Sunday, September 30, 2012

September Reading Roundup

Where did September go? My plan of leisurely reading the Man Booker Prize longlist sort of fizzled this year for several reasons, and I didn't finish but that's okay.  I'll continue reading them anyway, hopefully finishing before the prize is actually announced.  I'm passing on Nicola Barker and the jury's still out with Will Self but right now I'm smack in the middle of The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman and absolutely loving it. It's one of those books where out of nowhere comes a huge laugh now and then.  I'm so in love with this book that when I have to put it down I get positively resentful.  Nancy to Larry: "Dinner? Really? Let's order takeout and you go get it while I finish this chapter."

Summarizing what I did manage to finish in September, I see the following:

The Booker Prize Longlist
The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore

 --- leaving unread so far Philida, by Andre Brink
                  Umbrella, by Will Self
                  The Yips by Nicola Barker, (I'm taking a pass here) 
 --- and halfway through The Teleportation Accident  by Ned Beauman (definitely more later on this one!)

other fiction
 Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

The Boys of '67: Charlie Company's War in Vietnam, by Andrew Wiest 
--- (very good book, no discussion yet due to time reasons, but coming in the next couple of days)

 crime fiction
odd/weird fiction 

 So that's it for September readingwise; here's the rest of the month's activities:

other book-related stuff:
1) The book group read The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson and we had one of the best discussions ever.  While many people had problems with the bleakness of this novel, generally we all loved the book. 

 2) Added to the Amazon wishlist this month:
The Hill Bachelors, by William Trevor
North, by Louis Ferdinand-Céline
Dance of the Seagull, by Andrea Camilleri

 3) Books bought this month (likely going on the tsukundo pile for a while)
The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith
Ripley's Game, by Patricia Highsmith
Ripley Underground, by Patricia Highsmith
Ripley Under Water, by Patricia Highsmith
The Boy who Followed Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith
Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs, by Ted Morgan
The Collini Case, by Ferdinand von Schirach
The Eye Collector, by Sebastian Fitzek
The Barcelona Brothers, by Carlos Zanon
Dr. Brinkley's Tower, by Robert Hough
Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe (preorder)
Shoot the Piano Player, by David Goodis

4) Currently reading: 
The Teleportation Accident, by Ned Beauman
Chalk Valley, by D.L. Johnstone 
Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner

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

1. Zoo Station, by David Downing (paper)
2. Trapeze, by Simon Mawrer  (paper)

(if you want one or both of these, be the first to leave a comment with the book(s) you want.)

that's I'm off to enjoy my Sunday!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

US release:
Weinstein, 2012
352 pp

First and foremost, I would like to thank Ed at Myrmidon for taking pity on me and sending me a copy of Garden of Evening Mists, and I'd like to thank Tan Twan Eng for emailing me and bucking up my spirits when all the pb shop nonsense was going on.   The edition pictured to the left is the US edition; I received the UK edition pictured below:

9781905802494, Myrmidon Books, 2012
I finished the book the week before last, but last week my house was in an uproar and just chaotic over the death of my best friend's mother, so I never got the chance to set down my thoughts about it. Life is starting to settle down again so here we go.

A few years back, Tan Twan Eng's novel The Gift of Rain was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and I remember thinking how very not cool it was  that it didn't go on to make the shortlist. That was the year that Anne Enright won for her The Gathering, which I didn't really care for; it was also the year I was introduced to the work of Mohsin Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and Lloyd Jones (Mister Pip), two authors whose novels I've really come to like.  When I read The Gift of Rain that year, I definitely hoped it wouldn't be the last I saw of its author, so this year I was happily surprised to see his newest on both the Booker longlist and then the shortlist. Frankly, I would have bought it anyway even if it had not made it as a judges' selection.

