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.

Friday, July 29, 2011

"The Sinner's Grand Tour": Review and Giveaway!

Tony Perrottet may have given his book, The Sinner's Grand Tour, the subtitle "A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe", but let's clear up any misconceptions right away. Perrottet is really interested in only one kind of sin (sloth, greed and envy may all qualify as "deadly", but they are of the less compelling variety in his eyes, it's clear!) and the body parts involved don't have much to do with the underbelly. Well, not technically, anyway.

That said, while this isn't really a G-rated book and thus can't be described as "good clean fun", it's an entertaining romp through the history of sexual adventurism over centuries across England, France, Switzerland and Italy. "The entire continent is still littered with secret boudoirs, perverse relics, and ancient dungeons," Perrottet rhapsodizes, "many of which, I was convinced, could be found." And so he sets out in search of any traces left by famed libertines (including Lord Byron, Casanova and England's Edward VII) and anonymous sexual adventurers in remote villages in the French Pyrenees. Perrottet's wife and two young sons are along for the ride -- the latter are intrigued by the idea of dungeons, but far more interested in good old-fashioned thumbscrews than any of the more sexually exotic stuff that Perrottet stumbles over.

Some of the anecdotes he unearths are fascinating, bizarre or just downright hilarious. For instance, who knew that a visit to Paris's most famous brothel was described on the itinerary of visiting dignitaries as being a “visit to the president of the Senate”? That, Perrotet describes, eventually backfired when the Queen of Spain did want to meet the real president of the Senate -- but was taken instead to visit the brothel... Perrottet, discovering he's directly descended from one of the Marquis de Sade's key employees, uses that to try to talk his way into the 18th century libertine's dungeons, scene to many infamous orgies but now the property of fashion mogul Pierre Cardin. He also tries to talk his way into a bathroom in the Pope's private quarters in the Vatican decorated with erotic frescoes by Raphael by claiming an academic interest in the impact of myths on Renaissance art.

There are points where this teeters on the border that separates amusing from downright weird or even slightly creepy. Some of the souveniers he unearths made me grimace with in distaste -- and some of the sexual antics that belong to history were probably more fun to participate in than to read about after the fact. But overall this is a lively and utterly different book, however odd the juxtapositions between the trials and tribulations of a family vacation and of seeking out orgy locations might seem. Probably a great book for those who enjoy "traveler's tales" -- first person stories of misadventures and discovery. Fun in a "wink, wink; nudge, nudge" kind of way.

So, if you're mildly intrigued or titillated by the premise of this book, here comes the best part: Courtesy of the publishers I am giving away 1 (ONE) pristine copy to a randomly-selected follower next Tuesday. Entering is easy: make sure you're a visible follower, then shoot me an e-mail at UncommonReading@gmail.com by midnight (Eastern) Monday night. I'll pick the winner on Tuesday morning, and the book will be in the mail to him or her that day. Good luck, or as the Marquis de Sade would have said, bonne chance!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Man Booker Prize Longlist: "Far to Go" by Alison Pick

I'm not a literary prize shortlist junkie. But I reserve the right to make exceptions to this rule... For instance, if I hadn't decided to sample some of the previously-unknown or relatively unknown authors on last year's Man Booker longlist, I wouldn't have stumbled over The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, which I loved, much less The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson -- which I said I hoped would win the award when it was still a long shot. (It did...)

This year's longlist was announced on Tuesday, and now that all the frenetic speculation about who's going to be on it is over (notable by their absence are authors like Amitav Ghosh and Graham Swift), I'm deciding which of the 2011 nominees I'll read. The first book I picked up turned out to be [Far to Go] by Alison Pick, a novel that has been released in paperback in the U.S. but that seems to have sailed under the radar so far -- a pity, as it's a very good novel that certainly meets the threshold for being a "thumping good read", even though I'd be surprised to see it make the leap onto the shortlist in a few weeks' time.

You'll need a bit of patience to get into Pick's tale, which starts out with some kind of omniscient observer ruminating on toy trains (with obvious parallels to the cattle cars of the Holocaust, which is the background against which the novel is set), leaps to an archived document, another first person segment, then what turns out to be the story of the sibling of one of the main characters in the book. Finally, you'll get into the main story, told through the eyes of Marta, the Czech (and Christian) nursemaid to the Bauer family, secular and Jewish, living in the Sudetenland in 1938. If you're a historical junkie like me, you'll immediately realize that those facts and dates spell trouble ahead, and you'd be right.

But rather than trying to recount the horrors of the Holocaust itself in fiction -- something I think is doomed to failure -- Pick opts to tell an essentially domestic story of love and betrayal, set in the midst of the years when it finally became clear just what was happening; by the time realization had set in, it was too late for many trapped Jewish families to act. Again, Pick makes a clever decision by choosing to tell the story through Marta's eyes (for reasons that only become clear at the end of the novel); if the Bauers are stubborn in refusing to grasp the implications of the Munich pact, Marta is even more bemused; she simply can't understand why anyone else, especially her lover and the Bauer plant's manager, Ernst, would view the Bauers as anything other than Czech.

But there are undercurrents in the domestic situation. Anneliese Bauer is a troubled woman: her elegant and polished surface conceals much. Pavel Bauer thinks of himself as a Czech nationalist, only to become aware too late that his Jewish identity is something of value. Their five-year-old son, Pepik, clings to Marta in the face of the upheavals that follow the "Kristallnacht" riots. And those tensions lead to betrayals that seem inconceivable.

Pick does a brilliant job of capturing the atmosphere of a small-town Czech community and its cultural divisions; of Prague in the early years of the German occupation; of the world and concerns of the Holocaust researcher whose first-person narrative occasionally interrupts the main story. From the letters and other documents included in the text, we come to know the fates of all the main characters, including the fact that Pepik is one of the children separated from their families and whisked away to safety in the "Kindertransport". What we don't know is how those events come to pass -- or the narrator's relationship to the Bauer family, specifically. Why has the narrator chosen to tell us about this particular family, rather than one of the thousands of others? When that became clear, I was forced to take a step back and rethink the entire nature of the narrative and the concept of the 'unrealiable narrator' took on a new twist. And I suspect it's that revelation -- about the very nature of the story that we've been told -- that raised this novel to the level that it was placed on the Man Booker shortlist.

This is the third novel I've read this summer that focuses on World War II as a domestic event. I've already blogged here about my thoughts on Rosie Alison's The Very Thought of You, in which a child's evacuation from wartime London transforms her life and future. Equally underwhelming (to me, at least) was 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson, which displayed the author's heavy hand in the plot from start to finish, and where even the writing succumbed too often to the floridly banal. Both hovered in the 3.3 star range. Where those two failed to rise above the mediocre, this succeeds, despite the initial confusion in the rapidly-shifting perspectives in its first pages. I'd rate it 4.2 stars, and recommend you hunt it down. Available in paperback! and affordably on Kindle, as well.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Run! (Don't Walk...) to pre-order "The Magician King"

Reading Lev Grossman's absorbing sequel to The Magicians is a bit like riding an invisible roller coaster that no one else has ridden and thus no one can really prepare you for. With every page you turn, Grossman opens up new and ever-wilder and ever-wider vistas, exploring the roots of magic itself in a novel that I can only describe as a tour de force.

When The Magician King opens, Quentin is a king of Fillory, the Narnia-like realm he and others had once believed was confined to the pages of a series of books. As Quentin and his friends from Brakebills -- the magical college -- had discovered in the first novel, Fillory was very real indeed. After a series of perilous adventures, the prior book (SPOILER ALERT!) had ended with Quentin flying off to join Eliot, Janet and Julia on the thrones of Fillory.

But even ruling as a king over a magical land like Fillory has its downside, it seems. A few years later, Quentin is restless, and itching for a new adventure or a quest. At first, chasing after a magical Seeing Hare seems like the answer, but that ends in tragedy. So Quentin decides to set off for an island on the outer fringers of Fillory -- so remote that it barely appears on maps -- to collect overdue taxes from residents. He holds a jousting match to select the kingdom's best swordsman to join the expedition and sets off with Julia and a giant talking sloth in the ship's hold. The last thing he expects when he discovers a magic key, is that it will lead to a portal that dumps both he and Julia back on the front lawn of his parents' home in the "real" world. "Quentin, King of Fillory, needed Fillory more than Fillory needed him," he realizes.

