Aunt Ada Doom’s #CBR5 Review #12: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

There’s a scene late in Flight Behavior in which a passionate environmentalist tries to help an Appalachian housewife to reduce her carbon footprint.

I come to places like this, instead of Portland or San Francisco. You people need to get on board, the same as everyone else. If not more so.

Provocative, othering words: you people. His intentions are seemingly good and he has a passionate conviction of being right. This man has traveled hundreds of miles to try to effect change. And there is something in that journey that indicates respect. In a time when almost no one even bothers to show up, there’s a certain dignity he’s offering the community here. He came to give them a straight talk about what global warming is and how it might affect them.

A choice: here is information. Will you take it?

Here are things you can do. Will you act?

The disconnect becomes clear when a woman in the community he’s trying to influence tries to listen to what he has to offer, no matter how condescendingly phrased. Continue reading

Aunt Ada Doom’s #CBR5 Review #11: The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde

The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde, cover imageDetective Chief Inspector Jack Spratt is the head of the Nursery Crime Division of the Reading police department. The signature achievement of his career was putting The Gingerbreadman behind bars twenty years ago. This seven-foot ginger cookie — or is he a cake? — is a killer and a psychopath who’s incarcerated in an experimental program at “Berkshire’s most outdated secure hospital,” St. Cerebellum’s.

At the beginning of The Fourth Bear, Spratt is doing well. His own status as a Person of Dubious Reality is safely under wraps, he’s just cleaned up the Dumpty mess, and he brings in another chronic offender within the first thirty pages. Things begin to go wrong pretty immediately after that. A mysterious explosion takes out a nearby town, Obscurity, and investigative reporter Goldilocks goes missing. Before long, Spratt is embroiled in black market porridge trading and the political battle over the right to arm bears. Then, inevitably, Chekhov’s cookie (cake?) goes off and The Gingerbreadman escapes.

This book is a lot — a lot — of fun, but it’s a little sloppy with its premise. The nursery rhymes of the world are a rich source of material; they’re shared pieces of culture that unite the young with the old, the rich with the poor, and even the Americans with the Brits. I’m willing to grant Fforde the use of “The Three Bears;” while not technically a nursery rhyme, the story is a natural fit for the theme and blends well with the other childhood tales. With so much juvenile literature to draw on, though, it’s puzzling that Fforde also brings in a number of elements that have nothing to do with the uniting Big Idea of a book about Nursery Crime. The plot is incredibly well-crafted, but what are competitive cucumbering, aliens, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the Battle of the Somme doing here?

This is not to say that I didn’t like it. I did. It’s fantastic. And even as I complain about the thematic wandering, I can’t help but tip my hat to the book’s finale. It’s one of the most impressively crafted endings I’ve read in any novel, ever, in terms of tying up all the loose ends (and as you’d imagine from the previous paragraph, there are a lot of loose ends).

This is a great book. If you’re feeling picky about the nursery rhyme theme, try Gaiman’s short “The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds.” It sticks to the same underlying concept but is much more strict about its source material.

If forced to choose, though, I’d recommend the Fforde over the Gaiman. It’s longer, funnier, and it pulls everything together well at the end. I’ll be seeking out The Big Over Easy, the first book in this series.

Read more from Aunt Ada Doom at Two Wrongs and a Write.

Aunt Ada Doom’s #CBR5 Review #10: Passionella and Other Stories by Jules Feiffer

Cover image, Passionella and other stories by Jules FeifferJules Feiffer is probably most famous as an illustrator and a cartoonist rather than as a writer. He’s the man behind the fantastic and fantastical illustrations in The Phantom Tollbooth, for example. The feature film version of Tollbooth was on TCM the other day and I recommend watching a few minutes if you have a chance — it’s bizarre to see Feiffer’s signature drawing style wedged into a WB/Looney Tunes mold. Passionella and Other Storiesthough, is a collection of Feiffer’s solo work of all kinds, from short stories to dialogs to cartoons.

Throughout this collection I find that the ratio of illustrations to words is a very good predictor of how much I will like a given piece. The most heavily illustrated stories and the cartoons like “The Lonely Machine” and “Harold Swerg” are insightful and profound. The prose pieces are pretty strong in their own right, but the combination of words and pictures is where Feiffer really shines.

The first piece, “The Cutting Edgists,” is written in the style of a one-act play. A bunch of satirists sit together and discuss the meaning of humor and their respective approaches to creativity.

FIRST SATIRIST: A satirist can’t teach people anything if he offends them.

