Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Winner and Newest International Giveaway!

Sharon has won the last giveaway for Barnacle Love, from Algonquin.  She has 48 hours to email me with her mailing information.

New contest starting today, and it's open to all followers, worldwide and U.S.!

  • The book was reviewed today, and Coffee House Press generously sent me an additional copy.  It's Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Ervin...and you have until September 15, 2010 to enter.  The usual rules apply:
  • You must be a blog follower
  • You need to leave a comment to enter (that includes SRC participants on this one!)
  • You'll need to contact me within 48 hours of winning with your mailing information
  • Contest ends 9:00 pac time on Sept 15, 2010.
  • Tweet the contest and get one extra entry  (I'm blacksheepdance on Twitter)

The Violin of Auschwitz, Maria Angels Anglada

Let me preface my review by stating that I have a particular interest in translated novels, and I'm always excited to see a novel by a Catalan author. I was really excited to read this title, as I've found stories about the Holocaust to be inspiring, especially in that I am able to better evaluate my own attitudes in life towards loyalty and inner strength.

In any case, I found this novel to be disappointing, although its premise is original. The story proceeds through the imprisonment of a violin maker who gets marginally better treatment than other prisoners because he is able to repair the Commander's violin, as well as make a new one for the man. He artfully designs the new violin, but is under constant tension because he knows any flaws will mean his death. Eventually, in a flashforward, we find that his niece now owns the violin and plays artfully in a symphony in Krakow. The violin understandably is her greatest treasure.

I've read many books about the Holocaust, and the pain is visceral. At times, I had to put Schindler's List down, for days, because of the devastating content. Elie Wiesel's Night affected me similarly (don't even get me started on Sophie's Choice). It's probably unfair to compare, but Anglada's novel lacks something of the humanity of the other titles. I didn't feel any pull from the main character, there was simply nothing to hook me into the book. His behavior as a prisoner never seemed to change or alter throughout various trials in the camp, and he spoke of little other than overwhelming hunger. There was no insight in to what motivated him or how he felt about the others, except from an almost clinical distance. The character speaks of some of the horrors of Auschwitz, but they come off almost as if read from an encyclopedia; they lack a human element. It's almost as if the author was trying to downplay the tragedy to the point that it's impact was lost.

The novel is filled with references to composers, cities, and Schindler himself, but somehow it still felt small and too contained. Possibly because there are only three significant characters, and possibly because they were never fully revealed.  Another awkward detail was that the dialogue felt stilted.  People don't normally speak with semi-colons, and the way even the smallest portions of speech were written, in complete sentences (not fragmented as in typical conversation), didn't ring true.

The book is very short, almost novella sized, as was Wiesel's Night. But Night is exponentially more powerful and moving.
This novel was provided by Bantam Dell to LibraryThing as an Early Reviewer title.

Extraordinary Renditions, Andrew Ervin

Variations on a theme:  today I am posting reviews for two novels that have similar subject matter (the Holocaust), similar characters (violinists), and similar themes (survival through extreme adversity).  Both titles release today....the review of The Violin of Auschwitz appears in the next post.
Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Ervin

The Holocaust remains one of the harshest examples of human brutality in history, and yet its history is still only partly known.  Because the regions and peoples of Eastern Europe were all involved in different degrees, the experience is not simply defined.  For example, a Jew in Russia may have had a completely different experience during this time period than a Jew in Warsaw or one in Hungary.  Because of these differences, it's possible to read new accounts and catch new details that may be missed in another publication.  All of them horrific, as the end usually remained the same no matter where they were from.

That's what made this novel especially unique: it's the first time I had ever heard of Terezin, in Czechoslovakia.  It was a camp that served as a stop on the journey to the more deadly concentration camps.  In all, more than two hundred thousand Jews are estimated to have been through Terezin and who eventually died*.  However, this camp was unique in that it was designed to propogate the idea that Hitler was simply moving Jews to a nice location to wait out the storms of war.  Films were made to show the happy Jews enjoying the orchestra and the fine foods and beautiful resort-like buildings.  However, like a movie set, this was all a facade.   Before filming, prisoners painted and revamped the buildings, potted flowers were brought in to add color, and inmates had to rehearse their smiles. 

"For days, the filmmakers shot images of children playing soccer, of families sitting around large, food-laden tables, of citizens in line to deposit fake money at the town's newly built bank.  The world would see the glorious gift the kaiser had given to the Jews-their own Edenic village, far from the devastation of the war."

Prior to filming, a symphony was prepared and practiced.  Since many musicians were sent to Terezin especially because of their talent, the symphony appeared to be a chance for them to demonstrate their skills.  The musicians were given new and stylish clothes to wear before they performed, while the potted plants in front of their chairs concealed their actual disintegrating shoes.  It was a triumphant performance, and horrific in that as soon as the filming ended, the musicians were led off the stage into waiting traincars heading to Auschwitz, and their likely death.  Adding to the poignancy was the conductor, a Jew himself, who had to choose which musicians were selected for this 'special' performance.

Sadly, for a long period of time the true horror of Terezin was hidden.  Even Red Cross investigators inspected the camp and approved of the facility.

Andrew Ervin has used this factual history to compose his own triptych-like storypiece, one that reveals true historical details from Budapest, the military (both then and now), and the structure of orchestras and music.  He begins with the fictional composer and violinist Harkalyi, one of the few children who had survived Terezin, now back in Budapest for a special celebration of his new composition.  This new symphony is to him the final evolvement of his personal life, from Terezin to a spectacular career as a renowned musician.  He's returned to Budapest to see his only living family member, his niece Magda.

In an intersecting story, Magda's boyfriend, a US soldier, is residing at the army base in Taszar, Hungary where she works on top-secret interrogations.  His own experience in Budapest is another one of survival from oppressive injustice, and one that forces him to make a choice regarding his future.  Finally, the last of the three stories is of Melanie, a musician set to play in the orchestra of the first performance of Harkalyi's new symphony.  She's a violinist conflicted about her future and discovering how oppressive dissolution and indecision can be.  She, too, finds transformation in Budapest.

The stories have a synchronicity to them because of their themes, and while the characters seek resolution, their path is never clear cut.  Despite Harkalyi's tremendous suffering, he finds that his own niece is involved in the same sort of interrogation techniques of political prisoners at the base that he himself had suffered.  He gives her a smooth stone, one given to him by his mother right before he was transported, and the last time he ever saw her.  He's carried it his entire life as a symbol of his history, and as he passes it on to Magda, it's clear she doesn't grasp the significance of the token.

I really enjoyed the historical details of this novel.  By far, the most fascinating part was about Harkalyi's life, and details of the fraud at Terezin, as well as his wish for his niece to understand her past.  The middle story about Brutus, the soldier, lost me in the details of base life and seemed to be more of an indictment on military policy today rather a character portrayal, and I didn't see exactly how it fit the book as well as the other two stories around it.  There seemed no purpose to his inclusion other than to set off on another story of human rights issues. The final story of Melanie, in the orchestra, is stronger and threads back to Harkalyi's own life.  Additionally, the book served well as a jumping-off point for further research.


Special thanks to Esther Porter of Coffee House Press for this Advance Review Copy.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Last Gasp, Scott Christianson (nonfiction)

The earliest gas chamber for execution purposes was constructed in the Nevada State Penitentiary at Carson City and first employed on February 8, 1924 . . . the first execution by gas arose as a byproduct of chemical warfare research conducted by the U. S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service and the chemical industry during the First World War . . .”

