Tuesday, December 27, 2011

and as the curtain comes down over 2011,

it's once again time to close out the year in books. If you're so inclined, you can see everything that I read this year by clicking here.  

and now to the favorites list:
This year's books were, for the most part, so good that in some cases, it's definitely hard to pick just one favorite. So I'm going to give my top favorites:

Overall favorite book of the year:
 Dream of Ding Village, by Yan Lianke

  Top five favorite books of the year in literary fiction (not including my favorite overall book)

 The Thing About Thugs, by Tabish Khair
Jimmy the Terrorist, by Omair Ahmad
Kamchatka, by Marcelo Figueras
 Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru
The Raw Man, by George Makana Clark

Top five favorite crime fiction novels of the year:
 Ashes, by Sergios Gakos
Dregs, by Jorn Lier Horst
The Pledge, by Friedrich Durrenmatt
Black Minutes, by Martin Solares
Red April, by Santiago Roncagliolo

Top three speculative fiction/sci-fi/fantasy novels: 
Cold Skin, by Albert Sanchez Pinol
Pym, by Mat Johnson
11/22/63, by Stephen King
Top three nonfiction books of the year:
El Narco:  Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency, by Ioan Grillo 
Clandestine in Chile, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
Classic Crimes, by William Roughhead

Favorite book of translated fiction:
Dream of Ding Village, by Yan Lianke

 Strangest good  book of the year: Death in the City of Light, by David King

Others worth mentioning for the year:

Hangover Square, by Patrick Hamilton
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt
Misterioso by Arne Dahl
Death on a Galician Shore, by Domingo Villar
The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro, by Antonio Tabucchi
To Each His Own, by Leonardo Sciascia
anything at all by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes
That Deadman Dance, by Kim Scott

Here's to another good reading year, and above all to peace, health and prosperity to all.

The Raw Man, by George Makana Clark

Jonathan Cape, 2011
323 pp

"Stories want to circle back on themselves."

And in George Makana Clark's The Raw Man, that's exactly what happens.  Told in a reverse-chonological structure, The Raw Man captures not only the main character's family history, but it reveals bits and pieces of  Rhodesia's (now Zimbabwe's) turbulent history during the twentieth century as well.  It is a lovely book about the power of  storytelling, one which begs for reader participation:  the more you learn about the past, the more you want to revisit and re-engage with the present.    It is also a story about the power of blood and identity, one you won't soon forget after having finished the book.

The prologue of the novel, "The Owner of the Story," introduces the reader to house of the narrator, which is actually a metaphor for the novel itself.  It has twelve interior doors, which in passing through them, "you'll find yourself back where you began," a very appropriate beginning for a novel which travels back through different periods of time and links back to the present.  The house is inhabited by the story ghost of Sergeant Gordon, and conjures the smell of peaberry coffee, a lullaby, a garden ... all bits and pieces of Sgt. Gordon's story the house's owner learned from him in years of captivity together as prisoners of war.   As the narrator notes, " I built my house from borrowed memory, every detail as it was described by Gordon long ago in the complete darkness, three miles beneath the earth. "  The story ghost breathes life into Gordon's memories, so that they take form and come alive in the telling.  From the present, the story first skips back to October, 1978, going backward through Gordon's life, revealing scenes of  a very troubled Rhodesia from the 60s through 1980,  and takes a brief foray into the Africa of the 1850s.

The book is not an easy read in terms of subject matter -- the very first story is how Gordon, in the Rhodesian Army,  came to be captured and sent to the hellish copper mines as a prisoner, where on the first day in captivity he witnesses a dead prisoner being roasted on a spit.   But it is there that Gordon tells his stories, where his "life emerged from the darkness as a mosaic of disjointed details...," where his stories were committed to memory by the other prisoners, whose own stories had been lost after years of living in the mine.  His are tales of death,  fear and cruelty in a time of war, mistreatment of "lesser" people by outside colonial powers who've also marginalized and displaced whole societies,  and a family secret that at one point causes a father to hold a pillow over his newborn baby daughter's face. All of these short stories and more creep into the mix before the bigger picture is revealed, not just of Gordon himself, but of his troubled family and of other lives caught up in a very turbulent time in Africa's history.

As each piece of the story is told in a chapter of its own, it slowly begins to dawn on you that in some cultures, this is how history is passed on --  through memories and stories  handed down through the ages, an effort which  helps maintain the ongoing power of tradition and cultural identity that together  have the power to speak to a person's blood.  Sadly, as it also happens,these traditions can also be lost --  here, in the face of wars, cultural displacement and other factors tearing Rhodesia apart,  it  turns out, as one character notes,  that "we have lost our place in the world, and our stories mean nothing now," which is really not true if you think about it ... they just need someone to do the telling and someone to do the listening.

There is something very different going on here in terms of storytelling, and it works well.  In novels with a normal chronological and linear approach, the reader gets an idea that something's going to happen and the time spent reading is to get to whatever that thing might be.  In that sense, the reader is drawn along with the characters and the action of the novel toward an ending.  Here, going backwards, the reader knows that something has happened in the past that takes him or her  to the situation of the present, but it's not exactly clear what that might have been.   Each chapter takes the reader closer to Gordon's roots,  to uncovering his real identity, so that we don't get the full picture of who exactly Gordon is until everything has been exposed, taking us to a beginning.    In the meantime, as each segment of Gordon's life is revealed, there's this compelling urge to revisit the previous section to link things together.  While there's definitely a choppy, rather disconcerting feel to this method,  it works, definitely demanding active, rather than passive reading. It also  leaves  you a bit disoriented as  you're reading one section, wondering "how did we get here?"  and you feel you must  continue reading to find out.  This approach may not be to everyone's taste or liking, but it makes for a more intense and active reading experience.

The Raw Man is a lovely book, one that verges into the realms of the fantastical at times, but at the same time maintains a very realistic  feel as the author goes back through time, connecting disjointed memories into a more cohesive whole. What may be most problematic about this novel is that if you are unfamiliar with the history of the ongoing conflicts in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), it may be confusing trying to sort out who is on what side, or who are the good guys or the bad guys, or why one side is doing what they do, etc.  I wouldn't let that be a deal breaker if you're considering reading this book, but it can get a bit confusing sometimes.  I loved this book, and recommend it most highly.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

Doubleday, 2011
387 pp

"When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that.  It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in many ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words...There are many kinds of magic, after all."

Considering I was actually going to give this one a pass, the handwriting was on the wall when I received two signed copies in the mail.  It was at that point pretty much preordained that I would have to read this book. After finishing it,  I was a bit taken aback after reading several reviews of this book at just how nasty people became when reviewing it. As the paragraph quoted above states, "it's in the listener and for each and every ear it will be different."  The book is not without its problems, but when all is said and done, it's a charming little story that will keep you reading.

Moving through the late 19th and early 20th centuries and throughout the world, the novel focuses on the lives of two "illusionists," Celia and Marco. Celia's father, Prospero the Enchanter (aka Hector Bowen) passes on his knowledge of performing illusions that are not really stage magic -- they're the real thing, teaching Celia "enchanting, or forcibly manipulating the universe;"  Marco's guardian, Mr. A H, takes him from the orphanage and sets Marco to the task of learning, among other things, how to manipulate perception.  But rather than being the object of their parents' affections, Celia and Marco are more like pawns to be used to further the ambitions of their mentors.   The fathers have their own unique methods of child raising and teaching: Hector Bowen slices Celia's fingers or smashes her wrists to teach her how to fix things, while Marco is left on his own in a bizarre form of home schooling learning the secrets of the universe and doesn't even know his guardian's name.  Each is being groomed to become the opponent of the other (although they don't know it) as a part of an ongoing, strange competition between the fathers. The venue for this contest is the Cirque des Rêves (the Circus of Dreams), "Theatrics sans theater, an immersive entertainment." What neither Celia nor Marco know is that beyond this strange contest, the stakes are high, not just for the loser (which is bad enough), but for everyone concerned with the circus itself.

The Cirque des Rêves is ultimately at the center of this book, and the imagery set forth by author makes it a magical place. It can appear anywhere at any time, populated with a tarot reader, a contortionist, aerial performers who do their acts with no nets, and more otherworldly kind of people.  There are also magical, elaborately-constructed rooms through which people can walk and take part in the action. The Cirque des Rêves even has a cadre of diehard fans, known as "rêveurs," who, through a connection on the inside, are able to follow the circus to its next location, sporting red scarves over their dark or grey clothing that stick out in a scene where everything is black and white. The circus is only open at night, and is nearly impossible to experience in one visit.

The Night Circus is very much an atmospheric novel, depending more on its imagery than on plot.  The settings, from dinner parties to the circus, are all rather surreal and you never know what's going to happen at any given time, or how things are going to change from one moment to another.  There is a wealth of description and imagery that never lets up, especially regarding the circus, and there are undertones of mystery that run throughout. I'm not a huge fan of love stories, so the love interest didn't really grab me, but there was something different in the at-times ethereal oddness of this particular novel that captured my attention, as did the stories of Celia and Marco's sad childhood.   At the same time, I wasn't as captivated with the characters as I thought I probably should have been. I actually liked some of the side characters (Thiessen, Chandresh, Isobel) much better than the main ones because they had more substance than the principals.  There's also one character who seems to have been thrown in as a convenient plot device to save the ending of this novel, whch just didn't play right with me.  Considering how much effort the author went to in her descriptions, it's mystifying as to why the characters weren't fleshed out as much as they could have been!  Another thing: although I tend not to mind so much when questions within a story are not answered, some of the holes left in the plot made me scratch my head now and then.  But getting past the naysaying, I was not about to put this book down once I started it, and it had a way of holding my attention and drawing me forward to the finish.

This book should really be read by people who are into love stories -- I think that group will likely be its best audience.  At the same time, there's something unique about the imagery that conjures up pictures in your head of how the Cirque des Rêves might actually look and what you might experience there that will keep anyone reading.  Overall -- a good book with a few issues, but one that will take you away for a while as you read it.

Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru

Hamish Hamilton, 2011 (UK edition)
384 pp

There is just something in my genetic makeup that draws me to anything out of the ordinary, so when I read the blurb on the back cover of Gods Without Men, I knew that this book and I were going to get along splendidly. And we did. 

The setting for this book is California's Mojave desert,  and begins with a brief episode entitled "In the time when animals were men,"  where Native American lore of the Coyote morphs into the tale of a white-bread and ramen noodles-eating, RV-driving crystal meth producer, who dies several times but it is resurrected by other mythical figures: Gila Monster, Southern Fox and Cottontail Rabbit.  At the end of it all the crystal is made and the Coyote disappears, just as in legend the Coyote disappears into the Land of the Dead, waiting for someone to take his place so he can return to the world. The crossing point between the two lands is said to exist in a cave under the Three-Finger Rocks, and it is at or near this natural formation known as The Pinnacles that people have converged over the centuries.  These rocks, with their spires pointing toward the skies, are believed by many to hold the keys to  transcendence -- but what that means to anyone at any given time varies  through time and circumstance.  From Native Americans to UFO cult members to hippies, and on into the contemporary world, different people have written their own meanings onto this landscape. While this all may sound a bit on the new-age side, there's a great deal to this novel that is grounded in real and modern concerns -- war in the Middle East, the economy, and the challenges immigrants face in coming to this country.   It's also a story about wanting to believe and the need people have to understand the incomprehensible, and it's a story about transcendence -- on many different levels.

It is in this bit of desert where where the four-year-old son of Jaz Matharu and his wife Lisa vanishes while the family is on vacation.  Jaz, the son of working-class immigrant parents from India, has a great job on Wall Street and is married to Lisa, whose parents are Jewish.  Jaz's parents continue to maintain old traditions and as much of their culture as they can while living in Baltimore.  When Jaz and Lisa's only child Raj is diagnosed with severe autism, Lisa seeks out reasons for Raj's condition, collecting scientific information, attending conferences, and trying different treatments, diets, etc.  Jaz, on the other hand, deals in reason, and for him, rationality  is a way to "limit the chaos that had overtaken their life." At the same time, he finds himself wishing that their life could back to the way it was before Raj.  Lisa stays at home with Raj while Jaz works, and Jaz's attitude toward Raj's illness and Lisa's efforts adds resentment  to an already-strained situation.  Jaz decides that the family needs a vacation to find time to work through their issues and to heal.  They decide to go west, and find themselves in an old motel near the Pinnacles.  While on an outing, Raj disappears. While the family is put through hell on television, in newspapers and in vicious attacks on the internet, the divide between them grows.  While Jaz insists on placing his faith in reason and physical evidence to find Raj, he is overcome with guilt, wondering if somehow his desire for life the way it used to be has played a part in Raj's disappearance. Lisa withdraws, eventually re-emerging on a different side of things.

Around the core story of Jaz, Lisa and Raj, there are narratives that illuminate others who have passed through the desert and found their way to the Three-Finger Rocks.  These include the stories of a friar in the 1770s, a Mormon miner in the mid 19th century, a veteran of the first world war who brings his wife with him as he studies Native American lore and language, and then there's the story of Schmidt.   Seeking to "get back right with the world" after being consumed with guilt over events in his life, Schmidt began looking for some hidden truth hoping to find his way back. He finds it in  airplanes -- in how "the earth relinquished them and gently welcomed them back." Believing his salvation would come in a union of  the technological with the spiritual, after the Hiroshima bombings, he left his job, went out into the Mojave and looked to the skies for answers, having decided that advanced technology would bring some kind of order to the chaos of the world. Add to this group of characters some Iraqi immigrants hired by the military in a simulation exercise for American troops heading to Iraq, a British rockstar who's hit his own rock bottom, and even a supercomputer named Walter that has been programmed to examine randomness and find patterns, and you'll begin to discover how very unusual a work Kunzru has put together here.  And then, of course, there's the figure of the Coyote that is present throughout the novel. 

Gods Without Men is a wonderful book, one in which events from the past reverberate into the present and vice-versa.  There are some very surreal moments throughout the story as well as many things that are left unexplained. If you must have a linear read you may come away a bit unsatisfied, and you may be looking for patterns that aren't always there or difficult to find.  I spoke to someone else recently who'd also read this book, and her  biggest issue was that she found herself flipping forward to catch back up with the story of Lisa and Jaz, and found many of the rest of the stories getting in the way. But I think that if Lisa, Jaz and Raj were  the main focus  of the novel, that would have been the story that the author would probably have written.  It definitely may not be for everyone, but it is highly engrossing and I found it to be very approachable as a reader.  Awesome book -- and I definitely recommend it for anyone who wants something very different.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

11/22/63, by Stephen King

Scribner, 2011
849 pp

"You can change history, Jake. Do you understand that? John Kennedy can live."

 After having been a bit disappointed in Under the Dome, I wasn't so sure I wanted to shell out the $$ for this one, but because  a) I needed a light read at the moment and b) the premise sounded interesting, I coughed up the cash and brought it home.  What I thought this was going to be and what it turned out to be are on opposite ends of the spectrum. I thought I'd be reading an alternative-history/what-ifish kind of thing based on a thwarting of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, and there is a smattering of that, but I got a surprisingly good story, one that kept me flipping pages just to find out how everything turns out.  For a book of sci-fi/escape-type fiction, 11/22/63 is a winner.

The long and short of the basic story is this: English teacher Jake Epping gets a call from Al Templeton, the owner of a small diner in the town of Lisbon, Maine. Al's diner has a unique feature: in the kitchen's pantry, there is a portal through which Al has been traveling back and forth through time.  No matter when he leaves, he's always taken to the same day in September, 1958; no matter how long he stays there, he's only away for two minutes in the present.  Another feature of the portal is that when Al goes back in time, everything he set in motion in his earlier visit is totally reset.  Now  Al is dying of lung cancer, and doesn't have much time left, and he wants Jake to pick up where he left off -- and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy back on 11/22/63.  Al offers Jake "a chance to become a major player not just in American history, but in the history of the world", saying that by preventing Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting the president, Jake can  "save millions of lives."

Of course, Jake isn't so sure about time travel, and has two main concerns about it.  First, there's his concern about the idea of paradox. For example, when he asks what if he goes back and kills his grandfather, Al's response is "Why the fuck would you do that?" Second, Jake worries about the "butterfly effect," the idea that when the past is changed, there may be serious consequences in the present.  So he decides to take a test drive into the past, to undo a particularly horrific crime.  The trip reveals two things to Jake: first, Eisenhower-era America is a kinder, gentler place and second, time travel may indeed have repercussions. The first trip leads him to a second outing into the past, and Jake becomes more entranced by the last years of the 1950s, but he's still not quite sure that he wants to do what Al is asking of him.   After all, Jake admits that "most of his knowledge of the Kennedy assassination came from an Oliver Stone movie," but circumstances ultimately make him feel he has no choice.  Armed with Al's copious notes on Oswald, the people and events leading up to the fateful day, off he goes.  And this departure is where Jake's story ultimately begins, as he begins to acquaint himself with the early 1960s and begins to find a place for himself in the past as George Amberson; it is Jake's time in Texas that ultimately provides the core of this novel.

A complete suspension of disbelief is required, but isn't that the case in all of King's novels? Even though this novel falls within the realm of science fiction with the time travel element, King doesn't get into a lot sciencespeak about the mechanics of time travel; nor does he get all caught up in discussions about the "hoary old time-travel paradox." While the lack of explanation of the existence of a portal and the means by which it works may be a drawback for some diehard sci-fi readers, others will find it to be a very human story, based largely on King's characterizations.

In this novel, as in all of this author's books, there are some really bad guys, and there are some mysterious figures as well, but his best work is obvious in the very sad, flawed human beings who nonetheless have a huge capacity for goodness -- the reader can't help but be moved by their stories and become caught up in their lives. But what also makes this book work and work well is the author's use of fiction interspersed with real events and real people -- allowing the reader to easily identify with the story.   Oswald, for example, is so well portrayed that you'd think King had met the guy himself.  He comes off as a pathetic little man who wants to do something really big to compensate for his nothingness.  The scenes featuring Oswald and his wife Marina are believeable, as are the scenes where Oswald's overbearing mother steamrolls into their lives. It's very obvious that King has done an immense amount of research.   Beyond the characters, the late 50s/early 60s setting is well evoked with his capture of the music, food, fashions, TV shows, cars, and attitudes of the time; King's reconstruction of this time is incredibly realistic. 11/22/63 never really gets dull or overbearing, considering its size, and there are some exciting moments as well, especially as Jake is pitted against forces he doesn't quite understand on his way to the final showdown. 

One of the ideas in this book that I particularly liked is that every individual act of violence, every act of malice or brutality is "harmonized" with every other act, and that there is a "dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life."  The novel also brings home the fact that what we've lost will remain with us and stay a part of us forever.  My only niggle with the book is that the explanations behind the ultimate consequences of Jake's actions are sort of quickly glossed over, but the overall story is so good and so well written that it just didn't matter in the long run.

I can definitely recommend this novel. This is one of King's best works in recent years, and although at 849 pages it may seem overwhelming, the story and time go by quickly as you read.  While snooty-poot readers may thumb their noses at the book, don't listen to them. It's definitely worth the time, and turns out to be a great escape for a few hours.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

about Parallel Stories, by Peter Nadas

I'm in the mood to go watch some mind-numbing television right now, to rest my poor tired brain after finally finishing Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas. I've been working on this one since November 7th, and today's the what, the 16th? That's nine, count them nine days on one book.  But was it worth it?


I can honestly say I've never read anything quite like it.

After I've spent some time thinking about what I want to say about this book, I'll be back with a review. It won't be of great literary merit, because a) I'm not an expert on literary works and b) I tend to write for myself and I don't even think that way. However, I will definitely be providing links  to the more technical and literary-edged reviews for anyone interested after I write my own and then do a bit of research on the others.  Suffice it to say, I am going to take a well-deserved rest away from serious thinking right now; I'm probably going to numb my brain for a few days with Stephen King's new book and then The Boy in the Suitcase by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis before I tackle Eco's newest novel. 

But for now, I'm positively bleary eyed and need some junky tv!

Friday, November 11, 2011

about That Deadman Dance, by Kim Scott

I just finished this novel, and it dawned on me that since it was sent to me as an Advance Reader's Copy, I probably should hold out on a review until it's published here in the U.S., probably in March.  I know it's already out elsewhere, but it just seems right under the circumstances to leave it for a while and then come back later.

In the meantime, I'll just say that the book deals with the interplay of cultures in the early days of Australia's settlement, and despite the fact that several novels have dealt with this topic in the past, Kim Scott brings something rather new to the table here.   I liked it, most especially because a) it seems to be a very different take on a subject which has been covered in fiction by several authors, and b) Kim Scott is definitely a good writer, one I'll be returning to in the future.

In the meantime, if anyone in the U.S. would like this advanced reader's copy,  it's yours for the price of a comment with contact info after this post.

Friday, November 4, 2011

November: books published this year, part one

My own personal feeling about reading is that if you read only what's hot, current or on the NYT bestseller list, you're missing a ton of good books by wanting to stay trendy.  But having just made that statement, there are also a lot of books that have been published this year that I've been setting aside, or that haven't arrived in my mail yet because they're pre-ordered.  So I'm taking the last two months of the year to catch up on what I've missed throughout 2011 before turning the calendar to 2012.  I'm not going to make a list of possible books because

a) I never seem to want to follow the list I make because my mind wanders in different reading directions;
b)I have  way too many choices on my bookshelves
c) some of the novels I'm considering are freakin' huge so I don't want to limit myself or feel like I have a timetable.

I do know that 1Q84 by Murakami, Parallel Stories, by Péter Nádas and Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin will definitely be part of the next two months of reading, but there's no telling what else will show up.  I'm such a random reader that I never know what book I'll be picking up next -- it keeps reading interesting and fun for me.

The Hangman's Game, by Karen King-Aribisala

Peepal Tree Press, 2008 (reprinted edition)
191 pp

(read in October, 2011)

It's times like this when I wish I had turned my attention to studying literature rather than history, although history plays a pivotal  role in this novel.  Indeed, the novel might be characterized in part as a dialogue with history, but there is also so much in here in terms of the art of writing that I'm sure I missed, and as I've noted, I'm neither a lit major nor an English major, so I'll leave it to someone much more skilled in that area to decipher and analyze the symbolism and thematic concepts that run throughout this novel.  

The Hangman's Game is a postmodern, metafictional novel which tackles the question of oppression and the struggle for freedom.  Although these two topics are extremely common themes in literature going way, way back, the author has put quite a different spin on them in this book, and the result makes for rather interesting reading. The narrator of the story is a woman from Guyana who is writing a novel about the 1823 Demerara slave revolt, with a focus on the main character, Reverend John Smith.  Smith had tried to convert the slaves in this area of Guyana, and for his trouble, he got caught up in the revolt, was charged with treason and he received a death sentence.  As the narrator notes, "That had made me mad. It was so unjust," and she was using the "bones of this historical account for my own story."   As part of her writing experience, she decides to visit Nigeria, where she hopes to gain an understanding of the enslavement of her ancestors, as she says,  to "live among its peoples and discover at first hand why hands exchanged silver for the likes of me," and to see for herself

"why slavery, the slave trade, occurred in the first place...why blacks sold their fellow blacks into slavery and I want to know why God allowed it."

In Nigeria, she is greeted by her contact, a university professor and lay pastor.  It isn't long until she and her contact marry, and Nigeria becomes her new home.  It is also not long until she runs smack into the realities of life under the ruler of that country, a figure known only in this book as "The Butcher Boy," likely based on Nigeria's General Sani Abacha, very well known for corruption and human rights abuses.  The novel alternates between her book about Demerara and her experiences in modern Nigeria, and as The Hangman's Game proceeds, it becomes quite clear that even though the slave revolts had occurred nearly two centuries earlier, the same sort of tyranny exists in the modern day.   In short, although both narratives are set in different times and under different conditions, there are some things that remain the same -- most especially the enslavement of people under a ruthless and cruel authority, as well as the measures taken by both societies to effect their own  freedom from political domination and tyranny.   It's what those differences and similarities say about human nature that are important to this novel, as are the concepts of empowerment and control. 

The Hangman's Game is very short, but will keep you reading as you ponder the events and similarities between 1823 and  life in Nigeria under a ruthless dictator.  As far as  the "readable vs. literary" debate, the book is very approachable, but at the same time, there is a lot of wordplay and symbolism  that may escape the average reader such as myself.  Sometimes the action and the voices of the characters  in both narratives is a little overdone, and there is a lot of Christian allegory throughout the story.  To be fair, considering the religious natures of the Reverend Smith and of the narrator's husband, it would be unrealistic if Christianity did not play a part in the book; it's just not something I normally choose in my reading, so it was a bit of a drawback for me personally.  But overall, I liked The Hangman's Game, and recommend it mainly to readers of African fiction.

fiction from Nigeria

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

and another literary prize longlist is announced! The Man Asian Literary Prize

shortlist: January 10
winner: March 15

The Man Asian Literary Prize longlist has been announced -- I've been not so patiently waiting for this one! Here's the list:

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad
The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam
Rebirth by Jahnavi Barua
The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya
The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
The Folded Earth by Anuradha Roy
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
The Valley of Masks by Tarun J. Tejpal
Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke
The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

I am very happy to notice that Yan Lianke's Dream of Ding Village is on this list.  It is one of my favorite books for the year, and although the subject matter is a bit tough, it's a wonderful novel.  So now I must ask myself whether I want to read the whole list or just wait until January and read the shortlisted ones...hmm. A quandary indeed.

Not that they'll read this, but congratulations to all of these people for making the Man Asian longlist!

Monday, October 31, 2011

October Reading Roundup

Greetings from Seattle! It's cool and crispy here outside, the perfect weather for reading because I'm not spending a lot of time outside. Sadly, because this is a family visit, the only reading/thinking time I'm getting is just before dropping off to sleep at night because there's so much going on inside.  Oh well. Plenty of time for reading when I get home.

Tough month! So much going on, so many books I wanted to read and didn't get to, but the ones I did read were awesome. Let's get to it, shall we?

 Here's the summary:

translated general fiction
Aside from the crime fiction, once again, nada.

fiction from India
Jimmy the Terrorist, by Omair Ahmad
The Thing About Thugs, by Tabish Khair

fiction from Nigeria
The Hangman's Game, by Karen King-Aribisala (read, not yet reviewed -- coming shortly)

fiction from the U.S.
Partitions, by Amit Majmudar
The Submission, by Amy Waldman (read, not yet reviewed -- coming shortly)

Death in the City of Light, by David King
12 Who Don't Agree, by Valery Panyushkin

scandinavian crime fiction
Cell 8, by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström 
The Unlucky Lottery, by Hakan Nesser 
The Inspector and Silence, by Hakan Nesser 

japanese crime fiction
The Devil's Disciple, by Shiro Hamao (actually finished in September, but review posted in October)
latin american crime fiction
 The Secret in their Eyes, by Eduardo Sacheri (read, not yet reviewed -- coming shortly)
other book-related stuff:
1) my book group read  The Submission, by Amy Waldman.  As I suspected, the book elicited a good discussion, but half the group was underwhelmed. Next month: Hemingway's A Moveable Feast

2) Added to the Amazon wishlist this month: (once again, some pretty obscure stuff!):
Down the Rabbit Hole, by Juan Pablo Villalobos
Bones, by Chinjerai Hove
The Return of Captain John Emmett, by Elizabeth Speller
The People's Train, by Thomas Keneally
Stillness of the Sea, by Nicol Ljubi
 Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, by Jake Adelstein
The Good Muslim, by Tahmima Anam
Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger
The Revisionists, by Thomas Mullen

3) Books bought this month:

 Bharathipura, by U. R. Ananthamurthy
Monkey Man, by Usha K.R.
Street in Srinigar, by Chandrakanta
The Dark at the End, by F. Paul Wilson
Nanjing Requiem, by Ha Jin
The Quarantine Papers, by Kalpish Ratna
Tierra del Fuego, by Francisco Coloane
The Warmth of Other Sons by Isabel Wilkerson

October was pretty uneventful as reading or buying books goes.  November and December I'm spending time catching up on books published in 2011 -- among which are at least 3 rather weighty tomes:  Peter Nadas' Parallel Stories, Murakami's 1Q84, and Eco's Prague Cemetery.   Along with those, I'm hoping to finish the books on the shortlist for the  DSC Prize for South Asian literature (and some from the longlisted books as well).  As always, we'll see what happens.  My best laid plans generally fall short as life occurs around my reading.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

and now -- the winner of the 2 Booker-Prize listed books is

(drum roll, please)

Kirsten! Random.org gave me back number 2 and that's Kirsten.  I'll be contacting you today or first thing tomorrow -- in the meantime, congratulations. 

Thanks to everyone else, and stay tuned...I can guarantee there will be plenty more books leaving my house in the near future.

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature Shortlist - 2012

Frankly, and sadly, not many people here are going to care, but the shortlist for the DSC Prize for South Asian literature has recently been announced.   If the two books I've read from the DSC Prize longlist are any indication, reading  through the six books on the recently-announced shortlist is going to be an absolute pleasure.  There's just something to be said for reading globally -- there are new authors to discover, you gain a feel for the concerns of writers in other countries, and writers come at things from different perspectives than what we're used to here. 

Here's the list:

Bharathipura, by U.R. Ananthamurthy
A Street in Srinagar, by  Chandrakanta
Monkey-man, by Usha K.R
Chinaman, by Shehan Karunatilaka
The Thing About Thugs, by Tabish Khair
The Story that Must Not Be Told, by Kavery Nambisan

One of the books originally longlisted, Jimmy the Terrorist got left off the shortlist, but is an awesome book as well.

Reading this list along with others from the DSC Prize longlist will fill my November, and I'm very much looking forward to it.

Congratulations to the shortlisted authors, and to Omair Ahmad, congratulations for writing such a fine novel, even though it didn't make it on to the shortlist.

Monday, October 24, 2011

does anyone have an opinion on this?

I was just breezing through my facebook page, and came across this:

Please know that Random House, Inc. has no Casey Anthony-related titles in the works, and we have passed along your concerns to our publishers.
 I'm just curious to know what anyone thinks about this. I say that these days, anyone who puts integrity above money gets my vote!  Kudos to Random House.

The Submission, by Amy Waldman -- not a review yet -- a giveaway

I've finished this book and am going to review it, but I'm leaving here Wednesday and taking it with me to Seattle to write my review. In the meantime, I've decided I'm not going to keep this book -- and whoever wants it can have it. Just be the first person to leave a comment with contact info and it's yours.  The only catch is you have to wait for me to mail it until after I return on November 11.  No harm putting in an advance reservation, right?

Friday, October 21, 2011

*The Thing About Thugs, by Tabish Khair

Fourth Estate/Harper Collins India, 2010
244 pp.
(will be published in the US by Houghton Mifflin, July 2012)

 "...since history has devoted
Just a few lines to you, I had more freedom

To fashion you in my mind's eye..."

 -- C. P. Cavafy (epigram)
The Thing About Thugs is a difficult book to pigeonhole into a single category, and I'm not even going to try. It is part thriller, part examination of London's Victorian invisible underclasses, a look at the flaws in "superior" Western rationalism and the attitudes behind British imperialism, and it is a novel which turns  the familiar colonial narrative on its head.

In Bihar, India, a young man is sitting in the library of his grandfather's house, which was once filled with shelves brimming with books.  In one of these he has come upon a book of handwritten notes in Farsi, which belonged to one Amir Ali, along with a newspaper clipping reporting the death of a British lord and "scholar of phrenological science" on board a ship headed for Africa.  His grandfather's library was filled with books by Dickens, Mayhew, William T. Meadows and Jane Austen among others; later libraries he would visit would also help him to imagine the story connecting the notebook and the report of the British lord's death.  This is the frame on which the story of Amir Ali is told, and during the course of the story the author  returns to reflect on writing,  his life and other things of interest. 

 Amir Ali has come to London with the help of Captain William Meadows, who is writing a book on the Thug Cult of India. It is 1837; the book will eventually be published in 1840, but for now, Meadows is finishing up a series of interviews with Amir Ali, who for reasons of personal safety had to leave India, found out about Meadows, and told him a  story of his life in the Thug Cult.  It was, of course, made up, but Meadows didn't know that.   Meadows is also a member of the London Society of Phrenology, the most current "scientific" fad, one that laid out a person's destiny depending on the shape of his skull.   Lord Batterstone, another phrenologist,  is  building a "Theatre of Phrenological Specimen." He hopes his collection of the most exotic  skulls will put the lid on the currently-popular theories of George Combe and put Meadows "who had, since his return from India with his reprieved thug, Amir Ali, taken society by such storm."  Batterstone is also toying with the idea of a trip to the Congo in hopes of more specimens.  While Meadows is tending to his narrative based on Ali's fictitious account of being a Thug, Ali, in the meantime, is writing down the real story of his life in Farsi, which he hopes will be read someday by the object of his affections, a part-time maid named Jenny in Meadows' household.  Jenny also  happens to be the niece of the first victim of an extraordinary series of crimes.

Just who committed these outrages is a matter taken up by the local news reporter, who notes that  "no Christian" could have done this -- that this sort of crime is associated with  "other, hotter climes, with people reared on suspicions and barbarities, and not on the milk of human mercy that flows through Christian veins in the lands of civilization" and " some heathen, recently imported into our parts, who either practices a devilish or esoteric rite or consumes human flesh."

But despite all of their enlightened scientific reasoning, the London police are unable to solve these crimes, and as they increase in number, the same newspaper reporter stirs up the pot regarding  immigrants coming to London:
"There are officers to inspect and certify the goods that are downloaded at West India and East India docks at the Isle of Dogs and the London Dock Company's docks at Wapping.  But only if the goods are dead and inanimate.  Every day hundreds of living goods are downloaded at those very docks, and they slip into the great city of London with hardly any inspection.  There is no one to test if these living goods are of sufficiently high quality or not, to certify if they are undamaged and not rotted."
With  the public fanning of the flames pointing to a "heathen" perpetrator, it's time to settle things once and for all.  A group of the invisible underclasses, "lascars, ayahs, beggars, some impossible-to-place oddities..., and riff-raff, mostly but not entirely from the lands of Hindoostan" decide it's time to take matters into their own hands.   

If this was all there was to this book, it might make for an interesting Victorian-style crime novel, but there's a great deal more in here.  The story is really the frame holding together for "novelized history," as the writer puts it, done in a most tongue-in-cheek kind of style.  Victorian London, as the seat of the British Empire, has its "ghosts" to be dealt with -- colonialism; the justification of racist attitudes via pseudosciences based on western rationalism and its fear of the outsider; society's treatment of the underclasses -- as well as the caste system  among the middle and upper classes along with their servants.    But at its heart, The Thing About Thugs is a story about stories and the people who tell them: the narrator back in Bihar acknowledges that there are things missing in Amir Ali's notes, so he has to "fill in the gaps."  In his story, he turns the colonial narrative around to the point where Amir Ali and the ragtag group of  lascars and the rest of the people one normally considers as marginalized are the heroes of the day,  while the enlightened Londoners are either easily duped, led astray by their dependence on enlightened reason, or at their very worst, savage murderers, or filled with the potential to become the future Kurtz, a la Heart of Darkness.

I get the sense that Khair had a great time writing this book, and I had an equally great time reading it.  I realize that not everyone is going to agree with me, largely because many readers may have trouble with the multiple narrative strands and the switching between time and place. And many people may be put off with the subject matter -- I mean, beheadings are never a fun topic, and not everyone will like the Victorian murder story format. I must admit to a bit of confusion at the start of the novel, and had to stop and take stock of what I actually thought was happening here in terms of structure -- you should see my little notebook full of question marks. But once I figured it out, I was off and never stopped.   There is an excellent book underneath all of the potentially problematic issues, and if people can get underneath the surface of this novel, they will be richly rewarded.  I actually am in awe when I find a book this good. 

fiction from India

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A two-book, Booker Prize longlist giveaway. Be there. International is okay!

Okay, the prizes are not all that amazing, but I've got two books to give away.  I promised my husband Larry I'd keep the books flowing out as long as new ones were coming in (seriously -- my house is all window and little wall space so we suffer from storage issues).  So in today's sweep I figured maybe someone would want a double package from the Booker Prize longlist. Far to Go by Alison Pick, and Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan.  I'm on the fence about Jamrach's Menagerie or it may have even been three.

Anyway, all you have to do if you want these books is to leave a comment (one per person, if you please) with contact info of some sort, by Monday, October 24th. I will select someone via random.org on Tuesday, October 25th.  I would make this go longer except that I'm once again off to Seattle for a couple of weeks on the 27th.  International is okay.  Nothing else is necessary ... no follower signups, no nothing except a comment with contact info.  My books need homes, so please enter!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

finally! My choice for the Booker prize actually won!

Well, this is a first -- the book I liked best on the Booker Prize long list won.  This year it's The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. 

Not that he'll read this, but congratulations, Julian Barnes!

Monday, October 17, 2011

quick link: 12 Who Don't Agree: The battle for freedom in Putin's Russia, by Valery Panyushkin

Europa Editions, 2011
originally published as 12 nesolasnych,  2008
translated by Marian Schwartz
259 pp

Well, this was an oops. I didn't realize until I bought this book that it was nonfiction, but as it turns out, I started reading and couldn't put it down.  The subtitle for this book says it all.  The author features 11 people (with himself as #12) whose courage and determination for change led to a movement against the increasingly repressive measures of the Russian government. In this time of global spring, including our own Occupy Wall Street Movement, the book is extremely relevant.  Considering the politics involved, it was an intense read.  You can find my thinking about this book here.  Highly recommended.

Friday, October 14, 2011

a new literary award?

So this news is a bit old, but I just discovered it:  I suppose that all the hoopla concerning this year's Booker Prize judges and their longlist submissions and shortlist omissions made an impression -- I just read that a new literary prize called simply "The Literature Prize" is now a reality. Below is the article in full, taken from The Bookseller.

 While I'm all about readability -- face it -- there are some books that I've given up on -- , my take on a literary award is that it should be based on literary merit, not just how easy a book is to read.  But unlike some people, I think there's plenty of room outside of the "literary fiction" label for books of other genres to be included in awards for good literature.  A couple of years ago I read a book called Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts that was considered science fiction, but which I thought had literary merit as well.  And it was readable!

anyway, here's the article. Go to the website and read the comments, especially from John Self, one of my favorite book reviewers on the web.

New Literature Prize to establish "standard of excellence"

A new literary award, The Literature Prize, has been set up to "establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence", with the advisory board claiming that the Man Booker Prize no longer does the job.

The board, for which agent Andrew Kidd of Aitken Alexander is spokesperson, said the prize "will offer readers a selection of novels that, in the view of these expert judges, are unsurpassed in their quality and ambition", with judges selected in rotation from an academy of experts in the field of literature.

"For many years this brief was fulfilled by the Booker (latterly the Man Booker) Prize. But as numerous statements by that prize's administrator and this year's judges illustrate, it now prioritises a notion of 'readability' over artistic achievement," the board stated.

"We believe though that great writing has the power to change us, to make us see the world a little differently from how we saw it before, and that the public deserves a prize whose sole aim is to bring to our attention and celebrate the very best novels published in our time."

The Literature Prize, for which funding is "currently" being procured, will be awarded to the best novel written in the English language and published in the UK in a given year, with the writer's country of origin not a factor.

Authors including John Banville, Pat Barker, Mark Haddon, Jackie Kay, Nicole Krauss, Claire Messud, Pankaj Mishra and David Mitchell are cited as supporters, as are "numerous people in the publishing industry".

This year's shortlist for the Man Booker has drawn criticism for its omission of much-praised novels including Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child and Edward St Aubyn's At Last, with the judges saying "readability" had been high on their list of priorities in making their choices.

Chair of the judges Stella Rimington poured scorn on critics of the shortlist in the Guardian last week, saying: "It's pathetic that so-called literary critics are abusing my judges and me. They live in such an insular world they can't stand their domain being intruded upon."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

*Jimmy the Terrorist, by Omair Ahmad

Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Books India, 2010
185 pp

"Nothing teaches a person the rules of power better than being excluded from it..."

 Although events in Jimmy the Terrorist happen in Northern India and deal largely  with the tensions between Muslims and Hindus, the story is applicable in any place where the communal interests of any privileged or powerful groups edge out the interests of others, pushing the latter to the margins of power or influence.  Whether these interests are political, religious or based on other economic, cultural or social factors does not matter as long as the majority maintains its status quo and sets its own interests above those of  a society as a whole.  In this sense, Jimmy the Terrorist is a very human and very global story, one that has always and probably will always continue to play out throughout the world.

The novel actually begins with its ending.  In the town of  Moazzamabad, an 18-year-old young man emerges from a movie theater, and comes across two policeman, one of them beating and threatening to rape a prostitute, while the other, an Inspector, watches from the side urging on. his colleague.  They hadn't heard him leave the theater, and decide to harass him just for being there. Although he is generally a quiet person who never seeks out trouble, "the Fates rode him at that moment," and he sticks a knife into the Inspector's belly. As the knife reaches its target, he yells “I am Jimmy the terrorist.”  The police then beat him to death. The act results in a media frenzy, but while the reporters are off chasing down the story, the narrator decides to tell the real story to one person -- but makes the point that the story of Jimmy the Terrorist can only be understood if one understands the story of his parents.  After all, "there was nobody named Jimmy in Moazzamabad, just a young man named Jamaal Ansari, son of Rafiq Ansari and Shaista Shabbir, who prepared the long road their child would one day take." And, the narrator notes, "because their story played out in Rasoolpur, he was also the story of this mohalla. And of Shabbir Manzil."

And what a story it is -- As a young man, Rafiq Ansari's parents sent him to St. Jude's, where the greatest lesson he learned is that  while "success was a small thing, social standing was the greater goal."  Rafiq's one goal in life is  to enter the Shabbir Manzil, the gathering place for intellectuals and home of what was once the most prominent Muslim family of the area.  Eventually and by accident, Rafiq's goal is met, and it just so happens that Ahmed Saeed Shabbir is on the management committee of a college with a vacancy. Coincidentally, his cousin's unmarried sister will also be joining the staff, and needs a husband. This is Shaista, who dreamed of great of academic success, but whose aspirations were ended by this same brother.  Rafiq is married into the family and into Shabbir Manzil, with a conscious understanding that he "had not really existed before the marriage..." and that he is definitely still beneath them. He is also expected to ignore the parts of his life that came before, including his own family.  When his son Jamaal is born (nicknamed Jimmy by Ahmed Saeed Shabbir),  the women of the house become the main force in Jamaal's life,  leading Rafiq to  attend prayers and commune with the other men at the local mosque.  But when eventually, Rafiq and Jamaal are separated from the Shabbir Manzil and Rafiq from his livelihood, he wants to use the space to find the "sense of honor that he had never had." 

Rafiq is always afraid of what others will think or what others will say about him, and even later when he realizes that what he must do is to show anger and "miss no opportunity to raise your voice against the suffering of the Muslims,"  tends to remain in the background in the presence of others in the mosque.  Slowly, however, he begins to understand that his ticket to regaining some of the power he'd lost after Shabbir Manzil could be found in "well-articulated anger," the product of which gave him the "kind of respect that none of his social climbing had."  Jamaal, in the meantime, grows up and watches as his father and other Muslims, descendants of the great Mughals, become increasingly marginalized in the face of the competing political, economic and social/cultural interests of the area.   Jamaal attends St. Jude's like his father, and learns the same lessons -- he is consistently tormented and bullied, even wrongly accused of theft because he is poor and because of his religion.   After finishing school, he he has plans for himself that will empower him to take control of his life, but the realities of the situation are made very clear in one brief moment that encapsulates and brings to the surface everything Jamaal has witnessed and has learned throughout his life.  It will move him from the Jamaal who was a "bit of a dreamer" to becoming Jimmy the Terrorist. 

What's important in this novel is not just the politics, not just the religious issues, but the question of what leads people to do what they do in any given circumstance.  While their actions may not make much sense to others, there is always some driving force behind decisions people make and actions that they take.  At some point in the story,  Rafiq notes that "The British are gone ... we're all free men now," not quite understanding that for the Muslims in his town, the perception was not quite the reality. It is  Muslim homes that were dynamited, Muslim businesses and livelihoods that were destroyed during the riots of the 1960s, and it was Muslims and the poor who, during the Emergency of 1975-77 became part of the target of a forced sterilization campaign. Rafiq has trouble getting a job, as employers are increasingly reluctant to hire people with Muslim names in a "bad time for the economy" when it was "stupid to be a visible minority of any sort." But it's not just Hindu/Muslim politics at work here: Jamaal witnesses his father's powerlessness -- first at Shabbir Manzil then afterward; he watches as his father changes from a rational and intellectual man to one who gains respect from saying things he doesn't really believe and perpetuating the flames of other people's anger. And as Jamaal begins to face his own issues at St. Jude's and seeks help from his trusted imam, his  concerns are lost in a discussion of politics couched in a discussion of religion, going so far as to debate the rightness of the actions of the man responsible for the Mumbai bombings.  If anything, Jamaal learns that religion isn't applicable to secular or political issues. And to be very fair, the author also notes through his characters that not all Muslims are incited to violence by religious rhetoric.   When all is said and done, this is a story of marginalization of a certain group of people by a majority ("the inheritors of the Raj") who were once marginalized themselves under the rule of another.   I read it like this: as Jamaal becomes Jimmy, he becomes the spokesman for the oppressed and the marginalized, and as such, unlike his father, is able to find a real sense of honor and meaning in his existence.  I could be wrong; like all good novels, this is a book each person needs to experience individually and define it through his or her own experiences.

I very highly recommend this novel -- it is powerful, very moving, and especially appropriate in today's world.  It is also a very thought-provoking story, so much so that now, a week after finishing it, I'm still thinking about it.  If you're expecting a novel on the inner workings of an al-Queda type person, you're not going to find it here.  But if you want something intelligent and well written, you're going to love it.

fiction from India

Monday, October 10, 2011

*Partitions, by Amit Majmudar

Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt
212 pp

Partitions is the Amit Majmudar's first novel, although he is also an award-winning author of poetry.  According to the acknowledgments, his family was not caught up in the 1947 partition of India which created the new nation of Pakistan, his relatives have no stories about that time, and everything he knows about this tumultous period of history he learned through reading.   In this book, "partition" refers more to what happens after the politics are settled and Pakistan has become a reality; it also finds meaning in  the dislocation of people as they are separated from their homelands and families as well as their ordinary day-to-day existences.  In such a dark and violent time, the author also reveals little pockets of human kindness here and there that offer some hope for a future in which people can set aside what keeps them apart and work together.  It is a novel of historical fiction combined with magical realism, and that fact alone means that the reader must prepare to suspend his or her disbelief.

In both India and Pakistan, the newly-created border led to a massive exodus as people sought safety from revenge killings occurring on both sides. Millions of people found themselves uprooted due to a tide of violence and the new political and sectarian realities brought about by this partition.   Majmudar's core group of four characters become representatives of  the human river of refugees that followed in its wake:   Shankar and Keshav Jaitly, a young set of Hindu twins separated from their mother waiting for the train to India; Ibrahim Masud, a Muslim doctor who sees people as people not as their religions; and Simran Kaur, a young Sikh girl who finds herself dangerously alone after running away from her father, who takes extreme measures to protect the females (and one little boy) in his family. 

The story is told via the ghost of the twins' dead father Roshan, who moves in and out of the lives of the four main characters.  While he moves the narrative along, the reader is also introduced to his own story.  Roshan was the son of a Brahmin doctor and became a well-respected physician himself.  He had it all until he married the twins' mother Sonia, who was of much lower caste than his own family and much younger than he.   His marriage separated him from his family; even when his sister comes surreptitiously to perform the naming ceremony for the boys, she doesn't forgive: she will not even accept water given to her by Sonia.  Now as he hovers on the edge of the living in spirit form, he is able to see evil in people's hearts as he steadfastly keeps his attention on this children.  Roshan's ghost is the reader's guide through the burnt-out buildings, the piles of dead bodies and the vultures (literally and figuratively) waiting to get at them. At the same time, it is also the illuminator of random acts of human kindness throughout the characters' respective ordeals and after they eventually come together.

While the story is compelling, the author's poetry background enlivens even the smallest moments in the novel. The clinic where Dr. Masud works becomes "the only place he feels safe...protected from further suffering because of the suffering already there." A man playing a drum "inhabits his music." The crowds in exodus are "Great human rivers, the vanished Sarasvati reborn with all her tributaries," where "Migrant field hands who walked one way to eat now walk the other way to starve."  A particularly nasty man has "seen delicate things up close only after they have been broken."  And at one point, Dr. Masud is just two hours away from reaching Pakistan when Roshan notes  "He never knows when he crosses the border. It is too early in the border's life cycle; it hasn't budded checkpoints and manned booths yet, hasn't sprouted its barbed wire thorns."  It's a striking and even chilling moment in this novel -- a point at which the novel's contemporary future meets up with the reader's present; that particular story still has yet to be written in 1947. 

What I'm not so sure about is the ghost of Roshan Jaitly.  When I first picked up this book and realized what was going on with the narration, I did the mental equivalent of an eye roll, trying to decide whether or not I would even read it.  And having finished it, I thought this tack sort of cheapened this story.  Aside from the fact that it's a ghost, there's just too much of Jaitly's own self interjections throughout, especially at the end of the story where Roshan's ghost intervenes to stop a terrible act.  I get where the author was going with this approach, but still, if there had been some omnicient narrator rather than a ghost, that would not have changed the core story except at the last. Although that would have meant a rather terrible ending, when writing about human tragedy, sometimes the heartbreaking consequences produce much more impact.   I thought this bit was annoying and unnecessary.  The other thing I think that would have helped would have been a map of the area both before and after the Partition.  I was a little confused at times and had to often refer to the internet for help. 

If it's possible to get past the ghostly narrator, Partitions is a fine opening effort from this author, and brings to light a chapter in history that is especially relevant to events today.  Even if you don't know anything about the partitioning of India, Majmudar's story will carry you through part of its aftermath. Readers who can't deal with often-brutal scenes of violence or suffering should probably pass, but if  you like historical fiction on the literary side, this one will probably appeal. 

fiction from the U.S.

quick link: Death in the City of Light, by David King

Crown Publishing, 2011
432 pp.

I just finished this late last night (actually, early this morning) and loved it. You can read what I thought about this book here.  Frankly, it's one of those books where the story is so bizarre that it could not possibly have been made up; a case of truth being stranger than fiction.    I'm giving away my ARC copy; if you want it, make a comment.  NOT here -- over at the book's review. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

get thee behind me, Booker Prize longlist!

Finally I've been able to carve out some time to get to my thoughts on the last four novels of this year's Booker Prize longlist, and until the award is announced, I am totally finished with this year's books. Sheesh!  I'm making only one post with four short reviews.  Before I go there, let me just say that I hope that Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes takes the award; it was my favorite for the year.

So here I go: 


On Canaan's Side, by Sebastian Barry
Viking/Penguin, 2011
256 pp

 "We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chickenpox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that."

Sebastian Barry is without a doubt one of my favorite authors.  I came across him a few years when I first became interested in Irish literature and since then have greatly admired his work.  I never miss one of his novels, and he is one of the few authors whose books never end up on the  give-away pile when I run out of bookshelf space.  I've moved his books from coast to coast, carrying them in my SUV rather than packing them away in boxes that might have become lost. That is how much I enjoy his work.  I knew he had this book coming out, and I was in no way surprised that it ended up on the Booker Prize longlist. This is one of those that I would have purchased even if it wasn't on the list. 

In On Canaan's Side, the story is told by Lilly Bere, whose grandson Bill has recently died.  She has decided that after she finishes telling her tale she'll be committing suicide, and dates her entries based on the number of days "without Bill."  Lilly's is a sad story, one in whcih each time a bit of goodness enters her life it is followed quickly by tragedy and heartbreak. Nearly 90, Lilly lives in America, but her story goes back to her girlhood in Ireland, and really starts in the throes of civil war there.   When Lilly was still young, politics forced her to leave Ireland along with Tadg Bere, her first love -- Tadg was marked for death because he was a member of the Black and Tans.  Because of Lilly's family, and because she was known to be Tadg's girl, her life was also in jeopardy.  Leaving Ireland brought her to America, where the long arm of revenge caught up to her, Lilly lives her life in a series of tragedies that follow some of the most tumultous moments in our history: World War I, World War II, the  Vietnam War,   the civil rights era and the Gulf War.    It is a book filled with loss, but in and around all of the sadness, Lilly has had some good moments in her life as well.  It is these moments the reader clings to because of the overall tragic tone of the novel.

Although the author's writing was never an issue for me, at first I was a bit put off by the grand sweep of history as the frame for Lilly's story.  I've noticed on several occasions that when an author uses this approach, it detracts from the finer points of the subject's individual narrative, and sometimes causes a loss in focus.  But as I continued to read, it didn't bother me so much because Barry didn't ever let that happen -- I think in Lilly, he created a character with a life  indicative of the great upheavals through which she lived.  There's not much in the way of plotting here because  the book is much more a chronicle of events that live on in Lilly's memories which are now all she has,  but there are some fine moments: the scene in the museum, the story of Lilly's son and the effects of the Vietnam war that followed him back to America, and above all, the great surprise ending that I never saw coming.

My advice to anyone who plans to read this is to keep a box of tissues at your side because the book cannot help but tug on your heartstrings.  Although perhaps it wasn't Barry's best effort so far, it is still very much worth the read.  


The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers

Sandstone Press, 2011 (reprint edition)
240 pp.

Again, kudos to the Booker judges for selecting a book off the beaten path of the big powerhouse publishers.  I have nothing against the big guys; it's just nice to see an indie press getting its due.

I would put The Testament of Jessie Lamb in the category of dystopian fiction -- it deals with the aftermath of a biological terrorist attack that affects women's ability to live through their pregnancies, leaving science (both villain and hero in this book, however you choose to look at it) responsible for finding a solution to the problem.  In a roundabout way it reminded me much of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, but it was very different all the same.

Jessie Lamb is a young teenage girl who is very green-conscious, a vegetarian, and a supporter of various environmental causes.  As the novel begins, she is  being held captive by her parents.  We aren't exactly told why, but as events play out, the answer becomes easy to grasp long before it is revealed.  The novel is told through her perspective, in an account that she begins during her captivity.  In it, she reveals that the world is in crisis: an unknown group of biological terrorists have unleashed a horrifying virus which scientists have labeled as MDS (Maternal Death Syndrome).  Women who are pregnant are susceptible to the virus, which is fatal. There is no known cure, and science steps in to figure out how to remedy the situation before the world's population eventually dwindles and is ultimately extinguished. 

The news of the virus and its consequences is devastating, and there are several protest groups who immediately seek someone to blame. Children are leaving home to join children's groups, established to allow them to run things their way in order not to make the same mistakes made by their parents and other adults.  Their anger at having their promised futures cut short is palpable.   Religious and feminist groups are also out in force spreading the blame around.   Jessie's father is a geneticist and while there is no known cure for MDS, a solution for maintaining population growth has been found in the form of "Sleeping Beauties," young women who will carry embryos innoculated against the disease and then give birth to MDS-free babies. There's only one small problem: the pregnant girls must be put into an induced coma, and after the birth, they are left to die from the disease.

This sounds like a relatively simple premise for a dystopian novel, and it is. Complicating things, at least in Jessie's young life, are the rape of a friend,  her aunt, who even knowing the risks wants to become pregnant and goes a little psycho.  Other acquaintances join various protest groups that have nothing to do with MDS, some turning violent in their actions.  Some people who join up with the children's groups  are only there for their own self-serving purposes.  And to top it all off,  Jessie finds a boyfriend.   The main question, aside from the survival of future generations, is why Jessie is a prisoner, and eventually the story gets around to the explanation, although it's pretty obvious long before the reader gets there.

I was intrigued enough to keep reading to the very end, and there are some fine moments in this book, especially as the ethics behind the scientific efforts are laid bare on the table to be dissected, providing food for thought for the reader on  religious, scientific and philosophical levels.  The premise itself is a good one, wholly believable in the world of dystopian literature.  Yet I found that for all of the ethical questions this novel poses, much of the book is just not realistic  and it comes across flatly.  There's way too much in here in some parts, not enough in others.  For example, the author throws in a broad array of protest groups that seem out of place -- while the world's going to hell and the human race is about to become extinct, people are worried about global warming and animal rights?   And so much of the action takes place off the page that I felt I was missing a lot of story that needed telling.  And then there's the characters -- they come across as one dimensional and lackluster, with no real depth behind them.

I will say right up front that for me, this was the most controversial novel on this year's longlist, not so much for its content, but because I don't feel that it belonged.  This is another book that had it not shown up on this list I would never have bought it; in fact, after buying and starting it, I wasn't really sure I was going read it. But for various reasons, I didn't abandon it, and I will also say that my disappointment with this book is purely personal -- it reads as a book intended for young adults and I just don't read those; however, I read in several places that Rogers is a good writer, so I picked up another of her books to try.   The book has received some good reviews from readers, so it's one of those you must try for yourself.

The Last Hundred Days, by Patrick McGuinness
Seren Books, 2011 (second printing)
377 pp.

"We live in a world of shadows and decoys..."

Romania's last hundred days under the iron-fisted rule of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu is the subject of this novel, but underneath the events of this time the story depicts a place where one never knows who's being manipulated by whom and where duplicity is a way of life.  It's also a character study of some of the people in Bucharest during this momentous slice of history, which ended not with the fall of the Berlin Wall but with the executions of the Ceauşescus.

The story begins as the narrator, whose "family life had been a good enough schooling in totalitarianism"  (we know he's British, but never learn his name) takes a job at a university in Bucharest.  He never applied for the job, but it's not long after his arrival that he becomes immersed in the shadowy world of Leo, a black marketeer who trades not only in cigarettes but also in information.   Leo teaches at the university and is writing a book called "The City of Lost Walks," a guide to different places around the city (parks, streets, and other points of interest) which because of Ceausescu's grandiose self promotion have been disappearing.  Leo knows everybody and knows how to work the system to his own advantage, or to that of people he's befriended, including party officials, for his own reasons.  The narrator, through Leo and through his own feelings for the daughter of one of these officials, is thrown directly into the undercurrent of events running  beneath the last days of the dictatorship. It is  through his eyes that the reader is given a glimpse into this shadowy world.    And always at the back of his mind is the question of his predecessor, the mysterious Berlanger, who seems to have just disappeared into thin air.

Then again, things are never as they seem there, and this point is well illustrated in several places.  One of the best examples is the character of  Trofim, who has pictures of himself with Trotsky, Victor Serge, Diego Rivera and other "heroes of the tragic left." Trofim is currently at work with his memoirs, one manuscript to pass through the censors and to be published in Romania, and another more truthful account that is already set to be published and launched in Paris.  Once again, the true purpose escapes the narrator until much later.  The entire book is like this -- things operate on one level out in the open; it's only later that the reader discovers that everything seems to have  a more shadowy purpose. Even escaping from the country has a terrible and bizarre twist to it.  There's a pall that permeates through the entire book so that even the reader gets swept up in the atmosphere.  As an aside, I got so wrapped up in this book that when I finished it I made myself go out and sit in the sun for a long time just to get me out of the darkness.

There are many interesting characters in this novel for example,  the "bonjouriste" Le Princesse, Trofim, the group of young people waiting to make their escapes, the Party officials who play the game while thinking of the future in a post-Ceauşescu Romania , the enigmatic Cilea.  But the person who stands out the most is Leo:  rarely sober, corrupt out of necessity, wheeling and dealing with high-ranking Party officials. He has inroads and networks everywhere, is often forced to stand by letting things happen, but yet Leo is the most honest of them all in his own way.  And Leo's got a purpose that extends well beyond himself.

Although the novel was filled with some great imagery, McGuiness's prose writing is a mixed bag in the book.  Through his prose, the reader can experience the fear and paranoia that pervades everywhere, experience the gap between the Communist rhetoric and the Romanian reality, and gain some appreciation of the  living conditions of the everyday people in the face of unchecked power. And his background as a poet shines through in several places.  One of my favorite passsages, for example, describes the visit of Leo and the narrator to Snagov Socialist Village, and the appearance of a group of Young Pioneers:

"Young Pioneers, the Party's children's corps, were goose-stepping with knapsacks on their backs, compasses and water bottles around their necks. They walked in step and sang heroic songs, a phalanx of communist Tintins marching to the beat of an automated childhood."
But there were also a few instances when his words made me wince, where  his metaphors didn't exactly work for me --like when Leo notes

"They say history makes the people who make history...cometh the time, cometh the man and all that bollocks. It's not like that. History just crawls along on its belly picking up parasites....Stoicu, Ceausescu...the lot of them...crabs on the pubis of history."

Although I can appreciate his point, that particular phrasing was like biting into something and discovering it's beyond sour.  And the book is a bit difficult to ease into -- it's only after a while that the story takes off.  I really couldn't engage with the main character, either;  I never liked him and found him valuable only as the projector through which we view the movie.  But on the whole, I liked this book.  What it could have been, a rehashing of facts with a smattering of fiction thrown into the mix, it never became, even though there are sections that are given over to the recounting of real events.   He mentions the riots, the demonstrations and the Ceauşescu executions, but the book really works best in its descriptions of a country riddled with fear and paranoia, and in its depictions of the shady manipulations that go on behind the political jockeying for power, both during Ceauşescu's regime and beyond.

My guess is that this novel is not really intended for a general audience. Historical fiction fans may appreciate it, but it's rather dense and probably more suited to readers used to reading more literary fiction.  I'll wait for book two if there ever is one; he definitely leaves the field open for a sequel.


The Stranger's Child, by Alan Hollinghurst
Picador, 2011 (UK edition)
564 pp.

And finally, the last and the most difficult to read of all of these novels comes with  The Stranger's Child.  Spanning most of the twentieth century, moving into the twenty-first,  The Stranger's Child  begins in 1913, just prior to the outbreak of World War I.  The story is told through in third-person narrative, from the perspectives of different characters over several shifts in time. 

The poet Cecil Valance, member of the Bloomsbury group, well known for his poems about his family home Corley Court, is one of two sons of a wealthy, upper-class family, friend and "Oxford-style" lover of George Sawle.  As the novel opens, he has been invited to Sawle's family home Two Acres, and it is  this visit which sets the groundwork for the rest of the novel.  Before Cecil's time at Two Acres is over, he will have rumbled about with George, flirted with George's younger and naive sister Daphne, and left a poem in Daphne's autograph book.  This poem, "Two Acres," will go on to become part of Cecil's legacy to the rest of the world, and will become the focus of a central question: for whom exactly did Cecil write "Two Acres?" Daphne will say it was for her; but the question comes under scrutiny several times over the many years covered in this book. 

As Hollinghurst shifts the novel forward in time, things have drastically changed since 1913;  Cecil dies during World War I,  now laying in a small chapel at Corley Court, forever the young, golden boy he was. Daphne has joined the family at Corley Court  by way of her marriage to  Cecil's brother Dudley, children and grandchildren are born.  At each time shift, new characters are introduced, and more interest is taken in Cecil's life, more questions are asked.  Throughout the novel there are several jumps in time. There are new characters that arrive on the scene.  The family is keen to publicly at least, protect and preserve Cecil's image, but one biographer hopes to make his name known by uncovering any long-buried secrets in Cecil's life.  

But even though the novel moves through time, with the Sawle-Valence family at the core of the novel, The Stranger's Child is not really the type of  down-through-the-ages, multi-generational saga that one generally finds on fiction shelves.   Events that occur and create a spike in reader tension in one time are often forgotten during the next.  As the fortunes of this family change, the author also uses the moves forward in time to explore the changes in cultural tastes (for example, getting rid of everything Victorian at Corley Court, which itself goes through several changes over the years),  but more prominently highlighted are the changes in  attitudes toward homosexuality as time marches on.  Where in the first section George and Cecil tell the rest of the Sawles that they're members of a "secret society," by the end of the book, a memorial remembrance ceremony for one of the characters comes from the deceased's husband. 

There's so much more to this , and I'm sure I missed a LOT (this novel really deserves more than one reading), much of what I take away from it focuses on the fading  of memory and interjection of  fiction which becomes truth and takes on a life of its own, the question of  whether or not a subject's  reputation for his art  should take a back seat to a biographer's need to do what it takes to make money and a name for himself, and of course, the ever-changing nature of sexual politics.

 I liked this novel, although at times it got completely bogged down in dialogue that is constantly being analyzed between the characters; I also found that by the end of the book, I didn't really care about the later characters and their stories.  I was most involved in the Valence-Sawle line and sometimes found the other characters to be more tangential than necessary to that  story.  The forward shifts in time, while at first disconcerting, were a great vehicle for exploring change without having to fill in all of the backstory in long chapters.  And what I really thought was clever is that just when I thought I had a  character figured out, the author looks at that person through someone else's perspective, changing my point of view.  I never really knew who to rely on -- and these shifts kept my interest level high, trying to get inside the characters' heads to discover their hidden agendas.

Overall -- good book, although at times it was a slog getting through  the writing.  The story itself was solid, although my interest began to wane for a while in later parts.

note: After having finished writing my thoughts on this book, I noticed while reading other reviews that  people have noted the wealth of literary references through the story,but as an average reader of mostly contemporary fiction,  I'm afraid that I've never read Proust or much of Henry James enough to have picked up on them.  This lack of a referential anchor on my part doesn't really bother me, but I'm sure I've probably missed a great deal.