Tuesday, March 12, 2019

February 2019 Reading

I didn't get a lot of reading finished in February - in fact I only finished two books this month, although I have a pile of books that I am continuing to read but couldn't get through by the end of February. 

The Misunderstood Mission of Jean Nicolet:  Uncovering the Story of the 1634 Journey by Patrick J. Jung.  This is a slim little book that I wanted for Christmas and received.  Jung thoroughly debunks the myth that Jean Nicolet was sent by the French to Green Bay to search for the Northwest Passage, that he expected to find Chinese colonies living there and that he brought along and wore a Chinese robe when he met with the Indians there.  He uses French written sources, archaeological evidence and the oral histories of the descendants of the Indians who lived in the area.  In the course of it he goes into a lot of the story of Samuel de Champlain. If you are interested in Samuel Champlain and the exploration of the Great Lakes area in the 1600s, you will enjoy this.

 The Black Ascot by Charles Todd.  Another in the Inspector Ian Rutledge series of mysteries.  This time Inspector Rutledge, of Scotland Yard, is given a tip that a wanted man, thought to have escaped England ten years before, has returned.  Traveling around England in his motor car, Rutledge solves the years old case.  A survivor of World War I, Rutledge suffers from PTSD and "hears" the voice of a former comrade in arms in his head.  Time moves slowly in these novels and only two years have passed since the end of the war.  Rutledge is slowly getting better, but is still a very damaged man. I always enjoy the Inspector Rutledge novels (more than the companion series featuring Bess Crawford).  This one had a somewhat convoluted plot line with a lot more characters than usual (who I sometimes had trouble keeping track of from chapter to chapter).   Not my favorite, but still very enjoyable.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

My January 2019 Reading

This month I finished the following books:

In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin.  There is no better way to ring in the new year than with a new Ian Rankin book.  I started this on New Year's Eve (the day it was published in the U.S.) and finished it on New Year's Day.  John Rebus is back (and up to all of his old tricks).  Siobhan Clarke is called in to assist when a long dead corpse is discovered in the trunk of a car lying abandoned in a gulch (or whatever the Scottish word for gulch is).  It turns out that this is an old missing persons' case that had been handled (or mishandled) by Rebus' team back in the day. That brings in Malcom Fox to review all the old case files.  I love the "team" of Rebus, Siobhan and Malcom.  This time there is also a new character, DCI Graham Sutherland, who is a good addition and I hope Rankin keeps him around for more cases.  I was particularly struck by how Rankin managed to include a warning against Brexit by the end of the story without being preachy.

Early Work by Andrew Martin.  If this novel hadn't been short I wouldn't have finished it.  In my opinion the world doesn't need any more novels about men thinking with their dicks - John Updike perfected that genre.  I'm making a note of the people who gave this novel good reviews so that I remember that we don't agree on what is good and I don't take their reading advice in the future without looking into the recommendation more.  I was reminded, yet again, how boring I find novels about people who are drunk or stoned most of the time (which also reminds me of how good a writer I found Edward St. Aubyn despite the fact that his main character was a drug addict.)  Anyway ... not recommended by me.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday.  A somewhat odd little book, in three parts where the second part seems unconnected to parts one and two (except it isn't).  I really enjoyed part two - I liked the characters, I liked the writing and the plot took me in an unexpected direction.  I found part three entertaining because I like to listen to the BBC's Desert Island Discs and it was a riff on that.  But part one left me cold.  I really never understood the main female character and, worse, I just didn't care about her. And I had no real interest in the writer she was involved with.  But it is a small novel so that part doesn't go on for very long. And I do like the way that she writes, even in part one.  The first paragraph is an homage to Alice in Wonderland and the main character is called Alice.  And as she slips down the rabbit hole into her relationship with this man, there is a lot of "eat this" or "drink me".  I found that amusing.  The problem is that, just like the "real" Alice, this one is very passive.  That's ok in a little girl but I found it tedious in a grown woman.  As a side note, this book should carry a trigger warning for St. Louis Cardinals fans - it will bring back your memories of the 2004 World Series.

