Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West








This is an escape memoir, written with remarkable restraint by long-time journalist Blaine Harden, and based on the adventures of Shin Dong Hyuk, the first known prisoner to escape a “complete control zone”, Camp 14 in North Korea. In cool tones, Harden transcribes and probes the remembrances of Shin’s childhood and youth in Camp 14, and his subsequent escape through China to South Korea and finally, to southern California.

As remarkable as it is horrifying, the memoir describes a childhood of starvation and deprivation difficult to comprehend. The inmates were starved not only for food, but also for information, social interaction, and personal relationships. The canny and cruel instruction Shin received and grew to embody allowed him to survive his escape and subsequent relocations. It is terrifying to think there are millions of people who learned similar lessons of disassociation, disaffection, and disregard.

Let us hope that Kim Jong Un is more of a man than his father was and will give more than a measure of life-saving freedom to his citizens.


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Skios by Michael Frayn

Skios: A Novel









Skios may a play posing as a novel, but it is in good company: practically all the characters in this very funny farce are pretending to be someone they are not. And those that don’t pretend to be someone else have it forced upon them. I listened to the audio production of this book, performed with great comedic timing by Robin Sachs, and feel sure that this book is best enjoyed as a performance rather than as a reading experience.

The Fred Toppler Foundation, established by a once-stripper wife of Fred Toppler on the the charming Greek island of Skios, hosts renowned social scientist Dr. Norman Wilfred to give a talk to the movers and shakers of the monied world about the scientific management of science—a topic sure to engross wealthy foundation donors like high-level political figures from Greece, robber barons from Russia, bishops and priests from the Hesperides Archipeligo, and the second-richest couple in Rhode Island. But when performance artist Oliver Fox decides on the spur-of-the-moment to impersonate Dr. Wilfred, things begin immediately to unravel.

Frayn cleverly involves us in the riot that follows by presaging the novel’s action with a word or a phrase, giving us time to laugh in advance and allowing us to give our own imaginations full rein before he pulls us back with yet another, deeper, more unlikely authorial intervention. This is a light-hearted, sunny farce, and I hope Frayn spent lovely warm days enjoying the embrace of an island foundation to write it. That is the perfect revenge.


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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Wild Beasts of Wuhan (Ava Lee #3) by Ian Hamilton

The Wild Beasts Of Wuhan (Ava Lee #3)








I am a sucker for this series. I don’t know why it is, but I admit a fascination with the heroine, Ava Lee. I love knowing where she is staying in the capitols of Europe and Asia, what she eats, where she exercises. She is more disciplined than I am, which I admire, and it is interesting to see what someone driven can accomplish in a day with unlimited funds and a sense of vengeance.

Author Hamilton never seems to lose sight of where Ava is in the day. Ava catches planes like other people catch taxis, and almost every day is a new country, a new time zone, a new set of circumstances. But neither the author nor our heroine ever gets confused about what time it is in Hong Kong, where her partner, the revered “Uncle” resides.

In this third in the series, Ava chases down art forgers in Ireland and the Faroe Islands for her clients in Wuhan, China. Then, in London and New York, she finds the dealers to whom the forgers sold their paintings. But this time she blunders a little. She goes into the case with less information than she needs to force a settlement, and has to backtrack, get more information, and then re-engage. This is more like us ordinary mortals, who occasionally hit stumbling blocks. I didn’t like to see her fail, but it is nice to know she is not completely invulnerable.

Another twist in the story is that Ava’s clients do the unforgiveable: they become involved with her resolution of the case. She exacts her revenge for that, too, which keeps us wondering to the end. All in all, Hamilton adds complexities to his protagonist’s cases that he must unravel throughout the story. Seeing how Ava will decide to manage the issues she faces is what makes this series delectable.

During the course of this investigation, Ava has a casual one night stand with a hotel manageress. I wondered about that—whether or not it rang true. As I read on, I shrugged it off. It could be possible. She seems entirely her own woman. I wouldn’t dare say what she would or wouldn‘t do. I have a feeling she and Hamilton are going to continually surprise me throughout this series.

The the way, I accidentally read Ava Lee #3 before The Disciple of Las Vegas (Ava Lee #2). So if you are wanting to do the series in order, don't follow my lead!


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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

As the Crow Flies by Craig Johnson

As The Crow Flies (Walt Longmire, #8)








Longmire seems less like a western sheriff and more like some generalized representation of Justice in this latest in the series. He calms wild fillies (Sheriff Lolo Long), handles wild dogs (Rez Dog), and doesn't pull his revolver when people (Clarence, Lonnie, Artie, Herbert) threaten him. He stays when he should go, and tries to talk his way to truth and safety. And so he does.

His daughter Katy weds, dressed in white buckskin. Longmire describes the scene for us: the scent of cedar, wild sage, and sweetgrass wafting over a meadow at the head of the valley that leads down to the springs. Hanging from poles set in a line, Indian paintbrush tied with pale blue ribbons stir in the breeze. Longmire is asked to give his daughter away and his Indian words “This is my daughter. He may take her” very nearly did me in.

