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, August 17, 2012

Just Added to My Shelves:

The obsession continues....  That said, this is a shorter list than the last one. The downside? It's only been about a week since I put together the last list. Sigh. And yes, the above would be my dream armchair. All the books I might need, within easy reach.

  • Above All Things by Tanis Rideout (Amazon Canada purchase)
  • Until the Night by Giles Blunt (Amazon Canada purchase)
  • Forget About Today: Bob Dylan's Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers and Creating a Personal Revolution by Jon Friedman (from publisher directly)
  • Shake Off by Mischa Hiller (LibraryThing Early Reviewer program)
  • Say You're Sorry by Michael Robotham (NetGalley)
  • Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell (Library)
  • And When She Was Good by Laura Lippman (Kindle)
  • A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Kindle)
  • The Devil's Cave by Martin Walker (Amazon UK purchase)
  • The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Amazon UK purchase)
  • The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton (NetGalley)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"It's like something you'd read in a novel."

That's putting it mildly. Dan Fesperman's latest suspense novel is an entertaining homage to the entire genre of spy novels, as well as being one in its own right, and the combination make this even more entertaining than it might otherwise have been. Let's start with the fact that the advance reader copy of the book (which is due to be published next Tuesday) arrived in one of the most curious packages I have seen. Normally, these advance galleys are simply softcover versions of the eventual hardcover book, printed on lower-grade paper, with no illustrations and often with acknowledgments and other miscellaneous additions missing. Occasionally, the publishers won't even go that far, and will just slap a generic cover onto it with some text or some blurbs from well-known writers. This time, however, Knopf went overboard: the image here, on the right, is what showed up in my mailbox. inside the box from Amazon.

OK, the book itself wasn't really wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, just encased in a wrapper cleverly designed to make it look as if it was. Which is, in itself, a nod to the book's plot, which has protagonist Bill Cage, a middle-aged PR guy in Washington, DC, thoroughly disillusioned with his life, head off to central Europe in an apparently quixotic quest to prove that one of his youthful idols, reclusive spy-turned espionage writer, Edwin Lemaster, may in fact have been a double agent. Once, years ago when Cage was still an ambitious journalist, he had unexpectedly scored an interview with Lemaster, and even more surprisingly winkled out of the novelist the admission that he had contemplated becoming a double. "For the thrill of it. The challenge." When Cage publishes his story, the news becomes a brief sensation, Lemaster becomes still more reclusive and never grants another interview. That's where this particular novel begins, linking Cage, Lemaster and Cage's father in espionage and tales of espionage. But what is reality? It ends up seeming just as difficult for Cage to discern as a mysterious series of letters (written on distinctive paper he keeps locked up in his study at home) spark his investigation and questions swirl about the real meaning of a mysterious series of book sales and exchanges dating back decades -- all of the books wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string.

Fesperman doesn't have the prowess of Ambler or LeCarre, but fans of those iconic figures can still delight in this book as a tribute to their heroes. Segments of classics of the espionage genre are clues, ushering Cage on his way at critical points in his quest to discover the truth about Lemaster. A mysterious handler -- clearly a former "spook" far better versed in CIA tradecraft than is Cage, whose knowledge has been derived from the spy novels he devoured in his youth -- is paving his way, but to what end? And who else might be interested in discovering the truth about Lemaster, or perhaps about other Cold War secrets long buried? Each step Cage takes seems to take him closer to some of those discoveries -- perhaps... -- but also further back into his own personal history. The clues lead him from one to another of the cities he inhabited at the height of the Cold War, a motherless child whose father was posted to U.S. embassies in Belgrade, Budapest, Prague, Vienna and Berlin. Cage's handler seems to know an awful lot about his personal background as well as his interest in Lemaster -- and could Cage have played more of a role than even he suspected in those long-ago events. Is Bill Cage now starring in his own spy novel? And if so, who is the author; who is scripting the action?