Milkman: A Novel by Anna Burns.   I loved, loved, loved this book.  It was chosen by my reading group (although I planned to read it anyway) and from what I can tell, no one loved it but me and most people didn't get through it.  (I missed the meeting.)  Burns sets her story in an unnamed place with unnamed people (the time period appears to be the 1970's).  With just a little effort it's easy to identify the locale as Belfast, Northern Ireland during "the troubles".  The characters are the narrator, her family, "sometime boyfriend" and the people who live in her neighborhood.  Oh, and a character known only as "Milkman" who has taken an interest in the narrator and is sexually harassing her - but without touching her or saying anything.  The plot is not the point of this novel (and in some ways it is tied up far too neatly at the end) and the characters are somewhat secondary.  Burns was trying to evoke what it felt like to live in that kind of situation and I think she handled that perfectly. The thing that struck me was how brilliant it was to not name the characters or the locale - because it was so easy to analogize the situation to many OTHER situations:  the #metoo era, what life must have been like in Beirut back in the 1980's, what life must be like in parts of many American cities in the 20th century if you were black and living in the midst of the drug war. 

Here are some representative lines that seem to me to evoke the ideas of the novel, but could be applied to many different stories, not just this one - I could put most of them as a lead-in to a tweet about a news story of the day somewhere:

"I did not want to get in the car with this man, I did not know how to say so though, as he wasn't being rude and he knew my family for he'd named the credentials, the male people of my family, and I couldn't be rude because he wasn't being rude."

"I did not like twentieth-century books because I did not like the twentieth century."

"...if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening,, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn't there?"

"If we were in a proper relationship and I did live with him and was officially committed to him, first thing I would have to do would be to leave."

"I said this was because of the twisting of words, the fabrication of words and the exaggeration of words that went on in this place."

" 'it's not about being happy, he said, which was, and still is, the saddest remark I've ever heard."

"They killed it because it liked them, because they couldn't cope with being liked, couldn't cope with innocence, frankness, openness, with a defencelessness and an affection and purity so pure, so affectionate, that the dog and its qualities had to be done away with."

"This was why you didn't get many shining people in environments overwhelmingly consisting of fear and sorrow."

"No one has ever come across a cat apologising and if a cat did, it would be patently obvious it was not being sincere."

"... because no information could be forthcoming that wouldn't be perceived by at leats one party to be a distortion of the truth."

"... their survival as an armed guerrilla outfit in a tightly knit, anti-state environment depended upon local support in that environment."

"Hard to define, this stalking, this predation, because it was piecemeal."

"...the only time you'd call the police in my area would be if you were going to shoot them, and naturally they would know this and so wouldn't come."

I could go on and on.  I was constantly highlighting phrases in this novel, stopping to think how the thought applied to more situations than simply a girl living in Belfast in the 1970's being stalked by an older man who was part of the IRA.   

 A lot of people have said this book is difficult to read because it has an almost stream of consciousness style.  I didn't find it difficult, but maybe because when I read I "hear" specific voices very clearly and this character had a very distinctive voice.  The two people in my reading group who made it through the book both listened to the audio version.  That may make a difference.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan


That was the word that kept coming to my mind in the first half of Esi Edugyan's Booker Prize nominated novel Washington Black.  This is the first time I've ever read a novel set in the West Indies where I felt like I was there.  And everything made sense.   And I could see it in my mind (which happens rarely when I read) and I could feel the heat and I could sense the fear.  

And when the story moved on to the Artic and Canada I felt the same way. She was able to evoke the cold and the blinding snow and the sense of the vastness. 

It was a delight to my senses. 

The plot was pretty good too.  Washington Black, a slave born on the plantation Faith in Barbados, is the eponymous title character of this novel.  As a young boy he is chosen to become the personal servant and assistant to the brother of the plantation owner, whom he is invited to call Titch. Titch is an early 19th century scientist who, at that moment, is interested in building a balloon that can cross the Atlantic. Through a series of events that I feel no need to spoil, Titch and Washington (or Wash, as he is called) end up escaping Barbados in the balloon and embarking on a series of adventures that take them all the way to the Artic.

But is Titch really the enlightened fellow that we would like him to be or is he just using Wash?   And why can't Wash move on and forget about Titch after they part ways?  These are the questions posed in the second half of the novel.  The second half is much less evocative (or maybe I've just read too many novels set in London) but is where Wash, still young but an adult, begins to ask these questions.   And we the reader ask them too.  And if you are like me you have arguments with yourself and with Edugyan about it. 

This is a novel of ideas and the questions that are raised are good questions, ones that I'll be thinking about for a while.   The characters are well drawn.  She doesn't answer all of our questions about them but gives us enough to see them and understand them and care about what happens to them.

