Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Visible World—by Mark Slouka

Mark Slouka, the son of Czech immigrants, grew up in a family distanced from their homeland by the political climate of their time. The The Visible World is a fictional account of a family torn away from their Czech homeland by the political turmoil of their world—the era of Nazi expansion and terror. Despite living in the United States their friends and associates are Czech people who are also displaced from their homes, country and language.

The story was of particular interest to me because I've met a number of adults who are the children of survivors. Their parents survived the atrocities meted out by Germany during WWII. For some of these adults there remains a need to know the beginning story of their parent's lives. Some parents refused to talk about those years or omit portions. There are questions to be asked, but no answers. One woman I know created an organization where children of Nazis and children of Holocaust survivors meet. I've met several people who after a parent's death return to that parent's country of origin.

As a young boy the protagonist of The Visible World knows that his mother's past wears on her causing her to become more and more distant. His father alludes to a man she had loved who died during the "bad" times. Not only has she never recovered from this lost love, but as the years pass she becomes more and more mired in the past.

"Nothing could match what they had, for the simple reason that they couldn't have it again."

As she retreats from her family into her own world some of the past is pieced together, but huge gaps remain. Who was this man? Why did
she return to a prior love—his father? What really happened? Only some of the answers are available.

One day his mother "...stepped directly in front of the 4:38 bus to Allentown." At that point seven years had passed since mother and son spoke to one another.

"My mother erased herself so throughly that for a long time after she died, I couldn't find her anywhere."

We all need to connect ourselves to the past, to learn the story, to ferret out the beginnings. Ofttimes the only way that is possible is by taking some of what we know and constructing a story around the known facts.

The boy, now a man, returns to Prague where his mother's story began. He hopes to find someone who remembers his mother and her
lover. Despite all leads it isn't possible to reconstruct the real story. One possible scenario is that his mother's lover was one of the young
men involved in the assassination plot against the despised Reinhard Heydrich, a Nazi appointee. Everything that follows in the last section
of the book is conjecture. What isn't conjecture is the historicity of the plot.

In his quest to find the truth of his mother's relationship her son says—"I collected facts, as I always had, like a child hoping to build an oak from bits of bark."

The oak that he weaves is constructed of memory, fabrications and facts. What is patently clear is that his mother's life was interrupted and despite her attempt to continue that interruption became a chasm. The book has a haunting quality and a sadness permeates the telling.

2011 Read East challenge

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Chinese Lake Murders by Robert Van Gulik

Robert Van Gulik's Judge Dee mysteries are set in the Tang Dynasty.The Chinese Lake Murders takes place in 666A.D.; however, the clothing, customs and culture are of the Ming Dynasty, 1368—1644. This is in keeping with Chinese folk tales which are filled with anachronisms. A story is often set in the past, but is filled with details from a different era. Gulik, a Dutch diplomat and statesman, used data from old Chinese crime literature to give his book an authentic feel.

Judge Dee is based on a real judge, Di Renjie, who was a magistrate and statesman of the Tang court—630—700).

In the Chinese Lake Murders Judge Dee is the Magistrate of Han-yuan, a mountain district sixty miles from the capital. Since he is newly assigned to the district he brings an objective viewpoint and this enables him to look at all aspects of the three interlocked cases. The crimes include the disappearance of a girl on her bridal night, the murder of a courtesan and even a theft. Including three cases was in keeping with Chinese detective literature.

Add to this there is the enigma of clues embedded in a chess puzzle. According to Gulik the crimes in this novel are based on historical court records. In addition to the unraveling of all these puzzling cases Gulik creates the atmosphere of ancient China.

Gulik was an avid student of Chinese literature and history and as a statesman was at on point stationed in China. "While in Chongqing he married a Chinese woman (Shui Shifang), the daughter of an Imperial mandarin (under the Manchu Dynasty)."

Mystery & Suspense Challenge 2011
Vintage Mystery Challenge

Monday, January 17, 2011

Trespass by Amy Irvine

I picked this book up after following directions for the What should I read next category?in accordance with the directions of a book challenge. The setting of this book is Utah's red-rock country.

