Monday, February 29, 2016

Even the Dead

Even the Dead is the seventh of Benjamin Black’s Quirke books, a series that began in 2006 with Christine Falls (published in the U.S. in 2007), the book that first introduced the Dublin pathologist to the world.  And, as befits a man whose life is the subject of six previous crime novels, Quirke is a man with a past, and it is a rather complicated past, at that.  But because Even the Dead is my introduction to Quirke, I’ve had to piece that past together as best I can from what the one book reveals.

I gather that Quirke is a man with a drinking problem bad enough to impress even those who set their drinking standards by the norms of Dublin’s drinkers.  But he has an even bigger problem than that one because a severe beating he endured several years earlier has come back to haunt him.  In recent months, hallucinations, problems staying in the moment, and other concentration difficulties have made it impossible for him to do his job.  Quirke’s personal life is nothing to write home about either.  Quirke is a widower who, in his immediate grief at the loss of his wife, asked his half-brother to adopt and raise his new daughter, Phoebe, as his own child.  And now, all these years later (the books are set in the early-to-mid 1950s), even though Phoebe knows the truth about her parentage, Quirke’s relationship with his daughter is more one of uncle-niece than father-daughter. 

Author Benjamin Black
Simply put, Quirke is not a happy man, and after a brain specialist tells him that his latest setbacks are the result of too much sitting around, combined with “nervous tension,” he is a frustrated man as well as an unhappy one.  So when invited to give his opinion on the head injury found on the corpse of a young man who burned to death inside his sports car after slamming it into a tree, Quirke jumps at the chance to get back in the game.  Now, convinced that the young man’s death is neither an accident nor a suicide, Quirke and his longtime friend Inspector Hackett want to know who killed him and why they did it. 

Even the Dead is an intensely atmospheric look at a city, and a country, still very much under the thumb of the Catholic Church of its day.  1950s Dublin, at least as Benjamin Black portrays it, is a city whose most powerful figure is the Archbishop, a man everyone else with any pretense of power strives to keep happy.  The church controls more than the souls of Dublin’s people, it controls everything about their daily lives.  And the man calling the shots for the church shows them little mercy.  A lot of dirty money is being made by a lot of dirty people.

Now Quirke and Hackett need to find a way to stop them.

(And now I need to go back and read the first six Quirke books because Quirke is a man I want to know more about.)

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Spring Has Sprung in Texas

Minute Maid Stadium, Houston, TX (click on photo for larger version)

Spring in February...that's what I've enjoyed this weekend.  And I've been able to enjoy it in my favorite of all ways: by sitting at a major league ballpark and watching some of the best college baseball teams in the country go at each other.

I was at Minute Maid Stadium for 12 hours yesterday and watched three games (it takes about 45 minutes between games to get the field back into pristine shape for the next game).  And today it will be pretty much the same schedule with three more games and who knows how many hours.  If this first game is any indication, these guys are out of pitching and the games will be high-scoring ones (at the  moment, Arkansas is leading Texas Tech 10-6 in the 8th inning of the first game of the day).  

I have managed to get some reading in before heading out to the park - and I'm among a handful of people I've spotted reading books during inning changes and between it's been the best of both worlds this weekend.

Now back to the game...

Friday, February 26, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is part autobiography and part memoir, but most of all it is a talented doctor’s farewell to a world that is surely less than it would have been were he still a part of it.  I should note, too, that the last part of the book is his wife’s memoir because, after Kalanithi’s surprisingly quick death, she wrote the book’s final pages.

By the time Paul Kalanithi began his medical studies, he had already earned advanced degrees in literature and philosophy.  Still, he was only 37 years old and on the verge of what promised to be a brilliant medical career when he died of the lung cancer that had been discovered just twenty-two months earlier.   Looking back to the precise moment a nurse “poked her head” into his hospital room to tell him that the doctor would be in to see him soon, Kalanithi marked the beginning of his end with these words, “And with that, the future I had imagined, the one about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated.”

Stunned by the realization that his life would be nothing like he had imagined it would be, Kalanithi had to decide what to do with the time he had left, however long that might be.  He realized that his life expectancy was now probably more accurately gauged in months rather than in years, but before he could make lifestyle decisions he had to adapt to the unfamiliar role of patient.  That Kalanithi was a doctor was both a blessing and a curse.  On the one hand, he probably knew as much about the nature of his cancer as the doctors treating him, so was able to offer treatment suggestions of his own.  On the other, his clear understanding of the odds against him perhaps made it more difficult for him to deal with the fear, depression, and anger in part created by that knowledge.

