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.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Mystery Monday: With roots in the Arctic, no wonder this is a chilling tale...

I can't even remember any more where I first heard about Giles Blunt's series of novels set in a fictional northern Ontario city named Algonquin Bay (a thinly-disguised North Bay), but I do know that I'm very glad that someone mentioned them to me! At their heart is John Cardinal, a middle-aged detective who once played in the big leagues in Toronto, and whose daughter is trying to make it in the art world's big leagues in New York. I'll try to avoid some spoilers -- this is one of those series in which major life events shake up the main protagonist from one book to the next -- but will say that Cardinal, while world-weary, still has an ability to empathize with those who suffer and a strong sense of justice driving him.

In the latest book in the series, both will be taxed by the events that unfold. It is winter in Algonquin Bay, and the freezing wind is blowing so fiercely that when Cardinal wakes up one morning, he sees it blow the ice fishing shacks clear across the lake. He is called out to the scene of a crime -- a man is dead and a woman is missing, feared dead. But when a woman's body is found, it isn't that of Laura Lacroix, but rather the wife of a Canadian businessman turned politician, who vanished hundreds of miles away in Ottawa. Oddest of all, when she is found, she has been chained up and left to die -- but dressed in warm clothes and abandoned with a thermos beside her, as if her murderer wanted to give her some kind of fighting chance -- or just prolong her agony.

At first, the excerpts from a 20-year-old diary kept by a member of an Arctic expedition are a puzzling contrast and an interruption to the main flow of the narrative. I was just as eager as Cardinal's colleague (and increasingly close friend) Lise Delorme to understand whether the former rock star and current sex club owner was responsible for the crime, given his track record. I wanted to know how the Algonquin Bay cops would cope with the arrival of a brash and arrogant Toronto hotshot, with an inability to work well with others but a tremendous reputation. But slowly, Blunt's portrayal of the Arctic world captured my attention, from the natural landscape and its perils to the struggle of a small group of scientists cooped up together to coexist in isolation, grabbed my interest just as much or even more -- especially when the ominous link between the contemporary crime(s) and the history slowly emerges.

This isn't a pitch-perfect mystery novel. There are a few implausible elements in the sub-plot featuring Lise Delorme and her attempt to hold someone responsible for a past crime, for instance, and Loach, the obnoxious newcomer, was a two-dimensional figure who didn't really add all that much to the central tale. But Cardinal himself is anything but two-dimensional, and the setting -- Northern Ontario in the depths of winter -- is a vivid and authentic backdrop to a compelling mystery. Read it -- but start off with Blunt's debut, Forty Words for Sorrow, which introduces both Cardinal and Delorme and also is set in a fierce winter. One reviewer in Toronto's Globe and Mail argued that Blunt does for Northern Ontario what James Lee Burke does for Louisiana's Cajun country, and having just read my first Burke novel, I'd have to agree.

For some unknown reason, while the first few books are easy enough to find in the United States, the later ones have yet to be published here, so you'll have to order them from an Amazon vendor or Amazon.ca. For my part, I haven't regretted doing so yet -- this has rapidly become a "must read in hardcover; can't wait until the paperback is released" series. A solid 4-star book; recommended.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Was the Irish famine genocide? The latest addiition to the debate...

"By the summer of 1847, newspaper readers in North America and Europe could be forgiven for thinking the only thing the Irish knew how to do any more was die."

That sums up the horrific story of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1848ish, a dreadful event that was sadly in need of a new and readable history. That is what John Kelly has delivered -- in spades. He does the world a service by not arguing that the collapsed of the potato crop was artificially manufactured and created by the British with the express purpose of triggering what ended up becoming the equivalent of a genocide of the Irish, nor does he romanticize life in pre-famine Ireland. What he does do is deliver a crisp, well-researched and authoritative history of the cataclysm and its consequences.

This is a book that appears to be causing quite a kerfuffle amongst readers who are committed to the proposition that the tragic famine was a deliberately genocidal act, readers who focus their attention on the use of English forces to export the country's grain crops and sustain commercial/mercantile contracts at the expense of human lives. (In fact, for commenting that this seems to me to be the outcome of stupidity, extreme callousness, lack of imagination, etc. rather than an explicit intent to  exterminate the Irish, which is what needs to be in place to rise to the level of genocide, I have been told in other forums that I am callously genocidal myself; I'm happy to entertain fact-based, rational debate and disagreement on this in the comments section, but will remove any comments that descend to vituperation and personal hostility; civil discourse is fine, but reasonable people know how to disagree reasonably without descending to that level.) In spite of the hostility of some readers, it is clear that in Kelly's eyes, the English are responsible for the astonishing level of fatalities -- about a million people died; at least another million emigrated -- but it's of a different kind than that assumed by those who say the intent was genocidal.

