Adventures in Dementia

sleeeping-while-drinking-coffee

Once again, time and workload and life and laziness conspired against me.  While my personal interest in writing these reviews has never entirely abandoned me, the end of April and all of May and – okay – early June saw me besieged by end-of-the-semester grading, pre-Writing Project Summer Institute planning (and the start of that institute last week), and a general malaise that always strikes in the lull between semesters.  So: lots of reading, little writing.  Here’s another of my by now patented omnibus reviews, where I reduce hundreds of pages of prose to one- or two-sentence critiques.

Before I do that, though, it’s worth mentioning that it’s now been nine months since I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In that time I’ve read 70 books, which leaves me with roughly 90 to go.  At the six-month point I predicted I’d be finished around June 2016.  I’m still on target to meet that, assuming I don’t get further bogged down in Clive Barker’s tedious Coldheart Canyon (but more on that in a day or two).

Ian Rankin – Set in Darkness. The 11th John Rebus book, this one is set during the founding of the new Scottish parliament and centers on the confluence of three seemingly unrelated events: the discovery of a body in a walled-up fireplace, a homeless man’s suicide, and the murder of a promising young politician.  Typically gritty and awesome.

Jonathan Maberry – Bad Moon Rising. The best of a mediocre trilogy, this conclusion to the saga of an ancient evil residing in a Pennsylvania town isn’t great, but it is the first indication of how good Maberry would become with his subsequent Joe Ledger series.

David Peace – Nineteen-Eighty-ThreeA typically pitch-black conclusion to Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, this book sees a resolution to the Yorkshire Ripper case, told in bravura fashion from three different narrators.  Not for the faint of heart.

Elmore Leonard – Glitz. One of my favorite Leonard novels, it’s got all his usual tropes: dumb tough guys, smart ladies, dialogue that crackles, and a flawed protagonist that can’t get out of his own way.  Breezy and fun.

Ian Rankin – The Falls. More of a straightforward mystery than we’re used to from Rankin, the 12th John Rebus book has the curmudgeonly detective investigating a series of murders with connections to Scottish history.

Will Self – Cock and Bull. Frequent readers of Self’s work will know what to expect.  This pair of novellas is ballsy (literally), telling, first, the story of a woman who spontaneously grows a penis, and later, the story of a rugby player who grows a vagina behind his knee.

Jonathan Tropper – How to Talk to a Widower. I love Tropper, but I can see now how his schtick has grown thin.  It’s not a bad book, but after six tales of aimless thirtysomething dudes who can’t get their shit together, it’s like, I get it.

Elmore Leonard – Pronto. The first (I think) of Leonard’s novels to feature U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, this one started strong, staggered in the middle (as the characters improbably head to an Italian villa), and finished with some of Leonard’s characteristically sly violence.

Irvine Welsh – The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. The most bizarre of Welsh’s books (which is saying something), this high-spirited riff on Oscar Wilde somehow manages to combine the grime of Trainspotting with the central conceit of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Sherman Alexie – Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories. A predictably powerful collection of short stories that should be required reading for everyone.

Ian Rankin – Resurrection Men. Rather than decline into staleness, the 13th of Rankin’s John Rebus mysteries switches things up by transporting Rebus to Scotland’s police training college and embroiling him in a mystery featuring dirty cops and duplicitous gangsters.

Current listening:

Teardrop kilimanjaro

The Teardrop Explodes – Kilimanjaro (1980)

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Something Like a Storm

Ian deadAs a high school teacher, there were many times a student’s behavior would become crystal clear after meeting his parents.  I’d run into problems with work ethic or attitude or whatever, and I’d think, “What’s the deal with this kid?”  Then I’d meet Mom and/or Dad in a parent conference and immediately realize, “Oh, of course that’s why he [fill in the blank].”  It would be some sort of weird mirror image, where son’s classroom surliness was reflected in dad’s obvious displeasure at coming to school for a meeting.

