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!!