FOURTH SATIRIST: I offend them. They love it. I make fun of their wives. They love it. I tell them I hate them. They love it. I use words like schmuck. You should hear them applaud.

There are five satirists in this scene with five perspectives on how to generate material that will make an audience laugh. I’m making it sound like it’s a deep rumination on Comedy and The Creative Mind, but it’s written more like the gang at Monty Python ended an eight-hour stretch of writer’s block by cynically recording how humorless the process of creating humor can be. “I like to do funny voices,” one might say. The next, “Let’s talk about airplane food.” Or, “We could always make fun of politicians.” You may find yourself mentally casting the parts in this sketch — okay, this one is Darrell Hammond, this one is Jerry Seinfeld, that one’s Woody Allen, etc. I know I did.

“Excalibur and Rose” is a more traditional short story or fable. Excalibur is a happy, capering man with no sadness in him. He longs to feel something other than happiness — he feels that he is not complete without a measure of sadness. He goes in search of this missing piece of himself and he meets the sad, weeping Rose. “Excalibur and Rose” is one of the most wordy pieces in this collection, and and one of my least favorite. It’s not that Feiffer is a bad writer at all. It’s just that he’s a world-class marrier of words and pictures, and when one is missing I feel that it’s missing (just as Excalibur feels that his sadness is missing — hey!). Continue reading

Aunt Ada Doom’s #CBR5 Review #9: The Investigation by Philippe Claudel

the-investigationThe Investigator arrives on a train and finds that there is no taxi waiting for him. He has come to conduct an Investigation at The Enterprise. He starts walking blindly, sure that he will find his way. He asks for directions. Pretty much everything belongs to The Enterprise, he is told. Any road will lead him there, one way or another. It starts to snow.

His suitcase breaks. His socks, toothpaste, and polyester pants spill into the wet streets. He blunders on and finds The Guardhouse. The Guard refuses him entry — it’s too late to come in to The Enterprise today. Come back tomorrow. Can he recommend a hotel? “We’re not the Tourist Office.”

The Investigator is a specific man, specifically described; he is small, round, middle-aged, balding. But he has no name. He has only a role. And so it is with each character in this book: The Waiter, The Policeman, The Founder, The Guard. Occasionally an individual will switch roles. No man is without one.

The Investigator’s journey is a wandering one through an exaggerated dream of modern life. The bed in his hotel stands alone in the middle of the floor, the only furniture in a  room that measures twenty feet by thirty feet.  The attached bathroom is a closet; so small he dares not close the door. He goes to breakfast the next morning. The dining room is full of table after table of Tourists eating cheese omelets, smoked fish, fruit-studded soft rolls, and pineapple juice. The Investigator requests toast and orange juice. The Server says no. He gets bitter coffee and two rusks. The Investigator accidentally breaks a towel dispenser. The Policeman questions him, demanding he reenact the ‘crime’ again and again.

The Reviewer arrives on page one and finds there is no plot waiting for her. She has come to construct a Review of The Book. She starts reading blindly, sure that she will find her way. Each distorted incident, each twisted setting, presents a jaded, Kafka-esque take on the hollow modern world. The Investigation, somehow, does not get off the ground. The Investigation, improbably, does.

Read more from Aunt Ada Doom at Two Wrongs and a Write.

Aunt Ada Doom’s #CBR5 Review #8: The Amateur by Robert Littell

the_amateur_coverCharlie Heller, the protagonist of The Amateur, is a cryptographer for the CIA. He is a quiet man with top-secret clearance who spends his days happily mucking around with math and loving his fiance, Sarah. This all changes when Sarah is taken hostage in a terrorist attack and publicly executed. First, he grieves. Then, he seeks revenge.

Heller’s not a field agent — he’s an egghead at a desk. The CIA will have to mount an operation to pursue, and Heller won’t be involved. Unfortunately, the CIA is not on board. The terrorists have retreated to Czechoslovakia. Legally, they can’t be touched. They’ll watch and wait, they tell Heller. Beyond that, their hands are tied.

Heller won’t take no for an answer. Because of his position as the the Company’s best cryptographer, he has access to hundreds — thousands — of the most sensitive communications ever to come through the CIA. He picks off a couple dozen of the worst of the worst and blackmails his employer. If they train him to go after the terrorists himself, he says, he’ll kill the terrorists who killed his fiance and deny that the CIA’s involved. If not, he’ll reveal the damaging messages to the public.

The CIA gives in to his blackmail and puts him through training. He prepares to go to Czechoslovakia in pursuit of the terrorists. But now that the plot is set in motion, it’s not just the terrorists who want him to fail. It’s the CIA, too.