 From the advantage of current access to court cases and other documents, Scott Christianson has compiled a weighty tome devoted to the history of the Gas Chamber.  The book is heavily referenced and authoritative. Christiansons’ background as an investigative reporter and historian uniquely qualifies him to take on this subject.  Personal and political ties influenced many decisions in regard to the development and use of deadly chemicals. In his detailed account, names are named and you will recognize them.

In the early 1900s, racism was pervasive. Immigrants were viewed with suspicion. Many prominent persons believed the defective and unfit did not deserve to live and certainly not to reproduce.

“If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly, and then I’d go out in back streets and main streets and bring them all in, all the sick . . . the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile a weary thanks.”
---D. H. Lawrence. 

German troops introduced chemical warfare in 1915. It had the advantage of rendering a battlefield uninhabitable, but the greatest impact was psychological. Before WWI the use of gases was considered dishonorable under the rules of warfare, but after the German’s use of it the Allies decided that “there was no choice on their part and that they had to retaliate in like manner.” In secret, America’s chemists rushed to catch up to Germany’s chemical development. They tested more than 1600 compounds on mice, rats, dogs, and other animals, as well as on American soldiers.

After the war, the powerful chemical lobby wanted to keep the gas technology they had developed, but turn it into “constructive peacetime uses.” Scientists were testing poisons to fight fires, make dyes, exterminate insects and animals, make fertilizers, to fumigate ships in all of America’s ports, and to fumigate fruits and other foods. It was used in the miningindustry to separate silver, gold, copper, lead, and other ores. Claims were even made that poison gases could rid the world of cancer and other dreaded diseases.  In 1921 Nevada enacted the Humane Execution Law and became the first state in the world to require the administration of lethal gas to legally end human life. The news of the first two executions flashed around the world. Other states followed Nevada’s lead. But in harmony with the eugenics of the time, it was often the poor, the mentally handicapped, and minorities who were killed.

“Hitler’s concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed, so he claims, to his studies or English and United States history.”

I was amazed at the degree that American financiers bankrolled fascist regimes in WWII, as well as the secret alliances of prominent men that were hidden through a web of trade agreements. They are named in this book and referenced, and I congratulate Christianson for his thoroughness in following the paper trail.

At the advent of America’s entry into WWII many feared Germany’s use of chemical warfare again. Winston Churchill stated, “The only reason they have not used it against us is that they fear the retaliation.”

“Hitler used the press of war to secretly authorize a euthanasia program that at first was ostensibly limited to eliminating an incurable sick patient . . . “

Hitler emptied the mental hospitals in his ‘mercy killings’, and upon public outcry, the euthanasia action secretly shifted to concentration camps. Christianson lists these camps and their methods in stark detail.

“The word went out . . . about the immense scope of the genocide. Yet nobody noted that it been the United States Army and American scientists, industrialist and politicians who had invented the gas chamber in the first place . . . Nobody stated the lamentable fact that the radical eugenicists and racial supremacists seemed to have gotten what they had wished for.”

“Pursuing this haunted path has brought great sadness; my battered heart grieves in the memory of those lost.” ----author Scott Christianson

This book is fascinating yet brutal.  He spares no detail in the descriptions of just how these chemicals work, and his history proceeds seamlessly from early development to current uses of these poisons.  He combines history and science, as well as legal reasoning with humanitarian concerns.  It's not a happy read, but one that reveals a relatively unknown part of modern history.

Special thanks to the University of California Press for this Review Copy.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Video Verite, William Petrick

This is a collection of short stories by William Petrick, who is also the author of the newer title The Five Lost Days.   I wasn't really sure what to expect, because I've found that many authors are good at one style (like short stories) but not at another (like a novel).  Since I had both titles on my shelf, I started with this one, and now I'm eager to read The Five Lost Days to compare.  If it's half as good, I'll be pleased!

For one thing, Petrick creates complicated characters with few words.  He doesn't spend pages describing them;  instead, just a few words of a conversation or a significant pause (or look) tells you what they are about.  The stories themselves are not hugely complex either...in fact, they are fairly simple and straightforward.  So what is revealed?  Petrick's characters do not do what you expect.  Their actions are surprising, but at the same time make perfect sense, after the fact.

In the title story, Video Verite, the meaning of the word 'verite' has a chilling significance:  "a form of documentary film in which a small, hand-held camera and unobtrusive techniques are used to record scenes under the most natural conditions possible."*  In this story, a man volunteers to film his skydiving friends as he freefalls with them, but with a tragic ending.  In just a few words, the story fills you with tension and horror, and yet even more revealing is what happens to the video itself.  Petrick reveals parts of the human personality that cannot be explained.

Another story is The Captain, about an Army captain stationed at Warrior Base in Haiti.  He considers himself a liberator, and has moral questions about his tour there.  Yet when he behaves according to his code of honor, he finds himself the victim of an almost mythological punishment.  He remembers his father and his advice not to trust emotions: "If you don't control them, they control you,...That's your weakness, young man.  You're impatient, and you lose control."  Petrick juxtaposes the concepts of warrior, liberator, and loyalty in a very short piece that makes you reconsider the meaning of those terms as well.

The stories revolve around hitchikers and mechanics, prisoners and park rangers.  Small things take on special significance:  a wristwatch, or a perfect view.  This is an engrossing collection, and my only problem with it is that my dentist is named Dr. Petrick, no relation I'm sure, but I kept thinking he was the writer and it gave me a weird sense of apprehension.  Alas, this is no trip to the dentist!  Much better!

Special thanks to Mike Murray of Pearhouse Press for the Review Copy.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Scandinavian Challenge update--4 months to go

We have passed the halfway point (since it started in March) for the Scandinavian Reading Challenge 2010.  Just about four months remain to complete the six titles and gain bragging rights.  So far I have counted approximately 10 of the 64 participants who have completed the six titles and are going on to the extreme phase of the competition.    Congrats! 
Some new releases might inspire you if you are getting bogged down or a need a kick in the pants.  Remember, titles for the Challenge do not need to be crime fiction, or even fiction novels.  Nonfiction history, anthologies, or poetry from the region is included in the challenge.

The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson
October 2010

Sturla Jón Jónsson, the fifty-something building superintendent and sometimes poet, has been invited to a poetry festival in Vilnius, Lithuania, and his latest poetry collection, published on the eve of his trip to Vilnius, is about to cause some controversy in his home country—Sturla is publicly accused of having stolen the poems from his long-dead cousin, Jónas. ------------from the description at Open Letter Books

Frozen Moment by Camilla Cedar

Swedish crime writer Camilla Ceder's debut novel, recently translated into English by Marlaine Delargy and published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, is much more in the mode of Henning Mankell (who is mentioned in passing) than Stieg Larsson (though there's a hit of Larsson in the name and the past (revealed late in the novel) of one character. The story is a police procedural, skillfully told through a series of characters, including Detective Christian Tell and the members of his team as well as glimpses into the points of view of several witnesses and others involved in the story. -----from the International Noir website

Nemesis by Jo Nesbo
Nominated for the 2010 Edgar Award

Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto by Maile Chapman
Nominated for the Guardian's First Book award
(reviewed on this site earlier in the year)

If you wish to sign up now, leave a comment (keep track of books on your own, please), and I'll add you to the participant list on the upper tab.  Or click on the blue map on the right sidebar to go to the original sign-up post with full Challenge rules.  Email me as you complete the Challenge...

