The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

August 31, 2008

REVIEW: RAIN DOGS by Sean Doolittle

Synopsis: Investigative journalist Tom Coleman is running from the death of his young daughter and the ruin of his marriage. He is running to the bottle. Leaving behind his job in Chicago for his grandfather's legacy in the Sandhills region of Nebraska, Tom encounters a destroyed meth lab, drug runners, police brutality, and faces his own weakness. He also renews his acquaintance with his first love, Abby, now a widow and with a stepson who is right up to his teen angst in all the trouble.

On the whole I enjoyed this book and I think author Sean Doolittle has tremendous potential. My expectations may have been a little high because the recommendation to read Doolittle's work came from one of my favorite authors, Michael Koryta, who said that Doolittle was writing the best crime fiction in America right now. High praise indeed, and possibly true of Doolittle's more recent work which I do intend to read. This book, however, is good but not good enough to qualify it as the best crime fiction in America. And after reading Laura Lippman's blurb on the jacket: "Sean Doolittle is a cult writer for the masses -- hip, smart and mordantly funny," I think she must have been referring to a different book as well. Rain Dogs is very much a mainstream work of crime fiction. In other words, if this book is 'cult' crime fiction then so is Laura Lippman's.

Characterization: The characters are solidly drawn but rarely went deep enough to resonate with me, in spite of the great torment that provides the protagonist his excuse to drink. Compare the descriptions of Tom Coleman's binges to one of the Dave Robicheaux character's (from author James Lee Burke) lapses. There is a relentless and awesomely ugly honesty in the Robicheaux portrait. Coleman's episodes are more simplistic. He drinks and then he awakens. The nastiness in-between somehow seems not only not to be part of the Coleman character, it almost seems never to happen. Except for one truly well-written, out-of-the-body depiction of a drunk Coleman holding a gun to his head and contemplating suicide it's hard to believe the guy is really as pathetic as such a man would be in reality. It's like a cheat, that the author gives you this terribly flawed character but then disguises the results of the flaw so well that you are hardly ever out of sympathy with him. If Coleman had no worse habit than biting his fingernails I would have had the same reaction to him. The finest bit of characterization is that of the county sheriff, Roy Hilliard. Hilliard walks and talks like he could be a stereotypical small-town crooked sheriff but the man goes deeper than that, often leaving the reader wondering about his motives. He's a political creature as well as a community leader; a man of realism but not so pragmatic that he lacks fire in the belly. For me, he was the most interesting character in the story. Best part of all the characterization was the dialogue. Doolittle can definitely write dialogue, from strait-laced Federal agents to laid-back stoners.

Pacing: Slow to build, but not too slow, the tension does wind tighter and tighter. From the beginning, small bits of information are dropped, keeping the reader's interest honed right through the climactic confrontation. I thought the pacing was perfection.

Setting / Ambiance: Maybe I didn't feel like I was about to go canoeing on the river with these folks, but I still got a good feeling about the distances between everything, including people, and I was surprised by how the landscape felt more welcoming and much more variable than I anticipated when I first realized the setting was western Nebraska. I was totally intrigued by the aquifer and I'll be reading up on that, you better believe.

Plot: Maybe not the most original I've read, but given there were some holes in the story and a certain lack of resolution, it's probably best that the story was more mainstream than cult, Laura Lippman notwithstanding. The story in fact, is rather basic, and if there is a single theme that unites the book and lifts it above merely being an enjoyable read, well, I missed it. So sue me.

Overall satisfaction: Maybe it doesn't seem like it, but I really did enjoy Rain Dogs. It held my interest and moved along nicely without rushing me or leaving me in the dust. I feel certain that author Sean Doolittle can do better (probably even already has), and I love to read along as a new author begins to stretch and find for him/herself what works and what does not, and just what his own writing voice is. If I were recommending this book, it would be to people who are fans of Michael Koryta, Robert Crais, Sean Chercover and Giles Blunt perhaps, with the advisory that this particular book was written by an author who has the potential to be as good as they are. Doolittle's particular gift lies in the easy flow of his prose, the dialogue and exposition never step on each other and neither gets short shrift. And one of the best things about Doolittle's prose is the lack of affectation and pretention, something all too prevalent among certain new writers who think they are the next coming of Ken Bruen.

