Thursday, July 30, 2015

August: the spouse is away so I can read all day; July wrap-up

I'm not pimping American Airlines here, but it's sort of symbolic of all of the traveling Larry's doing next month (and the next) that gives me loads of free time to read.  I'm still planning on getting through more of Patricia Highsmith's work, plus I have some new and vintage crime novels  that are calling to me, and finally, I've set myself  a goal of reading at least two Booker Prize-nominated books.

Serious reading has pretty much escaped me this summer: It's definitely tough to read novels I have to think about when my brain is really focused here, but I did my best considering the constant pull toward the pool.

No serious reading allowed while in my patio, but I did manage to get through a few good books.

In the nonfiction zone, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham, by Emily Bingham. Sometimes it's fun to just pick up a biography of someone I've never heard of before and see what shakes out.  This one I can highly recommend.

Turning to crime, the fourth book in David Mark's ongoing McAvoy series (Taking Pity had me turning pages late into the night.  Then it was Highsmith's turn with her The Blunderer , which had a terrific but wholly unexpected ending.  Ayee!  Moving forward into the modern world, Jan Costin Wagner's The Winter of the Lions brought me back to Scandinavia again with "snow-noir" (??).  How far is this labeling everything as some sort noir going to go? Lillian Jackson Braun -- does she write kitty-noir?  And finally, the crime reads ended with another vintage read in my quest to discover and read the works of obscure crime-writing women, Murder in the Mist  by Zelda Popkin.  If you're thinking "who the hell is Zelda Popkin," well, you aren't alone. I will say that of all of the crime novels I got through in July, I actually enjoyed her book (from 1940) the most. Oh wait! One more -- the only Barbara Vine novel I've ever disliked, No Night is too Long. This isn't the same Barbara Vine who wrote A Dark-Adapted Eye, that's for sure. I'll post about it soon.

Some of my favorite reading this month came from the creepier side, with The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (ed. Robert Aickman), Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan, by Lafcadio Hearn, and Ellen Datlow's forthcoming anthology (which I haven't posted about yet but will here shortly), The Monstrous. With apologies to Tachyon, it's been a choppy, choppy July so I had to grab time as I can find it. 

Last, but by no means least comes the literature reads. After impatiently waiting years for it to be published, I devoured Amitav Ghosh's Flood of Fire, which as I noted earlier is the perfect ending to Ghosh's perfect Ibis trilogy.  Once again, I had to buy my copy from the UK (it doesn't come out here for nearly another week). If you're into historical fiction that goes way beyond the Phillipa Gregory level (I'm sorry -- I just can't take her writing seriously after reading The Other Boleyn Girl -- which I absolutely hated), and you want something intelligently written that goes well beyond the norm, start with Sea of Poppies and make your way through all three books. Those 600+ pages will fly by.  The only other literary novel I finished was Highsmith's The Price of Salt, another that's sitting on the to-be-posted-about stack next to my desk.  I loved the book -- if they screw up the movie I'll be devastated. It's so good. 

--- the other stuff
  • the book group is on a well-deserved hiatus until the end of September.  It's too hard to be serious in the summer anyway. 
  • Books bought definitely exceeded books leaving the house.  And there are more on order. 
  • currently reading:  The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville. Currently I'm just rounding page 50 but so far, I'm really liking this one. I've also started Highsmith's Deep Water, and I'm planning on reading a book about Italy's Berlusconi, Being Berlusconi, by Michael Day.   

For me a good, easy month -- I suppose getting serious can wait until the fall.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

contemporary interlude #3: Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh -- a perfect ending to a perfect series

John Murray, 2015
616 pp


I think I can honestly say that I have never read a better series of historical fiction novels than Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy. The series starts with opium farmers in India and ends with the gunboat diplomacy that forced China to open its ports to British trade and to accept a series of unequal treaties.  The trilogy as a whole is an amazing critique of colonialism/imperialism, all the while exploring how the financial windfall of the opium trade helped to change individuals, families, communities, nations, diplomacy and international relations and left effects that linger in into our modern world.  To say this trilogy is epic in proportion is no understatement, but it is so compelling that waiting for the publication of the third installment was sheer torture.   I read somewhere that Flood of Fire can be read as a standalone novel, but I have to disagree here -- there is an incredible richness of depth that exists when you read all three novels, plus there are recurring characters whose lives intertwine over the space of all three books.

