Monday, June 28, 2010

A Separate Peace, by John Knowles

This 1959 coming of age story, John Knowles's first novel, is certainly a classic, still read by school kids and adults alike.  Set in the middle of World War 2, on the campus of an elite boy's school in New England.  Knowles attended Phillips Exeter; the novel's Devon School is clearly modeled after his alma mater.  The narrator, Gene, holds his roommate and best friend Phineas, or Finny, in high esteem.  Although Finny's not as good a student as Gene, he has a charisma that wins over his teachers and draws in his peers.  As Gene says, Phineas "almost always moved in groups the size of a hockey team" such was his magnetic attraction. 

Out of his mix of admiration and perhaps jealousy of Finny, Gene makes a poor decision that results in injury to Finny.  A split-second decision, an action thoughtlessly taken, had long-lasting impact.  Gene tries to atone for his actions, and remains a good friend.  Finny presents a model of forgiveness.  I'm not sure I could have been as forgiving, and I am quite confident I would have been wracked with guilt were I Gene.  I thought about stupid moves I've made.  I remember in junior high when I got angry with a friend at P.E. and kicked him hard in his groin.  He writhed in pain and recovered quickly, but what if I had done permanent damage?  What other stupid little acts have I done or had done to me that could have had lasting effects?  Knowles explores those consequences and the impact on Gene and Finny's relationship and their lives.  Again, Finny's ability to forgive and love Gene was remarkable.

In the background of their relationship and other events at school is World War 2, drawing these boys inevitably toward service in the armed forces.  The romanticism of war is shattered by their friend Leper's experiences, yet enlisting is almost expected.  In my lifetime, in which the draft exists only in history books and the ocassional policy debate, and during which wars seem to be fought on smaller scales and with smaller numbers, the inevitability of service has not been in my experience.  It's hard to imagine today that teenagers, especially teenagers in the prep school elite, would have the expectation of military service. 

Knowles's descriptive, almost poetic descriptive passages, and his spot-on portrayal of the mind of teenage young men combine to make A Separate Peace a real pleasure to read.  It deserves a spot on your reading list whether your high school days lie before you or are a dim memory.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Book Depository

In my last post, a review of Mark Gimenez's The Perk, I mentioned that his books aren't exactly easy to find.  I sent Mr. Gimenez an e-mail, and he recommended The Book Depository, a bookstore in the U.K.  Their prices are low, and they promise free shipping to anywhere.  I thought, why not, and went ahead and ordered 2 of Gimenez's books, Accused and The Common Lawyer.  I figured I was in no hurry.  But they arrived in one week!  I've ordered books from places in the U.S. that took longer than that!  So here's my recommendation: shop at The Book Depository!  I spot checked a few books; in some cases, their prices are lower than Amazon.  Plus, you can get a different cover and have a book with funny spellings like colour, centre, banque, and pyjamas.

AccusedThe Common Lawyer

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Perk, by Mark Gimenez

I first heard of Mark Gimenez when I read a review of his first book, The Color of Law, in Texas Monthly a few years ago.  Then I randomly met him, and he gave me a copy of his second novel, The Abduction.  I have no idea why this guy is not more well-known around here.  He lives in Bedford, and as best I can tell, his books are difficult to obtain in the U.S.  According to his web site, they sell pretty well in the English-speaking world outside the U.S., but he remains little-known here.  Of his 5 published novels, the Bedford Public Library only has 2, as does the Fort Worth Library.  I had to get The Perk through inter-library loan.

All that said, The Perk, like his other 2 novels I've read, was a terrific story.  He's been compared to John Grisham, and I like Grisham, but Grisham, I know Mark Gimenez, and you're no Mark Gimenez.  Grisham's novels are more like a really great bag of potato chips: you can't stop eating them, and they taste good, and you're disappointed when the bag's empty, but then you realize you haven't really eaten much of anything, and it all tasted pretty much the same.  Next time you see that bag of chips, you'll have some more, with the same result.  With The Perk, it's like you're eating a full-course meal.  Ocassionally you get a dish or a flavor you didn't expect, but it was all prepared by a master chef, delicious, well-planned, and satisfying.  You end up wishing the meal was not over, and looking forward to the next feast.