Even so, I never felt this was a question of genetics as much as it was learned behavior.  The nature vs. nurture question has always felt sort of beside the point.  I mean, it’s obvious to me that while some personality traits are clearly handed down from parent to child (case in point, I have my dad’s social awkwardness and my mom’s passive-aggressiveness – a winning combo!), much of the way we act day-to-day has everything to do with the way we were taught – explicitly or implicitly, by parents and other sources – to make our way in the world.  I was taught by my parents to be civil and to err on the side of kindness, and  those are two lessons that have served me well.  As I grew older, I was able to extrapolate that into an understanding that I should appreciate diversity, keep an open mind, and, above all else, try to remember that not everyone sees the world the way I do.  I don’t think I won any kind of genetic lottery; I just know my parents and the way they tried to raise my brother and me.

Some people aren’t so lucky.  In one of my other blog experiments, I wrote a review of Werner Herzog’s death penalty documentary, Into the Abyss.  It’s an important movie for lots of reasons, but in this review I staked out why I’m against the death penalty, across the board.  The biggest reason is this: Even though I absolutely believe we have free will and are wholly responsible for the decisions we make, some people are less capable of making informed decisions thanks to damage that occurred to them in their youth.  At some point it feels like we have to admit that some people’s capacity to make the right decision has been fundamentally weakened by forces out of their control.  Childhood abuse and neglect.  Parents whose own moral compasses are completely out of whack.  Homelessness.  Drug and alcohol abuse.  Kids whose parents are just straight-up garden-variety assholes.  Can we really hold everyone to the same standard of decision-making?

Ian Rankin explores this issue for the first time in the tenth book starring Detective Inspector John Rebus. As with most of the books in this series, Dead Souls focuses on two cases that initially seem unrelated but which eventually intertwine in ways that are compelling and inevitable, and in this case both of them touch on the question of how much a criminal’s past is to blame for his present.  The more obvious example is Darren Rough, a convicted pedophile (who himself was a victim of sexual abuse as a child living in an orphanage) who served his jail sentence and has now been set free.  When Rebus discovers that Rough has been assigned an apartment with a view of a children’s playground, he “outs” Rough to the other tenants with disastrous consequences.

The other case – the focal point of the novel – involves Cary Oakes, a serial killer born in Scotland, imprisoned in the States, and released to his native country on a technicality.  In the course of Rebus’ investigation – what does Oakes have planned now that he’s back in Scotland? – the detective learns how the killer’s sense of morality may have been warped beyond repair by external factors over which he had no control.

Rankin being Rankin, there are a panoply of other features with which Rebus has to contend: a third case involving the missing adult son of two of Rebus’ childhood friends; a fling with an old high school flame; thinly-veiled criticism of the 1% (fifteen years before it was popular); the fallout from his daughter’s near-death experience in the previous book; the responsibility of the media not to turn killers into celebrities; and so on.  It’s a little busy.  But somehow Rankin keeps all the plates spinning, even while he attempts to explore larger issues of morality.

It feels a little overdue for Rebus to suddenly stumble across the realization that – hey! – maybe people’s lousy childhoods have an irrevocable effect on their adult lives.  But when the results are this good, better late, as they say, than never.

*****

Current listening:

David end

David Kilgour and The Heavy 8’s – End Times Undone (2014)

View from a Shaky Ladder

BookshelfSix months ago I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In early September I realized I had accumulated 150+ books on my “to read” shelves.  A lot of them were fairly recent acquisitions, but some of them had been sitting there for years, following me from Santa Barbara to Atlanta six years ago and not getting any closer to being read.  The larger problem was that I was still buying books so frequently that the situation would only ever get worse, even if I increased my reading pace.  So, in the tradition of the desperate addict, I decided to go cold turkey.  No more buying books until I completely cleared the shelves, and, in the process, this blog was transformed from solipsistic musings on pop culture and politics to solipsistic book reviews.

Six months later, I’ve read 48 books and made a decent amount of headway, especially if you compare the picture here with the photos at the link at the top.  I wish I could report that my attitude toward book consumption has undergone a sea change, that I’ve realized I don’t need to buy books as frequently to satisfy my literary jones, but I’d be lying if I claimed my eye wasn’t so firmly on the prize because I’m so keenly aware of how much good stuff I’m missing out on.  You have no idea, for instance, how much it pains me to know that this project has prevented me from reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.  But I’m fully committed to seeing it through to its conclusion.

