Kurt Vonnegut would say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. Often, he was asked: Have any artists successfully accomplished this? “The Beatles did”, he replied.
Vonnegut, whom time finally stuck to last week, lived a lot longer than he thought he would. For fans, he lived longer than many of them thought he would, too. Most of his avid readers have been preparing for his death, in earnest, since his suicide attempt in 1984. As it turned out, there were many more Pall Malls left to smoke. Then, in 1997, the author’s caliginous assertion that Timequake was to be his last novel did seem rather like a settling of accounts.
Love Kills: A Britt Montero Novel by Edna Buchanan
Simon & Schuster ($25)
BUCHANAN FINDS THE RIGHT BLEND THIS TIME
Taken separately, Edna Buchanan’s two series about Miami reporter Britt Montero and the city’s Cold Case Squad haven’t lived up to their potential. The last five Britt novels lacked the vitality of her earlier outings; the Cold Case Squad has been the epitome of missed opportunities, stalled by ineffectual tension and character development.
But in Love Kills, the Miami author melds her two series into a novel full of vitality with sophisticated plotting, expert tensions and characters who leap off the page. A former police reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize, Buchanan delivers a vivid tale in her 13th novel. She weaves several plot threads in Love Kills for a story that is ultimately about violence against women and the high cost of love. Despite a few stumbles and rare bits of clunky description, including a chaotic ending, Buchanan delivers one of her best novels, full of twists and surprises and a view of Miami that is fresh and energetic.
Grieving over her fiance’s death, Britt is on a leave of absence from the newspaper, escaping to a Caribbean island to remember him and ponder her future. She and her best friend, a newspaper photographer, find a disposable camera on the beach that turns out to contain the honeymoon photos of a couple missing at sea.
Back in Miami, Britt is on the minds of the Cold Case Squad members: She was the last to interview Spencer York, a kidnapper for divorced fathers whose body has just been found after several years.
It was assumed that Spencer, who had no compunctions about harming mothers while abducting their children, had just skipped bond shortly after Britt’s interview—her first big story. Now the detectives know he was killed shortly after talking to her and the detectives hope Britt will remember every detail of their interview.
When Marsh Holt, the bridegroom in the photographs, shows up, Britt is pulled into his sad tale of grief and loss. But Marsh has another side to him, as well as a long list of wives who never lived past their honeymoons.
Buchanan keeps the two stories parallel, alternating between Britt’s reporting and the new developments in her private life, and the detectives’ investigation. Both stories are equally compelling and Buchanan doesn’t resort to cheap gimmicks in showcasing the two investigations. The resolutions to both are well-conceived surprises.
Love Kills falters when Buchanan violates a time-honored rule of writers and journalists—by telling, not showing. A character’s monotonous litany about what’s wrong with Miami pales next to Buchanan’s skillful way of illustrating the changing face of the Magic City and its residents: small apartment buildings being sold to developers, traffic jams, exploding garbage trucks and bizarre thefts. “You can leave Miami, but Miami never leaves you,” sums up Britt’s—and Buchanan’s—affection for the city, and that’s the heart of Love Kills.
—Oline H. Cogdill (South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT))
Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott
Spiegel & Grau/Random House ($24.95)
DIGGING INTO MYSTERY AROUND ISAAC NEWTON
As strictly a knee-jerk reaction, Isaac Newton wouldn’t seem the likely choice around which to wrap a mystery. But real people and icons are now all the rage. While Ghostwalk lacks the nonstop action of The Da Vinci Code or Steve Berry’s novels, it more than makes up in its intelligent, literary approach to the modern gothic.
Alternating between 17th century and contemporary Cambridge, Rebecca Stout masterfully delivers an intricate plot that is supported by a book within the novel. At the heart of Ghostwalk are the suspicious deaths that happened around Cambridge’s Trinity College during the 17th century and were connected somehow to Isaac Newton. But Stott, a science historian in England, gives equal weight to the murder of a contemporary academian that may be related to a group of radical animal rights activists.
Ghostwalk drips with the atmosphere of Cambridge—from the plague-ridden 17th century where the city must have “seemed like a vision from Revelations” to its current incarnation as “a city of keys and locked doors and private secret inner courtyards.” The pace is deliberate, but never dull.
The intrigue begins when Cambridge historian Elizabeth Vogelsang is found, drowned in the river near her farmhouse. She had been working on a controversial biography of Newton that dealt with his infatuation with alchemy and the supernatural.
Elizabeth’s son, Cameron, asks his former lover Lydia Brooke to finish the book. Lydia respected Elizabeth and they maintained a close friendship long after she and Cameron broke up. Living in Elizabeth’s home, Lydia soon finds this “ghostwalk” to the 17th century comes with flickering lights that dance across the walls, missing papers and an odd assortment of people, one of whom may even be a ghost.
Stott keeps the gothic tones high, while not neglecting the mystery elements or the contemporary story that pulls Ghostwalk together. Only the inevitable romance seems clunky and out of place.
The author, whose last work was a biography of Charles Darwin, has supported Ghostwalk with meticulous research, footnotes, timelines, an extract from Newton’s works and a suggested reading list. That’s all well and good and adds to the feeling of authenticity. But most important, Stott knows how to tell a good story.
—Oline H. Cogdill (South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT))
The Age of Wire and String: Stories
By Ben Marcus
October 2005, 144 pages
“Heaven: Area of final containment. It is modeled after the first house. It may be hooked and slid and shifted. The bottom may be sawed through.”
