Sunday, April 26, 2015

The King of Shanghai (Ava Lee #7) by Ian Hamilton

Hamilton continues to thrill us with his unique angle on business dealings in Asia, this time in China. While there is always something to learn in Hamilton’s take on international business, this time we are treated to very well-financed business women negotiating new ventures in and around Shanghai. Ava Lee finds herself involved with Uncle’s old contacts in the Triads and takes some time away from her own concerns to straighten out the tangle of Triad relations in the region leading up to the vote for a new Chairman of Triads across Asia.

Particularly realistic is the description of the Shanghai Triad’s business plan: making, distributing, and selling around China knock-offs of Western products. The PRC government like the Taiwanese government before them currently turn a blind eye to copyright infringements, looking after their own self-interest in keeping employment and disposable incomes high. Ava undergoes a complicated calculus deciding whether or not to cooperate with Xu, leader of Shanghai’s Triad, given the illegal nature of his business. After an early morning visitation from the ghost of Uncle, she decides to ride that beast. Very quickly she becomes embroiled in their internecine warfare.

What I loved about this particular addition to the series is how Hamilton manages to once again to keep the series fresh by remaking the wheel on which Ava Lee, financier and businesswoman, is forged. Her close colleague, Uncle, is dead and when Ava has finished grieving (one month in Toronto essentially alone and unbothered by anyone else’s demands), she gets on a flight to Shanghai eager to turn the page from the financial fraud investigations she’d done previously. She’s now keen to invest in businesses of her own choice and although she flies to Shanghai with clear boundaries and standards defined, she quickly jettisons those safeguards in favor of more risk once on the ground.

Hamilton always surprises me with the direction of his narrative and the development of character. He gives some thought to how this careful, clever woman might experience the ordinary humiliations of daily life in Hong Kong and places her, dripping with sweat after a run in Victoria Park, crushed among fellow passengers in a crowded rush-hour bus for three agonizing stops, during which time she suffers the imprecations and haughty looks of her fellow passengers. This completely believable and ordinary scenario brings the controlled Ava back to earth and sisterhood.

An interesting feather of a sideline with which Hamilton teases us is the introduction of Richard Bowlby of the law firm Burgess and Bowlby in Hong Kong. Bowlby, a gweilo knowledgeable about Asia, sounds self-deprecating and funny on the telephone when speaking with Ava, making her laugh! Hamilton has her canceling several appointments with him, seeming to provoke Bowlby's ire. This standard thread in romance novels feels like a come-on by Hamilton and he manages it skillfully. Perhaps we’ll see another side to Ava in the future.

As the day-to-day work involved in managing a large investment fund begins to dawn on Ava, she clearly is dreaming of ways “to get her life back.” Near the end of this novel we see her doodling her way to a new reporting structure, hoping to find ways to jettison some of the hands-on responsibility of management. Ah, yes, how to keep the income and lose the responsibility is something top managers have been struggling with since time immemorial. I look forward to seeing how she manages it.

Hamilton clearly seems to enjoy writing this series and I admit to continued admiration for what he has been able to do. I love reading these novels because of the realistic descriptions of business scenarios, locations, and for the element of surprise in character development. Hamilton doesn’t detail Ava’s backstory in this seventh in the series, but moves directly into her new life as a venture capitalist. While there is less discussion of what Ava eats for dinner, something I admit to a healthy interest in, we learn that she quite likes white burgundy and pinot grigio to unwind. Unwind? Perhaps even Ava finds her constant effort to stay poised a strain.

Now that I know this book series is being planned as a TV miniseries, I can’t help but imagine ways this dialogue-heavy addition to the series could play out on film. Can it be shot on location in Asia or will green screens have to do? It makes for fascinating mental exercise. I can’t wait to see what’s next. Now that Hamilton has created insatiable demand, he has to manage supply, something he and the Triads have in common. So far he's managed wonderfully.

The Water Rat of Wanchai (Ava Lee #1)

The Disciple of Las Vegas (Ava Lee #2)

The Wild Beasts of Wuhan (Ava Lee #3)

The Red Pole of Macau (Ava Lee #4)

The Scottish Banker of Surabaya (Ava Lee #5)

The Two Sisters of Borneo (Ava Lee #6)

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard

In one of his many interviews Karl Ove Knausgaard praised the work of Thomas Bernhard, an Austrian writer (1931-1989) of whom I had never heard. His work was placed in the canon of great 20th Century literature. He wrote in German. Scrolling through the list of titles translated into English I chose Woodcutters to get an idea of his work. First published in 1984, it was translated and published in English by Knopf in 1987. It references the atmosphere of the 1950s or perhaps the early 1960s.

