Monday, December 31, 2012

December reading roundup, favorite books of 2012, and the end-of-the-month "please give my books a home" plea

It's the last day of December so that means it's once again time to post my reading progress etc.  It's also the last day of 2012 which means it's time to post my favorite books of the year.

This month I spent more time on getting my books sorted and catalogued than I did reading, but I still managed to get in a few pleasant (and not so pleasant) hours having my nose in a book.  Australia was my target country for reading this month and here's how it went, with six books to show for my effort:

australian fiction
The Heat of the Sun, by David Rain
The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman
Document Z, by Andrew Croome
The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman
australian crime fiction
Bad Debts, by Peter Temple
Black Tide, by Peter Temple

in other news,

thriller/suspense/escape reading
Thursday at Noon, by William Brown (US)


Time now for my favorite books of 2012

If you really want to know what I read this year, here's the linkOut of all of these books, there were a few that I've singled out as favorites for my own reasons, starting with
-- fiction  --
I know I started out the year saying that Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son would probably be #1 on my hit parade this year, but it got edged out of the top spot by Purgatory, written by Tomás Eloy Martínez. That one book has haunted me for the entire year.  Following that one, in no particular order, are the  novels I most admired this year:

Chinaman, by Shehan Karunatilaka
Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil
The Teleportation Accident, by Ned Beauman
The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore
The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson
The Polish Boxer, by Eduardo Halfon
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
-- crime fiction -- 
My favorite crime fiction novel of the year is The Minotaur's Head, by Marek Krajewski.  I love the atmosphere this author creates in all of his books, and as I noted in my discussion of this book, Krajewski is a master of contrasting the "normal" world with  "another world of dark and hidden places full of sadists, lunatics and morally warped madmen given to brutal appetites."  Following Krajewski are
 The Expendable Man, by Dorothy B. Hughes
No Sale, by Patrick Conrad
Entanglement, by Zigmunt Miloszewski
The Crime of Julian Wells, by Thomas H. Cook

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

Taking a first in the fantasy category is Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore.  While it sometimes verged into the inane, as I noted, what I didn't expect is an upended and off-kilter history of Impressionist art to go along with all of the rest of Moore's whimsical zaniness. After Sacre Bleu is

The Laundry Files Series, by Charles Stross: 
  • The Atrocity Archives
  • The Jennifer Morgue
  • The Fuller Memorandum
  • The Apocalypse Codex 
-- nonfiction -- 
Enemies:  A History of the FBI, by Tim Weiner turned out to be my favorite nonfiction read this year.  It's an eye-opening, well-researched and intelligently-constructed  history of the FBI in  its role as a "secret intelligence service." The book examines how the Bureau has long been operating outside of the rule of law -- "the foundation on which America was built", and offers its readers a look at the ongoing struggle and the fine line between national security and civil liberty.

And now, the  other book-related stuff:
1) The book group read  Mildred Pierce, by James M. Cain, which we liked as a group and which we discovered has pretty much nothing to do with the old movie starring Joan Crawford.  January's book is Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. That discussion should be intriguing!
  2) Added to the Amazon wishlist this month (as usual, a lot of obscure titles):
   crime fiction:
The Missing File, by D.A. Mishani
Happy Birthday, Turk!, by Jakob Arjouni
More Beer, by Jakob Arjouni
House of Evidence, by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson
The Golden Calf, by Helene Tursten

     general fiction:
The Blind Man's Garden, by Nadeem Aslam 
Constance, by Patrick McGrath
Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi 
 Stalin's Barber, by Paul M. Levitt
Spilt Milk, by Chico Buarque 

 3) Books bought this month
Gulag: A History, by Anne Appelbaum 
Wyllard's Weird, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
4) Currently reading: 
Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, by Douglas Smith (and so far, it's really good)

****5) Books I'm giving away this month (sorry, to US readers only  -- absolutely 100% totally free, I'll pay postage to whoever will give them a home)******* 

If you want one, some or even all of these books, be the first to leave a comment with the titles of the book(s) you want and a method of contacting you.  In November's giveaway, only two people gave me a home address and got their books; for the others I didn't even get an email  -- so I have the books still sitting here taking up valuable space. They're going to be re-offered next month  if I don't hear from the parties involved.

 1. The Heat of the Sun, by David Rain
2. Mildred Pierce, by James M. Cain
3.  Waiting for Sunrise, by William Boyd
4. Eight Girls Taking Pictures, by Whitney Otto
5. You Deserve Nothing, by Alexander Maksik
6. A Partial History of Lost Causes, by Jennifer DuBois
that's it.  Peace, health and prosperity are my New Year's wishes to all.  

Monday, December 17, 2012

*The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman

Riverhead, 2012
626 pp

 "The enemy ... is racism.  But see, racism isn't a person.  It's a virus that infects people.  It can infect whole towns and cities, even whole countries.  Sometimes you can see it in people's faces when they're sick with it.  It can paralyze even good people.  It can paralyze government.  We have to fight that wherever we find it.  That's what good people do."
  --- (36)

After having heard from a number of people that they consider The Street Sweeper to be one of their all-time favorite novels (and because I am trying to put a dent into a number of unread novels from Australia I have laying around here)  I started this book  yesterday;  with only a few breaks for eating, taking my puppies out, and answering the phone, the day became a marathon reading session that ended at 1 am this morning.  It was an epic reading day for an epic novel.  Even though there are several problems with this novel, overall I couldn't help but find myself extremely moved by it.

Actually, epic is really the only way to describe this book.  It zigzags through 20th-century history here in America and in Europe, beginning with modern-day (2007) history professor Adam Zignelik.  As the story begins, Zignelik's days at Columbia University are numbered; although an earlier work had provided him with some notoriety and opportunities to be a "talking head" on TV documentaries and had helped to pave the way for his appointment at Columbia, Adam now is on his way out.  There will be no granting of tenure -- he has not published any original research for five years.  His personal life is on a downward spiral, and he's plagued with nightmares.  His friend Charles McCray is the department head; McCray's father William and Adam's dad Jake worked together in the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund during the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, after Thurgood Marshall's appointment to the Supreme Court.  William, feeling like he might be able to help Adam, throws out an idea for a project near and dear to William's heart.  It seems that one of his friends, an African-American World War II vet, was with the soldiers who liberated Dachau. Yet the claim that there were any African-American soldiers involved in liberating the camps  was vehemently disputed after the airing of  an earlier PBS documentary on the subject.  As William notes:  
"My friend is a black veteran who, among other things, served his country at the risk of his own life, liberating victims of one of the worst regimes that has ever existed, and ever since then people have been saying he wasn't there...This is what happened when the invisible man went to war!" 
While this is going on, and while Adam begins to research, Lamont Williams has just been released from prison and is at Sloan-Kettering to start a new but probationary job.  For six years he has waited for the chance to find his daughter and to be a father to her; this job provides him the means to start to put his life back in order.  While attending to his chores one day he meets an elderly Jewish cancer patient, Henryk Mandelbrot who asks that Lamont wheel him up to his room. It's against the rules, but after some convincing, Lamont carries out the man's request. From his ninth-floor window Mandelbrot stares at some chimneys in the distance and begins a story with a line that will keep Lamont returning day after day:

"There were exactly six death camps but you could die more than once in any of them.’

