Friday, March 30, 2012

March Reading Roundup

I still haven't found Please Take Care of Mom, but then again, I haven't really had time to start looking.  Oh well.  As I'm so fond of saying when I lose something, it's here somewhere.  Rather than focusing on what I didn't read, here's the list for March.

from Pakistan
The Wandering Falcon, by Jamil Ahmad

from India
Rebirth, by Jahnavi Barua
River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh
from Japan
The Lake, by Banana Yoshimoto

from Argentina
Purgatory, by  Tomas Eloy Martinez

crime fiction

from Italy
The Dark Valley, by Valerio Varesi
  from Japan
The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura
from Scandinavia
Phantomby Jo Nesbø
The Glass Devil, by Helene Tursten
The Torso, by Helene Tursten
Nights of Awe, by Harri Nykänen
from Austria
The Mattress House, by Paulus Hochgatterer
The Sweetness of Life, by Paulus Hochgatterer
 from Hungary
Budapest Noir, by Vilmos Kondor

 Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas, by Dale Carpenter

other book-related stuff:
1) Book group day was the perfect storm of illness, company and other stuff, so our group did not meet in March.

  2) Added to the Amazon wishlist this month:
A Caring Man, by Akira Arai

 3) Books bought this month:
Hanging Hill, by Mo Hayder
You Will See Fire: A Search for Justice in Kenya, by Christopher Goffard
Holy City, by Guillermo Orsi

4) Currently reading:
finishing up Holy City,  by Guillermo Orsi

5) March book giveaway, donation or swap total: 23.

That's it -- I hope everyone had a productive month of reading!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

irony of all ironies

Well, I've come to the last book on the Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist for this year and it just happens to be the winner, Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-sook Shin.   Sadly, I've lost my copy somewhere in my house so I won't be getting to it today, or until I have a while to go through each stack, each shelf and each magazine basket filled with books.

sign me

*The Wandering Falcon, by Jamil Ahmad

Riverhead  Books, 2011
243 pp
(hard cover ed.)

"One lives and survives only if one has the ability to swallow and digest bitter and unpalatable things. We, you and I, and our people shall live because there are only a few among us who do not love raw onions." 

If you are considering writing as a vocation and you're getting along in years, do not despair: Jamil Ahmad wrote this lovely little book in his 70s, and this year it was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize.  

Courtesy of  Wikipedia

The book is set in what is now considered to be a very troubled and indeed, very controversial area, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Afghanistan.  Of of these areas, Waziristan,  has been in the news for some time due to its fame as a Taliban refuge, but Ahmad's focus is on the numerous tribes who occupied this region prior to modern-day conflicts; he examines how they maintain their ways of life as modernity encroaches on traditional societies.  The title character is Tor Baz, (Black Falcon) who was born near a military outpost, a "tangle of crumbling, weather-beaten, and broken hills where the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet," to a couple of illicit lovers from the Siahpad tribe who had run away from their home.  All goes well with this family of three until their pasts catch up with them and they are found by their kinsmen and dealt with in accordance to tribal custom. Tor is spared, but  abandoned; he is later picked up by Baluch tribesmen, then handed off from person to person and eventually, he simply strikes out on his own.  

Throughout the book, he  moves throughout  the various border areas, serving as the vehicle through which Ahmad brings his readers into the lives of the different tribes who inhabit this landscape: the Wazirs, Mahsuds, Brahui, the Kharot  and the Afridi; there are also the  Nasirs, the Dortanis and Baluchs.  Along the way Ahmad describes how changes in the world outside of these regions have affected the tribespeople. In one story, for example,  nomadic Kharot Powindas ("foot people") have brought their livestock to graze along their traditional wandering routes, but now the border is guarded by soldiers who will not let them pass without proper papers.  But these documents cost money and require birth certificates, health documents and identity papers, neither of which the thousands of Kharot possess.  One brave woman puts the Quran on her head, banking on the fact that she will be protected, and leads her animals forward only to be fired on by soldiers. As others make the same attempt, they and their animals are mowed down in what will become a massacre.    In another, tribes are aligned either with the British or the Nazis during World War II; and in still another, the key guide leading  climbers up the Tirich Mir in the Hindu Kush area finds himself with no income and unable to provide for his family once the summit is conquered; his daughter is stolen and later sold into prostitution.

