Arubabookwoman's Books Read

KeskusteluClub Read 2011

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Arubabookwoman's Books Read

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joulukuu 30, 2010, 4:59 pm

This will open my 2011 reading thread. I will be back soon to comment on my favorite books of 2010, and to post my thoughts on my 2011 reads.

tammikuu 1, 2011, 7:59 pm

Good to have you back!

tammikuu 3, 2011, 10:28 pm

Hi, friend! :-) Reading much lately? ;-)

tammikuu 8, 2011, 5:27 pm

I've been reading bits and pieces here and there. I finished Leo Africanus (see below), I'm almost through with Zayni Barakat, have started Big Blondes, and am slowly reading A Glastonbury Romance as part of a group read. I'm also about half-way through The Rifles by William Vollmann, which I misplaced sometime before the New Year, and need to find in order to get back to it. :)

1. Leo Africanus by Amin Maalouf (1986) 360 pp.

Author nationality/original language: Lebanese/Arabic

Setting: Late 15th century/early 16th century Moorish Spain, Rome, and North Africa

Why I read it now: For Journeys theme on Reading Globally

Leo Africanus, as he was referred to by the Romans, is a true historical figure, author of "Description of Africa" published in 1550, as well as an Arabic/Hebrew/Latin grammar/dictionary, only a small portion of which survives. He was born in Granada c. 1494. As a young boy his family was expelled from Spain, along with other Muslims. They settled in Fez in Morroco, where Leo (originally Hasan) grew up. As a youth, he began making diplomatic journeys, the first being with his uncle to Timbuktu. He later spent time in Egypt (where he was when the Ottomans conquered the Egyptians), and made a pilgrimage to Mecca. He was captured by pirates in the Mediterranean, and brought to Rome, where he was baptised a Christian. He thereafter acted as a diplomat on behalf of the Pope.

This novel follows what is known of his life, but is clearly a novel rather than a history. Leo's character is thoughtfully imagined, and he is surrounded by friends and family who are living, breathing people. The novel is narrated chronologically by Leo in the form of a letter to his son, with each chapter covering the events of one year. The chapters are included in larger books, i.e. The Book of Granada, The Book of Fez, etc, each including the chapters of his life in the context of the major events of his life. The prose is straight-forward, as Leo interacts with other historical figures, and with his family members and friends. There are a few described incidents that seemed a little far-fetched, but the world was smaller then, so perhaps it was easier to meet people from your past by chance many years after you last saw them.

The descriptions of his caravan journeys across North Africa, the Sahara, the Atlas Mountains, and of Timbuktu were riveting. I'm not sure how much of the events and places described were taken from his "Description of North Africa." It is a fact, however, that Leo's book, "Description of North Africa," became a best-seller of sorts in its own time, as Europeans knew very little and were starved for information about this part of the world. Leo's other adventures--his time in Egypt during the Ottoman onslaught, the journey to Mecca, his involvement in the European religious strife of the early 16th century--make for equally compelling reading.

Recommended. 4 stars.

tammikuu 10, 2011, 3:49 pm

#4 Wow, what a fascinating person! Makes me want to run out and read both this and "Descriptions of North Africa". And a great review which I will run off and thumb.

P.S. This book lends itself beautifully to the discussion I am trying to start on my Club Read thread. Is there something to be gained from reading about his travels as fiction that is not to be found strickly by reading his own personal narrative?

tammikuu 13, 2011, 5:25 pm

2. Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose 2006) 273 pp

Why I Read It Now: I've been dipping in and out of it for months, and decided to just give it a sustained reading and finish it.

"Too often students are being taught to read as if literature were some kind of ethics class or civics class--or worse, some kind of self-help manual. In fact, the important thing is the way the writer uses the language."

Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer guides us in how to get the most out of what we read. Each chapter focuses on a particular element of writing. Chapter 2, for example, covers "words":

"Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer's skill in choosing one word instead of another."

The next chapter covers "sentences":

"....sentences like Woolf's or Kliest's, like butterflies gliding from flower to flower, or those quick uppercuts like Chandler's, sentences like a poke in the ribs, or the rapid-fire sentences of Stanley Elkin or Philip Roth. But there are also wonderful sentences that take the quickest, simplest, clearest route from point A to point B."

Additional chapters analyze "paragraphs," "narration," "character," dialogue," "details," and "gesture." There's also a chapter devoted to Chekov.

Prose uses examples from dozens of stories, novels, poetry or prose, from a myriad of writers, to illustrate her points. I was impressed by the depth of her observations--from what we can glean from a simple gesture the author notes, to choices about the length of the author's paragraphs. Her commentary shows just how much lies beneath and between the words an author uses. I'm embarrassed to admit how much would have eluded me as a reader of many of the samples without her guidance. I'm planning to emulate her in my future reading.

This book is also sure to add to your TBR list from the many authors and works Prose discusses. At the very least, I'm planning to add the 13 volumes of Chekov's complete stories to my wish list.

tammikuu 13, 2011, 5:27 pm

3. I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells (2010) 271 pp.

Why I Read It Now: I wanted something light and easy to alternate with Invisible Man.

"I've been fascinated--I try not to use the word 'obsessed'--with serial killers for a long time, but it wasn't until my Jeffrey Dahmer report in the last week of middle-school that Mom and my teachers got worried enough to put me in therapy."

POSSIBLE SPOILERS: There may be what people consider spoilers in this review. I don't really consider what I intend to say to contain spoilers. Even if you don't like spoilers, I'd suggest you read this anyway to avoid a complete waste of time with this book.

I approached this book as a murder mystery/coming-of-age novel with some interesting drama thrown in via an unusual narrator. I knew the book involved a young teenager who feared that he was a potential serial killer, and thus lived by a series of rules he devised to prevent himself from becoming one, and who helps the police solve a case involving serial killings.

The book begins gruesomely enough, with graphic descriptions of the embalming process (John's mother is a mortician, and John loves helping her with her job). We also learn a lot about some famous serial killers courtesy of John's fascination--and by the way, don't you dare confuse a serial killer with a murderer, or even a mass murderer.

The problem for me is that somewhere about 1/3 through the book, we are rudely assaulted with the supernatural, as in zombies, werewolves, vampires, demons, and their ilk. I am definitely not a fan of this genre, but I continued to read, thinking maybe it was all a bad dream, and that there would be a basis in reality. No such luck.

There are also plot loopholes, which I won't enumerate here, the size of Texas. The novel reads like a 14 year old boy wrote it--and I don't mean that the author has skillfully captured the voice of an adolescent narrator--right down to the convenient ending.

I wish I had read some honest reviews before picking this book up. I want my money back. And beware! This is apparently the first of a trilogy.

tammikuu 13, 2011, 9:07 pm

6 - Sounds good (and was already on my wishlist). :)

tammikuu 13, 2011, 11:19 pm

aruba - glad you enjoyed the Prose book. I really like her non-fiction writing.
Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, is a very worthwhile bio of Anne, and I enjoyed her skill at putting together the facts.

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 20, 2011, 1:23 pm

I have Reading Like a Writer; I should read it again. In fact, I'm sure both my writing and my teaching would be a lot better if I read all my books about writing. That last book doesn't sound like anything I would like at all, but Leo Africanus sounds pretty darn interesting.

I just got finished with work for the week and am going to start Cloud Atlas for the group read. I remember--or at least I think I do--that you really liked Cloud Atlas, right?

tammikuu 14, 2011, 6:55 am

Just popping in to see what you've been reading...

tammikuu 14, 2011, 7:32 am


It's an interesting question, the extent to which a book should warn the reader what elements it comprises. Unless an author has invented some entirely new approach to some genre element - the supernatural in this case - we probably should require some sort of warning.

tammikuu 18, 2011, 6:43 am

Enjoying your thread.

tammikuu 20, 2011, 12:06 pm

I enjoyed Reading Like a Writer too, but confess that I haven't taken to heart one of its most important recommendations -- reading slowly.

tammikuu 20, 2011, 1:41 pm

14: Reading slowly? I can't do that either, but then just because someone is a very good writer doesn't make them an expert on how to get the most out of your reading. I have a friend who considers herself more a writer than a reader. She says when she's reading, she can't help but think that she's taking time that she could be writing. I found myself thinking, Then you're not really "a reader." Yes, she reads, but I find that I lump people into categories depending on much reading is a part of their lives. Anybody else do that?

tammikuu 20, 2011, 4:52 pm

Hmm, reading slowly... Sometimes I do. But it's usually in response to something that I'm reading -- the prose is wonderful, the ideas are complex, and I feel forced to slow down and digest them.

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 20, 2011, 5:58 pm

You're right, Suzanne, and I do that too. Middlemarch is an example of a book you have to read slowly to really enjoy (imo). I guess I was thinking the author was talking about stretching the book out over days, taking the time to think about what you've read, before marching on. I know that would be good to do, but I like to read in bursts--with bursts sometimes stretching into whole days and nights! ;-)

tammikuu 23, 2011, 12:19 am

Hello everyone. I'm so glad you stopped by!

Re reading slowly--I usually don't have a problem reading slowly when the book is difficult, or densely written. It's the books in which the writing seems straight-forward or simple that I tend to read quickly. Two of the writers whose work she often used as examples were Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Carver, both of whom write in a simple style. She illustrates how reading slowly, and paying attention to the myriad of decisions the writer must make before putting each word, even each punctuation mark, on the page can provide a wealth of information, depth and other nuances that might otherwise be missed. It's just something I need to make myself do more often, rather than just reading to see what happens next.

tammikuu 23, 2011, 12:20 am

4. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1947)

Why I Read This Now: I thought it was the January selection for my RL book club. As it turned out, the choice was actually Native Son. However, since I'd already read Native Son, and the book club meeting was snowed out, it all worked out in the end. :)

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids--and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."

Thus begins Ralph Ellison's classic, in which one man describes his experiences as an "invisible man." Of course, he didn't always know he was invisible, and thus the novel consists of a series of brutal events which led to his awakening.

It opens with the man's graduation from high school in a small Southern town. As valedictorian, he delivered a speech positing that humility was the essence of progress for the black man. He is thrilled and proud when he is asked to repeat the speech at a white men's business association meeting. Instead, when he arrives expecting to present his speech, he is told he must take part in a "battle royale," in which he and several other black youths are blindfolded and must fight to the death (figuratively speaking) for the amusement of the drunken white men. Then, as payment, the youths are told they can pick up coins strewn on a carpet. When they reach for the coins, however, they receive electrical shocks, to the further amusement of the white men. Ellison's writing hits us in the face with this young man's fear, naivetee, helplessness and anger, all filtered through the lens of bitter irony:

"What powers of endurance I had during those days! What enthusiasm! What a belief in the rightness of things!"

His road to self-awareness continues as he attends, and then is expelled through no fault of his own, a black college. He finds himself once again betrayed when the head of the college sends him to New York for a summer to earn enough money to return to college, all the while sabotaging the narrator's attempts to find a decent job there. By the end of the summer he realizes he no longer fits in with "various groups still caught up in the illusions that had just been boomeranged out of my head," and for whom he "felt a contempt such as only a disillusioned dreamer feels for those still unaware that they dream...."

This book is a classic, and should be read by everyone. It is a dense read, and does contain a lot of polemical prose that could perhaps have been omitted. It is a sad book, and does not end on a hopeful note:

"I remember that I am invisible, and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers."

tammikuu 23, 2011, 12:23 am

5. Big Blondes by Jean Echenoz (1995, 1997)

Why I Read This Now: Wanted another light read.

Gloire, who for a brief moment in time was a glamorous superstar, disappeared after the mysterious death of her manager/lover. Several years later, a television producer hires a private detective to find her so that she can appear in a documentary he is doing on the mystique of blondes. The problem is, Gloire doesn't want to be found. She and her "imaginary friend" Beliard, who is usually to be found sitting on her shoulder, take off, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. ("Beliard is a skinny little brunette, about a foot tall....At best, Beliard is an illusion. At best he is an hallucination forged by a young woman's deranged mind. At worst, he's a guardian angel.")

This is an amusing French crime/comedy caper. Ecenoz writes well. I preferred his I'm Gone to Big Blondes, but Big Blondes is still worth a quick read.

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 23, 2011, 12:28 am

6. The Double by Jose Saramago (2002, 2004)

Why I Read This Now: Author Theme Read mini-author. On the 1001 list.

Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, a mild-mannered history teacher, is thunderstruck when he sees an exact duplicate of himself playing a bit part in the video of a B-grade movie he is watching. This "double" becomes his obsession, and Tertuliano, after several arguments with his Common Sense (which Common Sense lost) decides he must confront the double. His methodic, systematic search for the double is described in minute detail by an authorial narrator who from time to time inserts himself into the narrative to provide writing tips ("Those words, Nothing Happened, are used when there is an urgent need to move on to the next incident or when, for example, one does not quite know what to do with the character's own thoughts, especially if they bear no relation to the existential milieu in which the character is supposed to live and work. The teacher and fledging lover of videos, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, is in precisely this situation as he is driving his car. He was in fact thinking, a lot and very intensely, but his thoughts bore so little relevance to the last twenty-four hours he had just lived that if we were to take them into account and include them in this novel, the story we had decided to tell would inevitably have to be replaced by another....This would mean declaring all our hard work, these forty or so dense, difficult pages null and void...."), as well as some heavy-handed forboding ("It will not be long before we discover the tragic consequences of leaving unexcavated a second-world-war bomb in the belief that it was too old to explode." "Too late my friend, too late, you've opened Pandora's box and now you have to live with the consequences....").

This searching part of the book goes on perhaps a tad too long, but the novel really takes off when Tertuliano and his double begin to parry with each other. The novel then moves quickly to an unexpected ending.

Written in what I believe is Saramago's characteristic style--long run-on sentences, little punctuation, paragraphs that are pages long-- the novel is nevertheless easy to read, and very, very enjoyable.

tammikuu 23, 2011, 7:11 am

Oh, I love your choices! Invisible Man is on my Absolutely Must Read list for 2011.
I really liked Ravel by Jean Echenoz - charming. I also liked The Double very much - I felt that the lack of punctuation propelled the story, somehow, for me. As though I were speeding along on a train ride down a straight track. Irritating but inevitable.

tammikuu 23, 2011, 7:24 am

#4 if there was one work of modern fiction which has influenced me the most, this is it. And one line has stood out in my memory since I read it ages ago..."who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, i speak for you?" I still think of it as a "wow" line.

