Ahhhh -- a most satisfying book that may have been tailor made just for me. I know it wasn't, but it's right up my alley.
After having read a couple ofAhhhh -- a most satisfying book that may have been tailor made just for me. I know it wasn't, but it's right up my alley.
After having read a couple of novels fictionalizing the true story of Madeleine Smith, I was doing a little side reading and came up with a reference to this nonfiction book which I bought. It's definitely what I call a "niche read," meaning it's probably not a book of interest to the general public but more for people like myself who are fascinated with this stuff. This book contains accounts of four most infamous murders (for the time) which occurred within in the space of just one square mile of Glascow between 1857 and 1909. While he offers readers detailed information about each case, the people involved, the trials and the outcomes, the author's main idea in this book is that "the one thread that links all these cases is respectability." The first three murders he writes about took place during the Victorian era, during which time Glasgow was "an intensely respectable city," a place where "respectability ruled the roost." The fourth crime took place in 1909, but the author includes it because "the spirit of his case is also Victorian." Before even getting into the book then, the reader is clued that much of what he or she is going to read is going to deal with class, status, money and contemporary morality, and exactly how these elements all figured into and affected the outcomes of the four cases that happened within this "square mile of murder."
It is a wonderful, informative book and the author's writing style is such that often I felt as if he was engaged in a conversation here. For example, in the case of Oscar Slater, he relates the first description given to police by a witness, and says in the next paragraph
"Will you please put a book-marker in this page? As this strange case unfolds, it would be a good idea if you now and then turned to this original description of the man in the lobby."
His commentary is also quite witty at times, and he definitely makes his point stick about respectability and its role in all four of these cases. It is just a stunning book - one I can easily and most highly recommend.
for details about the cases and other links to these crimes, you can click here. ...more
A huge thanks to Valancourt for bringing the book to my attention. I can honestly say that I've never read anything like it ever. Yes, it is a novel aA huge thanks to Valancourt for bringing the book to my attention. I can honestly say that I've never read anything like it ever. Yes, it is a novel about a house (The Strath) that is "haunted," but not by ghosties, ghoulies, or other things that go bump in the night. In fact, exactly what constitutes the source of the house's power is indeed the question that will keep you reading until the very end when all is revealed. Plot (as much as I can in all good conscience give away) can be found here; otherwise keep reading here for the quickie version.
There are a number of factors that elevate this novel from being yet another simple haunted house tale. I'll list a couple of them here. First, the house is the stage for a contemporary tale related in the form of classical Greek drama, complete with all of its component parts. It doesn't take the reader long to figure this out; if nothing else, the chapter headings are constant reminders -- the book is structured into acts, scenes, scene-shifts, incidentals, etc. Another factor that elevates this novel way beyond the norm is the shifting atmosphere of the house, denoting some strange force that takes control of and fashions the players' personalities depending on the current whim of the house. As the introduction states, "the ceaseless interaction of comedic and tragic is the human condition," and in the case of the Strath, this idea takes on some very dark overtones. I will leave it for the reader to discover how and why. There are other indicators of the uniqueness of this story as set apart from "normal" haunted house tales, but those I will also leave for other readers to discover.
I was both fascinated and disturbed by this novel for many reasons, most of which I can't explain without giving away the show. I will just say that Feast of Bacchus is a book that once you've read it, sticks in your head for a very, very long time -- it's that good. A word, though, about the book itself. It was written in 1907, so the writing may come across as a bit archaic to modern readers. If you can get past the style though, it's a book you definitely do not want to miss. Creepy, weird, strange, way out of the ordinary yes, but definitely a fine read....more
I have to say, this is not only one of the best anthologies I've read this year, if not the best, but one of the most cohesive4.5 rounded up to a 5.
I have to say, this is not only one of the best anthologies I've read this year, if not the best, but one of the most cohesive from a thematic standpoint. The editor, David Rix, has done an excellent job here, putting together a number of pieces that frankly, I couldn't tear myself away from without a lot of resentment toward whatever it was that made me put the book down.
I have more to say at my online reading journal, but the long and short of it is that while I have my own personal favorites from this collection, the book as a whole is simply amazing. It's one of those books that once you've turned the last page becomes embedded in your brain and never leaves, and I'm reminded of it every time I hear a train whistle in the distance.
A couple of weeks ago in between airplane changes I caught a brief glimpse of a TV interview of some sort and heard the words "FBI office," "70s" andA couple of weeks ago in between airplane changes I caught a brief glimpse of a TV interview of some sort and heard the words "FBI office," "70s" and "burglary," and I mentally promised myself I'd check on whatever that might have been when I had some free time. When I finally got the chance, I put those exact words into google and came up with The Burglary, by Betty Medsger. Looking at the synopsis, I knew I absolutely had to read this book. Now that I've finished it, I'm recommending it to everyone. It's that good. And, with the exposure of the NSA's surveillance on ordinary American citizens that's been on people's minds lately, it's also appropriately timely.
It's not that J. Edgar Hoover's abuses of power have been a secret up until the publication of this book; au contraire: there have been several very good books published by credible authors on just how far reaching those abuses have been, as well as a number of documentaries about the same. However, if you're thinking that this is just another book out to trash J.Edgar Hoover, so why bother, think again. Ms. Medsger starts her work from an entirely different place. Her focus is on how the burglary of the files from a small FBI station in Media, Pennsylvania committed by a small group of nonviolent, antiwar activists led to the "opening of the door" of J. Edgar Hoover's "Secret FBI." It was through the theft and then publication of most of these files (the ones containing ongoing "real" criminal investigations were not publicized) that the public got its first glimpse of how Hoover and his agents were actively violating the constitutional rights of American citizens through surveillance, "dirty tricks," and other less than above-board measures. These files revealed that
"...there were two FBIs -- the public FBI Americans revered as their protector from crime, arbiter of values, and defender of citizens' liberties, and the Secret FBI. This FBI...usurped citizens' liberties, treated black citizens as if they were a danger to society, and used deception, disinformation and violence as tools to harass, damage, and -- most important -- silence people whose political opinions the director opposed,"
and revealed an FBI that was "obsessed with monitoring what seemed to be, in many cases, lawful dissent." The publication of the information discovered in these files, aside from revealing a "government agency, once the object of universal respect and awe," that had for years been "reaching out with tentacles to get a grasp on, or lead into, virtually every part of American society," also became the catalyst for the first-ever real investigation into the activities of the Bureau and more pointedly, those of its Director; the revelation of just what the FBI with its squeaky-clean image was really up to also started the first national dialogue regarding the fine line between domestic intelligence vs. civil liberties in the context of a free and democratic society.
If you're at all interested, you can find the full thrust of what I have to say about this book here on the nonfiction page of my reading journal; if you don't want to read the long version, just hear me out on this point: it's a book that despite its nearly 600 pages, reads extremely quickly and packs a big wham!throughout. It's also one I HIGHLY recommend. ...more
If you've decided after reading about this book that it's too bleak, well, consider what the people in this book and others whofinish date: 12/27/2013
If you've decided after reading about this book that it's too bleak, well, consider what the people in this book and others whose stories didn't make it into this book are going through. Or their wives, who married a guy, said goodbye to him as he deployed, and found that the man who came back home was someone entirely different.
Rarely in life does a book come along that has me telling everyone I know that they have to read it. I just finished Thank You For Your Service, and if you have friends or family returning from military deployment, you may find this book to be an invaluable resource. Yes, there are a number of books on PTSD out there on the market already, but trust me -- you will have never read anything like this one.
Mr. Finkel's prior book The Good Soldiers, had him embedded with men in an army battalion in Baghdad during the 2007 surge. Thank You For Your Service finds him embedded yet again, but this time here in the US, after the soldiers' deployments are finished. As the dustjacket blurb states, "He is with them in their most intimate, painful, and hopeful moments" in a period he calls the "after-war," as these men begin the process of trying to recover. The book focuses on soldiers returning with "the invisible wounds of this war, including traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety," causing emotional, mental and physical scars, often finding their outlet in spousal abuse, alcoholism, drug abuse and sometimes suicide. But it's not just the men -- the author also offers the viewpoints and voices of wives or girlfriends who try to adjust to their men being home but broken. In most cases, the women are simply not equipped to handle the changes and they often wonder what happened to the men they said goodbye to at the start of their deployment.
The Army does offer some help for their men, but it comes largely in the form of medications -- often a high-powered combination of meds to control anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness. There is also the possibility of entering Warrior Transition Battalions (WTB), but just getting in is a bureaucratic nightmare. One man had to collect over 30 signatures in a given amount of time, only to find that some of the offices he had to visit were closed or manned by inadequately-prepared staff. And although these soldiers have to sign a Contract for Safety, including a promise that if they are feeling suicidal they'll let someone know, the suicide rate continues to climb. In Washington, at least one man, General Peter Chiarelli, took the suicide rate very seriously, demanding accountability for each and every self-inflicted death at regular meetings. However, his efforts were often at the mercy of senators and other high-ranking officials, whom he had to wine and dine and who sometimes had other things that were more pressing. In trying to put together "lessons learned from the cases," details revealed that it was "difficult to learn much at all." Attempts to find patterns in the suicides remained elusive, and trying to get at a cause for both suicide and PTSD was nearly impossible:
"...could the cause have something to do with the military now being an all-volunteer force, and a disproportionate percentage of those volunteering coming from backgrounds that made them predisposed to trauma?"
or more importantly,
"Could it have nothing to do with the soldier and everything to do with the type of war now being fought?"
Have we asked too much of these men? There are other treatment options but for men like Adam Schumann, the veteran whose story is central to most of this book, it would mean, as his wife notes,
"...seven weeks of no work and no pay. That's two missed house payments. Car payments, too. Electricity. Gas. Phone. Groceries."
The rehab treatment place where Schumann eventually received help was saved from closing at the last minute by an anonymous donor.
The soldiers and their families who agreed to participate in Finkel's work did so knowing that everything would be public and on the record, and this openness is what makes this book so haunting. Sometimes I had to put the book down, regroup emotionally, and then come back to it -- and when a book can do this, the author has done an excellent job. Most highly recommended; my favorite book of the entire year.
as always, you can read more about plot, etc. by clicking here; read on for the shorter version.
If ever there was a reason to take a break from readias always, you can read more about plot, etc. by clicking here; read on for the shorter version.
If ever there was a reason to take a break from reading what's on the New York Times bestseller list or from current fiction, this book is it. Going onto the favorites list for 2013, this novel is simply amazing. Considering it was first published in 1954, it's surprisingly current and definitely way ahead of its time. In this book, a new religion is born, and a simple message offered by a charismatic young man becomes organized, publicized, bureaucratized and ultimately bastardized before it encompasses the entire non-Islamic world. It's highly satirical, funny in a dark humor sort of way, and makes you appreciate how perceptive this author must have been, considering all of the events coming out of messianic cults over the last few decades.
Eugene Luther (which is actually Gore Vidal's real name) has been living in Egypt for the last fifty years under an assumed name. He is working on an account of "that original crisis" that sent him there, which began when he was introduced to a former embalmer by the name of John Cave ("a pair of initials calculated to amaze the innocent"). Luther meets him through Iris Mortimer, a woman to whom he was introduced by another character, Clarissa. On a visit to California, he first hears Cave speak at a small gathering, and somewhat "against his will" Luther realizes that he was totally absorbed. As Iris notes, "There's something in oneself which stirs and comes alive at his touch, through his agency." Cave's message is relatively simple: "it is good to die." This was the sole vision of John Cave, at first anyway; everything changes when Cave is put in the hands of publicist Paul Himmell and his erstwhile partner, Jungian analyst Dr. Stokharin, and Cavite Inc. is born, leading to the founding of a new religion called Cavesword.
Messiah is simply put, an outstanding novel. It seems to parallel the rise of Christianity, including the dissenters, the overlaying of old traditions to make new ones, the schisms, and mythologies that grew out of historical reality. It examines the relationship between postwar American anxieties and the need for some kind of larger-than-life solution to offer people beyond the old, superstition-based religions. It also looks at television's ability as the ultimate medium of persuasion -- considering that this book was written in 1954, that's an incredibly farsighted vision on Vidal's part. But really, the best thing about this book is the realization that comes to Luther as he comes to understand his real role vis-a-vis John Cave; sadly it's at the end so I can't really spill it. It is however, a revelation that had me thinking about this novel long after I'd finished it -- in fact, the same is true of the entire book. There is so much more to discuss, but if I wrote all I really wanted to, it would be more like a paper rather than a review. Messiah is also first book I've ever read by Gore Vidal, and I absolutely love the way he wrote -- so much so that I've already picked up two more of his books. It's as good or better than much of the fiction coming out currently, so if you're into great writing, excellent plotting and a story that causes you to sit and mull over what you've just read, you really can't make a much better choice than this one. It shouldn't be pooh-poohed just because it's nearly 60 years old ... you'd think after reading it that the author somehow had access to news of the future. Superlative. That's my final word. ...more
I loved this book. I'm going to read the sequel, The Brunists' Day of Wrath, when it comes out in 2014 from Dzanc books -- I don't want to wait until I loved this book. I'm going to read the sequel, The Brunists' Day of Wrath, when it comes out in 2014 from Dzanc books -- I don't want to wait until March, so close on the heels of finishing the original novel, but well, I suppose I don't have much of a choice in the matter. As the book blurb on the back cover notes, The Origin of the Brunists won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for Best First Novel, but imho, it certainly doesn't read like a first novel.
At its heart, the book is an account of the rise of a religious cult and the resulting religious fervor coming on the heels of a terrible mine disaster, but really, that statement is way too simplistic. It begins with a prologue as the people in the cult, known as the Brunists, have gathered the day before the second coming on a hill they've named the Mount of Redemption. A terrible event occurs, one that goes on to find its way into the very legends, myths and art of the religion. This part is related by a new convert, who seems slightly confused. The rest of the novel reveals what happened leading up to that event and beyond, beginning with the disaster at the mine, an event which will ultimately leave an entire town and several lives in chaos.
I'm skipping most of the plot elements here, but you can read them in my blog discussion here.
With lots of humor interspersed throughout the book, this is one of the craziest novels I've ever read. Aside from the new religion, which imho isn't the real focus of this book but rather the centerpiece around which the characters react, the author really gets into small-town life and minds, the workings of power and politics, and how seemingly "normal" people can get caught up in their own various forms of madness and mania. I'd say it's a novel about the people of West Condon much more than anything else. The author is a genius when it comes to the characters -- and it's really incredibly tough to believe that this was Mr. Coover's first novel. It does take some time and attention to get through, not because it's difficult to read, but because the author so carefully and slowly develops the frenzy that occurs not just among the Brunists, but the craziness occurring throughout the entire town. It also shows that no matter what sort of community these people find themselves in, even in "A community of good will," everything eventually comes down to matters of self interest -- a very non-idealistic view that makes this book well worth reading. Definitely recommended. ...more
my e-copy from netgalley, at the invitation of the publishers. Thank you so much!
In just a few days from now, Open Road Media plans to release an eboomy e-copy from netgalley, at the invitation of the publishers. Thank you so much!
In just a few days from now, Open Road Media plans to release an ebook collection of stories called Jerry Tracy, Celebrity Reporter: Smashing Detective Stories by Thedore A. Tinsley. This particular ebook is just the beginning of a series planned by Open Road Media/Mysterious Press, an homage of sorts to the old Black Mask crime magazine. Along with Tinsley, upcoming authors in the series are Paul Cain, Norbert Davis, and Steve Fisher. Now that my appetite has been whetted by Jerry Tracy, I foresee much more Black Mask noir in my near future.
I'd never heard of either Theodore (Ted) Tinsley or Jerry Tracy before I was invited to request this book from netgalley, but it didn't take long after starting this book of 25 stories (the last few reaching novella length) before I realized that I was in my crime fiction happy zone. Reading these little gems is about as inwardly satisfying as stretching out on my sofa and watching old black and white noir films late at night, one of my all-time favorite pastimes. Not only are the stories good, but behind all of the crime, Tinsley introduces his modern-day readers to a Depression-era New York. He sends his hero all over the city -- into the seedy tenements of the poor and the high-rise penthouse apartments of the wealthy (or their "luscious" mistresses), into gimmicky night clubs and streets run by the kingpins of the criminal world,
"...past the black carcasses of department stores and furniture warehouses. Over towards the Hudson, towards the strings of rickety and condemned tenements that only a cycle of depression years had saved from the pick axes and rubbish chutes of the house wreckers."
It's also a New York where a wrong word in a newspaper gossip column can ruin careers or individuals and can serve as a motive for murder -- or at least payback.
Jerry Tracy works as a columnist at New York's Daily Planet. In the book's introduction, Boris Dralyuk notes that Tracy is a fictional counterpart to Walter Winchell. Tracy "packs a mean punch and can handle a Remington pistol as skillfully as he can a Remington typewriter. " He writes out of an office overlooking "the helter and skelter of Times Square," and although the country is in the thick of the Depression, he earns a "princely salary" to keep the dirt flowing for the million Planet customers who would stop buying without his column. He lives in a penthouse with a Chinese servant named McNulty, his "butler, major-domo, conscience and guide," and has a big-lug sidekick named Butch. Tracy wears other hats as well -- over the years, the police have profited from his keen detective skills, as he often passed along info good enough to give him an in with Inspector Fitzgerald, the "Gruff Guy in Centre Street." He is tough on crime and feels that parole is too easy, the product of "an easy-going system that got sentimental and forgiving as the years rolled by. " Tracy is tough as nails on the outside and can deal with the worst crooks and the toughest dames on the New York streets, but inside he can be as soft as a marshmallow when his sense of injustice is piqued -- especially when it comes to old friends or women in distress. He knows everyone from hotel desk clerks to elevator operators, from taxi drivers to the owners of swank clubs with names like "The Pom-Pom," "Club Espaňol," or "Club Humpty Dumpty", many of whom are his friends and help him out with information from time to time.
There are way too many cases in this book to discuss separately, and while they're all good, my favorites involve:
1) an old man from the South looking for his missing granddaughter 2) an invitation for Jerry to attend a dinner party at the home of strangers that no one remembers sending to our illustrious hero 3) a mysterious theater ticket for a particular seat that a lot of people seem interested in 4) a five-dollar bill that some people would kill for 5) the World's Fair and a "fake scandal photo" taken by a rival columnist that just might put our hero out of business
Something bound to pop up in readers' minds while reading is the author's use of racial slurs or, as in the case of Tracy's manservant McNulty, ridiculous pidgin' English and stereotypical Charlie-Chan type "me-likee" kind of language. Let me just say that while modern readers may be offended, or as in my case very much taken aback, these stories were written a very long time ago and this sort of stuff was part of the everyday vernacular. Try not to judge these parts too harshly -- things were very different 80 years ago.
Overall, though, Tinsley's story telling, the New York setting and Jerry Tracy himself make for hours of excellent reading -- this is probably a book where you want to read a few stories at a time, put down your reader and come back to the stories later in small bits so you can savor every second. Highly, highly recommended for people who enjoy classic crime fiction and want to discover a new author -- or for people starting to cut their teeth on pulp or noir crime. Super duper good and a real treasure.
*afterthought: I did a bit of digging, and found an old (black-and-white of course!) movie based on Tinsley's hero: "Murder is News." I'll definitely be watching! ...more
a stunning novel, one I highly recommend it to people who want to be enlightened about human and environmental conditions in other nations. Maybe somea stunning novel, one I highly recommend it to people who want to be enlightened about human and environmental conditions in other nations. Maybe some people think it's not cool to be reading fiction about the damage caused by "big, bad corporations" but really, I don't care about opinions -- I want to know what's happening in the world. Oil on Water highlights only a small portion of what's going on and what's been going on for some time, but what is happening now and what's been happening in the Delta area of Nigeria for nearly 50 years is just shameful. You can click here for a full-on discussion, or just continue reading for the abridged version.
Set in the Niger Delta, Oil on Water examines the changes brought about by the oil industry, which drilled its first well in 1956 and has remained a permanent fixture ever since. This very short but powerful novel, the story seen through the eyes of a journalist named Rufus, briefly brings together the stories of five different groups in the area: 1) the people who live in the Delta whose traditional lands, waterways and ways of life have been changed, exploited and in many cases, damaged beyond repair; 2) the numerous groups of freedom fighters/militants whose operations pit them against 3) the oil companies and 4) the government soldiers who routinely patrol the area; and 5) the journalists, who are invited to come and witness, record and relay the truth of what's really going on in the Delta. While the subject matter is disturbing on many levels, Habila's writing is stunning, conveying a very real sense of the human effects of the changes wrought by the oil industry there.
The frame for this novel is that the wife of an oil-company executive has been kidnapped and a group of journalists have been invited to make the journey up the river for an interview with her and her captors. Rufus is a new reporter at the 3rd largest paper in Port Harcourt, and when the request to get the story comes in, he volunteers for a job that all of the journalists know is potentially fatal after the earlier killings of two reporters on a similar mission. Along with him is his idol Zaq, a "once-great reporter" now past his glory days, once famous for his stories that emphasized the humanity beneath events. As they make their journey upriver for the story, they become part of it -- they are held as prisoners and encounter others who have also been taken captive; they are firsthand witnesses to murder and other violent acts, and throughout their trek they experience the horrific devastation of waterways and land that used to sustain entire populations. The story goes back and forth through time as Rufus relates both his past and Zaq's; Rufus also talks to various people they encounter along the way and hears their respective stories of how they came to be where they are at present.
The author spares no detail in describing the environmental devastation, including the "foul and sulphurous" river with its floating dead and dying wildlife, the fish that have disappeared, the perpetually-burning flares of gas that burn throughout the night and produce toxic fumes, and land that is so oil soaked that nothing can grow. But he also focuses heavily on the human side of things. Government corruption is a reality that sustains poverty, and poverty engenders groups like the militants/freedom fighters, who disrupt oil production until they're paid off, kidnap for huge ransoms and are in a state of perpetual warfare with government soldiers that involves the lives of otherwise innocent people. Tapping oil lines just to survive, sometimes with disastrous results, according to the author, is another human consequence, as is the move to bigger cities where work is hard or nearly impossible to come by.
Oil and Water is a depressing novel, but at the same time, the story is very well written, giving the reader pause to think. If you're saying in your head "oh crap, not another story about the evil oil corporations," well, yes, there is definitely a LOT of that here. At its core, however, this is an all-too-human story, based on realities that most people reading this book, including myself, can't even begin to fathom. It brings to light an ongoing state of environmental devastation and human rights issues that most people either aren't aware of and well, frankly, probably don't care about because it's somewhere over in Africa and isn't relevant to daily living. And that's really a shame. I loved this novel and all I can say by way of recommendation is READ THIS BOOK!! ...more
for a longer discussion, click here; otherwise, continue on with the quick version.
As always, my many thanks to the publisher and to LibraryThing eafor a longer discussion, click here; otherwise, continue on with the quick version.
As always, my many thanks to the publisher and to LibraryThing early reviewers for my copy.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a story about growth, love and loss, although you might not guess that based on the title. Nor would you believe it when you open the first page and find yourself reading about the nature of self-help books. In fact, you might be wondering just what the author is doing as you get more into the novel, because there are no character names, there is no name for the country in which all of the action is taking place, and the main character is addressed only as "You." I first became interested in this novel last fall, when it was briefly excerpted in the New Yorker, and it whetted my appetite for more. For me, there were no disappointments -- I loved this book, and I recommend it highly. All in all, I found Mr. Hamid's book to be very clever, well-written and thought provoking. There is so much more to this novel than I can encapsulate in a few sentences here, which is okay, because the book is really best experienced via one's own imagination.
I found that the use of the self-help format and the second-person narration brought more of an immediacy while reading. It separates different periods of the unnamed protagonist's (only known as "You" here) life and his material rise to entrepreneur under chapter headings that seem to be commonsensical and offer sound advice, for example, "Work for Yourself," "Befriend a Bureaucrat," or even "Be Prepared to Use Violence." It also brings to light that while riches can be achieved, and success can be realized, there's also a flip side: loss. While "You" is steadily climbing the success ladder, his losses begin to mount: his marriage and relationship with his son are slowly disintegrating, and as he gets older, health and fortune begin to wane. The format of this book also allows a more panoramic look at the frustrating realities faced by people in countries where the kind of growth pictured here is underway: concerns for health become an issue, the mass move to the cities changes traditional family structures and family dynamics, and among other things, leads to the construction of haphazard housing that as the author notes, probably wouldn't survive torrential rainstorms or earthquakes. Rapid growth and one's financial successes are caught up in webs of corruption, nepotism and graft that are inherent in every stage of the process (even "you's" elementary school teacher got his job through bribes and family connections in the bureaucracy); physical security comes from having a bodyguard prepared to shoot your rivals' hitmen or anyone else who might want you out of the way; then, of course, there are the ever-present environmental concerns that are pretty much ignored. The book as a whole also provides a framework for trying to understand a part of the world that most of us actually know very little about.
As I came to the end of the novel, one of the questions I took away with me was whether or not the unnamed protagonist's successes were worth the inevitable losses -- extending that concept outward I find myself hoping that this country will survive the downsides of its rapid growth and rise. The powerful and continuing love story between the unnamed character and the pretty girl holds the key to existing with a measure of peace and stability among the chaos; that's all I'll say about this right now and leave it to you to read it for yourself. Highly recommended....more
Detroit: An American Autopsy is a combination of gritty reportage and personal memories punctuated with a vein of dark humor that tells the author's sDetroit: An American Autopsy is a combination of gritty reportage and personal memories punctuated with a vein of dark humor that tells the author's story of his attempt to understand what has happened to his city. Detroit is where Charlie LeDuff grew up and after some time away, where he lives now. The book is an uncompromising account of a city that was once the richest in America and the forces, both external and internal, which have led Detroit down a steep path of decline. At the same time, it's also the story of some very resilient people who continue to work and live there despite the challenges they come up against each and every day.
LeDuff opens his prologue with the discovery of a dead man nicknamed Johnnie Dollar found in an abandoned building "encased in at least four feet of ice at the bottom of a defunct elevator shaft..." All that could be seen of him were his feet, covered in white socks and black gym shoes. LeDuff notes that anywhere else, this sight would have been tragic, "mind blowing," but not in Detroit -- and he wonders what has happened while he was gone. He sizes up the situation noting that
"...you come across something like a man frozen in ice and the skeleton of the anatomy of the place reveals it to you.
The neck bone is connected to the billionaire who owns the crumbling building where the man died. The rib bones are connected to the countless minions shuffling through the frostbitten streets burning fires in empty warehouses to stay warm -- and get high. The hip bone is connected to a demoralized police force who couldn't give a shit about digging a dead mope out of an elevator shaft. The thigh bone is connected to the white suburbanites who turn their heads away from the calamity of Detroit, carrying on as though the human suffering were somebody else's problem. And the foot bones -- well, they're sticking out of a block of dirty frozen water, belonging to an unknown man nobody seemed to give a rip about."
And, as he notes, "we're all standing at the edge of that shaft."
LeDuff is a very hands-on, no-fear, outspoken investigative reporter who cares. For example, while tackling the question of what's happened to his city, he embeds himself with a local fire squad struggling to keep up with multiple fires with bad or broken equipment (down to holes in their boots); in one case he discovered that a firefighter's death when a house collapsed was due in part to equipment failure. He also tackles the corruption of the city by following the money and paper trail of misallocated funds and discovers outright theft and an appalling lack of accountability. Worse, when he prints his findings, nobody cares -- there are no investigations, nothing. But imho, the best writing in this book comes from his accounts of the people living in the city: good people who learn to endure, as they are often stuck where they are, unable to leave; others are too poor to afford heat for their families; there are victims of violence whose families can't afford to bury them; he reveals unresponsive ambulance and police services; and his story of a one year-old baby playing in the detritus of an abandoned house just about did me in. These stories are not only sad, but alarming and downright shameful. Including his own family's experiences in the city adds a very personal feel that is also just plain gut wrenching at times.
I loved this book -- I love LeDuff's crazy personality and most of all I like his dogged determination in getting to the root of the problems facing his city. A lot of people talk the talk -- this man walks the walk and reports what he sees in an unflinching manner. At the same time, parts of this very serious book made me laugh out loud. He's definitely got the knack of being serious and entertaining at the same time as he examines why people in many cases don't even have access to the basic services a city should provide. Unlike many reviewers, I don't live in Detroit, nor do I have a connection to it unless you want to count our American-made cars. I chose to read this book for the human story which LeDuff tells and tells well, becoming interested in it some time back when I had read a brief excerpt where LeDuff mentions schoolkids in the city having to supply their own toilet paper, which stuck a chord. A couple of years back I had read a local story about the items people were being asked to supply for their children's school year and I was frankly appalled. Well beyond the crayons, pencils, and the other supplies one might consider normal, also on the list were paper plates, plastic silverware,and toilet paper, and that was right here in the state where I live. I remember telling a friend about this and asking where is all the money going that is allocated for schools? Somehow, things have just gone appallingly wrong. LeDuff is right -- this kind of thing is happening all over. He is a guy worth listening to. ...more
I'm really giving this book 4+ stars because I think it's freakin' brilliant and just downright funny.
How to describe this book is a really tough undI'm really giving this book 4+ stars because I think it's freakin' brilliant and just downright funny.
How to describe this book is a really tough undertaking. The novel literally transports the reader through space and time in cutting bursts of movement, through a dizzying slew of ideas and a wide range of topics, all with the central proposition of the Teleportation Device. It may sound a little like anarchy, but for the most part it's all really quite carefully controlled by the author's ability to take these ideas and his characters and bring them together in artfully-constructed, cleverly-crafted chapters that take on their own momentum as the book speeds toward its four (!!) separate endings. I took copious notes here and now, in reviewing them, I'm actually able to see just how truly clever this author is. I really can't say why without giving away much of the show, but trust me on this one.
Even providing a synopsis of this novel is challenging. The book opens in 1931 in Weimar Berlin, and begins by introducing its main character Egon Loeser as he's at work at the Little Allien Theater on a project called "Lavicini." He is a stage set designer, and his current work involves building a Teleportation Device for the play that will recreate the one built by the play's namesake, Adriano Lavicini, in the 17th century at a Paris theater. A terrible accident happened with Lavicini's original Teleportation Device, destroying a theater and killing several people in the aftermath, an event that Loeser becomes determined to understand. Loeser also believes that "politics is pigshit," and manages to remain staunchly apolitical despite what's going on all around him. As an example, one night he passes by a university where a book burning is going on, and he thinks its an act of performance art and joins in. Loeser fears "being at the bottom," achieving nothing and having only scorn for those who "could make peace with failure." He has a great disdain for all things American, except for a writer whose work he discovered by accident on a train to Cologne, Stent Mutton. In fact, Loeser "yearned" to be Stent Mutton's unnamed narrator -- who
"seemed to find everyone and everything in the world pretty tiresome, and although he rarely bothered to dodge the women who threw themselves at him, the only true passion to which he was ever aroused was his ferocious loathing for the rich and those deferential to the rich."
But most of all, Loeser liked the fact that Mutton's character "always, always, always knew what do. No dithering, no procrastination, no self-consciousness: just action."
Since the breakup with his girlfriend Marlene, he hasn't had sex, relying instead on his Parisian photo album called Midnight At the Nursing Academy. At a party one night, where Berthold Brecht is supposed to make an appearance, Egon sees a beautiful young woman, who turns out to be a former poetry pupil of his, Adele Hitler ("no relation"). Ultimately, and ironically, this particular Hitler will drive Egon out of Germany, as he realizes that he has to have sex with her, believing that if he could just be with her once, "then everything would be all right." She becomes his obsession, sleeping with everyone but him, but within a few years she disappears from Berlin. The rest of the novel follows Loeser as he follows Adele's trail to Paris then makes his way to Los Angeles, paralleling in a bizarre sort of way the flight from Nazi Germany by other intellectuals, whom Heinrich Mann once called "the best of Germany." In Beauman's hands, however, the émigré experience becomes anything but typical. Throughout his travels, Loeser becomes unwittingly involved with an American con artist in Paris, Communist spies, a ghost (or not) who leaves him little gifts, a rich man who made his fortune in car wax who also suffers from a bizarre condition, a truly mad scientist and other delights. Add in a few unsolved murders and a connection between HP Lovecraft and the US State Department, and you end up with a rich, funny and definitely unforgettable reading experience. And at the center of it all is the Teleportation Device, which Loeser seems to encounter in some form everywhere he goes.
Part of the beauty of this novel is that Mr. Beauman does not confine himself to any one genre, taking aim at the conventions of literary realism and historical fiction while combining elements of both with sci-fi and horror throughout the book to come out with something very different -- a book that, as reviewer Simon Hammond says in August's issue of Literary Review (one of the online periodicals I subscribe to), manages to "keep all the plates spinning, as the story dashes between years and continents with a large supporting cast." While it's easy to dislike Loeser for being so blind, unfeeling and selfish, you can't help but laugh at the stupid predicaments he finds himself in. This book is absolutely hysterical, sadly, even when it probably shouldn't be. But the real delight here is really in how the author brings it all together -- although, of course, not in any sort of conventional way. With the Teleportation Device always taking center stage, ideas, people, themes and events crop up cunningly throughout each and every shift in time and place and continue on well into the future. The downside, from the casual reader perspective, is that there are just so many literary and philosophical references, probably many I didn't get, so once again, I have to leave the deeper meanings and the book's literary pedigree to the many readers much more so inclined than myself and to the professional reviewers. But having said that, I loved this novel and highly, highly recommend it. ...more
Seriously, this book is a stellar read. If you've read anything by this author, you know he gets into the human psyche with his work and here he's inSeriously, this book is a stellar read. If you've read anything by this author, you know he gets into the human psyche with his work and here he's in peak form. It's a definite "don't miss."
I'll give a brief peek here; you can click here for a longer discussion.
Although there are some very solid mysteries at its core, technically this book is really not a work of "crime" fiction, so to speak. Philip Anders, "stay-at-home" literary critic and the narrator of this story, was the best friend of Julian Wells since childhood until the day Julian rowed himself out into the middle of a pond bordering his Montauk family home, opened his veins and bled to death in the boat. His death was a surprise to both Philip and Julian's sister Loretta. His decades-long writing career led to articles "about plague and famine and holocaust," and five books which focused on some of history's most horrific crimes and the monsters who committed them.
As Philip, Loretta and later Philip's father, a former bureaucrat at the State Department, begin to ponder the whys, Philip wonders if Julian's long immersion into human darkness might have taken its toll on his friend; Loretta believed he was "like a man in a locked room, trying to get out," and Philip's father thinks that "Julian had a lot of feeling...too much of it morbid," and that darkness was all Julian knew. As Loretta and Philip talk, Loretta informs him that she believed Julian was already on track for another book -- she had seen him looking at a map the day he'd died, the first step in Julian's writing process, after which he'd read all he could then travel to the site. The map, she says to Philip, was of Argentina, and a part of it had been circled. Julian and Philip had visited the area together some thirty years earlier, where they had met a lovely young woman who served as their guide. When Loretta wonders if their trip may have been on Julian's mind, Philip discards the idea because it was so long ago that they'd been there. But soon he begins to wonder -- was it possible that Julian's state of mind that day had something to do with that old trip? And what about the dedication in Julian's book where he acknowledged Philip as the "sole witness to my crime." What crime? What was the crime of Julian Wells? Philip decides he must act as Julian's friend and try to uncover the mystery behind Julian's death.
Very cleverly constructed, the novel takes the reader not only through Europe and Argentina as Philip follows Julian's footsteps, but also into a journey where the author explores such thematic issues as the nature of guilt, deception and betrayal, the various forms of cruelty and the hearts and minds of the people who employ them, as well as the meaning of friendship. Each chapter brings Philip closer to the truth, not only about the answers he seeks but about his friend Julian as well. Philip's travels also reveal the darkness and malevolence that take root and sometimes come to maturity in the souls of human beings. At the same time, his search will reveal that life has a "cruel randomness"; that it is a "lottery upon whose uncontrollable outcome everything depended."
The people in this book are terrifically and at times frighteningly well drawn, some of them have enough personality to send the occasional shiver down your spine. The Crime of Julian Wells is an incredible novel, one I absolutely recommend. People who are interested in Argentina's Dirty War would be great readers for this novel; historical crime buffs and anyone interested in the darker events in European history would also like it. It's not a cozy-type thing at all; some scenes are graphic although not terribly overdone -- considering the subject matter, it could have been much, much worse. The novel also ventures into the philosophical at times, something that might turn some readers off, but for others it might be that something different you've been looking for. Super, super book -- some of the best and most original writing I've seen in contemporary American crime fiction. ...more
9781590174951 NYRB Classics, 2012 originally published 1963 245 pp
My favorite fiction is the edgy, gritty kind where some poor guy, for some reason or an9781590174951 NYRB Classics, 2012 originally published 1963 245 pp
My favorite fiction is the edgy, gritty kind where some poor guy, for some reason or another, gets drawn into a hopelessly screwed-up situation and finds that it just keeps getting worse, despite everything he does to try to escape. These kinds of stories start off innocuously enough, but within just a very short time the tension starts to build, joined by a restlessness and a sense of growing trepidation, neither of which let up until the last page. This is precisely what I look for when I pick up a crime novel, and this is exactly what I got in Dorothy B. Hughes' The Expendable Man. What happens in this novel is nothing less than one man's nightmare played out over the course of a few days of his life; between the lines Hughes pens her own insights into issues pertinent to the time & place of this novel's setting.
Dr. Hugh Densmore is an intern at UCLA, and he's left the city to be with his family for his sister's upcoming wedding in Phoenix. In his mother's borrowed car, he's making his way through the desert highway and notices a hitchhiker along the side of the road. Normally, he "knew better" than to stop for hitchhikers, but this time it's different -- leaving the young, teenaged girl at the side of the road just wasn't something his conscience isn't going to allow him to do:
"He had sisters as young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift."
Although initially he'd planned to leave her at the border before crossing the state line into Arizona, that plan backfires and he takes her on into Phoenix. He drops her off at the bus station and she's gone. But after a surprise visit to his hotel room that same night, the next day he hears an announcement on the radio about an unidentified girl. Grabbing the newspaper, he discovers that the body of a young girl has been found in a nearby Scottsdale canal. He quickly discards any idea of helping the police identify her, but later an anonymous tip sends the cops to him -- as a suspect. He hides the situation from his family and tells the police the bare outlines of his story, but he's just certain that they're going to pin the girl's murder on him. They delay an arrest, but growing ever more paranoid that it's going to happen at any moment, he spills everything to Ellen, a family friend in town for the wedding, and Densmore sets out to prove his innocence. He has to prove that it wasn't him before they take lock him away for good -- "because of circumstance," he has been tagged as the "sacrificial goat," and he knows it. But time is ticking and no one but Ellen believes him.
A taut, thoroughly convincing and highly atmospheric novel, The Expendable Man is a classic "wrongly-accused-man" story with a bit of a twist that adds an extra layer of reader tension when it dawns on you exactly what's going on. Hughes is superb at plotting and pace; her descriptions of the Arizona desert are spot on. For example, in describing a ride through the desert night, she writes:
"The moon was high and white; each fence post, each clump of cactus was as distinctly outlined as by the sun. The mountains were moon-gray against the deep night sky. A dog barked from a distant house, the only reminder that they were not on a distant planet."
The atmosphere she creates with phrases like these reflection Densmore's own isolation throughout the story.
Her characters and dialogue are all believable as well, but beyond the normal components of this kind of fiction, Hughes also incorporates people from different walks of life into her story, all the while scrutinizing American attitudes regarding race, socio-economic status and crime in the early 1960s.
The Expendable Man is among the best books I've read all year, and I can't recommend it enough. Sure, the wrongly-accused-man thing has been done before and for many modern readers used to the gimmicky serial killer type reads that top the charts today, it might come across as a little tame in the crime area. But this book goes well beyond just another novel of crime fiction, spilling into the realm where empathy takes over -- the reader remains trapped in Densmore's nightmare just as much as he is. That's how much power Hughes has over her audience. And I loved every second of it. ...more
On the shorter end of things, this book is simply stellar. Absolutely. It is not a thriller, nor isIf you want the long review, you can click here.
On the shorter end of things, this book is simply stellar. Absolutely. It is not a thriller, nor is it a novel of crime fiction, so don't even go there in your thinking or you'll end up being disappointed like so many readers who thought this book was something it's not. It's more a book about lines and borders crossed, about boundaries, about family, about how certain things in our lives direct us in ways we may never have considered, about trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in the face of those events. It's about accepting life on life's terms. If you were expecting some fast-paced action, you're not going to get it here. If you're expecting a downright wonderful read, that's something you'll definitely find.
Although I'm not one to read books because they're trendy or just because they show up on the New York Times bestseller lists, and although normally I'm drawn to books that most people would never read, after seeing the blurb on the inside dustjacket cover of this book, I knew I had to have it. The first words are what got me: "First, I'll tell about the robbery that our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later." I thought, well, if this character is going to take me into his confidence enough to tell me about these things that he and his twin sister went through, why shouldn't I sit down, grab a cup of coffee and listen to him? This may sound a little bit stupid, but the entire time I was reading this book, it seemed as though I was actually hearing this man's voice talking to me. I can't say that I've ever had this experience with a novel before -- that's how captivating this entire story was for me.
The writing is amazing, and I was totally lost in this book for the few hours it took me to finish it. I highly recommend it. ...more
Exasperatingly enough, Gillespie and I is one of those books where saying too much gives away the show, a potential buzzkill for anyone who may want tExasperatingly enough, Gillespie and I is one of those books where saying too much gives away the show, a potential buzzkill for anyone who may want to read it. I bought this book last summer from the UK, having read a little about it in various threads re last year's Booker Prize speculations (and because I had enjoyed her The Observations ), but I had no idea what I was getting into once I started reading. So I'll keep quiet about what happens in this novel for anyone who may be interested in reading it. I won't even tell my real-life book friends who want to borrow it -- the lips are zipped. So here is a basic outline but I'll leave it to you to read this most superbly-crafted, delightful novel on your own. Just don't miss it, despite the 500+ pages -- it reads very quickly and hooks you from the outset.
The story is narrated by an elderly Harriet Baxter, looking back from 1933 to events in her life from 1888 through 1890. In Glascow, through a random event, she becomes friends with the family of Ned Gillespie, whom Harriet calls "a man of indisputable talent, but a man hampered by circumstance and responsibility." As a painter, Ned stood outside the privileged circle of artists
"notoriously prone to snobbism, and nowhere more cliquish than Scotland, wherein most established artists were possessed of wealth, an Edinburgh heritage, and a first-rate education,"
many of whom were exhibiting their work at the International Exhibition. Ned is the proverbial struggling artist, with a family to support: his wife Annie (also an artist), two young daughters Sybil and Rose; the family has a small business that is managed by Ned's brother Kenneth, who has his own personal issues as well. Harriet believes in Ned as an artist and decides to do what she can to help him, going to her stepfather Ramsay (collector of inventions that don't seem to work) to help in publicizing Ned's work. He isn't so keen on the idea, but does allow Harriet money for a commissioned portrait. Harriet decides Annie should do it, and she decides to lengthen her stay in Glasgow for the purpose. Soon Harriet is a regular household fixture at the Gillespies; she plays with the two children, helps Annie around the house, talks to Ned about his art, etc. etc. She's there when the older of the two girls, Sybil, begins to exhibit bizarre behavior (painting pictures of penises on the wall, for a start) and she's also around when a terrible tragedy strikes the household. Her account of her Glasgow years are interwoven with her current life as an elderly spinster with only two little birds for companions, along with the housekeeper (who doubles as fact checker, etc., for Harriet's memoirs) Sarah.
So, you may ask -- why is this scenario special? Aren't there a number of books in which the past is related through the eyes of the characters some years later? Well, it is precisely what I'm not saying that gives this book its edge, and far be it from me to spoil it. At the very beginning, in the preface, the reader is told by Harriet that she has waited quite a long time to set pen to paper, needing to put some distance between herself and a "sequence of profoundly affecting events, none the least of which was that Ned...took his own life." From that sentence on, you enter Harriet's mind, a very strange place indeed. At first you may feel like you're in some routine period piece set in Victorian Scotland, but it will not be long before you may notice an inexplicable, deep sense of unease starting to creep up on you, compelling you to keep turning pages until it's all over.
Gillespie and I is an inventive and ingenious novel, taking you quickly back into Victorian-era Scotland where you immediately become enmeshed in the characters' lives; at the same time it tends to turn your sense of perception on its head. It is very well paced, extremely readable and deliciously plotted, with equal levels of suspense and disquietude which grow as the story progresses. Jane Harris is an awesome writer, and I hope she returns with something equally as good very soon. I absolutely loved this captivating book, and I can very highly recommend it.
sidebar: I read this book on a plane from Seattle to Phoenix and then from Phoenix to Ft. Lauderdale. I hate flying, but was so caught up in this one that I forgot where I was!...more
There is a Sinhalese expression "Konde bandapu cheena," which translates as "ponytailed Chinaman," and connotes someone gullible -- someone who will bThere is a Sinhalese expression "Konde bandapu cheena," which translates as "ponytailed Chinaman," and connotes someone gullible -- someone who will believe anything. A "Chinaman" in cricket terms is (according to Wikipedia) "a left-handed bowler bowling wrist spin (left arm unorthodox). For a right-handed batsman, the ball will move from the off side to the leg side (left to right on the TV screen). " The question asked by the narrator of this novel is this:
"Is this a story about a pony-tailed Chinaman bowler? Or a tale to tell a pony-tailed Chinaman? That is for you to decide."
Whatever your choice may be after finishing this novel, Chinaman is one of the best novels I've read so far this year. I know jack about cricket, which features heavily throughout the story; no surprise there, considering Americans are far more involved in football, baseball and basketball. Strangely enough, my lack of knowledge was not a drawback in any form. The mix of Sri Lankan history, contemporary politics, humor, the characters and the author's prose all come together to make this book an unforgettable experience.
"There is nothing more inspiring than a solid deadline," notes retired Sri Lankan journalist WG Karunasena, and after a long career of both sportswriting and serious drinking, he has been given his last one. His doctor has given him about a year to live if he does not stop drinking; if WG cuts down to two drinks a day, maybe a year or two at most. He decides that it's a good time to do a "halfway decent documentary on Sri Lankan cricket", and is obsessed with a cricket player named Pradeep Mathew, who he says, is Sri Lanka's all-time best cricketer. Mathew was a "top spinner...," "Chinaman, googly, top spinner and that amazing arm ball that god rid of the Aussie captain." Along with his friend and fellow cricket fanatic Ari Byrd, WG begins to gather information on Mathew, who has long-since disappeared from the cricket scene, official records and also from Sri Lanka, seemingly vanishing into thin air. As they start the documentary project, which will later evolve into a book project for WG, they run into several people who claim to know something about Mathew, and they run into others who do not want WG to go any further with the project. Is there some conspiracy at work here? As WG and Ari embark on their at times rather strange quest, WG's obsession with Mathew and his discussions about the game of cricket become a vehicle for exploring Sri Lankan politics and history, and life in contemporary Sri Lankan society.
But there are other considerations at work in this novel as well, both on and off the cricket field -- relationships within families; friendships; politics and money that get in the way of sportsmanship; old age; the sadness and regret of wasted lives; the inescapable power plays -- all presented in a style that fits well into the story without ever getting overly preachy. And then there's WG himself -- should anyone even believe his ramblings, considering his alcoholic bent toward self destruction and considering the characters that populate this novel? There's WG's old nemesis, once a rival for WG's wife Sheila, who may or may not have had six fingers and who may or may not have been Mathew's school coach ; a midget who claims to have had an underground bunker and to have secretly taped damning conversations on the cricket field; a friend of WG who may or not be a pedophile; and there's WG himself, the very center of the novel. The story is punctuated throughout with definitions of cricket terms, diagrams of different cricket techniques, parts of the field etc, largely to help the reader and to move the story along. . There are also fuzzy photos here and there that may or may not lend credence to WG's search for the truth about Pradeep Mathew.
Chinaman is funny and downright sobering at the same time, which given the seriousness of the history of ongoing problems in Sri Lanka is a good juggling act, keeping the reader entertained on one hand while exploring the problems of this nation. And then there's the sports aspect: the author clearly brings out the "magic" moments of sporting events that tie people together: "sport can unite worlds, tear down walls and transcend race, the past, and all probability. Unlike life, sport matters." As WG notes,
"In thirty years, the world will not care about how I lived. But in a hundred years, Bulgarians will still talk of Letchkov and how he expelled the mighty Germans from the 1994 World Cup with a simple header."
As an American who knows little to nothing about the sport of cricket, at first the book was a bit daunting, even though the author lays out the basics and then throws in bits about different throws or batting techniques. When I realized that this could be problematic, I went to the internet for help in getting a quick rundown on how this game is played -- problem solved. Cricket might be a sticking point for some readers in this country, but ultimately I discovered it didn't really matter -- the overall story is so good and is so well told that my lack of cricket knowledge was only a momentary glitch that really did not distract from the narrative. The ending may be a bit gimmicky for some readers, but the book's good points are so numerous that they outweigh any negatives.
Whether or not you care about cricket, I definitely and highly recommend this book -- it is that good, offering its readers a glimpse into life in another country, and into one man's journey of discovery in his last months of life. It's a beautiful book, and I hope it finds other Americans to cheer it on. ...more
It is just possible that I've found the novel that come next December I'll be listing as my favorite book of the year. Go ahead -- scoff or do the eyeIt is just possible that I've found the novel that come next December I'll be listing as my favorite book of the year. Go ahead -- scoff or do the eyeroll if you so choose, but this book has just set the bar for my reading year. With this novel, the prose, the characters, the story and the author's imagining of life under totalitarian rule in North Korea all combine to produce the literary equivalent of the perfect storm in my reading universe.
While getting my thoughts together and perusing the internet, I discovered an interview where the author notes that
"... in North Korea there is a national script, conveyed through propaganda. There is one notion about who the people are and what the national goals are, and you as a citizen are conscripted to be a part of this national narrative. . . You have to relinquish your own personal desires.”
And the main character in this story, Pak Jun Do, has spent a great deal of his young life following the script. His early life and career are laid out in the first part of this novel, "The Biography of Jun Do," which even by itself would have made an incredible story. His father is in charge of the orphan camp called Long Tomorrows near Chongjin, where Jun Do grows up without a mother. Orphans are very low in the social order, and are hired out to various companies or other work details; when they get older they are sent directly to the military, where they are usually assigned the most dangerous jobs. Jun Do, although not technically an orphan, ends up as a tunnel soldier, then ends up on assignment kidnapping people from Japan. From there, he is assigned to language school, then to a listening post on the fishing boat Junma, where he monitors radio transmissions. After an encounter with an American interceptor at sea and later a defection, he is proclaimed a hero and recruited for a secret mission to Texas. It is there, looking through of all things a telephone directory, that he comes to realize that there's a bigger and better world out there, and that he hates his "small, backward homeland, a land of mysteries and ghosts and mistaken identities." His return to North Korea leads directly to part two of the novel, "The Confessions of Commander Ga," where in a rather abrupt change, we find Jun Do in a prison mine where one of the outputs is the blood of the dead that is shipped to the capital, Pyongyang. From there Jun Do's life takes on a new twist, one I won't reveal here, but it is a story guaranteed to keep you awake and turning pages because you do not want to miss even a second of Jun Do's story.
The strongest parts of the novel are found in how different people retain their dignity and integrity after enduring incredible hardships, and in what really constitutes a hero, a word that is bandied about at the upper echelons in keeping with the national myth. North Korea is a place where above all the myths behind the cult of personality endure, no matter what methods are used to ensure its survival -- "re-education," fear, torture, etc. While the author shows that not everyone buys into it, there is also propaganda everywhere, made very clear by the loudspeakers in everyone's living room, factory floors, offices, etc. Announcements beginning with "Citizens" are a device the author uses often throughout the novel, often related in a tongue-in-cheek manner, used to broadcast not only the latest good deed done by the Dear Leader -- "Kim Jong Il was seen offering on-the-spot guidance to the engineers deeping the Taedong River channel," but also the myth: "While the Dear Leader lectured to the dredge operators, many doves were seen to spontaneously flock above him, hovering to provide our Reverend General some much needed shade on a hot day."
The Orphan Master's Son is a wonderful novel for several reasons, and I've just skimmed the surface of the story here. I had only a small problem in terms of reading, and that was with the juxtaposition from part one to part two, where I read a few pages, scratched my head and had to go back again to make sure what I'd read was correct. Once I figured out what was happening and continued reading, all was explained and back into smooth reading zone I went.
It's very obvious that the author has done his research, even traveling to North Korea. At one point I looked up kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Koreans and was amazed to discover that this practice has been going on for some time. Furthermore, the propaganda and mythmaking around Kim Jong-il so beautifully incorporated into The Orphan Master's Son is now being ramped up in real life for the new leader Kim Jong-un, as shown in this article.
Very highly recommended, although his book may not be for everyone -- many readers might find the story too dark or bleak to get through, so if you're looking for a lighthearted read, forget it. It is gritty and often difficult to get through, with scenes of torture and prison life, starvation, famine and other hardships endured by regular people in a situation in which they have little or no control. And although this book is very approachable from a reader standpoint, some may be bothered by the change in narrative form from part one to part two, which admittedly is a bit confusing at first. On the other hand, it is a book in which the author's imagination regarding this closed society comes to life and translates into a credible look at a place most people know only through news reports.
I can't say exactly why I loved this book, but it is one that made its way under my skin and one I will not soon forget. Bravo, Adam Johnson! ...more
click here to read a really long review; read on through for the short one.
El Narco is truly one of the best books of nonfiction I've read this yearclick here to read a really long review; read on through for the short one.
El Narco is truly one of the best books of nonfiction I've read this year. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who's even remotely interested in the topic. I noticed that while looking at reviews I found one where someone calls this book "conspiratorial," "left-wing" and "Anti-American." Don't believe it. The book is frightening in its implications, because it's all too real, but the facts are well presented and thoroughly researched. Grillo's own insights and personal contributions even convey some humor to break up what is an incredibly serious situations, and he's been covering Mexico and other parts of Latin America for years and is therefore most credible. Great book.
Ioan Grillo, journalist and author of El Narco has based his book not only on comprehensive and impeccable research, but on firsthand accounts, his own observations and often hair-raising interviews. The roadmap for understanding this book is completely laid out in the first chapter as Grillo examines
a) the transformation of groups responsible for drug smuggling who have in the last decade or so become more militarized into "paramilitary death squads" responsible for "tens of thousands" of deaths, as well as the effects on ordinary people in Mexico;
b) the rise of these groups as a dangerous "criminal insurgency," one that threatens to become a civil war along the US/Mexico border;
c) the combined effects of the lack of success of the US war on drugs and Mexico's own political and economic issues in creating this insurgency; and
d) possible solutions based on what Grillo calls a "drastic rethinking of strategies" that should not depend on US military involvement
But before launching into the meat of the book, Grillo first examines the concept of "El Narco." He notes that in Mexico, El Narco is the collective term used for traffickers, but in reality the term also designates an entire culture in its own right, spawning its own music, co-opting religious icons and religions, its own clothing styles, etc., all based on the drug trafficker as local hero. It is an entire movement based in the "drug underworld," and as Grillo notes, the threat of El Narco and figuring out possible solutions is best understood by following its development.
As the book proceeds, it follows the above-listed guideline to provide an incredible look at how the traffic in drugs in Mexico went from a few people who dominated the poppy/opium/narcotics market to a major insurgency and an all-out war which threatens to explode into unprecedented violence and a very real threat....more
Simply stellar book about the dissenters' movement of Putin's Russia. It's nonfiction, but reads easily, and if you're interested, it will keep you spSimply stellar book about the dissenters' movement of Putin's Russia. It's nonfiction, but reads easily, and if you're interested, it will keep you spellbound throughout. You can opt for the short summary/review or click on through to the longer one.
In 12 Who Don't Agree, Russian journalist Valery Panyushkin gathers together the individual stories of several Russian dissidents, linked together in various ways, especially as participants in the March of the Dissidents of 2007. The first of these protest marches was in held in Petersburg, and was only one of a series of planned events prior to the presidential election of 2008. Their intention was to call attention to their opposition to the social, political and economic policies of then president Vladimir Putin. During the first march, which was considered a "success" by its organizers (including Garry Kasparov, Russian dissident and former world-chess champion), the authorities called out the OMON (a police special forces unit), who reacted with violence against some of the protestors, but before the march was over, according to one observer, a "crowd of 10,000 had broken through the police cordons onto Nevsky Prospect... a human river as far as the eye could see, ... friends and comrades in arms free, strong, and dissenting." While much of the violence was officially blamed on the organizers, provocateurs hired by the regime took their place in the crowds, holding signs and stirring up trouble to make the protestors look bad. And all of this after the fall of the Wall and the end of totalitarian rule.
All of the individual stories in this book deal with the gradual erosion of freedoms, human rights violations, threats, and other events that made these protests necessary as these individuals (and others) began to realize that "...we had returned to the Soviet Union, to a life we knew. When, no matter who you were, you could not have any effect on the regime or rise to power." These narratives also deal with the government's efforts to crack down on any form of public protest, as well as measures taken to edge out any real political opposition to the Kremlin, including censorship of opposition viewpoints and changes in the election laws. Did you know, for example, that in Russia, it's illegal to have more than one person picketing at a time? Add another person and you're violating the law, with jail time as a result. And did you know that there are people hired by the Kremlin to come up and stand with a solitary picketer, which ends the picket and makes the picketer a criminal? And now that another round of elections are coming up, and Putin is planning to run, well, the world should be watching. And then what happens with the protests come to a halt altogether?
If you are politically inclined or are interested in the state of human rights around the globe, this is a definite must-read that gets well beyond news stories we listen to with only half an ear (if at all, since it's not about us). The book starts out a bit slowly, but as Panyushkin gets through the intrigue, the political plays, injustices and protection of oligarchical interests of the government, he also gets into the hearts and minds of these eleven people as they try to find a vehicle for expression and change. He often exercises humor that doesn't belie the seriousness of what he's saying. Sometimes the narrative gets a bit bogged down and I found myself going to the internet for dates, etc., but for the most part, it's easy to read and to understand. And with what's happening around the globe, it's timely. Definitely and most highly recommended. ...more
"What part was fact and what part was the extension of fact? And how were facts separated from possibilities? What had really happened and what merely"What part was fact and what part was the extension of fact? And how were facts separated from possibilities? What had really happened and what merely might have happened? How did it end?"
Normally a book of 336 pages is nothing daunting and usually takes about 2-3 days of reading time. I spent well over one week on Going After Cacciato, filled one entire spiral-bound notebook with notes and questions and went through almost an entire package of little sticky tabs for marking things I wanted to come back to later. Because I felt that this is a book that I genuinely wanted (and still want) to understand, I got up in the wee hours of the a.m. to read before anyone was up and came downstairs to interrupt me. I bought books about Tim O'Brien & books about approaching Vietnam War literature, I skimmed then downloaded copious amounts of scholarly articles about Cacciato, and well, you get the drift here. There is so much going on here that it deserves much more time and intense scrutiny than I've given it, and if that doesn't recommend it, I don't know what will.
Considering my fascination and admiration for this novel, this book is best experienced by the reader, so what I'm going to say here is going to be relatively brief. The novel opens with a haunting paragraph, a list of the deaths of people who were in main character Paul Berlin's squad:
"It was a bad time. Billy Boy Watkins was dead, and so was Frenchie Tucker. Billy Boy had died of fright, scared to death on the field of battle, and Frenchie Tucker had been shot through the nose. Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin had died in tunnels. Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead."
Then in October, Cacciato, another platoon member, "left the war," ... "Split, departed." He had told Paul Berlin that he would be going off to Paris -- 8,600 miles, walking all the way. Cacciato's route was to take him
"up through Laos, then into Burma, and then some other country...and then India and Iran and Turkey, and then Greece, and the rest is easy."
The decision is made by the lieutenant that the squad will go after Cacciato -- and so it begins. Incredible premise for a novel about the Vietnam War, isn't it? As the squad makes its way on the 8,600-mile trek, at some point you begin to realize that things that happen on the way to Paris link to the squad's real war experiences in Vietnam, the second narrative strand in this book, which eventually tells the stories of how the ten men listed at the beginning died. In the third thread, Paul Berlin reflects on the war and his place in it over one night on watch in an observation post along the South China Sea, and it is also there that he begins to work out the possibilities of "What happened and what might have happened," to Cacciato and by extension, to himself and the squad chasing after the AWOL soldier. Time moves slowly in the observation post, giving Paul Berlin space to realize that the "critical point" is that "It could truly be done." Cacciato's flight also gives Paul Berlin time to reflect on the question of fear, the soldier's constant companion, and courage:
"The issue, of course, was courage. How to behave. Whether to flee or fight or seek an accommodation. The issue was not fearlessness. The issue was how to act wisely in spite of fear. Spiting the deep-running biles: That was true courage. He believed this. And he believed the obvious corollary: The greater a man's fear, the greater his potential courage."
O'Brien has created a story that blurs the lines between reality and imagination, fantasy and fact, leaving it to the reader to try to sort it all out somehow. Reality and facts are definitely present in this story, as are, believe it or not scenes of restlessness and tedium in the midst of war, but all are related in a disjointed, jarring sort of way that likely reflects the often surreal Vietnam war experiences of those who were there and how they processed internally what they saw and how they remembered things later. On the flip side, there are several instances in this book that not only verge on but fall smack into the territory of the surreal.
As noted above, this is a novel that needs to be experienced individually -- while a number of readers were totally turned off by the verge into the fantastical, for me it's probably one of the most powerful, well-written books I've ever read. Any book that wants to make me get into the head of the guy who wrote it or that keeps me thinking about it long after the last page is turned is more than worthy. ...more
River of Smoke is book two of Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy, so named for the ship introduced in book one, Sea of Poppies. In book one, set in 1836, the BritisRiver of Smoke is book two of Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy, so named for the ship introduced in book one, Sea of Poppies. In book one, set in 1836, the British colonial powers had changed the rich fields of Indian farmland into a veritable "sea of poppies," and had economically hogtied the people who used to raise their own food crops to the opium industry. Opium often forced farmers into debt and into leaving their homes, causing many of them to make voyage to plantations in Mauritius and other places where the abolition of slavery left a great demand for indentured workers. Now two years later, River of Smoke follows the opium from its origins in India to its final destination in China, where in thirty years the amount of the "black mud" penetrating throughout the country has increased "tenfold," and where
"...thousands, maybe millions of people ... have become slaves to it -- monks, generals, housewives, soldiers, mandarins, students,"
and now, in 1838, the Emperor has had enough, and he's sent an emissary to Canton to force the issue.
Despite what may be expected of the second novel of this trilogy, River of Smoke does not actually pick up where Sea of Poppies left off. Although some answers as to the respective fates of the characters from Sea of Poppies are partially revealed, and although some familiar characters continue on in River of Smoke, Ghosh sets the action in Canton and brings in new faces, most notably that of Bahram Naurozji Modi, a wealthy Parsi merchant from Bombay. He had married into a family of famous shipbuilders who had made their fortunes after being awarded a contract from the East India Company; he decided that he would like to get into the export business. At age 21, he made his first trip to Canton, where he was "stripped of the multiple wrappings of home, family, community, obligation and decorum," and became a different person altogether, even taking on a mistress who gave him a son. Known there as Barry Moddie, he has returned after a three-year absence, sailing in his beloved ship Anahita, with a hold full of opium, "possibly the single most valuable cargo that had ever been carried out of the Indian Subcontinent." He is banking on making enough money to satisfy his investors, make a fortune for himself and prove something to his wife's family. Now that he is in Canton just as the Emperor has decided to crack down and start enforcing the longstanding ban on opium imports, his ability to sell his cargo is on hold; in the meantime he is appointed to "the Committee," which runs the Canton Chamber of Commerce, "the foreign enclave's unofficial Cabinet." Bahram has his appointment because he is the longest-standing merchant from India, not because of any feelings of equity from the other members of the Committee. It is there that the merchants' battles over the opium trade will be fought, and where Bahram, as the member from India, will be caught in the middle of the debate between free trade as a God-given right of imperialistic nations and the morality of the opium trade as well. With this role comes great responsibility, as his friend Zadig reminds him:
"You will have to ask yourself: what of the future? How do we safeguard our interests in the event of war?...And if the Chinese manage to hold off the Europeans, what will become of us, and our relations with them? We too will be suspect in their eyes. We who have traded here for generations, will find ourselves banned from coming again."
But it is not just the future of trade that Bahram must contemplate: first, he must acknowledge his own role in the opium trade currently devastating China, since
"almost all the 'black mud' that came to Canton was shipped from your own shores; and you knew also that even though your share of the riches that grew upon that mud was minuscule, that did not prevent the stench of it from clinging more closely to you than to any other kind of Alien."
and this truth will have ultimately have devastating implications for Bahram as a human being.
There is a great deal of use of the term "civilized nation," and it is ultimately up to the reader to decide what this means. River of Smoke also presents the flip side of relations with China, in which cultural exchange has benefits for all nations: in art and poetry as represented by the character of Robin Chinnery and in the exchange of plants, carried out by Mr. Penrose, a wealthy man whose nurseries in Britain were famous for their wide variation in imported plants, and Paulette Lambert, one of the original passengers of the Ibis from Sea of Poppies. While Paulette sort of sits on the sidelines of all the politics since as a woman she cannot enter the foreign enclave in Canton, she and her patron work to collect and trade plants with the Chinese, but even their work is interrupted by politics.
If you read Sea of Poppies, you will remember the fast-paced action of that story; don't expect the same here. I have to admit to being skeptical of this novel at first because the action in River of Smoke is slow to build, but once the story got to Singapore, the pace picked up and I found myself in the role of observer of events leading to a critical moment in China's history. I often use the phrase "I couldn't put the book down," meaning I was absorbed in the pages in front of me, but this time I literally did not stop reading until I had come to the very end and I have the dark circles under my eyes to prove it. This book put me in the skins of the main characters and I was caught up in the all of the political and moral debates, felt the tensions rising in the foreign enclaves, and then became ultimately saddened by knowing what's in store for the Chinese within the next year or so and where it's all going to lead. And in today's global geopoliticking, the same old songs are being heard again and as in the past, the big powers aren't listening. Although tempered by humor, especially in terms of language misunderstandings, River of Smoke is an intense novel that rises above the ordinary to tell an incredibly devastating story while offering a glimpse of what could have been if greed and nationalistic pride hadn't interfered. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it is an excellent book, and I recommend it very highly. ...more
There are just some books that have the power to take you out of the real world for a while so that all there is is the story in front of you, and PymThere are just some books that have the power to take you out of the real world for a while so that all there is is the story in front of you, and Pym is one of those. This book fits the bill of that old phrase "a rollicking good yarn," while simultaneously offering its readers the author's ruminations on the issue of race. Trying to pigeonhole this metafictional novel is not a simple task: it's got it all -- alternative history, fantasy, adventure, satire, and above all, comedy. I think there were only a few moments when I didn't laugh while reading this book.
The story begins when Christopher Jaynes fails to gain tenure at the university where he's teaching. Jaynes is the only black male professor on campus, and was hired to teach African American Literature. But he would rather teach American lit., and because he believed that early American literature (including his favorite, Edgar Allan Poe) held the "intellectual source of racial Whiteness," and "the twisted mythic underpinnings of modern racial thought." He offered a course called "Dancing With the Darkies: Whiteness in the Literary Mind" to explore his ideas. He believes his work is helping to discover why America has not yet become a postracial society, and also that his work is helping to find a cure. As he explains to the bow-tied university president, "If we can identify how the pathology of Whiteness was constructed, then we can learn how to dismantle it." And Jaynes believed that Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (and some of his other works, but he is somewhat obsessed with Poe's Pym) was a key source in understanding the source of the assumptions of Whiteness. But these classes were poorly attended, one of the reasons given to him for denial of tenure, as well as the unspoken reason that Jaynes refused to sit on the school's diversity committee.
Jaynes also collects antiquarian texts, and one day shortly after leaving the university, finds an item in a catalog for a "Negro Servant's Memoir," from 1837. As it turns out, it's not really a slave narrative, but rather a major find: an African American work written before the Civil War. As he begins reading, to his very great surprise, he finds that what he has is nothing less than the autobiography of Dirk Peters, the "half-breed" companion of Arthur Gordon Pym from Poe's novel. Jaynes has an OMG moment where it comes to him that Pym's narrative may not have been fiction after all, and the proof is in his hands. So if The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is true, then Jaynes realizes that
" ...Tsalal, the great undiscovered African Diasporan homeland, might still be out there, uncorrupted by Whiteness. That there was a group of our people who did achieve victory over slavery in all its forms, escaping completely from the progression of Westernization and colonization to form a society outside of time and history. And that I might find them."
Jaynes decides to go to Antarctica, using his cousin Booker and a crew completely composed of African Americans to get him there. And this is where the story really takes off, so I won't add any more of the plot to avoid spoiling it for anyone who might be interested.
Pym is one of the best novels I've read this year. The author's writing comes off naturally so there's no contrived feeling in his prose. His characterizations are what make this book -- you will instantly recognize various character types as you read, making it all the more real. Jaynes' best friend Garth is enamored of paintings done by an artist named Thomas Karvel (think Kinkade), and loves Little Debbie Snack Cakes, which he packs by the caseload for the stay in Antarctica. His cousin Booker is a civil rights activist, and constantly spouts off about white people and the system when it suits him. There's also a gay videographer who runs a video website, along with his partner; even in the worst of spots the camera is rolling. Another character is an entertainment lawyer, who often stops the Antarctic action in debates about what they'll find and who will have the rights to it. And along the way, the author provides his insights and commentary on other works that followed The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, for example, Lovecraft's Mountains of Madness and a sequel to Poe's work by Jules Verne, besides delving into Poe's novel itself.
The action gets a little odd toward the end, but overall, if you're up for a great read, Pym is it. It satisfied my reading thirst for quirkiness, for comedy and satire and for a good story. Keep in mind though that it veers toward the fantastical, so if you can't suspend your disbelief, this isn't the book for you. You don't have to read Poe's original work to get it, as the author does a great job of presenting the story in his novel, but on a personal level, I'd suggest doing so. I got a lot more out of Johnson's novel having read Poe's first -- the style is purposefully similar to the original and there are little nuances from Poe that Johnson also captures in his book without explanation to the reader. It's definitely not a mainstream read -- and even though it's part fantasy, it's also an excellent commentary on race and human nature all wrapped up in one of the funniest stories I've ever read. While you're laughing, you're also learning. ...more
Simply stated, this is a phenomenal novel, one of my favorites for 2011. It's so good in fact, that I'm surprised more people haven't read it. Then agSimply stated, this is a phenomenal novel, one of my favorites for 2011. It's so good in fact, that I'm surprised more people haven't read it. Then again, I tend not to read like most people, so maybe I'm not surprised. It's translated from Chinese, deals with very delicate and depressing subject matter (largely because it's based on fact), but the writing is so incredibly good.
This book merits quite a lengthy review, you know, the kind hated by most people who are just looking to see if it's good, bad, or whatever. You'll find that one here.