Ahmad writes simply, adding few embellishments to his prose, but it is the sense of place that stands out in this book.  From the harsh, dry deserts with their blinding sandstorms to the peaks of the Hindu Kush, the landscape is eloquently and realistically described.  Combining his writing with his expert knowledge of the area, Ahmad takes his readers on a journey through lands they might otherwise never see,  revealing a longstanding way of life that has been disappearing for some time. The book is also filled with scenes that create vivid images in the reader's imagination; for example, in one story, a wife calls to her husband to come out and witness the beginning of spring:

"There was a full moon, and it hung half hidden behind the northern cliff.  The moonlight was strong and dazzling to the eyes... A long distance away on the mountain crest, he could see small antlike figures silhouetted against its orb. There was a long chain of them moving slowly with loads on their backs. These were the ice cutters." 

 It is very obvious that Ahmad has a deep fondness for the people and the landscape of these areas.  He is not critical of the people who inhabit this region; at the same time, he does not idealize them either. Through his eyes perhaps his readers will be able to envision a place, a time, and groups of people before all became  synonymous with terror and war.

Many of the book's critics have complained that it is misrepresented as a novel, and I agree. It is really a set of short stories, and using Tor Baz  as our eyes and ears in some cases does not imply that the book revolves around his character. The dustjacket blurb is a bit misleading in that respect. However, when all is said and done, whether or not it is a novel or a short-story collection just isn't that big of a deal, because it is such a good book no matter what you want to call it. Definitely recommended. 

You can find a brief article about the author here.

fiction from Pakistan

Friday, March 16, 2012

*The Lake, by Banana Yoshimoto

Melville House Publishing, 2011
originally published as Mizuumi, 2005
translated by Michael Emmerich
188 pp (trade paper ed.)

The most recent of Yoshimoto's novels to be translated into English, The Lake is a good read, one that won't take you long to finish.  However, don't let the brevity of this book fool you: in its short length, it manages to touch upon issues of grief, trauma and family, and it offers a powerful surprise that is revealed near the end.  It's a blend of the real and the fantastic; in some parts of the story you need to be prepared to suspend disbelief and just go with the flow.  

The novel follows Chihiro, a young artist living in Tokyo whose mother has recently passed away.  Her unmarried mother owned a bar, where she met Chihiro's father; the lack of a "normal" family structure didn't prevent Chihiro from having a good childhood, but thinking of what people might be saying about her -- "Sure, she’s the daughter of a prominent local figure, but c’mon—he knocked up the Mama-san of a bar, right?" --  left her feeling "oppressed." Chihiro leaves for Tokyo as soon as possible to go to art school;  soon after moving from home her mother gets sick and ultimately dies. While dealing with her grief and looking back on her family life and her relationship with her mother,  she meets Nakajima, a man with his own  troubles.  She senses right away that he has been through some terrible trauma, but never pushes the issue.  Eventually she comes to be "awed by his terrible depths," but at the same time, she's drawn to this man, with whom she shares a number of similarities. Their relationship proceeds slowly and carefully; taking a new turn after Nakajima brings her with him on a visit to some old friends at his former home on a lake.  As Nakajima's history is revealed, some interesting questions come to light regarding the importance of perspective -- one of the themes that runs throughout this novel. 

The Lake is a mix of positives and negatives, but after all is said and done, what's good about this book outweighs what's not.  The prose is understated and very simply expressed, while  at the same time it is powerful enough so that the reader gets a clear picture of Chihiro as she tries to come to terms with her childhood, her family life and  the death of her mother as she moves into another phase of her life.  Nakajima is also drawn well -- a man of great intelligence, yet hampered from moving on  by the effects of a mysterious trauma that consumes him.  While ultimately his story is heartbreaking,  the author is very clever not to make it the central focus of the novel and reveals it only toward the end of the story, making it all that much more powerful once the facts are brought to light.  Chihiro is a likeable narrator, coming across as a real person throughout most of the story, using language normal people would use.   Another very positive point about this novel is the lake, not only in terms of amazing description which throws the reader right into its misty atmosphere, but also in Chihiro's growing attraction to it and to the inhabitants of the lake house, one that even finds expression within the context of her mural as it increasingly becomes a part of her consciousness. On the other hand,  I found the section on her refusal to incorporate a sponsoring company's logo within the mural she's painting a bit preachy and clichéd to the point of being very obvious; the same goes with her comments against homogeneity.  Good messages both, but a little overplayed here.

I'd recommend The Lake, especially to people who have read Yoshimoto in the past, but with the caveat that compared to say, Kitchen (which I really, really liked), this one comes across a bit flat. I'd also recommend it to readers of Japanese fiction -- it maintains that edginess that is so characteristic of Japanese writing. It's a good read, very brief, but powerful.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Kyung-sook Shin wins the Man Asian Literary Prize

This year's winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize is Kyung-sook Shin for her book Please Look After Mom. Her win signals two firsts:  one, it's the first time win for a South Korean writer, and two, her novel is the first book from South Korea to make it onto the MAL shortlist.  You can read all about it here.  Congratulations to Kyung-sook Shin on her win.

Monday, March 12, 2012

*Rebirth, by Jahnavi Barua

Penguin India, 2010
203 pp
(trade paper ed. - India)

Rebirth is Jahnavi Barua's first novel, although in 2008 she also authored a book of short stories entitled Next Door.  It is narrated by the main character Kaberi, and the narrative is addressed to her unborn baby, the type of thing I normally shy away from in my reading choices. No wait. I normally RUN from this type of thing. However,  to be perfectly honest, and much to my own surprise, there are several features that elevate this novel from being just another book of women's fiction or chicklit.  It has a vividly-evoked sense of place and time,  quality prose that does not fall prey to overdone cliches, and the reader catches a glimpse into  issues facing not only modern Indian women, but a bit of India's ongoing regional, political strife that affects people in all walks of life.   There is also a nice, reflective symmetry at work that is well constructed:  the story takes place over the few months between Kaberi's discovery that she is pregnant and the first pangs of labor contractions, and as Kaberi is patiently awaiting the baby's emergence, she is also on a path toward her own.

Kaberi is married to Ranjit (Ron) and lives a very middle-class existence in a nice flat in Bangalore. She has been working on a children's book for about a year, unbeknownst to her husband, and the book is now ready for her to begin the editing process.  But despite her environment, upscale life and her happiness about being pregnant, things are not so great for Kaberi: Ron is having an affair and living with another woman, and has moved many of his things out of the flat.  Ron's behavior toward Kaberi fluctuates erratically; often when Ron wants something from Kaberi, she usually acquiesces with little protest, but he is not above using physical violence on her from time to time. Kaberi hasn't mentioned the pregnancy to her husband; she wants him to return to her not because of the baby, but because he still loves Kaberi.  Actually, Kaberi hasn't mentioned the pregnancy or Ron's absence from their home  to anyone; the one friend in whom she may have confided early on was killed in a bus explosion  during an insurgency in Assam, and Kaberi just lets on that Ron's company frequently sends him away on business.  When Ron comes to her to ask for a divorce, he expects that she will give in to his request, but Kaberi realizes  that now she is in a position of strength, one that is only bolstered by a trip home to Assam when an unforeseen event occurs. Obviously there's a great deal more to the story, but to say any more would be unfair.

Yes, yes, yes, I know it sounds like the standard women's fiction/chicklit kind of story, but there is an unusual amount of depth at work in this novel which lifts the premise of this story from what it could have been to something on an elevated level. The sense of place moves the reader from modern city -- where even in the midst of the city's hustle-bustle an open  verandah attached to a flat can be an isolating experience --  to muddy roads to the lush jungle near Bangalore and then to the scenic river views in Assam where people float on barges for parties, each with its accompanying wonders and vivid colors in terms of flora and fauna. Moving along, the author never feels compelled to document incidents of domestic violence in graphic detail, nor does her main character wring her hands, bemoan her fate in a "poor, poor, pitiful me" kind of way, take revenge or take a lover to spite her unfaithful husband. The spotlight is always on Kaberi, her sense of isolation and the slow realization of her empowerment that comes about as a result of her inner strength, and the prose moves steadily and is, if anything,  quietly understated.  Finally, the author manages to weave in some of the political and social issues of the agitation in Assam, where people took to the streets to make their voices and agendas heard, only to be betrayed in the long run.

Rebirth is a very fast read but a good one, and if this is Jahnavi Barua's very first novel, then she's off to a running start in her writing career.   I did get a bit tired of reading through longish descriptions of different outfits the women wore in this book, and the colors and styles various people used in decorating their homes -- it was just too extraneous for me to really care about and added little to the overall story. But really, if that's the worst I have to say about this book, then that's a good thing! I'll look forward to more from this author in the future.

A note to publishers or to anyone else who cares: as an extremely avid consumer of the written word and buyer of hundreds of books per year,  I think it would be very nice if books listed for international prizes were available on an international scale, but I do understand that there are rights restrictions and whatever.  Personally, I don't get this phenomenon of  limiting award-nominated books to only one country or one region when the publishing business isn't doing so well these days and international releases might boost sales.  After looking around my usual online haunts to find this book, I had the choice of going to Penguin India or paying about $60 US for a 200-page paperback. I went with Penguin India and was happy to do so, but I can't speak for everyone else who might want to read this book here in the US.

book up for grabs: 77 shadow street - first one to claim it takes it (US only, please)

Last night I started this book, got to the middle and just couldn't do it any more.  I had set it aside some months ago for brain-relief reading, started it, and although it sort of piqued my interest at the beginning I just can't make myself finish it.  If you want it, just be the first to comment and it's yours. Free. I'll pay for the postage, too. I must say, I've never been a Dean Koontz fan, and after last night, I remembered why. But he's wildly popular, so there must be someone out there that wants this book.

Come and get it!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Longlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is here!

Just recently announced is the longlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which probably just upped my tbr pile that I'm so desperately trying to reduce. Aarrgh!! Can't help it ... foreign fiction is what I love most. There are three carryovers from the Man Asia Literary Prize on the list -- and one of these, Dream of Ding Village, which was my favorite book of 2011, is banned in China. It will be interesting to see what will happen if this book actually wins either of these literary awards.

Here's the list (copied from today's issue of The Bookseller); a * means I have it on my shelves:

1Q84: Books 1 and 2 by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin (Harvill Secker) *

Alice by Judith Hermann, translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo (The Clerkenwell Press)*

Scenes From Village Life by Amos Oz, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas De Lange (Chatto & Windus)

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld, translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green (Alma Books)

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter (Corsair) *

The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg, translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death (Faber)

From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Telegram Books)*

Hate: A Romance by Tristan Garcia, translated from the French by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein (Faber)

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, translated from the Italian by Judith Landry (Dedalus)*

Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki, translated from the German by Anthea Bell (Peirene Press)

Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein (Jonathan Cape) *

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Shin Chi-Young Kim (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)*

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon (Harvill Secker)*

Professor Andersen's Night by Dag Solstad, translated from the Norwegian by Agnes Scott Langeland (Harvill Secker)*

Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Secker)

oh dear...six  I don't have. Best be getting out the credit card!

*River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh

John Murray, 2011 (UK)
517 pp
(Hard cover edition)

"Look there, he said, pointing upriver. You'll see a big fort, down by the water, right at the river's mouth. The lascars call it 'Sher-ka-mooh,' the Tiger's Mouth; the Angrez call it the Bogue. It was built just a few years ago, to defend the river, and to look at it you would think no one could ever get into such a stronghold. But at night you or I or anyone else could walk in, without anyone stopping us. The soldiers are all lost in smoke, and their officers too. This is a plague from which no one can escape."

River of Smoke is book two of Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy, so named for the ship introduced in book one, Sea of Poppies.  In book one, set in 1836, the British colonial powers had changed the rich fields of Indian farmland into a veritable "sea of poppies," and had economically hogtied the people who used to raise their own food crops to the opium industry. Opium often forced farmers into debt and into leaving their homes, causing many of them to make voyage to plantations in Mauritius and other places where the abolition of slavery left a great demand for indentured workers. Now two years later, River of Smoke follows the opium from its origins in India to its final destination in China, where in thirty years the amount of the "black mud" penetrating throughout the country has increased "tenfold," and where
"...thousands, maybe millions of people ... have become slaves to it -- monks, generals, housewives, soldiers, mandarins, students,"
and now, in 1838, the Emperor has had enough, and he's sent an emissary to Canton to force the issue.

Despite what may be expected of the second novel of this trilogy, River of Smoke does not actually pick up where Sea of Poppies left off.  Although some answers as to the respective fates of the characters from Sea of Poppies are partially revealed, and although some familiar characters continue on in River of Smoke, Ghosh sets the action in Canton and brings in new faces, most notably that of Bahram Naurozji Modi, a wealthy Parsi merchant from Bombay.  He had married into a family of famous shipbuilders who had made their fortunes after being awarded a contract from the East India Company;  he decided that he would like to get into the export business. At age 21, he made his first trip to Canton, where he was "stripped of the multiple wrappings of home, family, community, obligation and decorum," and became a different person altogether, even taking on a mistress who gave him a son.  Known there as Barry Moddie, he has returned after a three-year absence, sailing in his beloved ship Anahita, with a hold full of opium, "possibly the single most valuable cargo that had ever been carried out of the Indian Subcontinent." He is banking on making enough money to satisfy his investors, make a fortune for himself and prove something to his wife's family.   Now that he is in Canton just as the Emperor has decided to crack down and start enforcing the longstanding ban on opium imports, his ability to sell his cargo is on hold; in the meantime he is appointed to "the Committee," which runs the Canton Chamber of Commerce, "the foreign enclave's unofficial Cabinet." Bahram has his appointment because he is the longest-standing merchant from India, not because of any feelings of equity from the other members of the Committee. It is there that the merchants' battles over the opium trade will be fought, and where Bahram, as the member from India, will be caught in the middle of the debate between free trade as a God-given right of imperialistic nations and the morality of the opium trade as well.   With this role comes great responsibility, as his friend Zadig reminds him:
 "You will have to ask yourself: what of the future? How do we safeguard our interests in the event of war?...And if the Chinese manage to hold off the Europeans, what will become of us, and our relations with them? We too will be suspect in their eyes. We who have traded here for generations, will find ourselves banned from coming again."
But it is not just the future of trade that Bahram must contemplate: first, he must acknowledge his own role in the opium trade currently devastating China, since

"almost all the 'black mud' that came to Canton was shipped from your own shores; and you knew also that even though your share of the riches that grew upon that mud was minuscule, that did not prevent the stench of it from clinging more closely to you than to any other kind of Alien."

and this truth will have ultimately have devastating implications for Bahram as a human being. 

There is a great deal of use of the term "civilized nation," and it is ultimately up to the reader to decide what this means.  River of Smoke also presents the flip side of relations with China, in which cultural exchange has benefits for all nations: in art and poetry as represented by the character of Robin Chinnery and in the exchange of plants, carried out by Mr. Penrose, a wealthy man whose nurseries in Britain were famous for their wide variation in imported plants, and Paulette Lambert,  one of the original passengers of the Ibis from Sea of Poppies. While Paulette sort of sits on the sidelines of all the politics since as a woman she cannot enter the foreign enclave in Canton, she and her patron work to collect and trade plants with the Chinese, but even their work is interrupted by politics.

If you read Sea of Poppies, you will remember the fast-paced action of that story; don't expect the same here. I have to admit to being skeptical of this novel at first because the action in River of Smoke is slow to build, but once the story got to Singapore, the pace picked up and I found myself  in the role of observer of events leading to a critical moment in China's history.  I often use the phrase "I couldn't put the book down," meaning I was absorbed in the pages in front of me, but this time I literally did not stop reading until I had come to the very end and I have the dark circles under my eyes to prove it. This book put me in the skins of the main characters and I was caught up in the all of the political and  moral debates, felt the tensions rising in the foreign enclaves, and then became ultimately saddened by knowing what's in store for the Chinese within the next year or so and where it's all going to lead.  And in today's global geopoliticking, the same old songs are being heard again and as in the past, the big powers aren't listening. 

