Friday, December 31, 2010

Mysteries in 2011

Along with several other challenges I'll be participating in the Mystery and Suspense Reading Challenge. Mysteries I've collected at library book sales remain stacked on a "to be read" shelf. Challenges are a motivation to thin out some of those stacks while still reading the books on library shelves.

Challenges afford me the luxury of discovering new authors without too much hard work—although I do love picking up a book and scanning the contents. I read a page here and there to get a feel for the author's style and pace.

Scroll down my blog to see the challenges on the right. If you're interested in participating—simply click the picture and a link will connect you to the page describing the challenge and how you can participate.

The Mystery and Suspense Challenge is hosted by Book Chick City. 'Tis a British Blog.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaard

The Library of Shadows is both a fantasy, a science fiction parable, and a good read. Birkegaard sets his book in an antiquarian bookstore run by a man whose whole family had owned the store for several generations. When Luka, the owner of the store dies, the store and its contents pass on to Jon, Luka's son.

Jon, a successful lawyer, is not in the least interested in pursing a career as a bookseller. At the moment he's involved with an important client. When the client pursues wanting to buy the bookstores for one of his clients, the story rushes headfirst and breathlessly into the machinations of an intricate plot.

We find out that there are two types of readers—transmitters and receivers. Not everyone possesses these abilities. The ability remains latent until an individual is activated.

Jon is eventually activated and his powers as a transmitter of the story's content are enormous—so strong that he must learn to control them because unexpected and virulent results may occur during his readings. Transmitters are capable of enhancing the enjoyment of a story by increasing the intensity of visual images and creating a scene that transcends the narrative.

Receivers are capable of manipulating people and changing their ways of thinking about something that they are reading. The receiver must be cognizant of what they're doing and not use this power for nefarious means.

The plot, like the slithering asp,reveals layers of intrigue. Both Jon's father and mother appear to have been murdered by a Shadow Organization. Both transmitters and receivers once belonged to the same Society of Book Lovers—however, an argument twenty years before Luka's death split the group in two. Both sides are suspicious of the "other".

Jon refuses to sell and is eventually kidnapped by the leader of the Shadow Organization. In a series of rather far fetched events Jon is spirited off to Egypt where he is drugged and manipulated. In that state he repudiates what he thought and who he trusted prior to the kidnapping. There's a tumultuous ending at the rebuilt Library of Alexandria.

There's even a love story entwined in the story. This is the author's first novel and I expect that his next novel will resolve some of the issues evident in this novel—a plot that doesn't always hold together and often seems to plummet ahead without any warning and characters that are lacking in real depth. Having said that I found the initial kernel of an idea fascinating and worth the read.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Finished the Scandinavian Challenge

—the books read and the links to my reviews for each book—

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson

Blood Split by Asa Larsson

When the Devil Holds the Candle by Karen Fossum

Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson

To Siberia by Per Petterson

Monday, December 6, 2010

River House by Sarahlee Lawrence

River House is a captivating memoir. How many people grow up in an area and realize after leaving that what they want is to establish roots where they grew up?

Sarahlee grows up in Central Oregon on her parent's ranch, a ranch that is loved by her mother and barely tolerated by her father.

Her dream, when she's in college, is to travel and to explore her passion--running the rivers of the world. She receives a fellowship after college and sets off for some of the most difficult rivers.

While she's in Peru and the Tambopata River she reads Thoreau's
Walden and instantly feels that tug to return to Oregon. She recalls the log home her parents built and wants, with her father's help, to build a log home.

Along with her father who assists, but does not take control, they complete the foundation. Reading the many passages of notching logs, setting logs in place, working in freezing winter temperatures, I felt as if I was looking over their shoulders. I could even hear the chain saw!

Their working together brings out the conflicts her father has with his time on the ranch. While he's lived in the same place for twenty-eight years he's an isolate and has no ties with the other ranch owners or farmers and now he's tired of the work and the cold.

His passion has always been surfing and every year he manages at least one trip to the ocean, but that's no longer sufficient. He's burnt out and his lifelong reliance on marijuana has altered his personality. The only thing he wants is to leave and go live in Mexico where he can surf, play the guitar and smoke pot.

Sarahlee doesn't immediately settle down. She returns to the academic world for an advanced degree and continues running rivers. Each year she returns to the land and to the people

Over the next decade the house is completed and she returns to farm the land. Her father had left years ago for Mexico, but her mother remains on the land.

This is a memoir that isn't afraid to deal with some difficult memories and many ecstatic moments.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I Am One of You Forever by Fred Chappell

This is a book about a time that has passed. I want to say a simpler time, but perhaps it was a time when rural America and urban America were further apart. It certainly was an era when time moved at a slower pace.

This story takes place on an isolated mountain farm in Western North Carolina just before and during World War II. Jess lives with his parents, his grandmother and Johnson Gibbs, an orphaned teenager, who is living with his family.

The story on one level is a coming of age story, but it is far more than that—it is also a story of a particular time. It is the story of Jess's relationship with his father and with Johnson.

Jess's father is fun loving and up for some wild pranks while his mother is conservative and rather prim.

The humor is delicious. A number of Jess's uncles visit the family, usually as uninvited guests. There's Uncle Luden who loves and chases after women. Uncle Gurton who manages to disappear and appear without anyone seeing him enter or exit. His flowing beard has never been trimmed; he tucks what must be an incredibly long beard inside his overalls. The length of the beard challenges Jess's youthful curiosity. In one laugh out loud scene, Jess succumbs to that curiosity and sneaks into his Uncle's room. His uncle is asleep and Jess releases the beard from the overalls.

Uncle Zeno tells stories—an endless supply of tales. My favorite uncle is Runkin. He travels everywhere with his coffin and sleeps in it rather than using a bed.

While the humor, dialogue, and specificity of details create a strong book, it is the intrusion of the world beyond that isolated mountain farm that reminds us of the fragility of life.

The historical context of the war intrudes and leaves its imprint on this family just the way the quirky uncles, the escapades, and the love of family leaves its imprint on the reader.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tinkers by Paul Harding

This is a beautifully crafted book. Each sentence, every word selected is a meditation on language. The story revolves around George Washington Crosby who is dying. As he lies in bed he remembers the past. His reverie involves three generations of the family.

George repaired clocks for a living. And clocks provide a metaphor for the passage of time.

He recalls his father Howard who sold pots and pans and other items from a horse drawn wagon. His father
suffered from epilepsy at a time when there were many erroneous notions about epileptics. Hardings description of Howard's seizures while graphic is also poetic--yet still retains the terrifying specifics of the portrayed scenes.

The story moves seamlessly between George, Howard and Howard's father.There's a rhythm to the memories and to the specifics of those memories. The story, as constructed , reminds me if an intricately woven rug where the patterns emerge with each new thread.

Whether Harding is describing the workings of a clock, the cold, a man who is losing his hold on reality, he is magnifying life. George is dying, but the book is a not so much about death as it is about illuminating life.

Paul Harding writes prose with the ear of a poet. I think that each phrase and every word carries it's weight. As I read I often stopped, took a deep breath and reread the passage.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason

Mysteries dependent upon unusual means of murder offer a conundrum for the reader. I recall the manner of murder in Dorothy Sayers Nine Tailors as offering the reader   a clever and unexpected means of homocide. This book also relies on an imaginative scheme.

In Hypothermia a woman hangs herself. Because she was depressed about the death of her mother and no evidence exists to indicate  homicide the  death is deemed a suicide.

