A Clash Of Kings

I’m hammering through this Game of Thrones quintuplet thing. It’s good stuff and I think I’ll stick with it, but I’ve had my fill for this year. After book one I was really anticipating this book. But my anticipation for the next book has waned a little. I kind of got stuck at times during this follow-up effort, for a couple of reasons, but I’ll stick with it for at least another book.

At about 50%, things started to turn really supernatural and it frustrated me. A primary character was killed by a ghostly intruder and a main character started having visions and believing that dreams of others may be prophecies. In fact, there were a lot of dream sequences, which got pretty laborious. I started to tune them out, actually just glossing over them.

However, I’m still excited about the story. The characters are deep and complicated and the intrigue is well-played and expansive. It spans a lot of characters and a multitude of story lines, which keeps things moving despite an often sloth-like pace brought about by the dream sequences and the constant description of every bit character in the scene. There’s so much stuff going on that I’ve often had to turn to some fan sites to catch up on things. The Kindle does a poor job of portraying maps and makes it difficult to flip back through pages for reference purposes. I actually found it easier to go to a fan website to look at maps and refresh my memory on characters.

The political intrigue is one of the coolest parts of this book. The machinations of gaining and losing power in the relatively familiar political hierarchy is thoughtfully done by Martin. It adds a lot to the drama and makes for some good family carnage, which I love.

For the little sci-fi/fantasy/horror that I read, this is going to fix me up for at least next year. It’s becoming quite the pop-culture phenomenon and will get another boost of excitement next year when season two begins airing on HBO.


The Sportswriter

Up until this point, I haven’t read any so-called literature this year. When I say lit, I’m not necessarily talking about the classics or anything. I’m just talking about fiction that is a little more serious and thoughtful than my normal crime and thriller reading. Page through the stuff I’ve called lit and you’ll get an idea.

I’m classifying The Sportswriter, the first book of this Richard Ford trilogy, as literature. It’s the story of a guy named Frank Bascombe, a 39 year old sportswriter and divorced father living in Haddam, New Jersey. It’s set during Easter Week (back in the 1980s I’m guessing), and follows Frank around for a few days as he interacts with his ex-wife, his girlfriend, his family, his girlfriend’s family, and his other divorced friends.

Some crazy, shocking stuff happens and some boring, plodding stuff happens. Kind of like real life. This book exhibits a feature I find in so-called literature: the capacity to either really bore me or really surprise me, both in the extreme. It also contained some family carnage, another feature of literature which I find comforting, for some warped reason.

It has a somewhat somber, melancholic tone. Frank just kind of bounces around and never gets too riled up about anything. Early on, he gives this pearl of wisdom to set the scene for the book.

… For now let me say only this: if sportswriting teaches you anything, and there is much truth to it as well as plenty of lies, it is that for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or your life will be ruined.

He seems to be saying, I think, that it’s a delicate balance. You must go out on a limb far enough only to face the possibility of regret, yet manage to avoid it. I struggle to tell if Frank has achieved this in his life. He’s a difficult guy to figure out and it got frustrating at times. There are long sections of him just batting things around in his head so there’s plenty of material to sort through.

His recollections are strange and the situations he gets into are bizarre, but they lay the groundwork for a constant state of wonderment. As I read, I kept saying to myself, “Wow, where did that come from?” Then there are moments of clarity amongst the chaos. He certainly set himself up for the possibility for regret, and I think he has avoided it, despite some significant hardship.

He laments things, for sure, but not regret. For instance, he seems to have been an early lamenter of the trend towards stats-minded sports leadership (remember, this book was written in the 1980s):

… When sports stops being a matter for speculation, even idle, aimless, misinformed speculation, something’s gone haywire – no matter what Mutt Greene thinks – and it’ll be time to get out of the business and for the cliometricians and computer whizzes from Price Waterhouse to take over the show.

That’s just a random thought he had, as he was listening to sports talk radio in the car, slowing down to see if his palm reader was available, while on his way to identify his friend, a fellow divorced guy who tried to kiss him a few days ago, who had just committed suicide. I probably could have broken that down into a few sentences, but it wouldn’t have sounded any less weird, so I’m not even going to try. And that only scratched the surface of the oddness.