While these two main characters are working at getting their lives back on track,  The Street Sweeper examines, among many other things, why it is important to understand that history is not just a study of past events, but that there were real people involved who should also be remembered.  As Adam notes about the importance of history,
 "... it's a way of honoring those who came before us. We can tell their stories. Wouldn't you want someone to tell your story? Ultimately it's the best proof there is that we mattered." 
And later, while at a funeral, Lamont thinks along those very same lines, as he was
“desperate for people to remember other people. If they didn’t, what did anything mean, what had anything been for?”  
The author draws our attention to the " connections between things, people, places, ideas," and  also spends time drawing parallels between African-American struggles against extreme forms of racism and those of  European Jews.  As just one example, did you know that African-American workers in Chicago slaughterhouses had black stars on their time cards making it easier for them to be identified when the layoffs came around? 

Although this is one of the most powerful books I've picked up in a while, The Street Sweeper is not without its faults. To mention a few, first it does take some time to figure out exactly where the author is going; it really wasn't until Lamont meets the elderly cancer patient that things started to pick up for me.  Also, in trying to make the point about connections the author has relied on a contrived, systematic series of coincidences that you can't help but notice.   There's also a lot that could have been weeded out of this novel such as the ongoing, in-Adam's-head discussions with his girlfriend Diana throughout the story, a number of storyline starts that aren't always finished, and some strange-sounding prose here and there (migrainous?).    But while these sorts of things and others  tend to set my teeth on edge, they can be somewhat forgiven because of  the author's overall focus on people not just as players or victims caught up in historical events, but people as human beings with lives to be remembered and stories to be told.

I feel this need to pace my reading about the Holocaust because of the emotional toll,  and while you can't help but be moved by the powerful scenes that occur in the camps in this novel, there's a great deal more to this book that will keep you reading.  As one of the characters notes, memory  "can capture you, corner you or liberate you," and this idea is perhaps one of the strongest ideas that runs through this book when all is said and done -- that and the force behind oral history that keeps the past alive. The people may be gone, but the stories live on and need listeners, no matter if they're sad or inspiring.   Aside from my issues mentioned above, I couldn't help but be very moved by this novel -- I was so utterly engrossed in it that all outside stimuli  disappeared to the point where it was just me and the book for hours on end.  I most definitely and highly recommend it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

*Document Z, by Andrew Croome

Allen and Unwin, 2010
350 pp

There is a reason why I never skip the author's notes section in a book, and reading through them today just after having finished the story,  I came to discover that this novel is a fictional re-imagining of a real event that took place in Australia during the Cold War years of the 1950s.  I'd previously never heard of what ultimately became known as "the Petrov Affair," the defection of  two Soviets working at the Soviet embassy in Canberra that ultimately revealed clandestine Soviet activity in different areas of Australia's government.  Vladimir (Volodya) Petrov and his wife Evdokia held diplomatic posts at the embassy, but in reality they were also spies working for the MVD, the USSR's Ministry of Internal Affairs.  Further exploration led to an incredible photo which mirrors the action occurring as the novel opens, that of Evdokia being escorted through a crowd at Sydney's then Mascot Airport by a couple of big, brawny minders whose job is to get her on a flight that will eventually take her back to Moscow after her husband defected.  


The reason why Evdokia looks so panicked is not just that she's headed back to Moscow  to face an uncertain future where who knows what will happen to her or her family, but in those pre- 9/11 days,  the tarmac is actually surrounded by a mob of angry people who are trying to block her access to the airplane, trying to keep her off of it and free in Sydney, a scene also realistically depicted in the novel.

 The question Andrew Croome asks is how did it come down to this?  The answer is laid out in this most excellent, intelligent and engaging novel as he reconstructs not only the events leading up to this particular day in 1954, but also as he imagines the inner turmoil of the Petrovs during their time at the Soviet embassy in Canberra, especially after the death of Stalin and the arrest of Beria become a major game changer. Added to the Petrovs, Croome brings in other players in the game, both Soviet and Australian, and also explores life for the Petrovs after their defections to some extent as well. 

The story begins three years earlier introducing the Petrovs, moving through their daily work routines and their home life in Canberra.  Coming to Australia from a post in Sweden,  Evdokia is secretly a captain in MVD intelligence decrypting coded messsages but openly works for the ambassador, while ironically, the job of  Vladimir  (also a spy) is to prevent defections.  But within the embassy it's all about power, political intrigue, and paranoia; the Petrovs often find themselves on the receiving end of trouble, with trumped-up charges that find their way back to Moscow in the ambassador's reports; no small worry for Evdokia who still has family back in the Soviet Union. They are also sure they are being watched constantly outside of the embassy, but they're not sure who is and is not an agent spying on them.  Then the ambassador receives word of Stalin's death and Beria's arrest -- and when Evdokia and Vladimir are told that they are being replaced and will be returning home shortly thereafter, Vladimir, who has been secretly courted as ripe for defection, decides the time is right to make his move but tells Evdokia nothing. 

Not only is the story behind the Petrov defections  intriguing and compelling on its own, the author's re-imagining of their personal lives is also credible. There is not a great deal of emotion shared by this couple; often they come across as rather flat together but all the same their inner lives are in turmoil. Evdokia cannot stop thinking of her dead daughter; Vladimir drinks, visits prostitutes and is faced with the life-changing experience of giving away his country's secrets.  Add in the author's excellent depiction of the political atmosphere of the time, as well as the workings of the fledgling Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), and  Document Z  jumps miles above the usual spy fare. In fact, after I finished the book and went on to read what I could about "The Petrov Affair," I was taken aback at the  realistic tone of the author's rendition of this story.  I couldn't put it down while reading it and most definitely recommend it. 

fiction from Australia

*The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

Scribner, 2012
343 pp
hardcover ed.

Considering I chose for this month books you might want to take to the beach if you happen to be in Australia right now, enjoying a nice summer, I picked the perfect title in The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman.  For me, this book is the epitome of beach read for several reasons which I'll get to momentarily.  

Tom Sherbourne left Australia in 1915, setting out to serve his country in World War I.  The last he saw of Australia as he left was the five-second flash of light beaming out from the lighthouse at "his homeland's furthest reach," Janus Island.  That light became a memory that stayed with him during the war "through the years of hell that followed, like a farewell kiss."  Back in Australia at war's end, Tom first takes a six-month posting at Byron Bay, where he learned the "basics of life on the Lights." 

