Thursday, January 30, 2014

January reading roundup

It's the end of the month (or at least it will be tomorrow) and time for a recap of January's reading.  It's been a  good month, and while I didn't come close to getting through all of the books I wanted to, the books I read (for the most part) made me happy, so that's what counts.  I've decided that I'm not even going to try to come up with a reading list each month any more -- I tend to get very frustrated when I veer off target or don't get to the books I intended to read.  Stress is something I'm trying to do away with so why worry about something that in the long run is just not a big deal?

on we go.

The reading lists are as follows:    

Oyster, by Janette Turner Hospital

Andrew's Brain, by E.L. Doctorow (discussion coming shortly, but let me say that when all is said and done, this is a fine book)

Foreign Gods, Inc. , by Okey Ndibe

Gold, Frankincense and Dust, by Valerio Varesi (Italy)
The Dark Angel, by Dominique Sylvain (France)
The Cabinetmaker, by Alan Jones (Scotland)
Pilgrim Soul, by Gordon Ferris (Scotland)

weird fiction/horror/fantasy/sci-fi
Hive, by Tim Curran
The Spawning, by Tim Curran

Now, the usual book stuff:

1) ** Books I'm giving away this month -- for US readers only. I pay postage, be the first to leave a comment to let me know which book you want (or books). 
Dave Eggers  The Circle
Jane Gardam  Crusoe's Daughter

**Please follow up with an email to me ( with an address. No email, no book. Sorry.    --  

 2) Added to the  wishlist this month:
 crime fiction:
  The Case of the Sharaku Murders, by Katsuhiko Takahashi
Moon in a Dead Eye, by Pascal Garnier
The Good Suicides, by Antonio Hill

 general fiction/literature:
Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am, by Kjersti A. Skomsvold

the weird, the strange, supernatural etc:
nothing here

America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, by Hugh Wilford

3) Books bought this month:

  • The Madonna on the Moon, by Rolf Bauerdick (crime fiction)
  • The Frozen Dead, by Bernard Minier (crime fiction)
  • Mapuche, by Caryl Ferey (crime fiction)
  • On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee (science fiction)
  •  The Blue Angel, by Heinrich Mann (translated fiction/literature)
  • The Late Mattia Pascal, by Luigi Pirandello (translated fiction/literature)
  • Dust, by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (African fiction/literature) 

4) Indiespensable and Book Passage Signed First Edition books for this month (in that order):
Orfeo, by Richard Powers
Radiance of Tomorrow, by Ishmael Beah

5The book group read: The Circle, by Dave Eggers. We all thought it was not the best book in the world, but we did have fun talking about the ideas presented by the author.

6) Currently reading:
 The Shock of the Fall, by Nathan Filer
The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

So that's it -- now it's back to the bookshelves and trying to find time to read.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

a delightfully new quirky crime series, starting with The Dark Angel, by Dominique Sylvain

MacLehose Press, 2014
276 pp

originally published as Passage du D├ęsir, 2004
translated by Nick Caistor


If like myself, you are tending to tire of Scandinavian crime and want something new and quirky in your translated crime fiction, then you may want to check out The Dark Angel, by Dominique Sylvain.  It's not yet available in the US, but there's always Amazon UK or The Book Depository. 

There's something to be said for a crime novel where one of the lead characters is a kind of crusty, overweight middle-aged woman who smokes and wears a hideous bathrobe when she's hanging out at home doing jigsaw puzzles.  The Dark Angel is the introduction to a series (I think/hope) featuring retired Commissaire of the Paris police department Lola Jost and her very worldly, beautiful and American masseuse crime-solving partner Ingrid Diesel.  While the mystery is pretty good, these two characters, most especially Lola, steal the show in this book.  If for no other reason, you should read this book on the basis of Lola's character alone.  Whenever she wasn't in the picture, I was eagerly awaiting her return.  It's a murder mystery but it's the characters that make this book work well -- so darn quirky you can't get enough. 

You can read what I think about this one at the crime page of this blog -- trust me. This Scandinavian crime stuff is getting old. Take a detour to France.  You'll really like it.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Monster porn. Seriously?