#6 was this your first Saramago, deborah? Glad that you liked it. When his characters parry with each other (or better, with themselves) -- this is where, i think, Saramago is at his writing best. I've not read this book, but hope to get around to it. Just curious to know how you found the ending. My feeling, from the several books I've read by him, is that Saramago's novels usually "start with a bang but end in a whimper." Needless to say, it doesn't detract much from my overall enjoyment of his work.

tammikuu 23, 2011, 7:29 am

The Double sounds great - thanks for the review.

tammikuu 23, 2011, 10:49 am

Oh wow, two books to put on the wishlist - both The Double and Invisible Man sound excellent!

tammikuu 23, 2011, 11:46 am

19 - Great reivew. I'm going to pick this one up from my parents' house when I'm down there.

21 - I just started Blindness and have a stack of other Saramago's for the beginning of this year (though not The Double). Are you reading any others?

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 23, 2011, 3:59 pm

#21 I discovered Saramago a couple of years ago, and after reading Blindness, I picked up The Double which I also enjoyed and The Cave which was a harder, more intellectual read, and I had to refresh myself on Plato's theory of forms and analogy of the cave before I really "got" it. I had a hard time reading Seeing, the sequel to Blindness. In fact, I stopped for several months and finally went back and reread, but still didn't get through. Couldn't tell you much about the plot, it just didn't stay with me. Overall though, I still count Saramago as one of my favorite authors, and I look forward to reading more of his books.

Edited to fix touchstone

tammikuu 28, 2011, 1:53 pm

7. Sunset Park by Paul Auster (2010)

Why I Read This Now: This is an ER book from last fall, and I wanted to review it to increase my chances of getting one of the January ER books.

28 year old Miles has been a drifter since he dropped out of college, and has not been in touch with his family in nine years. He cleans up foreclosed homes in South Florida, so that they can be resold by the banks. The work is called "trashing out," and Miles never opens a door "without a feeling of dread."

As the novel opens, he is living with 17 year old Pilar, a high school student, whose parents recently died. When Pilar's sisters threaten statutory rape charges, Miles decides to leave Florida a while, and return for Pilar once she reaches the age of consent.

In the second part of the book, Miles has returned to New York City, where his family lives and where he grew up, to await Pilar's coming of age. He is ambivalent about reestablishing contact with his family, and joins a group of squatters living in an abandoned home in the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn. The focus of the book changes from Miles to the people he lives with, including Bing, a former friend who shares Miles's lack of ambition, Alice, a Ph.D student and her writer boyfriend who are having problems, and Ellen, an artist who is haunted by the affair she had with the teenage boy she was supposed to be tutoring. Each of these squatters becomes the pov character in sections that focus on them rather than on the story-line involving Miles.

The third section is focused on Morris, Miles's father, a book publisher who knows that Miles is back in New York, but believes that Miles must be the one to initiate contact. Morris is having problems with his wife, and his publishing company is beginning to struggle.

In the final section, the stories of all the characters are neatly tied up. While Auster is a good writer, and I've enjoyed many of his books, I don't think Sunset Park is one of his better works. I felt the novel was unfocused (or perhaps had too broad of a focus), and lacked cohesion. I'm not sure what the point of including such detail about the characters Miles was squatting with was. I don't know what their live stories, each with a beginning and a resolution, added to what I believe was essentially Miles's story.

In addition, parts of the novel felt simplistic and unreal (Miles and Pilar meet in a park where they are both reading The Great Gatsby. He falls in love with her because she is so smart for a teenager. And Mile's father, who has been secretly spying on Miles, witnesses their first meeting.).

Overall, reading Sunset Park was an interesting ride, but in the end I wasn't sure where I'd been and why.

tammikuu 28, 2011, 2:10 pm

Thanks for your comments Amanda. I agree about the pace of The Double. I think it qualifies as a page-turner.

Deebee-the only other Saramago I've read is Blindness. Of the two, I prefer The Double, probably because, despite its serious theme, it is actually quite comic. I also found the ending of The Double to be quite strong. There was a lot of tension until the very end---my interest was definitely held. In fact, there is a surprise on the very last page. (Although if you have read carefully throughout you may anticipate this. In my case, I had thought of it, but because it didn't happen til the last page, I had forgotten about it.) I have several other Saramagos on my shelf, and hope to read at least one this year.

Charbutton, Cait and Jane--hello!--Jane see above for my answer to your Saramago question.

Lisa--I had heard that Seeing (wrong touchstone) was not very good, so I never felt an inclination to read it.

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 28, 2011, 2:18 pm

8. Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin's Lost Polar Exploration by Scott Cookman (2001)

Why I Read This Now: Thanks to a Kindle loan from Suzanne (Chatterbox), I was able to continue to explore my new interest in polar exploration which arose after reading The Broken Lands by Robert Edric last year.

This is a non-fiction account of Franklin's last polar expedition, and its tragic failure. Cookman makes the case that the major cause of the failure and loss of life was the poor food, particularly the canned food. The book contends that the supplier used sub-standard ingredients, and did not properly sterilize the food during the canning process. As a result, the author believes that many of the men died from botulism poisoning.

This book provided a fascinating look at the sheer logistics and complexity of planning and provisioning the Terror and the Erebus for the years' long voyages. Its descriptions of the conditions under which the food was processed rivals those in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.

"The provisioner, Goldner certainly knew stinking meat from fresh, whole vegetables from peelings, and bone, animal hair, mold and rat droppings when he saw them. Even if he did not venture out of his tiny paper-filled office, he could hardly have avoided smelling them. But to Goldner, it looked and smelled like money. What he couldn't see or smell was the fact that it was a bacterial and viral Chernobyl approaching meltdown."

Although, other than its demonization of the provisioner Goldner, the book, as nonfiction, is not generally character-driven, it does portray Franklin as an incompetent, over-the-hill commander, and sypathetically portrays Crozier as the experienced and able arctic explorer who was passed over for command for class reasons. A very interesting read

tammikuu 28, 2011, 2:17 pm

9. The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980) and10. Ripley Under Water (1991) by Patricia Highsmith

I first met Tom Ripley in 1992 when I serendipitiously chose Ripley Under Water from my local library. I read it not realizing that it was the final book in a series, and was entranced with Highsmith's somehow endearing sociopath.

Several years later, I found and read the first three novels in the series, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground and Ripley's Game. Overall, I would rate the Ripley series as excellent--in the four star range.

Then on a recent trip to the library I saw The Boy Who Followed Ripley, with Ripley Under Water right next to it on the shelf. I had not realized that there was a 5th Ripley book (TBWFR), which falls between Ripley's Game and Ripley Under Water. I decided to read the 'missing link,' and to reread the final book, in the order intended.

I don't think TBWFR is one of the better Ripley books. It goes on too long. The crisis is resolved 75-100 pages before the end, and for those 75-100 pages I kept waiting for something to happen. This being Highsmith, ultimately it does, but I felt there was a lot of wasted verbiage in between.

Nevertheless, I liked TBWFR because it presents Ripley in a different light--as a paternal figure. He becomes the mentor, confidante and savior of a troubled runaway teenage boy, and although a few murders are involved, Ripley does a decent job of nurturing this damaged boy.

(Re)reading Ripley Under Water was also worthwhile. The ironies in Ripley tending his dahlias, learning to play the harpsichord, and his relationships with his beloved Heloise and the faithful Madame Annette are initially missed by one who is not aware of Ripley's past. References to Dickie Greenleaf, art forgeries and the disappearance of Mr. Murchison are enigmatic. Obviously, the book was much more rewarding reading it in its intended order. (I was puzzled, however, that there were no references to the escapades in TBWFR in this final book).

Highsmith's talent is to make us actually like this sociopathic con man/murderer. She somehow convinces us that Ripley's self-justifications are entirely reasonable, and that the crimes he commits are necessary. Wickedly funny.

tammikuu 29, 2011, 2:29 pm

Ice Blink sounds fascinating--on the wishlist it goes. And thanks for reminding me of Tom Ripley. I've read The Talented Mr. Ripley, but never went on to read the rest of the books. I think I'll have to do that soon.

tammikuu 29, 2011, 3:44 pm

Thanks for the comments on The Double. I picked up that book for free a few years ago without knowing anything about it, but then I heard it was really difficult. Glad to hear it isn't true.

helmikuu 9, 2011, 8:24 pm

Chris and Joyce--Thanks for stopping by. Chris--I think you should definitely read the other Ripley book. Joyce--The Double isn't difficult at all, and is very amusing. I hope you decide to try it.

Now some more books:

Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 15, 2011, 11:41 am

11. Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (1997, 1999)

When the Kiev zoo can no longer afford to feed its animals, Viktor, a struggling Ukrainian writer, adopts Mischa the penguin. He and Mischa live together in complementary loneliness. When Viktor is hired by an unusual newspaper to write obituaries for the rich and powerful while they are still living, his life begins to change, not always for the better. He becomes wealthy, but the people about whom he has written obituaries begin to die under mysterious circumstances. And Viktor has suddenly drawn the attention of the Russian mafia.

While some of the circumstances in the book may seem ab.surdist, the book as a whole is coherent and reasonable. It's also very funny, as well as being a sharp political and social commentary. And I loved Mischa the penguin, who plays a vital role in all the goings-on. Highly recommended

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 9, 2011, 8:37 pm

12. Zayni Barakat by Gamal al-Ghitani (1974, 2004)

Why I Read This Now: I wanted to read another book that covered some of the same subjects as Leo Africanus

"That's how it is done; the whole of creation is ordered in such a way that not a single good deed or a single bad deed goes unrecorded."

This book is set in Cairo in the early 16th century, at the time the city was beginning to come under the influence of the Ottoman Empire. It is loosely based on an actual historic character, Zayni Barakat, who became muhtasib of Cairo, a position of much power. During his more than 20 year reign, he was a controversial figure, and has been described as both fair and reasonable, and as a brutal torturer. This book, however, is primarily fictional.

I found the book to be dense and difficult to read and comprehend at times. It is narrated by several people, including a religious student, an emir, and a Venetian trader. Sometimes the story is advanced through the device of village gossip by characters who never appear again. These villagers, of which there are many, all have Arabic names which are difficult to keep track of and which (to me at least) could be confused with the names of the important characters. The prose, perhaps in the interest of authenticity, sometimes approaches the florid language of the messages that have been received from Osama bin Ladin over the years.

The book is interesting as it describes the network of spies who all report to different individuals with various relative degrees of power. Each of these many leaders is trying to track the actions and statements of all the others in positions of power or seeking positions of power. In that aspect, the book has been described as an allegory of life in Egypt in the present day (or at least until several weeks ago).

I'm glad I read this book, but I'm sure quite a bit of it went over my head. I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in the subject and who is willing to devote some time to it. A familiarity with Egyptian history would also be helpful.

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 9, 2011, 8:37 pm

13. The Ice Cream War by William Boyd (1982)

Why I Read This Now: To read a book that's been on my shelf for a really, really long time.

Many years ago I saw a movie which I believe was based on this book, and which I believe was called "The Ice Cream War." However, I can't now verify a movie of that name, and my memory being what is is......

Anyway, whatever the movie I saw was called, it was basically a comedy, and involved similar circumstances to those in this book. However, fhe people and actions in the movie were much more civilized than those in this book, which is definitely not a comedy. (Unless you consider the bumbling British official who pops up now and then).

This novel is the story of war as it was fought in British East Africa and German East Africa during World War I. There is a wide range of well-developed characters, including German and British farmers who had been close and friendly neighbors before the war.

Boyd is a very good writer and story-teller. The pacing is excellent, as he moves seamlessly among the various characters and settings, and the book was a Booker Prize finalist. I'm not sure the novel adds anything new about the horrors of war, but it does show the conflict in a place we don't often think about. It also shows how overconfident the British were when they spoke of this as an "ice cream war," by which I suppose they meant it would be a piece of cake to destroy the Germans in East Africa.

The New York Times review states that the book "fulfills the ambition of the historical novel at its best." I agree that we learn some history, but I read this primarily as a character-driven novel. Recommended.

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 9, 2011, 8:37 pm

14. Howling Miller by Arto Paasilinna (1981, 2007)

Why I Read This Now: I wanted to go someplace cold after the heat of sub-Saharan Africa.

This is an almost perfect little book, and I'm not sure I can make it sound as good as it is. Gunnar Huttunen returns to northern Finland after World War II. He buys and refurbishes an abandoned mill, and begins to court a beautiful young woman. Gunnar, however, is "different." He likes to howl, and when the urge to howl comes over him, he can't prevent himself from breaking loose. The townspeople reluctantly put up with Gunnar, until he goes on a rampage brought on by drugs administered to him by the town doctor. The doctor certifies Gunnar as insane, and he is quickly packed off to the insane asylum. When Gunnar realizes the finality of this order, and that in all likelihood he will never be released, he cleverly escapes. For the rest of the book, Gunnar and the townspeople engage in a game of cat and mouse, with Gunnar mostly having the upper hand.

The book reads like a fable or fairy tale. While the tone of the book is light and humorous, there is also a sense of impending tragedy through-out. Because of the ambiguous ending, I don't think the book can actually be classified as tragic, but the demonization of Gunnar merely because he is eccentric and different makes this a book that gives us much to ponder. Highly recommended.

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 9, 2011, 8:38 pm

15. My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates (2008)

Why I Read This Now: I thought it would be a page-turner during a read-a-thon. It was.

"I've made myself begin whatever this will be, some kind of personal document--a "unique personal document"--not a mere memoir but (maybe) a confession. (Since in some quarters, Skyler Rampyke is a murder suspect you'd think I have plenty to confess,wouldn't you?) Fittingly, this document will not be chronological/linear but will follow a pathway of free association organized by an unswerving (if undetectable) interior logic: unliterary, unpretentious, disarmingly crude-amateur, guilt-ridden, appropriate to the 'survivor' who abandoned his six-year-old sister to her 'fate' sometime in the 'wee hours' of January 29, 1997, in our home in Fair Hills, New Jersey. Yes, I am that Rampike."

This book is Joyce Carol Oates's imagined version of the Jon-Benet Ramsey murder. In the book, Jon-Benet is Bliss Rampike, a precocious ice-skater who was murdered at the age of six in the basement of the family home. The story is narrated by Skyler Rampike, Bliss's brother, who was nine years old at the time of the murder, and who is telling the story ten years later.

