Black Hills – Nora Roberts

rar! rar, rar, rar! roar! rar rar roar! growwwl! roar roar!

Oh, I’m sorry, don’t you speak mountain lion? Perhaps you shouldn’t read Black Hills then. It’s only for people who understand the soul of the Puma.

Actually, there’s a lot of sex in it too, so if you like sex and mountain lions, you’re all set.

Nora Roberts is a romance writer, “America’s Favorite Writer” according to The New Yorker (according to the back of the book). It could very well be true, I can believe that America likes sex and mountain lions. America also likes stories of childhood lovers who grow apart, but then find themselves facing a terrifying killer who threatens all that they hold dear.

America is totally riveted as the lovers, older now, but no less passionate, must find a way to learn to trust each other and let love back in to their hearts, while at the same time outwitting a maniacal and brilliant murderer who will stop at nothing to destroy them and live out his twisted fantasies.

Not only does Roberts leave America breathless with anticipation regarding the fate of Cooper Sullivan and Lil Chance, but she also teaches the country a lesson about conservation and our dwindling natural resources. Important resources, like mountain lions. RAR!

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Guest Review by Amy Suzanne Heneveld – Dans le Cage de la Jeunesse Perdue – Patrick Modiano

You know when you’ve come to accept your solitary life, when things like “days” and “underpants” don’t necessarily change at the same time? When cobwebs form sturdy shelves on which to set things like keys and toothbrushes? When you not only speak to your cat, but set a place at the table for him… ha ha, just kidding, you don’t set a place for the cat, you can’t even remember the last time you ate at a table. You eat slumped in the corner and you glare at the loveseat for reminding you of your loneliness through its two person seating capacity.  Well, shave your mustache pretty lady, we have company. Amy was originally going to do this review in French, but she took pity on me and translated it. Merci!

Patrick Modiano’s Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue reminds me of that painting you often see as a poster, of a neon lit café in which you can glimpse the portraits of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. I just found out that it is called the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, that Green Day has a song named that too, but in typical internet information fashion, I still don’t know who painted it.

The punk song connection is interesting though, since I think the book is a look backwards at the darker side of a youthful and revolutionary period in Parisian life, the late sixties and early seventies, though no date is ever mentioned. The title comes from a Guy Debord quote, and the descriptions of the city in the novel remind me of Situationist work on the city, how we walk in it, where we go, the places we stay, how those places change, how our paths in the city cross other people’s paths, for different reasons, or for no reason at all.

Modiano writes detective stories that aren’t detective stories. I like reading him because the feeling of a mystery is there, but the context isn’t clear. The reader feels suspicious and anxious and curious, but the point of view constantly changes and you are not really sure who is investigating what or why. But this is perhaps why I like it: you get to be the ultimate detective. This sad story of a lost young girl told around the streets which lead people to and from a café called the Condet in Paris’ Odéon neighborhood is told from four points of view, and though you understand the story at the end, having pieced together what you think is the main narrative from the bits Modiano gives you, you don’t fully understand why he’s told it. It’s like parts of a destroyed photograph pasted together, or a puzzle with key pieces missing; it keeps you wondering. While you read, you have to remember, but you forget, and the novel has an ephemeral quality, which aligns itself with dark, smoky bars and foggy Parisian streets.

This book is also about our inability to communicate with each other, be with each other, or help each other. How we often meet, get involved, yet totally miss each other. The characters are unable to experience and express their emotions, so their youth really is lost, lost in a kind of alcoholic or drug induced torpor, lost in who they are trying to be, unable to be themselves. Lost also in the past, in memory. Modiano often represents memory as the same grey matter of his stories, a place in which you wander around looking for something solid but meet only ghosts.

I’m not really youthful anymore, I’m less lost than I was, and maybe that’s why I liked wandering through this book. I am not sure how Modiano’s ambiance comes across in English, but one of his books at least has been translated. It’s been appropriately called Missing Person. Maybe I’ll go missing and translate this one, in the café of a lost generation.

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A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway

The thing that I have always liked about Hemmingway’s narrators is that they come off as trustworthy, not as people, for they are all heartbreakers and gamblers and drunks, but in the relationship between reader and story-teller. I don’t feel the need to second guess the facts as they are presented. That, more than anything else has always made me love Hemmingway, despite the various politically incorrect failings so often associated with his work. He may be sexist, but he’s honest, and I can work with that.

A Farewell to Arms is about war, of course, and that it is terrible, as one would expect. The interesting thing about Hemmingway’s war novels as compared to say, the work of e.e. cummings or Wilfred Owen is that Hemmingway lets the reader in on the delights of war as well as the misery. His male characters bond and march and enjoy the landscape while drinking and joking and just generally being manly. Few other authors can write a man-friendship with such insight and authenticity. The conversations between Henry and his friend Rinaldi are just about perfect dialogue, summing up the whole novel in a few pages of discussion. Sex, love, war, religion and death, interspersed with insults, like a conversational Cliff’s Notes.

It might be possible to be so in tune with the male psyche and still understand women, but Hemmingway isn’t the right person to demonstrate such a talent. Catherine, the love interest, is needy and shallow. Her conversations with Henry are pale and pointless when compared to those he has with male characters. The story ends with the typical punishment of a female character, drawn as tragedy but really there as a release from commitment and the boredom of a happy ending.

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

The danger in writing a novel about how people are pretentious and don’t understand art or human nature is that, well, you risk coming off as someone pretentious, who doesn’t understand art or human nature.

