Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Polish Boxer, by Eduardo Halfon

Eduardo Halfon. The Polish Boxer. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2012. 188 pages. ISBN 9781934137536.

Eduardo Halfon's The Polish Boxer is a collection of short stories with the same main character throughout (also named Eduardo Halfon) that together form a short novel. The character Eduardo Halfon, like the author Eduardo Halfon, is a college professor of literature who lives in Guatemala, studied in the United States, and teaches in a Guatemalan University called Universidad Francisco Marroquin.

In "Distant" Halfon tracks down his star student, the only one who really gets literature, only to find that he had to drop out to support his family when his father died. "Twaining" describes Halfon's experiences at a small interdisciplinary conference on the topic of Mark Twain. In "Epistrophy" Halfon and his girlfriend meet a Serbian pianist named Milan Rakic who describes his half-gypsy parentage and deep-seated desire to be a gypsy musician. "White Smoke" describes his experience meeting two Israeli women in a bar in Guatemala. In "The Polish Boxer" Halfon shares his grandfather's story about his time in Auschwitz and how a man helped him to survive his "trial" by telling him what to say when he was interrogated. "Postcards" is a summary of the postcards sent to Halfon by the Serbian pianist Milan Rakic who writes repeatedly about gypsies and their culture. In "Ghosts" we see the beginnings of an obsession with Rakic, who has stopped sending postcards to Halfon. "The Pirouette" is an account of Halfon's trip to Belgrade to search unsuccessfully for Rakic. In "A Speech at Povoa" Halfon describes the conference in Portugal that he attended and from which he began his adventure searching for Rakic in Belgrade. The theme of the conference is "Literature Tears Through Reality," and this it seems is the theme of this collection of stories. "Sunsets" is about the death of Halfon's grandfather.

What is the reality as presented by Halfon? Are the stories real? What really happened and what didn't? Within the stories reality shifts as well. When he was a child Halfon's grandfather tells him that his tattooed identification number was his phone number, so he wouldn't forget it. Later he's told that the Polish boxer helped him survive Auschwitz. Even later he hears a different version of events.

I found Halfon's stories engaging and many-layered. In "Distant" he writes about the multiple meanings of short stories and that the reader must go beyond the surface meaning and search for additional meaning. Halfon's own stories seem to have many meanings and interpretations. Although I didn't appreciate each story in the collection equally ("Postcards" in particular was a little tedious), there is a lot to think about here, and this book would be especially good for a group discussion or a book club.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Drop, by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane. The Drop. New York: William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2014. 207 pages. ISBN 9780062365446.

In Dennis Lehane's The Drop, a shy and lonely bartender named Bob finds an abused puppy in a trash barrel and decides to adopt it. He befriends Nadia, a woman from the neighborhood, who teaches him how to take care of the puppy. Bob lives by himself in the home he inherited from his parents. He works with his cousin Marv in a bar that Marv used to own but which has been taken over by Chechen mafia gangsters. One night the bar is robbed by two neighborhood losers, and it sets in motion a series of events that threaten Bob and Marv. On top of all of this, the original owner of the puppy is a sociopath who begins to stalk and harass Bob and Nadia.

All of this plays out very quickly in this short novel. Mr. Lehane packs a lot into just a few pages, and it left me wanting more. More character, more plot development, more description. I don't know if this spare treatment was intentional or just a byproduct of turning a screenplay into a novel, rather than vice versa. I enjoyed The Drop, but I read it in just a few hours. I hope that Mr. Lehane's next effort is a little more substantial.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Liesl & Po, by Lauren Oliver

Lauren Oliver. Liesl & Po. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. 307 pages. ISBN 9780062014511.

Liesl is an orphan who's been locked up in the attic by her evil stepmother who wants Liesl's substantial inheritance. Will is an alchemist's apprentice who makes a fateful mistake by delivering a box of magic to Liesl's home instead of the ashes of Liesl's father. The box of magic draws Po, a ghost, who helps Liesl escape the attic with the box of magic, which she believes contains her father's ashes, and which she intends to bury in the home they lived in when Liesl's mother was still alive.

Along the way they encounter and evade many obstructions, including a thief, the alchemist, the Lady Premiere (who wants the box of magic that was intended for her), the Lady Premiere's guard (who only wants to help Will, although Will doesn't know this), a policeman, and an interfering old lady.

Written for  younger readers, Liesl & Po is an enjoyable fantasy with amusing characters. It deals with serious themes, including murder, greed, child abuse, hunger, loss, and sadness. It's illustrated throughout with pencil drawings that reminded me of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I recommend Liesl & Po to anyone who enjoys ghost stories and adventures.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Paranoia, by Joseph Finder

Joseph Finder. Paranoia. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004. 424 pages. ISBN 0312319142.

In Joseph Finder's Paranoia, Adam Cassidy gets himself in a jam by authorizing a catered party for a friend's retirement. Using authorization codes that he wasn't authorized to use, he ends up costing the firm where he works $78,000. When he's called before his bosses the next morning, he expects to be fired, and he isn't unhappy with the prospects of being jobless. He's so unenthusiastic about working for a living that he makes an effort every day to do as little as possible.

Instead of being fired, though, he's first threatened with prosecution and imprisonment. After he's thoroughly frightened, he's offered a deal. He will apply for a job at his firm's biggest competitor, and then use his position to work as an industrial spy. Adam applies himself to a crash course in spy craft, gets the job, and begins to seek information that will help his original employer. Before long, however, he begins to be torn by his competing loyalties. He forms relationships at his new job with another employee, as well as with the owner, who becomes a father figure. He decides to break his connection with his former employers, but try to maintain his new status.

As much as I wanted to like this book, I was put off from the start. All thrillers rely on the reader to suspend disbelief, but this book's plot was so outrageous that I found it impossible to enjoy. Adam's quick rise in the new firm, his mastery of all the technology needed to conduct corporate espionage, and his manipulation of everyone around him were ridiculous.

I've enjoyed other books by Joseph Finder, but I can't recommend this one.