After sorting through the deluge of thoughts in Frank’s mind, it does make you question the point of sports. I’ve come to terms with my sports obsession recently. For me, it’s not that unhealthy of a hobby and mostly manifests itself in participation (golf and running). Sure, I get deluded at times that some of my self-worth is tied to the success of ND football or my handicap index, but that passes quickly. And I often stare blankly at the TV when golf or the White Sox are on, but that’s healthier than watching reality TV or sitcoms, right? Say yes.

I dug a little deeper and found this essay called Sport and the literary imagination, by this guy named Jeff Hill, which references Frank Bascombe. It speaks to the “illusion” of sports in the minds of men. Here is how Hill puts it:

… He [Bascombe] is a victim of his own illusions, one of a group of flawed men in a novel whose force comes from sensible, purposeful, steely-minded women who set clear goals and then determinedly pursue them, on the whole successfully. Sports provides for Bascombe a romanticized view of the world which he refuses to abandon even when the ideals of sport are undermined by it’s realities (page 105).

That does sound a little like myself. I overly romanticize the hard work and determination put in by athletes in the pursuit of greatness, when in reality these athletes view it as a job – a path to riches and fame (even college athletes). I know this, yet I still get engrossed, which really makes me an idiot, I guess.

Deep stuff. Cool book. There’s a certain familiarity that makes it approachable and interesting. Frank gets into these situations that we’ve all been in (meeting your girlfriend’s parents, struggling with your job, dealing with family on holidays) and just analyzes them to death. It was fascinating to read and fun to reflect on, but I don’t know if I got the point the whole time.

I do feel like this book may have helped me understand some of the great mysteries of life a little better. I also feel like the feeling of wonderment I experienced occasionally during the reading is a satisfying feeling which adds value to my life, much like excitement, anxiety, and surprise do in the popular fiction I read. But some of the subtler points may have been lost on me. I’m certain there was plenty of symbolism that I missed. It doesn’t matter. I liked it.


The Emperor of Ocean Park

Stephen Carter has been on my radar ever since I read a review of New England White a few years ago; it sat on my Amazon wish list for a while mostly as a placeholder for Carter. So a few weeks ago I was looking for some new fiction (to me at least) and I decided on The Emperor of Ocean Park rather than New England White. You know me, I’ll choose the route of reading an author in chronological order if given the choice (The Emperor of Ocean Park is Carter’s first book).

It’s a mystery/thriller with a running commentary on race, class, and politics. The main character is Talcott Garland, a black law professor at a fictional northeastern university who is trying to understand the circumstances of his father’s death. His father was a famous conservative judge who was disgraced years ago during confirmation hearings for Reagan’s supreme court and finished out his life as a legal consultant of sorts. Garland is insecure but I found him highly likable. His internal struggles with black and white, liberal and conservative, and rich and poor make things interesting and add a lot of character depth. Throw in some wife problems and some work problems and you have a very complicated guy. You also have plenty of opportunity for some family carnage, which I love.

And I haven’t mentioned anything of the mystery, a great common man forced to become a detective style of thriller. This thriller came along at the right time. I was feeling a little down because I wasn’t sure if I could match the thrill-level that I experienced this year during TGWTDT (it has polluted me temporarily I think). But Carter tossed a story at me that I couldn’t put down; one that I read during family get-togethers instead of talking with other humans; one that I read every night for a few weeks without the threat of falling asleep. It always feels good to have another author that I’m damn sure I’ll like every word he puts on paper.

Carter only has four works of fiction. He released this in 2002, then took a break from fiction for five years. Since then he has released one book a year for the three years from 2007 to 2009. I’ll get to these. Here is the question: Since I know I’m going to read them, should I just buy them and put them in my library? No, probably not. That backlog is too much pressure, I’d rather be JIT. I really loved it, but I feel like I need to space them out because what if he stops at four?

I loved how he hid the plot points from me to build up the excitement without leaving me frustrated. Then he delivered the reveal with a deadpan style that I haven’t felt in other thrillers. His style is deliberate and he fills space with a fair amount of meandering diatribes (redundant?) on life, so it may feel slow to some, but not to me. Here’s an example of a meandering diatribe, check this out:

THE FOLLOWING TUESDAY, twelve days after the death of my father, I return to my dreary classroom, populated, it often seems, by undereducated but deeply committed Phi Beta Kappa ideologues—leftists who believe in class warfare but have never opened Das Kapital and certainly have never perused Werner Sombart, hard-line capitalists who accept the inerrancy of the invisible hand but have never studied Adam Smith, third-generation feminists who know that sex roles are a trap but have never read Betty Friedan, social Darwinists who propose leaving the poor to sink or swim but have never heard of Herbert Spencer or William Sumner’s essay on The Challenge of Facts, black separatists who mutter bleakly about institutional racism but are unaware of the work of Carmichael and Hamilton, who invented the term—all of them our students, all of them hopelessly young and hopelessly smart and thus hopelessly sure they alone are right, and nearly all of whom, whatever their espoused differences, will soon be espoused to huge corporate law firms, massive profit factories where they will bill clients at ridiculous rates for two thousand hours of work every year, quickly earning twice as much money as the best of their teachers, and at half the age, sacrificing all on the altar of career, moving relentlessly upward, as ideology and family life collapse equally around them, and at last arriving, a decade or two later, cynical and bitter, at their cherished career goals, partnerships, professorships, judgeships, whatever kind of ships they dream of sailing, and then looking around at the angry, empty waters and realizing that they have arrived with nothing, absolutely nothing, and wondering what to do with the rest of their wretched lives. (Kindle loc. 2,095)

That, my friends, is all one sentence. Below is another passage I want to remember:

… I have long been comfortable living without perfect knowledge. Semiotics has taught me to live with ambiguity in my work; Kimmer has taught me to live with ambiguity in my home; and Morris Young is teaching me to live with ambiguity in my faith. That truth, even moral truth, exists I have no doubt, for I am no relativist; but we weak, fallen humans will never perceive it except imperfectly, a faintly glowing presence toward which we creep through the mists of reason, tradition, and faith. So much to know, so little time. (Kindle loc. 13,242)

These are the musings of the main character during his quest for answers surrounding his father’s death. All this fits in nicely with the mystery at hand and really sucked me in. What a great year of reading it has been, and still a few books to go. Back to some nonfiction for now.


The Given Day

Reading huge, epic novels has always been complicated for me. The best time to read them is on vacation, but hauling a huge book through airports and rental cars, along with other reading, is cumbersome. But not anymore now that I have a Kindle. I was out of town getting some R&R and the cumbersome aspect of carrying around a large work of fiction, a sports book, Newsweek, the WSJ, and the Chicago Tribune is no more. It even makes me think I can justify the Kindle from a cash flow perspective.

This Lehane book is that “large work of fiction” I just mentioned. It’s a mighty piece of historical fiction that takes place at the end of WWI. I started it and finished it in the middle of my vacation, which was perfect. It was great reading material for a vacation; long and involved, but exciting and thought-provoking. I’m going to classify it as popular fiction, but I don’t think it’s quite as “popular” as Lehane’s crime novels like Mystic River or Gone, Baby, Gone.

Like those books, it’s set mostly in Boston. It’s the story of the Coughlins, an Irish-American family of cops and politicians, set during the years of 1917-1919, a tumultuous time in Boston and all over America. Tumultuous because of the rapidly changing landscape in the seats of power in America. The labor movement was in full swing, race relations were heated, women were on the brink of getting the right to vote, and fear of communism coupled with paranoia about radical immigrant groups was especially acute. Lehane brings them all into play.

I term this book epic because it intertwines other families and individual personalities with the Coughlins. So even though it doesn’t span a long time-period like a traditional epic, it switches back and forth between these people and places, giving it an epic feel. For example, the story of Luther Laurence, a black factory worker/domestic servant whom trouble seems to follow around, is just as involved as that of Danny Coughlin, a white cop bucking the establishment. Eventually they become intertwined forming the backbone of the story, highlighting issues of race and class that were so warped back then. Other stories involved an early-career Babe Ruth, a young J. Edgar Hoover, the Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge, and the Coughlin’s domestic help. It’s a wild, roaming ride through post WWI America and I was engrossed from the get-go.

I often hold off reading these long stories regardless of the convenience factor, which is why I’ve only read two (labeled as epic) in the last few years. Besides hauling it around, staring down the barrel of 700+ pages is sometimes daunting because it takes a lot of focus and locks me out of reading other fiction at the same time. But the rewards are great, so I’ve purchased another epic that I’ll read this year for sure (World Without End).

Lehane’s tone is kind of gloomy. There’s a lot of evil and heartbreak in this book, along with some solid family carnage. So I had that going for me, which is nice. Lehane’s characters spend a lot of time ruminating about their situation and his narrative style is thoughtful and descriptive. At times I found myself welcoming a section of crackling dialogue because it didn’t seem that common. I don’t have empirical evidence to support this, that’s just the way it felt. I would like to see book stats come out that measure items like this. How about a ratio that compares dialogue to narration? The quant head in me would welcome that.

