Blake Crouch Letty Dobesh Fiction Seems Made-for-TV

By Blake Crouch
Thomas and Mercer, 290 pages.

By now many of you have seen episodes of the TV series from which the above book has been adapted. Give Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery credit for stretching herself–Letty Dobesh is no Lady Mary. In fact, she's no "lady" at all, though she can pass for one when she's not in jail or strung out on crystal meth. The title is ironic, with "good behavior" referencing both early release from prison and a demeanor of which Letty is incapable. Letty is a thief, a world-class pickpocket, an addict, a divorcee, a thrill-seeker, and isn't above turning a trick now and then. She has a son, but not custody because, in short, she's about as much bad news as one can cram into a single beautiful body. She is, however, a very good thief and con artist, which makes her irresistible for anyone looking to assemble a team devoted to nefarious purposes.

Good Behavior is actually three novellas packaged under one cover. In "The Pain of Others," Letty is newly paroled and working heists in an Asheville, North Carolina luxury hotel. During one "pull," things go wrong—do they ever go "right" is such stories?–and she is forced to duck into a closet to avoid detection. There she overhears a deal being struck between a contract killer and a husband wishing to have his wife dispatched. What would you do if you were Letty? Is it any of her business? This story has a nice twist to it.

In "Sunset Key," Letty is in Florida where her contact, the shadowy Javier, sets her up with John Fitch, the CEO of an energy company who is about to report to federal prison and wants a sybaritic weekend before he goes away for a few years. Letty is led to believe that she is basically a high-priced hooker. As the cliché goes, things get complicated.

The final story, "Grab" is a story of crooks seeking to steal from another crook—in this case, a Vegas casino owner whose stash is allegedly burglary-proof. Letty thinks so too, but if the team pulls it off, she could probably retire on the payoff.

I was a big fan of Crouch's alt.universe Dark Matter, which I found thought provoking and unique. I can't say the same about Good Behavior, which reads like what it is: short narrative treatments he wanted to convert to scripts and franchise as a TV series. I don't watch television, so maybe these stories are terrific on the small screen. As literature, though, these stories flunk the sniff test. They are clichéd, predictable, histrionic, and underwritten (as, indeed, they would be if the script is the ultimate goal). It's as if Crouch figured he'd sell scads of these if the TV show struck popular chords. Letty is an intriguing character, though one wonders what it says about our society when we begin to admire characters like her or Breaking Bad's Walter Hartwell White. In fact, I wondered how much of White went into conceiving of Dobesh. That might be an unfair rap on my part, but I do have a pretty good grasp of mediocre prose when I see it. Cross this one off your wish list, folks.     

Rob Weir


A Gentleman in Moscow is a Charmer

By Amor Towles
Viking, 480 pages

If ever a novel deserves to be labeled "charming," A Gentleman in Moscow is such a book. Amor Towles, whose 2011 debut Rules of Civility probed the world of New York society in the 1930s, once again allows us to dine among the upper crust, but within a very different setting and set of circumstances: Russia shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. The Bolsheviks famously shot the Romanov royal family as they did many  other aristocrats, but not all of them—some actually participated in overthrowing the Romanovs and were dubbed heroes of the pre-revolution.

In Towles' novel, Count Alexander Rostov is such a hero and might have eventually risen in party ranks—had he not been accused of writing a poem deemed critical of life in the new Russia. Rather than execute or exile him, the Soviets place him under a very odd house arrest–he is condemned to live out his days within the confines of the luxurious Hotel Metropol, which was already his Moscow address. Not that he will live the life of a count; his suite is confiscated and Rostov is assigned a small room into which he can barely fit his bed, desk, wardrobe, and books. The government declares Rostov a "Former Person," a form of shunning, and advises him he will be shot if he so much as walks into the street. Not that Rostov particularly wishes to leave his gilded cage. From the start we are offered a dilemma unlike most we encounter in novels: How does a man of refinement, manners, and culture live in a world of affected plebeian presentation, bluntness, and non-sophistication?