Coming in 2011, the Eastern European Reading Challenge:  more gloom, more tragedy, more quirky characters!  Anti-depressant sold separately.
Even tougher, because it's for translated works only.....more info in December.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Rendition, poetry by Manolis

“yet something lurks in the diaphaneity of glass”----from "Mirror"

Glass is not necessarily clear, just as a mirror doesn’t always reflect reality. In Rendition, the poet Manolis reveals layers of meaning that appear as elusive as a shadow on a broken shard of glass. Quotes from Federico Garcia Lorca and T.S. Eliot preface the segments of the book, and there is a sense of warning given throughout to the reader to focus on the present instead of being immersed in the past or in rehearsal for the future. As always, the language is picturesque, and Manolis describes inner thoughts and outer dialogue in a way that shows the battle between the two, especially in “Tolling Bell”, where grief is disturbed by the necessity of trivial funeral preparations.

Biblical allusions abound in this collection: most memorably in “Unexplainable,”

Two sparrows
endearing forms

Hop to mess of potato chips
you threw…

The endless is not more
secret than the finite

It takes two sparrows
and a potato chip

His words recall the verses in Matthew 10 where Jesus mentions two sparrows of small value, and then relays that ‘you are worth more than many sparrows’. Just as the seemingly worthless potato chips sustain the birds, the poet reminds the reader of nourishment for the soul.

In "Elegy II", the poem relives the last moments of a soldier’s life, as his memories flash before his eyes. He remembers old loves, an old song, and even senses the grief of his mother. The enjambment is placed in a way that tumbles the reader forward to the inevitable moment of death.

Two poems were especially fascinating in how they portray one event : in “Climb” the narrator is admiring a ladybug that has landed on his palm:

My eyes fix on her glamour
grand presence in minute scale

He seems a nice enough guy, yet in “Fourth Paradox”, it is figure of death, a “repugnant soulless killer”, that looks upon the ladybug he is holding:

He senses ladybug laughing…

He stares at the game of the red
black ladybug whose brilliance
just laughs in serenity

Just who is who?  What has changed?  This disparity makes the reader wonder exactly who is in control…does death realize its powerlessness over nature? 

This collection is one that requires some meditation to best enjoy.  The glimpses of human nature throughout combine to create a pensive mood,  one that enables you to consider such phrases as found in "Chrysalis":  "What in the image of absence is revealed?"
Special thanks to Manolis for this Review Copy. 
Published by Libros Libertad of Surrey, BC.

The Fiction of Narrative, Hayden White, essays

Essays on History, Literature, and Theory 1957-2007

This book was hard. Really. That’s the first thing to say. Some of the concepts were so over my head I didn’t even know where to begin. So I put it down, and did some research on Hayden White, the author of this collection of essays. Turns out he’s a rock star in the world of narrative theory and literature. Born in 1928, he produced these essays independently, before Robert Doran, the editor, compiled them as one unit for Johns Hopkins Press.

I needed to learn a few things first. “Tropes”, for one. These are figures of speech that allow for metaphors, irony, and allegory to fit in with a narrative. For example, saying that a policeman is “the long arm of the law” is a trope. Get it? When a news outlet says, “The White House reports that…” we know that they mean a representative of the White House stated something, not that the building itself spoke. White discusses these tropes at length, and it appears that he asserts that you can identify a period in history by the tropes used to describe the time. I’m way too dumb to analyze that.

However, I did continue with the book and I have what I hope is a basic grasp of White’s theories on literature and history. He takes to task those who say a history book is a neutral text, and that history can be described without any political leanings or personal slant. And the use of tropes is just one way to reveal the subtle motives an author may have within his text.

In terms of history, the editor Robert Doran noted, after discussing the literary technique of foreshadowing, that “and so with history: to confer meaning retrospectively, to see one event in light of another as narrativistically connected (if not constructed), is precisely what history does. Obviously, the French Revolution would have a very different significance if the Axis powers had prevailed during World War II…And how could the election of the first black president of a nation founded by slave owners not be regarded as the figural and ultimately ironic fulfillment of the national ideals as set forth in this nation’s constitution.” So in viewing a past via present knowledge surely changes how that past is interpreted, and how it is explained.

Of the essays included, my favorite was “The Structure of Historical Narrative” that White wrote in 1972. Partly because of recent research on de Tocqueville and partly because of how he explains literary conventions in a historical setting, I found this essay fascinating. He takes two iconic works of history and contrasts their styles. One is de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (remember Parrot & Olivier?) and the other is Leopold von Ranke’s History of Germany during the Age of the Reformation (other works are mentioned as well). White states that Ranke’s work “tells a story with a beginning, a middle, and end….its subject is an entity that is undergoing a process of change from one condition to another while remaining identifiably what it was all along…it “explains” what happened during the process of change.”

Contrasting this is Democracy in America, which has an indeterminate style that lacks the framework of Ranke’s book. Instead “it can be said to have a kind of beginning, consisting of a background sketch of how democracy was born in Europe” and then goes on to give “an account of the institutions and forces in play in American democracy at the time of the writing of the book.” So it doesn’t fit the story model that Ranke uses, and instead leaves the conclusion to be drawn from what the reader knows. This of course, changes by who the reader is, as well as the fact that future readers in succeeding generations will be able to apply to it what they’ve seen occur in history since.

What I took from this, both as a reader and a wannabe author, is that structuring a narrative is far more than throwing in a few twists, some clues, some memorable characters, and a stunning denouement. Instead, leaving options open for the reader to insert their own perceptions would likely lead to a more appealing and insightful novel.

Additionally, in researching White I found a remarkable story about a legal battle he had with the Los Angeles Police Department in 1975, one that went all the way to the California Supreme Court. In it, he asserted as a professor at UCLA that the LAPD were posing as students to gather information on campus about teachers and other students. Tax money was being spent to support this illegal surveillance. He won the case, where the Supreme Court determined that without a specific crime to investigate, the police couldn’t simply troll for information on the UCLA campus** White is now retired, having taught at UCSC and Stanford.

Special thanks to Johns Hopkins University Press for this Review Copy.   
**http://en.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/588106 White v. Davis

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Polyglot Project---website

Today I became aware of a really cool website, http://www.polyglotproject.com/.  It's fairly new, so more features will be offered in the future, but for now it's a great place to practice your foreign language skills.  It's an immersion method that allows you to read in the language you are learning, and then if you come across a word you don't know, you just double-click the word and it gives you the English translated word.

It currently features books in Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, French, German, and English;  more languages and more book titles coming soon.  It looks to be a great method for practicing languages for fluency, and using classic works in their original language to do so.  I'm hoping they get Russian titles soon!

Membership is free, just log in with your email to set up an account.  Enjoy!

The New Make Believe - Denise Newman, poetry

Denise Newman is both a poet and a translator. This grasp of the variances of language, and meanings, puts her in an especially appropriate position to play with words. In The New Make Believe, she does just that: changes one word in a line and changes the direction of the poem. Or she’ll substitute one word to create an entirely new pictorial image. In other words, she defies what you begin to suspect as you read. This is not in any way ‘ordinary’ poetry (if there is such a thing). It’s almost as if she’s teasing you to reconsider what happens when a train of thought is interrupted, derailed, reversed, or placed on a siding.

One of my favorite verses is in “Wolf”:

One more time
Get up off your stumbling
Blocks and stumble
One more time
Onward, humbled

In the same poem she observes the habits of thought, “the mind observes around and back, around and back in its grooves.” She’s not telling the reader to stay in that rut, and she’s not telling them everything will get better, but instead to just keep going, even if it means falling again.  In fact, the reference to blocks made me picture a stumbling toddler.

She also observes the value of self and space. In “Please Hold” she links the idea of communication and comes up with the best reason ever to not answer the phone: “when the phone rings-don’t answer-don’t flow in another’s stream, not yet”. No wonder it’s impossible to have a quiet moment to think, ponder, or ‘make believe’ if you’re allowing someone else to snap you out of your space.