The Ibis Trilogy
all bought from the UK because I couldn't ever wait for the American releases 
Just to recap, in Sea of Poppies (via the dustjacket blurbs):
"the backdrop to this historical adventure is the Opium Wars, when the British East India Company lured China into a fatal dependency on opium from its Indian territories. Its vast sweep ranges from the wide lush poppy fields of the Ganges to the narrow confines of repressive households, from the rolling high seas to the cramped quarters aboard ship..."
Sea of Poppies is our introduction to the Ibis, once a slave ship but now retooled for transporting indentured labor to the sugar plantations of Mauritius and opium to China. It is on this ship that (continuing with the blurb,)
"...fate has thrown together  a truly diverse cast of Indians and Westerners...sailors, coolies and convicts ... a bankrupt raja, a Chinese opium addict, a lissom French runaway and a mulatto freedman from Baltimore. As their old family ties are washed away, like their historical counterparts, they come to view themselves as jahah bhais or ship-brothers."
It is that small contingent of people whose stories continue  in River of Smoke that moves most of the action to China where the Emperor is desperately trying to stop the influx of opium. Tensions between the Chinese and the opium traders reach a fever pitch, ending with the confiscation and destruction of all opium from traders and merchants.

 This act sets the scene for the final novel, Flood of Fire, where with so much money at stake and a demand for "free" trade,  the efforts  of one empire to repel another turns into full-blown conflict which ultimately changes the world map.  The smaller  stories that take place within the bigger picture reveal exactly how the lives, loyalties, and fortunes of both men and women changed during this period of time, all told from various perspectives of the characters who lives play out within this very broad sweep of history.

Quite frankly, I have a huge number of pages tabbed with things I wanted to remember, there are so many things I want to say that I could fill an entire notebook.  So I'll limit the rest of this post to just a couple of key ideas. First, during the course of this story,  Ghosh makes the point that the British, in their quest to save the lucrative opium trade by force, spun things so that they became a matter of  "the divine Mission that the Almighty Himself has entrusted to our race and our nation,"
 "freeing a quarter of mankind from tyranny; of bestowing on the people of China the gift of liberty that the British empire has already conferred on all those parts of the globe that it has conquered and subjugated."
and an opportunity to
 "give to the Chinese the gifts that Britain has granted to the countless millions who glory in the rule of our gracious monarch, secure in the knowledge that there is no greater freedom, no greater cause for pride, than to be subjects of the British Empire."
This from a man who will not be involved in the fighting itself, a man who is just trying to save his financial investments, create new ones, and hold on to his wealth.   Second, it is obvious that the author put huge amounts of research into this book and into the other two novels preceding it.  In this book alone we get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of capitalism at work (in the form of futures trading, secret auctions, manipulation of prices, etc.), we see at eye level  the Indian forces that fought alongside the British -- their uniforms, their training, the differences between various fighting units and the camp followers that played an integral role; at the caste/class systems at work, and by no means least, at the Opium Wars themselves.  At the same time, the history never gets overbearing or tedious -- the facts are well woven into the lives of his very realistic, believable characters.

I could go on about this book -- the fun plays with language, the palpable tension that the author manages to evoke,  etc., etc., but I won't. Instead, I'll just say that Flood of Fire is the perfect ending to a perfect series, and as I said, the entire trilogy is simply amazing -- I doubt there has been anything like it before and I know that there will not be anything like it again.  I definitely recommend this book and its predecessors to anyone who enjoys quality historical fiction, excellent writing, and a great story.  I'm so sad to see this series come to an end.  It is absolutely magnificent, superb, and all manner of superlatives. GO READ THESE BOOKS!!