Interior of the Metropol
Insofar as Rostov is concerned, you can rob a count of his title, but you can't make a count into a peasant. He has resources his tormenters don't know about, so he continues to live as he always had: dining on fine food and wine in the Boyarsky Restaurant, chatting with visitors at the Shalyapin Bar, and conducting himself with dignity at all times. Does he get bored? Rostov was a count, so it's not like his former days were filled with activity. In a quiet way, though, he's the most radical man in Moscow–a person untouched by the revolution. Because the Bolsheviks need the Metropol–it's their glitzy showcase for outsiders–Rostov is there to charm them all­: his poet friend Mishka, an American traveler who might be a businessman or a spy, apparatchiks, foreign dignitaries…. Two are special: precocious nine-year-old Nina and cynical actress Anna Urbanova. Nina grows to be a dear friend and Anna something more. Decades later, Rostov becomes the unlikely surrogate father to Nina's daughter Sofia, when Nina follows her husband into Siberian exile.

Rostov might also be the luckiest man in Moscow. The novel covers the years in which Josef Stalin was in power, a time in which the Bolshevik promise became a Solzhenitsyn nightmare. The count survives by behaving as if the Bolsheviks were more of a faux pas than a social revolution. Rostov neither denounces nor praises them—he simply continues to be himself, even when he is forced to become a waiter in the very restaurant in which he once dined. But even the apparatchiks like him, as does a powerful Communist Party official. In fact, it seems his only enemy is former waiter whom he unintentionally embarrassed by suggesting he serve a more appropriate wine to a table of dignitaries. Alas, this man becomes an officious political climber.

This is a long novel about a man who stays put, but it moves more crisply than you might imagine. Although sections of it are a tad overwrought, the last third of the novel hurtles toward an enormously satisfying denouement, and the book concludes on a beautifully heartwarming note. How often have we heard the aphorism, "Be yourself?" How faithful are you to your self-identity? How do you know what is truly valuable? Towles dares to ask a deeper question still: To what would you cling if some external force robbed you of everything else?  

Rob Weir


February Tunes: Julian Velard, Craig Price, The Khalifes, Kerri Louisa, Andy Chew

You've probably noticed that there aren't many pianists on the pop/folk music circuit. That is, of course, because of logistics–you can't exactly toss a Steinway into the back of your Honda. It's also about sound; true devotees know that electronic keyboards are poor substitutes. (I know one musician who says he'd rather starve than play a tinny Yamaha.) So let's devote a bit of space to a few keyboardists who tickle a lot of keys on the road.

Julian Velard recently released Live @ Pianos, an intriguing pastiche of selections and styles. Hey, why not head off the Billy Joel comparisons and do a killer cover of "My Life," but pare it with an original ("Do It Alone")? That one aside, Velard reminds me of Matt Nokoa in that he's a good vocalist and that his repertoire is one part hipster and one part showman. He's a native New Yorker, a background he (sort of) honors with "New York, I Love It WhenYou're Mean," a love/hate letter that captures the Big Apple's simultaneous allure and horror. There's also the semi-schmaltzy "Brooklyn Kind of Love," which sounds like the kind of standard an urbanized Willie Nelson would take on. Songs like "I Don't Know How to Drive" find Velard in a pop mood; others such as "24-Hour Flower Boy" and "Glad I Wasted all My Time" are more in the light jazz mode. I prefer less ostentatious music, but I loved, loved, loved Velard's cover of "Rainbow Connection," which is so sensitively done as to remind you that it doesn't matter if a frog croons a song that damn good. ★★★

