The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark x2

Um…. I read this all the way through 2 times now.  I upped the rating half a point the second time for literary value but …  they’re not today’s values.   Back in 1970 post-modern lit was all the rage like wearing hippie clothes and smoking on airplanes.  This book feels a lot like that and the movie even more so.

driver's seat

*******
The Driver’s Seat
by Muriel Spark
1970 / 107 pages
rating 8.5 /  classic literary crime –   
******* 

It’s basically a who-done-it, then it turns into a why-done-it  and concludes with a who-done-it again.   It comes complete with enough red-herrings to make dinner.  On a more literary level there’s  a lot of  self-reflexive stuff for a side course with patterns and symbolism for desert –  I even had left-overs what with the religious undertones  – (groan).

And there is too much coincidence and a couple of glaring omissions which aren’t quite covered up with the abundance of repetition and an obsessive compulsive disorder plus a problem with motivation.  (“Why-done-it?”)  You see this stuff for what it is on a second reading – most of it anyway.  Bottom line,  it’s not really satisfying because there’s too much literary fluffing for the meat.

On the good side,  the foreshadowing that our protagonist will be murdered (not a spoiler at all)  is worked into a really interesting structure creating  a great deal of tension.

I liked it kinda-sorta – but I don’t think it’s for today’s crime reader – times have changed in fiction as well as in fashion.    Making the real sense of it is tough going –  even the title is edgy and fraught with possible meanings.  It’s ambiguous and dark with a surprise ending – the first time round anyway.

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Wilde Lake Laura Lippman

I’ve only read one prior book by Laura Lippman and I didn’t much care for it –   see Baltimore Blues – rating C-.    But the 4-Mystry-Addicts group decided to read this one and it did have good reviews.  Besides, it’s a stand-alone,  so I went ahead and tried it.  That was not my best move.

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*******
Wilde Lake 
Laura Lippman 
2016/368 pages
Rating   C  / crime 
*******

Louise (Lu) Brandt is the ambitious and perfectionist new state’s attorney for Howard County,  Maryland.  She is also the  widow of a very prominent venture capitalist and has two young children, twins,  to care for.  She currently lives in her father’s house – he was state’s attorney prior to retirement.  Her elder brother,  AJ,  is a prominent attorney in his own right.

Told in alternating sections of 1st and 3rd person from the protagonist’s point of view,  the narrative sometimes gets a bit uneven and in my opinion draws too much  attention away from the main plot.  It’s function is mainly  character development –  how did Lu get to be the way she is –  and that slows down the story considerably.    On the other hand,  the 1st person is the adult Lu remembering her life as a child – the motherless daughter of a very competitive father and brilliant older brother living in the town in which they grew up,  have old friends and back-stories.

In the present day Lu has a pending murder case which brings up old memories.  She also has her father and brother and children to deal with.   The pathetic young man who has been charged with the murder has a history with Lu and her brotheer as well as some psychological issues. There are other problems with the case,   but Lu is determined to convict him of 1st degree murder.

The youthful Lu has to deal with teenage sex,  racial differences,  her famous father and super-popular brother,  being motherless and more.   There’s too much of this background  business for a crime novel.  It’s well done but really takes most of the tension away from the main plot.

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The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

I’ve read several of Muriel Sparks’ novels but never anything like this one.  It’s called a “psychological thriller”  but imo,  it’s really just plain weird.   That said,  I understand that it takes more than one reading to get to different levels so … I might.  It’s nicely written and I  enjoy what I’ve read of Spark’s prior books,  the protagonist is interesting –   etc.   And it was nominated for that “Lost Booker” prize of 1970 (awarded in 2010).

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******
The Driver’s Seat 
by Muriel Spark 
1970 / 101 pages
rating –  8
*******

Lise is a woman in early middle age who one day walks out of her office,  buys some very bright and odd clothes and takes a trip to Italy.   On the flight she acts odd,  apparently trying to pick up men.

In Italy she pairs up with a little old lady and they go shopping for awhile.  Lise is looking for someone – a man she calls her date.

By the beginning of Chapter 3 (page 25)  we know Lise is going to be found the next day,  dead in a park,  murdered.  There is some very deft foreshadowing which pops up a few times in the narrative – to the point the story is almost occurring in two time frames – one follows her on the day she’s murdered,  the other briefly accounts for the resulting action on the day her body is found.

Knowing that but not knowing who or why the reader follows Lise’s as she wanders the city meeting people and getting in little scrapes.  A number of possibilities present themselves and our protagonist-victim seems to be setting something up –

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Barkskins by Annie Proulx

If you like big fat books of historical fiction,  generational sagas if you will,  this is this  year’s  book for you.  It’s the kind of book I can just escape into for hours – the story keeps going – and going – and going – for over 300 years and thousands and thousands of miles -the entire world as it turns out.

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*******
Barkskins 
by Annie Proulx
2016/ 736 pages
rating:  9.25  /  historical fiction 
*******

I suppose this is what I expected having read “The Shipping News”  years ago and very much enjoying it.   But Proulx is 80 now and not the most prolific writer on the block.   It’s a treat getting to read a new one.

The setting is basically the forests around southeastern Canada and Maine, especially the Penobscot and Boston areas and up into what is now Canada.  But there are also scenes in many other places because some of the characters travel  as far as London, Amsterdam, China and New Zealand and Ecuador.   The hundreds of characters include Natives,  immigrants,  colonists, Americans,  as well as a few Europeans and others.  Yes,  there are nice graphic family trees in the back pages but I really hesitated to look at them much for fear of accidental spoilers – like who marries whom?  I did check them out lightly a couple times though – they were helpful.

A saga like this requires much of the tale be related in “telling” rather than “showing”  mode,  but there is some nicely done “showing” involved as well.  And “telling” has its place when events transpire over the course of years and years.
The setting is small to start but widens as the years go by.   It’s infinitely more substantial than a “background”  as it is the forests themselves  which produce the actions and responses of the human characters.  The forests of the world may be a kind of setting as character? –  Can all those forests be “a” character – how about several or many characters?  I don’t know.  but in some ways decidedly yes,  in other ways definitely no.   lol –  They can certainly be discussed as though they were characters –
The story opens in 1693 in a forest upstream from a remote riverbank settlement in what is now the southeast corner of the Province of Quebec.   Two men, René Sel and Charles Duquet, start cutting the trees on a piece of land which their master,  Monsieur Trepagny, has purchased from the Mi’kmaqs.  A woman named Mari tends a cottage there and watches her several French-named children.   So begins the fortunes and misfortunes of two families, that of  Rene Sel (who marries Mari) and Charles Duquet who returns to Europe for a woman with property.  One famiy is basically of Mi’kmaq heritage while the other is more French or Dutch,  perhaps English.

It’s a powerful tale and nicely told with the history being gently infused without ever taking over –  the details about the Mi’kmaq people is perfect.  Proulx certainly does her research.    Unfortunately,  imo,   toward the end of this 700+ pages book,  the politics of conservation/environmental issues becomes a bit heavy-handed –  I’m certainly of similar mind but not crazy about being hit over the head with the details.

These pages are full of pictures and other details re Mi’kmaq life:

http://www.micmac-nsn.gov
http://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/aboriginal/mikmaq-history.php

Nice Interview:  1465321447
http://www.wsj.com/articles/barkskins-author-annie-proulx-is-restless-in-seattle-

Some great reviews:
NY Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/19/books/review/barkskins-by-annie-proulx.html?_r=0

Minneapolis Star Tribune:
http://www.startribune.com/review-barkskins-by-annie-proulx-covers-300-years-of-evolving-environmental-values/382703771/

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The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

Book 2 of the sci-fi trilogy “Remembrance of Earth’s Past,”   The Dark Forest tells the story of how Earth prepares for invasion by an alien force due in about four centuries.  Because of  their advanced technology which includes sophons (miniature computers) the Trisolarans know all there is to know about human defense plans.   The only hope lies in the fact they can’t tell what people are thinking.

darkforest.jpeg
*******
The Dark Forest
by Cixin Liu
2008 (tr 2015) / 513 pages
rating A /  science fiction
*******

Four Wallfacers are given unlimited power and resources for their duties of developing plans to to defend Earth.   But the Trisolarians also have individuals called Wallbreakers whose job it is to find these plans out and inactivate them.   Three fail.  Luo Ji is the last remaining Wallfacer to try what he can.  He had no intention of becoming this but it’s not something one can refuse.

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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

From what I’ve read, Colin Whitehead’s new book The Underground Railroad was popped onto the shelves more than a month earlier than the expected September 13 date.  It was already highly anticipated as a really “hot” book for fall reading,  but when Oprah Winfrey makes a phone call publishers listen,  so Whitehead’s book was miraculously ready for Oprah’s big announcement on Aug 2.  The author himself was overjoyed.

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*******
The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead
2016 /  308 pages
rating:  9  /  historical fiction (alternative history)
*******

I’m a tad disappointed but there could be a couple reasons for that.  First,  I just finished The Sympathizer by  Viet Thanh Nguyen and that’s enough of a good book to last months.   Whitehead’s book pales when it’s put right up against that of  Nguyen’s multi-award prize winner.  The other reason is the media hype,  I suppose.  I was already going to read it and then came the Oprah announcement –  right – that probably put my expectations over the top.  (And I’m not a huge Oprah fan.)

So what good can I say about it?  Many, many things, it turns out –   The Underground Railroad is brilliantly creative and Whitehead takes his readers on a whirlwind tour mostly of the South as it was for blacks between 1800 and up to today in some ways.   Most of the action takes place in the 1850s,  the time when the Fugitive Slave laws were at their height.    And the use of a physically real “underground railroad”  (and that is an interesting site)  which  becomes a physical means of transportation from one place and time to another is – well – Whitehead did win a McArthur genius award.  The train stations are placed down tunnels under trap-doors in old barns and they even have small seats for when the passengers have to wait.  It’s a fascinating concept, one many of us imagined in childhood history lessons,  and it’s never overdone.  And it’s nothing like magical realism because the fantastical is so limited. It’s also a great metaphor.    The rest of the narrative is quite realistically presented – lots and lots of research went into this book.