Inspector Erlendur is not quite satisfied with the case being deemed a suicide unless he can understand why she felt compelled to hang herself.

Two other story strands are interwoven --one involved Erlendur. When he was a young boy he and his brother were caught in a blizzard. He survives while his brother is lost in the blizzard. His body is never found and that loss propels Erendur to continue searching for him.

The other strand concerns a young man who disappeared twenty years ago. Despite the lack of any new leads Erlendur visits the boy's father each year. Now the father has only weeks to live and he wants to bring him some closure about his son's disappearance .

An intriguing aspect of the novel is the relationship Erlendur has with his daughter and son. While this is peripheral it enables the reader to see the inspector as a multiple-dimensional character.

Erlendur pursues a number of leads which look like dead ends and he often goes beyond the usual procedures.

He's obsessed with finding answers and his incessant questions produce answers. 

Despite the unusual manner of murder which added a dollop of suspense to the story, I thought Erlendur stretched his readers credulity when he also solved the two decades old case. 

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo

The specter of fascism serves as the main character in Nesbo's story of Norwegians who fought with the Nazis . They were volunteers in the Waffen SS. "About 15 000 Norwegians volunteered for the Wehrmacht or SS during the years 1940-1945, and an estimate of 7000 reached the front lines in some way." Some historians say that the number of men who joined as volunteer soldiers was much higher.

About 45,000 Norwegian collaborators had joined the pro-Nazi party Nasjonal Samling.

At the end of the war a number of Norwegians were tried as traitors and served time in prison.

"In total, 28,750 individuals were arrested as part of the purge; they were subject to various kinds of penalties, including fines, prison sentences, and in a small number of cases, death."

This is also a story of the emergence of Neo-Nazi cells in Norway. Nesbo describes a skinhead who is tried for a vicious attack on a Vietnamese restaurant owner and let's off ugly tirades in the courtroom. He is ultimately freed because of a technicality.

In particular it's a tale of several soldiers who were together during the war, some of whom became embittered old men. Their lives once again intersect during the novel. One of the men is intent on killing—but we're not certain we know the intended target of his rage. As the story unfolds Nesbo reveals the convoluted lives and lies of members of the group.

The story alternates between the present and the past. Detective Harry Holes discovers that someone has smuggled an expensive and deadly rifle into Norway. The story is ultimately about unraveling the relationships between the men and finding the assassin. Throughout the story Nesbo introduces a cast of interesting minor characters and sub-plots.

This is a political thriller and a too human story of racial hatred played out on a large scale and than an intimate scale. I found parts of the story fascinating and some parts quite confusing. Part of the confusion was due to the similarity of names. But that was a small blemish.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Between Nine and Nine by Leo Perutz

Imagine layers of rice paper; remove one layer and discover yet another layer. And each stratum incredibly detailed.

When Stanislaus Demba makes his first appearance the reader is treated to both an odd and humorous scene. Demba buys bread and bologna, but won't pick up his purchases. When the proprietor leaves Demba alone he disappears with the food—and leaves the correct amount of money on the counter.

There are numerous scenes involving hands; however, Demba keeps them hidden within a cloak. He can't pick up money, food, shake someone's hand or do anything requiring him to use his hands.

These scenes, often humorous, also point out the social stratification's of Vienna in 1917. Demba, a university graduate is a poor tutor. Whenever he's in the society of those who are wealthier or titled his person is denigrated.

Demba is in love with Sonja and loses her to a wealthy young man. The two intend to take a vacation together—to romantic Venice. When Denba hears about the vacation he loses all rational control and demands that Sonja give him time to come up with the money for a vacation. She agrees because his behavior frightens her.

Demba is now involved in a quest to obtain the money. This device gives Perutz an opportunity to roam throughout Vienna society.

Finally Stanislaus confesses to the teenaged Steffi that his hands are handcuffed. The selection of Steffi as the only person to whom he can tell his secret and ask for help is because Steffi is also an outcast. Her face is scarred.

Demba tells her that he was attempting to sell a stolen book to an antiquarian book dealer. The dealer called the police who arrived and handcuffed him. He managed to take advantage of a fall by one policeman as they were going down the stairs. He then hit the other policeman. His escape involved running to the third floor, locking the door, and eventually sliding down the roof, falling and losing and then gaining consciousness. Before jumping out of the window he contemplates freedom.

Another layer in this book is the quest for individual freedom. Hands become a metaphor for the loss of identity. With his hands handcuffed and hidden in his cloak Demba is unable to participate in a great deal of society. Each encounter shows another loss. He can't pick up the envelope containing his pay so he can't participate in commerce. He can't be intimate.

The handcuffed hands act as a metaphor for the loss of individual identity. This story needs to be read in the light of post-war Vienna and the ensuing problems—social and economic.

Perutz's ending leaves the reader wondering if Demba has imagined all these incidents or if they took place in the world in real time.

There appears only one way for Demba to experience freedom and to reconstruct an individual identity. This is a book that begs to be reread and reread. It exists on so many intricate levels.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Finished !

My Book Reviews for the Extreme Level of the Global Reading Challenge 2010

Additional Books Read for Extremist Level

In Evil Hour by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
South America—Columbia

Out Stealing Horsesby Per Petterson

Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh
Australasia—New Zealand

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Wives of the Godsby Kwei Quartey

Black Minutes by Martin Solares
North America—Mexico

My Choice of a Book

The Clown by Heinrich Boll


Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason

Books Read From the Following Countries

1. Sweden
2. Spain
3. Norway
4. Iceland
5. Germany

6. Australia
7. Samoa
8.New Zealand

9. Saudia Arabia
11. Japan

13.South Africa

15. and 16.

North America
17. United States
18. Canada
19. Mexico

South America
20. Brazil
21. Argentina
22. Columbia

The Clown By Heinrich Böll

Heinrich Böll wrote about Germany after World War II.

Böll refused to join the Nazi youth group when he was in high school. After finishing school he was conscripted and sent to the front where he sustained injuries on four separate occasions.

In The Clown Böll's protagonist is Hans, a clown who no longer can perform at a high level because of a knee injury. Even when he was able to work not everyone appreciated his pantomimes. There were political groups who distained his work. When his girlfriend leaves him he becomes depressed, begins to drink and his hold on reality becomes tenuous.

Marie had left him because she felt that their relationship was sinful. She's a devout Catholic and wanted to marry Hans, but he refused to sign an agreement that mandated that he bring up his children as Catholics. Hans is also questioning the role the Catholic Church played, plays, in European society. What was their role during the war? What is the role of religion in German society?

Hans is always on the road, going from town to town—from one setting to another— plying his trade as a clown. This moving about is emblematic of what happened to people in those war years and the years that followed. In the years after the war many families were unable to pay the rent and lost their homes.

Han’s family is quite wealthy. During the war they forced his sister to volunteer for aircraft duty and she died. His brother Leo rebels against the family by converting to Catholicism and is studying theology. Hans who has been told by his agent to take six months off after he received a scathing review is desperate for money. He arranges to meet his father and hopes that he will give him a monthly stipend until he can return to work. Their meeting doesn't go well and Hans tells his father that despite being wealthy he and his siblings were always hungry. His father no longer supports his brother Leo who has chosen to live a life of poverty.

Hans asks everyone he knows for money, but is not successful. Böll uses Hans to depict the problems facing the postwar society— Catholics and Protestants locked in theological disputes and a stratification of society.

Finally unable to get money from his father or friends, he takes his guitar to the train station, places a hat on the ground and performs for those who stop to listen and watch.