I will say that the plot of the novel does rely on us believing a number of coincidences.  (All novels rely on coincidence to move the plot along; a great writer makes us forget that).  A few times I rolled my eyes.  But then I shrugged and moved on - they didn't really affect my enjoyment. 

My only complaint about the entire novel is the very last paragraph.   I won't say too much other than that I like my novels with definitive endings that I understand.   But up until that last paragraph, I was hooked. 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Warlight and The Witch Elm

I blame the Senate Judiciary Committee.


After the last few weeks of focusing on the Senate Judiciary Committee and their Supreme Court confirmation hearings I was just not in the mood to read a novel in which a white youth can't be bothered to see the world through anybody else's eyes.  I definitely wasn't in the mood to read TWO novels with that kind of protagonist.

Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje, and The Witch Elm by Tana French, are two novels that couldn't be more different.  Warlight is the story of a boy growing up in post-World War II London.  His parents leave he and his sister for a year, ostensibly to travel to the other side of the world due to his father's job.  The people that they are left with are unusual to say the least and it becomes clear very soon that the parents have lied to the children and there is more going on than meets the eye.

The Witch Elm is a crime novel in which the protagonist is beaten to a pulp in the first fifty pages by two burglars, causing a loss of memory.  This becomes important when skeletal remains are found and the protagonist can't remember details that might lead to the discovery of who killed the victim.

But despite their differences, they seemed to have basically the same premise.  The male protagonist  is so self-centered that he spends his youth oblivious to what is going on around him.  In Warlight, Nathaniel can't even be bothered to know the real names of the adults who are ostensibly in charge of him.   Ostensibly he can't remember them years later because he was so traumatized by his youth. 

Oh c'mon.

In The Witch Elm, Toby remembers his teen years at school as being a pleasant time where people occasionally play pranks on each other.  He is shocked to learn, years later, that others have memories of bullying and sexual assault.   HE doesn't remember that.

Oh c'mon. 

I rapidly lost interest in both of these characters.  I found myself utterly bored by Nathaniel's story.   But it's a short novel so I finished it.  I was annoyed by Toby and his white male privilege from the first few pages of The Witch Elm and rapidly found that I didn't care what happened to him.   I kept reading because, up until now, I have loved Tana French's books.  It never improved.  I was never shocked (or even surprised).  Even her writing style in this novel annoyed me - far too much exposition.

So all in all, I didn't care for either book and I can't recommend either one.  Especially after the last few weeks and the Senate Judiciary Committee.  

Monday, October 8, 2018

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

The thing about time is that it changes everything and nothing.  Juliet Armstrong, the main character in Kate Atkinson's new novel Transcription, considers this as she dies.  Juliet is hit by a car while crossing a street in 1981 after a Shostakovich. In her dying moments, she remembers attending the 1942 premier of the Shostakovich Leningrad Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall while World War II was being fought:
The Russians had been their enemies and then they were their allies, and then they were enemies again.  The Germans the same -- the great enemy, the worst of all of them, and now they were our friends, one of the mainstays of Europe.  It was all such a waste of breath.  War and peace.  Peace and war.  It would go on forever without end. 
Atkinson opens the novel with Juliet's death in 1981.  But time in an Atkinson novel doesn't always run in a straightforward linear fashion.  Transcription is no different. We are immediately transported back to 1950, when not-quite-30 year-old Juliet is a producer of children's radio programming for the BBC, and then even further back to 1940 when a very young Juliet is recruited to work for MI5, Britain's domestic counter intelligence agency.

Juliet, still recovering from her mother's death, doesn't particularly like the man who interviews her for the MI5 job and doesn't seem to particularly care if she gets the job.  The answers she gives to many of his questions are out-and-out lies mostly because she doesn't think it is any of his business but partly because hiding the truth seems to come naturally to her.
Later she learned that Miles Merton (for that was his entire name) knew everything about her - more than she knew herself - including every lie and half-truth she told him at the interview. It didn't seem to matter. In fact, she suspected that it helped in some way.
Being able to lie with a straight face is a good talent for a spy, but at first Juliet is not given any spying duties.  Working for MI5 may sound exciting but Juliet's principal job is typing transcripts of meetings of "fifth columnists" - British citizens sympathetic to the Nazis - whom Juliet and her MI5 team refer to as the "neighbors." (The fifth columnists meet in a flat in Pimlico while MI5 is right next door listening to everything they say.) Juliet makes tea, cleans things and types.  She wants to do more.  She is also somewhat enamored of her boss, Perry Gibbons, whom everyone except Juliet seems to know is gay. The lynchpin of the operation is an MI5 operative named Godfrey Toby.   It is when 1950's Juliet runs into Godfrey Toby on a London street, and he pretends not to know her, that she begins to think back about that operation and her life during the war.  Then she receives a mysterious message warning her that she will "pay" for what she did.  What exactly did she do?