The Perk opens with a major Hollywood star picking up girls in his limo during an Austin film festival; the beautiful young girls clamoring for his attention are a perk of his fame.  He picks one looker from the crowd, fills her with liquor and drugs and has his way with her, after which she passes out and dies from an overdose.  Frightened for his future, he dumps her body by the road near her hometown of Fredericksburg.

Several years later, Beck Hardin, local football hero, returns to Fredericksburg after a long absence.  He graduated and went to Notre Dame on a football scholarship, stayed for law school and a high-flying career in corporate law.  Only after his wife's death from breast cancer does he decide to return to the father and the town and the state he had sworn never to return to.  At his father's urging, he runs for county judge in a special election and wins on a fluke (but a fluke that turns out to be significant for the plot).  And he agrees to help his old high school pal, now the local high school football coach, find his daughter's killer.

With that case in the background, and the statute of limitations running down, Beck takes on the docket of a small-town county court.  It turns out to be more complicated than he thought it would be.  He finds himself in the middle of an ongoing culture clash between the old-time Germans, Mexican immigrants, and newly arrived former urbanites.  Old boy networks, town traditions, and cultural conflicts make Beck's job quite a bit more interesting.  Gimenez touches on an almost dizzying array of issues: integreation of public schools, the professionalization of high school football, illegal immigration, changing rural economies, the afore-metioned loss of a spouse to breast cancer, drug use among rural teens, racism, justice, prejudice, family relationships, grief, and more.

I particularly like his jab at the goat farmers.  Fredericksburg, in LBJ country, benefitted from President Johnson's mohair subsidy.  So area goat farmers grew wealthy raising goats and receiving these agricultural subsidies.  When Clinton eliminated the subsidy, many goat farmers had to find another way to make a living.  When one of the goat farmers criticizes the Mexicans born taking welfare, J.B., Beck's straight-talking dad, points out that the local German goat farmers got rich taking government money.  The goat farmer didn't take that too well.

Aside from the running jab against the mohair subsidy, I have a feeling The Perk won't be a very popular read in Fredericksburg, especially among the German establishment.  Gimenez paints Fredericksburg as a town divided, ruled by the old German families, many of whom have intermarried to maintain land and power.  Public offices are passed from father to son, and cousins wed to keep land in the family.  The Mexican population is mostly illegals who work at the turkey plany.  I know fiction often calls for caricatures, and Gimenez does leave some outs ("most of the Germans aren't like that," sympathetic portrayals of Mexicans), but he still portrays the town as a facade of a small-town paradise with an dark, dirty underbelly.

Gimenez's characters are believable and relatable.  The Perk sucks the reader in not only to the richly complex plot but also into the back stories and personal lives of the characters.  He does have a tendency toward melodrama, but he uses the intertwining stories effectively and purposefully to move the plot along.  The resolution emphasizes a major theme: Beck is reminded repeatedly that the legal system is concerned with the law, not necesarily with justice.  Justice is done, for the most part, but Beck's experiences demontrate the limits of law in bringing about justice.

I hope Gimenez gets the exposure he deserves and starts selling more books in the U.S.  The Perk is a gripping read, highly enjoyable, just as his other 2 novels were.  Pick it up and enjoy a great story with memorable characters and a taste of Texas.  Just don't stay up 'til 3 a.m. reading it, like I did.

[One more thing: Gimenez's books are available through a store in England called The Book Depository.  They ship to the U.S. for free!]

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Between the Assasinations, by Aravind Adiga

Every now and then we see the unfortunate phenomenon of a first-time novelist winning wide acclaim, then following it up with a disappointing lesser novel or a collection of stories to feed the reading public's hunger for his or writings.  After the success of The White Tiger, I have no doubt that Aravind Adiga will publish more terrific fiction, but reading Between the Assassinations I had the feeling that he was recycling old ideas, rehashing stories that had not been publishable before, and taking advantage of my willingness to read something else by him.  I feel a little bit bad writing that, as if this were a terrible collection, but I was quite disappointed that this did not measure up.

