Archive for March, 2010

Another Place, Another Time

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Before the international acclaim of both the book and the movie, The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje wrote a novel entitled In The Skin of a Lion. It has the feel of a sprawling epic like E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. It may have been a predecessor (unintended of course) of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. It is the kind of book that appeals to both persnickety critics and enthusiastic readers. In The Skin of a Lion is a big story told in an intimate way. Which is often the best way to tell any story.

Set in Canada (mostly in Toronto) in the early part of the 20th Century, the novel steeps you in the teeming world of European immigrants who have come to what the author often refers to as upper America. Here, they work as loggers, laborers, miners, builders of bridges and dams and vast municipal buildings. They toil as butchers, bakers, tanners, and slaughterhouse killers of beef. They do the jobs that build countries, continents, and fortunes. Yet they partake in none of the spoils, and are often buried beneath the work that they do.

Patrick is the farm boy around whom Ondaatje’s story evolves. As a youth, he helps his father dynamite logs that jam up river traffic. He watches the Finnish loggers spend their little free time in the evening skating on frozen lakes with lanterns to light their way. Human lightening bugs who seem to float effortlessly over the cold, slick ice. After the death of his father, Patrick travels to the city and is immeshed in the immigrants’ strongholds. Neighborhoods where luckless country boys can afford to find work among newcomers who speak little if any English. Ghettos where women are as free with their love as men are with their friendship.

Patrick’s coming of age, and his growth as a man, involves him with a myriad of fascinating characters. An actress who’s as etherial as her passion. An empire builder who goes to spectacular lengths to achieve anonymity. A heroic high-wire construction worker on his way to becoming a baker. A mother, and lover, who’s most at home as an anarchist. And a thief, Caravaggio, who helps Patrick in his attempt to avenge all mankind, as well as the woman he loved. The character of Caravaggio will surface once again in Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

The author’s method of storytelling is a constant interweaving of past, present, and future. We find out what will happen to characters before it happens to them. Later we find out how and why it happened. His prose is not constricted by the formalities of linear events. And there is a great deal of poetry among his many shadings of words and sentences and phrases that linger past the turning of a page.

If you enjoy entering another time and place and world, travel to Toronto in the early 1900’s for a tour of people and places and events you are not likely to forget. The Fiction Fortune Hunter did. And he’s all the better for it.

Adrift in a stream of consciousness

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

A prisoner recounts his story. In his own words. At his own pace. Slipping into a tributary here and there to fill in some psychological blanks. And often as not, having done that, he makes a point of telling you it wasn’t really relevant. But here’s the bit that makes his ambling tale utterly believable. He never once proclaims his innocence.

John Banville’s The Book of Evidence was first published in 1989. It is a tidy novel that has lost none of its impact some twenty plus years after its original penning. There are obvious parallels to that most classic confessional, Crime and Punishment, but they don’t get in the way of this absorbing foray into the mind of a not completely unappealing neer-do-well hoisted rather clumsily on his own petard.

Freddie Montgomery is an Irishman drinking to excess (pardon the redundancy) and squandering his meager inheritance as he and his wife island-hop around Greece and the Mediterranean. Falling in with a rogue of equal or perhaps even less moral fortitude than himself, Freddie winds up owing some rather nasty fellows a good bit of money that he is totally unable to repay. Being the ruffians that they are, they refuse to let Freddie slide on his debt and hold his wife as collateral while he heads back to his ancestral home to come up with the funds.

In due course, we learn that Freddie virtually abandoned his aging mother upon his father’s death, and went off to make his way in the world. So as you might expect, his mother is neither thrilled to see him, nor in the least moved, to loan him any money. She’s not really in a financial position to do so anyway, as she’s sold what was left of her husband’s questionable art collection to fund an equestrian business that spends more in feed than it recoups in revenue. Freddie however, is convinced that she was probably cheated and got far less than she should have for the sale of the paintings. He therefore sets out on a quest to run the art treasures down and get what was rightfully theirs. So begins the journey that will eventually lead to Freddie becoming a full-fleged thief and murderer.

The author, John Banville, does a masterful job of letting Freddie tell his story with enough elan that the reader becomes empathetic to his plight, while simultaneously seeing him for the slacker that he is. In point of fact, Freddie’s troubles are directly attributable to Freddie himself, and his inability to put virtually anything in the world in the proper perspective. That fatal flaw, combined with his copious consumption of alcohol, leads to murder most fowl, flight, treachery, capture, and eventually incarceration.

Banville writes with consummate skill and erudition. He gives Freddie a voice that is educated, one quite capable of deception, yet the reader somehow feels he is being told the absolute truth. For now that Freddie has done the worst any of us can do, why should he add lies to that which he must ultimately answer for.

It really is a pleasure to partake of Banville’s prose. Here’s one edited example:
“My counsel is a large, lumbering, unhandy man. Yards, literally yards of pinstripe with a big, square head, raggedy hair, tiny and pointed eyes. I think a life spent poking in the crevices of other people’s nasty little tragedies has damaged something in him.”

