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Month: April 2016

Maybe Read This Book: What You Have Left (The Turner Trilogy)

If you check my reading list, I had originally intended to move from Austen’s Pride & Prejudice directly to Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. But after finishing a ramble through England in the early 1800’s, I wanted a change of pace before returning. So, I jumped ahead on the list and picked up James Sallis’ What You Have Left.

In reality, this is not one book, but three: Cypress Grove, Cripple Creek, and Salt Water, published in 2003, 2006, and 2007, respectively. I only say that because it makes me feel a bit better about being behind schedule on my reading list.

Sallis will be most familiar to those who have seen the movie Drive (which I am not recommending; it’s very violent and has some sexual content). On the surface, this trilogy of books bears very little similarity to that film; the setting is different, the conflict is less clearly defined and much less central to the tale, the preoccupations of the protagonists are very different. But at their core, both the film and the trilogy address the some similar circumstances: a man set apart from civilization, dragged into a conflict he doesn’t want, and compelled to do violent and questionable things in order to resolve that conflict for the safety of those he cares about.

It’s hard to summarize the plot of the Turner trilogy, because the plot felt so unimportant to the work as a whole. A quick summary would be that John Turner, a former policeman, retired therapist, and ex-convict, is asked to help solve a murder in the tiny community near his cabin. He agrees to help, and over the rest of the first book and throughout the next two, grows more closely knit with his little community, develops a better understanding of his own past, and solves the few crimes that come across his desk. In the second book, he’s drawn by accident and happenstance into a violent confrontation with organized crime, and his loved ones suffer the consequences. By the end of the third book, he’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness (probably cancer), he’s reunited with his long-lost daughter, and his community has begun a rapid decline into obsolescence.

A few thoughts:

Most reviewers praise Sallis’ language. One reviewer calls his third book, “A sweet song of the South from a crime novelist with the ear of a poet.” Another praises his “lean, sinewy prose.” They’re not wrong. Sallis is a wordsmith, and the lack of a clear, compelling, central conflict is easily overlooked once one realizes what he brings to the table: beautiful prose and an honest treatment of his character’s nihilistic worldview.

I said, as with Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union, “maybe read this book.” In this case, I qualified it not as a consequence of the content, but as a consequence of the book’s character and characters. I think many–especially those enthralled with the electronic cool of Drive, or those who come in the mood for a Southern gothic crime novel–will find that What You Have Left is not what they are looking for. Instead, it is a slow, thoughtful, meandering exploration of life’s apparent meaninglessness and fragility. John Turner doesn’t read, at least to me, as a clear hero (or anti-hero) but rather as a selfish and self-important bore. The first person narration only underscores this sense, and there were several instances where I wished the protagonist would just stop trying to impress the reader with his “world-weary and world-wise” observations. But then, spend an afternoon with someone who views the world like John Turner does, and you’ll probably feel the same way.

As I said above, I think Sallis did a fantastic job creating a self-righteous nihilist, and there’s much for a Christian reader to consider in this book. From my (admittedly limited) perspective, I think self-righteous nihilism is a very sensible philosophy for an atheist, and in What You Have Left, one gets the chance to better grasp what drives those with such a worldview: their complete disenchantment with the world and its inhabitants, and their insistence on doing what they feel is the right thing regardless of the consequences. In many ways, my own theological convictions allow for significant agreement, but I have a joyful hope that John Turner will not allow himself.

A few quotes:

“Pleased to have you, Detective.”

“Just Turner. I haven’t been a detective for a long time.”

“Hope you’re not telling us you forget how,” Bates said.

“No. What happens is, you stop believing it matters.”


“What changed?”

“Nothing. Something. Me?” She smiled. “I wanted to, anyway. Do we ever, really?”

“Change?”

Nodding.

“If we don’t—if we can’t—nothing else makes much sense, does it?”


Most investigations are little more than paint by the numbers. You ask a string of questions in the proper order, when they don’t get answered you ask them again, sooner or later you find your way to the husband or wife, spurned boy-or girlfriend, business partner, parent, younger brother, gardener, eccentric uncle, jealous neighbor.


What she did was to her the most important thing in the world. I think deep down it may have been the only thing she really cared about. A lot of people who are outstanding at what they do seem to be like that. The rest of us look on, at once admiring and critical; vaguely ashamed of ourselves and our wayward lives.


Thing about cell phones is you can’t slam the receiver down.


As a counselor, of course, I’d have been quick to point out that we always make our choices, and that not choosing was as much a choice as any other. Such homilies are, as much as anything else, the reason I’d quit. It’s too easy once you learn the tricks. You start off believing that you’re discovering a way of seeing the world clearly, but you’re really only learning a language— a dangerous language whose very narrowness fools you into believing you understand why people do the things they do. But we don’t. We understand so little of anything.