There are many entertaining twists and turns here, and even if some of them are slightly predictable, I would have felt churlish complaining about that, given the intricacy of the narrative, as Fesperman entwines his own story with that of the history of the espionage thriller itself. Certainly, watching Cage transform from a former devoted reader of classic spy novels -- a passion he once shared with both his father and Lemaster -- into a participant in the Great Game. Ultimately, it simply didn't matter much to me that this novel isn't as accomplished as many of the classics that Fesperman cites. It was simply a fun read, both in its own right and for the "wink, wink; nudge, nudge" factor as the author drags in one twist after another ripped from the pages of those classics. Fan fiction at its best, and a "thumping good read" in its own right. What is artifice and fiction, and what is reality? Not even the characters seem to know, all the time. "Next you'll think I'm acting like someone in a book, and I'm guessing I won't like the comparison," one character tells Cage midway through the novel, rather bitterly.

The bottom line? If you're looking for nonstop thrills, chills and action, this isn't the book for you. (It's more like Alan Furst's novels than those of Daniel Silva, with the emphasis on character and a gradually increasing sense of tension, rather than violence.) It's a novel about the secrets that spies keep -- both professionally and personally -- and the layers that must be unraveled in order to arrive at something resembling the "truth". I'm giving it 4.5 stars, and recommending it heartily to fans of the genre.

My copy of this book -- complete with the imaginative packaging -- came from the publisher via Amazon.com's Vine reviewer program.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Fabulous Adventures On Which An Unreliable Narrator Can Take You...

I happen to believe that unreliable narrators -- yes, including ones who aren't all that appealing -- are among the biggest gifts that an author can present to his or her readers. It's easy -- relatively speaking -- to come up with a likeable character: all you need to do is imagine someone you'd love to spend time with or fall in love with, endow them with all kinds of characteristics, from beauty and wisdom to wit and charm, and send them marching through a plot that is calculated to show all those qualities to best advantage. Wrangling an unreliable or dislikeable narrator, on the other hand, is far trickier. Somehow, you need to delicately, over time, make it clear to the reader that this is a flawed person, someone who perhaps can't be trusted, but still the only person able to tell this particular tale the way it should be told. Someone you can't rely on, but whose narrative and character quirks you can resist, even as you sometimes end up squirming in discomfort.

I've run across a few novels of this kind in recent months that I found extraordinarily good -- all have ended up on my "best books of the year" longlist -- and although none of them need all that much more publicity, I can't prevent myself from giving them another round of applause on this blog.

First of all, there's the tour de force that is Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, published last year in London, and which appeared on the Orange Prize shortlist early this year. It's a tribute to an author's skill in bringing to life an unreliable narrator, this time in the form of one Miss Harriet Baxter, spinster, who recounts her experiences in Victorian London from the "safety" of London in 1933, many decades distant. It's hard to go into details without delivering spoilers, so let's just say that Harriet is telling us the story of her relationship with the painter Ned Gillespie -- unjustly overlooked, in her eyes -- and his family. Throughout, we get a lot of reasons to second, third and even fourth-guess ourselves and the narrator -- which could have been bad news had it not been that Harris's hands are very trustworthy ones for any reader to find him/herself in. Great Literature? Nope. But it's creative and imaginative in a very different and yet familiar way -- combining what feels like a Victorian gothic with a classic suspense novel. I was surprised to see that Politics & Prose (my fave bookstore in Washington, DC) had classified it as a mystery -- at that point, I had read the first 60 pages or so -- but after finishing it, I understand why. But in contrast to a conventional mystery, this story is full of mysteries, layers upon layers of them, and the author can never be entirely sure if the narrator is misleading herself as well as us. If all this sounds oblique, it's because to say too much about it gives away some of the joys of discovery. What I most delighted in is the extent to which, even at the end, Harris still leaves a lot to our imaginations. Could it be that...??? This was a 4.8 star book for me -- and a "thumping good read".

My second candidate, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, is still up there on the bestseller lists -- and rightfully so. (I liked it so much that I raced out to get one of Flynn's earlier novels, Dark Places, which also promises to be excellent but perhaps even darker....)  By the time Nick Dunne, one of Flynn's two unreliable narrators in this suspense novel, tells us that he is "a big fan of the lie of ommission",  we've already figured it out, thanks to Gillian Flynn's masterful ability to drop one twist after another into this chilling tale, in such as a way to cause a kind of literary double take of such magnitude that if it were a physical response, I'd by now be hospitalized with whiplash. We know he is a liar -- we just don't know what lies it is that he is telling, to whom, and about what. Until Flynn slips the truth in slyly and takes the reader's breath away. In all likelihood, this is the best thriller I'll read this year, and possibly this decade -- and I don't say that lightly. Flynn took me on a hair-raising journey, the equivalent of speeding along a slick, twisting highway at night, with not even a railing separating the car from a plunge down a cliff and into the ocean -- and I simply couldn't put the novel down. Every time I thought I had figured out where she was taking me -- and at what point this novel would relapse into classic "thriller mode", with a relatively predictable denouement -- she proved me wrong. Better yet, she made each twist completely convincing.