The Rampike family is needless to say dysfunctional. Patsy Rampike could reasonably described as mentally ill, and her husband Bix is a philanderer who is usually missing in action.

Skyler describes life before Bliss, life during her brief period of fame, and most importantly Skyler narrates brilliantly the effects the murder had on the Rampike family, and in particular on him. While the parents were initially suspected of the murder, and Bliss had a stalker who may have been implicated in her murder, in large part the suspicions of guilt were directed to Skyler.

This is one of the best Oates books I have read. It is an incisive and dark pyschological study of two flawed individuals who should never have had children, and whose actions created deeply unhappy and disturbed children.

However, the book is not unceasingly bleak. In fact, substantial portions of it skewer the life styles of upwardly mobile social climbers. The descriptions of Skyler's disastrous "play-dates," organized by his mother to further her social ambitions are particularly funny. At least until we stop to consider how difficult these episodes must have been to Skyler.

As noted, this is a page-turner, and I highly recommend it. (By the way, Oates comes up with the actual murderer, at least in this fictional account.)

helmikuu 9, 2011, 8:40 pm

I still have to review War Trash by Ha Jin. I'm continuing to read A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys, and have started A World for Julius by Alfredo Bryce Echenique.

helmikuu 9, 2011, 11:33 pm

Lots of interesting reading! I've added Death and the Penguin and Howling Miller to the TBR pile. From your review of Death and the Penguin, I immediately got a mind vision of Mr. Popper's Penguins crossed with If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name (whose protagonist writes obituaries). Funny.

helmikuu 10, 2011, 12:32 am

Howling Miller is now on my wishlist. Thanks.


helmikuu 10, 2011, 7:15 am

Wonderful reviews.

helmikuu 10, 2011, 7:27 am

helmikuu 12, 2011, 7:29 pm

Great reviews, Deborah. I've added Death and the Penguin and The Howling Miller to my wish list.

helmikuu 13, 2011, 6:05 am

Great reading as usual, deborah. Death and the Penguin has been on my wishlist for a long time now. Interesting to see here the use of animal as central character in a satire -- reminds me very much of Bulgakov's The Heart of a Dog which I enjoyed a lot.

I've been hearing good things about Paasilinna, and happy to see here another endorsement. Your mentioning him has inspired me to pick up as my next read a title of his that I have, The Year of the Hare.. :-)

helmikuu 15, 2011, 7:44 pm

Aruba - just now catching up with your thread. I agree with the "great" and "wonderful" reviews comments just above. Also, what a great selection of books you are going through. Most of these titles are new to me.

helmikuu 16, 2011, 6:22 pm

>39 arubabookwoman: thanks for the heads-on on your comments re the Oates. I have not read this one yet, though I bought it when it first came out (so many Oates, eh?). So, I was interested to read your comments! You say that it is one of the best you have read, which others of hers have you read? Just wondering which novels you are weighing it against.

Could you post your review to the Oates group also?
I'm sure other Oates fans would enjoy reading it.

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 17, 2011, 10:08 pm

38 - Death and the Penguin* and Howling Miller both going on my list as well. Nice reviews.

* I must admit I squealed a little bit when I saw the cover.

helmikuu 17, 2011, 9:48 pm

#49 -- I gotta see that cover, but your link goes to Death of a Salesman right now.

helmikuu 17, 2011, 10:09 pm

50 - Think I fixed it. At any rate it's a little man in a tub with a giant penguin.

helmikuu 17, 2011, 11:34 pm

Oh yeah, MUCH better. Very squeal inducing! Thanks for fixing.

helmikuu 28, 2011, 11:57 pm

Thank you all for visiting.

I'll be interested in what you think of The Year of the Hare, which I heard about before Howling Miller because it's on the 1001 list. I just haven't come across it in a used book store yet. I've heard that Paasilinna may be considered at some point for a Nobel.

Lois I will post the Oates review on the Oates group. As to what I'm comparing My Sister, My Love with, when Oates first became nationally recognized with her book Them, I read that, and for several years I read each of her books as they were published. Some of them are still in my library. Then I stopped reading her for a while. Some of her more recent ones I've read are American Appetites and Middle Age, and since I've been on LT (2009) I've read Black Water and Zombie. I've also read Bellefleur twice, as that is one of my favorites. At some point I'd like to reread some of her earlier books, as I have virtually no memory of them.

Going to try to post some more reviews now.

maaliskuu 1, 2011, 12:00 am

16. War Trash by Ha Jin (2004)

War Trash is the story of Yu Yuan's experience as a Chinese prisoner of war during the Korean War, as told by him as an old man. Yu Yuan had been a student at a military academy suspected by Mao's army of being sympathetic to the Nationalists. He, along with other students, were placed into certain "disposable" units. Yu Yuan's unit was ordered to Korea to assist the North Koreans as "volunteers", rather than regular army. Poorly equipped, supplied, and trained, most of these soldiers were fairly soon killed or captured. Yu Yuan was captured, and spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp.

The book provides an insider's view of the society, culture and daily life of a prison camp. A hierarchy develops, with those at the top relieved from most of the drudgery and better provided for, not as a result of anything the captors did, but as a result of the actions of those of lesser status in the camp. Yu Yuan, because he is fluent in English, straddles both elements of the prison society.

Through-out their time in the camp, the prisoners know they will have to choose between being repatriated to mainland China or opting for Taiwan when the war ends and they are released. Those who have already chosen Taiwan are presented as thugs, and pressure the others to make the same choice, sometimes violently and brutally. Yu Yuan can't decide: he is not a Communist, but wants to return to his family and fiancee, who he knows he will never see if he chooses Taiwan. On the other hand, he knows that if he chooses mainland China, he will be under suspicion for the rest of his life. He may even be charged criminally for treason, since it was drilled into him, and other soldiers, that they must never surrender, but die before being captured.

This book is well-written and informative. Ha Jin portrays the Chinese soldiers with what I believe is an accurate characterization of the values instilled in them by the government. At the same time, he has created real people, with real and individual internal conflicts. Recommended.

maaliskuu 1, 2011, 12:03 am

17. A World for Julius by Alfred Bryce Echenique

When we think of Peruvian authors, we think of Nobelist Mario Vargas Llosa. Having read this novel, I hope more people will become acquainted with Peruvian author Alfredo Bryce Echenique.

A World for Julius won Peru's National Book Award for the year it was written, and it is also the winner of the Outstanding Translation Award of the American Literary Translator's Association and the Columbia University Translation Center Award.

How do I describe this book? Well, it is the story of Julius from age 2 to age 12. Julius is the youngest child of an oligarchic Peruvian family. The time is the 1950's, and as the novel begins Julius's father has just died. Within a short time his mother remarries. His stepfather and older brothers exude Latin American machismo. (When one of his older brothers attempts to rape Julius's nanny, the stepfather's solution is to fire the nanny and buy the son a car). Julius's beautiful, distant and ephemeral mother is never present for Julius (or her other children for that matter). Her vocabulary is rife with words like "divine" and "Darling!" Her concerns are parties, clothes, golf, and whether Don Juan Lucas, her husband, is faithful.

Julius is mostly left in the company of the household staff--the cook, the laundress, the nanny, the maid, the chauffer, the gardener, all of whom are either Indian, Mestizo, or Mulatto. They create a rich life for him. In certain ways, the book could be looked at as a Peruvian "Upstairs, Downstairs," although a version that is not so forgiving of the "upstairs" people.

While the story is Julius's, and large parts are narrated from his point of view, the novel shifts seamlessly from the point of view of one character to another. We are in everyone's mind (except, curiously Don Juan Lucas--we see him only from the outside). Sometimes the writing slips into an almost hallucinatory stream of conciousness. Mostly, however, the writing style, while unique and unusual, is never hard to read or dense.

Here's the first paragraph of the book:

"Julius was born in a mansion on Salaverry Avenue, directly across from the old San Felipe Hippodrome. The mansion had carriage houses, gardens, a swimming pool, and a small orchard into which two year old Julius would wander and then be found later, his back turned, perhaps bending over a flower. The mansion had servant's quarters that were like a blemish on the most beautiful face. There was even a carriage that your great-grandfather used, Julius, when he was President of the Republic, be careful, don't touch! it's covered with cobwebs, and turning away from his mother, who was lovely, Julius tried to reach the door handle. The carriage and the servants' quarters always held a strange fascination for Julius...."

I loved this book, and highly recommend it.

maaliskuu 1, 2011, 12:05 am

18. Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

I started Skippy Dies by Paul Murray late last year, but abandoned it, at least temporarily. I think that I confused Skippy Dies with Mr. Peanut, not only the obvious connection between titles, but also because in each the primary character dies within the first few pages of shock brought about by an allergic reaction.

In Mr. Peanut, Alice dies from eating a peanut. It was well-known that she was deathly allergic to peanuts, and the question becomes, did her husband murder her? We know from the beginning that he often fantasized about Alice dying, usually in a spectacular way, but a death for which he cannot be held responsible, at least technically. Alice was indeed a difficult and whiney character, but her husband was no prize either. Most of the book is an examination of their marriage up to the fatal day on which Alice died.

However, the author has chosen to try to play games with his reader, and he is unsuccessful in making this work as a novel. One of the detectives investigating his case has a wife who has decided to get into bed and not get out. For a while the detective takes her food and otherwise takes care of her. Then he undertakes various ploys, some of them vicious, to try to get her out of bed. (I was always wondering how she went to the bathroom.) While we know the wife is trying to make a point of some kind, we never learn exactly what.

The second detective's story is even stranger, for the second detective is the infamous wife-murderer from the 1950's, Dr. Sam Sheppard, miraculously transported from the 1950's to the 2000's, without aging a bit. (In case you don't know, the real Sam Sheppard was convicted of murdering his wife, although he always maintained his innocence. His story was the basis for the tv show and movie "The Fugitive.") Large portions of the book consist of a retelling of the Sam Sheppard murder case. Again, I never could figure out the point of this, or how it added to the story of Alice's marriage.

In the end, the stories don't hold together as a novel. It's like the author lost control of his story and didn't know where to go. I kept reading because I was hoping it would ultimately make sense. I even began to skim it again after I finished, before I decided not to waste any more time. You shouldn't either.

maaliskuu 1, 2011, 12:08 am

19. No God in Sight by Altaf Tyrewala

I very much wanted to read this book after I saw it compared to Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It is like Cloud Atlas, sort of...but only in a very distant and generic way, in that the end of the novel circles back to the beginning. But where Mitchell's book is rich, varied, imaginative, and complex, No God in Sight is simplistic, one-dimensional, and disappointing.

It is meant to be a book that provides an all-encompassing view of present-day Mumbai. It's structure is to describe a character, then move on to a character who is related in some way to the first character, then move on to a character who is related to the second character, and so on until the final character relates back to the first character. The first four characters are all in the same middle-class family. The first chapter is the mother's. Here is her story in its entirety:

"I used to be a poetess and would dwell on minute metaphors for days.
Now all day long I cook for Ubaid and Minaz, spend the thousands their father earns each month, and contemplate television absentmindedly.
I have nothing more to say.
The hum of air-conditioned rooms and twenty-four hour TV has silenced me."

This is sad, but hardly informative.

The next chapter is her husband's:

"Twenty-six years ago I married a mediocre poetess. She gave me two kids--a son who spends every waking hour online, and a daughter who's never home.
The poetry has escaped our lives. I don't know her any more."

The son is next. At least he injects a little humor (and some more sadness):

"Home is where mom chases me with a plateful of food and frozen poems in her eyes...."

To be fair, these passages could be considered poignant and somewhat poetic. And although there are longer chapters, some as long as 5 pages, there is no depth, and certainly we don't get a feel for Mumbai. Most of the characters are solidly middle-class, and there is not feel of the city itself. If you want to read a novel about Mumbai, read Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra. It's well worth the effort--even though it's about 5 times as long as this book, you will be well-rewarded.

maaliskuu 1, 2011, 12:10 am

Celtic Mythology by Gienna Matson

As my art history study group approaches the end of our second year, we are finally nearly arriving at the end of the B.C. era for all cultures. We most recently studied Celtic Art, and decided to spend a little time on Celtic myths. For someone who knows little or nothing about Celtic myths (me) this was a good introduction. It's well-explained, and provided just enough information. I enjoyed it very much.

maaliskuu 1, 2011, 4:13 am

Enjoying your reviews, especially as you read books that would not necessarily appear on my radar. I have added A world for Julius to my wishlist

maaliskuu 1, 2011, 9:29 am

Me too, about A World for Julius. Delighted to be introduced to another Peruvian author.

maaliskuu 1, 2011, 9:54 am

Always nice to read your reviews of both the good and bad books. War Trash and A World for Julius sound fascinating. Sad to know Skippy Dies hasn't worked so far. I plan on reading it later this year, and have been looking forward to it.

Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 1, 2011, 6:53 pm

Thanks for the warning about Mr. Peanut I keep seeing it and wondering if I should pick it up, because it sure sounds interesting. Only I keep being sure I've heard some negative things about it and not quite being able to remember what they were.

maaliskuu 1, 2011, 11:48 pm

Hmmm...I rather like those quotes from No God in Sight, but if the story doesn't go any deeper into these characters' lives, I would feel disappointed too. Do you think if you hadn't heard it compared to Cloud Atlas that you would have liked it better? I much prefer a single narrator. Every time an author switches narrators, I have to get reattached and that doesn't always happen. A World for Julius sounds like my kind of book, but I didn't feel at all drawn in by that quote whereas the quotes of No God in Sight really got me feeling and thinking about all sorts of things. Hmmm...

maaliskuu 2, 2011, 7:15 am

Very interesting reviews.

maaliskuu 2, 2011, 11:20 am

Do you think if you hadn't heard it compared to Cloud Atlas that you would have liked it better?

