Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Brass Verdict, by Michael Connelly

The "Lincoln Lawyer" returns. After a year's hiatus, during which time defense attorney Mickey Haller goes through rehab and stays straight, Haller is abruptly thrown back into the world of law when a fellow attorney is murdered. Haller takes over most of the cases, including the "franchise": a prominent film producer accused of murdering his wife and her lover.

In addition to having to get up to speed quickly, to sort out what is going on in each of the cases, Haller is concerned that his own life may be threatened. In part for this reason and in part because the murdered attorney had been his friend, Haller begrudgingly lets LAPD detective Harry Bosch in. Haller wants the murderer caught as much as Bosch does, but is limited by law in what he can do to help Bosch. Their alliance is an uneasy one but one that seems to develop into almost a mutual respect.

As is the case with other Connelly novels, this one is replete with the details, is exacting in getting them right. Thus we can step right into Haller's shoes and feel the pressure as he takes steps to reconstruct a calendar, to track down clients. We also can breathe with him as he resumes his habit of working out of his Lincoln Town cars (three of them, rotated), watching the Suitcase City pass by as he is driven from one appointment to another.

It was a pleasure to read a Mickey Haller novel in which Bosch figures so prominently. It gives us a different perspective on the sometimes-explosive man-on-a-mission. It was also a pleasure to get to know Haller better, to follow his efforts to get back into the real world and perhaps to take steps to win his ex-wife back.

Away, by Amy Bloom

An extraordinary book. Small and simply written, this tale of Lilian Leyb is also poetic, beautiful, and full of characters we can believe in even as we laugh at their unexpected actions. Most of all, the character of Lillian is solid, strong, far from perfect yet yes, perfect.

Lillian finds herself in Manhattan with nothing but an address pinned to her coat. She speaks no English but does speak Russian and Yiddish and lands in New York in 1924, during the period when to be a seamstress means you can live. She has already been through hell in Russia, losing her family to horrific violence. Perhaps the lessons of that time are part of what keeps her going, adjusting to turns of events and accepting what she must accept, yet single-mindedly doing what she herself knows she must do.

Eventually Lillian sets out to return to Russia to find her little daughter, and her route takes her across the country and up through Canada and beyond. On this "road trip" unlike any other road trip she meets many people, as important as those she left behind in Russia and New York. Each time Lillian sets off again we learn the future, sketched lovingly, of each of these friends, a bonus that usually made me smile.

The details of Lillian's life in New York, her trip across country, her walk into the Yukon, are alive with a sense of reality. We can walk in her shoes even though for us it doesn't hurt.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

My Lobotomy: A Memoir, by Howard Dully and Charles Fleming

I expected to like this book. I have done a great deal of reading about mental illness and the horrors that pass as cures, including lobotomy. Seeing lobotomy from the patient’s perspective is a rarity.

The story is certainly compelling. The telling of it is not. I suspect that a combination of the natural talents of Howard Dully and his co-writer, along with the effects of the lobotomy, is why the book is not all it could be. The book is unnecessarily repetitious, which takes away a lot of its power. Much of it is also infused with an adolescent point of view. I had the disturbing feeling that Howard Dully is a 50-something teenager. Or perhaps now a young adult.

I have heard that alcoholics tend to be stuck chronologically where they first became alcoholics. So if they were teens, that’s where they stay until such time as they burst free of the addiction, insofar as one can. It seems to me that the same might be said for this particular lobotomy. It was performed on Howard as a 12-year-old and his thoughts and actions for years afterwards mirror the feelings and impressions of a 12-year-old.

I became impatient with the explanations. Howard, as a young teen in Agnews, the mental hospital, did not know when he would get out. His reaction, therefore, was to “have fun”. Because he did not know nor was he able to control his future, he felt his only option was to have fun. This attitude, along with the lack of any real training for the real world, is what got him into trouble year after year. It also was the reason I had trouble liking Howard as I listened to this CD version of the book.

