Monday, 16 September 2019

Redeeming the Past in Alexi Zentner's Copperhead and Eli Saslow's Rising Out of Hatred


Unite the Right Rally Charlottesville
Alexi Zentner's, Copperhead, spins several threads that eventually knit together. Although the President's name is  mentioned only twice, in reference to the Woman's March that occurred shortly after his inauguration, the novel is firmly ensconced in the Trump era where racial and class tensions have been exacerbated. The novel's incendiary language exploits these divisions mirroring the raw rhetoric the President deploys in his rallies and almost daily tweets. There is an incisive exploration of toxic race relations and the stigma associated with being labeled as so-called "white trash." It is also an investigation about the relationship between the alt-right and the religious right in America. Throughout, a teenager navigates through these treacherous landmines, makes a serious mistake and as an adult attempts to address it.

In a gripping third-person narrative relayed in bite-size chapters that
unfolds over a few days, Zentner introduces us to Jessup, a high-school senior living in a small community in upstate New York "where history is everything." Despite being raised by a single mom on a limited income and living in a trailer-park home, Jessup maintains good grades and works at the local movie theatre when he is not hunting to supply food for his family. Perhaps most importantly, he excels at athletics. Even though some of his classmates dismiss him as "born into the wrong family," even a Nazi, he is a standout football player and has the possibility of acquiring an Ivy League football scholarship.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

The Contemporary Relevance of Jake Tapper's The Hellfire Club

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site since it explores the 1950s, a chapter in That Line of Darkness:The Gothic from Lenin to Bin Laden.

Jake Tapper signing copies of his new thriller, The Hellfire Club. (Photo: Harrison Jones/GW Today)

Jake Tapper's debut historical political thriller, The Hellfire Club (Little, Brown & Company 2018), opens at dawn on March 5, 1954 with an echo of the Chappaquiddick incident reset in Washington’s Rock Creek Park. A rookie congressman, Charlie Marder, wakes up from a drunken stupor after a car accident. The body of a young cocktail waitress lies nearby in a ditch. As he tries to make sense of what has happened, an influential lobbyist known to Marder passes by, incinerates the evidence and whisks Charlie away.

With this harrowing start, before Marder or the reader can figure out whether he has been set up, Tapper backtracks three months to when Marder, a Columbia University professor with a well-connected New York GOP lawyer for a father, is chosen to fill a seat left vacant by the mysterious death of a congressman. Initially, Marder appears to demonstrate the idealism of the eponymous character in the Frank Capra movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as he questions on the House floor whether an appropriation earmarked for a big tire company is ethical given that it manufactured defective gas masks that Charlie witnessed first-hand when he served in the war overseas. But he does not have the mettle, the will or, to be fair, the allies to resist a powerful committee chairman who humiliates him, forcing him into a series of compromises of backroom deals which lead to Marder's actually voting for a bill that will enable that company to produce something decidedly toxic.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Challenging Intellectual Deprivation and Fundamentalist Ideology in Tara Westover's Educated

The following review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because this memoir clearly shows that a father and a brother unequivocally crossed a line.

Author Tara Westover at her alma mater, Brigham Young University. (Photo: Tes / Russell Sach)

Even before reading Tara Westover's Educated: A Memoir (HarperCollins, 2018), I guessed from its enthusiastic critical and popular reception that it would be a good book. But I was not prepared for how riveting, insightful and well-written it would turn out to be. Westover's multi-layered memoir narrates an astonishing story that begins with her childhood years on an isolated mountain in Idaho, as the seventh child of fundamentalist parents who subscribed to a set of beliefs that she makes clear are far outside the mainstream of the Mormon religion. Home-schooled in the loosest definition of the term, she received no academic education for the first seventeen years of her life and knew little about the outside world. Her learning consisted of reading the Bible, The Book of Mormon and the speeches of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Yet she did well enough on the ACT to gain admission to Brigham Young University. That begins the second layer of her memoir, which charts her extraordinary progress in acquiring a formal education that resulted in her achieving a Ph.D. in history. But it is the third layer, which explores the tensions between family and outside life, her sensitivity to the unreliable power of memory, and her difficulty in challenging the patriarchal worldview of her father, that lifts her memoir from a remarkable coming-of-age account to a landmark contribution to that genre. It truly astounds.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Struggling with Private & Public Demons in the Novels of James Lee Burke, Part II: Dark Underbellies


Author James Lee Burke on his Montana ranch. (Photo: Getty)

Read Part I of this series here.