As hard as it is for me to imagine such a kind figure as Sheriff, I am willing to suspend disbelief when Johnson comes out with a new story. This is a terrific series, and if you haven't begun yet, start out with The Cold Dish. Wyoming and Montana never seemed so interesting. Love the addition of Lolo Long, the tall, newly-minted reservation Sheriff just back from Iraq.


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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A Novel








Billy Lynn is a hero…a gad-dam gen-u-wine hee-row…a nineteen-year-old Silver-Starred hero who watched his best friend die in his arms and got medalled for it. “Raped by angels” is how he and his fellow BRAVO teammates describe the firefights of their experience in “Eye-rack.” Now back stateside to a hero’s welcome…a two-week blitz through the swing states…culminating in talking a movie deal with a part-owner of the Dallas Cowboys. They are publicly lauded/humiliated during a sleet-filled losing game where the soldiers and BeyoncĂ© are the halftime show. The fireworks come as a surprise and as BRAVO heart rates spike, and their eyes come loose in their sockets, they have a hard time holding their insides together and their hearts from jumping right through their mouths.

This is a brilliant mix of trash talk from the boys who keep us safe, and sober (well, somewhat sober) reflections on the state of America, our way of life, what we have done with our great resources and how we have created and shared wealth. The boys are going back, and they go back with their eyes opened to what they are defending, and what they are fighting and dying for. It should come as no surprise that they fight for one another, more than any ideals. America has shown herself to be less than ideal.

Ben Fountain has a real classic here. He has written a Catch-22 for today, and this should be widely read, shared, talked about. His riff on the machine that supports the Cowboys is simply too good to miss.

Harper Collins has had a number of fantastic successes recently (see Beautiful Ruins, Restoration, and Waiting for Sunrise) and is quickly becoming the press to beat. Kudos, HC!

BTW, turns out Fountain (Billy Lynn) and Walter (Beautiful Ruins) are friends. See an interview with Fountain here.

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Rough Trade by Dominique Manotti

Rough Trade









A friend knew of my penchant for grim Scandinavian mysteries and recommended this book by the French author Manotti. A copy was relatively hard to find: I ended up buying one from a used book dealer online. In this first in a series, a set of Paris detectives search for the source of an international drug ring. The blasé tone may be unique, but in my mind, this is more similar to Steig Larsson, the Swedish journalist-turned-bestselling-author, than any of the other authors so touted. Manotti calmly, quickly, journalistically recites the most appalling crimes in commission.

She has created a completely original set of characters about a police precinct in the 10th arrondissement of Paris. The authentic feel leads one to hope it is not too realistic. The policemen are mostly cads, barely better men than those they police, but I guess that is the point. There are certainly some outliers when it comes to depravation, but the behavior of most of us falls pretty close to a mean…given the right circumstances, who among us wouldn’t try their luck even if it were “the wrong thing to do”?

Manotti has also created the sexiest gay man alive, Daquin, and I don’t think she even told us what he actually looks like. We got a catalog of his clothes, once, but mostly we just hear his thinking (which can be pretty scary sometimes, and raw at others). Daquin is cool, distant, and if not intellectual exactly, he is sharp, like a forge-welded stiletto.

The language is flat, but this is intentional. It is also extremely muscular and hard-hitting. There is so much going on that we don’t need histrionics: international drug rings, child porn, murder, production and sale of high-end knock-offs in the fabric trade, influxes of illegal international labor, snuff films, illegal international sale of arms…and it’s all connected. The shite just keeps gets deeper. Daquin spends long weeks trying to link all the crime but is hampered by the daytime on-street slaying of witnesses and the involvement of government ministers and other policemen.

This is real mean stuff and the feel is totally masculine and tough. It is written with such depth of knowledge it almost seems like it could be written by a policeman. The mix of realism and fatalism (as well as mentions of food and clothes) makes it completely French.

The book was originally published in France in 1995 by Editions de Seuil. It was translated from the French by Margaret Crosland and Elfreda Powell and published in London by Arcadia Books under the imprint EuroCrime series in 2001.


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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Summer Reads from Four Bloggers



Porter Square Books

Interior of the Porter Square Bookstore




When: June 21, 2012
Where: Cambridge, MA
Porter Square Books





[Courtesy of http://portersquarebooks.com/]

Four bloggers shared their best recommendations for summer reads with us:

I went first, and explained that although I read fiction and nonfiction, I chose fiction for this summer. You can click the book titles listed below to see why we chose each title.


Moonlight Downs by Adrian Hyland



If Jack's in Love by Stephen Wetta



It's Beginning to Hurt: Stories by James Lasdun





Revival by Scott Alarik








Tahleen reviews young adult books and she had a mix of great titles that she'd picked from the past several years.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia


The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex



Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley



Paper Towns by John Green








Gail reads a mix of genres: fantasy, young adult, romance, science fiction and she has chosen the best of her blog for your delectation this summer.














Marie, the Boston Bibliophile, chose some of the books in the past months that have rocked her worldview.

Pure by Andrew Miller

Second Person Singular by Sayed Kashua


Absolution by Patrick Flanery









Sorry to be getting this list out late to you, but think of it this way: summer is in full swing. If you missed on your choices so far, take a look at ours and begin again. You won't be sorry.