A middle-aged man taking his daily constitutional along a popular avenue in Vienna sees old acquaintances who, in passing, invite him to a dinner soirée that evening. The man accepts before he remembers that he doesn’t even like these people. As the couple is walking on they mention the death that morning of a dear friend of the man. The soirée would honor her memory.

What follows is a harrowing descent into the twisted confines of one man’s mind as he “sits in the wing chair” in the well-appointed flat of the couple he does not like and passes judgment on all who circulate around him. His thinking is circular, observant, riven occasionally by memories. His thoughts are “morose, vulgar, repellant and self-indulgent,” attributes he assigns to the other guests. He does not participate, but sits in the corner “in the wing chair,” radiating disdain and waiting with the others for an actor the couple has invited to appear.

When the actor (how the man hates actors!) finally arrives, late, the man, “sitting in the wing chair” proceeds to dine with the group, exhibiting the same lack of control he displayed by accepting the invitation in the first place. Only when the actor openly attacks one of the guests does our man’s attitude begin to modify. Suddenly he finds himself admiring the actor, “enthralled” with his cruelty, who had “suddenly became a thinking human being, even a philosopher of sorts, transforming himself from a gargoyle into a philosophical human being, from repellent stage character into a real person.”

The man finds himself now enjoying the soirée, reveling in the atmosphere, loving the actor and the phrase he speaks as he stands to leave: ”The forest, the virgin forest, the life of a woodcutter—that has always been my ideal.”

The man, as he takes his leave, murmurs to his hosts “Perhaps it was best that [his good friend Joanna] had killed herself, it was probably the best time for her to go.”

This small novel has the whiff of a classic in that it takes the human condition and holds it boldly up for us to examine.
“To get ourselves out of a tight spot, it seems to me, we are ourselves just as mendacious as those we are always accusing of mendacity, those whom we despise and drag in the dirt for their mendacity; we are not one jot better than the people we constantly find objectionable and insufferable, those repellant people with whom we want to have as few dealings as possible, though, if we are honest, we do have dealings with them and are no different from them…I told [my hosts] I was glad to have renewed my ties…and as I said this I thought what a vile hypocrite I was, recoiling at nothing, not even the basest lie.”
Ah, self-loathing—such a good topic for a novel. This is a difficult read in many ways, but it does highlight some important truths. And yes, I see the connection with Knausgaard.

For a brief look at each of Bernhard's novels, check out this book blog review by Blake Butler at Vice.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Whites by Harry Brandt

Richard Price is something of a wonder. Word on the avenue is that he wrote this under the pseudonym Harry Brandt hoping a popular pot-boiler would bring in some fast cash while he could keep his street cred as a literatteur. It is kind of laughable when you see what he did with the form. His characters have motivations so deep we can cut loose our therapists, the plotting is so intense and detailed I needed a name map, and his language is so fly I learned on the job. Nah, this is like no pot-boiler that I can think of. Brandt overshot the mark by a mile, coming in way high on this one.

At a time in our nation’s history when we are steeped in talk of race, cops and black men, and justifiable shootings, a book called The Whites grabs our attention. But the treatment of race in this novel is the healthiest, most irrelevant subject in this novel. In this book race is a descriptor, not a definition.

The Whites instead refers to the white whales, suspects who got away: “those who had committed criminal obscenities…and then walked away untouched by justice…” Every cop has his or her own personal “white,” and Price is democratic in this, too. One of the five hard-core detectives who started as cops in one of the worst precincts in the East Bronx and were then promoted and dispersed as detectives across the boroughs is a woman. As a group, they are called the “Wild Geese.”

All of the WG were obsessed with their Whites,
“heading into retirement with pilfered case files to pore over in their office and basements at night, still making the odd unsanctioned follow-up call: to the overlooked counterman in the deli where the killer had had a coffee in the morning of the murder, to the cousin upstate who had never been properly interviewed about the last phone conversation he had with the victim, to the elderly next-door neighbor who left on a Greyhound to live with her grandchildren down in Virginia two days after the bloodbath on the other side of the shared living room wall—and always, always, calling on the spouses, children, and parents of the murdered: on the anniversary of the crime on the victims’ birthdays, at Christmas, just to keep in touch, to remind those left behind that they had promised an arrest that bloody night so many years ago and were still on it.”
Only Billy Graves, the youngest of the WG, is still on the job. “His flatline personality and bland solidness” is the rock in his marriage to a damaged ER nurse, and to the group of WG who find they fear his uncompromising relationship to the truth and duty.

There was also another detective, not a WG, who had his own personal White. This novel is about finding Whites and bringing them to justice, legally or not. Price makes us see the struggles, hear the backstory, recall the misery, and gives each man and woman a reason for murder.