This is an engaging, enjoyable read. The plot moves along at a sprightly clip and the not-very-surprising main developments get some color from unexpected details, like an art deco building shaped like a concrete nest and a subplot about analyzing Shakespeare for Baconian codes.

magnetsy

Fucking cryptography, how does it work?

Unfortunately, I have one major nitpick. The description of Heller’s cryptographic work is totally misguided. Littell repeatedly describes how Heller cracks coded CIA messages in loving pseudo-technical detail, yet seems to think that all codes are essentially substitution ciphers. Which, nope. This would not be a problem except that these sections are obviously intended to establish Heller as a brilliant genius and to give the book as a whole some authority as a realistic portrayal of tradecraft, so getting it this glaringly wrong is pretty … glaring.

Ignore those bits and you’ll have a fun read.

Read more from Aunt Ada Doom at Two Wrongs and a Write.

Aunt Ada Doom’s #CBR5 Review #7: The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker

Be warned: I am about to spoil the shit out of this book, so don’t read on if you’re not up for it.

The Godwulf Manuscript gets going when the president of a university in Boston — unnamed, but from context it’s probably BU — calls in private detective Spenser. A fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript has disappeared, and an anonymous caller has demanded $100,000 in ransom. This is a total giveaway — if “the university” were Harvard they’d fish the money out of their couch cushions and the book would be done here. They don’t and it’s not.

Fake Million Dollar Bill

I’m sorry, I don’t carry small bills. Do you have change for a million?

In the initial interview with Spenser, the president indicates that a far-left student organization, SCACE, is at the top of his suspect list. I should note that he’s fingering the group for precisely no reason. He literally says “it’s a gut guess,” I guess because they’re a bunch of hippies? No worries, it turns out that he is totally right to finger this group for precisely no reason. Onward!

Anyway, Spenser goes to investigate, and the first person he talks to is Terry Orchard. Terry is a girl born into privilege who has gone anti-establishment during her college years and is, at twenty, the secretary of SCACE. He takes her to a local pub for a beer to ask her about the manuscript, and about a minute into their conversation her boyfriend shows up and Spenser punches him in the face. Then he leaves without getting any answers from Terry or Dennis.

RussianRainbowGathering 4Aug2005

Okay, Spenser, I understand. You may punch him.

So, naturally, when a couple of hoodlums break into Terry and Dennis’s apartment, shoot Dennis dead, and dope Terry unto incoherency, her last lucid thought is “must … call … that … guy … I met … that one time ….” Thank goodness she knows one person who she can count on as a true friend in this world! Spenser to the rescue!

The book goes on in this vein. Spenser is a badass and smarter and better than everyone, and whenever it looks like he might run into a dead end, someone will call him out of nowhere and give him a new lead. Oh, and in case you were in suspense, yes, he does sleep with the twenty-year-old Terry. I bet you were worried that might not happen! Rest easy, my friend. It does. Oh, and you’ll be relieved to know that he sleeps with her mother, too. He spaces them less than 24 hours apart. Don’t worry, though, he’s a total gentleman. I mean, both of those ladies came on to him. Saying no would have been plain uncivilized.

The Fall of Man-1616-Hendrik Goltzius

Wow, you and your mom fu– um, look a lot alike. When you’re naked. Crap!

The book ends “happily.” Terry remembers where she came from and gets back on the right track — you can tell because she starts wearing makeup and ditches her faded Levi jacket for a dapple gray suede coat with white fur trim. I am not remotely kidding. The unhinged cowardly hippie professor is safely behind bars, thank God. And Spenser gets to bang the university president’s secretary.

Oh, the manuscript, you ask? That got returned 75 pages ago. Did you think that was what the book was actually about? Hahahahahahaha sucker!

Read more from Aunt Ada Doom at Two Wrongs and a Write.

Aunt Ada Doom’s #CBR5 Review #6: The Dinner by Herman Koch


Portal, Clerkenwell, London (4356786536)

The Dinner, by Herman Koch, is nominally about a pair of couples meeting for a fancy dinner. The men of the couples are brothers whose lives have taken different paths. One is a politician. The other is a teacher. The two are not estranged, exactly, but there is a very specific reason they are meeting for dinner on this particular night. A horrific event involving both their sons has come to light, and they must figure out how to address it. One favors shining a bright light on the incident. The other is not so sure. One of the wives, unbeknownst to either man, has already taken action. The discoveries keep coming, from the details of the inciting incident to the  dark conclusion.