What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Reading to Make Sense of Tragedy: "Nous Sommes Tous Charlie"

In the wake of the slaughter of a dozen people in Paris, ten of whom worked for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, by Islamic terrorists yelling "God is great!", I have been relieved to see how peaceful -- and moving -- reactions have been. But while this horrific attack is clearly the action of a lunatic fringe, it is one of a string of similar assaults, and has provoked a debate over whether this is simply extremist violence that has nothing whatsoever to do with what is happening within France (or the Netherlands, or other Western European nations). On the other hand, some commenters have also taken note of the fact that the terrorists spoke fluent French, and that France has a large and too often marginalized population, some second and third generation French citizens, who are descendants of immigrants from former French colonies in Muslim nations in North Africa and parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Study after study has shown they face discrimination in the job market and in housing -- they can even find it hard to open a bank account.

But let's not venture down this rabbit hole. Instead, I think it's time to take a step back. Because there is one bright spot here, other than the tremendous reaffirmation for free speech and other Enlightenment values on the part of all French people and an absence of any backlash against Paris's immigrant community, outside the city's péripherique highway. That is that the fact that the decades-long tensions between these communities have produced some great novels, many of which Europa Editions has translated and brought to the attention of English language readers. Here are a handful of the highlights.

The first of these is geographically on target -- The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris. To say that Mohamed, author Leila Marouane's protagonist, is conflicted, would be putting it mildly. On the one hand, at the age of 40, he lives with his mother and younger brother in the Algerian neighborhood of Saint Ouen in Paris (better known to tourists as home to a great flea market). On the other hand, he also has "Gallicized" his name; he ensures his skin is pale and that his hair is straight enough that he isn't mistaken for an Arab in real life, so unlike a lot of the guys he knew growing up, he's got a great job. But what Marouane is doing is painting a picture of what it's like for a man in today's France when identities collide in immigrant communities. Which is the real Mohamed? Is he the "Momo" that his community knows, or "Basile Tocquard", the new Gallic identity he has adopted and that allows him to "pass" and be accepted by broader French society in a way that Mohamed never would?

Momo's identity crisis comes to a head when he discovers his dream apartment and sets out to build a dream life in it, complete with (at last!) losing his virginity to what he hopes will be an endless stream of non-Algerian women. "All that remained for me to do was to go over the wall, with the firm intention of becoming an individual who decides and charts his life as a Westerner, on a full-time basis, with every right thereto pertaining." But while he fantasizes about the real estate agent who sells him the apartment, many of the other women he encounters actually turn out to be Algerian, and he is haunted by another the reader never quite encounters, an Algerian novelist named Loubna Minbar. Like life itself, maybe Momo's emancipation isn't going to be quite as straightforward as he had hoped?

The novel starts out as a straightforward chronicle of the adventures of Momo/Basile, only to take on an almost hallucinatory tone, leaving the reading questioning the narrator's reliability and pondering the havoc that discrimination can play on a psyche. A bonus? It's translated by Alison Anderson, who does an amazing job capturing not just the literal translation but providing an individual 'feel' for each novel she translates.

The German Mujahid by Boualem Sansal is another dark novel set partly in the banlieues/suburbs of Paris. Sansal, an Algerian-born writer, has had his works banned in his native country since 2006, and, like Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists, is an equal opportunity critic, although he doesn't work in satire, but uses much darker material altogether.

This novel is so far Sansal's only title to be available here, although as of next week (!), Bloomsbury USA will be releasing Harraga, set in Algeria itself. (I've got it ordered already.) The focus of this book is the diaries of two brothers, Rachel (Raschid Helmut) and his much younger brother, Malrich. On Rachel's death, Malrich discovers that his German father and Algerian mother also are dead -- victims of a massacre in Algeria's bloody civil war between the military and fundamentalist Islamists. Reading Rachel's diary, he unearths uncomfortable truths about his father's youth in the SS -- truths that Rachel found unbearable. But while Rachel found history trapped him, Malrich's own efforts to understand and make sense of his past focus on his present life in one of the Parisian housing projects that are "home" to large numbers of Tunisians, Moroccans and Algerians and others trying to carve out lives for themselves in a largely unwelcoming country.

Malrich already is aghast at the success that radical Islamists are having in radicalizing his community and sees uncanny parallels between the Nazis of his father's generation and the fundamentalists. Sansal's strength lies in his ability to deliver two parallel tales in utterly different and convincing voices: that of a mature man whose world collapses, and that of an adolescent who must find a path for himself that escapes the paradigm of victim and oppressor. Malrich's tone is that of a young guy chatting to his friends; Rachel's is more sober and analytical; bother are utterly convincing. Who is guilty? What does it mean to resist? These are weighty topics and Sansal does an excellent job of engaging with them.