English policies of the era was not benign, as Kelly spells out for readers. Bizarrely to our eyes, a series of politicians and civil servants somehow seized on the crisis as an opportunity to exercise some "tough love" (for want of a better phrase) and force the Irish into what they viewed as a better way of life. That they were wrong in their prescriptive approach appears probable from Kelly's detailed analysis of the famine's aftermath;  within a few decades, for instance, land ownership once again was widely dispersed, with small plots being at the heart of the agricultural system. Were they wrong in their analysis? Perhaps not: certainly, utter dependence on a single foodstuff is a recipe for catastrophe, especially given that the tremendous crop failures of the mid-1840s had been preceded by several devastating but more minor ones; certainly, the fact that Ireland (outside the major cities) had little in the way of a "modern" market economy or even a cash economy exacerbated the impact of that crop failure, so transformation seems to have been a reasonable objective. But to prioritize such a transformation in the midst of a crop failure, famine and disease? That's something else again, and Kelly illustrates in damning detail just how each decision made that prioritized policy ideals over the preservation of human life proved devastating. (He devotes a lot of attention to the government's determination that no one should interfere with the "free market" operations by providing free grain, or selling grain below the market price, for instance, at the heart of the actions that have convinced many that the English authorities were deliberately genocidal.)

Few of the English politicians and civil servants whose actions and inaction doomed so many Irish to starvation, disease or forced emigration come across looking rational, reasonable, etc., (much less humane) in Kelly's book. But what the author does do is to remind us that their starting point was a radically different way of thinking than ours today is. More than 160 years ago, it seemed reasonable to Victorians to view the crop failure as some kind of divine judgment, whether on the island's over-reliance on the potato crop, the antiquated land ownership system or simply the fact that the Irish were Catholic or lazy. Hard to conceive today, especially with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, but then, it was difficult for many Austrian and German Jews in the mid-1930s to view Hitler as anything more than the harbinger of a new kind of survivable pogrom. (It is with the benefit of hindsight that many of us can and do say 'why didn't they just flee when they could?') Kelly reserves a particular kind of icy cold vitriol for Irish landowners who used the famine and the epidemic of typhus that followed as a way to depopulate their estates, evicting their tenants and forcing them onto what amounted to plague ships. He doesn't need to use hyperbole or even dramatic rhetorical flourishes: the facts speak for themselves, as when he paints a portrait of a team of doctors in the St. Lawrence River, with the masts of ships stretching far up river, unable to keep pace with ships that were arriving with holds full of stricken, dead or dying "emigrants".

I have spent a reasonable amount of time in Ireland in the last decade, including visits to the archives of the country's famine museum in Co. Roscommon, and have talked to some of the historians working there. Their stories were more chilling and horrifying than the only major history of the events that I have read (which was thorough but dry). So Kelly's deft marshaling of the complicated facts and the juxtaposition of these against some vivid writing and an anecdotal style made this a compelling read. To me -- as a reader whose interest is in what happened, rather than defending English policies or insisting that authors label this a deliberate genocide -- it emerged as a compelling narrative that clearly spelled out the tragic consequences of people who are convinced that they know better than others, and those who put political ideals or social engineering ahead of humanitarian considerations. He pulls no punches, but he does let the facts speak for themselves -- which I appreciated. I read it cover to cover in two nights. And yes, the story gave me nightmares.

Just Added to My Shelves:

The books just keep coming and coming and coming... The "good" news is that I was able to donate about 970 volumes from my non-cyber library to the Brooklyn Public Library's annual sale!

Here are some of the latest additions, however...

  • From Germany to Germany by Gunter Grass (Amazon Vine ARC)
  • The Goldberg Variations by Susan Isaacs (Kindle)
  • The Liberator by Alex Kershaw (NetGalley)
  • From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra (Brooklyn Public Library)
  • The Resistance by Peter Steiner (Brooklyn Public Library)
  • The Potter's Hand by A.N. Wilson (Amazon UK purchase)
  • The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (Kindle)
  • When it Happens to You by Molly Ringwald (Kindle)
  • Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie (Kindle)
  • The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey (Brooklyn Public Library)
  • How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton (NetGalley)
  • Tombstone by Yang Jinsheng (NetGalley)
  • The Watchers by Stephen Alford (NetGalley)
  • Semper Fidelis by Ruth Downie (NetGalley)
  • Man in the Empty Suit by Sean Ferrell (NetGalley)
  • Better Off Without 'Em by Chuck Thompson (Kindle)
  • In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin (Amazon Vine ARC)
Too many books, too little time... Hence the deaccessions. I was fairly ruthless: if a book didn't strike me as something I was highly likely to re-read, had no sentimental value or isn't in an area of interest of mine, I marked it for disposal. I now have open shelf space once more -- well, for the time being...