The collection is divided into four subjects with four different subtle themes. I have to admit I don’t understand all of them, but I think that she intended to leave an interpretation open to what the reader fills into the empty space.  Thus, the reader is allowed to create their own 'make believe'.

Special thanks to Lindsey of the Post-Apollo Press for the Review Copy.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Sound of the Wild Snail Eating---Elisabeth Tova Bailey (memoir)

"...the snail had emerged from its shell into the alien territory of my room, with no clue as to where it was or how it had arrived;  the lack of vegetation and the desertlike surroundings must have seemed strange.  The snail and I were both living in altered landscapes not of our choosing;  I figured we shared a sense of loss and displacement."

Elisabeth Tova Bailey was in her mid-thirties when struck with a mysterious illness that soon led to her complete incapacitation.  Without knowing the cause, much less the cure or the course that it might take, the disease was a frightening visitor.  One day, a friend stops by with a rather odd gift.  A snail, from out in the yard.  First placed in a flower pot and eventually a terrarium, the snail becomes Bailey's constant companion.  Because of her lack of mobility and energy, much of her time was spent observing the creature.

You might think this would be dull, or worse, that you'd be stuck listening to someone bleakly describing their every physical complaint.  Not so.  This book has very little to do with health issues and far more to do with curiosity and resilience.  Bailey is not a complainer, actual details of her health are few and without self-pity.  She doesn't simply give up either, she makes clear she wants to fight this unknown assailant on her life. That she does so with the help of a small snail is astounding. 

The first surprise is that snails have a daily routine.  They have certain times to eat and sleep and travel.  They often return to the same place to sleep, and they sleep on their side.  (!!!)  As she watches the daily activities of the snail, she manages to study research on snails in general and in detail.  Turns out snail research is pretty deep...volumes have been written on every tiny detail.  As in:  snails have teeth, 2200+ of them!  Seriously, if they were bigger you'd think twice about stepping on one.  They also have a special talent for when the going gets tough in their little world:  they start a process called estivation.  It's not hibernation (they do that too!) but instead it allows them to become dormant when the weather goes bad, or they lose their preferred food source, etc.  Some snails have been known to estivate more than a few years.  The process of sealing off their little shell is fascinating, and a study in insulation.

Then there's the romance.  Researchers have studied that too, and I won't go into too much detail, but let's just say lady snails are not complaining about romance in their life!  Male snails really knock themselves out on the charm aspect.  So much of the research that is out there is fascinating, and Bailey sorts through it and shares the most interesting details.  This isn't just a science project for her, she sees parallels in her condition as well as the snail's.  Illness took her out of her social circle, and her life seemed slow and inconsequential.  And snails usually are a typical example of slow and inconsequential living:

"Everything about a snail is cryptic, and it was precisely this air of mystery that first captured my interest. My own life, I realized, was becoming just as cryptic.  From the severe onset of my illness and through its innumerable relapses, my place in the world has been documented more by my absence than by my presence.  While close friends understood my situation, those who didn't know me well found my disappearance from work and social circles inexplicable.

...it wasn't that I had truly vanished;  I was simply homebound, like a snail pulled into its shell.  But being homebound in the human world is a sort of vanishing."

What makes this memoir unique, besides her indomitable spirit, is that she doesn't push any sort of religious or spiritual agenda for her positive outlook.  There is no implied message, which is often a feature of such an inspiring book.  Her facts are based on solid research, and she doesn't waste words;  her prose is clear and precise.  Additionally, and this may be trivial, but the book is exceptionally beautiful:  little snail insignias, and designs,  poetic quotes, and the actual fonts and design layout make it lovely.

One word of warning.  Some inspirational "illness" stories often end up being the 'go to' gift choice for a sick friend.  I know of one gentleman, who, when diagnosed with a serious illness, received eight copies of Tuesdays with Morrie from well-meaning friends.  This is not that kind of book.  It would be a far better gift for a Type-A personality that needs to slow down in their hectic life, or a book just to savor for yourself.  It actually might make a great gift for a young person interested in science (the "romance" portions are tame).  In any case, this book made me want to reconsider how much of my hectic life could be slowed down to enjoy the smaller but ultimately relevant details in the natural world around me.

Special thanks to Kelly Bowen of Algonquin Books for the Advanced Review Copy. 
 This title releases in the US today, August 24, 2010.

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman

WKRP in Cincinnati.  It was a sitcom in the early 80s, I think?  Without disparaging this work of literary fiction, I was somewhat reminded of that goofy little show.  It was set in a radio station, but made memorable by the collective weirdness of every character in the ensemble cast.  Each episode seemed to focus on one person's problem, usually humorous, and filled out with the other characters who rotated in significance per the episode.

In The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, there is a similar layout to the novel.  Instead of a radio station, it's a daily newspaper in Rome, with mostly expats running the show.  Often funny, sometimes bleak, the book moves along and introduces you to each character separately then shows them as part of the whole.  No sight gags or corny humor like in WKRP, but a feeling of tolerable camaraderie between people thrown together and not especially liking it.

Richman doesn't use any cliches: there's no "Devil Wears Prada" evil boss, and even the most insignificant of copy editors has a life outside the newsroom that is a story in itself.  That's why the novel is so fascinating.  Without one single main protagonist, much more is in play that makes the story move.  There's the obnoxious Snyder, who constantly travels to different war zones seeking a story, but remains oblivious to human tragedy.  He decides that knowing different languages interferes with his objectivity, so all sources must speak English.   Business editor Hardy, an intelligent female reporter who is so desperate for a companion that she finds a relationship with the loser Rory who robbed her apartment.  Lloyd, who has no relationship with any of his children, and really nothing in his life of value, resorts to falsifying stories just to make a little money.  And Dave, who enacts the perfect revenge on the accountant who fired him.  Then there's the spell-check program that renames an important historical character "Sadism Hussein."

Finally, there's the love letter Ott wrote, never seen by his beloved:  "I built and I built-heaven knows that I have done that well.  Those skyscrapers, full of tenants, floor after floor, and not a single room containing you."

In all, Rachman creates these characters amid the underlying theme of a newspaper trying to make money in the age of the Internet.  He contrasts the tactile importance a newspaper used to have with the overload of information online that can't even be grasped.  Instead of lecturing about this relevant information, he shows how the newspaper changes in content over three generations of owners-the Ott family.  This is a fun read, full of laughs but tender and meaningful too.

Special Thanks to Dial Press for the Review Copy.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sunday Salon

It's been a long week fighting a nasty cold....the only upside being able to justify sitting around reading.  I've been mixing it up a great deal, I think I have six (yes, six) books going at once right now.  I'm finishing The River Gods by Kitely, trying to remember what I read late at night in Everything Flows by Grossman, finishing up Video Verite by Petrick, Rendition by Manolis, A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees by Dudman, and Dreaming in Chinese

I did realize that I am completely free to ignore unsolicited titles that arrive, and not even put them in the wait list unless they really look good.  For some reason I was feeling like I had a duty to read them, NOT.  So what should I do with them?  Donate to library?  Some of them are way out there...

I read the most amazing article on Mont Blanc (the place, not the pen!).  I wish I had the money to travel to some neat places:  the Faroe Islands, Australia, Chile, Romania, Spain, and Portugal are on my current wish list (but I haven't read today's travel section yet, it could change).  Special thanks to those that sent me those wonderful pictures from Spain...I hate you all now!

Contemplating an order from the Levenger catalog.  Has anyone seen this?  It's book lover porn.  Seriously, I want one of everything.  Gorgeous stuff.

