Sunday, August 24, 2008

Looks at 5 Books

ItalicOne of the great things about working full-time again is having scheduled time to read on the subway, notwithstanding the pain in the neck of trying to read in the new cars on the Q that have less seats and more standing room. Here are some capsule reviews:

BANANAS: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World by Peter Chapman; Canongate
I read this during the May farm trip but will grandfather this title on the list as much of it was read on the long bus trip. Substitute a crate of bananas for a barrel of oil and you get the angle of this book. Big government and big business ravage small Latin American nations to exploit their resources from the post-Civil War era to the 1970s. There's even an appearance by the ubiquitous E. Howard Hunt, the Forrest Gump of skullduggery, charter member of the Villains, Thieves, and Scoundrels Union, who shows up subverting the government in Guatemala for the CIA's "Operation Success" (featuring a cameo by Che Guevara). Very entertaining reading.

POCKETFUL OF NAMES by Joe Coomer; Graywolf Press
This a novel that I picked up at Brooklyn Book Festival last year. As I wrote last year, "Graywolf Press of St. Paul, MN featured some very attractively designed covers, real eyecatchers. I picked up another $10 bargain, Pocketful of Names by Joe Coomer, a novel that is 'a deeply human tale about the unpredictability of nature, art, family and the flotsam and jetsam that comprise our lives.' The main character is a young woman, so when Clare Danes is finished playing Shaw in NY this year, her agent might take a flyer on this." Now that I've actually read it, I found the main character so self-assured in her art (a lot of it is rocks from the island with stuff glued to it), as I got through the first half of the book, that I wondered where the author was going. The plot takes a twist as the island-dwelling artist learns that the source of her steady income is not from a wide range of the art-buyng community (who buy her work from her agent's gallery in the big city), but from a single source of questionable decency. I see why the author placed her on an island because it seemed odd that an artist, curious about the world and interpreting it through art, could be so uncurious as to not try to find out at an earlier point in the plot who these patrons are. I liked the story better after the big reveal, when Hannah, the artist, disassembles her painted and glued rocks and returns them to the shores from whence they came. Coomer is a talented writer who can create a believable world populated by characters speaking with distinctive voices.


The next three books come from Posman's (Grand Central Station) annual green dot summer sale. This summer we bought three from the "Buy two and get the third one free" table.

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN by Jonathan Lethem; Vintage Comtemporaries
The protagonist is an orphaned detective with Tourette's trying to find out who killed his mentor. Lethem accurately captures the earthy vocabulary and mentality of the Italian subculture that I'm familiar with. I can attest to this--I grew up with guys with names like Bagdagliacca, Iervolino, Alfano, et cetera. I didn't really get the feel that I was reading a detective novel, despite the way the book is promoted. It's more of a story about a gofer pretending to be a detective. The Tourette's angle wears you out as it's supposed to, listening to someone who says almost every thing that comes into his head. Gritty slices of sidewalk life that make up Court St., Brooklyn and New York City.

THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS by P. G. Wodehouse; Vintage Books
Pure joy, one of the series of stories of the idly rich Bertie Wooster and his brilliant valet, Jeeves. As I read this I thought of Seinfeld and his series about nothing. I also discovered that Jeeves' first name wasn't revealed until the next-to-last book in the series (which ran from 1919-1974!!), which made me think of Kramer and his secret first name, eventually discovered. Then I thought of the pilot that Jerry shoots called "Jerry," about a man and his butler. Theory: other Seinfeld plots may have their roots in Wodehouse. I will explore this further at a future date.

APPOINTMENT IN SAMARA by John O'Hara; Vintage Books
A drink thrown in a man's face leads to the downfall of a Depression-era car salesman from the in-crowd in a small town. O'Hara's first novel, the sexual frankness shocked me considering the pub date (1934). If I had known how advanced the treatment of human desire was portrayed I might not have lent the book to my 89-year-old mother before I had the chance to read it first. However, Mom assures me she's not as sheltered as I think and not to worry about it. She did ask, "Did you read this yet?' and that's usually a sign that I let one slip though the cracks. One part of Mom's enjoyment of the book, she said, was that lived through that era and got all the references. When I read a book about the '30s and the characters start quoting song lyrics and titles, as they frequently do here, I'm amazed at how many I know. Very depressing novel, written during a Depression when no one knew if or when it would end, with a sense of dread that it could even affect the well off if it lasted any longer.

Family trip to Florida to see the Mets; new Sony HD radio: for hobbyists only or the next big thing?

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