And it is fun.  Of course it is.  I’m reacquainting myself with a few authors I hadn’t read in a while and introducing myself to some new voices, and my extended chronological exposure to both Elmore Leonard and Ian Rankin has been one of the project’s true pleasures.  So, 48 books in, what’s made an impression?  Here’s the scorecard for the first six months.

Favorite Book(s): I’ve read a lot of good stuff, but nothing has made quite as much of an impact as the very first book I read back in September.  J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. is sort of ingenious, an experiment in multiple voices told in the form of marginalia recorded between two readers in a library book.  David Peace’s bleak and brilliant 1980 is another high point, and both Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89 and Ian Rankin’s The Hanging Garden stand as my favorite of the several books of theirs I’ve read so far.

Least Favorite Book(s): It’ll take a lot to top Andy Weir’s The Martian, which I found tedious in a variety of ways: the artificially chipper voice of its narrator, the superfluous scientific tangents, the rice-paper-thin supporting characters, the Crisis-of-the-Day contortions of its plot.  Jonathan Maberry, whose Joe Ledger series I adore, struck out with Dead Man’s Song, the second book in his Pine Deep Trilogy.  Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions is a failed experiment that never rewards the effort it takes to read it.  But at least I remember all three of these, which is more than I can say for Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist.  Goodreads tells me I read it, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a thing about it.

Biggest Surprise, Positive: I’ve never been a science-fiction guy, so Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is the most unexpectedly pleasurable thing I read.  Shades of Philip K. Dick and James Ellroy in a story about an android seeking her freedom.

Biggest Surprise, Negative: David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice is an uncharacteristically  mean-spirited collection of sketches.  The author’s typically affectionate tone is missing, replaced with misanthropy and cruelty.  I don’t mind a little misanthropy and cruelty, but it suits Sedaris like a sweater that’s too tight through the shoulders.

A Book Everyone Loves That I Had Problems With: I took a break from writing reviews for a while, and I wish I’d written one about John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  I completely understand why this book is a juggernaut in the world of spy fiction.  It’s a labyrinthine tale of Cold War intrigue, full of well-drawn characters working at cross-purposes with a variety of motivations.  It’s a classic.  Totally.  But after a while it got to be too much work – a case (for me, at least) of diminishing returns as I just waited around patiently for le Carré to tie up all the loose ends.

A Book I Loved that I Don’t Think Everyone Else Will Love but I Think Is Worth Reading Anyway: I was sort of blown away by Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.  A mystery without resolution, a curdled romance, and a rumination on the effects of war, it’s a book that invites argument.  The fact that O’Brien tells it in stark, spare prose makes it all the more haunting.  It isn’t for everyone – especially for readers who need a satisfying, definitive conclusion – but anyone who appreciates ambiguity as much as I do will find a lot to love.  And, even though I still have a hundred pages to go, I can say with some certainty that Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin is a powerhouse of a book that dares you to love it.  That review will be coming along in a day or two.

So: six months and 48 books down.  I should have cleared all my shelves in a little over a year and a half from the start date.  Call it June 2016.  Place your bets now.

*****

Current listening:

Fall this

The Fall – This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)

The Dying of the Light

Rankin hangingI never saw it coming, but somehow mystery became my genre of choice.  I read very little horror or fantasy anymore and, as I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve only dabbled minimally in science-fiction.  I’ve never read a western I liked – unless we’re going to count Cormac McCarthy as a writer of westerns, in which case, okay, I like him – and I suppose most of my reading fits into that very nebulous non-genre of literary fiction.  You know: T.C. Boyle, Russell Banks, Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby, Chuck Palahniuk, Jennifer Egan, and so on.  But starting in the late 90s with John Sandford’s Prey series and James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, I slowly started to gravitate to more and more mystery fiction.  This was cemented when my wife hooked me on Mo Hayder’s Jack Caffrey novels (starting with the masterful Birdman, a book you should read immediately) and, more recently still, when I picked up Knots and Crosses, the first of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus books.  Now, even though I’m still fairly picky (no John Patterson or Sue Grafton, thankyouverymuch), rumor of newish high-quality mysteries will make my ears perk up.