He recognizes, late in the book, that it was the lack of preparation for work or life outside that got him in trouble so often. Is this a common experience for people in similar situations? Those who are young and placed in mental institutions for a relatively short time? It seems an astounding lack of foresight on the part of the caretakers. How can you expect somebody to do well on the outside without the necessary skills? Even in prison inmates get an opportunity to train for some work.

The part of the book that is especially disturbing is the treatment of Howard by his stepmother Lou. The unfortunate combination of a distant father (emotionally), who does not share significant information or thoughts with his son, and a distrusting, disapproving stepmother who singled Howard out, was bound to have a significant effect on Howard’s behavior as a young child. He was beaten daily by either or both parents, he was not told of his real mother’s death when it happened (she just “left”), and it seemed to make no difference what he did. It makes sense that he acted out, that he rebelled, he made good on what his parents accused him of. When Lou took it upon herself to press for the lobotomy, Howard had nobody in his corner.

As I listened to the CDs I was also affected by the manner in which the book was read. It is not read by Howard, but by a skilled reader, who reads an attitude into the words. I was not fond of the way he read it and wondered if I would feel differently about the book if I had read the paper version. Therefore, I sought out information online, and especially looked for the NPR program featuring Howard. It was easy to find: NPR program

In this radio program we get to hear Howard narrate and talk to lobotomy experts and others affected by lobotomy. We get to hear the real Howard speak. His voice has almost a monotone quality to it, which is something I might expect of a person who has undergone a lobotomy. When he is emotionally caught up we can tell by the hesitation and difficulty speaking, so his delivery is not actually “flat”. I wonder if I would have liked the book better if it had been actually read by Howard. I think it’s possible, because it would have felt more real.

I am glad I had the opportunity to listen to this book, which I had not even heard of before I saw it on the list of books in a virtual book box through bookcrossing. It gave me a lot to think about. I do wish it had been more skillfully written, yet it is hard to see how it could have been done without changing the character of Howard Dully.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

So Brave, Young, and Handsome, by Lief Enger

This book became almost like an old friend to me. The chapters are short, so I could grab and gulp one down quickly in odd moments, and set it aside, feeling a sense of accomplishment. At the same time, of course, by picking up and letting down I didn't fully become engaged with the characters early. Or maybe it's just that kind of book: easy to read yet easy to set aside.

At least at first. The characters are intriguing, yet were difficult for me to get to know, especially the narrator, Monte Becket.

The story takes place around the turn of the century, in the early 1900s. Becket wrote an adventure novel that quickly became a best-seller, in spite of his lack of knowledge of the subject matter. He didn't know horses or adventure, yet his novel was about a western hero who triumphs over difficult odds by knowing how to ride, how to track, how to make love. The pulp fiction of the day.

Monte lives in Minnesota with his beautiful artist wife and observant young son. After the success of his novel he quits his job at the post office and tries to make a living at writing, yet he can no longer seem to find the words. Thus, he is feeling like a failure when a neighbor, Glendon Dobie, suggests he join him on a trip to Mexico to find the wife he left behind decades before. The neighbor is a bit of an unknown, but has found a way into the hearts of Monte's family, so Monte's wife urges him to go.

And thus begins an adventure for real. The trip doesn't go as planned in almost every way. Monte finds himself in situations that might have made good novel fodder if he'd been so inclined to use it. He is also challenged to find out more about himself, as so often happens in road stories.

I did not particularly like Monte until nearly the middle of the book. I didn't get a good feel for him, it seemed I couldn't grasp his essence, and what I did grasp I didn't particularly like. Yet by that time, the middle of the book, he began to change, or he began to assert those qualities of his that perhaps his wife knew and he had forgotten. From there on his decisions seem to be more outward - for the benefit of others - than internal.

Through much of the book, Monte and Glendon are pitted against a former Pinkerton's detective, bounty hunter Charles Siringo. As the novel progresses, Siringo assumes more and more presence and becomes almost a super-human adversary, seemingly evil to the core, yet...not?

Interesting, complex characters. A road show that almost assumes epic proportions. A story of a kind of redemption, finally, for more than one character.