In a Paris Review interview Böll said:

In Germany after the war, 1945 to 1960 or 1970, naturally, there's not just one novel that can give that to you, but twenty—Patterns of Childhood by Christa Wolf, The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, Uwe Johnson's novels, Koeppen. We can't enumerate them, but perhaps all together they write the truth about that epoch. History and fiction must complement one another. And added to that is painting, music, especially architecture . . .indeed everything that the period produced is a part of it. Truth certainly exists, but it is very hard to put together, it's always an assembled truth; historical writing is a part of it, too, but I don't believe it can deliver the whole truth.

Monday, October 11, 2010

To Siberia by Per Petterson

To have grown up in Denmark during the Nazi occupation was odious. The narrator of To Siberia recalls her life fifty some odd years prior to the beginning of the story. The reader quickly learns about her family. Her father is unsuccessful as a business man despite being a talented "joiner". Her mother is in her own world where she's preoccupied with singing hymns. Only her brother Jesper understands her and offers her companionship;  however, he has been dead for more than half her life. Jesper refered to her as "Sistermine".

Given their repressive environment both Jesper and his sister imagine far away places.Jesper wanted to get away to Morocco and his sister dreams of Siberia.

When the Germans arrive on April 9, 1940 their world enlarges beyond the confines of their small village.  Jesper who is older joins the resistance and their lives move in different directions. 

After the war Jesper travels to Morocco and his sister moves to Copenhagen. A planned reunion between brother and sister never happens.

Petterson's book unfolds as if it is happening in the present moment. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Housekeeper and the Professor By Yoko Ogawa

I've always been fascinated with the subject of memory. For years I taught children with learning disabilities and for or a number of those children short-term memory deficits were a stumbling block.

In this book Ogawa writes about a mathematics professor who, after a horrific car accident,has an abbreviated short-term memory—eighty minutes. His long term memory of events prior to his accident remains intact. But now every eighty minutes he begins anew. In order to remind himself of things he wishes to recall before the one hour and twenty minute curtain falls, he writes himself notes and pins the notes to his coat jacket.

A housekeeper is hired to help with meals and cleaning. The professor who had once been a successful teacher now enters mathematical contests.

After a number of housekeepers attempt the job and leave, one woman is found who remains. She's a single mother. The Professor pencils her name and what she does on a scrap of paper which he affixes to his coat.

A poignant relationship develops between the two which is enriched when the housekeeper has her son come over after his school day ends.

Their relationship is rooted in mathematics and the shared math is also shared with the reader. The professor's area of expertise is number theory.

There is a special bond between the young man, dubbed Root because his hair is flat on top like a square root, and the professor.

Everything is continually rediscovered even the housekeeper and her son.

Despite this there is a deep relationship and it lasts even when the professor's memory span becomes even shorter.

This is a book that makes the reader stop and think about memory, relationships, and love.

It's a quiet book—quite remarkable and beautifully written.

Monday, September 27, 2010

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson

The title comes from a Mao poem: "Fragile images of departure/ the village back then. I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed."

Perhaps this book is a meditation, perhaps it is a reflection that enjoins the reader to slow down while reading and enter into the meditation. Time is certainly a character in this book.

Arvid Jansen, the melancholy narrator, reflects on his life when he is confronted with the weakening of three structures in his life that acted as his sources of stability: marriage, his mother, and his political beliefs; but now his marriage is ending in divorce, his mother’s cancer diagnosis means that he may never garner her approval, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall is the final nail in his belief in communism.

Arvid, the son of working class parents, had quit college after two years because he was enamored with communism. He feels he must join the proletariat and work in a factory. In time he realizes that the choice he made was foolish. He eventually abandons the factory and works in a bookstore.

When his mother decides to travel from her home in Oslo to her homeland in Denmark. Arvid insists on going with her and her friend. She's heading for a beach house where Arvid, his parents and three brothers vacationed in the summer. It's obvious that he wants something from his mother. He wants her approval, but sees that he has consistently disappointed her. When he had told her that he left college she slapped him. His mother and father had no choice but to be working people while he threw away the chance to discover other choices.

They do share a commonality—the love of books. At a time in her life when she needs to be supported Arvid only sees his needs.

In Petterson's story characters look backwards at what had been. At one point Arvid says, "Time had passed behind my back and I had not turned to look..."

This is a book to read slowly, to savor for what it says about loss, about time. His writing, spare and stunning, engages the reader. When Arvid's mother describes the landscape of her home town she says, " ...windswept open stretch of marram grass...and the sea lay taut this morning like a blue-grass porous skin and the sky above the sea was as white as milk."

The book is a meditation — a meditation that flows just like the river of time.

Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason

A young child discovers a small object while out playing and gives it to his toddler brother. A medical student who is a picking up his brother at the child's birthday party sees the toddler chewing on the object and recognizes it as part of a human skeleton. This sets off the story.

Inspector Erlendur of the Reykjavik police department is called on and he and his team dig around the area where the child found the bone. They discover a skeleton buried in a rather shallow grave. Archeologists are called upon to carefully unearth the skeleton, which had been buried for many years.

Elrendur must eliminate all possible scenarios. It could be the skeleton of someone who froze to death, something that happens in Iceland. Or perhaps it is one of the American or British servicemen stationed in Iceland during WWII.

Another story emerges of a family that occupied a summer chalet near the area. It's a tale of horrific domestic abuse. The threads of several stories entwine seamlessly and eventually the identity of the skeleton is revealed.

Along with the investigation the inspector's own personal story is revealed. The book is about relationships and how the events of the past impress themselves on what happens later on in life.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

When the Devil Holds the Candle By Karen Fossum

Things get out of hand and one event leads to another in an escalating psychological thriller. Fossum's story is more than a mystery; it is a look at society and how the issues of alienation, weakness, and boredom may play out in the real world. The main characters in the story lack a moral compass. But to Fossum it is more than a moral compass that is out of kilter. Evil is a real force. One of the characters recognizes this and understands.

"The hideous evil person you become when the Devil holds the candle".

Two friends, not quite adults, but living in the adult world, spend all their time together. One, Andreas is employed while the other, Zipp, seems to either spend his time with Andreas or at home. He doesn't have a job and appears not to be to concerned. The two of them stay outside of any other community even when they are someplace where others congregate. They wander about, trolling the streets, bored and looking for something to enliven their lives.

A encounter between the two of them in a darkened cemetery escalates their need to find something to eradicate that experience. They rob a woman who is wheeling a baby carriage. Yet it isn't simple because the mother runs after them and forgets to brake the carriage properly. The carriage rolls and the baby is thrown out. That fall will in time result in the baby's death.

Andreas and Zipp immediately head to a bar and spend the meager amount of money found in the wallet . Once having started down this path they crave more excitement. They frighten a young boy on his way home from school. They lose any sense of a moral compass when they are really tormenting this child. The child is the grandson of Inspector Sejer and this small incident will play a pivotal role in the book.

Evil has a way of becoming addictive. Andreas has a knife on him and he decides that they should rob an old woman. They follow her down darkened streets. Andreas goes into the house while Zipp waits outside. In an unexpected turn Andreas is hurt and the woman, Irma Finder, takes care of him. He is at the bottom of the basement stairs and is unable to move. Irma goes to the police, but her reportage is convoluted and it appears that she is talking about her husband who has been gone a bit over a decade.

Fossum gets inside her head and we watch and listen to her needs being addressed by sustaining Andrea’s life by feeding him water out of a baby's bottle. The Devil exerts its hold on Irma the same way it had a hold on Andreas and Zipp.

