I Got it at the Library: “By Gaslight”

That Stephen Price is a helluva storyteller.

gaslight - author
Steven Price

At over 700 pages, By Gaslight, the second novel by the Victoria, British Columbia-based poet and fiction writer might have been a doorstopper. But like many of the lengthier films I have enjoyed over the years, I was never bored or visually fatigued thanks to the author’s vividly realized prose and memorable characters.

The novel is set in 1880s London (with flashbacks to the American Civil War and the diamond mines of South Africa) and it is a credit to Mr. Price’s impeccable research and richly detailed narrative that I had to keep reminding myself that this novel was written recently and not penned a number of decades ago. (I haven’t read a novel this rich in period detail which transported me back in time since Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan which was primarily set in 1939 Berlin and Paris – the novel also flashes forward to the early Nineties.) 

gaslight - cover

The story centres around William Pinkerton, son of the crusty, larger-than-life authoritarian who founded the famed investigative organization, and his hunt in foggy London town for an elusive criminal whose very existence is questionable. There is also a gentleman grifter named Adam Foole, his lady love, Charlotte Reckitt, a giant named Fludd and Molly, a ten year old girl who is wise beyond her years (to say the least).  Each of these characters are given humane and believable back stories, scrupulously sculpted by the author. The result is, yes, characters you both know and care about as well as (or better than) members of your own family.

You don’t have to be Fellini, to paraphrase an old George Carlin routine, to see themes of the often thorny relationship between fathers and sons, the futility and tragedy of war (any war) and the Rashomon – like nature of truth interwoven into the narrative.

Perhaps the ancient adage is true that a prophet (or, in this case, an author) is without honor in his own country because, in one of the first Canadian literary websites I logged onto, the highly respected quillandquire.com, while admitting that the novel is “an engrossing read“, the reviewer says  “… nothing carries us beyond the characters to give their stories thematic resonance of the sort that motivates the great 19th-century novels to which By Gaslight is so indebted … “(Perhaps the writer of this review has been hanging around stuffy Ontario academics too long,)

I much prefer the enthusiastic, uncluttered  response of America’s NPR (National Public Radio): ” … Intense …  threaded through with a melancholy brilliance, it is an extravagant novel that takes inspiration from the classics and yet remains wholly itself.”

Perhaps the best description of the novel is on the back cover of the book itself: ” … darkly mesmerizing,” writes author Jacqueline Baker, “worthy of the great Victorian thriller writers, but Steven Price brings to his prose a sensibility and dazzling skill all his own … perfectly grounded in period and rich in incident and image. Haunting and deeply satisfying. “

Come to think of it, Stephen Price and Esi Edugyan are husband and wife. Could they be CanLit’s new Power Couple (even if they are not based in Toronto)?

gaslight - couple
Esi Edugyan and Steven Price: The Canadian Lit Power Couple?

I GOT IT AT THE LIBRARY: Tell -All by Chuck Palahniuk

Author (and agent provocateur) Chuck Palahniuk
Author (and agent provocateur) Chuck Palahniuk

Judging from the reviews I have read on the Net I am probably one of the few who read Chuck Palahniuk’s 2010 novel “Tell-All” and actually, well, liked is too strong a word. Let’s say, intrigued.

Maybe it is because I am a boomer and have watched old movies since I was knee high to a television but I actually recognize most of those names in bold print littered throughout the text.

And I actually did not see that final plot twist coming (and I read a lot of cheap mysteries) although I admit that I read most of the book late in the evening when I was half asleep.

I appreciate a bit of wordplay so the puns attributed to various gossip columnists of the era like Walter Winchell, Louella Parsons and Elsa Maxwell (I thought) sounded clever and authentic. (In fact, I wondered whether the plays on words were originals by the author or whether Chuck had actually trawled through old columns by Winchell and others.)

The story, such as it is, is set during “the Golden Age of Hollywood – although judging from this novel, it could also be called “the Golden Age of Hollywood Artificiality, Secrets and Lies”

As for the animal noises preceding some of the names, well, the author explains their use in the latter part of the book.

Unlike most critics of the novel, who spent most of their opening paragraphs comparing the book unfavorably with previous works by Chuck (or lumping it in with similar Palahniuk novels they didn’t like) I have never read any other novels by this particular author. But I have certainly heard of his notoriety. In fact, that is what made me grab this book. It was at the front of the library on a shelf marked “Staff Picks”. And so I decided to see what all the fuss was about (despite a warning from one reviewer that this was for hardcore Palahniuk fans only.)

