Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Perón, by Carlos Gamerro

And Other Stories, 2015
345 pp
originally published as La aventura de los bustos de Eva, 2004
translated by Ian Barnett


"all of us have our 17th October in our lives, and his was knocking on the door."

There aren't many books where this happens, but I didn't even make it to the end of page one before I realized that this novel and I were going to get along just fine.  The Adventures of  the Busts of Eva Perón has everything I want in a book -- intelligence, history, and of course there's the black humor that kept me laughing most of the way through it.  There's nothing like sitting at your vet's office in a crowded lobby and laughing out loud while everyone's staring at you, but I couldn't help myself.  It may not be a book to everyone's taste, but I absolutely loved it.

The novel begins when Ernesto Marroné, the "financial manager of the most powerful construction and real estate conglomerate in Argentina," returns home from an afternoon of playing golf and discovers a poster of Che Guevara hanging on his son's bedroom wall.  As he "unknotted the laces of his Jack Nicklaus golf shoes," he realizes that it may be time to reveal his own "guerrilla past" to his son. After all, "there's no escaping the past" --
"No matter how far you run, sooner or later it catches up with you -- with all of us. Because far from being an exception, Marroné's story was emblematic of a whole generation -- a generation now striving to erase the traces of a shameful past with the same diligence it had once devoted to building a utopian future."
He makes up his mind to tell his story the next day; and that night he laid back, unable to sleep, watching "the film of his rebellious past from beginning to end..."  The novel consists of Ernesto's look back --  it is all at once a wicked satire on politics and history,  a look at the mythology of Eva Perón, and a story about one man's personal journey.  And, as is obvious from all of the tabs on the page sides, I thought it was really, really, REALLY good.

His account begins with the kidnapping of his boss, Sr. Tamerlán,  the owner of the factory where Ernesto works as head of procurement. Tamerlán had been at the factory since he was ten, arriving on 17 October 1945, which, incidentally,  is a date in Argentine history that continues to resonate as a turning point in the country's history.  In a nutshell, on that day, there was a huge rally by the working classes in front of the presidential palace at the Plaza de Mayo to demand the release of then Secretary of Labor Juan Perón, who had been arrested and imprisoned. The workers' demands were met, and their success launched Perón's political career and his marriage to Eva Duarte, the "Evita" of popular myth.

The kidnappers have sent one of Tamerlán's fingers, but they've also made a bizarre ransom demand: they want a bust of Eva Peron placed in every office.  Marroné, who decides that this could be a great opportunity for much-desired advancement, takes on the task of acquiring the 92 busts.  In his mind, aided by his reading of several books written for managers who want to get ahead in their careers (The Corporate Samurai, The Socratic Pitch, How to Develop Self-Confidence and Influence People by Public Speaking, Don Quixote: The Executive Errant, etc.) he realizes that he is at a turning point, one where after all was said and done, he'd be a hero:
"And that night, of all nights, on the eve of his new life - a life of adventure, a life in which his dreams would begin to come true - it had called out to him, to pass on its message of encouragement, and his hand had reached for it. This was what he had been waiting for, he saw it clearly now. Tomorrow, when dawn broke, Ernesto Marroné would go out into the world. Who knows who would come back?"
The next morning he heads off to the Sansimón Plasterworks to make the order.  But he's in for a huge surprise -- on that day the workers have decided to occupy the factory -- it seems that his order for the busts, needed in a hurry, had caused the "comrades in the workshop" to do the job piecemeal, forcing them to "bring the occupation forward."

What happens next takes the reader deep into the surrealistic zone, as a gradually-despairing Ernesto finds himself trying to get things under control at the factory so that his order can be filled and he can be the hero who saves Tamerlán's life. He  steps into the shoes of Don Quixote, becoming a regular knight-errant based on what he's memorized from his management self-help books. His mission, as he sees it, is to
"... carry the spirit of Eva, embodied in her busts, to the very heart of the corporation." 
He sees himself as "neither us nor them...the chosen one, predestined, belonging to both worlds.  Like Eva, he was a bridge."   His adventure doesn't end with the factory though; as he's wandering through the shanties of Buenos Aires, he stumbles into a place where Eva truly lives on and has the power to fulfill any fantasy desired.

