Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Some different books

Sometimes I amaze myself with my reading. I'm doing my usually juggling; work, boowahs, house, four classes. Yet somehow I keep reading away. There are times I wish reading was more "productive" but then I wonder what that even means. It's largely enjoyable. Isn't that enough?

I mention this because I somehow managed to wrap up three books this week. The one took me a while because I had a difficult time getting into the author's writing. It had a sort of VH1 Behind the Music feel to it. This would be Karl Johnson's biography of the magician Dai Vernon, The Magician and the Cardsharp. Johnson made everything unnecessarily overdramatic.

I thought the book would be pretty interesting. Vernon was a mentor to many magicians, including my favorite, Ricky Jay (which is why I chose to read it). The book focuses on Vernon's quest in the 1930's to find a gambler in the midwest who supposedly knew how to deal from the middle of the deck. Such a skill would be extremely useful to magicians and Vernon wanted to possess the knowledge. In a way the book is a dual biography about the gambler, Allan Kennedy, who was able to deal cards from the middle.

Mostly, though, the book is about Vernon. Johnson originally wrote about Vernon for American Heritage magazine and the book emerged from that. The drama and the aspects of Kennedy's life often feel like they're there to flesh the article out to book size. It really shouldn't take hundreds of pages to detail a trip from New York City to Kansas City which, ultimately, is the extent of the story.

The writing was much more enjoyable in Jim Lynch's Border Songs. Lynch creates a really quirky main character, a 6'9" dyslexic/possibly autistic man in his 20's named Brandon Vanderkool. Vanderkool lives on his parents' farm on the border between Washington State and British Columbia where he is a fanatical bird watcher. Brandon becomes a border patrol officer and his unusual sense of observation and his familiarity with the area gives him an uncanny ability to find/stumble upon illegal activity.

Although the border patrol is to be primarily focused on preventing terrorists from entering the United States via Canada, they soon discover that there is a rampant marijuana trade going on across the borders and seemingly everyone in the community, on both sides of the border, has some involvement.

Lynch creates very memorable characters, some, like Brandon, teetering on outlandish, while others are more "normal" yet are far from dull or stereotypical. The story itself lacks power and the ending was a little blah for me but the writing and characters make it well worth reading. This was on the new book shelf at the library and caught my eye.

The final book of the post was part of Keith Law's KLAW100. I've enjoyed many of the books on his list based on his recommendation (Master and Margarita, Lucky Jim, Tender is the Night) and many, many more that I had read without knowing he thought highly of them (Confederacy of Dunces, Fathers and Sons, Crime and Punishment, etc. etc.). In fact, the only clunker on the list that I have come across was At-Swim Two Birds. I could not finish it. For the most part, though, if Law likes it, I expect I will.

Our Man in Havana met the expectation. The only Graham Greene book I had read previously (and bizarrely so since I have reread it many times because I think it's so good) is The Power and the Glory. The two books are incredibly different. The Power and the Glory is a very serious novel while Our Man in Havana is very light and entertaining.

Our Man in Havana is a bit of a satire and is about the conversion of Wormold, a British vacuum cleaner salesman in Cuba, into a secret agent. Wormold is unwilling but needs the money to buy things for his daughter. Wormold raises his daughter alone after his wife had left him. Not really knowing how to go about being a secret agent, Wormold files fictitious reports which surprisingly become very real.

I don't know that I would consider this book one of my top one hundred of all time. It's outlandishness is a little much at times and a lot of it is predictable. It is funny even in minor details (such as the head of the British secret agency wearing a monocle over a glass eye. I did enjoy it a lot, though.

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