Wake Up, Sir! – Jonathan Ames

Just after I completed college, a friend attempted to introduce me to ‘Bored to Death,’ an HBO series starring Jason Schwartzman.  I just couldn’t get into it- a whiny lead and his misfit friends, a 60-something ‘New Yorker’ editor and pot-addict, Ted Danson, and a lazy, self-depreciating cartoonist, Zach Galifaikis.  Several years later, I saw the series on Amazon Prime and revisited to give it another try.  It hit me, surprisingly, and I binged through all three seasons in about a week.  I’ve watched it all the way through again since then.

I was pleased to find a book authored by the same writer of the series at a thrift store earlier this year.  In my mind, Schwartzman played the lead again, along with all the eccentricities that were included.  Written as a first-person narrative, the book ‘Wake Up, Sir!’ is a week long adventure that explores the hero’s struggles with alcoholism.  Alan Blaine is the lead.  He’s working on a novel that explains his odd relationship with his former roommate, an older man who escorts rich old widows in NYC.  Blaine is thirty years old, orphaned, and living with his aunt and uncle and Montclaire, New Jersey.  He has an affinity for sports jackets and wine. Recently, Blaine had won a lawsuit after slipping on ice and put the money to good use, hiring a valet named Jeeves (a nice nod to the Wodenhouse character).  The novelist’s first book was met with mediocre success, and he has his sights on making a bigger splash with his second work. Tired of avoiding his NRA-card-carrying uncle, Blaine decides to bring Jeeves to upstate NY and spend time writing in a Hasidic community, Sharon Springs.  The aunt and uncle were in agreement, and casually mentioned that they had planned on asking him to leave due to his excessive drinking. On the way, he called to check in with his aunt, but his uncle told him an artist colony Blaine had applied to had accepted him.  With changing plans, Blaine made a shorter visit to Sharon Springs.  The hotel he planned to stay in had a massive fire, but Blaine charmed his way into an undamaged double room where Jeeves could join him.  A curiousity had overcome him while calling his uncle and he returned to the phone booth in a drunken state later that night to call ‘Debbie,’ the name from a hand written advertisement that stated she likes her have her ‘kitten’ kissed, along with a phone number.  Well, Debbie showed up, with her boyfriend.  The boyfriend was a giant of a man, referred to as ‘Hill’.  Hill beat up on Blaine and broke his nose, but then Blaine kicked Hill’s knee and punched him in the ear, dropping him and allowing for a brisk escape for the hero.  The next day, Blaine and Jeeves showed up to the Rose Colony with two black eyes and a broken nose.  This appearance intrigued the fellow guests and he quickly made friends, and enemies.  Though Blaine swore off alcohol after the violent episode, he continued to indulge nightly as it was practically a ritual with the artists at the Rose Colony.  Each night brought further escalating malady, until Blaine found himself in the biggest scandal of the colony’s history.

This was a fun read, the main character posed many interesting questions in his thoughts: Why are Jews always persecuted?  Why are the Hebrews in so much popular media, but in so few numbers; what if roles were reversed with the Chinese?  What do you call the erotic infatuation with another human’s nose?

I hope to someday find another book by Ames in the future, but until then, Bored To Death will be on queue.

The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein

It’s easy to love this book, but hard to find a place to start explaining it.  Anybody who has had a best friend with four legs and a wagging tail will understand immediately.  The Art of Racing in the Rain is a story of a race car driver, as told by his best friend and dog, Enzo.  The story moves through highs and lows but they stick together through it all.

Enzo is a lab mix, who dreams of the day his soul will be reborn as a human.  He has so much to say, but a long flat tongue gets in the way so he uses gestures to the best of his ability. His ‘master’ is Denny, and young racer who has dreams of becoming a professional driver.  After a couple of years as bachelors, the pair meets Eve, a woman who Denny eventually marries, and they have a daughter, Zoe.  Together, the family enjoys the time they spend together. After six years of marriage, Eve is diagnosed with a brain tumor, a terminal diagnosis.  Her parents are helpful and watch Zoe a lot, and offer to bring Eve into their home for hospice style care.  Denny is reluctant but knows they have the time and money to help her and so he supported Eve’s decision to stay with them.  Soon, they also point out that Zoe should spend more time with her mom before she loses her, and again, Denny reluctantly agrees.  Eve eventually passed and Denny was heartbroken.  To make matters worse, Eve’s parents present Denny with a custody suit for Zoe.  Denny was confident that there didn’t seem to be much of a case, but a ghost in Denny’s past came in and the cards were soon stacked against him.  He had to spend his life savings, and go into debt to fight for his daughter.