This novel recalls “mean streets” narratives of the past, either in film or fiction, either in Europe or the United States. The idea of Whites is not new. But Price makes it as American as Melville, as classic as Moby Dick. The laconic questioning, the deadness behind the eyes, the sense of justice, the quality of the brutality, the mean streets—these are all ours.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Columbia University's 2015 Pultizer Prize Announcement

Twenty-two winners in twenty-one categories are announced today. My reviews of some of the finalists and winners are attached below the announcement.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal
TheAge of Ambition by Evan Osnos

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Links to all the prizes and mentions are here.

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The Illuminations by Andrew O'Hagan

Andrew O’Hagan, I only just discovered, has been nominated for a number of prestigious awards, including the Booker Prize (1999), the Man Booker Prize (2006) and was voted one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists for 2003. He is editor-at-large for the London Review of Books. In September of 2014, O’Hagan interviewed Karl Ove Knausgård for the London Review of Books at St. George’s Church in Bloomsbury. At that time, Books 1-3 of Knausgård's six-volume novel/memoir, Min Kamp (My Struggle), had been translated into English.

O’Hagan elicited something more from Knausgård than earlier interviewers had: his silence as an interlocutor was voracious. He raised questions citing Nietzsche, Camus, Saul Bellow, Emile Zola, Ibsen. He elevated the level of discourse, provoking revelatory statements from Knausgård about living an "authentic life," and the "lies" that we must tell in order to live with others. The question "Do individuals own their own life story?" is one question which O’Hagan posed to Knausgård and is also a central question of The Illuminations, O’Hagan’s fifth novel.

Luke Campbell, the grandson of Anne, finds himself rooting about in his grandmother’s history in an attempt to clarify his own life. Recently discharged from the 1st Royal Western Fusiliers serving in Afghanistan, Luke is suffering a crisis of conscience from events that took place before his departure from the war zone. Looking after the affairs of his aging grandmother began a journey of discovery for Luke, revealing long-held secrets and answering the question, "whose story is it?"

The title, The Illuminations, refers most directly to the city of Blackpool and the festival of lights it sponsors each year in September, streamers of bulbs illuminating the seaside promenade until the wee hours. But the title also refers to a young man viewing a firefight in Afghanistan, Anne emerging intermittently from the dark clouds of dementia, and Luke’s mother Alice experiencing flashes of insight: "It’s the hallucinations, as I call them…My mother always behaved as if the truth was the biggest thing. The photographs she took when she was young were all about that." Alice’s mother Anne, a once-famous documentary photographer, had stopped taking photographs long ago and no one knew why.

Luke Campbell had joined the Fusiliers to "look for his father" who had died patrolling Belfast during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Sean Campbell had been in the Western Fusiliers, the same regiment that Luke joined. Luke knew his father had died but he did not know the story of his grandfather who, it was said, had flown reconnaissance planes in WWII. Without consciously setting out to uncover the whole story, Luke offers himself as a means by which Anne could return to Blackpool and her past.

Luke is close with Anne, and though his grandmother "always made too much of the men" in her life, she "spoke [to him] as a person not only ready to invest in you but ready to bear the costs to the end." On the other hand, Luke's mother Alice was always taken up with practicalities and resentments for being "sacrificed" growing up. "I didn’t ever think it would be so hard. So hard to face it," Alice tells her doctor. "I didn’t get to ask about my father or get a grip on the past...I would love to spend half an hour with the woman who made those pictures." Alice faces the truth with no filters, and feels the cut.

O’Hagan is a spokesperson for The Scottish Trust and he takes seriously the responsibility for following in the footsteps of great literary figures: "some of what we understand to be literary values come from Scotland in the first place." O’Hagan points to Rudyard Kipling at least twice in this novel and the poem "If" almost charts Luke’s personal journey to manhood. Kim, Kipling’s book about the great power struggles in an India that included parts of Afghanistan, sits comfortably in parallel with a young soldier’s disillusionment: the military affair in which Luke was involved in Afghanistan illustrated for him the ways that men and nations can be crushed under the weight of their experiences.

This novel is not the seamless piece one associates with "great novels," but it is packed with the insights of a work three times its length. One might even say that the work is at the service of big ideas. O’Hagan, like his central character Luke, is "a bit of a thinker," and strives to touch on important themes that we face today in the world. I admit to wanting to look at whatever O’Hagan has written "and test it all against reality."

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

I don’t exactly recall when I first came upon the name of Roxane Gay, but it may have been when I was looking over the book made from blogposts by the essayist and thinker Rebecca Solnit, called Men Explain Things to Me. A critic of that book mentioned Gay and then I came across her name a couple more times in different contexts in quick succession. Intrigued by the opportunity to hear a literate black woman’s take on popular culture, and having recently been made especially aware of my lack of overlap, knowledge of, and understanding of the lives of black citizens in the United States, I ordered this book. I am keenly aware, too, that one literate black woman, articulate though she might be, is simply that: one literate black woman and not the voice of a generation, a culture, or a sex.

