel philosophy of Penny. 

Rawlings wrote, “Jody’s mother had accepted her youngest with something of detachment, as though she had given all she had of love and care and interest to those other [children she lost].  But Penny’s bowels yearned over his son.  He gave him something more than his paternity.  He found that the child stood wide-eyed and breathless before the miracle of bird and creature, of flower and tree, of wind and rain, and sun and moon, as he had always stood.  And if, on a soft day in April, the boy had prowled away on his boy’s business, he could understand the thing that had drawn him.  He understood, too, its briefness. // His wife’s bulk stirred and she made a sound in her sleep.  He would act on any such occasion, he knew, as a bulwark for the boy against the mother’s sharpness.  The whip-poor-will flew farther into the forest and took up his lament again, sweet with distance.  The moonlight moved beyond the focus of the bedroom window.  // ‘Leave him kick up his heels,’ he thought, ‘and run away.  Leave him build his flutter-mills.  The day’ll come, he’ll not even care to’” (20-21).

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling has withstood the hurricane of time for me.  I found it as warm, sad, joyous, and heart-breaking as I did back in the late ‘50s.  If you have never read it, or if you have, travel back in time and relive your own childhood innocence and wonder at the beauty of nature.  5 stars

--Chiron, 8/7/15

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Art of Tony Auth : To Stir, Inform, and Inflame by Tony Auth

For almost 40 years, I have admired the editorial cartoons of Tony Auth in The Philadelphia Inquirer.  He skewed politicians, clergymen, and plutocrats of all stripes. 

One of my favorites on page 232 of The Art of Tony Auth : To Stir, Inform, and Inflame shows an obese elephant drinking from a tea pot with a skull and crossbones.  The caption reads, “Obama rescued Goldman Sachs, and the banks, saved the financial industry and salvage America’s auto companies … all in a pathetic attempt to hide his socialism.”  The runner-up – only three pages later – has four panels.  They all have text, which reads, “He wasn’t, you know, born in America.”  He’s not, you know, a Christian.”  He’s, you know, a Muslim or a Kenyan.”  “He’s, well, you know…”  This last panel has a silhouette of Obama, ears and all.  Auth really hit the nail on the head with these two.

Of course, I could stay here all day and pick out dozens more, but that would rob you of the fun.  Pick up a copy and laugh and cry and pick out your favorites.  Tony died in September of 2014.  He has left a big whole in The Inky.

--Chiron, 7/24/15

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Painter by Peter Heller

About two years ago, I read a first novel by Peter Heller.  The dystopian landscape he painted in The Dog Stars, captured my imagination immediately.  I met Heller at a library conference and was further intrigued by the author himself.  He has an impressive resume of non-fiction work, as well as duties on NPR.  Earlier this year, my wife surprised me with a copy of his latest novel, The Painter. 

Jim Stegner is a painter with a checkered past.  He shot a man in a bar, and spent some time in prison.  He has a passion for fly fishing, which he did with his daughter Alce (sic), until she got involved in a drug deal which went bad.  The perp stabbed her numerous times and left her in an alley.  As often happens, this led to the breakup of his marriage.  Now paroled, he has settled in Colorado, established himself with a trendy gallery, and his paintings sell in the middle to high five figures.  On a routine drive to a fishing hole, he finds the road blocked by horse trailer.  Two men attempt to wrangle a horse into the trailer.  One of the men gets a 2x4 from his truck and begins beating the horse.  Jim’s temper gets the better of him, and he attacks the man, breaks his nose, and pushes him into a ditch.  The other man attacks Jim, and he ends up on the ground.  The two horse-beaters leave Jim with the horse.

This apparently innocuous event begins to form a maelstrom sweeping Jim into a mess of enormous proportions.  prose is so intense, I felt myself beside him in the dark woods.  I walked with him, the branches scraped my arms, shadows followed me, I saw figures moving in the brush.  The sense someone was after me overpowered me, and forced me to take breaks from reading parts of the novel.

One particularly intense scene occurs during the end of the novel.  Jim calmly fishes a stream.  Suddenly, “‘OW!’ // Hard pressed under my jaw the cold prod.  Steel.  I knew without a thought that it was a gun. // ‘Prince nymph, good choice.  What I’d use probably.’ // I couldn’t see him.  He was behind me with the handgun held out and up against my throat.  His voice was graveled, as if he hadn’t spoken in a while. // ‘Can’t lose tonight.  Nobody feeding up top, all gathered up in the deeper pools, idling, just waiting for that thing to tumble by.’ // His voice in the back of my ear.  Could smell the chew on his breath, not a bad smell, Copenhagen.  Couldn’t look though, couldn’t turn my head, because there was the cold muzzle hard against the bone.  The quickening of my heart. // ‘Hi, Jason.’ // A long silence while the snout of the handgun held pressure against my head” (353-354).  This encounter continues for a terrifying and tense 10 more pages.  I read the conclusion to this novel in about 4 chunks.  The intensity prevented me from stopping, but I needed the breather.  I expected something terrible to happen almost from the time Jim pushed the man into the ditch.  Things did happen, but not the way I expected.  You will have to figure out the ending for yourself.

This roller-coaster novel swings between pleasant peaceful experiences and terrifying car chases, fly fishing in a mountain stream, scary moments in the woods, and shots fired at a house Jim visited to complete a portrait commission.  I am anxiously awaiting the next novel by the talented author, Peter Heller.  I hope he can top his latest, The Painter.  5 stars

--Chiron, 7/11/15