Thursday, June 30, 2011

June Reading Roundup and hello from Seattle!

I'm in Seattle for the next two weeks -- what a nice, cool change from the Florida heat! I start my time here this weekend with a lovely camping trip for the weekend of the 4th -- the perfect beginning to a perfect vacation.

So, this month I spent much more time on the crime fiction than anything else, largely because I'm trying to get through the CWA International Dagger shortlist before the winner is announced toward the end of July.  The big snag is that one of the books listed for the shortlist is #11 in Andrea Camilleri's  Inspector Salvo Montalbano series (The Wings of the Sphinx), and I have this thing about reading books in proper series order.  Last year Camilleri's August Heat was on the shortlist, and I read it not knowing a thing about Montalbano or the other characters, and was just lost.  So even though reading numbers 2-11 (and what the heck, I had #12 as well so I read it too) took up more time than I had planned, it was well worth it.  What a great series -- one that I highly recommend to anyone.  The downside, of course, is that my regular fiction reading went by the wayside, and I had very little time to formulate and write reviews of the books I actually finished.  Oh well...that will all have to come once I'm home with long stretches of free time on my hands.

So here's how things shook out for June:

Translated Fiction:
The Journey of Anders Sparrman, by Per Wastberg
The Shadow of What We Were, by Luis Sepulveda

General Fiction:
Vaclav and Lena, by Haley Tanner (yes, I know, a review is definitely in the works but will be late)

Canadian Fiction:
Annabel, by Kathleen Winter (review to follow once I get home -- but in the meantime, it is a simply stunning book)

Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff

Scandinavian Crime Fiction:
The Hypnotist, by Lars Kepler (review to come very shortly)

Italian Crime Fiction:
The Voice of the Violin, by Andrea Camilleri
Excursion to Tindari, by Andrea Camilleri
River of Shadows, by Valerio Varesi (CWA International Dagger Shortlist)
The Smell of the Night, by Andrea Camilleri
Rounding the Mark, by Andrea Camilleri
The Patience of the Spider, The Paper Moon, by Andrea Camilleri
August Heat, by Andrea Camilleri
The Wings of the Sphinx, by Andrea Camilleri (CWA International Dagger Shortlist)
The Track of Sand, by Andrea Camilleri

Not bad at 15 books for the month!

other book related stuff:
1) My book group this month read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.  While we all  liked it, one member of the group felt that it would have been a much better read had it focused more on the ethics issues involved. The rest of us begged to differ. 

2) Added to the Amazon Wishlist this month
absolutely nothing -- zip, zero nada. 

3) Books bought this month (I'm a bit embarrassed about all these -- what can I say?)
  - crime fiction
The Quarry, by Johan Theorin 
Tattoo,by Manuel Vazquez Montalban
Outrage, by Arnaldur Indridason
That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, by Carlo Emilio Gadda
Sweet Money, by Ernesto Mallo


The Spoiler, by Annalena McAfee
Chinaman, by Shehan Karunatilaka
Going After Cacciato, by Tim O'Brien
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
Touch, by Alexi Zentner

River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh

The Stranger's Child, by Alan Hollinghurst
The Proof of Love, by Catherine Hall
And the Land Lay Still, by James Robertson
Manazuru, by Hiromi Kawakami
Panorama, by HG Adler

Well, that is all things book for this month -- wish me luck -- I obviously have tons to read!

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Vaclav and Lena Giveaway winner is....

#4, according to, and that would be Bookworm Nattie.  Congratulations! And to everyone else, thanks for playing. I do a few giveaways now and then when I feel like my tbr pile is getting overly huge, so there will be more. I also sometimes just list a book giveaway for the first person to comment on the post, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff

HarperCollins, 2011
384 pp.

Lost in Shangri-La is book of narrative history, focusing on a single event that happened in 1945 in what was at that time called Dutch New Guinea.  The Hollandia army base there was filled with soldiers, both men and women (WACs) who would be moved out periodically to other areas of fighting during the war in the Pacific. Life on the base was dull at times, and life could be difficult in the jungle.  Not only were these people in the middle of a war and far from home, they also had to contend with rats, spiders, mosquitoes and five types of "jungle rot."