Even though I enjoy reading them, I don’t think I have the mental dexterity to write one of my own.  The trick, which Ian Rankin so ably demonstrates in The Hanging Garden (his ninth Inspector Rebus title, with ten to go), is to set as many disparate pieces on the field as possible and then make them collide in satisfying ways.  In The Hanging Garden, Rankin somehow manages to bring together an Eastern European prostitution ring, a reputed Nazi war criminal, the Yakuza, the Rat Line (a rumored post-WWII pipeline by which the Vatican and the Allies smuggled high-ranking Nazi figures to the West), and drug smuggling in a way that’s sort of breathtaking in its intricacy.  It never seems forced, and, most importantly, even though we see the pieces and know they’re going to come together eventually, Rankin makes it seem both logical and inevitable instead of manipulative.

The thing that continues to set Rankin’s series apart from the rest of the pack, though, is its main character.  Unlike a lot of detective fiction, Detective Inspector John Rebus isn’t an action hero.  He’s a rumpled, cynical, recovering alcoholic who’s obsessive about his job and music from the 60s, in that order.  He’s got a deadpan sense of humor and he isn’t especially likable, but his tenacity makes him a formidable opponent (he likens himself in one book to a terrier who doesn’t know when to let go of the bone).  And even though he constantly treads the line between right and wrong in the course of solving a case, he doesn’t fall into the tired stereotype of the brash cop who proudly breaks all the rules.  Rebus just does what he does and doesn’t make much of an attempt to rationalize it.  He isn’t wracked with guilt, but he doesn’t flaunt his rule-breaking.  He is, at heart, a pragmatist.

In The Hanging Garden, one way this pragmatism manifests itself is through Rebus’ relationship with Gerald Cafferty, an Edinburgh-based mob boss he was responsible for capturing and imprisoning several books ago.  When Rebus’ daughter is hospitalized in a hit-and-run that appears to be a warning sign to Rebus as part of an escalating mob turf war, the detective turns to Cafferty to find out who was responsible for his daughter’s injuries.  In my experience, every good mystery has one or two moments that make your heart race.  The prison exchange between Rebus and Cafferty is one of those moments.

‘My daughter got hurt.  Funny that, so soon after we’d had our little chat.’

‘Hurt how?’

‘Hit and run.’

Cafferty was thoughtful. ‘I don’t pick on civilians.’

‘Convince me,’ Rebus said.

‘Why should I bother?’

‘The conversation we had … What you asked me to do.’

‘There’s something you’ve forgotten.  I lost a son, remember.  Think I could do that to another father?  I’d do a lot of things, Rebus, but not that, never that.’

Rebus held the stare. ‘All right,’ he said.

‘You want me to find out who did it?’

Rebus nodded slowly.

‘That’s your price?’

‘I want them delivered to me.  I want you to do that, whatever it takes.

‘And meantime, you’re my man?’

Rebus stared at him. ‘I’m your man,’ he said.

Some of my excitement at this passage comes from the men’s accumulated history, at knowing exactly just how much water has passed beneath that particular bridge.  But it’s also the scene’s economy and brevity, how so much is said with so little, and what exists between the lines.  In Rebus’ world, there’s often a gray area between good and bad, where cops break the rules and the gangsters operate under a strict moral code.

The problem of reviewing a mystery is saying enough to entice without spoiling the fun.  And make no mistake: Rankin’s books are immeasurably fun.  The cast of supporting characters is rich and deep, the stakes are high, and the book’s moral center is delightfully ambiguous.  In my previous review of one of his books I said Ian Rankin was the best mystery writer currently working.  The Hanging Garden will be tough to top.

Side note:

Music fans will likely recognize the book’s title (and the lyrics scattered throughout) as belonging to a song of the same name by The Cure.  The title doesn’t have much to do with the story, except that in keeping with the prevailing mood of early-80s Cure, The Hanging Garden is easily Rankin’s bleakest book to date.

*****

Current listening:

Echodrone five

Echodrone – Five (2015)

Waiting Around for Grace

sleepy-guy-300x199261What can I say?  I got lazy.  Again.  The thought of cranking out 1,000 words every few days got to be too much for my TV- and video game-loving ass to handle,  and that’s the only excuse I have for the gap in posts between mid-December and mid-February.  I wish I could say I was doing something important – writing a book, traveling the world, solving crimes with a plucky sidekick – but I was probably watching movies and playing Far Cry 4.