I’ve said it before, this is why we read. The only time I turned on the TV this vacation was to measure the screen and see how well we could see it from the back of the room. It was on for about four minutes. No need for it when you have a captivating work of fiction, a solid sports book (Breaking the Slump), and a few newspapers and periodicals handy. Gail read three books and mentioned that it was the most relaxing vacation we’ve ever had. I agree.


The Paperboy

I’m not sure how I came about this book. I think my wife, Gail, picked it up at a library book sale knowing that I had already enjoyed Train. She may have remembered that Dexter was famous for his book Paris Trout. Or maybe she just knows me. I don’t think she’s read any books by Pete Dexter and I don’t think I’ll be able to convince her to do so.

Why? Well, I just don’t think Gail has the same fascination that I do with family carnage. I use the term carnage loosely. I don’t mean that I enjoy stories about killing families. I use the term to describe stories about breakdowns in familial relationships that are often more painful than death because they are so insidious.

For some reason, in my estimation, this makes for a good story. I can’t explain it. What’s enjoyable about a family breaking down? I don’t know. Maybe it isn’t enjoyable. This could be the wrong word to use. Maybe engrossing is a better word to describe my involvement with books like this. Or maybe I should say I’m engaged; that may better describe it.

I remember it starting in college when I read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in a lit class. I was amazed by it. Then I saw the play about a decade ago and I was blown away. The acidity and enmity of these two people towards each other was mesmerizing. So now, a few times a year, I engage in some carnage. The Paperboy was certainly along these same lines, although a little less so and therefore much more readable then the other books I’ve labeled as such.

The word paperboy in this book, I think, could refer either collectively to the four male protagonists or individually to the narrator, Jack James. Jack is the youngest son of a local newspaper scion in a rural Florida town. Jack is kind of a screw-up, but a good kid; he drives one of the delivery trucks for his dad. Contrast this to Jack’s brother Ward, who is one half of a famous investigative reporting duo for the Miami Times, the other half being a gentlemen named Yardley Acheman.

Bothers Jack and Ward are brought together when Ward and Yardley make a visit to the small town where Jack lives with his dad. They are there to investigate the murder of the local sheriff and the subsequent conviction of the perpetrator. Jack is hired as their driver and errand boy. The dysfunction occurs within the Ward family, between the distant dad and the two son’s. Therein lies the soul of this story, but there’s a lot more that makes this story great.


As the relationship with their father grows more distant and the complications in the investigation become greater, the brother’s relationship solidifies and grows. It’s a beautiful thing to see and provides a hopeful backdrop.

If this family relationship is the soul of the story, then the heart of the story is the daily recounting of the paperboy’s search for the facts in the murder of the local sheriff. To me, it’s even more timely and interesting because it’s a discussion of the morality, ethics, and value of investigative journalism, a pursuit that is under fire now more than ever as the newspaper industry continues its decline. I come across articles daily, asking where we, as a society, are going to get this style of reporting if all of the newspapers go bankrupt.

Dexter takes this topic to its endgame. The paperboy’s investigation leads to a story, the story leads to a Pulitzer for Ward and Yardley, then the Pulitzer leads to an investigation of the original story by a rival Miami paper. Ironic, because the investigative reporter for the rival paper once worked for the Miami Times. In fact, she idolized Yardley before he made a mockery of her by pushing her into a pool in front of all the bigwigs at the newspaper’s celebration of the Pulitzer. It’s a great twist.

And I don’t use the word twist loosely. Dexter’s writing contains a host of twisted characters who do some twisted things in some damn twisted scenes, usually involving violence and sex. It’s dark, so you have to like a little darkness to embrace Dexter. But it’s that darkness that makes the relationship between the brothers that much brighter.

Great book, which I’m classifying as lit because I want to. I don’t think it fits into popular fiction.


The Pearl

This was quite an emotional rollercoaster packed into a small book. Steinbeck crammed a lot of life into a mere 118 pages. I came across this book when I was at home a few weekends ago. The Pearl, in tattered old paperback form, was sitting on the family room coffee table. My mom was reading it. I asked her how the book was and she said something like, “It’s good, but kind of depressing.”

Ahh, I love classic lit that’s short and “kind of depressing.” It’s right in my wheelhouse – reference Where Angels Fear to Tread.


This is the story of Kino, an impoverished pearl diver living near a small coastal town in Bolivia. His home is a grass shack, which he shares with his wife Juana and newborn son Coyotito.

Good people, these. Kino appreciates the small things in life, like the morning sun and the sound of his baby awakening. They fill him with joy. Sure, his life could be better if he had a little more disposable income. In fact, it would allow him to afford a doctor to treat the nasty scorpion bite on his son’s shoulder. Other than that, he seems to be doing okay with what he has.

Then, shortly after the obese town doctor rejects Kino’s request to assist his ailing son, Kino finds a massive pearl during his first dive of the day. He screams out in victory at its discovery, and the fortunes of Kino and the small town surrounding him change forever. About the town, Steinbeck says:

The news stirred up something infinitely black and evil in the town; the black distillate was like the scorpion, or like hunger in the smell of food, or like loneliness when love is withheld. The poison sacs of the town began to manufacture venom, and the town swelled and puffed with the pressure of it.

But that only describes how the town changed with news of the pearl. The changes in Kino were just as riveting. When asked what he plans to do with all of the riches bestowed upon him by the pearl, he speaks of getting a proper wedding and making sure that his son can read. And lastly, he says that he wants to buy a rifle. Steinbeck explores the rifle:

It was the rifle that broke down the barriers. This was an impossibility, and if he could think of having a rifle whole horizons were burst and he could rush on. For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.

These two passages occur early on and the sense of doom never leaves you. The rest of the book is an exploration of how a man can change when one moment he is poor and the next moment he is rich. Steinbeck’s study is gender specific to the man. The only significant digression into how his wife Juana is dealing with the situation occurs after she is beaten by Kino when he finds her attempting to throw the pearl back into the sea. From the book:

Juana dragged herself up from the rocks on the edge of the water. Her face was a dull pain and her side ached. She steadied herself on her knees for a while and her wet skirt clung to her. There was no anger in her for Kino. He had said, “I am a man,” and that meant certain things to Juana. It meant that he was half insane and half god. It meant that Kino would drive his strength against a mountain and plunge his strength against the sea. Juana, in her woman’s soul, knew that the mountain would stand while the man broke himself; that the sea would surge while the man drowned in it. … Sometimes the quality of a woman, the reason, the caution, the sense of preservation, could cut through Kino’s manness and save them all. She climbed painfully to her feet, and she dipped her cupped palms in the little waves and washed her bruised face with the stinging salt water, and then she went creeping up the beach after Kino.

That’s intense. But nothing compared what’s coming. Juana leaves the beach to find that Kino has killed a man who tried to steal the pearl. With this, they have to flee the town.

Despite all of Kino’s precautions, three men pursue them – a man with a rifle on horseback and two trackers. Kino is boxed into a corner and he figures that his only option is to get his wife and child to higher ground and take the pursuers down.

With his wife and son hiding in close proximity, Kino goes on the attack. In one furious and stunning moment, Kino plunges his knife into the rifleman’s throat, wrests the rifle from his hands, crushes the skull of a second man, and shoots the third man as he is scrambling away. The third man was only injured, so Kino walks up to him and sends a bullet between his eyes. For a brief moment, Kino probably thinks he has triumphed. However, he soon discovers that his shot that winged the third man, also found his son’s skull.

It was a horrible tragedy. In the aftermath, Kino and Juana walk back to town and throw the pearl back into the sea. That’s how it ended.

It makes you think. Am I satisfied with what I have?


Where Angels Fear to Tread

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been consuming a lot of popular fiction so far this year. For balance, I grabbed some literature before heading out on vacation. This E.M. Forster fellow spins a good yarn and it made for some great vacation reading.

Forster wrote Howard’s End, which I didn’t read, but I saw the movie. I liked it, but I can’t remember it that well. I know for sure that Howard’s End (the movie) was not as shocking as this book. There were two shocking twists and it was more of a page-turner than I expected from so-called lit.


This story appears to be about a headstrong and foolish young mother, Lillia, who’s husband has died. Her in-laws tolerate her despite their view that she is not worthy of their social standing in early-1900s London society. The in-laws send her off to a vacation in Italy and she meets a local common man (Gino) and weds shortly thereafter. The in-laws try and stop the marriage from happening, but it’s too late. Well, it turns out that the marriage is a bust and Lillia and Gino really don’t love each other, but they decide to have a kid (a son) anyhow.