Byron Bay Lighthouse, Cape Byron, NSW, Australia

 (from Wikipedia)

In June, 1920, he gets wind of a vacancy at the lighthouse on Janus Island, a remote location that suits him perfectly, as does the island's isolation.  The supply boat comes on a very limited schedule; the chance to return to the mainland is even more limited.  At first Tom is there to relieve the current lighthouse keeper, but the situation eventually becomes permanent, and he eventually brings a young woman Isabel (Izzy) there as his wife.  Tom is a very principled, moral, by-the-book man, until one day when a small boat washes up on the beach that Izzy begs him not to report.  Because of multiple tragedies that Izzy has endured on Janus Island,  Tom acquiesces to her request, although his failure to report the boat incident constantly eats away at him inside.  But it will also have unforeseen consequences for both himself and Izzy, not to mention other innocent people when they return to the mainland.  It will also become a decision that will haunt both of them the rest of their life.  I won't say any more, not wanting to spoil it for anyone else who may want to read this book.

Stedman's evocation of a time and place is very realistic, and she is also skillful at developing  the moral/emotional dilemma so central to this novel and then bushwhacking the reader with a twist that adds even more intensity to Tom and Izzy's predicament.  It is pretty much impossible for anyone reading this book to not come to some sort of a judgment about what is right and what is wrong, and this novel will probably also make for some pretty intense book group discussions (my own group will be reading it later this year and I can already hear the thoughts of some of the people in my head right now).    Her depiction of people in a town who can't forgive or forget, in some large part the cause of all of the problems that follow, is also very well composed. The first part of the novel up until the return to the mainland really engaged my attention -- I was caught up in the descriptions of the lighthouse, Janus Island and the isolation of being cut off from other people as well as Tom's angst over his conflicting ideas of duty, all of which kept me reading and interested.   At the same time, The Light Between Oceans has the feel of what I'd consider a beach read, verging on the edge of chick lit.  Once the dilemma and the added jolt present themselves, the rest of the book became rather predictable and the outcome just sort of  fell flat.  When I figured out what was going on, I really didn't feel like I needed to read any longer because I knew just what was going to happen. I did finish it, though, and well, I was right. I figured it all out.  I also want to figure out my own emotional reaction to the books I read; this one is a guided tour with plenty of gut-twisting choices being made along the way,  pretty much guaranteeing a certain response.

To be extremely fair, readers everywhere are LOVING this book; as for me,  I'm not overly fond of pre-constructed emotional sentimentality and chick-lit material in the novels I read. So you might want to read the 5-star reviews from Amazon to see the glowing praise being heaped on this book to get more of a feel for why people loved it.  Once again, I'm swimming upstream from public opinion, but well, that's how it goes sometimes.

fiction from Australia

Thursday, December 6, 2012

*The Heat of the Sun, by David Rain

Henry Holt, 2012
288 pp
from the publisher -- thank you!

Australian author David Rain adds a rather lengthy postscript to the story of Puccini's Madame Butterfly with this novel, in which his subject is the little boy taken away from Nagasaki by Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton and his wife Kate after the boy's mother's suicide. The Heat of the Sun is an ambitious book, one which covers the lives of both the narrator, Woodley Sharpless,  and the boy in question, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton II (aka Trouble -- "dolore," so named by his real mother Cho Cho san in the opera).  Starting with their boarding school days in Vermont, Rain moves his characters through  the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, World War II and the dropping of the bomb, then brings the story to a close in  the later years of their lives. The novel  examines how events from the past can create lasting and echoing repercussions for everyone involved, both personally and peripherally, here lasting throughout most of a century.  It is also a story about identity, love, honor, friendship and the ties that bind people together.

As the novel opens Sharpless reflects on the idea of scandals, saying that most of the time they tend to fade into oblivion in our "age of amnesia," but there is one that will probably never die -- The Pinkerton Affair.   Several books and even a movie keep this cause célèbre  looming large in the public psyche -- after all, Pinkerton Sr.  could have been the President of the United States.  Woodley feels that he has to write his own story, one that will not appear until after his death -- "the saddest story I know" --  beginning with his introduction to Trouble, ending decades later with the end of his dealings with the Pinkerton family. He touts himself as a well-placed bystander on hand to watch the saga unfold; you must judge for yourself whether or not he's a reliable narrator.  

Without getting too much into the plot here, Trouble is at the very heart of this novel, and as a boy, Sharpless recognized that  "Trouble was dangerous. He had in him an excitability that had to go to extremes," which made Sharpless "want to go with him."  Woodley  is one of those kids who just kind of lay low, very dependent on his "ashplant" after a childhood accident left him with a bad leg. Some time later, in the heyday of the Roaring 20s, Trouble and Woodley cross paths again in New York, where Sharpless is invited to tea and is introduced to Trouble's parents.  At that meeting, some kind of tacit, unspoken agreement is reached that Sharpless will be responsible for keeping an eye on their son.  Trouble lives a risky life, never happy in one place,  seemingly inhibition free.  But inwardly he's hiding something --  he reveals to Sharpless that he's always sensed something wrong and that sometimes things like "a smell, a texture, a rustle of fabric" offer memories of  another life he believes he was "stolen from" at an early age.  The truth comes out during a rather grotesque "Blood Red Ball," a highly-anticipated,  masked society affair given by globetrotting Japanese Prince Yamadori; but even knowing the truth, Woodley is unable to fully comprehend Trouble's inner anguish, a condition that will last as long as their friendship.   As it happens, the Ball becomes a turning point that will ultimately become an epic life changer for everyone falling within the orbit of the Pinkerton family -- and beyond.

The Heat of the Sun thematically tackles some pretty heavy topics, including American imperialist ambitions,  politics, power and influence, the human toll of war and others.  Rain's writing throughout the first two acts is pretty much seamless with the best occurring during the two boys' prep-school days -- if you read carefully, there's a lot there that sort of acts as a foretelling of what is yet to come for these two.   As the novel moves into the second half of the book, there is also a great section where Yamidori  discusses the "end of the golden world," the last days of the Samurai era and life as the Japanese once understood it as American ships made their way into Edo Bay, leading Japan eventually  to "become America."  I will say that my enthusiasm for this scene was tempered by an unnecessary act of violence in a Japanese bath, a symbolic act that imho really didn't need to be there. Rain adds some  excellent little touches as well -- a copy of Pierre Loti's Madame Chrysanthème (a precursor of sorts to Puccini's opera) laying on the bookcase by a bed, someone softly whistling a tune from a Puccini opera, etc.  There is also a lot of symbolism here that  for the most part I felt worked well --   Sharpless and his "ashplant," (the walking stick/crutch he relies on heavily),  Telemachus (the son estranged from his father), and Imogen/Fidele's funeral song from Shakespeare's Cymbeline, from which the novel gets its name (see the video below), but throwing in Oedipal blindness was a little over the top and could have been left out entirely.  There is also a tendency for unevenness in the novel's overall tone: the beginning is so well written and highly realistic, but in between  there is a tendency to verge here and there into the melodrama zone, and sometimes even into the silly (an entire outdoor amphitheater of servicemen involved in a brawl?) which together diminish the novel's overall effect.