I was delighted with my find since not only had I visited Utah's canyon country and done some hiking  there, but I am also taking a short vacation in the Southwest this coming summer.

But Trespass is much more than a sojourn in Utah's canyon country, it is a story of the shortsightedness of people who fail to see the loss of our wilderness, our deserts. It is the story of the Mormons who populated the area, their way of life and the author's ambivalence about fitting in. She struggles with her beliefs. Trespass is also a primer on the natural history of the area, a tale of the conflict between the environmentalists and the ranchers, the sports enthusiasts. Today bikes and large wheeled vehicles trample the slick rock of the area causing the type of injuries that will not heal.

Irvine writes: "They are the extreme recreationists —...and more than any rancher, they hate environmentalists."

Amy Irvine's Mormon roots run deep. While her ancestors were some of the original pioneers that Brigham Young led west, her family had a divided connection to the Mormon, LSD, faith. Her father was an  atheist , her mother a Mormon who wasn't particularly religious.  Her grandparents —on one side she had grandparents who were ranchers, hard working and deeply religious. On the other side her grandmother was an artist who was not a member of the LSD.

Amy was not baptized into the faith because her father wouldn't allow it, but when her parents divorce she asks her mother to be baptized. Many of the personal memories involve her father—both the good times and the times that were difficult and confusing for a child. When her father takes his own life Amy is an adult and his loss is palpable because of all the memories—both good and bad.

When she  divorces her first husband she is living in Salt Lake City where she works for an environmental group— Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Herb, who she loves, works out of the Moab office and as a lawyer is intimately involved  in environmental issues. Wanting to be closer to him she decides to move to San Juan County—where she can also be in the midst of red-rock country.

While she loves the landscape she finds it difficult to be accepted by the community—not only does she work for an organization that is referred to as "tree huggers", but she's also not a Church going Mormon. Attempting to live in that atmosphere creates an almost insurmountable problem. In an attempt to fit in, to be acceptable, she feels torn apart.

Her relationship with Herb vacillates between great intimacy and a yawning abyss. They marry and eventually leave the area for the Colorado Plateau —close, but not in the red-rock country of Utah.

"To truly inhabit a place is to learn to dwell with the differences that threaten to divide it."

There are no neat bows at the end of the story—either for her marriage or for the desert.

Take a Chance challenge.
Challenge 8 category.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Successor by Ismail Kadare

When the Albanian Communist Party came to power Mehmet Shehu was the closest person in terms of power to Enver Hoxha—he was his right hand man and the second most powerful person in Albania. Hoxha, ruled with an iron fist and a bit of paranoia. For forty years he ruled Albania and Shehu remained the second in command and his personal friend. Despite being second in command his power was kept in check by Hoxha who did not want to yield too much control to anyone.

Shenu was a committed communist, known to be brutal in his dealings with those deemed enemies of the state. Although he always walked behind and not alongside Hoxha, he held a number of responsible positions in the government.

Shehu had in 1961 been one of the group that helped forge a Chinese-Albanian alliance and he also was involved with the break with the Soviet Union.

" ...Albania, which stood apart from Khrushchev revisionism and received strong financial incentives from the PRC ( People's Republic of China), severed relations with the USSR." Modern Chinaby Jonathan Fenby

By 1981 the relationship between the two comrades showed strains. Shehu was to be his successor. By this time Hoxha was legally blind and wary of anyone whose power he distrusted. On December 17, 1981 Shehu is found dead in his bedroom with a bullet wound to his head.

While the official story was suicide many rumors swirled about then and subsequently to that time. Some thought that he was murdered by Hoxha's henchmen and there was even a story about the murderer being Hoxha. Other tales pin the murder on other people.

Officially the government announced that his death was a suicide and that he had been experiencing a nervous breakdown prior to taking his own life. Since suicide was a crime in Albania and he was also accused of being a spy for Yugoslavia, the CIA and KGB he was buried in a wasteland. His wife and two sons were arrested and imprisoned.