Atkinson has written an old fashioned spy novel, combined with a 1950's paranoid thriller all wrapped up in a post-modern novel. (Actually, not being an English major I have no idea if post-modernism is the correct term, but it seems right.) 

In some ways the novel is an homage to John Le Carre and his George Smiley novels.  Godfrey Toby even looks a bit like Smiley:
It was him, she knew it was him.  The same (somewhat portly) figure, the bland, owlish face, the tortoiseshell spectacles, the old trilby.
As George Smiley is breathtakingly ordinary, so is Godfrey Toby.
Juliet used to think that someone who seemed as ordinary as Godfrey Toby must be harboring a secret -- a thrilling past, a dreadful tragedy -- but as time had gone by she'd realized that being ordinary was his secret.  It was the best disguise of all really, wasn't it?  
In some ways, the novel reminded me a bit of the (unfortunately cancelled) BBC television show The Hour:  a bright, woman producer dealing with red tape and bureaucracy and sexism of the BBC during the paranoid 1950's.

But, as with all Atkinson novels, this novel is its own unique self and not a replica of anyone else's work. This is, as with Atkingson's other novels, a novel of ideas.  The "true self" is a theme of this novel.  Not just Juliet's true self but also the other people that Juliet encounters during her life.   In the 1950s Juliet thinks about this:
She fingered the strand of pearls at her neck.  Inside each pearl there was a little piece of grit.  That was the true self of the pearl, wasn't it?  The beauty of the pearl was just the poor oyster trying to protect itself.  From the grit.  From the truth. 
Also, as with other Atkinson novels, this is a novel about women and how they must deal with a world in which they must often hide their true selves.  Especially from their bosses, who are inevitably men.  Here, Juliet is listening to Perry, her boss, ramble on:
A girl could die of old age following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. "Very nicely put, sir," she said.
Juliet is never what she seems and she constantly reminds herself that means no one else is what they seem.  She has a "long-held belief that appearances were invariably deceptive". 

In the 1940's Juliet is given the opportunity to take on false identities and actually be a "spy" for a short time as part of one of Perry Gibbons' operations.  As "Iris Carter-Jenkins" Juliet is asked to infiltrate a right wing group.  As "Madge Wilson" Juliet pretends to be a bereaved sister. Juliet is a natural at this but in the 1950's, looking back, she thinks that she has been "too many people"  and wonders about her true self:
And then there was Juliet Armstrong, of course, who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the "real" Juliet.  But then, what constituted real?  Wasn't everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?
As a snapshot of life in two of Britain's oldest establishments (MI5 and the BBC) and a snapshot of life during the war and immediately after the war, this is a fascinating novel.  I did think, however, that the plot slightly got away from Atkinson at the very end..  

However, all in all, I greatly enjoyed this novel.  For me, the best parts (as with all Kate Atkinson novels) were the touches of humor that Atkinson brought to an otherwise serious story.  Juliet's private thoughts can be very funny.  For instance, here is  the first time that Juliet eats a lobster and is instructed to pull the legs off and suck out the meat:
Despite some reluctance, she followed his instructions.  After all, it seemed a shame to be boiled alive for nothing.
Or Atkinson's description of the miniature schnauzer, Lily, when one of the MI5 bosses informs Juliet that the dog is to be looked after by Juliet until her owner returns:
The dog, which had been gazing uneasily up at Oliver Alleyne, now turned its attention to Juliet. She hadn't realized that a dog could look doubtful.
Any Kate Atkinson novel is to be savored for the writing and this one is no different. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

January 2018 Reading

I miss doing a monthly summary of all that I've read so I thought I would try it again.  We'll see how long this lasts.