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Books with Buzz: Justin Cronin's "The Twelve" -- and a Giveaway of "The Passage"

Trilogies are tricky. No matter what you do, if the first book has been a slam dunk success the way that Justin Cronin's The Passage was two summers ago, you'll struggle to deliver something that fans find just as overwhelmingly impressive. On the flip side, the story isn't over yet: your second novel is a bridge that readers need to find compelling enough that they'll read it through and come back for the final installment. None of that is easy.

That said... if you loved The Passage, you'll find a lot in this sequel to like, and maybe you'll even end up loving it, too -- if not quite as much. (Just don't try to read this as a stand-alone book; you'll struggle to make sense of what is going on.) It's just as convoluted and dense a novel, jam-packed with characters. It's actually slightly more confusing, because while in The Passage Cronin began with the events of the year Zero and then moved forward to his main time frame, 97 years later, focusing on the small group of survivors in the Colony in California and the challenges that confronted them, in The Twelve he is trying to wrangle a larger number of characters and a much larger canvas, one ranging from the very real survivor community of Kerrville, Texas, to the surreal/fantastical "world" that Amy visits as part of her own quest. Indeed, each of the main characters is on a kind of quest here, and the novel's focus skips and jumps, back and forth in time and into different parts of the post-viral era to give the reader a complete view of what's afoot. The problem is that there is so much happening that I was a third of the way through the book before I even began to see how the various bits and pieces fit together. And I was more than halfway through before I reached the stage where I couldn't put the book down and do something else.

So, what's the sequel all about? Well, when it opens, the surviving members of the Colony's expedition to take Amy to Colorado are now mostly scattered. Alicia and Peter are still together, but in the Expeditionary, hunting the twelve disciples of "Zero" in hopes to eliminating the viral menace. Michael is working on the oil road, keeping Kerrville supplied with fuel and power. Amy has joined a group of Sisters and is overseeing five-year-old Caleb, the son of Theo and Mausami. But the "survivors" aren't just from the colony; Cronin takes us back to the year zero, and re-introduces us to figures like Lila, Carter and even Wolgast, and introduces us to new characters to help fill in some of the backstory for some of his main ongoing characters and help set the stage for what will happen in the final third of the book. Cronin does a good job of managing the myriad narrative threads and alternating breathtaking suspenseful segments with more thoughtful passages that remind us that there is a new kind of everyday life still going on in the widely-dispersed survivor communities. The question becomes: what kind of survivor existence will triumph? It's hard to say more about the plot without venturing into spoiler territory, but the bottom line is that while it's a less straightforward narrative than in The Passage, the sequel offers a dystopian future that is less nuanced than that Cronin depicted in the Colony, but even more chilling for being more explicit.

Something that struck me more forcefully in this book, and that had begun to irritate me toward the end, is that this novel is even more intensively visionary, with more explicit religious imagery of a Christian nature. There are the Twelve of the book's title -- only instead of apostles, they are virals. Yes, they consume flesh and blood as Jesus invited his apostles to do at the Last Supper -- but they consume human flesh and blood. There's a sacrifice, late in the book, with someone pinned to a Y-shaped frame rather than a cross, preparing to sacrifice their life for their comrades and fellow humans. There is the image of pursuing the light, and the fact that virals (like vampires) cannot sustain themselves in the light. There is resurrection, of sorts, and transformation.  There are the labels like "Michael the Clever, Bridger of Worlds" or "Amy of Souls". At times, this simply became too heavy-handed for my taste, and my religious views aren't such that I would be offended by the hijacking or distortion of the Biblical narrative; those who are likely to take offense to the above, even in the midst of a book whose core message revolves around salvation and divinity, should probably avoid this at all costs.

This isn't a literary novel. Yes, the book is well-written, but ultimately it's an up-market thriller, with Big Themes and Big Ideas, but characters who will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a Good vs Evil chronicle. Admittedly, Alicia appears to be a complex character in this book -- but while her body may be divided, her heart and soul are in the right place. There's really none of the moral ambiguity or grey areas that, to me, characterize a complex narrative. Here, the complexity is reserved for the sprawling plot, and Cronin certainly has enough on his hands dealing with that. Think latter-day "Lord of the Rings" in nature, with (obviously) a very different kind of plot, writing style, characters and setting, but not that different in scope and essential nature.