It is this story that Ismail Kadare uses as the fictional account of the suicide/murder of Shehu. Instead of referring to Hoxha by name he is called the Guide and Shehu is the Successor. In his fictional account no one knows who murdered the Successor and it is this not knowing that unleashes a morbid fear. Anyone can be accused and found guilty.

Everyone has a theory of why the Successor fell out of favor: Is it that he opposed the Guide's isolationism, is it because the Successor's daughter became engaged to the son of a once upon a time upper-class family? In time the engagement is broken off .There are numerous possibilities and a number of candidates for the position of murderer.

In this chaotic atmosphere the Successor is now posthumously forgiven for his daughter's transgression and reinstated into the Guide's favor and reinstated as a Party member in good standing.

As the story continues a cadre of candidates appear, each with a possible motive. Hasoben, the police minister, had been seen arriving and departing from the Successor's residence. There were two men who purported to have carried the body down a staircase. The architect responsible for the renovation of the Successor's house confesses to his wife that he killed the Successor. He feels that he is responsible for his death because his renovations were so perfect that they dwarfed the grandeur of the Guide's house. Perhaps jealousy caused the death? And unbeknownst to the architect a secret tunnel is beneath the residence

When an autopsy is ordered, everyone involved —including the pathologist, is fearful. Suppose the pathologist comes to the wrong conclusions about the death? The Guide is a man who is anything but consistent in selecting friends or foes. Hadn't he turned against Yugoslavia when that country opted to sever bonds with Stalin, hadn't he stayed with Russia after Stalin died only to leave Russia for China and then leave China? The same way he treated his alliances with countries he treated political allies. There were purges, the reinstatement at a later date,the torture of people who were designated as the enemy, torture and burials. Living under his leadership meant never quite knowing if what you said or did might be something worthy of being purged. No wonder the pathologist is terrified.

The scenes between some of the characters not only chart their terror and increasingly insecure feelings, but also mirror what a universe is like when one person can hold groups of people in his grip. Until a person is selected by the Guide as the murderer their world lacks form. Kadare's portrait of a country caught in this trap is a potent reminder of what tyranny looks like. At one point in the story the Successor shows the Guide a dimmer in his renovated house. The dimmer acts as a perfect metaphor for a dictatorship—when the Guide turns the dimmer one way the room is ablaze with light, but when he turns it the other way the room darkens.

As a coda—1991 marks the fall of Communism in Albania. It also marks the date of the release of Bashkim, Mehmet Shehu's youngest son. He had been imprisoned since 1981. Upon his release he began a search for his father's burial place and on November 19, 1991 Sehu's remains were found.

Eastern European Challenge

Friday, January 7, 2011

Waiting by Ha Jin

In many ways I experienced China during and after the Cultural Revolution through the eyes of Lin Kong. Lin is a doctor whose marriage was arranged. His wife remains in her rural village while Lin works at the Muji City army hospital. Shuyu, his wife, embarrasses him with by her simplicity and her bound feet.

A love affair begins for Lin when he and a third of the hospital staff make a 400 mile trek to practice treating the casualties of a battle that really hasn't happened. This march is compared to the Long March— "We must carry on the spirit of the Long March."

" The Long March: (1934–36), the 6,000-mile (10,000-km) historic trek of the Chinese communists, which resulted in the relocation of the communist revolutionary base from southeastern to northwestern China and in the emergence of Mao Zedong as the undisputed party leader. Fighting Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) throughout their journey, the communist troops crossed 18 mountain ranges and 24 rivers to reach the northwestern province of Shaanxi." Encyclopedia Britannica

Manna, one of the nurses on the walk, develops blisters that need attention and Lin Kong drains the blisters. His kindness ignites something within Manna and her response also ignites a response within Lin. They begin a love affair that is circumscribed by party rules. They may never leave the compound in each other's company and their affair must remain platonic. People talk, but their behavior and adherence to the party doctrine enables them to exist within the narrow confines of that society. To go against the dictates of party ideology could result in a forced separation and a loss of status.