All that's not to say the stories weren't enjoyable.  Set in the town of Kittur, in southwestern India, the stories interspersed with brief travel guide style entries.  Since they are based in the same town, there are tenuous connections between the stories, but there is not thread of continuity running through them.  The travel entries and the stories themselves give a nice introduction to Kittur.  Set between the assassinations of  Mrs. Indira Ghandi (1984) and Rajiv Ghandi (1991), it also gives a glimpse of the history of India during that time period.

Adiga tells his stories primarily from the perspective of poor, lower-caste Indians.  I see him as a sort of modern Indian Dickens, capturing the gritty reality of life in the streets and the efforts of those who have nothing to become something.  Some of the characters offer insight on the state of being poor.  The rich, George the mosquito man (he sprays for mosquitos), says the rich have a cushion for making mistakes: "You know what the biggest difference is between being rich and being like us?  The rich can make mistakes again and again.  We make only one mistake, and that's it for us."  Makes sense to me.

There's plenty of good humor here, along with the cultural education, even for the non-Indian reader, but I suspect the Indian would have a much deeper appreciation for the stories.  There were even times when Indian words or references were made without explanation; if his audience is primarily U.S or British readers (Adiga was educated in the U.S. and England, and has written for Time and The Financial Times), I would think he'd help us out a bit more.

Between the Assassinations is not a bad read, as long as you don't go into it expecting a novel.  But if you want to get Adiga's cultural insights and social commentary on modern India, try reading The White Tiger first.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Chasing Miracles, by John F. Crowley

It doesn't get much more inspiring than this.  A family learns that two of their children have a rare genetic disorder.  There is no cure, and neither child is expected to live past age two.  The older child shows a determination not to die, so Dad quits his job to start a new biotech company dedicated to finding a cure for the children's disease.  Not only does he successfully find a means to treat the disease and extend their lives, he makes millions of dollars in the process, which must help with all the medical bills.

The story of the Crowley family has been told in Geeta Anand's book The Cure: How a Father Raised $100 Millon--and Bucked the Medical Establishment--in a Quest to Save His Children and in the movie the book inspired, Extraordinary Measures, starring Brendan Fraser as John Crowley and Harrison Ford as Dr. Robert Stonehill, the medical researcher on whom the Crowley's place their hope.  Chasing Miracles is John Crowley's memoir, written during and after the filming of the movie, in which he offers personal reflections on their journey.
I couldn't help tears coming to my eyes every now and then, and was inspired by the spirit and perseverance of both the parents and the kids.  The kids suffer from Pompe disease, which weakens their muscles to the point that they can't walk, much less breathe, on their own.  Megan, the older child, doesn't let that slow her down socially or intellectually.  Her heart of compassion remains focussed on others, even in her most trying times, and she is popular with her classmate at school because of her charismatic personality.

Chasing Miracles  might be best read after seeing the movie or reading The Cure (I have done neither).  Crowley intertwines the story thoroughly enough that you get the idea, but the focus of Chasing Miracles is on their family's relationships and lifestyle and how they have drawn together to face the challenges of Pompe.  The overarching theme is that the doctors said that their children would not live past the next few months, but their collective determination has extended the children's lives so that their life expectancy is now an open question.  The children still are in wheelchairs, breath with breathing equipment, and need full-time care, but the Crowleys treasure every day they have, knowing how close they were to not having any.

In Chasing Miracles, I'm not sure Crowley mentioned Stonehill at all by name.  A friend who has seen Extraordinary Measures and knows something of the story said they (Crowley and Stonehill) had a major falling out.  Hmm. . . guess I'll have to read The Cure for the full story.

In a later chapter in Chasing Miracles, Crowley discusses the oldest child's Asperger's syndrome.  Most families would have enough to deal with just with that.  He is very high functioning, like most people with Asperger's, but does require quite a bit of supervision and guidance.  So I wonder how that is treated in the movie.

My youngest child has an unidentified genetic disorder.  It's not life-threatening like Pompe, but it limits her speech, eating, mobility, and self-care.  Our issues pale in light of what the Crowleys have come through, so their story really inspired me.  Keep the Kleenex handy.