If you loved The Passage, I'd certainly suggest trying this -- although be careful of letting your expectations become too high. If you haven't read The Passage, don't try this until you have -- and even if you already have read the first book in Cronin's proposed trilogy, it might be a good idea to re-read it before diving into this sequel. Be patient, and brace yourself for the  slow pace of the revelations.

I obtained an advance readers' edition of The Twelve from the publishers at BookExpo (BEA) in June.

The Giveaway!!

Yes, I can almost see you, tapping your toes in impatience, asking when I get to the giveaway...

I am giving away one copy of the promotional paperback edition from BEA AND one Kindle version of The Passage to two randomly selected winners. You must be a follower to enter; e-mail me at uncommonreading@gmail.com and tell me which version you would prefer. (Yes, you have to pick either the dead-tree mass market paperback or the cyber-version.) One entry per person, please. Make sure I have your e-mail address, and I'll let you know directly as well as posting the winner's names here. The winner of the dead-tree book will need to provide his/her mailing address, and the e-book winner will need to give me the e-mail address associated with their Amazon account. Sorry, I'm not set up yet to do this via Nook.  

The deadline? Next Wednesday, October 17, the day after The Twelve hits bookstores. I'll select the winners at 11 p.m. (Eastern) North American time.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

My Pick for the Booker: The Garden of Evening Mists

Later this week, the suspense will finally be at an end, and we'll know which of the half-dozen novels on this year's shortlist will win the Man Booker Prize. While I loved Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, my favorite candidate has to be this nearly perfect novel by Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists. It's one of those rare novels to which I want to award a sixth star, just for reminding me that there is always something new to discover in the world of books, and that there are authors out there capable of crafting prose that I have to stop and savor every few pages.

When this novel opens, Yun Ling Teoh's professional career is ending; she is retiring after many years as a judge in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, a career that began when, in her early 20s, she joined the team prosecuting Japanese soldiers for the crimes they committed during the World War II occupation of the then-British colony of Malaya. As we soon realize, Yun Ling's life -- however successful she has been in her career -- essentially ended when, at the age of 17, she herself became one of those victims, and the sole survivor of a hidden camp in the Malayan jungle. Tan Twan Eng deftly steers the reader back and forth from the past to the "present" (the 1990s), as Yun Ling's experiences during the war and her later attempts to come to grips with them at the height of the Malayan "emergency" in 1951 (a Communist insurgency) are set in the context of her final attempt to bring about a kind of resolution.

At the heart of this story is the garden of the title. It was designed by a former gardener of Emperor Hirohito, a Japanese expatriate named Aritomo, whom Yun Ling seeks out after the end of the war, in 1951, to ask him to design a garden in memory of her sister, who died at the hands of the Japanese. Aritomo refuses -- but he agrees to accept her as an apprentice. In order to achieve her goal, Yun Ling must find a way to swallow her revulsion for Aritomo -- a Japanese, and moreover, one connected to the emperor himself -- and learn from him. While the garden itself, Yangiri, seems to be a place disconnected from time and space, it proves to be anything but, as the Emergency becomes more intense, martial law is enforced more stringently, and the terror-style tactics of the Communist guerillas threaten Yun Ling, whose recent legal cases have involved prosecutions of some captured leaders. All this is set against a much later narrative, as Yun Ling returns to Yangiri -- now her own property -- for the first time since the Emergency -- to finally address all her demons. By the novel's end, we have learned the answers to the questions that emerge gradually as the story unfolds; how Yun Ling came to be the only survivor from her camp; how she came to own Yangiri and why she has allowed a Japanese scholar to visit her now to study Aritomo's ukiyoe prints.

One of the elements that made this novel especially vivid for me was the fact that I had visited the Cameron Highlands, where it is set, in the 1980s, and was left stunned by its beauty (imagine, for a moment, seeing poinsettias growing wild against a backdrop of tree-covered mountains shrouded by a hazy mist) and fascinated by its history. It's the kind of landscape in which mystery and concealment are eminently possible; indeed, at one point, Eng introduces the reader in passing to one Jim Thompson, a former intelligence agent turned silk entrepreneur in Bangkok, who would later vanish while out on a Sunday walk in the same area. Eng captures the setting and the atmosphere of the various time periods in which he sets this novel, especially the Emergency, which he portrays mostly through the eyes of three different kinds of outsiders -- Aritomo, a Japanese; Yun Ling, member of the Straits Chinese minority (a privileged group) and Teoh family friend Magnus Praetorius, a South African Boer with little love for the British colonial rulers of Malaya.