Is Quentin's real quest going to be just to get back to Fillory? Or does it have some kind of broader meaning or purpose? Each time you turn the page, the narrative moves and twists in unexpected directions, from a Venetian palazzo to an encounter with a dragon; a magical safe house in the South of France and a kind of Underworld for dead souls. Grossman jousts with big questions here, from the nature of courage and heroism to the nature and origins of magic and gods; The Magicians was merely a warm-up act for this novel. Reading it can be as unnerving as contemplating the meaning of life and the history of the universe, but the darker themes Grossman explores here are offset throughout by his trademark deadpan humor.  When it comes to Quentin's quest(s), he realizes that not understanding what he's looking for is normal. "Relative ignorance wasn't necessarily a handicap on a quest. It was something your dauntless questing knight accepted and embraced." However, Grossman has one of his characters point out, "it's not like the Holy Grail was actually useful for anything." Preparing to cast the biggest spell of their lives, one they hope will reveal the nature of magic itself, a group of elite magicians have to wait for the FedEx guy to show up with some of the supplies they need. There are a lot of tongue in cheek and sardonic asides that made me chortle and grin even in the midst of the narrative tension.

One of the fascinating elements of this sequel is how well Grossman does in tying up the loose ends of Julia's life. A high school classmate of Quentin's, she hadn't been admitted to Brakebills -- but the spells designed to wipe the admissions test from her memory hadn't stuck. In this novel, the reader learns how Julia emerged as an exceptionally powerful hedge witch -- and the price she paid for her powers. In the end, we learn of the link between Julia's experiences, Quentin's quest and the nature of the threat to the entire magical world.

This novel joins its predecessor on my list of "best books of 2011"; if you haven't read The Magicians yet, well, you've got another ten days or so before The Magician King appears in bookstores, and it's a great summer book to read. I'd recommend both highly; both are 4.6 star novels. Can't help wondering whether someone has snapped up film rights to these yet? Properly done, even though they'd have to be R-rated, they'd knock the Harry Potter films out of the ring.

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.com.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Europa Challenge: Algerians in Europe

By accident rather than design, I ended up reading two books published by Europa Editions by Algerian writers with similar themes: both deal, at least in part, with the experience of emigrants from the "bled" -- the hinterland of countries like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia -- in contemporary Europe, specifically France and Italy. While the books couldn't be more different in nature, both shed light on the struggle that surrounds European efforts to develop a "multicultural" tolerance.

The Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous, takes the lightest of approaches to this weighty subject, veering occasionally to the comedic elements: even as those residents from other parts of Italy (who despise the foreigners in their midst in the apartment building in Rome that is the heart of the story) look down on each other as being non-Italian -- supporters of the wrong football team, perhaps, or from Naples. The only individual whom each of them believes he or she can clearly see and admire is Amedeo. And yet it's Amedeo who seems to be at the heart of the police questioning that elicits the "testimonies" from the apartment building's residents that make up the bulk of the book (interspersed with diary-style comments from the absent Amedeo.) Because it seems that Amedeo is the prime suspect in the death of an unlamented hooligan named "The Gladiator", an Italian, to be sure, but one who few residents liked half as much as they admire Amedeo. So much do they admire Amedeo, in fact, that they universally reject the idea that he's an immigrant himself, whatever they are told.

The individual tales are poignant and hilarious; the commentary from Amedeo that follows each shows the ways in which individuals deceive themselves by sharing with the reader the details of his interactions with the character in question, and the "truth" of the matter. Their mutual misunderstandings come to a head in conflicts around the use of the elevator that they must share -- all except Amedeo, who fears the enclosed space and opts to take the stairs. ( Benedetta, the concierge, interprets that as a sign of consideration for her personally, in one of the typical misunderstandings.) And it is in the elevator that the body of the Gladiator has been found...  Only toward the end of this novella do we learn the truth about Amedeo himself, something so dark that even the murder of the Gladiator seems anticlimactic. This was a humorous, wry and sardonic look at the way humans view the "other", and at our willingness to break down these barriers and make exceptions to our rules on occasion. Lakhous has unveiled the truths that lie behind prejudice and preconceptions of all kinds. 4.2 stars.

The German Mujahid is an altogether darker vision of the relationship between immigrants from North Africa and the French who accommodate them only reluctantly in their midst. Malrich Schiller is the son of a German father and Algerian mother, now living in one of those housing estates on the outskirts of Paris that the rest of the world hears about only in context of riots and rebellion. Malrich, however, has a first-hand view of the way that Islamists are seizing control of the estate and creating a nation within a nation -- a world that has as little tolerance for those who are non-compliant as did Nazi Germany. And that's a comparison that Malrich is forced to come to grips with on a personal level, when his elder brother Rachel (Rachid Helmut) dies, and Malrich inherits his diary and their father's personal effects -- including SS medals from World War II. On their father's death in a remote Algerian community -- possibly at the hands of Islamists -- Rachel had initially seen him as a victim, only to realize that he may have been a perpetrator of a different and yet related horror. After exploring his father's history, Rachel finds his conclusions impossible to live with; Malrich, by contrast, takes a different path...

Sansal's strength is his ability to deliver two parallel tales in utterly different and utterly convincing voices -- that of a mature man whose world collapses, and that of an adolescent who must decide on 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 the more sober and analytical; both are utterly convincing. Who is guilty? And what does it mean to resist? These are weighty topics; Sansal does an excellent job of dealing with them to the extent that any author can. 4.3 stars, definitely recommended.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Mystery Monday: Quirky Crime in Thailand

Colin Cotterill's series of mysteries featuring Dr. Siri, the only coroner left in Laos after the 1975 victory of the Communist Pathet Lao, have been ranked among my favorite crime sagas since I began reading them a few years ago. With seven books out in that series (starting with The Coroner's Lunch) and an eighth due out early in the new year, Cotterill has branched out with Killed at the Whim of a Hat (the title is drawn from one of George W. Bush's malapropisms), which feels as if it might be the beginning of a new series?

Cotterill isn't venturing too far, geographically -- moving from Laos to the southern coast of Thailand. But the characters and settings actually feel far more exotic than in the Dr. Siri books, as Cotterill has assembled possibly the quirkiest cast of characters imaginable, guaranteed to make the sober Thai tourist authorities recoil in dismay. At the heart of it all is Jimm, a former crime reporter in her 30s, who has relocated with her family to a tiny fishing coast after her mother spontaneously decides to buy the dilapidated beachfront establishment known as the "Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant." Jimm, on the verge of becoming the top crime reporter in the northern city of Chiang Mai and now trapped hundreds of miles away, learning how to gut fish from a YouTube video, while her bodybuilder brother Arny is stuck rolling treetrunks up and down the beach (there's no gym nearby) and her elder transgender sister, Sissi, is living the life of a recluse back in Chiang Mai, making money off Internet scams.

Then, a miracle happens. Or rather, back-to-back miracles, at least in Jimm's view: a local farmer unearths a buried Volkswagen van containing two skeletons, and a local Buddhist abbot is murdered - and found with a bizarre orange hat on his head. Great stories for Jimm -- and a puzzle for her to solve, with the help of a very camp gay Thai policeman who may prove to be sharper than he first appears.

This was a fun and entertaining romp of a mystery, although the solution the crime turns out to be rather improbable. So, too, are some of the adventures that Granddad Jah (confined to the traffic police until he retired because of his refusal to take bribes) gets up to when he encounters another incorruptible ex-cop, or Jimm's mother, who goes out prowling with rat poison after dark. But a good part of the fun is just to hop on board and enjoy the ride. Cotterill himself moved from Chiang Mai to southern Thailand a few years ago and knows the country that he's writing about; he has a great eye for the detail the makes it all "click" into place as a convincing tale. Recommended; despite the body discoveries, at heart, this is more of a "cozy" crime series than a police procedural, with most of the bad guys being corrupt or stupid rather than vicious and evil. A fun weekend read; 3.9 stars. The Dr. Siri books are better still; just as much of a sense of time and place, but with more intriguing and darker plots tied to then-current events in Indochina.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Just Added to My Shelves:

Well, the temperatures hit 105 or 106 degrees Fahrenheit here in New York on Friday, depending on which media outlet you believe (although both seem to agree that, factoring in humidity, it felt like 115 degrees). And it wasn't much better Thursday. So I hope you'll forgive me if my rate of posting has slowed somewhat! Between work and the heat, this has been a sluggish end to the week, to put it mildly.

However, I have been adding books to my shelves, both real, borrowed and cyber. My fellow Kindle afficionados may be pleased to learn that there is another big sale underway, with prices on an esoteric array of books slashed to as little as 99 cents or a maximum of $3.99. Needless to say, some of these now reside on my Kindle...