As just a sidebar/FYI thing, the American publication is out August 4th, but the cover art isn't nearly as impressive as the UK publication:

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


it's that time again ... the 2015 Man Booker Prize longlist

and without further ado, here they are -- the books that made this year's longlist:

Bill Clegg -- Did you Ever Have a Family
* Laila Lalami -- The Moor's Account
Marilynne Robinson -- Lila
Anne Tyler -- A Spool of Blue Thread
Hanya Yanagihara -- A Little Life

Anuradha Roy -- Sleeping on Jupiter

Anne Enright -- The Green Road

* Marlon James -- A Brief History of Seven Killings 

New Zealand
* Anna Smaill -- The Chimes

Chigozie Obioma -- The Fisherman

Tom McCarthy -- Satin Island
Andrew O'Hagan -- The Illuminations
* Sunjeev Sahota -- The Year of the Runaways

* I have copies of these novels. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

*Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself, by Robert Montgomery Bird

NYRB Classics, 2008
originally published 1836
425 pp


Moving back to the 1830s once again,  this has to be one of the more bizarre novels I've come across from the early 1800s, but well worth it if for nothing else, the picaresque adventures of Sheppard Lee as he moves his soul/spirit/self into body after body.  According to Wikipedia, the term "picaresque" derives from the Spanish term "pícaro," or "rascal' " and there is really no better way to describe the star of this novel.  And before I go any further, a lot has been made about the racism in this novel, but the thing is, I wouldn't have expected anything different, considering the author. Robert Montgomery Bird was an anti-abolitionist, and this fact is reflected in the pro-slavery stance taken in this book.  More later on that; for now I'll just say that in Sheppard Lee, Bird manages to find something to say about people in every section of society of the time.

The titular character is a sort of grown-up ne'er do well who is left a prosperous estate upon the death of his father.  Because he is so lazy and doesn't tend to things he needs to do, the long and short of it is that he loses pretty much everything his father had worked so hard for.  Because he wants a quick out, eventually he gets the idea to go and dig up some legendary pirate treasure said to be buried close to his farm. An unfortunate accident while doing so leaves Lee in a sort of a trance; when he awakens, he looks down at
"...that eidolon, or representative, or duplicate of me, that was stretched on the grass" 
and realizes that he's actually looking at his own corpse. Running off in an unsuccessful effort to find help, he returns to the scene and his body has vanished, with only a "torn and bloody" shoe remaining.  As luck would have it, a certain Squire Higginson with whom Lee has had words, has also met his end, setting Lee to thinking:
"Why might I not, that is to say, my spirit, -- deprived by an unhappy accident of its natural dwelling, -- claim, and thus uniting interests together, as two feeble factions unite together in the political world, become a body possessing life, strength and usefulness?"
In short, Lee decides that it would be a good thing to "inhabit" Higginson's body -- and wishes it so. Soon he finds himself in the now-reanimated body of the Squire -- congratulating himself because now he is a "respectable man, with my pockets full of money."  But through a series of adventures, Higginson's body is just the first stop on Lee's soul/self/spirit journey (and I learned a new word to define this concept -- metempsychosis)  -- and along the way he moves into various bodies whose owners all have one big thing in common:  their lives are centered around money, each desiring to improve his own situation either through speculating, credit, expectations of good inheritances, or marrying into a better station.  Lee lives quite a few different lives and in each one, makes a number of discoveries as he seeks out happiness. The novel is a satire and serves to skewer familiar types of the period:  the dandy who plays a great game yet has not even a penny, a moneylender whose miserly qualities are very well known, an abolitionist philanthropist who spends his life trying to help the less fortunate and who does so ultimately at his own expense. What lesson does he ultimately learn? I leave that for the reader to discover.