 As the story begins, Yun Ling Teoh has just retired as a judge on Kuala Lumpur's Supreme Court after serving for fourteen years.  The sole survivor of imprisonment in a Japanese camp at the age of nineteen, after the war was over she worked for a time with the War Crimes Tribunal, and she received her law degree before returning to Malaya to work as a Deputy Public Prosecutor.  Now she is making her way back to the mountain highlands after a long time away to the home bequeathed to her by a once former gardener to the Japanese emperor, Nakamura Aritomo.  The home and its surrounding gardens are called  Yugiri -- "Evening Mists."  She is there to meet with an historian who is interested in Aritomo's woodblock prints and other works of art, but she also has plans to fully restore the Garden of Evening Mists.  Yun Ling is suffering from oncoming aphasia, which will eventually wipe out her memories.  As she notes,
"I have become a collapsing star, pulling everything around it, even the light, into an ever-expanding void. Once I lose all ability to communicate with the world outside myself, nothing will be left but what I remember. My memories will be like a sandbar, cut off from the shore by the incoming tide. In time they will become submerged, inaccessible to me. The prospect terrifies me. For what is a person without memories? A ghost, trapped between worlds, without an identity, with no future, no past.”
When she relays her fears to a long-time friend, he convinces her that she should write down everything, and so she begins to record all of her memories.  Her story begins in her twenties, when she makes her way to Aritomo, who lives next to the tea plantation owned by friends of Yun Ling's family.  She has come to ask Aritomo  to fulfill her now-dead sister's dream and create a garden dedicated to her memory, but Aritomo refuses. Instead, he  makes Yun Ling an unprecedented offer: he will take her on as apprentice until the return of the monsoon.  Despite her ongoing, intense hatred for the Japanese, the beauty of Aritomo's work at Yugiri leads her to accepts his offer.  While she works with Aritomo, they slowly begin to discover that despite their differences, they have a great deal  in common other than gardens.  Her account of the past winds its way through the Japanese occupation of Malaya which led to Yun Ling's imprisonment in a Japanese prison camp, the sister she left behind, the ongoing hope of nationalists for the country's independence from the British, and  the communists who are attacking plantation owners during the Malayan Emergency. It all adds up to an unforgettable story of  two very different people who have carried their ghosts around with them for years -- and what they discover about themselves and each other in the Garden of Evening Mists.  It is also a story about memory and forgetting, loss, guilt and survival.

There is so much to love about this book, especially  in Tan Twan Eng's descriptions.    As Yun Ling explores the garden, she discovers Aritomo's focus on the ancient art of "Shakkei," or "borrowed scenery," and the reader is right there along with her. Through the author's descriptions, the reader, like Yun Ling and other visitors to Yugiri, is invited to stop at different points of the garden to appreciate the perfect framing of the sea or the turning of a waterwheel, or even to ponder the distance between stones.

Kyoto garden which "borrows" Mt. Hiei in the background.
  But it's not just in Aritomo's garden where the richness of place comes alive -- the jungles, the tea plantations, the beautiful homes with their wide verandahs, the villages, even the  prison camp hidden somewhere in the mountains  -- the author makes them all real so that at times it's easy to imagine hearing the sound of birds or to feel the lush grass beneath your feet.

The characters are also carefully constructed.  The pasts surrounding Yun Ling and Aritomo are uncovered little by little, creating an aura of mystery around their characters. But there is also something to love about what is not in this story: there is never any sort of apology from Aritomo to Yun Ling regarding the abuses she and her sister suffered at the hands of the Japanese; and it is clear from the outset that there has never been any kind of forgiveness from Yun Ling.  There is also no perfection in the characters; instead they are shown to be human with their flaws and vulnerabilities, even as the reader follows them throughout their individual transformations.

There are many reviews of this novel that point to a number of formulaic similarities between this book and The Gift of Rain -- and there might be a little something to this idea, and there are places where the book gets fluffy in terms of writing style, but in the end it just doesn't matter. I'll leave the critiques of mechanics, style, and other elements to the experts, but from a casual reader's perspective,  Garden of Evening Mists is an elegant book with an incredible woman at its center. It is certainly the most emotionally powerful of the books (read so far) on this year's Booker Prize shortlist, but whether it wins or not, it is definitely one not to miss. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

480 pp
(review copy from the publisher -- thank you; thanks also to Trish at TLC book tours)

Telegraph Avenue, to borrow a phrase from one of its characters, is for the most part "straight-up bangin'."  The book is  filled with an ongoing medley of pop culture incorporating  movies, music, and television of the past, offering its readers some  funny & insightful observations on parenting along with other thematic issues -- community,  nostalgia,  race & class, and the realities of the encroachment of big business and progress into the world of a city's neighborhood. It is definitely the characters who really drive this novel, which is good but often gets carried away in the prose.