I liked this book, didn't  love it, but I do I think David Rain is an author to watch in the future. The premise is new and fresh, the scope is ambitious and I love how the book is structured.   If you would like the opinion of  someone who absolutely loved this novel, Liam at The Book Boy  has written an absolutely glowing review. Recommended.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

December: Beach reads for an Australian summer

It's summer down under right now; while much of the US is going to be cold and snowy, people in Australia are getting out to enjoy the beach.  And why not take a few books along!  Here are some suggestions -- or rather, a few books by Australian authors or set in Australia -- that I'll be reading this month while envisioning myself  down there laying in this hammock between the palms:

The Heat of the Sun, by David Rain
The Streetsweeper, by Elliot Perlman
The Treatment and the Cure, by Peter Kocan
The Light Between Oceans, by ML Stedman
My Brother Jack, by George Johnston

There may be others, but these titles are what I've rounded up so far.  For my blogger friends in Australia, happy summer!!


Friday, November 30, 2012

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature shortlist

I'm so out of the freakin' loop.  The shortlist was announced November 20th but with everything else that's been going on I missed it.  So if anyone cares (which I do), the finalists for the 2013 prize are the following (taken from the list at the DSC website):

1.       Jamil Ahmad: The Wandering Falcon (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin India)
2.       Tahmima Anam: The Good Muslim (Penguin Books)
3.       Amitav Ghosh: River of Smoke (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin India)
4.       Mohammed Hanif: Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (Random House India)
5.       Uday Prakash: The Walls of Delhi (Translated by Jason Grunebaum; UWA Publishing, W. Australia)
6.       Jeet Thayil: Narcopolis (Faber and Faber, London)

Well, heck -- only two I haven't read!  I will say this: I loved The Wandering Falcon, River of Smoke and Narcopolis absolutely and unconditionally.  I wasn't particularly in love with The Good Muslim, mainly because I hate the title but also because it's a rather one-sided tale, if you ask me.  Anyway, good luck to everyone.

The Polish Boxer, by Eduardo Halfon

Bellevue Literary Press, 2012
originally published as El boxeador polaco, 2008
translated by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean
188 pp
softcover, ARC from the publisher (thank you!!)

 I'm quite proud to say that when some time back, World Literature Today sent an email asking for donations to help get this book and its author the recognition it deserves, I kicked in a few dollars to help out.  Now I'm equally proud to say it was worth every single penny I gave them.  This is a wonderful book -- and I hope it gets a lot of attention from the reading public.  While it may not be everyone's cup of tea (and it seems like most books I read fall under that heading -- that and obscure reading material), underneath the wonderful set of stories here, the novel says a lot about readers, writers and life in general.

I loved this book. Without saying much about the full storylines here (you really have to experience this book yourself), I read this book twice -- the first time through I didn't like the disjointed feel of the book, but then when I got to the ending, something the author said made me think that perhaps I should go back and read it again. The light bulb over my head flashed on after the second read and I realized that what is important in this book is not that there are little stories wrapped up to our satisfaction as readers, all neatly tied up in a cohesive sort of way (because there aren't)  but rather that we spend a lot of time in life trying to sort out some kind of meaning when all the while it seems to escape us. What we think we know doesn't always turn out to be the reality. While frustration is part of the journey, it's setting out on the overall quest that is important as well as what we find along the way. We may never get to the actual point of our destination, but that's also reality. Life is obviously not a well-ordered series of answers, and the author illustrates this point by leaving many things undisclosed in this novel, for example: whatever happened to Milan Rakic? What was Juan Kalel's future as seen by the fortune teller? What does it mean when a gypsy does a pirouette? (I really wanted to know the answer to this one!) Are all of these episodes really parts of the life of Eduardo Halfon or is it all one big fiction -- all things we will never really know.

As Halfon says, "Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a witch might perform, making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing." The uncomfortable feeling I got while reading this book the first time through reflects my own expectations that this book would flow like a cohesive narrative and that all would eventually be revealed, when in fact, reality isn't that simple -- it's often a series of incohesive events and discoveries. I actually wish more authors would take this approach in their writing, capturing life as it really is -- in reality there is always something left undone, unfound, unanswered. Most of what we read, however, hands us the answers on a plate -- every dilemma solved, every base covered, every moment answered for, when in fact there are often big holes and big questions left unanswered.

The Polish Boxer is an extremely clever novel, and one that requires a lot of postread thought, and I could go on and on but suffice it to say, I loved it. There are some things I didn't like -- the orgasm drawings, the sometimes ridiculous conversations between Halfon and his girlfriend -- but I loved his use of language and the ideas thrown out here. Beautiful book -- highly recommended.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

November reading roundup

Busy month. Thanksgiving, our 4 year-old dog's glaucoma meds failed so she had to have eye-removal surgery,  and a host of other stuff kept us very busy this November.  Luckily, there's always time to read, even if it's in the middle of the night or very early in the a.m. when it's just quiet.

November continued my American authors reading choice, and although I really didn't get through everything I'd planned, it wasn't so bad.  Add to the list some crime fiction, an incredible book of ghost stories and a  well-written nonfiction book, and it was actually a pretty good month.   Here's how it shakes out:

american fiction
Young Man With a Horn, by Dorothy Baker
Evel Knievel Days, by Pauls Toutonghi

The Collini Case, by Ferdinand von Schirach

The Boy Kings of Texas, by Domingo Martinez

  crime fiction
--american writers--
From Blood, by Edward Wright
Entanglement, by Zygmunt Miloszewski  (Poland)
The Dark Winter, by  David Mark  (UK)

odd/weird fiction 
The Big Book of Ghost Stories, ed. Otto Penzler (Vintage/Black Lizard)

And now, the  other book-related stuff:
1) The book group does a mixed November/December meetup so that we don't collide with the holidays. This coming December 11th we'll be reading Mildred Pierce, by James M. Cain. One of my friends accidentally ordered a copy of Mildred Pierced, by Stuart Kaminsky, and read the whole thing before realizing it was the wrong book.