I also have a gorgeous NY Times Sunday waiting for me right now, and I just about have time to review it before an airport run to pick up my parents and my middle son from their trip.  Happy reading!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dystopian genre-what was it called before?

Try reading a book catalog or publishing website without running across a novel described as 'dystopian'.  Does this strike anyone as being sort of new?  I know the concept isn't (described as an imaginary place inhabited by fearful, oppressed lives and suffering from disease, overpopulation, and political strife), but it seems like the word is everywhere.

I read alot, and while I've read many of the titles that are considered classics of the genre, I don't remember them being called dystopian at the time.  Maybe it just went over my head, but it seems that only the last two years have specifically branded that word into a genre.

Classic titles described as dystopian are: 1984, The Handmaid's Tale, Farhenheit 451, and Lord of the Flies.  An article from http://science.jrank.org/pages/7637/Dystopia.html#ixzz0xJPk9s3S

describes the trend:
As dystopian fiction has become more widespread and popular since the end of World War II, critics have grown comfortable in classifying dystopias based on their own generic qualities, rather than explicitly by contrasting them against utopias. The term dystopia has also grown more familiar and is commonly used to refer to any dark or unpleasant future. Finally, by the end of the twentieth century, critics seemed to have abandoned the effort to segregate dystopia from science fiction, the larger literary genre to which dystopia belongs.

This makes sense, as Merriam-Webster seems to link the use of the word to the 1950's.  Obviously, it's the opposite of More's Utopia, which I thought was a pretty awful place when I read portions of it this last semester.  It actually seemed just as constrained and limited as 1984.  I found references to dystopian fiction in literary journals as far back as 1983, but it wasn't commonly used to describe actual novels.

So, what were they called before they became "dystopian"? 

Friday, August 20, 2010

Blue Has No South, Alex Epstein

Translated from Hebrew by Becka Mara McKay

I can't decide if these are short stories, lyric essays, or poems.  In any case, Epstein has compiled little moments of mystery and romance, history and humor, into this slim volume from Clockroot Books.  There are no dramatic flares, and no heartbreaking losses.  Instead, the situations and events he describes in these short pieces are simple, personal, and honest.  There is emotion, but the quiet kind endured by quiet people, an emotion that reads far more realistic than some authors can describe effectively.

In "Memory Card":

"In the winter they buy a digital camera as a surprise for the grandchildren, but they don't know how to connect it to the computer they bought the year before....the old couple takes pictures of each other.  In March the woman dies in her sleep.  Her husband finds the instruction manual that came with the camera and reads about pixels, about digital zoom, and jpeg and avi files, and other strange, miraculous concepts.  In May he finishes the instruction manual, and removes from the camera the 1-gigabyte memory card.  He places it in his deceased wife's jewelry box and closes the lid."  The picture he has created in so few words reveals the enthusiasm of this couple to share with their grandchildren, the shock of death, and the quiet picture of a man diligently trying to figure out how to save her face.  That he doesn't wish to share this "memory card" illuminates how deep his feelings are.  I could easily picture him in a chair, trying to decipher the jargon and afraid of messing something up and losing the photos forever.  Epstein puts all that into a deceptively simple little paragraph.

In "Another Way Out", he tells another picturesque story.
"A king once imprisoned a poet in a cellar and demanded he find the most beautiful word in the world.  This legend has infinite endings.  In one, the poet dreamed he carved the word on the cellar's ceiling. When he awoke, he didn't remember it-only that it was written in the font now called FrankRuehl.*  In another, the poet doesn't discover (even in a dream) a hint of the word.  All he manages, completely by accident, is to invent the game of chess."  It has a fairy tale quality, dungeon and all, but the revelation of finding the most complicated game, the game of kings, in a search for beauty, is somehow exactly right.

Alex Epstein breathes life into a variety of topics in this collection:  cosmonauts, lost cell phones, dreams, and an escaped elephant heading to another zoo in search of lost love.  They are quirky and youthful but lack the sarcasm and edginess that sometimes settles into modern verse.

Special thanks to Hilary Plum of Clockroot Books for the Advance Reading Copy.

*FrankRuehl font is the ubiquitous Hebrew font style. There are many fonts that belong to this style, and all are based on an early 20th-century design by Raphael Frank.   Interesting to note that this font, as well as the popular Arial font, are both representative of Hebrew origins in printing.
(From http://www.microsoft.com/typography/fonts/family.aspx?FID=237)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Klausen, Andreas Maier

Translated from the German by Kenneth J. Northcott

“everything now becomes a sign of something.”

This would be a great subheading on the “Welcome to Klausen” village signpost. For within this small community, gossip and rumors, fueled by suspicion, make every event somehow significant. The fictional novel Klausen by Andreas Maier is based on many of the facts of this city, located in Northern Italy in the Bolzano-Bozen region, where the last thing the residents want is to be considered Italian. They prefer their South Tyrolean heritage, and their language of Austrian is the proof of their difference from Italy. The region is, in fact, an autonomous province, and one that is constantly at odds with their Italian neighbors. The region is a blip on the Autobahn A22, a place occasionally visited by tourists but usually left to its own devices.

In this novel, Maier focuses on the interactions of the residents, some long-time citizens and others who are new to the region and ready to develop parts of it. The shopkeepers keep tabs on everyone, and little goes on that doesn’t generate talk. The novel begins with one such event. Josef Gasser returns to Klausen from somewhere else. No one is sure where, or why, or what he is up to. His sister Kati is a much discussed topic in the small town, as she escaped and became a television star. But Gasser is less notable, and his behavior immediately strikes the townsfolk as odd. He doesn’t seem to want to engage with anyone, and he has no interest in old friends or even his mother. They label him an ‘industrious no-good’.

“…public opinion began to regard Gasser in a very critical light, because it was striking that he had said nothing about any of the issues that had been talked about and had expressed absolutely no opinion. This was not only seen as arrogant and presumptuous…, but it was also considered worrisome and even dangerous.”

Shortly after his arrival, other visitors begin talking about the noise from the Autobahn bridge nearby, with some opposed to its noise and others oblivious to it. Both sides begin a campaign of speculating and questioning the motives of everyone else. Soon an effort is made to actually verify just how big a problem the noise is, and the townspeople begin a free-for-all of dispute over the project. After some grossly exaggerated violence occurs, the town is now rabid with assumptions. Gasser becomes a prime suspect in an event that no one can even define.

Maier takes what could appear to be a wearisome premise into an amusing, if not hilarious, direction with his excelling talent at writing dialogue. He captures the heart of the people revealed in their seemingly idle chatter. He notices how tones change when people become suspicious. In one case a jacket is ‘misplaced’, with suspicion it becomes ‘abandoned’. A new meaning that alters everything. And it’s not just Gasser that is the victim of the gossip: an architect, Italians (in general), Moroccan squatters residing in an abandoned castle, even an aging poet become suspects.

In one particularly ironic instance, the mob latches on to the idea of three Pakistani workmen who live in the town as being responsible for an altercation. That the men weren’t present makes them all the more suspicious. A crowd gathered in a basement bar discusses them, and begins relating stories about them. At that unfortunate moment, one of the Pakistani men happens into the bar for a drink. Immediately he knows something is up, and as they begin to question him, he sees where they are going with their questions. When he resists answering where he was on the night in question, he is considered guilty. When he provides an alibi, he appears even guiltier for having one. He begins to fear for his safety because the crowd is looking for someone to blame, preferably an outsider. And thus the basis of the Klaussner’s resentment is revealed: they want no part of the outside. An “outside” world that to them is driven right to their doorstep by the Autobahn; a world inhabited by Italians, Albanians, Moroccans, and people different from them.

