The Woman in the Dunes

Woman-in-the-Dunes Not a thrill a minute, but certainly an evocative book. The daily grind reduced to shoveling sand just to keep one’s head above, well, sand.

The protagonist, an amateur male entomologist, heads into some extensive and remote seaside dunes in the hopes of smacking his surname in behind the Latin binomial of a new species of beetle or other revolting insect. His search for taxonomic immortality lands him at the bottom of a sand pit inhabited by a woman who shovels sand away from her house every night, all night. Yes, she is fit, but before you start debating if you would rather be stranded on a deserted island with Ginger or Marianne, this is a sand pit where you wake up covered in sand, walk around with sand in your mouth, nose and ears unremittingly and only for the fact that the villagers who tricked into the pit lower food and water down, you would die in short order.

You hope for the best for each of the two characters, but if the walls came crumbling down you’d get over it in a jiffy. You will sympathize with the man and hanker for him to regain his freedom, but he is a buffoon. His idle threats, his disregard for the woman, his sense of entitlement, his blindness to the fact that he who catches insects in his net is caught…there are a lot of irksome aspects to the man. You will also hope the woman can think more expansively, but she is wedded to the shoveling and satisfied with whatever the villagers toss into her hole. She is noble in a sense, but certainly preposterous.

The book is only mildly recommended. If you enjoy Neil Sedaka’s “One Way Ticket to the Blues” you might be just the type for this Japanese classic. FYI – There is a 1964 film based on this book which looks interesting. Wikipedia has a quote about it from Roger Ebert mentioning King Sisyphus. Nice connection.

The Kept

keptThe book’s cover is grey and boy do the contents deliver. In midst of a dreary western New York winter, a midwife returns to her remote home to find her family slaughtered. There is a sole survivor, her 12-year old son, Caleb. Caleb witnessed the edges of the massacre from his hiding spot in the barn, and since he can identify the three killers, mother and son set out on a vision quest of retribution. The prospect of a future showdown is a tantalizing payoff in The Kept.

The protagonists track the killers to the NY equivalent of Deadwood, SD, complete with its own Al Swearengen, and there the story gets a sprinkling of kidnapping, cross-dressing, murder, gay-bashing and lots of bad luck. The book is narrated from the points of view of the Caleb and his mother, Elspeth and jumps between them and back in time, but it isn’t too difficult to keep your bearings.

There are surprising details that emerge as the story progresses, including how Ma assembled their family of seven. As for the showdown at the end? No worries, we won’t spoil it…not that we could anyway.

Pop. 1280

sheriff That’s what the road sign says. 1280 souls, located as close to the assh*le of creation as you can get and under the care of High Sheriff Nick Corey. An amiable, even progressive fellow, as unlike that Sheriff Ken Lacey, who holds that colored folk don’t have souls and shouldn’t be counted. Riddicerlous! While backwards in his social views, ole Ken ain’t pre-zackly all bad. He does help handle those two pimps that were sassin Nick down by the whorehouse. But dealing with those pimps won’t help Nick win re-election against a truly fine man like Sam Gaddis. You see, Nick has an image problem.

Folks are starting to think he’s an active graft sucking crook, a womanizer and a do nothing Sheriff. What folks don’t realize is, Nick realizes the only thing he can do is sheriffin’ and he will stop at nothing to keep the job…and that means more than just Nick’s public vow to crack down on the coloreds and poor white trash who can’t pay their poll tax. It means anything.

This book is a fun read. It’s quick, colorful and quite a guessing game as you move along. Written from Nick’s perspective and in his native tongue, Jim Thompson has created a memorable rogue. It is shocking that the only film adaptation of this book is the French Coup de Torchon. Wake up Hollywood!

Side Piece – Waiting for the Barbarians

barbarians If you enjoyed Jack Kerouac’s On The Road contrast of the American police, who are “involved in psychological warfare against those Americans who don’t frighten them with imposing papers and threats” to the Mexican sheriff making his lonely rounds with no suspicions, no fuss, just as the guardian of the sleeping town, then you must read this book. Other than that, you really should read this book.