I struggle with this and with reading blurbs or hearing book chat before reading a book (two things it's hard to avoid on LT). Yet that is the best way to pre-select things I will like and weed out the ones I won't. Sometimes I think I'm more open to and honest with a book when I know absolutely nothing about it going in.

maaliskuu 14, 2011, 4:36 pm

Going to catch up on a few reviews:

21. A School for Fools by Sasha Sokolov

To describe this book, I can't do better than to quote this passage from the introduction:

"A School for Fools" is a journey through the mental landscape of a nameless, schizophrenic adolescent which he relates with the assistance of an author figure who may be the boy's older self. Through the kaleidoscopic prism of the teenager's schizoid mind, we share his bizarre perceptions and attempts to come to terms with the surrounding world. The boy, who refers to himself as 'we', perceives himself and several other characters as two distinct but related persons, each with his or her own name. Much of narrative is interior dialogue between the two halves of the boy's mind, or interior monologues ostensibly directed toward often unidentified characters. Nor can the boy perceive time, or events in time, in any fixed order; past, present, and future are random and intermixed. These aberrations determine the unorthodox form of the novella. There is, in the ordinary sense, no plot, but rather an ever swirling verbal collage."

To give you a sense of what this means, here is just the opening part of the first paragraph:

"All right, but how do you begin, what words do you use? It makes no difference, use the words: there, at the station pond. At the station pond? But that's incorrect, a stylistic mistake. Vodokachka would certainly correct it, one can say 'station' snack bar or 'station' news stand, but not 'station' pond, a pond can only be near the station. Well, say it's near the station, that's not the point. Good, then I'll begin that way: there, at the pond near the station. Wait a second, the station, the station itself, please, if it's not too hard, describe the station, what the station was like, what sort of platform it had, wooden or concrete, what kind of houses were next to it, you probably recall what color they were, or maybe you know the people who lived in the houses near that station? Yes, I know, or rather I knew, some of the people who lived near the station, and I can tell you something about them, but not now, later sometime...."

When I first began to read the book, it made little sense to me. However, after reading the introduction, and understanding that the narrative is primarily an interior dialogue between the two characters the narrator believes himself to be, the novel became a little easier to comprehend. While I think I understood substantial sections of the book, there were still many parts that went right over my head. However, I still enjoyed the book, and the journey it took me on. I would recommend the book if you enjoy unconventional, difficult books, and don't mind still being puzzled by what you've read when you finish the book.

maaliskuu 14, 2011, 4:37 pm

22. Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel by Anatoly Kuznetsov

Babi Yar is a ravine near the city of Kiev where the Nazis massacred thousands of Jews during World War II, primarily shooting them as they stood naked on the edge of the ravine. The author was a 12 year old boy living in Kiev, and this book describes his experiences surviving under the Nazi occupation of Kiev. As he narrates, he frequently reminds the reader that everything he is saying is true.

The author did not directly witness the atrocities at Babi Yar, although he and other residents of Kiev heard the constant sound of gunfire, day after day. He does, however, include what he says are close to verbatim accounts by some of those who narrowly escaped death at Babi Yar. The author himself, although not a Jew, frequently had to dodge deportation to Germany to work in the factories, and daily faced starvation.

I had long heard of this book, and expected a lot more from it than I got, perhaps because there have been so many more personal accounts of surviving the Holocaust that were published after Babi Yar. Babi Yar was important at the time it was published, because it was one of the first, if not the first, open admission by the Soviets that these events occurred. This book, along with Yevtushenko's moving poem opened the dialogue in the Soviet Union, and the world on the massacre.

Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 14, 2011, 7:05 pm

23. Nineteen Seventy-four by David Peace 320 pp
24. Nineteen-Seventy-seven by David Peace 352 pp
25. Nineteen Eighty by David Peace 384 pp
26. Nineteen Eighty-three by David Peace 416 pp

These books collectively constitute The Red Riding Hood Quartet, a series of crime novels based on the Yorkshire Ripper murders. I had read the first in the series, Nineteen Seventy-four last year, and thought it would be a simple matter to pick up with Nineteen Seventy-seven (which BTW is on the 1001 list) and proceed. However, I soon determined that I needed to reread Nineteen Seventy-four, which I did, and when I finished Nineteen Seventy-seven, I had to immediately go onto Nineteen Eighty and then Nineteen Eighty-three. I can't remember when I've read so many books by the same author in such a concentrated amount of time. (I devoured these over several days). In my view, these four books can only be read as one novel.

The first book in the series is narrated by a novice crime reporter, and concerns the solving of a series of child murders, some of which occurred several years before 1974, when the book is set. It is grim and bleak, and about terrible people doing terrible things. In this book, we are introduced to some of the corrupt policemen who are the core of this series.

Nineteen Seventy-seven is narrated by Jack Whitehead, a senior crime reporter who had made an appearance in the first book as the arrogant, wisecracking rival of the narrator in the first book. Now that we are in his mind, we can see that he is a psychological wreck, with self-induced demons haunting him.

Whitehead's sections alternate with sections narrated by Bobby Fraser, a policeman who made a brief but important appearance in the first book. In that book, he was a rookie, and was ethical with a sense of fair play. Three years later, he is unrecognizable--corrupt and violent.

In Nineteen Seventy-seven the Ripper murders begin, but are not solved. As in Nineteen Seventy-four, the narrative flows freely back and forth in time, and is for the most part in stream of consciousness. It is again a novel without a hero, full of terrible people.

In Nineteen Eighty the murders continue, and we meet the first character we can like. Peter Hunter, an investigator from another district, is sent to review the Ripper investigation to determine whether the failure to solve the case is due to incompetence, or to some clue that has been overlooked. Again the narrative travels loosely back and forth in time, and more and more of the rampant police corruption becomes known to the reader.

Each of these first three novels ends with a huge bang, although we sometimes are not entirely sure what actually happened. It is not until the ensuing book that we are entirely aware of what happened, and the ramifications it has for the characters and the investigation.

Nineteen Eight-three is narrated from the pov of three characters. John Piggot, a sleazy solicitor who is trying to prove that the man convicted of the child murders in the first book was framed, narrates his sections in the first person. BJ, a "rent boy" who has made appearances in the first three novels, narrates his sections, referring to himself in the second person. The final sections are told from the point of view of a corrupt police official.

Nineteen Eight-three winds and unwinds, not unlike a symphonic exposition, all the threads begun in the first novel. It shifts back and forth in time over nearly twenty years. As in the first three novels, it also ends with a bang, and again we are not quite sure of all of the ramifications. Unfortunately, there will be no succeeding books to enlighten us.

These four novels are amazing. They are not, however, for everyone. There are obscenties on every page. Brutality and violence abound, sometimes graphicly described. Everyone is corrupt. The novels are bleak, gritty, cynical and despairing. If this description doesn't bother you, I highly recommend these books. Read as one, they are a masterpiece.

maaliskuu 14, 2011, 4:40 pm

27. Tides (wrong touchstone) by Isadore Okpewho (1993)

This Nigerian novel is written in an epistolary form. Two reporters who have been fired from the national newspaper exchange letters. The younger reporter has remained in Lagos, and the older reporter has retired to the small fishing village in the delta where he grew up. The older reporter wants nothing further to do with politics; however, he is approached by some of the fishermen in the village whose livelihood is being threatened by oil drilling activities offshore. The two reporters begin to investigate these activities and the ecological damages they are causing, and are faced with corporate brutality and government corruption.

This is an interesting story, probably much of which has some basis in fact. It raises issues that confront many developing nations. A public official tells the reporters "the usual things you would expect of a public servant: the value of oil to the economy, the oil pollution as part of the price we have to pay, the government's deep concern for the welfare of the people most immediately affected by the hazards, and so on and so forth." The reporters and the fishermen feel that the benefits to the economy come at too high a cost.

I'm not sure why the author chose to make this an epistolary novel. That form seemed to me to be awkward. However, I read it simply as a novel with two narrators, and pretty much ignored the irrelevant pleasantries exchanged in the letters.

maaliskuu 14, 2011, 4:41 pm

28. Carry Me Down by M.J. Hyland (2006)

I read this book because it is on the 1001 list. It was also a Booker finalist. Despite this acclaim, it is in the end a mediocre book.

It's the story of a year in the life of a poor Irish family in the 1970's. It is narrated by the son John, who is just turning 12. The book centers around John's realization that grown-ups sometimes lie. Once he makes this discovery, he comes to believe that he has an extraordinary talent for detecting lies, so much so that he believes that he should be in the Guiness Book of World Records.

Over the year, the family is forced to move from the countryside where they lived with John's grandmother to a project in Dublin. His parents begin to have marital problems, his mother becomes depressed, and John begins hanging out with the wrong crowd.

While everything is semi-resolved, the book is still a rather dull and pointless read.

maaliskuu 14, 2011, 4:42 pm

29. The Boarding House by William Trevor (1965)

If there is such a genre as "the boarding house" novel, I'm a fan. I quite enjoyed the two I had read previously, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore and Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton Trevor's novel seems to fit into the genre, although it is written more as a comedy than as a tragedy, as are the two I've previously read.

William Wagner Bird, owner of the boarding house, has carefully hand-selected his tenants. They are a varied group, but each has had trouble fitting into the "normal" world. After we are briefly introduced to the boarders, Mr. Bird abruptly dies. In his will, he leaves the boarding house to two of the boarders, with the proviso that all current residents can continue to board there as long as they choose. The two new owners are polar opposites, and detest each other. Thus, the fun begins.

This is one of Trevor's early novels, and it shows. The writing is competent, and the characters are eccentric without becoming caricatures. However, it didn't sparkle. I wouldn't necessarily recommend against your reading this book; I just am not very enthusiastic about it.

maaliskuu 14, 2011, 4:43 pm

30. Tonio Kroger and Other Stories by Thomas Mann

I'm a fan of Thomas Mann, having read The Magic Mountain, Buddenbrooks, and Felix Krull: Confessions of a Confidence Man. I am not a fan of short stories, and unfortunately none of the stories in this collection grabbed me. These stories were all written before Mann's early masterpiece Buddenbrooks, and according to the introduction represent "the first period of Thomas Mann's literary maturation." Unless you are a Mann scholar or a devotee of the short story form, I can't recommend this.

maaliskuu 14, 2011, 4:44 pm

31. God's Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembene (1960)

This novel is about the six month long strike by the workers on the Dakar-Niger railway in 1947-48. The narrative splits among three locations, Dakar, Thies, and Bamako, and is told from the viewpoint of multiple characters. We come to love these people and empathize with their suffering.

What is interesting about the novel is how the role of women in society evolved over the time period of the strike. Initially, the women have no role to play; as the food and money runs out, however, it is left to the ingenuity and skills of the women to provide for their men and their families. Ultimately, it is the march of the women from Thies to Dakar that causes the railroad company to concede to the demands of the strikers.

While the book obviously makes a political statement, it does not rely on diatribe or polemic. It tells the story of a variety of individuals, their suffering and their courage. It makes for compelling reading. Highly recommended.

maaliskuu 14, 2011, 4:45 pm

32 The Sky Unwashed by Irene Zabytko (2000)

This is a novel of Chernobyl. I read it a few weeks ago, but it is eerily pertinent as the current events in Japan unfold. For example, the news from Japan said that those exposed were being given iodine pills to protect against radiation absorption. In this book, the villagers were also supplied with iodine pills and told that if they took the pills they would be all right.

The book is narrated by Marusia, an elderly woman who lived in a small village near Chernobyl. Her son and daughter-in-law live with her, and work at the plant. One Saturday night the villagers hear what sounds like an explosion. Marusia's son and other workers fail to return from their overnight shifts.

After a period of confusion and misinformation, the villagers are evacuated for what they are told will be "a few days." The few days turns into a few years, during which Marusia is shifted from place to place, with little to eat and no compensation. She then decides to return to her village home, even though it is in the "forbidden" zone.

The heart of the book is Marusia's life in the deserted village, at first alone, but then with several other "babushkas" who gradually return to their homes--because they have no other place to go.

This book is humorous, despite the deadly subject, and is poignant. The characters come alive. I highly recommend this book.

3 1/2 stars

For a nonfiction account of Chernobyl, I highly recommend Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich.

I think that's it for reviews today. I have several other books left to review, including:
The Immaculate Conception by Gaetan Soucy
I'm Not Scared by Niccolo Amanti
Minotaur by Benjamin Tamuz
Tokyo: Year Zero by David Peace

maaliskuu 14, 2011, 5:58 pm

Interesting reads, as usual, Deborah. A School for Fools looks like something I would enjoy -- to the wishlist it goes! The Sky Unwashed reminds me of a documentary I watched recently on TV about an old woman who lived in a village near Chernobyl -- the story could have been hers, though in this real-life version there was nothing humorous or poignant about it.

maaliskuu 14, 2011, 6:01 pm

Wow, you have really been reading a lot of interesting books. I will look for the Chernobyl books, the Sembene, and the Riding Hood Quartet; sorry to hear about Tonio Kroger since I'm a big Mann fan.

maaliskuu 14, 2011, 7:47 pm

Christa Wolf's Accident: A Day's News is another interesting take on the Chernobyl disaster from a farther distance -- and somewhat of a meditation on the Faustian bargain we have made with science.

maaliskuu 14, 2011, 8:14 pm

Thanks Jane. I actually own Accident: A Day's News, so maybe now is the time to read it.

maaliskuu 14, 2011, 11:03 pm

Wow. You've been doing some amazing reading. I have added God's Bits of Wood and The Sky Unwashed to my list.

maaliskuu 15, 2011, 4:09 am

I'm glad I happened upon this thread. An intriguing booklist and solid reviews. The one about the penguin has just now been ordered.

maaliskuu 15, 2011, 8:49 am

Very interesting, as always. Your remarks about Chernobyl literature are very timely, given the dreadful situation in Japan.

maaliskuu 28, 2011, 5:55 pm

What 'cha reading, Deborah? I just read one of your favorites, The Jewel in the Crown, though haven't reviewed it yet.

maaliskuu 29, 2011, 11:04 am

Deborah - catching up, and just now reading all reviews from March 14. A few of those will go on wishlist. The David Peace books sounds like quite an experience (although I was mixed on his Tokyo Year Zero).

maaliskuu 29, 2011, 4:14 pm

Based on your review, I've been reading the David Peace books for the past 10 days. I am in almost total agreement with everything you've said; horrifying and disturbing and graphic as they are, they are impossible to put down. I am now on the last one.

huhtikuu 4, 2011, 3:29 pm

Hi Lisa, Anthony, Amanda, and Bonnie--thanks for stopping by.

Dan--as you will see from my review below, I put Tokyo Year Zero in an entirely different category than the Red Riding Hood Quartet. I can understand why you would be wary of reading any further David Peace if Tokyo Year Zero is the first book of his you read.

Rebecca--I'm so glad you also found the David Peace books compelling. Based on reading those, I ordered his two latest books from the library. As you can see from my reviews below, I found one to be terrible and the other to be good, but not near the quality of the Red Riding Hood Quartet.

huhtikuu 4, 2011, 3:31 pm

Immaculate Conception by Gaetan Soucy

Several years ago I read Soucy's The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches, a book peopled with unusual characters and a highly original story-line. So when I saw this book, I grabbed it. I wasn't disappointed.

Remouald Tremblay is a psychically wounded young man of limited intellect. He lives in an insular section of Montreal in the early 20th century with his invalid parent, sometimes a "she", sometimes a "he." Fire is a constant element in his life. The book is atmospheric, mysterious, eerie, and poetic.

huhtikuu 4, 2011, 3:33 pm

I'm Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti

It is the hottest summer on record, and a group of children in a tiny impoverished hamlet in southern Italy amuse themselves with games and roving the countryside on their bikes, while the adults stay inside to escape the heat. 9-year old Michele is somewhere near the middle of the hierarchy of this group. On one of their excursions, the kids discover an abandoned farmhouse in a secluded valley. On a dare, Michele goes into the farmhouse, where he discovers a body. He tells no one, and as the days unfold the facade of adult morality which has protected Michele begins to crack. Michele's creeping loss of innocence is brilliantly conveyed, as he is placed in unbearable circumstances, with no one to trust.

This coming-of-age novel realistically portrays the innocence and horrors of childhood. The landscape shimmers to life. And, as in life, it accepts that there are no easy answers, as it ends on an ambiguous but tragic note.

huhtikuu 4, 2011, 3:35 pm

Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace

After being so impressed with Peace's Red Riding Hood Quartet, I immediately ordered his next two novels from the library. Both are set in occupied Tokyo immediately after the end of World War II, and both are murder mysteries based on true crimes.

The crimes in Tokyo Year Zero are based on a series of real life murders of prostitutes. The detective on the case, Minami, is a flawed individual, addicted to drugs, unfaithful to his wife, involved with black market activities, and possibly implicated in a murder or two himself. The American occupiers are presented as overbearing and interfering with the investigation. Post-war Tokyo is brought to life by Peace's prose, but only to the extent that his prose is readable.

And that is the problem, to say the least, with this book--it is written in a "unique" style that is nearly unbearable to read. Here's an example from Chapter 2 (per the glossary, gari-gari is the sound of scratching, chika-taku means tick tock, and ton-ton means tap tap):

"I manage to climb on board the train. --I itch but I cannot scratch.--I force my way inside one of the carriages. --I itch but I cannot scratch.--
People continue to push from behind me. --I itch but I cannot scratch.--The train begins to move slowly down the track. --I itch but I cannot scratch.-- My arms are pinned to my sides in the crush. --I itch but I cannot scratch.--There are people and there is baggage in every possible place. --I itch but I cannot scratch.-- They squat on the seat backs and they squat in the luggage racks. --I itch but I cannot scratch.-- I can only move my eyes. --I itch but I cannot scratch. -- The young boy's head in front of me is covered in ringworm. --I itch but I cannot scratch.-- Lice crawls in and out of the hair of the young woman beside me. --I itch but I cannot scratch.-- The scalp of the man to the right of me smells of sour milk. --I itch but I cannot scratch.-- The train lurches over another set of points. --I itch but I cannot scratch.-- I close my eyes--
I think of her all the time.
It takes over an hour to reach Yuraku-cho station and then it takes a fight to get off the train and onto the platform--
I scratch. --Gari-gari-- I scratch. --Gari-gari."

The whole book is like this. Here's chapter 8:

"Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton.....
It is dawn now and the first trains have already been and gone. I itch and I scratch. --Gari-gari.-- I wipe my face and I wipe my neck. There is no shadow here. No respite from the heat. I am standing at the end of my own street, watching the gate to my own house--
Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton....
I walk down the street to my own house. I itch and I scratch. --Gari-gari.-- I open the gate to my own house. I wipe my face and I wipe my neck again. I go up the path to my own house. I itch and I scratch. --Gari-gari.-- I open the door to my house. I wipe my face and I wipe my neck. I stand in the genkan of my own house.
Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton...."

etc. etc. The whole book is like this.

The book did have an interesting and lengthy bibliography of sources, and I'd recommend it for that. Otherwise, it's a good story ruined by the telling.

huhtikuu 4, 2011, 3:36 pm

Occupied City by David Peace

After my experience with Tokyo Year Zero, I almost didn't read this one. It is not a sequel to Tokyo Year Zero, nor part of a series. What connects it to Tokyo Year Zero is that it too is set in Tokyo in the immediate aftermath of the war, and that it is based on a true crime that occurred during the occupation.

In Occupied City, the crime is the spectacular murder of 12 bank employees. A man posing as a health official entered the bank at closing time and advised the employees that they must be innoculated against dysentery, which they had recently been exposed to. The employees obediently drank the poisonous potion they were told would protect them against the disease.

The novel is narrated from 12 points of view, in a variety of formats and with various narrative styles. The points of view include those of a survivor, the joint voices of the victims, a police detective, a U.S. army officer, and the alleged murderer. Each of these is an unreliable narrator, not fully aware of what is actually going on.

As the novel progresses, it approaches and circles around the biological experiments conducted by Unit 731 of the Japanese army in Manchuria during the war. Although these experiments constituted war crimes, consequences to the perpetrators were blocked by the U.S. (allegedly in exchange for full knowledge of the results of the experiments).

A culprit is apprehended, confesses, and is convicted. Shortly thereafter, however, he recants his confession. In real life, the appeal of this individual is still pending.

This book is stylistically more engaging than Tokyo Year Zero, and the story is quite interesting. I intend to do some more reading on Unit 731, the biological experiments, and the involvement of the U.S. in avoiding war crimes charges for the members of Unit 731. While this book does not approach The Red Riding Hood Quartet in quality, I would still recommend it

huhtikuu 4, 2011, 3:37 pm

The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge

This is a fictional account of Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole, as narrated by five of its members. As is well-known, Admusen's expedition beat Scott's to the pole. Tragically, Scott and his group perished after reaching the pole.

We are presented with a story of hubris and folly--Scott's choice to use ponies instead of dogs for example. The expedition serves as a symbol for the end of an era--the loss of the Edwardian Age's class complacency on the verge of World War I.

Bainbridge is a well-respected and excellent writer, and this book lives up to her reputation. She captures the voices of her disparate narrators while maintaining a somewhat ironic authorial presence. Recommended especially if you are interested in polar exploration.

huhtikuu 4, 2011, 3:38 pm

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

In a word (or two): Essential noir.

The narrator, Lou, is a sheriff's deputy in a small west Texas oil town. He appears to be affable, eager to help, and somewhat dim-witted. He is actually a psychopathic killer. The question is, when will the people around him discover what he really is.

This book is fast-paced, well written, and utterly believable.

huhtikuu 4, 2011, 3:40 pm

Broken April by Ismail Kadare

This is the first work I've read by Albanian author Ismail Kadare, and it will definitely not be the last. It is the story of The Kanun, or Code of the Mountains, in particular its tradition of the "blood feud." Under this code, families must avenge the death of their members. The string of avenging murders between families can go back tens or even hundreds of years.

The story alternates between two points of view. Gyorgi, a mountain peasant, has just killed the murderer of his brother. Under the code he has a 30 day respite, known as the "Bessa", after which he becomes fair game and can expect a bullet from the family of the man he murdered at any time.

We also follow a honeymooning couple from the big city as they tour this mountain region. The husband has an intellectual and academic interest in the code, and hopes to come across some examples of its workings. His romanticized notions of the code fail to recognize that real blood and real tragedy lie beneath its strictures.

The book is simply told, and reads somewhat like a Grimm's Fairy Tale, although a complex and nuanced fairy tale. It cast its spell on me, and drew me into this remote and harsh world.

Highly recommended.

huhtikuu 4, 2011, 3:41 pm

Beyond Sleep by Willem Frederik Hermans

Dutch geology grad student Alfred travels to far north Norway seeking to prove a discredited theory that certain circular craters were caused by meteors rather than glacial movements. Alfred hopes to win fame, professional status, and a new type of rock named after him.

Instead, his entire journey is a comedy of errors. He arrives in Norway to discover that the expert his professor referred him to is a doddering, blind idiot, who moreover detests Alfred's professor. He is unable to obtain the aerial photos he needs to locate the craters. And he arrives at base camp totally unprepared for the mosquitos, the rigors of carrying pounds of gear on rigorous mountain hikes, and ill-equipped for the weather. However, he learns some life lessons along the way.

This was a mostly amusing journey to a rarely visited area of the world with a humorously delusional guide.


huhtikuu 4, 2011, 3:49 pm

Reviews to come (soon, I hope):

Minotaur by Benjamin Tammuz
The Safety Net by Heinrich Boll
Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson
Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis
The Guest by Hwang Sok-Yong
The Conquest of Plassans by Emile Zola
Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist
Garden Ashes by Danilo Kis
August 1914 by Alexander Solzhenitsin
Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong

Only 10 behind.

huhtikuu 4, 2011, 3:51 pm

A lot more great reading, Deborah, and thanks for the warning about Tokyo Year Zero.

I've only read The Successor by Ismail Kadare and it didn't inspire me to read more, but Broken April sounds more my speed.

The Killer Inside Me sounds intriguing too.

Have you read The Coldest March by Susan Solomon? Nonfiction, it mixes quotations from Scott expedition journals with current scientific knowledge about the conditions they encountered with the history of the expedition. I found it fascinating.

huhtikuu 4, 2011, 4:09 pm

Thanks for those nice reviews, Deborah. I've had my eye on I'm Not Scared for awhile, so I'll put it on my wish list.

I haven't read anything by Beryl Bainbridge, but the Booker Prize folks are having a contest to see which of her five novels that were shortlisted for (but never won) the award is the best; the winner of the Best of Beryl prize, will be announced on April 19th.

I've only read Agamemnon's Daughter by Ismail Kadare, which was unremarkable. I'll put Broken April on my wish list.

I look forward to your review of The Guest by Sok-Yong Hwang. I received a preview chapbook of his latest novel The Old Garden from Seven Stories Press in 2009 after I placed an order, and it's high on my wish list.

huhtikuu 4, 2011, 4:57 pm

Hi, Enjoying your reviews. Tokyo year zero looks fascinating from the extracts you copied and that has gone onto my to buy list.

Broken April looks like another book for me. I have spent a couple of holidays on the Mani peninsula in Greece, close to Albania and there in the not too distant past there was the same sort of honour code feuds with family's building tower houses so that they could fire down on onto their neighbours.

huhtikuu 4, 2011, 9:28 pm

wow -- you've been reading! I loved Soucy's The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches -- Immaculate Conception is now on my wish list.

huhtikuu 6, 2011, 12:53 pm

Lots of tempting books here, Debroah! Broken April and The Birthday Boys both look great :)

huhtikuu 6, 2011, 5:06 pm

Catching up on your reading - great reviews! A School for Fools, Occupied City and A World for Julius have been added to my wishlist.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 19, 2011, 5:55 pm

Deborah, I can't stop itching and scratching! You read so many unusual titles. Someday, I'm going to have to come over to your bookstore--oops! I mean bookshelves--and explore them for books that I might want to acquire too.

Re: The Birthday Boys and Scott's "choice to use ponies instead of dogs": It's hard to believe that someone in that kind of leadership role could be so incredibly stupid and/or so full of himself that he wouldn't take into consideration how people have survived at the other pole for hundreds or thousands of years. Sounds like a good book though; it's fascinating to read about people who are willing to take such big risks and face so much hardship to try to meet their goals--especially when you consider the type of clothing and equipment that had (and didn't have!) back then.

huhtikuu 21, 2011, 11:49 am

Deborah - just now catching your reviews from apr 3-4. Your review of Tokyo Year Zero captures it perfectly, and I will consider other David Peace books now. (baswood - I was ready to warn you off TYZ, but...actually, if you get past (or enjoy) the style, it did leave me with things I still think, it wasn't all bad, just didn't make me want to pick up another book by Peace).

Excellent review of Broken April, sounds fascinating.

toukokuu 25, 2011, 10:27 pm

(Copied from your 2010 thread)

ME: What did you end up thinking of Harp of Burma? I've been waiting for you to finish reading it to get your opinion. I've been looking into reading it for a while. In fact, I may have already asked your opinion of it in another thread. Can't remember where though.

YOU: Lilisin--Intellectually and technically it's a very good book. I think it captured the psyche of the Japanese soldiers (insofar as I am competent to judge). However, I just didn't connect with the characters emotionally, and I never lost myself in the book. So overall, it's not a book I would run around recommending to people. There are Japanese writers I like much better (Yoshimura and Endo come to mind.) Oe's Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids is a book I really like which takes place in wartime Japan, and raises some of the issues raised in Harp of Burma.

BTW, I think it was you who recommended Fires on the Plain--I've purchased that and hope to get to it soon.


So I ended up reading Harp of Burma myself and can say that I totally agree with you. The concept was good and it had some good things to say but it didn't tug at me and I won't be remembering much about this book in the future. BUT! It strengthens even more my love of Fires on the Plain which I hope you will get to soon.

kesäkuu 18, 2011, 11:08 pm

Catching up after a long time. You have inspired me to re-read Death And The Penguin (btw did you know there is a sequel, Penguin Lost? but I haven't read that one) and pick up The Ice-Cream War from my TBR. And to look for A World For Julius. Thanks!

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 29, 2011, 2:29 pm

I've been away forever, and I thank everyone for visiting in the interim. I hope that if you do read a book on my recommendation you will enjoy it.

Over the next few days I'm going to start trying to add my comments on at least the highlights of my reading since I was last here.

Minotaur by Benjamin Tammuz (1989, 2005) Israeli

This is a tale of obsessive love. A 40-ish Israeli spy is living an existentially alienated life when he sees a 17 year old girl on a bus in London. He is electrified, and knows she is "the One" he has been searching for his whole life (even though he is married with children). Using his resources, he learns all about her, her life, family and friends. He begins a correspondence with her, professing his adoration, which continues many years, while never revealing his true identity. Although he occasionally follows or watches her, she is never aware of his presence, and they never meet.

The girl, Thea, is intrigued but not alarmed by her mysterious correspondent. She goes on with her life. She leaves school, and becomes engaged to be married, although her fiance dies under suspicious circumstances shortly before the wedding. She becomes a successful and respected professional.

This may sound creepy (I was at first somewhat disturbed by the age difference), but this is actually the compassionate story of a rootless man and the woman with whom he has this strange and distant relationship. I liked the book very much.

Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis (1997)

This book has been languishing on my shelf for years. It has an interesting premise: a group of dogs who stand upright, who have had hands grafted onto their front paws, and who can speak, appear one day in New York City where they initially create a sensation. The dogs are wealthy, cultured, and dress in elegant 19th century clothing.

However, the author does not create a cohesive world, a believable plot, or real characters. The book is narrated by Cleo, a (human) NYU student. The dogs choose, somewhat inexplicably since they primarily avoid human contact, to let Cleo into their world. The writing is competent, but trite. The plot is full of holes and coincidence, to the point of having Cleo state: "The coincidence of his visiting the tiny town of Lutzelfluh at exactly the right moment to discover Augustus's work seemed nearly impossible to the boy, and it seemed so to me when I first read it, but of course such things do happen."

Overall, an implausible and meandering read.

kesäkuu 29, 2011, 2:36 pm

I too was disappointed by Lives of the Monster Dogs too; I really wanted to like it.

kesäkuu 29, 2011, 2:36 pm

The Guest by Hwang Sok-Yong (2001, 2005) Korea

Yusop, an older man who has lived in New Jersey for many years, returns to his native North Korean village, the site of a gruesome massacre during the Korean war. The Communists attributed the massacre to American troops. Yusop knows, however, that the bloodshed was caused by clashes between Christian and Communist (non-believers) Koreans in the village and surrounding areas.

While this could have been a moving and riveting novel of an elderly man's return to the site of his youth, and of how he has resolved the horrors he witnessed, the author instead chose to use the story as a vehicle for what is often a philosophical dialogue on Christianity and Communism. While details of life in current day North Korea were interesting, I felt that characters and plot were secondary in this novel. I didn't care for it, but this does not mean that it's poorly written; just that it was not the book I was looking for.

Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist

In the introduction to this novel by Nobelist Lagerkvist, Andre Gide describes it as follows:

"Par Lagerkvist has shown the mysterious springs of an emerging conscience secretly tormented by the problem of Christ at a time when the Christian doctrine was still in the process of formation, when the dogma of the Resurrection still depended on the uncertain evidence of a few credulous witnesses who had not yet bridged the gap between superstition and faith."

Barabbas was the criminal who was to be crucified, but who was freed when Jesus Christ was crucified in his place. Immediately after his release, Barabbas follows Christ and witnesses his death. Days later he witnesses what could have been the Resurrection. For the rest of his life, Barabbas struggles between accepting Christianity and disbelief. He wants to believe, but finds he cannot. "Believe! How could he believe in that man he had seen hanging on a cross!"

Nevertheless, Barabbas feels an affinity with Christ, in the sense that he feels he has also been given a second life (or resurrection) when Christ was executed in his place:

"If a man is sentenced to death, then he's dead, and if he's let out and reprieved he's still dead, because that's what he has been and he's only risen again from the dead, and that's not the same as living and being like the rest of us."

This book is written in simple and spare prose. Although the book is set in a Christian context, it can be savored by believers, agnostics and atheists alike, as an incisive examination of one man's struggle to understand life.

Garden, Ashes by Danilo Kis (1965, 1975)

This brief but dense novel is the story of Andi Sham, a sensitive young boy, and his father, an unpredictable and bombastic man whose sanity is questionable. While set in Eastern Europe during World War II, the Holocaust and the war are in the distant background, and seem to have little effect on Andi's life. While the family frequently moves to avoid discrimination against Jews, the moves are sometimes the result of Andi's father's failure to support the family. Instead, his father is obsessively composing a book about, well, everything: "alchemical studies, anthropological studies , anthroposophical studies, archeological studies, studies in the doctrine of art for arts sake" and so on, alphabetically for several pages ending with "studies in unanimism, uranographic studies, studies in urbanism, urological studies, utopistic, venereological studies, studies in versification, voluntaristic studies, vulcanological studies, Zionist, zoogeographical, zoographic, zoologicalstudies."

The prose is dreamlike and poetic, and the tone is introspective. While narrated by Andi, it is by no means narrated from the point of view of a child. This was a difficult, but rewarding read.

kesäkuu 29, 2011, 2:41 pm

Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So by Mark Vonnegut (2010)

Mark Vonnegut, son of writer Kurt Vonnegut, has had four mental breakdowns. The first three occurred when he was a fairly young man, and over a relatively short period of time (several months). After his first three episodes, he was able to go to Harvard Medical School and he became a prominent pediatrician. His fourth breakdown came 14 years later, again of a relatively short duration. He has remained psychosis free for the last 25 years.

These breakdowns, and the fact that he is Kurt Vonnegut's son, are the only reasons I can discern for the existence of this memoir. In fact, had he not been Kurt Vonnegut's son, I doubt very much that this memoir would have been published. In either case, the book does not satisfy.

Vonnegut's descriptions of his breakdowns are bland, without insight, emotion, or even information. We do get a few glimpses of his father, who seems to have been an okay parent, but not much of a presence or influence in Mark's life.

The book is disorganized and discusses many mundane and frankly boring details of everyday life. There is little self-analysis. The writing is competent, but without sparkle. It is clear that Mark lacks his father's writing talent. Here's a sample:

"It seemed unfair that someone who worked as hard as I did to be right about so many things should be unloved. There were people who liked me or seemed to like me, but what if I wasn't a doctor, hadn't published a book, wasn't Kurt Vonnegut's son? The truth is I was terrified and wouldn't have trusted or accepted love if it came and sat in my lap."

If you are interested in memoirs or information about people who have led successful lives despite dealing with mental illness, there are many better books out there, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks and books by Kay Redfield Jameson.

Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson (2009)

If you can suspend disbelief about some of the details, this is a decent spy thriller. The CIA needs to get someone inside a secret facility in Siberia. They recruit a Canadian Indian who just happens to fluently speak several of the ethnic Siberian dialects and can pass for a native of one of those ethnic groups.

After very clever means to smuggle him into Siberia, he of course immediately falls in love. Davidson does a great job of conveying how really, really cold it is in Siberia, and there's lots of fascinating description and information about day-to-day life there. The story kept me turning the pages at a brisk pace, but in the end, the big reveal was a big let down. Still, if you like the genre and want to be diverted for a while, there is much to recommend this book.

600 Hours of Edward by Craig Lancaster (2009)

This is the heart-warming--in the best sense of the term--story of a socially isolated man who is obsessive-compulsive and on the autism/Aspberger's spectrum. He documents his daily life, and with the help of a brilliant and kind therapist, makes changes that help him begin to form close human relationships. If this makes the book sound sappy, it is not. It is funny and insightful. Some of Edward's diary entries are repetitious--he records the time he awakes and the weather for each day; he watches videos of old episodes of Dragnet each evening and relates the plot of each, as well as the lesson he takes from Joe Friday--but this is all part of Edward's story. I highly recommend this book.

kesäkuu 29, 2011, 2:47 pm

Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huang (1995) Vietnam

The author of this novel of the Vietnam war led a Communist youth brigade to the front when she was 20. Of the group of 40, she was one of three survivors.

The novel is narrated by Quan, who at 28 has been at the front for 10 years. Quan is given leave to return home for a short while, and is also given the task of bringing home news of the death of one of his fellow villagers, a childhood friend. As he walks the hundreds of miles back north, he contemplates his childhood and his time at the front.

When he and his comrades first went to war they were enthusiastic and believed deeply in their cause. They were prepared to do anything to oust the enemy invaders from their homeland. Ten years later Quan has become disillusioned with the corruption of some of the leadership. When he arrives at his village, the village leaders treat him as a hero and want him to give inspirational speeches to the villagers extolling the glory of Vietnam. He wants to find his childhood sweetheart, who had told him that she would wait for him.

This is a memorable book, and should be read by anyone with an interest in the Vietnam war. The descriptions of the life of a Viet Cong soldier were fascinating. Their isolation from their homes and loved ones for so many years (10 years in Quan's case) did not, for the most part, affect their resolve. This book provides an interesting insight into why it was never possible for the US to win this war. Beyond being a novel of the nightmarish conditions of war, it is also a novel of a young man's childhood and individual growth. Quan is a character I came to admire, and who caused me to reflect on the Vietnam war through a different prism.

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram by Dang Thuy Tram (2005, 2007) Vietnam

Like The Diary of Ann Frank the back-story of this book is perhaps as interesting as the book itself. Thuy was a young North Vietnamese doctor who went to the front (walking the Ho Chi Minh trail for three months to get there) in 1966. She served in Quang Ngai province, where My Lai is located.

When the diary begins in April, 1968 (previous volumes were lost or destroyed) she was 25 years old and the chief physician at a field clinic that served civilians as well as Viet Cong soldiers. By August, 1967 the district where the hospital was located had become a "free-fire zone" where:

"...people lived in caves or in tunnels that also served as bunkers for the guerillas. Many of the hamlets had been burned or bulldozed to deny the guerillas shelter; the fields were pockmarked with craters and the nearby forests were defoliated." (From the introduction written by Frances Fitzgerald).

Thuy's diary ends abruptly in June 1970, when she was killed by American troops. The diaries were found by an American soldier whose task it was to go through captured documents to see if there was anything of military significance. His interpreter told him not to burn the diary: "It has fire in it already." Against all regulations, the American soldier kept the diary and brought it back home after the war. 35 years later, the soldier found Thuy's surviving family in Hanoi, and returned the diaries to her mother and sisters. The diaries were published in North Vietnam and became a huge bestseller.

The diaries themselves are a combination of the mundane and horrific, naivite and wisdom, innocence and cynicism. While Thuy shouldered huge responsibilities and a leadership role, she was also like Ann Frank, still a young woman with dreams and plans for the future. While her descriptions of the war are not graphic, the war is ever-present--the thunder of the bombers and the scramble to the shelters, interactions with the villagers and feeling their pain when their homes are destroyed, the babies, children and other civilians who were wounded and who she tried to save, the barreness of the exfoliated forests.

It was easy for Thuy to demonize the Americans and those Vietnamese soldiers fighting on behalf of South Vietnam, and some may find this aspect of the book jarring. I nevertheless highly recommend the book. Although it's sometimes may seem a little boring or childish it is always compelling. I would also note that it made a very interesting read in conjunction with Novel Without a Name.

August, 1914 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1971, 1972) Russia

This novel is, perhaps not unexpectedly given the author, a masterpiece. And despite the fact that it lists 9 pages of characters and requires more than 700 pages to cover one battle which took place over a few days shortly after Russia entered the war, it was a relatively easy read, and very difficult to put down. Its frequent comparison to War and Peace is not unjustified.

If there is an overriding theme in the book it is of the disconnect between the generals and other commanders far distant from the war arena and the soldiers actually fighting the battles. The soldiers at the front in Prussia could take no action unless the Command Center, headed by the Tsar himself, had given specific orders to do so. Often by the time the orders were received at the front conditions had so changed that to comply with the orders was insanity. The result was a complete rout of the Russian army, to such an extent that the commander in the field committed suicide in the surrounding forest.

I'm not a student of military history (nor do I want to be), but this novel, although focused on a particular battle, can be enjoyed by someone with little interest in military manuevers. A map of the terrain and surrounding towns is provided, but I found it to be of use only in the most general sense. Since I don't have a good understanding of military manuevers, I would have found maps showing the periodic locations of the various armies to have been helpful. As noted, however, this lack did not affect my general admiration for the book.

After reading this book, I began November, 1916, the second book in the projected quartet. As I will note later, I unfortunately had to abandon it after about 450 pages.

kesäkuu 29, 2011, 2:52 pm

Chronicle in Stone by Ismail Kadare (1971, 1987) Albanian

As with Garden, Ashes this is the semi-autobiographical novel of a young boy coming of age during World War II. In this case, the young boy lives in Gjirokaster, Albania, which is near the Greek border. Gjirokaster itself is almost a character in this book, and seems to be a magical and remote place. The town is built primarily on a rocky hill, and the roads frequently are level with the roof tops of the houses on one side of the road. It is dominated by "the Citadel" which plays a prominent part in the book. Gjirokaster is now on the World Heritage list.

In the first part of the novel the war is something like a big adventure or game for the narrator. Because of its location, control of the town frequently changes between Greece and Italy, with little effect on the daily lives of the villagers. While the boy is foremost, Kadare also brings to life the many relatives and neighbors who people his life, with their gossip, superstition, and eccentricities.

Then the war intrudes in most horrific ways, although the narrator at first fails to recognize the seriousness--his primary reaction is pride at the fact that his family's house is chosen as a shelter from the British bombers. In some ways, the book reminded me of Ballard's Empire of the Sun. In both books, a somewhat naive boy witnesses and lives through the atrocities of war, while maintaining a sense of wonder, curiosity and awe of the world as it opens before him.

Conquest of Plassans by Emile Zola

The fourth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series is a portrait of life in the provincial town of Plassans. The main characters are Francois and Marthe Mouret. As is characteristic of most of Zola's novels, it ends in tragedy.

The stage is set when the Mourets take as a boarder the newly-arrived Abbe Faujas and his elderly mother. It is Faujas who "conquers" Plassans, and in so doing destroys the Mouret family.

Although this is one of the lesser-known Rougon-Macquart novels, I believe it approaches the quality of some of Zola's masterpieces. Its depiction of Faujas, his scheming sister, the sometimes comical Francois Mouret, and other characters is masterful. The evolution of Marthe Mouret from content wife and mother to tortured penitent is wholly believable.

I highly recommend this book. As with all the Rougon-Macquart books, it is also a stand-alone read.

Abbe Mouret's Sin by Emile Zola

The fifth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series features Serge Mouret, son of Francois and Marthe Mouret who were featured in the previous novel. He has become a priest, and is serving his first congregation in a poor village. When he becomes very ill, his uncle, a doctor, takes him to recuperate with the caretaker of an abandoned mansion and surrounding gardens. While there, Serge is tended by Albine, the unconventional young niece of the caretaker. As he recovers, Albine entices him to explore the magical gardens surrounding the mansion, with consequences you can imagine given the title of the book.

This novel was very different from the other Rougon-Macquart novels I have read. Serge's stay with Albine is surreal. The gardens they explore are impossibly beautiful, go on forever, and seemingly contain every variety of flower, bush and tree known to man. (And Zola describes them for page after page.) Once in the gardens, there is no way out, although Serge and Albine can return to the pavillion in which they are staying.

This was a worthwhile read, but as I said it seems to be something of an anomaly. I found it to be such a contrast to the absolute realism of the other Zola novels.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 29, 2011, 5:04 pm

Stalemate by Iccokas Meras (1963, 2005) Lithuanian

"I remember that day. I'd like to forget it, but I remember. That day stands before me like the wrecked bridge. The bridge is that day. Even now I can see the toppled pilings. I see the holes in the bridge's floor. The bridge is packed with people. And beneath it, near the water, his head bowed, stands a German. And above, leaning against a metal girder, sits a man, as if he were alive."

This novel of the Holocaust is set in the ghetto in Vilna, Lithuania. Isaac, a sixteen year-old chess prodigy, is the youngest (and only surviving) child of Abraham, one of the elders in the Jewish community. When the Nazi commandant issues an order that all Jewish children be sent to the death camps, Abraham tries to reason with the commandant. As a "compromise" the commandant proposes a chess match with Isaac. If Isaac wins, all the children will be spared, but Isaac will be killed. If Isaac loses, his life will be spared, but all the children will die. Only a stalemate will save all.

Meras narrates the story of daily life in the ghetto around this fateful chess game. The tension of what is otherwise a mundane game highlights the random terror underlying everyday life in the ghetto, where smuggling a flower for a girlfriend into the ghetto may mean death. There is much to reccommend this novel.

The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolano (1993, 2002)

This novel, set in a resort town on the coast of Spain, is narrated in alternating chapters by a corrupt civil servant obsessively in love with a champion ice skater, an impoverished poet who has taken a job as night watchman on a local campground, and the owner of the campground, a shady businessman.

When the skater is dropped from the Olympic team, the civil servant diverts public funds to build a private ice skating rink for her. Then, a body is discovered on the illicit rink.

This is an interesting, well-told, and somewhat unconventional murder mystery. Still, if you are aware of Bolano's stellar literary reputation, or have read 2666, this book may disappoint. I enjoyed it, but I can't help but wonder whether it would have been deemed worthy of translation had not The Savage Detectives and 2666 been so well-received.

If you choose to read this as an introduction to Bolano be aware that you are reading an above-average murder mystery, but not a book on which a writer's reputation could rest. With that caveat, I recommend the book.

House Mother Normal by B.S. Johnson (1971)

This experimental novel is on the 1001 list. It is the story of a social evening in an old folks home. The same events are described in chapters narrated by each of the residents, who have varying degrees of cognitive impairment. Each chapter is exactly 21 pages long, with the same events occurring on approximately the same page for each resident's narrative. The final chapter is narrated by the house mother, and we finally hear her version. Since the housemother is herself also an unreliable narrator, we have to infer what has actually transpired. What is clear, however, is that she is a nasty character. All of the narratives are in stream of conciousness style.

The subtitle of this book is "A Geriatric Comedy". I found it sad rather than comedic. I did, however, find it a worthwhile read, and you can decide if it sounds like something you'd like to experience.

kesäkuu 29, 2011, 4:10 pm

Thank heavens you are back! What fascinating reading! (Pardon my exclamation marks.)


Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 29, 2011, 4:44 pm

I'll echo Robert and add that I am mortally wounded from all the book bullets.

Edited to add that your touchstone for Stalemate went somewhere else.

kesäkuu 29, 2011, 5:48 pm

Great selection of books. I Have added the Zola quartet to my to buy list along with Minotaur and Barabbas. I must also read the Solzhenitsyn

heinäkuu 9, 2011, 6:29 pm

Deborah, the book Last night I Dreamed of
Peace would be a good follow-up to The Matterhorn (which I really liked, by the way--and wrong Touchstone), but I was already thinking how odd that in Matterhorn, there was no interaction/confrontation with any civilians. It was as if the Americans were fighting the VC in an empty land.

heinäkuu 12, 2011, 9:13 pm

I just finished Matterhorn today. Are you going to see Marlantes at TPB?

Lois (avaland) reviewed an author that might interest you as you read about Australia. Here is the link to her post. Or almost. It's post 201.

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 4:43 pm

Hi Robert, Barry, Bonnie and Lisa.

I am going to try to go see Marlantes Looking forward to it. Bonnie I remember no interaction with civilians, but the Americans were sure disdainful of the South Vietnamese soldiers, and didn't seem to trust them much. I couldn't help wondering if the soldiers on the ground have the same attitude to the Iraqi and Afghanistan soldiers who are supposed to be taking over.

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 4:47 pm

A few more books I've read:

The Women's Decameron by Julia Voznesenskaya (1985, 1986) 302 pp

A group of women who have just given birth are quarantined for ten days in a Leningrad maternity ward. They are a diverse group, and include a high party official, a street person, a dissident, a shipyard worker, a scientist, a play director, an engineer, a musician, a stewardess, and a secretary. In the beginning, they are strangers. Most are suspicious and fearful of the party official, and some look down on and are judgmental about the street person. All are curious about the dissident.

To pass time, they decide to tell stories to each other. On the first night, they tell stories of first love. Over the following nights, the topics they choose are stories of seduction and abandonment, sex in farcical places, bitches, infidelity and jealousy, rapists and their victims, money, revenge, noble deeds, and happiness. The stories they tell range from the comedic to the tragic, from the sentimental to the cynical, from the ironic to the resigned.

Over the course of the ten days the women come to know and, for the most part, respect and admire each other. We observe as they begin to warm to each other, and despite their disparate circumstances become friends, even if only for this brief interlude.

What I liked about this book is that it isn't political, yet it gives an insider's view of what it was like to live in the Soviet Union in the 1980's, with the lack of housing (see, sex in farcical places), food and consumer goods; the rampant alcoholism; the sexism, abuse, and violence against women. The party official and the dissident provide the only overt political commentary, and it is gentle indeed. For the time being, their political differences are overridden by their shared circumstances.

For example, in the discussion of noble deeds, one woman described how she loved bananas, which were almost never available. On one rare day she found and was able to purchase some bananas, but chose to give them to a friend whose children had heard of bananas (having read Kipling's Jungle Book), but had never seen or tasted them. All of the women agreed that this was a noble deed, and one of the women said, "'You see what a happy life women have in this country...? We manage to get something special and it makes us happy for three days. And you're always grumbling at the government. Do you think women in the West have any concept of the joys of life? Can they understand the delight of the girl who has managed to get a bra in her own size...? Of course not! I think they have a poor life. It lacks substance.'"

In a way I would describe this book as "Russian chick-lit". I really enjoyed viewing life in the Soviet Union through the lens of these women

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 4:49 pm

The Time of Light by Gunnar Kopperud (1998, 2000) 247 pp

The time is 1994, and violence has broken out between Armenia and Azerbaijan. During this nine day war, Markus, a German soldier who was captured at the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II, and who never returned to Germany, discusses war with an Armenian priest as he contemplates his role in the Nazi invasion of Russia, and particularly his role in the widespread desecration and murder of civilians: women, children and the elderly. He has been tormented since the end of World War II, struggling with guilt over his actions.

Kopperud is a wonderful and lyrical writer, and an astute commentator on war. For example:

"The people who said the least were those who had fought in the previous war; they merely looked at each other, and in their eyes lay trenches and barbed wire and no-man's land and bodies and defeat. Most of them were middle-aged and didn't figure on being called up, but they had sons of draft age and they gave their sons that look that fathers have always given their sons when war breaks out: a look torn between sorrow over a history that no one can stop, and pride at their being called upon by history.
"The people who said a little more were those who had lived through the previous war. They straightened their backs as if rising up from the rationing and the sound of hammers when casualty lists were posted in the marketplace, the telegram from the defense department, the medal hung on the son's photograph, the defeat, and finally the humiliation and the sound of crutches everywhere. Those who had lived through the previous war looked toward the new war with a kind of hope.
"The people who said the most were the new ones, those who didn't know what war was; they had merely assimilated the humiliation. They greeted the war with a mixture of pride and excitement; convinced they were right, they carried banners and beat drums and paraded through the streets the way people always do before going to war.
"Later a time would come when historians would discuss the cause and judges would discuss the blame, but at that time, neither of these words existed. The country went to war because it had to, and if there was anyone who could have stopped the war, they spoke so softly that their voices were drowned out by the noise from the mass rallies. The country went to war because it wanted to, in warm sunshine and a lush play of colours, and people lifted their faces toward the beautiful weather and thought: what a magnificent day to go to war...."

While large portions of the book take place on the battlefield, the book is primarily cerebral and contemplative. Kopperud's descriptions of the war are a mixture of the graphic and the lyrical. His description of a young man's feelings and thoughts as he has his first real combat experience seemed very real and visceral to me. Then, in another episode, Kopperud describes the shots exchanged between two enemy snipers in musical terms, focusing on rhythm, counterpoint and form, rather than the deadly excercise the battle really was.

I would not describe the book as compelling reading. Much of it consists of the philosophical arguments and discussions between Markus and the priest, and despite this being a "war" novel it is not an action novel. It is, however, an intricate examination of the inner conflicts tormenting a former German soldier.

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 4:51 pm

The Garden Where the Brass Band Played by Simon Vestdijk (1950, 1989) 312 pp

This book is on the 1001 list, and has been described as a "coming of age" novel. While the protagonist, Nol, who is the son of a prominent judge in a provincial city near the Dutch/German border, does "come of age" over the course of the novel, I would not place the book in that genre. Instead, it seems to me to be a tale of obsessive and ultimately failed love.

It begins when Trix, the 12 year old daughter of an alcoholic musician dances with 8 year old Nol at a concert conducted by her father. For years, Nol observes Trix from a distance, and defends the musician from the accusations of incompetence and drunkeness made against him. He persuades his parents to allow him to take piano lessons from Trix's father. Although he falls in love with Trix, Nol's love for Trix's father seems paramount.

All three main characters, Nol, Trix, and her father, are deeply flawed individuals, and none of them can be described as likeable. Nol is deceitful, and sometimes superior and disdainful of others. Trix is abrupt, aloof, and rude. Her father is self-absorbed, irresponsible, and, yes, a drunkard. For the most part, the book is serious, but there is a sustained comedic episode when there is an attempt to stage an opera directed by Trix's father with a prominent opera star in the lead. And, music plays a very prominent role in the book, and there are pages of discussions and somewhat technical descriptions of various musical pieces.

I enjoyed this book, and never really stalled in it, but I also never really eagerly anticipated picking it up for the next session's reading. I would ultimately rate this as a very good book, but not one that I personally loved.

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 4:53 pm

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (1996) 135 pp

This short novel begins with a murder. We know from the beginning who did it, and as the novel unfolds we learn why. Forty years after the event, the narrator, who was a youth at the time of the murder, looks back at that time of his life, particularly his friendship with the son of the murderer, and wonders if he should have reacted differently.

"When the look of the sky informed us that it was getting along toward suppertime, we climbed down and said, 'So long,' and 'See you tomorrow,' and went our separate ways in the dusk. And one evening this casual parting proved to be for the last time. We were separated by that pivotal shot."

Most of us can look back at our childhood or youth when we may have hurt someone, perhaps unknowingly or callously, by our actions or inactions. As we mature may recognize this, feel guilty, and want to "do it over." That's what this book is about. Very little happens other than what goes on in the narrator's mind. It isn't a book that I couldn't put down, or one that spoke deeply to me. It was just a brief reminder of things we may regret, and how abruptly and quickly our lives can change forever.

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 4:55 pm

Mother's Milk by Edward St. Aubyn (2005) 235 pp

This is another book I read because it was on the 1001 list. It was also short-listed for the Booker. While it's a somewhat enjoyable book, and competently written, I'm not sure why it deserves either of those honors.

It's the story of a British family, father Patrick, mother Mary, their two young sons, and Patrick's mother. Each August, Patrick, Mary and their sons spend August at Patrick's mother's villa in the south of France. Unfortunately for them, his mother is in the process of donating the villa (and indeed almost all of her fortune) to a New Age guru to use as a spiritual retreat. As a barrister, Patrick carries out his mother's request to effect the transfers. His actions are against his better judgment, and against his own self-interest as her son. We follow the family through three summers in the south of France, and a fourth summer in America.

The book is told in four parts, one for each summer. The first is narrated by the older child, who is 5 or 6 at the time. Ensuing narrations are from the pov of Patrick and of Mary.

The book is satirical--particularly of America and Americans and New Age adherents. It's sometimes funny, but I felt a lot of anger and bitterness underneath the humor. As one reviewer on Amazon said, "If you dislike your spouse and regret having children and really hate your mother, you might enjoy it."

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 4:57 pm

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore (2010) 272 pp

The author Wes Moore was born in inner city Baltimore. His father died when he was quite young, and he was raised by his single mother. As a youth, he began to go wrong--experimenting with drugs, petty theft, skipping and failing school. His mother reacted by sending him to military school. After an initial period of rebellion, the author turned his life around, with the help of caring mentors and role models. He went to John Hopkins University, was a Rhodes Scholar, and became an aide to Condaleeza Rice. He currently has a happy family life and satisfying career.

About the time he was being named a Rhodes Scholar, he heard (or read in the newspaper) about the "other" Wes Moore, who was also born in inner city Baltimore about the same time the author was born. He, too, was raised by a single mother; however, the other Wes Moore was being sentenced to life in prison for the murder of an off-duty policeman during a robbery gone bad.

The author became intrigued by the startling similarities in their backgrounds, but the oh so different outcomes. He began visiting the other Wes Moore in prison, and came to know him intimately. This book describes their parallel lives. There were turning points at various ages in each of their lives where each made a crucial decision that affected how his life progressed. At any decision point each Wes Moore could have made a choice that could have resulted in their having similar outcomes--i.e. both in jail, or both successful.

This isn't an angry book, though it is a tragic one. Their stories are presented factually, with little judging or editorializing about their actions. Both Wes Moores recognize that their own choices were crucial, although for each there were circumstances beyond his control that also played a role in the outcome. One cannot help but wonder how the other Wes Moore would have turned out had he had some of the mentors and role models the author did.

This was an informative and eye-opening book.

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 4:59 pm

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (1982) 208 pp

This short novel is set in remote Northern Scandanavia during winter. Katri Kling is unpopular in the small village, largely because she is brutally honest and lacks tact. The village children taunt her as a witch. Her primary concern is caring for and protecting her brother Mats, who is intellectually challenged, although he is a master boat builder.

Katri insinuates herself into the life of Anna, a reclusive, well-to-do children's book author who lives in the village. As Anna comes to rely on Katri, Katri convinces her that she is being taken advantage of by the villagers and by her editors and publishers. As Anna begins to question her trust in the basic goodness of people, she also begins to fear that she will be unable to write the whimsical children's books she is noted for.

The intricate psychological study of these three characters forms the heart of this book, which is very dark, and beautifully written. The cold, bleak atmosphere, and the starkness of the winter village create a perfect backdrop for the interaction of the characters.

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 5:00 pm

The Celebration by Ivan Angelo (1976) 223 pp

This novel is based on a true event. Rural migrant farm workers, who have been suffering and starving through several years of drought take a train to the provincial city to seek help from the government. When they arrive, they are rounded up, treated as criminals, and penned in a human corral without food or water, pending shipment back to the country. Scenes of the treatment they receive (as well as their sufferings on the farms on which they were basically slave labor) are interspersed with scenes of preparations for a lavish birthday party to be celebrated that evening by a wealthy young man. Many of the officials who could have intervened to help the workers are also preoccupied with the party, and choose not to inconvenience themselves.

The novel is intricately constructed as the relationships among the various characters, and their stories and roles in this shameful event are gradually unveiled.

Well-worth a read.

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 5:01 pm

Season of Ash by Jorge Volpi Escalante (2006. 2009) 413 pp

This novel concerns the lives of three women: Irina, a Russian biologist working in Moscow, Jennifer, the privileged daughter of a U.S. senator, who is a high-ranking economist with the IMF, and Eva, an amoral Hungarian emigrant, who is a computer specialist. The stories of these women are narrated over the course of most of the 20th century, from 1929 until 2000. Their lives frequently intersect with major historical events and characters: the market crash of 1929, the Gulag, the death of Stalin, the human genome project, various human rights movements, and so forth. Jennifer tends to be the IMF's representative in countries in which capitalism is nascent.

For much of the book we are puzzled by what connects the three women and their families and friends. However, as the events of the 20th century inexorably progress, their stories approach, intersect, and encircle each other.

This novel is jam-packed, and sometimes feels like Volpi has bitten off more than he can chew. However, the New York Times describes him as the first Russian novelist who is not Russian, which I think is meant as a compliment. I'm not quite sure why Volpi has chosen to write of matters that are so far removed from his own background. While the novel is not fully successful, it is a fascinating read.

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 5:02 pm

The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin (2007, 2008, 2011) 695 pp

This book consists of three novels. The first begins with the birth of Sasha, on the day the Tunguska meteor struck in remote Siberia in 1908. His idyllic childhood is shattered by the Russian revolution, and he loses most of his family. He is raised by relatives, and is able to attend university, where he becomes interested in astronomy. He obtains a place on a scientific expedition to locate and study the Siberian meteor.

As the expedition approaches the meteor's location, Sasha begins to feel and act strangely. He is drawn to, and ultimately he alone locates, the meteor, which turns out to be an unfathomly immense chunk of ice, much of which is deeply imbedded in the waters of the swamp. When he comes upon the ice chunk, Sasha falls violently onto the ice, and opens his heart to the knowledge that he is different. From the ice, Sasha learns that there are 23,000 people like him on Earth (the Brotherhood of the Ice). When the 23,000 are united, the Earth will be saved from its mistaken path. Sasha begins his quest to find the others of the Brotherhood.

The second novel relates the continuing quest. One of the unfortunate consequences of the quest is that location of the others in the Brotherhood requires violence. All members of the Brotherhood are blue-eyed and blonde, but they cannot otherwise be recognized until their hearts "speak." This requires that their chests be pummelled by an ice hammer (made with ice from the Siberian ice chunk). If the person is a true member of the Brotherhood, his/her heart will speak. If not, these victims frequently die from the trauma.

As time passes, some of the members become high-ranking officials in Stalin's government and in Hitler's government. They are able to use their positions to gather potential candidates for the Brotherhood.

In the final novel, the Brotherhood is approaching 23,000 members. However, an internet group of victims who survived the ice hammer have joined together to try to find the mysterious criminals who attacked them and to bring them to justice.

This may all sound rather silly, but it's actually quite engrossing, internally cohesive, and for the most part (with a smidgen of suspension of belief) feels quite real. Sorkin is known as an oblique (and sometimes quite direct) critic of life in the Soviet Union (he is the author of The Queue and The Day of the Oprichinik). These novels also fall within the category of political commentary. While the Brotherhood believe themselves as working for a higher ideal, their means include extreme violence, about which they are cold and unemotional (people are mere "meat-machines"). Ironically some of the people they were able to place in high government positions are themselves subjected to the Stalinist purges.

I hope that the usual categorization of this book as science fiction doesn't scare some readers off. (It is a NYRB publication). While it could be argued that you have to be a science fiction fan to appreciate these novels, I don't think that to be the case. I think the book transcends the genre, and is sui generis.

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 5:03 pm

The Life of Christ in Art by Nancy Grubb

I read this for my art history group (we're up to Early Christian and Byzantine art now). It's organized chronologically by the various events in Christ's life: the Annunciation, the Nativity...etc. The text includes narratives and information relating to those events. The book does not include any art analysis or criticism, however, and lets the extensive illustrations speak for themselves.

The art ranges from the earliest mosaics and icons, through folk art of the 20th century, including along the way medieval and renaissance paintings and carvings, the Old Masters, and such late 19th/early 20th century artists as Gaughin and Chagall. While the reproductions are not of the quality to be found in "high end" art books, I found them to be adequate for my purposes and informative on the religious aspects with which I was not familiar.

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 5:03 pm

The Time of LIght is not currently available from BN.COM, but it is now on my wishlist.



heinäkuu 16, 2011, 5:04 pm

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

I may write something about Matterhorn, which is one of the best books I've read in a while, after I go hear Karl Marlantes speak in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, all I can say is READ IT. (And also look at some of the excellent rave reviews). Pat found an excellent quote by Marlantes which I'm including here:

"Having read a galley of my novel, Matterhorn, about Marines in Vietnam, a somewhat embarrassed woman came up to me and said, “I didn’t even know you guys slept outside.” She was college educated and had been an active protester against the war. I felt that my novel had built a small bridge.

The chasm that small bridge crossed is still wide and deep in this country. I remember being in uniform in early 1970, delivering a document to the White House, when I was accosted by a group of students waving Vietcong and North Vietnamese flags. They shouted obscenities and jeered at me. I could only stand there stunned, thinking of my dead and maimed friends, wanting desperately to tell these students that my friends and I were just like them: their age, even younger, with the same feelings, yearnings, and passions. Later, I quite fell for a girl who was doing her master’s thesis on D. H. Lawrence. Late one night we were sitting on the stairs to her apartment and I told her that I’d been a Marine in Vietnam. “They’re the worst,” she cried, and ran up the stairs, leaving me standing there in bewilderment.

After the war, I worked as a business consultant to international energy companies to support a family, eventually being blessed with five children. I began writing Matterhorn in 1975 and for more than 30 years, I kept working on my novel in my spare time, unable to get an agent or publisher to even read the manuscript. Certainly, writing the novel was a way of dealing with the wounds of combat, but why would I subject myself to the further wounds all writers receive trying to get published? I think it’s because I’ve wanted to reach out to those people on the other side of the chasm who delivered the wound of misunderstanding. I wanted to be understood.

Ultimately, the only way we’re ever going to bridge the chasms that divide us is by transcending our limited viewpoints. My realization of this came many years ago reading Eudora Welty’s great novel Delta Wedding. I experienced what it would be like to be a married woman on a Mississippi Delta plantation who was responsible for orchestrating one of the great symbols of community and love. I entered her world and expanded beyond my own skin and became a bigger person.

I was given the ability to create stories and characters. That’s my part of the long chain of writers, publishers, agents, booksellers, librarians, and a host of others who eventually deliver literature to the world. I want to do for others what Eudora Welty did for me."

I was a college student during the war, and participated in the protests. After Kent State, my college (Tulane University) cancelled final exams and the remaining few days of the semester, but there were many protests both before and after that event and similar events, for example the shooting of the students at Jackson State. I never disparaged, much less spit on, any of the soldiers, and I was certainly better-informed of what the soldiers went through, having met some who were on R & R in Singapore while I was there. Nevertheless, Matterhorn was an eye-opener; it was gritty, wrenching and thought-provoking all at once. I shed many a tear while reading it, and it makes me mad all over again--not at the soldiers but at the politicians and generals who got us into that war (and the current wars).

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 5:05 pm

A Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

I read this book for my RL book club, and it's a well-written book that kept me turning the pages. The story is told in alternating chapters. One series is told from the pov of Laura, a researcher at an Antarctica research station (funded by Coca Cola). When the station loses contact with the outside world, and supplies become severely diminished, the other two scientists at the station, set off for help from another station several days away. When they fail to return, Laura sets off after them.

The alternating chapters are set in a way-station where people go after they die. "Life" there is pleasant, and people can choose to do what they did before they die--one man publishes a daily newspaper, as he did before his death--or they can choose to do something entirely different--even marry someone other than the spouse they were married to in life. New people arrive and others quietly disappear, although those who remain seem to take little notice of these events. Then, suddenly, hordes of new people begin arriving, and hordes likewise disappearing.

This is not a book that raises big issues, but it is interesting speculative fiction. I can recommend it for a few evenings' enjoyment.

(P.S. Based on some of the plot developments, I wonder I Coke considered at least contacting the publisher).

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 16, 2011, 5:06 pm

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

(Thanks to Rebecca for recommending this).

This book begins as follows:

"The ducks swam through the drawing room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the world that had come during the night."

This phrase sets the tone for the book: the juxtaposition of the horrific--the flood--and the whimsical and charming--ducks swimming in the drawing room! An image of swans, and then a squealing pig, "tearing at his throat, which was red and bleeding." The maids laughing in the kitchen, chasing a floating basket of eggs, then " the last of the peacocks scrambling for the roof, the others had drowned. The hens committing suicide in the dank water."

The actual plot is similar. The three children lead a seemingly idyllic life, yet their selfish and slothful father, and egomaniac and controlling grandmother lurk in the background, as does a mysterious ailment striking the villagers dead.

This was a wonderful book. I read a few other books by Barbara Comyns in the 1970s/80s, (Sisters by a River, The Juniper Tree, and The Vet's Daughter, and as I recall they were similarly unique.

I've decided to make 2012 my year of concentrating on rereading, and Barbara Comyns is definitely going on that list.

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 5:11 pm

Whew! That's it up through the end of June. My July reading so far has been slow, as was my June reading. I don't know what's wrong, but I've started probably 7 or 8 books and they haven't grabbed.

I have read the following in July so far:

Pilcrow by Adam Mars-Jones
Playland by John Gregory Dunne
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski
A Commonwealth of Thieves by Thomas Keneally

My husband and I are taking a trip to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji in October to celebrate our 40th anniversary, and I expect much of my reading between now and then will be relating to that subject or by authors from there. I've started The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, which covers the same subject matter as A Commonwealth of Thieves, but thus far in more detail. A Commonwealth of Thieves concentrated on the personalities of the various settlers and government officials.

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 5:14 pm

Robert--I got my copy of The Time of Light from the library, otherwise I'd offer to send it to you. It's a fairly recent book, so maybe your library has it?

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 6:46 pm

WOW! Deborah, it is great to catch up with your reading, and such a diverse group of books (including those that weren't quite winners). Of course, I'm delighted you enjoyed Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead -- I hadn't read any other Comyns, but it has certainly started me finding and reading all I can. In fact, my recent read of Sisters by a River, which is largely autobiographical as I'm sure you know, gave me a lot of insight into Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, which remains my favorite.

Some of the books you mention are familiar to me; in particular, I am hoping to read Matterhorn later this summer and based on your review of Ice Trilogy I now hope to read that (I've been looking at it off and on in bookstores for months). I've had The Time of Light on the TBR for several years, since first reading about it here on LT, but I haven't been sufficiently motivated to read it and I don't think your review has pushed me to move it up. And several of the ones I hadn't heard of sound intriguing too, especially The Celebration.

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 9:07 pm

Phew! I dodged most of these book bullets only because I had already been struck by them on your 75 Book thread. :-)

heinäkuu 16, 2011, 11:10 pm

Great reviews! I've just added The Time of Light, Ice Trilogy and Matterhorn to my wishlist.

heinäkuu 17, 2011, 9:51 am

Wow! I'll come back to read these reviews in detail later...

heinäkuu 17, 2011, 9:58 pm

Lots of good reading lately. The Time of Light, The Celebration, and The Ice Trilogy are going on the wishlist. And congrats on the anniversary!

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 18, 2011, 10:48 am

Bravo, Deborah! Let's see...I've added The Time of Light, So Long, See You Tomorrow, The Celebration, Ice Trilogy and Matterhorn to my wish list, and put Mother's Milk on my 'do not read' list. I also enjoyed The True Deceiver, and felt likewise about Season of Ash, which I thought was brilliant in spots but disappointing overall. I'll read The Other Wes Moore later this year.

heinäkuu 21, 2011, 1:19 pm

Aruba - I'm not quite sure how many reviews I read to catch up, but wonderful stuff here, as always. The Marlantes' comments are fascinating.

heinäkuu 30, 2011, 12:00 am

I had Mother's Milk in my hands before going on my holiday, considering to read it this month, but left it at home. Your post reminds me that I should read it one of these days.

elokuu 2, 2011, 4:18 pm

Who was Dead... sounds like the kind of book I would totally like. Some other titles are scrabbling around the corners of my mind, but can't quite think of the book that your comments remind me of. Maybe when we talk next...

lokakuu 14, 2011, 1:49 pm

I just read your review of The Double and was pleasantly surprised to see that you highlighted a passage about the act of writing. In reviewing The Elephant's Journey, I chose to focus on these asides on writing. Thought provoking stuff. Btw, I enjoyed The Double too, although, as you say, you have to be willing to work to figure out who is speaking, etc. due to his unique non-use of traditional punctuation.