I don't know if Craig W. Price is the pianist on his album Earth or not. About all I can tell you is that he's from Nebraska, sings a lot like Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, is a Christian artist, and that's there's lots piano on his release–mainly of the dripping rain variety. As befits praise songs, most of the album is contemplative, which is both a strength and weakness. The album has a soupy ambience that's good for musing upon life's mysteries, but I doubt you'll ever see these songs in a youth group songbook–not because they're too prayerful, but because they are low on musical hooks and sing-along possibilities. I liked Price's voice and lost myself a few times in dreamy instrumentation, but it was also hard at times to distinguish one song from the next. Check out "East West," which I see as the strongest track. Also check out the very religious "Rocks" to see if he's coming from where your head is located.★★ 

The piano figures prominently on the album Andalusia of Love by the father/sons trio of Marcel, Rami, and Bachar Khalifé. This project is Marcel's brainchild. He is a Lebanese composer, oud player, and peace activist (2005 UNESCO Artist for Peace) with an interest in fusing Arabic and Western music. The piano is his instrument of choice for fusion and it's safe to say that his Julliard-educated son Rami knows his way around the keyboards. Younger brother Bachar also plays piano and electronic keyboards, plus various percussion instruments. For those who don't know, Andalusia is today a small section of southern Spain, but was once an Islamic kingdom (711-1212) that encompassed all of the Iberian Peninsula and parts of southern France. (Grenada didn't fall until 1492.) This is a sophisticated project that stitches classical music, jazz, folk, and Arabic melodies and vocal styles. You'll hear Spanish cadences in "Ouhibouki," crystalline highbrow/high keys on "Taratil," vocals evocative on North Africa on "Ana Li Habibi," and experimentation bordering on dissonance on "Yadaik." I'm quite taken with "Ya Habibi." which opens with soulful and morose vocals but whose percussion moves the piece into joyfulness evocative of belly dancing. ★★★★

In other musical news––

I recently ran across an album titled Bring the Rain by an Australian singer named Kerri Louisa. It's a sweet, occasionally poignant recording in a pop/folk vein. This record is a bare bones homespun recording with just Louisa on acoustic guitar, Jared Murti on bas, and Nathan Edgell on keyboards, electric guitar, and percussion. For me it's the kind of stripped-to-the-bone record that makes folk music more honest and compelling than pop. My favorite tracks were "Barren Place," "Bring Me," "Hard to Breathe," and "When She Smiles." The first is quite a song–a soft, sad country folk ditty that, at 7:20, takes its time in building to a lush climax and allows Edgell to ease us down with his sad piano notes. Louisa has the sense to follow with the string band ditty "Being Me," with its mountain music ambience." By contrast, "Hard to Breathe" uses quick notes and sharp, brief pauses to create catchy pop-laced folk. "When She Smiles" is sunny with finger-snapping cadences. Louisa is also an activist with Destiny Rescue, an organization seeking to end the use of children in the Asian sex trade industry. Good heart. Good musician. Check her out. ★★★

Acid folk has emerged as recognized subgenre and, like all such terms, is equal parts useful and deceptive. It is, however, the label I'd apply to most of From the Ruins by New Hampshire native Andy Chew. His is a  trippy album of ambience-drenched vocals amidst a musical swirl of acoustic guitar, bell-like tones, meditative cadences, background vocal textures, and cross cutting sounds. Chew's intent is to capture the cycles of the natural world and he admits that many of the tunes came from experiments with tunings and frequencies. The end result is music that, at its best, is trance-like in the way a good Grateful Dead jam can be, but also just as repetitive. Chew's arrangements emphasize mood and groove over hooks and articulated lyrics. Once we're inside his musical whirlpools, we snag bits and pieces of his lyrics like so much flotsam whizzing by us. At times he's as pensive as Tim Hardin or Nick Drake and perhaps as oblique. I liked this recording, but only in small doses at a time that kept the sameness at bay. Too much feels like a soundtrack for getting high. Maybe this is one of those releases for which single tracks are more satisfying. Go the NoiseTrade and try "Dark Forest," "Woven of Pine," and the title track.  ★★