The Other Joseph by Skip Horack

the other josephSometimes it’s difficult for to pin down why I like a particular book.

I liked The Other Joseph by Skip Horack, maybe more than it deserves to be liked.  I can’t quite figure out how good it is.  It’s good, mind you.  Probably very good.  But I’m not sure I can explain why.

I like the main character’s story.  Roy Joseph is an outsider, a loner who has failed to function in society, given a chance to turn things around.  He reminds me of the heroes in American Heart (played by Jeff Bridges) and The Wrestler (played by Mickey Rourke).  Both are excellent movies, by the way.  If you haven’t seen them you’ve missed some of the best movie acting ever recorded.

In these two movies, like in The Other Joseph, the hero has lost the previous generation of his family, alienated or lost his siblings and failed to connect with his children.  All three live on the margins of society, just barely getting by on their own.  If you’ve seen American Heart or The Wrestler, then you know that a triumph of the spirit is the best ending to be hoped for in The Other Joseph.  Men like these don’t come to outright happy endings in art.  The framing story in The Other Joseph tells us how the story ends in the opening pages; so this is no surprise.

Clearly, I like stories like this.  There’s something about this character type that appeals to me.

Roy Joseph has never really recovered from his brother’s death.  Roy’s brother, Tommy, disappeared in a helicopter accident over the Persian Gulf during the first Gulf War.  Roy was only 14 at the time, so he never really knew his brother Tommy.  A few years later, both of Roy’s parents were killed in a car accident.  Afterwards 19-year-old Roy fell in love with a 16-year-old girl.  When relationship ends badly, the girl’s parents press charges against Roy leaving him a registered sex offender under Louisiana law for the next ten years. Unable to really live anywhere or get any other work, Roy takes a job on an off-shore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.  When he’s on shore, he lives a very lonely life with only his dog for company.  (The dog lives, by the way.)

Towards the end of Roy’s ten-year sentence he gets an email message from a teenage girl who says she might be Tommy Joseph’s daughter.  After a few failed attempts to make further contact, Roy sets off for San Francisco, where the girl lives, in the hopes that he can find her and tell her what he knows about his brother, her father.  What he’s really doing is trying to recapture a part of his lost brother through meeting this girl and her mother who knew Tommy while he was in basic training near San Diego.

Which makes The Other Joseph  a little like Norman MacClean’s novella A River Runs Through It and Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall, both novels I list as favorites.  So there’s that, men looking for lost children and men trying to save or recover lost brothers.  It’s still a rare enough thing for me to  find a novel that really understands what it is to be and to have a brother.

The strange twist to the ending of The Other Joseph is something we know all along so I’m not spoiling anything here.  The twist is that while the book is about how Roy tries to recover his lost brother Tommy, the book is “compiled” or “told” by Tommy who wasn’t lost after all, but held captive for well over a decade.  Tommy is rescued after the events of The Other Joseph so he never gets a chance to reunite with his younger brother.  Tommy uses Roy’s journals to write about his brothers attempt to reconnect with him as a means of reconnecting with Roy.

It’s a little difficult to get your head around that, but once you do it adds a greater sense of loss and, in a way, of connection.

So, that’s the best I can do, for now, of explaining why I liked The Other Joseph as much as I did.

 

The Other Joseph counts as book number eleven in the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge.  It looks like I may even meet this challenge, though I only have three weeks of vacation left.

 

 

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Fiction, Novel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Incantation by Alice Hoffman

What do you do when the whole world turns against you?

Estrella de Madrigal has a good life. The beautiful daughter of a successful businessman, she is well on her way to a good marriage when trouble comes to her home town of Encaleflora, Spain. The year is 1500, a new age has dawned. But when an ancient hatred rears it’s head, Estrella finds her family is the target. The Inquisition has come to Encaleflora, looking for Jews posing as Christians. Estrella does not know it, but her family is secretly Jewish.

Incantation by Alice Hoffman is a problematic novel. The opening sections are entertaining, if not compelling, but they contain some things that are hard to swallow. All Jews were expelled from Spain or forced to convert in 1492, the money confiscated from them was used to finance Columbus’s first voyage to America, so how can there be an openly Jewish community like the one Hoffman describes in 1500? Estrella’s family has made their Jewish faith a secret, but their small town contains both a Jewish and a Muslim ghetto. Then there is also the issue of Estrella’s pet pig. The neighbors all raise pigs for food, but Estrella’s family lets her keep one in the house as a pet. No one in her family will eat pork; they claim they prefer vegetable sausages instead. I’ve been around pigs. While they are an underestimated animal in general, I find it hard to accept that a girl in medieval Spain would keep one as a pet and let it sleep with her in an upstairs bedroom. And how is it that none of Estrella’s Christian friends ever offered her a sausage?

