Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Story

“Hello Mayor Mayer,” Tom said, shaking hands with the Mayor. “I’m Tom Builder and I’ve come to your town to build houses.”
Mayor Mayer pushed his glasses up on his big, red nose, put his hands on his big, fat hips, and said in his little squeaky voice, “We have plenty of houses already, mister… what did you say your name was?”
“Builder, Tom Builder. Are you sure you don’t need a few more houses, Mr. Mayor?”
Mayor Mayer leaned forward and looked Tom Builder right in the eye and said, “Look Mr. Builder, we have houses of every description here in Eltopia. We have big houses, we have little houses, we have wood houses, and we have brick houses, we have one story houses, and we have two story houses, why, heck, we even have a three story house. That’s my house,” said the mayor, with a satisfied smile.
When Tom Builder got back to the hotel he told his wife, Hilder, what the mayor had said. “Gosh, Hilder, I don’t know what to do. There’s no work for me building houses here in Eltopia. How will I make enough money to take care of you, and little Milder and Gilder?”
“Don’t you worry, Tom Builder,” said Hilder. “You’ll think of something.” But Hilder was worried, too. Christmas was coming. Would she and Tom be able to buy the children presents? It’s not important, she thought. As long as we have a place to live and can put food on the table, we’ll be all right.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Mesmerized, by Gayle Lynds

High-powered attorney Beth Convey gets a heart transplant, becomes enmeshed in a dastardly plot to assassinate the new Russian President, Vladimir Putin (the novel was published in 2001) -- right in the White House Rose Garden -- and finds herself endowed with a whole new set of skills and abilities as she fights to prevent the plot from succeeding.

Her adventures quickly team her up with Washington Post investigative reporter, undercover FBI operative, and undeniable hunk, Jeffrey Hammond. Together they battle US-embedded rogue KGB agents, anti-government American militia members, a mole in the FBI working for the Russians, and the various National Security agencies of the United States, who, as usual in these thrillers, get it all wrong.

If nothing else, Lynds manages a lively pace, but for what is basically a romance novel, there is only one sexual encounter between Beth and Jeff and it is painful to read. "He pressed his lips into her belly and tasted her, savory as buttermilk." Could be a yeast infection.

I'd been looking forward to the scene for most of the novel, because Beth's heart donor turned out to be a male Russian agent skilled in karate and general hand-to-hand combat, firearms, and high-speed driving, among other things, and Beth had "inherited" (I'll spare you the pseudo-science) his skills, his thought processes, many of his memories (which she relived through dreams), and apparently, something of his sensitivities. How would this manifest itself when, "panting," she kicked off her "thong" and opened her legs to Hammond?

First, she's wearing a thong through all this action?! Second, why aren't the two fighting for the top position? Third... well, I don't want to go there.

I admit I skimmed a lot of the book. I just wasn't that mesmerized.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

Read this wonderful, amazing, lyrical, sad, funny, fateful book. 

Let The Great World Spin – An Excerpt, © Colum McCann 2009
(Random House, 2009)

Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty.  Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. 

Others figured it might be the perfect city joke—stand around and point upward, until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were staring
upward at nothing at all, like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning. A window washer maybe. Or a construction worker.

Or a jumper.

Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.

He could only be seen at certain angles so that the watchers had to pause at street corners, find a gap between buildings, or meander from the shadows to get a view unobstructed by cornicework, gargoyles, balustrades, roof edges. None of them had yet made sense of the line strung at his feet from one tower to the other. Rather, it was the manshape that held them there, their necks craned, torn between the promise of doom and the disappointment of the ordinary.  It was the dilemma of the watchers: they didn’t want to wait around for nothing at all, some idiot standing on the precipice of the towers, but they didn’t want to miss the moment either, if he slipped, or got arrested, or dove, arms stretched.

Around the watchers, the city still made its everyday noises. Car horns. Garbage trucks. Ferry whistles. The thrum of the subway. The M22 bus pulled in against the sidewalk, braked, sighed down into a pothole.  A flying chocolate wrapper touched against a fire hydrant. Taxi doors slammed. Bits of trash sparred in the darkest reaches of the alleyways.  Sneakers found their sweetspots. The leather of briefcases rubbed against trouserlegs. A few umbrella tips clinked against the pavement.  Revolving doors pushed quarters of conversation out into the street.  But the watchers could have taken all the sounds and smashed them down into a single noise and still they wouldn’t have heard much at all: even when they cursed, it was done quietly, reverently.

