Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Earthlings: A Novel - Sayaka Murata

Where do you even begin when you want to describe the experience of reading a book like Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings? I’m a reader who, over a lifetime of reading that spans decades, has read thousands of novels, but Earthlings may just be the most stunningly horrifying one I’ve ever read. Think of the most universal cultural taboos there are, the ones shared across the globe, and it is likely that Murata has made them part of the story she tells in Earthlings about a little Japanese girl who fights so hard not to become part of her country’s “baby factory.” This is a coming-of-age novel like none you have ever read — or will want to read again.

Eleven-year-old Natsuki is a misfit whose mother reminds her every day that she is inferior to her sister in all the ways that count. That’s bad enough but, unfortunately, it is not the only kind of abuse that Natsuki suffers. Things gets even worse for her after a handsome young teacher at her school begins to give her private lessons outside normal school hours. So it is little wonder that Natsuki’s best friend, the only one she can confide in, is a plush hedgehog-looking toy she’s named Piyyut who tells her that he has come from the planet Popinpobopia to help her save the Earth. As her mother will make very clear to her, no one else will help Natsuki.

Thoroughly traumatized by her childhood experiences, Natsuki grows into exactly the damaged and disturbed young woman she was destined to become. But members of her family, and her few friends, have no idea just how disturbed she really is. Nor do they realize that Natsuki has attracted two kindred souls who are every bit as disturbed as she is — two young men who are as determined as Natsuki not to give in to Japan’s cultural restrictions or the government’s pressure to reproduce for the good of the nation. 

Bottom Line: That is the gist of the plot of Earthlings, but it is not what makes the novel so horrifying or difficult to read. The real horror, instead, comes from Murata’s detailed and explicit descriptions of the abuses suffered by Natsuki and the ways that she responds to the abuses she suffers. The author uses the same calm, straightforward prose style, almost a clinical approach, throughout the novel no matter what situation she is describing. And, somehow, that makes it all even more horrifying than it already is. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that reading Earthlings requires a strong stomach. Almost despite myself, I had to keep reading this one long enough to see how it would end — and what an ending it turns out to be. 

Sayaka Murata 

Monday, May 03, 2021

Lonesome Dove - Larry McMurtry

I have now re-read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove two times since first discovering it in a Houston B. Dalton bookstore shortly after it was first published in 1985. In both instances, because I always fear that a book will not hold up to my earlier reads of it, I waited more than fifteen years between my re-readings of Lonesome Dove. A novel itself, of course, will not change, but readers, their perspectives, and their perceptions of the world do change — especially during this period in our history when we’ve allowed a loud group of political and social-media bullies to decide what new books should be published and which ones from the past should be erased from public consciousness. Thankfully, the mob has not yet come for Lonesome Dove or its readers.

I am happy to report that even after three reads, Lonesome Dove is as fresh as ever. It is still one of the funniest and one of the saddest books I’ve ever read; it is still home to some of my favorite fictional characters; and it still keeps me entertained throughout its (depending on which edition you read) near-1,000 pages. McMurtry’s story is a long and complicated one that explores the long relationships of a core group of Texans, men and women, who define the world and themselves based largely upon their mutual experiences and what they have learned from each other. 

“When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake — not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and it’s rattling days were over.”

These opening sentences give a sense of Lonesome Dove, the little south Texas border town that former Texas Rangers Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call now call home. Gus and Call, along with a couple of other ex-Rangers, run a little outfit there they call the Hat Creek Cattle Company. Gus, Call, Pea Eye, and Deets have been on the southern border ever since the governor sent them south to watch the state’s border during the Civil War. Now, all these years later, the only real action along the state’s border with Mexico comes from the raiding parties that cross in both directions to steal cattle and horses from each other. And the retired Rangers enjoy doing that as much as anyone. 

Call, though, is feeling his age now…and he’s fast becoming bored with this life. Gus, on the other hand, spends much of his time drinking whisky wherever he can find shade, or at the Dry Bean saloon where he spends time with the town’s one and only whore, and he’s happy enough to go on doing so. Call yearns for one more big adventure in his life, and he wants it now, so when another ex-Ranger, Jake Spoon, rides into Lonesome Dove with stories about the unspoiled grazing paradise to be found in Montana, Call decides that the Hat Creek Cattle Company is going to be the first outfit to drive cattle north of the Yellowstone River. 