Gay’s writing reflects the contradictions and confusion of a real person. That may be her appeal, and her strength. Gay is almost unfiltered, giving herself permission to be humorless about rape, slavery, use of the ‘N’ word. Her opinions on everything from reality television to unlikeable central characters in novels and movies add to a fruitful debate about what really informs our culture. She thinks, and takes the time to tell us what she thinks. She has permission to change her thinking—would relish it, I trust—if someone had a better, more convincing, more nuanced argument.

Best of all, I liked the short blogposts at the end of this book in the section called “Politics, Gender & Race.” In these, Gay discusses “The Racism We All Carry,” acknowledging we all have beliefs formed on impressions of race. In “A Tale of Two Profiles,” Gay compares the investigative reporting of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, with that of Trayvon Martin, the black teen murdered in Florida. She asks if it is queer that in-depth “looking for the good” reportage had been done for Tsarnaev while “looking for bad” had been done for Martin. In “The Alienable Rights of Women,” Gay explains again to those that “still don’t get it” that the burdens of reproduction fall on the woman in the pair, and therefore she should have some say in how it all comes down. Finally, in “The Politics of Respectability,” Gay insists we stop pointing to the exceptions who have managed to penetrate the color bar but look at the teeming masses who are having trouble making that leap from the lowest level to the highest.

Gay’s pronouncements on matters of culture do not have the stamp or weight of convention. She does not constrain herself to write only about the best literature, the finest examples of music or TV, or what will become our classics in film. She talks about what is spilling out of media machines every day…those things we actually watch, or wade through helplessly to find “the good stuff.” For this reason I sometimes found the arguments aimed elsewhere, at an audience with whom I share a world but not a culture. I have a limited appetite for arguments about the relative merits of reality television shows, though I can see how this may inform some.

Opinionated bloggers, myself included, are sometimes best in small doses, when they can prick the conscience by criticizing (both good and bad) things they see, thus arming readers with support for their own views or by challenging long-held but not sufficiently-examined positions. I applaud Roxane Gay for thinking and writing and know she is learning as much as we are by taking the time to do it out loud. Brava!

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters by Elizabeth Bishop

A friend of mine recently divulged his personal favorite among Bishop’s poems, "The End of March," which I immediately sought out, the end of March bearing some significance to me, now. I’d always thought of Elizabeth Bishop as a short story writer, and having sought out the Library of America edition of her collected poems, prose, and letters, I discover that I like best of all her essays, which read to me like her poems must read to others. Her essays are the real thing—life--in color, with context, in language as carefully chosen as any of her poems. She manages to pick among the all the true things in an experience for particular words which tell us volumes…she was a careful curator of the authentic, one with a true artist’s eye.

Bishop has a fearful darkness at the core of her writing. I don’t know why—it almost seems as though she must have an illness that tired her and reminded her how close nothingness is. I did not read any biography of her; perhaps I should. Why it is that poets can make blackness blacker than any other artists, I could not say. But even in her short stories, for instance "The Last Animal," there is an air of menace, a whiff of death. In the essay, "Gregorio Valdes, 1879-1939" we know right from the title that the character we read about is dead, or will die, as it happened. We had forgotten that at the promising start, all hot sun and bright flowers, the shade of palms and the act of creation (paintings) make us forget that death is waiting, and not patiently.

The poem, "The End of March," it shouldn’t surprise us, is also about death. Walking along the beach with a cold biting wind freezing one side of the face, the walkers come upon a "man-sized" tangle of kite string "but no kite" washed up on the shore. At the same time, one walker glimpses a boarded-up beach house tethered by a wire (electricity?) to something off beyond the dunes. The walker imagines a retirement there,
"....doing nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light."

Robert Pinsky was asked in this week's The New Yorker poetry podcast to choose a poem to read from the New Yorker archives and he chose a Bishop poem first published in that magazine in 1947. Called “At the Fishhouses,” the poem Pinsky calls "plain" has something of the “cold dark deep and absolutely clear” description that she reprises more than once.
"…I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
Slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
Icily free above the stones…

…It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
Dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
Drawn from the cold hard mouth
Of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
Forever, flowing and drawn, and since
Our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown."

As it often happens in the way of things, Colm Tóibín has recently published a book with Princeton University Press, On Elizabeth Bishop, whom he has been reading for forty years. Tóibín shares his thoughts on Elizabeth Bishop and the poet Thom Gunn in this article in The Guardian. Also in The Guardian, Lavinia Greenlaw reviews Tóibín's new book. Each of these yields great insights into Bishop's life and style.

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