"For many years our state legislature has been known as a mental asylum run by ExxonMobil. Since Huey Long, demagoguery has been a given; misogyny and racism and homophobia have become religious virtues and self-congratulatory ignorance has become a source of pride." – James Lee Burke, Robicheaux

Since the 1987 publication of Neon Rain, Burke has mastered the technique of writing in the first person, remaining within the consciousness of his chief protagonist, enabling Dave to offer commentary on political, social, moral and philosophical issues. Robicheaux is set once again in the familiar setting of New Iberia along the bayou and opens with Dave seeing the ghosts of Confederate soldiers marching through the swamp. He is in a dark psychic space as his wife, Molly, has died in a car accident. In his grief and rage, his sobriety cracks as he succumbs to his demons who "live in me like a snake that slowly swallows its prey." During an alcoholic binge, he fears he might have murdered the taxi driver who killed his wife but afterwards he cannot remember if it really happened. Worse, the investigation of the man's death is assigned to a dirty cop.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Struggling with Private & Public Demons in the Novels of James Lee Burke, Part I: Savagery and the Past

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because Burke powerfully explores the evil that men do when they cross a line.

Author James Lee Burke. (Photo: Facebook)

"I became a cop in order to deal with a black lesion that had been growing on my brain, if not my soul, since I was a child." – James Lee Burke, Light of the World 

It is unwise to pigeonhole a multiple-award-winning crime novelist like James Lee Burke as a genre writer. His detailed rendering of the Cajun culture, its food, music, and dialect, along with his gorgeous descriptions of the bayou in South Western Louisiana, particularly during rainstorms, is a distinguishing feature of the Robicheaux novels. Consider this lyrical passage from his most recent novel, Robicheaux (Simon & Schuster, 2018): "The flying fish broke the bay's surface and sailed above the water like pink gilded winged creatures, in defiance of evolutionary probability." (Burke's descriptive prowess is also present in his twentieth Robicheaux creation, Light of the World [Simon & Schuster, 2013], which is set in the mountainous region near Missoula, Montana.) The Globe and Mailcritic, Margaret Cannon, offers high praise to Burke by comparing him to William Faulkner: his account of the bayous of Louisiana is similar to "what Faulkner did for backwoods Mississippi." Not surprisingly, Burke considers Faulkner, particularly his The Sound and the Fury, to be a major influence.

Burke's influence has extended beyond the crime novel to the larger culture. Like some of the best crime novelists, Burke uses the procedural as a vehicle for an overlay of political and social commentary. The 2005 Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, which submerged large areas of the poorest parts of New Orleans and exposed scandalous government neglect, even before the tidal surge hit with cuts in federal aid, was the subject of The Tin Roof Blowdown. The novel is comparable to the mammoth Spike Lee documentary When the Levees Broke, and the HBO David Simon series, Treme, for their portrayals of a community after the veneer of civilized society is stripped away and we find out what people are really like. The New York Times reviewer, Marilyn Stasio, declared that Burke's was the "definitive" crime novel about Katrina.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

The Famous Ones, and Everyone Else: Gender & Class in the Novels of Meg Wolitzer


Author Meg Wolitzer. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
"She understood that it had never been about talent; it had always been about money." – Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings 

“The people who change our lives... give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be.” – Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion 

Recently, I discovered a major talent when I read The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead Books, 2018). I was astonished that I had never heard of her before. I mentioned my enthusiasm for it to a friend who had a similar experience with her 2013 book The Interestings and decided to read it as well. I still wondered why Wolitzer was unfamiliar to me until I read her 2012 essay in The New York TimesAlthough at that time she had published nine books, she lamented that few female writers of literary fiction are taken seriously by men unless their major protagonist is a male, they write short stories, or they embarked on their writing careers during the women's movement of the 1970s. Perhaps her piece had touched a collective literary nerve, since the publication the following year of The Interestings turned out for her to be a breakout novel, deservingly so, about the lives of both men and women.

Reading these two absorbing novels together has the benefit of revealing certain Wolitzer trademarks: her interest in exploring a broad range of relationships over a large span of time (romantic, friendship, parents and their offspring, and between mentors and acolytes); her penchant for fictionalizing a character or situations that will remind readers of real life personalities or events; her ability to connect the lives of her characters to larger real life issues such as Presidential politics; the power of cults to prey upon the vulnerable; the 1980s AIDS crisis, and the 2008 financial crisis; and the quality of her writing that is by turns laced with verbal brio, acerbic and funny lines, and astute observations. Above all her novels are character-driven and it would be hard to review them without familiarizing the reader with her characters  sometimes with more detail than I generally prefer  and the trajectory of their lives before addressing the issues that animate Wolitzer.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Gripping Courtroom Drama: Full Disclosure by Beverly McLachlin


Photo: Roy Grogan

Beverley McLachlin retired early this year after serving eighteen years as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the first woman to hold that lofty position. According to an excellent profile by Sean Fine, McLachlin "shape(d) fundamental rights as much as any judge in the country's history from the legalization of assisted dying to a huge expansion of Indigenous rights to a rebalancing of how police and the legal system treat people accused of crimes."

Inspired by the example of P. D. James, a mystery writer she admired who maintained a day job and wrote by night, McLachlin began in the early hours of the morning for about a year before her departure from the Supreme Court to write a novel that had been percolating within her for over thirty years. The result of that effort is Full Disclosure (Simon & Schuster, 2018) and I am pleased to report that her debut novel is an engaging, well-written, dialogue-driven courtroom drama that has a distinctive Canadian sensibility.