Here's what I read in January:

The Medicus Mystery Series by Ruth Downie.  I spent the early part of the New Year catching up on all the Ruth Downie Medicus mysteries.  About  year ago I read her first book in the series, simply entitled Medicus.  Since I am a big fan of Lindsey Davis' Roman mysteries I thought I might like it.  I did, but it took me a while to get back to them.  Finally I loaded up on the rest of them through the beginning of January and filled the very cold nights reading away.  There are now seven published novels with the eighth coming this year.  Although they are Roman, most of the action takes place in Brittania where Gaius Petreius Ruso is a doctor to the Roman legions.  Ruso is from the south of Gaul (France) and has joined up to make some money to pay off the debts left by his deceased father and to escape his ex-wife. Two of the books move out of Brittania, one into Gaul and one into Rome, but Downie constantly returns her hero to Brittania, specifically the area up near the border with Sccotland where the "barbarians" live.  Hadrian is building his wall during this time.  Her books seem well researched, her main character is appealing, the other characters are interesting and  it is a time period I'm interested in.  She does particularly well writing a male character that thinks the way women assume that men think (I have no idea of course if they really think that way.)  She also allows him all the prejudices of his time and doesn't make him perfect.  While I think I like the Lindsey Davis books a bit better, this is a good series and I'll continue to read it as books come out.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Eagan. I'm not sure what to say about this.  Full disclosure, I wasn't wild about A Visit From the Goon Squad.  I liked this novel better.  It kept my interest through most of the story.  She created a very believable world.  The story includes graphic descriptions of what it was like to go down in a diving suit during WWII that I found difficult to read because they made me claustrophobic.  There was an entire section set on a merchant marine ship that I found fascinating.  But it felt like she didn't know how to end it so, she just ended it.  And a key part of the story is how one character avoids sure death - and I found it completely unbelievable.  All in all, I think Jennifer Egan is just not for me.

Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett.  This was a re-read.  Lots of people I follow on Twitter are reading this series so I decided to re-read it.  I'll probably write about the whole series when I finish the re-read (and there are eight novels).  Dunnett is one of my favorite authors.  I read this novel when it first came out and then re-read it before every succeeding novel in the series came out.  But I didn't re-read it after the end of the last novel and I find myself interpreting the story in light of what ultimately happens to all the characters eight novels from now.  

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy

Two families are on a cruise down the coast of Central America.  They meet a family from Argentina on board.  As with most cruises, the ship puts in to port most days and there are options for excursions.  One day the mothers and kids decide to go zip lining in Costa Rica (although the country is never named) while the fathers go to play golf.  Disaster ensues. 

I have little tolerance for "children are in danger - and the parents are full of angst" novels because I mostly think it is a cheap trick to keep the reader turning the pages.  And this is that kind of novel.  So, if you like that kind of thing you might like this for a beach read.  If you don't, don't bother. 

A few thoughts.

There are six children ranging in age from about 5 to teenager.  Two are white, two are bi-racial and two are Argentinian.  All of these kids are wealthy.  There are also two other Latino children who become involved, both of whom are poor.  It was never completely clear to me why Meloy decided to create a bi-racial couple with children but I had a sneaking suspicion that it was so she could have bad things happen to the Latino children (but not the white children) and still have a defense that this wasn't racist.  But the fact is, the only kids to whom physically bad things happen are not the American kids.  This really bothered me.

A particularly bad thing happens to the 14 year old Argentinian girl.  Not a particularly surprising thing, given the circumstances; but a bad thing.  This kind of bad thing is never the victim's fault although people often blame the victim.  Meloy does pretty much everything to make it seem like it was her fault.  

The happy ending for one of the kids was resolved so easily with no apparent complications, which I found completely unbelievable.   Maybe that's just because we're living in an age of such intense anti-immigration feeling.  But I think it was unbelievable even before the last year. 

A person I know who writes mystery novels once said that all the best novels rely on coincidences that aren't noticed.   I was distracted by all the coincidences in this novel. 

Finally, if you've ever read A High Wind in Jamaica you don't need to read this novel.   It was better and you've pretty much already been spoiled for plot twists. She isn't trying to pass anything off here; the book opens with a quote from that novel.  But basically this is a retelling of that story. It may be that Hughes' novel worked better for me because it mostly told the story about the children and didn't dwell on the psychological angst of the parents. 

February 2019 Reading

I didn't get a lot of reading finished in February - in fact I only finished two books this month, although I have a pile of books that ...