In summary, I'd say that Rain Dogs, regardless of its shortcomings, is one of the best books I've read this month, and that puts it squarely in the company of books by Koryta, Winslow, and Westlake. Not quite to their level of craftsmanship perhaps but it sure enough makes Doolittle a writer that I'll keep tabs on.

August 27, 2008

Ten Reasons I Love Books

Everybody thinks it's just about reading but there's so much more to it:

1. I love the way books look on shelves: neat but not uniform; colorful but not blinding. I love the way you can line up the spines and run your fingers across them, and the different textures from fabrics to paper to slick Mylar. I love that I can arrange books by author, by subject, by format, by publisher, and by favorites. That's not a photo of my shelves, just so you know. But maybe if I wish hard enough...

2. I like the way each book opens. Some open to the frontispiece, some fall open to someone else's favored page, some to the place where a cruel human broke the spine. Some books resist being opened, some still need their pages cut. All of them are trying to tell me something when they are opened randomly. They are trying to share their own story, beyond the one on the printed page.

3. Books wear well. You can tear them, stain them, write in them, spill on them. Some you can bend or furl. You can break their spines; you can dog ear them; tuck them under a sweaty arm or shove them to the bottom of a trunk. You can bag them, box them, stack them, shelve them, throw them. And after all of that you still have a book to read. (You cannot burn them however. This is a crime against humanity.)

4. Books are patient and never fickle. You can lay one aside and pick up another and then another, and the first one will wait until you come back. They don't mind when, after months of struggling to the top of the TBR (To Be Read) heap, you turn away to the brand new book by a favored author. You can shove a book to the back of the shelf, having read and disliked it; it will wait for you to come back and discover the wisdom or laughter you overlooked at first reading. A book will stay with you through an all-night reading fest or will let you while away the minutes at the doctor's office. A book will wait forever, no matter its other virtues or lack of.

5. I like the way a book becomes a living thing when I am enjoying it, how the characters step away from the pages and breathe on their own. I like how the settings unfold and surround me, how I can cruise along the sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles or watch the heat lightning along the Atchafalaya Basin while I eat boudin and drink sweet tea. I've ridden through Laurel Canyon in Elvis Cole's yellow Stingray and I've gone pubcrawling in Galway with Jack Taylor. I've suffered frostbite and starvation and betrayal in the Arctic with William Laird McKinley and feasted at Nero Wolfe's elegant table. I've picked locks with John Dortmunder (once I hid in a dishwasher with him; that was painful) and answered the phone while Parker was killing a man in his garage. Does it get any better than lounging in a wingback chair in 18th century Paris, sharing the fire with Alastair, Duke of Avon, unfurling a painted fan and plying it gently whilst scheming to destroy our old enemy, the Comte de St. Vire?

6. I like the way a book becomes a shared memory between people who've read and enjoyed it. Years after we've read the book, it will still conjure up laughter and conversation, some will bring back a sense of stabbing heartbreak for those characters who once were so close to us. And when two strangers discover a book in common, they are no longer strangers because suddenly they have that same shared memory. There is a very Jerry Garcia-looking man who works at the used bookstore sometimes, and how I smile whenever I get his seal of approval on my choices because I know we like the same kinds of books and I'll be certain to enjoy my purchases.

7. I like the way books are an adventure. I don't mean simply the ones that are about adventure, I mean how I feel I am taking a risk when I try out a new author or new subject matter. Am I being challenged? Is there a new idea in here? Is this story different or the same as what has come before? Is it going to entertain me or educate me? Both? Will it be worth my time or a waste of time? Will I be different at the end of this book or will I be unchanged? Before reading the first word beyond the title page, the book is a Great Unknown. Will I know it when I have finished reading it, or will this book remain a mystery to me? Will this book warm my heart or chill my bones? Save my soul or damn my eyes?

8. Books don't require anything but me and light (natural or artificial) in order to be of use. No batteries required, no electricity, no buttons, switches, or keyboards. No operating system, no software, no disks or drives. No engine, no gasoline, no oil (or no one would read). Just me, the book, and 'a star to steer by.'

9. Books are a great equalizer. A book doesn't require a degree, an interview, a placement test. A book won't say different things depending on your social class, race, religion, age, or sex; it says what it says. What you take away from the book is up to the individual though. The pages won't turn a different way for the rich than for the poor, no different for the old than for the young. Everyone can read all of the pages, some, or none. Your choice. No rule by majority, no vote-tampering. Just you and the book. You can read Oliver Twist in fifth grade (as I did) or you can read AA Milne's Now We Are Six at age 30 (as I did), and get enjoyment. No one can censor your reading material but you (no matter how parents try; but my view on censorship is for another day).

10. Books end. They are not endless soap operas rehashing hash. There is a sense of accomplishment upon completing a book. There is always a moment -- or many moments, days, weeks even -- of contemplation following the end of a book. There is resolution (perhaps), decision, analysis. Sometimes there is the delight of knowing you've found a new favorite author, and he or she has several other books already published. It's like finding a treasure trove. Or there can be the depressing realization that you've just finished the latest book by a favorite author and there won't be another new one for a year or more. Sometimes there's the comforting thought that, though you didn't care that much for the book, at least there's one less in the TBR stack now. And although you may never open that book again, it will be with you always. Is that value or what?

August 26, 2008

Miscellaneous Monday

I started Richard Price's LUSH LIFE this morning. I have not read his work before. I read all the jacket blurbs first of course, and most of them praise his dialogue. There does seem to be a lot of it in these early pages, and it does have a natural feel; that doesn't always make it easy to follow on the printed page. But I'm only in the very early pages.

I saw ON DANGEROUS GROUND last night, it being the last night of the City Noir film series at the Grandview Library. Robert Ryan turned in his usual fine job of playing a man teetering on the precipice. I'm not sure I'd call the movie 'noir' though. Well, the first half or more is certainly noir, but after Ryan encounters Ida Lupino the movie suddenly turns into a romance wherein the man-going-bad is redeemed by the love of a good (and in this case, blind) woman. I was disappointed in the movie, but I was more surprised by the number of men at the post-film discussion who liked the romantic ending! How does that work, men liking a chick-flick ending to what started out as good, solid noir?

The weather turned cool enough today, oddly cool for August, that I gave into temptation and brewed up some homemade veggie-beef soup. With lots of Frank's Hot Sauce, America's great culinary gift to the world. The great thing about homemade soups (besides how good they are) is that there is no way to make just enough for me, so there's always leftover soup for tomorrow. And everyone knows that it's a universal given, soup always tastes better on the second day. So I guess I'll put off making that cauliflower au gratin until Friday.

I did something else today, something that is almost impossible for me to do: Took a couple dozen books to the Columbus Metropolitan Library and donated them to Friends of the Library. That's very hard to do, part with books. But sometimes some of them just have to make way for others.

I go to just about every library within a 30-mile radius, but the CML is really my home library, and it's a wonderful, wonderful place. But you know me, I could find fault with a saint. So I have to say that I really don't care for the way they handle the genealogy section. It's not that they're mishandling it, it's that research there is no fun now, for a number of reasons most of which have to do with my comfort and convenience. But aside from the way the genealogy section is now handled, CML is an absolutely top-notch library. It is, if not the finest, one of the top five public library systems in the country. You could look it up.

Waterfire occurs again this Friday night. Gotta get there early, get a good seat for BalletMet. You cannot beat free events like Waterfire. Beautiful, and when done as it was when held at North Bank Park, it was surreal. I thought I must be taking drugs, it was so otherworldly. When it moved to Genoa Park it became more a bit more like a community wienie roast. Not that bad, no, it's still very beautiful to see all those fires on the water, but it's minus the surrealistic, occasionally primeval quality it had at the previous location. But still, it's lovely and it's free and this time, they're adding BalletMet -- also free -- just after the lighting. Aside: BalletMet is performing Dracula again this fall, then retiring the production. Don't miss it, but leave the kids home. This version is for mature audiences.