Doctor and Author Paul Kalanithi
Whatever he was, Paul Kalanithi was no quitter.  Neurosurgery was part of his self-identity, and with a little help from his colleagues, he was able to return to the operating room for several more months, months during which he became better and better at what he did.  He was also able to witness the birth of his only child, a little girl who taught him how to love in a whole new way.  Dr. Kalanithi, knowing that his life would be a short one, decided not to waste a moment of it – and that is his lesson for the rest of us, for all of life is shorter than we imagine it to be while in the process of living it. 

Just twenty-two months after learning of his illness, Paul Kalanithi’s journey was over, a journey described by his wife as “one of transformation – from one passionate vocation to another, from husband to father, and finally, of course, from life to death, the ultimate transformation that awaits us all.”

Paul Kalanithi’s was a life well lived.

Review Copy provided by publisher

Thursday, February 25, 2016

John Green's Crash Courses on Literature...Take a Look

In another case of "better late than never," I stumbled upon John Green's "Crash Courses on Literature" a couple of days ago (sadly, it appears that John has not added new courses to the 24 on YouTube since some time in 2014).  I've only watched a couple of them, but I can tell you that even if you already know a good bit about what John is speaking on, the mini-lessons are fun to watch.  Dang...wonder why he gave up on them.

Anyway, here's an example that will also lead you to the rest of the Crash Course videos.  This is one of two lessons on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein:

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Facebook Message from Pat Conroy's Wife, Cassandra King

Pat Conroy's wife, author Cassandra King, posted this message on her Facebook page late this afternoon.  Please keep Pat and Cassandra in your prayers as together they begin Pat's medical treatments.

Mobile Liberary

I don’t know where to start with this one, so I may as well just say it right up front: Mobile Library is one of the more disappointing novels I’ve read in a while.  Perhaps that’s because it came so highly recommended from a fellow reader whose judgment I trust.  Or maybe it’s because the novel reminds me so much of eating cotton candy at a roadside carnival – all sugar and air, with nothing (including its main characters) of any real substance in the recipe.

The novel’s plot, although it is executed in a manner more suitable to a YA novel than to one aimed at adults, is one with potential.  Consider the characters: a boy constantly bullied at school and his more physically imposing friend who vows to protect him by transforming himself into a cyborg; the bullied boy’s abusive father; the little girl (probably a Down’s Syndrome child) the boy meets one day; the little girl’s mother who so appreciates the boy befriending her daughter that she vows to protect him from his father no matter what that costs her; the young man who falls in love with the woman; that young man’s vindictive and crazed elderly father; and, finally, the young policeman charged with the task of rounding them all up.

Author David Whitehouse
It is no accident that this cast is reminiscent of characters from a fairy tale.  Unfortunately, that resemblance is primarily because they have about as much emotional depth as characters found in a Brothers Grimm tale.  The only ones of them that even approached feeling real in print are the young mother and her beautiful little girl.  The rest of them are better suited to a comic book setting.

I do think that, maybe with the exception of a bit of strong language, Mobile Library would be a good read for middle school students – and certainly that the language in it is not so offensive that it could not be read by high school students looking for a modern morality tale. 

One final thought: Mobile Library is set in England and Scotland, and David Whitehouse is a British author.  However, the author presents his story in so generic a fashion that readers hoping to be immersed in a British setting are likely to be disappointed.  Cotton candy, neither the real thing, nor its literary version, much appeal to me these days.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Teaching to the Test in High Schools Is Creating a Generation That Cannot Read a Book...Period.