They found themselves in small groups together beside the traffic lights on the corner of Church and Dey; gathered under the awning of Sam’s barbershop; in the doorway of Charlie’s Audio; a tight little theater of men and women against the railings of St. Paul’s Chapel; elbowing for space at the windows of the Woolworth Building. Lawyers. Elevator operators.  Doctors. Cleaners. Prep chefs. Diamond merchants. Fish sellers. Sad- jeaned whores. All of them reassured by the presence of one another.

Stenographers. Traders. Deliveryboys. Sandwichboard men. Cardsharks.  Con Ed. Ma Bell. Wall Street. A locksmith in his van on the corner of Dey and Broadway. A bike messenger lounging against a lamppost on West.  A red- faced rummy out looking for an early- morning pour.  From the Staten Island Ferry they glimpsed him. From the meatpacking warehouses on the West Side. From the new high- rises in Battery Park. From the breakfast carts down on Broadway.

From the plaza below. From the towers themselves.

Sure, there were some who ignored the fuss, who didn’t want to be bothered. It was seven forty- seven in the morning and they were too jacked up for anything but a desk, a pen, a telephone. Up they came from the subway stations, from limousines, off city buses, crossing the street at a clip, refusing the prospect of a gawk. Another day, another dolor. But as they passed the little clumps of commotion they began to slow down.

Some stopped altogether, shrugged, turned nonchalantly, walked to the corner, bumped up against the watchers, went to the tips of their toes, gazed over the crowd, and then introduced themselves with a Wow or a Gee- whiz or a Jesus H. Christ.

The man above remained rigid, and yet his mystery was mobile. He stood beyond the railing of the observation deck of the south tower—at any moment he might just take off. Below him, a single pigeon swooped down from the top floor of the Federal Office Building, as if anticipating the fall. The movement caught the eyes of some watchers and they followed the gray flap against the small of the standing man. The bird shot from one eave to another, and it was then the watchers noticed that they had been joined by others at the windows of offices, where blinds were being lifted and a few glass panes labored upward. All that could be seen was a pair of elbows or the end of a shirtsleeve, or an arm garter, but then it was joined by a head, or an odd- looking pair of hands above it, lifting the frame even higher. In the windows of nearby skyscrapers, figures came to look out—men in shirtsleeves and women in bright blouses, wavering in the glass like funhouse apparitions.

Higher still, a weather helicopter executed a dipping turn over the Hudson—a curtsy to the fact that the summer day was going to be cloudy and cool anyway—and the rotors beat a rhythm over the warehouses of the West Side. At first the helicopter looked lopsided in its advance, and a small side window was slid open as if the machine were looking for air. A lens appeared in the open window. It caught a brief flash of light. After a moment the helicopter corrected beautifully and spun across the expanse.  Some cops on the West Side Highway switched on their misery lights, swerved fast off the exit ramps, making the morning all the more magnetic.

A charge entered the air all around the watchers and—now that the day had been made official by sirens—there was a chatter among them, their balance set on edge, their calm fading, and they turned to one another and began to speculate, would he jump, would he fall, would he tiptoe along the ledge, did he work there, was he solitary, was he a decoy, was he wearing a uniform, did anyone have binoculars?

Perfect strangers touched one another on the elbows. Swearwords went between them, and whispers that there’d been a botched robbery, that he was some sort of cat burglar, that he’d taken hostages, he was an Arab, a Jew, a Cypriot, an IRA man, that he was really just a publicity stunt, a corporate scam, Drink more Coca- Cola, Eat more Fritos, Smoke more Parliaments, Spray more Lysol, Love more Jesus.

Or that he was a protester and he was going to hang a slogan, he would slide it from the tower ledge, leave it there to flutter in the breeze, like some giant piece of sky laundry—nixon out now!  remember ’nam, sam! independence for indochina!—and then someone said that maybe he was a hang glider or a parachutist, and all the others laughed, but they were perplexed by the cable at his feet, and the rumors began again, a collision of curse and whisper, augmented by an increase in sirens, which got their hearts pumping even more, and the helicopter found a purchase near the west side of the towers, while down in the foyer of the World Trade Center the cops were sprinting across the marble floor, and the undercovers were whipping out badges from beneath their shirts, and the fire trucks were pulling into the plaza, and the redblue dazzled the glass, and a flatbed truck arrived with a cherry picker, its fat wheels bouncing over the curb, and someone laughed as the picker kiltered sideways, the driver looking up, as if the basket might reach all that sad huge way, and the security guards were shouting into their walkie- talkies, and the whole August morning was blown wide open, and the watchers stood rooted, there was no going anywhere for a while, the voices rose to a crescendo, all sorts of accents, a babel, until a small redheaded man in the Home Title Guarantee Company on Church Street lifted the sash of his office window, placed his elbows on the sill, took a deep breath, leaned out, and roared into the distance: Do it, asshole!