When I began reading this, I was slightly off track because of the blurb on the back of the book that mentioned a “crime scene”. I started reading in a linear direction, blinders on; intent on getting to what I thought was the point, the alleged crime scene. But about a third of the way I realized the story, crime scene or not, is in the dialogue. The eavesdropping on people so convinced in their own rightness that they abandon logic, and the gossip that spins out of control because no one is invested in finding the truth. At this point I restarted the novel, and it really helped me to grasp the humor that is dryly incorporated into the text. The novel is not for everyone, as for one thing, it’s basically one book length paragraph.

Maier also sprinkles truisms throughout the story that make give you pause: “Politicians look for problems to struggle against solely because they are looking for voters, and the best way to appeal to a voter is through the problem that he has, or thinks he has (or that the politician persuades him he has), and that this was all a disgusting process that never brought anything to people but great duplicity.”  The author demonstrates a clear observation of human nature, and how many will grasp at a ridiculous inaccuracy rather than a plain truth.

Special thanks to Chad Post of Open Letter for the Review copy.

Need Feedback on Social Networking....

I'm eager to get reader's thoughts on the pros and cons of including social networking along with blogging about books.  I've developed links on Twitter and Facebook specific to my blog, not as a focus for my IRL friends, but just focused on the love of books and reviewing.   I wish to avoid the trolls that lurk around and pop up occasionally.  My goal is to use this avenue purely as a tool.

Please tell me how/if you use these, and how they help you promote books, other than just announcing you've completed a review or news of a giveaway.  I realize it can be time consuming, so I would like your pro opinion on what works and what doesn't.

Publicists have indicated they'd like me to use these to further promote titles.  I'm just not sure how to go about this.  ANY ADVICE is appreciated.

For a trial period, I'm on Twitter at @blacksheepdance (lose the 's') and Facebook as The Black Sheep Dances.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Hachette's new imprint

Congratulations to Miriam Parker at Hachette who is heading their new crime imprint:  Mulholland Books.

http://www.mulhollandbooks.com/  Check it out!

No Space for Further Burials, Feryal Ali Gauhar, Akashic

Afghanistan is seldom the region that inspires happy stories full of contentment and joy.  This novel is no exception:  it's startling and brutal and yet unlike most other stories that have similar themes. What makes it unique is the premise that it begins with, and the way the plot unfolds.  Completely unpredictable, as the storyline you expect changes direction several times.

It begins with a US soldier being captured by rebels in a mountainous region near his base.  It's his own fault,  curiousity got the best of him and he thought it would be safe to explore a bit.  After being taken captive, he's placed in an insane asylum/hospital, a sort of drop-off place for injured civilians, orphaned children, and the mentally ill.  While it previously had a Canadian doctor and nurses caring for these victims, they were gone now, the nurses captured and taken.  Now it's nearly abandoned, cared for by a few Afghans who try to feed and comfort the residents with next to nothing.

The soldier, unnamed, is distraught and eager to be rescued.  His training as an EMT makes him helpful, yet he isn't trained to deal with the horrors he faces with the many inmates.  He tries to adjust to the lack of food, clothing, or even a blanket;  hiding in his cell when the inevitable raids take place.  He finds that, while trained in an 'immersion' program to help soldiers in the region, he really has no idea what the religious and tribal people are really like.

"It's not just a question of not having a decent meal or proper bed to sleep in, or even the knowledge that nothing is certain here except death.  What nags me most are the things we were taught before we arrived in this land, the tenets of war, the rules of engagement.  I keep going over them in my head, the virtues of our coming here, the need to liberate these people, the absolute necessity of enduring freedom.  Enduring.  Freedom.  Two words that don't mean anything to me anymore."

The longer he's there, the likelihood of rescue slims, in fact, it's doubtful his fellow soldiers would even know where to look.  He settles into the surreal environment:  nearly everyone is crippled in some way, including the children.  The soldier learns of religious traditions that harm women, and the senseless hate that includes brutalizing even the most helpless of children and the elderly.  Besides the physical damage (burns, loss of limbs, blindness, and battle scars), many are mentally damaged as well.  This is a region that is so highly volatile that no one family is intact:  death is everywhere and even the youngest inmates are dulled in emotion.  Suicide is an option many consider, in fact, that was the way out the Canadian doctor chose to escape. 

Staying alive, finding food, and digging graves is his new routine.  Without a way to speak with the people, limited only to gestures and scratching in the dirt, he finds himself alone as never before:

"I have come to understand what it means to live inside the landscape of one's own mind, where one can create an entire new world, keeping it secret from others.  And I have also come to understand the silence of these people here, locked up in their own stories of loss and love and longing.  I do not want to intrude into their thoughts, and have learned that the silence between the words they speak carries more than all the words I have ever spoken."

As the story continues, he begins to refer to this strange mixture of people as his tribe.  He begins to change as well, as he accepts his future in the harsh place.  This is where the heart of the story is-who he was and who he is to become.  It's a thoughtful story, but the brutality in points is hard to take.  You are reminded throughout how evil and wicked humans can be to each other, and how fragile life is in any location.  Note:  Reading this may have an effect on how you interpret the nightly newscasts!

            Special thanks to Johanna Ingalls of Akashic Books for the Advanced Review Copy.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Winner and New Giveaway: Barnacle Love

Don't let the bored cat fool you!  Good news!  Steve Capell has one the new Petterson novel, I Curse the River of Time.  He has 48 hours to contact me to give me his mailing info, then off it goes.  Thanks to Graywolf Press for the extra copy to share.

Now for the next giveaway:  I have an extra copy of Barnacle Love from Algonquin, all ready for a late summer read.  I haven't reviewed my copy yet, so here's a link that describes it:
Contest rules:  Followers only, US and Canada.  You must leave a comment to enter, with an email address so I can contact you.  This contest ends Aug 30, 2010 at 9:00 pm Pac Time. 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise-Julia Stuart

"...for the rest of the evening the air in the Salt Tower was so fragile that they spoke to each other as if the place were filled with a million fluttering butterflies that neither dared to disturb."

"Hebe Jones ran a hand along the bed sheet that had been a weding present all those years ago.  But it failed to find her husband."

You might recognize an older bearded gentleman dressed in a Victorian uniform of red tights, dark blue breeches, matching tunic, and the classic white ruffle around the neck, wearing a blue Tudor hat, as an English Beefeater (possibly from a bottle of gin).  The official name of the guardians of the Tower of London is 'Yeoman Warder of Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Member of the Sovereign's Body Guard of the Yeoman Grand Extraordinary'.  For purposes of common use (and possibly for business cards) they prefer the term Yeoman Warder.  These Beefeaters were obligated to live in the dark and damp Tower of London-adorned with graffiti left from previous prisoners and occasionally visited by the ghost of Sir Walter Raleigh.  The Tower today is a hugely popular tourist attraction.

This is the engaging story of one such Beefeater:  Yeoman Warder Balthazar Jones, his wife Hebe, and the son they lost tragically, Milo.  The other denizens of the tower:  a prize-winning priest who writes pornography under an alias, another Beefeater 'Ravenmaster' who is cheating on his wife, and 'Mrs. Cook', a one hundred and eighty-one year old tortoise.  Other animals reside as well, and their presence gives the often dry Beefeaters occasional undignified challenges, such as when a special Etruscan shrew dies, and they decide to tell people it's hibernating, or when they term bird poo as "Parrot indiscretions".

