Monday, September 20, 2010

How is James Lee Burke so consistently awesome?

Year after year James Lee Burke publishes a "cannot put it down novel" that consistently blows away all crime novel competitors. How has he been able to keep his characters fresh after 18 novels? Each novel interlocks and mingles with the shared past of the previous ones but can also stand alone. He writes about an "edenic" Louisiana that slowly reveals the darkness lurking beneath the steamy surface. Yet, the question remains: how is he so successful? A few reasons:
1) His characters are stuck in a moral minefield - Take three of his lead characters, Detective Dave Robicheaux, PI Clete Purcel and Sheriff Helen Soileau. Each of them exhibits a tremendous amount of depth and growth throughout the series, yet we are constantly reminded of the basket of snakes each carries inside them. Any one of them could easily be "the bad guy" in any given novel and yet they remain fully committed to their own vision of justice, regardless of the consequences.
2) The setting constantly shifts - New Iberia and New Orleans represent a beautiful cesspool of mobsters, gangsters, corrupt politicians, racist oligarchies and dirty cops. Each novel introduces a new set of characters who are fully fleshed out and ready to unleash their own version of hell on Dave and his friends. There have been continual elements like the Giancano Mob Family and Lee Burke weaves their rise and fall through several early books. He never ignores the history he has created for his characters and builds upon it brilliantly - not many other writers have this ability. Robicheaux has undergone several life changes (and wives) and each one has been written with subtly uniqueness and understated power.
3) The Writing - Lee Burke writes so well your senses are completely assaulted. You hear, smell, see and taste every part of his world - no other writer can do this as well as Lee Burke. Occasionally he throws in a big twist near his endings but usually the books build to a forgone conclusion you may or may not accept. Nothing ever ties up completely and the good characters do not always triumph over evil. Often, his main "hero" is wrong in his assessment of the bad guys. Few other crime writers take these chances.
4) He is the only one who can pull off the slightly supernatural elements - Lee Burke occasionally has supernatural or mystical elements involving life and death in his books and surprisingly it always works. I have read other novels where the authors have tried similiar things and it does not work. For Lee Burke, it always does.
His latest The Glass Rainbow (number 18!) is a fantastic summation of the entire series. All the elements are there and the book is fantastic. The great thing about his series is you can pick it up anywhere and get a great read. It is not necessary to read from the very beginning, but, each novel has to be read, and fully enjoyed.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Now I Can Die in Peace / A Lost Heisman

Now I Can Die in Peace by Bill Simmons resonated deeply with me. It took me a long time to figure out why, and then it hit me: I understand as my team is also suffering a championship drought.
Living in Vancouver (in my opinion a cursed sports city) I understand the futility of watching your team fall short of expectactions year in and year out. In Vancouver, there is only one option for the Vancouver Canucks each year - winning the Stanley Cup. They have not yet won the Cup in their 40 year history. Twice they have made it before losing: in 1994 they pushed the Rangers to Game Seven and lost even though Trevor Linden hit the post twice. Ridiculous. Needless to say the team has yet to carry the championship belt. In 1994 the city shut down and banded together in cheering elation (then we lost and there was a riot) so you cannot say the fans do not deserve it.
Additionally, we had to suffer through The Vancouver Grizzlies (and #1 pick Bryant "Big Country" Reeves who had his nickname changed to "Sleep Country" before the end of his first season) who showed tantalizing potential in their first two games (winning both including a thrilling home opener) before embarking on several seasons of mediocrity and an NBA record 23 game losing streak. Then, to top it all off, new owner, Michael "I am so angry I cannot in good conscience put anything here without being censured" Heisley, moved the team to Memphis where they promptly learned how to draft quality players and made the playoffs.
Simmons was able to perfectly portray a tormented fan base, but also cut to the heart of the sports experience: you follow your team through all the good and band and ultimately they will reward you (unless you live in Cleveland). The beauty of sports is their ability to resonate with entire populaces which they draw together against common foes. Sports are a metaphor for life and despite the ups and downs we all fight through.

Now for something a little different: Reggie Bush voluntarily gives up his Heisman. Terrible. For shame, NCAA, for shame. Even though he was paid by a greedy agent (who recieves no punishment whatsoever and only came forward because he was burned by Bush) there is no denying that in 2005 he was the best player in college football (just watch the clip he was electrifying!) Now, they want to punish USC and Bush? Why? Bush does not play for USC anymore and given he has now voluntarily given up his Heisman what was the point? In all likelyhood a lot of great players take money and gifts - Bush got caught. Did it somehow affect his on-field performance? When the money was promised did that make him play harder? I doubt it. Now, Vince Young (who may have also taken money) wants the 2005 Heisman. Newsflash: It is not yours, nor will it ever be. End the stupidity NCAA, please.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John LeCarre is alternately tabbed as LeCarre's best novel and the best spy novel of all time. Very few novels live up to as much hype as this, however, this one does. Here is why:
1) The tension is so palpable it makes the novel impossible to put down - this is the Cold War at its height.
2) It is does not rely on action scenes - there are no fight to the death shootouts and the book is all the better for it. This is not The Bourne Series but a more meditative take on the cost of being a spy.
3) The mind blowing twist - you sort of see it coming but definitely not in its entirety. The rug is pulled clean out.
LeCarre has written a book that works on a number of different levels and highlights the ideological differences between east and west. This is a powerful, spare, lean novel that deserves the many accolades it has recieved for cutting the spy business down to the bone and then forcing readers to fully understand the moral freezone in which it operates.