Saturday, July 31, 2010

Black Minutes by Martin Solares

While Black Minutes is both an engaging mystery told in parallel stories--one present and one twenty years earlier, it is more than a noir mystery tale. Sorales explores the political corruption that has beset Mexico since the days of President Echavarreta. The drug cartels rule and the tentacles of corruption extend to the police—on all levels.

In the fictional port town the Paracuan police investigate crimes; however, the politicians monitor their investigations so that they don’t interfere with the drug cartels. Often this results in justice being of little interest and the incarceration of innocent people.

The two stories: a young journalist, Bernardo Blanco, has been murdered and the police are investigating; however, it becomes apparent that they are not to follow certain leads. Their job is to find a culprit quickly. Their prying has parameters that must not be broached.

Sorales peoples his story with a huge cast of characters which he fortunately lists on three pages. The Paracuan police are, for the most part, comprised of officers who take bribes, have little interest in justice, and are quick to anger.

Ramon Cabrera, a detective on the Paracuan Police force is of a different ilk. He's honest. Even though he's told to leave the Blanco case alone he continues looking at leads ignored by the police. He seeks the answer to the question first raised by the police chief before that question no longer interested the chief. What was Blanco looking into? Perhaps the answer would lead to his killer.

He discovers that Bernardo Blanco was investigating a twenty –year old case —the horrific murders of four young girls. Rene de Dios Lopez had been convicted of the murders. Blanco wasn't sure that Lopez was the perpetrator.

From this point on there's a seamless interweaving of the two stories—the murder of Blanco and the murders of the four girls. Solares is a writer who feels comfortable with prose that is poetic, prose that wanders into magic realism, and the skilled use of a number of literary devices.

In the earlier story it is Detective Vincent Rangel who seeks justice. He, too, is told to leave the case alone, but pursues leads that turn out to have dire consequences for him.

Historical figures appear as characters within the story and are faulted for the corruption that envelopes the political landscape. Drug cartels wield enormous power in the book and in the Mexico of today.

Several thousand people have been killed in the drug wars in the past two years.

This is a fascinating book that is so much more than a crime novel.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

The Appreticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler was written a number of years ago and describes a Montreal that has probably changed quite a bit. Richler depicts the Jewish community as insular, but changing. Shuls are being replaced by Reform Temples that eschew many of the more traditional customs.

Duddy attends a high school in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. His career in high school is marked by a lack of interest and a penchant for troublemaking. From a young age Duddy wants to be successful and his interpretation of that is ownership of land and the making of money. His grandfather had once said that a man must own land and that becomes Duddy’s mantra. In order to obtain what he wants Duddy is not above employing nefarious means.

Richter populates his book with a host of quirky characters. I’ve heard people say that there is a great deal of humor in the book—perhaps, but I was put off by some of the stereotypes. I found it uncomfortable to read and really couldn’t find any character I liked.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Dr. Brodies Report by Jorge Luis Borges

Born in 1899, Borges died in 1986 at the age of eighty-six. His first published work in 1923 —Fervor de Buenos, a book of poems.

Borges, who many consider the father of magic realism, published these stories in 1970. It had been almost twenty years since he had written and published short stories.

His earlier work, both short and novel length stories were far more complex, filled with labyrinths revealing divergent paths, parallel universes and time that meandered.

These stories, written in a more accessible fashion, still take unusual turns.

One critic referred to them as prose poems. If one definition of a prose poem is vivid imagery and concentrated expression then I'd agree. Add to that Borges's restrained revelations and unusual conclusions and the stories often are mesmerizing.

In some stories objects become people and people become objects. A knife, in two stories, has a mind of it's own. The knife pursues someone and acting independently kills that person.

People metamorphose into other personages or objects— reminding me of Kafka.

The story that stays with me: "The Gospel According to Mark." According to Gabriel Josipvici, " Borges himself admits that it is ' perhaps the best of this collection." The story tantalizes the reader as it follows the biblical story— yet set in Argentina.

It's progression to an ending—deliberate, paced, and despite being inevitable, stuns the reader.

Borges uses the story to explicate his own view of religion.

Jorge Luis Borges. THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MARK (1970) Translated by Norrnan Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with the author .
The Gospel According to Mark

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Life and Times of Michael K

By J.M.Coetzee

Michael K., born with a hair lip, is consigned at an early age to an institution for handicapped and feebleminded children. Academics are difficult; however, he learns about gardening and when released from the institution is employed as a gardener. His love of the earth enables him to take on greater responsibilities and a higher level gardening position.

The story takes place in South Africa during a period of conflict. Yet, save for the mention of Cape Town, South Africa is not mentioned. Neither is there a mention of who is black and who is white.

K rarely sees his mother who works for an elderly couple and takes care of their residence. She is given a place to live—a rather unpleasant basement dwelling. With all the unrest she loses her job and shortly after becomes ill. She needs Michael. He leaves his job and takes on the task of taking care of her. Her wish is to return to her childhood home and Michael is determined to take her “home”.

At first he follows all the proper channels, applies for a permit, and waits for the necessary papers, which will allow them to travel. Without those papers they will be unable to cross-checkpoints. After a frustrating wait, he decides to leave the city without a permit. His mother, no longer able to walk, is pulled in a cart he has constructed from found parts.

The trip is fraught with difficulties, some physical and some the result of police controlling the roads. His mother cannot survive the harsh life they must endure and she becomes ill and doesn’t have the stamina to survive. Without his knowledge she is cremated and her ashes are then given to Michael. In his mind he must continue to her childhood home—he’s promised his mother.

He finds the village and also finds an abandoned farm. He sets about gardening with some seeds he’s discovered. All he really wants to do is cultivate his small patch of land and live on the food he grows. This becomes impossible when soldiers destroy his plot. Eventually he is taken to a camp for the unemployed where he refuses to eat and is unable to partake in the work details—or forced labor He only wants to eat what he has grown.

Both sides abrogate Michael’s freedom. Everyone is made a prisoner by the inability of people to recognize the humanity of all people.

This is a powerful book—a book about decisions and the results of those decisions. A book about moral rights.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Alone in the Crowd

By Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Alone in the Crowd,a police procedural, is the seventh book in a series featuring Chief Espinosa. Since I’ve not read any of the previous books I’m not privy to the relationship between Espinosa and Irene, his girlfriend, save for what is in the book. Their relationship affords complete freedom to both of them—no ties, no promises. Irene flits in and out of various chapters. Two of the policemen in his district are loosely described. I felt that these characters are rather two-dimensional.

In this story a present death—accidental or purposeful —is tied to a death that happened thirty years before. The suspect, an unassuming solitary bank clerk who handles the distribution of pensions has a childhood connection to the chief. His character is flushed out a bit more. As the story progresses the reader discovers that the chief and the suspect, Hugo, grew up in the same neighborhood. Hugo, a year younger, had been obsessed when he was a child with wanting to be in the same circle of friends. Actually he wanted to be Espinosa’s best friend.

The introduction of fractured memory and guilt propel the story forward. Hugo, in an unofficial meeting with Espinosa —with no one else present, no microphones, no taping— presents his memory of the two deaths. Because he never knew if he was responsible for the first death, a young girl who fell down a flight if steps and hit her head, his whole life was altered. He’s never sure if he was the one who bumped into her. When he tells his mother, an unpleasant neurotic character, she torments him regarding his guilt.

The story has a number of psychological twists and turns. I wish more time was spent unearthing the fragile layers of Hugo’s life. Ultimately untimely accidents or murders happen to all the people who had been privy to the story he told his mother and she shared with several confidants.