Monthly Archives: January 2011

CBR III Weeks 2 and 3: Gorky Park and Spending

Gorky Spending

Long time no see, Cannonballers. I’ve been awfully lazy lately, when it comes to blogging, but today, to make it up, I’ll be reviewing two books: Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park and Mary Gordon’s Spending. And yes, I will be using all the Russian words I know.

Fist up is Gorky Park: a murder mystery set in Brezhnev’s USSR. The titular Gorky Park is a real park in Moscow, where three corpses are discovered one spring. They’ve been shot and mutilated so as to preclude easy identification and, as it turns out, they’ve been hidden under the snow for several months. Chief investigator Arkady Renko is assigned to the case.

Renko is a man born to the nomeklatura, who rejects the advantages conferred on him by parentage. For reasons that remain sketchy (although I guess his father does seem like an asshole of the first water), he’s extremely skeptical of bureaucracy, which in his experience always devolves into rule by lowest common denominator. He abhors the amount of hypocrisy he’s expected to spout, so while backstabbing apparatchik flourish, Renko’s career has stalled.

Renko’s insistence on the primacy of truth is his tragic flaw, and the closer he gets to solving a case no one wants solved, the more it costs him, personally. Still he persists. Renko is in no danger of going down as one of literature’s phenomenal detectives; every revelation feels deeply earned and he goes down more wrong tracks than right ones. The mystery itself is involving and complicated enough that unraveling motivations is as interesting as figuring out what actually happened. I’m not going to spoil things by going into specifics like Wikipedia (thanks a lot, guy who gave away the end of the book in the character description, when all I wanted was to remember Recurring Marginal Character #347), but suffice it to say that in communist Russia, the mystery solves you.

(Nyet! YOU are more tired that Britney Spears’s weave. Whatever, let’s not fight.)   

Reading this is in 2010, it feels like a time-capsule: a glimpse into the paranoia, disorientation, and disillusionment that dominated the Soviet 1980s. Cruz Smith has a lot to say about police states in general, but he never makes the mistake of letting it shape his story, and the picture he paints of Moscow is full of vivid detail, idiosyncrasy, and even affection.  Here are shabby offices, dim apartments, cheap cigarettes, bad marriages, and Russian cold so vividly evoked that I kept wanting to crawl under a blanket.

Which is why it’s so unfortunate that the story goes totally off the rails about 2/3rds of the way through. There’s a location change (to the USA!), which really took the zip out of the story. His descriptions of NY don’t live up to what he does with Moscow (of course, I’ve never been to Moscow, so maybe that’s the difference). And the ultimate answer to the mystery, when it comes, is sort of disappointing. Still, worth a read if you’re curious about the later Soviet era.

My second review is for Spending, which was a book I read for school. It’s about a middle-aged woman painter who meets a man—whom she calls B—who offers to be her muse. Not only does he want to inspire her, he also wants to offer her financial assistance, so that she can give up her teaching job and devote herself to painting full-time. Complications arise almost immediately when they jump into bed about ten minutes after meeting.

I read this book in the context of a class about writing sex into stories. Spending is about sex (alooooot of sex), but it’s also about creativity, and a woman’s relationship with her work. It charts the confluence of all of Monica Szabo’s passions. It starts with a sexual encounter, and sex is both the catalyst and inspiration for a series of paintings that make Monica’s reputation as an artist. Sex very much defines character: Monica’s sense of joyful abandon during the first sex scene, which surprises even her, is part of our first impression of her. Although we’ve only been acquainted with the character for a few pages, it’s clear that something important is changing for her (“In the morning when I woke up, I was shocked” she tells us). Throughout the novel, the sex Monica has reflects her needs, her frustrations with her work, and the necessary selfishness–maybe even narcissism–she has to assume in order to finish her project. And that project is in itself about sex: she sets out to paint a series of post-coital men modeled on great classical paintings of Jesus shortly after the crucifixion. She draws a direct line from religious ecstasy to sexual abandon.  