What happens next is epic. 

Bottom Line: It is impossible even to hint at everything that happens in Lonesome Dove, so I’ll quote McMurtry’s preface to the edition I read instead. The author addresses the novel’s theme this way: “…if one cuts more deeply, the lonesome dove is Newt, a lonely teenager who is the unacknowledged son of Captain Call and a kindly whore named Maggie, who is now dead. So the central theme of the novel is not the stocking of Montana but unacknowledged paternity. All of the Hat Creek Outfit, including particularly Augustus McCrae, want Call to accept the boy as his son.”  

Lonesome Dove is a not-to-be-missed masterpiece. 

Larry McMurtry

Saturday, May 01, 2021

The Book Chase May 2021 Reading Plan

May caught me by surprise - I suppose because every day and every month has been pretty much like the one that preceded it for more than a year now. For that reason, I'm more or less organizing the month's reading plan on the fly, and my actual May reading may end up bearing little resemblance to what I see ahead of me right now:

Lonesome Dove, despite the fact that I've been slowly enjoying it for weeks, will end up being called a May book because I'm now down to about 25 pages to go in this 946-page masterpiece. I'll almost certainly finish it today. This is my third time reading Larry McMurtry's most famous book, and I am thrilled that it has held up so well again. Since I only read it every decade or so, it has remained as fresh - and as moving - as it was my first time through. Now, I can't wait to re-read the other novels featuring Gus and Call.

Sayaka Murata's Earthlings is another of the books I was already reading coming into this new month. I am about two-thirds of the way through the audiobook version, and although I'm growing a little weary of the book's reader, I'm still intrigued about where this one seems to be heading. I haven't reached the climax yet, but I'm hoping that it's headed where I think it is. Some of the characters in Earthlings resemble the main characters from Murata's Convenience Store Woman enough that I'm starting to wonder if Murata herself is not a bit obsessed by the theme of the two novels. 

Even though Paul Theroux is a writer whose work I've often enjoyed in the past, I'm finding it difficult to get into his latest novel. Under the Wave at Waimea is about an over-the-hill surfer who is now struggling to win against his much younger competition. That's a world I can't identify with, but I think I'll eventually lock into the book's rhythm because it's really, I think and hope, a mystery about what happens after the old surfer runs over someone while driving home from the bar one night. Theroux is just too good a writer for me not to give this one another try.

The Real Cool Killers is a 1959 novel from Chester Himes's Harlem Detective series featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones (just those names make me want to read the book). Himes is a black writer who started publishing short stories while serving time in prison for armed robbery convictions. His work is still seen as having been quite influential in the genre, and after leaving prison and moving to Europe for the rest of his life, his books were popular there as well. I've never read Himes, so I don't know know what to expect.

Hard to believe, but Not Dark Yet is book number twenty-seven in Peter Robinson's DCI Banks series. Banks is a Yorkshire cop I've not completely warmed up to despite now having read the first five and the last two books in the series. I do have to say that I've enjoyed the last two more than I did those at the beginning of the series, so I'm hoping that this one works well for me. I think my problem with the books has been that so little of Banks's personal life is shared with the reader. The novels are, however, excellent police procedurals. 

I've read and enjoyed several of Mike Bond's books in the past, and I've just recently received a review copy of his new one, America: Volume 1. The novel is the first book in a seven-book series via which Bond plans to explore life in America decade-by-decade beginning here with the 1960s. It focuses on two couples who come of age during that decade and how such a volatile time changed and influenced them for the rest of their lives. This was my own coming-of-age decade, so I'm curious to see what Bond has to say about it.

The infamous Blake Bailey biography of Philip Roth arrived yesterday as Amazon promised, and I've already taken a quick look at it. I'm impressed with the physical quality of the book, including its approximately 100 photos, and its organization. But Philip Roth: The Biography is over 800 pages long, so it is unlikely that I will finish it during May. It will most likely instead turn into a multi-month read much like Lonesome Dove has done. Yes, Blake Bailey may very well turn out to be the criminal he is accused of being...not his book. 

I really dislike this cover of Elmore Leonard's Hombre, but don't let it put you off the book itself. Leonard started his career as a western writer, and had great success in that genre in print and movie versions of his stories. Hombre (1961) is one of the best of them, and it may even have been a little ahead of its time because it's the story of a man who, because he was raised by Apaches, is held in contempt by the white settlers around him right up until he's the only thing standing between them and death. Considered by many to be one of the best westerns ever written, it was also adapted into what became one of Paul Newman's best-remembered movies.

Of course, I expect at least three or four other books to demand immediate attention - some I already have on board, and some I don't even know about yet - so things will change. It's only a question of by how much.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place - Can "Bad" People Write Important Books?

As evidenced by the above photo, I'm a big fan of Philip Roth's novels and nonfiction - and I have been since the late 1960s. The books shown in the picture are part of my Library of America collection, and they represent the vast majority of what Roth published during his career, but I also have some of his novels and nonfiction books in their original editions. 

Now, I have almost nothing in common with a man like Philip Roth, but that is a big part of the attraction. Roth was Jewish, he was born in New Jersey, he was a rather infamous womanizer; I am none of those things. So I turned to a writer like Philip Roth to explain that world to me, and even though I doubt that I ever came close to really understanding it, Roth got me as close to that point as any writer ever could. Philip Roth expanded my universe, and I am grateful to him for that. His personal life and habits, intriguing as they were, were his business, and I didn't think much about them.

But Philip Roth is gone now, and what promises to be his definitive biography has recently been published, and I really want to read it - and I want a copy of my own to shelve and reference. Until Monday, I had not ordered a copy, just kept putting it off because I already have so many books stacked up to be read. Then, I spotted an article in The Times of London that W.W. Norton & Company was yanking the book because Blake Bailey, its author, has been accused in New Orleans of sexual misconduct that may have occurred decades ago during his tenure there as a middle school teacher. If the charges are true, Blake Bailey deserves whatever legal punishment his actions merit. No doubt about that.

Bailey, however, was handpicked by Roth to write this biography, and that means that he was given the kind of access to Roth that future biographers can only dream about. From what I've read, the biography exposes extremely unflattering aspects of Roth's personal behavior, so it promises to be frank and, I hope, honest. Bailey was even at Roth's deathbed, from what I gather. As I've said, I want to read this book, and I want to own it.

I realize that I'm going out on a bit of a limb here, but since I review everything I read, if this book arrives today, as Amazon promises it will, I will read it, I will display it on my shelves, and I will review it. Frankly, I consider "cancel culture" to be nothing more than thinly veiled censorship, and I abhor it. Blake Bailey may very well be a despicable human being; I don't know. But if he is, that does not lessen the quality of this book - and even though it will probably be published by someone else eventually, I want it now. And if I could afford to do it, I would probably buy a couple of dozen copies to give to likeminded people because this kind of thing makes me very nervous. 

As a friend of mine says (and he probably stole it from somewhere), "Woke me when it's over."

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Killer inside Me - Jim Thompson

Original Cover of "The Killer Inside Me"

Simply put, Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me is a stunner, one of those novels that, once picked up, demand the reader to keep turning pages. Mostly during the 1930s and 1940s, Thompson wrote over thirty novels, and most of those, including The Killer Inside Me, were published as paperback originals. That’s probably why Thompson got so little critical appreciation during his lifetime. He was, however, “rediscovered” during the 1980s, and several of his novels have now been filmed or republished. The Killer Inside Me even opens the Library of America collection titled Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, a five-novel collection that includes Patricia Highsmith’s remarkable The Talented Mr. Ripley along with works from the classic noir writers Charles Willeford, David Goodis, and Chester Himes. 

“I grinned, feeling a little sorry for him. It was funny the way these people kept asking for it. Just latching onto you no matter how you tried to brush them off, and almost telling you how they wanted it done. Why’d they all have to come to me to get killed? Why couldn’t they kill themselves?”

Twenty-nine-year-old Lou Ford, narrator of The Killer Inside Me, is a cop in the small West Texas town he’s lived in his whole life. Central City, Texas, is an oil boom town that has grown from a population of 4,800 to one of more than 48,000 during Lou’s lifetime, and it is not anything like the quiet little community it had been when his father was the town’s family doctor. Lou is the cop everybody likes, the guy who doesn’t appear to be all that smart but always has the time and good advice for those who need it most. And that’s just the way Lou wants it.

