27 February 2013

Books: Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold (2001)

Back in 2001, when Carter Beats the Devil came out, I had an Advanced Readers Copy of it. I like history books and I like writers who set novels around real-life historical figures (like Caleb Carr’s The Alienst –a masterful work of whodunit and real-life history).

But, as it happens to many long-time readers, other things take its place; such as happened with this book. Somehow, also, over the years, I lost my ARC of this book; either gave it way or threw it out. But a few weeks ago, I came across it at Iliad’s in NOHO and for $5, I bought it. 

Carter Beats the Devil begins in 1923, and is set within the world of vaudeville magic. There we meet Charles Carter, a well-known magician from a wealthy family of San Francisco eccentrics, who the secret service thinks may have just assassinated the 29th president of the United States, Warren G. Harding. One agent, Jack Griffin, a retirement-age Secret Service agent despised by his younger colleagues (who also happened to be near President McKinley when he was shot by assassins in 1901), is on the case thinks that the president’s backstage visit with the magician, and his subsequent eagerness to participate in a hair-raising stunt, proves that Carter holds a clue to the unexplained death of Harding  a few hours later in a San Francisco hotel room. But Carter, still recovering from the violent demise of his young wife in a magic trick gone wrong some years earlier, simply refuses to tell anyone what the unhappy chief executive revealed to him in his last moments. Instead, the magician eludes authorities and sets sail on a cruise ship to Athens, only to reappear in San Francisco a few days later.

From there, the novel explores the origins of Charles Carter’s love of magic before returning to the present –perused by Griffin. Also thrown arduously in is Philo Farnsworth, the man who invented television and his desire to secure funding for his invention, along with Harry Houdini and cast of wild characters.

The book is also a fictionalized tale of the real magician, Charles J. Carter (1874-1936) along with the after mentioned host of real historical figures.  Those who stay with this tome, it is a bit long, will be rewarded with a genuine tale filled with mystery and historical references that evoke the excesses and exuberance of Roaring Twenties. Carter Beats the Devil is a complex story of one man's journey through a magical -- and sometimes dangerous -- world, where illusion is everything.

17 February 2013

Books: Until I Find You by John Irving (2006)

Too much happens in this over-long, at times extremely boring novel. 

It begins, however, in 1969 when Jack Burns mother, Alice a well-known tattoo artist, drags him through half of Europe for a year in search of his father, William Burns. Jack’s dad, it appears, is a runaway father, who is also a church organist and an “ink addict.” After losing the trail, they return to Toronto where Alice enrolls Jack into St. Hilda, an all-girls school. It is here, Alice assumes, Jack is safe from becoming his womanizing father his mother insists his dad is. But at St. Hilda, Jack becomes the victim of a boat-load of remarkable sexual molestation at the hands of older women. That he grows up to be an Oscar winning actor and screenwriter (taking home Irving's own 2000 Oscar) is amazing. Eventually, the novel comes full circle as the now somewhat troubled man retraces the steps of his 4 year-old self and returns to Europe to meet a half-sister and a father who –despite the narrative of his mother- very much wanted to be in his life. 

Oddly, this novel is perhaps Irving’s most autobiographical work –something he’s denied for decades that all his books represent some sort of written therapy.

Unlike author Stephen King, who I’ve been reading steadily for 30 years, my affair with the works of John Irving is rather recent –it began somewhere early in the 2000’s when I read one of his most popular novels, A Prayer for Owen Meany. Since then I’ve read The Hotel New Hampshire, The World According to Garp, Cider House Rules, Last Night in Twisted River and Widow for One Year –though like Son of the Circus (which I started) I don’t think I actually finished Widow. Still, I’m bound and determined now to read all his books.

I knew Until I Find You was not one his most praised books, but I did little research into why. If I had been a regular reader of Irving, I might have been disappointed with it, and then moved on to his next book. And if this was my first Irving, I probably never want to read another one of his books. The fact that I’m reading his books out of order –and in a more compressed time- I can forgive him for this self-indulgent, over bloated novel (at 820 pages, it's about 400 pages too long) that is filled with unappealing characters –all of them women. And while I don't claim to be a prude, even I got a bit leery with the almost soft-porn aspect of the book. And the almost acceptance from the women that it was okay to sexually abuse Jack -and it doesn't help that the psychiatrist character explains that most women who abuse, do it more so out of love the child is not getting from the parent than any real sexual release. I don't buy that, and I'm curious if this is true, or just an excuse to present the abuse as being somewhat acceptable -which, of course, is the hallmark of an Irving book. His goal, it seems, is to make this deviant aspect -the abuse- as normal as breathing. He wants us, the reader, to react in revulsion. But at least in Until I Find You, it's more creepy than usual.

Long-time readers with recognize many of his recurring themes, but as I noted, this book does represent an aspect of Irving the writer's real life -he introduces two personal elements in Until I Find You, issues he’s never discussed publicly: his sexual abuse at age 11 by an older woman, and the recent entrance in his life of his biological father's family. So in many ways, Jack Burns in this novel is John Irving. Not sure how that will affect me when I read his other work, especially his first three novels –all which are in my future.

02 February 2013

Books: Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich (2011)

Seymour Herson is a Jewish boy looking back at the past five years of school, in which he formed an unholy alliance with Elliot Allagash. The latter is a Machiavellian scion of a family that made money by accidentally inventing paper. Seymour attends Glendale (an alternate form of Dalton, which author Rich attended) and, until he befriends Allagash, has no redeeming characteristics, in fact few characteristics at all, save for ubiquitous victimhood. Allagash takes it as a challenge to make this nobody the biggest somebody at the school. 

And his machinations are devious and successful. 

While the Pygmalion plot relies on set-pieces and both Seymour and Elliot are, at times, little more than caricature, the subversive humor and offbeat tone makes the book work. But its Rich –some who might call a comic prodigy who published his first book at 23 (Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations, then a year later released Free Range Chickens) - himself that proves interesting. While Elliot Allagash is his first novel, it’s strikingly well done for such a young man (who also writes for SNL) and I look forward to reading his second novel, What in God’s Name.