Jones is a complicated man, obsessed with weather and avidly collecting rain samples.  An odd hobby, of course, but it's part of how he deals with his son's loss.  It's unique details that make the characters of this story special.  Julia Stewart has the ability to describe incidents in an unusual way;  her prose delights.  She also describes incidents in a decidedly English way which accounts for moments of humor that are a bit startling.

"Fury coursed through her veins at yet another night of disturbed sleep.  Her usual revenge, performed each time her husband returned...was an anatomical master stroke.  Once she heard the muddy breath of a man descended deep into his dreams, she would suddenly leap from the bed and make the short journey to the bathroom with the gait of a demented sentry.  Once installed on the lavatory, she would proceed to empty her bladder with the door wide open.  The clamour of the catastrophic downpour was such that her husband would immediately wake in terror, convinced that he was lying in a nest of snakes."

Enjoying the read, there was some distraction from a few repetitions of certain phrases.  The second phrase needed only a different word-order to smoothly convey the thought.  This is fairly common, as authors inadvertently do this all the time, but it's enough of a distraction that it jostles the pace of the story.  All in all, this is a fun read unlike any other I've read.  Note that the cover art appears almost as if it's a children's book, but the story within, while tame, is not intended for children.

Special thanks to Doubleday for the Advanced Review Copy.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Saturday Poetry: Aquarius Rising, Ben Fama

This is a lovely chapbook by a sweet-talking boy, one who thinks too much and too deep for his age.  Or maybe he's just acquired a different sort of wisdom still mixed with playfulness and awe.  I have no idea how old he actually is, but the spontaneity of the poems and some of the images make me think he's in his mid 20's, tops.  A phrase like "I come bearing .gifs" is a techie twist on an old phrase.  Images of waves, bullfighters and sequins contrast with the deeper and sometimes darker message underneath.

"Angel Youth",
Later in my sleep
I say aloud:  take my word on it
this beautiful shipwreck
can never become real
but wake me up
and tell me I'm wrong" 

In "Tauromachy" he creates a list of comparisons and conditions but adds visual details to keep them from sounding like dull axioms, and the effect is of a roguish observer, too young to yet be jaded:

"happiness exists only if it can
be spread across a grouping of days

sometimes the world at midnight seems empty
like an empty room in a sad empty gallery...

this world thrives on misunderstanding
a cloud full of moods for mature situations...

some mornings westerlies prevail in my sleep
the open radio glaring I had too much to dream last night"

It's almost as if he's describing life according to a weather report, with the unpredictable nature and variety implicit.  Similar expressions throughout make this lyrical chapbook a collection more light at heart than much of what I've read, but still provocative;  it's clever without being cute.

Special thanks to Ugly Duckling Presse for this review copy.

Friday, August 13, 2010

No money for airfare: Exploring Australia through books

Can't afford a trip?  Sick of your own town?   I've put together my favorite Aussie titles to get to know the region via fiction and nonfiction books.  Aussie readers, feel free to comment, but no mocking my Tim Winton choices!  You hear me Bernadette? 

Nonfiction:  The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes:  history of Australia, heavy on details, but you can always skim over parts. 

Historical Fiction:  The Long Green Shore by John Hepworth:  older novel that covers little-known details of Australia's participation in WWII.  Supposedly a future film with Russell Crowe. Hard to find in U.S.

Travel:  In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryon:  English/American's observations from travelling through the region, analyzes stereotypes and ignorance by American tourists. 

Fiction:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton:  epic story of two families and three generations.

Fiction:  Dirt Music by Tim Winton:  heavy on details of landscape and fauna of Western Australia, in production for 2011 movie with Rachel Weiss and Russell Crowe.

Fiction:  Eucalyptus by Murray Bail:  sweet story about a storyteller and an obsessive tree planter, restful and amusing.

Children's book:  Edward the Emu by Sheila Knowles:  a silly picture book but well-loved at our house.

Coffee-table/photography:  Australian Colors by Bill Bachman:  not the usual style of photography, instead photos examine textures of tree bark, stone formations, and soil.  And cattle dogs. (?). 

So, I'll probably never get to go, but I can travel vicariously on paper.  It's going to have to do for now!  Ireland is next!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

You Have Given Me a Country, Neela Vaswani, memoir

Neela Vaswani’s memoir begins and ends in airport terminals. From New York to New Delhi, two journeys at two different times in life, 28 years apart. This book describes those 28 years, and her life as a unique mixture of two different races and cultural backgrounds.

She writes chronologically, and reveals not just her parents separate lives, but even further up the family tree. She explores the history of her mother’s Irish Catholic family, with an assortment of memorable characters, all devoted to their city and their “tribe”. She mentions her Irish aunts dancing on a roof over their Italian neighbor’s apartment, just to annoy them. They lived big, loud, and frequently rough lives. They and their extended neighborhood formed their world, one they seldom ventured from. Then she delves into her father’s past in India, and how his family had lived. The lifestyle was more quiet, devoted, and respectful. Eventually her father, a physician, immigrates to the US, bringing his heritage with him.

All of this collides, naturally, when her parents marry and she is born. A mixed race child doesn’t have it easy in any culture, whether in the US or India, and she details her youth with anecdotes that are sometimes funny but often painful. Discrimination and prejudice are everywhere, which I found amazing considering this was relatively recent history (she was born in 1974). Her parents experienced a different sort of discrimination that Vaswani did, and she shows both types of experience. Sometimes people were being ignorant, but often it was intentional, in a time when a ‘hate crime’ was not investigated or taken seriously. The author shows how, even after they married, her parents still had a place that they fit into, in their respective homelands. But as a child of both, she had no real place of her own.

Vaswani’s writing is filled with details: a little girl babysat by her Indian grandmother, neither able to share a language but still able to laugh together and bond. A Bombay hospital that blacks out its windows in wartime with cut up x-ray films. The details dramatize the book and make it feel personal. Additionally, there were some bits of history thrown in that were new to me. I never knew that the Cinncinnati Reds changed their name to “Redlegs” during the Red Scare of the 1950’s to avoid being linked with communism. And I had no idea that India and Pakistan experienced a Partition similar to that of Ireland, one that created a wider religious division between the two nations after its placement than before it.

The first half of the book was especially enjoyable, as the author stayed tightly on the path of her family. I got a bit bogged down in the second part of the book, as she (at times) seemed to get on a soapbox and broadened her commentary a bit too wide to feel like a memoir. It felt preachy and political and lost steam at some of these points. While her story is authentic, I felt like she hadn’t achieved the authority to speak on all issues she attempts to address. All said, it’s a wonderful example of the complications still found in our multicultural society. In fact, I think this title would be an excellent text for a class to study, just to illuminate the world outside the neighborhood and comfort zone. 

Special thanks to Caroline Casey of Sarabande Books for the Advance Review Copy.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

You Lost Me There, Rosecrans Baldwin

Bruce Willis. Die Hard. "Moonlighting"

How often do you run into Mr. Willis and his oeuvre in literary fiction? He may not appear frequently (maybe not at all) yet he fits in perfectly with this substantial and insightful novel about memor by Rosecrans Baldwin. You Lost Me There is a complicated story, with twists and surprises and feinted paths, as well as scientific details about disease and the research to fight it. Beyond the serious details, it is a fun novel as well, thus Bruce Willis references prevail throughout the story and with surprising relevancy.

“Years in the past, someone thought my wife was a knockout, one night long ago in a restaurant. A night I didn’t remember.”

