Wednesday, June 20, 2018


The only way I could bring myself to follow blogging buddy John Norris's persuasive review of The Weird World of Wes Beattie was to pair it with the only other mystery Canadian author John Norman Harris wrote before his untimely death: Hair of the Dog. I say untimely because Harris was only 49 when he made his final great escape, and had he lived a tad longer he surely would have given us a few if not many more mysteries starring Sidney "Gargoyle" Grant and his wonderfully unconventional wife, June née Beattie. And I would be reading every one.

Gargoyle and June team up in The Weird World of Wes Beattie to save her loopy younger brother Wes from the loony bin for allegedly killing his favorite uncle, who was about to cut him out of his will. Wes Beattie’s wealthy family has retained a member of Parliament to represent their black-sheep relative in an insanity plea to avoid the shame of a public hanging as well as to keep the wacky kid locked up, thus avoiding future family embarrassments. The kid is known as such an outrageous liar he's confused himself into unwittingly confessing to the murder.
At least I think the above is accurate. The plot is so intricately woven I can’t be sure of every stinking little detail—despite the fact that in mysteries of this type, with intricately woven plots, any one of a thousand stinking little details might lead to solving the mystery. This is why Gargoyle Grant is so good. His extra large head encloses a brain so astute it can examine the tiniest of stinking details to the extent that if one of them can point him toward a solution to a mystery he will recognize it. Perhaps this is the time to provide a glimpse of Mr. Grant:

He was a short, slender man whose enormous head was surmounted by a mop of wiry black hair. He wore outsize horn-rim specs, behind which he frowned in ferocious concentration.” The description, while vivid, omits one vital detail, to wit: Mr. Grant is a young lawyer with a practice so new most of his clients are petty thieves, drunks, miscreants, and the like. Though his brain and wits be enormous he has yet to handle an enormous case. He wriggles into the Wes Beattie imbroglio by way of a seminar with lawyers, doctors, and social workers in which a psychiatrist uses the Beattie case to illustrate “the need for greater cooperation among our various professions.” Arguing with other lawyers at the seminar, Gargoyle contends that no one gave much credence to Wes’s stories of a conspiracy to frame him, and in particular no one tried very hard to find the “missing woman,” believed to be a figment of poor Wes’s tortured imagination.
Gargoyle believes finding the “missing woman” shouldn’t be overly difficult, and, taking this as a challenge, he sets out to do just that. He’s soon joined, and hired, by the only relative of Wes’s who believes him innocent, the older sister. Electricity between June and Gargoyle is so delightfully engaging from the git-go it carried me through the maze of complications and coincidences of the mystery with nary a fret that all would not be right in the end. (I probably should try to use Canadian slang here instead of my own mix of hick and hooha, but I’ve never been very good with foreign tongues—if I failed to mention it, the characters are Canadian as are, surprise surprise, the settings. Eh? See?)
John Norman Harris
 Here’s smooth-talking Gargoyle at his first meeting with June, trying to persuade her that, among other things, the evidence against her brother is a tad shaky:
Now then—suppose you and I wanted to cuddle together for warmth at the Midtown Motel. We wouldn’t require a car. We could take a cab or walk and merely pay a deposit. So it struck me that the car was not rented for the purpose of flimflamming the motel. Why was it rented then, and driven for six or seven miles only? One possible explanation—to work the frame-up described by your brother.”
Just a taste, that. I’d give you some of June’s smart lip if we had the room, but, remember, I have Hair of the Dog to discuss a little here, too. Oh, okay, just one: “‘Stop being Delphic,’ she said. ‘What are you yattering about?’”
Alrighty then, Hair of the Dog, which was published after Harris’s death in 1964. Same kind of incredibly complex plot, also involving a wealthy, unlikable family we get to know in all its inglorious pettiness, but without a babe to tempt our gargoylean hero—June has him all to herself. In Hair’s unlikable family, the supremely unlikable matriarch is the murder victim, strangled during an apparent burglary and theft of her jewels and unimaginably expensive furs. Her death means instant millionairedom for most of her immediate relatives. Gargoyle represents the guy who allegedly set up the burglary, a former hockey star who never speaks—until the very end. I liked him if only for his name: Vince Lamberti. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, “Tobin Rote” might be a fruitful clue.
That name comes up in a conversation between Gargoyle and a member of the wealthy, unlikable family. My memory of listening to Green Bay Packer football games on the radio back before Vince Lombardi was even considered to take over as head coach is vivid. The team was pitiful then, although quarterback Tobin Rote (who finished his career with the Toronto Argonauts, see?) gave Packer fans an occasional frisson of hope with his passing wizardry. Those were the days, my friends, eh?
A couple other especially well-drawn characters. In Hair there’s the patsy, or “punk” who gets set up for the murder. They call hm Stoopid Easting:
Easting was something else again. He came from a chronically poor family. He was a third-generation welfare case. His parents were professional spongers. Students of social work had written theses about them to gain their degrees.” His luck was about as bad as Tobin Rote’s Packers.
Unidentified Packer nut
Gargoyle’s secretary grabs the supporting-actor Oscar in both novels. Clever, smart-tongued, efficient, etc. “Miss Georgina Semple, an elderly woman with incredible red hair piled high on her head.” See?
And author Harris was himself something to behold. An RAF bomber pilot during World War II, he was shot down over Germany in 1942 and spent most of the rest of the war in a POW camp known as Stalag Luft III, where, his publisher says, “he was instrumental in planning the largest prison-break in the history of WWII. The story of the breakout was eventually turned into several novels and films, including ‘The Great Escape,’ starring Steve McQueen.”