An additional, yet peripheral story, concerns Robert who shoots his girlfriend in the face because he wanted to keep his relationship with his girlfriend intact. He's someone who had felt alienated and this relationship is important and he feels that another boy is threatening it.

As a counterbalance to Inspector Sejer is his assistant, Jacob Skarre who says, "We encounter the Devil all the time. The question is how we handle him."

This a fascinating book with broader themes that have such relevance for our society. I'll certainly read more of Karen Fossum's books.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Seeking Enlightenment by Nevada Barr

I picked this book up this afternoon. Despite being published in 2003, I found it on the new book rack at the library.Perhaps it's new to the library.

Several years ago I read one of Barr's National Park mysteries. My partner has read them all and loves learning about the parks --especially the ones we've visited. I was curious about a book seemingly away from her usual territory. 

Besides when I flipped through it I found the page with a quote from Jerry Garcia --" What a long strange trip it has been." Who of a certain age doesn't remember his artistry on the guitar?

There's nothing new, but it was intriguing to read about her path and note how so much of her life shows up in her books 

Barr is honest and doesn't paint herself as someone who knows all the answers, just the ones that work for her. 

In Evil Hour by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


Not having a clear picture of the political situation in Columbia in 1955 I had to apprise myself of the politics before really understanding the book.

According to my reading, Columbia was enmeshed in civil wars and "bloody repressions" which claimed at least 250,000 lives between 1948 and 1962. " Marquez left Columbia for Paris in 1955. He wasn't popular with the Columbian dictators and realized that his freedom as a writer would be significantly impacted by the violence.

This book is based on a real event in a small town .Some people pasted lampoons on doors, places of business, and wherever they could affix the broadside. Since many of these lampoons were gossipy and  slanderous and  accused townspeople of hidden secrets, disarray broke out in the town. Fights, killings, reprisals of all sorts embroiled the citizens in a siege of revenge.

Marquez uses this incident and the political climate of that time to create his story. Not only are these gossip sheets accusing middle class citizens of unacceptable behavior, sexual escapades,adultery— but the political opponents of the present regime start printing subversive pamphlets.

The mayor declares a curfew, a boy is killed by the police, the local dentist and the major get involved in a verbal confrontation, people pack up and leave town.

There are dreams, fortune tellers, humor, and even the beginnings of magic realism in this book—a portend of what is to come in later books.

The characters are interesting—as is the discussion of  politics and how one disreputable governing group is simply the same as the next one in Columbia.

This is an early book and quite accessible—and a portend of the riches to follow.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

On To Extremist level

The Global Reading Challenge has been a superb challenge. I've found a number of new writers.

Recently I decided to continue on to the Extremist Level and have two books left to finish that level.


After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Reading Murakami means leaving your own sense of reality and following him into a magical landscape—a landscape that doesn't obey the laws of physics. Often I'm uncertain about what it all means, but I'm never bored.

The entire story takes place in Tokyo and spans the time from 11:56pm to 6:52 am. Mari, a young student, is at a table in Denny’s Restaurant drinking coffee. A musician joins her. During their conversation he finds out that she speaks Chinese. Later on he involves her in an incident at a Love Hotel where a Chinese prostitute is beaten and everything she owns is stolen. Because no one else speaks Chinese they are at a loss until the musician shows up with Mari.

While we enter into Mari's evening her sister is home sleeping. This isn't an ordinary sleep. She lies in a room that is emptied of furniture save for a television set. By some act of magical realism she is sometimes in her room and sometimes on the other side of the television set and we act as viewers.

Through the musician Mari meets a number of people while her sister sleeps. Her sister Eri had retreated to her bedroom two months prior to this night and has not emerged.

Real and unreal are mixed up with a shadow space between the two. Perhaps each character is asking the same questions: What does this all mean? Where do I belong? What is real? Do I have a place in this universe?

There's a change for Mari by the end of the book and possibly a change for her sister.

When I finished the book I asked myself some of the same questions.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Blood Split by Asa Larsson

The best part of this book was the setting— very northern Sweden. 

Rebecka Martinsson, a lawyer, had killed three people in order to save innocent lives. She is exonerated, yet is haunted by the deaths and is immobilized—unable to engage in her job and unable to partake in social relations.

She becomes involved in another crime when she accompanies a member of her firm to a small village. Several months before their visit a local female priest had been found hanging from the church rafter.

Larsson introduces a number of characters. The priest, Mildred Nisson, is both a crusader and a thorn in the side of the local hunters and many of the married men in the village. They hold her responsible for encouraging the women to push the boundaries set by men and stand up for themselves.

Larsson profiles Mildred's  lesbian relationship with a local woman. She writes about a retarded boy who brings pleasure to those who get to know him. There's also an assortment of quirky characters. Ah—there's also a story of a wolf.Too many of these characterizations feel like stereotypes.

While Larsson does a good job describing the setting, the characters seem to flounder from one situation to another. The plot meanders and suddenly everything is tied together and the murderer is revealed.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh

Ngaio is a Maori word and means” Reflections on the water".

The author's name always appears on a list of grand dames of mystery. Even though Marsh was born and lived most of her life in New Zealand all of her books were written about England save for four. I looked up her books at our library and found one of the four.

What convinced me find the one copy in our library consortium was an article I read by a New Zealand writer who maintains a blog devoted to "Kiwi" crime writers. He had recently written a piece about Marsh. He wrote about the dated aspects of her detective novels, but also wrote about the gift she had for language and novel twists.

My copy of Colour Scheme was a 1943 copy.

On the back cover: “This book like all books, is a symbol of the liberty and the freedom for which we fight. You, as a reader of books, can do your share in the desperate battle to protect those liberties— Buy Wars Bonds
( Bonds or stamps may be procured at most book stores, all banks, many other places of business. To buy them is to become a true soldier of democracy.).

It was a perfect reminder of the time the story was written and added an authenticity to the book.

A cast of quirky characters—some British, some New Zealanders, and a few Maori appear in the story. Marsh's description of attitudes toward the indigenous people clearly shows the prejudice held by many.

All, save the Maori who live in a village nearby, are ensconced in a second-class establishment touting its thermal and mud bath cures. There’s a death on the property, which is a homicide, love infatuations, a self-absorbed actor and his two attendants, and an enemy agent.

A detective from England who is parading as a client in need of the mud baths to cure his lumbago skillfully unravels the ending.

I thoroughly enjoyed the leisurely pace, the humor and the character's foibles. I could easily see them portrayed on Masterpiece Theatre.

The other day I found one of her reissued books and purchased it for a rainy day when I want a cup of tea and a cozy mystery.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Astrid & Veronika

  By Linda Olsson

I know that most of the reviews for this book were positive; however, I found myself bored. It's a simple story of a friendship between a young writer and an elderly woman. Veronika who had been living in New Zealand returns to Sweden and takes up residence in a small village where she hopes to complete her novel. Astrid lives across the way. 

Astrid is known as the witch, but we don't know why. Perhaps because she's reclusive. 

In time the two women develop a friendship which includes walks, meals, and the sharing of their past. The story progresses as they each remove layers of the past and reveal tragedies that haunt their lives.

There are certainly a number of tender moments as they reveal themselves to each other. Often what is missing is their motivation for some of their past actions. Their voices are clearer than the narrator's voice which often feels intrusive.

Too much of the story felt contrived. Despite the personal stories I never felt close to the characters. 