—Ben Marcus, “The Age of Wire and String”
That’s probably as good a definition of heaven as has ever been written by any theologian, and yet the book it comes from might be one of the strangest and most baffling pieces of experimental fiction ever published in the United States. Calling this thing “fiction” is actually being kind; Ben Marcus’s collection of alien yet strangely logical how-to articles and wild definitions stretches the definition of literature itself. The terms “how-to articles” and “definitions” might be awkward and ungainly, and in fact barely scratch the surface of what Marcus is trying to accomplish, but they’ll have to do because nobody else seems to have any idea what to call this idiosyncratic, confusing and just plain odd piece of fiction. Even the publishers themselves seem split; the back cover proclaims it “a collection of stories” while the front cover, conversely, states it is “a novel”.
What it resembles most is a kind of nihilistic Boy Scout handbook from another planet, or perhaps a post-apocalyptic Earth, where words no longer mean quite what they meant before. Marcus holds to the basic rules of grammar and syntax, sure (and thank God for that), but replaces certain nouns and verbs with different ones in specific places so that the reader is forever this close to understanding what’s being said—but not quite. The final effect of this over 140 pages is genuinely weird and unsettling; the word “dreamlike” is tossed around like confetti in book reviews, but this might be the first book I’ve ever read where a description of the prose might actually warrant its use.
The book’s various pieces are split into sections with titles like “GOD”, “FOOD”, and “HOUSE”, with a “TERMS” section at the end of each in which the various strange objects (and people) used as nouns in that particular section are defined just as strangely. The author even defines himself (three different ways), stating that the “Ben Marcus” is a “false map, scroll, caul, or parchment” or “the garment that is too heavy to allow movement” or “figure from which the antiperson is derived; or, simply, the antiperson.” Some short pieces, like “Leg of Brother Who Died Early”, have been suggested by some to be autobiographical, but that seems to be a rather desperate clutching for meaning seeing that the book’s elliptical, unknowable language makes it impossible to assume anything at all.
To get more concrete, reading The Age of Wire and String is comparable to listening to a bearded psychotic complete with grocery cart and incomprehensible Xeroxed handouts rant and rave on a public street corner. In both cases, there’s clearly some kind of logic to what’s being said (it’s not just random words), but damned if anyone but the person speaking can understand it. A sample: “When children sleep on these points of lawn, the funeral of air passes just above their heads in a crosswind with the body. Funerals generally are staged in pollinated wind frames, so that the air can shoot to the east off of the children’s breath, dying elsewhere along the way, allowing fresh, living air to swoop in on the blast-back to attack the house ...” And the book generally goes on like that, at varying levels of comprehensibility and incomprehensibility, until it just…stops. There is no character development, no plot (and therefore no resolution), no situation, no theme, no real setting.
Only one section of the book courts, however obliquely, with a plot—“The Weather Killer”, which may in fact be its greatest moment, a disturbing collection of anecdotes (“The morning sun was loud, and they ran into the open and gouged at their ears with wire. He collected oil from broken drums and led them in prayer. A rag was found hooked on a tree branch. Men could no longer urinate and their hips blackened”) that completely dispenses with the “handbook” language and uses simple third-person prose. While it is impossible to comprehend exactly what happens in “The Weather Killer” (the setting and characters, if any, remain oblique) the general feeling created is one of utter terror, destruction and pointless violence. To completely alter the meaning of words and still maintain a sense of impending doom is a real literary achievement. The obvious precursor to this kind of writing is Gertrude Stein, whose Tender Buttons (which gave us the infamous “Out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle”) went down similar avenues of pure linguistic musicality; but Marcus’s attempt may even outdo hers in its uncanny ability to generate a feeling, a mood, using nothing but the beautiful and jarring sounds created by one word placed after another.
Spook: Adventures in the Afterlife
by Mary Roach
W. W. Norton
July 2007, 228 pages, Â£14.99
From the number of atheist polemics hitting the bookstands in recent months, you could be forgiven for thinking we are entering a new era of scepticism and rationality. Yet in spite of the arguments emanating from scientific and philosophical corners, millions of people worldwide continue to hold to religious and spiritual beliefs that seemingly defy reason.
Author of the bestselling Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and self-confessed sceptic Mary Roach has entered into the debate with a review of the scientific evidence for what happens to her stiffs after they pass away. In a highly entertaining journey through the creepy, the wacky and the downright deceitful, Roach tackles reincarnation, ectoplasm, ghosts and whether the human soul has a weight.
Except for the reincarnation chapter, most of the “afterlives” explored are from Western traditions, predominantly 19th century-style spiritualism. This is probably wise, because Roach’s writing sometimes veers into a kind of superior sneer at the sheer silliness of it all. While it’s funny to read, it could have left her open to accusations of cultural insensitivity. It is much simpler to stick to widely disregarded beliefs held by only a small number. This is also a weakness, however. A large percentage of believers in an afterlife belong to major religions such as Christianity and Islam, which are barely covered in Roach’s examination.
Strangely enough, despite the lack of any unambiguous evidence and her strong pre-disposition to unbelief, Roach ultimately finds some room for a possible afterlife. There is no light-bulb moment, no Damascus Road experience, but the conclusion of the book seems to leave open the possibility that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than were dreamt of in the author’s imaginings. Perhaps this is the small gap between reason and wonder that religious people have usually called “faith”.