Then Lillia dies. That’s right, at the end of chapter two or three, she dies from complications at childbirth. Shocking, at least to me. What’s this book about, I asked myself?

Well, it gets more warped from there. Her in-laws try and hide the existence of this young son from the world (and from Lillia’s daughter) but the world finds out. This causes some serious complications. I’m talking serious complications. In fact, the whole cadre (Lillia’s brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and friend) go to Italy to try and convince Gino to allow them to take the child back to England so they can raise him there.

This goes very badly because Gino will not give up the child, so the idiot sister-in-law kidnaps the child. To make matters worse, as they are making their getaway with the kidnapped child, their carriage overturns and the child dies.

Damn, this is heavy stuff. It’s like watching a Merchant Ivory movie. You may wonder why I would read such heavy stuff on vacation. Hmmm, for some reason, I embrace the carnage. Not sure why.

I’m in an especially reflective mode lately. A passage in the about the author section really struck me:

His six novels explore subtle political questions, as what seems at first to be merely stories of conflicts among friends, lovers, and families come to illuminate underlying tensions between the wealthy and the poor, individuals and nations.

Things that we still need illuminated today. I sit here during the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy wondering about the parallels. How much of Cho Seung-Hui’s deranged lunacy was made even worse by today’s class struggle between rich and poor. Back in 1900’s England, young people rebelled, sure. But they did it by running off and marrying someone outside of their social class. Now you buy a gun and kill people outside of your social class. It’s a messed up world.


American Pastoral

I remember the day I purchased this book. I told the clerk at Borders, “I don’t need a bag,” and I just let the receipt hang out of the top so the security guard at the North Avenue store didn’t suspect me of thievery. I mean, when you have the “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” badge on the front of a book you own, you want people to be able to see it. What’s the point of hiding it in a plastic bag that’s going to sit in a landfill for decades?

Well, it took about two years to actually get up the nerve to read it because I figured it was going to take energy, and I was correct. This is the story of Swede Levov. He was a superstar high school athlete in New Jersey and went on to successfully run the family business. He achieved tremendous wealth, had a beautiful wife, and was an upstanding citizen in the community. He appeared to have it all, but the dude had big problems.

In the retelling of this man’s fictional life, Roth explores issues of race, religion, class, gender, politics, aging, and infidelity…among others. He explores these issues by observing the Swede’s tragic life from various perspectives and through the conversations that the Swede and his friends and family have. The timeframe is roughly from the Swede’s high school graduation in 1945 to the 1990’s. I didn’t find much happiness or humor, but I was certainly moved.

The book revolves around a moment in 1968 when the Swede’s daughter blows up the local post office. The what and why this happened underpin much of the book, but the moment is not retold directly nor is it the climax. Roth employs many vehicles to flush things out and splits the book into three distinct parts. In Part I, titled “Paradise Remembered,” you see things from the first-person perspective of Nathan Zuckerman, a family friend and writer who grew up with the Levov’s. In Part II, titled “The Fall,” it leaves Zuckerman and switches to a third-person narrative with much reflection by the Swede. And finally, Roth brings things to a raging climax in Part III, titled “Paradise Lost.” It mostly centers on a marathon dinner party at the Levov’s that is reminiscent of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in its length, acidity, and pure domestic evil.

I wouldn’t really call it entertainment, and it was a little heavier than I wanted after a break from reading for about three months while my wife and I moved. But it makes you think and wonder and ruminate, and may change your perspective on some controversial subjects.


Washington Square

I’ve had this book sitting in a stack of stuff to read for years now. I think I purchased it about three years ago, probably after seeing one of those Merchant/Ivory movies or something. I’ve never read anything by Henry James but I always see his novels in the racks of classic lit at the bookstores. So this week, I figured I needed a little classic lit after soiling myself with that trash fiction a few weeks ago. Kinda keeps my world in balance, if you know what I mean.

So there’s this woman, Catherine Sloper, who is described by her father, the wealthy Dr. Sloper, as particularly ugly and stupid. He makes these proclamations about his daughter aloud, in the presence of others, and barely sugar coats it even if he is speaking with his daughter directly.

One evening, Catherine meets a young whipper-snapper named Morris Townsend and is immediately smitten. He too appears interested in furthering the relationship, despite Catherine’s plain looks and lack of cleverness. Could it be that one facet of her attractiveness is that she is in line to inherit a huge chunk of change because of her father’s riches? Yes, it very well could be. But you still hold out hope that Townsend is an honorable man.