For me the strongest parts of the story were the descriptions of the Swedish landscape the two encountered in their walks.

Despite my annoyance with not knowing more about the why behind some of their past actions, I did enjoy their deepening friendship. The ending was flat and predictable.  
Linda Olsson did make me want to walk in the Swedish countryside.

Scandinavian Book Challenge

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Out Stealing Horses

By Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses , a seemingly simple story gains momentum as the layers of the past are revealed or remembered by Trond Sander, a sixty-seven year old man who had recently lost his wife. Trond seeks to allay his feeling of loneliness by moving from Oslo to a rural community where he can enjoy solitude with his dog. His days will be filled with the details inherent in fixing up a cabin in need of repairs.

Solitude isn’t always quiet and the past enters into both his nighttime and daytime hours. His nearest neighbor Lars is someone he knew when as a fifteen year old he had spent the summer with his father. That summer, 1948, would leave indelible marks.

Lars is a surviving twin. The summer of 1948 he was ten and one day he accidentally shot his brother when he picked up a loaded rifle his older brother Jon had left leaning against a door. Jon had been out hunting and forgot to remove the cartridges from his rifle. Trond and Jon had been friends. After the accident Jon leaves home and eventually goes out to sea.

This mirroring of two appears a number of times in the book. Trond’s mother has twin brothers; one returns home from the war and one was shot by the Gestapo. The title of the story also has two references. Jon and Trond refer to the time they entered a neighbor’s pasture and rode two of his horses as a day to go Out Stealing Horses. That phrase was also the password in the Norwegian resistance.

Jon and Trond’s fathers both vie for Jon’s mother. And there’s the life that Trond knows nothing about during the war years when Trond’s father is involved with the resistance and disappears for long periods of time.

In 1948 Trond spends the summer with his father — a summer both magical and staggering emotionally. He sees his father and Jon’s mother kissing. A friend of his father tells him about his father’s involvement in the resistance as well as the involvement of Jon’s mother with the resistance movement.

The story of the occupation and the resistance is unfurled slowly, but carefully and with a foreboding of what will be ahead.

At the end of the summer Trond’s father, a father who he dearly loved takes him to the train station and tells him that he will follow. It’s an emotional scene and one that the fifteen year old will bear with him for his entire life. Late autumn his father writes to his mother telling her that he will not be returning home. He has left money in a Swedish bank for his family. This is the money earned from felling timber that summer and sending it downstream into Sweden.

Trond and his mother leave for Sweden to claim the money, which ends up being a paltry sum. Obviously some of the timber never made it downstream. Her life changes and she loses whatever lightness she possessed.

Lars tells Trond that he eventually inherited the farm when he was twenty-four, but lost it when his brother Jon returned from his sea journeys and as the oldest son claimed the land. At that point Lars left home and had not seen either his mother or Jon since that day. Again we have a leaving.

Trond does not ask Lars if his father had lived with his mother. He spares Lars a response.

The cruelty of the Nazis is also seen in Jon’s cruelty when as a young man he destroys a bird’s nest and the eggs in the nest. It’s almost a fore shadow of what is to come.

Seamlessly woven into the story are the activities of the resistance throughout the war years. Each incident is a precursor of the next incident.

At the end of the book Trond’s daughter Ellen tracks him down and pays him an unexpected visit. It is this visit that allows change to enter his life.

I found the book haunting and powerful. It took me to places within the story and to places in my own past.

Scandinavian Book Challenge

Friday, August 13, 2010

Wife of the Gods

By Kwei Quartey

Kwei Quartey grew up in Ghana and left when he was seventeen. He now lives in California; however, the story is set in Ghana.

This is the first book in what promises to be an interesting mystery series. Quartey's detective, Inspector Darko Dawson is a man with a number of failings--he enjoys smoking marijuana and has a intense temper that often results in his being too physical. But he's also a man who loves his family and has a penchant for seeing beyond the obvious.

Because he speaks the native dialect he is sent  to the small town of Ketanu where he is to investigate the death of a medical student. This is not an unfamiliar place for Darko. As a young boy he visited his aunt and uncle in Ketanu. And over twenty years ago his mother had gone to visit his aunt and uncle and disappeared on her way home.

The local police chief perceives the city detective as an intrusive presence. He arrests someone Darko believes is innocent. 

There are local customs and beliefs that attribute events and sicknesses to spirits. One such custom is the offering of young girls to fetish priests as an atonement for family sins. They are the Wives of the Gods. Dawson's revulsion with this practice sets up a confrontation with the fetish priest.

The authenticity of the setting, and the lilting musicality of the writing simply add to the enjoyment.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Global Reading Challenge

“Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.”
— Jean Rhys

The Expert Challenge— Completed

Please click the book title to read my book review.

I read fourteen books. Twelve different countries are represented and two books are set in Antarctica. It's an eclectic list—rather like my reading habits.



1. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
By Stieglitz Larsson

The Club Dumas
By Arturo Perez-Reverte


1. Cloudstreet
by Tim Winton

2.Where We Once Belonged
by Sia Figuel


1. Prairies of Fever
By Ibrahim Nasrallah
(story takes place in Saudia Arabia) Nasrallah lives in Jordan

2.The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist
by Emile Habiby
Israel (Palestine)
Habiby was an Arab-Israeli


1. The Sand Child
by Tahar Ben Jelloun

2.The Life and Times of Michael K
by J. M Coetzee
South Africa


1. The Big Bang Symphony
Lucy Bledsoe

2 The Brief History of the Dead
By Kevin Brockmeier

North America

1. The Sparrow
by Mary Doria Russell
United States

2. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
By Mordecai Richter

South America

1.Alone in the Crowd
By Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

2. Dr. Brodies Report
Jorge Luis Borges

The Brief History of the Dead

By Kevin Brockmeier

From the very first line I was hooked into the story, a story that takes place in the city of the dead and in Antarctica.

When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had traveled across a desert of living sand.

The city is the place people go after they have died. They remain there as long as someone who is living keeps their memory alive. When that person dies they cross over into the next phase, perhaps heaven.

When in the city you remain the same age you were when you died. The city looks like any other city with restaurants, commercial buildings, transportation, myriad small businesses, recreation areas and places of religious observance. Families may be reunited and friends meet old friends who have died years before.

The second story takes place in Antarctica. Laura Byrd and two other Coca-Cola employees are stranded there without knowledge of what is happening in the rest of the world.

The events we see happening today—warming of the planet —has resulted in the melting of the polar ice caps. Coca-Cola wants to use the water from the Antarctica for its soft drink. Because the nations of the world are involved in biological terrorism there's a logical fear of the water supply being polluted.

When Laura and the two other employees are unable to communicate with their corporate headquarters after their "antenna splintered free of the satellite dish--" and when no one tries to communicate with them, the two men head out to the Ross shelf where there's an expedition studying the migratory habits of penguins. When they don't return after three weeks, Laura fits out a sledge and heads out to the Ross Shelf expedition.

In the rest of the world a lethal virus is released and people all over the globe are dying.

Neither of these two "realms" knows anything about the other realm. Laura does not initially know of all the deaths.

As more and more people die most of the city's population disappears. Laura Byrd's parents are in the city and they are looking for Laura. In time Laura is the only living person left on earth. Only those people Laura remembers remain in the city. Not only does the population diminish but soon the boundaries of the city shrink.

The remaining people all have interesting ties to Laura, whether it was a third grade friend, a teacher at the university with whom she had a summer romance, the blind man, the "preacher" carrying signs with words from the Bible. What is especially intriguing is how these people respond so differently to their new environment.