So realizes Victor Aaron, a brilliant scientist who is now realizing just how ignorant he’s been. In the time since his wife’s fatal car accident, he’s been lost and unable to find his way, too young to retire but too old to feel any real enthusiasm for his life or work. As a scientist researching Alzheimer’s disease, he’s enthralled with the concept of memory and works to find a cure. His work gives him opportunities to study case histories on how the brain is wired, and the novel doesn’t hesitate to dip into scientific explanations. That the memory specialist is unable to recall much about his wife, anything accurate, is a puzzle he needs to solve.

He stumbles upon note cards that his wife had written, as suggested by a marriage counselor they had hired, in an effort to stall what appeared to be an inevitable divorce. Their marriage had become a quiet battle of pathos versus logos, with a bit of ethos thrown in by crazy Aunt Betsy. Aunt Betsy appears to be the voice of balance in the novel, even though she is described by Victor as “an amateur anthropologist… [who] studied misbehavior. She tracked her stories doggedly and did not hesitate to use them.”

Victor is most astonished by how his wife Sara describes him in her note cards: “He was so focused on research and making a name for himself that we were landlocked by his lab schedule, him at sea and me in the window.” She had a successful career, as did he, they were wealthy, and he didn’t see a problem in their marriage that couldn’t be fixed without him simply apologizing. That his apologies were vague and noncommittal didn’t occur to him, and as he continues to read her notes he realizes how differently he and she had interpreted significant events in their lives.

However, the story doesn’t limit itself to their marital discord, which would probably be a really sappy novel that would ultimately be a bore, and then a television movie. Instead, Baldwin goes deeper into what memories Victor has, from a childhood friend’s suicide to his closest friend’s obvious creepiness. It’s as if seeing his wife Sara’s version of himself has freed him to reexamine himself from other angles. Yet you can’t be lulled into thinking this is a fable that ends with everyone awakened to their flaws and eager to change.  Can you change who you are if you can't remember what you've been?

“I didn’t want to remember that evening ever again. Wipe the synapses clean with some scotch and a hard sleep.”

Baldwin creates a thriller-like pace, and he weaves in details such as the “We Will Never Forget” bumper stickers of 9/11, and how in placing them on cars, people are essentially admitting that they need to be reminded. Victor admits to not remembering the name of a movie that was the centerpiece of their first date, and Baldwin uses this to contrast how there are often so many little things we remember while the more important details slip away.  Even more fascinating, though, is how Baldwin portrays different characters in the phases of wanting to remember or trying to forget.

Because this doesn’t attempt to sew up all the details neatly, it would probably be a great film. I’d bet the movie rights are already sold. The question is, is there a role for Bruce Willis?

Special thanks to Riverhead Books for the Review Copy.  It releases in stores today (Thursday).

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Technical Difficulties....

Please note:  access to previous reviews via the page tabs above may not appear as they should.   I'm working on this so as to divide prior reviews into categories:  fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.  If you can't access a title, email me or recheck the site in a day or two.


Monday, August 9, 2010

Unbound, by Dean King (nonfiction history)

A True Story of War, Love, and Survival

Detachable reference bookmark. Three little words that mean a great deal in this non-fiction text about the Long March in China that started in 1934, and this bookmark, as simple as it sounds, provides the key to author Dean King’s research. He reveals the story of thirty amazing women in an easy to understand way, despite the mountains of facts and details he uncovers. The bookmark itself is a shortened “cheat sheet” in order to keep track of fifteen of the more notable women. Just by providing it, it shows that the text is going to be accessible and personal. More interestingly is that this book really has nothing to do with politics…it’s the story of the desire to escape and finding the power to do so.

First, what was the Long March? Mao’s Communist army in China was being threatened by Nationalist forces, and needed to make a quick departure to an area that had Communist allies, some 4,000 miles away from their base of operations. They undertook this migration, one of the most significant in history, in secrecy, putting 86,000 men on a journey in stages that led to the death of most of them. Besides moving the officials and main soldiers, the march also carried valuable documents, funds, printing devices, and a medical core. Thirty women with them carried most of the duties of the convalescent care. Most of the journey was taken at night, in smaller regiments, and it took three weeks before Nationalists realized they were on the move. At times, it seemed that many of the soldiers were disposable, as the treacherous night-time journeys were anything but safe.

Why these thirty women? These women had served the Communist Party as recruiters, and were considered strong soldiers themselves. They were attracted to Mao’s Red Party because it freed them from the traditional Chinese way of life, which for women was one full of despair and pain. For example, foot binding, that horrific yet traditional ritual, broke the bones of a girl child’s foot, folded the toes under to the heel, then bound them with ribbon. The goal being “lovely” three-inch feet, a sign of nobility and yet sheer mutilation. Women in their traditional Chinese roles were either drowned at birth, sold for money, or used as unpaid and brutalized servants. Therefore, Mao’s promises of equality, respect, and the end of peasant traditions appealed to these women, the youngest two being just 10 and 11 years old when they joined the Long March.

Some of the women had been raised in wealth and schooled outside of China. Others were the same peasants described above. Yet they joined as comrades, and the most astonishing fact of the whole book is that all thirty survived, despite the death of the vast majority of the men. Their close ties made them fight long and hard, not just for Mao’s goals, but for what they perceived as the benefit of Chinese women in the future. Additionally, they were not used as prostitutes for the Army, but rather as equal soldiers, carrying their own weight in assignments and in battle.

One American observer stated that “their strength lay not in a rigid military hierarchy-although they tended to revere their leaders-but in a democratic structure that made the troops feel responsible for their own and their comrades’ actions.” Many of the women suffered health problems and difficulties in maintaining their strong tradition of modesty in such conditions. Some women gave birth on the march and left their newborns with villagers to rear. Unimaginable, it seems, yet they were convinced they were contributing to a ‘greater good’.

When it was all over, Mao claimed that the Long March was almost 8,000 miles. He inflated the figures for a distinct purpose. He felt that the completion of the march proved the power of Communism. He attempted to set standards for his soldiers, and provided rules requiring civilized behavior of the marchers towards local peasants they may run across. But as the march continued, it became a reign of terror at times, where any Chinese that they found who had any form of wealth were immediately assumed to be guilty of Nationalistic tendencies, thus their possessions were confiscated. Any kind of disagreement or insubordination among marchers ended with death, and so Mao’s ideal wasn’t always realistic.

One especially clever woman in Mao’s Army was Cai Chang. She and others would question peasants to find out who the wealthy were among them, in order to collect supplies and foodstuffs. Most peasants learned to lie, so she found a craftier means. On some kind of elevated location, she’d overlook the village and look for newer homes. She’d look for especially well-kept cattle pens and signs of status. Then they’d go into the homes and if they found signs of wealth, they would pack these as provisions, feeling completely justified because of the assumed guilt of the householder.

Did any good come out of the Long March, given the future crises to come in China? One example is that “the Communists revolutionized the legal standing of women and children in the Marriage Law of 1950, which banned arranged marriage, child betrothal, concubinage, and infanticide….The law mandated …the protection of the interests of women, widows, and children. This was a key step in institutionalizing the change in the role of women in China from passive domestics…”

This is a heavily detailed book, and really my only complaint (a minor one really) is that it is so full of names, dates, and facts that at times it gets a bit overwhelming. So it’s not simply an easy beach read. Yet King writes in a personable way that draws out the unique characters that make each woman stand out with their personalities and traits. The bookmark helps!

Originally I wanted to read this because of an interview with King, where he describes undertaking the research as the father of young women, and trying to imagine the parallels for women then and today. A link to this interview is provided below.

Special thanks to Kelly Leonard of Little, Brown for the Review Copy.

Interview:  http://www.blogtalkradio.com/littlebrown/2010/04/15/interview-w-dean-king-author-of-unbound
Pictures and info about King's travels to the region for research: http://www.deanhking.com/