The story centers around Brokeland Records, a store on Telegraph Avenue (a border between Oakland and Berkeley),  which one of the owners sees as a "church of vinyl."  The store is "nearly the last of its kind, Ishi, Chingachgook, Martha the passenger pigeon, " and used to be a neighborhood barbershop where for years people would hang out and shoot the breeze.  The Oakland side of the avenue has seen better times, especially the area about two blocks away from Brokeland at 41st and Telegraph. It is there where Gibson "G Bad" Goode, the "fifth richest black man in America,"  former pro quarterback, now head of Dogpile Recordings and Dogpile Films,  is planning to build his  "Thang," a
"ten-screen cineplex, a food court, a gaming arcade, and a twenty-unit retail galleria anchored by a three-story Dogpile media store, one floor each for music, video, and other (books mostly)," and would "carry a solid-general interest selection of media but specialize in African-American culture...," a "full selection of used and rare merchandise, such as vintage vinyl recordings of jazz, funk, blues and soul."
Gibson's megacomplex is a nightmare for Brokeland Records' owners Nat and Archy, who see the handwriting on the wall as the Thang's groundbreaking is scheduled to be begin in just a month's time.  Things are already bad for the pair.  They're behind on the store's rent, cash flow issues prevent them from acquiring  better inventory, and gloomy Nat  is reluctant to move forward with any of Archy's more modern ideas such as adding an espresso machine. He refuses to make any changes, as if he and Archy were "guardians of some ancient greatness that must never be tainted or altered."  Hope lodged in their local councilman, Chan Flowers ("a model of probity....a good dose of gangster to the hat to let you know the councilman played his politics old-school, with a shovel in the dark of the moon ... a touch of Tombstone, of Gothic western undertaker...") to block Goode's plans in the neighborhood seems to have now been misplaced, leading Nat to worry about having to sell his blood plasma, one of his greatest fears.  

But the fate of Brokeland isn't the only thing on their minds.  Archy is on the edge of fatherhood with very pregnant wife Gwen, but he's unprepared, negligent, and prone to playing around.  His father Luther (former blaxploitation/kung fu film star) has resurfaced after a long absence and to make matters even worse,  Archy finds himself with a teenage son named Titus he fathered some years ago.  Nat's got his own issues as well, namely his temper and his relationship with his son Julius, who just happens to be infatuated with Titus.  Gwen and Nat's wife Aviva are midwives with their own practice,  and it isn't long before they have a serious mishap with one of their clients, the result of which ultimately may  threaten to break up their partnership.  On top of all of this craziness, someone is looking for Luther, involving Archy in his father's life, a place he does not want to be. 

Telegraph Avenue hits the nostalgia theme hard, epitomized in the neighborhood record store,  a place "full of time-wasting, senseless, lying, boastful male conversation for going on sixty years, at least."   Even the future site of the hated Dogpile Thang has poignant memories for Archy, the site of the Golden State Market where as a kid, he used to steal "all kinds of tasty and desirable items."  As he walks the avenue, "...tired of being a holdout, a sole survivor, the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late-modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat,"  he makes his way to Neldam's bakery, another business "slated to close its doors,"  where
"The cakes and cookies ... were not first-rate, but they had an old-fashioned sincerity, a humble brand of fabulousness, that touched Archy in this time where everything good in life was either synthesized in transgenic cyborg vats or shade-grown in small batches by a Buddhist collective of blind ex-Carmelite Wiccans."
But ultimately, as Archy and the other characters discover, life does go on -- with some accommodations.

There are a number of things to like about Telegraph Avenue, but what really stands out here are the characters,  from Archy to an attorney who only takes on whales as a client, or a Berkeley woman planning to give birth on top of a shower curtain covered with Frida Kahlo’s face.  I’ll admit that although I  had some qualms about a white man giving voice to African-American people in his novel, Chabon handles everything so well in this area that sometimes I couldn't tell who was black and who wasn't.  One of my favorite pieces in this book was the secret history involving Pullman porters -- very well done.   