After I finished this book, a saying of Marx's popped into my head, something along the lines of history repeating itself first as tragedy then as farce, and there may be something to that here in this most excellent novel.  I can't possibly describe everything here;  it's a book a person must absolutely experience on his or her own. I will say that knowing a bit about Argentina's 20th-century history would be beneficial and things might make much more sense (especially in terms of the Peronists, still active and still a big, ongoing part of the political scene today). Otherwise, this is a book I absolutely loved -- aside from its silliness, it is a story with an incredible amount of depth, highly intelligent, and one I hated putting down for any reason.  Most highly recommended.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Investigation, by J.M. Lee

Pan Books/Pan Macmillan, 2015
originally published 2012
translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim
323 pp


"So language wasn't simply a tool to convey meaning. It was the charter of a human being that contained a nation's history..."

I don't know if anyone else is guilty of this, but I have this very bad tendency to buy a book because it looks interesting, then shelving it right away to come back to later, only to forget that I have it.  I did that with this book until someone in the publishing industry posted his/her  list of best crime novels of 2015, and this book was on it. I remember thinking that at the time I bought it, it didn't really seem like a crime novel, and I thought the reference on the best-of list was kind of weird, so I plowed through the translated fiction shelves (which are actually the entirety of a repurposed walk-in closet in my office) found it, and decided I needed to read it. This post may have been intended originally for the crime page of this online reading journal, but the more I read into it, the less it appealed to me as a crime novel and more as a novel of historical fiction.  This proves to me that it's highly likely that whoever it was that had it down on his/her idea of the best of crime list probably had no clue what he/she was reading (which is scary when I think about it)   -- while there is definitely a crime involved here, it is not at all the central focus of this story.

I will say right up front that I really liked this book. Some things detracted from my reading, such as too much in the way of repetition (yes, we know that one of the main characters loved and was highly influenced by Rilke but we don't need to constantly be reminded),  and some seriously-obvious contrivances (especially in terms of the crime that frames the story) prevented me from oozing love over the book. And I know this will sound sort of weird, but here and there while reading I kept saying to myself "this is way too obvious," but then again, that's a me thing.   I will also say that once I got used to all of the distractions, I found a really, really good story here.

Yun Dong-Ju, Korean poet

The novel begins at the end of World War II, as the narrator,  Yuichi Watanabe, tells us. At the age of twenty, he  is "behind bars" at Fukuoka Prison, having exchanged his "brown guard uniform" for "red prisoner's garb" since the Americans (who have occupied Japan, of course), have "classified" him as "a low-level war criminal," charging him with abusing prisoners.  He doesn't deny that he's guilty; au contraire, he knows that yes, he has "yelled at them and beaten them," but he also realizes that part of his guilt was in as he says, "doing nothing." He "didn't prevent the unnecessary deaths of innocent people," he "was silent in the face of the insanity, " and he'd "closed" his "ears to the screams of the innocent."  Before the actual story begins, though, Watanabe clues in his readers to the fact that what he's about to say isn't solely about him, but rather
"about the war's destruction of the human race. This story is about both the people who lacked humanity and the purest of men. And it's about a bright star that crossed our dark universe 10,000 years ago...My story is about two people who met at Fukuoka Prison."
And thus begins the novel in full, comprising  Watanabe's story, which begins with the horrific murder of a prison guard who was also in charge of censorship duties.  Watanabe is tasked with the investigation into Sugiyama's death, but this young man, whose mother repaired and sold books and who developed a deep and abiding love of literature while growing up, is also tasked with Sugiyama's censorship duties, which to him are abhorrent. It is an interesting setup, really, because while the investigation of the crime acts as a frame getting us into the workings of the prison, underneath all of that is the story of the last days of a Korean "resistance" poet named Yun Dong-Ju, (1917-1945)  who was arrested supposedly for political activities, but in my opinion ( at least via this book), his only major crime was being Korean.  It is also a story about the power of literature to transform even the hardest of souls, about the enduring legacy of literature, about freedom, about different forms of both resistance and oppression, and about the plight of the Koreans under Japanese colonial rule.  As Watanabe tells us regarding Yun (but really, speaking for all Koreans),
 "he was no longer free, but he hadn't ever known how it felt to be free; no Korean was free."  
One of the very best things I discovered  about this entire book is the author's focus on language.  As just one example, Koreans were not allowed to use their own names; instead they were required to take Japanese names and in the prison, at least, were punished if they tried to use their real ones. Some wonderful scenes occur in the novel around this terrible law, but there are many, many others as well  that combine language and the concept of resistance to produce some incredible moments here.