Halfway through the novel, things change. Once Estrella finds out that her family is Jewish, once the inquisition arrests her grandfather, the novel becomes a page turner. Any concerns I had about historical accuracy vanished, and I became engrossed in the plot. While there were no happy endings for Jewish families during the inquisition, and Ms. Hoffman’s novel remains true to the historical period, Incantation still manages to provide a hopeful ending for Estrella.

So I’m left with mixed feelings about Incantation. I did get a small set of books for my students to use in their book clubs at our school’s recent book fair. I expect their reviews will be mixed as well.

 

I first posted this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009.  In the years since I have had several groups of students read Incantation.  Their reviews have not been mixed.  They do not like it.  

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Fiction, Novel, Thriller, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sunday Salon: The Thrill of Not Know What You’re Going to Get

Sometimes I pick up books I never heard of based solely on how much I like the cover.  I don’t even read the inside flap to see what the book will be about.

I just read it.

Read it with no idea of what will happen at all.

C.J. and I have been doing the same thing with concert going lately.  Not quite the same I guess.  You can usually tell by a venue what sort of music you’ll get at least in a very general way.

We’ve been going to the Jazz School in Berkeley lately.  Since it’s only ten or fifteen dollars a ticket, we don’t even pay much attention to what sort of performer will be there.  When we can go, we have dinner, visit Half Price Books, and then see the show.

Since we buy tickets through the local on-line half price outlet, sometimes months in advance, we often end up sitting in a theatre waiting for the lights to darken with no idea what’s going to happen because we tend to forget what the play’s about.

There’s an element of surprise to this that makes for a lot of fun.

I’m currently reading The Other Joseph by Skip Horrack because I liked the cover when I saw it on the New Books section of my local library.  I’m planning on finishing it today.  I’ve no idea what will happen.  I had no idea what would happen when I started page one either.  It’s not going to be on my top ten list this year, but I am enjoying it.

Last night we went to see Cindy Scott at the Jazz School  with no idea what to expect.

Here’s a sample of what we saw.

 

This is not the kind of music we usually listen to.  In fact, if I had seen this video ahead of time I might have decided to skip this show.   It’s also not really jazz, but no  one was bothered by that last night.  Ms. Scott was terrific as was Brian Seeger on the guitar.  She was much more downbeat than I would have expected at a jazz club where the music leans towards the up-tempo.  Their cover of I Want to Get You on a Slow Boat to China stripping away the typical big band treatment the song usually gets to just vocals and a guitar made it a sweet, sexy tune that prompted some hand-holding, I confess.

She sang a version of Shenandoah that brought tears to just about everyone’s eyes then invited one of the musicians in the audience up on stage to join in on a rocking Bye, Bye, Blackbird, one of my favorites.

A standing ovation prompted two encores.

So this got me thinking.  Why is it we so often hesitate to try something unexpected?  These days people don’t go the gas station without checking the reviews on Yelp first.  True the concert we saw before this one wasn’t all that good, but it was just ten bucks, and I often stop reading a book after three or four lack-luster pages, but aren’t the best parts of things the ones that surprised you?

The moments in a performance I remember most fondly are the ones when the performers did something I wasn’t expecting.  When the Grateful Dead left their play-list to riff on The Beatles Hey Jude; when Counting Crows basically ran out of songs and did a spontaneous unplugged cover of The Psychedelic Furs The Ghost in You; when Bob Dylan plugged in his guitar for the first time.  Okay, I wasn’t there for that one, but you see my point.   I was there when Betty Carter and Carmen McCrea changed their minds halfway through the song, decided they certainly were not blue and turned Am I Blue into a triumphant number about getting over that man.

Authors don’t really do that very often.  At least I can’t think of an example off-hand.  So do it for them.  You’ve already paid your fair share at the local library.  Your tax dollars at work–not using it at least now and then is wasting your own money.  So go in sometime and pick up a random book off of the shelf.

You never know…

Posted in Ramble | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Is this the best police procedural ever written? The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

Late one rainy night in Stockholm, a gunman boards a double decker bus and kills everyone on board.  He leaves no clues behind.  No hint at his motive or identity.  Just victims.  And questions with no answers.