 2) Added to the Amazon wishlist this month (as usual, a lot of obscure titles):
     crime fiction:
Baksheesh, by Esmahan Aykol
A Crack in the Wall, by Claudia Pineiro
David's Revenge, by Hans-Werner Kettenbach
The Public Prosecutor, by Jef Geeraerts

     general fiction:
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (nyrb classics)
Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail, by TJ Forrester

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956
The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy

    weird fiction:
The Vampire Archives: The Most Complete Volume of Vampire Tales Ever Published (ed. Otto Penzler)
 3) Books bought this month
Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, by Douglas Smith
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss
The Go-Between, by LP Hartley (nyrb classics)
The Watchers:  A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I, by Stephen Alford

4) Currently reading: 
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy
The Horror at Oakdeene and Others, by Brian Lumley
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss

****5) Books I'm giving away this month (sorry, to US readers only  -- absolutely 100% totally free, I'll pay postage to whoever will give them a home)*******
 -- links go through to Amazon, but I receive absolutely no money if you click. It's just an FYI. --

1. The Boy Kings of Texas, by Domingo Martinez
2. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
3. Evel Knievel Days, by Pauls Toutonghi
4. Number 9 Dream, by David Mitchell
5. The Proof of Love, by Catherine Hall
6. Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple
7. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

(if you want one, some or even all of these books, be the first to leave a comment with the titles of the book(s) you want.)

 that's it for November -- now on to December and some lovely Aussie beach reads. It is summer there, yeah?

Monday, November 26, 2012

*Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Farrar, Strous and Giroux, 2012
288 pp

"People still like the smell of books.

Take a bookstore where the shelves go up so high that they seemingly fade into the shadows, a mysterious group of customers who come in to take books out but never buy anything, a reading room buried beneath the city of New York, coded secrets and the ever-increasing wonders of the technological scene, and you have the ingredients that put together Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, a very cool fantasy-like novel that is simultaneously entertaining and thought provoking. 
Set mainly in San Francisco, the main character is Clay Jannon, who has fallen on hard times and needs a job.  He is by trade a web designer, and after the great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century,” lost his job after the start-up bagel company he works for goes out of business.  He gets by for a while, but he needs money and talking a walk one day runs across a bookstore with a help wanted sign in its window.  The bookstore is located on Broadway ("in a euphemistic part of town")  next to a place named Booty's; Jannon can't help but wonder what "24-hour bookstore" might be a euphemism for.  But it seems to be on the up and up -- and after Jannon answers some rather odd questions put to him by the owner, Mr. Penumbra, he's got the job, starting at midnight and working until early a.m..  It isn't long until he notices that most of the customers, whom he says are
 "exactly the kind of people you'd see in coffee shops, working through one-sided chess problems or solving Saturday crosswords with blue ballpoints pressed perilously hard into the newsprint," 
come to the bookstore to take out some very "unique" tomes, some with "cracked leather, gold-leaf titles," others "freshly bound with bright crisp covers...not all ancient." These books are set aside on special shelves that go up into the shadows of the ceiling in the part of the store that Clay has come to call the "Waybacklist." Part of Clay's job entails writing detailed descriptions of the people who take out these volumes in a logbook, including the weather conditions, what they were wearing, and other odd details he might notice.  Although one of the conditions of the job is that he is not to look inside the books, when his roommate Mat visits and takes one down, human nature takes over and Clay takes a peek:
 "The two-page spread shows a solid matrix of letters, a blanket of glyphs with hardly a trace of white space. The letters are big and bold, punched onto the paper in a sharp serif. I recognize the alphabet -- it's roman, which is to say normal -- but not the words. Actually, there aren't really words at all.  The pages are just long runs of letters -- an undifferentiated jumble." 
Clay is perplexed: "For this, Tyndall and the rest come running in the middle of the night?"  Alongside the strange people and the even more peculiar books they take out, Clay takes it upon himself to help Mr. Penumbra get more regular customers in the shop with some marketing techniques, including a coupon he creates.  This offer brings Kat, a nerdchick who works in data visualization at Google, into the store, and his growing infatuation with her (and his own curiosity about what is in the books) eventually spurs Clay to use certain technological tools available to her to investigate the mysteries within these volumes.  Their inquiries and their results will take them on a literal fantasy quest that will eventually lead them to an organization whose members have spent their lifetimes in their own search for meaning.

So having said that, you might believe that this is just another bit of modern-age fantasy, but there is some serious stuff afoot here, and it's highly obvious in the way Sloan has drawn his characters. Aside from the readers who carry out books from the Waybacklist at Mr. Penumbra's store, Clay's roommate Mat, for example, works as a special effects designer/builder for Industrial Light and Magic, where he makes props, part of the "dwindling tribe of special-effects artists who still make things with knives and glue." He's currently working on a jungle monster made of living plants.  But his major project, "Matropolis," is currently all over the roomies' livingroom, a "scaled-down dreamscape, a bright glittering hyper-city made with scraps of the familiar." In short -- he builds tangible representations of things made out of materials that you can touch.  On the other side of the fence is Neel, another friend, whose work involves 3D computerized representations of famous women's breasts, and Kat who is in thrall to the concept of Singularity as a means by which "programmers ...get to upgrade the human operating system" to solve all of the world's problems so that humans can live forever.   Kat and her cohorts at Google  find that data is the only real ingredient necessary for experiencing the world along with the requisite machines needed for encoding and decoding.  Is there a future where these two sides can co-exist?  Think of this question in terms of books and their authors, and Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore enters the stream of current discourse on the future of the biblioverse. At least that's how I understand it.

The book ranges into the farfetched, and is one of those stories where coincidences mount  and somehow, like in the fantasy-quest story Mr. Sloan brings to his novel, things just simply have a way of working out to the good of all.  Normally these sorts of obvious turning points in a book make for the inevitable eyeroll and leave me inwardly cringing, but the novel is witty and clever while being serious at the same time, and the aura of mystery around it appeals to my fascination with trying to get at the bottom of what's really going on.  It is, in short --  with reservations including the necessity of the epilogue --  a delight to read, even if you are over 30. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

*Young Man With a Horn, by Dorothy Baker

NYRB Classics, 2012
originally published 1938, Houghton Mifflin
185 pp

"Music, for him, wasn't a business; it was a passion, and he was ready to give up to it."

There's a problem when readers stick to what's hot, trendy and popular in today's reading market -- they miss a lot of good older, mainly-forgotten books like this one.  Kudos to NYRB for bringing this book (and other fine novels) back to the attention of the reading public, or at least to me.

The Young Man With a Horn is Rick Martin, who, we discover as the prologue opens, is dead at a young age not long after reaching the peak of his musical genius.  Despite this, the narrator assures the reader that the story has no "grand tragic theme," but rather it is the account of a man who "had a talent for creating music as natural and fluent as -- oh, say Bach's," who would never be "put down to playing exactly what was written for him." Martin chose instead to live a life in devotion to his art; he's a man with the soul of an artist who "goes to pieces," and ultimately suffers for life's intrusions into his great passion.