the author, Robert Montgomery Bird
Now, getting to the modern reader's problematical issue of race in this novel,  here's where knowing even a little about American history can be a good thing. Personally, I look at this section as a sort of reflection of the fears that grabbed hold of many slave owners after the famous Nat Turner's rebellion, and indeed those of Robert Montgomery Bird as well.  Furthermore, as noted above, Bird himself was against abolition, so it's no surprise to me that he wrote this particular section the way he did.  In one book I looked at that made mention of Bird, Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture,  the author notes Bird writing in his diary regarding slave uprisings that
"Someday we shall have it...and future generations will perhaps remember the horrors of Haiti as a farce compared with the tragedies of our own happy land." 
 If you look at the time in which this book was written, it had only been five years since the Nat Turner insurrection, which led to
"tightened restrictions on African Americans. Over the course of two days, dozens of whites were killed as Turner's band of insurrectionists, which eventually numbered over fifty, moved systematically from plantation to plantation in Southampton County. Most of the rebels were executed along with countless other African Americans who were suspected, often without cause, of participating in the conspiracy."  [link here]
It also led to false reporting of other slave insurrections that in reality never occurred, and a growing fear among white people that "slaves all over the state were secretly plotting to rebel and kill them."  When Sheppard Lee leaves the body of the abolitionist, he enters into the body of Tom the slave, who lives on a plantation in Virginia. The owner is shown here to be kindly, but he also takes a rather paternalistic point of view toward his slaves, an attitude in which slavery was not viewed as "an institution of brute force, but of responsible dominion over a less fortunate, less evolved people." Indeed, as Tom, things seem to go well, until an abolitionist pamphlet  falls into the hands of his fellow slaves.  Two of them try to figure out the text, but end up pantomiming a picture of other slaves being whipped by their master; this in turn leads to an uprising against Tom's master.  It's not at all pretty, moving into the downright deplorable zone, but I can get where Bird is coming from, given his pro-slavery stance.

All in all, though, as I said, Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself is a satire that not only takes on various types of people but also takes on the political situation under Jackson.  As was also the case with Hooper's Adventures of Captain Suggs, speculation runs rampant, and this novel reflects nearly each step of  Lee's travels via metempsychosis as a way in which he  plays the speculation game, gambling each time on a better life.

I laughed through a lot of this novel, at least until I reached the part where Lee jumps into Tom's body and things go terribly wrong; the rest of the book is actually quite funny and Sheppard Lee is a character I'll definitely remember.  As I said at the outset, this novel is one of the most bizarre I've read so far as I make my way through early American fiction, and I'd certainly recommend it as one not to miss as yet another  window into America's history via the medium of the novel.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

July: Go Away, I'm Reading; June wrap up

This month I'm looking forward to finally getting a start on my summer reading plans.  What? Summer started toward the end of June? You mean I'm late to the party?

By my own calculations, by June 30th I should have at least been through the first two novels on my summer stack: The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith and Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante. And then there's the very eagerly-awaited Flood of Fire that I couldn't wait to read. But no. Somewhere along the line  I developed a near-fatal bout of the dreaded readus interruptus -- meaning my books are still sitting here waiting to be read. So July is all about me. Join this group read? No!  Read this ARC? No!  Can you...No!  Would you be willing to ... No!  Can I tempt you with a copy of ... No!  Sorry -- it's me,me,me this month. Only me.

Now that that's out of my system, here's how my June shaped up.

One of my favorite books this month was the only nonfiction book I managed to get through, Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film, by Glenn Kurtz. To be honest, the title is a little unwieldy, but what's between the covers of this book is definitely beyond anything I'd imagined. Moving on into the crime zone, I had only enough time for two new books,  Crystal Nights, by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen and author Adam Bane's debut novel, Acqua Morta; the remainder of my mystery-reading time I devoted to my ongoing survey of obscure women crime/mystery writers with The Sleepless Men (1959) by E.H. Nisot and The Will and the Deed (1935), by Dorothy Ogburn.   I had even less time for the creepies, only managing to get through Ueda Akinari's Tales of Moonlight and Rain, and Aickman's Heirs (edited by Simon Strantzas)  although I forced myself to make time for posting about three Valancourt Books novels I'd read in May:  Benighted, by J.B. Priestley, The Moorstone Sickness, by Bernard Taylor and Philip Lorraine's  Day of the Arrow.  And where I really fell down was in my survey of early American fiction: I actually finished two on my list, The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne (which I loved) and Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself, by Robert Montgomery Bird, which I haven't yet written about.  That one was just plain odd, but more later. A more contemporary selection I actually managed to finish was The Festival of Insignificance, by Milan Kundera, but what really stopped the wheels of my summer reading plans from turning was a reread of Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, a massive behemoth of a novel coming in at 641 pages.  That one I'd intended to read at my  leisure, but forces beyond my control pretty much determined otherwise.  I won't go into it here, but some people really ought to learn the meaning of the word obligation. 