My main issue, and really my only major problem with the book  is that   I just don’t get why the author feels that he has to be oh so clever here in terms of writing.  There are a number of places in this novel where a single sentence can go off on so many tangents that you have to go back to the beginning of it to recapture the main thrust.  Not only is this incredibly frustrating at times, some times it got boring, and I found myself wanting to skim, never a good thing.  At the same time, I actually liked the chapter where a bird’s-eye-view encompassed everything that was happening with all of the characters all at once in a single sentence that lasts for several pages.  That part was written extremely well, which I found amazing, because I’m normally not a stream-of-consciousness kind of person.    So, from a casual reader’s perspective, I'm sort of torn in my reaction to this book.  It  can get windy (with a long i) and overly wordy, suffering sometimes from overactive and overstated prose. At the same time, that very writing is what created the amazing characters  and some really funny and poignant scenes, for example, a funeral where  the deceased is buried in an Aztec-themed jumpsuit with a lesbian marching band also dressed in jumpsuits, walking down the avenue playing hymns.   

Not everyone is going to love this book, but overall,  I liked it, and would recommend it  to very patient readers who don’t mind a lot of overstated prose in places. There is definitely a buzz that permeates this book -- often making me laugh, keeping my interest at a high level wanting to know how the Brokeland community was going to fare.

Many thanks to Trish at TLC book tours; you can find the rest of Telegraph Avenue’s tour stops here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

the Booker Prize shortlist is announced!

 here it is -- the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2012

Twan Eng -- Garden of Evening Mists -- (Myrmidon Books)

 Deborah Levy -- Swimming Home-- (And Other Stories)

Hilary Mantel -- Bring up the Bodies -- (Fourth Estate)

Alison Moore -- The Lighthouse -- (Salt)

 Will Self -- Umbrella -- (Bloomsbury)

 Jeet Thayil -- Narcopolis  -- (Faber & Faber)

At this point, I've got only Umbrella left to read of the six. Does anyone have any comments about what wasn't listed?

Not that they'll read this, but congratulations to the authors and  to the publishers!

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore

Salt Publishing, 2012 (UK)
available in US on Kindle
182 pp

And Futh, looking at the lighthouse, wondered how this could happen -- how there could be this constant warning of danger, the taking of all these precautions, and yet there was all this wreckage.”

Now here’s a book I really, really like, maybe the best on the longlist that I’ve read so far. I’m not even going to wait until the end of my discussion on this novel to say that I HIGHLY recommend it -- it is so quiet and understated yet delivers a huge wallop that I hope lands it a place on the shortlist. Of course, tomorrow will bring the news of which books go through and which don’t, but if you’replanning to read only the shortlist and this one doesn’t make it, I’d advise getting a copy anyway.  It is that good.

A ferry crossing the North Sea is the setting for the opening scene of this novel.  Futh (no first name ever given) is on his way to Germany for a summer holiday, preferring to stand outside on deck  in the rough weather.  Back in England, he works for a company that manufactures synthetic smells; he and his wife Angela have also recently separated.  After his vacation he will have only an empty apartment to return to, filled with a few boxes of his things and some furniture, but not much else. 

In a small hotel in Hellhaus (which translates as “bright house,” or “light house”), near Koblenz, the proprietor’s wife Ester is having her first drink of the day, the one she likes just after finishing cleaning the downstairs rooms.  The hotel is empty, except for one customer there for  breakfast; she leads him upstairs to one of the uncleaned rooms.  Afterwards, she goes back to the cleaning cart in the hall as her husband Bernard comes looking for her to return the gloves she’d left at the bar -- he watches her for a while before he goes back downstairs.  She’s expecting a honeymooning couple and Futh that day; when he arrives, later than expected, he heads for his room and a shower while Ester brings his dinner upstairs.  In combing through his suitcase she finds little to get excited over until she comes to a silver lighthouse,
 “about ten centimetres tall and three or four in diameter,” with a “four-sided tower and a lantern room with tiny storm panes and a domed top. In relief on one side it says “DRALLE,” the name of an old Hamburg perfumery.”
As the noise of the shower ends, Ester tosses the lighthouse back onto Futh’s clothes and starts to leave, changing her mind midstream, turning back toward it.  Futh, however, is moving toward the bathroom door, and she leaves.  She is noticed by the ever-present Bernard, and later,
“In the night, there will be a storm. it will be brief, if a little violent, and hardly anyone will even realise it has occurred, although they might hear it raging, thundering in their dreams.”
In the morning, hoping for breakfast, Futh runs into Bernard, who tells him he should leave.  Thus begins Futh’s first full day of his walking vacation, a time filled with thoughts about Angela -- how they met, got together, married and failed; as well as his life growing up alone with his father.  But time and again his thoughts give way to the mother who abandoned him when he was a very young boy, after the family had returned from a vacation in Cornwall.  The lighthouse perfume case Futh carries in his pocket was his mother’s, originally filled with lilac scent. 

The Lighthouse has a very symmetrical structure and there is also a matching and beautiful balance of symbolism  moving back and forth between the stories of  Ester and Futh up through his last vacation day, when his trip will circle him back to Hellhaus before he is to reboard the ferry to take him home.  Scents abound in olefactory reminders of the past;  the lighthouse is a constant factor throughout the story, sadly not so much of a  symbol of safety but of wreckage.   The book is filled with haunting notes of loneliness, darkness and isolation; it’s not a happy story at all.   Futh is a tragic figure -- naive, childish, awkward -- almost as if his life stopped the day his mother left.

I can’t begin to say what an incredible book this is; I loved it so much I bought extra copies to share with friends and I’m adding it to the book group’s reading list this year.  I got so lost in this book that any interruption was unwelcome; I read it in one sitting and sat thinking about it for hours afterwards.  From the casual reader perspective, in contrast to some novels I’ve recently read, The Lighthouse is understated but powerful, making the point that an author doesn’t need to engage in being oh so clever to write a wonderful book.  The symbolism abounds in this novel but not in a boggy way so as to frustrate the reader.  The only negative thing I have to say about this novel is that its ending comes so quickly; at the same time it is not at all unexpected. 

If you aren’t into haunting or tragic then this probably isn’t the book for you, but I LOVED this novel -- I hope it does well in terms of sales even if it doesn’t make to this year’s Booker Prize shortlist. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

August Reading Roundup

The Booker Prize Longlist is quickly losing its fascination as a personal reading challenge.  Really,  I have so many other books I really want to read that the longlist is seeming like a chore. Next year I'm going to do things differently, I think.  Then there are all of the pre-orders, especially the NYRB classics edition of  Young Man With a Horn, by Dorothy Baker -- for that one I'll drop everything and read it the minute it hits my mailbox. And I seriously miss the crime fiction!  

Here's how things shook out this month:

crime fiction  
No Sale, by Patrick Conrad 
The Minotaur's Head, by Marek Krajewski
odd/weird fiction 
 A Book of Horrors, (ed.) Stephen Jones (read, not yet discussed)

The Good Muslim, by Tahmima Anam
Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy
Communion Town, by Sam Thompson
The Devil in Silver, by Victor LaValle (read, not yet discussed)


other book-related stuff:
1) The book group starts again at the end of this month with The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson

 2) Added to the Amazon wishlist this month:
God Carlos, by Anthony C. Winkler
The Eyes of Lira Kazan, by Eva Joly
Limousine, by Patrick Conrad
Tropic Moon, by Georges Simenon
Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, by Georges Simenon
Butterfield 8, by John O'Hara
The Stammering Century, by Gilbert Seldes

 3) Books bought this month (likely going on the tsukundo pile for a while)
Seven Houses in France, by Bernardo Atxaga
All the Stories of Muriel Spark, by Muriel Spark
Generation Loss, by Elizabeth Hand
The Crime of Julian Wells, by Thomas H. Cook
The Wettest Country in the World, by Matt Bondurant
Vertigo, by Ahmed Mourad
The Hashish Waiter, by Khairy Shalaby
Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson
Harmattan, by Gavin Weston
Pacazo, by Roy Kesey 
The Discovery of America by the Turks, by Jorge Amado
The Tyrant by Jacques Chessex

4) Currently reading: 
Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon
The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore
A Private Venus, by Giorgio Scerbanenco

****5) Book on offer for US readers (free, I'll pay postage)
The Greatcoat  by Helen Dunmore  -- just be the first to leave a comment that you want it and it's yours. It's a ghost story, not available in the US yet

that's everything, I believe...I have soooo much reading to do!