The story alone is gripping, but through the perspective of a loyal dog-friend adds even more to it.  Denny was a racer, and together, Denny and Enzo spent a lot of time watching race videos, analyzing them and learning how Denny could become a better driver.  Enzo loved it!  All throughout the book, Enzo was relating race mantras to the readers.

“The car goes where the eyes go.”

“There is no dishonor in losing the race. There is only dishonor in not racing because you’re afraid to lose.”

“It makes one realize that the physicality of our world is a boundary to us only if our will is weak; a true champion can accomplish things that a normal person would think impossible.”

“That which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny. Be it through intention or ignorance, our successes and our failures have been brought on by none other than ourselves.”

I can’t really say I’m much of a race fan, but this book was much more than that.  As I finished, I sat the book down and thought of all of my dog friends I grew up with with fond memories, and imagined them running through endless fields with their tails wagging. It has been one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote

This morning, I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a novella by Truman Capote.  I had read In Cold Blood several years ago, and find some similarities in the characterization, but little else as the narrative follows a fictional relationship between two people in New York. It was a nice short read, the characters were pitiful, but that just makes you love them more.

The narrator, a young writer, is pleased with finally finding a home of his own in a brownstone apartment in New York.  A neighbor has moved in, a young woman named Holly Golightly who spends days sleeping and nights entertaining older gentlemen.  Holly is a character if there ever was one, a self described nut who ran a way from her Texas home at fourteen. She had married the horse doctor who had taken her in, but ran away because she never felt at home.  She went to Hollywood and was on the verge of becoming a star, when she ran again to New York.  She went on many dates and flirted money right out of the pockets of wealthy older gentlemen. Holly ended up with a Brazilian diplomat, preparing to marry him and move to Rio when her world came crashing down as she was arrested for involvement with a notorious gangster.  The gangster, Sally Tomato, was visited by Holly every Thursday, she delivered coded messages to him, unknowingly, but she thought the ‘weather reports’ were a cute game. Pregnant and shattered by the news of the diplomats decision to leave her, she decided to take the flight to Brazil and leave it all behind, facing indictment for fleeing the prosecution.

The two central characters, the narrator and Holly Golightly, were polar opposites.  The narrator was proud to have a place to call home and Holly was never able to find a home to settle in.  This freedom and stability issue was continuous throughout the text.  One Christmas, they exchanged gifts.  Holly gave the man an elaborate birdcage, a home for avian, while he gave her a medal of St. Christopher, the patron saint of safe travel. At the end of the book, Holly had sent a post card stating she had found a home in Buenos Aires, the the narrator had spend much of his time traveling the world, their roles seemingly reversed.

The Stranger – Albert Camus

A young Frenchman, Meursault, lives on his own, working a trivial job.  The story opens with news of his mother’s passing.  She lived nearly 80 Kilometers away, at the elderly home he had sent her to live as he had little income to support her living at home with him.  He was disconnected from his mother, the time they spent when they lived together was uneventful, each having nothing to say and wishing to be elsewhere.  At the viewing and funeral, Meursault had not wished to see his mothers body, and had not cried, giving the appearance of indifference.  Upon returning home, he began an affair with Marie, a woman who used to be his coworker.  He thought she was incredibly beautiful, but as she asked him for marriage, he again showed indifference to their future.

Meursault’s friend Raymond lived across the hall in their building.  He was involved with a woman who cheated him and asked Meursault for help in writing a letter to her to have some cathartic revenge.  The woman returned to Raymond’s apartment and he beat her.  The woman’s brother was an Arab who began keeping a threatening eye on Raymond.

One day Meursault, Marie, and Raymond went to Raymond’s friend’s beach house.  After a day of swimming and eating, the men went for a walk on the beach and ran into the Arabic brother and his friend, a fight ensued.  Raymond was cut with a knife and went to the doctor.  Later that day, Meursault was still on the beach and was suffering from the heat.  He considered going up the stairs to the beach home, or back to a cold spring (where they last saw the Arabs) to cool off.  He started walking to the spring and found the Arab there.  The blistering heat got to Meursault and as the Arab’s knife flashed a ray of the sun into his eyes, Meursault began shooting him.

