Friday, August 19, 2016

One Good Turn

One Good Turn is the second novel in Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series.  I had read the fourth one first, and then the first one second. Now I've finished the second one read third.

I don't recommend this haphazard approach. These are books that should be read in sequence.  In this second one, Brodie's romantic interest is a woman he met in the first novel who was central to one of the crimes he was investigating.  There are references in this second book to other characters in the first that you would miss if you had not read the initial story.  Also, I realized towards the end of this one that an allusion I vaguely recall from the fourth novel is based on events in this one.

So if you are going to read these I suggest reading them in order.  And if you like to read, I suggest you read them.  This, One Good Turn, is not as good as the preceding book, Case Histories.  Still it is well written. You have to pay attention right from the start because events that seem peripheral are often not, and events that you think occur in the order she reveals them may not be.  There is a surprise ending in this one that caught me off guard. Not worth reading the book for this reason alone, but still it was one of several positive aspects of the book.

If you want to know nothing about the story skip to the next paragraphs.  In this one, an automobile accident precipitates a series of events that involve a real estate king, his spouse, a policewoman, her kid, a detective writer, a cleaning company that doubles as an escort service, a lunatic bat swinging body guard, and of course Jackson Brodie.  Brodie coincidentally is present at the time of the accident as is the spouse of the real estate tycoon, the son of the policewoman, and the detective writer.

I feel when I read books by Atkinson as if I am boarding a roller coaster when I open the novel. The ride is wild and mostly enjoyable.  You have to keep going back to read sections when a clue implicates a character that appeared 50 pages previously.  But it really does force the reader to pay attention.

An indication of how good she is as a writer is that before I finished One Good Turn I went on Amazon and bought the next book in the series, When Will There Be Good News.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Jack's Slacks

I'm wearing a sports jacket on this summery August day. Typically I wear one to work--often just to have a place to put my keys and glasses and wallet and phone.  When I get in to the office I hang the jacket up on a hook by my door.

So, in the summer--more often than not--my jacket is not on my back but on a hook.

I just returned from a meeting. The meeting, I thought, was from 1-230. When I arrived there was not a soul in the joint.  This is because the meeting is actually from 130-3.  So, I returned across the campus took off my jacket, hung it up, and saw that the label inside reads Jack's Slacks.

This, therefore--whether I realized it or not when I plucked it from the closet today--is one of my dad's jackets that I had tailored after he passed. Across the shoulders and arms, he and I were about the same. But Dad was broader than I south of the chest, muscular, but a wider girth.  So, I took it in to a tailor and zip zip the jacket looks like it was made for me.  How it fits, though, is beside the point.

Jack's Slacks. I thought the name of the store was not quite that, but that must be it.

We read often about how it is important to chase your dreams.  You want to be a lawyer, well go for it. Want to be a senator, work at it.  Etc.  I remember Jack's Slacks.

About a quarter mile from where we lived in suburban New York, there was a small strip mall. It is where I was sent to get various items when, at the last minute, my mother realized we needed something. In her younger years it was where she sent me--in a panic often--for a pack of cigarettes.  In the mall there was a pharmacy, a barber shop, a--what was called then--beauty parlor, an overpriced according to my mother grocery store, a--what was called then-candy store, a hardware store, a very overpriced deli which we only went to in desperation because it was always open, a bakery, and a bar that my father never went into except to pick up a pizza in thirty years living within an easy stroll of the joint.

At one point the hardware store went out of business.  Shortly thereafter a small clothing shop opened there. Jack's.

I went into Jack's a couple of times.  Jack was always there. Always cheery. Never real pushy but helpful with any inquiries.  I got the sense--and maybe it is because he told me--that this was his dream; to open up a clothing store.  He had been--and again I think he mentioned this to me when I was in there once-that he had been a public servant of some type, maybe a teacher--and had decided that look there is only one life to live, his dream was to own a clothing store, and he went for it.