John Banville’s The Book of Evidence was an early example of what the author had to offer. Many books and many literary prizes have occurred since it was written. The Fiction Fortune Hunter would like to join the chorus of those singing the praises of this exceptional writer. You’d do well to find and read more of his work. It’s unforgettable.

Sometimes The Safest Places Aren’t

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

There’s nothing quite like a good, old-fashioned thriller. A suspense novel can garner no higher praise than to be hung with that cliche of cliches, “a page-turner.”

Thrillers come in all shapes and sizes. Horror. Crime. Detective. Amateurs caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Each genre is as ubiquitous as the next. Many fans and readers devour them like candy. But thinking of them that way is to pay them less respect than they deserve. Particularly the good ones.

A particularly good one, that’s very high profile these days is Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. Though the profile is really due to the movie that’s currently out, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DeCaprio. It’s an excellent book that’s been made into an excellent movie. But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about a book that hasn’t been made into a movie yet, but probably will be. And if the as-yet unmade movie comes anywhere near the quality of the book, it will be a winner.

City Of The Sun is everything a suspense thriller should be. From the very beginning it grabs you by the lapels and keeps you leaping from chapter to chapter in search of what’s going to happen next. Granted, it unwinds in such a way that you can pretty much guess how it will end, but then again it might not. And it’s put together with such precision and control, that you really don’t care if it does turn out like you think it might because it’s a real reader’s joy ride.

Reality is actually one of the things that makes a thriller more thrilling. If you can believe that what you’re reading really can (and does) happen, it’s often even more nail-biting. The author, David Levien, keeps a firm grasp on reality as he weaves a story too often told on the news these days. The kidnapping and disappearance of a child. In this case, a fifteen year old boy, snatched from his suburban neighborhood in Indianapolis. The horror of such an act, and the subsequent pain and suffering it evokes on the young boy’s parents is artfully interspersed with the more police-procedural-like approach taken by the private investigator who’s been brought in to take up the cold trail the cops have basically abandoned.

The P.I., Frank Behr, has just the right amount of battered personal history to make him central casting’s idea of the perfect protagonist. But again, author Levien has done a great job of imbuing a stock character with just the right amount of grit and humanity to make him someone you want to spend time with. And chances are, readers will. This is his first appearance in print, but I would bet we’ll be seeing more of him in the future.

It probably occurs to you that City Of The Sun is an odd title for a story that’s grounded in Indianapolis. I won’t spoil the fun of finding out what the title has to do with the story, but suffice to say you’ll eventually find the title appropriate.

Spring is coming, summer not far behind. If these sorts of days fill you with desire for a book you can dive into and chew to your heart’s content, The Fiction Fortune Hunter recommends City Of The Sun, regardless of what climate you find yourself in.

Similar Yet Somehow Unique

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

It’s impossible to read The Piano Tuner, by Daniel Mason, without noticing the parallels to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Of course, if you haven’t seen Coppola’s movie, or if you’re unaware of Conrad’s novel, you’ll be gleefully oblivious to them and can therefore enjoy Mason’s tome on it’s own merits. And there’s a lot to enjoy.

Set in the mid to late 1800’s, The Piano Tuner tells the story of Edgar Drake, a happily married piano tuner in London who get’s a commission to travel to the other side of the world, Burma, to tune a famous piano that is now the property of the British occupying forces. It was requested by and now assigned to one Surgeon-Major Anthony J. Carroll, who has set up an outpost in the remote province of Mae Lwin, Shan States on the western side of the country just inside the French Indochina border. Unlike Conrad’s ivory trader Kurtz, and Coppola’s renegade militarist Colonel Kurtz, Carroll is not a dangerous egomaniac, but rather a man of peace who is attempting to bring the Burmese and other indigenous populations under England’s wing with science, medicine, and yes, music. Or is he?

Drake, the piano tuner, has never been out of England, and his long journey just to get to Burma via steamship on the Atlantic, trains across India, boats in the Bay of Bengal, horseback, canoe, and on foot, make up at least half the book. His subsequent stays in Rangoon, Mandalay and eventually MaeL Lwin, where he finally encounters Carroll, are filled with all manner of understated adventure. From a tiger hunt that goes terribly wrong, to a lethal encounter with brigands, to a secret meeting that may or may not be treasonous, Drake experiences more in three months than he has experienced in his 41 years of life to that point.

Along the way, the author, Daniel Mason, delivers a stunning compendium of knowledge about geography, military history, botany, literature, philosophy, music, the intricate workings of pianos, and even fate. A particularly impressive achievement considering that not only is The Piano Tuner Mason’s first novel, it was written when he was still a medical student.

The essence of the novel turns on big questions. Is it possible to leave behind everything we have cherished in life for something absolutely new and different? If a man is doing saintly things, can he really be a sinner in disguise? Was and is colonialism always doomed from the start? What truly constitutes honor?

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness exposed British colonial tragedy in the Congo. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now examined American over-extension in South Vietnam. Mason’s quiet, luminous, engaging and eventually compelling tale examines the intermingling of beauty, solitude, culture and assimilation, or the lack of it, in Burma, a country that no longer even carries the same name. The Fiction Fortune Hunter heartily recommends you take this journey back in time. The rewards are unforgettable.