Personal by Lee Child (audio)

personalWhat else can I say about Reacher? In some ways, my review of this book is going to say “this is like all the other Reacher books,” but I mean that in the best possible way. He is still a whiz, a he-man, a polymath expert – although I do like the odd bit where he is lacking. For example, we’ve heard before that he’s not a very good driver: it’s not a skill he had much time to develop in his Army-based life. I also found it refreshing that in this installment (minor spoiler here) he does not sleep with any of the beautiful women. I mean, I enjoy those scenes; but it’s more realistic for him to bat less than 1.000, don’t you think?

Briefly: in Personal, Reacher is tracked down by an Army contact to whom he owes a favor. There has been an assassination attempt against the French president, and all the major world powers are pitching in to help solve the crime, because they fear for their own leaders’ safety at an upcoming G8 meeting. The shot was taken so accurately from such a distance that only a few snipers in the world could have done it, making the list of suspects very short. Reacher resists the conclusion, but it does seem likely that an American took the shot – specifically, a man Reacher sent away to prison for 15 years, just 16 years ago. He is paired up with a young woman from the State Department (…or is she?) to investigate, and travels from Seattle to North Carolina to Arkansas to Paris and London, etc. It is, typically, an exciting and blood-splattered storyline, and I loved every minute of it.

I’m not saying much new here – if you know and love Reacher, you’ll be pleased by Personal, another chapter in the longer story and not at all Lee Child’s weakest. Next!


Rating: 7 pills.

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (audio)

third policemanThis will win the Pagesofjulia Perplexing and Peculiar Award of 2016, which I have just invented.

Flann O’Brien is one of the pen names of Brian O’Nolan (he also wrote under the name Myles na gCopaleen, or Myles na Gopaleen; Brother Barnabas; etc.). This novel came to me first from this list by the Guardian, and then from my friend Barrett, who bought me O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds when we were traveling in Ireland together several years ago. (I still have not read that one.)

The Third Policeman is not so strictly about bicycles or cycling as the Guardian list had led me to believe; I was quite confused for the first, oh, third or so of the book. Our unnamed narrator is an odd one. He was orphaned, lost a leg, and then returned home from college to find his parents’ pub managed by a man named Divney, who is clearly embezzling from the business. Narrator is quite obsessed with a (fictional) scientist-philosopher named de Selby, about whom he writes a definitive work that he cannot afford to have published. This financial need is set up as his motivation to join in a plot with Divney to rob and murder a neighbor, the wealthy Mathers. After the murder, Divney hides the money, inspiring Narrator to follow him around closely, finally sleeping in the same bed to prevent Divney’s sneaking off to recover the funds alone. Very strange, right? It gets stranger. Narrator meets a figure who is, apparently, the ghost of Mathers; Narrator’s soul speaks up quite suddenly, is named Joe, and becomes an occasional participant in dialog; Narrator hikes off to find a certain police station where he wants to report the theft of a nonexistent watch, thereby seeking clues as to Mathers’s missing money; etc. When we meet the policemen (only two of them, the titular third being absent), we get into the bicycle-related part of the book, but nothing makes any more sense than before. Remember de Selby, Narrator’s obsession? Footnotes throughout discuss his life and work (gradually revealing that he was perhaps less the genius than Narrator would have us think), and, digressively, the lives and petty conflicts of de Selby’s other biographers. WHEW.

The policemen, in turn, are obsessed with bicycles. (Recall this teaser.) Apparently in their world, those who spend too much time on their bicycles become bicycles. You know I loved this part.

This plot, if I may call it that, is every bit as twisted and weird and disconnected as it sounds. Despite all that, it is entertaining, stylish in its own way, and yes, smart. Narrator has a strong voice and personality, strange though he be. The policemen have interesting theories and skills, metaphysical and philosophic. And I have by no means hinted at the central questions of the book yet; there is a final big reveal that makes you think. No spoilers here! and you should avoid them elsewhere to keep The Third Policeman‘s full effect intact.

As far as I can tell, O’Brien gets credit with coining a usage of the word ‘pancake’ for ‘puzzle.’ His policemen use it repeatedly:

It is one of the most compressed and intricate pancakes that I have ever known.

…nearly an insoluble pancake…

A very unnatural pancake. A contrary pancake surely…

And thus my rating: this book is a contrary pancake surely.