And reading.  Loyal followers of this blog will notice I’ve started posting full book reviews again.  As usual, the primary motivator for this was guilt.  I’m asking my students to write and post reviews of what they’re reading this semester, so it seems just a wee bit hypocritical for me not to do the same.  Walking the walk, etc.  And even though I haven’t been posting formal reviews, the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project is still in full swing.  So, in keeping with precedent, here’s a bunch of one-sentence reviews of all the books I read in the lost months of early 2015.

Sherman Alexie – The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. A gritty and unforgiving short story collection set in the one corner of the United States we rarely see: a Native American Indian reservation.

Ian Rankin – The Black Book. Rankin’s Inspector Rebus digs into Edinburgh’s history of organized crime to solve a murder in the fifth compelling book in the long-running series.

Russell Banks – Trailerpark. Banks is one of my favorite authors, but this loosely-connected collection of short stories set in the titular mobile home park is an entertaining but ultimately minor work.

Michael Chabon – The Final Solution. Simultaneously clever and slight, it’s unabashed genre fiction (starring a never-explicitly-identified Sherlock Holmes) from one of America’s greatest writers.

Elmore Leonard – 52 Pick Up. One of Elmore Leonard’s first crime novels is also his best – hard-boiled tough-guy deliciousness.

Don DeLillo – The Body Artist. DeLillo wrote one of my favorite books (White Noise), but two months after reading The Body Artist, I don’t remember a single, solitary thing about it, which probably tells you all you need to know.

Jennifer Egan – The Invisible Circus. Egan’s first novel is a stunning, melancholy tour de force about the perils of delving too deeply into family history.

Ian Rankin – Mortal Causes. Rankin broadens his scope in this sixth Inspector Rebus book to take in the connection between Scotland and the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Joshua Ferris – Then We Came to the End. A laugh-out-loud condemnation of modern office life, Ferris’ book is Grade-A satire.

Alex Grecian – The Yard. Depicting the birth of Scotland Yard, Grecian’s first book in this series is  a brutal murder mystery that promises great things to come.

Elmore Leonard – Mr. Majestyk. More modern noir from the master of the crime novel, it’s a testament to the badass who refuses to take shit from anyone.

Matt Haig – The Humans. An outer-space alien takes over a professor’s body to protect an intergalactic secret and in the process learns schmaltzy lessons about What it Means to be Human. ™

John Irving – A Widow for One Year.  I love Irving but struggled with this one, an epic-length treatise about family, obsession, and the writing life that takes a long time to go nowhere special.

Ian Rankin – Let it Bleed. After taking on the Troubles, Rankin investigates the corridors of power in the twisty-turny  seventh Inspector Rebus book.

Stephen King – Blaze. An early Stephen King novel (writing as Richard Bachman) that really should have stayed lost.

John Le Carré – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s a brilliant spy novel – totally, unequivocally, unquestionably – but holy cow was I bored.

Elmore Leonard – Swag. The funniest of Leonard’s early-career crime novels, it sets the template for all of his subsequent novels that revolve around dim-witted tough guys.

*****

Current listening:

Cure kiss

The Cure – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)

Navigating the Void

Ian blackI’m going to begin my review of Ian Rankin’s masterful Black and Blue by doing something I’ve tried to refrain from doing lately: bitching about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  For the uninitiated – in other words, readers of my reviews who don’t know what I’m up to in my life off the computer – my problems with the CCSS aren’t some Glenn Beckian, “Obama’s a secret Muslim so let’s cancel AP US History” goofabout.  Nope: my problems with it are manifold, very real, and based in the twenty years I’ve spent in the classroom as, first, a high school English teacher and, currently, a teacher educator.  I’m not going to bore you to tears by illustrating all of them here, but what I am going to do is touch on how Rankin’s Rebus mystery series, and this book in particular, do a bang-up job of putting the lie to a couple of the CCSS’ central tenets.

