COOL GRAY CITY–LOVELY

1608199606I first encountered Gary Kamiya’s work in his excellent weekly column in The San Francisco Chronicle–Portals of the Past–in which he recounts episodes from the city’s history. As the author of three historical novels set in and around San Francisco (two of them published–The Maxwell Vendetta and The Second Vendetta) San Francisco history, of course, interests me intensely. The column’s intro mentioned his book The Cool Gray City of Love, and I meant to get it but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I guess I was waiting for it to come to me through a surprise connection with his mother, whom I didn’t even know I knew. I felt foolishly smug about my SF history knowledge. It turns out I knew nothing at all.

Kamiya’s “49 views” are not only historical, and meticulously researched, but personal and poetic as well. He takes us back, back, back to eras (there were several) when the bay was a valley without water, when mammoths and giant bears prowled the territory from Telegraph hill to the Farallones. He walks us through streets and fields we never knew existed and helps us understand them historically, geologically, emotionally. His literary and scientific erudition is enormous. The emotional/artistic aspect of the work announces itself in the title–a line from a poem by a forgotten San Francisco poet named Sterling. Fittingly, a poem engraved on a plaque in a small, unheralded park where the author played tennis. And Kamiya adds plenty of his own poetry as well:

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GARY KAMIYA

. . . [A]s I walk through San Francisco, as I have done for most of my life and will do until I die, I walk in the company of friendly ghosts. They [the now-extinct, Yelamu, San Francisco’s earliest inhabitants] and their world are gone now, their campsites and villages buried beneath skyscrapers, their trees cut down, their streams covered by concrete. But they look through my eyes. We walk together through this ordinary place in the sanctified world, this 46-square-mile piece of eternity.

Even if you don’t know and love the city as I do (and, did I mention I know nothing of the city compared to Kamiya?), its fine prose and affection of place are reasons enough to open and devour The Cool Gray City of Love. Everyone who has ever loved a city–even if that city is not San Francisco–will find communion with this wonderful book. Grab it.

 

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CHARLES WILLIAMS TRIO

418U9To5bhL._AA160_41HXgy0KnhL._AA160_41gOh0ie2dL._AA160_I’m surprised Charles Williams  isn’t better known. Seems to me he’s right up there with Chandler and Hammett—well, almost—and from the same era. His career encompassed the same 1940’s and 1950’s era, and his command of language and character is as true and touch as it comes.charles-williams-for-website

The title of Aground refers to a stolen yacht that’s marooned on a sand spit somewhere between Key West and Cuba. The rich widow, Rae Osborne, “a statuesque blonde with a flamboyant mop of hair” hires our narrator/protagonist Ingram to search for the yacht he is for a short while suspected of stealing. They find it, but complications prevent their sailing back home.

During the ensuing conflict, while Osborne and Ingram plot a way out of their difficulties, they engage in tough-tender banter reminiscent of Bogart/Bacall at their best.

“Do you have any desire to get rich?”

“Not particularly.”

“Could two people sail this boat? Very far, I mean?”

“ … Most of the time they’d have their hands full.”

“What about two people who’d just as soon have their hands full of each other?”

 

Crisp and spicy. Just the way I like it.

 

Williams apparently didn’t create a character or group of them follow them from one book to the next, at least for this trio. The Big Bite concerns a pro football player who’s washed up by a knee injury suffered in a car crash. It wasn’t an accident. He was the victim of a murder attempt by in a case of mistaken identity. The crash didn’t kill the perpetrator, but someone else came along and finished the job while our John Harlan was unconscious.

John finds out about the caper and decides to replace his sports salary with some blackmail cash. It gets complicated. Williams uses the same taut prose and deft imagery as in Aground.—“She drank like somebody trying to finish a highball with a cab waiting outside … ”—but this time our narrator is no hero. He’s the next thing to a noir protagonist—a decent guy who’s been hardly done by and gets corrupted by the thought of easy money. Entertaining, realistic, and full of people with respectable facades and larceny in their hearts.

 

Talk of the Town presents us with a different situation altogether. It’s still first-person tough guy, but this one really does have a heart of gold. Ex-San Francisco cop Chatham is driving cross-country, trying to leave a broken life behind, when he’s involved in a small accident in a little Louisiana town. He’s about to get arrested when a woman steps forward to witness that it was the other driver’s fault. Not testimony that sits well with the small crowd that’s gathered. Chatham takes up residence at the motel owned by that very woman, Mrs. Langston. Turns out she’s an outcast, in circumstance that fits the book’s title. Everyone suspects she murdered her popular husband, thought the evidence isn’t strong enough to bring her to trial. She’s ostracized, but too stubborn to leave.

Chatham’s cop instincts take over, and he gets drawn into an investigation over of the original crime. Turns out, of course, that there’s a lot more to the situation than appears on the surface, and what he uncovers makes for an exciting and satisfying read.

