Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thriller Time! On Child 44 and The Fifth Gospel

Plane trips are great for reading thrillers — and I rolled through two great ones in the last few weeks.

Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith, is about a series of child murders in 1953 Soviet Union. Our protagonist is the conflicted Leo Demidov. At the start of the novel, Demidov is a lackey of the State — he tracks down denounced "criminals" and interrogates them. That is, until a particular case gives him an attack of conscience — and circumstances beyond his control (a lecherous doctor, an ambitious subordinate) combine to cause him and his wife to lose their positions of prominence. 

Demidov is shipped off to a small town in the middle of nowhere, where he soon discovers a pattern of killings that match a murder in Moscow right before he was shipped out (and which he denied was a murder, as he had to). In the Worker's Paradise, there can't be crime — or if there is, it's immediately swept under the rug. So Demidov and his wife join forces to try to solve the serial murders of more than 50 children — but must do so on the down-low because, again, the official State position is that any crime is committed by drunks or simpletons. There's simply no motivation to do crime when life is supposed to be so peachy.

But one of the strengths of this novel is showing just how non-peachy life is in Stalinist Soviet Union. It's cold and dreary and people are always hungry and oppressed and live in fear. It's a terrifying peak behind the Iron Curtain. And it's a riveting thriller (and thankfully, the first in a trilogy). Highly recommended!

A movie adaptation of Child 44, starring Tom Hardy (as Leo) and Gary Oldman is out in late April. The trailer makes it look just as gritty and tension-filled as the book. I'm excited!

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The Fifth Gospel, by Ian Caldwell, is a murder mystery, a course in Catholic history, and a treatise on biblical scholarship — the latter two of which, you'll have to trust me, are much more interesting than they might sound. The story is about two brothers — one, Alex, an Eastern Catholic priest (a small denomination of Catholicism that's sort of halfway between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic) and the other, Thomas, a Roman Catholic priest. Their father had been a scholar studying the Shroud of Turin — the supposed cloth that Jesus was buried in, but which scientists had determined was a forgery.

This had destroyed their father, and ruined his dream, and he died soon after. So the boys were raised by their powerful uncle Leo. But their father also shared a dream with Pope John Paul II (the novel takes place in 2004, near the end of John Paul's papacy) to reunify the two factions of the Catholic Church. So we get a fair amount of religious history, too — including the reasons for the schism in 1054.

But so the meat the story is centered around a researcher named Ugo who says he's discovered that the scientific testing on the Shroud of Turin was wrong — and the Shroud is authentic. And he can prove it with a book called the Diatessaron that he's found in the Vatican Archives, which is basically is unified Gospel; a combination of the sometimes disparate and/or contradictory stories told in the four main gospels. But the fellow is promptly murdered before he's able to put on his exhibit in a Vatican museum, threatening the possibility for reunification of the Churches. Pope John Paul II had planned to use the exhibit as an opportunity to return the Shroud to the Eastern Orthodox church as a sign of good faith.

So our two priests — the older brother, Father Thomas, is actually accused of Ugo's murder and held secretly somewhere in Vatican City, and our narrator is the younger brother, Father Alex — is trying to solve the crime, as well as determine what exactly Ugo was up to, who is trying stop him, and why.

If you've spent any time in Catholic school, or just have an interest in religious history, this is a novel for you. It reads like a Dan Brown book, only much better written, and not nearly as "thriller cliche" as Brown's books are.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Little Life: Astonishing, Unflinching

This novel is truly astonishing — easily one of the more harrowing, unflinching books I've read in a long time. Sexual violence and unimaginable cruelty are mixed into a story about loyalty, friendship, and the question of whether these truly can overcome all. The effect is that even when there are good times, you're never really comfortable — and so you turn pages frantically. You're truly invested in these characters — and not the least because you follows them for 30 years and 720 pages.

A Little Life is about four friends living in New York City, having just graduated from an elite college and now trying to make their ways in the world. One is an artist, another an architect. One a lawyer, the other an actor. These latter two Jude and Willem are the center of the story — they have a closer relationship with each other than with the other two. We see them in the opening scene renting a crappy Manhattan apartment together, an apartment that becomes a symbol of their friendship and their modest beginnings over the course of the next 30 years.

When we first meet these characters, we know something isn't quite right with Jude. He's damaged, physically and emotionally, but we don't know why. Slowly, strategically, his story is told, and you'll want to prepare yourself.

But to focus on the tough-to-read parts of this novel doesn't give a complete picture. There's hope and good times, there is love and redemption, there is art and morality, and so, so much more. And it kept surprising me — formulaic fiction, this is not. I kept thinking throughout this novel that it reminded what a novel might be like if John Irving was writing on a day his dog died (removing all his signature "preciousness") with Donna Tartt picking up story strands here and there.