The novel is divided into four books, beginning with Rick's childhood and teen years  in Los Angeles, where he meets "his first, last and always friend," Smoke Jordan. Rick Martin is a poor kid growing up in LA -- he is often truant from school; although he'd learned to read music there, school held little interest for this boy.  One day Rick wanders into the All Souls' Mission where he finds himself alone, and picks up a hymnal and starts singing the tunes (not the words -- just the music). He transfers picking out the songs in his head to the piano there, and goes back to practice until his peace is intruded upon. Although he loves the piano, he's thinking that perhaps a trumpet is more his métier. It is when he takes a job that he meets Smoke -- black to his white, and they become fast friends in a space and time where there is a racial "line that can't be crossed,"  a line Rick didn't know existed.  Smoke introduces him to the music of Jeff Williams, the bandleader at the Cotton Club -- not the Cotton Club, but the less famous one in Vernon, California south of Los Angeles.  At first the two boys would sit outside, and "let the music come to them" in the darkness of night, and it is here that  Rick's deep-seated passion music really began; the sound that he would try to recreate over the course of his short lifetime originated within the small confines of this little club whose clientele was "mostly negro with a light mixture of Mexicans and Filipinos."

 a scene of young Rick in "Young Man With a Horn," directed by Michael Curtiz, 1950

 Ultimately  taken in by this group of musicians  he considered musical geniuses and in some sense of the word, the family he never had, Rick learns how to play in earnest.  It was the rarity of the band's music, that beautiful, "pure thing put out fresh by the Cotton Club ensemble" that really grabbed hold of his soul and penetrated his psyche to the point where he came to know the band's playing style  "from the inside out."  Soon
  the fascination of making music was on him like a leech. He'd sit at the Cotton Club piano and practice until his fingernails ached from being sent the wrong way, and he'd play his trumpet until his lip crumpled up on him and shook miserably in the face of further discipline.
It takes Rick no time to realize that the tune is less important than the improvisations and the variations it inspires; even as a boy he had daydreams of the popular bandleader Paul Whiteman grooving on his talent for improvising and creating something new.  He held to this ideal even after his career started -- in Rick's mind, there was little meaning to be drawn from the dance music de jour to which the bandleaders pandered. Yet his passion and flair for improv and originality went unappreciated by his bosses who reminded him that he'd be "playing to our own kind of a crowd."   He came alive at quitting time however -- "after his good work was done, he did better work," hanging out with his friends and jamming, just playing for fun. It was in this space that he could let himself go and play for the sheer love of  music, here where he could feel that unbridled sense of being alive his music produced that little else could. Popular in his professional life, privately he "had a way of doing a thing, and ... a love of the thing so strong that he never in his life compromised it."  But when the real world intrudes, including a tempestuous marriage that further hones his drinking skills,  his drive for purity and perfection combine with his fondness for booze and eventually become the instruments of his downward slide.

Movie poster for "Young Man With a Horn," directed by Michael Curtiz, 1950

Thematically, the book touches on a number of issues: race, the question of art as opposed to commercialism;  jazz as a form of undefinable personal experience, expression and meaning; one's inner drive and the need to remain true to one's principles.

Baker writes at the outset that the inspiration for her book is "the music, but not the life, of a great musician, Leon (Bix) Beiderbecke." Rick Martin in  Young Man With a Horn is definitely not Bix Beiderbecke -- when Ken Burns' documentary Jazz re-aired a couple of years back I read Jean Pierre Lion's bio of Beiderbecke (Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend) and while there are a couple of similarities, Baker's book is not a borrowing of Beiderbecke's life made fiction. And I have to say that in 1938 the addition of  obviously lesbian characters was pretty gutsy.   It's also a shame that this book isn't as well known as the film that came out of it starring Kirk Douglas, Doris Day and Lauren Bacall.  It's an awesome film if you're into older movies, filled with great music if you're into old jazz,  but now that I've read the novel, it seems that the screenwriters took quite a few liberties in getting it to the big screen.

 Personally I just don't get why people don't seem very fond of this novel.  Okay, it's a bit melodramatic at the end, which comes rather quickly when maybe there might have been more buildup toward the last scene. At the same time, it's the journey through Rick Martin's short life and career in the first three books that drives this narrative as it leads up to Rick's final moments, as his love for music and his need for creative freedom take hold of him setting the stage for the direction his life will eventually take. By the time you get to the end, the final outcome should actually be of little surprise, considering the author's skill in framing Rick Martin's life up to that point. Young Man With a Horn is an appealing and compelling novel; I highly recommend it to anyone well rounded enough in their reading who can pull themselves away from the New York Times bestseller list or other currently popular novels to enjoy something from the past.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Collini Case, by Ferdinand von Schirach

Michael Joseph/Penguin, 2012
originally published as Der Fall Collini, 2011
translated by Anthea Bell
191 pp

"You are who you are."
Actually, I had posted my discussion of this book at the crime segments part of my reading journal, but as it turns out, The Collini Case turned out to be less of a novel of crime fiction than I had expected, so I'm reposting it here. Obviously it doesn't fit the category of American novels, but it's very much worth mentioning. 

Much like Pia Juul's The Murder of Halland, The Collini Case is a novel based on the commission of a crime yet it really isn't crime fiction per se. There is a murder, but the focus of this novel is more on what lies beneath the decision of a retired Mercedes-Benz toolmaker to walk into a man's hotel room, shoot him, and then brutally kick him -- breaking all of the bones in his head while grinding his shoe into the man's face.  While it's a novel, the book is really not meant to be entertaining; on the contrary, it is a story designed with a specific purpose in mind. If you're looking for the typical whodunit kind of read, pass on this one; it's not a staggering legal thriller, nor is it meant to be. 
In an interview at BBC Radio 4, Von Schirach notes that when he writes about crime, the whodunit is not important to him, but rather it is the motive behind criminal acts that he finds interesting.  This is certainly the case in his novel, where Fabrizio Collini, a long-time worker at Mercedes Benz,  makes an appointment with a wealthy industrialist at his hotel in Berlin. Posing as a journalist, Collini is welcomed into the man's room, where he promptly proceeds to put four bullets into the man's head, and repeatedly grind his shoe into the dead man's face. When the act is finished, he goes downstairs, asks the woman at the front desk to inform the police that the man in room 400 is dead, then quietly waits to be arrested.  It isn't long before he is taken into custody, but when his lawyer, Caspar Leinen, arrives, Collini provides only minimal answers. Yet he will not answer the crucial question as to why he killed the man.  Leinen, a new defense attorney, knows he's going to have his work cut out for him; but little does he understand the ramifications of taking on Collini's defense.  