Aside from my grievances about the detractors I've  listed (which obviously are personal to me and may not bother anyone else), I was actually very impressed with The Investigation and it really is one of those books that's stuck with me. I read it over the course of two long plane rides and a two-hour layover (I had my nose stuck in it even while eating normally-forbidden Tex-Mex in Dallas) and couldn't put it down.  It's one I can definitely recommend -- it is a lovely yet horrific  portrait of a bygone era, one that is not forgotten and which still resonates I would think, especially among Koreans.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

first post of the year -- The Dead Letter and the Figure Eight, by Metta Fuller Victor (aka Seeley Register)

Duke University Press, 2003
388 pp


Two very obscure American novels are to be found here together in one volume: The Dead Letter (1866) and The Figure Eight (1869).  What's culturally and historically significant about this volume is that The Dead Letter is actually, according to Catherine Ross Nickerson in her work The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women, "the first American detective novel." (29).  Both books are also, as she notes,
"documents of a moment in cultural history when the young professional seemed to hold the promise of mediating between the cloudy-minded nostalgia of the landed class and the unprincipled greed of the merchant and capitalist classes."  (31)
While there's definitely a LOT going on between the lines and a lot going on here that is discussion worthy,  these books are also fun reads for anyone interested in American literature of this period that won't likely be found on any general American Lit course syllabus.  For someone like myself who loves these old books and who tries to read between the lines as to the cultural climate (especially in terms of women and the relationships between the main characters and other ethnic groups) , the politics, and the historical significance of the time in which they were written, it is a goldmine.   On the other hand, they're definitely not for everyone, but if for no other reason, the fact that Metta Fuller Victor made an appearance before Anna Katherine Green (who I've always believed was the first American detective novelist) makes her extremely readworthy. 

 I've posted about these two books at my crime page; more about the author herself can be found at my newest project, Forgotten Females Found.   

(from LibraryThing

Saturday, January 2, 2016

... paved with good intentions: 2016 plans

What does a person do when she is too fond of reading and books have addled her brain? In my case the love of the written word spurs me on to buy more, even though I have so many now that I'll never get them all read.  That definitely defines the word addled in my case. A smart person would read what she has, and then buy more, but no one's ever accused me of being smart. So I have great intentions for my reading life this year, but as they say about the road...

I'm kind of thinking along these lines:

  1.   I am planning to read more 19th century American fiction, then make the move into the early  20th century, discovering those novels that rarely make it on to become the stuff of literature classes. I didn't mean for that to happen in 2015, but I had such fun with them last year (for the most part) that I want to do it again, while
  2.  rotating in some translated fiction since there is really a lot of great stuff out there just waiting to be read; and then there are the crime reads, which this year will focus on
  3. books that have been made into movies -- with some exceptions, mostly older novels and older movies (I discovered the Criterion collection on Hulu this year so the choices are pretty much huge)  while still focusing on
  4. obscure women writers of crime novels, and then finally there is the
  5. darker fiction that I love reading, where I'm thinking about reading out of the mainstream, focusing on work from smaller presses or from the past.  
Then again my plans could all go belly up as new fiction is released, so committing myself might be folly. 

To everyone: a happy reading year, filled with great books, great health, and inner peace. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

Don't read these books if you suffer from insomnia. They'll keep you awake.

Pretty much since December 24th I've been going to bed at a decent time only to discover that when I turn off my reading light, I'm actually wider awake than I was just a minute before.  Life's good so I'm not stressing, so it must be latent zombie genes or something keeping me up.  I've been up until around 4:30  a.m. pretty much for the last four or five nights.  If I lay there and think "I have to sleep" I'm even more awake so I just say screw this and pick up a book.   It's amazing how much a person can read when it's dead quiet and there are no interruptions.