Thing is, while the merchandise was fine, I don't think I ever was in there when there was more than one other customer. Often when I went in, I was there alone. It was Jack, his supportive but increasingly glum looking wife, and me.

At one point I went back home to visit and Jack's was no longer there.  I don't know what happened. Maybe he hit the lottery, or moved to another location, or just retired. But that is not my sense. My sense was that after giving it a real go, he realized he was not able to stay afloat.  And he had to go on and get another source of income.

All this is conjecture.  He might have made a fortune and the times that I visited were just aberrations.  Yet, seeing the label in the jacket today made me think that Jack's dream of Jack's turned out to be a deflating and devastating nightmare.

I do think you have to go after your dreams.  My sense is that you are better off when you do so even if you do not realize your dreams.  But I do believe there are times like Jack's when a life can become punctured perhaps irreparably when the dreams do not work out.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Suicide Notes

After Ted Cruz failed to endorse Donald Trump at the RNC in Cleveland, pundits commented that he had written--with his speech--nothing more than a long suicide note.

I don't agree.

I don't agree with Cruz on nearly everything except his stance on Israel which would have made my mother-the most staunch supporter of Israel there could be-nod in agreement.  Middle East aside though, Cruz's position on the Affordable Health Care Act, Planned Parenthood, Abortion, the Department of Education, the fakakta Tea Party--accrue and create an abomination.

However, Cruz gets cudos for not having endorsed Trump.  What is more, I think in the long run he will get cudos from Conservatives and whatever becomes of the Republican party.

As we watch the Republicans squirm deciding about whether to endorse Trump, I am reminded of Robert Bork.

If you are of my vintage you may remember the Saturday Night Massacre in 1974.  This was when Richard Nixon decided to fire Archibald Cox the Special Watergate prosecutor. Cox had been hired and told he would have free rein to explore Watergate and expose the truth. When Cox started to get close to the truth that would have (and eventually did) implicate Nixon, the president decided to axe the person who had been told his investigation would not be restricted.

So Nixon told Elliot Richardson, the then attorney general of the United States--and a Republican--to fire Cox. Cox reported to Richardson.  Richardson refused to fire Cox. He said he could not fire a person who was, after all, doing the job he had been hired to do. This left the job of firing Cox to William Ruckelshaus, Richardson's number 2. Ruckelshaus also refused to fire Cox for the same reason.

Next in line Was Robert Bork. Bork said he could fire Cox and did.

How does Bork's decision relate to Trump and Cruz?  Years after the Saturday Night Massacre Bork was nominated to be a Supreme Court Justice.  His credentials were no worse than others who have been endorsed by the Senate.  Yet Bork did not get Senate approval.  Whatever reasons that were cited were not the real reasons for the lack of support. People remembered what had happened on the Saturday Night Massacre.

And people will remember who stood up to Donald Trump.  The litany of offensive things he has done/said is jaw dropping if only for the sheer numbers of them.  And there is the stunning offensive nature of individual comments. Building a wall. Disparaging Muslims.  Mocking the handicapped. Deriding Megyn Kelly as he did.  Comments about the Hoosier judge not being dispassionate because of heritage. Etc.

I think the people who are writing suicide notes in 2016 are not the Cruzes and other Republicans who have stood up to Trump.  I think the Boehners and Ryans--not the Cruzes--will be forever tarnished because they decided to endorse someone so clearly unfit to lead the country.

Crow Lake

Crow Lake by Mary Larson is a good book that, for me, has gotten even richer in the day since I completed it.  Much of yesterday I found myself thinking about the story and its message.  After I finished, I read that the book has been translated into many languages. I'm not surprised.

The plot is not extraordinary as novels go.  Four children become orphans when an automobile accident takes their parents' lives.  There are two older boys in their late teens, and two young girls--one about 7 and the other not much more than a baby.  The family lives in rural Ontario a long day's drive from Toronto.