This is the eighth novel to feature Detective Inspector John Rebus and the fourth one I’ve read since I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project, but this is actually the first time I’ve written one of these lengthy reviews on one of them.  So, to catch you up before I plunge headfirst into the CCSS mire, D.I. Rebus is a rumpled alcoholic loner who’s largely been a failure in his personal life because of his tendency to obsess over the cases he’s assigned.  The series takes place in and around Edinburgh, Scotland, and, rather than emulate the largely dopey tendency of American mystery series to feature a killer of the week in each book (see Sandford, Patterson, Deaver, et. al.), Rankin’s series is deeply Scottish and is concerned more centrally with mysteries that plumb the depths of British identity.  Rankin is, for my money, the best mystery writer working today (even better than my beloved Mo Hayder).

What does any of this have to do with the CCSS?  Two things, which I’ll take in turn – and I promise I’ll be talking about Black and Blue soon.

David Coleman, the architect of the English Language Arts standards and self-acknowledged unqualified non-teacher, is on record as believing students shouldn’t be encouraged to bring their prior knowledge to bear on a text, focusing instead only on what they can learn from “the four corners of the page.”  The most asinine example of this is his series of lessons on teaching the Gettysburg Address, which he believes should be done without sharing the cultural and historical context surrounding the delivery of Lincoln’s most famous speech.  At this point I invite you to think of a time when you haven’t  brought your prior knowledge and experience with you when you read.  Is it even possible?  When I read I’m constantly holding the text up against what I already know about the world, drawing on that prior knowledge as a way of illuminating the story (or essay or article or whatever).  It seems even more important for younger, less confident readers to see this as a viable strategy.  If nothing else, it lets them know what gaps in their understanding they need to fill.  If they’re not engaging in this sort of metacognitive thought, it’s unlikely they’ll get what they need from whatever it is they’re reading.

Which brings me back to Ian Rankin.  His Rebus series is not especially well-known in the States.  You can find a smattering of his stuff at your local Barnes & Noble, but he’s not exactly a name up there in recognition with John Patterson (which I’d argue isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but that’s an essay for another time).  I chalk up a lot of this anonymity to a lack of cultural knowledge.  As I mentioned earlier, Rankin’s series is inextricably linked to its Scottish setting and characters, and he doesn’t really hold the reader’s hand.  If you pick up one of his books and don’t have at least a passing familiarity with Scotland, British government, the geography and economy of the U.K., Scots slang, etc., etc., you’re going to have a tough go of it.  In other words, if you don’t have the requisite prior knowledge to draw on, the four corners of the page aren’t going to do much to help you out.  Because I’m an unrepentant (and nerdy – oh so nerdy) Anglophile, I’ve got a decent understanding of what I need to make sense of the story, and part of the fun of it (for me, at least) is putting that understanding into play.  It’s crucial to my enjoyment of the series, just as I’m sure the prior knowledge you bring to your favorite genres is crucial to your own.  But David Coleman says it’s not important.  And in that he’s dead wrong.

The second way Black and Blue has some important things to tell us about the deficiencies of the CCSS deals with the way the standards enforce faulty distinctions in text types.  In the great middle school dance that is the CCSS, “informational texts” are the 7th grade boys huddled on one side of the gymnasium and “literary texts” are the girls arrayed on the other side.  If we’re to believe the CCSS, these two groups never touch and never dance – they’re kept artificially apart, probably by David Coleman and a yardstick.  The implication in the standards is that we read literary texts for enjoyment (and also for evisceration, as we examine them for all manner of things adored by teachers and hated by students) and informational texts to learn things.  While I wholeheartedly agree that we should resist the urge to overemphasize efferent readings of texts meant to be read aesthetically, the notion that we don’t learn anything from literary texts is laughable.

