28 July 2010

Beauty and Beastly

In preparation for a road trip away from the great prairies I picked up Michael Connelly's 2008 novel The Scarecrow.

I've had mixed reactions to Connelly's books ever since son Jim introduced me to them. Connelly is a great story teller. He weaves together intricate plots and creates fascinating characters. But I take his story telling too literally. The bad guys he invents are really bad guys. The crimes they commit are about the most reprehensible that Connelly can imagine.

There's only so much imaginary awfulness that I want to read about.

That was especially true for me as I read The Scarecrow. It didn't help that I was reading this one while in one of the earth's most beautiful places.

The plot is about a serial killer who is more of a criminal mastermind than Lex Luthor ever could be. Reporter Jack McEvoy is being laid off by his cost-cutting newspaper and is out to write a story good enough to embarrass his soon-to-be-ex bosses. FBI agent Rachel Walling has resigned under pressure for using a Bureau airplane under questionable circumstances. She has a reputation to protect and scores to settle as well.

I was engaged and drawn along by Connelly's story telling over half way through the book. Then the beauty of a mountain sunrise convinced me that I didn't have to read a book about some of the worst human depravity -- even if the good guys might win in the end.

I put it aside. Maybe I'll go back and finish it someday.

Have you read The Scarecrow? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

05 July 2010

What's a caper?

This time I went to a book store and found another Thomas Perry novel. After Bird's classification of Perry as a fox of a writer (as opposed to a one-track hedgehog) and after reading Death Benefits and Pursuit, I didn't know what to expect from Metzger's Dog.

My curiosity was aroused by a quote from The New York Times Book Review on the cover: "Very sharp, very funny..." Then, as I began reading the book, I quickly learned that the Metzger of the title is a cat.

It only got better from the cover and the first page. It is very funny. Great one-liners abound, but they're very bound to the context. This is not a mystery or an adventure, it's a comic opera that belongs in the category of "caper" movies like A Fish Called Wanda, Ocean's Eleven, or The Italian Job. I'm surprised it never made it to the big screen or the little one.

A Micky Mouse crime gang steals some cocaine from a research lab and also nabs a stack of classified CIA research on how the USA could take over Mexico. After the mooks fence the cocaine, they find out what they have in secret paper and set out to collect from the CIA for keeping the secrets.

The meetings in Langley, Virginia about how to get the papers back AND terminate the criminals are the funniest parts of the book. I think we're likely to be thankful for the skills collected and used by the CIA, but we're also delighted to think of the people who work for "the company" as fallible and sometimes clueless. The spooks are fallible and clueless in this caper.

Metzger and his dog are not clueless, even if Metzger's feeder is slightly clueless. Metzger's feeder is the focus of the little crime club that hopes to retire on the cocaine money and the CIA's payoff. The CIA would llke to eliminate Metzger's friends, the embarrassment of the stolen papers, and the diplomatic disaster of publicizing plans for the overthrow of a friendly, neighboring country's government.

But the comic opera CIA director is a character out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and so are his plans for dealing with this situation. The plot gets more and more complex and less and less believable as it goes on. But Metzger's Dog is delightful. Once again, Perry got me through the rough parts with really good story telling. I recommend it.

Thomas Perry does indeed know many ways to write books. I'll look for more.

Have you read Metzger's Dog? Write and tell us what you thought of it.

04 July 2010

Frugality again

I don't just read about murder and mayhem. I just finished The New Frugality by Chris Farrell. If his name sounds familiar, it's probably because you listen to public radio on Saturday morning. He's the guy who seems to answer listeners' questions off the top of his head on American Public Media's Marketplace Money. In fact, most of his answers probably require him to look some things up. He's thorough.

The book is a primer of personal finance in the post-recession, post-auto industry collapse, post-investment banks collapse world. The book is probably aimed at people younger than I. I heard naive versions of most of this advice from my parents. Mom and Dad never took a class or studied economics. But they learned a fair bit by living through the Great Depression, a World War, the expectations of another depression, the boom of the '50s and '60s, and the inflation of the '70s. The lessons they taught were limited by their own experiences, but were very similar to the ones touted by Chris Farrell in this book: don't take risks you can't afford to lose; don't get hooked on owning things; keep a safety net beneath your everyday living; don't get involved in things too complicated to understand; and don't start things you probably can't finish.

Of course these were rules broken with glee in the '90s by enough people to get all of us in trouble. That's why the book's called The New Frugality. (He does make a distinction between being cheap and being frugal, something I didn't learn from my parents.) The book's about living, earning, spending, saving, planning, getting an education, retiring, and giving. He advocates all those things within financial reason.

I thought about giving copies of this book to my children, but I think only the youngest needs it. On the other hand, maybe I'm overestimating the financial sophistication of the older ones. They all seem to be demostrating a reasonable frugality in their lives, but we've never really talked about it.

Hey, kids, Christmas is coming.

Have you read The New Frugality? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think of it.

03 July 2010

Another novel by Thomas Perry

I did go back to the Northfield Library and look for another Thomas Perry novel after reading the last one. I checked out Pursuit, Perry's 2001 novel about the ultimate hunt.

People as prey to other people shows up in horror and science fiction as THE ultimate hunting game. Many of the movie and TV treatments can be traced back to Richard Connell's 1924 story, "The Most Dangerous Game." The hapless (even if skilled) victims are almost always the losers of bets or trapped by circumstance into the position of the stalkee. The stalker knows the lay of the land and has the advantages of hunting prowess and weapons. There's a movie trailer haunting TV land now about a bunch of humans on a strange planet being hunted by monster, mechanical aliens (I think). The premier combat/crime/first-person shooter video and computer games also fall into this genre.

I think Perry goes them all one better. No simple victim and villain in this story. The hunter in this pursuit is a former cop turned very private investigator. He'll hunt down the biggest, meanest bad guys -- for the right price. And at the end of the hunt, if the bad guys don't surrender, he turns their bodies over to the current cops. This hunter has been doing this for a long time. And he's very good at what he does.

The prey in this pursuit is a serial killer for hire. For the right price, he'll kill whomever he's pointed at and anyone he thinks might threaten his survival. He's been doing this for a few years. He's very good at what he does.

After an assassination made to look like a crazed mass murder, and after the local constabulary runs out of leads, the father of one of the victims hires the ex-cop to find the murderer. Pursuit is on.

The first thing the hunter does is publicize his hiring and the pursuit -- even before he has any idea who the prey is. That's where the mind games begin. They play a major role in the investigation and the hunt.

There's a great deal of intense action in Pursuit. It's one of the reasons it took me so long to read the book. (I also had to prepare for a teach a week-long class. That's not easy to do when it's the only class I teach during the year.) During most of the time I was reading Pursuit, I could only deal with a chapter or two at a time. I have trouble with keeping my blood pressure down when I'm relaxing. Reading more than a chapter or two of the action and mind games that Perry describes was all I and my systolic and diastolic could handle. But I was always drawn back.

The story is well told, suspenseful, violent, and bloody. There's more violence and blood than I usually tolerate, but Perry does such a good job of setting up the ultimate hunt and telling the story, that I wanted some resolution. And it wasn't ever clear whether the hunter or the hunted or neither would come out alive.

In many ways this was quite different from the other books by Perry that Bird and I read. No template or established cast of characters. Scenes, characters, and actions are just for this book. I'm likely to go looking for another book by Thomas Perry, and I look forward to discovering what it will be like.

Have you Pursuit or another Thomas Perry book? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world.