And then you have idiots like this one who boasts of his ignorance.
I do try to discuss positive news and articles here on Book Chase, I really do.  But, unfortunately, not everything happening in Book World is of a positive nature - as is clearly pointed out in this article by the University of Houston's Robert Zaretsky.  The article, entitled "Taught to pass tests, they don't know how to read books," has a lot to say about the state of education in this country and what the unintended consequences of "No Child Left Behind" are - and none of it, believe me, is encouraging.
 ...conversations with my brother-in-law, a bright and dedicated Houston-based high school English teacher, long ago revealed: Forced to teach to the test, he can no longer encourage students to reach for the texts as sources of wisdom and wonder.
My students’ encounter with Balzac is not exceptional in my recent teaching experience. Nor is it exceptional, from what colleagues tell me, in their classrooms. It is becoming the rule that students cannot, quite literally, read books from the literary canon. Not because they still hadn’t bought a copy — though this was the case for a few of them — or because the print was too small, but because they did not know how to read a book.  (emphasis mine)

My brother-in-law’s colleagues teach to the test, telling themselves that it is a job well done when their school performs well. Likewise, when I look at my syllabi and admire the classic works I've included, I pat myself on the back. After all, I’ve done my bit for the Great Conversation, of going out there and winning this one for the Gipper of Great Books. But have I? There are, inevitably, students who will come to treasure these books. No less inevitably, however, most of their peers will remain spectators to the act of reading. Thanks to bullet points and Spark Notes, they will know the names of the players, but will not have the slightest idea of what it means to be on the field and play the game. 

If it has not already happened, we are certainly well on our way to creating a whole generation (or two) that can no longer properly read a book because it's members have learned to get by with summaries, Cliff Notes-like pamphlets, three-minute reviews on YouTube,  and movies that play so free and easy with book plots that they only distort the author's real intent and story.  Teaching incoming freshmen to read a book should not be the responsibility of our universities.  But in great part due to good intentions gone bad, our high school teachers (if they are to keep their own jobs) are forced to "teach the test" well enough that their students can regurgitate what they hear in the classroom.  The students learn "facts," they do not learn how to read and appreciate an actual, you

I'm not feeling very positive today.

For easy reference, here's the link to the whole article.   Do read it.  I guarantee you that it is even more depressing than the snippets of it I've posted here.


Monday, February 22, 2016

River Road

Carol Goodman’s River Road gets off to a quick start when Nan Lewis, who teaches creative writing at a small college in upstate New York, crashes into a deer on her way home from the end-of-semester party at which she has just learned that tenure is being denied her.  By the time Nan realizes what has just happened, the deer, having scrambled off into the nearby trees, is nowhere to be seen.  Early the next morning when a police sergeant bangs on her front door to tell her that the body of one of her students, victim of a hit and run driver, has been found on River Road, Nan learns that her she has some serious explaining to do.

Because of the obvious damage to her car and where police found it, Nan is the obvious suspect in the young woman’s death.  The woman’s body was found in almost the exact spot where, just a few years earlier, a driver coming around the same blind curve on River Road struck and killed Nan’s little girl.  Now many of the same people who had helped her deal with the loss of her only child then are accusing her of letting one of her students die all alone in a ditch by the side of the road. 

Something in Nan died alongside her daughter.  Her husband’s reaction to their little girl’s death had been to walk away from the marriage that produced the child.  Nan herself simply turned to alcohol to deaden her own grief, and now she is known as a woman with a “drinking problem,” a problem bad enough to leave her unsure about what she saw on River Road the night she hit the unlucky deer.  She knows she did not strike Leia Dawson – but she cannot make enough sense of her dreamlike memories of the previous evening to prove her innocence to those who question her responsibility for the woman’s death.  Nan Lewis is the most unreliable of narrators, and author Carol Goodman puts that characteristic to good use throughout River Road.

Author Carol Gooman
Nan, having already lost the only child she ever expects to have, now has no job and no friends.  With nothing left to lose, she begins to ask questions of her own – and the ugliness of what she learns stuns her.  The more she learns about her colleagues and students, and the secrets they are hiding, Nan wonders how she could have ever been so blind.  Now, if she can only manage to keep herself alive long enough to do it, she is determined to identify the real killer and salvage what little of reputation she has left.  

River Road is the story of a woman who refuses to forgive herself for the few seconds of inattention that ended in her daughter’s death - and a story about how quickly a community can turn on one of its own.  But much like The Girl on the Train, the novel relies so much on coincidence, an almost stereotypical villain, and the remarkable speed at which its heroine recovers from serious physical abuse that it loses a bit of its potential impact.  All that said, readers willing to suspend their disbelief to the right level should find this one fun.

(Review copy provided by publisher)