The real live narrator, who reads this audiobook for us, is Jim Norton, and he does a splendid job. I felt pulled into a surreal world that I enjoyed and giggled at and was occasionally disturbed by. I’m sure I missed two-thirds at least of the opportunities to interpret this work as a piece of philosophy, itself, but I was utterly entertained. The audio format worked well for letting the zaniness just wash over me. It would not be ideal for close reading, of course – never is – but I really appreciated the experience of this audio introduction to Flann O’Brien, or whatever he calls himself, and I will read more. Don’t be too intimidated – just, don’t expect to understand everything you hear. I’m sure O’Brien has been the subject of a few dissertations, and is probably ripe for another, if you’re feeling ambitious.


Rating: 7 pancakes.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

This is an exceptionally strange one, friends. I got a little confused. This was recommended as one of The Ten Best Books About Cycling. But early pages (hours) were devoted to an odd friendship, an odder murder and reanimation, and the main character’s obsessive devotion to and criticism of a fictional philosopher.

third policeman The plot remains weird, which I have come to accept is partly the point; and now we have got around to bicycles.

“I do not want to be insidious,” he said, “but would you inform me about your arrival in the parish? Surely you had a three-speed gear for the hills?”

“I had no three-speed gear,” I responded rather sharply, “and no two-speed gear and it is also true that I had no bicycle and little or no pump and if I had a lamp itself it would not be necessary if I had no bicycle and there would be no bracket to hang it on.”

“That may be,” said MacCruiskeen, “but likely you were laughed at on the tricycle?”

“I had neither bicycle nor tricycle and I am not a dentist,” I said with severe categorical thoroughness, “and I do not believe in the penny-farthing or the scooter, the velocipede or the tandem-tourer.”

MacCruiskeen got white and shaky and gripped my arm and looked at me intensely.

“In my natural puff,” he said at last, in a strained voice, “I have never encountered a more fantastic epilogue or a queerer story. Surely you are a far-fetched man. To my dying night I will not forget this today morning.”

I am totally tickled, naturally. Stick around, and I will try to illuminate the weirdness for you in my final review. For now: worthwhile.

Mink River by Brian Doyle (audio)

mink riverMy second Brian Doyle novel (following Martin Marten, which was one of the best I read in 2015) was also outstanding. Mink River shares much of the subject matter and setting: it takes place in a rather larger small town on the Oregon coast, with a cast of delightful people and animals, all of whom make up a web and community of life and values in which human and nonhuman creatures carry equal weight. It covers an enormous swath of life experiences, truly profound in that sense, but also humble in its small physical scale: a few families and friends form the core of this novel, which is both quaint and all-encompassing.

Centrally, Worried Man and Cedar are the two members of the Department of Public Works in the fictional town of Neawanaka. Worried Man has a wife, Maplehead; a daughter, No Horses; an son-in-law, Owen; and a grandson, Daniel, whose hair forms three braids, of red and black and brown. Cedar does not know his personal history. He remembers nothing before the day Worried Man and Maplehead pulled him out of the river where he was drowning. They make a motley family circle, of which Cedar and Owen are as much a part as the other, blood relations. There is also a mean old man who beats his children, now just the younger two boys, as the elder boy and girl are adults who fish for a living. A young couple learning about each other. An upstanding policeman and his wife, who struggle to express their feelings for one another. The doctor; the old nun; and of course Moses, the crow, who the nun taught to speak and who is capable of carrying on quite complex philosophical discussions with his human friends. (Crows are very smart, you know.)

The family at the center provides a lovely blend of cultures – the indigenous Salish people represented by Worried Man and Maplehead, and the Irish, by Owen. Worried Man and his son-in-law each speak some of their people’s respective dying tongues, and both pay homage to what that represents; both make efforts to pass their knowledge along. Both cultures also offer a legacy of love of stories, which Daniel inherits. As Owen relates, while telling of his grandfather who survived the Hunger in Ireland:

You can eat stories if you have to. A good story is a very good thing to eat. If you have a true story and some good water, you’ll be all right, he would say…

Sometimes, he would tell stories about stories. The stories of children are green, he would say, and the stories of women are blue, and the stories of men are red…

You can eat an infinite number of stories. No one can ever eat too many stories.

A lovely quotation, and of course fitting for a novel about everything in life.