I highlighted dozens of passages in this novel, a lot of them about friendship (the overarching theme of the novel), including the following, which is my favorite:
“The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are — not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving — and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad — or good — it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.”
My advice to you if you're planning to read this, and you should, because it's great: Brace yourself. Brace yourself not just to be devastated, but also to be dazzled. It's an amazing novel.

Friday, February 20, 2015

In The Light Of What We Know: Dense, Dazzling, Exasperating

Last May, James Wood, the New Yorker's venerable, but often grumpy, literary critic gushed and raved about Zia Haider Rahman's 2014 debut novel, In The Light of What We Know. He called it "dazzling" and "full of knowledge," and I thought, "Hmm...definitely worth a try."

I should've known any novel Wood raves about would be like this: in a word, dense. Plane/beach reading, this is not. The story is essentially a conversation between two really smart fellows — one, Zafar, is telling the other, our unnamed narrator, his story. It's 2008, and we're just on the onset of the financial crisis — our unnamed narrator is a banker, and when his good friend Zafar, who he hasn't seen in many years suddenly shows up on his doorstep in London wanting to tell him his story, it's a welcome distraction from his failing professional life.

Zafar's story involves a beautiful, mercurial woman named Emily, his experiences in Afghanistan in 2002 at the outset of the war, and several snippets of other stories that explore culture, class, and race (he's Bangladeshi, but people are constantly mistaking him as Pakastani or Indian, infuriating him, and negating the sacrifices of his countrymen during the horrific war for Bangladeshi independence in 1971).

The central question of the novel is this: How can we really know anything? Zafar had studied mathematics at Oxford, and is a huge fan of Kurt Godel, and his Incompleteness Theorem. But this question of how we know what we know (if we can know what we know) is also explored through language, religion and faith, and love.

Zafar's story is fascinating — and along the way, he provides us all sorts of tidbits of trivia, interspersed throughout his philosophical meanderings. He's an unusual fellow, to be sure — but insanely smart (as, no question, is Rahman himself).

So it's an often exasperating, sometimes truly though-provoking, periodically entertaining, and ultimately pretty satisfying novel. It took me about three weeks to get through these 500 pages, and I was glad when I finished — I felt like I'd truly accomplished something just by reading this.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Glow: A Drug-Fueled Romp in South London

It's still early, but Ned Beauman's zany romp of a novel Glow is my favorite 2015 book so far. Beauman is one smart dude — and this novel reads a bit like what would happen if Tommy Pynchon (yeah, I call him Tommy. It's cool, we're boyz, remember?), Haruki Murakami, and Irvine Welsh all collaborated on a novel.

I loved Beauman's previous novel The Teleportation Accident, and while Glow might not be quite as good in total as that effort, it is definitely in the same vein — and you can almost see him giggling at his laptop as he writes. Believe me, it's just as much fun to read.

So the plot here is nuts: A guy named Raf, who lives in South London, is afflicted with something called "non-24-hour sleep/wake syndrome." It basically means he's on a 25-hour clock instead of our typical 24, and so he can't hold down a regular job or have normal relationships. He spends most of his time traversing the London drug and rave scene with his buddy Isaac, where, in the opening pages of the novel, he meets a beautiful, exotic woman named Cherish.

From there, boom goes the plot. Explosion outward, and to try to summarize it is a fool's errand. It includes a nefarious American mining company that has done untoward deeds in Burma, and is now trying to track down the producers of the new "it" party drug called Glow. There are mysterious foxes. There is a gay Serbian mobster, and a gay Burmese chemist. And there is a scruples-less public relations guy named Fourpetal who switches sides as frequently as an ecstasy-head tells you he loves you.

I will readily admit Ned Beauman isn't for everyone, and I'm not saying that to try to convince you I'm a smarter or more discerning reader than you. Quite the contrary — I enjoy Beauman's stuff because it appeals to my love of mixing high- and low-brow; insightful, profound writing and complicated plot mixed with blow job and fart jokes, e.g.

If you are a fan of more accessible, less zany Pynchon or Chuck Palahniuk or Irvine Welsh, I think you'll really dig this novel, too. It's quite the fun read.

Friday, February 13, 2015

New Dork Review of Books, Post No. 400

This is the 400th New Dork Review of Books post — woohoo, indeed! But really, 400's only about a medium-important milestone — worth acknowledging, but let's not get crazy. We'll party like it's 1999 when we get to 500.

And but, for now, let's just quickly review the books from this week — since there was a rare flurry of activity this week!

Monday, Feb. 9 — The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

Tuesday, Feb 10 — Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby

Wednesday, Feb 11 — The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

Thursday, Feb 12 — Praying Drunk, by Kyle Minor

Good times this week! Next week, look for reviews of Ned Beauman's new novel, Glow — which, if you liked his first two novels, Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident (the latter, I loved!), you'll really like this one too — and Zia Haider Rahman's rather dense "novel of ideas" In The Light of What We Know. This one's taken me nearly a month to finish, and so there's lots to write about.

Cheers!