Although tempered by humor, especially in terms of language misunderstandings, River of Smoke is an intense novel that rises above the ordinary to tell an incredibly devastating story while offering a glimpse of what could have been if greed and nationalistic pride hadn't interfered. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it is an excellent book, and I recommend it very highly.

fiction from India

Monday, March 5, 2012

Purgatory, by Tomás Eloy Martínez

Bloomsbury USA, 2011
originally published as Purgatorio, 2008
translated by Frank Wynne
270 pp
(trade paper ed.)

My many thanks to the publisher for sending me this novel.   Bloomsbury publishes so many fine works in translation -- keep them coming!

The author of Purgatory, Tomas Eloy Martínez,  died in 2010 at the age of 75, leaving behind him an amazing legacy of fifteen books and an esteemed career in journalism.   If there is anyone qualified to write about Argentina's Dirty War (1976-83) , it is Martinez. He himself went into exile after a series of reports he did for a newspaper in Buenos Aires led to blacklisting, death threats, and according to an interview conducted in 2007, armed gunmen surrounding the restaurant in which he was eating.  In Purgatory, Martinez explores not only the desaparecidos, but also examines the question of those left behind when  their families, friends, loved ones and neighbors just vanished.  It is a sad but compelling novel, one that you won't forget long after the book is put back on its shelf. Hopefully, it may also inspire you to read other books about this dark time in Argentina's history.

 The last time Emilia Cardoso saw her husband Simón was thirty years ago during a map-making assignment in a patch of desert in Argentina.   She and Simon were employed as cartographers while on assignment from the Automobile Club, and they were tasked to  map a desolate stretch of road outside of Tucuman. Their journey took them as far as Huacra, and it was there where Emilia's life-long purgatory began.  After coming upon a group of people hiding from the military police out in the desert, some dying of thirst,  they make it their own mission to offer help, and in doing so, Simón and Emilia were taken into custody themselves.  Their captors separated the two and then took them away;  Emilia was rescued by her father, Dr. Dupuy, who helps  the military government as publisher of a magazine for influential people called La Republica.  Although she searched and waited, waited and searched, she never found Simón again.  He had become one of the thousands of desaparecidos, victims of Argentina's dirty war: 

"...  a mystery, he has no substance, he is neither alive nor dead, he does not exist. He is a 'disappeared.' "

Oddly enough, Simón has now turned up in a New Jersey diner, where Emilia is living and working, continuing her career in maps.   He hasn't aged a bit since Emilia last saw him, while she has gone on with her life, aging normally, although her life has been anything but typical. 

The novel continues in alternating narratives, those of Emilia and a writer in exile  who befriends her after recovering from a serious illness.  He is determined to tell her story, which  is related here largely through flashbacks  leading back to the very beginning where her story begins, during the time of Argentina's dirty war.   It was a time when reality was covered up by government propagandists, when "propaganda manufactured illusions of happiness in the wasteland of misery," and Emilia's father, Dr. Dupuy, helped make this possible, often through a smoke-and-mirrors approach to the truth.  Any real truth was considered lies, the weapon of subversives who wanted to tarnish Argentina's national image and crush the national spirit.  Even when  information is passed on to Emilia that Simon had been killed by the military, her father told her it was the work of subversives trying to get to him and his family.  But Emilia never gives up looking for Simon; she takes mapmaking jobs to support herself during her search, moves from place to place  where sightings have been reported, and eventually she comes to realize that she can no longer go on this way, ultimately taking a job in New Jersey.

 But all of this time Emilia has been living  in her own Purgatory, " a wait whose end we cannot know."  She has only one remotely close friend, she never remarries, she has trouble fitting in, she never stops hoping, never accepts that Simon might possibly be dead and lives in a constant state of denial.  In this sense, Emilia has become a living ghost in a way -- as she notes after her chance meeting with Simon, "Without him, I don't exist."   And this is the same fate as many of those thousands of people who had "disappeared with no apparent reason," -- indeed, as the fictional author notes,

"Emilia's not the only person to hope that someone she loves will come back from the dead; there are thousands like her, clinging to an illusion."

And at the heart of this story are all of those thousands of people whose lives are on perpetual hold waiting for some word even now, decades later.