Any attempt to describe this book is almost certain to be inadequate. To me it's the epitome of what a novel that wins the Booker should be: beautifully written (that's a given), with strong characters and a vivid setting, but, above all, a narrative that makes the reader stop, think, re-read, and stop to ponder once more. It has won a spot on my personal "top 100 books of all time" list, although I confess I haven't yet decided which book to kick off it to make room. Just read it. I can't imagine that you'll be disappointed. Although I will be if it fails to win the Booker, despite the fact that it has some tough competition this year.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Mystery Monday: Inger Ash Wolfe's Identity Revealed!

I've been wondering for a while who the author of the rather compelling series of mysteries featuring small town Ontario detective Hazel Micallef might be. The books themselves -- which I began reading with the debut of "Inger Ash Wolfe" a few years back -- are interesting. The setting appears to be the traditional kind of backdrop for a "cozy" (aka "cosy") mystery -- a small town, plenty of people who know each other well and have for decades, lots of domestic conflict that might escalate to the point where one person flings a cup of scalding Darjeeling over another, or someone keys the brand-new car purchased by their rival. Until a serial killer comes to call, that is. It's that odd mismatch of what appears to be a tranquil backwater and some really gritty, complex crimes that captured my attention -- and the character of Hazel herself. She is feisty and cantankerous; in her 60s, divorced and with a characteristically ambivalent relationship with her ex-husband. (Book #2, The Taken, opens as she is recuperating from back surgery in the basement of the home her ex shares with his new wife; they are stuck looking after her because her octogenerian mother -- just as feisty and cantankerous -- isn't physically able to do so. )

It is Hazel and her attitude that has kept me reading these books. She is a welcome antidote to the usual breed of supersleuths found in many mysteries, or the women who often feature in those books -- women who are in the book to provide a love interest, or who end up feeling torn between their personal lives and their police careers, etc. etc. With the exception of a handful (Val McDermid's Carol Jordan, for instance, or the character of Vera Stanhope, created by Ann Cleeves, with her tendency to call everyone "pet" while fixing them with a laser-like glare), there are relatively few women around whom a series has been built that remain interesting characters from book to book. Above all, she is human and fallible. As she admits to her sidekick, James Wingate, midway through The Taken, she has ""a man trapped in my computer, live animals and body parts appearing on my desk, a CO who thinks I've outlived my usefulness and expensive gifts coming from missing friends, I also happen to have a pill problem ... So I'm slightly less than OK."

So who, I wondered, was behind the fictional creation of Hazel Micallef? All that readers were told was that Inger Ash Wolfe was the nom de plume for a Canadian novelist, and I mentally ran through a list of candidates, trying to figure out who that might be. Turns out all my guesses and wildest speculations were off base -- and mostly because I committed the tremendous faux pas of assuming that because (a) the author's name was female and (b) Hazel was female, the author must be female. Whoops... As it turns out, the author is Michael Redhill, who confessed in a column for the Globe & Mail in Toronto that he had long been fascinated by here the idea of "being inside another mind that you had to create out of yourself." At a younger age, he had tried acting; now, he decided to immerse himself inside the personality of another kind of writer, a crime novelist and a woman.

Readers' responses to the Ash Wolfe/Redhill novels have varied, but I have relished them, including the one that just landed in bookstores, A Door in the River. As before, the author blends the image of a small Ontario community with the reality of an ugly underbelly, the two meeting in what Micallef is one of the only people to suspect might even be a crime. When Henry Wiest is found dead, apparently of an allergic reaction to a bee sting after stopping off at a smoke shop on a local Indian reserve (a smoke shop being the place where the tribe is able to sell cigarettes free of taxes), Hazel can't help wondering. Henry didn't smoke -- so what was he doing there? And what bees are out and stinging at night? Hazel has never played well with others, so it's no surprise that when she starts investigating she ruffles feathers at the reserve, where a thriving new casino might explain Wiest's presence on the reserve -- if not his death. But what she uncovers turns out to be far uglier than a gambling addiction, and what starts off as a police procedural mystery ends up being a gripping suspense novel.

A bonus: the first two books are available very cheaply if you have a North American Kindle (less than $3 each) and the paperback editions aren't that much pricier if ordered from Amazon.com. Start with The Calling and read them in order so that you don't get irritated by the failure of Ash Wolfe/Redhill to provide a lot of background with each new book. The middle book in the series is slightly weaker, but only slightly, and the latest is gripping and compelling reading -- even if it does end with a new character arriving on the scene and the fate of an old one hanging in mid air. Oh well, let's just hope Mr. Redhill is writing very, very rapidly and that book #4 in this series will be making its debut soon...