Side Piece – It’s Just the Beating of My Heart

lonelyRichard Aronowitz’s book will have you thinking more about the beating of your head. The book is about an Amer-Anglo art dealer who has separated from his wife and as a result picked up the pace on his drinking. Far from fretting, Mr. John Stack takes his breathtaking alcoholism very much in stride as he takes many a stride pursuing his second favorite amusement of hiking the local countryside. The author describes the drinking and hiking in such rich detail that you will find yourself starting to crave a drink or a jaunt. But not so fast…his descriptions of the morning-after after 2-bottles of red wine and sleeping all night in the dry heat of forced air will have you craving water over wine. It will be hard to find more opulently described hangovers or commercials for a humidifier.

As for the rest of it, you’ll have to suspend reality to believe that he lands the piece of ass he does, but maybe he’s wine-goggling and she isn’t a 9, but more like a 4. He has some predictable mental disturbances, the source of which becomes clear in the final reckoning.

The book isn’t a Jason Bourne novel and is slow and internal, but Aronowitz comes off as a plus writer and an even keener observer of single maleness than Warren (Charles Grodin) in The Lonely Guy. Here’s a snippet…

“There is one set of footprints in the snow behind me; there will be one pint glass at the pub table at lunchtime; there was one bowl and one spoon in the kitchen sink this morning. I am bloody fed up of speaking in monologue.”

No shootouts or piles of coke on a black desk. Just stuff like that.

Side Piece – Everyday is For the Thief

lagosAfter years of soft living in the U.S., Nigerian-born writer Teju Cole is heading back to his old home on the outskirts of Lagos. While he is proud of the progress made by Nigeria and Nigerians during his absence, especially in literature and the arts, he is exasperated by two destructive traits engrained in Nigerian society. The first he calls “the same old, same old” which he blames for the peoples’ enduring tolerance of omnipresent corruption and low level criminality. The second is the attitude of “close enough.” While Nigerians overcome this in their art and literature, it stops them from making any meaningful contributions in the precise disciplines of science and technology. For this he views a lot of the country’s progress as borrowed.

The book is an enjoyable (and safe for the reader) jaunt through a city most readers are unlikely to visit or even take the time to think about beyond wondering if anyone is still falling for those Nigerian Internet Scams…Dearest Sir, I am the Director of the 1st Nigeria Bank of Petroleum have a confidential business proposal, please send me your bank account number so I can route $87,000,000 into your account to hold yada, yada, yada. Cole knows that certain ideas about legality that have taken root in him while in the West, thereby making him an easy target in the Wild, Wild West that is most of Lagos. Black skin alone doesn’t get you a free pass. The hunters look into the eyes of those of the herd to find the hunted. Fortunately, our self-aware chronicler has a pair and heads into the big city on his own. It makes for some great vignettes.

He is flabbergasted at the condition of the national museum, which seems to be ignored by the public and to have been looted of its cultural treasures.

He is appalled that a government official is only sentenced to 6-months for stealing over $100,000,000 from the people.

He thinks about what a powerful writer like John Updike would have produced had he lived in Africa rather than outside Reading, Pennsylvania. My goodness! What the explosive raw material of everyday African life would have done for his writing Cole can only wonder.

There is a great chapter revolving around a bus ride where a woman gets on carrying a book by Michael Ondaatje. This a rare sight on an NYC subway, let alone an African danfo. His mind races with questions…where did she get it, how could she afford such a book and still be on public transportation, what does an African woman who likely has not studied in the west get from the writing, are there others like her? In those few minutes he fell in love with what she represented for Nigeria.

There are other neat scenes, such as when he visits his first sweetheart, now married and with a family of her own, but you can’t help remembering the one where he drives by a billboard that blazes “Corruption is Illegal, Do Not Give or Accept Bribes” and is left to wonder how much the billboard owner bribed the government official to land the ad.

The book isn’t a must read, but if you want to spend a few hours in a strange land with an intelligent, affable writer like Teju Cole, you won’t begrudge him your time. A quick read. Accumulate.