Here's the update:
  • Galore by Michael Crumney (Kindle sale)
  • Let's Kill Uncle by Rohan O'Grady (library)
  • House of the Hanged by Mark Mills (UK purchase)
  • The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas (UK purchase)
  • The Vault by Ruth Rendell (eGalley from Simon & Schuster)
  • The Three-Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare (Kindle sale)
  • On the Road to Babadag by Andrzej Stasiuk (Kindle purchase)
  • In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh (Library)
  • Who Are We - And Should it Matter in the 21st Century? by Gary Younge (Kindle purchase)
  • Balthasar's Odyssey by Amin Maalouf (Kindle sale)
  • The Women of the Cousins' War by Philippa Gregory et. al. (eGalley)
  • Nairobi Heat by Mukoma wa Ngugi (NetGalley)
  • After Midnight by Irmgard Keun (NetGalley)
  • Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville (Kindle Sale)
  • A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz (Library)
  • Murder on Sisters' Row by Victoria Thompson (Library)
  • Two Lives by William Trevor (Library)
  • Limassol by Yishai Sarid (Library)
  • Eros by Helmut Krausser (Library)
  • Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson (Library)
You may well wonder whether any of these library books actually make it back to the library. When I borrowed many of these, I was astonished that it was possible to renew them as many as 99 times. Now I'm just grateful...

See you back here when the heat abates a bit!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Reason I Keep an Eye on Literary Prizes...

...is because sometimes their longlists and shortlists draw my attention to fabulous books that otherwise wouldn't cross my radar screen. For instance, the longlist for this year's George Orwell Prize generated two books that I'd number on my "best of 2011" list, Death to the Dictator by Afsaneh Moqadem (a chronicle of what befell a young Iranian who found himself becoming a democracy activist during his country's last elections) and Chasing the Devil by Tim Butcher, a gripping travel yarn that follows the author's prior expedition through the Congo by a little jaunt through some of the most remote parts of Liberia and Sierra Leone.

It was on the shortlist for this year's Orange Prize (awarded for the best work of fiction published in English by a woman writing anywhere in the world) that I stumbled across The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna, where it kept company with books like the wonderful Room by Emma Donoghue and the less-impressive ultimate winner of the prize, The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. Both Obreht's novel and Forna's have one thing in common: they deal with the aftermath of conflict in a society other than our own. But while I found Obreht's plot often too clunky and opaque, and thought her elegant writing occasionally had a "look what I can do!" quality to it, Forna's book grabbed me from the first pages and never let me go until I had turned the final page. No, it's not flawless; in some places it's overwritten, and there are the occasional signs of florid writing or spots that a ruthless editor should have trimmed back. But for me, those sink into the background when compared to the novel itself.

Forna sets her tale in Sierra Leone, and weaves her relatively complex plot around three men and the women in their lives. Adrian is a British psychologist, on a one-year assignment in a country that he can't begin to understand -- he just knows he wants to help its citizens deal with the trauma of a horrific war. Kai, who survived some of those horrors, is a talented surgeon, wrestling with the obvious needs of his countrymen and the call to follow his closest friend -- and countless other medical professionals -- overseas. In the hospital where they work lies Elias Cole, a professor of history, who watched as his country began to disintegrate shortly after independence -- and whose own involvement in that breakdown of civil society may have been greater than he is prepared to admit even to Adrian, a stranger who listens to his memories of his obsessive love for Saffia, a colleague's wife, and his own selective memories of what happened to them and to Saffia's husband, the charismatic Julius.

At its heart, this novel is less about war and its aftermath than it is about the human need to keep secrets and about shame; and about the way keeping those secrets deforms those who must keep quiet. Even one of Adrian's patients is driven into a fugue state -- she wanders, oblivious, around the city and the countryside, driven into a state where she can't cope with any reality at all, by the nature of her war-related family secret. Admittedly, when Forna eventually unravels all these secrets, some of the encounters feel slightly artificial, but not the secrets themselves, or the impact on the characters in this beautifully-written and deeply moving novel. I came away with a realization that tragedy can be almost mundane in a world like that of Sierra Leone. One character points out to Adrian the ultimate futility of "curing" some of his traumatized and disturbed patients -- only to discharge them back into in a world of insanity. Forna even jousts with some of the most complex issues, such as where responsibility lies for the kind of nightmarish civil strife and war that Sierra Leone has endured. “Everyone talks about they. Them," one of her characters muses. "But who is they? Who are they?” -- the "they" in question being those responsible for the war and the atrocities.

This is a startlingly good book, a rare example of an "issue" novel that works on all levels and that doesn't sacrifice character development or style in pursuit of the author's overwhelming need to convince the reader of the justice of his or her cause. I got a sense of the beauty of Sierra Leone; of the people who have chosen not to abandon their country even as it became a failed state, as well as the issues that the author wanted me to focus on, such as the way that people lie to themselves and others to survive both physically and psychologically. Ultimately, despite the undertone of despair and loss, this is a novel that celebrates that survival. 4.4 stars, highly recommended -- and onto my "best books of the year" list.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Mystery Monday: Jack the Ripper Strikes Again

Calling all Ripper-ologists... Yes, Now You See Me is yet another entry in the apparently endless series of mysteries and thrillers featuring the real 19th century Jack the Ripper or a modern day copycat. (One of my recent favorites is the first series of the new British television crime series, "Whitechapel".) Happily, S.J. Bolton's police procedural is a better-than-average version of this all-too-familiar mystery novel theme, featuring a quixotic first-person narrator with some kind of indefinable link to the crimes she ends up investigating.

DC Lacey Flint is the first to discover the first of what turn out to be a string of victims -- a well-dressed woman from an affluent neighborhood, whom she discovers bleeding to death beside Flint's own car outside a housing project in South London. That's bad enough; when it becomes clear that a senior police inspector -- someone to whom Lacey finds herself attracted --  has his suspicions about Lacey herself, life gets even more complicated. Especially since the killer -- who soon strikes again -- seems not only to be fixated on replicating some elements of the Ripper crimes, but on linking them to Lacey. Is the killer playing a nasty mind game with the rookie policewoman, or is there something in Lacey's past that explains what is going on?

Bolton's use of a first-person narrator helps keep the suspense going, because a lot of that suspense -- it becomes clear -- revolves around who Lacey is and her own past. Could something in her life before she joined the police explain what is happening now? Even though we know Lacey knows more than the senior police figures about what is going on, the author never lets us inside her head quite far enough to understand what she does know. As the clues pile up and the crimes are linked by more than just an insane perpetrator, it becomes clear that the killer isn't just Jack the Ripper, but someone with a cause. Right up to the final pages, when Lacey tries to do what she thinks is the only thing that will end the bloodshed, her real identity and motivation remain unclear, along with the identity of the killer.

In many ways, this is a standard "serial killer murder mystery", albeit with a different kind of protagonist. That caveat makes a big difference to the narrative, however, and turns it into as much of a suspense story as it is a mystery. Bolton has chosen a tricky path by opting for a first-person narrator like Lacey, but she avoids most of the missteps; she also succeeds in blending enough Ripper elements with details of very modern-day crimes that the book as a whole ends up being a real page-turner. This is a cut above most police procedurals, the books that rely so heavily on the procedures of police work that they end up feeling formulaic and predictable. Lacey Flint's narrative is anything but. The climax feels a bit rushed and -- at times -- implausible, but the final pages restore a haunting sense of mystery.

Recommended to mystery and suspense fans; this isn't a literary mystery with oodles of character development and so on, but it's a great summer beach read to which I'd happily give 4 stars. I got an advance review copy of this from the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.

Friday, July 15, 2011

"Dr. Swenson, I Presume?"

 Much as Henry Stanley set off into the jungles of Africa in the 19th century in quest of the 'vanished' medical missionary Dr. Livingstone, Ann Patchett's 'heroine', Marina Singh, must go deep into the Amazon in search of a modern-day researcher, Dr. Swenson, conducting research into what might be a wonder drug for women hoping to become pregnant into their 50s and 60s. But Singh's quest is complicated by the fact that she isn't exactly a volunteer for the job, and the reason that she's going at all is that the last person sent out to figure out just what Dr. Swenson is up to with all the pharmaceutical company's money was Singh's lab partner, Anders Eckman. Now Singh and "Mr. Fox", her boss and sometime lover, have received a letter, a few lines scratched on an aerogram, telling them that Anders is dead, probably from fever.

The more the reader is able to shut down their incredulity about some plot twists and scenarios, the better this novel is. For instance, I found the premise a bit bizarre in the first place -- what company would allow a rogue scientist to labor away deep in the Amazon rain forest with no scientific accountability (far less financial accountability) and no routine contact with/feedback to the head office? And what pharmaceutical company would send out someone ill-equipped to analyze the specific kind of drug being prepared? Why not hire Kroll, the security consultants, to undertake an investigation? And so on...