This all sounds very cerebral—and Monica is a clever, engaging narrator—but it all ends up being really lightweight, because there isn’t any real conflict. As soon as anyone has a problem, it’s already been solved. B loses all his money about halfway through the book, but hey, look! Monica’s rich now and she loves him. This isn’t even a spoiler—it’s part of the jacket copy. Without a sense of risk and danger, the story turns frothy and inconsequential despite its interesting, unconventional narrator, like chick lit for smart women. It’s the kind of book that you should definitely read if you find it in someone’s bathroom and you’re super-bored of their party.


Next up: A Game of Thrones 



Molly Recommends


2011. Ok. Yes.

Molly has made a list of resolutions: in the New Year, there will be no more cage-matches with raccoons that end in torn-out whiskers, or eating frozen deer poop, or gleefully spreading bathroom trash all over the house. Molly will be five in March (probably), which we are all excited about, because we keep hoping age will mellow her out, despite all evidence to the contrary. She’s looking forward to sharing a NY apartment with me sometime this year (fingers crossed); just her, some humans, eighty pounds of dog hair a week, a rat or two, and incessant whining and barking. Exciting!

Recently, I took Molly’s doggy-bank (a real object that exists) to the Coinstar machine, and while I warmed my hands at a trashcan fire with the other hobos, it counted out a whopping forty-four dollars, which were returned to me in the form of an Amazon gift-card. God forbid I donate it to a worthy cause, or give the change to the Salvation Army Santa standing two feet from the machine, looking me over with his gimlet eye. I mean, take your bell and stuff it, right?

Because of our book-buying freeze, Molly couldn’t immediately blow it all on books, as is her wont. Instead she’s making a list of how she wants to spend it when the long winter of our discontent is over. What I’m saying is, if you have something amazing you think Molly (ahem) should read, I’d like to know.

My residency is next week, and Molly’s agreed to help me express how I feel about 2011 right now:


What is this?

CBR III Week 1: Tana French’s Faithful Place


This is my very first Cannonball III Review, and right off the bat, let me make a confession: I didn’t read this. I listened to it instead. I hope you all don’t mind, but my commute is ridiculous and a girl can only listen to so many NPR stories about genocide/plagues/the endtimes before she begins to get depressed. For me, it’s more like National Panicking-quietly-in-my-car Radio, but I digress.

So: literary mystery set in Dublin. Undercover detective Frank Mackey is forced to return to the home he ran away from decades before when a mysterious suitcase is discovered in a neighboring abandoned house. Mackey’s childhood home—where his parents and older brother still live—is located in a cul-de-sac called Faithful Place: a claustrophobic place full of the kinds of characters that can only be played for laughs or tragedy. It’s the kind of little neighborhood where everyone is drunk, unhappy, or desperately oblivious.  Anyway, perhaps the most defining choice of Frank’s life was to leave Faithful Place, but the appearance of the suitcase (or, rather, what he discovers subsequently) completely changes how he perceives the events that lead up to him making that choice. As the bodies pile up, Frank is drawn further and further into “the bubbling cauldron of crazy that is the Mackeys at their finest”, and is forced to confront the history he’s been avoiding for so long. And what a history it is. French has an enormous gift for making every character feel alive, their wrinkles well-earned, their traumas and disappointments important in our judgments of who they are and what they have done. The result is that what could easily be a melodramatic story about the way violence taints its victims feels wholly original. There’s a once-beautiful, abusive, alcoholic father figure—that old standby—and even that feels fresh.

One of the most surprising things about the way this novel was put together is that we’re given the answer to the mystery about halfway through, but French actually shows us Frank and the other characters dealing with the fallout of what has happened. It’s a rare thing and a great part of the book’s success that the detective character is so invested in the results of what he’s investigating. The more he learns about who his family was and is, the more difficult his position becomes. There’s an awful sense of the real consequence of violence: that, unlike you or Hercule Poirot, the characters in the story are never going to be able to walk away from what has happened.

For next week, I’m trying to finish Great Expectations*, and I think I’ll end this with a little Pip:  “What could I become with these surroundings? How could my character fail to be influenced by them? Is it to be wondered at if my thoughts were dazed, as my eyes were, when I came out into the natural sunlight from the misty yellow rooms?”

*(No, not because Oprah said to.)