The real Lou Ford, however, is nothing like the one people think he is. No, the real Lou Ford is brilliant. He reads in several languages, a feat he taught himself by reading from the extensive library his father left behind in the family home/doctor’s office after he died. He’s read his father’s medical texts — and he’s completely conversant about their contents. With his photographic memory, Lou could have easily become a doctor and taken over his father’s established practice had he wanted to do that. But most importantly, the real Lou Ford is a psychopath who is just as likely to kill you as smile at you and quote some homespun advice he’s memorized from his reading. He’s a man who, entirely for his own amusement, manipulates everyone unfortunate enough to know him. And the really scary thing is what he’s capable of doing to the people he grows tired of — or those who make the mistake of crossing him.

Lou Ford is an unforgettable narrator who, despite his mental illness, turns out to be the exact opposite of the unreliable narrator. Instead, Lou wants the reader (often addressing them directly) to know exactly what he is thinking and planning — even to telling them that he is going to kill someone long before he actually does it. He is a brutal, violent man in the midst of losing the self-control that has allowed the killer inside him to remain hidden as long as it has. But that is about to change…and the body-count is mounting.

“…the way I see it is, the writer is just too goddam lazy to do his job. And I’m not lazy, whatever else I am. I’ll tell you everything. But I want to get everything in the right order. I want you to understand how it was.”

Bottom Line: The Killer Inside Me is a surprisingly disturbing novel, but the disturbance does not necessarily come from the explicitness of Lou Ford’s murders. I was much more taken aback by the ease with which a man like Lou Ford (and his real life versions) is able to lure innocent victims into his web of murder and abuse. The horror of that ability is magnified by the pleasure that Ford takes in giving his readers such a revealing account of how easy it is for someone like him to kill — and to get away with it.

Jim Thompson

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Dry Bones - Craig Johnson

Dry Bones
(2015) is the eleventh novel in Craig Johnson’s soon-to-be-seventeen-book Sheriff Walt Longmire series. According to Johnson, Daughter of the Morning Star, that seventeenth Longmire novel is scheduled to be published on September 21, 2021, something I’m particularly happy about because as of right now I’m down to only one unread Longmire book, 2016’s An Obvious Fact.  

Dry Bones is one of the funniest — and one of the most tragic — books in the series. The humor largely comes via the comments springing from Deputy Victoria Moretti’s observations about the differences between life and policing in Absaroka County, Wyoming, and her native Philadelphia. The woman, who is also Sheriff Longmire’s love interest, calls them like she sees them no matter the audience or circumstances, and half the fun in Longmire novels comes from watching the other characters react to what she blurts out. It is no accident that most of my favorite Longmire novels are the ones in which she is given her larger roles. Unfortunately for Walt, the tragedy that plays a major role in Dry Bones strikes directly at him and his family, and its impact will be strongly felt even in subsequent books.

“Jen,” the eight-million-dollar Tyrannosaurus rex, has put Absaroka County on the map to a degree that no one could have expected — or have been prepared for. Now, potential buyers from all over the world, including every major museum in the US, want to get their hands on what is likely to be the largest and most complete T-Rex skeleton ever seen. Jen’s potential eight-million-dollar price tag does not much worry any of them except for the local High Plains Dinosaur Museum whose director wants so badly to keep Jen at home. Soon enough, “Save Jen” becomes the local rallying cry.

But after Danny Lone Elk, the man on whose property the fossil was discovered, turns up dead before his agreement with the High Plains Dinosaur Museum has been formalized, multiple parties come forward to claim Jen as their own: Danny’s family, the tribe, and even the federal government. And it doesn’t help that the comically pompous acting deputy attorney shows up in town along with the FBI to oversee the whole process. Someone wanted Danny Lone Elk dead, and now it’s up to Walt Longmire, his deputies, and his best friend Henry Standing Bear to figure out who that is.

Bottom Line: Dry Bones is a pivotal novel in the Walt Longmire series. What happens in this one will lead directly to the plots and themes of some of the books that follow after a villain from Walt’s past comes back to haunt him and his family in an unimaginable way. Even though I didn’t do it that way myself, because the Longmire series is one of those whose greatest impact comes from a chronological reading, I suggest that the books be read in order of publication as much as possible.  

Craig Johnson