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."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance, by Marilyn Yalom

Harper Perennial, 2012
400 pp
(arc -- my thanks to the publisher and to Trish at tlc book tours!)

TLC Book Tours

 "The French eroticize everything..."

Before you sit down with this book, do yourself a huge favor.  Along with your cup of tea or coffee (or perhaps in this case your café au lait) grab a notepad and a pen because you will find yourself wanting to write down and remember the huge list of titles mentioned in this delightful, insightful and entertaining book.

 As the author notes, the French have long been considered the most passionate "purveyors of love" and in How the French Invented Love, Marilyn Yalom examines how this idea came to be.   From the days of the early troubadours to modern-day movies, the book is  a 900-year journey through the construct of  "l'amour á la française."   It is a look at how the French have "championed themselves as guides to the art of love," incorporating into their works all of the traits Americans find titillating but which the author says we are "reluctant to admit as normal." Where we're much more focused on morality in love, the French have been drawn to erotic and sexual passion that over the course of time came to find different expression via the medium of  plays, letters, books, art, and  poetry.   Of course, while the French didn't actually invent the concept of love per se,  Ms. Yalom notes that they did spend nine centuries reinventing it in its many variations.  From Abélard and Héloise, the "Patron Saints" of lovers in France, the book winds its way through the invention of romance through Courtly Love, through Gallant Love, Comic and Tragic Love, Seductive and Sentimental  Love,  Oedipal "Yearning for the Mother," to name only a few.  Same-sex love is also highlighted as is love as viewed by the Romantic writers and beyond. While discussing each shift in thought, the author takes her readers through several authors whose works illustrate her main ideas, populating her book with famous writers such as Balzac, Stendahl, George Sand, Flaubert, Gide, Colette, and Proust, in whom the author finds an "ongoing source of beauty and truth...humor and insight."  As Yalom examines these writers and their contributions to the ongoing paradigm shifts, she also takes up discussions of some of their works but stops herself here and there,  so as not to spoil the book for  prospective readers.   Aside from gaining the benefits of the author's remarkable expertise in French literature and her analysis of how the French have historically carried on with romance, passion, sex and marriage, the author also inserts her own personal commentary here and there throughout the book.

As the author notes, to do a  "proper" job on the French history of love would require a minimum of ten volumes, so don't expect to find every French author's work in this book.  But  How the French Invented Love is a multifaceted, little gem of a book, very intelligently written and entertaining at the same time.   It's okay  if you know very little or absolutely nothing about French literature; it is extremely readable and written in a way that anyone can understand.  There is so much here that, as I noted right away, you will want to have pen and paper handy not so much for notes, but for titles that may strike your fancy as you're reading through the book.  What I really, REALLY enjoyed about this book is that the writer examines her topic and shares her love and passion for French literature as a reader.   While she is also a professor, you can really sense the great enthusiasm she has not just for the literature, but for France and its people as well.  I also liked the fact that the book  can also be read as a very brief social history of France from the heyday of the aristocracy, into the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, down through la belle époque and on into modern times. Along with the discussion of their works, the author also includes glimpses into the lives of several authors and how their real-life experiences often bled through into their writing. How the French Invented Love is just a super book all around.  It actually makes you stop and think about your own life and loves -- and whether or not we Americans may have really missed the boat as far as our hang-ups re morality over our passions, especially considering the debates over same-sex marriage.  Seriously,  why shouldn't people feel free to love and be with the people they're the most passionate about?  Maybe we should take a lesson from the French, especially in this case!

My only minor issue with this book  is that the  title is a bit of a misnomer.  I mean, really, the French didn't actually invent love, but constructed their own reinvented versions of  l'amour francaise over time.    This could be a bit misleading, but really, it's such a non-issue in the bigger scheme of things -- if you are at all inclined toward literature and especially toward love, you'll really enjoy this one.