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

THE OVERSTORY -- Richard Powers

I approached The Overstory with the kind of wavering curiosity those apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey had for the mysterious, shiny black monolith, only without the momentous "Also sprach Zarathustra" lurking in the background (no doubt it could have been, by sheer random coincidence, but I don't listen to the radio anymore).
What snagged a pause during my maiden flip-through of The Atlantic's June issue was Polish artist Dawid Planeta's spooky photo illustration with a book review by Nathaniel Rich titled "Rhapsody in Green." It was the subtitle that pulled me closer: "The dark optimism of Richard Powers's climate-themed, tree-mad novel." In retrospect, the oxymoronic sense of "dark optimism" is what led me into the review itself—that and the two pull-out quotes. The first: "The Tree of Life will fall again, collapse into a stump of invertebrates, tough ground cover, and bacteria." And on the next page: "The best way to cure man's 'suicidal appetite' for growth is to hasten the inevitable suicide."

My brain gasped. Those two quotes summoned synapse connections I’d been toying with more and more frequently of late. YES!! I wanted to shout, but suppressed the urge knowing the hair stylist next door might well have jumped and spilled a bottle of rainbow dye on some elderly client's wispy white coiffure. I read the review, and the review persuaded me to consider The Overstory as my next weekly contribution to the Friday's Forgotten Books blogging group. I had to consider that a new release hardly qualified as a "forgotten book," yet I rationalized it might be one of those books that easily could slip into neglect because of its uncomfortable subject and behemoth length—502 pages, a veritable sequoia compared to the usual elms and maples of noveldom. It probably needs to become a classic among the dedicated literati before less trendy sensibilities feel compelled to crack the cover and find out what it is all a-bout (It took me decades of false starts before finally groaning into a life jacket and rowing through the entire gauntlet of esoteria, biblicalia, symbolism, and soaring poetry in the leviathan Melville reputedly had a whale of a time finding a publisher for back in the day).

Richard Powers, whom I confess I’d not known of, was already well established in the halls of literary recognition when he gave us The Overstory. To avoid the tedium of listing his creds, I’ll simply give you a link to the bio on his website. I will say this, the guy is no one to sneeze at in so many fields I’m embarrassed at my dearth of life accomplishments by comparison. But I was ignorant of this as my finger hovered over the one-click-download button on Amazon.
I still had to reconcile the book’s oddness and newness with the Friday folks’ expectations. Our weekly assemblage is eclectic enough, offering a range of tastes that includes speculative fiction, fantasy, western, mystery, thriller, horror, noir, and the occasional nonfiction work. Again, I think the descriptions “dark optimism” and “suicidal appetite” were the deciders, and I clicked the button and watched The Overstory load onto my laptop’s Kindle app.

Soon into the reading I could see it touched several of the expected Friday categories. My biggest concern at first was to determine if the fiction was fantasy or based on factual knowledge, because if the latter then it most definitely exemplifies the adage “truth is stranger than fiction.”
Turns out it’s a blend, with the ambiguity set at the git-go as a mystical, poetic introduction to the first of the book’s four architectural divisions: a park above a western city after dusk, the air is raining messages.
A woman sits on the ground, leaning against a pine. Its bark presses hard against her back, as hard as life. Its needles scent the air and a force hums in the heart of the wood. Her ears tune down to the lowest frequencies. The tree is saying things, in words before words…
All the ways you imagine us— bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal— are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.
That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.
A chorus of living wood sings to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.
The pine she leans against says: Listen. There’s something you need to hear.

