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"The Laughing Monsters" by Denis Johnson

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Denis Johnson obviously has a thing for espionage as it’s supposedly practiced today. Although it’s set a few decades in the past, Tree of Smoke centered on the gathering, use, and misuse of intelligence, in particular military intelligence. In The Laughing Monsters we get spies plying their trade again, although in this case the misbehavior seems to drown out the good behavior. The Laughing Monsters features Denis Johnson’s unvarnished prose in the service of a seemingly random plot - there’s no reason a spy caper should follow logic, is there? - and a venal, unstable, impossible-to-predict first person narrator. It’s engaging as hell.

The height of Mr. Johnson’s powers comes into play here: we accompany a presumably competent narrator through a halting, lurching reality, some of it built on a seeming sense, the rest on lunatic delusion, or maybe hallucination. This presentation challenges the reader to keep her balance as best she can, because she’s going to need it to weather the storms of apparent betrayal, incarceration, near-death from thirst, and the constant - and not always successful - running from the authorities.

On the face of the narrative, we have Nair, a captain in the Danish army and spy for an arm of NATO. In Sierra Leone he meets up with a friend, a black man, Michael Adriko, from an African tribe, who has lived in the US for some time. Michael is “attached” as a trainer to the US Army but might be AWOL. Michael has cooked up a harebrained scheme to sting some very shady characters out of millions by selling them fake enriched uranium. Nair has an equally underhanded scheme afoot when the two team up. While trailing along with him, Nair helps Micheal defy death in a couple of frightening scrapes, while trying to steal his fiancée, who for some reason is with Michael in Africa.

Yes, it’s a screwy plot, delightfully so; rather simple on the surface, but full of convolutions underneath. I found the most entertaining prose written in the dialog. Nair’s interrogation by an American intelligence official is supreme.  I wanted to put in a sample, but there’s just too much. The verbal sparring between the spy and the counterspy, often in sentences of three or fewer words, is priceless. I laughed, I reread it,
and I laughed all over again. Conversations among Nair, Michael, and the fiancée Davidia, are almost as funny.

The Laughing Monsters is a slim, entertaining spy caper, where spies use their knowledge and skills to reach for ill-gotten gains. We don’t know for most of the book whether Nair and Michael are friends or enemies. There is certainly no giveaway or hint of how the thing will turn out, so no spoilers here, either.

The monsters of the title are many: there is a mountain range called that, the ubiquitous armed bands of looters and rapists that populate parts of Africa are certainly monsters, and the U.S., which displays its monstrousness through military assets and its use of law for convenience. I compare this to Nobody Move, Johnson’s celebrated short piece, for its focus on the moral shadows, for its brand of action, and for its injection of delightful dialog.

"Warriors of the Storm" by Bernard Cornwell

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The ninth entry in Bernard Cornwell’s rousing Saxon Chronicles series, Warriors of the Storm does not disappoint. Of course featuring the heroics of Lord Uhtred and his hard-bitten band, this effort distinguishes itself with a quicker, more relentless pace than in some of the recent books in the series. In quick succession, Uhtred uses Mercian fighters to push Norseman Ragnall Ivarson and his superior numbers away from the walled city of Ceaster (present-day Chester), harries the invader into flight, steals across the Irish Sea to rescue his daughter and son-in-law, turns Ragnall’s army against him, and installs his son-in-law Sigtryggr as king of Northumbria.

About the only thing Uhtred doesn’t get to is recapturing his ancestral seat, the fortress at Bebbanburg (currently called Bamburgh). At the end of the book, though, he’s gearing up to a run at that.

So, we know at least one more chapter in the Lord Uhtred series is on the way from over at Bernard Cornwell’s thrill works.

I find the books in this series unputdownable. I read the just-under 300 pages in two
sittings, and in my ridiculous schedule, that’s remarkable. Mr. Cornwell always places us in the midst of 10th-century Wessex, but also keeps us hanging on cliffs as the plot sneaks and snakes and rears up. I completely admit to escaping to a far-off time and place while reading this series; it’s effective, memorable, entertaining, and gratifying. I do, I love it.

"My Name is Lucy Barton" by Elizabeth Strout

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Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, is causing a sensation among readers and critics, as well it might. In its halting, diffident tones, it elucidates one woman’s struggle to understand her past, her family, and especially her mother. It’s a book in which human emotion and motivation must be guessed at - the first-person protagonist, Lucy, keeps guessing throughout, including trying to puzzle out her mother while she’s standing in the same room with her. The whole is memorable, affecting, and somehow ennobling.

Lucy went into the hospital a long time ago, to have her appendix out, but mysterious complications arise in surgery’s wake. Her mother surprises her (at Lucy’s husband’s urging and financial support) by paying a visit to her there. It isn’t necessarily what they say to each other, but more how they talk through the sometimes difficult history, the haunting memories each has of Lucy’s youth. These plain, charming conversations lead to recollections and speculation, and they lead Lucy to writing her reaction. She recalls features of her childhood and her brother and sister; she remembers having to fake being an adult in modern society because she came out of her childhood with almost no understanding of modern beliefs and attitudes.