Elegance of the Hedgehog is painfully pretentious. No book should have so many quotes from Tolstoy unless it was written by Tolstoy. The simplification of the relationship between wealthy and working class is cartoonish and immature although I will grant that I chuckled at the idea of a building superintendent pretending to eat casseroles and watch tv so as not to upset the upper class with wild ideas of educated servants.

It probably isn’t fair to say that Barbery doesn’t understand human nature. The book is stunningly manipulative and I cried in all the appropriate places. It’s sort of the novelistic equivalent of those soundtracks played during commercials which show soldiers returning home just in time for Christmas.

Don’t go feeling all warm just yet though, Elegance of the Hedgehog is a high toned work of art, and as such, can’t possibly end well. To underscore the capriciousness of fate, or maybe just to make yet another Tolstoy reference, Barbery kills off a main character at the end. Life is so cruel.

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Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer

Natures is not a loving mother. Nature wants to eat you. Eat you or lay eggs in you, or lay eggs in you and then let the eggs hatch and eat you. Nature is powerful and overwhelming, and at the very least, Nature should be thought of like Lenny from Mice and Men; liable to kill you accidentally and not even notice.

People are always wandering off in to Nature and coming to grief, and at first glance, that is the case of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild. Actually, at second glance too, that’s pretty much what happened, but the story surrounding Chris’ misadventure is more interesting than simply “Doofus Dies through own Foolishness” (the preferred title of my own biography; take note, friends. Clearly, one of you will be responsible for writing it).

Chris himself is not terrible fascinating (except to the author, who seems fairly smitten). He’s got unfair and impossible ideas about how other people should live their lives, and like many people who claim a strong moral path, he leaves a trail of broken hearts and worry behind him. What is fascinating is how the story brings up ideas of personal freedom, “healthy” social interaction and the human relationship to wilderness (Is it there to be conquered? To teach us humility? Does it exist just so bears stay out of  our swimming pools?)

Chris McCandless doesn’t have a unique story and Krakauer discusses the history of men being eaten by Nature.  Everett Ruess, who regularly ventured off in to untamed wild to escape the corruption and overwhelming civilization of city life also disappeared and was never seen again. What’s startling about this particular narrative is that Ruess was trying to escape the overly structured life of society of the West in the 1930’s! What would he have thought of today with our traffic cameras and state-fair-no-lard regulations?

Krakauer wrote Into the Wild as a follow-up to a magazine article published after McCandless’ death. He shares some of the  letters he received from magazine readers expressing surprising hatred towards Chris and others like him. Why do we as a people get so enraged by other people’s tragic mistakes? Is it jealousy of those who follow a dream? Fear of them that seem to have no need for the society which both binds and supports the majority of us? Perhaps it’s resentment of someone who willingly endangers their life, when we have all  had to say goodbye to someone beloved who left this world unwilling.

I apologize for a review made mostly of questions, but in the end, Into the Wild leaves more unanswered than solved. What drives us to try to live as cavemen, or to climb mountains made of pointy ice? Perhaps more importantly,  do bears write books detailing the tragic stories of cubs who simply couldn’t resist the call of human trash cans and picnic baskets?

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Windy City Blues – Sara Paretsky

Paretsky’s short stories about private investigator V.I. Warshawski came as a welcome relief from the violence and nonsense of some of the other books I’ve been reading lately (just as the nonsense was a relief from Wuthering Heights. Balance, people, it’s all about balance).

That isn’t to say that Windy City Blues isn’t violent. There’s at least one murder per story, but at least they are normal murders. Guns, poison, garrotes made of tennis rackets…these are polite sadism-free killings. People kill in Warshawski’s world for old fashioned reasons like money and jealousy. It’s all very refreshing.

It’s also refreshing to read stories with actual characters. The people in Windy City Blues may be dramatic, but they are possible and interesting. From obese ex-football players to children of Holocaust survivors, each story is populated by complicated and developed human beings. Paretsky clearly has a back story for everyone but just as in real life, we are given mere glimpses into a character’s psyche and left to imagine the rest.

Windy City Blues is also a book about  a city and like the people in the stories, Chicago is portrayed with flaws and beauty both.

Although there is some movement, the stories in Windy City Blues are almost all solved in a single room, in a single day, mysteries in their classic form.

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The Girl who played with Fire – Stieg Larsson

Now here’s a series problem again. I should really be reviewing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, since that was the first book, and the one that’s being made into a movie. A movie! With famous people!

The thing is, I didn’t really read Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I listened to it as an audio book, and only sort of, through a Nyquil haze when I had a very bad flu last year, so all I can remember about Larsson’s first book is this; Everyone spoke with a twatty English accent.

If we set the confusing nationality of narrators aside, The Girl who played with Fire is similar in structure and theme to the first book. Someone is wrongly accused of something, computers are hacked, dildos are mentioned and there are Nazis. Really, it’s the perfect book for a long airplane flight to Mexico. It was available in the airport bookstore in paperback, it’s very long so I didn’t finish it on the runway, and it’s shock full of very disturbing sexual imagery so the person sitting next to me now thinks I am a pervert. Win all around!

NOTE: You don’t have to be flying to Mexico when you read this book. You could be flying somewhere else.

MORE NOTE: For a review of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo by a man who read it on an airplane and wasn’t much impressed, go here –  Ezra Dyer. I’ve also heard from several friends who really enjoyed the book while not on airplanes, so there you go.

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