But the railroad works as a metaphor for the pathway to freedom – someone must have built it, someone has to travel through its dark chambers,  somewhere there must be places to go up and see the world – but are those places of freedom?  Or are they more places of a destiny less desirable?

This is not the story of one plantation or one family or even one area – it’s not like anything you’ve likely read before.   It’s more of a little travelogue of horrors and at one point it put me in mind of  On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee  (a really extraordinary travelogue-type book, imo).  Structurally it’s interesting but somewhat difficult what with all the changes in time and place – it’s a rough road.

Cora is an 11-year old slave girl on the Randall plantation in Georgia  when we meet her.  Her mother has made her own bid for freedom leaving Cora to the other women in the Hob,  the cabins for the infirm and breeding women.  Cora gets a few years older, is put to work,  and  finally makes the break herself with the help of a friend named Caesar, a slave of northern origins,  who thinks she can do it.

Along the way Cora meets a variety of strange people,  some loving and helpful,  others as mean as they come.  And there are slave hunters after her,  particularly one named Ridgeway who has made her capture a personal project.   But taking the cake for interesting characters is a little guy named Homer age about 10 or 12 who is the free Black companion of Ridgeway and  I will just let you read about him.

Apparently Whitehead did an enormous amount of research for this and put the pieces of slave diaries together to form a mosaic of black history in American and the quest for freedom expand from then to now and from here to the world.

http://time.com/4447972/colson-whitehead-the-underground-railroad/

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The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A debut novel winning the Pulitzer which won many other prestigious awards (see * below) just calls my name –  because yes,  it’s true,  I’m a sucker for the reading awards.  Besides,  two (2!) of my reading groups selected it so …   I had to read it.

The end result?   This is probably the most beautifully written book I’ve read in years although it also might be one of the most violent books I’ve read in awhile.  But it’s kind of on the order of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy in that the quality of the writing takes the edge off the horror.    Unlike McCarthy’s novel, though,  Nguyen doesn’t shy away from humor – it too serves to mitigate the ugliness of what’s happening.

sympath.jpeg
*******
The Sympathizer
by Viet Thanh Nguyen
2015 / 348 pages
rating:    9.5 / A –   literary crime 
*******

The story concerns the tragedy of the US war in Vietnam -especially the aftermath.   I avoided that subject for for many years as it was too personally painful.  I finally tried Frances FitzGerald’s prize-winning nonfiction book,  Fire in the Lake (1972) and then went on to The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990).    But I didn’t get around to those until 2010 or so – 35-40 years after the war.  They’re both excellent books.

Back to The Sympathizer – the bulk of the narrative is structured in the form of a letter to a Commandant written as a confession,  or a pseudo-confession, by a prisoner.  The nameless 1st person protagonist, the writer of the confession who was a spy for the North,  was the head assistant to General in the South Vietnamese Army – but the US is leaving.   He is the “sympathizer” of the title.  His father was a French Catholic priest while his mother was the priest’s maid.   The prisoner/sympathizer had spent a good part of his youth at university in the US but his mother and his best friends were of the North.  This duality is expanded and forms much of the thematic thrust of the book.

As we are transported back through the story we find the prisoner and his General,  along with the General’s  family,  managing to leave Vietnam at the very end of the fall of Saigon. They  came to the US and proceeded to … well … that’s what he tells us.  We also know from  outset that our letter/confession-writer  was/is a  “sympathizer,” –    “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” … “a man of two minds” – not wholly convinced of either side.

Nguyen writes beautifully – really, really beautifully!  He’s a stylist of first order with unusual metaphors and just ways of putting things.  His characters are brilliantly constructed and we get to know them in many ways.  The plot is tension filled – the reader  kind of knows what’s going to happen but … how?  why? when? –   (The book also received an Edgar Award for best debut novel –  that’s the crime genre.)

The inspiration came from “Apocalypse Now”  and Nguyen did an enormous amount of research on the making of that movie – (see the Acknowledgements). Also, there is a fictional book which has a huge part in the plot and it’s based on the very real ideas of William Westmoreland as witnessed by his documentary, “Hearts and Minds.”    There is also obviously some good research done on the details of the fall of Saigon which,  for what it’s worth,  I remember watching on the TV news.

Overall this is an incredible book – well deserving of the awards its received.

* The Awards:

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Winner of the 2016 Edgar Award for Best First Novel
Winner of the 2016 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
Winner of the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Winner of the 2015-2016 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (Adult Fiction)
Winner of the 2016 California Book Award for First Fiction
Finalist for the 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award
Finalist for the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction
Finalist for the 2016 Medici Book Club Prize
Finalist for the 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Mystery/Thriller)
Finalist for the 2016 ABA Indies Choice/E.B. White Read-Aloud Award (Book of the Year, Adult Fiction)
Named a Best Book of the Year on more than twenty lists, including the New York Times Book ReviewWall Street Journal, and Washington Post
** from Amazon

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