If you can put all that stuff to one side, and just read this novel for what it is -- a book whose focus is really people, their relationships with each other and responsibilities to and expectations of each other, and the question of what makes a functioning society -- then this is a fascinating yarn of a middle-aged woman's rediscovery of herself by venturing into deeply uncomfortable physical terrain that stresses her in every conceivable way. Marina's luggage vanishes (twice); the heat and anti-malarial drugs wreak havoc on her body; at first she can't find Dr. Swenson and when the rogue medic eventually materializes, she is no more accommodating than she had been when she was Marina's presiding physician during the latter's medical training as an obstetrician and involved in the younger doctor's decision to quit practicing and turn to biomedical research. I admit I wanted to give Dr. Swenson a good shake; as written, she's a tyrant and a bully, or at least that's how the often two-dimensional character appeared to me as written.

Ultimately, it was just that -- the way the characters are presented to the reader -- that left me underwhelmed by this book. The prose is lush and beautiful; some of the descriptions are breathtaking. I could hear and see what it must be like to live in Manaus, a city that was once richer than London or Paris, and so vivid were the descriptions that it left me with no desire to go there for myself! But the characters -- even Marina -- never really took on lives of their own. The story was about the setting, and the kinds of societal issues involved; I kept feeling as if the characters served as symbols. Marina is far too passive, allowing herself to be pushed around by Anders's widow, by Mr. Fox, by the young Australians who live in Dr. Swenson's Manaus apartment, by Dr. Swenson and even by the Lakashi tribespeople. Marina's progression, the growth in her comfort level with the "wilds" of the Amazon is predictable. On the other hand, some of the later plot twists involving the fate of Anders, Mr. Fox, and the real identity of a young deaf/mute child Dr. Swenson has adopted are so implausible as to belong to some kind of potboiler.

I loved the author's prose and her ability to capture scenes. I wish she had resisted the temptation to venture into exotica and instead chosen to exercise her very real talents on more mundane subjects, not because her ideas weren't fascinating, but because I kept wondering whether she might be relying on those exotic elements to cover up holes in plot and character development. This was a lukewarm read for me, and I'm giving it 3.6 stars. The more you're able to read uncritically, the more you're likely to enjoy this novel, I suspect. For me, it was a book that I always felt distanced from -- even when I admired what the author had achieved, it never "lived" for me as a story.

Bastille Day Giveaway: The Results!

On July 1, I had 61 followers; as of midnight on July 14, the number had grown to 84. So while I had originally specified I'd be giving away one book per every 20 additional followers, I chose to interpret that liberally, and to give away two books. Also, rather than just work my way up the list, I'm giving the two winners their choice of the five books on offer. 

As I heard from everyone who e-mailed me asking to participate in the Bastille Day giveaway I allotted them a number. I then turned to the ever-reliable folks at Random.Org tonight to select two of those numbers -- at random, of course.

And the winners -- who should already find e-mails in their inboxes informing them of this -- are MARJORIE and TERZAH! Both of you just need to confirm which book you want, and your addresses, in a return e-mail.

Congratulations to you both!

And stick around, there will be more giveaways in the weeks and months to come. In the meantime, settle back and enjoy the book talk!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Am I a Literary Voyeur?

I admit there were times when reading Untold Story by Monica Ali made me feel like I was peeping through a telephoto camera lens, rummaging through a celeb's garbage or even (echoes of the News of the World scandal) listening to a wiretapped conversation. I'm not passing judgment on Ali's decision to write a "what if Princess Diana hadn't died in that Paris tunnel?" novel; one that instead imagined the late Princess of Wales faking her own death, undergoing plastic surgery and taking up residence in a Midwestern town where she has a circle of friends, a boyfriend, and helps out at the local dog shelter. But reading this, I couldn't help wondering about the taste factor: the woman has been dead for more than a decade, and now all the folks who fueled the papparazzi frenzy that contributed to some of the problems she faced in life are all going to flock to this book. It's the same way I feel when I succumb to the urge to pick up a copy of People magazine at the drugstore register: I know that in some ways I'm being used by the PR people to the stars, but it's kind of distasteful to think that the only reason I might read a story is because of the involvement of some kind of well-known figure.

That's the kind of feeling this book instilled in me -- and the narrative itself wasn't good enough to quell that sense of unease, alas. Hey, it's a guaranteed winner of a concept from a marketing perspective: every Diana fan who laid wreaths for her is going to want to at least read this for themselves, whether they love or loathe Ali's imagined future for her. But I think it's a bit sad that the author of the acclaimed Brick Lane (once described as one of the most talented British young writers around) resorted to this kind of stunt fiction. Because ultimately, that's what this book has going for it: the quirky concept.

In Ali's vision, Princess Diana enlists the help of a key aide to vanish from her real life; her body is never found and a new woman, Lydia, begins a new life in the United States. When we meet her, she has been three months in the small community of Kensington (yes, nudge, wink...) in the US midwest, and she has carved out a life for herself. She feels the pain of the loss of her sons every day, but she has ceased to fear being exposed. Perhaps she has become too relaxed, for into town wanders, by chance, one of the photographers who for years studied every detail of her face and knows it better than nearly anyone in the world.

To be fair to Ali's novel, she creates a real tension in this part of the story: will Grabowski the photographer identify Diana/Lydia? If he does, will the former princess seize the opportunity to make a miraculous comeback in order to see her children again? Will she find a way to outwit him? But that's pretty much the only part of the book that really worked for me (although at least that made the final third or so more of a page-turner.) Most of the characters are flat or at best two-dimensional, engaging in tedious dialog and situations; discussions about clothes and boyfriends blah blah blah. Ali comes back over and over and over again to the way that Lydia/Diana never confides in Carson, her new lover.  The same few themes are harped on endlessly. What I found most annoying -- and potentially most offensive to many -- was the retroactive diagnosis of the real-life Diana's behavior. Sure, it was refreshing that Ali didn't succumb to the temptation to do craft a kind of hagiography, but I couldn't help imagining how offended Diana's sons and close friends might be by this. And I'd have the same reaction if it was anyone who wasn't royal -- imagine someone writing a fictional version of the young Salt Lake City girl, Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped and held as a kind of sex slave for years, without the subject's input or consent? At some point, that becomes almost a violation of privacy, even when the person is a public figure and dead, to boot.

I kept wishing that Ali had taken the approach chosen by John Burnham Schwartz in his excellent novel, The Commoner, about the plight of a fictionalized crown princess of Japan. In that novel, the author is obviously drawing on both the experiences of the current Crown Princess Masako, who has battled fertility woes and depression, as well as the current Empress Michiko, who faced her own problems when she became the first real commoner to marry into the imperial family in the 1950s. And yet while the parallels are there for an informed reader to see, the characters he creates are fictional beings. Like Ali, he ventures off into fantasyland when it comes time to resolve his story, and a lot of readers found his solution unconvincing, but I didn't finish reading the book with the same feeling of having trespassed on the private thoughts of another human being -- even if dressed up in fictional fancy dress. (It didn't hurt that John Burnham Schwartz is a stronger writer, despite the occasional lapse into exoticism, predictable observations about Japan and purple prose.) For me, this was a solid 4-star book, one that blended the real and the fictional to the point that the reader thought only about the story being recounted on the page, not as if they were being asked to chuckle knowingly about the real life parallels.

But after finishing Untold Story, I not only felt uneasy but also puzzled. What has happened to Monica Ali? After writing one acclaimed novel, she wrote an indifferent series of shorter, linked works that I couldn't even finish, Alentejo Blue, followed by a rather overwrought and overdone novel, In the Kitchen, the main interest of which lay in its portrayal of the underclass of immigrants who toil invisibly in the London's global hub. And now this novel, to which I'd struggle to award even three stars. This felt like slightly elevated chick lit, at best; or chick lit with a twist. From writing a book that was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize to this? Surely a novelist of the caliber she displayed in Brick Lane has enough of an imagination to come up with something on her own, without prowling through the debris of someone elses's life? Just as I felt like washing my hands after I finished the book, I feel like asking the real Monica Ali to stand up, please.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Delicate Art of the Memoir

Ask anyone who knows me, and they'll tell you I'm an outspoken foe of most memoirs. It sometimes feels as if everyone who has endured some kind of trauma in their life has channeled it into a writing project as a form of therapy, and then sought readers. And they find them, in the same way that daytime television and reality television find viewers -- millions and millions of them. But the problem many memoir writers have is that they forget -- like a lot of non-writers do -- that while they may be the central figure in their own melodrama, to most of the rest of us they are at best walk-on characters of marginal interest. So, for a memoir to be interesting enough for me to even contemplate reading -- much less finish -- it needs to be exceptional in some way -- the subject matter, the writing, the narrative arc, etc. etc. The reason I feel rather jaundiced about this is that relatively few books manage to leap these hurdles, and I'm left wishing the author had simply decided to channel their experiences into a novel.

I've just finished reading two books that, while they had their merits, left me wishing for more. (One probably didn't set out to be a memoir, but ended up feeling enough like a family story for me to lump it in this 'group' review.) But before I tackle them, I thought I'd give a shout-out to one book that I thought almost perfectly captured what a memoir can become, in the right hands. The book, Losing my Cool, is one that I got a copy of when I participated in a Media Bistro group reading last summer; the author, Thomas Chatterton Williams, and I were among five people reading from newly-published books. When I first spotted it, I made a little face (to myself!) and said "oh no, not another memoir..." When Williams began to read an excerpt (about his first time in a really up-market grocery, like Dean & DeLuca, when his white friend tells him to get a baguette, and he decides that must be a small kind of bag...) I began changing my mind. A few months later, I picked up the book and read it cover to in a single evening, captivated. Sure, the message was important -- Chatterton wrote about his realization that emulating hip hop culture might make him accepted among his peers, but wasn't going to satisfy any of his other goals, and how the intensive education his father had given him was something he could draw on in an effort to become his own person. But Chatterton wrote with wit, verve and flair -- and a degree of wry self-knowledge that was irresistible. I felt as if I was being taken into the world he inhabited growing up, and sharing his efforts to build an identity among the noise of inner-city New Jersey. The result: a five-star book that just happened to be a memoir; one of my best reads of last year.

This month I picked up a copy of Read My Hips by Kimberly Brittingham (another Media Bistro alum; she and I took some classes together and were part of a small writer's group that met after the class expired.) I knew what to expect from her work: she has a remarkably vivid style and a way of telling stories about her life that pulls the reader into her work. And the book she chose to write (not the project she was working on at the time of our Media Bistro classes) is a book on a mission -- to persuade/remind the world that folks who are overweight or obese are interesting, engaging, active and even sexy individuals and deserve to be seen as individuals rather than just a number on a scale. Now, anyone making that case for a group such as the disabled -- even those left disabled because they took foolish risks bungee-jumping or skiing -- would get a sympathetic hearing, and a nod of understanding an acceptance; a kind of "of course, and what a fascinating tale." But as anyone who has ever been overweight knows all too well, that's not the case with weight -- enough people see them as no more than the sum total of their surplus pounds, judge them and then proceed to make it very clear that they have been judged -- for it to affect their self-esteem. In many ways, what Brittingham does in this booked is aimed squarely at her peers -- those who have been the target of disgusted or even angry comments from strangers, and who have struggled to accept themselves. And on that level, the book works brilliantly -- learn how to strut when you walk; learn that people accept you at your own valuation of yourself; be comfortable with who you are as a person; all great lessons to learn.

What doesn't quite click, despite the author's knack with anecdotes and all her wit, is anything broader. The book is a collection of short, episodic sketches (one of the most hilarious being her experiences riding a Manhattan bus with a fake book cover bearing the title "Fat is Contagious") that are linked together only loosely. Too often, I was brought back to the message at the expense of a coherent narrative of the author's own life. That left me with gaps that I wanted to fill, and a narrative that didn't satisfy me as a reader. Don't get me wrong; I was entertained, amused and made to think even more about these issues. But the book could have transcended that and become more deeply personal, the story of one woman's voyage. True, the reader gets glimpses, but it's in the context of Brittingham's discovery of the joys of fresh vegetables or bicycling, rather than as part of a coherent narrative arc. The result was a book that read like a collection of memoirish essays instead of a memoir that might have drawn in an audience that didn't think they cared about the topic but found on reading the first pages that because they care about the narrator, they end up sharing her vision. So this was a 3.5 star book for me.

Of these three, the book that has the best potential (it will be published next week) to reach the broadest audience is Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family and a Way of Life by Alicia Oltuski. It's probably not exactly a memoir, but was originally intended as something broader, a work of narrative non-fiction about the secretive world of the diamond trade. That's what grabbed my attention and made me eager to read the galleys of the book; I love a well-executed "who knew???" book of any kind, even on unlikely subjects like the codfish. (Mark Kurlansky, stand up and take a bow...) The problem is that this wasn't that well executed: Oltuski's subject matter may sparkle brilliantly, but her prose doesn't. I'll refrain from details until I know whether some of the more egregious malapropisms and cumbersome turns of phrase have been excised from the final book, but I felt as if I was slogging through a series of terribly earnest and well-intentioned magazine articles, not being caught up in a narrative. Because there really is no narrative arc here; no story -- just a series of vignettes about the diamond trade, its personalities and the players. But Oltuski relies so heavily on banal quotes from her interview subjects when as a reader I cried out for more detail, that at times I just had to put this down and go and read something by Tony Horwitz to remind myself that it's possible to turn out something fascinating about even unlikely subjects (like Confederate re-enactors -- see Confederates in the Attic.)

Narrative arc. It's a phrase tossed around a lot among writers, but it means more than having a beginning, middle and an end. It means that the author wants you to accompany them on a journey of discovery and perhaps of self-discovery, and each chapter should add to that process, not simply be another facet of the same basic tale. I learned about artificial diamonds, about women in the diamond industry, about technology and the diamond industry -- but I never learned what Oltuski wanted me to take away from this; the 'elevator pitch' that went beyond taking me behind closed doors in the diamond district. Don't get me wrong: that was fun, but that wasn't enough to save this from being a deeply mediocre book. Hey, read it if you've always wanted to know what goes on on 47th Street, but it's probably safe to skim pages here and there, especially given the caliber of the writing. I yearned for this book to grab me at some point along the way, but ended up concluding that the high point was actually in the first few pages, when the narrator straps on a carrying pouch to transport her father's jewelry safely within the diamond district. This was a 2.9 star book for me; the reason I couldn't give it a higher rating is that even while I reading I was constantly checking to see how many more pages I had left. Not the hallmark of a must-read book -- especially one that is essentially a family memoir, with so much potential.

Some other memoirs I've read and like, against the odds, include the following:
  • The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok: A lot of buzz about this at the 2010 BEA (BookExpo) and it was well-founded; the story of a woman's struggle to recover from neurological trauma and her childhood as the daughter of a schizophrenic mother.
  • Objects of Our Affection by Lisa Tracy: By taking the reader through her family's objects, collected over centuries and each with their own independent and family history, as she decides what to keep and what to sell, Tracy has imposed a fabulous structure on a family narrative and made it appealing to a broader audience. A fave book of 2011.
  • The Music Room by William Fiennes: Fiennes alternates his memories of growing up in an ancient English home with a neurologically-damaged brother with a history of psycho-surgery. 
  • Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett: The novelist tells the story of her closest friend, which is also the story of the demands friends make on each other. Brilliant; the book that convinced me not to shun memoirs outright.

Bastille Day Giveaway: Reminder & Update!

Just a quick reminder to all blog followers: the deadline to enter the Bastille Day giveaway is TOMORROW at MIDNIGHT on the East Coast of North America (9 PM to those of you in Vancouver, LA or San Francisco...)

The details are in the post (see the list of most-read posts in the right-hand column). You need to e-mail me at uncommonreading@gmail.com to be entered.  (And yes, I'm checking my spam filter to make sure I'm not missing anything that isn't a scam from Burkina Faso...)

A minor tweak: as you'll note, the number of books available is tied to the number of new followers. Right now, that's 22 people, or 1 book. With a late surge, I suppose that might hit 40 people, or two books (101 followers). As the response has been great but not overwhelming, I'll be giving the winner or winners their choice of one title from the list of five books.

I'll notify the winner via e-mail shortly after midnight -- as soon as I do the random number draw (courtesy of Random.org) and post the result the next day.

Good luck!

Guess who outsells JK Rowling on AbeBooks?

I couldn't let this slip past without commenting. According to a post on the website of online bookseller AbeBooks (which I highly recommend, btw, it's amazing what you can find via their network of booksellers), Georgette Heyer outsells novelists like Harry Potter creator JK Rowling and Charles Dickens.

If your reaction was, "Georgette Who?", prepare to be educated. (Briefly) Heyer sold her first historical romance in 1921, when only 19. Between then and her death in 1974, she churned out a series of iconic Regency romances; I've even heard people comparing Jane Austen to her unfavorably. She also wrote a series of rather unmemorable police detective novels -- my grandfather loved those, but I wolfed down the Regency stories at a rapid rate, beginning at the age of 9 or 10. I still recall that my first Heyers were Arabella and Regency Buck, but I rapidly came to prefer those with an older, more independent heroine, like The Grand Sophy, Venetia, The Nonesuch Frederica or A Lady of Quality. Her best novels have wit and verve, and still have a place on my shelves.

Happily, Sourcebooks began reprinting the Heyer oeuvre a few years ago, so they've already made most of my favorites available once more, and I don't need to worry about covers hanging by a thread or not being able to find what I want on AbeBooks. No surprise to me that they are still in such hot demand (even though Shakespeare and Agatha Christie still outsell her!)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tabloid Wars -- And a Tale of Murder

If you had imagined that a tabloid newspaper couldn't possibly sink lower than the News of the World has done in recent years -- tapping the phones of British citizens and others -- it's time to pick up and read the lively and wildly-entertaining saga of a nasty 1897 murder case in New York City. "The public likes entertainment better than it likes information" wasn't a comment by a contemporary tabloid publisher today, but one uttered over a century ago by William Randolph Hearst as he prodded his reporters on the New York Journal to outgun and outmanoeuver their rivals at Pulitzer's World, particularly as the rival tabloids fought each other for an edge in any story involving gruesome or bizarre murders.

In The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars, Paul Collins (author of Sixpence House and the more recent The Book of William, about Shakespeare's First Folio), the author explores with glee and gusto the no-holds barred world of newspapering in the 1890s in a narrative that is built around the murder and dismemberment of William Guldensuppe, a German-born masseur. From the moment that the man's torso washes up on the southern tip of Manhattan on a hot summer weekend, the newspapers are on the case, turning it into a public spectacle. As the victim is identified, Hearst rents out the prime suspect's apartment after she lets her lease lapse -- his reporters allow the police in to investigate but block other reporters. Reporters cut telephone wires (except their own), hire passenger pigeons to carry sketches from the courtroom to the pressroom and even try to undertake a citizen's arrest of a possible suspect in the crime. “Really,” the Herald’s publisher had mused during the throes of that scandal, “the newspapers are becoming the only efficient police, the only efficient judges that we have.”

This focus on the early tabloid wars in the booming late 19th century Manhattan is the really fascinating part of this book, juxtaposed against the details of rudimentary forensic science, a murder conspiracy and life for "ordinary" New Yorkers at the turn of the century. One of the fascinating elements is the way that Collins hones in on the tiny details: when the man sentenced to die for the crime is taken off to Sing-Sing to await electrocution, he is able to glimpse out the window of elevated train the daily lives of New Yorkers in their apartments; in 1897, the community of Woodside in Queens revolved around the hub of a hay feed and general store and was so rural that ducks swam in the ponds. One of those ducks would play a crucial, if slapstick role in the investigation, and so hard up was one newspaper for stories that it would end up writing a profile of the critter. ("It is an ordinary duck," their correspondent informed readers...) His depiction of the "Wrecking Crew" -- a mass of journalists on bicycles whose goal was to outride the competition and hamper them by any possible means -- left me laughing so hard I ended up with hiccups.

This is a great book to read for summer, combining a true-crime mystery safely in the past with enough color about New York in the 1890s and the birth of "journalism as entertainment" of the kind that endures to this day to make it of broader interest. Those who might be tempted to mutter "but who cares?" about a century-old tale of reckless journalism might remember that only months later, Hearst would take great pride in the disproportionate role he played in pushing the United States into the Spanish-American War. From crime as entertainment, it was an easy step to war as entertainment.

Collins doesn't play up any explicit parallels or try to draw any morals, which is just fine -- that fun is left to the reader. His writing style is crisp and lively, doing justice to the larger-than-life characters that inhabit these pages. I found this both fascinating and fun -- a great book that can either be read for the historical tale it tells or looked at as one of the steps that led the tabloid world in the direction of headlines like the famous "Headless Body in Topless Bar" -- and the misadventures of the late and somewhat lamented News of the World.  Highly recommended; 4.4 stars.

Europa Challenge: "I'm a policeman!"

That's what Commissario De Luca keeps insisting. After all, he has finally managed to transfer from the special political police to the regular police in the final days of Mussolini's fascist regime at the opening of Carte Blanche by Carlo Lucarelli (published by Europa Editions, and read for my Europa Challenge.). But it's early 1945, and the Allied troops are approaching and the partisans gaining courage.

Against that backdrop, De Luca is called on to investigate the murder of a man close to the regime, with powerful friends and powerful enemies. Everyone seems to have a stake in the outcome -- or rather, in a particular outcome -- but De Luca stubbornly insists on continuing his quest for the real culprit, even as bodies pile up along the way. There's an intriguing twist at the end of this gritty, noir-ish and brief crime novel, one that makes me wonder how De Luca will fare in the next two books of Lucarelli's trilogy, which I'll certainly be reading.

This is a quick read, and an intriguing one. The idea of the stubborn cop pursuing "truth" even when those above him make it clear they don't want to hear it is hardly new (after all, I've just finished reading the very good novel, The Pericles Commission, by Gary Corby, which puts its hero in exactly the same kind of position.) But the writing and translation are both excellent, and the setting is almost perfectly designed for this kind of conflict: a cop who literally tries not to hear the sounds of torture when he revisits his old office in search of information.

A good start to the Europa Challenge, and a recommended book to those looking for a slightly different kind of mystery. I've rated it 3.8 stars; the only reason it isn't higher is that I prefer books that devote a bit more time and attention to character development, and while Lucarelli does accomplish a lot in a relatively skimpy number of pages, the book still left me wanting more.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Mystery Monday: A Classical Whodunnit

I suspect that any novel starts with the author wondering to himself or herself, "what if..." and then simply following where his or her imagination leads. In the case of The Pericles Commission, Gary Corby started off asking himself some intriguing questions: What if Socrates had had an older brother? And what if that older brother had been asked by none other than Pericles (in the days before he became an Athenian hero in his own right) to become something that Athens had never seen before: a private detective, or inquiry agent? Those questions, coupled with Corby's excellent writing and knowledge of classical history, along with some nifty characters and plot twists, prove to be a recipe for a top-notch mystery, one that kept me awake far too late last night until I finished it and one that now has me lamenting (in the manner of mourners at an ancient Greek funeral) that I'll have to wait until November to read the next book in the series, The Ionia Sanction.

Corby's fictional hero, Nicolaos, is simply out a morning stroll when suddenly, "a dead man fell from the sky, landing at my feet with a thud." Nicolaos, son of sculptor, is no fool, and quickly shows the reader that he's good strong investigative skills: "It doesn't normally rain corpses, so where had this one come from?" It turns out that he'd been shot (with an arrow, since guns wouldn't appear in Greece for a few more millennia) and had fallen, already dead, from the Areopagus, the rock on which the city's most elite statesmen gather. And the victim? Well, it turns out that he was Ephialtes, the political leader who only days earlier had taken the final steps that turned Athens into the world's first democracy. Did his death mean the end of those democratic aspirations?

Ephialtes and his murder are a matter of historical fact, and Corby has wound a compelling mystery tale around them, one in which Nicolaos finds himself investigating the dead man's tangled personal life (with the aid of the latter's illegitimate daughter, who's a priestess-in-training) as well as his political connections. Pericles quickly reveals himself to be an idol with feet of clay to Nicolaos -- whenever the latter's investigation leads him in unwanted directions (such as toward other leaders of the democrats), Pericles is angry and eager to bury unwelcome evidence. Being civic-minded is, Nicolaos slowly discovers, more honored in principle than in practice in the 5th century BCE in Athens...

I enjoyed every page of this mystery, although usually procedural mysteries (which is essentially the category to which this belongs) become tedious and predictable. But whenever the drama of Nicolaos's investigation flagged, Corby introduced some plot element or detail of life in Ancient Athens, such as how those immense marble statues were transported from one place to another, or the nature of ritual sacrifices, that I found absolutely fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the points when the very young Socrates, ugly and precocious, steps in to help his big brother solve the puzzle. Sometimes, foreshadowing is clumsily handled in historical novels, but not this time; when Nicolaos heaves a sigh before telling his inquisitive younger brother, "Try not to think so much Socrates. It will only get you into trouble," all I could do was laugh out loud. Best of all, I never felt as if I needed to read a basic guide to Greek history to follow the plot -- an outline at the beginning was all I needed; Corby did an excellent job of incorporating the historical background and context into the narrative almost seamlessly, so I never once felt as if I was being lectured to by one of the characters (a big, unavoidable flaw in many historical novels.)

There have been a lot of mystery novels set in Ancient Rome to make their appearance in recent years, of which the series featuring Gaius Petreius Ruso as a physician in Roman Britain is the only one to have piqued my curiosity. (I've tried the books by Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davis, but haven't found them compelling enough to continue with.) Perhaps it's the fact that Corby has done such a good job blending the background with an exciting plot, or perhaps it's just that Ancient Greece is new and obviously fertile ground for mysteries, but I found this grabbed my attention far more did Caveat Emptor, the most recent Ruth Downie novel featuring Ruso that I read last month. Recommended to all mystery buffs; 4.2 stars.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bleakly humorous look at the life of one man and his penguin...

Let's start with the fact that the main protagonist of Death and the Penguin and Penguin Lost, would-be novelist Viktor, has a pet. Fair enough. But this being the world that author Andrei Kurkov has created for his characters -- based on life in the post-Soviet Union Ukrainian capital of Kiev -- Viktor's pet isn't the standard issue cat or dog. It's a penguin; to be precise, an Emperor penguin named Misha, whom he adopted when the Kiev zoo is forced to de-accession its animals because it can no longer afford to feed them.

When the first of these two novels opens, Viktor is a bit worried about feeding Misha, too. Newspapers keep rejecting his stories, and he's wondering how to keep buying the frozen fish that Misha favors. (Luckily, there's lots of cold water on hand for Misha's swimming expeditions in Viktor's bathtub.) Out of the blue, it seems, he is wooed and flattered by a senior newspaper editor into writing a series of obituaries of prominent figures in the new Ukraine that can be kept on hand until their subject dies. Suddenly, Viktor can afford to feed Misha the occasional piece of frozen salmon or even shrimp, and he's having fun exercising his creative energies on the obituaries, including all the details of their seedy schemes and criminal acts, despite the fact that he despairs of ever seeing his byline in print -- after all, most of the figures he is profiling are healthy and surrounded by bodyguards. Until the day when one of them dies -- and suddenly, his obits are the talk of the town. Then he and his penguin, inexplicably, are in hot demand to attend some of the funerals...

What makes this novel work -- and caused me to laugh out loud even as I was gasping with appalled fascination -- is the naive figure of Viktor himself, who seems largely unaware of the bigger forces swirling around him. It's not that he's incurious, simply that he realizes that the world he inhabits is a complex and dangerous place. That's underscored by the fate of his friend and penguin-sitter, Sergey, who is whisked off to join the Moscow police and then isn't heard from, or by the disappearance of Misha-non-penguin, a Mafia-type figure who has befriended Viktor and who leaves him with his four-year-old daughter Sonya before himself vanishing from view.

When Viktor realizes what is really going on -- and his own possible fate -- he seizes the chance to escape. His return, in the second book, is do justice to the one companion for whom he has genuine feelings: Misha the penguin. But Misha is missing, and Viktor undertakes an odyssey to locate him, from the circles of Kiev's corrupt politicians to the Moscow underworld and eventually to a darkly horrific Chechnya, where he is hapless witness to what happens to the war's victims. Reunited with Misha, Viktor plans at least to take control of his own destiny -- but life has one last little surprise for him...

These are wonderful novels, books that play with the idea of "reality" as something absurd and even surreal, and that show how readily an ordinary man and his penguin can carve out an ordinary life and routine against a backdrop of chaos and anarchy.  The relationship between Viktor and his penguin is a tour de force -- I'll never be able to read books about a man and his dog in quite the same way again. And yet Kurkov also does justice to the peripheral figures in the story, who are sketched out quite clearly for the reader to observe even though we always see them through Viktor's eyes: the jovial and yet sinister editor; the generous mafioso; the young woman, Nina, who arrives as Sonya's nanny and becomes Viktor's lover, and who promptly begins agitating for a dacha in the country.

While I loved both these tragicomic novels, the first (Death and the Penguin) is certainly the stronger of the two books (4.5 stars), with a narrative that is focused in both time and space. It is in that book that we meet Viktor and Misha; that the absurd plight in which both find themselves becomes clear to us. In contrast, Penguin Lost (4 stars) exists to wrap up the loose ends left dangling at the end of the first novel -- where is Misha? What happened to Viktor? What about Sonya and Nina? You'll want to read the second book to find out, but it's more rambling and easier to put down. Death and the Penguin is already available; the sequel will be released in September by Melville House. Full disclosure: I obtained advance electronic copies of both books from the publisher via NetGalley.

Just Added to My Shelves:

It's dangerous to let me loose in bookstores, or even in the vicinity of the Kindle books page on Amazon.com, it seems...

At any rate, here are some of the new additions to my shelves, some of which will be reviewed on this blog in the coming weeks & months!

  • When the World Spoke French by Marc Fumaroli (purchase)
  • Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic by Arthur Krystal (purchase)
  • The Magician King by Lev Grossman (NetGalley)
  • The Prague Cemetary by Umberto Eco (NetGalley)
  • Sand Queen by Helen Benedict (NetGalley)
  • Heliopolis by James Scudamore (purchase)
  • Is Journalism Worth Dying For? by Anna Politkovskaya (NetGalley)
  • Nat Tate: American Artist by William Boyd (LibraryThing Early Reviewer)
  • Blue Monday by Nicci French (UK purchase)
  • The Hidden Child by Camilla Lackberg (UK purchase)
  • Before Versailles by Karleen Koen (Kindle purchase)
  • Bone China by Roma Tearne (Library)
  • Chalcot Crescent by Fay Weldom (Library)
  • Carte Blanche by Carlo Lucarelli (LIbrary)
Stay tuned for feedback on these and other books! And a big welcome to all my new followers...

Friday, July 8, 2011

What's Life Without a Challenge?

One of the publishers I noted a day or two ago as being one of those that has an uncanny ability for generating a disproportionate quantity of "I gotta read it!" and even "I gotta buy it -- NOW" books is Europa Editions. So much so, that when they announced they were launching the "Europa Challenge", I decided that I'd have to join in.

The challenge is to read (no hardship at all) a number of Europa titles (again, no hardship) between July 1 and the end of 2011. If I read 4, I win the title of Europa Ami; if I hit 7, I rise to become a Europa Haver (Hebrew for 'friend') and if I hit 14, I'll become an Europa Amante. Since I'm feeling pro-Italian this week, I'll opt for the Amante title, which will mean I'll have to devour about two or three Europa titles every month. Eh, nessun problema; possa fare questo! And just for the fun of it, I'll try to win the "Passport Holder" designation (by reading books from different countries, published in different languages) and will ponder becoming a "perpetual" reader -- in other words, to read all the Europa titles.

So far, I've read A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse; Muriel Barbery's two novels; In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut and the books that I've reviewed here by Kazimierz Brandys, Anna Gavalda and Luis Sepulveda. I've got about four that I have purchased but that linger unread, and a few more I've obtained from the library, so all I have to do now is decide whether to kick off with Chalcot Crescent by Fay Weldon, Heliopolis by James Scudamore or Carte Blanche by Carlo Lucarelli. Decisions, decisions...

I'll be cross-posting my reading on the Europa Editions challenge blog here -- and if you feel like it, why not read along or join the challenge for yourself?

Happy reading!

When Individual Decisions Lead to Societal Mayhem

I've been reading Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl this week as I've been editing the galleys for the paperback edition of my own book, Chasing Goldman Sachs, (which you can order online today, or can find in bookstores after the paperback release date in October!) but I don't think it's a coincidence that as I made my way through the pages of Hvistendahl's impeccably-researched tome I began to recognize some parallels. What happens when we are reluctant to admit that some of our most closely-held beliefs might have an ugly underside? (In Hvistendahl's, it's the right to abortion as a cornerstone of a woman's right to control her fertility; on Wall Street, it's the right to pursue profits of all kinds.) Why don't we acknowledge that simply because something is legal, and reasonable for one person to do, that doesn't mean everyone can do it without the gravest potential consequences? (It's OK for one person to select the sex of their unborn child, or to buy a $500,000 house with a weird mortgage, no down payment and an income of only $30,000 a year, but when a significant number of people do so, the balance is no longer sustainable.) Above all, why can't we recognize that just because we can do something, practically and legally, that doesn't mean that we should? Why can't we learn to think about the wider context and just say no?

Admittedly, Hvistendahl doesn't get that philosophical in her excellent book. What she is trying to do is show just how badly out of whack birth rates have become not just in countries like India and China (where the preference for boys has already been well documented) but also Korea, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Albania. And, she worries, this is likely to spread to other countries as the level of affluence grows together with the wide availability of the technology that is needed to verify the gender of a fetus -- before aborting it if it's a girl. Don't think for a moment that cultural mores about the value of human life will stop them from doing so, she warns -- she provides evidence that in some of the worst offenders, such as China, abortion was traditionally thought of as heinous and not viewed in matter-of-fact terms, at the time the transition began. Hvistendahl doesn't stop with diagnosing the problem, but extends her analysis to the early signs of how male-dominated societies appear to function: ironically, women are less valued as individuals and viewed only as scarce sexual partners; those who can't find wives or partners in Taiwan and China venture to neighboring countries and buy or even kidnap brides, forcing them into marriage or prostitution.

This thought-provoking book made me wonder and ponder what happens when multiple cherished ideals collide. We want, for instance, a "sustainable" planet, not one where everyone sets out to maximize the number of children they have. At the same time, we want women to be able to control their fertility -- to have that right. And we cherish the idea of personal freedom. But what happens when these are incompatible? Hvistendahl looks at the panic of the 1950s and 1960s, when under the influence of U.S. population control "experts", governments cracked down on their citizens' fertility using forced abortions and forced sterilizations -- ironic, given that affluence has led people to voluntarily restrict the size of their families. Now the problem is the opposite one: how to tell people that their single child can't be a boy; that they can't select what gender child they have but must put up with what comes along. Not surprisingly, no government has been willing to grasp that thorny challenge. Rules banning sex-selective abortions are honored only in principle, not in practice in nations like India.

The kind of world that is created when there are seven men for every five women (or whatever ratio emerges) is likely to be an ugly one, Hvistendahl argues, convincingly and with considerable data. And until we see the impact of our individual decisions decades from now -- when the problem will be far worse -- we're not likely to do anything about it. (Global warming, anyone?) And the challenges are significant. Already, Hvistendahl notes that activists are using sex-selective abortions as a way to try and remove the access of all women to any king of abortion. The intentions were good -- give parents a way to ensure they'd have a boy early on in their reproductive careers, and they'd have fewer children trying -- but ended up fitting in poorly with the reality that parents were ready to limit family size anyway.

This is a book that is straightforward and simple -- no scientific or statistical terms to make you wrinkle your brows in puzzlement -- and that ultimately I couldn't put down as I became just as caught up in the narrative as I would have been in any thriller. Hvistendahl writes with style and panache, and at the same time never lets her own anger and frustration overtake her reason. The only point at which she fails to do justice to her argument is in a few pages late in the book, when she attempts to argue -- awkwardly -- that the level of violence in U.S. society has something to do with the male-dominated frontier traditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries (when women were scarce) and their prevalence in popular culture. I looked for evidence -- she is scrupulous when providing proof of her theories everywhere else -- but beyond the data of the demographic makeup of the frontier societies during the Gold Rush, etc., Hvistendahl doesn't bother providing facts supporting this part of her theory. (There's no study showing that men who commit violent acts have a disproportionate fondness for TV shows or movies set in the old West, for instance.) That sloppiness stands in odd contrast to her punctilious approach in the rest of the book, and is the reason I can't give more than 4.4 stars to what could have been a 5-star book. But it's still a very important analysis of an under-reported problem. Or rather, while the problem is often remarked upon, no one until now has dared to tackle a rigorous analysis of why it exists and what may happen next.

The reason I bumped this to the top of my "must read" list? Well, I stumbled across this article in the Daily Telegraph about Indian parents paying surgeons to turn healthy baby girls, whose gender is very clear at birth, into baby boys -- albeit sterile baby boys. (This isn't the same as taking a child born with confusing genitalia into one or the other gender -- a very rare condition.) In their quest for boy children, parents, it seems will not only abort a six-month fetus but put their baby girls through unnecessary and dangerous surgery. For the record, regardless of what I myself might do, I"m staunchly in favor of giving any woman the right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term. But after reading this book and this article, I felt as if my support for what I still believe to be an important issue (no woman who has been raped, in my opinion, should be forced by others to bear her rapist's child if she chooses not to) has been abused. These are important issues, not just in terms of the principles and beliefs we cling to, but for the future of our planet. Hvistendahl points out very carefully the perils of meddling in them -- a lesson we should try to recall if policymakers set out to try and reverse the gender imbalance by a fresh series of equally ham-handed policies.

I won a copy of this book in a publisher giveaway on Twitter! And yes, it's from PublicAffairs, one of my "must watch" publishers... (That's how I heard about the giveaway in the first place -- I'm a Twitter "follower"...)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Some Publishers I Keep a Close Eye On...

I was making my way through the stack of catalogs that made up part of my haul at BEA (BookExpo) back in late May -- also known as "book porn" -- when I realized that there are a handful of publishers whose catalogs were responsible for inflating my "must read" list to an extent that was completely out of whack. I've mentioned one of these here in these pages -- the folks at Europa Books -- but thought it might be amusing to try to round up a list of them. So, in no particular order, here's who they are and why they're so dangerous to my budget and my groaning bookshelves.

Europa Books (to start with the obvious one) publishes high-quality literature that I might otherwise never hear about at all or never be able to find if I did. So far, I'm batting 1000 with their books, and I've decided to participate in their Europa Challenge (more of which in a later post.) Authors include such well-known figures as Muriel Barbery and Jane Gardam, but if you're looking for something completely different in the fiction world, their backlist is a great first stop.

Soho Books: I confess! I am a mystery addict. And Soho publishes some of my favorite authors, including some of the ones who don't automatically warrant a place in the tables at the front of the bookstore, but whose books are often better than some of the ones that you do find occupying prime real estate. I woke up to the pattern slowly -- d'uh -- but any imprint that has introduced me to authors like Qiu Xialong (his post-Soho books haven't been as good, alas), Colin Cotterill, David Downing and Jassy Mackenzie needs to have an eye kept on it. Coming up, I'll be reading some more offerings, like books by Michael Genelin.

Basic Books and PublicAffairs: These two imprints fall under the broader label of the Perseus Books Group, and publish some of the best and most accessible narrative non-fiction about serious subjects. I've just finished reading Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl, a must-read book about sex selection at birth and the impact of these policies on our world, a BasicBooks offering. (Stay tuned for a review in the next 24 hours.) The list of interesting books is endless -- Cambodia today, Lisbon during World War II, the last day of the life of the Soviet Union...

Bloomsbury: I suppose it's technically Bloomsbury Walker, but I don't really care. Besides, I drooled over the logo on the catalog so much that  it's no longer visible. I could actually whimper when reading through their list of upcoming offerings. A new MI5 thriller from Stella Rimington. Stephen O'Shea's newest book, The Friar of Carcassonne. Dava Sobel writing about Copernicus; a new novel from Lloyd Jones (author of Mr. Pip), something from Amin Maalouf and countless other goodies. I'd add to the list, but then I'd cry in frustration and the catalog would end up covered in tear stains as well as drool. Horrifying.

New York Review of Books: Not content with churning out a must-read newsmagazine about books, these folks are actually printing (or rather, reprinting) must-read fiction and non-fiction. Tove Jansson's books for adults are on the list, but also books like the one I snaffled on my most recent bookstore foray, When the World Spoke French, about how the possession of a lingua franca spread Enlightenment thought.

Melville House: Shamefully, for a moment I thought these guys might be jumping aboard the "Christian fiction" bandwagon. No idea why that thought crossed my mind, other than the fact that I'd never really heard of them. But anyone planning to introduce the entertaining subversion of Andrei Kurkov's novels featuring Viktor the writer and his penguin Misha is someone whose adventures in publishing I want to follow. They are off digging up intriguing novellas by well-known classic writers -- you'll know the author's names but the books won't be familiar to you -- introducing writers like Imre Kertesz and non-fiction like Is Journalism Worth Dying For? (the final writings of Anna Politkovskaya) and Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler's Germany. (No, the author takes Hitler seriously, but is pointing out that the ability to laugh at an oppressive regime can sometimes lead people to resist it.) The newest addition to my MUST WATCH! list.

Little, Brown & Co., is part of Hachette and thus one of the "big boys" in the publishing world. But their fall list includes a new novel by the author of Winter's Bone, Daniel Woodrell, and an intriguing new thriller (under the Mulholland imprint) The Whisperer by Donato Carrisi. I don't turn my backs on them... Another great Hachette imprint is Twelve, which publishes a single book a month; the winter releases include something from Christopher Hitchens and a book by Eric Weiner about humans and God. (His last book was about the happiest places in the world; I suspect Iceland is a wee bit less happy than when he was there, pre-crash.)

Farrar,  Strauss & Giroux/Faber and Faber has an astonishing list that includes Dante in Love by A.N. Wilson, new novels from Jeffery Eugenides and Andre Aciman, and, from Faber, an intriguing looking book by Siddhartha Deb, The Beautiful and the Damned, about the new India. They publish interesting authors like Elif Batuman and Marilynne Robinson; Faber & Faber has an amazing backlist of poetry and drama. (Stoppard, anyone?)

Just because a publisher isn't on this list doesn't say anything about the caliber of what's in their catalogs, just that these publishers appear much more likely to focus on the kind of stuff I like to read. When I'm looking for a "plain vanilla" novel, I'm pretty much label agnostic. But if I'm not keeping up with these guys, I know that I'm going to risk missing out on something that will be a wonderful discovery, including a book that will be on my list of best reads for the year or a new favorite author.