Tell-All - book cover 2I admired what the author was trying to do although I gotta say the only review I read where I thought the writer has really “got it” was a review I read by a guy named Liam Dodds in something called “The Gothic Imagination” which seems to be part of a website for a Scottish university.

Here is the link in case you are curious: http://www.gothic.stir.ac.uk/reviews/chuck-palahniuk-tell-all/

And, no, I don’t plan on reading “Fight Club” (or seeing the film based on the book.

Tell All - book cover 1

Thomas Pynchon Goes Hollywood?

inherent vice 1 “Trying to connect the dots when it comes to Pynchon’s work could drive a person insane … ” a writer from Vulture.com confesses cheerfully. Of course, this isn’t unique to Thomas Pynchon novels. I mean, who killed the chauffeur in “The Big Sleep”? Even Raymond Chandler professed not to know …. and he wrote the book! Actually, though, there is a semblance of a plot in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Pynchon’s 2009 novel INHERENT VICE. But be warned: this post is by a guy who figured David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive made sense.

The film is set in the lazy, crazy, spacey days of the early Seventies. Pot-smoking private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receives a visit from his former girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), now having a fling with real estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and convinced her current flame has been shanghaied to an insane asylum by his gorgeous trophy wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her current lover, Riggs Warbling (odd names are a Pynchon specialty). 

inherent vice - phoenixAlong the way, we meet  LAPD detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin); Doc’s former galpal, assistant D.A. Penny Kimball (an almost unrecognizable Reese Witherspoon), shady lawyer Sauncho Smilax (a reliably quirky Benicio del Toro, although he proved he could play it straight in an Oscar-winning role as a world weary cop in 2000’s “Traffic”); Martin Short as coke-sniffing dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd; onetime Academy Award nominee Jeannie Berlin (Best Supporting Actress, “The Heartbreak Kid”, 1972) as Aunt Leet (Ms. Berlin voices the audiobook  version of Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge”, which I am currently reading/listening to); secretary/receptionist  Petunia Leeway ( former “Saturday Night Live” regular Maya Rudolph, PT Anderson’s wife  in real life) and Shasta Fay’s BFF, Sortilege (singer/songwriter/harpist Joanna Newsom),who provides the film’s voiceover narration , among many other weird but wonderful characters.

Doc also picks up two new cases: a black militant (Michael K. Williams, Omar of “The Wire” fame ) hires him to find a fellow ex-con and a sometime drug addict (Jena Malone) believes her missing musician husband (Owen Wilson) is still alive and wants Doc to bring him home.

Anderson, as director, gives this film a woozy haze that almost gave me a contact high. Mr. Phoenix is perfect casting in the lead role since he has cultivated an air of controlled eccentricity in recent years. For actor Roberts, this is one of the few chances to appear on a bigger screen. It’s hard to believe this guy once starred in box office hits (Pope of Greenwich Village) and actually has an Oscar nomination to his credit (Best Supporting Actor Runaway Train 1985) when his recent resume lists films with titles like Wild Things in Europe 3-D, Santa’s Boot Camp and The Sicilian Vampire. (You have to wonder, as Mickey Rourke did after a brief comeback in 2008’s  The Wrestler, who Roberts has, um, antagonized in Hollywood for his recent fall from grace.)

But the real breakout star here is Ms. Waterson in a no-holds-barred performance that distances her from such early attempts at stardom as 2007’s The Babysitters. With her sultry and enigmatic perf here they may soon be referring to Sam Waterston as Katherine Waterston’s father.

That's Ms. Waterson's  likeness in the poster
That’s Ms. Waterson’s likeness in the poster

Throwing the Book at ‘Em: “Us Conductors”

us conductors - coverUS Conductors by Sean Michaels is inspired by the true story of Lev Sergeyvich Terman, a Russian inventor who led an incredible life. As Leon Theremin, he invented many electronic marvels and  was  the toast of  New York, He was also a Soviet spy during his time in the States and spent time in a Russian prison camp during the Stalinist era.