August 17, 2008

More of those late night, whiskey perfumed thoughts.

Okay, so I may have consumed a tad more of the Johnny Walker Black than was good for me, but I consumed it at the Red Door Tavern over in Grandview, so at least I had a nice color contrast. Funny thing, too, because I went there directly after seeing 'Bottle Shock,' a nifty little film starring a favorite of mine, Alan Rickman. Rickman does snooty so beautifully. And he doesn't do it just one way either; the snooty wine snob in this film is a very different kind of snob from the murderous creature Rickman portrayed in 'Die Hard.' Anywho, you'd think that after a film about an award-winning chardonnay that I might at least have examined the wine list, eh? I can be so perverse.

Have you read Michael Koryta's latest and greatest, 'Envy the Night?' Why not? Hurry, because Craig McDonald has a new book coming in scant weeks and you'll need a day or two just to get your head around the title, 'Toros and Torsos.' His first book was 'Head Games.' You think he's got some kind of fixation on anatomical bits?

I've slowly, and I do mean slowly, been watching the first season of 'Dexter.' I'm struggling with it. The scripting is excellent, the acting is mostly good, but I have difficulty with the concept of hero-serial killer -- he only kills people who "need" killing... I go back yet again to Harry Bosch: "Everyone counts or no one does." And in Dexter, the feeling is that no one does. And I can appreciate the avant-noir aspect of the show without actually approving of it. I'm not usually squeamish, or at least I didn't think so, but the more I watch the show the less I am entertained by it. Yet it's clever, and certainly original. The feeling I get from this show is that somehow I am still supposed to root for Dexter, but as he is a sociopath that's not possible. Let's contrast Dexter, say, to Jim Thompson's Lou Ford, the killer deputy in 'The Killer Inside Me.' I was entertained by Thompson's psychopathic protagonist without Thompson ever once making me feel that I should be sympathetic to the Lou Ford. So when the denouement occurs in the book I am both entertained and morally appeased. Not so with Dexter, or at least not in these first few episodes. There is no moral appeasement and any comeuppance he receives comes from a character as dark as Dexter is. So I am less entertained and am, in fact, rather disturbed by the notion I'm getting that I am supposed to consider this butcherous monster as just another aspect of social 'diversity.' Hey, I'm all for understanding cultural diversity, but Dexter is not simply a guy with a different religion or culture or skin color. He's a monster walking around in human form. Portraying him as cute and lovable and maybe just a trifle dysfunctional is stretching my tolerance too damned far. Do you think I make too much of it? Well, try this: Watch the show, but don't watch it. Close your eyes and picture Mohammed Atta or Osama bin Laden doing and saying the things Dexter does. How does that work for you?

I'm not a big fan of the summer Olympics. I'll take the winter version with ice hockey and the skiing and the skaters over any number of swimmers, runners, weightlifters and what have you. There's nothing in the summer that makes me catch my breath like a really dangerous luge run. Did you see those women running the long distance race? Maybe it was a marathon or 10K, I didn't tune in long enough to find out. All I could see was a group of women -- the announcer said they were women anyway -- who looked like they'd been in an Olympic concentration camp. Their bodies looked wholly unnatural. Scary, even. Looked like there was going to be a medal ceremony for 'Night of the Living Dead.' Mm, and don't get me started on those guys lifting weights either.

I saw a noir film this past week, 'The Killing,' Stanley Kubrick's first film. That was pretty good stuff. Generally Sterling Hayden leaves me cold, but his performance was nicely toned even if it was pretty much overshadowed by that of Elisha Cook, Jr. And the plot was like something from one of Stark's Parker novels, brutal and economical.

Moose tracks...sounds good. I think the Johnny Walker has settled enough to allow for it. It's all about risk/reward, innit? Want to see more about 'Toros and Torsos?' I love this noir trailer: