Monday, December 30, 2013

December reading roundup, bye-bye 2013

 Chatty Cathy back once again to recap the month. Actually it's two months; life has been hectic and full here at casa mia so  it's been tough breaking away for a few moments of book journaling time. Actually, hectic isn't the word -- more like just plain crazy.  And it's not over yet.

So here we go:
November and December were set aside for fiction that had something to do with cults -- not cult fiction, which is always fun, but fictional cults.

I started out with Messiah, by Gore Vidal,  followed by Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk.   Next up came The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover, which I absolutely loved; there's so much craziness in this book that the 400+ pages went by quickly. There's a sequel being released in March and it's killing me to wait.  The final entry in this list, although I'm currently reading Jeannette Turner Hospital's excellent Oyster,  is Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse, written 85 years ago.  Scoff if you will -- it's still a great book.  In fact, all of these novels are older -- checking out this category in what's current led nowhere except to YA novels which I just don't do.  I had also planned to read The Possibility of an Island, by Michel Houellebecq, and Patricia Duncker's The Strange Case of the Composer and His Judge, but didn't quite get there, so they'll be thrown into the January mix.

The rest of the books over the last two months are

At Night We Walk in Circles, by Daniel Alarcon
Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton (not yet discussed; coming soon)
Crusoe's Daughter, by Jane Gardam (not yet discussed; coming soon)

Borderfield Blues, by Corey Lynn Fayman
The Restless Engineer, by Jac Wright
The Fire Dance, by Helene Tursten (out in January, but thanks to Soho I had an ARC)

The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan
Thank You For Your Service, by David Finkel, which I must say is the best book I've read all year

weird fiction/horror/fantasy/sci-fi
The Ghost Hunters, by Neil Spring, which is really historical fiction, but does mess around with a famously-haunted house

Now, the usual book stuff:

1) Books I'm giving away this month -- for US readers only.    --  I need to regroup since I haven't had much time to organize; so I'll table this one for later.

 2) Added to the  wishlist this last two months: 

 crime fiction:
nothing here, actually
 general fiction/literature:
Nemesis, by Philip Roth
 The Search for Klingsor, by Jorge Volpi
Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maughan
the weird, the strange, supernatural etc:
nothing here

The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince, by Jane Ridley

3) Books bought these last two months:

  • Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, by Terry Teachout (nonfiction/biography)
  • The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown (nonfiction/history)
  • Thank You For Your Service, by David Finkel (nonfiction)
  • Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry (fiction/literature)
  •  The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner (fiction/literature)
  • The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta (fiction/literature)
  • It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis (fiction/literature)

4The book group read Crusoe's Daughter, by Jane Gardam mid-December. Except for one person who read it the day prior to the group meeting, we all loved this book; two members of the group went on to read Gardam's Old Filth on their own because they love Gardam's writing so very much.

5) Currently reading Oyster, by Jeannette Turner Hospital and The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown.

That's it, along with a fond farewell to 2013 -- it was a good but crazy year.  To all, a peaceful new year, filled with health, love and happiness.  And of course, a giant stack of books to get you through the year. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A book not to be missed: Thank You For Your Service, by David Finkel

Sarah Crichton Books (FSG), 2013
256 pp


"When you have a solider of that caliber, you know when he's broken, and when he's broken, he's gotta be fixed."

Rarely in life does a book come along that has me telling everyone I know that they have to read it. I just finished  Thank You For Your Service, and if you have friends or family returning from military deployment, you may find this book to be an invaluable resource.  Yes, there are a number of books on PTSD out there on the market already, but trust me -- you will have never read anything like this one.

Mr. Finkel's prior book The Good Soldiers (which I haven't yet read) had him embedded with men in an army battalion in Baghdad during the 2007 surge. Thank You For Your Service finds him embedded yet again, but this time here in the US, after the soldiers' deployments are finished.   As the dustjacket blurb states, "He is with them in their most intimate, painful, and hopeful moments"  in a period he calls the "after-war," as these men begin the process of trying to recover.  The book focuses on soldiers returning with "the invisible wounds of this war, including traumatic brain injury,  post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety," causing emotional, mental and physical scars, often  finding their outlet in spousal abuse, alcoholism, drug abuse and sometimes suicide.  But it's not just the men --  the author also offers the viewpoints and voices of  wives or girlfriends who try to adjust to their men being home but broken.  In most cases, the women are simply not equipped to handle the changes and they often wonder what happened to the men they said goodbye to at the start of  their deployment.

While anything I write can't do the raw power of this book the justice it deserves, you can read my thoughts here at my nonfiction page.  I will say that the soldiers and their families who agreed to participate in Finkel's work did so knowing that everything would be public and on the record, and this openness is what makes this book so haunting. Sometimes I had to put the book down, regroup emotionally, and then come back to it -- and when a book can do this, the author has done an excellent job. Definitely a no-miss read that stay on your mind long after the cover has been closed.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

They may not be famous, but these are my best reads of the year

It's just about a week away from the end of 2013, and I must say, it was a fine year for reading. If you're at all curious, you can click here for the entire list of books read in 2013.  Like everyone else, I had my favorites, some I liked okay and some that just didn't work for me. Unlike a lot of people,  I read very few books that ever make it to the NY Times bestseller list, but that's okay. I just do my thing and it makes me very happy.