Well, her dad is livid and will have nothing to do with this Morris fellow. He does everything in his power to discourage his daughter from wedding young Morris. However, there is an opposing force to her father’s negativity in the form of his sister, Mrs. Penniman. Mrs. Penniman is Catherine’s live-in, widowed aunt, who defies her brother and works the action from the other side by playing matchmaker between these two young lovers.

What follows is a sordid family matter that turns out to be a social commentary by one of our classic writers. I really enjoyed this short read but felt a little empty at the end. I developed a seething hatred for her aunt and her father, but they both seem to escape unscathed. It did appear that Catherine went on to lead a rich and fulfilling life in her spinster-hood, so maybe that was her victory.

Great stuff. I’ve tried to read a few Jane Austen novels and just can’t seem to get through them. James, however, really kept me interested. I was pulling for Catherine throughout.



I saw the movie Short Cuts about a decade ago. It was the first time I recall seeing a movie in that style…the ensemble cast, the handful of stories that were either implicitly or explicitly connected, the mixture of humor and sadness, sorrow and joy. Because of Short Cuts, I rented Grand Canyon, which is much lighter, but similar. Crash and Me and You and Everyone We Know are more recent examples, both of which I enjoyed. I’ve always liked these movies but I have not read any books comparable to this style. Well, now I have.

It began last summer when my wife walked up to me in Borders, handed me Train, and said, “Do you think you would like this?” The first thing I do when I get an unfamiliar book is flip to the About the Author section. I do this because I have no literary background and I need some validation that the author is accomplished and respected. Many people would have recognized Pete Dexter, but I didn’t. I never start with the synopsis on the back cover because that’s all marketing hype. I’m sure the About the Author section also has plenty of marketing hype, but you can’t fake things like National Book Awards or New York Times Notable Books. Can you? Maybe, but besides getting recommendations from people you trust, I don’t know of a better way to help me assess a book for consumption. Do I sound like a literature snob? I hope not. But when something totally unfamiliar hits the screen, I start by qualifying the author, so to speak.

Train was written by Pete Dexter. He also wrote Paris Trout, which won the National Book Award. Paris Trout was made into a TV movie and I remember it being advertised a lot on HBO or Showtime. I also think it received some critical acclaim. Of course, these things drew me in. Couple those items with a plot that included golf, and I basically had no choice but to buy it.

The book is set in Los Angeles – year 1953. Amongst the ensemble, there are three primary characters. There’s Train, a black caddy with a special gift for golf. He has a big heart, but makes some questionable decisions. There’s Miller Packard, an enigma. He’s a cop, a part-time criminal, and a golf course hustler – at least, that’s the best I can tell. He’s nurturing and violent at the same time. And finally, there’s Norah Still. She’s a former human rights activist who finds her way to Southern California and gets embroiled with this lot.

I was immersed and interested throughout, but I can’t really say it was fun. The situations that the characters get themselves into are downright strange. I’m talking weird, gut-wrenching, horrible, humorous…you name it. It’s a dark, depressing story. There is a lot of violence and a lot of sex. And you don’t get a lot of clarity. The sensation of reading this book is totally different from reading something with a protagonist, an antagonist, a plot line, and the words THE END on the last page.

Dexter doesn’t ever let you feel like you have a grasp on what’s going on. He just throws these characters at you and starts telling a bunch of short stories. Problems don’t get resolved, apparent criminal actions don’t get investigated, and certain story lines don’t get concluded. Something big and important may happen, but you may not find out about it until afterwards, in the recollection of one of the characters. You sense connections, you get to know the characters, you get hints on what’s next, you look forward to simply getting some clarity. Sometimes things get clarified and sometimes they don’t. I was never bored because the anticipation of some sort of conclusion keeps you turning pages.

Like I said, this book is dark, but there is some hope. At times, amidst all the pain and suffering, the characters show themselves to be kind, giving, and understanding. I personally found a lot of hope in the golf aspect, but please don’t look at this as a golf book. Golf is always there, but rarely the center of attention. You can tell that Dexter has played some golf because he has a few keen insights into the game, which were entertaining for a fan of the game like me.

I will, at some time in my life, read more Pete Dexter. I’m not going to run out tomorrow and blow my Borders gift certificate on Paris Trout. However, it’s good to know that there is a National Book Award winner out there that I will probably be interested in reading.