He is best remembered as the inventor of the theremin, a ghostly musical instrument that can be “played”  without touching it. I’m not a scientist so I won’t even attempt to explain how it works although you have heard its eerie strains if you have ever watched vintage sci-fi or horror flicks (usually accompanying the emergence of alien invaders slithering out of a spacecraft); watched Midsomer Murders ( the British TV mystery series – available in North America on Netflix or on DVDs from your local library – uses a theremin in producing its spooky theme music) or have heard the Beach Boys ‘Good Vibrations’ on classic rock radio ( challenging listeners to identify the instrument producing those eerie sounds.) Quoting from the book: “Raise the right hand first, toward the pitch antenna, and you will hear it: DZEEEEOOOooa shocked electric coo, steadying into a long hymn. Raise the left hand, toward the volume antenna, and you will quiet it. Move your hands again and the device will sing … that is the secret of the theremin, after all: your body is a conductor.”

The real Lev Termin and an early version of, the Theremin
The real Lev TermaCn and an early version of the Theremin

The best known and most proficient player of the theremin – apart from the inventor himself – was a New York musician of Lithuanian descent named Clara Rockmore.  She first met Mr. Terman as a teen-ager (her maiden name was Reisenberg) and, despite a number of proposals from Mr. Terman over the years, married NYC attorney Robert Rockmore. The book is in part a fictionalized account of the romance between Mr. Terman and Ms. Rockmore and partly how Mr. Terman (in the book) uses his love for Ms. Rockmore to keep his spirit alive during some devastatingly harsh years in Russian prison camps. (“You were wearing amber the night we first saw Duke Ellington. Today this memory is beside me.”) The author also writes about Mr. Terman’s early life in Russia. Throughout it all, the line blurs between fact and fiction. As Mr. Michaels says, tantalizingly, at the front of the novel “This book is mostly inventions”.

Sean Michaels has had a colorful life as well, to judge from the brief bio on the back cover of the novel. Born in Scotland and raised in Canada he has at various times been a blogger, a writer for magazines such as McSweeney’s and The Guardian and toured with rock bands. He is the current winner of the Scotiabank Giller Award, one of the most prestigious and lucrative of all Canadian literary awards.

Author Sean  Michaels accepts  the Giller Award
Author Sean Michaels accepts the Giller Award

Mr. Michaels’ musical experience shines through in his description of a Django-like guitarist “strumming his instrument as though he was shaking a secret loose.

Through the magic of Mr. Michaels’ evocative prose, it is  possible to visualize such legendary NYC hangouts as Harlem’s Cotton Club “where there were usherettes in pink hunting coats, and a band with a blind piano player, and coloured girls, dancing as if they had been listening to these songs all their lives.”

Mr. Michaels also take artistic licence with real figures from the New York social scene of that era. According to the novel, Terman`s house became quite a gathering place: While Tommy Dorsey explained his recipe for ‘Irish spaghetti sauce ‘, Jascha Heifetz would sit arguing with Mischa Elman about tremelo. Glenn Miller would lean by the stairway’s banister, flirting with every girl. Isabella Marx would use a different insult each time they crossed paths.  “You cur”, she said. “You rascal” “You wag.”

Mr. Terman’s time in New York ended under mysterious circumstances in 1938 when he was spirited back to the Soviet Union and somehow ended up in several Russian prison camps, each more brutal than the last. You’ll have to read the book to understand how this could happen under the Stalinist regime.  Mr. Michaels depicts this period in Mr.Terman`s life with such harrowing imagery that reading these passages is what I call ‘reverse escapism’ , in other words, I am glad I am not there.

Even in this somber part of the novel, there are memorable lines I like to quote: As the music rose up, it also vanished. Sometimes, it is like this, listening to music: the steady bars let you separate from your body, slip your skin, and you are standing beside the shuttering slides of memory. Shades of light, skies filled with cloud, old faces.”

Intriguing, romantic, vividly written and impeccably researched, Us Conductors is more than a novel – it is an experience. I wish I could say that I was looking forward to his next book. But I fear that having proved his point with his debut novel Sean Michaels may already be off to his next adventure.

us conductors - giller

The Book Thief – Yes, I Stole the Novel from My Sister

Book Thief - cover

Wow! This book is really heavy. I don’t mean in a literal sense (although it is 550 pages in softcover.) I mean, Death is the narrator.  Yes, Death, the Big D, the Grim Reaper. That kind of heavy.

