Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos (2006)

After Dr. M read The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos (2006) and liked it so much, I moved it up near the top of my reading pile, and I'm very glad I did.

The Night Gardener focuses on the life and career of Gus Ramone, a DC homicide detective. Early in his career, when he was still a regular cop, a serial killer took the lives of three young people and left their bodies in various community gardens in the city. Each of the victims had a first name that was a palindrome, and the media dubbed the murderer The Palindrome Killer, but inside the department everyone called him the Night Gardener. Gus was harnessed with a partner that he didn't get along with (Dan "Doc" Holiday) and the two of them admired the work of an older homicide detective on the case, T.C. Cook.

Twenty years later, Gus is a detective, Holiday is off the force (due to an investigation that Gus headed in his time at Internal Affairs), and Cook is long retired. And then another boy is found dead in a community garden. And his name is Asa.

The mystery part of the book revolves around this killing, but the core of the book is Gus and his family, Holiday and his solitude, and the city itself. More than just a "whodunnit," The Night Gardener gets deep into its characters, paints a three-dimensional world, gives us a police procedural that rings very true, and explores issues of race with a subtlety and depth that is unusual in a genre novel.

Occasionally Pelecanos falters and has one of his characters spout a diatribe or get up on a soapbox for awhile, but if you can set these rare missteps aside, you will have a very nice reading experience ahead of you when you pick up The Night Gardener.

You may know Pelecanos as a writer and producer on that little TV show that everyone was so ape shit over a few years ago called The Wire. I swear we are going to watch it sometime, but we tend to run 5-10 years behind the mainstream when it comes to television watching. We haven't even watched any of The Sopranos yet. But, I know there are tons of you out there that love The Wire in a serious way, and all of you should go out and get yourself some George Pelecanos novels.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sudden Fiction Latino: Short-short Stories from The United States and Latin America edited by Robert Shapard, James Thomas, and Ray Gonzalez (2010)

I got this copy of the anthology Sudden Fiction Latino: Short-short Stories from The United States and Latin America edited by Robert Shapard, James Thomas, and Ray Gonzalez (2010) from the always fabulous LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. This is part of a series of anthologies featuring "short-short" or "flash" fiction -- that is, short stories that are at the most a few pages long, and often even shorter than that.

In this anthology, the editors bring together stories from Latin American authors (in translation) and Latino authors in the United States. There are plenty of recognizable names (in fact, possibly every major Latin American or Latino author that I can think of is here: Junot Díaz, Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Sandra Císneros, Isabel Allende, Rudolfo Anaya, Roberto Bolaño, Julio Ortega, and the list goes on), as well as a whole slew of authors that I have never heard of before, but whom I now really want to check out. The stories are sometimes metaphorical, sometimes straightforward, sometimes experimental, sometimes comedic, and sometimes bitingly tragic. I love reading short stories, and the compressed nature of this "sudden" fiction highlights everything that makes the short story format great.

This is an astutely edited, wonderfully written book. And, as an aside, it is possibly the perfect thing to read in a crowded airport and a boring flight.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2007)

This time around the DAFFODILS (Devilishly Affable Friendly Friends Optional-Drinking Invitational Literary Society) decided to bust out into the wonderful world of graphic novels with The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2007).

Persepolis is a graphic memoir about Satrapi's girlhood in Tehran during the Iranian revolution and later the Iran/Iraq war. Her parents are liberal and secular, and big supporters of the revolution who find themselves and their friends increasingly persecuted by the fundamentalist leadership. Satrapi is young, but smart, and her parents treat her with respect, give her her freedom, and don't hide much of the stark and repressive world outside of their apartment doors.

As she gets older and more headstrong, and as the dangers of the war and the threats of the conservative government increase, her parents decide to send her to high school in Austria. In this second part of the memoir, Satrapi relishes the freedom and variety of the west, but feels increasingly isolated and cut off from her family and homeland. Her coming-of-age journey leads her to some dark places, an eventual return to Iran, and into her life as a young married woman.

I really enjoyed this book -- Satrapi's crisp black and white drawings complement the straightforward and unsentimental story of her life. Parts of the book are very dark, but they are tempered by the obvious love and humor of Satrapi's family and friends. I haven't seen the film version yet (which was co-directed by Satrapi), but it is on my list. And I can't wait to hear what the other DAFFODILS have to say about this book.


[And, to clarify the publication history (since I am a library nerd): Satrapi wrote four volumes of Persepolis in French between 2000 and 2003. They were translated into English and published in two volumes in 2004, and then made into a movie and collected into one English-language volume in 2007.]

Monday, March 08, 2010

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)

The next stop on my reverse alphabetical by title journey through Harold Bloom's Western Canon is Emily Brontë's first and only published novel, Wuthering Heights (1847). If I had to pick a favorite novel of all time, this one might be it. This is the third time I've read it (in fact I even wrote vaugely about it here the last time I read it, for the late, great Smarter Than You book club), and I like it better every time I work my way through it.

Wuthering Heights tells the story of two families living on the isolated moors in northern England. The Earnshaw's live at Wuthering Heights -- they have a son named Hindley, a daughter named Catherine, and an adopted son that the father found starving on the streets in London named Heathcliff. After the father and mother die, Hindley and his wife become the head of the family and he unleashes his pent up hate and jealousy of Heathcliff on the young boy. Heathcliff and Catherine, who have been inseparable, constantly feel the wrath of her brother, and the only stabilizing influence in their life is Nelly, their servant who grew up with them at the Heights and who is almost part of the family.

The nearest house to the Heights is Thrushcross Grange, the family home of the wealthy Linton's. They also have a son and a daughter, Edgar and Isabella, and their sheltered and well-mannered existence couldn't be more different from the outdoor wildness of Heathcliff and Catherine.

And yet, Catherine can't help but be intrigued by the bookish and fragile Edgar. And Edgar can't resist the beautiful and tempestuous Catherine. So much so that he asks her to marry him, and when she agrees Heathcliff runs away from Wuthering Heights and no one hears anything from him for three years.

What follows is a complicated, romantic, harrowing, and very human story of revenge, love and redemption. It crosses two generations, a whole host of Catherines and Earnshaws and Lintons, and it doesn't end until almost all the characters are finally at peace and in their graves. Instead of playing the story out in real time, Brontë bounces back and forth between the present day existence of her narrator, Mr. Lockwood, a tenant at the now empty Thrushcross Grange, and the past history of the Grange and the Heights as told to Lockwood by Nelly.

This book is so wonderfully dark and brooding and filled with comeuppance and revenge and hurt feelings and oppressive nature and horrible and wonderful humanity that I think everyone in the entire world should grab a copy and read it right away. Have you read your copy yet?