The novel itself is the saga of an unraveling marriage that climaxes in the disappearance of Amy Elliott Dunne, Nick's wife, on their fifth wedding anniversary. It's an ironic nod of sorts to so many true-life tragedies (there's even a vitriolic Nancy Grace-style television commentator!), but also a deep dive into a kind of toxic relationship that had me thinking three or four times about every individual I've come into contact with. Amy is the photo-perfect victim: blond, beautiful, the model for her parents' best-selling series of children's books featuring "Amazing Amy". But just how amazing is Amy? Well, fairly -- if perhaps not in the sense that we are used to viewing our "victims". Because, you see, Amy is our second unreliable narrator -- how much can we rely on what she tell us through her diary, or in person? The slow and gradual revelation of the layers of this story is tantalizing; the nature of what is revealed is chilling. And the real climax of the book is quite possibly the best I've read in any thriller -- Flynn shuns any thought of the "easy out" when looking for a conclusion. Good to hear this already has been optioned by Hollywood (Reese Witherspoon has apparently picked up the rights.) The bad news? Well, be prepared to distrust everything that anyone tells you and question even your relationship with your spouse. That's how convincing a tag time of unreliable narrators can be in creating an ominous atmosphere. This is going to stay with you for weeks, and will chill you to the bone no matter how hot it is outside. 4.5 stars. 

 Anne Enright's latest novel, The Forgotten Waltz, is a different kettle of fish. It's a literary novel, not a mystery or suspense yarn, and the narrator isn't consciously deceiving us, her readers. Rather, she is deceiving herself -- but it's up to the reader to decide when that takes place. Are her lies about not being interested in the married man she first meets at her sister's holiday barbeque? Or is she lying about being happy later, after both she and he have left their spouses (not a spoiler: it becomes clear that this is the denouement fairly early on in the novel) and moved in together? When Gina first meets the man who will become her lover, she reflects, he "is just a little rip in the fabric of my life. I can stitch it all up again, if he does not turn around." This novel captured for me, better than any other I have yet read, the irrationality and occasional downright inconvenience of unexpected love. Gina Moynihan knows not only that this is a person who is married and thus technically out of bounds, even if she weren't already with the man who will become her husband; she is also clear-eyed, at least in retrospect, about the many ways in which she finds him odd or even how he should not appeal to her. And yet...  Gina evaluates her own behavior and finds it as irrational as others might; describing and not really falling into the trap of rationalizing or excusing her actions. But is she deceiving us?

To many, Gina will end up being not merely a mildly unreliable narrator but a downright unappealing one, to boot. She's an adulterer -- and apparently is rewarded for her misbehavior, in contrast to Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, who suffer miseries before they expire for their sins. Unacceptable, immoral behavior to many. But it's about real-life situations, and it's a story about getting what you think you want and then realizing that life is still "real life".  Gina recognizes this: "I thought it would be a different life, but sometimes it is like the same life in a dream: a different man coming in the door, a different man hanging his coat on the hook... I don't know what I expected. That receipts would not have to be filed, or there would be no such thing as bad kitchen cabinets .... Sean exists. He arrives, he leaves. He forgets to ring me when he is late and so the dinner is mistimed... sometimes the intractability of him, perhaps of all men, drives me up the wall."

Enright has found a lot of critics for letting the story be told by a relatively unrepentant and unapologetic Gina rather than by one of the "victims" of the story. But Enright doesn't ask us to approve of Gina's choices or even to let her off scott-free with her rationalizations or self-justifications. It's one woman's story, and I rated it 4.4 stars despite the occasionally rambling, discursive style that left me feeling claustrophobically trapped inside the narrator's head.

Three very different books; three different kinds of unreliable narrators -- and three very good novels.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Just Added to My Shelves:

Given that the image above is probably fairly close to wish fulfillment on my part, perhaps it's not that surprising the shelves keep groaning under the weight of new additions...

