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Friday, October 31, 2014

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Sarah Canary is a wonderfully deceptive book. The title suggests biography or a single life rendered in fiction, but Sarah Canary is something of a Maltese Falcon, a mystery and a catalyst for action in others. Sarah Canary is the woman in black, sometimes glimpsed but seldom seen, an inkblot that looks very much like something we recognize.

The book follows Chin, a Chinese railway worker, who follows Sarah through the fog shrouded Pacific Northwest of the 1870s. This is not a straightforward journey but Karen Joy Fowler has a fine sense of pace, creating a story that moves and a set of characters and circumstances that fascinate. Fowler rejoices in odd details but rather than being digressions that slow the action, these facts are like bits of a broken mirror unexpectedly reflecting light just when and where it's needed.

In a prison Chin befriends a killer and in an asylum in Steilacoom he and Sarah are aided in their escape by a lunatic named B.J. Lunatic, of course, is a relative term and B.J.'s counsel and considerations are often the wisest words in any given situation.

This is a book of action, filled with chase scenes, grifters, men with schemes, women with dreams. This is a fine book, rewarding the reader not with a simple solution but a reminder that the world is complicated, barely glimpsed and best journeyed through with perseverance and a few good friends. I count certain books as friends and Sarah Canary is one of the very best.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

So there's an Inherent Vice movie coming out in December and I'm not too proud to admit that it's the movie that got me motivated to finally read Thomas Pynchon's novel of the same name. You know Pynchon, that genius author of giant books? While epics like Gravity's Rainbow or Against The Day might require a few months of heavy reading and a book bag strong enough for heavy lifting, Inherent Vice has been dismissed by some as "Pynchon-lite." I'm here to tell you that that is not a bad thing. 369 pages of Pynchon is a damn fine way to spend your time.

Pynchon's hero, Doc Sportello, wobbles his way through a woozy, sex and drugs and rock and roll exploration of the psychedelic landscapes of 1971 Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Don't let the pot haze fool you, Doc is a keen observer with his own code of conduct that is every bit as consistent and admirable as that laid down by his spiritual fore-bearers, Phillip Marlow and Sam Spade. There's mystery upon mystery here, brilliant wordplay, astounding dialog and some terrific humor.

Inherent Vice sneaks up on you. It's light, mysterious and fun but there's something deeper here. Like all Pynchon, there's a layer of paranoia that should not be ignored. There's more going on every day than most folks see and Pynchon is a master of providing glimpses through the fog. If the movie and this book get more people looking where Pynchon is pointing, I have to see that as a good thing.