--- the other stuff
  • the book group read The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey at our last  meeting until the end of September. By and large people seemed to enjoy it, but I do have to say that one of our group members was way more focused on trying to derive meaning from character names (?) than on sorting through tonypandy. 
  • Since I've got my reading plan in my head, I bought very few books this month thinking that if I don't buy many, I'll be less tempted to veer off my plotted course. 
  • currently reading:  David Mark's Taking Pity (Blue Rider Press); when that's done I am FINALLY going to open page one of The Price of Salt.  It's about time.  

c'est tout, except for this: the word of the month is NO!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Contemporary Interlude #2: The Festival of Insignificance, by Milan Kundera

Harper, 2015
128 pp
translated by Linda Asher
arc copy -- thank you!

" the essence of existence. It is all around us, and everywhere and always. It is present even when no one wants to see it: in atrocities, in bloody battles, in the worst is the key to wisdom, it is the key to a good mood."


I'm probably among the few people reading this book who have never read another book by Milan Kundera.  I have some of them on my shelves -- The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Slowness, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting -- but just haven't quite got to them. So I'm in no condition to judge whether or not this book is, as the cover blurb states, "a summation of his whole work."

The book is structured in seven short parts consisting of small little chapters, rather loosely connected to each other, all light in tone.  All of the main characters in this book are friends living in Paris, all are getting older, and we watch them not only in each other's company but among others in various situations as they contemplate how to achieve a "good mood."   Why?  Because, as Ramon notes, following Hegel's essay on the comical,
"True humor is inconceivable without an infinite good mood...Not teasing, not satire, not sarcasm. Only from the heights of an infinite good mood can you observe below you the eternal stupidity of men, and laugh over it."
So right up my alley.

Ramon also understands futility:
"We've known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush."
The way out ("one possible resistance"): "to not take it seriously," a very liberating concept.

 To me it seems  that even while focusing on and contemplating the value of insignificance, the author is actually making significant points about human beings and human nature in our modern world.   For example, even as the novel opens, the focus is on how our era finds beauty in sameness rather than in individuality, as seen through Alain's contemplation of the navel.  It's not his own -- he watches young women as he waxes about   "how to define the eroticism of a man (or an era) that sees female seductive power as centered in the middle of the body, in the navel." After all, in different eras, it's been the uniqueness of  "thighs, buttocks and breasts" among women that's been sexy; now men seem to be much more focused on the navel that is generally the same among all women.  Then we meet Ramon, who really wants to go and see a Chagall exhibit at a museum in the Luxembourg Gardens, but has passed it by several times just knowing he couldn't stand the "people in line, their faces paralyzed by boredom," who once inside would ruin his experience with "their chatter." He'd much prefer to visit the statues of queens, "poets, painters, scientists," in the park, "the garden of geniuses," where "no one stopped to examine their faces or read the inscriptions on the pedestals."  There he can inhale the "indifference, like a soothing calm." Charles and Caliban, once actors and now  catering cocktail parties,  round out the group.  Caliban speaks French, but dons wigs, colors his skin and  pretends to speak only Pakistani.   One thing they all share is a "joke" about Stalin and twenty-four partridges that runs throughout the book, which is looked at, analyzed and in the end, recreated in a sort of artistic fashion.  But they're all friends, and friendship is "sacred," according to what I call a meta pop-in by the author; it's clearly the one thing that he sees as rising above and beyond all of the trivial, insignificant things in life.