Black and Blue illustrates this perfectly.  At the start of the eighth book in the series, Rebus has been drummed out of his previous post because he annoyed the wrong people in Book 7.  Now he’s officially trying to figure out who killed an oil refinery worker and unofficially trying to solve a series of murders that look remarkably like the work of Bible John, a killer operating in the late 1960s.  At the same time, Rebus himself becomes the focus of an internal affairs investigation, thanks to some question marks that exist from a case he and his mentor solved early in his career.  As with all of Rankin’s previous books, it’s intense, nail-biting stuff, twisty-turny and darkly funny.  By this point Rebus practically leaps off the page, a flawed cop who seems all too real, and it’s to Rankin’s credit that he paints both the murder investigations and the internal affairs chess match with the same intensity.  But here’s the thing: Even while I found myself dragged into Rebus’ struggles with alcohol and authority and enjoying Rankin’s way with hard-boiled dialogue, I learned at least three things:

Bible John was a real killer, operating in Glasgow in 1969.  He murdered three women before dropping completely off the radar.

Aberdeen, Scotland became known as the “Oil Capital of Europe” in the mid-1970s, and refineries in the North Sea are still active.

The Shetland Islands have more in common with Scandinavia than with Scotland.  They’re also really windy.

The above bullets are just snapshots of the first three things that came to mind, and there’s more I picked up about each of them than I cared to include here (especially about the lives of workers on oil rigs).  But all of them illustrate the fallacy of keeping informational and literary texts at arm’s length.  We can learn things about the world from novels and short stories and poetry (I know more about 19th Century sailing vessels than I ever wanted to know, thanks to Dan Simmons’ horror novel, The Terror), and we can appreciate the grace and craft of well-written nonfiction (see the beginning of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring for a prime example).

And this is maybe the perfect encapsulation of my problems with the CCSS: they’re too limiting.  They enforce artificial boxes that reduce the study of English Language Arts to categories and formulas and easily assessed terminology.  Rather than help students see the intricate web of relationships that bind history and literature and culture and film and the sciences and art, we compartmentalize all of it and warn students that we should never mix the contents of these boxes we’ve created for them.  It’s a mistake that nevertheless reinforces the questionable CCSS promise of “College and Career Readiness.”  Existing in the world goes beyond just being college and career ready; it’s learning how to navigate the very real complexities that connect each minute of the day to the text.

And, oh yeah– Black and Blue gets 4 out of 5 stars.

*****

Current listening:

R.E.M._-_Automatic_for_the_People

R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (1992)

No Medicine for Regret

lazy

I got lazy.

How else to explain the sudden absence of book reviews after dutifully posting 1,000ish words for the first twelve titles that comprise the beginning of the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project?

Long story short: I’m reading too fast to comfortably devote the time to writing.

The project, however, is ongoing.  For the curious, here are the books I’ve read in the last month, accompanied by a one-sentence review, because I’m all about customer service.

Jonathan Maberry – Ghost Road Blues. The first book in a trilogy, it’s the sound of one of my favorite horror writers still finding his voice.

David Nicholls  – One Day. Forget what you’ve heard about the movie, this book reduced me to tears in the middle of a hotel bar in Alexandria, VA.

Tim O’Brien  – In the Lake of the Woods. Lyrical and perplexing, it’s a mystery without resolution, which still ended up being completely satisfying.

Chuck Palahniuk – Tell-All.  To tolerate Palahniuk you have to buy into each book’s gimmick, which I just couldn’t do with this underwhelming quasi-screenplay.

Ian Rankin  – Strip Jack.  Another dazzling mystery based in the everyday lives of its Scottish characters, featuring John Rebus, the intriguingly rumpled sleuth.

David Sedaris – Holidays on Ice. Thoroughly disappointing and unexpectedly, frustratingly mean-spirited.

Jonathan Tropper – The Book of Joe. Another winner about a shaggy-dog thirtysomething protagonist coming to terms with his past.

Kurt Vonnegut – Palm Sunday.  It’s Vonnegut, which means it’s worth reading, but there’s no doubt that this pseudo-autobiography comprised of previously published nonfiction is a minor effort.

Elmore Leonard – The Big Bounce. Leonard’s first crime novel is sharp in all the right ways, and features the template of clueless men and whip-smart women that he’d use and use again in future books.

Teddy Wayne – The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. After an extremely shaky beginning, this book about a Bieber-esque child singer coming to terms with the adults in his life grew on me.

And that brings me up to date.  Full reviews may return if I can find the time and the motivation, or I may just check in periodically with brief recaps like this one.

*****

Current listening:

Archers all

Archers of Loaf – All the Nations Airports (1996)