As I rode back toward home, along the river for a time before swinging inland, I watched a sky like old-time saddle shoes: horizon bright right up to the curving border where all went suddenly dark. It had been a season for storms. I remembered my grandfather’s storm cellar, bare earthen walls, doors thick as tables with brackets into which you’d swing a two-by-four to close them, wood shelves sagging beneath the weight of water jugs, canned food, lanterns, and fuel. We’d all go down in there as the winds began, sit listening to them howl. As a kid I always expected the world to be new, fresh, changed all for the better, when we came back up. By the time I was ten or so we had stopped joining Grandad and his new family in the cellar, rode out the winds like modern folk.


Altruism gets handed to me, I’m automatically peeling back the label, looking to see what’s underneath.

So, maybe read What You Have Left, but do so knowing that you’re not getting a crime novel, and you’re not getting Drive. But you are getting a fairly interesting, fairly well-written investigation of the world as it is through the eyes of someone who can’t find any hope.

Happy Reading,
Dan J.

Read This Book: Pride and Prejudice

When I started hammering out a list of books for 2016, I asked Anna, “What books would you recommend I add?”

She didn’t hesitate: something by Jane Austen, preferably Pride & Prejudice. And then one of the Brontë sisters. Oh, Wuthering Heights! She started to list a few others, but I stopped her there. I mean, I have limits.

So, after much trepidation and several days of anxiously considering whether I might re-work my reading list and “accidentally” forget to include Austen, I finally jumped into it.

And I’m glad I did. Prior to reading Pride & Prejudice, my only exposure to her work has been through the film adaptations of her work. Lots of dresses and dances and knowing glances. Little comments by characters that sent Anna and her sister into wry fits of giggles and left me totally bewildered.

But the reality is that Austen writes better than a film can adapt. I don’t know how she does it, but with just a few strokes, she paints characters (even minor characters) that jump to life with all their quirks and foibles. In two or three lines of dialogue, you have a clear, hilarious understanding of Mr. Collins, for example.

The plot of Pride & Prejudice, though easy to forecast (probably as a result of slowly ingesting the contours of the story every time Anna re-watched the movie), still created genuine tension. Something that really gets under my skin when I’m reading is the perpetuation of an injustice—someone has been harmed or someone is seeking help or someone has been slandered, and for page after page, justice is denied them. So, when Bingley’s sisters actively intervene to thwart his growing love for Jane, it’s genuinely stressful. And when Wickham’s behavior proves so destructive to the Bennet family, it’s truly upsetting.

I’m not going to attempt to summarize the plot here. You can find it on Wikipedia, if you want. But I recommend you read the book instead.

A few thoughts:
I looked it up. The movie version that I’ve seen was from 2005, and it stars Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden. I didn’t like it at all. If I remember correctly, Anna wasn’t a fan either. I just asked her, and she confirmed that she did not like it. I made the mistake of asking, “Why not?” and she’s still hollering about it from the other room.

Anna says the BBC version is worth watching. The six-hour version. She said, “It captures the characters better.” I said, “Six hours?” And she laughed.

Jane Austen’s skill is overwhelming. I wanted to say, “It’s her sentences.” Or “It’s her characters.” Or “It’s her plotlines.” But it’s pretty all-encompassing.

Really, you owe it to yourself to read Pride & Prejudice. Then tell Anna you read it because that will make her happy. But don’t tell her I told you it was good, or she’ll try to add a bunch more to my 2017 reading list.

Oh, and I read this version on Kindle. I started with another, but it was poorly formatted. When I switched to this version, I discovered the first was also missing several sentences at the end of the first chapter. Kind of strange, but there you have it.

A few quotes:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.


“Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion for my poor nerves.”

“You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these last twenty years at least.”


“Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.”


The power of doing anything with quickness is always prized much by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance.


At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, “How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”

No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest for some amusement…


***This quote made me laugh out loud:

By tea-time, however, the dose had been enough, and Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing-room again, and, when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but, on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels. Kitty stared at him, and Lydia exclaimed.


“Indeed, Mr. Bennet,” said she, “it is very hard to think that Charlotte Lucas should ever be mistress of this house, that I should be forced to make way for her, and live to see her take her place in it!”

“My dear, do not give way to such gloomy thoughts. Let us hope for better things. Let us flatter ourselves that I may be the survivor.”


The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.


“There certainly was some great mismanagement in the education of those two young men. One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it.”


“She had better have stayed at home,” cried Elizabeth; “perhaps she meant well, but, under such a misfortune as this, one cannot see too little of one’s neighbours. Assistance is impossible; condolence insufferable. Let them triumph over us at a distance, and be satisfied.”


“If you were to give me forty such men, I never could be so happy as you. Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness.

So, that’s book number four. If you’re keeping track, I’m behind. I’ve already finished What You Have Left, by James Sallis, and will be working on a post about it soon. I’ve just started Wuthering Heights, and Anna’s overjoyed.

Happy Reading,
Dan J.