The second half of the book relates the time leading up to Meursault’s trial for killing the Arab.  He was seemingly indifferent the entire time.  His lack of desire to fight for himself and prove his innocence led Meursualt to being charged with the crime and sentenced to the guillotine.

The book had a sense of indifference throughout.  Meursault did not care much that his mother died.  He did not care whether he married Marie or not.  He did not really seem to care whether he was found guilty of murder or not.  In the end, he was resigned to the fact that we are all born, we all live a meaningless life, and we all must die.  The melancholy of triviality that lasted throughout the book ended in his final realization.  Meursault was finally happy.

The Great Train Robbery – Michael Chrichton

Author of the world famous ‘Jurassic Park,’ Michael Chrichton penned the novel ‘The Great Train Robbery’ about the 1855 heist.  This was a major event in England for several reasons. First, the trains were a new technology in Victorian England, nobody had thought to make such a daring robbery on a train line.  Second, the plan was well thought out and spanned a period of over a year in preparations. Third, it took nearly a year of detective work to track down the mastermind of the event.

Chrichton did his research well on this event and presented a narrative of the event from the perspective of the criminals, not unlike Capote had done for the Kansas crime novel, ‘In Cold Blood.’ The leader, Edward Pierce, was continually described as ‘the red bearded man.’ He had the appearance of a gentleman and was little suspected to be a criminal, as most believed Victorian criminals were of the lower class.  Pierce created a master plan to rob the London train heading to the coast with a load of gold intended to pay troops in the Crimean War.  While he collected information, he also rounded up necessary men and women to aid the heist.  As he hired the men he needed, he told no one of the impending robbery details, just what their particular job would be.  He hired Robert Agar as a lock picker early in the the preparations and left him in the dark as they worked together to bring the plan together.

The robbery entailed robbing the trains on the go, in a special guarded and locked car, sat two state-of-the-art Stubb’s safes which had two locks apiece, requiring four keys to get in.  The four keys seemed the most difficult part of the preparations.  Two were locked in a cupboard in a guarded office, two others were each held by managers of the bank employed to supply the gold shipments.  One man was seduced by a young prostitute to obtain the key, the other was burglarized at home during the night, the key being in his wine cellar.  The other two keys in the guarded office took an elaborate scheme.  Pierce hired a boy to act as a thief, who ran into the office and broke a ceiling window in a failed attempt to escape.  Pierce’s cab driver  was a large brute with a noticeable white scar on his forehead, acted as a policeman to chase the boy and take him away safely without real repercussions.  Later that night, a man Pierce had hired for his climbing ability and agility climbed through the roof into the room to unlock the door.  Agar then waited until the guard went to the bathroom and ran into the unlocked room and made wax copies of the keys, returning to his hiding place on the platform before the guard returned. Several months later, after careful planning, Agar and Pierce were ready for the big day.  Agar was disguised as a corpse in a coffin to be loaded into the guarded car.  Agar had met the guard a few months before as he practiced unlocking the safes, the guard had been payed off, and was believed to be no threat to the operation.  Pierce boarded the train in the second class cars and had one all to himself.  During the route, he climbed onto the roofs of the speeding train and walked to the guarded car, where he unlocked the door from the outside.  The gold was bagged and thrown off the train to Pierce’s awaiting cab driver. Bags of lead shot replaced the weight of the gold and the safes were locked up again, every one returning to their original places as well.  The train delivered the safes to a ferry crossing the English Channel, then were transported to Paris to pay the troops.  It was in Paris it was discovered that something was amiss.  The train blamed the Parisian government, the ferry blamed the train, and the British and French governments blamed each other. After such careful planning, nearly everything went according to plan.

Over a year later, a lady-friend of Agar’s was caught robbing a drunk man and when begging and bribing didn’t get her out of police possession, she gave up information on Agar’s involvement in the robbery. Agar was apprehended, which led police to the train guard, and to Pierce.  The trial was a national event, however, overshadowed by the Indian uprising against British troops on the Indian peninsula. Pierce was cool, calm, and collected the entire trial, explaining in detail his plan and the execution of the robbery.  Upon sentencing, Pierce was taken into a police cab, to be taken to jail.   The guards woke up and reported that they don’t remember anything but a large man with a white scar on his forehead beating them.  Pierce, his mistress (who was involved in the robbery) and the cab driver made a clean escape and were never heard from again.