Herewith, some of the latest additions. As always, I'll be reading and commenting on some of these on this blog in the coming weeks and months, but who knows which ones, much less when!

  • The Double Game by Dan Fesperman (ARC from Amazon Vine)
  • The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair (Kindle, Amazon Sale)
  • Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino (ARC from Amazon Vine)
  • Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch (Kindle)
  • Mission Flats by William Landay (Library)
  • The Fear Artist by Timothy Hallinan (NetGalley ARC)
  • The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg (NetGalley ARC)
  • The People of Forever are Not Afraid (NetGalley ARC)
  • Red Ink by David Wessel (NetGalley ARC)
  • Homesick by Roshi Fernando (ARC from Amazon Vine)
  • Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfeld (ARC from Amazon Vine) 
  • Winter Journal by Paul Auster (ARC from Amazon Vine)
  • Living, Thinking, Looking: Essays by Siri Hustvedt (bookstore purchase)
  • Ghost Milk by Iain Sinclair (bookstore purchase)
  • Ransom River by Meg Gardiner (Library)
  • The Romanov Conspiracy by Glenn Meade (Kindle)
  • Invisible Murder by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis (NetGalley ARC)

Monday, August 6, 2012

Mystery Monday: Gamache Sans Three Pines??

When the boatman who transports Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of Quebec's Sûreté on the long journey through isolated bays in the Quebecois hinterland to the remote monastery of Saint-Gilbert-entre-les-Loups, he is convinced that within minutes he'll be ferrying them away once more. Outsiders are never admitted to this cloistered home of the Gilbertine monks, even though many now are trying to gain access to hear the community perform live the Gregorian chants they made famous through a recent recording. To the boat owner's surprise, the gate opens to Gamache and his assistant, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Not because the monks are any more eager for visitors, but because one of their number, the prior and choir master,  has been found dead in the abbot's private garden -- violently murdered. What kind of cacophany exists beneath the pure harmony of the chants to which these monks devote their lives, and how could it be so discordant as to lead to murder?

Saint-Gilbert-entre-les-Loups is a unique place, caught between two worlds. "A netherworld. Between the vibrant life of Quebec. The bistros and brasseries, the festivals. The hardworking farmers and brilliant academics. Between the mortal world, and Heaven. Or Hell. There was here. Where quiet was king. And calm reigned. And the only sounds were the birds in the trees and plainchant. And where, a day ago, a man was killed." (And yes, Louise Penny's writing is that choppy and staccato. If you want to read this book, you'll need to adjust. And yes, it's one reason her novels likely will never get more than four stars from me. Because it feels like sitting in a car. Whose driver keeps nervously tapping on the brakes. When there is no reason to do so.)

Fans of Louise Penny's will rejoice to see Gamache's return in this latest novel; it will be interesting to see how many will embrace a book that isn't set in Three Pines and doesn't feature that fictional town's assortment of eccentric and lovable characters. Frankly, that made this latest mystery from Penny more appealing rather than less so. Let's face it, there are only so many complex murder cases that can plausibly be expected to occur in the same small community in the space of a year or two, and I think Penny has been pushing that limit for a few books now. Perhaps this heralds a parting of the ways, with Penny writing mysteries featuring Gamache and non-mysteries (or else much more cozy "light" mysteries) involving the residents of Three Pines? Regardless, I have become a little exasperated with the way that Three Pines characters have become almost caricatures (I know, sacrilege...) and even predictable. 

Not that Gamache himself can't become irritating. The man is almost saintly -- always having the best intentions; morality above reproach, unstained in an organization in which corruption apparently runs rampant. As Gamache and Beauvoir pursue their investigations, this becomes even more apparent, as Gamache's boss, Francoeur, shows up to throw spanners into the works and generally to disrupt Gamache; his hatred of the pure investigator transcending his interest in solving a high-profile crime, it seems. Gamache, by contrast, soars above such petty politicking in the same way that the monks' chants soar into the rafters of their church. 

Thank heavens for Jean-Guy Beauvoir. When the book opens, the troubled detective seems to have found himself an oasis of peace and love -- as the reader learns within only a few pages, he and Annie Gamache, the inspector's daughter, are now a couple, and it's True Love. His demons are put aside; Beauvoir is content at last, with only one hurdle remaining: the couple still must confess to Gamache pere and mere the truth of their current relationship. As Gamache must leave Reine-Marie to venture off into the wilds and behind the walls of an enclosed monastic order, so must Beauvoir leave Annie and he finds himself clinging to a string of love e-letters written and read on his Blackberry. Will that be enough of a lifeline for him to ward off an atmosphere in the abbey that he finds oppressive -- and resist the games that Francoeur wants to play at Gamache's expense? And what will become of  Gamache's attempt to save Beauvoir from himself?

The psychological tension between the three policemen grows to rival that among the various factions in the abbey itself, as Gamache moves closer to identifying the villain. I've rated this 4 stars, largely for the distinctive setting, the plot that revolves around the chants within the abbey and details of abbey life, and Penny's deep understanding of Quebec today as well as its history. I'm never going to become a Louise Penny fangirl, however -- but that's just fine, as I think she has thousands of them already! I obtained an advance copy of this mystery from the publisher at BookExpo in June; the publication date is August 28. (In other words, only three weeks to wait...)

Scheduled Publication: August 28, 2012

Friday, August 3, 2012

Frayn Does Farce -- And Very Nicely, Too!

Why is a mysterious woman attending a gala event at a prestigious international foundation, wrapped only in mosquito netting? Why is she being pursued by apparently identical Greek taxi drivers? What's really going on involving the mysterious Greek financier and the even more mysterious Russian oligarch, and the swimming pool being built for the foundation's guests? Why is the mobile phone belonging to the much-lauded keynote speaker for the gala event residing at the bottom of a different swimming pool at the other end of the island, Skios? And who is the mysterious and mysteriously attractive Oliver Fox, who has appeared in place of that guest speaker (and adopting his identity), to bamboozle and charm Dr. Norman Wilfred's intended audience? Why does Georgie find herself trapped at a villa with Dr. Wilfred, and taking refuge in the bathroom from him and an apparently insane cleaning woman? Above all, will the cool, cool, cool Nikki Hook -- the epitome of grace under pressure -- do so well organizing the gala event that she becomes the next director of the Fred Toppler Foundation?

By the end of Michael Frayn's new novel, Skios, you'll have answers -- of a sort -- to those questions and many, many others. But as with a lot of novels, the fun isn't about what you find on the last page but what you experience along the way. And in this case, that's a lot -- Frayn has crammed a considerable amount of mayhem into 257 pages and events that stretch out over perhaps 36 hours, if that. Think Shakespeare's comedy -- no, I'm not comparing Frayn's prose or even his wit and humanity to the master, but a lot of the themes are that venerable. And many of them have popped up before in Frayn's work, although those who know him best as the author of Copenhagen, the tour de force drama featuring a debate about the nature of the universe and the meaning of life between physicists Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, are likely to feel a bit taken aback by the radically different nature of this novel. On the other hand, my first exposure to Frayn was waaaay back when one of his early plays, Noises Off, was appearing in the West End in London -- it was my senior year of high school, and was one of the plays we saw on that occasion. (And I definitely enjoyed it far more than I did Coriolanus at the age of 16....)

Skios is farce -- high farce, of a kind that will be familiar to fans of British comedy. Its characters aren't yukking it up -- they are deadly serious. Nikki wants the job (and true love); Georgie wants a fling. Norman thinks he wants to deliver his already well-traveled lecture (yet again), although -- hmm, maybe not? And Oliver -- well, Oliver is a professional charmer finally being taken seriously, although it seems only when he dons someone else's identity. And yet, the novel has all the hallmarks of the classic drawing room farce. Its characters lose their way, their luggage, their mobile phones, their identities and even their sense of self and their minds in this romp of a novel that takes great joy in poking fun at the whole phenomenon of Davos, Aspen and similar gatherings of "the great and the good."

I had a lot of fun reading this novel -- it's light and frothy and silly and, if you follow the self-important stuff that happens at Davos and Aspen, you'll enjoy the parody, too. Is it a "Booker novel"? In other words, does it deserve its slot on the longlist? Hmm, I'm not sure. It's nice to have a well-written book that doesn't take itself ponderously and seriously, by an author who is obviously having fun writing it. Is it memorable? I'm not so sure. I'm in no hurry to de-accession my copy (obtained thanks to the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program) but, as with even the best kinds of cotton candy, a little can go a long, long way. 4 stars.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Books I Can't Wait to Read...

Oh, the temptation...

Every so often, I get a peek at what's coming up in publisher's catalogs, and it's hard to avoid drooling outright. Here are a random selection of what has piqued my curiosity, in no particular order whatsoever (including, as you can tell, publication date or genre...

Mary Sharratt
Oct 9 2012
Why? Because it's about Hildegard of Bingen, a fascinating medieval woman -- a mystic, a nun and a composer of haunting music.

Eight Girls Taking Pictures
Whitney Otto
Nov. 6, 2012
Why? I wasn't that interested by her last novel, but the idea of a narrative linked by young women photographers is intriguing. Possibly a library book.

The Last Runaway
Tracey Chevalier
Jan. 8, 2013
Why? Chevalier switches her focus to North America.

A Possible Life
Sebastian Faulks
Dec. 11, 2012
Why? I liked his non-fiction book about English "heroes" who burned out early; it seems this linked narrative of five lives might be a fictional equivalent.

Chinese Whiskers
Aiyar Pallavi
Dec. 11, 2012
Why? The story of two cats in Beijing. Why not? I'm sure it will be whimsical, but that's just fine.

The Testament of Mary
Colm Toibin 
Nov. 13, 2012
Why? Written by a gay Irish Catholic, this is bound to be interesting -- and not a little controversial. And Toibin is such a fabulous prose stylist...

Hand for a Hand
Frank Muir
Nov. 13, 2012
Why? A new mystery series set in Scotland, published by one of my "most trusted" publishers. Hey, I'll take it on faith.

The Marlowe Papers
Ros Barber
Jan. 29, 2013
Why? Debut historical mystery -- yes, Christopher Marlowe -- getting good buzz from readers in the UK.

The Green Lady
Paul Johnston
Feb. 1, 2013
Why? Well, it's a birthday present -- the return of Alex Mavros, Greek/American detective, whose puzzles always seem to relate to Greece's bumpy and often violent political past.

The Forgetting Tree
Tatjana Soli
Sept. 4, 2012
Why? I really liked the author's first novel, set in wartime Vietnam, and while I'm not as curious about this one's background (California citrus ranching??), it's worth a shot.

Above All Things
Tanis Rideout
February 12, 2013
Why? Great buzz on this, so much so that I decided not to wait until the US publication date or even my next trip to Toronto. Order placed with Amazon.ca, so that I can read about Everest explorer George Mallory.

The Return of a King
William Dalrymple
April 2, 2013
Why? I simply love Dalrymple's writing and his keen eye for detail. This book focuses on Afghanistan's history.

The Heat of the Sun
David Rain
Nov. 13 2012
Why? I'm an opera fan; in Madame Butterfly, Pinkerton and Cio-Cio san had a baby son. This is his story. How could I resist?

Not My Blood
Barbara Cleverly
August 21, 2012
Why? Because it's the next in the Joe Sandilands series, of course, and I have a biblio-crush on Sandilands.

The Twelve Rooms of the Nile
Enid Shomer
August 21, 2012
Why? Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale were in Egypt at the same time in the 19th century. Fact. What if...  Fiction -- but why not?

The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds
Alexander McCall Smith
Oct. 23 2012
Why? The Isabel Dalhousie series is the one of his that I'm still following; I'm always curious to see how the author applies applied philosophy and ethics to fictional situations.

The Marseille Caper
Peter Mayle
Nov. 6, 2012
 Why? Mayle's novels are uneven, but sometimes a lot of fun. Good brain candy or beach reading? We'll see.

Blessed Are Those Who Thirst
Anne Holt
Dec 18, 2012
Why? I loved 1222, the first Hanne Wilhelmsen mystery by this author to be released in the US. A new one is coming out in the UK in December, so of course it's on my hit list.

A Question of Identity
Susan Hill
Oct. 25, 2012
Why? Because it's the new Simon Serailler mystery, coming out in the UK -- and I can't wait until it's out here...

The Confidant
Helene Gremillon
Oct. 30 2012
Why? A debut French novel that has created some buzz there; the plot is a bit of an old chestnut (heroine explores mother's mysterious past after her death) but it might be fun.

The Casual Vacancy
JK Rowling
Sept. 27 2012
Why? If I need to spell it out, well, we're in trouble here!

Unless noted, all of the dates above are US/North American releases; in a few instances, I'll be ordering books from the UK (because I'm impatient...)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

"I guess there are times when war doesn't exactly make sense"

The American soldiers stationed in a remote outpost in Afghanistan in this excellent novel by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya don't want to become "just another failed tribe", and fall victim to the region's apparently endless and ugly battles. Some want to make a difference in the lives of the region's inhabitants; others have a different mission, seeking revenge for the terrorist attacks of 9/11 or combating an ideology they despise, even if they don't understand the difference between someone who wears a black turban because he's Taliban and someone who wears it by right of descent from the prophet Mohammed. And then there are a handful who can only think of getting home alive. Regardless of their widely-varying wishes and hopes, they are all stranded together in this isolated locale when a serious attempt to overrun them is made and only barely repulsed. A few days later, a young woman -- or, at least, a figure in a burkha -- appears with a cart. Nizam, like Antigone before her in the classic Greek tragedy, has come to claim the body of her brother, who led the raid. But the soldiers have already told their headquarters that they have the body of a Taliban leader (as they believe) and as soon as dust storms clear, helicopters will come to carry the corpse off for public display by the new Afghan regime. But until then, the woman and the soldiers are trapped, one on the outside of the razor wire protecting the camp, and the others on the inside.

The author does an excellent job of capturing the ensuing tension between the men and Nizam, and among the men themselves, in this claustrophobic environment. Nizam's arrivals has caused all certainties to evaporate: whereas the men could fight together to repel armed invaders, she disarms them, literally and rhetorically. Nizam is "outside the template", as the first sergeant remarks to the captain, and her presence in the midst of what had been a battle zone leads to predictable yet unanswerable questions -- why are we here? who are the good guys? what is justice?

The nature of these questions may be predictable enough, but it's Roy-Bhattacharya's ability to get under the skin of the characters that is most striking. We understand and grieve for the first lieutenant's lost idealism -- he has read and acted in Antigone, and now lives out a classical Greek tragedy of his own. There is an angry young Afghan interpreter, who is among the most insistent that Nizam may be a man under the burkha, and almost certainly is a Taliban "plant", and who also insists on casting the Americans in the role of defender of his country's citizens and their rights -- to their own discomfort. As one enlisted man remarks, dryly, he's only doing his job.

As the standoff drags on -- Nizam refuses to leave; the soldiers refuse to relinquish the (now decomposing) body of her brother -- the tension grows and misunderstandings multiply. We see the chain of events through a series of narratives, with Nizam's coming first in that sequence -- and only gradually do we recognize the extent to which those misunderstandings are merely small-scale versions of the larger ones between nations and peoples. For instance, the lights that Nizam believes are designed to keep her from sleeping at night turn out to have a far more compassionate purpose, as we discover when the anecdote is told from someone else's perspective. Ultimately, it's impossible not to feel empathy for everyone, from the rigid officer with a limited imagination, to the veteran sergeant, who has seen it all and is exhausted by the emotional damage done by war. Roy-Bhattacharya has succeeded in making Greek tragedy contemporary -- and reminding his readers that the very nature of tragedy is human, and not specific to any era, part of the world, or nationality.

I confess I cried when I finished this novel -- it doesn't happen often, but what affected me was the fact that the narrative itself was so unsentimental, even as it dealt with emotional issues ranging from death and betrayal to comradeship and despair. This isn't an "anti-war" novel, any more than it is a "pro-war" one; rather, it's the story of the people who are caught up in any war and how they try to resolve the conflict that that always exists between their role as warriors and their nature as human beings. If you have read Sebastian Junger's excellent chronicle of life in the forward battlefield posts in WAR, this would be a great fictional counterpoint. 4.4 stars; definitely recommended. (As a side note, I also relished the author's previous novel, The Storyteller of Marrakesh, which adopted a similar technique, recounting a central narrative by using several narrators and points of view. If that approach annoys you, you'll probably want to avoid both novels, but in my opinion, Roy-Bhattacharya does a great job keeping the narrative tightly focused in both books and particularly in this one.)