There was a dip before the laughter, a second before it sank in among the watchers, a reverence for the man’s irreverence, because secretly that’s what so many of them felt—Do it, for chrissake! Do it!—and then a torrent of chatter was released, a call- and- response, and it seemed to ripple all the way from the windowsill down to the sidewalk and along the cracked pavement to the corner of Fulton, down the block along Broadway, where it zigzagged down John, hooked around to Nassau, and went on, a domino of laughter, but with an edge to it, a longing, an awe, and many of the watchers realized with a shiver that no matter what they said, they really wanted to witness a great fall, see someone arc downward all that distance, to disappear from the sight line, flail, smash to the ground, and give the Wednesday an electricity, a meaning, that all they needed to become a family was one millisecond of slippage, while the others—those who wanted him to stay, to hold the line, to become the brink, but no farther—felt viable now with disgust for the shouters: they wanted the man to save himself, step backward into the arms of the cops instead of the sky.  They were jazzed now.
The lines were drawn.
Do it, asshole!
Don’t do it!

Way above there was a movement. In the dark clothing his every twitch counted. He folded over, a half- thing, bent, as if examining his shoes, like a pencil mark, most of which had been erased. The posture of a diver. And then they saw it. The watchers stood, silent. Even those who had wanted the man to jump felt the air knocked out. They drew back and moaned.

A body was sailing out into the middle of the air.  He was gone. He’d done it. Some blessed themselves. Closed their eyes. Waited for the thump. The body twirled and caught and flipped, thrown around by the wind.

Then a shout sounded across the watchers, a woman’s voice: God, oh God, it’s a shirt, it’s just a shirt.

It was falling, falling, falling, yes, a sweatshirt, fluttering, and then their eyes left the clothing in midair, because high above the man had unfolded upward from his crouch, and a new hush settled over the cops above and the watchers below, a rush of emotion rippling among them, because the man had arisen from the bend holding a long thin bar in his hands, jiggling it, testing its weight, bobbing it up and down in the air, a long black bar, so pliable that the ends swayed, and his gaze was fixed on the far tower, still wrapped in scaffolding, like a wounded thing waiting to be reached, and now the cable at his feet made sense to everyone, and whatever else it was there would be no chance they could pull away now, no morning coffee, no conference room cigarette, no nonchalant carpet shuffle; the waiting had been made magical, and they watched as he lifted one dark- slippered foot, like a man about to enter warm gray water.  The watchers below pulled in their breath all at once. The air felt suddenly shared. The man above was a word they seemed to know, though they had not heard it before.

Out he went.

Colum McCann

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx, "a tale of long-term, shortsighted greed whose subject could not be more important: the destruction of America's forests."

Annie Proulx's multi-generational story begins in 1693 with the colonization of "New France," the vast tract of north America and Canada colonized by the French between the 16th and 18th centuries. René Sel and Charles Duquet arrive in the new country as indentured servants to a harsh if not entirely brutal property owner and taskmaster, Monsieur Trépagny.

René and Charles, awestruck by the imposing, often impenetrable and seemingly limitless extent of the forest, react to it in strikingly different ways. René cleaves to his inner woodsman, shaping himself to the land, puzzled by the drive to cut further into the forest than necessary. Eventually, he marries Mari, a Mi’kmaq woman skilled in the therapeutic use of plants, enfolding her existing children with the couple’s own, and setting in train one of the novel’s key strands: the constant tension that their descendants feel as they negotiate their dual heritage.

The next 650 pages trace the bloodlines of these two men in an often grisly chronicle of deforestation, cultural erasure and international commerce. We sit in on vomit-strewn ocean crossings, shady business deals in Dutch coffee houses and fatal feuds between rival logging crews razing land wrested from the native population. The rags-to-riches rise of Duquet (always referred to by his surname) and the fortunes of his in-fighting heirs contrast with the fate of René’s mixed-race descendants, expropriated, exploited and scattered from New England to New Zealand in search of a livelihood.

As the book moves from generation to generation, a general thesis reveals itself: The concept of personal property, facilitated by technology and propelled by the Christian mandate for dominion, is largely to blame for the genocide of indigenous people and the impending ecological collapse.
This review is drawn from several reviews, including by Rich Smith, The Stranger, William T Vollman, the New York Times, and Alex Clark and Anthony Cummins, The Guardian.