In 1944, an Army Air Force pilot named Grimes was on a routine reconnaissance flight over the island and discovered what he'd called "Hidden Valley," some 150 air miles from the Hollandia Base.  The valley wasn't on any of the official maps used by the Army Air Force, and was as yet unexplored.  A week later, another pilot, Elsmore, was assigned the task of finding a landing site for a supply stop between Hollandia and another base on the other side of the island.  In the air with Grimes, Elsmore decided to explore the newly-discovered Hidden Valley along the way. They flew the plane into a canyon surrounded by mountains, made their way over a ridge and there it was.  The valley was about 30 miles long, at its widest point eight miles across, surrounded on all sides by sheer mountain cliffs. The two pilots saw a river, rapids, trees, etc., but it was the discovery of several "native compounds" and the people on the ground that really held their interest.  When the two returned to Hollandia, they spread the word of their discoveries, and soon, flyover visits to the Hidden Valley became a way of easing the monotony of life on the base for a while.  So an occasional pilot would load up his C-47 with handfuls of people and take short jaunts over the island as a sightseeing tour, and by virtue of having taken these flights, on their return the men and women would become members of the "Shangri-La Society."

On May 13, 1945, one of these sightseeing tours was scheduled, and everyone was ready for this big adventure on "The Gremlin Special." Nine officers, nine WACs, and six enlisted men were aboard when the plane took off. But unlike previous flights, this one never made it back. Instead, the plane crashed into the side of mountain. What caused the crash can only be speculated about, but be that as it may, only six people made it out, one of whom was killed immediately when the fuel tanks burst into flames.  That person might have survived, but at the time, his foot was caught and tangled in the roots of a tree near the fuselage during the explosion. Then two of the surviving WACs died, leaving Maggie Hastings as the only woman left alive along with John McCollom and Kenneth Decker. Although they all had injuries and burns, they managed to walk away from the crash.  And although they had survived the crash, surviving in unknown territory was quite another thing, especially since they were wounded, with no supplies. And then, of course, there was the unknown factor about the indigenous people -- were they really headhunters and cannibals as had been rumored?

After the crash, the author proceeds to explore how the survivors made it out from under the jungle canopy, headed to a clearing, and came into contact with a search plane.  While awaiting rescue, the three had to survive -- and this is the second part of this story, which includes contact with the native New Guinea people. Part three deals with trying to get the survivors back home -- they knew that rescue would happen, but their location raised some problems for getting them out of there, so the Army had to muster all of its resources, including bright minds, to come up with what would turn out to be nearly impossible. Part four deals with what happened to the survivors afterwards , their stories after the end of the war, and a return to the Hidden Valley.

Lost in Shangri-La was an interesting read, and I love finding these little nuggets of unknown historical events that someone takes the time to research and write about. The author used parts of Hastings' quickly shorthand-scribed daily journal of events, along with the stories of the other two survivors.  The segment about the people and events building up to the crash was well told, and I was impressed with the author's focus on the unselfish efforts each of the three injured survivors made toward the group's survival.  The rescue plans were also well related, and I did sense the frustration on the parts of both the rescuers and those they had to pull out of the jungle. 

This book is, in part, a testament to courage and to determination, and the book received great acclaim and very high ratings from readers everywhere.  You don't have to be a war buff to enjoy it -- it is at times an engrossing read.  But far from being a "riveting work," and considering the story that's being told, much of the book was a bit on the boring side, and I found myself doing the dreaded skim.  There was just so much related by the author in terms of the backstories of every single person involved in either the crash or the rescue that it totally detracted from the narrative as a whole.  And somehow, the story of the survivors' predicament did not come off as being as dire as it was given to be from the dustjacket -- especially after the landing of the second group of soldiers in the area.

What was most amazing to me though, aside from the crash story, was American attitudes of the time to the people of New Guinea.  I realize that I'm seeing it from a perspective from the 21st century, but still, it's a bit unsettling to read for example that some of the American soldiers thought that the natives could be easily educated in order to have a higher standard of living. I mean, they'd been there for centuries doing what they always do, living how they'd always lived -- that was their standard of living.   Considering what was in store for these poor people after the crash put them on the world's map, they probably had things better as they were. And though the author did go into this aspect a bit, there could have been a lot more.

I think I expected a little more of what was promised, something more along the lines of Hampton Sides' Ghost Soldiers, which did in fact involve an "incredible rescue mission of World War II."   I think I would recommend Lost in Shangri-La, but be ready to wade through a lot of extraneous information as you read it. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

offer on the table: Vaclav and Lena, by Haley Tanner

I've just finished this book (review soon) and I've decided not to keep it.  So it needs a new home.  If you want a chance at finding it in your mailbox, just leave a comment by Thursday, July 23, (only one, please), and on Friday, June 24, I'll be visiting to find out who takes it home.  This book is signed by the author, and is part of Book Passage's first editions club that I receive each month. International is okay!  Good luck.

The Shadow of What We Were, by Luis Sepulveda

Europa Editions
originally published as La sombra de lo que fuimos, 2009
translated by Howard Curtis
132 pp

"Brave people don't exist, only people who agree to go hand in hand with their fear."

In 1973, the Chilean military forcefully (and with the backing of the US) ousted President Salvador Allende  in a coup.  A military junta became the new form of government, and in 1974 Agosto Pinochet became the president of the country, remaining there until 1990. Immediately after the coup,  the junta banned all of the leftist parties that had been part of the Unidad Popular, the coalition of leftist parties that had backed Allende during his election and whose members served under Allende during his time in office. Luis Sepulveda, the author of The Shadow of What We Were, was active in the Allende government and was arrested in 1975.  The German Branch of Amnesty International worked for his release, but he was still under house arrest, from which he ultimately managed to escape and go to Valparaiso.  There he and a friend started a drama group to serve as a "cultural focus of resistance," and he was arrested and imprisoned again, this time for "treason and subversion." This sentence was commuted to exile for eight years, and supposedly on his way to Sweden, the plane had a layover in Buenos Aires, where Sepulveda escaped again, and began his period of exile.

The Shadow of What We Were is in part, the story of the shadows that linger from that coup some several decades later.   As the novel opens, Concepcion Garcia,  angry that she and her husband Coco Aravena are getting thrown out of their apartment because they were behind on the rent, begins throwing things out of the window. Unfortunately, a phonograph lands on a passer-by who dies. While Coco tries to figure out what to tell the police, the death of the man is a problem -- rather than being the cop that Aravena believes he is, the dead man is really a "specialist," sometimes known as "The Shadow," an elderly anarchist named Pedro Nolasco who is supposed to meet up with three men who are waiting for him in an old garage in Santiago. The three friends have hooked up again, via the internet; all had been in exile for their support of Allende's government and for their political views. They are back after having lived through torture, deaths of friends and family, years of exile, now ready to accompany Nolasco on one last mission.  As they wait for Nolasco, they talk about old times -- the 1960s and the years of political activism in Latin America,  Allende's presidency before the coup, the coup and what happened to each one of them as well as their families and friends, and now and then they mourn the loss of the old revolutionary zeal of the earlier days and of a Chile which they have trouble recognizing in its modern form.  As one of the characters, Arancibia, notes, "We aren't the Young Guard anymore:"

No. They weren't the Young Guard. Their youth had been scattered in hundreds of places, burned by electric prods during investigations, buried in secret graves that were slowly being discovered, in years of prison, in strange rooms in even stranger countries, in Homeric returns to nowhere, and all that was left were the marching songs that nobody sang anymore because those in charge now had decided that there had never been young people like them in Chile, that no one had ever sung The Young Guard, and that the Communist girls had not the taste of the future on their lips.

In and around the story of the three comrades, Sepulveda intersperses the story of the police investigation into the death of Nolasco.  Concepcion has told all to the police, while the ever-optimistic Coco Aravena, an old Maoist of the

 Marxist-Leninist Communist Revolutionary Party, Mao Tse-Tung Thought, Enver Hoxha Tendency, which was very different than the liquidationist clique that called itself the Marxist-Leninist Communist Revolutionary Party, Mao Tse-Tung Thought, Red Flag Tendency
is beside himself making up stories as to what actually happened to Nolasco, hoping the final version will sound convincing to the cops, but comes to realize something about himself in the process.

The Shadow of What We Were is only 132 pages long, but there is a great deal of food for thought packed into this book. It is a story about a generation of people who truly believed in a cause and did something about it, and who were persecuted for their beliefs.  It is also the story of one man who firmly believed that he was "the shadow of what we were, and while there is light we will exist," whose last mission rekindles that light in a handful of people.  Although the story is told in a slightly comic vein, the author is quite serious about revealing to his readers the horrors of the aftermath of the coup, and the effects of exile on those who escaped.  While there are some pretty gut-wrenching stories in this book, the conversations give the reader a quick but concentrated lesson in the myriad organizations of leftist politics, a brief look at Chile under Allende, and especially of the 1973 coup and the oppression that began immediately against the new government's perceived enemies.  This might be a definite drawback for readers who are not familiar with this time period, because everything is sort of packed in there all at once.  However, if you're interested in the history of Latin America, this is a great read. 

 Definitely not for the casual reader, but I'd recommend it to anyone who, like myself, is fascinated with Latin America's political history.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Journey of Anders Sparrman, by Per Wästberg

Granta Books, 2010
originally published as Anders Sparrman resa: en biografisk roman
translated by Tom Geddes
401 pp.

I have to say at the outset that I don't think I've ever come across anything quite like this book.  Its full title is The Journey of Anders Sparrman: A Biographical Novel, and that would seem to be the case. However, there is so much more in these 400 pages than just a man's life story -- it is filled with an appreciation of the natural world; it is a story about the power and the changing nature of science, and it is above all a novel of discovery.   It begins with small, two-page chapters: Encyclopaedia Entry, and Childhood Home, very academic in tone. After these somewhat austere sections, there is a surprise lurking in the very next chapter -- the reader moves from a rather dry few pages to some of the most beautiful descriptions of the natural environment I've ever come across in fiction.

The Anders Sparrman of this biographical novel was a real person, a Swedish naturalist and physician.   At the age of fourteen, he came to Uppsala to study medicine, but within a few years,  via an offer from his mentor Carl Linnaeus, Sparrman was able to join the crew of a ship going to China. Having not yet taken his medical exams, he signed on as a "barber-surgeon" but his main mission was to collect specimens and make observations for Linnaeus.  After returning to Sweden from that voyage, Sparrman completed a doctorate in medicine, then undertook yet another journey on his professor's behalf, this time to South Africa.  From there he joined the crew of Captain James Cook, who was circumnavigating the world for the second time.  After the end of that epic voyage, Sparrman returned to South Africa, then finally returned to Sweden, where he became the curator of what would eventually become the National Museum.

Told in three parts, in both first- and third-person narrative and incorporating some of  Sparrman's actual journal entries and letters, Wästberg's novel tracks this somewhat obscure figure throughout his life, which also happens to encompass several unique moments in history. Although Sparrman's experiences in different parts of the world helped make him the person he ultimately became, the novel is also the story of a man who journeys through life, not simply a book about his travels.

Part I of The Journey of Anders Sparrman is by far the best part of this novel, encompassing Sparrman's childhood, education and scientific voyages of discovery.  Knowing since he was a young boy that  "Nature would be his life's work," once in Uppsala, Sparrman "registered for service in Nature's temple," intending to "remain within her expansive embrace." His mentor, Linnaeus,
 cultivated in his pupil ...the ability to enter into Nature's delights with open eyes, and to encourage the dipper that dives into the waterfall, the siren that sings in the sea, the mussels that consume the very rock they cling to, the polecat that defends itself with a noxious stench. Phenomenon such as these filled him with reverence for the world's cornucopia. Though he did not underestimate the cruelty involved in the processes of life. Nor indeed did he attempt to shrink from anything in this world where all creatures 'tear each other limb from limb without mercy.'
Prior to his departure from Sweden on his voyage to China, Linnaeus counseled Sparrman to
Be a vagabond in the true meaning of the word, seeing all the beauty and profundities of the world, from its deep ravines to its droplets of resin and sap.
And this is precisely what Sparrman does, writing journals and collecting specimens on both the China trip and on Cook's voyage around the world.  But it is his time in South Africa that he feels the most free and in tune with nature, where "something spectral, voracious and intractable was welling up beneath the objective reality."   After returning from circumnavigating the globe in 1775, he and his companion Daniel Immelman traveled into South Africa's Cape Colony interior (the Karoo), where they moved "across the pages of Creation," studying the flora and fauna as well as the landscape of this hitherto unexplored area, writing his observations at night by the light of fireflies in a glass. It is here where Sparrman gains some deep insight into the nature of humankind, and comes to probably his fullest appreciation of nature.  However, juxtaposed with the feelings of freedom that Sparrman feels in living this "itinerant life," are the cruelties of the slave trade, "that violent outrage against the natural rights of mankind." His journal entries record in detail the capture, misuse and punishments of the native peoples, who Sparrman notes have been "misrepresented," and among whom he found a "happiness and contentment" seldom seen. Between the Boer quest for farmland and the slave trade, Wästberg notes that by 1778, two years after Sparrman left Cape Colony, all of the independent Khoikhoi villages had been eradicated. Sparrman's journal details his position on slavery, one that would make him a staunch abolitionist the rest of his life:
My desire is for a country where no-one makes unlawful use of power, where justice prevails, poverty decreases year by year, and the earth produces many harvests. Yet there can be no true amity until the country is ruled by its own inhabitants.