My insomniac reading list for the last four days:

Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell -- bad book to read when you want to sleep.  It's so bloody bleak that the predicament of this young girl and her two little brothers would keep you awake at any normal time, so reading it during a bout of insomnia was just folly.  Good book, though.

The Blood of the Vampire, by Florence Marryat -- older, first published in 1897, but so well written that it was unputdownable. That's bad news when you feel your eyes frying from lack of rest. I couldn't  help but feel sorry for the titular vampire whose only crime was to be an independent woman of means but of questionable birth at the turn of the century, and I had to read read read to find out what happened to her.  Oy. 

The Restraint of Beasts, by Magnus Mills -- it was 12:45  a.m. when I started this one, thinking that "hey, a comedy might be a good brain relaxer," but little did I know that the ending of this book was going to result in staying awake all night trying to figure out what the author was saying here. Sheesh! Awesome novel, but definitely one not to read if you're hoping to sleep. 


I've decided that if I'm still awake tonight, I'm going to pull out an old science text that bored me to tears as a student. If that doesn't do it, well, nothing will. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

my last novel of 2015, and it's just effing jaw dropping: The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Grove Press, 2015
371 pp


"The majority of Americans regarded us with ambivalence if not outright distaste, we being living reminders of their stinging defeat. We threatened the sanctity and symmetry of a white and black America whose yin and yang racial politics left no room for any other color, particularly that of pathetic little yellow-skinned people pickpocketing the American purse."

Just briefly as to plot (and very much oversimplified):   "I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces," are the words that open this novel, which for the most part, is a confession to someone known only as "the Commandant." The story is related by a nameless narrator who is a spy for the North Vietnamese communists and has managed to infiltrate the South Vietnamese Army as an aide to "the General" and a member of intelligence under the tutelage of a CIA agent.   The novel begins with the evacuation of South Vietnam and the last flights out, on one of which our narrator finds himself along with his boss, his best friend/blood brother, and a number of other people fleeing as the North Vietnamese Army is crashing the gates of Saigon.  His job, once they reach America, is to watch and to report to a comrade back in Vietnam, which he does in coded letters to his "aunt," his other best friend and blood brother who did not follow him in his escape. Our narrator  keeps a careful eye on the General and his cohorts while the refugees are busily reinventing themselves in order to adjust to life in an unglamorous Hollywood neighborhood.  As the narrator's handler thought would happen, the General has decided to organize several of his former army cohorts in an effort to retake Vietnam from the Communists, and in order to maintain his facade, the narrator must follow along with the general's plan. 

The narrator, the titular "sympathizer," is definitely a "man of two faces," and faces a number of contradictions. In fact, this thought-provoking novel is so filled with contradictions that this "two faces" idea runs throughout the book.  In the narrator's case, he is a man of mixed parentage, a fact that has helped to define his identity throughout his life, since in Vietnam, he grew up being reminded that he is a bastard, with a French father and Vietnamese mother. Metaphorically speaking then, he already understands what is implied in belonging in two different places, but the truth is that he is also not in a position to claim either as his own. This idea is repeated again and again throughout the novel, and is one of the main thematic issues explored here, as is the reinvention of the self under less-than-perfect circumstances, capturing  what I would consider the immigrant experience in any country.   This is not our hero's first visit to America; he had first come in the 1960s as an exchange student, when he first started his fondness for things American, but now he finds himself faced with a very different take on the American dream, with different and often-conflicting loyalties, and above all, haunted by ghosts.  It is truly a masterpiece of a novel that also examines not only American perceptions of the Vietnam War, but America's perception of its own role in the war and those of the Vietnamese people as well.

I read a reader response of The Sympathizer that said it should be required reading for every US politician, a sentiment I heartily endorse, especially considering what's going on in the world regarding refugees right now.  But there's so much more here, and as I noted earlier, it's a novel just filled with contradictions, which make for a great satirical look at the promises of the American dream, at America's place on the world stage, etc.; however, it also points out among other things that unlike most historical accounts, the history of the Vietnam war has been the provenance of the losers rather than the victors. It also examines the realities behind revolutions and the effects of the postwar diaspora (aka the "boat people")  from the point of view of the people who were given promises that were never intended to be kept. 