Nice, but I’m not a fantasy buff. A little in a poem or a prologue like this, maybe, but not for a whole novel. My skepticism got serious when one of the characters, a scientist, speaks as if trees have an intelligence most of us have never dreamed of. “Trees know when we’re close by,” she said. “The chemistry of their roots and the perfumes their leaves pump out change when we’re near...When you feel good after a walk in the woods, it may be that certain species are bribing you. So many wonder drugs have come from trees, and we haven’t yet scratched the surface of the offerings. Trees have long been trying to reach us. But they speak on frequencies too low for people to hear.”
Needing to know more, to find out if this was just Powers carrying his misty dream from poetry into prose, I paused awhile and started Googling to see what real science might be saying about these things. I wasn’t the only one. Barbara Kinsolver writes in The New York Times, “The major players number more than a dozen, all invested with touching humanity, and they arrive with such convincing, fully formed résumés, it’s hard to resist Googling a couple of them to see if they’re real people. (They aren’t.) This is a gigantic fable of genuine truths held together by a connective tissue of tender exchange between fictional friends, lovers, parents and children.” And, one might add, “leaves, branches, trunks, and roots.”

Reading deeper into the forest primeval and its human friends, my curiosity craving more facts, I even looked up what one character, who reminded me of Jeff Bridges’s "Dude" in The Big Lebowski, describes as his experience in what I learned was the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment.
And when another character, called “Maidenhair,” lives for over a year on a platform two-hundred feet high in a giant Redwood tree to save if from loggers, my Googling found Julia“Butterfly” Hill, an American forest activist who lived on such a platform in California for nearly two years.
The Overstory was not just a fascinating read for me, friends, it was an education. And as a fledgling student in this brand new field, for me, I am in no way qualified to give anyone a traditional “review” of the book. What I’m doing instead is providing links to professional reviewers in the hope they might persuade you to read The Overstory yourself, and form your own opinions on its subject matter and merits.
Julia "Butterfly" Hill
Here’s John Dominee in The Sewanee Review:Breadth like this is a departure for Powers, though roving among different points of view is his usual MO. Still, he’s never been so Tolstoyan, plucking dreams from so many heads. A reviewer faces a steep challenge trying to show how things come together...
“Happy endings, in the ordinary sense, have no place in a text that renounces ordinary notions of human progress.
“...this is a novel founded on the notion of our lives as short stories.”

Eoin McNamee in The Irish Times: The Overstory might be a good book, and it might be a bad book. It might be a novel that reaches out for the unattainable and falls short of it, or a novel that overshoots its own good intentions. You can’t say it works as a piece of prose and you can’t say that it doesn’t work. You don’t know whether you should read it transfixed by the shadow of the fall of man, or throw it at the wall and run screaming into the forest...
“He dazzles and sandbags you with messianic end-of-time prose and then you’re ankle-deep in the corporate sleight of hand involved in the delivery of old-growth forests to logging interests, or looking at the legal structures required to grant actual rights to trees...
“Borges is there along with ambrosia beetles. Kant. You’re in the middle of a storm of thought which has been wrestled into the shape of a novel by a writer’s act of will. A neuron blast of high-mindedness. You get to the brink of whimsy then you’re hauled back: “Reefs bleach and wetlands dry. Things are going lost that have not yet been found.”
And, finally, Nathaniel Rich in The Atlantic, which sold me on the book. This from the second paragraph of his review:
“A former computer programmer and English major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Powers has written novels about the history of photography, artificial intelligence, nuclear warfare, race and miscegenation, the Holocaust, neuroscience, virtual reality, the chemical industry, and genetic engineering. It was only a matter of time before he took on the greatest existential crisis human civilization faces: the destruction of the natural conditions necessary for our own survival.”

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

SHUTTER ISLAND – Dennis Lehane

Shutter Island is so deviously, darkly ingenious it's haunted me ever since I first read it a dozen years ago. The film by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DeCaprio, was pretty spooky, too. But it's the book, not the movie, that haunts me, and maybe that's because it was the book that stole my innocence with its deviously ingenious plot, scaring me damned near into a coma. The plot of Shutter Island is so ingeniously devious it fascinated and horrified me when I read it again, last week. It has one of those endings you like to think of as an aberration, that somehow you missed something important the first time around and you’ll see it now and thank goodness it will end the way your heart would like it to.

