The Long Goodbye

We’ve already talked about One Book, One Chicago. My wife just checked it out from the library, unbeknownst to me. She let me read it first. Thanks honey.

The Long Goodbye is private investigator Philip Marlowe’s first person account of his run-in with cops and gangsters after he assists a down-on-his-luck acquaintance, Terry Lennox. Marlowe just gives Lennox a ride to Tijuana, that’s all. But shortly thereafter Marlowe finds out that Lennox’s millionaire wife has been bludgeoned to death with a bronze statue in their guest house. Marlowe suspected nothing less anyhow, oh well.

This is gritty. It’s like sleeping on sandpaper. It makes L.A. Confidential feel like a romantic comedy; makes the City of Angels feel cold and rainy all the time. It’s full of dark jail cells, cops that slug you, and dry, humorless commentary on the state of the justice system in Los Angeles. And paragraphs like this (page 249, chapter 35):

The other part of me wanted to get out and stay out, but this was the part I never listened to. Because if I ever had I would have stayed in the town where I was born and worked in the hardware store and married the boss’s daughter and had five kids and read them the funny paper on Sunday morning and smacked their heads when they got out of line and squabbled with the wife about how much spending money they were to get and what programs they could have on the radio or TV set. I might even have got rich – small-town rich, an eight room house, two cars in the garage, chicken every Sunday and the Reader’s Digest on the living room table, the wife with a cast-iron permanent and me with a brain like a sack of Portland cement. You take it, friend. I’ll take the big sordid dirty crooked city.

Just look at that second sentence in the cited passage. It’s huge, but it feels the same now as it did when I first read it. Marlowe could not survive outside of the LA trenches. But in the trenches, he rises above the greed, corruption, lies, and ugliness associated with the city.

Chandler certainly got a load off his chest with this rant. It’s a glimpse into the psyche of Philip Marlowe and probably Chandler also. When I read it Gail was a few feet away and I couldn’t wait to have her to take a look. She was impressed. I really hope she reads it so we can talk about it.

This is such a cool book. The ending rocked. The title makes perfect sense. If you have any affinity for the crime novel, give this one a whirl.


The Coast of Chicago

What a perfect Christmas gift. I’ve been picking up books of short stories in the bookstores lately but haven’t pulled the trigger. The author, Stuart Dybek, is a Chicagoan now living in Kalamazoo and teaching at Western Michigan University. His collection of his short stories was critically acclaimed and chosen for One Book, One Chicago in Spring 2004.

I can’t remember the last time I read a book of short stories. I had Interpreter of Maladies in my hands at Borders the other day but put it down (also a One Book, One Chicago choice in Fall 2006). I may grab it now that I’ve enjoyed this book.

I have to go into short stories with a different mindset. There just isn’t time for the author to plate things up for me. I was at times frustrated with the symbolism and darkness, but it grew on me. I think it grew on me because of the Chicago connection. Each story incorporates the sights and sounds of Chicago as observed through a born and bred Chicagoan; kind of like Back to Earth incorporates the sights and sounds of the backcountry through a man born and bred with a huge respect for the outdoors. These reading experiences had similarities and differences.

In the last paragraph of my take on Back to Earth, note that I was inspired to “live smaller, to minimize my impact on the globe, to find beauty in nature even if I don’t live in the woods.” Yes, I was inspired, but the inspiration was shallow because I can’t duplicate Temple’s outdoor experiences while living through this cold, dark, and depressing Chicago winter. Temple regularly viewed massive, snow-capped peaks outlined against a brilliant blue sky. I get to view the Chicago skyline. Well, at least the bottom half of it below the low hanging clouds. But what Dybek taught me is that there are plenty of sensory experiences in this great city, even in the dark of night, that can enlighten and inspire.

In fact, I did have an observation the other day that wouldn’t have been there had I not been a reader. And after reading Dybek, I am all the more respectful of the experience. Let me dig into it.

Listen, and don’t forget this, the winter of 2008 was nasty. Not because of any great, single-day snowfall or record breaking cold. But because it just kept coming at you. It just kept throwing wind, rain, snow, cold and darkness at you. Day after day, week after week. It started on New Year’s Eve and it’s now mid February – still nasty. We only had 11 minutes of sun the whole first week of February.

A few weeks ago there was a one-day respite from the cold and the temp spiked up into the high 30s. During this time, I had occasion to walk from the heart of the loop to the west loop before rush hour. I had just left a good meeting and my spirits were high, which was in complete contrast to the moist, quiet blackness that enveloped me as I trudged through the loop. Somewhere, above the fog and clouds, the sun was providing just enough light to make it feel like it was daytime. Plenty of snow was sitting around, but its whiteness was just a memory. My jacket was open, my hat was off, but it was not a refreshing warmth. I was struck with a feeling that I had while reading The Road. The feeling that the light may never come back.

But I knew it would come back, which allowed me to appreciate this day more; to revel in the beauty of the city even in the bleak landscape. Which is what I think Dybek does. It seems like much of it takes place under viaducts, on gray concrete, and shrouded in clouds. Which, from living here, is for real. But he finds the good in this. If you’re an urban dweller, these stories will hit home.



This is the fourth book I’ve read this year that deals, at least in part, with the emotional and psychological toll that the tension between a Muslim state and the West can take on a person. The others were The Kite Runner, Persepolis, and Persepolis 2.

I’m not sure why I’ve read so many books about this lately. I think it helps me frame some similar points of tension here in the US because it takes the clash of liberal/conservative or secular/sacred to the often violent extreme. And the violent extreme is where things certainly went in this book.

This book was written by Orhan Pamuk, a winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature. Pamuk was born, raised, and still lives in Istanbul, Turkey. The book was, of course, written in Turkish. Historically, I’ve had to labor through translated works of fiction and this was no different. Much of the wry humor goes over my head and I don’t have big chunks of back-story that would help me understand what’s going on. I stayed with it though and it ended up being rewarding.

It’s about a poet/intellectual named Ka who fled Turkey for political exile in Germany for over a decade and now finds himself in a small, isolated town in Turkey called Kars. I’m still not completely sure why Ka went to Kars. I got the feeling deep down that he was in Kars because he was disgruntled with his so-called secular life in Europe, and this trip to Kars gave him a chance to do some soul-searching. To hear Ka tell it, he says that he went there to write an article about young Muslim women who were committing suicide because they were not allowed to wear head scarves. Many in town say that Ka was there because the most beautiful woman in the world and a former acquaintance of Ka’s, Ipek, was there. Whatever the reason, he rolls into town and immediately the whole town begins to take his measure.

I mean the whole town, and some out-of-towners. It’s difficult to keep track of the people he meets and I spent a lot of time confused. I wasn’t ready for the fantastical nature of all the characters. For example, there’s a strange traveling theatre troop that helps stage a coup in town during a massive snow storm, the editor from the local paper writes the news before it happens, and a group of religious high school boys act as counsel and informer to Ka. These are just a few of the quirky characters. Yes, it’s tough to follow!

As the book dragged on, I started to sort the characters out and the last third of the book became easier to follow. Eventually, Ka falls in love with Ipek and hatches a scheme to get her to marry him and move back to Germany so they can watch American movies and eat sausages at the local cafes. But before he can do that, he has to strike a bargain with the leaders of the coup to stay alive. In return, he must broker an agreement between a terror suspect, his lover’s sister, the temporary military junta, and others. As you might expect, no good comes of this and it ends tragically. Ka does not get the girl and he ends up getting shot a few years later in Frankfort.

Just not a lot of fun for the most part. But there is a lot of highly politicized and relevant conversation about Islam, intellectuals, small towns, Europe, Turkey, God, poetry, love, happiness, and personal fulfillment. It was thought provoking, but the development of the plot and main characters confused me. In fact, my level of confusion and disorientation was on par with my reading of Neuromancer, but I liked this book more.


The Road

Who is this Cormac McCarthy guy? I often get him mixed up with that Larry McMurtry guy. This confusion of artists seems to happen to me a lot. However, I’m not confused by the fact that this is the first book I’ve read by either. It’s also the second Oprah book I’ve read; the other one was Night by Elie Wiesel. I’m just stating facts and I’m not necessarily proud or embarrassed by them, I just think this context could be interesting years down the road when I reflect on this year in books.

It was dark and depressing, but The Road was also an ultra cool read. Picture a Mad Max-like burned-out world, but fewer people, less food, and more darkness. A man and his son attempt to navigate this world in their efforts to find the coast.

They are unnamed, referred to throughout the book mostly as “the man” and “the boy.” They have a shopping cart and each other, along with a pistol. They keep to the road but make occasional deviations to find food or avoid bad guys.

It’s short and straightforward. McCarthy’s writing is very spare in this book. He uses little punctuation and no quote marks in the dialogue. There are no chapters, but plenty of breaks. There is no picture on the cover and the only other colors besides black and white used on the jacket are some brown/gold tones (including the Oprah seal). It all fits with the sparseness of the book’s landscape.

But the emotions between the boy and the man are not sparse. They are deep and moving. I think the haunting details of their journey will stay with me for a long time. And I think I’m going to investigate how others interpreted the ending.

I’ve compared the scenery to Mad Max, but the feeling I had during the book was more like what I felt when I read Cold Mountain. I wonder if McCarthy was influenced at all by Frazier. They both tell of a journey through a somewhat mountainous landscape where hope and hopelessness are constantly present. The endings also have some parallels.

I also wonder if McCarthy’s landscape is the eastern or western United States. Did I miss something that would give this away?

Man it was good.


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.


The Power and the Glory

This is the story of an unnamed priest. He is a tortured soul only referred to as the “whisky priest.” We learn about why he is called such as he is reflecting:

He was a bad priest, he knew it. They had a word for his kind – a whisky priest, but every failure dropped out of sight and mind: somewhere they accumulated in secret – the rubble of his failures.

The reader meets the whisky priest as he is thinking about boarding a boat to get the heck out of town. You can’t blame him, after all, because the Mexican authorities want him dead for the simple fact that he is the last priest in the state (probably Tabasco) still practicing Catholicism. In fact, the only person wanted as badly as the whisky priest is a murderer and thief from the United States that’s loose in the state. The priest is such a horrible criminal in the minds of the Mexican authorities that a particularly zealous lieutenant is able to convince his boss that he should be allowed to take one innocent person hostage from all of the surrounding villages until someone turns the priest in.

The reader follows the priest as he attempts to evade the aforementioned lieutenant. He hops from town to town, always one step ahead of the lieutenant. Along the way he meets a cast of characters, of which some show him kindness, some treachery, and some indifference. These rich characters complement the harrowing pursuit scenes to weave a gripping story. But it’s much more than that. Underlying it all is the inner struggle of a priest who has to deal with his demons in a time when he must show great courage and fortitude. He is on the run and constantly forced to choose between saving himself or helping others. The tragedy and triumph that ensue are the direct results of his choices.

It was a fast and pleasurable read.


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.