As soon as Superintendent Martin Beck of the Stockholm Homicide Squad begins his investigation he finds that one of the victims was a member of his own squad.  What was a homicide detective doing on a bus in that neighborhood at that time of night?  Is the murder somehow connected to him?  Was the dead detective, in fact, the killer’s target?

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo is considered a classic of detective fiction, a prime example of the police procedural.  The book’s reputation is well deserved.  Sjowall and Wahloo populate their novel with characters that run the gamut of Stockholm society circa 1970.  A multiple murder, the worst on in Stockholm’s history, with random victims allows the authors to send their detectives into many  levels of society.  It’s surprising who one will find on a bus late at night.  Everyone has a story.

Of course, the investigation eventually takes the reader into Stockholm’s underworld.  If you think Scandinavia is a land of clean, well-ordered people, that’s not what you’ll find in The Laughing Policeman.  The dead detective was using his free time to investigate the murder of a sixteen-year-old Portuguese prostitute.  He hoped to solve this decade old case thereby making is reputation.  Now, his work is the only possible lead Beck has into his own murder.

 The Laughing Policeman satisfies on several levels.  It is expertly plotted.  A crime without any clues is a tough place to start from, but the authors create a plot that remains entirely believable as it becomes more complicated.  The characters are all those one expects to find in a detective novel, but while familiar they are fully fleshed and likable–well, enjoyable if not always likable.  The prose, translated  from the Swedish by Alan Blair is as terse as it should be–to the point, no nonsense, full of dialogue that illustrates the procedure used to solve the crime.  There are no quirky characters in The Laughing Policeman.  If you want a mystery with recipes or funny next door neighbors, look elsewhere.

The Laughing Policeman gives the reader a glimpse into life in Sweden.  Not the life one will find in a guidebook.  Scandinavia looks like it may soon become the next big thing in literature, detective literature at least.  The other day I saw a counter display of Swedish mysteries at my local bookstore.  I’ve not read enough of them to say how important The Laughing Policeman is in the world of Scandinavian mystery novels.  I can say that it is an excellent book and a very entertaining read.

 

I  first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009.  Back then I read all ten of the Martin Beck series which took me a couple of years, but was well worth it.  Since I am the only person you know who has read all ten books, I think I can say that with some confidence, I can tell you that if you only read one Per Wahloo/Maj Sjowall book this is the one to read.  All ten of the books are excellent, but this one is probably the best.  It’s also the one I’m keeping to read again one day..

Posted in Book Review, Classic, European Literature, Fiction, Noir, Novel, Scandenavian Fiction, Series, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Post Secret: Confessions on Life, Death and God by Frank Warren

I am a big fan of the Post Secret books. That will be my confession, to get that out of the way up front. Several years ago, Frank Warren invited people to create postcard containing a secret they’d like to confess but are afraid to tell anyone about and send them to him. What began as a small art project has grown into a full fledged industry including several books and a website.

I love these books because sometimes a card can tell an entire story in a simple statement. Take for example a card showing a photograph of a young man in a Rolling Stones t-shirt holding up a fish he has caught. A strip of white paper is pasted over the young man’s face with these words: “I still wear your shirt.” Is this a confession about a lost love, a departed brother, a friendship that ended badly? Whatever the situation, this simple sentence conveys enough emotion to fill a novel.

 Or this one– a collage of three images: an ultra-sound, someone holding up a sign that says “Have Faith” and a faucet knob with the word “fear” on it. The message reads: “I never feared death–until I became a mom.” I don’t think you have to be a mom to understand this sentiment. John Irving wrote The World According to Garp, a novel many hundreds of page long, in part to explore this very idea. But it’s all there in those eight words.

 Or this one–a photograph of a bulldog looking up at the camera which is held over his head. The message reads: “I hate my living room couch so I let me dogs pee on it to force my husband into buying a new one.” Sounds like a perfect plot for a slightly twisted situation comedy to me.

Or this one–A photograph of a girl sitting on a dock reading a book. Her feet are in the water. What looks like a shark fin is in the water next to her feet. The message reads: “I wish I had been weirder in high school.” I hope someday this particular author realized that old age is a second chance to be as weird as you want. As George Burns said about the benefits of growing old, there’s no more peer pressure.

Full Disclosure: I received an ARC copy of Post Secret. I’d like to thank the publishers very much and encorage them to send me ARC copies of future Post Secret books.

Mr. Warren was recently on the Today Show talking about his new book. Here’s the video.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22425001/vp/33190641#33190641

 

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009.  Mr. Warren continues to receive secrets from all over the world.  

Posted in Book Review, Non-fiction | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments