Thursday, May 31, 2012

May reading roundup

There's something to be said about taking a stack of books with you on vacation -- at the end of the day, when you're finished with the sights, experiences and other fun stuff that make up your time away from the real world, you can pick up a book and lose yourself again in a different way. 

That's exactly what I did during the month of May; not counting all the catch-up I had to do after being away for three weeks, I had quite a bit of quality reading time that I put to good use. As far as reviews, well, there are a few I haven't quite got to yet because of said catch-up,  but I'm thinking they can easily slide right on into June's reading. 

Without further ado:

UK fiction:
 Canadian fiction
The Headmaster's Wager, by Vincent Lam (not yet reviewed)

crime fiction

 odd/weird fiction

Sacré Bleu, by Christopher Moore


other book-related stuff:
1) The book group read Solar, by Ian McEwan. Some people found Michael Beard to be a sympathetic character -- the jury's still out on that one for others.  But it did provide a great discussion!

 2) Added to the Amazon wishlist this month:
Basti, by Intizar Husain (there I go again, reading all of this obscure literature)

 3) Books bought this month:
Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945, by Leo Marks
Until Thy Wrath be Past, by Asa Larsson
Trackers, by Deon Meyer
Bel-Ami, by Guy deMaupassant
Pure, by Timothy Mo
At Night All Wolves are Grey, by Gunnar Staalesen
The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir, by Wenguang Huang

4) Currently reading: 
The Mark Inside, by Amy Reading
New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, ed. Paula Guran

All done for this month; in June I'm going to try to make a dent on my massive collection of historical fiction. And when I say massive, I'm not exaggerating. 


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sacré Bleu, by Christopher Moore

Wm. Morrow, 2012
403 pp
(hardcover ed.)

 "What is the standard when you are doing something that's never been done? What kind of muse inspires that? Exactly."

You might recognize the title of this book as one of those mild French oaths that is up there on par with such others as Mon Dieu! or Zut alors!, but in this book, Sacré Bleu is the name of a deep blue, ultramarine paint most closely associated with the Virgin Mary.  But after you've finished the novel,  "Sacré Bleu!" as an expression for describing how you feel after what you've just read  isn't so far off the mark. While Sacré Bleu (the novel) has its own quirkiness and its own original feel,  if you didn't know who wrote it, it wouldn't be long before you realize that this twisty-odd writing style could only belong to Christopher Moore.  There were three reasons I bought this book: 1)  it's another novel by Christopher Moore; 2) it takes place within the Paris/Montmartre art world of the 1890s;  and 3) one of the main characters is  Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.  For those three reasons, I reasoned that it had to be a book of witty craziness, and I wasn't wrong.  What I didn't expect is an upended and off-kilter history of Impressionist art to go along with all of the rest of Moore's whimsical zaniness.   If you don't have a sense of humor, pass this one by; if you do, and you also happen to enjoy art, you might want to give it a go. 

 The book begins with the murder of Vincent van Gogh.  Okay, we all know that in real life he killed himself, but remember,  this is Christopher Moore's version of events.  His murderer is known only as the Colorman, who threatens van Gogh with "no more blue," unless he reveals what he did with a picture he'd painted. The artist refuses to comply and he's shot.  van Gogh makes his way to his doctor; the next day he begs brother Theo to hide a painting, "the blue one" from "the little man".  From there, the story goes to Paris in 1890, to a baker's son named  Lucien Lessard,  a friend of artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. The two soon begin to wonder how it is that a man who shoots himself trying to commit suicide would walk nearly a mile to get help, and think it's a matter worth looking into. Lucien, however, gets a little sidetracked. His father, who had fed the proverbial "starving artists" with bread from his bakery, had always hoped his son would be a painter, and Lucien, who studied painting under some of these Impressionist painters, becomes more inspired to greatness when he is reacquainted with a beautiful woman named Juliette who begs him to paint her. Both Juliette and finishing the painting become Lucien's obsession, much to Lucien's detriment.  As he begins to regain his senses, he and Toulouse-Lautrec continue their quest to discover the truth behind van Gogh's death. Part of their search involves visiting several painters who all share a similar story involving the Colorman, a beautiful woman, and a most extraordinary shade of blue paint.

Surrounding the mystery of the Colorman and van Gogh's death are some delightful moments of oddity in a world that only Christopher Moore could produce. Among other delights that often range into the supernatural, there are a few "interludes" that make up part of Moore's tribute to the color blue, beautiful but humorously-captioned color reproductions of paintings by artists who are characters in this book; there's Paris, Montmartre and the art scene, the brothels and hangouts of the era; trips back and forth through time, and of course, humor that ranges from stupid penis jokes and a lot of bonking references to a professor who is trying to teach his rats to re-enact the chariot-race scene from Ben Hur. Crazily ambitious, and just crazy in general, Sacré Bleu is like a history of Impressionist art turned on its ear -- most of all it's a lot of fun. The characters inhabiting this novel include (of course) Impressionist painters like Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Degas, Manet and others; post-Impressionists also have their parts to play, and there's even a scene with Michelangelo as he's beginning his David. You don't have to know who these people are to appreciate the book, nor do you need to be familiar with their art.  The characters don't always necessarily engage in the argot of the time. Instead, Moore has them using more modern parlance -- sometimes to the point where you think you're reading about little boys who haven't made it past the toilet humor and sex jokes stage. While that sort of humor isn't necessarily side-splittingly funny (and sometimes it gets really old), you really  can't help but laugh.

It is a bit slow-going in a few places, and some scenes are repetitive (especially the sex-oriented and goofy penis jokes), but when all is said and done, it's a lot of just plain fun. The mystery at the novel's core will keep you turning pages, as will the characters and the action surrounding them. And in answer to Moore's "worry" expressed in the afterword about ruining art for everyone, no way -- reading this book might just lead to more of an interest in  Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art!

Definitely recommended, perhaps not for everyone, but people who enjoy Moore's books should not miss this one. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Trapeze, by Simon Mawer

Other Press, 2012
published in the UK as The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Little, Brown)
371 pp

“Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés”

I'm back in my historical-fiction element with Trapeze, a novel that is set in England, Scotland and France during  World War II.  Since reading Mawer's The Glass House, which I really liked, I've been waiting for something new from this author, and it's finally here in a story about a woman in the Special Operations Executive (SOE)  , an organization created to, among other acts of espionage, help local resistance units in their efforts against the Nazis.   Unlike The Glass House, Trapeze takes place over a brief span of time; like The Glass House, it will leave you thinking about this story for a long time after you've turned the last page. 

Marian Sutro is a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF); as the novel opens she has been recruited by the Inter-Services Research Bureau, an organization which "trains people to work in France." Everything is hush-hush; she is not allowed to talk to anyone about what she is doing -- her parents think she's being trained as a nurse. Sent to Scotland for training, Marian goes through an intense series of courses, learning everything from parachuting and  commando skills to other more covert espionage techniques designed to prepare her for the "clandestine life." All of this work is done in preparation for Marian's launch into the French countryside to aid in the resistance effort.   She meets and befriends others working for the SOE, among them a young woman named Yvette who is worried she'll be booted out of the program before she can get to France, and Benoit, a young man who is very attracted to her.  A most important piece of advice Marian and her fellow trainees are given comes in the form of a quotation from one of the fables of Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian: "Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés," -- to live happily, live hidden.

Before she actually leaves for France, Marian, now "Alice," is directed to meet with some people from a different government department, one more secret than the group who originally recruited her.  In addition to the duties she is to undertake for the Special Operations Executive, she is given an additional secret assignment that could help the Allies win the war if successful.  The parachute mission, codenamed "Trapeze" sends her into the southwest of France as Anne-Marie Laroche,  but before too long, she is ordered to Paris, which as Marian very quickly discovers, is a very dangerous place.  Everyone there has the potential of being a collaborator with, or even worse, an agent of the Nazi occupation; she has arrived in a Paris that is a "city inhabited by ... ghosts of young men, ghosts of Jews, ghosts of communists and socialists,"  where the danger, as she puts it, is a "cancer within you, invisible, imponderable, and probably incurable.” When her first-schoolgirl love Clément Pelletier, who remained in Paris during the German occupation, discovers why she's really there, he laughingly refers to her as "The daring young girl on the flying trapeze;" a phrase not too far off the mark, as it will turn out later.

Marian starts out as a young girl who relishes the risk and the potential for actually living; as the recruiter explains, her mission has the chances of survival set about "fifty-fifty," ... "the toss of a coin:"
"How could she not feel fear? But it was the fear that she had felt skiing, the fear of plummeting steepness, the fear she had had when her uncle had taken her climbing, the awe-inspiring fear of space beneath her feet, a feer that teetered on the very edge of joy. She wanted to make a grand gesture, to laugh with happiness and cry Yes!, even to leap out of her chair and throw her arms around this strange man with his shrill portents of doom."
In these early days, she wants to seem "extraordinary in the eyes of the anonymous passerby -- brilliant, adventurous, brave, "and in some ways there is a sense that to Marian the whole thing is a game, and there are many references to a game she played as a child with her brother and Clément called "Pig in the Middle." In one example, during a free-day hike in  Scotland, she and her friend Yvette come across commandos in training, and  Marian comes out of hiding yelling "Bang! Bang!...You're dead," giving herself and Yvette away.    But once in France, it isn't long before she realizes that very real lives may be at stake, including her own; if she's going to play the great game and do it well, those lives depend on her having the "particular skill" to  "appear to be dull and uninteresting."   

The novel reads like an adventure story with a bit of romance thrown in; and while it may be much less of a literary work than his Glass House, what makes this book stand out from other spy-type novels is Mawer's pacing and his prose. He slowly, step by step, ratchets up the reader's degree of interest in this character, going through her recruitment and training, lolling a bit with the love interest and the pre-mission days and into a quiet streak in rural France. But the big payoff is her time spent in Paris. These scenes are the best in the novel, where the reader is there right along with her -- and the combined suspense and unease suddenly become palpable. Combined with his wonderful writing,  Mawer has produced a novel that can only be described as haunting; it becomes even more poignant as you reach the ending, because it hits you that he's based his character Marian on real women who did their parts to bring an end to the war --  all the while knowing and running the risks involved in their missions. On the negative side,  I could have done without Marian getting over her Catholic guilt regarding masturbation and the sex scenes were kind of pointless.  But really, those are minor niggles -- Trapeze is a fine novel, and would be of interest to anyone who reads and enjoys historical fiction.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Gillespie and I, by Jane Harris

Faber and Faber, 2011 (UK)
502 pp

Exasperatingly enough, Gillespie and I is one of those books where saying too much gives away the show, a potential buzzkill for anyone who may want to read it.  I bought this book last summer from the UK, having read a little about it in various threads re last year's Booker Prize speculations (and because I had enjoyed her The Observations ),  but I had no idea what I was getting into once I started reading.  So I'll keep quiet about what happens in this novel for anyone who may be interested in reading it.  I won't even tell my real-life book friends who  want to borrow it -- the lips are zipped.  So here is a basic outline but I'll leave it to you to read this most superbly-crafted, delightful novel on your own. Just don't miss it, despite the 500+ pages -- it reads very quickly and hooks you from the outset.

The story is narrated by an elderly Harriet Baxter, looking back from 1933 to events in her life from 1888 through 1890.  In Glascow, through a random event, she becomes friends with the family of Ned Gillespie, whom Harriet calls "a man of indisputable talent, but a man hampered by circumstance and responsibility." As a painter, Ned stood outside the privileged circle of artists
"notoriously prone to snobbism, and nowhere more cliquish than Scotland, wherein most established artists were possessed of wealth, an Edinburgh heritage, and a first-rate education,"
many of whom were exhibiting their work at the International Exhibition.  Ned is the proverbial struggling artist, with a family to support: his wife Annie (also an artist),  two young daughters Sybil and Rose; the family  has a small business that is managed  by Ned's brother Kenneth, who has his own personal issues as well.   Harriet believes in Ned as an artist and decides to do what she can to help him, going to her stepfather Ramsay (collector of inventions that don't seem to work) to help in publicizing Ned's work.  He isn't so keen on the idea, but does allow Harriet money for a commissioned portrait.   Harriet decides Annie should do it, and  she decides to lengthen her stay in Glasgow for the purpose. Soon Harriet is a regular household fixture at the Gillespies; she plays with the two children, helps Annie around the house, talks to Ned about his art, etc. etc.  She's there when the older of the two girls, Sybil, begins to exhibit bizarre behavior (painting pictures of penises on the wall, for a start) and  she's also around when a terrible tragedy strikes the household.   Her account of her Glasgow years are interwoven with her current life as an elderly spinster with only two little birds for companions, along with the housekeeper (who doubles as fact checker, etc., for Harriet's memoirs) Sarah. 

So, you may ask -- why is this scenario special? Aren't there a number of books in which the past is related through the eyes of the characters some years later? Well, it is precisely what I'm not saying that gives this book its edge, and far be it from me to spoil it.  At the very beginning, in the preface, the reader is told by Harriet that she has waited quite a long time to set pen to paper, needing to put some distance between herself and a "sequence of profoundly affecting events, none the least of which was that Ned...took his own life."  From that sentence on, you enter Harriet's mind, a very strange place indeed. At first you may feel like you're in some routine period piece set in Victorian Scotland, but it will not be long before you may notice an inexplicable, deep sense of unease starting to creep up on you, compelling you to keep turning pages until it's all over. 

Gillespie and I  is an inventive and ingenious novel, taking you quickly back into Victorian-era Scotland where you immediately become enmeshed in the characters' lives; at the same time it tends to turn your sense of perception on its head.   It is very well paced, extremely readable and deliciously plotted, with equal levels of suspense and disquietude which grow as the story progresses.  Jane Harris is an awesome writer, and I hope she returns with something equally as good very soon.  I absolutely loved this captivating book, and I can very highly recommend it.

sidebar: I read this book on a plane from Seattle to Phoenix and then from Phoenix to Ft. Lauderdale. I hate flying, but was so caught up in this one that I forgot where I was! 

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Summer of Drowning, by John Burnside

Jonathan Cape, 2011 (UK)
328 pp
(hardcover ed.)

"To become nothing, to remove yourself from the frame  -- that is the highest form of art."

The small, remote Arctic island of Kvaløya, located in the middle of a "string of islands running from Tromsø in the east to Hillesøy in the west,"  is the setting for this disturbing and atmospheric novel, which is narrated from the perspective of Liv, daughter of the celebrated and reclusive painter Angelika Rossdale, looking back ten years later at the summer of her eighteenth year.

Angelika had "turned her back on the big wide world," leaving Oslo when Liv was very small, to focus on her work. She had a "gift for refusal," especially for refusing herself -- removing herself from the world, and applying the "discipline" required in this effort to every facet of her life.  According to Liv, she and her mother

"...  had the house, we had the whole island, in fact.  We had enough quiet and space to live our own lives as we wanted, not somebody else's version of how life should be, and we were more or less self-sufficient.  We were perfectly able to look after ourselves and we didn't need a thing from anyone." 

Living in the space her mother marked out, Liv is free to define her life as she chooses, but much of Liv's upbringing is based precisely on Angelika's ideas of not being a part of the world.  Angelika's removal from the frame was by choice; Liv's isolation is imposed upon her and she eventually becomes much more of a recluse than her mother.   From the outset the reader wonders about Liv, who at age 28 is still living on the island, where she has "become invisible," and has done

"nothing at all; or nothing other than to choose the life I am living now, a life someone else would think of as close to non-existent. No career, no husband, no lover, no friends, no children... I am a witness, pure and simple, and unaffiliated, lifelong spy."
Liv's spying career actually began as a game at the age of 18 when she started watching people, realizing she wasn't like them, and she wanted to understand "why she didn't want anything at all," thinking that there was something wrong with her.  Her only real friend on the island at that time is an old man named Kyrre Opdahl, who rented out his summer cottage periodically and also told Liv tales of the huldra, a mythological, siren-like creature who lured men "to some far, lonely place, where chaos lurks: dark rocks, wild beasts, a cold, quick undertow." The huldra begins to take shape in Liv's mind in the form of Maia, a strange young girl who was seen with two brothers shortly before their individual but identical deaths by drowning.  After another drowning occurs, one where Liv is the only witness to Maia's presence,  Liv's  account verges into the eerie and horrific, leading the reader to wonder if there really are supernatural forces at play on this remote island.  As more tragedies occur, and as things become more disquieting, Liv takes a moment to muse about "before," a time with

"the seas empty of ships, the land of houses and roads, the shore from here to Africa one long, uninterrupted flock of feeding birds, sandpipers and terns and oystercatchers, curlew, godwit, ibis, vast herds of reindeer and elk wandering from feeding ground to feeding ground, all the way to Siberia, the birch woods bright and articulate with song, wolverines and wolf packs calling to one another over the high snow,"

a time Liv can't really imagine but regrets the loss of. It is also a moment where things begin to come into clear focus. There are clues all along that point toward the truth about that summer; it's up to the reader to put everything together.  As the knowledge of what really happened begins to dawn, it melds into an uneasy, disturbing truth that will send up shiver up your spine.

Maddeningly, this is one of those novels that to say any more would really kill it for anyone who may be interested.  It is extremely disarming; at the same time the writing is superb, producing a sense of great unease in the reader until the very last second.

Very highly recommended if you don't mind not having things absolutely spelled out for you; readers of literary fiction should really like it.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

review link: Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French

Penguin, 2012
(first published by Penguin Australia, 2011)
259 pp
(hardcover ed)

If you've seen or heard about this book recently, and you're wondering if it's readworthy, the answer is definitely yes.  I read this over the course of the last three weeks while on vacation and had trouble putting it down. Although the book revolves around an old, unknown and unsolved murder, it's not your average true-crime sort of thing --the book  is intelligently written and takes place in Peking (modern Beijing) as the Japanese army is arriving at the city gates.  If you're at all interested, I've posted my review about it  in the "real stuff" (nonfiction) section of this online reading journal. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

totally OT -- there and back again

In the immortal words of Simon and Garfunkel, "gee but it's great to be back home -- home is where I want to be..."

The last three weeks have been very hectic, active, and cold (okay, like nearly freezing); starting out in Seattle where my family lives, going up to Alaska for a while and back to Florida last night.  Talking about extremes, Alaska looked like this:

on Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, flown in by helicopter

and right now my Florida back yard looks like this:

and, where Alaska was freezing, it's actually steamy humid outside right now. 

It was a great vacation (which included, among other things, dry suit snorkeling off the Alaskan coast -- extremely cool), and now that I'm home, I feel like I need a vacation from my vacation.  But I did manage to read a fair number of books while away, including

  • Gillespie and I by Jane Harris 
  • A Summer of Drowning, by John Burnside
  • Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
  • The Headmaster's Wager, by Vincent Lam
  • A Florentine Death, by Michele Guttari
  • Hour of the Wolf, by Hakan Nesser
  • Liar Moon, by Ben Pastor
and I don't remember what else, actually, but reviews will be forthcoming soon. In the meantime, I need sleep and sun and I'll be right as rain by tomorrow.

So that's it -- it's just so good to be home!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt, 2012 (US ed.)
432 pp

"Those who are made can be unmade."
First, a very hearty thank you to Christine at Henry Holt for offering and sending me the ARC  of this most excellent novel.

Bring Up the Bodies is the second book in Hilary Mantel's planned trilogy of novels focusing on  Thomas Cromwell, who, as the author notes, "remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie" due to the lack of a "full and authoritative biography."  Along with Wolf Hall, the 2009 Booker-prize winning novel, and continuing on in the final  book of Mantel's trilogy, she hopes to continue her "efforts to dig him out."    It is an amazing novel, an intelligently-written work of historical fiction with a literary character that is also deeply engrossing, and ultimately leaves the reader wishing for much more.  It begins with Henry VIII at Wolf Hall, where he has set his sights on young Jane Seymour; it ends with the death of Anne Boleyn and the "swift and private" marriage that takes place ten days later.   If you think you know this story and you're wondering why you should read one more novel about it, well, you haven't read an account like this one. 

UnlikeWolf Hall where the reader follows Cromwell's rise from his origins as the Putney blacksmith's boy to the chief counsellor to Henry VIII over a long span of time, the story in Bring Up the Bodies covers a relatively short period, from September 1535 through the summer of 1536, with most of the action taking place in only a few weeks.  But as everyone familiar with the story of Anne Boleyn knows, this brief amount of time is chock full of quickly-unfolding events -- none the least of which is Henry tiring of Anne and looking to Jane Seymour as a replacement queen who will  hopefully provide him with a male heir.   Thomas Cromwell has been around for years trying to figure out exactly what his king wishes and making it so, doing what he must to keep Henry happy while also preserving his present position of power.  It's a tough job, one in which Cromwell has made a number of enemies along the way, "grandees who, if they could, would destroy him with one vindictive swipe, as if he were a fly." He is also  forever reminded of his lowly birth.  Yet, when Henry makes it clear that Cromwell must clear a path for him to be shed of Anne Boleyn and marry Jane Seymour,  Cromwell's enemies reveal that they would support his actions towards the queen's downfall.  While working toward that goal, Cromwell also  takes the opportunity to exact revenge, via his behind-the-scenes machinations, on those who had helped to engineer the downfall of his mentor Cardinal Wolsey so well described in Wolf Hall; unfortunately, his targets don't see what's coming until it's too late.

Cromwell is generally viewed as a man with a great lust for power, a person for  whom nothing acts as a barrier on his way to gaining it.  But in Mantel's hands, it becomes easy to find sympathy for this very human figure.   He "never spares himself in the king's service," and is "distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England's business," and at the same time doesn't slight his own rewards, always planning how to secure the future for himself and his family.   His tolerance toward Henry's petulant personage often reaches its limits -- as in one scene where Henry notes "I really believe, Cromwell, that you think you are king, and I am a blacksmith's boy.”  Many times  "Crumb" just sits quietly waiting for Henry's tirades or bragging to pass so he can get back to the business of the moment.  And Cromwell also has ghosts to deal with -- those of his wife and daughters, Wolsey and even that of Thomas More, with whom he often has conversations.  But Cromwell also has a great deal of patience and reason; the calm dignity of this blacksmith's boy often  rubs up against and outshines the uncouth  behavior of those above him.  His ability to see these people for who they are as well as understanding the hypocrisy that surrounds them is one of his best traits and serves him well.  Although the novel is filled with names familiar to pretty much everyone  (largely due to the wealth of recent fiction surrounding Anne Boleyn and the TV series The Tudors), it is definitely Cromwell who drives the story here. 

I liked this book immensely.  It is very reader friendly, dispensing  with the huge amounts of exposition so prevalent throughout Wolf Hall;  the major players have already been introduced, and the story proceeds in  a much more focused narrative.  The writing immediately sends the reader back in time but at the same time,  it is surprising how some things never change.  The rich landowners'  and nobles' rejection of a bill to benefit the poor and lift the burden of poverty that leads to criminality, for instance, might have been taken out of current events.  And you can't help but really enjoy Thomas Cromwell, who constantly worries about his position and his enemies, yet who also seems to be making fun of the way these people conduct themselves.  You don't need to have read Wolf Hall to enjoy Bring Up the Bodies, but my thinking is that it couldn't hurt, and that it was such a good book it would be a shame to miss it.   Highly recommended. 

for better and more professional reviews, check out The New York Times or The New Yorker and you can listen to Hilary Mantel discussing her book at NPR.