 The tour continues: click here to find where the tour of this book goes next!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

announcing the longlist for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature:

Along with the longlist for the Man Asian Literary Prize (not yet, but soon), the novels on the DSC Prize longlist have provided me with long, continuous hours of excellence in reading.  These two prizes are my favorites in the literary world, but today the spotlight's on the DSC Prize, and the longlist has been announced. For more information, I refer you to the DSC Prize website, but here are the contending titles.  The ones highlighted in color are those I've already read. 
  1. Jamil Ahmad: The Wandering Falcon (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin India)

  2. Alice Albinia: Leela’s Book (Harvill Secker, London)

  3. Tahmima Anam: The Good Muslim (Penguin Books)

  4. Rahul Bhattacharya: The Sly Company of People Who Care (Picador, London / Farrar Strauss and Giroux, New York) -- already on this year's favorite books shelf

  5. Roopa Farooki: The Flying Man (Headline Review/ Hachette, London

  6. Musharraf Ali Farooqi: Between Clay and Dust (Aleph Book Company, India)

  7. Amitav Ghosh: River of Smoke (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin India) -- also on this year's favorite books shelf

  8. Niven Govinden: Black Bread White Beer (Fourth Estate/ Harper Collins India)

  9. Sunetra Gupta: So Good in Black (Clockroot Books, Massachusetts)

  10. Mohammed Hanif, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (Random House India)

  11. Jerry Pinto: Em and the Big Hoom (Aleph Book Company, India)

  12. Uday Prakash: The Walls of Delhi (Translated by Jason Grunebaum; UWA Publishing, W. Australia)

  13. Anuradha Roy: The Folded Earth (Hachette India)

  14. Saswati Sengupta: The Song Seekers (Zubaan, India)

  15. Geetanjali Shree: The Empty Space (Translated by Nivedita Menon; Harper Perennial/ Harper Collins India)

  16. Jeet Thayil: Narcopolis ( Faber and Faber, London) -- on this year's Man Booker Prize shortlist and on my shelf of favorite books for 2012. 

     I predict many well-spent hours of reading in my near future!  Congratulations to all of the authors and the publishers. 
update: all the unread books are now on their way to my house. Yay!

    *The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers

    Little, Brown and Company, 2012
    240 pp

     “You want to fall, that’s all. You think it can’t go on like that. It’s as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for a lack of will, but a lack of space. The possibility of another day stands in defiance of the laws of physics. And you can’t go back. So you want to fall, let go, give up, but you can’t. And every breath you take reminds you of that fact. So it goes.”

    From its powerful first sentence, "The war tried to kill us in the spring" to the last harrowing page of this novel, Kevin Powers offers his readers haunting images of the war in Iraq.   The battles, however, don't stop for army Private John Bartle just because he leaves Iraq; they continue long after his return home, where reminders of  loss and of his wartime trauma are everywhere.  Spanning a six-year period of time, moving back and forth between Iraq and the US (with a brief stint in Germany), the frame for this story is built on a promise Bartle made to the mother of a friend and fellow soldier named Daniel Murphy, that he'd bring him back home to her.  Even though he outwardly assures his sergeant that the promise wasn't a "big deal," and that "he was just trying to make her feel better," inwardly, Bartle takes it very seriously.  Reflecting back on not only his Iraq experience but what happened to him afterward, Bartle's story unfolds little by little, growing darker at each step.

    The Yellow Birds sets the reader squarely into Bartle's mind as the trauma of the war begins to slowly but steadily consume him. As the novel opens, Bartle, 21 and Murphy, 18, are on a rooftop in the Nineveh province town of Al Tafar.  Part of their time is spent obsessing over the numbers of fatalities, viewing each death as "an affirmation" of their own lives. They're  fixated on trying not to become casualty number 1000, a number they'd chosen because they couldn't think beyond it, not understanding at the time that "the list was limitless."  But the mortars, the IEDs, the body bombs, whizzing bullets and the general randomness of who dies and who lives eventually begin to take their respective tolls, especially on Murphy, who starts to become unhinged, little by little. Looking back on it, Bartle notes that he should have been able to see when Murphy had started moving toward the edge, thinking that if he
    "...could figure out where he had begun to slide down the curve of the bell that I could do something about it. But these are subtle shifts, and trying to distinguish them is like trying to measure the degrees of gray when evening comes.  It's impossible to identify the cause of anything and I began to see the war as a big joke, for how cruel it was, for how desperately I wanted to measure the particulars of Murph's strange new behavior and trace it back to one moment, to one cause, to one think I would not be guilty of." 
    In a flash of insight, however, Bartle realizes that the joke was on him as he realizes:
    " can you measure deviation if you don't know the mean? There was no center in the world. The curves of all our bells were cracked."

     What Bartle experiences in his slice of the Iraqi war remains with him as he returns home -- and here is the crux of this novel -- the lesser-known story of all wars, that of the survivors and their difficulty settling back down to a "normal" civilian life once they've made it home.

    Powers excels in detailing the psychological tolls of war. He's been to Iraq, so he would know about the randomness and unpredictability of daily life, the missions where the same ground is being taken and retaken, the contemptuous  commanders who wish them well and in the same breath remind them that they won't all be coming back, the constant lack of sleep, the pleasure of oblivion in a bottle of Wild Horse whiskey.  Bartle lives all of this experience, and can't wait to get home, but even there, his struggles continue as he tries to find some measure of peace in a place where even the noise of a train can be a frightening reminder, in a place where  he finds he has become unmoored, set adrift.  Well meaning friends, family and other acquaintances make Bartle feel like he's "being eaten from the inside out" when they offer him their thanks and appreciation; what they don't understand is that with each pat on the back he feels increasingly more wretched. Solitude becomes him;  in the dark corners of his mind,  Bartle retreats into a hellish state of mind:
     “You want to fall, that’s all. You think it can’t go on like that. It’s as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for a lack of will, but a lack of space. The possibility of another day stands in defiance of the laws of physics. And you can’t go back. So you want to fall, let go, give up, but you can’t. And every breath you take reminds you of that fact. So it goes.”
    Placing the reader into Bartle's troubled and very frail but altogether human psyche right away is a great move on the author's part, offering a keen sense of immediacy to the reader as the story unfolds.  Bartle's emotions become our emotions at some level, especially in his powerful stream-of-consciousness outpourings and his honesty, which at times just cuts through you like a knife.  His darkness is something we want him to escape but at the same time it is so acute that we can't help but to want to explore it further.  Powers' beautiful language often heightens these feelings, although truthfully, it often edges close to overpowering what's going on with the characters.  There are several places you want to engage more with  Bartle's troubled soul  less than you want to focus on the author's writing. 

    I am absolutely fascinated with war fiction, and I'm happy to see novels starting to come out of the Iraqi war experience.  If you're looking for an answer to the question of "what's it like over there?" well, you'll find some measure of the experience in The Yellow Birds, but even as the author takes his readers onto the rooftops and into the streets of Al Tafar and into the darkness hiding the unknown, he takes more of a minimal approach to the actual fighting, concentrating more on trauma -- both during and after the war.  Sometimes the language is overpowering and cluttered, as if Powers is just dying to give his work more of a poetic flavor, and you end up focusing on the language rather than what he's trying to convey underneath it. However, for the most part, The Yellow Birds is a well-written journey through one man's mind as he tries to battle his ghosts and find the will to continue.   Recommended.

    Thursday, October 11, 2012

    *Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

    307 pp
    Ecco, 2012
    hardcover ed.

    "Oh my people..."

    "This is what he truly envies of these people, the luxury of terror as a talking point..."

    Before I go anywhere else with this novel,  Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk has been announced as a finalist for the National Book Award.  After finishing this book, I'd say that being on this list comes as no surprise -- it is an outstanding novel, one that deserves its present and (I'm sure) future accolades.

    Set during the Bush era, the main character of this novel is Billy Lynn, a 19 year-old soldier currently serving in Iraq who accidentally becomes the face of the Iraqi war for a two-week period of time.  Unlike a number of novels set during wartime that examine the madness, absurdities, and ambiguities of military life at the front, here the author uses soldier Billy Lynn and his buddies to cast an analytical and ironic gaze on the American people at home. All of the action occurs on one Thanksgiving day at a Dallas Cowboys football game at Texas Stadium, and the story is delivered using Ben Fountain's cleverly-devised and impressive  "dense, rude, pummeling, in-your-face" sound that adds an extra dimension of reality to the novel. 

    Just two weeks away from his high-school graduation, Billy Lynn has to make a choice between a felony charge and joining the army after getting into trouble defending his sister's honor.   Over in Iraq, Billy's small group within the larger Bravo Company, where he is now an infantryman, encounters a group of insurgents on the banks of the Al-Ansakar Canal -- "a little kamikaze band of eight or ten bursting from the reeds at a dead sprint, screaming, firing on full automatic, one last rocks-off martyr’s gallop straight to the gates of the Muslim paradise."  When Billy's good friend Shroom is  hit, some of the insurgents start dragging him away. Billy runs out to save his friend, now gravely wounded:
    "Like a slide show, alive, dead, alive, dead, alive, dead.  Billy was doing about ten different things at once, unpacking his medical kit, jamming a fresh magazine into his rifle, talking to Shroom, slapping his face, yelling at him to stay awake, trying to track the direction of the incoming rounds and crouching low with absolute fuck-all for cover."
    While two men die in that engagement, Bravo comes through victorious, and all of the action is captured on video by an embedded Fox news team.  The footage went "viraling through the culture," and the next thing they know, this small group of soldiers, with Billy as the star hero,  are on their way home to do a Victory Tour, a two-week PR junket designed to boost morale and to bolster support for the war back in the US;  in reality, these soldiers are little more than celebrity pawns trotted out as heroes in a time when the government feels that America definitely needs them. Their time stateside is managed and micromanaged by their minders, who have to step in once in a while in case the Bravos say or do something which moves away from the positive image of the war and the military that they are there to project.  Along with these guys for the ride is a Hollywood producer who has been talking movie based on what happened at Al-Ansakar, along with his vague talk of  huge amounts of money for these men, cash that Billy (who makes less than $15 K per year) would put toward fixing his family's devastating financial problems.

    On the  last day of their tour,  the Bravos end up at Texas Stadium for a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game, where they are VIPs for the day. Before  the day is over this group of soldiers will be smiling and posing for the media, answering the same  pointless and shallow questions where their interviewers don't really want the truth of things. Over the last two weeks, Billy has come to the realization that most people, even well-meaning, conservative and patriotic Americans, are far removed from the truth of the war they supposedly support; even if he really wanted to tell them how it is, his minders are there to see that he doesn't.  The Bravos are taken to the exclusive Stadium Club where they eat dinner with millionaires who pay them lip service but don't really have a clue, later it's off to a round of shaking hands and schmoozing with the team's over-the-top owner, whose mind only works in dollars and cents, along with his family and  rich and influential friends. And all of this before the halftime show, a surreal military-themed event featuring Beyoncé, PTSD-triggering fireworks, and the pompom-shaking Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders; then afterwards a fight on the field that really brings on spectator cheering. What's real is Iraq; this is all craziness.

    For Billy in Iraq, it's all about  "the freaking randomness" that "wears on you,  the difference between life, death, and horrible injury sometimes as slight as stooping to tie your bootlace...";  now at home he is the reluctant hero, unsteady in this place where people who have absolutely no clue of what he goes through every day thank him for his service and wonder what it's like to kill someone. It's also where the rich and powerful war profiteers make small talk about  war but talk big about things like having lunch with George and Laura at the White House.  Billy realizes just how wide the gap is between these people and the guys for whom this constant reality of  "randomness" is a fact of life:
     “Americans, he says to himself, gazing around the room.  We are all Americans here...They are the ballers. They dress well, they practice the most advanced hygienes, they are conversant in the world of complex investments and fairly hum with the pleasures of good living—gourmet meals, fine wines, skill at games and sports, a working knowledge of the capitals of Europe. If they aren’t quite as flawlessly handsome as models or movie actors, they certainly possess the vitality and style of, say, the people in a Viagra advertisement. Special time with Bravo is just one of the multitude of pleasures available to them, and thinking about it makes Billy somewhat bitter. It's not that he's jealous so much as profoundly terrified. Dread of returning to Iraq equals the direst poverty, and that's how he feels right now, poor, like a shabby homeless kid suddenly thrust into the company of millionaires.  This is what he truly envies of these people, the luxury of terror as a talking point..."
    And it's not just in the Stadium Club or in the owner's suite where Billy senses that things are messed up. The entire day his mind floats between the constant reality of  life and death  Bravo faces regularly and the  "fakeness" going on all around him, which his fellow Americans seem to buy into wholeheartedly,
    "maybe because the nonstop sales job of American life has instilled in them exceptionally high thresholds for sham, puff, spin, bullshit, and outright lies, in other words for advertising in all its forms,"
    the artificiality of it all that Billy had never noticed before his time in combat.

    In  Iraq he has his buds watching his back all of the time; here he can't even get an Advil  to get rid of his headache.  Bravo's time at the stadium is just filled with ironic moments, for example, the massively-equipped football team that draws comparisons to how underprovisioned  the army soldiers are; the uninterested football stars who won't even look at the soldiers while signing their souvenir footballs;  the Jumbotron with its constant barrage of ads ("Maybe the game is just an ad for the ads") interspersed with the Bravo video as if the soldiers are just another commodity being sold and war is just another thing Americans absolutely need to have.  And then there's the BS-speaking, patronizing uber-rich oil guy living a "lucrative patriotic life" trying to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil by boosting domestic production to get "you young men home."  Justify away. But the craziest thing of all is that after the Victory Tour, Bravo has to return to Iraq.  After a whirlwind two weeks of being the media darlings and the poster boys for heroism, it's now godspeed and all that, goodbye, coffee break's over, back to work and back to anonymity.

    To be honest, the story is extremely slow to start and at first the language  feels a little gimmicky, but after getting past the first few chapters, it was much easier to fall into the author's rhythm and  I was hooked.  Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is funny and at times depressing, but it is also so on target.  In the author's hands, Billy Lynn and the Bravos become critics of a really crazy American culture that cares more about anything but the far-away war in Iraq where young soldiers like the Bravos are getting blown to bits.   Yellow ribbons, lip-service or well-intentioned thank yous, an "oh that's terrible" here and there, a booty-grinding military sendup at halftime are all fine and well, but then it's back to the business of business, who's making the headlines in the tabloids, and other American pastimes.   And then there's all  the hype behind and the whole PR business of  selling this war to an American public -- that's just insanity.  This book leaves you with several points to mull over long after you've finished it -- the mark of a truly good writer, in my opinion.  I'm sure that there will be plenty of people who don't like what the author has to say; in fact I know there will be, but I loved this book and although it's really impossible to fully discuss the whole thing  here, I can't speak highly enough about it.  Definitely recommended. 

    Wednesday, October 3, 2012

    The Teleportation Accident, by Ned Beauman

    Sceptre, 2012
    357  pp

    [rumor has it that this book will be published in the US by Bloomsbury USA, February, 2013.]

    The Teleportation Accident came out of the imagination of author Ned Beauman, whose first book, Boxer, Beetle (embarrassingly still sitting unread on a shelf in my British reading room),  was shortlisted for the 2011 Desmond Elliott Prize, as well as the 2010 Guardian First Book Award.  He is also currently working on a third novel, which, if it is as good and as well written as Teleportation Accident, should show up on some awards list somewhere in the future. It's definitely going on my "favorites of the year" shelf. 

    How to describe this book is a really tough undertaking.  The novel  literally transports the reader through space and time in cutting bursts of movement, through a dizzying slew of ideas and a wide range of topics, all with the central proposition of the Teleportation Device.   It may sound a little like anarchy, but for the most part it's all really quite carefully controlled by the author's ability to take these ideas and his characters and bring them together in artfully-constructed, cleverly-crafted chapters that take on their own momentum as the book speeds toward its four (!!) separate endings.  I took copious notes here and now, in reviewing them, I'm actually able to see just how truly clever this author is.  I really can't say why without giving away much of the show, but trust me on this one.

    Even providing a synopsis of this novel  is challenging.  The book opens in 1931 in Weimar Berlin, and begins by introducing its main character Egon Loeser as he's at work at the Little Allien Theater on a project called "Lavicini." He is a stage set designer, and his current work involves building a Teleportation Device for the play that will recreate the one built by the play's namesake, Adriano Lavicini, in the 17th century at a Paris theater. A terrible accident happened with Lavicini's original Teleportation Device, destroying a theater and killing several people in the aftermath, an event that Loeser becomes determined to understand. Loeser also believes that "politics is pigshit," and manages to remain staunchly apolitical despite what's going on all around him.  As an example, one night he passes by a university where a book burning is going on, and he thinks its an act of performance art  and joins in.  Loeser  fears "being at the bottom," achieving nothing and having only scorn for  those who "could make peace with failure."  He has a great disdain for all things American, except for a writer whose work he discovered by accident on a train to Cologne, Stent Mutton.  In fact, Loeser "yearned" to be Stent Mutton's unnamed narrator  -- who

     "seemed to find everyone and everything in the world pretty tiresome, and although he rarely bothered to dodge the women who threw themselves at him, the only true passion to which he was ever aroused was his ferocious loathing for the rich and those deferential to the rich."
     But most of all, Loeser liked the fact that Mutton's character "always, always, always knew what do. No dithering, no procrastination, no self-consciousness: just action."  

    Since the breakup with his girlfriend Marlene, he hasn't had sex, relying instead on his Parisian photo album called Midnight At the Nursing Academy.  At a party one night, where Berthold Brecht is supposed to make an appearance, Egon sees a beautiful young woman, who turns out to be a former poetry pupil of his, Adele Hitler ("no relation").  Ultimately, and ironically, this particular Hitler will drive Egon out of Germany, as he realizes that he has to have sex with her, believing that if he could just be with her once, "then everything would be all right." She becomes his obsession, sleeping with everyone but him, but within a few years she disappears from Berlin. The rest of the novel follows Loeser as he follows Adele's trail to Paris then makes his way to Los Angeles, paralleling in a bizarre sort of way the flight from Nazi Germany by other intellectuals, whom Heinrich Mann once called  "the best of Germany."   In Beauman's hands, however, the émigré experience becomes anything but typical.  Throughout his travels, Loeser becomes unwittingly involved with an American con artist in Paris, Communist spies, a ghost (or not) who leaves him little gifts,  a rich man who made his fortune in car wax who also suffers from a bizarre condition, a truly mad scientist and other delights.  Add in a few unsolved murders and a connection between HP Lovecraft and the US State Department, and you end up with a rich, funny and definitely unforgettable reading experience. And at the center of it all is the Teleportation Device, which Loeser seems to encounter in some form everywhere he goes.

    Part of the beauty of this novel is that Mr. Beauman does not confine himself to any  genre, taking aim at the conventions of literary realism and historical fiction while combining elements of both with sci-fi and horror throughout the book to come out with something very different -- a book that, as reviewer Simon Hammond says in August's issue of Literary Review (one of the online periodicals I subscribe to),  manages to "keep all the plates spinning, as the story dashes between years and continents with a large supporting cast."  While it's easy to dislike Loeser for being so blind, unfeeling and selfish,   you can't help but laugh at the stupid predicaments he finds himself in.  This book is absolutely hysterical, sadly, even when it probably shouldn't be.  But the real delight  here is really in how the author brings it all together -- although, of course, not in any sort of conventional way. With the Teleportation Device always taking center stage, many recurring ideas, people, themes and events crop up cunningly throughout each and every shift in time and place and continue on well into the future. The downside, from the casual reader perspective, is that there are just so many  literary and philosophical references, probably many I didn't get,  so once again, I have to leave the deeper meanings and the book's literary pedigree to the many readers much more so inclined than myself and to  the professional reviewers.  But having said that, I loved this novel and highly, highly recommend it. 

    *nonfiction: The Boys of '67: Charlie Company's War in Vietnam, by Andrew Wiest

    Osprey Publishing, 2012
    376 pp

    (ARC from the publisher -- Thank you!!!)

      ** full discussion of this book here** -- 

    I have been forever fascinated  with the Vietnam War -- most especially with the politics and behind-the-scene machinations behind America's involvement, but also with the growth and outright explosion of US opposition to the war, and the aftermath, as the soldiers came home, or did not.  But what really gets to me are the compelling stories of the people who were actually there.  The Boys of '67 briefly but powerfully examines the lives of a group of men from Charlie Company in the US Army's 9th Infantry Division -- from the time they received their greetings from Uncle Sam through their individual returns home and beyond.  It is a fine addition to the already-existing collection of personal histories of the war, focusing largely on the special bonds forged between these former strangers turned family throughout their year in Vietnam.

    October: *American authors

    photo from Juniper Books website

    With a few exceptions, this month's reading plan is to focus on books by American authors. The starting lineup includes San Miguel, by T.C. Boyle, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, and Absolution, by Patrick Flanery (yeah, yeah, I know he lives in London but he's still an American); others will follow once I raid my shelves.  They may not all be currently-published works, but American as apple pie all the same.  Stay tuned -- I'm determined to give away several books this month.