The most outstanding book for me this year is David Finkel's  Thank You For Your Service, (FSG) which shook me to the core.  It is a very well-crafted and intense work of journalism, where the author has embedded himself within the families of soldiers whose deployments in the middle east were over.  It focuses on the vets' mental health after their sometimes horrific experiences during the war, the effects on themselves and their families; it also turns the spotlight on the people who've dedicated themselves to trying to fix the people underneath the soldier.  It is, in a word, superb.

now on to the others:

-- fiction/literature

I can't pick just one favorite in this category, because I read so many books that have stuck with me. So, books published this year that I loved most this year were

Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid 

At Night We Walk in Circles, by Daniel Alarcon
We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf
Night of the Rambler, by Montague Kobbe
followed by the previously-published

 Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
Oil on Water, by Helon Habila
American Rust, by 
The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa 
A Friend of the Earth, by T.C. Boyle
Going After Cacciato, by Tim O'Brien 
The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover 
Messiah, by Gore Vidal
-- crime fiction --  

Published this year in the world of crime fiction,  The Killing of Emma Gross by Damien Seaman (Five Leaves) was my favorite novel, proving that there are good crime books to be found outside of the mainstream publishers and authors. In fact, this year, my top three favorites came from indie publishers, the other two being

21:37 by Mariusz Czubaj (Stork Press)
A Crack in the Wall, by Claudia PiƱeiro (Bitter Lemon Press)

Other favorites published in 2013 are

The Dance of the Seagull, by Andrea Camilleri
 Evil and the Mask, by Fuminori Nakamura
Treasure Hunt, by Andrea Camilleri
Strange Shores, by Arnaldur Indridason
The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, by Fred Vargas
Holy Orders, by Benjamin Black
Two Soldiers, by Roslund and Hellstrom
The Fame Thief, by Timothy Hallinan

followed by the previously-published 

 Crashed, by Timothy Hallinan and
Little Elvises, by Timothy Hallinan
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, by Horace McCoy

--weird fiction/fantasy/sci-fi--

In the realm of the strange, speculative and weird, my favorite book wasn't published this year, but in 2012-- Jeff and Ann VanderMeer's The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, is just filled with some of the weirdest stories I've ever read. Right up my weirdness alley. 

Of the books published this year in this category, I really enjoyed

Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa
The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, by Laird Barron
NOS4A2, by Joe Hill
The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

followed by the previously-published 

Occultation, by Laird Barron
The Imago Sequence, by Laird Barron
Last Days, by Adam Nevill
To Charles Fort, With Love, by Caitlin Kiernan
The Shining, by Stephen King

I also want to mention The Circle, by Dave Eggers, which although it wasn't the best example of writing in this category, really got under my skin because of the potential and caused me to buy a brand new copy of Orwell's 1984 after I finished it.

And last, but definitely not least, there's the nonfiction category, of which this year,

-- nonfiction -- 

The Brothers, by Stephen Kinzer,  turned out to be my favorite (after Thank You For Your Service).   It's an eye-opening, well-researched and intelligently-constructed examination of  the Dulles brothers,  both of whom had a huge role in America's politics and foreign policy for decades and  helped shaped the geopolitical world we live in.

Published in 2013 and worthy of highest praise and accolades are

Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff
Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright
Lost Girls, by Robert Kolker
Midnight in Mexico, by Alfredo Corchado
The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan
The Price of Justice, by Laurence Leamer
So that's it -- another year gone, although next year's lineup is already looking really fine and promising.  Happiest of holidays, and a peaceful, prosperous and healthy new year to all.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

*The Dain Curse, by Dashiell Hammett

Vintage Crime/Random House, 1989
originally published 1929
231 pp


I realize that the last three novels I've written about have been older, but this novel of American crime fiction hearkens back to the end of the 1920s.  It might be old, but like the others I've written about, it still yields a lot of entertainment power.  The Dain Curse first made its appearance in Black Mask magazine as a serial released between October 1928 and January 1929; it was his second Continental Op story after Red Harvest.  It may not be Hammett's best, but I still had a lot of fun with it. I mean, seriously -- you have a whacked-out bunch of people involved in a crazy cult, a wealthy drug-addicted, simpering heroine who just might be the victim of a curse, an old house by the sea, a man hiding a secret identity, and of course, a number of murders before you get to the end.

If you're interested, I've posted my discussion of this book at my crime page  ;  if you know Hammett only from his Maltese Falcon and have never read anything else by him,  you're in for a treat. Go on over and take a look!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

another oldie: *The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover

Grove Press, 2000
originally published 1966
441 pp


"...there is a logic to everything ...even the irrational..."

 I loved this book.  I'm going to read the sequel, The Brunists' Day of Wrath, when it comes out in 2014 from Dzanc books -- I don't want to wait until March, so close on the heels of finishing the original novel, but well, I suppose I don't have much of a choice in the matter. As the book blurb on the back cover notes, The Origin of the Brunists won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for Best First Novel, but imho, it certainly doesn't read like a first novel.

At its heart, the book is an account of the rise of a religious cult and the resulting religious fervor coming on the heels of  a terrible mine disaster, but really, that statement is way too simplistic.  It begins with a prologue as the people in the cult, known as the Brunists, have gathered the day before the second coming on a hill they've named the Mount of Redemption.  A terrible event occurs, one that goes on to find its way into the very legends, myths and art of the religion.  This part is related by a new convert, who seems slightly confused.  The rest of the novel reveals what happened leading up to that event and beyond, beginning with the disaster at the mine, an event which will ultimately leave an entire town and several lives in chaos. 

The Brunists take their name from a coal miner named Giovanni Bruno, who just prior to the disaster has been getting a lot of crap from fellow workers to the point of making him cry.  Another victim of hazing is a new guy who is saved by a miner named Oxford Clemens (his friends call him Ferd), and off the two of them go to have a quiet smoke.  Lighting up sets off an explosion; in the confusion down below, a group of miners got lost and then  barricaded themselves to wait for help. Bruno is with them, but off on his own; the others die, and Bruno is saved, although pretty damaged by the carbon monoxide.  Another miner, the Reverend Ely Collins of the Church of the Nazarene, is also killed, but had written a note to his wife Clara and daughter Elaine that Clara takes as a message that reveals the day of the second coming. She also hears that Ely reportedly saw a white bird, "like a dove,"  in the mine just before the explosion.  Bruno is in a coma, but when he wakes up (still damaged), he mutters some strange words about a white bird and a visitation from the Virgin Mary in the mine.  While Clara is convinced that Ely was sending her some kind of message about "God's final judgment," another person is concerned that she never received advanced warning about the disaster from her guide Domiron, who allowed her to communicate with "higher forces." This is Elaine Norton, a substitute teacher who has been kicked out of a few towns after townspeople started noticing her strange preoccupation with teenaged boys. Elaine has notebooks dating back years filled with Domiron's communications; now she believes that they were forced to leave their last town for a specific purpose. She becomes involved with Clara, Bruno and Bruno's sister Marcella, as do a few other of Clara's friends and a lawyer who's into numerology named Ralph Himebaugh -- who become the founding members of this new religion. Chronicling it all is Justin Miller, a former hometown athlete who'd been brought back to the town to run the newspaper.  Justin tends to see everything as "a game," and while researching the Brunist story that he knows is going to make him a lot of money, he falls for Marcella and comes up with a plan to "rescue" her.  The new Nazarene reverend Abner Baxter is suspicious of the Brunists and gets things stirred up; the town banker enlists the help of some of the disaster survivors to form a Common Sense Committee in the wake of rumors of the mine closing to try to keep a lid on things so that the Brunists don't drive away potential interest or business for West Condon's future.  All of these people and their stories (including Baxter's kids who form their own group called The Black Hand) come together at the Mount of Redemption, coming full circle back to the beginning of the novel, and then a little beyond.

With lots of humor interspersed throughout the book, this is one of the craziest novels I've ever read. Aside from the new religion, which imho isn't the real focus of this book but rather the centerpiece around which the characters react, the author really gets into small-town life and minds, the workings of power and politics, and how seemingly "normal" people can get caught up in their own various forms of madness and mania.  I'd say it's  a novel about the people of West Condon much more than anything else.  The author is a genius when it comes to the characters -- and it's really incredibly tough to believe that this was Mr. Coover's first novel.  It does take some time and attention to get through, not because it's difficult to read, but because the author so carefully and slowly develops the  frenzy that occurs not just among the Brunists, but the craziness occurring  throughout the entire town. It also shows that no matter what sort of community these people find themselves in, even in "A community of good will,"  everything eventually comes down to matters of self interest -- a very non-idealistic view that makes this book well worth reading.  Definitely recommended.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

... sigh...

Oh my.

It's been a rough two weeks -- not due to the holidays or anything but because a company whose name I will not mention has seen fit not to renew my original domain name and my blog went byebye. I've been scrambling.  All of my pages connected with this one have been autorenewed, but I lost the original and had to redo everything.  Luckily, very luckily as it turns out, I had exported everything into my hard drive, so the only thing not working is the flag counter, but what the heck. It was definitely an eye-opening experience -- I learned more than I ever wanted to know about what goes on when you click your enter button and you're taken to a website.  When you go to get a new domain name, it's easy to acquire, but then trying to make it actually work is something else all together if your brain doesn't quite get how everything goes together.   So -- I have a new domain (which is now,  and I can start posting again tomorrow.  

I haven't been idle -- I've finished The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover (not for the faint of heart reading wise), Jane Gardam's Crusoe's Daughter, which I loved, the newest novel by Helene Tursten in her Irene Huss series, and The Race Underground (nonfiction), by Doug Most.  And I've finally started The Luminaries -- yay! So there's definitely a lot to catch up on.

I'm just glad to be back.