If you need or want a lighter approach to these very weighty and important topics, you'll want to turn to the works of another Algerian-born author, Amara Lakhous. Lakhous, who until very recently has lived and worked in Italy, has written a series of three elegant and often hilarious novels set in Italian cities and focusing on the motley groups of migrants who end up sharing neighborhoods and apartment buildings. Divorce Islamic Style is a slyly funny look at a particular corner of Rome, Viale Marconi, known as "Little Cairo". One of its main characters, Christian, is from Sicily -- but he speaks perfect Arabic and can pass for an Arab. So when the government officials and cops get antsy about the possibility of some kind of terrorist plot brewing, it makes sense that they dispatch Christian (as Issa) to figure out what is going on. There, his path crosses that of Sofia, or Saffia, wife of an immigrant from Egypt. She's delighted with life in Rome -- and young and beautiful. Her husband? Not so much. Trained as an architect, he's stuck working as a pizza chef, and keeps getting so frustrated and fed up that he'll come home and argue with her, to the point that he'll yell "I divorce you!" in the heat of the moment. Whoops... if this happens a third time, she'll be free -- and remarriage won't be very easy at all...

Lakhous's other novels also tackle what happens when people from disparate culture backgrounds try to coexist, with Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazzo Vittoria making the point that for someone in Rome, a guy who shows up from Sicily or Calabria can be just as much (or more) of an outsider as someone who is a migrant from North Africa. Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet even had a reviewer at the Philadelphia Inquirer questioning whether Lakhous was an Italian Camus, writing novels trying to address the 'new Italy'.

The sudden rise of multiculturalism in Europe in the second half of the 20th century -- and the fact that in many countries, in practice, multiculturalism has taken the form of immigration from Muslim nations (in Britain, from Pakistan and Bangladesh; in Belgium and France, from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Senegal and Mali, among other countries; in Germany, 'guest workers' from Turkey) -- has created all kinds of new tensions. Whether those tensions are connected to these horrific acts of terrorism, there's a risk that members of these communities will have to deal with an upsurge in exclusionary nationalism.

Which makes it worthwhile to listen to these voices, as we mourn the Charlie Hebdo tragedy.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Mystery Monday: "There are people who should die...."

I don't know why there aren't more mysteries set in Southeast Asia. That said, most of the ones I've sampled, I haven't been able to really get excited about. Which is why I've decided to devote an entire blog post to two mystery series that I think should be on every fan's shelf and that I strongly suspect still remain too obscure. My reasons for these suspicions? Well, one series is an old favorite, discovered several years ago -- the witty, delightful, suspenseful and utterly charming mysteries set in Laos of the mid to late 1970s and featuring the country's reluctant coroner, the septugenerian Dr. Siri Paiboun. Whenever I shove these books into the hands of a friend, there is a better than 75% chance that he or she has never heard of them or their creator, Colin Cotterill, and a 90% chance that the friend in question has never tried reading them. (I don't allow that state of affairs to last for long, and my success rate in getting people to share my fan-dom is fairly high.) Alas, I'm less enamored of Cotterill's newer series, set in Thailand, where he makes his home. But now -- cue drum roll and, yes, why not, some trumpets, too -- I can get very, very excited about another series of mysteries set in Thailand. This one is published by Soho Press (a fave publisher of mine) and is written by Timothy Hallinan, who not only spends a chunk of his time in Bangkok, but clearly been using that time very, very well.

Part of what appealed to me most about A Nail Through the Heart is that Hallinan doesn't even try to make his chief character Thai. Poke Rafferty, in many ways, is a quintessential North American, one of the many male expatriates who wash up in Bangkok and simply never leave, floating around the fringes of its bar culture. But Poke is different in many ways. First of all, he's half Filipino; as one of the Thai characters notes consolingly in the book, this makes him look almost normal, and not like one of those ugly farang with their big noses. And while he ended up in Thailand in order to write a guide book to the city for restless young guys looking for the hottest bars and clubs -- along with tips for how to identify a ladyboy -- his own life has long since moved on. He has fallen in love with Rose, a tall, thoughtful and drop-dead gorgeous former bar dancer trying to build a cleaning business that will help get some of her former co-workers out of the bar trade before they end up in the blowjob bars -- the lowest ranks of the sex trade. He has taken in an 8-year-old street girl named Miaow, whom he met while she was peddling pencils, and who now is at school herself. He wants to adopt Miaow, and to marry Rose: the former may, just, be feasible, but Rose isn't sure he understands Thai culture or what it means to earn merit or be reborn. She wants him to understand what it would mean to mesh not only their lives but their souls.

But before any of that can happen, Poke succumbs to Miaow's pleas to give her friend, a street urchin named "Superman", a place to stay. He agrees to do a favor for his closest Thai friend, a policeman named Arthit (and just as compelling a character as Poke, Rose and Miaow, the main players in the drama.) And that lands him in a whole mess of trouble, looking for a vanished Australian who, he rapidly discovers, was involved in a particularly nasty child pornography ring, even as he ends up entangled with Madame Wing, a reclusive, wheelchair bound woman who has one of the most evil auras that Poke has ever encountered -- but who will pay him enough to find someone who stole from her to finance Miaow's adoption. There are some truly nasty folks out there, and as Rose tries to make him understand, maybe some victims aren't innocent simply because they are victims, and perhaps not all killers, just because they commit murder, are guilty. Watching Poke wrestle with the competing claims on his conscience, as he discovers stuff about his clients -- who have one claim on his loyalty -- and as he understands the motivations of the perpetrators, is fascinating, especially as it's all interwoven with his ongoing struggle to understand Rose and Thai culture.