Although, as imagined by author Marcus Zusak, Death is unexpectedly emotional (“He does something to me …. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry.”); he hates his job (“The trouble is, who could replace me?”); he has a dark sense of humor ( ” I do not carry a sickle or scythe. I only wear a black cloak when it’s cold. I don’t have those skull like features you humans are so keen on pinning on me …”) and, like most of us,he wants to be liked for himself (“I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable.” Just don’t ask him to be nice or “comforting” .)

Despite the dark subject matter I kept on reading because the novel shows the hardship and horrors the average  German family experienced during WWII. Specifically it shows the devastating effects of war as seen through the eyes of a remarkable young girl who is almost ten at the start of the narrative and just about fourteen when the bulk of the story ends. 

Book Thief - Finally

Her name is Liesel Meminger, her best friend is about her age, his name is Rudy Steiner, and her stepparents, Hans and Rosa Huberman, are hiding a young Jewish man, Max Vanderburg, in their basement (a capital crime in Nazi Germany).  They all live on Himmel Street (“himmel” in German, ironically, means heaven) in the small town of Molking.  

I‘ll be honest with you. I grew up watching WWII movies in which the American army always won and the only Germans were cartoonish Nazi villains.  It took a novel like The Book Thief to make me realize that the average smalltown German family suffered as much during the war as those families living in countries which aligned themselves with the Allied cause. Folks like the Hubermans and the Steiners didn’t subscribe to (or, perhaps, fully understand) Hitler’s plans for world domination but in the novel they pay the same price as those that do. And, of course, no one suffered more in Nazi Germany than those of Jewish ancestry. 

The harrowing descriptions of hunkering down in bomb shelters, the after effects of Allied shelling and the march of ragged Jews on their way to Dachau are so vivid I expected to see the face of a grizzled survivor on the back cover where the face of the author is usually posted (along with some brief biographical notes.) Instead I saw the smiling face of a young fellow “who lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife and children.” Mr. Zusak obviously  did a lot of independent research but he is also quoted (on the back cover) as explaining “when his parents told stories about their childhoods in Germany and Austria during WWII, it was like a piece of Europe entered our house. I couldn’t possibly know at the time how important those stories would be …..” (The edition of the novel I have contains an interview with the author. However, I haven’t read it yet since I didn’t want to let Mr. Zusak’s impressions of what he wrote influence the impressions of what I read and wrote about in this post. ) The characters are so well defined and the author has a talent for creating memorable images.  Liesel and the rest of her family never behave out of character. In fact,  the book flows along with the rhythm of real life or as real as the characters can live their lives under the circumstances.

Markus Zusak author of The Book Thief
Markus Zusak author of The Book Thief

KWIK KWOTES: “Night Film”

“Making love to Aurelia was like rummaging through a card catalog in a deserted library, searching for one very obscure, little-read entry on Hungarian poetry. It was dead silent, no one gave me any direction, and nothing was where it was supposed to be.”                                      

Investigative reporter Scott McGrath in the novel Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Copyright 2013 by Wonderline Productions LLC)

Although the passage above shows the author’s  abundant wit ) this second book by the young NYC based novelist (about a reclusive horror film director and his suicidal daughter) is actually very creepy (and I mean that in a good way.) I’ve just gotten to the point where McGrath suspects  the looks of horror on the actors’ faces were real. Brrr!

Night Film - Book Cover & Author
Night Film – Book Cover & Author

BOOK BYTES: “The Shack” by Wm. Paul Young

My sister  actually sent me this book.  I am halfway through the novel  at this point and I am finding it an intriguing and often insightful mix of theology, philosophy and what my English professor might call “magical realism”. Young (who co-wrote the book with two friends) references films like Star Wars and The Matrix, artists like Bruce Cockburn and lists a variety of influences, or what he calls “creative stimulation”, in the Acknowledgments.  Among them; “Gibran, the Inklings … and Soren Kierkegaard”.

Here is one of the quotes from Chapter 8 (“Breakfast of Champions”):

Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command , or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it. You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power …. the value of the individual is constantly weighted against the survival of the system , whether political, economic social  or religious – any system actually.  First one person, then a few, and finally even many are easily sacrificed for the good of the system. In one form or another this lies behind every struggle for power, every prejudice, every war and every abuse of relationship.”

Author Wm. Paul Young with his best-selling book (10 million copies sold!) The Shack
Author Wm. Paul Young with his best-selling book (10 million copies sold!)
The Shack