Laura upon reaching the expedition site and finding a journal pieces together the story of what has happened in the world. She understands that the mounds outside the hut are burial grounds for the expedition crew.

One of the themes in this novel concerns memory and the role it plays in our lives and in the retelling of our stories. In many respects this is a “cautionary” story. It is also a tale of connections.

The ending of the story recreates the beginning when we read of the crossing and how it is experienced.

A quote in the preface creates a doorway to The Brief History of the Dead the quote tells of African societies that believe that humans pass from being alive to living-dead to dead. The living-dead remain so and pass on to the dead when the "last person to know an ancestor dies."

I'll reread this book.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Black Minutes by Martin Solares

While Black Minutes is both an engaging mystery told in parallel stories--one present and one twenty years earlier, it is more than a noir mystery tale. Sorales explores the political corruption that has beset Mexico since the days of President Echavarreta. The drug cartels rule and the tentacles of corruption extend to the police—on all levels.

In the fictional port town the Paracuan police investigate crimes; however, the politicians monitor their investigations so that they don’t interfere with the drug cartels. Often this results in justice being of little interest and the incarceration of innocent people.

The two stories: a young journalist, Bernardo Blanco, has been murdered and the police are investigating; however, it becomes apparent that they are not to follow certain leads. Their job is to find a culprit quickly. Their prying has parameters that must not be broached.

Sorales peoples his story with a huge cast of characters which he fortunately lists on three pages. The Paracuan police are, for the most part, comprised of officers who take bribes, have little interest in justice, and are quick to anger.

Ramon Cabrera, a detective on the Paracuan Police force is of a different ilk. He's honest. Even though he's told to leave the Blanco case alone he continues looking at leads ignored by the police. He seeks the answer to the question first raised by the police chief before that question no longer interested the chief. What was Blanco looking into? Perhaps the answer would lead to his killer.

He discovers that Bernardo Blanco was investigating a twenty –year old case —the horrific murders of four young girls. Rene de Dios Lopez had been convicted of the murders. Blanco wasn't sure that Lopez was the perpetrator.

From this point on there's a seamless interweaving of the two stories—the murder of Blanco and the murders of the four girls. Solares is a writer who feels comfortable with prose that is poetic, prose that wanders into magic realism, and the skilled use of a number of literary devices.

In the earlier story it is Detective Vincent Rangel who seeks justice. He, too, is told to leave the case alone, but pursues leads that turn out to have dire consequences for him.

Historical figures appear as characters within the story and are faulted for the corruption that envelopes the political landscape. Drug cartels wield enormous power in the book and in the Mexico of today.

Several thousand people have been killed in the drug wars in the past two years.

This is a fascinating book that is so much more than a crime novel.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

The Appreticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler was written a number of years ago and describes a Montreal that has probably changed quite a bit. Richler depicts the Jewish community as insular, but changing. Shuls are being replaced by Reform Temples that eschew many of the more traditional customs.

Duddy attends a high school in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. His career in high school is marked by a lack of interest and a penchant for troublemaking. From a young age Duddy wants to be successful and his interpretation of that is ownership of land and the making of money. His grandfather had once said that a man must own land and that becomes Duddy’s mantra. In order to obtain what he wants Duddy is not above employing nefarious means.

Richter populates his book with a host of quirky characters. I’ve heard people say that there is a great deal of humor in the book—perhaps, but I was put off by some of the stereotypes. I found it uncomfortable to read and really couldn’t find any character I liked.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Dr. Brodies Report by Jorge Luis Borges

Born in 1899, Borges died in 1986 at the age of eighty-six. His first published work in 1923 —Fervor de Buenos, a book of poems.

Borges, who many consider the father of magic realism, published these stories in 1970. It had been almost twenty years since he had written and published short stories.

His earlier work, both short and novel length stories were far more complex, filled with labyrinths revealing divergent paths, parallel universes and time that meandered.

These stories, written in a more accessible fashion, still take unusual turns.

One critic referred to them as prose poems. If one definition of a prose poem is vivid imagery and concentrated expression then I'd agree. Add to that Borges's restrained revelations and unusual conclusions and the stories often are mesmerizing.

In some stories objects become people and people become objects. A knife, in two stories, has a mind of it's own. The knife pursues someone and acting independently kills that person.

People metamorphose into other personages or objects— reminding me of Kafka.

The story that stays with me: "The Gospel According to Mark." According to Gabriel Josipvici, " Borges himself admits that it is ' perhaps the best of this collection." The story tantalizes the reader as it follows the biblical story— yet set in Argentina.

It's progression to an ending—deliberate, paced, and despite being inevitable, stuns the reader.

Borges uses the story to explicate his own view of religion.

Jorge Luis Borges. THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MARK (1970) Translated by Norrnan Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with the author .
The Gospel According to Mark

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Life and Times of Michael K

By J.M.Coetzee

Michael K., born with a hair lip, is consigned at an early age to an institution for handicapped and feebleminded children. Academics are difficult; however, he learns about gardening and when released from the institution is employed as a gardener. His love of the earth enables him to take on greater responsibilities and a higher level gardening position.

The story takes place in South Africa during a period of conflict. Yet, save for the mention of Cape Town, South Africa is not mentioned. Neither is there a mention of who is black and who is white.

K rarely sees his mother who works for an elderly couple and takes care of their residence. She is given a place to live—a rather unpleasant basement dwelling. With all the unrest she loses her job and shortly after becomes ill. She needs Michael. He leaves his job and takes on the task of taking care of her. Her wish is to return to her childhood home and Michael is determined to take her “home”.

At first he follows all the proper channels, applies for a permit, and waits for the necessary papers, which will allow them to travel. Without those papers they will be unable to cross-checkpoints. After a frustrating wait, he decides to leave the city without a permit. His mother, no longer able to walk, is pulled in a cart he has constructed from found parts.

The trip is fraught with difficulties, some physical and some the result of police controlling the roads. His mother cannot survive the harsh life they must endure and she becomes ill and doesn’t have the stamina to survive. Without his knowledge she is cremated and her ashes are then given to Michael. In his mind he must continue to her childhood home—he’s promised his mother.

He finds the village and also finds an abandoned farm. He sets about gardening with some seeds he’s discovered. All he really wants to do is cultivate his small patch of land and live on the food he grows. This becomes impossible when soldiers destroy his plot. Eventually he is taken to a camp for the unemployed where he refuses to eat and is unable to partake in the work details—or forced labor He only wants to eat what he has grown.

Both sides abrogate Michael’s freedom. Everyone is made a prisoner by the inability of people to recognize the humanity of all people.

This is a powerful book—a book about decisions and the results of those decisions. A book about moral rights.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Alone in the Crowd

By Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Alone in the Crowd,a police procedural, is the seventh book in a series featuring Chief Espinosa. Since I’ve not read any of the previous books I’m not privy to the relationship between Espinosa and Irene, his girlfriend, save for what is in the book. Their relationship affords complete freedom to both of them—no ties, no promises. Irene flits in and out of various chapters. Two of the policemen in his district are loosely described. I felt that these characters are rather two-dimensional.

In this story a present death—accidental or purposeful —is tied to a death that happened thirty years before. The suspect, an unassuming solitary bank clerk who handles the distribution of pensions has a childhood connection to the chief. His character is flushed out a bit more. As the story progresses the reader discovers that the chief and the suspect, Hugo, grew up in the same neighborhood. Hugo, a year younger, had been obsessed when he was a child with wanting to be in the same circle of friends. Actually he wanted to be Espinosa’s best friend.