As well as these human cultures, like Martin Marten, this story addresses the bond between human and nonhuman cultures, as best embodied by Moses the philosopher-crow. Bears and birds and the river itself are given voices and agency, although not strictly personified: the bear is not a person at all, but a bear.

Doyle continues to exhibit spellbinding, lyrical language, and his sentences can flow and flow and flow on, as if they will eventually reach the sea. This book was very enjoyable to listen to, read by narrator David Drummond. It was a trade-off: probably I missed some nuance and detail in favor of that lovely sound. But I felt this was a worthwhile trade-off. Sound is one of Doyle’s great strengths – but so is story. He has it all. Loveable, complex, diverse characters, realistic setting, sweeping large plot, philosophy, and poetry, all in one. Absolutely recommended as ever.


Rating: 8 shared bottles of beer.

Teaser Tuesdays: Mink River by Brian Doyle

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

mink river

Totally unsurprisingly, I am thrilled to be back with Brian Doyle, this time in audio format. Mink River is like Martin Marten in that it examines a small town on the northern Pacific coast, and all its inhabitants, human and otherwise. Whimsical is a good word for Doyle, I think. I’m only a short way in but these lines struck me:

Of course, there are many other people in Neawanaka, so very many. Old and young and tall and short and hale and broken and weary and exuberant. So very many it would take a million years to tell a millionth of their lives, and we don’t have the time, worse luck, for their stories are riveting and glorious and searing. But ah, let us choose two…

I am convinced of this concept, that all creatures’ stories are worth telling, if only we could get to them, which we can’t, not all of them. And isn’t the idea well expressed here? Doyle still recommended.

did not finish: Ripper by Isabel Allende (audio)

ripperAll right, I give up, a little bit, on Allende. The Japanese Lover was stronger on language than on character, and Maya’s Notebook even more so. Not since Inés of My Soul have I been bowled over by the whole package of story, character and language.

Ripper starts out intriguingly, as noted. But I only made it about 10% through the book before finding myself frustrated by the characters. The voluptuous, beautiful blonde with a heart of gold who is blind to people’s flaws; the materialistic rich guy she dates; the obnoxious teen (really, I find this one a lot. I know they can be difficult – I was – but they have to be more complex than this); etc. And then the unrealistic details (which I noted in Maya’s Notebook), as when our teenaged sleuth demands all the details of an ongoing murder investigation, because “it’s public record”: not so.* This kind of disregard for facts, in an otherwise realistic setting, bugs me; and combined with the flat characters, I couldn’t keep going.

Allende is one of the best when it comes to description and language. But that’s not always enough, for me at least. I’ll hold out for her next critically acclaimed work before I come back.


Unrated.

*I felt like I knew this from watching crime shows on television. Obviously not a strong source, so I found some stronger ones, below. The gist of it is, specific details of a crime whose investigation is ongoing are exempt from public records legislation, where the release of those details might jeopardize the investigation. For example, the details of specifically what was done to a murder victim might be held back so that the police can distinguish real confessions from fake ones. This is classic crime fiction stuff, but also fact. “Most states exempt from disclosure law enforcement investigatory records,” from the Connecticut General Assembly’s Office of Legislative Research, reporting on states’ laws. The LA Times refers to “investigative records exempt from public release under California’s public records law.” “Specified facts from investigatory or security records, without disclosure of the records themselves, must be disclosed unless disclosure would endanger the successful completion of an investigation, or related investigation, or endanger a person involved in the investigation. Cal. Gov’t Code §§ 6254(f)(1), (f)(2) and (f)(3),” from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Information that may jeopardize an investigation, related investigation or law enforcement proceeding” are exempt from public records access, according to the LAPD. “Law enforcement investigative files may be withheld, but not the basic facts.” Californians Aware, The Center for Public Forum Rights. Etc.

book beginnings on Friday: Ripper by Isabel Allende (audio)

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

ripper

She is not perfect: I found The Japanese Lover to be, not bad, but less than she is capable of. But I still look forward to reading Isabel Allende.

Ripper begins:

“Mom is still alive, but she’s going to be murdered at midnight on Good Friday,” Amanda Martín told the deputy chief, who didn’t even think to question the girl. She’d already proved she knew more than he and all his colleagues in Homicide put together.

I thought that was a hell of an opening, and the pages that follow are equally engaging. Stick around.

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