Lucy Barton is a remarkable character: endearing, self-deprecating, successful and worldly in spite of the emotional poverty of her childhood. Her voice and her observations, and her brutal honesty with herself form this entire book, and it all works superbly. Ms. Strout has clothed the narrative in two shades, it seems to me, and reflects them off the iconic Chrysler Building, which is visible from Lucy’s hospital room. During the day, the building’s ornate top fades into the late spring sky, its colors unremarkable. At night though, the shiny symbol of humanity’s hopeful, upward urges takes over, and rises above the glittering streets below.
This convoluted yet graceful talisman gathers up and distills the complex, roiling human strivings of the mortals below; it announces that Lucy, even with her bleak childhood, has a noble, creative spirit, and especially that she understands and cares about the suffering of others. Beneath the surface of bland language and lack of confidence lies the world’s fullest complement of intelligence and curiosity and charity. It’s Lucy’s recognition of this in herself and in others that lends this shining narrative its class and luminescence.

Take up My Name is Lucy Barton, do not let this opportunity pass by. Books this simple and effective and beautiful don’t come along very often.

"A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding" by Jackie Copleton

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Familial love, betrayal, and secrets drive the elegant A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding. The narrative is placed mostly in Japan and spans the middle of the 20th Century - from the mid 1930s on. Wrenching and life-changing events befall all the characters, of course, and the changes are both outward and inward. This book demonstrates very clearly author Jackie Copleton’s mastery of human striving and emotion, and also her easy conversance with Japanese culture and language. It is stunning, effective stuff.

First-person protagonist Amaterasu Takahashi sustains loss after loss within these pages, her sorest loss being the death of her daughter in the nuclear attack on Nagasaki. And her daughter Yuko, while alive, also causes Amaterasu her deepest worry. She - Yuko - falls for her father’s physician friend, Sato, when only sixteen, and nearly throws her life away for what she believes is love. Amaterasu does everything in her power, not hesitating to deceive and manipulate everyone around her to gain her ends. After the war she and her husband move to America, escaping all the nightmarish family and civic trauma, and she settles into a quiet routine toward the end of her life, with whiskey for company. But then she must face unexpected connections that wake unwanted memories.

Ms. Copleton leads off each chapter with a Japanese word or phrase, and explains its significance to that society’s life and culture. The words often depict traits that are admired in Japan, and words that have a variety of meanings, often in subtle shades and nuances. These vocabulary entries, the “Dictionary” of the title, focus our attention freshly on the characters as events shape and reshape them. But there is a startling and very pleasing extra meaning in “mutual understanding,” one which drives and has driven our dour heroine from page one.


Also, the book has a structure and pace to it that further demonstrate the author’s skill. Amaterasu reluctantly takes out Yuko’s diaries after unexpected events late in her life, and as we read these entries alongside her, she imagines for us the scene and intervening events with a second voice. These juxtapositions, taking place in the plot when they do, affect us with a powerful sense of this author’s elegant conception and execution, and I find her strategy beautiful, a joy to engage.

Take this book up, certainly. Live for a time inside the consciousness of a strong woman who frets and works for those she loves. A gem - startlingly good and memorable.

"Raking the Dust" by John Biscello

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We amble through Raking the Dust with its first-person narrator, Alex, and none of us seems in much of a hurry. Alex writes a little, drinks a lot, falls for a beautiful, enigmatic singer, and encounters some pretty fantastical stuff. Along the way, author John Biscello treats us to some quirky erudition - we learn the legend of St. Wilgefortis, a bearded female virgin Catholic saint, crucified for disobeying her royal father, but it’s a quote from St. Teresa that really serves as both cautionary signpost and prescription: After describing the soul as a crystal castle of many rooms, she says, “What could be worse that not being at home in your own house? What chance do we have of finding rest outside ourselves if we can’t find peace within?”

This wise sentiment can serve many people but to Alex, our flaneur hero, it legitimizes a lazy self-absorption, unseemly in one of his age. He scrounges out a life in Taos, New Mexico, moving from eviction to eviction, taking the odd writing job and assiduously drinking and drugging himself toward oblivion. The truly arresting developments, physically impossible to us mere mortals, all center around his lady love, Dahlia Jane (DJ to you and me).

I had a hard time pinning down DJ’s dramatic function in Raking the Dust. She spurs our hero to … move to San Francisco so he can … bum around in a place even more expensive than Taos. The action in the avant garde club stretches credulity, as do a number of scenes here, but again, they only seem to lead to Alex’s ultimate estrangement from the girl he loves. That could be exactly the point.


Raking the Dust is not without its charms. Mr. Biscello’s talent reveals itself in a number of details, such as this spot-on observation about a child’s glee at a carnival: “There’s a certain timbre to innocence, when announcing itself, which cannot be duplicated.” And the very offbeat use of lives of the saints to propel his narrative along. But I found myself wishing I had had a shot at editing the book to tighten it up and bring the point into focus. The change in Alex at story’s end, subtle as it is, leaves us up in the air. So many of the other episodes along the way do too, unfortunately.