Yesterday I was reading around the internet and an article popped up somewhere about a stay-at-home mom who made quite a bit of cash writing "monster porn" -- not just one book, but an entire series about "Monster sex"  -- Monster Menage, I think it's called. Hmmm.   Number one in the series:  Cum for Bigfoot, about a group of  teens on a hiking trip who end up getting ravished by a Sasquatch because its mother wants to repopulate its race.   The bigfoot monster even has a name: Leonard.  While I'd like to think I'm not surprised at anything any more,   I checked out some of the  reader reviews , one of which led me to this blogger , who wrote that

".this was the hottest erotic I've ever read, that until my boyfriend gets leave, I've cut myself off from erotics completely. My panties were just dying to be ripped off by my man and....and I'm sure you know what I was hoping for haha..."

Whatever.   More surprising to me were the one-stars where the readers complained mostly about the poor grammar. 

I mean, whatever floats your boat, and hats off to the writers who've come up with this stuff for figuring a way to make money at home, but I don't think I'll be including any of these titles on the upcoming book group lists any time shortly. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

simply superb: The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI, by Betty Medsger

Knopf, 2014
596 pp


 "There are certain points in history where a society goes so wrong, and there are certain people who will say, 'I won't stand for that...I will risk career, life, limb, family, freedom...And I will take this risk, and I will go and do it.' "
                                                                   -- David Kairys (538)

A couple of weeks ago in between airplane changes I caught a brief glimpse of a TV  interview of some sort and heard the words "FBI office," "70s" and "burglary," and I mentally promised myself I'd check on whatever that might have been when I had some free time.  When I finally got the chance, I put those exact words into google and came up with The Burglary, by Betty Medsger.  Looking at the synopsis, I knew I absolutely had to read this book.  Now that I've finished it, I'm recommending it to everyone.  It's that good. And, with the exposure of the NSA's surveillance on ordinary American citizens that's been on people's minds lately, it's also appropriately timely.

It's not that  J. Edgar Hoover's abuses of power have been a secret up until the publication of this book; au contraire: there have been several  very good books published by credible authors on just how far reaching those abuses have been, as well as a number of documentaries about the same.  However, if you're thinking that this is just another book out to trash J.Edgar Hoover, so why bother, think again.  Ms. Medsger  starts her work from an entirely different place.  Her focus is on how the burglary of the files from a small FBI station in Media, Pennsylvania committed by a small group of nonviolent, antiwar activists led to the "opening of the door"  of J. Edgar Hoover's "Secret FBI."   It was through the theft and then publication of most of these files (the ones containing ongoing "real" criminal investigations were not publicized)  that the public got its first glimpse of how Hoover and his agents were actively violating the constitutional rights of American citizens through surveillance, "dirty tricks," and other less than above-board measures.  These files revealed that

"...there were two FBIs -- the public FBI Americans revered as their protector from crime, arbiter of values, and defender of citizens' liberties, and the Secret FBI.  This FBI...usurped citizens' liberties, treated black citizens as if they were a danger to society, and used deception, disinformation and violence as tools to harass, damage, and -- most important -- silence people whose political opinions the director opposed,"
and revealed an FBI that was "obsessed with monitoring what seemed to be, in many cases, lawful dissent." The publication of the information discovered in these files, aside from revealing a "government agency, once the object of universal respect and awe," that had for years been "reaching out with tentacles to get a grasp on, or lead into, virtually every part of American society," also became the catalyst for the first-ever real investigation into the activities of the Bureau and more pointedly, those of its Director; the revelation of just what the FBI with its squeaky-clean image was really up to also started the first national dialogue regarding the fine line between domestic intelligence vs. civil liberties  in the context of a free and democratic society.

If you're at all interested, you can find the  full thrust of what I have to say about this book here on the nonfiction page of my reading journal; if you don't want to read the long version, just hear me out on this point: it's a book that despite its nearly 600 pages, reads extremely quickly and packs a big wham! throughout.  It's also one I HIGHLY recommend.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Out of Print: not books, but clothes

A week ago today I was in Los Angeles with family, and we went down to Little Tokyo to get Udon, probably my favorite food in the universe.  We ate at a cool restaurant there called Monzo, a small noodle shop, then walked around to sort of walk off the carbs.  While we're looking at the little shops in the main plaza there, I came across a little store where outside there was a rack of t-shirts made up of book covers.  I bought the 1984 shirt (shown here draped on my family room sofa):

but there was a huge choice of other tees (sweatshirts and totes too) that I plan to revisit in the near future.  Out of Print has a website in case you're  interested in what other goodies this company has.  The tag looks like a library sign-out card, you know -- the ones in the little envelope thingie.  I'm generally not big on product advertising, but this one might be fun for book/reading lovers. 

check it out. And if you're ever in Little Tokyo, try Monzo -- it's to die for.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, by Stanley Crouch

Harper, 2013
365 pp


"What he gave the horn, it gave back. What it gave him, he never forgot."

The ultimate reading day for me includes the following: rain (which we get a lot of down here in the south), a cup or two or three of strong black coffee (no pods -- I love freshly ground) and most importantly, the jazz music playing in the background.  One of my favorite musicians is Charlie Parker, about whom this book was written.  I have been wanting to read a biography about Parker for a long time; when Kansas City Lightning was published last year, I scooped it up.  But here's the thing:  this is less of a biography than I thought it would be.  At first I was disappointed, but I kept flipping back to the book cover with its subtitle "The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker," and came to terms with the fact that a standard biography was not the author's intention.  I say that up front so that if you start reading and Parker disappears for long periods of book space, don't despair and keep going. The end product as a whole is informative and frankly, quite a ride, one not solely for the jazz lover.  It also speaks to African-American culture of the time, and expands out into a look at  blues, swing and jazz in the context of a wider American culture.

You can read more about this book here at my  nonfiction page if you're at all interested; for the jazz lover it is a definitely no-miss.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe

Soho, 2014
336 pp

arc from the publisher -- thank you!

New this month, Foreign Gods, Inc. is definitely an original.  The premise is very different, the writing is first class, and frankly, even the ending is unlike anything I've ever seen before.  It's the story of one African immigrant for whom the dream has become a veritable nightmare -- and the unorthodox way in which he tries to remedy things for himself.  

Ikechukwu "Ike" Uzandu  (pronounced "Ee-kay") has been in New York for thirteen years.  Coming here from Nigeria, he earned a degree (cum laude) in economics from Amherst College, which he thought would be his ticket to a prosperous life.  Where once he used to believe that "America offers great opportunities,"  during a job interview at a prestigious firm,  he is basically told that the company would love to have him, but his accent is too strong so he won't be getting a job there.  Two job interviews later, where he was also well qualified but without proper authorization to work in the US, he married Bernita, aka Queen B, but quickly learned that
" a man chasing simultaneously after love and a green card had to contend with the elusiveness of the ideal spouse." 
His marriage, one he'd never revealed to his mother, didn't last long -- Bernita had demands for his money that didn't quit, and because he tried to keep her satisfied,  quickly ran out of money to send home to his family.  Constant fighting, his own mental emasculation and her constant demands for cash to fill her closets lead Ike into gambling a year after moving to New York City, but this "brings him only sorrow."  Bernita eventually leaves, taking Ike's savings with her. Now, as the novel opens, Ike has hit on a way to make some desperately needed cash -- his plan is to return to his Nigerian home, steal the local war deity named Ngene, for whom his uncle is the chief priest.  He'd read an article about a gallery some time earlier called Foreign Gods., Inc, a place where people traded in deities.  At first, "the idea of a few wealthy individuals buying so-called foreign gods and sacred objects didn't sit well," and the  "sport" was the "height of arrogance." However, his  friend put the idea of stealing Ngene into Ike's head saying that a) it really wasn't needed there since there were no wars; b) if it were to come to America it could "enter the oppressive system and fight the power," and c) a revolution was needed.  Ike continued to read the article until his "initial disgust disappears," and realizes that perhaps there is a way Ngene can do him some good -- he'll sell it to Foreign Gods Inc. From the catalog listing the inventory of a by-invitation-only room of the gallery called "Heaven," he sees that gods are going for unbelievable prices -- on the low end about 172 thousand, moving to the high end of over a million dollars.  Selling his god will change his life -- or so he believes. With a maxed-out credit card, borrowed money and the dream of future riches to solve all of his problems, he leaves for Nigeria.

The book is really good in  terms of the examination of immigrant experience, but the best parts of this novel take place in the small Nigerian village that is Ike's home. A reader can lose himself/herself here, caught up in the people who inhabit this place. It is a place where corruption abounds; where the capitalist present and traditional past meet head to head; where Christianity is in conflict with local religious tradition and divides the locals, even within families.   It is a place where so much has changed while Ike's been gone that people from his past are hardly recognizable in the way he remembers them, and not always for the better. It's a place where everyone assumes that just because Ike is in America, he's living the dream.  It is also a place with its own "foreign gods," who hold out promises of their own for those who dream of something better, as in one scene where Michael Jordan becomes a deity in his own right.  As crazy as this entire story is, it is definitely the Nigerian characters and their colorful language  who make Foreign Gods, Inc. the wonderful novel it turns out to be, especially Ike, who clearly has a foot in both worlds.  They range from the scamming church pastor to Ike's uncle and Ngene's chief priest,  to Ike's mother who is worried that Ike will be possessed by demons by hanging out with said uncle, and Ike's first love, whose life turned out so badly that he hardly recognizes her.   Thematically, this is a rich book -- well beyond being just another take on the immigrant experience, there's much to say here about art, about conflict (especially inner conflict within a troubled and divided soul), about religion, about the importance of the past and tradition vs. the modern world; you also get a look at the very male-oriented culture in this country, the colonial aspects, and there's also quite a lot in here about the power of stories. The river is also ever present throughout this book, as a source of life, power and conflict.

I loved this story with its  conflicted main character who faces a number of  obstacles before he can reach his intended goal.  However, the strange but highly appropriate ending is unlike anything I've experienced before -- seriously, it was almost at the edge of surreal, something along the lines of  the bizarre endings in novels of many works of  weird fiction I've read.  Its abruptness immediately leaves pause for the reader to conjure in his or her head exactly what's going on here, and it's a stunner.  Foreign Gods, Inc. is a novel I highly, highly recommend, one that casual readers like myself can fully enjoy.  It's a book that I know is going to stay with me a very long time.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

from December: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

Granta, 2013
832 pp

hardcover, UK ed.

"Reverse alchemy, is what I like to call it,"...  "the whole business, I mean—prospecting. Reverse alchemy. Do you see—the transformation—not into gold, but out of it—"

I pre-purchased this  novel before its UK publication date; when searching out new books last year I took one look at the blurb and instantly fell in love with the premise.   Once I cracked open this massive tome, I fell into one of the most intriguing reads ever and I remember thinking at the outset that it reminded me quite a bit of the work of Wilkie Collins by way of Charles Dickens.  However, the more I got into it, the more I realized that this was something very different.  Two things stood out for me here: first, the novel's originality; second, the author's incredible storytelling ability. 

There is absolutely no very good way of describing the plot, so I will offer only a brief look.  Arriving by ship in a small goldrush town in New Zealand in 1866, young Walter Moody has seen something that shakes him to his core.  He takes up residence in one of the town's hotels, and one night wanders into a group of twelve men who have the strangest stories to tell.  At first all but one are reluctant; as time goes on, however, a startling tale emerges that has to do with a  hermit who dies, leaving an  estate being contested by a previously-unknown wife, a missing man, an opium-addicted prostitute who has, it seems, tried to kill herself, and a sea captain with a habit of taking on other people's identities. As their respective stories capture Moody's attention, he realizes that his own shipboard experience may have a connection to this fantastic collage of stories.  But wait -- as soon as the reader thinks he or she has some or most of this crazy puzzle  figured out, things have a way of transforming into something completely different.  Like the era, the goldfields and the people who inhabit this novel, your sense of stability while reading this book often finds itself in a bit of turmoil. 

I noticed in particular one major theme running throughout this novel:  fortune. While there are others as well, this one for me was the most visible.  It's here in  gold mining, chance, and fate; here fortunes are won, fortunes are lost, and  fortune works as an agent of transformation.  There's so much in this book, none the least of which is a fine old-fashioned, Victorian-style mystery and adventure story at the novel's heart; there's also a look at a volatile, wild-westish period in New Zealand's history.  The sense of time and place that accompanies this peek into the gold-rush era is well crafted, starting with the first page.  And along with the story, there's the innovative structure: it took me a while to figure out what was going on, but once I figured it out, I was absolutely delighted with the author's innovation and originality.  You can read other reviews if you want to know ahead of time; my suggestion would be to pay close attention to all of the little charts at the beginning of each section.  Part of the fun, I think, is in realizing exactly how clever the author is here.  And that's clever in a good way, unlike some books where sometimes clever is a turn off.

I loved, absolutely LOVED this book -- it's probably one of the few times in my reading life that after the end of the last page, instead of breathing a sigh of relief that an 800+ page novel had finally come to an end, I wanted more.   Reader responses have been from "best book I've ever read," to "snoozefest, couldn't get past the first chapter," so they vary.  It is the perfect book, even for the casual reader -- here, the story itself will sweep you up and take you along for an incredible and rollicking ride. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

starting the new reading year off with a bang: Oyster, by Janette Turner Hospital [Australia]

W.W. Norton, 1999
400 pp


This book isn't "new" in the sense that it is recently published, but it's one of those that is a new read for me. It actually continues my little self-imposed "fictional cult" challenge from December, but I just finished it yesterday.  This author is a new one for me as well, although I have a couple more books by this writer in my home library, and after reading this book, I've made a point to pull them out and put them on the near-future stack.  It's positively eerie and I loved it.   Now on to the discussion.

"People see with the madman's eyes. For true madness has this gift, and this potency, that it makes its own complete world. It has its own space. Others can enter it."

A man known only as Oyster literally stumbles into the small opal-mining town of Outer Maroo, Queensland a few days before Christmas at 2:23 one afternoon.  Clad all in white, his clothing stained with blood, he comes into this little off-the-map outback town and things are never the same again.   Neither are the inhabitants of this hidden drought-ridden world of its own, where many of the people are happy to be away from the prying eyes of the government.   It is a town cloaked in its secrets, which are not made privy to the reader at the outset. What is made very clear is that something terrible has occurred  in this place; as the novel unfolds, just what's happened is revealed little by little.  Before Oyster's arrival, the inhabitants of Outer Maroo -- -- the cattle graziers, the opal miners and the members of the Living Word fundamentalist congregation all got along just fine.  But once the people allowed themselves to be "seduced" by this man,  described by one person as being like "one of those bacterial forces that blindly and ruthlessly seek out the culture that will nourish them,"  life completely changes, and for the worst.   This new, uneasy coexistence is also threatened by the "foreigners" who come into Outer Maroo, at first the swarms of Oyster's followers looking for something meaningful in their lives, and then the ones looking for loved ones who had come there and had never been heard from again. Slowly the "foreigners" begin to outnumber the townspeople, a situation which has potential to threaten  those who hold the biggest secrets and the most to lose  -- and as young Mercy Given notes, when "Jake Digby occasionally arrives with passengers, ... no passengers ever leave with him again."  A teacher brought in for the 13 schoolchildren is only one of their number; the arrival of two more who'd come to search for their children at the beginning of the story will be the last. 

In this eerie, sometimes verging on the edge of surreal novel, much of what the reader knows is transmitted via Mercy, whose father once led the Living Word congregation.  He had built his congregation on the notion that God speaks quietly to each man, and that "No one, no other living soul, can hear what God says to you."  With the coming of Oyster, though, Pastor Given's words and his position are  usurped by a man who sees the potential of Oyster's usefulness, Dukke Prophet, a man with plenty of secrets of his own and a paranoia that becomes infectious; the Book of Revelation is his testament, hellfire and brimstone are his weapons, and the church is his personal zone of power. 

Oyster is an excellent novel, one that not only looks at the lives of a group of people living in the outback, but also examines the madness connected with power, secrecy, religious mania and money. Definitely recommended, this is one of the most thought-provoking works of fiction I've ever read. If you're expecting something ordinary in terms of novel structure, you won't find that here -- the story is not told linearly, but in bits and pieces of looking backward.  They do jump out in 3-D, however, and to me, that's much more important than finding someone likeable.  The characters aren't warm and fuzzy people, so you may not find people here with whom you can identify.  Looking over reader responses to this novel, they range from truly excellent to phrases like "sleep inducing" or "boring to the point of frustration;"  obviously it's not everyone's cup of tea. However,  I found Oyster to be an excellent novel and I can't wait to get to her other books on my shelves.  Amazing. Simply amazing.

January: let the new book year begin!

(image borrowed from the Scotch Plains Public Library,

It's a new year, and that means new books to read over the next twelve months.  "New" for me is any book I haven't yet read, but this month, in and among what's in my crazy tbr pile (filled with books that are "new" for me), I'll be highlighting some newly-published novels.  For this month's newest books, I hope to get to Andrew's Brain, by E.L. Doctorow, Perfect, by Rachel Joyce, Foreign Gods Inc., by Okey Ndibe,  Barracuda, by Christian Tsiolkas , and The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkel, by Magdalena Zyzak.   

I don't know about anyone else, but I plan to have a peaceful, well-read year.