edits on an education from James Lee Burke

I need to edit my claim that mysteries don’t make me do research.

First I realized that I’ve needed a reference source a few times while reading Lee Child, on all the guns he writes about and their functions and ability to, for example, withstand torrential rain. However, the Husband has filled this role sufficiently to date, so far, so I haven’t actually *looked up* anything.

I also did some research on the painter Hieronymous Bosch, while getting into Michael Connelly’s series starring a detective protagonist by the same name. This became particularly important when I read A Darkness More Than Night, which deals with painter-Bosch’s work fairly extensively. So here I am coming up with examples that refute my earlier statement; ah well, that’s life.

finished The Tin Roof Blowdown

Burke sure does know how to be poetic. Check the final paragraph of the epilogue, which I have decided to include here in its entirety (not really so much of a spoiler at all because it is Robicheaux’s *fantasy* ending):

“In my fantasy, I see Bertrand far out on the water, pulling on the oars, his arms pumped with his task, the ruined city of New Orleans becoming smaller and smaller in the distance, a great darkness spreading across the sky just after sunset. The blisters on his hands turn into wounds that stain the wood of the oars with his blood. As the wind rises and the water becomes even blacker, he sees hundreds if not thousands of lights swimming below the surface. Then he realizes the light are not lights at all. They have the shape of broken Communion wafers and the luminosity that radiates from them lies in the very fact they have been rejected and broken. But in a way he cannot understand, Bertrand knows that somehow all of them are safe now, including himself, inside a pewter vessel that is as big as the hand of God.”

I call that rhythmic, lyrical and hopeful, and even I, with my failure to grasp biblical allusions, can see the significance of blood staining the wooden oars.

I find it notable that Robicheaux deals somewhat sympathetically with a character who is a rapist. Some might be offended, I suppose (especially if you take my statement straightforwardly, which would be a mistake), but it’s not simple at all. Robicheaux is disgusted with this individual and the pain he’s caused. But in a very realistically, human, ambivalent way, he recognizes that we are all at least a little bit a product of our environments, and that perhaps everything is at least a little bit relative. The character in question makes some form of amends, at least within the structure of his own understanding. It’s complicated. I’m not particularly sympathetic with rapists myself (!!) but I appreciate that Burke portrays everything to do with human nature and sin and redemption as being complex and not black-and-white (no pun intended, in a book definitely charged with racial tension as all Burke’s books are – probably unavoidable considering the setting).

I confess that Cadillac Jukebox let me down just a bit, but The Tin Roof Blowdown has been so outstanding that I think I’m ready to make a James Lee Burke crusade like I did on Michael Connelly a few months back – and try and read everything he’s written.

But then again, there are so many good books in the world…

book beginnings on Friday on Tuesday

I’m behind the times and/or I’m a rebel – I just found this blog today and so I’m starting today and will hopefully keep up on *Fridays* from now on!

The idea is to share the first line or two of a book and my thoughts on it. Just my kind of thing.

From James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown:

“My worst dreams have always contained images of brown water and fields of elephant grass and the downdraft of helicopter blades. The dreams are in color but they contain no sound, not of drowned voices in the river or the explosions under the hooches in the village we burned or the thropping of the Jolly Green and the gunships coming low and flat across the canopy, like insects pasted against a molten sun.”

Maybe including two sentences was cheating this time, since they compose the whole first paragraph, but boy does Burke know how to set a scene, hm? I feel it’s fairly obvious that he’s talking about Vietnam, even if you were not familiar with protagonist Dave Robicheaux already, in which case you know he’s a vet. These first lines are atmospheric and set a tone. They make me feel at home with Burke who I love, and I’m ready to settle in for a new adventure with Robicheaux.

an education from James Lee Burke

While I am neither the most or the least well- and widely-read person in the world, I do have a graduate degree and do a fair amount of reading; I have a fairly strong vocabulary. I can generally hold my own amongst educated folks. I’m pretty weak on religion, though, which is where most of my questions have come up in The Tin Roof Blowdown. Credit to Burke for making me look up a number of references – something I’m not afraid to do and occasionally relish doing; but it doesn’t happen every day, and very rarely when reading genre fiction!