As their love grows and their lives become intermingled Manna wants to be free to marry Lin. He has acknowledged that he doesn't love his wife. His daughter rarely recognizes his existence when he returns home —once a year. The story starts with a line indicating that "every summer" Lin returns to Goose Village to seek a divorce from his wife and every year her returns to the base—another unsuccessful attempt. Shuyu usually starts by acquiescing, but when they stand before the judge she changes her mind. Often the change is brought instigated by her brother. When the judge hears that she loves Lin is refuses to grant the divorce. This charade continues on for eighteen years.

During this time things have changed for Manna. She has been raped by someone who both she and Lin thought was a friend. Because woman are really listened to and she waited before reporting the rape she keeps quiet. She's also concerned with how people will judge her if they know. She does tell her friend who inadvertently told her husband who, also inadvertently , repeated the story.

Waiting has become tedious. Lin encourages Manna to find a suitable partner, someone who is not fettered by a wife who refuses to let go of a husband who is never around.

While Lin is careful to never break a party rule as far as his relationship is concerned, he does break party rules by reading books that would be considered pandering to capitalist degradations. He covers his books with dust jackets that hide the titles —if you don't see something it isn't there. So while Lin will take no risks with Manna, he is willing to risk his career and possibly his comforts for his books. Manna can't really understand why Lin takes a chance of being publicly denounced for disobedience to party objectives and rules. When she had practically begged him to make love to her he refused because of the party rules and regulations.

After eighteen years a man does not need his wife to agree to a divorce. The divorce is granted and Lin is free to marry Manna. He brings his ex-wife to the city and sets her up in one of the dormitories in the city and the army helps his daughter get a job in a match factory. He continues, as he's done for years, to give Shuyu a monthly stipend.

After waiting eighteen years Manna and Lin cannot settle into a comfortable life. Lin misses his privacy and Manna, who in time becomes pregnant and delivers twin boys, finds her life with Lin not what she anticipated.

Waiting is about more than two people delaying their happiness. It also touches upon life under a totalitarian government where private lives are not private and the slightest infraction may have dire consequences. Under those circumstances Lin and others take risks by owning and reading western books. Books are inherently dangerous and the ownership of some of the titles would not be acceptable to the Stalin regime—yet the loss of the books represents a greater loss.

Take a Chance Challenge
I spotted someone reading this book at our local coffee shop. Since I'm taking a course on China and hadn't read Waiting, it was a fortuitous case of spying.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Yet Another Challenge

Having just completed a Ngaio Marsh book and finding several Dorothy Sayers books at the library book sale, I'm anxious to participate in the Vintage Mystery Challenge— I'll go for the "take 'Em to Trial" challenge.

Now I've signed up for four book challenges!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Artists in Crime by Ngaio Marsh

This past year New Zealand 's first Ngaio Marsh award for a Best Crime mystery went to ‘Alix Bosco. Many people thought that it was about time that Marsh was recognized as one of New Zealand's premier mystery writer . She is New Zealand's Agatha Christie.

Artists in Crime is a wonderful romp and it is also the book that first introduces Miss Agatha Troy, an artist, who will eventually marry Inspector Alleyn. They meet on a ship heading back to England from New Zealand. Within a short period of time the inspector receives a call from Scotland Yard calling for investigation of the murder of a model. This particular model was employed by Miss Troy for the class she teaches at her home.

Marsh introduces a number of interesting characters —all of whom are students in the class. One person is immediately suspected of the killing and when he disappears his guilt is assumed. While the investigation proceeds the secondary story evolves between the inspector and Miss Troy.

The manner of murder is both inventive and bit of a stretch; however, because Ngaio Marsh is so convincing and you want to believe the manner of murder you suspend that incredulous raising of an eyebrow. Inspector Alleyn, always one to follow the correct procedure, spends a due time investigating and is finally able to put the puzzle together and arrest the culprit.

I do want to read the next book in the series—to find out how the romance proceeds.

Vintage Mystery Challenge
Mystery and Suspense Reading Challenge