The book is told from the vantage point of the elder daughter. She recalls the year after their parents' death and intersperses the narrative with sections about her current job as an academic and her relationship with another professor, Daniel.  Throughout the novel Kate, the 7 year old, emphasizes how devastating the year after the accident was particularly for Matt, the younger of her two older brothers.  Matt--whom we are told, she adores--something happened to Matt as a result of the tragedy which itself, Kate suggests, was a tragedy.

What happened exactly is not revealed until the end.  We are fed pieces, but it is not until the last sections that we know fully what occurred.  And while what happened to Matt may not have been all that profound, the book's theme which is foreshadowed from the start is profound. It caught me unawares, and the message--while skillfully developed--does not become obvious until there are only fourteen pages left. I kept thinking yesterday that the book was like a pretty flower that suddenly blooms stunningly at its conclusion.

The novel is beautifully written. There might be a little too much about pond creatures for my liking although I wonder if there could have been some symbolism in there that would have made the story even better for me if I had paid more attention in high school.  The story of the Pyes might have been shortened some, though I think it does add to the book.  One definite flaw is that there is no way that Marie does not come out too scarred to be the person we meet at the end.

Still, all things considered, this is a book that readers will be glad they spent some time with.  It will hang in my head for a spell. The message is one that many--including me--would be wise to internalize.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

James's property

It's about 2 in the morning. I woke up from the couch downstairs and, a rarity indeed, can not go back to sleep.  I picked up a book I am reading which is very good.  Sad, but good.  About a family in northern Ontario.  In the story, there is quite a bit of talk about working land that families, for generations, had owned and worked.

Maybe that's why I started to think about James's property.  Maybe other reasons, but think about the property I did.

In the mid 80s I was introduced by a mutual friend to a guy who lived on the Cape. I met him in March of 85 I think it was, maybe 86. He was and is an unreconstructed hippie.  In the 70s he had bought a small house with a high school friend of his in East Harwich back when there were not too many residents in the area. The house had a bunk house on the same property. The two high school friends decided that one would live in the house and the other in the bunk house. A few years later, the guy in the main house decided to sell out to Don, the unreconstructed hippie.

So by the time I met him, Don owned both dwellings.  I liked Don and still do. Good guy, extraordinarily responsible to others. We hit it off that day in 85 and a few years down the road he rented the main house to me for the summer. It was the summer of 90.  And then for several more summers I would rent the house for parts of June through August.

As you looked at Don's spot from the main road, there was an empty property to your left. Further to the left there was a house on the corner that had been there forever.

One day I saw a car on the empty property.  I commented on it to Don and he told me that James owned the property.  James's property was impeccably groomed, but there was no house on it.  I found out that James came up periodically throughout the year, slept in his car or in a tent, and then sat in a chair looking out over his land for a day or two before returning to work in Rhode Island.

Over the years, James and I became friendly. When he would be there I would go over and say hello and he often would come by himself to ask for water or use the facilities.  We became chummy enough that annually in the 90s and early 2000s the three of us, Don, James, and myself would rendezvous in Providence in the winter to watch a Providence college Big East basketball game.

One year at one of these visits, James announced that he was ready to build.  This was cause for a celebration. That had been the plan all along to build on the property. He had not had the resources to do so until this moment and he described to us how he had planned the funding and what the place would look like.

James then had exactly the same job I have now--his place of work at a college in Rhode Island.  He too had been a professor and became an associate dean.  You don't get to be Rockefeller as an educator, but he had saved enough to first buy the land and now build.

Sometime in the 2000s--I'll guess 2005--James moved into his house on the Cape. For a while he commuted the 90 miles to Rhode Island to work, staying some nights during the week at a spot he had arranged to temporarily lodge at when necessary.

Then a year or two later he announced he was going to retire and live full time on the Cape. He had just gotten remarried and the two of them were looking forward to happy ever after on the Cape.

Either December 2014 or the year before in December I got a call from Don telling me that James had died. Probably had not been in the house full time for more than three years.