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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins






A favorable review today in The New York Times said Jess Walter’s new book is like a film script, but to my way of thinking Walter is more like a one-man performance artist, who suddenly pulls all kinds of horns, drums, bells and other props out of his bottomless pockets to illustrate a point, to make us laugh, to break into our attention and to declare: “are we entirely mad?” His work is brilliantly interpreted and performed by Edoardo Ballerini on audio, and to hear the thick and heavy tones of Richard Burton declaiming in a small outboard floating off the coast of Italy is to feel a stab of remembered joy.

Fifteen years from conception to production, this is Walter at his crazy, mad, funny, piercing best, for he skewers us and our lives by reflecting popular culture back at ourselves, but showers us with tender mercies at the end. The novel covers a time frame from the early sixties through at least the last decade, and covers at least as many personalities as years. But what a wild and happy party it is, with all the usual suspects: love, greed, envy, pride, lust, infidelity…and, I’ll say it again, finally love. “It’s a love story,” we hear as Hollywood producer Michael Deane pitches his latest to the studio executives at the end of the book. And I guess it always is, in the end, for that is all that really matters.

Take this trip, and if you have eschewed listening on audio for whatever reason, throw aside your inhibitions and do yourself a favor. This is performance art, and may be listened to with great effect. We have a nubile Hollywood actress with a bit part in an Elizabeth Taylor film, a Hollywood producer, a small Italian coastal village, a young man pitching a story…you get the idea. There is lots going on but it always with the greatest clarity that we can see that life ”isn’t always easy” and that we usually find our hapless ways despite, or perhaps because of, our questionable choices.


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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

God's Country by Percival Everett

Percival Everett is an American national treasure. He has to be one of the most prolific and best authors you have never heard of. Several years ago I “discovered” him on the shelves of my local bookstore, and ever after have wondered why it took me so long to find him. Every book he writes is different from the one before, and he writes a lot. He is funny, inventive, real, clear, and looks truth hard in the face. I can’t figure out why books of his aren’t on every bookshelf in America. With his repertoire, everyone is bound to find one that makes them sit back in wonder at what he was able to accomplish with words alone.

This book is a western dressed as farce. But nothing is ever strictly one thing or another in Everett’s books, and as always, there is a deep red vein of truth running through it. Our narrator, Marder, runs into Colonel Custer who gives us a piece of his thinking:
”I suppose you’re all too familiar with the heinous activities of one Big Elk…That Indian’s scalp will be the crowning feather in my cap. The heathen has no respect for the ownership of land. I mean, we take it and they want it back, keep coming back. Hunting lands, they say. Fishing waters, they say. That’s not it, though. I know why…I’ll tell you why. To confuse me. To confuse us. To make us question ourselves, our values. We must have more land than we need. It’s essential to our maintaining a balance between greed and hypocrisy, between unhealthy subsistence and needless, uncontrolled growth…”

This is a book for a time when you are sunk in the absurdity of daily life and you seek affirmation, relief, companionship. But it will nudge you as well, for it will remind you that there are good people out there. We just have to be sure not to kill them all off.


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Monday, July 2, 2012

Restoration by Olaf Olafsson

Restoration: A Novel








Now this is a great summer read. Not only is it beautiful to hold (Ecco imprint, thick deckled pages, only 336 pages in a 5-5/15 x 8 inch format), but the words just made me want to slow down and savor. The characters in this book were making their dreams come alive: a wealthy woman uses her ample funds to get creative restoring an old villa on a wind-swept mountain in Tuscany, and a penniless, parentless artist finds her calling restoring the paintings of old masters in Rome.

Cochineal, indigo, white lead, cinnabar, umber, ocher, kermes and weld: the words bring their own smell, their own color. Add Rome, Tuscany, love, passion, wealth and youthful beauty in the pre-war years and the combination is irresistible. That the dreams of both women are blasted apart by World War II and their relationships with men adds depth to the drama, and it continues very near to present day, when the artist looks back and has us question again the nature of great art. Provenance in terms of art, it turns out, is almost all its value.

According to David Leavitt, writing a review for the New York Times earlier this year, the provenance of Olafsson’s story is deeply rooted in the real-life adventures of Iris Origo, about which she wrote in a nonfiction memoir called War in Val d’Orcia. Leavitt sounds a little incensed in his review that Olafsson did not emphasize this “borrowing” and writes
In 1993, I was sued by the poet Stephen Spender after I wrote a novel, “While England Sleeps,” based on an episode from his memoir “World Within World.” If I learned anything from that unhappy experience, it was that it’s essential for writers to acknowledge their sources fully and without hedging.

That’s fine with me. For writers, painters, innovators, anybody who borrows from another: Acknowledge the source and keep the provenance clear, but…art historians and wordsmiths don’t kill me…I believe great art can be created borrowing techniques, styles, and yes, the stories, of others and it doesn’t diminish the work in any way. And that is really the central question of the book—you’ll see when you read it.

So yes, this is a fine book when you don’t want a massive tome and just want beautiful words arranged artfully on the page.


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