The Collini Case is difficult to summarize without ruining it for prospective readers, but even in its spare, understated tone, this slow-paced story is powerful and gets to the thematic issue of guilt as determined by a person's circumstances. Also present throughout the story is the idea of justice in the present world where the past still has a strong foothold within a system that may have very well failed at its own mission.  While these themes are writ large, there's also a side trip into the reflections of one's own life in the light of revelations of  family secrets.  You may think as you read that you know what's coming down the pike, but trust me, that's not really the case.

Ferdinand von Schirach is himself a criminal attorney with a past not unlike that of some of the characters in The Collini Case.  While some readers found it "predictable," "pedestrian," and found that the core issue may have been better served in a pamphlet or magazine article, I have to disagree.  It is an all-too human story about the consequences that evolve out of fundamental wrongs within the system that somehow everyone overlooked, with devastating results all around.  I think people started into the book with expectations of a legal thriller and the fact that it came out to be something entirely different may have proved disappointing,  but that's certainly not the fault of the author.

While true blue mystery/crime fiction fans may not find what they're looking for in this book, to me it was an eye-opening story with a punch.  Perhaps a crime-fiction audience isn't the best market for this novel, but it's quite an engaging read that I finished in one sitting.  Now I'm going to pull out my copies of his other books Crime and Guilt which have been collecting dust on my shelves; I can't wait to read what else this man has written.  Definitely recommended.

*Evel Knievel Days, by Pauls Toutonghi

Crown Publishing, 2012
293 pp

"...Tolstoy was wrong.  Unhappy families are all alike. They're all alike in this moment -- in the pause before something happens, in the pause before someone reacts. And that pause: It can last seconds or minutes or days or months or years."

Family stories  normally just aren't my thing, but if they could all be written like Evel Knievel Days, I might be willing to give more of them a try.

Khosi Saqr is the half-Egyptian son of Akram and Amy.  Amy comes from the family of Butte's "copper king" William Andrews Clark.  Copper was the basis of the family money, but also the root of the family's ongoing curse. His mom suffers from Wilson's disease, a genetic disorder that makes it impossible for her to absorb copper. She's on a number of medications which she sometimes forgets to take, making her son feel unable to leave her alone, and her emotional life is for Khosi one of life's great mysteries. His dad left when Khosi was very young, leaving Amy with gambling debts, a three year old boy "copper as a penny," and "his country's food" which he'd taught Amy to cook.  Amy and Khosi live in a house he lovingly names "Loving Shambles,"  so called because it leans to one side, threatening to fall in.  All of the turmoil and disorder in Khosi's life has led him to develop a case of OCD, which manifests itself in various ways, including the way he orders his books, having to arrange the bed covers at certain angles, and opening his bedroom door twice waiting to leave the room before his mental "all clear" signal goes off.  Khosi works at  the Copper King Mansion, now a museum, formerly the home of his great-great grandfather; it's a place that offers him an outlet for his "legendary" need for order.  It's also a "part of his psyche," and a large part of who he is.

It isn't long until Khosi's well-ordered life moves into chaos and crisis; after giving it some thought Khosi decides that it's time that he reconnects with himself, part of which is his long-absent father.  As he notes:
"The past, the history of my family, is a strange and hybrid beast. On the one side: exhaustively documented. I live and work in its midst. But on the other side: nothing. No body, no clothes, no cane, no toupee, no set of dentures, no artifacts whatsoever. Only a vocabulary that vanishes as soon as it's fashioned into language. Only the vocabulary of exile and disappearance."

Like Evel Knievel, Khosi becomes a daredevil, taking a monumental jump in deciding  to leave Butte and fly to Cairo.  His  trip will bring with it many surprises and discoveries,  including a ghost who finds him in a confessional of a Coptic Christian church (there is an explanation for this later), being accused of antiquities theft, a run in with some shady characters, and a family he never knew he had.  For someone whose life revolves around order, Cairo proves to be something way beyond challenging. 

Evel Knievel Days not only charts Khosi's course in his efforts at reconnection; a long stream of history flows through this book as well as a crash course in different elements of Egyptian culture, none the least of which has to do with food, which serves as a "bridge to the past," but even more so to one's traditional roots.  There's a great line in this book that is so true:
"A flavor repeats itself generation after generation.  It becomes part of our blood. It becomes our most elemental joy. It becomes the language of our desire. it becomes the vocabulary of our satisfaction."
It will come as no surprise that the novel is filled with food, including Alice B. Toklas' recipe for Hashish crème brûlée.  Food is family, family is love and food and family have the power to heal.  It also discusses love and relationships, and some wonderful  musings about cities and of all things, very cool country and western music.

Evel Knievel Days is one of the coolest books I've read this year and the more I think about it, the more I realize just how very much I enjoyed it.  It's funny  in a touching sort of way; the characters are outstanding and I am in total awe at the author's ability to create such colorful yet realistic people. And I'm not just talking about the primary characters, either. Every character has a purpose; every character has a life.   And as much as I loved the story and the array of people in this book, it's really Mr. Toutonghi's writing style that brings this book alive. He does extremely clever things in this book that I loved.  For example,  in relating the history of Amy and Akram, rather than spill the entire thing at once, he breaks it up into parts, dropping it into the overall story in appropriate places. He entitles each part "The Life and Times of Akram Saqr and Amy Clark, My One and Only Parents, as Told by Me, My Mother's One and Only Son, Fruit of Her Womb, 100 Percent Maculate Conception," with subtitles appropriate to where we're at in the story.  There are also many dreams in this novel;  one of my favorites  is one where Khosi is a contestant in  a Jeopardy Game, where he runs all of the categories, wins all of the money, and then sees it all float away when final jeopardy pops up with the category "The Emotional Life of You and Your Family."  These unique touches and others add life to Khosi's story and make it pop off the page.  

There was only one spot I felt was kind of slow going in the book, and that is toward the end and takes place in a  hospital room, but otherwise, Evel Knievel Days just sings.  I highly, highly recommend this novel; it's definitely going on the shelf of 2012 favorites.  Truthfully, I loved it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

October Reading Roundup

Happiest of Halloweens -- it's freakin' freezing here in Florida, just the right kind of weather for curling up in a blanket and reading, which I plan to do after I finish here.

October was the month for American authors, and I did not get as far as I liked, so I'll be carrying that theme over into November to try to read more of the many books I've pulled off the shelves in this category.  So let's see what I managed to accomplish this month:

american fiction
The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers
City of Women, by David R. Gillham

--- (finished in September)
How the French Invented Love, by Marilyn Yalom

  crime fiction
--american writers--
Beast in View, by Margaret Millar (US)
The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett (US)
His Name Was Death, by Fredric Brown (US)

Lady of the Shades, by Darren Shan  (UK)

odd/weird fiction 
(although not from the US)
Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories, by M.R. James, ed. ST Joshi
(discussion soon)
Banquet For the Damned, by Adam LG Nevill

And now, the  other book-related stuff:
1) The book group read Kathleen Cambor's In Sunlight, In a Beautiful Garden, which produced a lively discussion where we decided that  "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."  I'm delighted to see that others in the group are starting to incorporate outside sources to support and make sense of what they've read; it adds another dimension to the discussion when they bring in their outside materials to share.

 2) Added to the Amazon wishlist this month:
The Secret of Evil, by Roberto Bolano
The Lower River, by Paul Theroux
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
Tycoonery: A Novel, by Roger Smith
The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community, by Miles Orvell

 3) Books bought this month (likely going on the tsukundo pile for a while)
Night in the City, by Gerald Kersh
The Boy Kings of Texas: A Memoir, by Domingo Martinez
The Big Book of Ghost Stories, ed. Otto Penzler (Vintage)
The Heart Broke In, by James Meek
Fobbit, by David Abrams
The Long Walk: The Story of War and the Life That Follows, by Brian Castner
The Forgiven, by Lawrence Osborn
Salvation of a Saint, by Keigo Higashino

4) Currently reading: 
Evel Knievel Days, by Pauls Toutonghi
Shoot the Piano Player, by David Goodis
Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner

****5) Books I'm giving away this month (sorry, to US readers only  -- free, I'll pay postage to whoever will give them a home)

1. for a very brave reader, Umbrella, by Will Self
2.  An ARC of Kevin Barry's new short story collection Dark Lies the Island (Barry wrote City of Bohane)
3. The Last Hundred Days, by Patrick McGuinness (last year's Booker Prize longlist)
4. The Folded Earth, by Anuradha Roy (duplicate in my collection)
5. The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng ( this year's Booker Prize shortlist; a duplicate -- this one is paperback edition)
6. The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, by Aimee Phan

(if you want one, some or even all of these books, be the first to leave a comment with the titles of the book(s) you want.)

 that's it. Later.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

*City of Women, by David R. Gillham

Amy Einhorn/Penguin, 2012
392 pp

Wartime Berlin, 1943,  is the setting for City of Women, author David Gillham's first novel.  It paints a realistic portrait of a city where  people are "slowly suffocating on the gritty effluence of another year of war." It's a place where individuals have become "a number on a pay book, on a booklet of rationing coupons, a face on an identity card." Gillham's Berlin is a claustrophobic city of paranoia, fear, and constant propaganda, of regular night-time bombing raids and food shortages where people live day to day and try to get by the best they can under the watchful eyes of whoever might be looking.  And living in this city is Sigrid Schröder, whose husband Kaspar is away at the Eastern Front where, despite propaganda to the contrary,  the Nazis are being overpowered and defeated by the Soviet army.

Sigrid plods through her daily life working as a stenographer in the patent office then going home to her apartment building and her mother-in-law at night.  Her days rarely vary except for visits to the theater, not to see the movies, but to go and think in the balcony in "the seat of her memory," the one in the last row up against the wall.  It is there that she thinks about Egon, with whom she earlier had an affair, one that has to remain secret not only because Sigrid is married, but also because Egon is a Jew.  As the story opens, Sigrid's reverie is interrupted when a young woman sitting next to her begs her to say that the two of them had come to the theater together.  It isn't long before the Sicherhietspolizei (Sipo, or security police) enter the balcony and demand papers from the two women.  As it turns out, Sigrid does know who the other woman is -- a "duty-year girl" named Ericha who is currently assigned to a family in Sigrid's apartment building.  Able to convince the Sipo that they had been at the theater together, the two leave; Sigrid, figuring that she's just saved Ericha, wants to know what's going on, but Ericha's not talking.  Intrigued, Sigrid makes it her business to find out just what Ericha is up to, and makes a discovery that will not only change her life, but will lead her into making choices that reinvent it as well.  Throughout the novel, wartime Berlin provides a backdrop of time and place against which the main story of  Sigrid, Ericha, and Egon plays out.

That's the main story in barebones outline, and oh my gosh, readers are going crazy over this book!  The reviews are phenomenal, with readers praising this novel that they're giving 4 and 5 stars.  City of Women was even the selection of the month for Book Passage's signed first editions club, which is where I got my copy.  Gillham's depiction of the city is so well evoked as is his realistic wartime setting and atmosphere; he also has some wonderful characters who have interesting and tension-filled lives.  So why wasn't I as much in love with it as most other readers?

As the author notes in an interview
"I originally thought I might write a novel with a completely female cast of characters, because I wanted to explore wartime from a feminine point of view. But that fell flat after a while. I needed the dramatic tension of the love affairs to keep the plot moving and the suspense tightened."
Well, frankly, for me his decision is a pity, really, because as it happens, his original concept would have made this book multiple times stronger than it turned out to be.   The love-affairs angle does keep the suspense going once the plotline takes the reader into already-familiar territory about  the efforts to aid in the escape of  some of the remaining Jews in the city, trying to stay ahead of the authorities at all times.  Why go there? The original idea of "wartime from a feminine point of view" would have added something  new to the table in terms of  historical fiction based on this time period, something much more interesting than the story of a bored hausfrau who sleeps around, thinks she falls in love, decides to do something different and worthwhile with her life and makes choices that turn out to be incredibly dangerous for her.  Hanging everything on the "dramatic tension of the love affairs" actually detracts from the story, especially a) because the sex is unnecessarily repeated multiple times to the point of boring, and b) the " love affairs" leave Sigrid actually depending on the men she's slept with to help her out when she needs it. Truthfully, she doesn't sound like a woman who discovers her own inner strength as she figures out what she will do, and the book sometimes tends toward chick lit set against the background of the Holocaust. 

As far as suspense, it seems to me that a story from the points of view of women in this city should be able to provide plenty of drama and tension on its own.  At the very least, this is Berlin in 1943 where people are being watched, or are themselves agents of the watchers; the bombing raids create tension and a fear of nothing to go home to when the all clear sounds.  There are other female characters in this novel whose stories, had they been considered and more developed in terms of the original idea of "wartime from a feminine point of view," would have made for much better reading and may have offered more of a look at  what these women might have actually gone through during this time. 

As I said, this book is highly regarded by a huge number of readers, so once again, I find myself swimming upstream against public opinion, and that's okay.  I think I'd recommend City of Women to people who like their historical fiction on the lighter side; this one has more of a beachy feel rather than a serious examination of  lives where "regiments of husbands, uncles, and brothers have been mobilized and Berlin has become a city of women."