I gobbled up these three with relish and anticipate going for more of this prolific guy’s ouvre. I hope he has a renaissance. Even post-mortem, I would like to think it would do him good.

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A DANCER IN THE DUST

412BtXahcCL._AA160_“Charity is not love.”

That remark by native Lubandan and the only white native of the country Martine Aubert could define the entire narrative spine of Thomas H. Cook’s Dancer In The Dust. Ray Campbell came to Lubanda as a young man intent on doing good and changing peoples’ lives. He left, defeated in his original purpose by politics and revolution, but in love with this lady who inherited a farm from her family and is intent on leading a simple, uncorrupted life.

A murder in NYC of a man whom he knew all those years back and who worked for his love, Martine, takes him back. The investigation of the murder takes him back to the country to see what he can solve. He finds himself involved with many of the people he knew before. The convoluted circumstances of both the personal and the political intrigues become byzantine in the extreme.

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THOMAS H. COOK

As Campbell’s interviews proceed, we find ourselves involved not only in the personal and criminal drama he came to deal with, but with principles of international relations. When is foreign aid helpful, when corrupting and destructive to the very people and countries it was intended to support?

There are answers to these questions in the novel, but no solutions. And in the end, it seems to me we are left with the romantic and ephemeral image of the title. It may not seem like much, but believe me, it’s emotional impact is considerable. Dancer in the Dust doesn’t leave your mind or your heart.

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A STAR FOR THIS TALE OF WWI MOTHERS

9780307958846You’d think a story about a group of mothers traveling to France to visit the graves of their war-killed sons would be a maudlin tear-jerker. At least I thought so, but boy was I wrong. April Smith’s A Star For Mrs. Blake is like one of those asian paintings that creates as much of its effect from the spaces as from the drawing.

Cora Blake lives an isolated life in a small town on a small island in Maine. She mourns the loss of her Samuel, killed in World War I, maintains the town’s small library, raises her sister’s girls, sometimes works in the cannery. She has a suitor/lover, but she’s not in love. Not much of a life, really. Then comes an invitation from President Hoover’s Department of War. She and a group of other women whose sons’ bodies lie beneath French soil are to be shepherded across the Atlantic to visit the warriors’ remains.

UnknownCora becomes the coordinator of a group which includes a rich matron, a poverty-stricken Irish immigrant, a Jewess whose family raises chickens because the isolation of the ranch helps them avoid the more aggressive anti-semites in the community, and (eventually) a woman whose husband has had her committed for hysteria several times to help facilitate his philandering. An army lieutenant and a general as well as a young nurse eventually join the mix.

The group undergoes a few rather cliche experiences–the awe of country folk in NYC, for example. However, most of the rest is original and fraught with tension. The lengths, for example, to which the army goes to keep the group segregated when a case of mistaken identity brings a black woman into the group. Everyone thinks they’ve made friends with her, but when she’s forced to leave, she tells them, “We are not friends. We never could be.” Nitty gritty stuff.

As the journey continues, the relationships develop, alliances form and dissolve. Always, the Meuse-Argonne battlefield is the goal. But the army is determined to provide a tour of Paris and environs along the way. Also along the way, Cora develops a relationship with a journalist that leads to perhaps the pivotal moment in the book.

The race issue raises its head again in a way that leads to a mistrust of the Army’s information and by implication all government institutions and authority. There’s a great deal more, every moment filled with tension and suspense. Smith narrates her way through a great variety of points of view with great skill. Every time a moment threatens to become saccharine, she stops, pulls back, and lets the reader’s imagination fill in what comes next.

By the time Mrs. Blake and her companions return home, each of them has had a life-change, and each of us as readers has gained both an insight and an unforgettable emotional experience. I almost didn’t download this one, but it would have been a grievous mistake. Thanks, April.

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TALKING ABOUT THE LIGHT

9781250047274-1Aside from the fact that Louise Penny’How The Light Gets In took its title from one of my favorite Leonard Cohen lines (“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”) and that it is set  in one of my favorite cities, Montreal, this book didn’t seem to have much going for it, but I bought it anyhow. Good choice? Of course.

I think I encountered Inspector Gamache once before in the distant past, but for some reason hadn’t returned to him till now. The guy is in real trouble. Political enemies have taken over the force, and his entire unit is being dissolved. In addition to having to solve some difficult cases without his usual expert help and organization, he has to figure out how to save his own scalp and the homicide division as well.

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LOUISE PENNY AND DOG

I do have a complaint about Penny, which I recalled during my reading. Even though we spend many many pages inside the head of our protagonist and other major characters, we are often not privy to essential plot information until Penny chooses to disclose it. I call this author manipulation closely akin to deus ex machina, and I don’t like it. However, the characters themselves are so engaging and the situations so intriguing, I cast a veil of forgiveness over the whole thing and just went on and enjoyed all the unique virtues of the novel.

Sante, Gamache, and see you again soon.2.0