The introduction of fractured memory and guilt propel the story forward. Hugo, in an unofficial meeting with Espinosa —with no one else present, no microphones, no taping— presents his memory of the two deaths. Because he never knew if he was responsible for the first death, a young girl who fell down a flight if steps and hit her head, his whole life was altered. He’s never sure if he was the one who bumped into her. When he tells his mother, an unpleasant neurotic character, she torments him regarding his guilt.

The story has a number of psychological twists and turns. I wish more time was spent unearthing the fragile layers of Hugo’s life. Ultimately untimely accidents or murders happen to all the people who had been privy to the story he told his mother and she shared with several confidants.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow

How does one write a review of this book? Visualize a group of people, led by Jesuits, who feel they are following God's directions and those directions include travel to a distant planet. If that was the totality of the story it would simply be a science fiction story complete with odd looking aliens. 

This story is so much more. Mary Russell sets the story up in a completely believable manner so that it is not difficult to suspend disbelief. Jimmy Quinn, an astronomer, makes the initial discovery. He picks up a transmisson which appears to be music and doesn't come from any earthly place. This sets up the ensuing story.

Russell weaves two narratives together in order to tell the story. The story takes place in 2019 and 2060. 

Initially eight people set out to discover what they could about the planet Rakhat .

In 2060 there is an interrogation of the sole remaining survivor of the journey ,Emilo Sandoz. He returns to earth maimed, depressed and sick and is subject to intense questioning by his Jesuit superiors.

The story of the  relatonships formed by the eight members of the team are both a study of how families operate and the complexities of relationships. 

The crew:Besides Jimmy Quinn and Emilo Sandoz,— Anne and George, a long time married couple, Anne is physician and George is a retired engineer and Sophia Mendes the creator of Artificial Intelligence Programs. Three more Jesuits: D.W. Yarbrough, Marc Robichaux, a naturalist and Alan Pace ,a musicologist, round out the team.

Each individual's story and struggles intersects with all the other stories. 

When they meet the residents of the planet they are totally unaware of their practices, cultural norms, pattern of relationships . They are unprepared for the reality of life on that planet.

Russell investigates belief, love of God, seeming absense of God. What does it mean to believe that God leads you and that God is directing your steps ?

Emilo Sandoz's faith is shattered by his ordeal. 

The title of the book comes from:

Matthew 10:29-30
29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? and not one of them shall fall on the ground without your Father: 30 but the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 


Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Secret Life of Saeed: the Pessoptimist

By Emile Habiby

Emile Habiby was an Israeli-Palestinian journalist —well respected by both Arabs and Israelis. He was also a member of the Israeli parliament for three terms. The Secret Life of Saeed was written in 1974; Habiby died in 1998.

Benny Morris, a noted Israeli historian, recently wrote a book, 1948 which gives a detailed history of the events leading up to the war. He also discusses how much of the land was acquired—it's an open look at the realities of the time. Some call it revisionist. He, like Habiby, uncovers some of the less than savory ways that land was obtained. Blame is meted out to a number of divergent parties.

The Secret Life of Saeed is a satire, a tale told in letters by a bumbling narrator. There's also an extraterrestrial being who removes Saeed physically from some rather incongruous situations.

Saeed, our protagonist, moves through different situations. At one point he is an improbable and incompetent informer for the Israeli police. He suffers many losses, his first love, his second wife, a son who becomes a rebel, and the daughter of his first love.

To me, perhaps because this is 2010, and so much in that small area has solidified into what appears to be an impasse, the book’s tragic episodes are it's strength.

The forced evacuations, loss of home and property, the culpability of the wealthy Arabs in the sale of land, the actions of the police, the second class status of those Palestinians who chose to stay and the long history of subjugation of that land—from the time of the crusades.

Habiby's "anti-hero" Saeed who continually fails or finds himself in unwieldy positions is a reminder of the impossibility of finding a comfortable place in an occupied land where you no longer really belong.

Throughout the book there are literary references to 1001 Nights and Shakespeare.

A telling feature of this book is the full title: TheSecret Life of Saeed-the Pessoptimist. Salma Khadra Jayyusi said in his introduction to the book: "The paradoxical view of the dynamics of the situations explains the meaning of the word "pessotimist," coined from the partial merger of "optimist" and "pessimist." " Habiby aims uncover the various contradictions that crowd the distance between the extreme poles of Zionist colonialism and Palestinian resistance."

This book won Israel's Prize for Literature.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Where We Once Belonged

Where We Once Belonged
by Sia Fiegel

Sia Fiegel was born in Samoa in 1967 and was the first woman from Samoa to have her work published in the United States.

When I first started reading Where We Once Believed I found it somewhat confusing. Sia Fiegel includes many Samoan words and expressions in the narrative. While there is a glossary not all words are included; however, after awhile it doesn't matter. The context is enough to follow the tale.

This is a story told on many different levels. On one level it is a coming of age tale. Alofa, the narrator of the story, deals with the changes that come with adolescence. Because Sia Fielgel describes Alofa's encounters in great detail, the reader learns a lot about Samoa and Samoan traditions. There are also the discrepancies between what is available to whites and to native Samoans.

On another level the story is a vehicle for a look at the loss of Samoan traditions by the incursion of the West.

Siniva, who has returned to the village of Malaefou from New Zealand, where she has obtained an advanced degree, provides a voice for the loss. Siniva, caught between two societies, is lost.

In the end she cannot live in a society where her identity is destroyed. She commits suicide.

She had said: "Everyone is blinded. Blinded by too many Bibles. Blinded by too many cathedrals...Each time a child cries for coca-cola instead of coconut-juice, the waves close into our lungs."

"We kill ourselves slowly..."

The indictment of the west and its insistence that their way is the way is a powerful indictment.

Where We Once Belonged captured my attention with a narrative that demanded a close reading.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Big Bang Symphony

The Big Bang Symphony
by Lucy Jane Bledsoe

I've always been fascinated with Antarctica and usually read non-fiction accounts. So reading a fictional account was a new experience.

Lucy Bledsoe has not created a story out of bits and pieces she has read. She has been to Antarctica three times. In her acknowledgements she lists a number of people whose expertise enabled her to write a story that adheres to the reality of both research in Antarctica and the daily life of those who spend time in one of the field camps.

The Big Bang Symphony cast of characters includes three women, a composer, a kitchen worker, and a geologist. They each have a different reason for being in Antacrtica.

Music, men, geology, science--all are part of the story. Over the course of several weeks the three women bond and Ms Bledsoe certainly gives you the impression that this is a lifelong friendship.

Did I enjoy the book? Yes, with reservations. Too many of the situations between the women and men or other women seemed contrived. Also all the bows were tied at the end of the book. That seemed too convenient.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun

The setting is Morocco in the 1950’s and the story is both universal and particular to the Moroccan society.

Islamic law and custom dictated to whom a father left his property and those laws were patently clear; the heir was to be male. What was one to do if their family consisted of a wife and seven daughters? Hajji Ahmed determined to have a son, forced his wife to undergo a variety of "desperate ordeals" to assure the birth of a boy.

"He consulted physicians, fakirs, charlatans, quakes from every region of the country. He even took his wife to a Marabout tomb and had her stay there for seven days and seven nights on a diet of dry bread and water. She sprinkled herself with she-camel's urine and scattered the ashes of seventeen kinds of incense on the sea."