This is a book that definitely needs a reread, which sadly, I did not do; I imagine if I went through it a second time I'd probably get way more out of it. I loved the writing in this book, although some readers may find Kundera's few meta pop-ins a little distracting.  Here, his characters are aware that they are governed by a "master" (the author), who "invented us" and made his characters study Hegel. What I enjoyed about this book are all of the philosophical ruminations, for example, about how people come to be divided into apologizers and their opposites, or about how conversational brilliance can be offputting and actually harmful, and the difference between generations and its relationship to communication:
"People meet in the course of life, they talk together, they discuss, they quarrel, without realizing that they're talking to one another across a distance, each from an observatory standing in a different place in time." 
To offer two varying literary critiques: first, from Michael Dirda at the Washington Post who thought it was "very French," and an opposing view from The Guardian, whose author calls it a "stinker."  What most readers will probably miss is the lack of a cohesive story holding this book together, but for me, I was so taken with the philosophical observations and the writing that it worked, and worked well.

I read this book for TLC book tours (thanks!), and you can find the rest of the readers and their thoughts here

Sunday, June 7, 2015

*The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Oxford World's Classics, 1998
originally published 1850
302 pp


If you look at a random reader review of this novel, one of the first things you're apt to see is that The Scarlet Letter was assigned in someone's literature class in high school.  I wasn't that lucky (I took a more classical route -- Shakespeare, the Greeks, etc.)  but then again, I may not have appreciated it as much as I do now, having just read it. I can see why a lot of readers might be turned off of this book -- the language is on the archaic side (lots of thees, thys and thous) -- but once you get past that hurdle, there is an excellent story here.  It is a dark tale that kept me mesmerized for four days, once completely through the night until the sun came up.  If you've ever had an empty feeling (meaning you wanted more) upon turning the final page, well, that's exactly how I felt when I'd finished. I LOVED this book.  I LOVED Hester Prynne.

Since this plot is so well known, I won't rehash it here.  Once again I happened to choose a novel that has been very well covered in academia, and one which can be examined from several perspectives, including  themes, characters, and symbolism. Go look it up -- there are a huge number of scholarly works on this novel (as well as some pretty awful high school essays to be avoided at all cost).  If you haven't yet figured out my reading raison d'etre,  I move right into the psychology of the individual, especially the darker side of human nature, and this book is a goldmine.

Hester Prynne on the scaffold facing the townsfolk before going back to prison.
The Scarlet Letter is an example of an American romance.  That does not at all mean the Harlequin variety,  but rather it is a way of writing  that deals more with internal truths rather than recreating external ones.  Here's a very brief description:

The term ‘Romance’ is frequently used to talk about a particular type of prose which has been considered as the distinctive voice of American fiction. As opposed to the realistic English novel of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Trollope, Elliot or Thackeray (or Tolstoi, or Balzac, or Galdós for all that matter) the American Romance is more emotional and symbolic, less realistic and less structured than the novel. The protagonists of the Romance are heroic, mythical figures, typically lonely individuals facing dark forces which in some mysterious ways grow out of their deep unconscious selves. Frequently the hero dies in the end. Setting is not used realistically, but as a space that recreates the psychological world of the characters. Hawthorne defined it as “a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with nature of the other”. Through Romance, a fiction is created to expose the inner truth of a real situation.
In writing this book the way he did, Hawthorne was able to come up with a story set some two centuries in his past, allowing him the freedom to examine how human nature may have functioned under the repressive hand of the Puritans. Here he employs different perspectives to relate his tale; he also, as with other romance writers of his time, uses symbolism in nature to great effect.  His darker thematic concerns include alienation, isolation, and hypocrisy among others, and he does such an excellent job of revealing just how these forces worked on the main characters to make them who they are.

It is truly a shame that so many people dislike this book, because it is seriously one of the best I've had the pleasure to read this year.  If you read it slowly, you will discover that rather than it being "boring" or "a yawn" (as some readers have described it), it  is actually a beautiful and human story that I will never forget as long as I live.  If you read it in high school, you might want to go back and read it again, this time slowly. It is worth every second of time you give to it.  Now I'm hoping I'll find something equally as good from around this time...this book has set the bar.