James's property. Always talking about the property. Always talking about the house he was going to build on it. All those times I saw him sitting in his chair, looking out at the land without a house on it waiting to build.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Ray McClain

This is happening with greater regularity. Partly it is because of my vintage and partly because new technology is allowing us to find out about others who, otherwise, may have disappeared from our consciousness forever.

Ray McClain came to my mind about a half hour ago. Can't reconstruct now at this shaky moment why.

Ray and I were colleagues at SUNY Fredonia in the mid to late 70s and early 80s. Ray was a Sociologist and one of the good guys.  He and I played basketball together on the faculty team we called, Athletes in Limbo.  Ray was a forward-- a good rebounder and sure shooter from around the hoop. He snared rebounds away from kids a lot younger and did so effortlessly. I played point guard for the Athletes in Limbo. With other faculty members over the hill, we did a fair job of beating 19 year old hormone induced leapers who were surprised that we graying and balding egg heads could bounce the ball and put it in a hoop now and again.  One year we went to what was called, grandly, the intramural playoffs and defeated (as in stunned) a very good team. Essentially 8 players pushing forty overcoming some talented young-uns. The Athletes in Limbo drank some beer that night.

I visited Fredonia in the late 80s after I had moved east and stopped by Ray's office. There he was, as he had been while I was at the College,  in his office reading and studying away, available to students, taking some time out of his day to chat with me about this and that.

So, for whatever reason I thought of him today and decided to pop his name into google and see where he was at.

And then I saw a notice for his obit.  He died just a few months ago. Peacefully, it read.  He had taken a fall in October from which he never recovered and succumbed in March.  Tough to imagine a guy like Ray not with us. Only 73. The accompanying photo of him in the obit showed his great easy smile.

I hadn't spoken with Ray in over 25 years.  Even so, I know a little light has gone out of the universe.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Case Histories

This is a terrific book.

Kate Atkinson's ability to write makes even other fine writers look like amateurs. I enjoy many other authors who write about detectives: The Peter Robinson series, the Ed McBain procedurals, the old Spenser novels and many others of the find-and-get-the-perp ilk. As good as Robinson, McBain et al are, they are minor leaguers compared to Atkinson.

Reading her feels like getting on a roller coaster.  You need to buckle up. And you know it's likely that the ride will be thrilling.

The only problem with Case Histories is that the plot lines are so nuanced that you almost have to read the book in a couple of sittings. Otherwise you can forget characters who were casually introduced but later come back to be significant. Atkinson is terrific at this--essentially compelling readers to pay attention to everything.  She draws the characters so carefully--even the ones you may think are inconsequential.   Then boom, one hundred pages later, you have to riffle back to find a reference to so and so who may turn out to be very consequential to the story.  Some of the characters are unusual, but as strange as they may be, when you are finished with the book you believe that these characters--even the true nutcases--are really out there.  Even the killers.

Case Histories introduces an independent detective, Jackson Brodie.  He has been hired to sleuth out issues related to three cases.  The reader learns about the case histories in the first three chapters. The cases are not presented chronologically. In sequence we read that in 1970 a toddler goes missing, then in 1994 a beloved daughter assisting in her father's law office is stabbed by an assailant who disappears, then in 1979 a husband has his head split open by an axe ostensibly by his wife while their infant daughter is nearby.  Now, in 2004, Brodie works on all three of these cases.

In addition Brodie is dealing with his own divorce; a daughter now living with the ex-wife and her lover; a quirky elderly cat lover whom Brodie befriends; Brodie's own painful childhood history; and his current romantic desires.

If you are a reader, and have a couple of days that you can dedicate to reading, I highly recommend Case Histories.  It is the first of four Jackson Brodie novels. I had read the fourth a while back, Started Early, Took My Dog, which was not quite as good as this one.  I know I will read the second one, One Good Turn, in the near future.  Case Histories is special.