Determined that his property would not pass to his brothers he decided that irrespective of the sex of the yet unborn eighth child he would celebrate the birth of a son. A midwife is sworn to secrecy, as is his wife, and when the child is born a girl she is named Mohammed Ahmed and Hajii Ahmed celebrates the birth of his son in grand style.

In true Moroccan tradition a storyteller tells Ahmed’s story.

He gathers his audience by telling them that he is the owner of Ahmed's notebook. It is within this notebook that the story and its secrets reside. The notebook was, according to the storyteller, entrusted to him just before Ahmed died.

"He made me swear not to open it until forty days after his death, long enough for him to die completely."

Day after day he tells the story of Ahmed's childhood and youth, his privileges as a male compared to his sisters’ position in their circumscribed world.

Tahar Ben Jelloun's narrative poses questions of gender, the rights of woman in North Africa, colonialism, a person’s identity, and Islamic law. This is all done within the constraints of the story.

Despite the binding of her breasts, the privileges she enjoys as a male, the despotic manner she rules over the household, Ahmed's life becomes suffocating. She has lost her identity. This gender loss, which was fostered on her by her father, must be similar to transgendered people who feel that their exterior belies their real identity. In the story Ahmed's greatest difficulties begin with her sexual stirrings.

Early into the story another teller of the story who claims that he is the one who truly knows the story confronts our storyteller. When this individual no longer is there to tell the story the listeners cannot let go before they know the ending. Three of them become tellers of the tale.

Each of these tellers relates a different ending. Their stories are infused with magical realism. As an acknowledgement to Jorge Luis Borges, Borges arrives from Buenos Aires to add his own interpretation to the tale.

The story’s power resides in the lyrical narrative, the layers of deception that are so well woven into the tale and the realization of how the story is also a metaphor for life under Islamic rule in Morocco.

This is a powerful book that works on a number of levels— the loss of self, stolen identities, the inadequacy of stories to determine just one ending that will fit. As a metaphor we see identities preempted by individuals, society, colonization and I’ll add biology.

Ahmed's story remains with me as a reminder of how stories are often thwarted before they are realized..

Linda Frances

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Club Dumas

The Club Dumas
by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Most books I've read about book dealers or antiquarian book hounds are non-fiction. I did attend the Antiquarian Book Fair in Boston where I briefly held some valuable first editions.

The Club Dumas has a bit of everything: a book dealer, Lucas Corso, investigating a rare book—The Book of the Nine Doors, a single Dumas chapter called The Anjou Wine,, a suicide, a cast of intriguing characters who become involved in Corso's investigation, and a story regarding The Book of Nine Doors which involves an author , Aristide Torchia, who was burned at the stake because his book reportedly gave formulas to summon Satan.

There's also a young woman whose name is Irene Adler, a character who appears in Sherlock Holmes stories.

Corso seeks out the owners of two copies of The Book of Nine Doors. The third copy belongs to the man who hired Corso to determine which copy is authentic. This involves a careful study of the illustrated plates of each book.

Almost every page of the book contains a literary reference, real and invented, and The Three Musketter’s plot is obvious if you're a Dumas reader.

While the plot can at times seem convoluted and the reader's attention strained, or at least I flagged,—it's all worth it.

Linda Frances

Monday, May 31, 2010

Prairies of Fever by Ibrahim Nasrallah

This short book is replete with questions that remained in my mind—past the last page.

Ibrahim Nasrallah lives in Jordan; however, his story is not simple. His parents were uprooted from their home in Al-Bruji “near Jerusalem in Palestine and took refuge at Al-Wehdat refugee camp in Jordan… He was raised in a refugee camp.” He “studied at the UN agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), then at the UNRWA Teacher Training College in Amman.. After graduation he spent two years as a teacher in the “Qunfunda region in Saudi Arabia.”This background is important in understanding the novel.

Two young teachers teaching in an isolated village on the Arabian Peninsula not only live together, but share the same name and look alike. One day five individuals show up and tell one Muhammad Hammad that he owes money for his burial. His explanation of not being dead and therefore not being responsible for paying for his burial is unacceptable.

Rather than deal with these men who are threatening, he disappears—but the other Muhammad Hammad remains. While he’s seeking his roommate he becomes the target, and suspect, of the police and the five men This is really a book about identity and how tenuous it becomes in an alien environment. If your name no longer belongs to you then who are you and what is your identity? It is unclear as to how many Muhammad Hammads exist.

Nasrallah’s character deals with the claustrophobic village, the relentless sand that refuses to turn into dirt, his loss of self, the demands of a society that treats him as if he is already dead.

The chronology in the novel at times moves about in a non-linear manner. Often dialogue balances between logic and hallucinatory phrases out of context or between conversation and illusion.

Toward the end of the book, in a second person voice, the narrator says, “In these days and seasons which undifferentiatedly intermesh one with the other, united by a thread of flame, and in the chaos induced by self-disintegration and dissociation, your search was for a reality that would let your feet tread the ground, or a dream that projected beyond the continuous nightmare.”

Muhammad Hammad desperately wants to know how the other , perhaps his dual self, disappeared. “Did he go clean through the wall or the door or … was he still here?”

This search for self in a strange environment permeates the book. Any one who has left their home —not out of choice—deals with the anguish of discovering an identity. It is an exile within an exile.

Linda Frances

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Tim Winton is an Australian writer and his novel Cloudstreet is infused with the setting and vernacular of Western Australia.

This is powerful writing with an ear for the poetry of language in prose.

Cloudstreet takes place between 1943-1963 and tells the story of two
working class families who live in the same house—albeit in separate
sections of the house. The families are a study in contrasts—the
Lambs are industrious and religious. The Pickles, the owners of the
house, believe in luck.

Tragedy, or ill luck, touches both families. Sam Pickles lost a
handful of fingers in an accident. Fish Lamb, the brightest of the
Lamb children, almost drowns and while his life is spared he is left
impaired and will remain childlike his whole life. Fish remembers
the other world—the world he was saved from when he almost drowned
and it is to that world he wants to return.

Throughout the book, Winton creates situations and characters that
are totally engaging. The themes are substantial—redemption, guilt, community, love.

Some of the scenes remind me of Latin American magic realism and some of the characters remind me of Flannery O”Connor’s characters. Tim Winton celebrates the ordinary in the extraordinary.

Fish is the moral compass of the book—but every character must work out life’s meaning. The book abounds with love and grace.

Linda Frances

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson

I've delayed reading this book, in part because the number of people waiting for the book at our local library was way too long. 

Last week I finally received a copy. I read somewhere that over three million Americans had read this book. There's always the curiosity factor—what intrigued people?

The book is created out of improbable incidents, possible incidents, and one incredibly fascinating woman—Lisbeth, whose life is an enigma, but whose skills as an investigator are impeccable.  

The major plot line involves Harriet Vanger who disappeared many years before and now the case is being reopened by her elderly uncle. I felt that the story line that involved the Vanger family moved and held my interest. Save for Lisbeth and Blomkvist, the journalist hired to find out what happened to Harriet, too many of the other characters are flat. 

I was enthralled with the details involving Lisbeth's hacking. Larsson creates suspense around this character and a desire to know more.Larsson does a good job with the setting of the story.

This is a plot driven book; however, it flags after the mystery of Harriet's disappearance is solved. The macinations involving tracking down a financial giant are rather implausable.

Did I like the book? I was caught up in the story and thought it a real page turner; however,Larsson's writing lacks the depth and style I usually enjoy.  

Linda Frances