You don't need to have a background in Argentina's history to understand and appreciate this novel; it can't hurt, but Martinez manages to get the critical points of the period across to his readers without going into a lot of historical detail. 

I don't suppose this book will be to everyone's taste, but if you are at all familiar with or interested in the desaparecidos or  Argentina's Dirty War, you will probably really like this novel.  While the blurb says "ghost story," you have to look at that phrase in terms of metaphor rather than hoping that there's something paranormal to come out of this book, so if that's what caught your eye, well, you're reading the wrong story.  Purgatory is a wonderful, moving story of a woman who has been through a great deal of loss; it is also the story of the spirit of love that never dies, while at the same time , since it cannot really speak to what actually happened to the thousands of disappeared, it is the story of  the ones left behind.  And clever Martinez also manages to put his readers in a state of uncertainty as they wonder about Simón's return and as they wait to discover what will ultimately become of Emilia.   It is a lovely book and I definitely recommend it.

Friday, March 2, 2012

I have two ARCS that need homes; does anyone want either or both of these? (US only, please)

I finished reading and writing my reviews for two books (neither is for sale yet so the reviews will be posted here later) and now the ARCs need homes. If you want either or both of these, they're yours, gratis. No contest here... making a simple comment saying which book you want is all you need to do -- first come first served.

First is Joe Lansdale's Edge of Dark Water, publishing March 25, probably best suited for readers of YA fiction.

Second I have David Downing's latest addition to his John Russell series, Lehrter Station, publishing in May:

You can have either one or both, I don't care. I would really like to find homes for these books, so please, someone take them!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

March - the Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist, of course!

With just about two weeks to go before the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize is selected, I have some time to at least make a good start toward finishing the list. I believe I have five books left, so I may be able to get them done in time, but if not, well, that's okay too.

Here's the list (* means I've read it):

River of Smoke, by Amithav Ghosh
The Lake, by Banana Yoshimoto
The Wandering Falcon, by Jamil Ahmad
Rebirth, by Jahnavi Barua ( I had to buy this one in India, of all places!)
Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-soon Shin
The Sly Company of People Who Care, by Rahul Bhattacharya *
Dream of Ding Village, by Yan Lianke*

If there's time, I want to get to a few of the books on the BTBA longlist as well. 
This should be a month of pure reading pleasure. I'm looking forward to it.

The Words Without Borders Mexican Drug War issue is out!

The Mexican Drug War issue of Words Without Borders is finally out and it's amazing. Please go take a look at it if you can make the time.  As the blurb below notes, this is a subject that really needs attention:  

"What is it like to grow up in a country where the only safe place you can gather with friends is in your own home? How do you raise a family when going to the supermarket is fraught with the danger of being kidnapped?  This is the situation in Mexico, where the drug wars have transformed the country into a living hell. Guest editor Carmen Boullosa has assembled compelling essays, interviews, fiction, and poetry from Mexican writers on the impact of this bloody conflict. In their eyewitness reports, Luis Felipe Fabre, Rafael Perez Gay, Yuri Herrera, Rafael Lemus, Fabrizio Mejia Madrid, Hector de Mauleon, Magali Tercero, Jorge Volpi, and Juan Villoro document the crisis and demand the world's attention." 

When my husband and I were last in Acapulco, we were standing in a spot where only a week later there was a massacre. When I heard about it, I was literally shaking -- thinking I had just been there.   I recently read about a group of cruise ship passengers who were robbed last week at gunpoint in Puerto Vallarta on a cruiseline-sponsored shore excursion.  This kind of crime is everywhere, and although I love Puerto Vallarta and have spent a great deal of time there and in other areas,  I don't think Mexico is a safe place any more. I'm a tourist, and have the option to not travel there if I so choose, but can you imagine having to live there through all of this?  And then, of course,  there is the problem of these conflicts continuing along the US border with Mexico -- and that's a whole 'nother story in and of itself.

If you care at all, this is an issue not to be missed.  Words Without Borders is one of my favorite websites anyway, but this is a special issue that the powers that be worked very hard to get published.  Please give it a look. Innocent people are caught up in these conflicts.