Reputations (Vasquez)

I admire the way Vasquez unpacks his stories, his sense of when to speed up and when to slow down. Big things happen, but they do not occupy much space. Instead, he is more engaged by the way we respond, the intimate details of choice made and not made. Here, he explores the idea of reputation, how one is cultivated and how one, often quite easily, is destroyed. He seems to suggest that we at times become metaphors for ourselves, our whole lives spent trying to live up to our reputation.

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Storming Heaven (Giardina)

I used to go to West Virginia once a year to visit my grandmother, but I haven’t been there since she died. I’ve always been curious about the place, and maybe the recent election renewed my interest. After I read James Green’s book, The Devil is Here in These Hills, a friend recommended this one and, as usual, her recommendation was solid.

I admit it took a little while to warm to the book. I knew Giardina was casting her net wide by introducing the time, the place, the people, and the issues. The dialect can, at times, seem a bit hokey. But once the plot gets going, this story of The Battle of Blair Mountain becomes a riveting tale on both a personal and political level.

And with the LaborFest coming this weekend and everything. . .

The Story of the Night (Toibin)

I have to ration certain authors, and Toibin is one of them. I don’t remember how I stumbled on The Master, but ever since, I’ve loved every single one of his books. I pull one of his books off the shelf when I need a sure thing, and once again, he came through. The thing is, I am not sure how he does it. There are no verbal pyrotechnics here. Just sentence upon sentence of seemingly straightforward sentences that, put together, tell (in this case), a half-Argentinian man living in Argentina throughout the Falklands War, the privatization of the oil industry, and the introduction of AIDS into the international vocabulary. I know that sounds like a lot (and I’ve left out things like the death of someone’s mother and a character’s passive decision to become part of a corrupt arrangement), but it really sneaks up on you and builds up to a well-earned emotional climax.

The Arch and The Butterfly (Achaari)

It started out so well, so promising. I was into it for a while and then it kind of went all over the place, both in form and content. There are some interesting insights – how we are all kind of archeologists of our own life, for example. But the story gets so diffuse, with so much more summary than scene, that I pretty much lost the plot and generally didn’t care. Perhaps it would reward more attention than I gave it, but after such a strong beginning, I couldn’t find my way back into it.

A Time to Kill (Grisham)

My commute this year is a bit longer, so I’ve been going the podcast route. I’ve been enjoying John Grisham’s podcast, so I thought I’d give one of his books a try. It made sense to me to start from the beginning, especially after he told stories of how big of a flop this book when it first was published. Grisham is very forthright about his goals and perfectly willing to embrace his success. He apparently, for example, exercised his right to veto an initial casting decision for A Time to Kill. But his ultimate goal, he explains on the podcast, is to keep people turning the pages and, despite many misgivings about the racial and sexual politics of the book, I kept turning the pages. The details here are not Grisham’s strong suit. Most sections read (at best) like useful first drafts. On the podcast, Grisham says that the first draft was around 1,000 pages, and my edition checks in at just over 500. He says the experience turned him into a firm believer in outlines, so maybe the future books are more precise. I don’t know if I’ll give any more of his books a try. I’d always heard this one was a kind of To Kill a Mockingbird-lite, and I can see the basis for the comparison. Based on the way he talks about them, A Painted House and The Innocent Man are possibilities.

Through the Windshield (DeCapite)

This is a rediscovered Cleveland classic – part poetry, part prose, part, I suspect autobiography. This is the story of Danny, a gambler, a cab driver, a shift worker, a friend trying to make a life. He has a good (older) friend, Ed, and a whole catalog of characters in his life, a life in which he constantly needs five bucks for gas, a life that grows less satisfying as he ages.

DeCapite is an original writer. The chapters are sometimes plot, sometimes observational. The story is hardly linear, which is right, because Danny isn’t going anywhere.

I recommend this; you haven’t read anything like it.

The Secret Agent (Conrad)

Usually, I write reviews pretty soon after I finish a book or, as you can probably see in a few of my reviews, the details start to fade. But the school year has started, and so I’ve been carrying this one in my backpack for a few days.

My only previous Conrad experiences were with Heart of Darkness, both as a high school student and at least once as a teacher. I started Lord Jim at least once and made no progress. So I was a little uncertain as I approached this book club selection.

It was really, really good. Even if I didn’t know that Conrad learned English when he was 40, I would still have been very impressed with his detailed and engaging characterizations of a secret agent and the network of people who intersect with him. He brings every one of the dozen or so characters to life.

And the tone is remarkably sly. There are no good people here, and there are certainly no heroes. There is one innocent person and what happens to him is heartbreaking.

Mostly, though, Conrad humanizes and complicates (which might be two words for the same thing) everyone involved. People are, in Conrad’s world, quite petty, however much that might cloak themselves in slogans. And that seems right to me.