A couple of things: first, when I finished it, I sat in my chair absolutely stunned for probably about half an hour.   I noted somewhere that even after it was over my jaw was still pinned to the floor; it took me a day or two to get over that feeling. Second, I want to throttle the dustjacket blurber who says this is a "gripping spy novel" -- people who decide to read this book based on that phrase are bound to be somewhat disappointed since this book goes well beyond the boundaries of a mere spy novel. Third, The Sympathizer is one of the most original books I've read this year, well deserving of any award its author receives.    I have been very frustrated lately and at the point of despairing over  "same old, same old" in recent novels. There are exceptions, of course, including but not necessarily limited to three of my favorite books this year -- A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Buried Giant, and a book published by Pushkin by Peter Froberg Idling called Song For An Approaching Storm about Pol Pot in his pre-genocide days --  but The Sympathizer offers hope that the mental wells of writers haven't yet run dry.

Very highly recommended, one of my few favorite novels of the year. Read it slowly. Take your time with it. Savor it. It's that kind of book.


links to professional reviewers who say things in a way I never could:

from Bookforum, by Lisa Locascio (beware of spoilers)
from The New York Times, by Philip Caputo
from The Washington Post, by Ron Charles

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty, by Vendela Vida

Ecco/HarperCollins, 2015
213 pp


I'll be very frank here. The first time through this novel all I could think of was just how preposterous this story is -- the main character makes a series of choices that no sane person would ever find herself making given the circumstances.  So thinking I must have missed something here,  I went through it again,  and came out with an entirely different perspective on things. The second time through, I started to realize just how clever a book this actually is, to the point where I'm going to add it to my real-world book group's reading list next fall.  Had I read it when I received it from Indiespensable,  it would have gone on this year's lineup, but later is better than never, I suppose.

The first clue that this is not your average novel is that the entire book is written in the second person ("you").  The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty  begins on an airplane going from Miami to Morocco, and right at the outset, the reader is presented with a puzzle.  What exactly does the narrator mean when she refers to "the horror of the last two months?" And why is she trying to avoid being recognized by a fellow passenger, whom she remembers from the last time they met? And on arriving in Morocco, why is tipping the taxi driver twenty dollars her "initial mistake?"  As the novel progresses, you, the reader, come to discover that these questions are just the foundation for what's to come.

Very briefly (I'll post professional reviews that give more away than I will when I'm done here), my take on this  novel is that what follows is  a major examination into the questions of identity, role-playing, and reinvention of self. And it all begins with the theft of the narrator's passport.  She reports the theft to the police, making a huge error when asked what she does for a living.  When she says that she is a reporter for The New York Times (which she isn't), writing a travel story, and hopes she doesn't have to "include this" in her report, it isn't too long afterwards that she learns her backpack complete with contents has been found. The police chief hands her a bag that she knows is not hers, saying that she can now write "How good the police are here in Casablanca." It's a sort of unspoken game they play here, as well as a critical moment in the book, leading to the narrator becoming a sort of "stand-in" for the woman whose identity she now holds, playing a role, so to speak, as that person.  And while I won't explain why, the narrator is offered a job as a stand-in for an actress, to be used during scene blocking during the filming of a movie there.  This role of "stand-in" brings up yet another idea in this book, that of performing/performance, and  will repeat itself throughout the novel in various ways, until the initial questions the author presents are finally answered and the reader "you" comes to understand a) how identity and performance mesh here  and b) just what is at stake for the narrator in terms of reinventing herself.  There are other things here as well -- the intrusion of American culture just one more thing to watch for.   The novel's title comes from a poem by Rumi of the same name, which is reproduced within the book; the use of the second person here, as I sort of impatiently reminded the naysayers on Goodreads, reflects the style used in the poem.

As I noted earlier, I liked this book much more after the second time through, but one thing I didn't particularly care for either time was just how much the ending of this book (as I see it) depended on a huge coincidence -- and while I understand why, I'm someone who doesn't particularly like when things hinge on coincidence.   I can also understand reader reservations about this novel -- chances are that  the "you" who is reading this book would not make the same preposterous choices as the narrator did  at any juncture in this novel.  However, you are not in "your" head at any given time, but inside that of the narrator's; once you give over to that fact, it's a far less-stressful way to get through the novel.

A few professional reviews of this book are at