30 August 2011

Books: The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall (2010)

In The Lonely Polygamist, we meet Golden Richards, a man with four wives and the father to twenty-eight children. Unfortunately, he is also having the mother of all midlife crises. First off, his construction business failing, and then adding on that his family has grown into an overpopulated kingdom, one that is coming apart at the seams, with sibling rivalry haunting every corner and with the faint air of insurrection ready to boil over like a volcano, Golden still feels the loss of two of his children, the accidental death of a daughter and the stillbirth of a son. And he has begun to feel the doubt of his heart. So when he takes a construction job 200 miles from home (building a brothel none the less) to figure out just what he should do, Golden finds redemption of sorts with the common law wife of the man who hired him.

Author Udall, himself from a large Mormon family in Arizona, does not seem to have a real opinion on polygamy itself, though through 11 year-old Rusty, the “family terrorist” and the only child given individual thought, he paints a vivid picture of what polygamy does to the children. Through Rusty’s interior monologue, we learn how painful this life can be on a child who can’t fully understand why he can never be the center of attention, even on his “special day,” his birthday.

The novel is often outright funny, and reminded me much of John Irving –which, as I read up on Udall, he is often compared too – with the goofy, often off center hero, wrapped up in events beyond his control. Still, Golden is aware of his faults, but appears either unwilling or (probably) incapable of solving his problems, because in the end, he was never taught how to solve them.

The book is a rare gem and I highly recommend it.

07 August 2011

Books: The Brothers Sisters by Patrick de Witt (2011)

For generations, the Western genre has been portrayed in pretty much the same way, with its black hats and white hats, the sense of right and wrong and glory of the hero ending the reign of terror of some evil man. It was predictable, safe and (from the Hollywood point of view) extremely successful. But while there has always been a sort of casual violence to the genre, it never was portrayed as brutal –well, with the exception of Sam Pekinpah films maybe.

These books, films and TV shows never examined the heart of where the violence of these men came from. Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Oscar winning film Unforgiven attempted to look at the moral ambiguities the genre presented, and tried to paint it in a more realistic life.

In the novel The Brothers Sisters, we meet Eli and Charlie Sisters, infamous assassins who are sent on an errand to kill one Hermann Kermit Warm, an ingenious (and, as it turns out, extremely likable) man, who is accused of stealing from their boss, a fearsome figure named the Commodore.

Yet, as they set out, we understand that younger brother Eli (and narrator of the book) has grown weary of the killing, and wants to settle down (and seems to be developing a puppy-love to almost any women that crosses his path from Oregon City to San Francisco), while Charlie seems indifferent on the whole subject. Their conversations are, in the end, mundane and often hilarious. Sure there is plenty of Western tropes –saloons, prostitutes, sneak attacks and gun play - but de Witt shows these only to be small aspects of the Sisters lives, because the story is filled with petty squabbles, misunderstandings and a lot of hangovers.

Through the eyes and voice of Eli, we see what a reluctant murderer he is, and how truly different (yet the same) he is from his older brother. He sees violence begets violence, but is unsure, or incapable, of changing the course of his life. There is a generous man buried under Eli’s rage, one who is kind to women and animals –his devotion to his injured horse sparks a retort from Charlie, who calls his brother “The Protector of Moronic Beasts.”

The Sisters Brothers is often funny, dark and lyrical, especially when the novel seamlessly moves from causal murder to thoughtful opinions. It’s not so much a commentary on the Western genre that say Unforgiven was, but like that iconic movie, we see that while the Sisters brothers are assassins, are at times unlikable, they’re always more evil men than them stalking the old west.

03 August 2011

Books: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde (2007)

According to what I read, author Jasper Fforde finished his first series involving Literary Detective Thursday Next with the fourth title, Something Rotten. Now, with First Among Sequels, he begins another four volume series. And in there, lays a problem, insomuch as this one is a sort of sequel to the previous four volumes, and its plot wanders around like a drunk trying to cross a busy street while trying to pretend he’s not drunk.

The series jumps 14 years from the last, and is still set in an alternate universe of 2002. After the events of Something Rotten, the Special Operations Network has been disbanded. But you can’t keep a good detective down, and using Swindon’s Acme Carpets as a front, Thursday and her colleagues Bowden, Stig and Spike continue their same professions, only illegally. But Acme is a front for a front, as Thursday is still working for Jurisfiction and is now grappling with a new apprentice; as well as an inter-genre war is brewing and her sixteen-year-old emo son , Friday, who rather sleep than save the world from the dreaded End of Time.

There are a lot of subplots that go nowhere, and we revisit many areas of the World Building that Fforde created for the first book, which I found distracting. Fforde, though, puts to rest the whole time travel aspect of the series, as he noted that he found it interfering with his plot. Still, as always, Fforde gives us plenty of puns, more literary references to shake a stick at and takes a swipe at reality TV series, which I fond inspired (Pride and Prejudice now becomes The Bennets, with the five sisters doing inane things to hopefully not be voted out). There is also plenty of social commentary within the government of the Thursday Next universe - a dangerously high stupidity surplus, as he puts it – that could be any democratically elected government.

And since this is the first volume of four, Fforde leaves its readers with a major cliffhanger. While this was released in 2007, the next book was promised for 2009. One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, however, would not be released until spring of this year. Major bummer for the fans in 2007, but since this is 2011, it will only be a few weeks (as I'm waiting for the price to drop during our Borders liquidation).