From corrupt cops to the legacy of the Khmer Rouge killing fields, this novel covers a tremendous amount of ground, but Hallinan has a command of his material and, more importantly, does an amazing job of capturing the ambiance of Bangkok, from the flower warehouses to the crowded sois, or alleyways off the main roads. At one point, Poke is on the back of one of Bangkok's motorbike taxis, dodging through the inevitable traffic jams, at risk to life and limb, and I was literally there. (Well, I've done that -- though not, thank heavens, at high speeds!) Hallinan doesn't exaggerate to give us a picture of Bangkok, but instead relies on a host of small details, from the humidity to the body language of people on the streets.

I think after one encounter with Poke Rafferty and his motley assortment of fellow characters, and my introduction to his attempts to build a family of some kind in unpromising circumstances, I'm hooked. I'm moving straight on to the second book in the series, and the third, and the fourth... Thankfully, I think there are enough to keep me going until at least Christmas...

For audiobook fans: I can wholeheartedly recommend the audio version of these novels, as narrated by Victor Bevine.


Now, if only the same were true of Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri mysteries, and I had another unread book sitting here demanding my attention immediately!! The next in this much-loved series, Six and a Half Deadly Sins (is it a coincidence that both authors are published by Soho? It can't be...) won't be out until May. Grrrrr. By which point my nerves will be shredded. So I'll just have to spend time forcing the series onto more people. Including anyone reading this blog post.

Why? Because Dr. Siri is simply one of the most intriguing and unique sleuths ever to stalk the pages of a mystery novel -- and yes, I include Sherlock Holmes in that category. The Pathet Lao have taken over power in Laos -- it's 1976 -- and Dr. Siri, a French-educated doctor who spent many of the best years of his life in the struggle for some kind of just, humane regime, just wants some peace and quiet. (He's also coming to realize that the new regime is just as foolish as the old one, albeit in entirely different ways.) He's a classic humanist; a believer in people. But dead people? Siri isn't keen on serving as Laos's only official coroner but when the last doctor with any experience zooms across the Mekong to Thailand in an inner tube, he's lumbered with the job: there is no way to say "no" to the Politburo. Worse still, his first jobs have unpleasantly political aspects: why on earth do the bodies of dead Vietnamese soldiers keep popping to the surface of a Laotian lake? and what happened to the wife of a powerful Laotian leader?

Siri's morgue may be short of anything that a typical coroner might want or need. But it turns out that Siri isn't a typical coroner. As well as being a reluctant coroner, he's a reluctant link to spirits and ghosts. He also has unusual resources, in the shape of Dtui, the nurse who hopes to be sent to Russia for medical training, and Geung, who, in spite of his Down's Syndrome, is loyal and eerily wise. They do amazing things with very little, even when they have to take samples off to local school teacher on the back of a motorbike to be tested. And even when the Laotian version of justice may be just as eccentric as some of Siri's methods.

As the series progresses, the stories simply get richer and more intriguing, taking Siri to the ancient royal capital of Luang Prabang (one of my own favorite places in Laos) and even to Phnom Penh in the final days of Khmer Rouge rule. His sidekicks include a Politburo member, a transvestite fortuneteller, Vientiane's best noodle chef, and Yeh Ming, the shaman who inhabits him. And while the tone is far lighter and more whimsical, Cotterill, like Hallinan, knows the region, its people and its culture. That becomes part of the story, neither window dressing nor exaggerated for effect.

And I may just have talked myself into re-reading the entire series before the release of the newest book in May. But not until I have finished reading all of the Poke Rafferty novels. Now, when will I find time to read anything else??

Tudormania Lives -- Part Deux

Picking up -- briefly -- on an earlier post about the latest influx of Tudor-focused historical novels: it's not over yet!

The latest news is that historian and novelist Alison Weir has signed a contract to produce a series of six novels featuring, yes, you guessed it, each of the six wives of Henry VIII, for British publisher Headline, the first of which will see the light of day in 2016.

The news sparked quite a kerfuffle over on the Historical Novel Society's Facebook page, of which I'm a member. Reading between the lines, there are a handful of aspiring novelists out there interested in writing about other eras who seem to feel that the combination of the proven market clout of the Tudors and Alison Weir's ability to bridge the gap between popular history and popular fiction better than most writers, may do what lesser-known luminary of the historical crime writing world Lynn Shepherd alleged that JK Rowling was doing with her shift to adult fiction: using her celebrity to suck the oxygen out of the atmosphere and making it tougher for other writers to breathe.

Not that Weir is JK Rowling; she's just one of dozens of writers, ranging from those with household names (the ubiquitous Philippa Gregory) who have long made the Tudors her bread and butter, and to whom readers have gravitated as a result. (She's also earned a reputation for being far more generous than many of her peers with many of those aspiring writers, so kudos to her.)

That said: is there anything left to say about these six women?? To be blunt, they wore the crown matrimonial and weren't reigning queens. Arguably, Catherine of Aragon was significant for her heritage and the longevity of the marriage, but how many times is it entertaining to read a novel about the breakdown of the same marriage? Similarly, how many times is it fascinating to read about Anne Boleyn, when you know just how very, very badly the story ends for her? With biographies aplenty out there, and novels based on the latest scholarly research, what remains to be said? Catherine Howard met her end on the block as a teenager after a rather furtive little affair; it's tragic, but again, not the stuff of which countless novels of tremendous interest are made. Do we read the same story over and over again, or go in search of new fare?

I think the challenge for Weir will be to prove that she can approach these stories with a truly new angle. The challenge for publishers? That's a tougher one altogether. I want someone to prove to me that they are willing to take a risk and publish some novels set in less-usual eras and places, and by authors who aren't (yet) household names. For me, that means no Tudors, no Wars of the Roses, and very little from ancient Rome, World War I or World War II. In the coming weeks, I'll try to draw attention to a couple of these books -- and challenge readers to give them a chance, too.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"I slipped into art to escape life..."

Every bibliomaniac can empathize with Aaliya, the narrator of Rabih Alameddine's eloquent and simply un-put-downable novel, in her approach to literature. We may not have lived our lives in Beirut in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, dealing with everything from the civil war to overly-curious neighbors. We may not have to deal with accidentally dyeing our hair blue, or deciding which classic work of literature we will translate into Arabic. But in our own ways we have all "slipped off into art to escape life"; we have all "sneaked off into literature" at one point or another.

I read An Unnecessary Woman very early in the new year and am coming back to it today because tonight it will be announced whether it will win this year's National Book Award. I hope it will -- it would win my vote -- though I fear it won't. After all, its rivals include two ultra-popular novels, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (lots of fun, but ultimately just a particularly entertaining and creative dystopian rumination about what matters in life, with predictable answers), and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I have to confess that I actually feel slight afraid admitting that I didn't love the latter. Did I admire the careful artistry? Sure, but I was so busy admiring that, I never forgot that I was reading a Work of Impressive Artistic Accomplishment. Which, let's admit it, is the kiss of death for a novel.

Here's why Alameddine's novel trumps both of these, and still -- months later -- is on track to end 2014 as my favorite novel of the year. And no, it has nothing to do with the fact that its heroine, Aaliya Saleh, has her own Twitter feed. It has everything to do with Aaliya herself, however, the "unnecessary woman" of the title, divorced, childless, maintaining at best a tenuous relationship with those around her, including her extended family. (She meets her nephew's children at one point and they have no idea who she is.) She came of age in the Beirut of the 1950s; now, decades later, she is elderly and she to question some of her rituals and established ways of existing -- and the decisions that led her to this point.

When the novel opens, another new year is about to begin, and Aaliya has to decide which great novel she will translate next. It is one of her private rituals; one that is most important to her sense of self. She has worked in a bookstore, keeping it open throughout the worst days of Lebanon's civil war, and it is literature that has kept her going. Her choice of translation project is ritualized: only books written in a language other than English or French (the two lingua francae of Lebanon) qualify; she then relies on both the English and French translations to complete her own undertaking: an Arabic version. When it's complete, the handwritten pages are put into a box, along with the English and French versions, and stored in her apartment, in the bedroom originally reserved for a maid. She has completed 37 such translations -- and nobody else in the world is aware of them. Is it time for 38, or is she now too old?

Other changes, too, may be looming. While Aaliya's literary passions have helped her cope with her lot as a surplus woman, with family turmoil, with war, with the loss of her closest friend, with the isolation -- she hears what each of the women in the apartment building is doing and can identify when one is in the bathroom above her or making dinner -- she now finds reality intruding to an unwelcome extent. Her family suddenly imposes on her.  She struggles to decide what to translate next -- would Roberto Bolano be too much of a challenge? Her body isn't cooperating isn't as much as it once did. As she ponders her options, and travels the streets of Beirut, the reader accompanies Aaliya back in time as she reviews her life.

Alameddine handles all of these revelations about Aaliya gradually and almost delicately and the result is a work of great beauty and empathy. It's a pitch-perfect portrayal of an individual's insistence on living according to her own rules and by adhering to her own set of priorities, even in the most impossible circumstances. Aaliya herself is a fascinating and complex character: precisely the kind of person who would have a Twitter account, and who would use it to make scathing comments about the shallowness of much of contemporary literature (a la Peter Stothard?) Did I always "like" her? Nope, but that isn't the issue. She's fascinating, but most importantly, authentic. I'd rather spend a day sitting down and listening to her stories and opinions: she makes the characters in the other two NBA finalists that I've read (the other two, Lila by Marilynne Robinson, and Redeployment, by Phil Klay, I haven't started to read yet) look like milquetoast types in comparison. I fear that may be the reason the book doesn't win: readers (and by extension, judges) like their characters to be a little more, ahem, realateble?)

It isn't that Aaliya isn't, though. She isn't an unreliable narrator, or an unlikable narrator. She is a woman out of place in her era and her geography: someone with intense curiosity and intellectual passion, trapped in Beirut in the midst of a civil war, and belonging to a middle class family that values women as wives and mothers, nothing else. She stares these uncomfortable truths right in the face, and finds a way to live with them. She is devoid of sentimentality -- she even despises the too-easy epiphanies in today's "literature lite". Aaliya makes her choices, and lives with the consequences.

Oh, and did I mention that I loved the writing. Well, there's that, too.

I've read a lot of novels this year. And we've finally reached the part of 2014, when everyone is making their lists -- you know, those "best of" tabulations. And while I still have three or four candidates vying for the top spot in the non-fiction category, it's hard for me to look back and say that a single book has beaten this one out. Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone came close, but I look at that as an older book that I'm only just discovering, rather than a "best book of 2014". And it would take something pretty damn unique to dethrone Aaliya at this point.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

42 Murdered journalists so far in 2014; Joel Simon tells the backstory in "The New Censorship"

Burma is a democracy nowadays, isn't it? The military junta has given way to an elected parliament, one of which democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi -- under house arrest until only four years ago -- is a member. Well, kinda sorta maybe. The fact is that Suu Kyi is now part of the establishment, and she's starting to draw criticism from some quarters for not speaking out as forcefully as she did when she was completely out of power, on issues that might provoke the military (who still hold about 25% of the seats in the legislature) and that divide society (such as the abuse of Muslim minorities).

Which leaves journalists to step into the breach. Journalists like Aung Kyaw Naing, a freelance reporter killed while in the custody of the Burmese military, who claimed he was working for a Karen rebel army, and was trying to escape custody. Some of the initial observations following his body's exhumation suggest that his injuries can't be fully explained by having been shot while trying to escape.

Burma isn't a particularly dangerous place for journalists, as these things are measured by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the organization of which Joel Simon, author of The New Censorship, is the executive director. Only four journalists have lost their lives as a result of being targeted for doing their job: Aung Kyaw Naing just happens to be the latest of these, and the latest to lose his life of the 42 journalists killed "in the line of duty" so far this year. Some of their names are very well known to anyone who has followed the news: they include Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff, brutally murdered by terrorists in Syria, with videos of their beheadings being posted online for the world to see. Some won't be known to many of you, like Rubylita Garcia of the Philippines, a newspaper reporter and radio personality, attacked by gunmen in her own home after exposing local corruption. Garcia, who was the same age that I am, died in hospital hours later.

The Philippines has been a difficult place to be a journalist, as Simon points out in this compelling book that goes well beyond what we think off when we contemplate the hazards of journalism -- war reporting, for instance -- to look at the day-to-day realities of combatting corruption in countries like the Philippines or confronting sophisticated autocrats like Turkey's Erdogan. A total of 77 journalists have lost their lives in the Philippines, but that includes the mass assassination of 32 reporters in the single deadliest attack on a group of media professionals on record, as they followed a political candidate on his way to file his candidacy papers.

This is a timely and thoughtful analysis of all the reasons we may be getting too little news about issues of importance -- and the reasons why it isn't even the countries like China (with its "Great Firewall") and Iran that we need to worry about most (or at least, not foremost), but the ones that we don't worry about, because we assume that reporters now are free to move around and report, because, after all, aren't the democracies? Not really, says Simon, suggesting that the phrase "democratator" is more appropriate for leaders who equate press criticism with a national security challenge. And repression doesn't have to reach murder to silence journalists and stifle freedom of speech.

All that a repressive or tyrannical regime -- or anyone else -- has to do to censor is to manipulate the impression the public has of a journalist who seeks to portray the powerful in an unflattering light. Turkey's President Erdogan sees Western journalists and those who don't toe his party's as line as waging "psychological warfare" against the country. If they aren't shunned by their employers and their friends, they are imprisoned. It isn't necessary to murder them.

Then there's terrorism. Foley and Sotloff are among its most recent victims; one of the first deliberately targeted (as opposed to its accidental victims) was my friend and former colleague, Danny Pearl,  kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan. I first "met" Danny when he and I negotiated the terms of the Toronto/Atlanta Wall Street Journal bureau World Series bet in 1992: Danny threw himself into it, heart and soul, to the point where, after the folks in Atlanta accidentally flew the Canadian flag upside down, Danny figured out how to program the Wall Street Journal's dot matrix printers to print out an illustration of an upside-down maple leaf flag -- and set it to every bureau in the Dow Jones empire. We later bonded over music, with Danny bombarding me with recommendations for this composer or that performer.

But, as Simon so clearly explains, now that terrorists have direct access to the Internet, they don't need reporters as intermediaries. Instead, they can use the reporters' deaths as weapons. As of the time he wrote this, some 30 journalists covering Syria and areas where ISIS/IS/IL/whatever is active have simply vanished without a trace. Evaporated. Add that to the ranks of the 70 who we know are dead -- the vast majority of them local reporters, whose deaths will never make the headlines. And think about what that means for what we learn about the world we live in.

We are "deluged with data, we are blind to the larger reality." And the Internet, far from helping, may actually be making this worse, having changed the economics of the media world, making it costly to sustain overseas bureaus and more convenient to rely on local journalists as news gatherers -- the same people who are most vulnerable to pressure. In Mexico, Simon notes, one newspaper published an open letter to drug traffickers that essentially amounted to "just tell us what to print".

People fuss a lot about questions of media ownership, but this book makes it very, very clear that the problem is a far broader one. You don't need to own a paper to dictate what it says, as long as you can employ one of the means of the "new censorship". If you are remotely interested in the caliber of news you get; if you've ever found yourself saying, "but why are we seeing all the coverage of THIS, and nothing of THAT", or griping about something in the media coverage of the world beyond the borders of, say, North America and Western Europe, you might want to pick this up and read it.

A few nights before Thanksgiving, the CPJ will hold its annual gala dinner in New York, honoring a handful of individuals from around the world. I've been lucky enough to attend this on a couple of occasions, and inevitably, it's one of the most inspiring evenings imaginable -- and the most daunting, because listening to the obstacles that honorees confront daily makes every detail of my life sound like a first world problem. A computer that crashes on deadline, nasty comments on a story or even a single, solitary e-mail death threat from someone I know very well doesn't mean what they say? Piffle. And you met the most interesting people. One year, my neighbor was Elizabeth Neuffer, author of the fabulous The Key to My Neighbor's House. It was about to come out, and we talked all evening about her reporting into the attempt to bring justice to those who had survived civil wars in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Buy it -- really, it's that good. Two problems: the author won't get the royalties and she won't be writing about the aftermath of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because she herself died in Iraq in 2003. It was an accident, not murder -- but still, another death in the pursuit of news. And now the latest recipient of a fellowship set up in her honor is chronicling the persecution and deaths of journalists in Honduras...

Read Joel Simon's book. The writing is straightforward and analytical; it's relatively short and to the point (in contrast to this long and rambling post...) The questions it raises are anything but simple, but the least we can do is insist on staying informed about the issues.

Full disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for a review. My opinion is my own, however!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Tudormania is alive and well in a bookstore near you!

I confess, I have a crush on Matthew Shardlake. Yes, I know he's a fictional character, and a hunchback, and a lawyer. But, whatever. As created by C.J. Sansom, he's an incredibly powerful and convincing character. He's human: wary, fearful, lonely. After all, it's the summer of 1546 in the opening pages of this, the latest episode of the series of mysteries featuring Shardlake, and Lincoln's Inn has just dispatched him to witness the appalling death by burning at the stake of Anne Askew. The king, Henry VIII, has determined that she and others are heretics and must die for their beliefs. Of course, Henry's views of what makes someone a heretic are somewhat erratic -- devout monks have died as traitors for denying his claim to be head of the English church, while Anabaptists die for denying the rites of baptism and mass. It's enough to make anyone's head spin, and Shardlake is determined to keep his firmly attached to his (hunched) shoulders, thank you very much.

But Shardlake is also a man of principles, and a few very strong loyalties -- one to his closest friend and ally, Jack Barak, who now works alongside him in his legal practice, and another to Catherine Parr, the king's sixth wife. Queen Catherine, a reformer, has left Shardlake alone for a year since last turning to him to help her with legal matters, aware that their association led both of them into peril. But now she has no choice. Someone has stolen the text of a manuscript of religious devotions that she herself had written -- that no one else knew existed, but that can be made to look as if she, too, is a heretic. In the wrong hands, it could condemn her to a fate like that suffered by some of her predecessors. And as his life approaches its end, Henry's ill health makes his temper more dangerously volatile than ever before. The power struggle for who will control the young heir, Prince Edward, is already beginning, and many would like to see Catherine sidelined. Will Matthew help?

And so begins Shardlake's latest adventure, and it's a doozy. Frankly, I think it's one of the best books in this series so far, and removes any doubts raised by the not-quite-up-to-snuff Heartstone, its immediate predecessor. Shardlake encounters printers and Anabaptists, as well as devout Catholics eager to bring down anyone they see as being affiliated with the reformers. Some of his own clients may be his worst enemies; old adversaries may become temporary allies. He leads his friends into immense peril -- and the novel ends on a note that is going to make it very, very, very hard for me to wait for the next installment of the series. Sansom is simply going to have to write more rapidly. Or I'm going to have to find a time travel machine and go back and find out what happened next.

This book won't be out in the United States until February, so if you're reading this here and gnashing your teeth in fury and irritation, you have a couple of options. Firstly, be aware that this is the sixth book in an excellent series of historical mysteries that begins with Dissolution; you've got lots of time to go back and read your way through 'em before Lamentation arrives. Or, if you've already encountered Master Shardlake, well, either Amazon.co.uk or BookDepository.com would be happy to ship a copy of this to you toute de suite, the former for a not-too-small fee. The latter has just resumed shipping UK titles to the US and generally does so without the shipping, but I've found them slightly less reliable.

Then, since Tudor mania is once again running rampant in historical fiction publishing circles, you'll find some alternatives on the bookstore shelves to consider while you're waiting for your package to show up. Two I can recommend heartily; two, I can only suggest that you steer clear of.

C.W. Gortner may have made his name writing biographical historical novels focusing on medieval ladies such as Isabella of Castile and her daughter, Juana la Loca (his breakthrough novel, The Last Queen) but the first novel of his that I read was actually originally a self-published book, The Tudor Secret, that became a trilogy of historical mysteries, of which The Tudor Vendetta is the final volume. They feature the intrepid Brendan Prescott, an ally of the princess who has, at last, ascended to the throne as Queen Elizabeth. Brendan, raised in the household of the Dudleys, is now firmly in the camp of William Cecil and the "intelligencers" of Walsingham, etc., so the enmity with which he views Dudley make sense, even if it is exaggerated for dramatic effect here. And as in Sansom's book, it is his loyalty to a queen that counts: Elizabeth, even without knowing the true story of his own parentage, entrusts him with a secret mission. Without telling either Dudley or Cecil, she says, he  must find her beloved lady in waiting, Blanche Parry, who has vanished after visiting Catholic kinsmen. But the secret turns out to be greater than Brendan could ever have imagined, and it will seal the two young people together more tightly than ever before -- if, that is, the monarch and her subject can both survive the immediate perils. One warning here: you need to have an above-average tolerance for a rewriting of historical characters and what they may or may not have done in their lives. I confess that this did end up stretching my credulity to breaking point, but ultimately, it was the adventure that mattered.

Elizabeth Fremantle is clearly a historical novelist to watch. After penning an impressive debut novel about Katherine Parr, she has gone on to write something even stronger here, focusing on the younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey. Left in a perilous position after their sister's execution, Katherine -- the frivolous beauty -- and Mary -- the intelligent and quick-witted hunchback -- must navigate and survive two very different courts, that of Catholic Mary, who had signed their sister's death warrant, and that of Elizabeth. Both see the sisters as rivals, but ironically it under Elizabeth that they may end up faring worse. What I relished most about this was that part of the tale is told through the eyes of a relative outsider, the painter Lavinia Teerlinc, who knows and cares for both young women and tries to help both navigate the great power politics of their day. But Katherine has too little judgment -- first allowing herself to be wooed by the Spanish faction at court in Elizabeth's early days as Queen and later to marry without the Queen's permission. For her part, Mary, craving love and affection, is in search of a measure of freedom and independence. It's beautifully written, impeccably researched and absolutely fascinating -- something that I hadn't expected, given that the stories of both young women were already reasonably well known to me. Anyone to whom they are new likely will find it even more compelling. Run and get it now!

And now for Elizabeth Tudor herself... For some reason, with very few exceptions (Susan Kay's Legacy being one), books about Elizabeth on the throne seem to be much less compelling than those about her struggle to reach it. Once she's there, the drama seems to shift elsewhere -- in particular, to the struggles by Cecil and Walsingham to keep her there and to fight the espionage wars. (And there are some great non-fiction books on this topic, like The Watchers, by Stephen Alford.) In a nutshell, that's the problem with this novel by Alison Weir. Her previous novel, The Lady Elizabeth, was suspenseful, even though the reader knows that she didn't end up losing her head like her mother before her but survived to become the greatest of the Tudor monarchs. This volume, as Elizabeth plays the marriage game with her foreign suitors and alternately indulges in some hot and heavy romantic interludes with Robert Dudley, while delivering verbatim set piece speeches about not making windows into her subjects souls, etc., simply isn't all that interesting. It plods along, from one year and one episode in Elizabeth's life, to the next. One suitor fades from the scene to be replaced by the next. Elizabeth ages; her vanity grows, as does the novel's tedium. You'd be better off reading a well-written biography, quite frankly. This is really a biography that takes liberties with some of the facts and throws in some dialog.

For the record, I'm not a Philippa Gregory hater. I do think that she loves to overstate her qualifications, referring to her doctorate on every possible occasion (when it's in English literature, rather than history), and I think her writing talent, as opposed to her ability to spin a yarn, is negligible. Her penchant for saying the same thing three times in essentially the same way within five sentences is inexplicable and bizarre. What I have enjoyed about some of her novels is her ability to take a different perspective on issues. For instance, her novel about Mary Queen of Scots is a great example of the late Tudor clash of the old aristocracy -- Mary Stuart, the captive queen, and her jailor, the earl of Shrewsbury -- and the upstart new merchant class, as represented by Bess of Hardwick the brisk business-minded countess of Shrewsbury. We see the beginnings of that conflict in this novel, as Henry VII and Henry VIII deliberately -- in Gregory's telling -- push away the nobles upon whom they traditionally would have relied for advice, and instead turn to parvenus to help them rule. The narrator here is Henry VIII's cousin, Margaret Pole, countess of Salisbury, born Margaret Plantagenet, who would become his oldest victim and the oldest woman ever executed when a headsman famously had to chase her around the block to behead her. But for a period of decades, she was at the center of the Tudor court, governess to the young princess, Mary, and in high favor. This is the tale of overweening ambition and pride and an inability to recognize changing realities. Normally, having an unlikable narrator doesn't spoil a book for me, but this was an exception: Margaret was an irritatingly blind and silly woman whom I wanted to shake, rather than a subtle and complex character and the writer didn't compensate for any of this. The themes, as I noted, were interesting to ponder, but once developed, I could ponder them on my own without having to read Gregory's novel. I think there's a ratio here: for every interesting novel Gregory writes, there are four mediocre to unreadable ones. This wasn't nearly as bad as The White Queen or The Kingmaker's Daughter, but you can do a lot better.

Still suffering from Tudormania? Keep an eye open for a golden oldie, Margaret George's The Autobiography of Henry VIII (her debut novel and still her best); the series of historical mysteries by Rory Clements featuring John Shakespeare (brother of the more famous you-know-who); and Fiona Buckley's earlier historical mysteries set in Elizabethan England, featuring Ursula Blanchard, starting with To Shield the Queen. They are being re-released and made available on Kindle now.

Full disclosure: I received copies of "The Tudor Vendetta" and "Sisters of Treason" from their publishers via NetGalley in exchange for a review containing my honest opinions.

Book Porn; or, Are Book Publishers Really Dealers in Addictive Substances?

Are book publishers just drug pushers in disguise? I sometimes wonder. Certainly, every time I take a step back to look at a list of upcoming books, I begin to think that for all the agonizing that has been going on about the crisis in which publishers find themselves, they really have one big ace tucked firmly up their sleeves. They have the books that we all want to read.

Sorry, but I'm just not queuing up to read a vast number of the books that are made available by Amazon's own publishing divisions, however intriguing I find their business model and however delighted I am that it has created new career options for many authors whom the short-sighted business policies of the New York behemoth publishers have left to flounder. I've tried several and thus far my reactions boil down to "meh". I'll keep trying, and I'll let you know if that changes.

I'll always, always, always be scrutinizing new offerings from a handful of smaller publishers that have firmly established themselves as my favorites, based on my tremendous success with their offerings. A while back, I summarized some of these and listed their attractions. Today, I'd add the likes of Graywolf Press to the list, thanks to books like The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, which I'll try to get around to discussing one day soon on these cyber pages.

But around this time of year, I sit down to pull together a list of books that I am desperately eager to read, and I realize just why book publishers might do very, very well as peddlers of various illegal and intoxicating substances of the kind of things our parents told us we're supposed to "just say NO" to. Their wares are seductive and appealing. And I know that just like a really great drug might do, they'll take me away from ugly realities -- or at least, catapult me into someone else's ugly reality, reminding me that my own really isn't all that bad, after all. They'll make me believe in some greater wisdom. They'll inspire me. They'll show me wonderful imaginations at work; tremendous writing. And yes, there will be some disappointments, too, but that's part of the game.

And unlike the drug pushers, they get to promote their wares publicly. So to share some of the pain of anticipation, I'm going to tell you about some of the books that I'm most eager to read in the coming few months. Call it drugs; call it book porn; call it whatever you want. All I know is that, one way or another, by hook or by crook, these are the books that will be finding their way onto my shelves or my Kindle. A book habit can indeed become a very, very scary thing.

December 2014
Moriarty by Anthony Horwitz (my most coveted and most elusive mystery books of the winter!)
The Lonely War: One Woman's Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran by Nazila Fathi (timely...)
The Convert's Song by Sebastian Rotella (people keep telling me this is an author to read)
When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning (if they packed 'em, I want to know why)

January 2015
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (yum, more short stories by this truly amazing author)
The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe by Anthony Williams (new author, but from Soho Press)
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (lotsa buzz about this suspense novel)
Once Upon a Revolution by Thanassis Cambanis (likely to be a good book about the Arab Spring)
The Orphan Sky by Ella Leya (yes, set in Azerbaijan, but why not?)

February 2015
Shame and the Captives by Thomas Keneally (WWII POWs in Australia)
The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin (finished posthumously by her daughter)
Discontent and Its Civilizations by Mohsin Hamid (non-fiction anthology by a fave novelist)
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (falconry; grief; it just won the Samuel Johnson Prize)
We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket writes for grownups!)
When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen (Estonian resistance to the Soviets; lotsa buzz)
The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli (I loved her debut novel)

March 2015
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (how to resist??)
Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon (a 50/50 chance of being a winning suspense yarn)
Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell (the sequel to Doc; it's time for the OK Corral...)
The Porcelain Thief by Hsu Huan (scouring China for buried... china?)
Mademoiselle Chanel by C.W. Gortner (a move to the 20th century for this author)
Meet Me in Atlantis by Mark Adams (the quest for the lost city...)
Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran (historical fiction about the Indian mutiny)
Last Wake by Erik Larson (The Lusitania's sinking; marking the centenary)