Today I looked up the Garden of Gethsemane, for example. From page 3, in the intro to the novel and the horrors it offers: “But as I watched Jude grow into manhood, I had to relearn the old lesson that often the best people in our midst are perhaps destined to become sojourners in the Garden of Gethsemane. Ordinary men and women keep track of time in sequential fashion, by use of clocks and calendars. The residents of Gethsemane do not.” What is this garden? Apparently it’s the place where Jesus prayed to his father the night before his arrest and crucifixion. When delving into the symbolism and significance of locating certain characters in Gethsemane I’m a little stumped; it’s like the class on biblical references starts at a higher level than I’m prepared for; I didn’t take the prerequisite. It is suggested that Gethsemane is a symbol for Christ’s controlled and willing submission to his father’s will. It’s also compared and contrasted to that other biblical garden that even I have heard of, Eden. But I find that my internet research (from Wikipedia to the Encyclopedia Britannica and quite a few religious sites) doesn’t yield me a satisfactory understanding of Burke’s mention above.

I also had to look up the Great Whore of Babylon, which Burke writes is the city of New Orleans. This is another enigma to me and I didn’t do much better. Apparently the bible states that the whore offers us false gods and other alternatives to Jesus and what he represents; it’s a Christian allegory for evil and decadence and pleasurable sin. Yep, that sounds like New Orleans, which could be an alternative object of worship, too. But again I think I’m missing some nuances that would require much deeper bible study than I’m interested in right now. I don’t remember this much biblical allusion in Burke.

The next one was secular: John Ehrlichman, used as an example of why military honors do not an honorable man make. Ehrlichman is an easy icon to dissect: he was a Nixon aid and was involved in Watergate. These are symbols I’m familiar with.

Any bible scholars out there who care to explain the first two references to me, please do…

I always find it a refreshing challenge when a book makes me take notes and look things up later. Of course there’s a comfortable limit; running to an encyclopedia or dictionary for every page of text disrupts the flow. But in general I appreciate learning new things when they’re presented to me. It’s not a common experience in mystery novels though! Well played, Mr. Burke.

What have you had to look up lately in conjunction with your reading? Don’t be shy. None of us knows everything.


finished Running the Books and more Burke

Well it turns out that Running the Books gets a resounding endorsement. Author Avi Steinberg started a touch slow, but he grabbed me hard in the end. As our protagonist, Steinberg develops as a character and as a human being as the book unfolds, making some real personal discoveries. It’s a very human story, poignant and forgiving and realistically ambivalent in its eventual conclusions (or lack thereof) about the nature of prisons and criminals. I really enjoyed it.

(If you can’t tell in the image at left, his face is made up of lots of date stamps. Like due date stamps. It’s rather an interesting and clever piece of librarian-art if you care.)

I’m now well into another James Lee Burke, The Tin Roof Blowdown, that my mother gave me quite a while ago. That’s the Dave Robicheaux novel set in New Orleans and New Iberia in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and boy, you want to talk about something stark and visceral… putting aside for a moment the beauty that is a Dave Robicheaux novel, the realistic descriptions of Katrina’s destruction are gut-wrenching. The death and suffering, the necessary decisions about who lives, who dies, who a person chooses to save, the morals and ethics involved, the widespread racism, the political neglect, and the gritty reality of the blood and guts and sewage… it’s very real, and those moral dilemmas are evoked expertly. (I expect nothing less of Burke.) This one is grabbing me a lot harder than Cadillac Jukebox did recently. I really like the character of Alafair, Dave’s adopted daughter, too. (Burke has an adopted daughter named Alafair, who like her fictional namesake is also a writer; one wonders where fact meets fiction.) The chasing of the bad guys by Dave and and perennially self-destructive Clete Purcel is as finely wrought as ever, but for me, what’s special about this book is the rawness and realism of Katrina’s destruction. Whew.

I am, as usual, swamped in fine reading material, and don’t think Burke will take me too long, so stay tuned for one of the three books I recently named as coming next! 😉

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