It didn’t. It wasn’t as startling as the first time, but it crawled just as deeply into my psyche and left me almost as shaken and bereft. Maybe were I to read it once a week eventually it would injure me no more, but then I’d likely end up as a mental patient myself. I’d be better off putting a sticker on my library card that says in red letters, “Please don’t let me check out Shutter Island ever again!”
The story seems simple enough. Two U.S. marshals arrive at Ashecliffe Hospital, a federal institution for the criminally insane secluded on Shutter Island, one of a string of islands off the coast of Boston. Their assignment is to help authorities there find an escaped patient. We’ve already learned on the ferry bringing them to the island that the approach of a “huge” storm is apt to complicate their mission. It does, of course, but so does an incremental accumulation of odd occurrences the marshals encounter in this ancient fortress-like hospital that had served as a Civil War POW camp. We come to realize the story’s not nearly so simple as at first we thought.
From  the film
There are only sixty-six patients, who, the marshals are told, are the most dangerous in the entire prison system—essentially five-and-a-half dozen Hannibal Lecters--which the marshals understandably keep calling “prisoners” and are continually corrected by the medical staff. And the medical staff? Umm...yes. Dr. Cawley, the head shrink, lives in residence so massive and expensive the Union Army commandant who’d had it built, was relieved of his command when he submitted the construction bill. The head shrink’s chief assistant comes on like a Nazi who missed the boat to Argentina with Dr. Mengele. Here’s how he greets the marshals in the “Great Room” of the head shrink’s house:
The stranger looked up at them. “You don’t indulge in alcohol?”
Teddy looked down at the guy. A small red head perched like a cherry on top of a chunky body. There was something pervasively delicate about him, a sense Teddy got that he spent far too much time in the bathroom every morning pampering himself with talcs and scented oils.
“And you are?” Teddy said.
“My colleague,” Cawley said. “Dr. Jeremiah Naehring.”
The man blinked in acknowledgment but didn’t offer his hand, so neither did Teddy or Chuck.
“I’m curious,” Naehring said as Teddy and Chuck took the two seats that curved away from Naehring’s left side.
“That’s swell,” Teddy said.
“Why you don’t drink alcohol. Isn’t it common for men in your profession to imbibe?”
Cawley handed him his drink and Teddy stood and crossed to the bookshelves to the right of the hearth. “Common enough,” he said. “And yours?”
“Excuse me?”
“Your profession,” Teddy said. “I’ve always heard it’s overrun with boozers.”
“Not that I’ve noticed.”
“Haven’t looked too hard, then, huh?”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“That’s, what, cold tea in your glass?”
Teddy turned from the books, watched Naehring glance at his glass, a silkworm of a smile twitching his soft mouth. “Excellent, Marshal. You possess outstanding defense mechanisms. I assume you’re quite adept at interrogation.”
Heh heh, ve haff our vays…
And then there’s young doctor Sheehan, who suspiciously left the island when the marshals arrived, leading the marshals to speculate whether Sheehan ran off with the beautiful prisoner/patient after helping her escape from her locked cell despite a gauntlet of guards she’d have to have gotten past. Sheehan’s supposedly taken a long-awaited vacation, but, alas, the phones and radios are down, presumably because of the pending storm, and cannot be reached.
We learn the marshals have their own private agenda for visiting Ashecliffe, to gather evidence for a U.S. Senator of illegal experiments reputedly being conducted on the, patients of the sort Nazis conducted on Jews during WWII.
Dennis Lehane
Another doctor, hiding in a cave on the island, claiming to be the alleged escaped patient, describes to one of the marshals the experiments being conducted in the island’s heavily guarded lighthouse, which is supposedly being used as a sewage treatment facility. The experiments are intended to create a man that “doesn’t need sleep, doesn’t feel pain,” she tells him. “Or love. Or sympathy. A man who can’t be interrogated because his memory banks are wiped clean...they’re creating ghosts here, Marshal. Ghosts to go out into the world and do ghostly work.”
One of the marshals vanishes after the hurricane hits Shutter Island with 150 m.p.h. winds. The surviving marshal, Teddy Daniels, figures his partner’s been murdered and that he, Daniels, is next. His access to the ferry, the only way off the island, is blocked. Determined now to find out what’s going on in the lighthouse, he overpowers a guard, grabs his rifle, and storms into the tower and up the spiraling stairs. I...I can’t go on. I simply can’t tell you what happens next. I...can’t. My fingers have weakened, hands trembling, my heart...oh, mercy!

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]