Part II covers Sparrman's life in Stockholm, where at first he was quite successful. There he served as curator for the collections of the Academy of Science and those donated by other collectors of natural history, charged with
... showing Nature's remarkable products and achievements to 'the young who are desirous of learning, and to inquisitive citizens...'
Sparrman also wrote various papers and conducted studies on several phenomena, gave talks, and joined various organizations, but as time passed, he became disenchanted with Stockholm, its "air of distrust" and the politics and pomposity of his superiors, colleagues and people in general. With the new coterie of scientists emerging on the scene, he becomes outdated and turns inward, returning in his mind to times past -- to the thrill of new discovery and to his keen affinity with nature.  Admitting he is "not the jolliest of fellows, seldom in good humour and out of tune with the pastimes others most enjoy," he notes that
I transformed my life into a travel adventure. When I settled down in Stockholm, at the age of thirty I was regarded as an elderly man with the best of his life behind him. Not even in the deepest Karoo have I felt so lonely. Not much has happened in my life, except a worsening financial situation.  

Part III details Sparrman's life as physician to the poor, as well as meeting and developing a relationship with Lotta, who will spur him on to possibly the greatest discovery of his life: 
What was spontaneous activities, experiments and research, had narrowed to a single corridor where the doors were all too easily recognizable, and chance was an unwelcome visitor. Then, miraculously, he had lost his footing and fallen head over heels in love.
The Journey of Anders Sparrman is, quite frankly, an amazing book. Not only is it an interesting story, but the author follows several themes throughout the novel without letting them slip through the cracks. As just one example, there is a constant juxtaposition between freedom and those who would suppress it that plays out in different situations and across different time periods.  Wästberg founded the Swedish Section of Amnesty International and was "deeply involved" in the fight against apartheid, so it is not surprising to find his devotion to the ongoing cause of freedom running throughout the story.

The real Anders Sparrman comes through most clearly when the author makes use of his journal writings and letters, offering the reader an attempt at understanding the complexities of this long-forgotten man. These writings were most beneficial, especially in  the last two parts of the book,  in helping to clarify sections of Wästberg's portrayal of Sparrman that were often a bit distant, vague or sometimes cold.  At the same time, I have to say that Wästberg's descriptions of natural phenomena were incredibly well written, and that his love of Africa became evident with every word he wrote about the country. The scene of Anders and Immelman out in the Karoo is one I will likely never forget.

I  enjoyed this novel and I recommend it, but it does take some time to get into where the story is going and at times it is necessary to rely on Sparrman's journals and letters to get a handle on where the author is taking his character.  I loved Part I, only really began to appreciate the direction of the story during Part II, and was not greatly impressed with the conversations between Lotta and Sparrman in Part III.  It's also definitely not a book for casual readers. There's just some indefinable quality about this novel that worked well for me -- perhaps it's my empathy for all of the underdogs of this world that made this story resonate. 

fiction from Sweden

Thursday, June 2, 2011

June: the TBR pile, part the second

With the summer reading schedule likely consumed by several long and shortlists -- for example, the Booker Prize longlist and for fun, this year's CWA International Dagger shortlist -- I need to get through more of the out-of-control tbr pile this month.  I've decided not to even speculate on what I'm going to read, because last month I didn't get around to most of what I thought I was going to get through so I felt a little guilty and a bit harried in my own head.  Rather than waste energy on guilt, I'm just going to go with my own flow and read whatever.  I've noticed that I can pick up a book intending to read it, read a couple of pages and decide I'm just not in that sort of mood at the moment and move on. So I'm planning to surprise even myself this month with my reading choices. Plus, life is just getting back to its regular pace around here and I'm already behind, so it's just a "whatever" kind of month. 

I am definitely kicking off my reading month with The Journey of Anders Sparrman, but from there it's a crapshoot. Be sure to check out the "what's new in the crime segments" link for the month as well, since the International Dagger is all about outstanding crime fiction from all over the world. 

time's a wastin' I'm off to read!